Racism Among Hispanics
Washington Post Op-ed
By Richard Estrada
Tuesday, October 5, 1999; Page A17
DALLAS-Everyone knows homegrown racism has occasionally been directed
at Hispanics in the United States. But here's a question too seldom asked:
Is the United States importing Hispanic racism directed at other Hispanics?
The phenomenon is a fascinating twist on the traditional discussion
about race in America, long known as "the American dilemma."
But it has arisen so often while talking with fellow Hispanics recently
that I'm surprised it has not come up in public more often than it has.
That needs to change.
Sadly, the racism exhibited by some Hispanics against other Hispanics
is at times more virulent than that directed at Hispanics by European Americans.
Hispanics imbued with racism are coming to America every day. Unaware that
however imperfect this country may be when it comes to its ideals, they
need to know what those ideals are and recognize how imperative it is to
try to live up to them.
The continuing debate in the Hispanic community about Spanish-language
soap operas starring blonde, blue-eyed actors and actresses -- as if they
were representative of the Hispanic population from Tampa to Tierra del
Fuego -- is but the best-known example of this controversy. But Hispanic
television's exaltation of cream-colored skin over shades of chocolate
and cinnamon is hardly the entire issue.
A few years ago I was talking to a friend, a woman who happens to be
a beautiful Cuban emigre with European features. Having just returned from
Havana, I was regaling her with stories about my visit when she interrupted
me with a question that discomfited me deeply.
Wasn't it true that so many of the better class of people had abandoned
the island that Cuba had become very black? She asked the question with
obvious disapproval on her face.
She was right in her belief that Cubans of African descent are now
more visible in the society than in the years preceding Fidel Castro's
revolution. But her unmistakable implication that Cuba's African-origin
population is undesirable left me speechless.
A couple of months ago, a colleague of mine was reminiscing about the
time he was in his office in Washington, D.C., and tried to introduce a
Peruvian-born woman of European origin to a Peruvian-born man of Andean
Indian background. According to my friend, the differences of race (and
class) were so great that she refused to shake the man's hand, and turned
her back on him. "Can't you see he's an Indian?" she asked my
And I hardly have to remind my fellow Mexican Americans about the racism
that exists in our national subgroup, especially when perpetrated by Mexicans
of Spanish or other European origin against Spanish-Indian mixed bloods
-- or by both those groups against indigenous peoples with no European
background. "Little Indians," they are called.
The issue of sensitivity in discussions about intragroup Hispanic racism
should not be all that surprising. One has only to consider the tension
that attends African American dialogues about two-way racism between light-skinned
and dark-skinned blacks.
But there is a major difference between the American black phenomenon
of intragroup racism and the Hispanic variation. Hispanics can be of any
race or national origins group: Just think of President Alberto Fujimori
of Peru; the Veracruz, Mexico, native Salma Hayek; the Puerto Rican boxer
Felix Trinidad; the Chilean revolutionary leader Bernardo O'Higgins; or
the Argentine president Carlos Menem. And within each Latin American nation,
social history plays a major role in tolerance or intolerance of different
races and nationalities.
Not for its extreme sensitivity should this complicated issue be ignored.
First of all, Hispanics and all other groups in this country will best
defend their own interests by exalting their U.S. citizenship above their
ethnic origin. Clinging to national origins and old blood ties is a sure
way of inviting others in the United States to play a game of racism that
Hispanics are likely to lose.
That leads to the second point. To the degree that Hispanics are already
victimized by prejudice and discrimination from other groups, they will
maximize their credibility in challenging that situation by contesting
the racism that arises within their own community.
Yes, there is a long history of prejudice and discrimination perpetrated
on Hispanics by what is loosely termed the "Anglo" community.
But non-Hispanic Europeans are certainly not at the root of all prejudice
and discrimination against Hispanics. It may not be politically correct
to say so, but Hispanics should remind themselves that racial justice,
like charity, begins at home.