Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race

Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race

by Wendy Roth

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Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race by Wendy Roth

In this groundbreaking study of Puerto Rican and Dominican migration to the United States, Wendy D. Roth explores the influence of migration on changing cultural conceptions of race—for the newcomers, for their host society, and for those who remain in the countries left behind. Just as migrants can gain new language proficiencies, they can pick up new understandings of race. But adopting an American idea about race does not mean abandoning earlier ideas. New racial schemas transfer across borders and cultures spread between sending and host countries.
Behind many current debates on immigration is the question of how Latinos will integrate and where they fit into the U.S. racial structure. Race Migrations shows that these migrants increasingly see themselves as a Latino racial group. Although U.S. race relations are becoming more "Latin Americanized" by the presence of Latinos and their views about race, race in the home countries is also becoming more "Americanized" through the cultural influence of those who go abroad. Ultimately, Roth shows that several systems of racial classification and stratification co-exist in each place, in the minds of individuals and in their shared cultural understandings of "how race works."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804777964
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 06/13/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Wendy Roth is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. She is coauthor of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings (2004).

Read an Excerpt

Race Migrations

Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race
By Wendy D. Roth

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7795-7

Chapter One

How Immigration Changes Concepts of Race

SITTING ON THE FRONT STEPS OF HIS STUCCO HOUSE IN SANTO DOMINGO, Agustín is surrounded by the bustle of activity. His house serves as an informal gathering place for neighbors, his teenage children, and volunteers for the various political activities he organizes. The group huddled around him today, awaiting direction for the latest campaign event, looks like a cross-section of the Dominican population: there are people with light skin, dark skin, African features, European features, and almost every mixture in between. Later, Agustn confidently describes the racial categories that exist in the Dominican Republic:

Here there's a mix of negro and blanco—that's the majority, the ones that are mulato. There are some that are a minority, which is a minority that almost doesn't exist, which are the sambos.... The ones they call sambos are Indian and negro.... You can find some in some regions of Yamasa, around there, and Sabana Grande de Boya, some individuals that have Indigenous and negro characteristics.

He concludes that there are primarily three races in the Dominican Republic today: mulatos, blancos, and negros. In the past, there used to be mestizos, those who are a mixture of White and Indigenous, as well as sambos, but these races barely exist now because the Indigenous race was wiped out by European colonizers. The vast majority of Dominicans today—more than 80 percent of the population, he estimates—are mulatos.

A 53-year-old man with dark skin and African features, Agustn places himself within that mulato majority. He explains, "I understand that I'm a mix of blanco and negro, of Spanish and African origin.... [I'm] mulato, ... not totally negro but instead a mix." For him, the term mulato represents any mixture of White and Black heritage, and so it incorporates people with a wide variety of appearances. In fact, without hesitating, Agustín classifies the people around him as blanco, negro, and mulato. But almost everyone, whether light or dark, he labels as mulato. "Dominicans are a mix of races," he claims, and anyone who has any visible evidence of racial mixture can be considered the same race.

* * *

Raquel was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York when she was a young adolescent. Now in her mid-30s, she is an assistant principal in the Dominican enclave of Washington Heights. Amid the cinder-block walls and fluorescent lighting of her small high school office, Raquel's decorations—a screen saver of a tropical beach with clear blue water and palm trees, and paintings of the flowering red flamboyan trees common in the Dominican Republic—allow her to dream of escaping from her urban routine. Raquel has pale, light skin, straight black hair, and looks mostly European. At first glance, many people in New York would probably see her as White. Yet Raquel identifies her race as Black. She explains how she came to understand what race means and how to classify herself and others:

There was a confusion, at least for [me] ... about what race is, what ethnicity is, what nationality is. So, for me, it was an experience like an epiphany one day when I found out that there are only three races ... and you have to decide which you belong to. So not only by the color of the skin, but there are a lot of other factors.... There would be your ancestry—you need to look at your grandparents, your great-grandparents. You need to look at the shape of your mouth, the size of your ears, how your nose is, the texture of your hair. There are a lot of other things: the color of your eyes, the color of your hair, all those things. But in the Dominican Republic, as soon as you're a little light or medium light, already, you can't say that you're Black. No, that's like a sin. So, after you educate yourself and after you accept that there are either three or, if you want to be more specific and talk about the Indigenous people ... then there would be four [races], but you need to choose one of these three or four. You can't invent a new one. So I don't have any other option than choosing Black because I'm not White or Asian. So I must be whatever is left.

Q: Could you say a little about your epiphany? How did that happen? ...

I was in college ... taking a sociology class. I was reading in the book and it said that there were three races: Asian, White, and Black. I kept looking for my race because there wasn't a race for me. And I was talking with my teacher and so, during the conversation, he explained it to me. Sincerely, I tell you, with all the experience that I had, before that day it was one thing and after that day is another.

Before this experience, Raquel might have identified her race as White. But because she feels that the texture of her hair and some of her features reveal some African heritage, she realized that she did not have the option of choosing White. Now she sees others this way too, even people back in the Dominican Republic. Through her experience in college, Raquel now adopts a more historically "American" way of classifying race—that anyone with any Black ancestry should be seen as Black.

* * *

Isandro, a 38-year-old Puerto Rican man with medium-brown skin, works as an income tax auditor in San Juan. He identifies his race—and that of practically everyone around him in Puerto Rico—as Latino:

To me, I'm Latino. A lot of people say that Latino doesn't exist as a race. In case that one day it's defined or it's excluded [as a race], then I'd be Black. But I understand that I'm Latino because I'm ... neither White nor Yellow. I'm Latino.

Q: And what is the Latino race? What does it include?

Okay, the Latinos, I think ... they're not Whites, but they would be something like the mix of maybe White and Black. They tend to usually be shorter in height than the Whites. They tend to have features ... that are more lengthened, features that are finer than those of Blacks.... If someone asks me what I am, I say that I'm Latino ... because I don't consider myself Black or White, or Chinese, I mean Oriental. And so I understand that the fourth option would be that one.

Isandro has never lived outside of Puerto Rico, but he has so many relatives and friends in the mainland U.S. that he is always aware of what's happening allá (over there). His father moved to New Jersey when Isandro was three, shortly after divorcing his mother, and married a Mexican American woman. He now has several half siblings born in New Jersey, as well as a brother who moved there seven years ago and married a woman from Ecuador. Isandro estimates he has between fifty and a hundred relatives in the mainland U.S., and he talks with someone there at least every month. These connections have influenced his view of race. Isandro admits that as a child he used to identify as Black, but now he hears everywhere about how Latinos are a different group from Blacks and Whites:

My family has commented that they've noticed the difference.... Over there the issue about race is ... like the extremes, [you're] either too blanco or too negro or trigueito [a little brown] and Latino. And that's where the Latinos fall. Which is actually another [reason] why I think that maybe we're a race, because we aren't either with the Whites or with the Blacks, but in the middle.

In conversations with his relatives, in news reports and movies—much of it coming from the United States—Isandro frequently hears the word "Latino" used to describe a separate group. As a racial category, "Latino" is not very useful for distinguishing one person from another in Puerto Rico. But Isandro's classifications are not meant to reference only Puerto Rico; they are very much in dialogue with the society at the other end of a migration path.

* * *

How does immigration affect the way people think about race and classify themselves and others? That is the question at the heart of this book. These three cases illustrate many of the central themes I explore to answer that question. First, there are many different ways of classifying race. Mulato, Black, and Latino are three different ways that Agustn, Raquel, and Isandro, respectively, think about the same racial mix. Different nations and cultures often have their own ways of dividing the world into racial categories and deciding how to assign people to each one. Second, as the experience of Raquel shows, individuals can change which set of categories or rules for sorting people they use, and while there are many factors that may influence this change, immigration is a significant one. Do immigrants to the United States come to adopt an "Americanized" way of viewing race? Or do they change American notions, like a racial melting pot, to create new concepts out of the immigrant experience? Third, the question of how immigration shapes concepts of race is one that affects many people whose lives are touched by immigration, whether they have moved to a new society or not. Isandro's case shows that even someone who has never immigrated can be influenced to think of race in a new way by the experiences of those who have. How, then, does immigration change concepts of race for the immigrants, for their host society, and for those who stay in the countries they left behind?

For decades, people who study immigration have focused on whether or not immigrants assimilate to the culture of their new society. This type of cultural assimilation—what is known as acculturation—focuses on whether immigrants adopt the language, dress, and traditions of their new country. But beyond basic issues of outward appearance and practices, acculturation is also about immigrants' ways of behaving and interacting every day, their strategies for how to act in different situations. We expect immigrants' behavior to change over time as they become more accustomed to their environs and pick up new ways of understanding social patterns such as gender roles, family dynamics, or workplace interactions. Ultimately, immigrant acculturation is an issue of cultural change, something that should be of interest to scholars of culture.

Race is also an aspect of culture. Just as different societies have different ways of understanding race and different ways of determining what races exist, concepts of race are one aspect of the cultural change that immigrants may experience in a new society. We can think of the example of Raquel above as a case of racial acculturation. In the Dominican Republic and other countries of the Hispanic Caribbean, many believe that the category "Black" is reserved for those whose ancestry is only African, with no racial mixture. The United States, by contrast, has long had a history of a "one-drop rule," a principle of hypodescent, which allows African ancestry to trump everything else and lead to a Black designation, regardless of how distant that ancestry may be. Raquel's shift is not just about her own identity; it is also about her way of seeing the world and other people in it. It is a cognitive shift that affects who she feels a connection to and how she behaves toward others. Recently, scholars have called upon researchers to integrate theories of race and culture. In this book, I consider how we can think of race within a cultural framework to better understand how it is transformed by the process of immigration.

These issues are especially relevant because of current debates about how Latin American immigration is changing the United States and the centrality of race in those discussions. The Latino population has grown tremendously in the last few decades, due in large part to immigration. In 1950 less than 3 percent of the U.S. population identified as Hispanic or Latino; in 2010 that percentage had increased to more than 16 percent. The Latino population had a growth rate more than four times that of the U.S. population as a whole in the 1990s. In 2003, headlines trumpeted an important shift in American demographics: Latinos were now the largest U.S. minority group, surpassing Blacks for the first time.

Accompanying these demographic shifts has been a range of policy initiatives, political debates, and public concern over the growing Latino presence in America. In 2004 Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington described large-scale Latino immigration as a cultural threat to the nation in his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity. Warning that Latino immigration could "change America into a country of two languages, two cultures, and two peoples," Huntington saw Latino immigrants as essentially unassimilable because of fundamental differences between their culture and an Anglo-Protestant American identity. In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. Senate voted on amendments to immigration legislation to designate English as the national language. English-only policies are seen to target, and predominantly affect, Spanish-speaking communities. In 2010 Arizona passed a controversial immigration law, SB 1070, allowing police to detain anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Should the law survive its court challenges, it will likely require American police officers to judge who "looks illegal," or in other words, who "looks Latino."

These events reflect a perception—and sometimes a fear—that Latino immigration is transforming American society, and some of that fear is racial. In many of these discussions, Latinos are treated as a race, one that can be visually picked out on the street. Latinos are seen as changing the racial character of the nation, a sentiment captured by Richard Rodrguez in his description of "the browning of America." Predictions that within a few decades minority groups will be the majority of the population can produce a sense of racial group threat, a fear that rapidly growing groups like Latinos will challenge the privileges that others have long held.

All of these issues, present every time we pick up a newspaper, involve judgments about race—who is Latino, who is White, and so on. These are the types of judgments we make every day, and they reflect our understanding of racial classifications in the United States. That understanding has been shaped by American history, and it has produced a racial structure that has traditionally been divided into White and Black. Latinos, though, seem to challenge that division. What is central, if often unstated, in these political debates and media coverage, is the question of how Latinos fit into the U.S. racial structure. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the department responsible for setting standards of federal data collection, such as the U.S. Census, stipulates that Latino or Hispanic is not a race but rather an aspect of ethnicity. According to this "official" classification system, Latinos may be of any race—meaning the ones the OMB enumerates in federal data: White, Black, Native American, Asian, or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Yet many Latinos do not see themselves fitting within these official classifications; on the 2010 Census, 37 percent of Latinos identified themselves as "Some other race." Many scholars interpret this response as indicating a Latino or Hispanic racial identity and a rejection of the existing racial categories of the United States. Others note that the majority of Latinos identify themselves as White, and suggest that they should be considered White rather than as members of a racial minority.

Accordingly, scholarly debates over where Latinos will fit into the U.S. racial structure in the future have offered several differing predictions. Some see Latinos forming a new racial group of their own, separate from White and Black and falling hierarchically between the two. Others argue that Latinos are socially closer to Whites—they tend to live near them and to intermarry—and suggest that the definition of Whiteness will expand to include Latinos, just as it did for Irish, Jewish, and other ethnic groups in earlier times. A third prediction holds that a tri-racial stratification system will emerge, with a "pigmentocracy" that ranks groups and individuals based on their skin color. While some assimilated White Latinos will join the privileged White group, most light-skinned Latinos will remain in an "honorary White" middle tier, and those with dark skin will join a collective Black category at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. To get a handle on these possibilities, it is crucial to understand how Latinos see themselves fitting into American racial classifications, and how they are seen by others. And since approximately 40 percent of Latinos are born outside the mainland U.S., that brings us back to the question of how migration from Latin America affects the way people—both Latinos and non-Latinos—think about and classify race.


Excerpted from Race Migrations by Wendy D. Roth Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vi

Acknowledgments vii

1 How Immigration Changes Concepts of Race 1

2 Beyond the Continuum: Race in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico 32

3 Migrant Schemas: Race in the United States 62

4 Transnational Diffusion 97

5 Multiple Forms of Racial Stratification 128

6 Performing Race Strategically 151

7 Is Latino Becoming a Race? Cultural Change and Classifications 176

Appendix: Notes on Methodology 203

Notes 221

Index 245

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