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A Latino identity crisis

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Esther Cepeda
January 19, 2012
— The Latino community is finding itself in a quandary about how to reconcile a tremendously diverse collection of immigrants and multigenerational U.S.-born citizens who can fall anywhere on the socioeconomic map from dirt poor to super rich.

As if that weren’t enough, three things have Latinos in even more of a tizzy these days: how they describe themselves to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mitt Romney’s rise in the race to become the GOP presidential nominee, and a spate of Latino-centric media offerings.


Last week, a University of Southern California study found that 6 percent of respondents who reported Spanish or Latin American ancestry in a 2006 survey conducted by the U.S. Census answered “no” when asked if they identified themselves as Spanish, Hispanic or Latino.


The headlines that the news garnered, and the responses elicited from readers, ran from the sober notion that this is yet another sign of “ethnic attrition” or assimilation—aka, getting absorbed in the melting pot—to the fear that millions of Latinos are committing the unforgivable sin of “denying their own heritage.”


Such responses perfectly delineate the divide between those who want Hispanics to become nothing more or less than a normal part of mainstream America and those who want to ensure that the Latino community remains a distinct segment when it comes to population counts—whether for the purpose of honoring their unique culture or to curry political favor or power. As it stands, Hispanics are folded into the three established racial groups: white, black, Asian.


In this context, it’s no surprise that Latino voters, usually considered a reliably Democratic base, recoiled in horror to learn that Mitt Romney has Mexican ancestry and could become—gasp!—the nation’s first Hispanic president.


Yes, Romney can make a claim to America’s not-quite-sure-what-to-make-of-itself Latino community because his father was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. At the end of the 19th century, the Romney family immigrated to Mexico in order to flee U.S. laws against polygamy, and it still has a presence there.


The collective Hispanic response to Romney’s connection to the Aztec Empire has ranged from “But he’s white!” to the ever-insulting “Yeah, right—who ever heard of a Mexican Republican?”—an accurate reflection of the disconnect in Hispanics’ view of the difference between race and ethnicity, and a clear exhibition of the idea that though Latinos might hail from any of 20 separate countries and be distinct in a million different ways, no “real” Hispanic would be a—double-gasp!—Republican.


Enter the clever, anonymous, devil behind the just-launched parody Twitter account “MexicanMitt Romney.”


MexicanMitt, decked out in mariachi attire—and what he verified to me through Twitter are authentic, ultra-pointy cowboy boots—is hilarious. Cursing in broken Spanglish, bidding a ribald “adios” to Jon “Juanito” Huntsman, proudly declaring himself one of the rich “Juan percent,” and generally exploiting every Mexican convention you can think of, MexicanMitt has injected some fun into Republican poll speculating.


At least his followers and admirers are laughing at this stereotype-spewing lampoon. That’s opposite to the way many Latinos have reacted to big-media attempts to engage them. There’s been no backlash against MexicanMitt, so far, but to scan the disappointing offering of movies and TV in the past year is to find that the performing arts either ignore Hispanics or inadvertently insult them.


In the past months there has been frustration over how Colombia was depicted in the action-thriller “Colombiana” about that region’s drug cartel violence, the lack of Latinos celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors, and a TV sitcom portrayal of Puerto Ricans as natural-born drug dealers.


“Rob,” a television show that debuted last week about a Caucasian goofball who marries into a Mexican family, made waves for both using reliable “close-knit Hispanic family” stereotypes to delight viewers and for getting Hispanics to question whether they should love or hate shows like this or “Modern Family,” with its stereotypical sexy Latina mom.


Truthfully, no lines in the sand need to be drawn—we can agree to disagree about our varied individual preferences and what they “mean.” Latinos are diverse and complex, and we must accept this of our own community before we can expect others to do the same.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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