A few weeks back, I was having lunch with a friend at my favorite Chelsea haunt, discussing the issue about Latino self-identification. I then pointed out, “Everyone here could be Latino.” Intrigued, my friend patiently waited to hear my logic.
This logic will, hopefully, become evident as we delve a bit deeper into the idea of self-identification. The great melting pot that is America has grappled with this issue after people from different countries began to immigrate here. After a few generations, they were no longer just German, Italian, Russian or Irish, but now German-Italian and Russian-Irish. Latin American countries faced the same changes.
After the conquistas of Latin America, mostly from Spain and Portugal, three types of individuals now lived in those lands: the native Indians, the Spanish or Portuguese and a new breed of mixed ethnicities, Spanish-Indian or Portuguese-Indian. By the late 1800s, we saw those individuals who no longer identified with their respective countries, but with their new homeland. Along with other variations, we saw Frenchmen and Italians become Argentines and Venezuelans and Spaniards, and Germans became Mexicans and Columbians.
I was told once, “Where you relate is where you belong.” I often tell those seeking insight into my heritage because of my Middle-Eastern name that, “if you have a Mexican mother, you’re a Mexican, no matter where your father is from.” Of course, that may only be true in my case since this is not a rule across the board. In my opinion, if there was a rule that helped clarified the confusion, it’s the one of self-identification. A now-famous quote by Mitt Romney stating, "My dad was born in Mexico of American parents," takes aim squarely at the issue of self-,identification. He has never said, “My father is Mexican.” Understandably so since his father identified as an American, having returned to the U.S. as a child.
Like most big brands, Disney is looking to get a bigger slice of the Latino market. Its most recent animated production, “Sofia the First,” has caused quite a stir about just how “Latina” she looks. The brown-skinned Latino camp argues she’s not dark enough to be representative of Latinos, while the light-skinned Latino camp argues that Latinos comes in all shades; brown, black and light-skinned, blue-eyed blondes. Disney’s official stance, according to executive producer Jamie Mitchell, is that “she is Latina.”
But here’s where I think the Latina angle to this story starts to unravel. If our fair princess is to successfully convince anyone that she dreams of Chipotle and not Chuck E. Cheese, we’ll need a plausible backstory. Sadly, none is offered in the animated trailer. We are to take Disney at face value, and since Sofia’s mother is a shade darker than all the other characters, she’s clearly Latina. The expected flurry of comments on the trailer’s website has those lamenting that she can’t represent the minority if she looks like the majority or the flip-side argument that white Latinos with colored eyes are not like unicorns, they exist aplenty so Sofia looks exactly as she should.
Would a stereotyped Latina princess à la Sofia Vergara or Salma Hayek have appeased the critics? Maybe. But in our quest to embrace and integrate diversity, a credible backstory goes a long way towards better understanding how Latinos see themselves. (Hayek, incidentally, is of Lebanese descent who identifies as Mexican.)
It breaks down like this: it doesn’t matter if they’re dark skinned, light skinned, blue eyed or brown eyed; if they identify as Latino, that’s who they are.