Since I moved to Canada, I cannot go a spring without someone asking what I will be doing to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. The first time I heard it, I was pretty confused. Now I am just annoyed. You’ll see, Cinco de Mayo is a civic holiday in Mexico. We commemorate a battle won against the French invaders, but it is also a reminder of the fact that Mexico lost a war that lead to the establishment of a European regime headed by Emperor Maximilian I. In Mexico it is a military event. It is not a party, and I have yet to see donkey-shaped piñatas in any civic holidays. Yet, Cinco de Mayo seems to be essential to Mexican-American identity, which has its own history since the military leader that won the battle, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was Texan (before the Mexican Cession).
This is just an example of attitudes that puzzle me a lot. The ignorance and the “lumping” of identities is something I have been struggling a lot with in the West, primarily because in Canada and the US the term “Latinx” is used to describe a massive group of non-whites and to associate anyone south of the American border. Such is also the case when we talk about Muslim-Latinx communities.
In previous writings I have made attempts to problematize the term “Latinx” and to also show the ways in which American-Latinxs and people born in Latin America are radically different. I have also attempted to show the complexities of race issues in Latin America, which have been heavily influenced by colonization, the slave trade and several sets of policies endorsing white supremacy. As a convert to Islam living in Canada, I also try to disentangle these topics in the context of Latinx converts. Yet, I have realized that understanding of these differences and nuances is lacking within Latinx communities themselves.
A few months ago I participated in Muslim ARC’s #LatinoMuslims panel where the cultural differences along with the perceptions of race and religion became really obvious. The fact that we shared some kind of ethnic, linguistic or semi-cultural descent meant very little in terms of our experiences, and therefore, to how we related to Islam. Throughout the panel I realized that there is a powerful Latinx narrative that frames Latinx communities as somehow monolithic, as Hispanic, as ethnically “mixed,” as racialized and as oppressed. All these themes tend to show in media articles where Latinx Muslims are discussed.
For instance, in a lot of sources Latinxs are equated with Hispanics and are further racialized through the connection to the Moorish past. I cringe when I read about Muslim-Latinxs associating their roots to Spanish and the Moors because that idea is to create a unifying identity at the expense of Indigenous identity and the colonial violence experienced by Indigenous, Black and Asian peoples in the continent. The Spanish and Moorish past is a history of violence that cannot be changed, but that can certainly be challenged. Colonialism was not a constructive process and it was not a choice for Indigenous people and Black and Asian populations, many of which arrived in the Americas forcibly. Many of us do not speak Spanish (or Portuguese, English, French and Dutch) because we want to, but because it has been imposed on us, making the connection to the Arabic language, a colonial connection.
I am also bothered when I read about racism against Muslim-Latinxs because writers often fail to inject some nuance into their analysis. Racism and discrimination continue to be huge issues in Latin America and among Latinx communities in the US. One only needs to see the resistance that the election of Evo Morales created in Bolivia, not only because of his politics but the fact that he is Indigenous. In Mexico, class is often determined along ethnic lines, and black populations were not even included in national history until pretty recently. Many Latin American countries promoted white immigration throughout the 20th century in an attempt to “improve the race.” Afro-Latinx communities have also been very active in pointing out anti-blackness among Latinxs. When we talk about Latinx Muslims all these things are omitted. Their racial association is homogenized under “Hispanic,” “mixed” or “Latinx,” and we associate their “double” (which can be triple or quadruple) exclusion along this racial imaginary and religious lines, which mostly affect women in hijab. The issue in here is that Latinx Muslims do not always face the same kind of discrimination. There are white Latinxs, mestizos, Indigenous, black and many other Latinxs, and while the general rhetoric says that we are all mixed, some are more “mixed” than others and this fact has severely affected issues of identity, oppression and discrimination. Have you noticed how most coverage of Latinx-Muslims show “brown” Latinxs despite the fact that ethnic diversity among Latinxs and Latin Americans is huge?
This is not to say that Latinxs do not experience discrimination, of course they do. But that does not prevent them from endorsing white supremacy and being racist against others, just as being American-Latinxs or Canadian-Latinxs, for that matter, does not prevent them from being anti-immigration.
Coverage of Latina-Muslims continues to bother me years after I wrote my first piece about this. We still do not get past the idea of Latina women as devout Catholics. As if Catholicism was monolithic and it was the only relevant element of a woman’s identity. We also continue to perpetuate the stereotypes around Latina women’s conservativism, traditional behaviours and submissiveness. They are portrayed as primarily proud hijabis, willing wives and outstanding mothers. Nothing about themselves… They are Latinas along ethnic lines, they are American geographically and they are Muslim in relation to their caring “responsibilities” or their hijab.
Mind you, for those of us that move around Latin American or Latina converts we know that they are an extremely diverse group of people. We do not necessarily share racial experiences, we do not all have a Catholic background, we do not all wear hijab, we aren’t all family oriented and many of us would prefer not to be discussed in terms of stereotypes. Thus, there is much learning and unlearning to do not only among those who cover the issues, but among Latinx-Muslims. The Latinx-Muslim experience cannot be the standard under which we discuss everyone in the US and the south of the border. We are not a homogenous community, nor should we be. We cannot try to homogenize race, language and gender roles based on what Latinxs in the US, and I would even say a very small group of them, conceives as the Latinx reality. We also need to allow for a variety of voices. Where are the Indigenous-Latinx Muslims? The Black-Latinx Muslims? The southern Latin American Muslims living in the region? Meaningful discussions about race, class, gender equality, oppressions and solidarity cannot happen until we get past the stereotypes and the Latinx-Muslim standard.