In a previous version of this article Alicia Garza was misspelled as Alicia García and Garza was misidentified as Latina; she is, in fact, African American and Jewish American.
It was a long trip. Most people thought we were crazy for driving instead of flying, but something about long voyages allows one to reflect on life transitions more fully than a quick flight across international borders. My family and I decided to drive the 2,100-mile trek from Cuernavaca, Mexico to Monroe, North Carolina. Along the way we made many stops to see friends and do some sightseeing. We stopped to see Guanajuato with its beautiful Spanish architecture and the “callejón del beso.” We stopped to visit a friend on the border near Brownsville and another in Dallas, Texas. Another major geographical landmark on the journey along I-20 was the Mississippi river, so we stopped at an IHOP restaurant just across the bridge in Vicksburg. Outside the restaurant was a newspaper vending machine and the front-page headlines caught my eye: “39 Million Make Hispanics Largest U.S. Minority.” So, I inserted two quarters and bought the paper to read the full article, which began with the following lines:
The U.S. Census Bureau’s announcement Wednesday confirmed what many have treated as fact for some time. Even so, it’s a symbolic milestone for a nation whose history has been dominated by black-white racial dynamics.
The article stated that the Hispanic population had grown to 38.8 million and therefore surpassed African Americans as the largest ethnic-minority group in the United States. This news was particularly relevant because of our current life-transition and immediate circumstance. My wife and I had been living and working in Latin America for the previous 15 years until my wife received an invitation to serve the Latinx community in North Carolina. One of the Anglo pastors in Monroe, NC had noticed the growth of the Latinx community, and knew that the church needed to reach out to the growing Latinx community but did not know how or where to begin. The pastor had been on several short-term mission trips to Latin America, so he had an interest serving the Latinx community but seeing the need in his home town presented a new opportunity. So, the pastor sent us an email to consider moving to North Carolina to start a Spanish-speaking church.
Living outside the U.S. for so many years, one misses seeing the gradual cultural and demographic shifts. I left the United States in 1988 when Hispanics were a small minority and racial dynamics were very much based on a White-Black binary. So reading this newspaper article in the USA Today was eye opening and marked a more nuanced and complex racial reality in the United States.
Growth of Latinxs in the South
We arrived in North Carolina in the summer of 2003 to find an extremely marginalized Latinx community in a very segregated, rural, southern area of Union County, North Carolina—southeast of Charlotte. This county borders South Carolina and has a very painful racial history that includes the Civil War, the Jim Crow era of segregation, and the ubiquity of the Confederate flag. During the decade of the 1990s, North Carolina had the highest percentage increase of the Latinx population of all 50 states, yet this community was underprivileged in many ways.
Most Latinx people in North Carolina during the rapid population growth in the early 2000s were undocumented young men who came seeking construction work—provoked by an economic boom fueled by the financial centers of Bank of America and Wachovia in Charlotte. This, coupled with the steady work in the traditional southern industries of agriculture and poultry, created a magnet incentivizing the growth of the Latinx population. It did not take long for the word to reach rural regions of central Mexico, especially the states of Michoacán and Jalisco, that there was work in Monroe, NC. The economy needed more labor to grow, but federal immigration laws lagged behind the economic rule of supply and demand. This massive unauthorized immigration flow was the result of powerful transnational economic forces largely due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). First, young men immigrated for work and eventually many of the wives and girlfriends, as well as children, joined the men, although some men started new families in their new home. Over time, there was as much growth in the Latinx population by births as there was from immigration. The sudden increase of the Latinx community made many people in rural North Carolina uncomfortable and created tensions with local law enforcement. Of course, there were some real social problems, such as alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, but there were also misinformation, cultural differences, and just plain racism.
On one occasion in the city of Monroe, NC, Earl Brown, the owner of a local furniture store located a block from our Hispanic mission church put up a sign that read, “Honk if you hate Spanish,” “Honk if you loath (sic) Mexico & its flag,” and “Honk if you’re tired of hearing Spanish.” When a local journalist asked Mr. Brown why he put up the signs he responded: “Every time a house has been empty, it’s gone Latino. The dynamics of this area has changed so much.” Incidents such as these made the Latinx community feel vulnerable to hate crimes.
On another occasion my wife and I were returning from the movies when we received an urgent call to go to the church. The church youth group that consisted of Latinx teens was scheduled to have an activity, but they arrived early before the church was unlocked and waited in their cars. A neighbor saw two cars in the church parking lot with Latinx youth and called the police. We arrived to find the young people handcuffed and lying in the grass while the police were searching their cars. We explained to the officers that the youth were here for a church activity. They listened but continued an unauthorized search of the vehicles. When they did not find any illegal drugs, they let the youth go free. Fortunately, the police did not have the authorization to check the youth’s immigration statuses because they would have found out that they were undocumented. Certainly, this was unsettling and made the youth feel vulnerable to law enforcement and distrusting of the neighbors who had reported them.
The “Latino” Ferguson
Although not in North Carolina, there was an incident in Pasco, Washington when Antonio Zambrano-Montes was gunned down by police on February 10, 2015 for allegedly throwing rocks at passing cars. The police fired 17 shots at Zambrano killing him point blank. The police officers involved were not charged; in fact, they were not even interviewed until three months after the incident. Some people have called this incident the “Latino Ferguson,” however, there has been very little national attention and no protests despite being captured on video and having two million YouTube views. The video is very graphic, yet the number of viewings has not translated into the same level of protests, mobilization, or publicity in the news that we have seen with the shootings of unarmed African Americans.
The death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police office Darren Wilson, and other incidents of excessive police force have sparked a national #BlackLivesMatter movement. On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered a prayer meeting in Charleston, SC and shot nine African Americans at Emmanuel AME Church during a prayer service. This was the most sacrilegious of hate crimes perpetrated against African Americans. With each successive incident of racially motivated violence, hate-crimes, and police brutality, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has grown in political power and numbers. At the same time, Latinx people have been killed by the police at nearly the same rate as African Americans, and yet when a Latinx individual is killed, there is less resistance. This leads to a motivational question behind this article: why is it that in spite of its numeric growth, the Latinx community does not wield the same organizing power and influence as the African American community? This article will explore some of the factors that may limit the ability to organize and protest such injustices and explore what the Latinx community can learn from the history of the African American community.
Divisions between the African American and Latinx Community
From the perspective of an outside observer, it seems that the Latinx community is not as united as the African American community. Tragically, over the past several years there have been several shootings of unarmed Black men at the hands of law enforcement. Seemingly within hours, the African American community organizes a protest—many times through the convocation network of #BlackLivesMatter. There is a comparable number of fatal police shootings of unarmed Latino men, but we rarely hear of them in the news because there is not the same level of resistance and protests from the Latinx community as there is from the African American community. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, the percentage of unarmed Blacks and Latinx persons killed by police is 20 and 18.8 percent, respectively. In spite of a similar percentage of unarmed Blacks and Hispanics who are killed by police, there is greater resistance from African Americans when such an excessive show of force is perpetrated against a member of the Black community. The deaths of African Americans Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland, among others, have prompted national protests and resistance; however, the wrongful deaths due to police brutality of members of the Latinx community barely make the news. The Latinx community is not nearly as well organized, and there is not much collaboration with the African American community over common injustices.
Of course, the governance tactic of divide and conquer has been around since the Spanish collaborated with the Tlaxcaltecan and Texcocans peoples to defeat the Aztecs in 1521. Social scientist Hubert Blalock named the theory of minority-group relations, in which different groups compete for scarce economic resources in the late 1960s. In American racial politics, it is common for politicians to pit one group against another by framing the other group as competition or as those who are “taking one’s jobs.”
Claudia Sandoval researches and writes about the lack of collaboration between the African American and Latinx communities in political activism. In her article “Citizenship and the Barriers to Black and Latino Coalitions in Chicago,” Sandoval writes about the different interpretations of Elvira Arellano’s challenge to a deportation order while receiving sanctuary—along with her U.S. born son—at Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago. In addressing the media Arellano made a comment that particularly angered her African American critics: “I’m strong, I’ve learned from Rosa Parks—I’m not going to the back of the bus. The law is wrong.” In response a Chicago Sun-Times columnist wrote: “Arellano is pimping the system. She is using Rosa Parks’ name to buy herself more time [in the United States], and that disgusts me.” Timothy Thomas, Jr. also wrote a letter to the Sun-Times stating, “The difference in the actions and backgrounds of the two women are glaring. Parks was a U.S. citizen.” He went on to drive a wedge between the two activists: “On the other hand, Arellano’s entire history with our country has been under the shroud of illegality: illegal documents and now refusal to follow a court order to surrender herself and leave the country.”
There is also some research indicating that African Americans fear that the Latinx population will leapfrog African Americans in the racial stratification in the U.S. socio-economic reality. African Americans historically have experienced the arrival of new immigrants that initially have been marginalized, yet eventually assimilate and surpass African Americans in social class. Edward Telles expressed the concern that while currently marginalized, Latinos will eventually self-identify as white and move up the socio-economic class scale.
Internal Divisions within the Latinx Community
In addition to divisions between African Americans and the Latinx community, there are also internal divisions within the Latinx community. Here are four possible and plausible explanations for the lack of unity or the less visible resistance from the Latinx community. One possible factor that has made organizing the Latinx community difficult is cultural difference based on country of origin. A person from Cuba does not have the same cultural background as a person from Mexico or El Salvador. There is even the challenge of nomenclature and categorization. There is a total of 21 countries that speak Spanish including Spain. All of them have different cultures and speak the language slightly differently with a different vocabulary. There are also very large cultural and linguistic differences within various regions of Latin American countries. For example, there are differences in the accent between Chihuahua and Chiapas, Mexico. In fact, there are seventy-two recognized indigenous languages and cultures in Mexico alone. This does not even begin to analyze the diversity of cultures and linguistic differences across various Latin American and the Caribbean. As a result, a person in Honduras, for example, does not consider herself initially to be “Latina,” but rather considers herself first and foremost to be Honduran.
Moreover, there is no natural connection between a person, for example, from Honduras and one from El Salvador. In fact, quite to the contrary: these two countries have had historic rivalries and disputes. They even fought a war in 1968 that began after a soccer game! The same can be true of rivalries between countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and Brazil and Bolivia that have had tensions and conflicts in recent years. The fact that there is an increase in the Latinx population in the U.S.A, does not necessarily mean that people from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Bolivia, or Brazil have a common history or affinity and experience to forge a collective identity. There are historical differences and tensions that have socialized persons from Latin American countries to be competitors and rivals.
Another one of the factors that limits the political power of Latinxs is the recent and rapid growth in regions of the country not traditionally associated with Latinx presence. While certain states such as Texas, California, and Florida have had historical Latinx presence going back to the colonial era, the growth in the rural south is relatively new. Macro-economic factors such as industrialization, the decline of the family farm, and the ascent of agribusiness have created a magnet for immigrant workers. These relatively new migration patterns have not existed long enough to forge cohesive regional collective identities or political organizations among Latinxs.
A third explanation for the lack of political clout among the Latinx population is that many do not consider the U.S.A. as their home. Many immigrants are here to earn money and to acquire enough wealth to build a home or start a business i