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Feb 18, 2010
The US Census wants you to be “counted,” they are also paying folks to do the work (i.e. get access to communities they can’t) and honestly, they are paying pretty well. I’ve gotten a ton of emails and announcements about Latino organizations participating in getting young people to fill out the Census. They’ve gone as far ask asking several musical artists to contribute a song (that we’ve already heard and may already own) to a CD they will give people once they complete the Census. You may have also heard all the chatter about the term “Negro” being on the Census as well (fyi, it’s been on the Census for decades).
I remember when I was old enough to fill out a Census I was living outside my parent’s home and could fill one out by myself. I had looked at what my mother wrote and she said that she racially identifies as White and ethnically as Puerto Rican. That was one of the first times I realized that our racial identities did not match. I’ve mentioned a few times already about how multiple identities intersect and how they result in very specific experiences especially in different places. So I wonder not how the US Census is going to count LatiNegr@s (along with all the other multi-ethnic and racial people in the US), but I wonder how we can change the conversations we are having about the intersections of Blackness and Latinidad.
The first post I wrote this year I highlighted people who embodied both identities. I also shared that I had “a post brewing in my mind simply because of this man [Laz Alonso]. You see he was in Spike Lee’s “Miracle at Saint Anna” as the lead protagonists. In the film this Cuban-American actor portrays a Black Puerto Rican soldier. The marketing for this film was specifically dedicated to the Black identities of the characters and their work as (Buffalo) soldiers during WWII. What I find striking (and telling of the racism within our communities) is that there was limited to no Latino coverage of this film and he is the lead character. For this reason alone we must recognize and support the LatiNegr@s in various media positions because even within our own community we are ignored and overlooked.”
Have you heard of the film “Miracle At St. Anna”? It is one of Spike Lee’s most recent films (aka “joints”) based on the book of the same title by James McBride about the US Army’s African-American 92nd Infantry Division who were called “Buffalo Soldiers.” Lee has spoken very publicly about the challenge he encountered trying to find funding for the film. A majority of the funds came from other parts of the world, specifically Italy and France with some money put in the pot from Disney. However, Lee has shared he feared the film was not ever going to be funded.
Before we continue check out the trailer for the film:
I did some research about the film reviews for “Miracle at St. Anna” by Spike Lee, and guess what I found? I found a whole bunch of writing that either ignored the inclusion of a LatiNegro in the film and narrative, a separation of the Black and Latino soldiers, and an almost glaring discomfort and confusion about how to write about us. How do you write about a film without discussing one of the main characters? Take a look at how some folks made the attempt:
In the article Latinos in Spike Lee’s "Miracle at St. Anna" it reads: “No one could accuse director Spike Lee of not being sympathetic to Latino characters and actors. His lastest [sic] joint ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ features a Boricua Buffalo Soldier as the main character.” The writer does two things: assumes Lee has never represented Latinos at all in his films (which is completely untrue) and separates the Blackness that makes the LatiNegro character identified as part of the 92nd Infantry. If there is no understanding or history of who and what the Buffalo Soldiers were, how can someone contextualize the character?
Another review in the NY Times called Hollywood War: Revised Issues does the same thing in separating Black and Latino soldiers. Among the over 70 comments none of them address or mention Latinidad, LatiNegro identity or how the two connect at all. A third reviewer by the name of pmills1210 writes: “…dark-skinned Latino corporal named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso)…” What’s the problem with identifying a Latino as Black? What’s the problem with recognizing the Blackness and the Latinidad of someone? People just get all tripped up. Really, a “dark-skinned Latino” pmills1210, that was the best you can do? Three totally different terms besides one term: Black.
Yet, it doesn’t stop there. One site devoted to Latinos providing their perspectives on films offers no discussion of how Latinidad is connected to Blackness. Actually, there is only one sentence, this one: “Through flashback we learn that as a young man, postal worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) was a member of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” a unit of black troops from the 92nd Infantry fighting the Germans in 1944 Italy.” Are readers to assume that because of Hector’s last name that he is Latino? Are they to then assume that because of his last name and because of his participation in the 92nd Infantry that he is also Black? Why not just come out and say it?!
And please don’t get me started on each of these reviews “striking down” the B in Black.
We are here! There is nothing wrong with identifying us as Black and Latino and Afro-Latino or LatiNegro when that is who we are. There seems to be this hesitation, this resistance that is apparent not only in writing, but also in interactions. I have to admit that I enjoy the term LatiNegro over other terms that are hyphenated because that hyphen gives the impression that there is a bridge to both of those identities. LatiNegro capitalizes both the L and the N and sees them as proper nouns and thus always already present. We are hyper-visible. We are so visible that we become invisible. Just look at how the Latino reviewer mentioned us but really didn’t. A perfect example of the hyper-(in)visibility.
In my research I found an interview with actor Laz Alonso who plays Hector Negron. Alonso shares his ideas about his character. He answers the question “What makes your character separate from the other three guys?” like so:
LA: We have to look at the time period. Blacks and whites were not allowed to fight together in the armed forces; and my character, not only was he Black, he was a first generation Latino. A first generation American of Puerto Rican decent. Despite the fact that he was Latin, it really didn’t matter. If you were a certain skin color, you were either with the white soldiers or black soldiers. My last name is Alonso, but if I don’t open my mouth or I don’t speak Spanish, you would never think anything of me other than African American. I consider myself African American of Latin decent because they both are as equally important in what makes me. I was so happy that James McBride included the Black Latino and Latino in general and how important Latin culture was in affecting American culture and American history. This character was based on a real person, Florentino Lopez, who rode the trains many times to work with James McBride even before James wrote this book, and went to the post office everyday. It wasn’t until James decided to do research for this book that he realized how much Florentino was carrying inside of him, having been a Buffalo Soldier. We look at all elderly people nowadays and they have a smile on their face and they somehow find a way to talk about the past and they call it memories, and some people choose to call it baggage; but when you find out what they have inside, it blows you away. Who are we to complain about the lives we now, because what they had, which opened the doors to what we have today, is ten times worse. My character is a first generation Latin, who comes into this country, gets recruited, drafted into the armed forces; and he doesn’t want to be a war hero. He doesn’t want to be in Italy catching bullets. In some ways, he doesn’t feel that this is his war. However, he’s there and to the right and left of him are these Buffalo Soldiers and he is one too. He did everything he could to get out of this war. He failed Italian exams and he grew up speaking Italian in his neighborhood in the Bronx. He was surrounded by Italian and he did everything he could not to be sent to Italy, and he got sent anyway. When you see my character in film, you will someone who is bitter and angry. He’s mad because he doesn’t want to be there.”
A key point Alonso makes is “my character, not only was he Black, he was a first generation Latino. A first generation American of Puerto Rican decent.” I also really appreciated when he said: “I consider myself African American of Latin decent because they both are as equally important in what makes me. I was so happy that James McBride included the Black Latino and Latino in general and how important Latin culture was in affecting American culture and American history.” I was happy too. When I saw the film in my apartment about 2 years ago when it was out on DVD, I was shocked I hadn’t heard more about his character or the representation in any media outlets. I now realize why: the lack or inability to recognize how to talk about us in the media.
Take a listen to what Spike Lee says about people of Color wanting to see themselves represented in the media. It follows his commentary towards Clint Eastwood, which begins at the 3-minute mark:
If you were not privy to the Eastwood commentary about Lee when this film was being crafted, read about it here. I personally love the title “Clint Eastwood: Spike Lee Should "Shut His Face", Lee Responds, "We’re Not On A Plantation." It’s true. We are NOT on a plantation.
What are your thoughts readers? Is there a fear in expanding and recognizing that Blackness is more than just one identity? That Blackness is more inclusive than people ever thought that racial category could be? How does having a larger group of people who identify as Black shift our view of US society? US race-relations? US use of the term “post racial”? How does it change the work we do? How will the US Census count us?
And as a small tangent: in case you were wondering where you can find thoughtful pieces written by women of Color about the triflin’ nonsense -isms coming out of the mouth of one White guitar playing musician, I’m continually updating this blog post. My mantra: if you claim you teach comprehensive sexuality education, but don’t talk about race, class, or ethnicity (to name a few), you are NOT being comprehensive.