Mestizos/as with an Asian Face
1847, 1899, and 1925: these are the years the first immigrants from continental East Asia–China, Korea, and Japan–arrived in the Latin American countries of Peru, Brazil, and Cuba. Even though it is still hard for many people to associate Latinos/as with an Asian face, Asians have been on the continent since the 19th century, with their descendants now in their third and fourth generations. Many have settled down permanently, while others have left for new destinations, such as the United States of America, their ancestral countries in Asia, or other parts of the world, for various reasons and purposes.
I focus on the identities of the so-called “Asian Latinos/as” through the analytical lens of mestizaje to create a platform for their voices, which have gone unheard for a long time in mestizaje narratives. In doing so, the concept of mestizaje as a universal category that alludes to a harmonious coming together of two or more cultures, and that promotes the inclusion of races, while radically rejecting racism and ethnocentrism, is demystified. Instead, my argument is for a conceptual category of mestizaje that is intentionally messy, ever-changing, and open-ended. This understanding of mestizaje confuses and questions a dominant stereotypical image of mestizos/as that still relies heavily on visual perception and biological ancestry. At the same time, it persistently asks whose presence is not being recognized in the complex, multilayered reality of the term.
Certainly, mestizaje is one of the most fundamental concepts for describing the dynamic racial diversity and multicultural realities flourishing in Latin America. It is also an exceptional analytical tool for exploring the realities of various Latino/a immigrant communities living in the U.S.A. and an identity marker with which many Latinos/as can resonate. Although it would be a serious mistake to use mestizaje as a single, universal title that represents Latin America and its people, as well as the numerous Latino/a communities in the U.S.A., mestizaje is still one of the most explored and contested terrains in Latino/a studies. Surprisingly, however, Asian Latinos/as, whose presence can be traced back to the nineteenth century, are almost entirely absent from the discourse on mestizaje and even from the general perception when people think about Latinos/as.
I first explore the meaning and scope of the term mestizaje. Since the term has been widely employed by various scholars both in the U.S.A. and the rest of the American continent, I mainly draw on definitions from U.S. Latino/a theology as well as from social sciences such as sociology and anthropology. I then analyze whether the term, or the common ground shared by different opinions regarding mestizaje, applies to the realities of Asian Latinos/as. Lastly, I explore some of the implications of this inclusion of Asian Latinos/as into mestizaje discourses and debates.
Some caveats should be noted. Since mestizaje is a contested concept, no attempt will be made to reach a universal definition that can encompass all the different uses of the term. Such a process is not only impossible but carries the danger of creating a conceptual barrier that ultimately excludes those who “fall short of” the fixed definition. Moreover, since mestizaje is highly context dependent, both in the U.S.A. and Latin America, there needs to be an intentional effort not to impose a single perspective upon the diverse realities that the term suggests. Finally, it is important to note that the mestizaje identity of Asian Latinos/as is not a recent invention, nor is this an attempt to add another race to the mestizaje concept. On the contrary, it is a rediscovery of the presence of people who have been there for longer than most people realize but who remain generally absent from mestizaje debates as well as greatly under-represented and mis-represented in conversations regarding Latina/o identities.
B. Asian “Latinos/as”
It is important first to clarify the use of the term Latinos/as. As Néstor Medina rightly points out, U.S.A. Latino/a does not refer to Latin American or Latin American immigrants in the U.S.A., though they might form part of the Latino/a population. Instead, most Latinos/as are U.S.A. citizens whose regional and ancestral roots predate the independence of the United States of America. In other words, although the terms “Hispanics” or “Latinos/as” are employed as an artificial pan-ethnic identity marker imposed by the dominant culture to broadly designate individuals and communities who are related to Latin America or Spain, Latinos/as are U.S.A. communities who have various ethnoracial, cultural, and national ancestral origins but which have been in the U.S.A. for generations. In this regard, Daisy Machado notes that the U.S.A. is the only country where the word “Hispanics” is used. Moreover, people who belong to this artificial category unwillingly carry certain negative stereotypes that come with that name.
Perhaps no single term is adequate to speak of the diversity of Latino/a communities. Bearing in mind the power inequality that lurks behind this umbrella term and its inadequacy to reflect the variety of U.S.A. Latino/a communities, I use “Asian Latinos/as” to intentionally stress the embedded connection of Asian Latinos/as to Latin America, as well as some common ground with other Latinos/as concerning their mestizo/a identity, whether Asian Latinos/as live in Latin America, the U.S.A., or somewhere else. However, great care should be taken not to lump their cultural particularities together, nor to generalize the experiences of Asian Latinos/as. For instance, the cultural baggage that Japanese Brazilians bring might be significantly different from that of Korean Argentinians. When it is employed carefully, a loose and broad category such as Asian Latinos/as is useful for highlighting the shared experience of intermixture by East Asian immigrants and their descendants.
C. Classical Definition of Mestizaje
- Virgilio Elizondo, Double Marginalization, and the Emergence of the New People
Most Latino/a scholars and theologians recognize Virgilio Elizondo as a pioneer who conducted the initial theological reflection on mestizaje. Motivated by liberation theology, especially that of Gustavo Gutiérrez, Elizondo sought to understand the socio-cultural realities of the Mexican-American presence, its religious expressions, and its identity and dignity, in the dominant U.S.A. culture, by employing mestizaje as his analytical tool. Here, I briefly present two of his main arguments on mestizaje—double marginalization and the emergence of the new race—in order to assess his contribution and its limitations in relation to Asian Latinos/as.
In his influential work, The Galilean Journey, Elizondo talks about two stages of mestizaje, which both involve great suffering and violence, yet also possess the positive potential of transcendence. Elizondo notes that while mestizaje as a biological phenomenon of intermixture is a common natural process in the evolution of humankind, in the case of the Americas, however, miscegenation occurred through military conquest, colonization, and religious imposition, accompanied by horrendous abuses and repression. This first experience of mestizaje was then followed by the Anglo conquest and invasion of Mexico. The first mestizaje took place as a result of the Spanish-Catholic military conquest of Mexico, and came at the cost of the atrocious dehumanization of the people inhabiting the Americas and the uprooting and enslavement of black Africans. A new people thus emerged during the Spanish-Catholic conquest of the Americas, with all its wounds and scars.
The second mestizaje is one that is still occurring in the U.S.A. Mexican-American mestizos/as were born from the U.S.A. Anglo invasion of northern Mexico, which culminated in the Guadalupe-Hidalgo treaty in 1848. After those historical events a new people—the Mexican American population—began to emerge, who have been the target of public and private violence and discrimination, including their labeling from the dominant Anglo perspective as inferior, lazy, and deceitful. In The Future is Mestizo, Elizondo stresses the suffering of the mixed population through each conquest. He claims that in the first conquest, the Spaniards tried to suppress everything native. In the second, the Anglo Americans tried to suppress everything Mexican. He writes “we had been twice conquered, twice victimized, and twice mesticized” to portray mestizos as people who emerged from this double marginalization.
However, the experience of double marginalization is not the end of the story. Elizondo says that being himself a mestizo has a painful side to it, but there is also an enjoyable side: he can move easily in and out of two worlds. It is here that he finds the potential of mestizos/as as a new people. The tension between being an insider and an outsider gives birth to a people with the potential for transcending established worldviews to create one of their own. The mestizo/a does not fit into the analytic categories used by either parent group. However, as insider-outsiders, they have closeness to and distance from both parent cultures. They can see and appreciate characteristics in their parent cultures that they see neither in themselves nor in each other.
One of Elizondo’s major contributions is that he describes the realities of discrimination and marginalization of mestizos/as in the U.S.A. while, at the same time, acknowledging the painful internalization of oppression on the part of the oppressed. He also uses the term mestizos/as to emphasize their potential for encompassing the characteristics of two parent cultures and races despite rejection, and to seek justice for the marginalized using theological imagination. His bold representation of Jesus as a mestizo/a who identified himself with the marginalized, and the reinterpretation of Jesus’ salvific work in the gospel with Galilean, Jerusalem, and resurrection principles, function as a theological foundation upon which to reclaim the dignity of the dishonored. The marginalized are liberated not by becoming more like the oppressors, but by embracing their unique mestizo/a identity of two cultures and initiating “a new unity,” not only for themselves but for others as well.
Elizondo provides a footing for those who give mestizaje a theological interpretation. The transition of mestizos/as from marginalization to liberation creates room for appreciating one’s identity, something that is not limited to Mexican Americans, but applies to other minoritized groups who share a similar experience of marginalization by being mestizos/as in other contexts. Also, by offering a theological affirmation of mestizo/a identity, Elizondo stresses the divine mission involved in mestizaje and the potential to transcend both cultures.
There are limitations to Elizondo’s contribution, however. By focusing solely on the social location of Mexican Americans this identification has become the most quintessential image and standard for all mestizos/as. Such approach ultimately overlooks the multiethnic and multiracial realities of mestizaje and the different nuances that the concept receives in other contexts. For instance, the strong emphasis on a European-Amerindian intermixture runs the risk of belittling the mestizo/a identity of people who do not have a mixture with either of the two groups, here Asian Latinos/as. Thus, while Elizondo stresses the inclusive aspect of mestizaje, which transcends two parental cultures, his emphasis on the biological mestizaje of Mexican American people produces an unintended side-effect for other mestizos/as.
- Isasi-Díaz: Mestizaje-Mulatez as a Moral Choice:
Ada María Isasi-Díaz takes Elizondo’s concept of mestizaje and broadens it to the realities of other Latino/a communities. As the term mestizaje-mulatez suggests, she includes the intermixture of European and African people in the Caribbean. Her definition of mestizos/as refers to the mingling of Amerindian and African with European blood and she extends the scope of the term by including “the present-day mixtures of people from Latin American and the Caribbean both among ourselves and with people of other ethnic/racial and cultural background here in the U.S.”
Although Isasi-Díaz agrees with Elizondo’s understanding of mestizaje as a new people, she goes further and conceptualizes it as a moral decision. Mestizaje-mulatez is not merely a locus theologicus emerging from the everyday experience of Latina women, and from which she develops theological reflection. In her view, it is also an ethical option, a choice that one must make repeatedly, and a way of relating with others. She claims that mestizaje-mulatez is important for three reasons. First, it proclaims a living reality based on the intermixture of Amerindian, African, and Spanish cultures as they come together, and the new cultures that have emerged as a result. Second, it vindicates the cultural mixtures and diversity that the dominant culture tries to belittle. And three, mestizaje-mulatez offers a new understanding of pluralism and a new way of valuing difference.
It is in the marginalized reality of mestizaje-mulatez that Isasi-Díaz finds an alternative way of understanding difference. While the dominant culture defines difference in terms of opposition and exclusion, she argues for an understanding of difference that is relational, which refers to specificity rather than opposition. She claims that this new understanding of difference that emerges from the diversity of mestizaje-mulatez reality can transcend prejudicial understandings of difference and promote conversation with other marginalized communities in the U.S.A.
Aside from Isasi-Díaz’s contribution of a gendered interpretation of mestizaje-mulatez through mujerista theology, her overall understanding of the concept is more inclusive than Elizondo’s, as it refers to the creation of a new culture that embraces elements from African, Amerindian and Spanish culture. Indeed, the way Isasi-Díaz conceptualizes the term often becomes subject to criticism for leaving the power asymmetry and racial hierarchy within the Latino/a population unchallenged. As Miguel de la Torre observes, such a reductionist view on mulatez creates a false sense of racial equality between black and white Latinos/as identity and fails to address the privilege that white Latinos/as have over non-white Latinos/as. However, the fact that Isasi-Díaz recognizes the African heritage of Latino/a identity and incorporates it into her theological discourse is particularly significant. The turn to the African contribution to the formation of mestizaje transcends the traditional binary of native inhabitants and European colonizers and opens spaces for other races and communities, especially those that arrived on the continent as part of a diaspora, and as a consequence of European colonization elsewhere. She does this without downplaying their oppression or romanticizing their integration in the process of mestizaje.
Also, by refusing the prevailing understanding of difference as oppositional, she reveals the practice of the dominant culture in belittling everything Latino/a as too different to be considered American, a practice that ultimately forces Latinos/as to diminish themselves. Hence Isasi-Díaz interprets mestizaje-mulatez as a moral choice for justice, substantiated by an alternative definition of difference. However, her critique of difference as oppositional (Latina/o-Dominant culture) seems to overlook the fact that such violence happens within Latino/a communities as well. This is the case with Asian Latinos/as, who, despite being present for more than a century, are considered perpetual immigrants or at best descendants of immigrants. Additionally, their latinidad is mostly obscured because their ethnic cultures and appearance are considered too different to be authentically Latinos/as. Indeed, while the inclusion of mulatez expands the understanding of mestizaje and gives room for other races and ethnic groups to represent their Latino/a realities, it omits the system of exclusion and ethno-racial hierarchy within Latinos/as, which ultimately excludes some ethnic and racial communities from Latino/a reality.
Since Elizondo’s examination on mestizaje identity through the theological prism of the mestizo Jesus and Isasi-Díaz’s mestizaje-mulatez as a moral choice, other scholars—such as Fernando Segovia, who envisioned a more inclusive theology of mixture and otherness (mezconlanza y otredad) and Daniel Orlando Álvarez, who introduced hibridez to the discourse of mestizaje to stress the liminal spaces in the identity formation of Latinos/as and to explore the intra-Latino/a tensions and their relationships with other communities—have broadened and contextualized the meaning of mestizaje from multiple perspectives.
D. Mestizaje, a Contested Field
However, several scholars have problematized the overuse of the concept of mestizaje. In his groundbreaking book, Mestizaje: (Re)Mapping Race, Culture, and Faith in Latino Catholicism, Néstor Medina harshly criticizes the often-romanticized, glorified expression of mestizaje as a default ideology of mixture among Latinos/as. He problematizes the idealized understanding of mestizaje adopted by many Latino/a theologians, who see it as a single process that upholds inclusion and cultural diversity and rejects homogenizing and racist tendencies. Medina claims that such an uncritical adoption and use of mestizaje is problematic in several ways. For instance, it overlooks the fact that the history of violence and discrimination in which mestizas/os were born is not simply something of the past. On the contrary, it is an ongoing situation in the Latin American context, where the dominant notion of mestizaje hides the violence perpetrated against indigenous and African peoples, and against immigrants.
The glorification of the concept of mestizaje also runs the risk of further alienating minoritized groups. The essentialist understanding of race within the notion of mestizaje, coupled with a siege mentality that develops in minoritized communities, can lead to radically isolated mestizo/a societies. That is, as Rubén Rosario Rodríguez rightly points out, mestizaje serves as a religious and nationalist symbol that risks further insulating marginalized minority populations. More importantly, the elision of the internal tensions within the diverse U.S.A. Latino/a populations and the broader debates in Latin America turn the notion of mestizaje into a monolithic category, which obscures racism and racial hierarchies among mestizos/as themselves. It denies the existence of different cultural groups within the Latino/a population, both in the U.S.A. and Latin America.
When it comes to Asian Latino/a narratives, the point that Medina raises regarding the indiscriminate adoption and use of the term is of vital importance. Indeed, without a critical engagement with the sociohistorical contexts where mestizaje emerge and a more nuanced use of the term—one that is mindful of the gaps in mestizaje realities between communities and countries—mestizaje becomes an artificial and hegemonic concept that lumps the multiple and often contested realities of mestizos/as in the U.S.A. and Latin America into a single process of supposedly harmonious intermixture and inclusion. Such understanding of mestizaje obscures the practice of exclusion that privileges a specific type of mestizos/as by constructing stereotypical images (the indigenous-Spanish intermixture), while excluding those who fall short of the category. It also omits the internal tensions and gender inequalities among Latinos/as in the U.S.A. and the problem of mestizo/a supremacy in Latin America that oppresses those who do not belong to the mestizo/a majority.
Mestizaje in the U.S.A. context is not the same as mestizaje in Latin America. However, in both cases it is important to approach the term as an essentially “messy” concept that should never be over-exalted. Instead, it must be examined as denoting a fluid identity and a multiple reality of intermixture that does not always involve a harmonious coming together of two or more cultures. As Medina puts it: “mestizaje is not one thing, or one experience of intermixture shared by all peoples. Mestizaje must be seen in the plural sense and qualified in light of the historical contexts from which they emerge.”
One example of a contextualized understanding of mestizaje comes from Manuel A. Vásquez, who examines mestizaje from a Central American perspective. Rejecting a unifying discourse of mestizaje across Latino/a populations, he argues for a more nuanced use of the term to show the “interplay of lights and shadows that accompanies this notion.” He claims that the ideology of mestizaje in El Salvador often neglects the 1932 massacre of more than ten thousand Salvadoran peasants, many of indigenous descent, and the socio-economic and racial division in the country. The intertwining of the ideology of mestizaje as a nationalist symbol with liberal democracy legitimized the destruction of the indigenous population. In other words, the concept served the interests of the powerful as it was associated with dark to light-skinned hybrids and Euro-American elites in opposition to foreigners and indigenous others whom they portrayed as primitive and inferior. Such a racialized dichotomy created by the elites legitimizes the oppression and exclusion of the poor and the indigenous people in Latin America. Mestizaje in El Salvador, and perhaps elsewhere too, has been a political ideal used by the elites to systematically alienate those who are not mestizos/as under the false banner of racial equality and inclusion.
For this reason, acknowledgement of different or even contradictory landscapes of mestizaje across the continent should come first when dealing with any specific narrative of mestizaje. A diverse and plural reality challenges the epistemological privilege that a specific interpretation of mestizaje has held over others, while also dismantling the homogenous, imaginary representations of mestizos/as. Furthermore, considering multiple aspects of mestizaje provides a footing for other narratives of mestizaje that have thus far been excluded.
In this regard, the use of mestizaje in Argentina, which offers a different picture from El Salvador, allows room for a further critical assessment and a contextualized interpretation of the concept. Mestizaje in Argentina has a close connection with “whitening.” Lea Geler, an Argentinian anthropologist and historian, maintains that the binominal racial categories in Argentina that still strongly favor whiteness do not allow mestizaje to emerge in that society. Whiteness in Argentina today is not necessarily limited to phenotypical traits, but is a way of life that is opposite to what is indigenous and non-criollo/a. That is, a white person is a criollo/a, who assumes a certain social class and economic status that separates her/him from the racially, socio-economically peripheral provincianos/as, extranjeros/as, and indigenous.
Based on three case studies of Afro-descendant Argentinian women who are all socially and racially identified as “white,” Geler claims that in a country like Argentina, which identifies itself as a white, European country in South America, blackness or anything that does not fit into Argentinian whiteness is seen as foreign (extranjero/a), and thus inferior. Examining the story of one of her interviewees, who said her family “had been black,” Geler argues that the concept of mestizaje does not have a space because the intermixture of people identified as racially white and black does not result in “mestizos/as” or “mulatos/as.” Instead, they are to be “diluted” into whiteness eventually, until they meet all the requirements for being white, the dominant race in the country. Her case study suggests that, in contrast to other mestizaje realities mentioned above, in Argentina, the term needs to be understood in light of a transition (or absorption) to that which is criollo/a. Biologically speaking, mestizaje describes the intermixture of two or more races. Socially, however, it represents a transitory terrain through which a person is to move from his/her racial, socioeconomic, and cultural blackness to a strict category of criollo/a. Regarding this point, Marilyn Grace Miller ingeniously describes mestizaje in Argentina using the metaphor of the tango: a dance originated by African slaves in the country, now absorbed by and promoted as a sophisticated dance of Euro-American criollos/as, who have successfully removed its African backdrop.
Geler claims that this absence of mestizaje is due to a national ideology that has long promoted immigration from Europe as an “improvement” to the nation via biological and cultural intermixture, thus enhancing binominal racial categories that make it impossible to develop the middle ground of lo mestizo/a. In other words, mestizos/as in Argentina are caught in the robust dichotomy of black and white, supported by the country’s strong preference for whiteness, and are thus unable to remain in the middle ground and claim their space, but must move to one or other extreme sooner or later. However, even though Geler skillfully problematizes this binominal category, she omits the reality of Asian Argentineans in the country, who are neither black nor white, but perpetual immigrants, regardless of their nationality. Although Asians are not racially black, their Asian phenotypes and “inassimilable” cultural baggage exclude them from Argentinean whiteness and even from the transitory stage of mestizaje, unless they diminish all their Asianness. Thus, criollos/as lump them into the artificial category of immigrants, among Jews and Arabs, for example, because while they do not fit into the strict dichotomy, they are also too different to be in the transitory stage of mestizaje either.
E. Can We Find Common Ground?
The various perspectives of mestizaje point to the fact that it is a Janus-faced term that cannot be reduced to a single, monolithic category representing entire Latino/a populations in the U.S.A. and Latin America and their diverse and complex identity formations. On the one hand, mestizaje seems impossible in a country like Argentina, where the racial categories are firmly binominal, and where white favoritism is prevalent. On the other hand, mestizaje involves political ideals employed by the elites and a process of assimilation and whitening that often obscures the alienation of indigenous people. In the U.S.A., mestizaje as developed by numerous Latino/a theologians is used to denounce the marginalization and oppression of Latinos/as and encourage their empowerment, by calling for a liberative praxis of solidarity and resistance against the established system of oppression.
I can conclude, then, that mestizaje is a highly contextual concept that brings a lot of problems to the table. However, such complexity does not mean abandoning the concept, or replacing one standpoint with another. On the contrary, acknowledging the significant contributions of Latino/a theologians and scholars, the contested field of mestizaje suggests that the concept should be employed with great care and in a contextualized way, keeping in mind that due to its complex and changing nature, lacunae will remain. As Vásquez rightly points out, there must be an acknowledgement of “the silences, exclusions, and power asymmetries that crisscross any mestizo/a discursive and institutional formation.”
At this point, I could carefully suggest that despite its variety and complexity, the concept of mestizaje assumes an intermixture of two or more races and cultures and a state of liminal identity on the part of mestizos/as in most cases. Depending on context, the concept eventually serves as a tool for reclaiming dignity for the marginalized group, or as a symbol justifying their oppression.
F. The Realities of Asian Latinos/as
Interestingly, except for the works of a few Latino/a theologians and scholars who briefly mention the Asian contribution to the composition of Latino/a communities in very broad strokes, Asian Latinos/as have not received significant attention in the debates on the subject. However, as mentioned above, the presence of Asian immigrants in the Americas traces back to the nineteenth century, and even to the 1560s, when the first instances of Filipino landing in the North American continent were recorded.
Does the concept of mestizaje also apply to the realities of Asian Latinos/as in Latin America and the U.S.A.? In the following, I describe three cases of Asian Latinos/as in different parts of Latin America to argue for their mestizo/a identity. The criteria for evaluating whether the concept applies to them are based on the loose common ground of mestizaje: despite complexities and contested usage, mestizaje assumes the encounter of two or more races and cultures and a state of liminal identity for most mestizos/as. Given the diversity of Asian Latinos/as, the following cases are not intended to represent the entire Asian Latino/a population. Also, although the article presents the three cases jointly, they are not to be lumped into a single category. On the contrary, each of them deserves a thorough examination and analysis in a contextualized way, given their historical and cultural particularities and differences.
1. Japanese Immigrants and their Descendants in the Country of Miscigenação
In examining the return migration of Brazilian Japanese and the role of religion in their identity negotiation, anthropologist Suma Ikeuchi describes the arrival of Japanese immigrants in Brazil back in 1908 to substitute for European immigrants as plantation field laborers. Although her book, Jesus Loves Japan, is primarily about Japanese-Brazilian return migrants, she also analyses the ambiguous social status of Japanese immigrants at the beginning of their immigration flow, something that continues even today. The general racial structures of the country allowed for them to be seen as whiter and more desirable than blacks, yet at the same time as unassimilable, because of their Asian phenotypical and cultural traits.
Today Brazil is well known for upholding ethnic miscigenação (miscegenation) as its national ideal, which stems from the richly diverse cultures, ethnicities, and cuisines in the country. In fact, Brazil, along with Mexico, has promoted mestizaje ideology and strengthened its positive values in the country, which has resulted in a lesser degree of racism and a “strong version of multiculturalism.” Yet, even though Nikkei Brazilians (Japanese-descent Brazilians) now see themselves primarily as Brazilian rather than Japanese, and interracial marriage has become more common than it was for older immigrants, the Brazilian majority still conflate Nikkei Brazilians with “Japanese.” That is, the word “Japanese” in Brazil includes both Nikkei Brazilians and Japanese nationals living in Japan. Such a conflated term reflects their mestizo/a identity: it suggests that although many Nikkeis, now in their third and fourth generation, have achieved significant upward mobility and consider Brazil their homeland, they are still often perceived as hyphenated Brazilians or even as “the unassimilable Oriental Other” by the majority. Furthermore, even though some of them decide to migrate to Japan, they still carry their mestizo/a identity, as they experience severe hostility from native Japanese and cultural and linguistic discomfort. In other words, their Asian Latin American mestizaje is reinforced: Brazilians by birth, Japanese by blood.
2. Chinese Immigrants and their Descendants in the Country of Mestizaje
Chinese immigration to Mexico also has a long history. In 1899, China and Mexico signed the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation, allowing for the entry and naturalization of Chinese laborers in Mexico. In fact, Chinese immigration to Mexico closely relates to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the 1943 Bracero Program in the U.S.A. The Chinese Exclusion Act obstructed the entry of Chinese into the country, except for certain classes, which diverted a flow of Chinese immigration to Mexico. However, they were not welcomed there either. Racial discrimination and xenophobia, coupled with anti-Chinese legislation passed in Mexico, targeted Chinese immigrants at the national level from 1916 to 1934. For instance, even though the Bracero Program allowed thousands of Mexicans to work in the U.S.A.—creating a path of social mobility for themselves and their families, Chinese Mexicans were typically excluded from the program. This exclusion was because many of the Chinese immigrants who remained in Mexico—despite the anti-Chinese campaign there—lacked proper documentation either to reside in the country or to travel to the U.S.A. Also, the Mexican government considered Chinese Mexicans undeserving of higher wages and potential uplift.
Despite their cultural adaptation and language proficiency, Chinese Mexicans were treated as inassimilable. As an example, marriages between Chinese and Mexicans were not only rare but faced severe racist attitudes. Mexican women married to Chinese men suffered from social marginalization. Strikingly, such a conviction of the incompatibility of Chinese in Mexico comes from the idea of mestizaje. Fredy Gonzales argues that for Mexicans, “Chinese were inassimilable, particularly in a country built on the mestizo/a national ideal of racial mixture between Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and Africans.” Put differently, the ideal of mestizaje based on biological ancestry and phenotype did not include Chinese Mexicans as part of the mestizo/a nation. Similarly, Chinese and Mexican marriages faced accusations that the Chinese were not only threatening the honor of Mexican women, but that such marriages were also threatening the Mexican race by producing “weak and degenerate children.”
Although conditions have much improved since their first arrival and settlement, the marginalization of Chinese Mexicans is ongoing—their Mexicanness is not being recognized. For instance, as Adrian H. Hearn claims, Chinese communities and their dealings with business partners in China are seen as a threat to national interests. Many Chinese communities face public hostility and accusations in the national media, where they are perceived as a homogenous other, regardless of their ethnic, political, and economic diversity. This antagonistic attitude illustrates that, no matter how long they have lived in the country or however they might define their nationality and belonging, Chinese Mexicans are, to a significant extent, not fully accepted as Mexicans. On the contrary, they are considered immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and are often associated with the negative image of China’s commercial invasion of Mexico. This intentional rejection reveals the exclusionary aspect of mestizaje where mestizos/as are measured on strict phenotypical and biological criteria, which result in refusing the entry of foreign races to the category.
3. South Korean Immigrants and their Descendants in the “White European” Country
In contrast to Mexico, where the national ideology focuses on mestizaje, and Brazil of miscigenação, Argentina has historically been regarded as a “white European” country of the South cone. Furthermore, compared to their Chinese and Japanese counterparts, South Korean (hereafter Korean) immigration to Argentina began much later, dating back only to the mid-1960s, with a fiftieth anniversary celebrated in 2015.
It is well known that Argentina’s national narrative was that of “the Europe of South America.” As sociologist Won K. Yoon rightly points out, efforts to emulate Europe are revealed in the way the country dealt with immigration and non-European immigrants. The government wanted to preserve European culture, and as a result, immigrants from Africa and Asia were considered the least desirable as they were most different from the “superior” Europeans. This European favoritism embedded in the Argentine history, coupled with a generally unfavorable impression of Koreans created by the Argentinian media promoting a negative association of Koreans with labor exploitation, tax evasion, and dog-eating habits, among others, did not create a welcoming atmosphere for Korean immigrants and their descendants. Unsurprisingly, Korean Argentinians report a higher incidence of discrimination in public spaces, such as schools and government offices, compared to their counterparts in Brazil. Such conditions exacerbate their isolation in ethnic ghettos and limit their interaction with local people.
Similarly, in her study of the strong white favoritism ingrained in the Argentinian national identity and public discourse, Junyoung Verónica Kim analyzes the liminal position of mestizaje that Korean immigrants and their descendants occupy in terms of the gap between their political citizenship and social belonging. Although many of her Korean-Argentinian interviewees responded that they were Argentinians holding Argentinian passports, and that their relation to Korea was mostly restricted to Koreans in Argentina, in the national imagery it is still their “Koreanness” or “Asianness,” with all its associated stereotypes, that comes first, rather than their “Argentinianness” despite decades of immigration history.
It is worth pointing out that, although the above cases focus on the challenges that Asian Latinos/as experience exclusively, I do recognize that part of the negative image of certain Asian communities comes from their intentional isolation from, and lack of commitment to, the local community. Also, as this paper is about the mestizaje identity of Asian Latinos/as, the narratives were selected to best demonstrate the existing yet severely unrecognized mestizo/a identity of Asian Latinos/as and Asian Latin Americans in different national contexts. Lastly, it is important to mention the contribution made by the unique experience of Asian Latinos/as in the aforesaid cases: their reality reveals that racism and ethnic hierarchies are serious issues in Latin America, even in countries where mestizaje serves as the centerpiece of national ideology. The presence of Asian Latinos/as and Asian Latin Americans thus problematizes a romanticization of the term that downplays marginalization. Finally, while they open the path to other under-represented Latino/a realities, they also challenge any naïve assumption of mestizaje as a harmonious coming-together of different cultures and races.
G. Mestizo/a identity
As mentioned above, the criteria for mestizaje have to do with the intermixture of two or more races and cultures, and a state of liminal identity on the part of mestizos/as. In the following, I intend to show that the realities of Asian Latinos/as, or at least the ones presented above, meet such criteria, and to examine their particular type of mestizo/a identity through the prism of triple consciousness, an analytical concept formerly explored by Néstor Medina.
Segovia is right in claiming that mestizaje often implies “two places and no place on which to stand.” Indeed, the experience of the intermixture of races and cultures from Asia and Latin America gives birth to a unique space of identity and culture, on which mestizos/as can confidently stand. However, as seen above, the process of such an encounter is not always smooth and harmonious. On the contrary, the process of intermixture takes place in the precarious space of liminality or the state of “neither-nor,” which is created by the exclusivist and demeaning attitude against mestizos from the majority of the host land, as well as mestizos/as’ lack of self-identification and connection with their ancestral lands.
I suggest that the intermixture and liminality of Asian Latinos/as is generally composed of two elements. One of these is the persistent rejection on the part of the majority of their host countries regarding their national identity (i.e., their Argentinianness, Mexicanness, or Latinidad) and, due to their phenotypical traits and stereotypes, a reluctance to accept them as paisanos/as (countrymen/women) in the full sense, despite their political citizenship. The other element is the geographical and emotional remoteness of their ancestral lands. This alienation is particularly acute among second and later generations whose passports indicate their nationality is no longer Asian but Latin American, whose mother tongue is not necessarily that of their parents, and whose connection with their ancestral land is, in most cases, limited to an ethnic community in their birth country.
In such a complex intermixture of underrepresented Latinidad and immigrant Asianidad, a new consciousness arises, or as Elizondo puts it, a new people appear with the potential of embracing both cultures. Often, Asian Latinos/as’ self-awareness of their Latinidad and Asianidad becomes more vivid in a third space. As Homi Bhabha states, a third place is an area of negotiation where multiple forces that shape a person’s identity come into play. Even though I do not employ the term in a strictly postcolonial context, where complex forces of colonizers-colonized are involved, I do emphasize the liminality of the geographical third space, in this case the U.S.A., where the creativity and complexity of Asian mestizos/as fully come to light, and the renegotiation of elements of their identity takes place. It is in this space where their mestizo/a identity, the coming together of their Latinidad and Asianidad simultaneously come to the fore and are reexamined. This concept becomes clearer when seen in connection with triple consciousness.
In his analysis of mestizaje, Medina claims that Latino/a consciousness can be defined as a triple consciousness, rather than the double consciousness first articulated by Du Bois. U.S.A. Latinos/as share much in common with, but many times feel rejected by Latin Americans. Also, they are born in the U.S.A. but are denied social participation by the dominant Anglo-European culture. Most importantly, they are aware of this ambiguous existence.
Indeed, Asian Latinos/as share this triple consciousness, but in a slightly different way. In the third space, they become aware of their specific Asianness. Although they are automatically categorized as Asian by the dominant culture, their Asianness might be different from those with whom they share the same race and ethnicity. For instance, in a society where racial categorization is based on appearance, such as the U.S.A., Asian Latinos/as automatically fall into the broad category of “Asian” with all its stereotypes, despite the significant gap between their self-identity and the society’s racial categorization. Such a monolithic category misses that their biological Asianness is not directly related to Asia, but to a particular ethnic community in Latin America. They are Asians in a certain way, but are not from Asia, nor do they belong to the existing category of Asian American as deployed in the U.S.A. In the third space, Asian Latinos/as become aware of their specific Asianness, and how dissonant it is from the category created and imposed by the dominant society, which reduces the term to people from Asia or U.S.A. citizens with Asian backgrounds.
While there is some difficulty identifying their unique Asian identity in the third space, the seemingly invisible Latinidad of Asian Latinos/as gains prominence. Many are born or spent more time in Latin America than in Asia, yet the dominant culture rejects their national identity as Mexican or Argentinian, for instance. In the third space, even though their Mexican or Brazilian identity is hidden under their Asian phenotype, their fluency in Spanish or Portuguese, familiarity with the customs of their Latin American country, popular religious practices, and consumption of ethnic food, reveal and reinforce their flexible identity. Regarding this point, Erika Lee argues that Asian Latinos/as have contributed to creating new communities and identities in the U.S.A. In Los Angeles, for example, she claims that “these Asian Latinos can draw from a high concentration of multilingual services and express their Latinidad, or “Latinoness,” as they try to honor and express both their Asian and Latino heritage in the United States.”
Put another way, in the third space, Asian Latinos/as find themselves in a unique position, where they can call both Latinos/as and Asians or Latin Americans and Asians their paisanos/as. Even though their Latinidad is far from finding representation among U.S.A. Latino/a communities, let alone in public perception, they still maintain their Latino/a heritage linguistically and culturally, and possess the capacity to identify themselves as Latinos/as and Asians, as a result of the intermixture of the two worlds within them. At the same time, even though the category of “Asian” imposed by the dominant society does not encompass their specific Asian background, their Asian heritage enables them to blend in with the Asian communities in the United States of America.
Finally, they are also aware of being “something else.” Examining Korean Argentinian transnational immigrants who remigrate to a third country, and the tension of identity that such geographic mobility evokes, Carolina Mera contends that these transnational immigrants challenge the idea of national identity based on territoriality and a sedentary lifestyle. Their complex identity negotiation, which is the result of what she calls “a double exodus,” first from Korea and then from Argentina, creates a self-awareness that the simplistic binary of Asian or Latino/a cannot fully capture.
However, as the idea of mestizaje in the U.S.A. context stands, being something else does not necessarily mean being defective or inferior. On the contrary, it means, echoing Elizondo somewhat, the emergence (or rediscovery) of a new people. The triple consciousness of Asian Latino/a mestizos/as not only creates new identities in the U.S.A. as Lee claims, but questions the mechanism of racial measurement and categorization of our society assessed by phenotypes only, and which disregard a person’s self-identification, which ultimately leads to stereotypes and racial inequality. Lastly, Asian Latinos/as possess the potential for transcending such imposed racial categories and cultural stereotypes, while at the same time challenging homogenizing notions of mestizaje.
H. Asian Latinos/as as Mestizos/as: Una Mancha Mas al Tigre?
Some important caveats should be mentioned. First, the concept of Asian Latinos/as as mestizos/as carries the danger of becoming another monolithic category that creates a false sense of unity among the numerous groups of East Asian Latinos/as in the Americas, thus occluding their ethno-cultural particularities. Viewing Asian Latinos/as as a single, unified group seriously neglects the fact that not all descendants of Asian immigrants identify themselves as “mestizos/as.” In this regard, it should be remembered that such a danger does not necessarily relate to Asian Latinos/as exclusively but is something with which every mestizaje discourse must grapple.
Also, such generalization fails to account for the differences between Asian Latinos/as in different contexts, as well as intra-Asian-Latino/a and intra-Asian-Latin American conflicts. For instance, the experience of Korean immigrants in Brazil, where the country is more racially inclusive, might be significantly different from those in Chile or Argentina. Also, Chinese Cubans, who have one of the most extended settlement histories of Asians in Latin America, necessarily have a different social status than Chinese with a relatively short history in other parts of Latin America.
Lastly, my primary intention is to create a platform for the voices of Asian Latinos/as who would otherwise not be heard, by employing their possible shared ground of mestizaje, although keeping in mind that not every Asian Latino/a or Asian Latin American will feel the same way about their identity or their context. Therefore, it is about commonality, a concept that resonates with many, and not universality, as if mestizaje were a must-have feature of every Asian Latino/a to the exact same degree.
Therefore, I do not mean to add another race to the discourse como una mancha más al tigre (another stripe to the tiger). On the contrary, I intend to challenge homogenizing categorization of any mestizo/a group and reject an easy classification and hegemonic image of mestizaje determined by visual conception and biological ancestry. Eventually, I hope to create an impetus for representing the voices of other mestizo/a groups, such as the diverse Jewish and Arab mestizos/as and invite them to narrate their own histories of mestizaje.