Aren’t you all Catholics? Nope.
A few blunders well-intentioned people make about Latin Americans.
When I first emigrated to the US, I would greet friends with a kiss on the cheek. I couldn’t understand why everyone turned red; I still cringe-laugh about it. And even after living here for almost 20 years, I sometimes still use incorrect words or make grammar mistakes when speaking.
Many times, we make honest mistakes when interacting with people from different communities. We don’t want to hurt others intentionally, but it is a matter of admitting we need to learn more.
I am glad and proud to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. With that in mind, I want to share a few blunders that I have seen well-intentioned people make when talking about Latin America, immigrants, and our culture:
“Today is all about Hispanic culture! We ordered tacos, burritos, chips and salsa”.
Yes, I love that food, but we are more than that. We are part of an ethnic group defined by the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as “[people] of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
How about changing the menu sometimes? Latin American culture spans many countries with different geographies, customs, and food. Even within each country, you will find a very diverse cuisine. I once visited Veracruz and tasted many delicious dishes from this port city. I am from the Caribbean; if you haven’t, I recommend checking out the delightful food typical from there.
“Aren’t you all Catholics?”
Nope. Pretty much every religion is represented.
During colonial times, conquerors forced Catholicism on indigenous and African slaves. An article by Pablo Wright in the magazine Hemisphere explains that this didn’t result in 100% adoption of pure Catholicism. Instead, the imposition “gave rise to countless cultural recreations blending ancestral languages, rituals and sacred images with those of the European Christian world.” One example is the Cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela.
Once the dominant religion in Latin America, Catholicism has been in decline since the 20th century. A Pew Research report estimates 94% of us were Catholics in 1910, and in 2014 the percentage was 69%. Latinx practice Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, African and African-inspired religions, and all others.
“They are immigrants from Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Ricans are Americans. Congress enacted legislation in 1940 that confers birth-right citizenship to people born in Puerto Rico. Charles R. Venator-Santiago explains in an article the complicated history and ambiguity that still exists.
Just like Hawaiians living in the continental US are not immigrants, neither are Puerto Ricans. Washington DC is not a state, but people born there are Americans; this is also the case with Puerto Rico.
“You look like the typical latina, with brown skin and black hair.”
We come in all colors and races.
Articles sometimes use the term “mestizo” to describe Latin Americans. Spanish colonialists created this term as part of a racist racial classification system used to describe mixed-race children. Mestizo was the child of a Spaniard and an Indian. Mulato was the term for children with one Spaniard parent and the other parent Black. This system, called Las Castas, included at least 16 classes. We can find helpful visual guides of Las Castas on Napa Valley College’s website.
But Latinx is an ethnicity, which is more than race. Merrian-Webster defines ethnicity as including a shared “racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” That is why Latinx are white, black, indigenous, and any other race or mix.
Third Culture Kids (TCK) refers to people whose parents emigrated to another country. These kids grow up in two cultures: their parents’ and the one from the country where they live — the Third Culture results from mixing both and walking that tricky balance. As a result of our long history of immigration, Third Culture Kids are frequent in Latin America. For example, one of my friends was born in China and grew up in Venezuela. Another friend was born in India and also spent her formative years and adulthood in Venezuela. Former Peru president Alberto Fujimori is a famous third culture kid.
Latinx is not a single race. It is also not about a particular geographical area. Or a unique identity. And it is specially not just about brown people; it is common to ignore or water down the unique experiences of Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous communities when talking about Latinidad.
Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to educate ourselves on the many nuances related to colonialism, ethnicity, race, culture, and more of Latinx people. It is not about mastering every issue or never making mistakes but listening and learning.
It is also an opportunity to make delicious cachapas, a Venezuelan street dish similar to pancakes but made of ground corn.