The Mayans were truly prophetic: 2012 is shaping up to be a pivotal year. Had they dabbled in astrology like the Chinese, they might’ve labeled these important 12 months the “Year of the Latino.”
Latino clout has been building for a few years. First, Latinos crowded America’s cities by the hundred thousand in 2006. Then they were credited with helping elect the nation’s first black president. The 2010 Census figures revealed the speed at which the Latino community was rising demographically and socioeconomically.
Now in 2012, every politician and his super PAC courts the omnipresent leviathan.
Early in the Republican primaries, each Republican misstep on immigration saw the media wheel its many heads to record a Latino response. A venerable magazine styled Latinos as the authors of America’s political future. Romney announced a plan for winning back Latinos after pushing them away early on. Obama has his strategy for winning back the Latino voters he so resoundingly gained support from in 2008 – and has so resoundingly disappointed since.
But what does Latino even mean? I’m sure the politicians and the entrepreneurs gearing their platforms and products toward this mythical entity would love to know. What does it mean to be Latino?
Narrowly, Latino applies to a descendant of Latin America living in the United States. But the very nature of Latin America itself complicates the term, because Latin America is not just a place – a continent, an isthmus and a smattering of islands. Latin America is a melting pot; actually, it’s the melting pot.
Latino means so many different things that it almost means nothing at all. Latino heritage discovers its origins in every inhabited plot of earth on the planet. Latinos are not only the descendants of Latin America, but of Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia too. Latino skin tones include every shade of visible light, from cebolla pale to aguacate dark. They speak Spanish, English, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Tagalog and a load of other tongues. Their cuisine is a smorgasbord of ingredients and preparations. The histories in their native countries are all different; their histories in this country are all different.
Being Latino is the product of past stirrings. Latino is a byword for multicultural; in reality, the two are nearly interchangeable. There is no Latino race, no Latino ethnicity. Latino represents the beginning of the end to all that. It describes a human smoothie blended in Latin America and poured into American society. The brown-skinned chilango in East Los Angeles, the dark-skinned Port-au-Princien in Little Haiti, the pale-skinned carioca in East Newark – each one of them is 100 por ciento/pour cento/por cento Latino.
And let’s not forget the multiracial Haitian dominicana in Brooklyn speaking English at work, ordering in Spanish down at the bodega and scolding her kids in French at home. She’s pura latina too.
Latino is a category as exclusive as a public park and as inclusive as the term American. That’s why it’s easy for me to say “soy latino” and “I’m American” out of both sides of my mouth, because being more than one thing equally and simultaneously isn’t hard for someone like me.
Latinos are born to be different things at once.