Ask a Mexican

The Great Race

Dear Mexican: What's with calling yourselves "La Raza"? Being Mexicans, Chicanos or whatever isn't enough — now you're the race? Sounds pretty racist to me.
The Race Is On

Dear Gabacho: Few things annoy the Mexican more than the Know Nothing Nation's deliberate ignorance of this most nebulous of Mexican idioms. Despite the patient explanations of Chicano yaktivists who say the phrase doesn't exclusively mean "the race" in Mexican Spanish but is a synonym for "community," idiot commentators insist that "la raza" as used by Mexicans betrays their Reconquista tendencies, alluding to a Mexican sense of racial superiority akin to Nazism and white supremacy. No group gets the brunt of criticism more than the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), one of the largest civil-rights groups in the United States, and one in the news recently because both John McCain and Barack Obama addressed the organization during its recent national convention. Professional pendejos like Michelle Malkin hissed a fit, calling NCLR seditious and accusing the two presidential candidates of legitimizing hate by visiting them — all this over two Spanish words.

Betcha they've never read the primary source from which "la raza" originated: José Vasconcelos's 1925 booklet, La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race). Vasconcelos — Mexico's first Secretary of Public Education — wrote his piece as a reaction to the race thinking of the time, one dominated by adherents of Darwinism and Herbert Spencer's "survival of the fittest" prism that placed the gabacho above all people. The Mexican intellectual also subscribed to racial stratifications, but whereas others saw unavoidable strife, Vasconcelos imagined something greater. La Raza Cósmica is a classic work of the prophetic tradition, one in which Vasconcelos predicted humanity would evolve into a fifth race, one free of the negative attributes each racial group possessed to create a harmonious existence: the cosmic race, la raza cósmica. Crucially, Vasconcelos never said Mexicans were that race, but rather wrote that Latin America's legacy of mestizaje posited "Ibero-Americans" as prime acolytes to spread the gospel of fusion — not through violence, but "the triumph of fecund love."

The raza cósmica theory is utopian and even goofy in execution, but it's ultimately an anti-racist dream. He even understood the humanity of gabachos : "The exclusion of the Yankee [from la raza cósmica], like the exclusion of any other human type, would be equivalent to an anticipated mutilation, more deadly even than a later cut." I don't remember Hitler talking about including non-Aryans in his Thousand Year Reich, or Americans including non-gabachos in Manifest Destiny, for that matter.

People can disagree with NCLR's policies — amnesty for illegals, better education for Latinos (not just the Mexis), but to classify them as the Tan Klan because of their name is like a prude getting offended over the name of the titmouse.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gustavo Arellano
Contact: Gustavo Arellano