Alex Blaze

As a gay wise-ass latino....

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 10, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Argentina, latin american, latino, LGBT history, LGBT Latinos, perez hilton

OK, this is going to be a fun post. I haven't written much about my cultural background on this site, other than saying that I identify as latino, so I might as well write a little more now.

Michael Crawford forwarded this article about gay latino Americans "coming of age" because Perez Hilton is the most famous gay latino. Oh, just when being partly represented as a gay person by Perez Hilton wasn't enough, now I'm 100% represented by him on the national stage as a latino gay man. Woo hoo!

So I responded to him and Bil, pointing out that we definitely could use more wise latinos around here, and Bil said:

Oh, no. You don't get to claim Latino privilege on this one. You're the whitest Latino I've ever seen. :)

To which I replied:

whitest latino? I'm darker than perez hilton.

It's true. That pic of me up there was from when we relaunched the site, and I had spent months indoors in front of computer screens working on getting the first part of our illustrious blogging crew to agree to write on a site that said "Indiana" in the banner. After this past month of bike trips and hikes, I'm a very expensive shade of brown.

Which is part of what bothers me about the term "latino." In general, anglo folks in the US don't really get what it means. Americans like to think of race in terms of clean categories, like black and white, and latino (or hispanic, depending on your terminology) isn't about that. When we come down to it, "latino" is someone from south of the Rio Grande, or whose heritage is from those parts. But if you go to those countries, there are plenty of white, black, native, Asian, and Middle Eastern people living there, as well as lots of people who, if their countries' adopted America's racial paradigm, would be "biracial" or "mixed."

Making it even more complicated, not everything south of the US is "Mexico." The article about gay latinos says:

A U.S. citizen from Guatemala, for example, may not appreciate being called a Mexican. Politics, food, history -- they all differ among various Latino groups in the U.S.

One would hope that Americans wouldn't need that pointed out to them, but my experience says, Yes, yes we need that message to be repeated over and over until it sinks in.

While the idea of a united Latin America has appeared from time to time south of the border (Che Guevara being one of the more famous proponents), it's really a way for the US to understand the region. Trust me, not every country south of the border gets along, and lots of different cultures think they're better than others, and different races dominate.... It's not a homogenous culture or region, in terms of climate, food, language, race, religion, or anything.

Perez Hilton, for example, is Cuban American. Cuban Americans' big wave of immigration was a while before the current wave of immigration from Mexico. Most Cuban Americans are "white," that is, their heritage goes back to Europe, namely Spain. (Remember how that's country is in Europe? A Spanish woman I knew protested at work when she found out that she was "Latin American" for the purposes of describing her university's racial make up. Seriously, someone needed a geography lesson.)

Of course, saying that Hilton's "white" when his heritage is Spanish is also problematic. Spain isn't a 100% white country and it hasn't been for a long time. It was controlled by an African kingdom for about 700 years, and people of African and Middle Eastern descent migrated there when it was a part of the Moorish Empire. Then again, if we go far back enough into anyone's past, we're going to see a lot more racial mixing than we're comfortable with if we only think of people in terms of "white," "black," "brown," "yellow," and "red."

And some latinos are actually "from" the US. A big chunk of this country used to be part of Spain, and then a part of Mexico afterward. There are people who came over to the US from Spain in what is now California, New Mexico, and Texas whose families have been here longer than most Anglo American's families. But they're not from a Latin American country, so do they count as latino?

All this is made more complicated by the fact that racism exists in Latin America. Like, big time. Brazil had more African slaves come over than any other country in the Western hemisphere. Mexico's history since Cortes's arrival has been a long story of white people dominating, enslaving, and exploiting the native peoples, as well as lots more ethnic mixture than we saw in the US. Sure, the most brutal parts of that history are over, but there's a reason conservative Mexican presidents seem a little whiter than most, or why Benito Juarez was the first Native American president of Mexico decades after the country gained its independence from Spain. Guatemala's Civil War was fought partly because of massive economic discrimination against people of Mayan descent.

It's still around today. In Argentina, saying that you do something "like an Indian" is a common expression for saying you do it badly (saying you work "like a black person" is an expression for working really hard). The first time I heard that one I was a little taken aback, but then not everyone in the world has the same history when it comes to race as the US does.

All this is made more complicated considering the fact that the article isn't about latinos, but about Latino Americans. And, many, like me, have little attaching them to the country their families came from. For me, being a Latino American is like being Italian American or German American: it's a cultural background, but the American part is pretty important.

I don't speak Spanish fluently even though I can usually understand when it's written or when I'm hearing it because I took four years of Spanish in high school and my mother spoke to me in Spanish a lot when I was young. (Although I do speak French fluently, but, as much as the French consider themselves the true heirs of Latin culture and the Roman Empire, they'd never be considered latino in the US.) It's like when Margaret Cho said that she was asked to promote an event in "her native language." She responded in English, saying that the guy didn't quite get the Korean American concept.

I love Mexican food, but don't ask me if that's because of my family; Argentine cuisine doesn't get spicier than black pepper. One of my Argentine uncles wanted to go to a Mexican restaurant the last time he came to visit us in the US since they just don't have that down there. (They also don't have Halloween or Cinco de Mayo, but they do have doctors, running water, and electricity, silly.)

I have darker than white people's skin, mainly because part of my family, if we look way back to before they were in Argentina and before they were in Spain before that, is Syrian. It's not because I'm part Indian, which is what I think people mean when they tell me, "You look Hispanic."

I don't come from a religious, traditional family, because, unlike the countries most Latino Americans come from, Argentina is Catholic a lot like France is Catholic - yeah, you get baptized, and then you forget the Church exists. According to the CIA Factbook, only 20% of Argentine people are practicing Catholics while 92% consider themselves Catholic.

None of this is to say that I've alway fit in as a cultural American. There's something about being first-generation, especially when I was younger and growing up in a part of Wisconsin where everyone was either of Germanic and/or Jewish descent. Then my family moved to a white part of Indiana, where "white" or "American" is the cultural background of most people instead of "Something-American," so even knowing where your heritage is from sets you apart. By high school, most of my friends were either immigrants or the kids of immigrants... it's funny how we all find each other.

I'm digressing, of course. The article that says that Perez Hilton now represents Latin American LGBT people is an interesting read, but I'm going to take exception to that. There are other famous queer latinos, like Joan Baez, whose father was from Mexico. There's Richard Rodriguez, the conservative polemicist of Mexican descent. Silvia Rivera, the transgender activist, was of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent. Those are just the first three who popped into my head, I'm sure others will point out more LGBT Americans of latino descent.

I can't speak to "the latino gay experience" that the article tries to get at, mainly because there isn't a homogenous experience. Argentina's a pretty gay-friendly country, even though it has its homophobes and gender purists. And I don't really have many Argentine-American friends in the US, either, so it's not like I had to come out "in the community."

Having family from one of the Latin American countries that's sent fewer immigrants to the US impresses on you the fact that not all latinos are the same or created equal. But it's still great that Latin American queer people are getting some attention in the media.


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Cuban-Americans come in all shades. The first wave of immigration after the revolution (because Cubans have been coming to this country for centuries) were lighter but subsequent waves have been darker.

Sing it. I get tired of all these misconceptions about what it means to be Hispanic, and the ethnocentric approach to race relations and perception.

Not to mention that his heritage is Portuguese; and they, along with Brazilians, don't consider their foreign-born to be Latin American (a very common Brazilian insult toward Hispanics is "Latino tosco" [brutish Latino]). When including Brazilian or Portuguese individuals, we refer to them as Ibero-Americans, not Latin Americans.

wait, Perez Hilton is Portuguese? didn't know that.

Portuguese heritage.

Lavandeira is a Portuguese last name.

He says he's Cuban all the time. I'm going to go with he probably knows what his own heritage is.

Yeah, I mean, it's not like Cubans have predecessors, what a silly concept!

Do you really value getting contrarian with me at the expense of coming off obtuse?

Arawaks? Caribs?

I'm not trying to be difficult. You're implication is that he is not Latino because of Portuguese heritage. I'd say since he clearly identifies as Cuban, that's false. Who's the contrarian here? :-)

Still you. It doesn't matter what he identifies himself as. I can say my curly hair makes me Jewish all I want, but that doesn't make my lack of Jewish heritage go away.

Sorry, I wasn't aware you'd been named chair of the committee to tell people what their family heritage can or can't be. I'm not a Hilton fan, but I gotta tell you, I find your doling out ethnicities like you're an authority to be offensive. I'm multi-ethnic, and I've had people tell me before I can't really claim my 50% heritage because I'm too white. I take great personal offense at anyone who thinks they have the authority to tell folks they can't claim their own heritage because they don't live up to some arbitrary standard of "pureness." His last name isn't Cuban enough for you so he's no longer Cubano? Give me a break! Someone from a non-white background ought to know better than to buy into 'racial purity' bullshit. Its shameful, racist, and it certainly helps the lilly white power-establishment when all the non-whites do their 'job' of discrimination for them!

Look at the bottom post for my thoughts ;)

Wilson Cruz. Smart, dreamy, a great advocate and one heck of a nice guy.

For Lou Dobbs and the Teabaggers, you-alls just "illegal aliens" !

Which is really weird for folks of Puerto Rican heritage. Folks from that side of my family didn't immigrate when they moved to NY - the Irish did.

Regan DuCasse | September 10, 2009 6:28 PM

Whatever you are, kiss me! It's ALL about flavors and spice, baby!

I do not think that coloration is a big factor for our alliances as latino, our actions should be our merits. As a Latino queer artist, this is the first time that I hear about this Hilton dude. Mind you, my lack of knowledge does not mean that I am all knowing, but In my long history of working as an activist for our community his name have never come up. Maybe because it was not necessary or maybe because he could be full of shit. However having said that, I also have experience, that as a whole what popular media projects as representative of me, is not what I have at hearth. Thank you for sharing that you are a latino. Good luck always.

Thank you Alex, and I am with Lucrece, I think the lumping together of all these somewhat different ethnicities as "Latino" is just...nerve wracking. "Latino" is no one thing; I've seen Spaniards and Portuguese lumped as Latinos as well.

*laughs* When I said that to you, Alex, you'd just said "It's times like this that make me wish we had a wise latino/a on board...."

I thought you were trying to say that you were Latino and were miffed that we were going to shop the story around. So I told you that you didn't get to pull the Latino card.

Btw - what's the difference between Hispanic and Latino?

I just included your comment there for fun since we were talking about it. Seriously, everyone, Bil and I don't have an issue with this - we just joke around.

The difference between those terms depends on who you ask. Just like Lucrece above says latino doesn't include Brazilians, which isn't the response Wikipedia or various government agencies use, but is the definition other people and other government agencies use.

I'll leave that split to someone who knows more about the topic than me, but personally I'd never say that someone who's Brazilian is "Hispanic."

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 11, 2009 4:46 AM

My "Hispanic" girlfriends in Chicago insisted on being called Chicanos. I think that is a more central American thing though.

If a poll were done of all Americans: "What language is spoken in Brazil?"

Do you think we could get 20% of Americans who could even find Brazil on a blank map let alone know that it is Portuguese?

Excuse me, I am late for my Fado music at the local Tappas bar.

I was also under the impression that the term "Hispanic" was extremely offensive-- referring somehow to the "breeding out" of a culture through rape.

Anyone know more about this?

It's especially confusing because depending on the politicization of a community, geography seems to determine what identities people prefer. A person in Portland, OR wants to be called Latino (and, in fact is insulted by the word Hispanic) and a person of the same ethnic/cultural/racial heritage in L.A. identifies as Hispanic and hates the term Latino.

I suppose it's the same as any other identity-- we see that with gay vs lesbian vs queer and trans vs tranny vs "person of trans experience."

One works really well for one person and sounds ridiculous to another.

I can't add much to the discussion about latino vs. hispanic vs. chicano. If people make an issue out of it, I back off and refer to people as "Spanish speaking" --- that doesn't clear up any historical or cultural issues, but at least one can be relatively precise about what primary household language is used by the parent(s) in a family unit.

As a separate issue, if I were a member in any group supposedly represented by Perez Hilton, I would object. Talk about people who get more attention than they deserve. While I tend to have disdain for anyone who makes a living by repeating gossip, he's the worst. I think his media career will be short-lived, and I can't wait for him to disappear under the background noise.

An Honorably Mentionable GLBT Latino: Pedro Zamora, the late AIDS activist from California.

While there's definitely different opinions about hispanic and latino/a, chicano/a refers specifically to people with Mexican heritage.

Yeah, I don't know why they didn't mention some of the other famous queer latinos. Oh, well. Because Perez Hilton? sheesh.

Neat -- a fellow Argentino! It's interesting to see how Latinos are seen over there in the US.

I don't know if I would call Argentina a gay-friendly country, but I guess you're right about the Catholicism -- it could be a lot more influential than it is (it *is* hugely influential outside of Buenos Aires). And it's definitely friendlier than many other countries.

You're right, I should have put in a "relatively" up there, which is usually what I mean when I say any entity (city, country, corporation) is "gay-friendly."

Go bore someone else with your righteous farting; I'm done with you.

Thank you so much for your article. As an Argentine American with Castilian roots, I am constantly being told that I don't "look Hispanic" or even that I am am "not Hispanic, I'm white". Excuse me, my mother was born and raised in Argentina, our family has been there for generations, and I was born in Chile, and didn't even get American citizenship until last year. I "look" plenty hispanic, in that I look like my mother, who looks Argentine. To make matters worse, I am further punished for my dislike of spicy food, and for lacking a Spanish accent - well excuse me for learning English.

So maybe if we had less rigid, stereotypical, racist concepts of what it means to be, or look Latino, maybe if people could even locate South American countries on a map, we wouldn't have this problem. In college, there was a queer people of color group, but I never joined because I thought, well, I am Latin, but, I am not "of color" unless you consider my white, freckled skin, a color.

Thanks again, I could rant on, but suffice it to say, that I was beginning to think I was the alone on this.

Thank you so much for your article. As an Argentine American with Castilian roots, I am constantly being told that I don't "look Hispanic" or even that I am am "not Hispanic, I'm white". Excuse me, my mother was born and raised in Argentina, our family has been there for generations, and I was born in Chile, and didn't even get American citizenship until last year. I "look" plenty hispanic, in that I look like my mother, who looks Argentine. To make matters worse, I am further punished for my dislike of spicy food, and for lacking a Spanish accent - well excuse me for learning English.

So maybe if we had less rigid, stereotypical, racist concepts of what it means to be, or look Latino, maybe if people could even locate South American countries on a map, we wouldn't have this problem. In college, there was a queer people of color group, but I never joined because I thought, well, I am Latin, but, I am not "of color" unless you consider my white, freckled skin, a color.

Thanks again, I could rant on, but suffice it to say, that I was beginning to think I was the alone on this.

Thank you so much for your article. As an Argentine American with Castilian roots, I am constantly being told that I don't "look Hispanic" or even that I am am "not Hispanic, I'm white". Excuse me, my mother was born and raised in Argentina, our family has been there for generations, and I was born in Chile, and didn't even get American citizenship until last year. I "look" plenty hispanic, in that I look like my mother, who looks Argentine. To make matters worse, I am further punished for my dislike of spicy food, and for lacking a Spanish accent - well excuse me for learning English.

So maybe if we had less rigid, stereotypical, racist concepts of what it means to be, or look Latino, maybe if people could even locate South American countries on a map, we wouldn't have this problem. In college, there was a queer people of color group, but I never joined because I thought, well, I am Latin, but, I am not "of color" unless you consider my white, freckled skin, a color.

Thanks again, I could rant on, but suffice it to say, that I was beginning to think I was the alone on this.

Darn comment wouldn't post, and then posted 3 times!!?