George Zimmerman, Hispanics, and the Messy Nature of American Identity

Trayvon Martin’s killer is a sum of hodgepodge parts, writes Ilan Stavans.

People like purity. They also enjoy using easy identity categories, especially if they can be differentiated from each other. But from what we now know of George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, he is a sum of hodgepodge parts: Jewish, Catholic, white, and Peruvian. No wonder the press had trouble deciding whether to identify him as “white,” "Hispanic,” or “a white Hispanic.”

That accumulation of identities is already a sine qua non when speaking of Hispanics, like Zimmerman. Most Latinos are a mix. That’s why the term mestizaje is ubiquitous in Latin America: it not only denotes those who had Spanish as well as indigenous parents, but describes a complex process of racial commingling.

Hispanics aren’t a race but a multiracial minority group, much like Zimmerman is a multi-background individual. To be Hispanic—a very modern construct, and a self-identified one—a person must have been in the United States for an extended period of time, and have roots in a Spanish-speaking country (which is why Brazilians are not Hispanics). When asked to identify by race, and after being alerted that “Hispanic” is not a racial term, a majority of respondents to a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity, said they were white. That is, the Latinos interviewed preferred to be counted as whites, and not as blacks—in part an expression of the racism within our community, where many see black as the second, and worse, option. Plus, the survey also established that statistically, the number of Latinos marrying outside the Hispanic community is on the rise, and that such crossover isn’t seen negatively within it.

But according to the Pew survey, 51 percent of Latinos prefer to describe themselves by their country of origin. The terms Hispanic and Latino, the report notes, are “unique to the U.S. … not widely used elsewhere.” And, the survey shows, most Hispanics identify themselves as Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, and so on.

It’s important to look at these findings through a historical lens. The popular idea of Hispanics as a single, homogenized group began in the early 1970s, and was formalized in 1976, when Congress passed a law mandating the Census collect information on Hispanics (Latino was added as a synonym on the Census in 2000).

In 1980, Americans were asked for the first time not only to identify by race, but also by ethnicity: Hispanic, or Not Hispanic—14.6 million people identified as Hispanic, and everything changed in the decade that followed: by acknowledging the common link, Hispanics found economic power and a political agenda. Still, Cubans were mostly white, anti-Castro refugees living in the Northeast and Florida, whereas Mexicans were mestizo and working class, living in the Southwest and with a less defined ideology. This division generated much tension.

By 2010, the number of Latinos had tripled in just 30 years, to 50.5 million. But the tension between groups hasn’t ceased. Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Salvadorans, and so on still nurse grudges against one another. What holds us together as a minority is tenuous at best.

To return to Zimmerman: he identifies himself as white, which is normal. The fact that he speaks no Spanish is also typical of a large percentage of Hispanics. Despite that, non-Spanish-speaking Latinos often get a bad rap for not being able to use their ancestral language—another form of internal segregation. My opinion is that were Zimmerman a Spanish speaker, the Hispanic minority would be feeling much closer to him now. Had he been Cuban, perhaps the Cuban-American community in Florida would have already marched in his defense. Had he been Mexican, the tenor of the conversation might be about how Mexicans have become ubiquitous, to the point that some of them even live in gated communities that need vigilantes to protect against hoodlums.

Instead, George Zimmerman is a—what? Mr. Everything. W.E.B. DuBois once prophesized that the 20th century would be about the color line. The major theme defining our new American century is miscegenation. Nowadays most of our nation’s families have members whose backgrounds point in multiple geographical directions. We’re obsessed with genealogy precisely because our roots have tangled, and mingled.

Zimmerman is a Latino precisely because his identity is mixed together, watered down. That’s the same thing that makes him an American.