Is Gringo offensive?

I use the word “gringa” to describe myself – knowing that some people are uncomfortable with the word. I’ve simply found it to be the best description of who I am. To me, its meaning is a non-native Spanish speaker, (or one who doesn’t speak Spanish at all.) It helps me identify myself as non-Latina, but someone with enough interest in the language and culture to have learned the word and have a sense of humor about it.

Some claim that the word “gringo” has negative connotations due to the way this word entered the lexicon. There is an urban legend that says the Mexican Army told American soldiers to leave the country saying, “Green – GO! [home]” (green for the color of their uniforms.) There is no proof that this is actually true. (Read other etymological possibilities here.)

I don’t like the words “White” or “Caucasian” because of the focus on skin color. I prefer not to use Anglo because it isn’t descriptive enough. I also avoid using “American” or “Americana” – because those from Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America are all “Americans” too. (Some even dislike that the United States has co-opted this word for its citizens, but calling oneself a “United Statesian” is awkward.)

And so this is why I use the word “gringa” and feel that it doesn’t have a bad connotation unless used in certain contexts.

Not everyone agrees with me. Recently columnist Daisy Hernandez, (co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women on Today’s Feminism), used the word “gringo” in what I would consider “appropriate context” – as a result there has been quite a controversy.

Read what happened on NPR, and come back to weigh in. What do you think? Should she have avoided use of the word, or was it appropriate?

Discuss in comments.

(Thanks to Aisha for sending me the link to this news story.)

Right Answer, Wrong Question

Classmate: Are you Spanish?
My 9 year old: No… Spanish people are from Spain.
Classmate: ….Oh. My parents thought you might be Spanish.
My 9 year old: I’m not.
Classmate: Okay.

___

Attention Gringos! The word you are looking for is “Latino.” Even “Hispanic” is acceptable to most. You could also say “Of Latin American descent” or “Of Spanish-speaking descent.”

Spanish is:
• a language
• a nationality (for people from Spain)

While I’m here I may as well let you know that “Mexican” is also completely unacceptable unless the person is indeed from Mexico.

Lastly, if I hear one more gringa tell me her boyfriend is “Salvadorian,” I might hurt somebody. It is “SALVADORAN” … You don’t call yourself an Americanian, right?

Race & Reality

I just finished reading Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity by Guy P. Harrison.

This was definitely not light, relaxing reading but I’m happy that I pushed through and read it.

Book Description:

“Drawing on a wide variety of evidence – the hard data from fossils and DNA, interviews with the victims of racism, and personal experiences – Harrison dismantles the ‘race’ concept, bolt by bolt. Exposing race as a social illusion and political tool – rather than a biological reality – Harrison forces the reader to consider how they think about ‘other folk.’ Anthropologists have no use for the race concept, and neither should educated citizens.” -Cameron M. Smith, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Portland State University

Even if you already consider yourself educated and enlightened, reading this book will open your eyes in new ways. You won’t be able to look at people, race or society the same ever again. (Remember, we’re talking about race here – not culture. Very different. The craziness I observe in my own household on a daily basis is proof enough to me that cultural differences exist!)

The author argues that we all came out of Africa and we are one human race – that any categories based on hair type, skin color, facial features, etc – are simply man-made… By the time I finished reading this book I felt simultaneously freed…and trapped. I see myself as raceless, but this just isn’t practical in the society we live in.

Imagine renewing my driver’s license at the DMV. I fill out the form, I come to the race boxes – decide to leave them blank because they seem silly and irrelevant. I turn in my form.

“Ma’am, you didn’t check a box for race.”
“I know. I don’t want to. I don’t believe in races.”
“Yes ma’am, that’s real cute, but you have to choose one. I can’t process an incomplete form…”
I sigh, take my pen in hand, and check off a race.
“Hmm… I suppose this one is most accurate…”
I hand the form back to the DMV clerk who looks it over. Her satisfied smile at my compliance soon turns to a frown.
“African-American?!”

So, I don’t think race will be disappearing any time soon – and maybe it would be irresponsible of me to pretend our world doesn’t see these man-made boxes, regardless of what I personally feel. I have two sons who are struggling with their identity, and answering their questions with a cheerful, “Race doesn’t exist”, is not going to help them sort things out.

Just yesterday a classmate approached my older son and said, “Are you Mexican?” … My son, (having picked up on his father’s annoyance at constantly being incorrectly labeled Mexican instead of Latino or Salvadoran), replied with a simple, curt, “No.”

I told him that he should have used the opportunity to educate his classmate, but I wonder if that was fair of me. As a “white” girl amongst other “white” kids, I never had to explain myself. It must get annoying having to patiently tell people “what you are”. It must make one feel very “other”… and that’s never a good feeling, no matter how old you are – but especially in middle school.

The book, Race and Reality, re-printed a “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” which I think is empowering, not just for people who are traditionally considered “multi-racial” by today’s society – but for all of us. In the end, there is no pure race. We are all mixed and we are all human.

___

Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage:

I HAVE THE RIGHT…
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical or ethnic ambiguity.

I HAVE THE RIGHT…
To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.

I HAVE THE RIGHT…
To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multi-ethnic.
To change my identity over my lifetime -and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.

© Maria P. P. Root, PhD

Middle School Amor

My oldest son will be 12 years old in a few months, but when it comes to the whole dating scene, he’s been way behind his peers. It seems like all his friends have been dating since Kindergarten, but my son didn’t start showing a mild interest in girls until this year and seemed in no rush to have a girlfriend, which was fine by me!

All that changed last Friday. When he came home from school he said, “I want to tell you something, but you can’t ask me a million questions.” (Don’t you love that?… it’s worse when they say, “…but you can’t get mad.”)

Anyway, he said, “I have a girlfriend.”

I clapped a hand over my mouth to stop the million questions from spilling forth. He stared at me. I took a deep breath and composed myself.

“Oh… that’s cool.” I feigned nonchalance. A minute passed… “Um, so, like… no questions at all?” I said tentatively.

He rolled his eyes… “OKAY, but not too many!”

I selected them carefully.

“What’s her name? …” (Liz.)
“How do you know her?…” (She’s in my classes.)
“What do you like about her?” (She’s nice and smart.)

I backed off and left him alone even though I was dying to know more. Over the weekend he showed me her picture in the year book. I had been wanting to ask him if she was Anglo, Latina, or something else, (He had a crush on a Korean-American girl last year), but I didn’t want him to think that I thought race was important. His father and I don’t care what race he dates or eventually marries, but we are curious to see how much more mixed up our family will become!

When I saw her picture in the year book, it was fairly obvious that she was Anglo, (of course, you never know for sure.) But based on her features, (not so unlike mine – blue eyes and freckles), and her surname, that would be my best guess.

Later that night I reported back to my husband everything I had learned about our son’s first girlfriend. We laid in bed, the house quiet, as we had our nightly chat before falling asleep.

“I wonder what her parents will say,” my husband said aloud.
“About what?” I said.
“When they find out their daughter’s boyfriend has the last name López.”

I hadn’t thought about that. We laid in bed, staring at the darkness for a minute.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” I said.

On Monday, our son came home from school. He closed the door behind him and set his backpack on the floor. “Well, we broke up,” he said.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Oh yeah! I’m not upset about it at all. Whatever,” he said, heading towards the kitchen.
“That’s good… but, what happened?”
“She said that her parents told her she can’t have a boyfriend.”
“But she must have known that. Why did she say ‘yes’ when you asked her on Friday?”
“Good question,” he said shrugging his shoulders as he emptied the cupboards and refrigerator in pursuit of an after-school-snack.

I’m relieved that the question of racism hasn’t entered his thoughts as a possibility. I’m just sad that it’s entered mine.

The boxes tell us nothing

I found this article and accompanying video incredibly moving. Better words could not have been chosen.

Chang-Rae Lee, writer and author of The Native Son, shares his thoughts on the Census:

(CNN) – We know the point of the 2010 Census is to count us, one by one, to tally every last resident, but the massive project of course has more prying, if limited, interests.

If the aqua- and black-tinted census form were a person, he would be like a slightly nosy seat mate on a plane, fitted out with an unfortunate ’80s flair, someone oddly arbitrary in his inquiries while being intimately probing.

Beyond the primary accounting, we’re asked additional questions about the people we live with and our relationship to them; whether we hold a mortgage or rent; how old we are; our gender; whether we inhabit a second residence or even, alas, a prison; and then, inevitably, how we categorize ourselves racially.

The boxes I can check to mark myself have certainly multiplied over the decades, allowing not just a single Asian category but broken out most progressively, it would seem, to other boxes for Vietnamese, Laotian, even Guamanian or Chamorran — and then the one for me, Korean.

The automatic response is to check this box, for that’s what I am, at least in my bloodlines: My parents are from Korea, which was where I was born. My family immigrated when I was 3, and our predecessors inhabited the Korean Peninsula for as long as can be recalled.

But as I consider the box, I have to pause. Perhaps it’s because I’m a novelist, someone who spends his days telling stories in part by stripping away the surface realities, unraveling presumed identities, in the hopes of characterizing what it is and means to be alive.

And thus my hesitance to mark the box. For despite a thorough pride in my Korean heritage and my wish to be no other, the complexities of what might seem a circumscribed identity (surely not a tenth as vast as “white” or “black”) still feel too numerous to be so neatly contained.

For my Korean-ness, especially in the context of America, is like no one else’s: It is not at all like my first cousin’s, who immigrated in his 20s and had to learn the language as an adult; not like my friend’s, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a bustling enclave of Korean businesses and churches; not like the Korean adoptee’s, who was raised in rural Oregon or Minnesota, being maybe the only Asian person in the county.

Our shared heritage shows in our faces, but given the differing nature of our experiences and the character of our respective communities, each of us has profoundly varying conceptions of our sense of belonging, cultural ties, even future possibility — in short, of who we are.

If I had made up the census form, the Korean box would necessarily have dozens, maybe hundreds or even thousands of sub-boxes nested inside, boxes for whether we dream in the native language, for how often we Skype with folks in Seoul, whether we wear shoes or go barefoot in the house, if we prefer our kimchee fresher or riper or perhaps not at all.

Each form would have to be an epic novel of boxes, its combinations approaching the infinite, a document so vast and particular and dense that the boxes themselves would at some point begin to blur, perhaps disappear, the marks coalescing into something so singular that they would eventually take on a life itself, which is always shifting, dynamic, at last uncountable.

-Souce: CNN.com (click for additional video interview)

The 2010 Census and the race question

I received my 2010 Census yesterday and decided to fill it out right away before it got lost in the basketful of junk mail.

I was stumped immediately on Question #1 regarding how many people live in the home. I had not intended to count Suegra… but the Census clearly states that you should count anyone under your roof on the date of April 1st, 2010, even if you don’t consider them a permanent family member.

So, even though we are a family of 4, I had to write a number 5 in that box. There it is…

Well, it turned out that this question was pan comido compared to the race questions.

Question #5 asks Hispanic origin. According to the Census, “Hispanic” and “Latino” are not considered a race – they are an ethnicity, since Latinos can be of different races, (take for instance, Sammy Sosa, George Lopez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Enrique Iglesias. They are all Latino but they are all different racially – and that is just a very small taste of the variety found in Latin America.)

Yet, aren’t Anglos just as racially diverse? I am part Russian, Irish, Native American and a number of other things. My neighbor could be French and Danish, yet we are both thrown into the “White” category.

I’m always baffled as to why Latinos are singled out. Nevertheless, this was an easy enough question to answer on the Census. I marked “No” for myself and “Yes” for my husband, our children and Suegra, (writing in “Salvadoran” to specify in the provided boxes.)

Question #6 was the real problem. This one is asking about Race. If my husband, Suegra and children can’t identify as “Latino” (half “Latino” in my kids case), what are they?

The options are:

White
Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native (with space to fill in the tribe.)
Asian Indian
Chinese
Filipino
Japanese
Korean
Vietnamese
Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Samoan
Other Pacific Islander (such as Fijan or Tongan, etc. with a box to fill in which one)
Other Asian (Pakistani, Hmong, Thai, etc. with a box to fill in which one)
Some Other Race (and a box to fill in which one)

For myself I marked “White”, but I was baffled as to what to do for everyone else in the family. Racially they are “ladino” (mestizo), which in El Salvador means an Indigenous person mixed with Spanish blood who has adopted the Spanish language and culture, (mostly leaving behind the Indigenous language and culture.)

The problem is, my husband’s family doesn’t know where their Indigenous roots come from. Are they Pipil? Lenca? Aztec? Mayan? They have no idea. I’m sure this is the case with many people from Latin America. With the way the Spaniards arrived and began converting everyone to Catholicism, forcing them to speak Spanish and adopt European ways, (not to mention massacring the uncooperative among them) – it became a shameful, or even dangerous thing to be Indigenous. It is a similar history to the way the Native Americans were treated here in the United States. Even in modern day Latin America, if a person acts in a uncouth manner, they are called a stupid “Indio” as an insult. And so, one’s indigenous roots is not something most families would have wanted to keep records of. Perhaps they considered it something best forgotten, and so now generations later, it has been.

So here I am with this Census, wondering how I am supposed to fill it out. I decided to search the internet to see if anyone else was struggling with this problem and found this article. Apparently I am not the only one scratching my head.


“El Paso – Anthropologists and Latino residents of El Paso have called into question recent statements made by a social activist that advise Hispanics to register their race as “white” when it comes time to fill out the census form this month.

Speaking to the El Paso Times this past week, Jessie Acosta, chairman of the El Paso Complete Count Committee, estimated that 98 percent of the Hispanics living in El Paso are technically white. His comments have generated much controversy and confusion in the community.

Academics and citizens agree that census officials have committed a “racial inaccuracy” by not offering Hispanics the opportunity to register themselves as “mixed,” given that the vast majority of Latinos are of mixed descent, with Spanish and indigenous American ancestors.

Margarita Rendón, a Mexican woman living in El Paso who regards herself as trigueña [a lighter-skinned Latina], stated that there exists enormous confusion over the race sections on these types of questionnaires. She stated that she is neither black nor white, and for this reason she always marks the box labeled “Other” to answer these questions.

“I always thought that the gringos were the white ones,” she said, a bit confused.”

-Héctor Manuel Castro – El Diario de El Paso
March 10, 2010

I think it’s laughable that the Census wants Latinos to mark “White”. Since when do they get to be included in the exclusive club? I’ll mark my husband as “White” when he gets treated as “White”.

Besides, how many Black people have just as much “White” blood as the majority of “Latinos”, yet they are expected to select “Black”.

I wrestled with how to fill out this Census for over an hour, and then I finally decided I would just mark “White” AND “Other”, not just for my kids, but for my husband and Suegra, too. In the “Other” box, I wrote “Latino”, but also considered “Mestizo”, “Ladino”, “Indigenous”, and any number of Central American tribes. I wrote it in pencil just in case I change my mind. I’m wondering how other Latinos across the country are answering this question. Please leave a comment!