Building power, connection, and a sense of joy and curiosity across racial lines
By Viviana López Green, Senior Director, Racial Equity Initiative, UnidosUS
On Tuesday, November 8, 2021, Congressman Joaquin Castro and UC Berkeley Professor Ian Haney López joined UnidosUS and activist, writer, and producer Julissa Arce for Episode 2 of La Historia Uncovered: “The History of Latino Erasure.” Their conversation shed light on how exclusion of the Latino experience in U.S. history books results in a lack of representation in Hollywood, publishing, and every aspect of American culture. They also connected this historic problem with one of today’s hottest political issues—critical race theory.
The term “critical race theory” has been bandied about frequently in the news in recent months, but what it means and why it is important remains a mystery to many. When Professor López was asked, “What is critical race theory and why does it matter?” he answered with the following explanation:
- Critical race theory (or CRT, for short) is a way of taking racism seriously that began in law schools in the 1960s and 1970s in order to analyze and address racism and its effects.
- From another point of view, what CRT is doesn’t matter as much as does the fact that this idea is now being used to demonize people of color by scaring white voters. The critics of CRT incorrectly claim that people asking for racial justice are instead demanding racial revenge—which is not the case.
In response to the question, “What does critical race theory have to do with Latino history?”, the panelists discussed how:
- Latino history is missing from U.S. history books. Take Congressman Castro’s story. As a boy growing up on the West Side of San Antonio, Congressman Castro came from an area that was 90-95% Mexican American and working class, but the narratives he learned in school never reflected the realities of where he lived or the stories of his community’s contributions.
- Missing and/or incorrect information about where and how Latinos fit in United States history creates an opening for racial stereotypes.
Lack of knowledge is partially a result of the lack of representation. Congressman Castro has focused some of his work on the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood and the media, and he summarized these points as he spoke about the impact and dynamics of this erasure.
“Latinos have been written out of American and state history textbooks, which creates a dangerous void in narrative. Americans in general do not know who Latinos are, and Latinos often do not know their full history either,” Congressman Castro explained, adding that “teaching truthful American history—a history that includes a wide variety of narratives—can fill this void.”
When asked about the connection between ethnic studies and critical race theory, Professor Lopez explained that:
- Ethnic studies departments and scholarship are rooted in the Civil Rights Movement.
- Ethnic studies means taking the history of oppression seriously—this is also the goal of critical race theory.
- However, race is socially produced; it’s not fixed by nature, for white people and Black Americans as well. Latinos face a particular difficulty, because both individual Latinos and the nation as a whole have bounced back and forth between racial and ethnic self-understandings as well as understanding themselves and the community as “white,” “brown,” or in other ways. Race is not a single-identity issue.
Critical race theory helps look at important issues from a variety of angles, like gender, class, jobs, wealth, or other markers, not just race. This is critical when locating Latinos in American history.
When we think about race, it’s also important to include peoples’ history so they have a sense of place and belonging, Julissa observed. She asked the panelists, “What can be done to ensure that our children are learning this important history?” Professor Lopez explained that:
- Not all Latinos consider themselves people of color, but part of the reason they don’t is that few have been exposed to textbooks and studies documenting the systemic oppression of their people—and that knowledge can only come from teaching truthful, complete histories.
- Latinos who have been educated about how racism works have adopted an identity as part of a community of color that has faced racial oppression. However, according to surveys, only one in four Latinos have this worldview. The majority of Latinos do not agree with this perspective or haven’t been exposed to it.
- The most popular message offered by a survey Professor López conducted was, “Some people try to divide us by race, but if we join together, we can make sure this country works for everyone.” This single thought was the most popular message among Latinos as well as Black Americans and white respondents alike.
Hollywood and the media are the main image-defining and narrative-creating institutions in American society. Making sure Latinos are well-represented will lead to more accurate portrayals and stories, in service of closing the void in the narrative.
How can representations from Hollywood and the media help to address this question?
- The media industry is more exclusive of Latinos (12%) compared to economic sectors overall in which Latinos are 18%. In higher-up positions, Latinos are also woefully underrepresented.
- Two types of story are particularly important: truthful, accurate stories about Latino history and realities, and stories of cross-racial solidarity. The second type of story is necessary in order to fight the notion that racial groups are basically in conflict with each other.
- Examples of cross-racial stories that deserve more notice: Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organizing across racial labor movements in the fields in California; Josefina Fierro Bright building bridges between day laborers and Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s; and Piri Thomas’s book Down these Mean Streets, which tells his story of being both Black and Latino.
Professor Lopez’s final takeaway is important for all of us to remember: “We need to promote the idea that cross-racial solidarity is good for America, that our success depends on the success from people from other racial groups. The ideal is building power and connection and a sense of joy and curiosity across racial lines. That’s a story that Hollywood almost never tells.”
This conversation took place as part of La Historia Uncovered Season II, a series of thought-provoking conversations intended to inspire and strengthen our understanding of the deeply rooted history of our Latino community in the United States. If you missed this session, or any of the other episodes on voting rights and immigration, you can find the recordings on our website and YouTube channel, and on our corresponding blogs at https://unidosus.org/blog/. We encourage you to spread the word about the series so we can continue to empower our community with the knowledge of our history and fight against systems that have kept us from recognizing our own power as a unified community.
If you want to learn more, watch our short video and blog series with Julissa Arce on “Latinos and Racial Justice.” For the most up-to-date information about UnidosUS efforts on racial equity, follow UnidosUS across all social media platforms at @WeAreUnidosUS and Julissa Arce at @julissaarce.