Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's good to be talking with you here on The Takeaway. Now, we have been discussing language and what it means, and how it shapes the way we tell stories. The words we use to name ourselves are foundational to our language, and foundational for shaping our identities and communicating who we are to the world. Afro-Latinidad, Latino, Latinx, Hispanic, all are just some part of the language used to identify people whose ethnic and familial heritage originates in a large portion of the world, including Spain, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.
But what do these terms mean for those who use them? Joining me now is Michele Reid-Vazquez, an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where her specializations are in the African diaspora, in the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world, and Afro Latinx history in the US. She's also the director of the Afro-Latinidad Studies Initiative. Michele, welcome.
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also joining us is Ed Morales, journalist and author of Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture. He's also a lecturer at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. Ed, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Ed Morales: Oh, thank you. It's great to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Ed, I'm going to start with you here in a conversation that actually got really intense yesterday among The Takeaway team and staff. What is up with the word Latinx and where did it come from?
Ed Morales: Well, Latinx in its popular use really dates back to the middle of last decade. There's evidence of X being used in identifying Latino identity as far back as the '70s when there was an article published in Chicano [unintelligible 00:01:59] Journal that alluded to the use of X in Mexican identity. Also, there was use of X among Chicana feminists in the '90s. Really, my students really started talking about it around 2014. After years of students and the Pew Hispanic Research Center saying that young people no longer wanted to identify with the broad label, some students started coming to me with this Latinx, which they said included LGBTQ people. I found it interesting because it alluded to the spectrum of identities among non-binary people, that non-binary people have, and the ones that Latinos have in their own view of their racial identity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michele, what's your first reaction to the word Latinx and your take on it?
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Sure. I will have to admit I had to sit with it for a minute. I teach Latino and I speak Spanish, and so all of that. As I read, I said, "Let me just do a deep dive into the scholarship and how it's being presented." Of course, I ran into the piece about the gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latina to address non-binary individuals. Also, I kept thinking about the X in terms of African American History as well. A lot of the things lined up and I said, "The X also refers to resistance to invisibility, resistance to exclusion." I said, "Okay, I can get with that. Let's bring on the eckies, let's bring on the X.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why not bring on the eckies, rather than the X? I'll run through some of what happened, which undoubtedly has happened in your classrooms, what happened in our pitch space, which was, on the one hand, some language about, "Hey, to understand Latino or Latina as gendered in the way we think of male and female, it's just not to understand the language, right? When something has the O or the A, that doesn't necessarily mean is a gendered male and female. It's just the form of the nouns in a way that just isn't really how English words work. Therefore, there is no need for the X." Then the other conversation was, "Well, no. The X is fine, but we shouldn't use it as an X. We should, in fact, continue to make the word sound Spanish and X is not part of that linguistic discourse."
Ed Morales: Use of the X not being something that's native Spanish is, I think, part of the point of using X is to define a different sensibility or awareness that Latin-American ascended people have, living in the United States. The use of Spanglish is something that marks the community and actually in Latin America, there's a lot of dropping of English in sentences. The strict adherence to language is part of the normativity that language structure is imposed on people and using the X is a translanguaging act that is subversive to that.
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Yes, I completely agree. I think that that X does speak to the location in the US. It does speak to resistance to these traditional forms of the endings of the O and A, and also just of identities. I think it's a useful appropriation of this X to mean all these different things that are resistant to traditional understandings, but also to create space for these different identities that have not necessarily fit in more traditional arenas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love both of these. I'm going to push one more on this and then we'll move to some other pieces as well. Ed, I'm of a particular generation and so I think about that X in part, also as standing in for Malcolm X. The ways in which the X baseball cap that was part of '90s youth street fashion that also reflected an understanding of resistance to the American state and to the racism of the American state. I'm wondering if that X gets deployed here in a similar way.
Ed Morales: Well, I certainly would like it to be. I've written pieces in which I've alluded to Malcolm X using that to symbolize the race of his ancestors and African culture from notions of what mainstream American culture are. There's a problem in the Latino community where it doesn't want to recognize enough Africaness, and there's huge movements for advocacy of Afro-Latinidad. I think that it's very fitting to allude to Malcolm X and his use of the letter X.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's dig into that other way of thinking about X as also almost like a map symbol, right? It's a reflection of intersectionality. Michelle, Afro-Latinidad, right?
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. What does that mean? Play for us out what that intersection of blackness and Latin identity, how that plays out?
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Let me start with the simple overview that there was certainly slavery throughout the Americas. 95% of enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean and Latin America, 5% to the US. That's why there are so many people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean. When I talk about and teach about Afro-Latinidad, it refers to these multi-layered cultural identities that are shared and as well as unique people of African descent with heritage in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries who reside all over the world. You can have Afro-Latinidad that connects to Portuguese-speaking Africa, to Latin America, and to the US diaspora communities. But it's really about celebrating, embracing, understanding the history of those people of African descent, and acknowledging the issues and processes that they continue to have to encounter, and particularly, I look at this hemisphere.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do you find in this hemisphere? How does that particular intersection give rise to particular cultural and historic formation, for sure?
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Sure. We see everything from cultural practices. Santeria, through Cuba and Candomblé coming out of Brazil, lots of African linguistic retentions throughout the hemisphere. Processes, like contemporary migration, issues of policing, civil rights, more broadly, gender violence. There are a whole host of transnational issues that connect people of African descent, particularly those who connect to Afro-Latin America and have communities in the US and then connecting to more communities of African descent because remember, we have African immigrants and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and African American populations throughout the community. Those who are in the US really add to the nuances of what Blackness means in the US in the US context.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of what happens when we start to understand this intersection with Blackness is that right along with it comes forms of domination and racism.
Ed Morales: Yes, absolutely. The racism in Latin America, in general, has been disguised by the creation of ideologies that are known as mestizaje ideologies, which try to make sense of the mixed-race hierarchy that Spanish colonialism imposed, and try to make it turn into a positive for Latin-American identity. What that did in many countries was eliminating people from counting themselves in the census and bringing claims to the courts. There's not enough precedent for discrimination against people in Latin America, Black people in Latin America. That's one of the ways of denying it because there hasn't been many court cases that are brought.
This is something that Latinx community is trying to work through more closely at this moment because there are so many young scholars and leaders who are advocating for recognition of Afro-Latinidad. Afro-Latinidad also alludes to the alliances and experiences that Latinx people have served with African-Americans going all the way back to beginning of the 20th century, and most clearly manifested in things like the creation of hip hop and how Nuyorican Poets Cafe, for instance, was closely associated with freestyle rappers in the'90s.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You can't just stop on freestyle rappers in the '90s and then stop. You got to give us the rest of that.
Ed Morales: I know lots of [crosstalk]
Melissa Harris-Perry: You got to give us Ramon, come on now.
Ed Morales: I feel I was talking too much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: No, no, not at all.
Ed Morales: This is not an open mic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was like, "Let's do this."
Ed Morales: There's so much crossover between Latinx community and African-American community. In fact, many Black Latinos found their way to both African and Hispanic identities or Latino identities by being in the United States and looking around them and seeing how they fit into the spectrum.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michelle, I am interested in this idea that at intersection there are questions of conflict and of domination, but I think also about how, in the US, whiteness is itself an identity to be achieved. Whiteness carries with it, of course, as we know, all the wages and the goodies and the privileges associated with it. For communities, there may be, to the extent that there is a capacity to achieve whiteness and not everyone is allowed to, and I'm using that language purposely to achieve whiteness, I'm wondering if there is also tension about the notion that the Afro-Latinidad will keep Latinx communities tied to blackness and to all of the disprivileges of blackness rather than allowing an achievement of Latin-American identity, of Hispanic identity, of Chicano identity to constitute a form of whiteness.
Michele Reid-Vazquez: That's a really great question. In some way, I think for some people definitely because again, as Ed pointed out, blackness is not so much recognized or valued in Latin America. When those cultural pieces show up in the US-- and I see it in my classroom, I have Dominican students, for example, who know that they are of African descent. They go, "I cannot deny it, but I talked to my parents and they refuse to use the word, they refuse to say that they're Black," so they're often concerned about, "Well, where does this leave me? What does this say about my community?"
They're saying explicitly, "I'm not trying to aspire to whiteness, I'm trying to embrace my multi-racial multicultural background," but if I look at the larger Latinx community, there is this-- and it's partly the way that the US has constructed what Latinx/Latino means, what it's supposed to look like. In that context, Latino is closer to white in many instances and certainly does not include Blackness.
Part of those pre-existing tensions both out of the country and then bring those to the paradigms that we have here in the US, really do continue to create the tensions but also I think that there's a lot of work being done by community organizers and scholars, trying to figure out ways to say that there can be multiple perspectives within the same community. That doesn't have to be all or nothing, or one way to look at it, but there are multiple-- again, there are multiple names, categories that we use, labels that we use, and so there should be multiple perspectives looking at these communities as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ed, I'm wondering how that insight that Michelle's offering us there also ties in with your bookwork, with this notion of being a new force in American politics, and yet also both this diversity of opinion and not just of opinion. I mean, one of the ways that you can cast in your lot with the Black and brown and dispossessed people versus casting your lot in with folks who may be better resourced and are certainly much more likely to be white, has to do with casting a ballot for the Democratic or Republican Party. Obviously, Latinx voters are much more heterogeneous in their voting than African-Americans typically are. I'm wondering how that power in American politics also gets racialized.
Ed Morales: Well, yes, clearly our politics over the last 30 or 40 years has been, well, forever in the United States, strongly racialized. In my book, I argue that Latin-American descended people-- and I'm using that phrase to avoid saying Latinx all the time because I don't necessarily enforce it as something that I think people should use, I'm super interested by the term, but Latin-American descended people in the US really I think have more of a chance of gaining political power as a cohesive interest group by identifying with racial difference. When Latinx people abandoned the notion of racial difference, they're just really acting like many white voters in the United States, and are now becoming part of the larger constituency.
I think that African-American voter blocks have a lot of power because they are unambiguous about identifying with the racial difference and I think that you can see that African-Americans have consistently voted against Republicans by 80% to 90% over the last several election cycles. I think that when Latinx people or people of Latin-American descent abandoned identification with racial difference, they abandoned a chance at political power as a voting block.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michelle, thoughts around the notion of voting as a block for power or reflecting these meaningful differences within community?
Michele Reid-Vazquez: I think that's important. Obviously, as Ed pointed out, these are particularly useful and important the way that we deploy them here in the US but also we have to keep in mind that Latinx is not a racial monolith. I think that's why, in some ways, it's hard to pin it down necessarily as a block in some instances. I think it's definitely as we move further into the 21st century, but I think right now we don't have many other kind of models for looking at this population. I think there will be more complexity in trying to gauge how this group is voting because, again, it is different in different parts of the country, and I think large part because people are finding coalition and alliances with the African-American voting blocks. I think that we're going to see some shifts in that in the coming elections.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate from both of you the sense of standing just back enough, both the attachments you would also standing back just enough to have an interest to watch it, to wonder about it, and to have a certain curiosity rather than solely a prescription. I think it's a helpful way for all of us to be trying to think about the development of language and identity and our self namings that we are both very attached to them, but also can be genuinely curious about the things that we call ourselves and how we understand our connections to others grows and changes over time.
Michelle Reid-Vazquez is an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and Ed Morales is a journalist and author of Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture. Thank you both for joining us.
Michele Reid-Vazquez: Thank you.
Ed Morales: Thank you so much, Melissa.
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