Brown Like Me?
Although he rarely uses the word "brown" to describe Latinos, Vaca's assertion of a sharp separation between black and Latino is consistent with the "brown perspective" associated with a group of influential West Coast Latino writers. While it can serve as a useful color-coded signifier for being Latino, "brown" obscures the fact that Latinos come in the full spectrum of racial hues, very much including black. West Coast Brownologists like the essayist Richard Rodriguez and the LA Times commentator and New America Foundation fellow Gregory Rodriguez consistently categorize Latinos as distinctly separate from African-Americans, a third, mestizo, wheel in the American race dialogue. Although the Rodriguezes (no relation) are more diplomatic than Vaca in declaring that historic Latino suffering could never approach black suffering, the most important subtext in both writers' output is their effort to erect explicit barriers between blacks and Latinos.
Richard Rodriguez's concept of brown is, to be sure, semantically playful, invoking UPS's current ad campaign and sodomy in describing this "undermining brown motif, this erotic tunnel." Brown can be read here as the messy multiethnic muddle America is seemingly becoming through rising rates of Latino intermarriage, a utopian space from which, as the Mexican writer José Vasconcelos once suggested in his work La Raza Cósmica, humanity could launch its next great leap. In his recent book of essays, Brown, Rodriguez describes how growing up as an "honorary white" allowed him to escape linkages with the black culture of suffering. When a black professor at a public forum uses the phrase "blacks-and-Latinos" as a "synonym for the disadvantaged in America," Rodriguez recoils in discomfort. His most fervent desire for the African-Americans he has so much compassion for is "white freedom. The same as I wanted for myself." By this he means freedom from "culture" or "race," a desire expressed in various ways by ideologues like Ward Connerly and writers like Shelby Steele.
In his June 22, 2003, editorial in the LA Times Gregory Rodriguez went to great lengths to give African-Americans their due as the undisputed kings of suffering. "Even as Latinos exert growing influence on American politics and culture, blacks will continue to have a more powerful claim on America's moral imagination," he wrote. "Their history of slavery and segregation ensures that African-Americans will not be displaced in their role as the preeminent 'other' in U.S. society." But apparently this moral authority is directly proportional to the ability to inspire the kind of fear Jack Miles's Atlantic Monthly article evoked. "Latino immigrants generally do not instill the same fear among whites that blacks can. The social distance between brown and white has never been as great as that between black and white."
Well, that may be true, but what if you were one of the millions of Latinos who are not brown but actually black (a genetic condition given only passing reference by Brownologists), or even stranger, strongly identify with African culture regardless of skin tone? One doesn't have to look too far in US Latino letters to find representatives of this point of view. Witness Lisa Sánchez-González's fascinating meditation, in Boricua Literature, in which she contrasts William Carlos Williams and Arturo Schomburg (both of Puerto Rican heritage) and the roles they played defining how Latinos have manifested themselves not just as brown but as "white" and "black" in America. Hip-hop, the most dynamic and commercially successful musical form in the world today, emerged as a joint creative effort between blacks and Latinos, as both Juan Flores's From Bomba to Hip-hop and Raquel Rivera's New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone have recently demonstrated. These texts are not merely evidence of "identification" with African-Americans but a reflection of a shared, lived experience engendered by the proximity of black and Latino neighborhoods in Northeastern cities and the Caribbean islands, as well as an acknowledgment of shared African genetic heritage. Pace Vaca, this shared history, though no guarantee of black-Latino solidarity, can translate into a set of overlapping political interests.
Call these writers the leading edge of the East Coast-based Caribbean alternative to the brown perspective on black-Latino relations, if you are daring enough or have the energy to accept even more categories in the increasingly complicated debate over race in America. One might argue that these works are merely part of a "Puerto Rican exception," to borrow a phrase from the neoconservative Linda Chavez, who used it to describe intractable Puerto Rican poverty in her notorious 1992 treatise Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. But although Puerto Ricans make up less than 10 percent of US Latinos (roughly 17 percent if you count island Puerto Ricans, all US citizens), and other Latin American countries with Afro-Caribbean affinities (including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba) only add another 5-7 percent, this perspective has always been crucial when examining the relations between blacks and Latinos in the United States. And the Puerto Rican experience formed a pattern that Dominicans are following, despite the fact that they entered this country as immigrants. One of the major projects recently proposed by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone is the creation of an Afro-Dominican cultural center in Washington Heights.
Vaca's take on New York's sometimes troubled black-Latino political coalitions in the chapter "The Big Manzana" starkly reveals the limitations of West Coast Brownology. Vaca concludes that mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer foolishly believed in the potential of a black-Latino coalition (which had elected David Dinkins in 1989), only to be betrayed by Al Sharpton, who withheld his support until the last minute, denying Ferrer his best chance. What Vaca fails to understand is that Ferrer had a history of shying away from African-American issues, and in part for this reason was never wholeheartedly embraced by the Puerto Rican community, a significant portion of which is black. Vaca recounts that Ferrer was strongly in the running until (a) the 9/11 terror attacks, which occurred the day of the scheduled Democratic primary, drove the city into the arms of minority-unfriendly Rudolph Giuliani; and (b) stepped-up mailings of a New York Post cartoon depicting Ferrer as a Sharpton puppet ruined him with white voters. While Vaca wrongly argues that Sharpton's refusal to help out a Latino is evidence that Ferrer was sabotaged by black self-interest (Sharpton initially demanded Ferrer's support for a slate of black candidates in exchange for his endorsement), the implication is that Ferrer's mistake was his attempt to appeal to black voters. Freddy violated the Brownologists' rule of keeping your distance.