Last week, amid the corporate fallout from GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump's racist remarks about Mexicans, actor America Ferrera penned a widely-shared thank-you letter to Donald Trump. Ferrera's tongue-in-cheek thank you to the bombastic real estate mogul is problematic for a variety of reasons.
Ferrera deflects anti-Mexican remarks and turns the conversation into one about Latino voters. In announcing his presidential bid, Trump said: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems. They're bringing drugs; they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume are good people." Trump also said that he would build a Great Wall along the southern border and have Mexico pay for it.
Mexico and the Mexican people were the target of these remarks. In his initial announcement, Trump did mention "South and Latin America," but the focus clearly was on Mexico. After a slew of companies cut ties with Trump, he continued to zero in on Mexicans, saying, "I love the Mexican people," while speaking to CNN's Don Lemon.
Trump did not mention Cubans, Colombians, Venezuelans or any other group from the larger Latin American community. It's important to point this out, because Mexican Americans are the largest community in the Latino ethnic category in the United States. The U.S. has a long anti-Mexican sentiment dating back to the 1800s. And often, Latinos who aren't of Mexican descent are favored to speak on our behalf.
When Ferrera, a Honduran American, failed to describe Trump's comments as anti-Mexican and instead referred to "American Latinos," she deflects from a historically rooted anti-Mexican tradition in U.S. politics.
Anti-Mexican sentiment is currently playing out in the refugee crisis along the southern border. The Department of Homeland Security denies over 90 percent of asylum requests from Mexico, despite record levels of community-shattering violence.
In contrast, Cubans are eligible to obtain legal residence once they enter the U.S. And Puerto Ricans have citizenship from birth. That Puerto Rico remains a territory of the US, and is a de facto colony, heavily compromises the privileges of their citizenship. These differing federal policies create vastly different concerns in each community.
To lump us all into a unified "Latino" political base has roots in both Republican and Democrat conservative-driven policies that serve two key purposes:
1. To literally favor certain Latino groups into a privileged voting class whose political attitudes mirror U.S. foreign policy to each respective country of origin;
2. To subsume any "Latino" group that does not enjoy these privileges into an illusory position of status/future attainment, obscuring the policies that favor some and not others. As a result, any group that does not enjoy these privileges is not considered the Latinos that are easy for any politician to work with. And their concerns can be easily ignored, put off or otherwise unattended. There are "good Latinos" and "problem Latinos." Mexicans have always been considered problem Latinos, as well as a disposable work force.
Ferrera assumes that Trump's racist remarks will increase Latino voter turnout, writing: "You see, what you just did with your straight talk was send more Latino voters to the polls than several registration rallies combined."
We're more than a year out from the next major election, which is a long time in electoral politics. It's pretty early in the game to assume that any candidate's remarks are going to be more successful than substantive get out the vote efforts focusing on voter registration and transporting people to the polls.
If racist remarks sent Latino voters to the polls, our voter turnout would probably be much higher than it is. Let's look at Arizona, a state with its share of elected officials who have made racist remarks about Mexicans. In 2012, only 40% of eligible Latino voters, in Arizona, who are largely of Mexican descent, turned out in the polls.
Ferrera's letter sanitizes some of the challenges facing our community. In her response, Ferrera writes, "We are valedictorians and honor students. We are college graduates, bankers, police officers, entertainers, teachers, journalists, politicians and we are the future of America." While some in our community achieve success as formally educated professionals, many Chicana/os have experienced disproportionate mass incarceration for decades and continue to do so. When responding to racist remarks such as Trump's, some have chosen the easier path by simply playing us up as hard workers and achievers against all the odds.
The odds are not good for many Chicana/os growing up in rural and urban poverty. These life circumstances of poor youth are often criminalized, setting up a pipeline from school to prison into adulthood. This is something we can no longer afford to ignore to save face in response to some racist's remarks. The rate of poverty among Mexican Americans remains consistent over generations, with a few gains made by a small percentage, here and there. To allow racist comments to detract from a needed conversation about how to address persistent poverty that feeds the prison pipeline plays on a tired "hard worker" success narrative that doesn't fit the reality for many of our community members.
Ferrera's reference to "Latino immigrants" ignores the reality that many Mexican Americans have been here for generations.
We have been present in the fabric of this country since its inception. We have entire communities that have remained in place since before the Mexican-American War. Yet, we are collectively addressed as if we all just got here two days ago.
Some of us have recently arrived, and unlike prior generations who were taught to assimilate and abandon traditions, we now have a much deeper appreciation for the complexity of who we are as a people. We are complex; we are growing and ever-evolving.
To reduce our highly variable identity to a simplified version of the non-existent Latino is for the convenience of the two-party voting machine. It has nothing to do with honoring our achievements, borne of generational social struggle in a U.S. social context. Furthermore, it does not advance the long-standing conversation of self-determination among Chicana/os and Mexicana/os. For this, we say, no thanks, America Ferrera; we can speak more purposefully, more articulately, more truthfully and more fearlessly for ourselves.