David Letterman recently went off the air after 33 years of late night show entertainment; thus bringing an end of an era. One of my favorite segments of the show was the top ten countdown. For the last two weeks, this blog explored the persistent racism in academic theological schools. I thought it would be appropriate for the third part of this trilogy to pivot my gaze to the persistent racism of the church. Over the years I have had the pleasure of visiting many predominantly Euro-American churches. Without fail, some well-meaning person would usually approach me and ask a question that literally would leave me speechless. Sadly, the following questions have actually been asked of me. In honor of David Letterman, I have listed, based on my experiences, the top ten questions you should never ask a Hispanic visitor to your church. For fun, I also wrote the reply I would have loved to have given if not for my good manners.
#10: You speak very good English.
So do you.
Not all Latino/as recently arrived. I’ve been living in this country for over half a century. You would hope that I have mastered the language by now. Besides, many Latin Americans, like other world inhabitants, are multilingual. Only in this country is a person considered to be educated when mastering just one language. I have also been told “You speak with a funny accent;” to which I usually rely, “Yes, I can speak with a funny accent in several different languages, how many languages can you speak with a funny accent?”
#9: Wow, you don’t look Latino.
That’s OK, you don’t look like a racist.
Are Hispanics supposed to fit whatever stereotypes are conjured up by the dominant culture? Should I wear a sombrero so that I can look the part? Latino/as are heirs of several different Indigenous cultures (such as, Taíno, Mayan, Aztec, and Zapotec), of medieval Catholic Spain (influenced by Muslims and Jews), of Africa (primarily in the Caribbean and Brazil), of Asia (primarily in the Caribbean and Peru), and due to our continuing presence in the United States, of various European backgrounds. Some of us are white with blond hair and blue eyes, others are yellow with epicanthic folds, still others are red with Aztec features while some are black with kinky hair; and of course, every combination of phenotype possibility imaginable.
#8: You’re so lucky being a minority. Thanks to Affirmative Action you don’t have to worry about getting a job during a down market.
Interesting, and here I though I got the job because I have a doctorate, three masters, and have written over thirty books of which five won national awards. Remind me, how many national awards have you earned?
There are those within the dominant culture who cannot reconcile the fact that a Hispanic can be better qualified and academically more rigorous than them. Rather than admit they fall short of the mark when compared with a Latino/a, it is more comforting to mask their lacking by blaming Affirmative Action. For the record, the official unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2015 for whites is 5.8%; Hispanics, 8.3%. Never has the unemployment rates of whites been greater than the rates for Hispanics; and yet, I constantly hear anecdotal evidence concerning reverse racism, even though the sociological data fails to prove its existence. In every aspect of U.S. life (wages, housing, interaction with law enforcement, financial costs, medical care, social services, job opportunities), as shown by multiple academic and governmental studies, the whiter the hue, the greater the privilege and opportunities. Of course, all these studies are dismissed with the simple accusation that those pointing to these facts are simply “playing the race card.”
#7: We support a missionary in Latin America.
What a coincidence, I’m a missionary from Latin America who is here to lead you and your people to salvation. Wanna support me?
There is a certain arrogance when those in this country believe that Latin America needs saving; specifically when we consider that a greater percentage of the Latin American population identifies itself as being Christian than those living the U.S. Still, it is not Christ that the dominant U.S. culture wishes to convert Latin America to, rather, it is to the U.S. construction of Christ – a Christ complicit with U.S. neoliberalism and conservative political views. We would rather spend thousands of dollars to go on a mission trip “over there” to play Paul rather than spend those thousands of dollars “over here,” a few miles from where we live (you know, that neighborhood where you lock your car doors when you drive by) to create opportunities for the Latin American next door. Now, I do take students to Mexico on missionary trips, but I take them so that they can be evangelized, saved, and liberated by hearing the testimonies of those suffering under the powers and principalities of this world; specifically, those suffering the consequences of living on the underside of a U.S. economy enriched through trade agreements with Mexico (i.e. NAFTA). Poverty throughout Latin America is directly linked to the prosperity enjoyed within the United States.
#6: Where are you from?
Denver – and you?
Unfortunately, what they really want to know is where am I really from to confirm the fact that I really don’t belong. Yet most Latina/os are U.S. born, with several tracing their roots on this land years before there was a United States. In fact, here in Colorado where I live, the most recent immigrants to this geographical region are the Euroamericans. So you can see how insulting this question is when asked by the most recent immigrants to this land. And to make things worse, the latest immigrants to the land rewrite themselves into the national narrative as the victims of those with indigenous backgrounds that are moving north of the artificial line created through the U.S. aggressive invasion of Mexico in 1846. As for me, I was born in Cuba, so I usually get a different question when this is discovered: “What will happen when Fidel dies?” I usually respond by saying that they will probably bury him.
#5: What gang did you belong to?
Here, let me show you a gang sign (the sign involves a certain finger that has universal meaning).
Yes – I have been asked this question in class (not church) by one of my students. What I find amazing is how many people express, after they have gotten to know me, how much I scared them – how much the are frightened by me (especially white women). Why are people afraid of me? I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of the existing stereotypes. A century of Hollywood depictions of Latino male bodies as knife wielding, gang-banging, terrorizing greasers who exist on the border between womanizers and rapists has created a myth in the Euroamerican imaginary that unconsciously (if not consciously) constructs how Latino are seen by whites – as something dangerous (of course Latinas have their own Hollywood tropes). Such men are a menace due to their “Latin temper.” They lack the intellectual sophistication to control their passions. I have though of making myself a T-shirt where the front reads “Yes, I am a Latino man” and the back would read, “Relax, Don’t be afraid -I’m not dangerous.”
#4 You know, we have taco night on Wednesday nights.
Sorry, I’m from Cuba. Let me know when your church has rum drinking and Cuban cigar smoking on Wednesday nights, and then I’ll come.
Why is it that Euroamericans assume I like Mexican food, or worse, I would know where all the best Mexican restaurants are located? Nothing personal, but I really don’t like Mexican food all that much. I’m more of a vegan-type of guy. And yet, I have been stopped at supermarkets and asked where is the salsa sauce. We are not a monolithic group. We are truly a multi-cultural people, the heirs of many traditions, yet fully accepted by none of them. We are Catholics, Protestants, worshipers of the Orishas (African quasi-deities), Jewish, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, spiritualists, followers of indigenous religious traditions, and a multitude of hybrid combinations. Some speak “pure” Spanish, others speak Spanglish, while others only speak English. Still others converse in Cholo, Mayan, Náhuatl, or Pocho; while still others speak Chinese or Japanese. We live in the blank despair of the barrio and in the comfortable illusions of the suburbs. Some pick apples and grapes, others pick stocks and bonds.
#3: You people are so passionate.
And you people are so stupid.
The Enlightenment project is partially responsible for creating a dichotomy between the body (emotion, passion, base desires) and the mind/spirit (reason). Evolved creatures, like Europeans, are supposed to be more rational, while less-evolved creatures of color are more physical – more passionate. A neat dichotomy is created where the cerebral characteristic of white (primarily men) occupy an elevated evolutionary space separate from the less advanced passionate Latina/o. When comments are made like “blacks are natural athletes,” or “Hispanics can do hard back-breaking work in the fields that whites simply can’t keep up,” praising our physical abilities and stamina, the flip side of this “complement” is that what whites lack in physicality, they make up in mental superiority.
#2: Oh, one of my best friends is José Gómez, do you know him?
Why yes, he told me he knew a Euroamerican that is a real @$$ &0!*, is that you?
There are over 319 million Hispanics living within the U.S., with expectations of Latina/os representing 1/4 of the population by 2030. You know that when we call each other hermano/a (brother/sister) or prima/o (cousin), we really aren’t all related? Do you really think we all know each other?
With the exception of a fake smile and a faint “God bless you” doing the “passing of the peace,” most people say nothing to me while I visit their church. There is seldom any genuine attempt to welcome me or “my kind.” I am the invisible man. As bad as the nine previous comments are, at least they recognize my presence and existence.
Bonus Material: Sorry, but I cannot resist with providing more questions/comments that have been said to me while visiting predominately white churches. They are:
- Boy, you are so articulate.
- My son dated a Latina girl in college and we just loved her.
- No way, José (even though my name is Miguel).
- If your people wouldn’t have so many babies, maybe you all could be lifted out of poverty.
- She is such a hot tamale (or spicy pepper).
- My nephew married a Mexican, and I just love my brown grandbabies.
- You know, the Spanish-speaking service is in the basement at 3 pm. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable going there?
- Do you clean your house with Spic & Span?