Brown Like Me?
Vaca's underlying project, it seems, is to free Latinos from any guilt they might feel about pursuing their own interests. Latinos, he argues in his conclusion, are not responsible for the plight of African-Americans. And, he adds, because Latinos are not responsible, they come to the table with a clear conscience. Latinos come from "another land, living a life apart from the black-and-white vision of the world described by Black literature." As Vaca points out, the Latin American idea of race was always more supple and nuanced than that of the United States. In Latin America, large communities of escaped and freed slaves were able to flourish, and with the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow laws were never adopted. While there is a grain of truth to the idea that Latin America's openness to racial mixing contrasts with the notorious "one-drop" rule in the United States, that doesn't mean its conscience is clear. Latin America was a major player in the slave trade, has a long legacy of antiblack attitudes, and Latinos often bring those attitudes with them when they come north. Slur words like mayate that refer to people of African descent and qualifiers like pelo malo (bad hair) did not originate in the United States. In fact, Afro-Latinos are beginning to organize in countries like Brazil, Colombia and Honduras to address government policies of benign neglect. Representatives Charles Rangel and John Conyers, with the support of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are pushing for an "Afro-Latino Resolution" asserting that US funding to Latin American countries should come with a provision recognizing the difficult economic and social conditions of the approximately 80-100 million Afro-Latinos.
In truth, the relations between blacks and Latinos have never been as plain as black and white, as Tatcho Mindiola, Yolanda Flores Niemann and Nestor Rodriguez show in their valuable work of analytic sociology, Black-Brown Relations and Stereotypes. The book's measured discussion of black-Latino relations in Houston, in which attitudes are revealed through extensive questionnaires, contrasts markedly with Vaca's inflammatory selection of anecdotes from a single article published in March 2001 in the Charlotte Post, in which blacks were quoted as saying things about Mexican immigrants like "they're taking all of our jobs...they could be plotting to kill you and you would never know." But the two groups have at times successfully worked together on the West Coast, and black-Latino relations in New York are never completely smooth. While researching a piece about Spanish Harlem last year, I encountered strains between African-American and Latino politicians fighting over whether to call the region East Harlem or Spanish Harlem. The Harlem political machine that propped up Dinkins has often outmaneuvered and sometimes sabotaged Latino pols. But whether or not you think Sharpton was posturing for influence, he did spend three months in jail over Vieques. And how do Vaca's theories hold up in Freehold, New Jersey, where a black Baptist church is providing sanctuary for Mexican immigrant day laborers whose case is being represented by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund? In the end, Brownologists like Vaca question the value of a brown-black alliance in the same way many mestizos in Latin America distinguish themselves from blacks.
The Brownologists' excitement is fueled by an explosion of immigrants who are willing to work long, hard hours and who, unlike US citizen Puerto Ricans, are not eligible for welfare. But as anyone who has studied inner-city youth or picked up a copy of Urban Latino magazine knows, after a few generations many Latinos start to look more and more like African-Americans. It's in places like Chicago, with its mix of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and blacks, and Spanish Harlem, whose demographics are beginning to resemble Chicago's, that much of the work of black-Latino relations will be done. As NYU professor Arlene Dávila says in her forthcoming book, Barrio Dreams, "the relationship between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans...echoes that of Blacks and Puerto Ricans, at least in regards to a history of cooperation and competition." Aren't we always cooperating and competing with everyone we love?
Migration to the United States has allowed many darker-skinned or Afro-Latinos (primarily from the Caribbean, but increasingly from South America) to embrace an African identity that was suppressed in their native countries. The fiction of Dominican-Americans like Nelly Rosario and Junot Diaz, and of Puerto Ricans like Edgardo Vega Yunqué and Piri Thomas, is part of a new understanding of Latino identity that could not have formed in the postcolonial culture of Latin America. When Richard Rodriguez, referring to the probability that most African-Americans have white blood in their genetic history, declares that "the last white freedom in America will be the freedom of the African American to admit brown," I can only wonder, when will the Brownologists be free to admit black?
Of course, racial cross-identification is only a preliminary step in the difficult process of creating and maintaining political alliances between oppressed groups. Vaca's book might be helpful in clearing the ground for future cooperation between blacks and Latinos by acknowledging points of contention. But the book is more likely to have the effect of reinforcing what generations of immigrants have been taught: that estrangement from blackness is the key to success in America.