Zimmerman Case Ignites Dialogue on Latino Racial Identity

A daily conversation is taking place on Latino news sites and blogs about where Latinos see themselves in the context of race in America.

Zimmerman Case Ignites Dialogue on Latino Racial Identity

The killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has ignited a dialogue about race among Latino journalists and bloggers over the complex racial identity of Latinos, and the simplified – and sometimes inaccurate -- ways some media have reported it.

Coverage of the Trayvon Martin case has varied widely in different media sectors. Suspected shooter George Zimmerman, whose mother is Peruvian, has been labeled “white,” “Hispanic” and “white Hispanic.”

Meanwhile, the Pew Hispanic Center last week released a report that found that the majority of Latinos do not in fact identify as Latino or Hispanic at all, but by their country of origin. The study, "When Labels Don't Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity," adds a new twist to the debate over whether suspected shooter George Zimmerman is Hispanic: If the majority of Latinos/Hispanics don’t identify as such, perhaps that is the wrong question to be asking.

‘Hispanics Can Be of Any Race’

“As a Hispanic, watching the media's use of terms like ‘white’ and ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ in the Zimmerman-Martin case has been an occasion for much eye-rolling,” writes Ryan W. McMaken for the libertarian LRC Blog. “The way the press uses these terms betrays just how completely ignorant most reporters and talking heads are about even the basics of ethnicity and race in this country.”

The press labeled Zimmerman as white, he writes, “because that's what the media has determined will produce the most fertile ground for ‘racial’ conflict.”

“I don't know why this is so hard for people to grasp, but let's just make this clear: According to anthropologists, ethnologists, historians and census takers, ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ is not a racial designation. It is a term that denotes ethnicity,” McMaken writes.

“Hispanics can be of any race. There are white Hispanics, black Hispanics, and even Asian Hispanics. Examples would be former Mexican president Vicente Fox, Cuban musician Ibrahim Ferrer, and former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, respectively. There are also, of course, mestizo Hispanics, such as Benito Juarez.”

‘How we see, hear and live with each other’

Dallas-based blogger Marisa Tresviño writes for the blog LatinaLista that the Trayvon Martin case – and the media coverage that has revolved around it – has brought to the surface underlying attitudes about race in America.

“This case has stirred emotions that have always existed but were buried so deeply that it took a perceived outrage to galvanize national unity on an issue that should have been on the front burner of the national dialogue long ago — how we see, hear and live with each other. In other words, race relations.”

The United States may be a country built on immigration, she writes, “yet we live with this prevailing notion, however subconscious, that you don’t belong unless you’re white.”

“The likelihood of another Trayvon Martin-Zimmerman confrontation is highly probable,” Tresviño concludes, “unless the national dialogue seriously starts to include addressing a topic that is long overdue and has a shorter and shorter fuse.”

‘Initially It Was Just Black and White’

Conservative media, meanwhile, criticized Latino organizations for their “silence” on the case, and for not standing behind Zimmerman. But Latino advocates say these remarks take away from the real issue, reports Soni Sangha for Fox News Latino.

"We have paradigms in this country: Initially it was just black and white," Lisa Navarette, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, told Fox News Latino. "This is complicated because the media tried to put it into that paradigm but it didn't fit."

"This is much more complex than simply saying this guy is Hispanic and we [Hispanics] have to defend Hispanics," Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told Fox News Latino. "There is a whole question going on like, 'Are Hispanics capable of being racist?' 'Why are they calling him a white Hispanic?'... That shows a lack of understanding about the Latino community."

‘Dividing Blacks and Latinos’ or ‘Bringing the Communities Together’?

Some Latino groups, meanwhile, took Geraldo Rivera to task for his comment that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin was as much responsible for his death as the man who shot him. A group of community activists calling themselves Latinos For Trayvon Martin accused Rivera of dividing blacks and Latinos.

At a news conference at Hostos Community College in the Bronx last Thursday, they called for the arrest of George Zimmerman. The action was a response to what they saw as an attempt by “some in the mainstream media” to “play the ‘Hispanic card’ to transform what appears to be a racially motivated murder to a Black-Brown division.”

“George Zimmerman is half Latino, but his mentality appears to be completely white supremacist. We suspect that Geraldo Rivera's mentality is not far from Zimmerman's,” wrote community activists José Alfaro, Ramon Jimenez, Esperanza Martell, Radhames Perez, José LaSalle, Rafael Sencion Marina Ortiz and Zenaida Mendez.

Rivera responded in a column on Fox News Latino, writing, “That provable falsehood cannot be tolerated.”

On the contrary, he writes, “If anything, isn't the reaction to the tragedy bringing the communities together to express shared outrage?”

‘Irrational Fear’

Regardless of who perpetrated the crime, the case was a clear example of racial profiling, write editors of Spanish-language news network ImpreMedia.

“It is tragic that the mere presence of an African American teen walking at night is seen as a threat. But it's even worse when legally, this mistaken perception is enough to justify a murder,” according to an editorial in New York’s Spanish-language daily El Diario/La Prensa.

“What happened speaks of racism in our society, which is reflected in irrational fear,” editors write.

This article first appeared in New America Media on April 10, 2012.

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