By Anthony Lopez
It is no secret that, in the United States, we live in a political climate that looks on Latinx peoples poorly. With the uproar about immigration and the resurgence of open racism after the Trump election it is not the easiest time to be someone of Latinx decent. However, there exists an unsung song of Latinx struggle. The song of its “mixed” children. As the world moves further into globalization we are seeing more and more mixed children with Latinx ancestor. It is with a great hope, that through the analysis of history and with the help of the oral histories conducted for this project we can shed some light on this subject that is a source of dissonance for these children. Enduring prejudice from both sides of their lineage; the interviews With Aaron Banes and Samantha Huggins makes us privy to the modern experience of people with mixed Latinx ancestry. By exploring the old cast system implemented in Mexico, the Mexican-American experience in Kansas City and the country at large, and the experiences of Aaron and Sam, we can see that the experiences of mixed people mirrors that of the early Mexican experience in the Americas. It is important to note that both interviewees have Mexican and European ancestry, so this work will focus on the parallels with Mexican-American experience.
Before moving into the juxtaposition of the experience of the interviewees and Mexicans of the past it would be beneficial to give a brief introduction of the two interviewees. Aaron Banes is a twenty-eight-year-old professional Geologist who is receiving his degree at UMKC at the end of Spring 2018. He is one quarter Mexican ancestry and three quarters European. Samantha Huggins is a twenty-five-year-old business professional. She is only half Mexican and One half European. It is also important to note that she is also part Native American, because her father is one quarter. Analyzing the interviews of these two, we will be able to see how their stories embody the confusion felt by the initial Mexican immigrants as they came into the United States.
Drawing divisions is nothing new to the ancestors of today’s Mexican-Americans. In the essay entitled The Language, Genealogy, and Classification of “Race” in Colonial Mexico by Maria Elena Martinez we can see that it is a tradition dating back to European contact. Also, it is said that the modern notions of race and the colonization of the new world was developing at the same time. Martinez chose to focus on three major questions brought up by the Sistema de Castas. In the analysis of the concept of raza she notes several key points. First, she points out that the idea of raza became popular in the 1500s but could be older. She also cites an argument by the historian Paul Freedman, that the reason nobility was able to rationalize monogenesis, or the belief of common ancestry found in Abrahamic faiths, was through rationalization of lineage. They would often blame serfdom on some great sin of a past ancestor. It is also noted that the first notions of blood purity we not on the lines of race as much as it was based on noble blood lines. The line would then shift to pure Christian ancestry in the 1400s when tensions were brewing between the Christians and other Abrahamic faiths fighting over which religion was, “true.” 1
This understanding of where the concept of casta came from, it is very important to the understanding how it affected the peoples of colonial Mexico. This concept is rooted in religious tradition. As we all know this can be a very dangerous thing because it caused prejudice toward other religious groups that were not Catholic. It is not unlike the Caste system implemented in India, which was also based on religious ideals. This leads us to question how this was implemented in Mexico.
Shifting focus to the Americas Martinez informs us that in the Americas the Spanish had come up with new uses for the word casta. It began to function as a catchall term for the children of mixed unions between the three distinct groups of the new Spanish society. With this came the negative connotation of the term, keeping a separate understanding from the word raza. So, these children were considered a part of castes but not necessarily races. She also points to the fact that not all castas were thought to have their own raza. However, over time these castas would be racialized. The notions of raza and impurity would manifest towards blacks as early as the 1600s. She states that the fact that Africans were the first to be officially targeted was due to the African slave trade. 2 The system would then evolve even further in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of the terms that could be found in legal documents of the time included; “Spaniard,” “Indian,” “black,” “mestizo,” “mulato,” “castizo,” “moriso,” and “zambaigo.” However, as these notions began to show up more and more in legal documents the system would began to destabilize. One of the largest reasons being that the numbers of mixed peoples in Mexico was becoming larger and larger over time. The concept of raza would also separate from religious connotations to a more secular understanding. Martinez states, By the mid-eighteenth century, the notion that three generations had to pass before new converts became Old Christians had been replaced by the idea that it took three generations for the descendants of an Indian-Spanish union (provided they continued to reproduce with Spaniards), to become “Spaniards.” 3
As you can see the concept of racial purity has a storied past in Mexico. These ideas are on their way out the door because of a growing social conscious. However, sometimes old habits die hard. These attitudes carry into modern times and are exemplified by one of Aaron Banes’s experiences that came up during the interview process. Aaron had the opportunity to travel to Mexico for a research project. By this point he had learned Spanish in college. So, despite his thoughts that there was no way for him to be accepted on this trip, he applied under the recommendation of a professor. Little did he know he would encounter prejudice from the people of Mexico that he was not expecting. At the heart of his desire to go to Mexico was a need to connect with his culture. He found out that he would not find solidarity with his kin. Instead he found complete rejection. He claimed a shared heritage to deaf ears. By the end of the trip he tells us that the Mexican nationals were willing to acknowledge that he was “Mexican on the inside.” To Aaron this seemed like a back handed compliment. He only wished to learn a little more about his self through exploring the home land of some of his ancestors. Instead he found a hostile environment.
The same rejection would come from his family of European decent. One experience while playing Pokémon Go, a popular mobile game, he experienced overt racism. A woman started shouting Latin nationalities at him in a derogatory manner. She also stated that whatever he was, it was not white. The irony of this situation is what it meant to Aaron. Yes, he was offended by the bigoted actions of this woman. However, it was also a moment laced with pride because he was happy to be acknowledged as some one with Latin heritage. This is an example of the reality for children of mixed nationalities. Typically, they receive rejection from both sides of the family. Like the Mexican immigrants of the past their racial ambiguity serves only to confuse others leaving a void, and a lack of true acceptance from both sides.
The ambiguity of race was not something that was only experienced in Mexico. During the Jim-Crow era in the United States individuals would have vastly different experiences based on skin color, not race. This further reinforces the ambiguous racial state that Mexican-Americans contended with. In the article entitled Jim and Jose Crow: Conversations on the Black/Brown Dialogue by Robert R Alvarez, these experiences are explored in depth. The premise can be summarized in the words of the author, who states:
Most of us realize, for example, that references to segregation and Jim Crow have been interpreted as primarily a Black and White struggle, but Jim Crow has also been a major part of the Mexican American experience… Jim Crow became José Crow throughout the Southwest as Mexicans were not only exposed to segregation, but also subjected to differing interpretations of the separate but equal law. 4
Alvarez goes on to tell us of his personal experiences in the southwest. One that encapsulates the experience of Mexicans was a memory of a sign on several Texas restaurants that expressed that dogs and “Mexicans,” were not welcome. 5 This could be seen in the school system as well. In Alverez’s conversations with his peer Gorge Bond he found that the segregation of schools on the west coast mirrored the situation in the American south. Alverez’s end goal was to provided solidarity between the shared experience of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans by presenting these parallels. 6 It is important to note that these segregation laws were applied equally where Jim-Crow was active. Here in Kansas City, it was not uncommon for a person of Mexican decent with a lighter skin color to be admitted to the “white” ward. This further reinforces the reality of Mexican ambiguity on the American racial spectrum. Some were not quite dark enough to be considered black and vice versa. It is a fact that Mexican is not considered a race in the United States. However, being Mexican meant you shared foreign values to American sensibility and usually had a different skin color. In short, Mexican may not be officially considered a race in America, but it has and still is being treated like one. In the past it usually depended on what swatch on the race scale you matched up closest with. However, in modern times it is less about that because we have further divided based on not only skin color and lineage, but on the lines of common culture.
The purposed solidarity between African-Americans and Mexican-Americans is exemplified by Samantha Huggins relationship with her friend Emily. In recalling the story of how the two became friends, Sam tells us of how both of their “mixed” backgrounds helped solidify their friendship. Emily was half African-American and European. She was also Samantha’s best friend all the way up to her tragic death. Samantha recalls that one of the reasons they had become fiends was that people would speak about Sam in front of her in Spanish. She does not speak Spanish, but Emily had an elementary understanding of the language. She ended up standing up for Samantha and the rest is history. Samantha also tells us about her experiences in the sixth grade with Emily and their teacher Ms. Heagle. She tells us that Emily was convinced that she had something against “mixed,” people. This may sound like children looking for a reason why they were singled out. However, it is important to note that Samantha claimed there were plenty of single raced people in the class that would act out in the same ways that her and Emily did, but they would not receive the same treatment that Samantha and Emily would. This is an interesting concept to look at. Aaron stated during his interview that he found much more solidarity with other people of mixed ancestry than he does with either side of his family. The same can be seen with Samantha. Her solidarity growing up did not come from either side of her family, but from a friendship with another person of “mixed” ancestry.
Samantha and Emily
Now that we have identified the similarities with past immigrants in the greater United States, it is important for us to identify solidarity with the Kansas City area. But first, we must establish why the experiences of Aaron and Samantha are Kansas City History. Even though, these two subjects are still in their twenties, their experiences represent a narrative that will live on past their lives. Considering census data, it is made apparent that more and more mixed children are being born each year here in Kansas City.
Before diving into the statistics, it is important to understand how the census classifies race. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States currently uses a two-question format asking about race and Hispanic ethnicity. The first question asks if you are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. It also asks you which country your Latin heritage originates. The second question asks you to specify race. It is worth noting that this section has a spot to write in race and even through the form makes it clear that a Latino identity is not a race, people often write in Hispanic or Latino. 7
The reason that this must be clarified is to understand the interpretation of data that follows. According to census comparison in Kansas City Missouri there has been an increase of 35.25 percent of people claiming two or more races; from 10,778 in 2000 to 14,581 in 2010. The population of Hispanic or Latino origin has seen a 50.17 percent increase in those ten years as well; from 410,880 in 2000 to 413,834 in 2010. 8 You may be asking why the statistics for two or more races has been included. This is to demonstrate that races do indeed mix. Also, it is demonstrated that the rate of that mixture is increasing. As we’ll recall Latino is not considered a race, so it makes it hard to know the exact number of mixed Latinx peoples, but with the increase of population we can assume they are also a part of that mixing. In short, Kansas City is mixing. These, less than common challenges that come with being part of a mixed background, will become more and more common as time goes on.
When Mexican immigrants first arrived in Kansas City they had little to no institutional support, but that would quickly change. In the essay entitled Mattie Rhodes Center by Crystal Herriage we can find out more about an example of community support. Community groups like the Mattie Rhodes Center would help these new arrivals acclimate to the new culture in which they entered. The community center was founded in 1890 by Mattie Florence Rhodes who had passed when she was only nineteen. Her friends invested her life savings of five hundred dollars to start an institution that would help Latinx peoples for years to come. Herriage also tells us of how the institution expanded in the following years stating:
Through the years, the Mattie Rhodes Center has added more services and programs to meet more needs. When an assessment was done in the 1950s, mental health was added to their list of programs. As the center has expanded into the 21st century, Mattie Rhodes has added an Art Center and an Art Gallery, where youth and adults can learn about art. Other programs include sports programs, such as soccer, and supportive living classes for the disabled members of the community to encourage independent living. 9
During the times where there was little institutional support before places like Mattie Rhodes were around. The first Mexicans were coming to Kansas City for jobs with the railroad. The rail roads would go on to be one of the main draws for immigration to the Midwest for years to come. But, these first peoples came to a city with little support. There was not a Mexican neighborhood at the time to offer solidarity. Indeed, it was still being built. How nerve wracking it must have been to try to get by without community support and solidarity. Unfortunately, this is a feeling that Mixed Latin Children know all too well. In Aarons interview, one feeling is present throughout the process. A need for acceptance. He has made it clear that he is careful about calling himself Mexican because he realizes that his understanding of the culture is something that is uniquely Mexican- American. However, throughout his entire childhood and even into his adult life he would have to deal with constant rejection. These experiences started for Aaron in his grammar school days. He attended St. Stephens, a small Catholic school, (no longer in operation) in the North-East neighborhood of Kansas City. The student body cons comprised of African-Americans, student of European decent, and those of Latin ancestry. The latter making up most of the student population. In fourth grade, Aaron would start to experience the prejudice he is still receiving to this day. It is his thought that this ridicule was due to the lack of Spanish language skills and a “Mexican” last name. In sixth grade, they would often call him “mud-blood”: a term from the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling. In the books it was used as a derogatory word for wizards who were born out of non-wizard families. It would eventually evolve into others lashing out at Aaron in a violent way. These experiences only served to further ostracize him from his culture. Language seem to be the most common point of contention when identifying the Latinx culture.
To further understand the struggle of these two interviewees, it would be beneficial to understand how language plays into Latinx identity. Both Samantha and Aaron had experienced prejudice for not knowing this language. It is important to note that Spanish is not a native language of Central America, yet it is often viewed as an essential part of the identity. If one looks at the numbers of peoples in Mexico that speak other languages that are indigenous they may be surprised. Mexico has approximately one hundred and ten million Spanish speakers. The Second most popular language is Nahuatl, which is spoken mostly in central Mexico by approximately two million people. The third down is English with approximately two million speakers. Lastly, the fourth most spoken language are those that fall under the Mayan language category numbering approximately one and a half million speakers. 10 The list goes on to include a total of thirty spoken languages in Mexico. With the exceptions of Spanish, English, and German, all the listed languages are indigenous. It is understandable that Spanish has become the common ground of Mexicans because it is the most commonly spoken language. However, one must question how useful this is as a pillar of what it means to be Mexican. Using Spanish but not including these other languages, one could make the mistake of not including all peoples of Mexico. Peoples that share a common ancestry and world view that fed into modern Mexican culture. A culture that would become transplanted in the United States through immigration. The culture that is shared by the children of these immigrants who may not know Spanish due to its discouraged use throughout American history. If we continue to use the Spanish language as the way we define the shared culture, we are truly missing out on the vibrancy of our shared culture. The desire to take part in this culture leads some people of mixed Mexican ancestry to look toward Spanish as something that will fully integrate them into their own culture. Samantha even speaks of the desire to learn Spanish. The question that needs to be asked is if this is the best way to identify solidarity among Mexican-Americans. One example of how this can be a divisive lens can be found in Samantha’s story about her trip to Las Vegas. She tells us of how she met a Mexican man who inquired about her race. She replied that she was indeed, “half-Mexican.” The man then proceeds to ask a question that mixed Latin peoples get from both “whites’” and Mexican-Americans: do you speak Spanish? When she answered no he hung his head as if he was ashamed of her. This is a perfect example of why it may be helpful to look for other ways to define the shared heritage.
Samantha in Vegas
In summation, we have taken a brief look at the larger history of Mexicans in Mexico, the United States, and right here in Kansas City. In doing so, it has been demonstrated that peoples of “mixed,” Mexican ancestry have much in common with their ancestors of the past. Caught in a place of racial ambiguity, these people are often confused about their place in the world. Much like the immigrants of the past, they find themselves in a grey area seeking support from those like themselves. Really, it seems they just want to share in the beautiful vibrant culture found in their Mexican heritage. This project was conducted with the hope of shining light on this problem so that peoples of a Latinx background can continue to celebrate the rich culture. A culture that can be experienced in a lot of different ways, but one that has much more in common than it has differences. By analyzing the stories of both Samantha and Aaron it has been demonstrated just how much identity means to an individual. Let’s hope that we as human beings can continue to do our best to stop seeking the exclude each other and learn to embrace what we have in common. In doing this the Mexican and Latinx culture, can continue to move forward stronger than ever.
- Deans-Smith, Susan, and Ilona Katzew. Race and Classification : The Case of Mexican America (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2009) ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ibid., 42. ↩
- Alvarez, Robert R. Jim and José Crow: Conversations on the Black/Brown Dialogue. Journal of Asian and African Studies 51 (3) (2015): 346–57., 349 ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Chapter 1: Race and Multiracial Americans in the U.S. Census Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project (blog): (2015.) ↩
- Kansas City, MO Population – Census 2010 and 2000 Interactive Map, Demographics, Statistics, Quick Facts – CensusViewer, n.d. Accessed May 6, 2018. ↩
- Herriage, Crystal. n.d. “Mattie Rhodes Center .” Accessed May 6, 2018. https://info.umkc.edu/latinxkc/essays/mattie-rhodes-center/. ↩
- Most Commonly Spoken Mexican Languages, n.d. Accessed May 6, 2018. http://www.native-languages.org/most-mexico.htm. ↩