- A Note on The Political Idea of "Latino" in American Life
The use of terms of race or ethnicity can be precise or general given the social context of conversation. In recent years, the use of the term "Latino" has exploded into a racial, political and ethnic category that covers such a vast number of contradictory traits and elements of group membership that it enrages some as much as it emboldens others. The passions unleashed by this term have been displayed in the media following recent demonstrations over possible new legislation over immigration. The contradictory elements of membership in the use of this term to individuals carries a number of dangers. For example, on January 24th of this year the L.A. Times carried an article (Maugh 2006) on melanoma and Latinos that was disturbing for a number of reasons. First the false idea that a group of people called "Latinos" have protection from the rays of the sun is strange in itself. It is equally upsetting to find that physicians who are supposed to be scientifically trained in human variation and genetics could harbor such a stereotype. The fact that the distribution of melanin in skin in different populations over the globe is not completely related to the intensity of solar radiation has been known for many years, and San Francisco scientist Nina Jablonski from our California Academy of Sciences has shown there are a number of reasons for [End Page 731] this (Jablonski 2000). Relethford (1997) and Robins (1991) demonstrated that skin coloration varies significantly throughout the Mediterranean and Central and South America. Just as Jablonski and Chaplin (2000) have shown how UV exposure varies over these areas, it is obvious that there is no one skin type present, no "Latino" coloration. Anthropologists have been trying for more than half a century to show that there is no scientific basis for dividing the human species into racial groups. People from Central and South America have no more protection from skin cancer than the people who live in areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. To find that doctors actually believe that they are protected is disappointing.
These kinds of erroneous ideas might be more expected of popular commentators who don't know any better and traffic in generalizing about imagined ethnic propensities, such as Larry Krueger, a local San Francisco radio station personality from KNBR. Among other things, Krueger referred to the Giant baseball team as "Latin" players, who are, "brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly" (Ortiz 2006). Indeed, California Governor Schwarzenegger joined the act when, speculating about the Cuban or Puerto Rican background of a Republican Assemblywoman, he remarked, "They are all very hot…they have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it" (quoted in the Mercury News, 9/9/06)." In each case, however, we think these events require some discussion of the nature of the term "Latino." While the use of this term was derogatory in the KNBR case, the main concern should be the essentialism it displays in the media and publics' perception of public personalities, and more generally those members of our society whose family history is associated with Central and South America. Nor is such rank essentialism the purvey of popular discourse, as the esteemed political scientist, Dr. Samuel Huntington so eminently displays in his critique on the threat Latino culture poses to mainstream American culture (Huntington 2004)
Recent attacks on immigrants from south of the border to Ohio have brought a wave of racial comments about "Mexicans" and "Latinos." It seems quite clear that the use of the term "Latino" is rather imprecise, but is defining a political stance. In the recent debate over the California Governor's comments regarding the "Minuteman" border patrol and his references on the News 62 billboard and its "Mexican" tone (Wildermuth and Martin 2005), the application of the term "Latino" and "Mexican" have been used interchangeably. In a New York Times article , Samuel G. Freedman (2004) quotes "Latino" parents who decry bilingual education, which they claimed "consigned their [End Page 732] children to a linguistic...