Ask a Mexican!
Dear Mexican: What’s with calling yourselves “La Raza”? Being Mexicans, Chicanos or whatever isn’t enough — now you’re the race? Sounds pretty racist to me. — The Race is On
Dear Gabacho: Few things annoy the Mexican more than the Know Nothing Nation’s deliberate ignorance with this most nebulous of Mexican idioms. Despite the patient explanations of Chicano yaktivists who say the phrase doesn’t exclusively mean “the race” in Mexican Spanish but is a synonym for “community,” idiot commentators insist that “la raza” as used by Mexicans betrays their Reconquista tendencies, alludes to a Mexi can sense of racial superiority akin to Nazism and white supremacy. No group gets the brunt of criticism more than the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), one of the largest civil-rights groups in the United States, and one in the news recently because both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama addressed the organization during its recent national convention. Professional pendejos like Michelle Malkin hissed a fit, calling NCLR seditious and accusing the two presidential candidates of legitimizing hate by visiting them — all this over two Spanish words. Betcha they’ve never read the primary source from which “la raza” originated — JosÃ© Vasconcelos’ 1925 booklet, “La Raza CÃ³smica” (“The Cosmic Race”). Vas concelos — Mexico’s first secretary of public education — wrote his piece as a reaction to the race thinking of the time, one dominated by adherents of Darwinism and Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” prism that placed the gabacho above all people. The Mexican intellectual also subscribed to racial stratifications, but whereas others saw unavoidable strife, Vasconcelos imagined something greater. “La Raza CÃ³smica” is a clas sic work of the prophetic tradition, one where Vascon celos predicted humanity would evolve into a fifth race, one free of the negative attributes each racial group pos sessed to create a harmonious existence — the cosmic race, la raza cÃ³smica. Crucially, Vasconcelos never stated Mexicans were that race but rather wrote that Latin America’s legacy of mestizaje posited “Ibero-Americans” as prime acolytes to spread the gospel of fusion — not through violence, but “the triumph of fecund love.” The raza cÃ³smica theory is utopian and even goofy in execution — Vasconcelos cited the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Atlantis, alchemy texts and even the Pythagorean concept of the number eight as possess ing divine qualities to bolster his position — but it’s ultimately an anti-racist dream. Vasconcelos was by no means perfect — he didn’t like ugly people, and was too fixated on the superiority of Spanish qualities — but his ideal is one not that removed from that American standby, the melting pot. He even understood the humanity of gabachos — “The exclusion of the Yankee [from la raza cÃ³smica], like the exclusion of any other human type, would be equivalent to an anticipated mutilation, more deadly even than a later cut.” I don’t remember Hitler talking about including non-Aryans into his Thousand-Year Reich, or Americans including non gabachos in Manifest Destiny, for that matter. Needless to say, Vasconcelos’ theory gained fans across Latin America — imagine a sociologist stating miscegenation was okay! But it wasn’t until the 1960s Chicano movement that the concept of la raza cÃ³smica gained further followers. Like most things they took from Mexico (food, women, the language), Chicanos corrupted Vasconcelos’ vision, interpreted “la raza” as referring exclusively to Mexicans and forgot the whole brotherhood bit. “It is true that mestizaje is one of the central concepts of the Vasconcelos essay,” states the introduction to Didier T. JaÃ©n’s excellent translation of “La Raza CÃ³smica,” “but, of course, it is also clear that the racial mixture Vasconcelos refers to is much wider, much more encompassing, than what can be under stood by the mestizaje of the Mexican or Chicano.” Like Vasconcelos, however, the Chicano definition of “la raza” was rooted in its turbulent time. It was during this era that the organization that preceded NCLR incorporated that term to its name in 1972. But over the decades, the cÃ³smica part of la raza was largely dropped as was the ethnocentrism, and what remained was a benign synonym for Mexicans. People can disagree with NCLR’s policies — amnesty for illegals, better education for Latinos (not just the Mexis), funding other nonprofits — but to classify them as the Tan Klan because of their name is like a prude getting offended over the name of the titmouse. By the way, coming haters: Don’t paint me as an NCLR apolo gist. I think the organization’s president, Janet Murguia, is stupid for trying to get right-wing pundits off the air, mostly because they’re so easy to prove wrong. Besides, the only raza that truly matters is mine: the Nerd race. Por mis Nerds todo; fuera de mis Nerds, nada.
Got a spicy question about Mexicans? Ask the Mexican at firstname.lastname@example.org. And those of you who do submit questions: include a hilarious pseudonym, por favor, or we’ll make one up for you! Gustavo Arellano was born in Anaheim, California, to a tomato canner and an illegal immigrant. His critically acclaimed column “’¡Ask a Mexican!” has won the 2006 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for the best column in a large circulation weekly. He’s also a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times and has appeared on Today, Nightline, NPR’s On the Media, The Situation with Tucker Carlson, and The Colbert Report. For more information visit www.askamexican.net.