Crossing Borders: Race and Racism in the Americas, Part II

September 25, 2007

The last two decades have been marked by movements of people on a scale not seen in the Americas since the Conquest. Armed conflicts in Central America and the Andean nations and an economic meltdown affecting the entire region have caused millions of Latin Americans to abandon the places they and their forebears called home. The United States has continued to be the destination of choice for the majority of these migrants, especially Mexicans and Central Americans, but many other migrants have sought new lives in other Latin American nations.

When migrants and natives come together, some sort of culture clash is frequently the result. Perceived differences between the two groups—the sense of “us” vs. “them”—shape these interactions: Often, these differences are seen as racial differences; racial identities become intertwined with national identities as members of both groups seek to make their lives—and make a living—in the same place.

Even in relatively prosperous countries, workers at the lower end of the economic scale fear job loss and wage cuts as job markets are inundated by poorer, more desperate newcomers. Often, these fears are expressed in nationalist or xenophobic terms: In Argentina, Alejandro Grimson tells us, Bolivians have long been willing to take factory, construction, and other jobs that Argentines disdained. But now, with unemployment rising in Argentina, resentment of the migrants “foreign” ways is growing. And frequently, native workers express their fears in the form of a perceived “racial” threat: Soledad Ortega tells the story of Peruvians who move to Chile to escape the economic crisis at home only to find that they are “dirty Indians” in the eyes of many lighter-skinned Chileans. “Blackness” is an issue when Haitians migrate to the Dominican Republic. Though African slaves played an important role in the creation of both nations, Dominicans downplay this heritage, and, as David Howard describes, darker-skinned Dominicans as well as Haitians have been swept up in periodic expulsions of supposedly illegal migrants.

“National” differences between groups may be all but invisible to outsiders, though learning to negotiate these can play a crucial role in a migrant’s survival: Salvadoran Ana Guillén recounts how learning to “be Mexican” helped her on her perilous journey from El Salvador to the United States. But “racial” differences between newcomers and long-time residents are not necessarily easier to define; indeed, definitions of race are often shaped by the interplay of the two groups’ perceptions of each other. In Robert Smith’s view, the racial identity of Mexican migrants in New York City is a story in progress: Will the newcomers come to be seen—and see themselves—as “white” like the Irish, Greeks and Italians who came before them? Or will they be grouped, in their own minds as well as minds of others, with African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. “Whitening” is, in this view both a path to economic improvement, and a sign that a group has “made it.” But economic success is not enough to ensure a migrant group’s acceptance, as the descendents of Japanese migrants to Peru have learned. More than a hundred years after the first Japanese arrived in Peru, Eve Kushner reports, their descendents still have an uneasy place in Peruvian society, one that has become even more paradoxical with the rise and subsequent fall of Japanese-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori.

In the end, the contributors to this issue tell us, it is the interplay of group self-perception and perception of the Other which will determine how completely, if at all, newcomers are integrated into existing societies and cultures—and how much of a cultural mark they make on their new homelands.


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