Coexistence between black and Latino Americans hasn’t always been easy. According to a 2008 study, while both communities view each other favorably, Latinos expressed skepticism about the extent to which black people face discrimination in the United States. That might be changing. For the Latino community, the outpouring of grief and outrage of the past couple of weeks has brought a reckoning.
Last Monday, in a landmark Miami Herald op-ed, more than 40 organizations, activists, and journalists acknowledged the Latino community’s omissions in combating racism. “We have failed to grapple with anti-blackness that exists in our own community,” the authors write. “We have been raised in families who refer to blackness in the diminutive (morenita, negrita, prietita). We have remained silent when our tías have encouraged us to partner with people who have lighter skin than we do so we can mejorar la raza.”
Over the past few days, other voices have argued that Latinos should reflect on their own identity. In a piece for NBC News, Ana Sanz, a young Afro-Latinx protester, told reporter Nicole Acevedo that “white-presenting Latinos should use this time to ‘reconcile with the privilege’ their light skin gives them in systems tainted with white supremacy.” Jasmine Haywood, an Afro-Latina scholar who has specialized in anti-black Latino racism, told Acevedo that Latinos must begin by acknowledging the common struggle they historically share with the black community. “What Latinos need to realize is that our oppression is bound up and intertwined with the oppression of the black community,” she said.
There are encouraging signs of this reckoning in an unlikely place: Los Angeles.
Not many cities in the United States have a history of racism and police brutality quite like Los Angeles. In 1992, the city endured five days of riots after the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King. The riots, which left 63 people dead and more than 2,000 injured, exposed the severity of the city’s racism and the cruel methods of its police force.
As the city’s reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis has proved, outrage over police brutality has, quite justifiably, never dissipated. The city’s wounds are still raw. As a Hispanic, immigrant reporter, I found one of the most remarkable aspects of the protests to be the fervent solidarity of Latinos, most of them young, with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There is a lot of repair to be done between these two communities and I’m here with my tools to start the job,” wrote Marlene Cordova, a California State University, Los Angeles senior, for the website EdSource. For young Latinos like Cordova, who also recognize their community’s failings but seek to make a difference in their own fight against prejudice in America, the protests seem to have become a turning point in a common struggle with the black community. Their solidarity appears both permanent and proactive.
For some, the discovery of this sense of cohesion between the Latino and black American struggles against racism might be new. For others, the story is different. Within the protests, Univision’s cameras found voices for whom the confluence of both identities—and their struggles—is completely familiar. In Hollywood, reporter Salvador Durán crossed paths with a young Spanish-speaking black man, Carlos Vargas. “I want to be able to call police and know they will help me, not hurt me,” he said. “We have a voice. There’s no skin color for us, there’s only heart. We are here because of the injustice against my people, my two people: African Americans and Hispanics.”
As a toddler, Vargas had been adopted by a Mexican family in Southern California. A couple of days after the protests, he welcomed Durán to his mother’s home. “He came to me as a 2-year-old, but in one week he was dancing quebradita,” said María Vargas, Carlos’ mother. He then introduced one of his siblings, a young white man who had also been adopted by the Vargas family. “I don’t see race. He’s my brother, and I love him,” Vargas’ brother said, with Carlos by his side.
Last week, with protests on the move across Los Angeles, I spoke with Lamar Thorpe, a councilman in the city of Antioch in Northern California. I had read an honest and stirring account Thorpe had written about his experiences as a young black boy growing up in a Hispanic home during the Rodney King riots. Although Thorpe was never officially adopted by the Mexican family that welcomed him as a newborn, he grew up much like Carlos Vargas: He felt Mexican through and through. It wasn’t until the riots that he realized that something was different. “[The riots] didn’t hit me as hard as it did others in school. They felt afraid. I didn’t,” he recalled. The fact that he saw the riots differently, he explained, had to do with the things he had heard growing up in a Hispanic area. While his own family never showed any prejudice against black people, his friends and neighbors did. “I didn’t like looking in the mirror because I was black,” Thorpe told me. In college, Thorpe reconciled with his black identity. He now considers himself both Mexican and black.
As the Latino community continues to figure out its role in this historic chapter in the struggle against racism in the United States, it would be wise to listen to voices like Thorpe and Vargas. Thorpe, for one, hopes the current protests become an opportunity to address the mistrust between the two cultures and to foster a new era of solidarity. “Just like it hurts me to hear Latinos say, ‘What are black people to us?’ it also hurts me to hear African Americans say, ‘Why do we want these immigrants? They are here only to take our jobs,’ ” Thorpe told me. “We have similar stories. This violence has affected Latinos, African Americans, and other minorities in the country.”