I write this blog in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s July 19 televised ruminations about the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman. With a personal introspection rare in U.S. governmental discourse, Obama evoked the reality of the lives of African American males, particularly their sense that many white Americans – perhaps non-Black Americans in general – perceive them as threats.
Latino identity became part of the national dialogue and served as a sometimes-unstated backdrop to Obama’s commentary, because the media sporadically framed Zimmerman’s killing of Martin as a Latino-black incident. Depending upon the media source, Zimmerman was labeled variously as white, Hispanic, white Hispanic, or Hispanic white because of his Peruvian mother.
Obama’s remarks came just three days after another major public event, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, in which two Latinos held center stage. One was Mariano Rivera, the dignified, soft-spoken Panamanian relief pitcher of the New York Yankees. Rivera added an exclamation point to his amazing career by pitching a perfect eighth inning and winning the game’s Most Valuable Player award. His appearance on the mound was punctuated by a lengthy and well-deserved standing ovation by both fans and players.
Then there was Marc Anthony, the Grammy-award winning Puerto Rican singer who beautifully intoned “God Bless America.” Yet Anthony – and Major League Baseball – received vicious criticism from some on the grounds that a “foreigner” had sung the American hymn, an echo of the criticism of José Feliciano’s soaring, innovative rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the 1968 World Series. Why didn’t they choose “real” Americans to sing those hallowed songs? I wonder, should Major League Baseball have asked Anthony to produce his birth certificate, as was demanded of Obama? If so, it would have shown that Anthony was born in New York. Last time I checked, that qualified as American.
Therein lies the connection between Obama’s remarks and the Anthony incident. Both involved issues of perception and stereotypical assumptions about who qualifies as a “real” American.
We Latinos should take immense pride in our heritage both as Americans and as Latinos. However, we can never feel fully integrated when our U.S. bona fides may unexpectedly be questioned. Cheech Marin parodied this unfortunate Latino reality in “Born in East L.A.,” when his character was deported to Tijuana because he wasn’t carrying proof of his U.S. citizenship.
So what can Latinos do to prove, once and for all, that we actually are real Americans? Sorry, no easy answer. Once they become rooted, stereotypical perceptions of the “alien other” become resistant to such mundane evidence as birth certificates and years of contributions.
We’re making progress in that area, yet perceptual surprises still keep coming up when least expected. It takes time – lots of time – to fully eradicate stereotypes. That’s why – both as Americans and as Latinos – we need to continuously challenge those misperceptions.
Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org