Sunday, February 28, 2010

¿Quién es latino? Part II

Here are some good examples of Latina celebrities that show a range of diversity in Latin America. They may be good examples to use if you use this lesson idea in class.

Salma Hayek: Mexican Actress, while Salma is often cast as the quintessential Mexican woman, her father is actually of Lebanese-Mexican heritage. I often use her as an example of what Americans expect Latinas to look like as she is one of the most famous Latinas in the U.S.

Rosario Dawson: American Actress, her mother is Puerto Rican and Cuban.

Cameron Diaz: American Actress, her father is a second-generation Cuban from Ybor City, Florida.

Cristina Milian: American Singer, both of her parents are Cuban.

Alexis Bledel: American Actress, her mother is Mexican and her father is Argentine and Danish. Spanish is her first language; she didn't learn English until she started school. Would you ever know that just by looking at her or listening to her speak?


In an earlier post I talked about why you can't put Brazilians under the label Hispanic. Hispanic refers to the Spanish language, Brazilians speak Portuguese! But you can call Brazilians Latinos because Portuguese is also a Romance Language. Like most of Latin America, Brazil is extremely diverse.

Gisele Bündchen: Brazilian Model, she is probably the most famous Brazilian in the world - or maybe she shares the distinction with Pele. Both of her parents of are German heritage, but Gisele is 100% Brazilian, speaking Portuguese as her first language.

Luísa Hanae Matsushita a.k.a. Lovefoxx, Brazilian Singer, lead singer of the punk group CSS. Wikipedia says she is of Japanese, Lebanese, Portuguese and German descent. Her last name is Japanese and many fans call her "Japa." Many Japanese immigrated to Brazil in the last century.

Taís Araújo: Brazilian Actress, Taís is the famous for being the first black Brazilian to play the lead role in a novela. The title role was that of Xica da Silva, a historically significant black Brazilian.

¿Quién es latino? Part I

Which actress has Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage?

More examples on the next post.

Americans are interested in race. We are often confused by it, often afraid to talk about it, and often, despite our best efforts, filled with misconceptions. I've noticed that many Americans are confused by Latin Americans. We don't understand their history- even in relation to U.S. history. We have labels like Hispanic, Latino, Spanish and Chicano that we don't know how to use. And we have images - Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz - of what we think Latin Americans should look like that are stereotypical or simply incorrect (Antonio and Penélope are from Spain, not Latin America).

I was inspired in the classroom one day when a black student of mine declared that people from the Dominican Republic could not be black. "Black is black" he said. Even though he was wrong, I knew what he meant. For my student, black didn't just mean the color of his skin. It didn't just mean his ancestors came from Africa. For him, black was his culture. Black was everything; the way he spoke, the music he listened to, the type of church he attended. And he could see from my lesson on the DR that Dominicans don't share any of these cultural aspects with him. So he concluded they couldn't be black.

This prompted me to write out a lesson on the difference between race and ethnicity. I defined the terms with my class, making sure they understood that ethnicity or culture, was not determined by race or phenotype. We also talked about nationality as something separate from race or ethnicity. I talked briefly about the history of Latin America, indigenous populations, Spanish colonization as well as later immigration from other parts of the world. Then, I had the students look at a series of posters I had made the night before. I had cut out pictures from People en
Español of various Spanish-speaking celebrities like Shakira and Alex Rodriguez and also popular American celebrities like Beyonce and Christina Aguilera. I put some pictures side by side and asked a question. For example, I might have put a picture of Zoë Saldaña and Penélope Cruz and asked "Which actress has Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage?"

The students were given time to walk around the room and look at the posters and answer the questions by voting beneath the pictures. The students took it very seriously. They thought about it. They knew most of the questions were tricks. Obviously I was baiting them. I was expecting most students to vote for Penélope Cruz as I had just discovered the opinion some of my students held about Latinos of African descent.

After all the students had voted, we tallied the results and then talked about the answers. The discussion at the end wasn't as honest as it could have been. Few of the students would admit they voted one way or another based on characteristics they expected of Latin Americans. But the intended result was achieved: the students came to realize that Latin America has genetic diversity, possibly even more than the U.S. There should be no stereotypical Latino look, just as there should be no typical American look. It was an interesting lesson.

Using celebrities that the students already knew and care about was successful. The Spanish textbook did a good job showing diversity, but because the students didn't know the models in any sort real-life context, they didn't care if there was a blonde girl and a black boy on the cover of their Spanish book. But they did care to know that the beautiful Zoë Saldaña was both black and Latina.

Can Somebody Please Kill the Word Caucasian?

The Census is coming soon, so I think it's a good time to talk about racial identity. On forms I have filled out in the past, I have often seen this as the category I think they want me to check:

White, Caucasian (Of European, Middle Eastern or North Africa heritage)

First, I think that is too a large geographic region to lump under one category. What is race? Is it the way we look? Where we are from? Is it something under the skin that we can't even see that makes us different? If what these forms want to know is our
ethnicity, our culture, asking about our race isn't going to capture it anyway. I've posted about this before: here.

So, ok, let's accept that Europeans, Middle Easterners and North Africans have something in common, that people from as far apart as Ireland, Morocco and Iran make up one "race" and that it is the one we commonly call "white." Where does Caucasian come in?

The Caucasus Mountains are located in the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, which includes Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and a southern tip of Russia. The use of Caucasian as a racial term, as opposed to a geographic one, is largely attributed to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist from the early 1800s. Based on the discovery of a certain skull in the Caucasus region, he falsely concluded that humanity began there. In his definition, peoples from Europe to India could all be considered Caucasian, all belonging to a single race. He came up with other racial terms for Africans and Asian as well, all equally as archaic.

The United States seems to be the only country that still uses this term to mean anything other than "from the Caucasus region." And somehow it has come to mean something synonymous with "white person." Indians have officially been left out of this definition, see the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind.

I don't know a single white American who would self-identify as Caucasian. Most Americans, notorious for our poor geography skills, have no idea where the Caucasus region is. Most white Americans know that at some point in their family history have ancestors from Europe. Many white Americans have NO IDEA where in Europe their family really comes from (myself included). But I know that I do not have any recent ancestry from between the Black and Caspian Seas.

Caucasian is meaningless as a racial category.

So, why the picture of Kim Kardashian? I am not a fan of hers, though I do think she is remarkably beautiful and an interesting topic of racial conversation. I posted her picture because of all recent celebrities she is probably the most recognizable Caucasian. And not because she is white. Is she white? That's a whole other question, but her father, famous attorney Robert Kardashian, was Armenian American. This means her family heritage is from the Caucasus region. Would Kim identify as Caucasian? Why would she, when she could claim Armenian heritage, which is much more specific.

While Kim is truly Caucasian, more so than Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie or Reese Witherspoon, does she meet the American construction of Caucasian (i.e. white)? Is Kim Kardashian white? Phenotypically, most Americans would probably say no. I'm more interested in how she self-identifies. We can debate her race all day, but it doesn't really matter what anyone says but the girl herself. Her mother is white American, her father was Armenian American. Geographically, Armenia further east than even Turkey, which is currently trying to prove how European it can be to the European Union. Is Armenia Europe? Or is it part of the Middle East, or part of Asia? Are Armenians Europeans or Asians? Are they white? How do they identify?

Does any of it matter? I tend to say that yes, it matters. In America, race matters. Should it matter is another question altogether.

The label Caucasian was defined when humans were even more confused about race than we are today. It's time to let it go. If what we really want to measure is the percentage of the population with roots in Europe, make a definition that means just that. Or just say white. That's what white people call themselves anyway.