We are who we are, and all we could be


MIMBRES, N.M. — We like to label people outside ourselves and our inner circle of family and friends in neat, non-overlapping categories. This is an us v. them exercise. In order to accomplish our goal, we have to ignore the fluidity and subtlety of identity. We crash through all sorts of logic gates, mixing skin color or other visible personal characteristics with birthplace, language, religion, education and social class, citizenship. Fine distinctions are unnecessary when we are busy lumping people. Thus, in El Paso, all, etc. The labels we use fail on many levels. 

Astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, circled Earth almost three times as she participated in the Boston Marathon from space. She is seen here with her feet off the station treadmill on which she ultimately ran about six miles per hour while flying more than five miles each second. (NASA)

Astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, circled Earth almost three times as she participated in the Boston Marathon from space. She is seen here with her feet off the station treadmill on which she ultimately ran about six miles per hour while flying more than five miles each second. (NASA)

Oriental people are “chinos,” including Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.  The Colombians and Puerto Ricans who live here get lumped into the umbrella term “Hispanic,” which many Mexican-Americans dislike. We haven’t asked blacks whether they like the term “African-American.” Many do not and are vocal about it, saying they have no connection with or interest in Africa. And there are black Cubans and Mexicans who identify by nationality rather than color. The Anglos in El Paso are not immune from labels. As a minority, they may be called any number of names: anglo, güero, gringo.  And they may be annoyed by these labels since they are used to just being called “white,” no matter their actual skin color.  Should we call indigenous people “Indians” or “Native Americans?” What shall we make of indigenous folk from Mexico or other countries? Many of them become “Hispanic” if they cross the border regardless, even if they don’t speak Spanish.

What if indigenous peoples in the United States prefer to be called by their tribal names?  Well, that could also be problematic. The Navajo call themselves Diné; the Papago, Tohono O’odham; Santa Clara Pueblo people, Kha’p’oo Owinge. Since some of these names are hard to pronounce, we tend to stick with the names given to them by the “white” majority, before they were permitted to name themselves. Within these labels are finer distinctions, clan names that are relevant to tribal life. And while on the topic of Indians, between the 1970 and the 1980 Census, a raft of them magically appeared, mostly in areas where there were few before.  Analysts believe that the publicity surrounding the American Indian Movement (AIM) made it more acceptable to self-identify as Native American, so people were either coming out of the shadows or they were “wannabes.”

And how shall we characterize the mitad y mitad?  For Indian/white mix, offspring were called “half-breeds” or simply “breeds.” “Blood quantum” was another term used to classify the extent of mixture of both Indian and black with white. For some time the rule for blacks was “one drop” as if a finger could be pricked and the truth would out. We know that every mix is preceded by previous mixes, and that intermarriage (concubinage, la casa chica, and rape) result in more mixes. There is no purity when it comes to ancestry. Some mixes produce people with physical characteristics that are unidentifiable, who can “pass” as someone else. There are also rules in some cultures dictating identity is passed through the mother (Judaism), and others through the father.

I have always told my students that there are only two races…pause for effect…the human race and the Boston Marathon. Sociologists and anthropologists contend that race is a social, not a biological construction. I once worked with a brilliant but quirky epidemiologist who articulated the cultural or biological roles that contribute to differential disease distribution. In the case of melanoma, regardless of putative “race,” the amount of melanin in the skin is a risk factor. In the case of colon cancer, diet is implicated. Sickle cell anemia is clearly associated with genetics, but Africa is not the only place the sickle cell genetic profile occurs. Diabetes may have both genetic and diet components. If we are interested in genetics, let’s draw blood; if we are interested in skin color, let’s have a sampler of skin tones that we match on the upper inner arm (no tan exposure); if we are interested in diet, let’s ask people what they eat. Instead, researchers have been quick to use “race” or ethnicity as easy substitutes for the hard questions. There are plenty of Anglos who are darker than plenty of Mexicans.

A colleague’s daughter once remarked to her father that the Anglos in El Paso were more Mexican than the Mexicans in Houston. I have personally observed this effect. Many Anglos embrace the Mexican culture, learn the history and language, devour the food and the culture and are perfectly at home in El Paso. These are the people who at the same risk for diseases associated with diet or culture. Alternatively, one can be something “in name only” and reject the cultural attachments that go with the label, including language, customs, diet, religion. The most hateful and scathing comments I have heard about Mexico have come from Mexican-Americans on this side of the border.

We have these terms assimilation and acculturation that we use interchangeably. The terms are usually predicated on the idea that minority groups will eventually give up their own culture and become part of the majority culture, and that the faster they do this, the better off they will be. However, the facts don’t exactly support this conclusion. Mental health statistics are better for first generation Hispanic immigrants than for later generations. Native Americans with low levels of attachment to their tribes are less successful in modern urban environments. Thinking about how people behave on a continuum with traditional on one end and modern (non-traditional) on the other does not clarify much of anything.  And this model does not take into account the two-way street, the ways in which the majority population adopts pieces of minority culture (sushi, tacos, quinoa, kimchi, to name only a few food fusions).

The most successful people embrace all of their assets and ancestries. They are not neither, but both.  More than the sum of their parts, more than 100%. They can leverage, borrow even from cultures not their own, remain in place and move into new arenas. Malcolm McFee (1968) calls this the 150% man (or woman).  We don’t have to give up anything to go in a new direction.  It is crucial that we learn new skills, adopt new tools and technologies. Our ancestors were really good at this. If they hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be here. We also need to offer our own cultural roots to our children, but free them to add as many other cultures as they wish to their palates.

Check out Christian Takes Gun Parrish (aka Supaman) in his traditional/hip hop performance.  There is serious and there is fun, but they are not mutually exclusive.


One thought on “We are who we are, and all we could be

  1. i miss you my friend and i love to read your thoughts and ideas. I use the race quote at least once a semester as it has stuck with me all these years………….take care and write more please

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