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By Dr. Herny Flores, NewsTaco

I’ve been watching the discussions over immigration reform and the civil rights movement for a number of years.  I began reading about racism while I was still in the Army.  I remember getting into trouble as a young Second Lieutenant for having a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.”  Cleaver was a Black Panther who had written a collection of essays on race and racism while in prison and military officials did not want these sorts of ideas to infect the troops.  I was reading it because it was the New York Times  bestseller lists and my family used to send me some of these titles every now and then because they knew I loved to read.

I guess I was “infected” by some of Cleaver’s thoughts because I concluded that I had been a victim of racism for years and had not realized it.  My family had tried everything to protect me against it during the early stages of my life.  They sacrificed to get me the best education they could afford, made me go through Catholic parochial schools (there was supposed to be less discrimination there) for two reasons.  One, I was going to get a decent foundational education and I was going to learn how to live with white people.  I accomplished both goals.  Yet looking back I now see how I had been “raced” several times by the nuns, teaching brothers and priests, and my fellow white students and never noticed.

Something similar is occurring these days.  Latinos are being “raced” and not paying too much attention to it.  The main reason we are never aware of the racism or the act of being “raced” is because of the manner in which it’s carried out.

In our parent’s days and before, racism was very overt.  Mexican children were sent to Mexican schools regardless of status, Mexicans were served either at the back door of restaurants or denied service altogether, Mexican men had separate public restrooms (never could determine where the mujeres went), and certain occupations were deemed Mexican.

My parents and grandparents, when they went to school, were never given any idea that there was anything beyond high school other than hard work and living and raising a family in the neighborhoods where they lived.  Some were aware that they were being discriminated against but it took the GI Generation Latinos fresh from World War II to begin making a difference.  Those guys, veteranos, returned to their neighborhoods expecting more having lived under a much different set of social rules.  They went to school, not all of them of course, bought homes, got civil service work and sent the first generational wave of children to college, my generation.

The racial rhetoric we faced changed.  We were still Mexicans behind our backs.  I actually heard a white banker, now deceased, say that about Henry Cisneros behind his back at a social function.   I know some say the same thing about Julian and Joaquin Castro but these cowards would never say something like that in public.

When in public, however, the rhetoric changes; racism becomes invisible because the rhetoric changes.  Additionally, the public of today is not our parent’s public, there are too many of us Latinos in public places and in different social places.  A good, dear Mexican American friend of mine, prominent in our society once took me to lunch at a fancy private dinner club and he told me that the reason he goes to lunch there is so “they” can see that we are here.  Essentially, we are in social places and occupations that our parents would never have dreamed of.  We are very public and we are taking responsible and important social roles now.  Our children are even doing better than we as they should.  Where Spanish used to be banned in schools it is now being spoken among professionals and spoken well.  We travel, we invent, we invest, we give, we are here!

And, that is the crux of the problem for the greater society.  Latinos have penetrated too far into American society and culture and “they” don’t know what to do about it but “they“ do know they have to stop it; thus, the arrival, through a long evolutionary process of invisible racism.

They no longer refer to us publicly as Mexican nor do they use derogatory terminology unless there is a heated moment.  No, racial terminology has changed.  I have seen it change from Mexican to Spanish Surnamed, to Spanish Speaking, to Hispanic, to Latino, to immigrant, to illegal immigrant, to less competent, to changing demographic.  In some cases we are simply referred to as “they” or “them” or “those people.”

These new terminologies are finding their way into legislation designed to control us and keep us in the social places where our parents were forced to live.  The rhetorical shields that have been constructed by “them” need to be stripped away and the essence of racism uncovered in the worlds of immigration, voting, housing, income, education and health policies.  Times are changing, demographics are changing and cultural fear and xenophobia are driving public policy in this country and we cannot let this happen for the future of our children and our country.

[Photo by jkarsh]

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