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Friday, October 18, 2013

Latino Americans: Arriving, or greeting, the ships?

Here's a piece I wrote 2 months for the PBS series: Latino Americans. I have no explanation as to why it was posted today as opposed to August when it was supposed to appear.

Latino Americans: Arriving, or greeting, the ships?
August 22, 2013 10:11 AM by Roberto Rodriguez

There is something unsettling when peoples from this continent mark their identity or origins as a result of invasion or war – that is, colonialism or imperialistic wars of annexation.

Questions of identity are complex and multi-layered, but it is indisputable that of those that are identified as “Latino Americans” in the United States, the vast majority trace a large part of their heritage to this very continent, long before the arrival of Columbus.

Many of us are Indigenous to these lands and if there was an alternative way to identify ourselves, a better term might be: gente de maíz. Corn is a most stupendous crop whose history is inscribed in both the ancient codices and the ancient architecture upon the land, i.e. monumental cities such as Teotihuacan, Tikal, Chaco, Cahokia and thousands of other pre-Columbian cities that span the Americas. Most of all, maíz culture is actually part of an agricultural complex which primarily includes corn, beans, squash… and chile, though many other crops are included that vary from region to region, such as amaranth, quinoa and wild rice, etc. These foods, plants and medicines, not only continue to be in use today, but constitute the foundation of many of the continent’s living cultures. It is estimated that more than 60% of the world’s foods originate in the Americas. Some of the other developments and accomplishments include the use of mathematics, science, astronomy, advanced calendrical systems, engineering, art, communications and writing – all useful for the building of those monumental cities… and for the transmission of culture.

The amazing thing about maiz is that 1) it is the only crop in the history of humanity that was created, some 7000 years ago (through the crossing of a wild grass and teocintle) and 2) it cannot grow by itself; to this day, it requires human care or intervention. This is how and why we know that many of the peoples of this continent are connected – and related -   precisely because maíz made its way into the United States, several thousand years before the arrival of Columbus.

The Latino Americans PBS documentary and the companion book, Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation, focus on the 1800s to the present, however, they use [over] 500 years as their marker as to how long Latino Americans have been contributing to this continent.
Not a good idea. To allude to "500-year contributions," is to disappear maíz culture.

The documentary is not unique. The U.S. Forest Service’s American Latino Heritage Project also uses the same time frame. From its brochure: “Latino peoples have contributed to and shaped the heritage of the United States in many ways for over 500 years.”  (
 Even many Chicano/Chicana scholars utilize the same framework to mark their existence. One example is “500 Years of Chicano History.” The discipline of Chicana/Chicano Studies is similarly implicated. At its inception, Chicano Studies pegged the origins of Chicanos to the 1846-1848 Mexican American War. Later, scholars pushed that timeline to the birth of the first mestizo – in effect – 500 years ago.  The proposed National American Latino Museum suffers from the same timeline.

The question is, why is the idea of “Chicano” or “Latino” conflated with European arrival or mestizaje? Incidentally, this is not to deny the mixture of Chicanos or Latinos. Quite the contrary. The late American Indian scholar, Jack Forbes, was fond of noting that all human beings are mestizos, yet it is generally only Mexicans/Chicanos (and to a lesser extent, Latinos) who are associated with the term mestizaje. “Mestizo” is a leftover category from the dehumanizing Spanish-imposed racial caste system of the colonial era (Incidentally, many Chicanos have also mixed for hundreds of years with Indigenous peoples from the greater U.S. Southwest, such as Navajos, Hopis, Pueblos, Apaches, Comanches, etc.).

The question that might arise: is there an alternative way of telling this story without using the 500-years Eurocentric framework?

The problem does begin with the formulation of the Latino category itself. It is absolutely multicultural and richly varied, but are we to assume that it excludes Indigenous heritage? If it does not, then this story cannot begin “500 years ago.” If it does exclude peoples with Indigenous heritage (which is the vast majority), then there is something wrong with the category because most peoples from Mexico and Central America and the Andean regions of South America do have such a background.

Vicente Jimenez, the architect of this nation’s initial affirmative action programs, was fond of saying that “when half my ancestors arrived on ships, the other half of my ancestors greeted them.” Using this formulation, which assumes that Latinos are half and half (left out is the African or Third root of the Americas), what becomes obvious is that the Latino story, as touted by the documentary’s publicity, privileges the story of those that came over on boats, not the ones that greeted them.

This is beyond a semantical debate. In Arizona, Ethnic Studies was banned because the state argued that Mexican American Studies was outside of Western Civilization… that students in the highly successful MAS K-12 department were being taught material that did not trace their origins to Greco-Roman culture. In effect, the state was correct; the histories and values being taught emanated from a 7,000-year maíz–based culture, by way of the Maya – from this very continent, not Greece or Rome. However, the state was wrong about those knowledges being outside of “Western Civilization” – which is code for being outside of civilization itself. The philosophical foundation for the department was found in the ethos of In Lak Ech–Tu eres mi otro Yo –You are my other me – and Panche Be–buscar la raiz de la verdad-to seek the root of the truth.

The history of "Latino Americans" can be taught as that of peoples with heritages that can be traced for thousands of years to both sides of the ocean. This can be done by also acknowledging that for the majority of us, our heritage is firmly rooted on this continent. If not, then the category needs to be discarded.

Rodriguez is a long-time writer and most recently the winner of the 2013 AERA Baker-Clarke Human Rights Award for his defense of Ethnic Studies. He is also a professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona and can be reached at:

* If you wish, feel free to messages there (here too if you wish).

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