Being Mexican Does Not Automatically Equal Being Brown
This essay is directed toward the community I was raised in: nonblack Mexican Americans. I am biracial and visibly black, with 3c/4a hair; the daughter of a brown mestiza Mexican American mom and an African American father. Any nonblack Latinx person interested in dismantling antiblackness within Latinx communities is also a welcomed reader. Black readers are welcome to read this, too, but you are probably already familiar with what I am going to say.
I want to talk about whiteness in Mexican America, which seems taboo every time I mention it. All the Mexicans I know, even the güeros, call themselves “brown,” despite our varied appearances. No one seems to question how we all became “brown.” We all see ourselves as a reflection of the dark-skinned farmworker, construction worker, maid, custodial staff, etc., even though some of our families never worked those jobs, or if they did, never tanned as deep brown as those who were brown to begin with, whose skin only got darker with more time in the sun. We conflate race and ethnicity; we conflate race and class, thinking that if we aren’t “brown” then we can’t claim our oppressions as descendants of immigrants, inheritors of the debt called the American dream, toward which we are always reaching.
Mexico prides itself on being a mestizo nation with an Indigenous past, the realization of la raza cósmica. It’s the reason La Piedra del Sol is on the back of peso. It’s why many of us only emphasize Aztec history instead of realizing the diversity of Indigenous people in Mexico, many of whom were oppressed by the Aztec Empire and fought against their rule. Indigenismo, or the idea that all Mexicans have Indigenous heritage, was an ideology that shaped Mexican patriotism by defining lo mexicano, or what it means to be Mexican.
Anthropologists like Manuel Gamio and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla argued that Indigenous people were symbols of the past, sources of pride we could all draw from, even if we are not Indigenous and/or cannot tell the difference between Indigenous groups. Bonfil, especially, believed that Indigenous people represent “Mexico profundo,” the true Mexico, and that a person could prove how Mexican they are by associating themselves with Indigenous heritage (even if they had none, or did not live their lives as members of an Indigenous community). Ever seen a Chicana wearing a Coyolxauhqui t-shirt? Ever bought one of those Mexican winter blankets with an Aztec warrior design from the pulga? Ever called yourself “brown” even though you are güero? Ever claimed yourself as “Indigenous” even though you are not connected to an Indigenous identity in Mexico and do not face anti-Indigenous oppression from the Mexican government? These are examples of how indigenismo, a movement popular in Latin America in the early 1900s, became a key part of the Chicano Movement in the US several decades later.
I should note: both indigenismo and mestizaje are anti-Black. Mestizaje argues that Black people are the most inferior race and should become extinct through intermarriage with mestizos. Indigenismo does not even acknowledge that Black people exist in Mexico. Both concepts also assume Indigenous people are inferior, that their cultural and tribal differences do not matter, and that it is okay to appropriate Indigenous culture and symbols because all Indigenous people are extinct.
A SHORT & INCOMPLETE LIST OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF MEXICANS
Spanish descended white people
African-descended mestizos (who can be light, medium, or dark skinned)
Dark skinned Black people with solely African ancestry
Indigenous people with tribal affiliations who are treated as Indigenous subjects by the Mexican government occupying their land
Afro-Indigenous people with tribal affiliations who are treated as Indigenous subjects by the Mexican government occupying their land
When studying the Chicano Movement in one of my Mexican American Studies classes, I realize many of its tactics are copied and pasted directly from the Black Power Movement. The Brown Berets’ 1968 Ten-Point Program is modeled after the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program, drafted in 1966. My güero Mexican American professor is either unaware or doesn’t think this is important to mention, so I raise my hand and ask if the Brown Berets organized in solidarity with the Black Panthers. My professor doesn’t know the answer. He asks why I want to know.
“Well,” I say, “In the 1950s, Mexican Americans advocated for civil rights on the basis that they were white. That’s how schools got desegregated in Texas. Mexican Americans didn’t want to be treated like Black people, so they argued that they were white people, but they were ‘a class apart’ from white Americans. And they won. It’s just funny to me that in the 50s, Mexican Americans were arguing they were white, but now in the 60s, they are using the labor of Black people and Black activists for their own gain. It just seems convenient.”
Nonblack people of color have a proximity to whiteness that Black people can never attain. That’s why Mexican Americans in the 50s could get civil rights by claiming their whiteness. Can you imagine if Black people tried to do that? Good luck with that right to vote.
As I’m saying this aloud in a classroom of güeros and mestizos, I realize that Chicanos believe “Black Power” can be appropriated into a Mexican American context. “Black Power,” which works to affirm all black people, who are bound together by both physical appearance and the structural conditions of blackness, becomes “Brown Power,” which is supposed to affirm all Mexican Americans (and by extension, all Latinxs), even though many Mexican Americans are not brown.
But why do we continue to claim that Mexican = brown? We know this is not true. From our güero cousins to our Afromexican neighbors, the sheer diversity of the Mexican/Mexican American population proves this. When I hear güeros refer to themselves as brown, my first thought is, “stop appropriating me.” You don’t have to be brown to be Mexican. Güeros are more accepted in Mexico, anyway—more represented, protected, admired. I wish we could all be comfortable with being ourselves, and begin to understand how assuming we are all “brown” is harmful to Black and Indigenous Mexicans, who are still fighting for rights and accurate representation.
“Race Is About Interpretation, Not Identity” by Marissa Jenae Johnson
Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican American poet from San Antonio, Texas, with a B.A. in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies. She is the recipient of two Academy of American Poets prizes, a national collegiate poetry slam champion, and a "part-time curandera." Follow her work online at www.arianabrown.com and on Twitter & Instagram @arianathepoet.
Cover image by Arlene Mejorado for La Liga Zine