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2. L’entre-deux : espaces, pratiques et représentations
IV. Chercheurs et populations de l’entre-deux

Latinos in the United States: Mestizo Logics vs. the Black-White Binary?



La population des “Latinos” (ou “Latinx”) des États-Unis, dont le nombre dépasse les 60 millions, constitue un excellent laboratoire pour l’étude des formes de l’« entre-deux », que ce soit en termes ethnoraciaux, linguistiques, culturels et peut-être même politiques. En dialogue critique avec l’ouvrage d’Ed Morales, Latinx (2018), cet article examine une gamme de modes et de sites où l’entre-deux se manifeste dans l’histoire et la vie contemporaine des Latinos aux États-Unis. L’importance des contextes socio-historiques en constant changement est fortement soulignée.

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1How to account in social research for situations of ethnoracial and cultural in-betweenness observed in everyday life and in the public sphere? Whatever other protocols of methodology are defined to bring order and meaning to an empirical investigation – these may vary greatly according to the objects studied, the disciplinary approaches adopted and the objectives pursued – it is also essential to develop a macro-social and macro-historical analysis to situate the object of study in context and provide key sources of meaning which might otherwise remain invisible. This macro perspective is indispensable as a matter of method. We shall try to demonstrate this point by taking the example of Latinos in the United States.

  • 1 The term “Latinx” either remains unknown or is rejected by the vast majority of Latinos – all but 3 (...)
  • 2 Although the exact moment of this demographic shift occurred cannot be determined, it was first rep (...)

2Since the year 2001, the Hispanic/Latino category (now referred to by some as “Latinx” 1) is recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau as the largest ethnic or ethno-racial minority in the U.S., having numerically surpassed African Americans.2 By 2020, the category had reached 18.5% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau). Although, phenotypically speaking, Latinos cover the full gamut from white to black, they belong historically neither to the white nor to the African American category and are often characterized as occupying an in-between place on the color line. The historical experience of Latinos in U.S. society could be seen as a macro-laboratory of situations of in-betweenness that lend themselves, for purposes of research, to examination in context, since the very meaning of this in-betweenness is a contested terrain.

3The social science literature about U.S. Latinos is immense and covers numerous domains, including socio-demographics (which often include questions of race/ethnicity and identification, as well as geography), anthropology, socio-linguistics, socio-economics, urban studies, education studies, studies of politics and social movements, and more. Each of these areas has its own toolbox of research methodologies. Whatever these may consist of, they should without exception include, also as a matter of method, an accounting of the contexts (social/historical/cultural) of concrete situations examined. This would be true for any object but is particularly true in studies involving race/ethnicity which, practically by definition, are always constantly changing and being reinvented in new situations. The shape-shifting character of the discourses and practices we associate with race/ethnicity require that particular attention be paid to distinguishing continuity from discontinuity – that is, in the midst of constant change, what signs of continuity are nonetheless significant; or, conversely, what changes, even subtle ones, may be teased out of an analysis in which continuities are taken into account.

4Among Latino scholars and intellectuals, and others who follow their discussions, the idea has been circulating in one form or another since the 1960s that Latinos have a particular and perhaps even exemplary relationship with ethnoracial difference because they embody within U.S. society a form of mestizaje – or ethnoracial and cultural mixing of populations – that has characterized their entire modern history starting in Latin American and Caribbean societies. From the earliest colonial times to the present, Latinos have become much more accustomed to such mixing than has historically been the case in the United States, known for a more starkly binary black-white “color line” and for centuries of struggle against the social barriers it represents.

  • 3 One of the classic expressions of the “rainbow people” thesis is a book by Clara E. Rodríguez, Puer (...)

5Whatever its intentions, in overly schematic form such a reading of the modern history of the Americas has sometimes fed into ideological discourses about U.S. Latinos as a “rainbow people” so to speak, that is, as privileged bearers of the principle of mixing and of an historic mission to spread their example in U.S. society.3 In other words, Latinos are portrayed as collectively destined to lead the U.S. in outgrowing or transcending its racialist obsessions by simply learning to become used to living with ethno-racial difference. Ed Morales, author of the important work Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture (2018), does not fully disagree. He defines as follows the purpose of the book:

Latinx intends to describe the in-between space in which Latinx live, which allows us to cross racial boundaries more easily and construct identities, or self-images, that include a wide variety of racial, national and even gender-based identifications. (Morales 5)

6And yet he stresses that when taken too far such reasoning can serve – and in many parts of Latin America has indeed long served – to mask or deny persistent racialist hierarchies by proclaiming mestizaje (or “racial democracy” as in Brazil), to be an already-fulfilled program of national unity. Turning mestizaje into a dominant ideology has served as a way of promoting idealized national narratives that tend to deny or erase the ongoing domination of white (or in any case lighter-skinned) social and economic elites. In Latin America, afrodescendiente populations have not, to say the least, known a smooth path to social mobility; nor can the ongoing marginalization of indigenous populations in different parts of Latin America be dismissed on the premise that a mestizo national identity has made such questions irrelevant.

7Morales offers a more nuanced reading of the mestizaje of which U.S. Latinos are historically the bearers. He does not deny, but on the contrary takes pains to reconstruct, all the contradictions that have accompanied Latin American and U.S. Latino mestizaje in modern times: its origins in colonial conquest and slavery; its conversion, after national independence, as noted, into an ideological discourse of national harmony masking stark social and racialized inequalities; and the varying, contradictory ways in which the mestizaje embodied by Latinos in U.S. society has encountered and dealt with the more binary racial logics at work.

8In Morales’ account, social hierarchies of race and class, originating in the colonial period, have existed abundantly in Latin America, even if there has also been, overall, a greater degree of flexibility than in North America in the opening of social spaces for persons of mixed origin, mixed cultural references and more than one language. Although Latin Americans in general, including those living in the U.S., cover the gamut of phenotypes from the blackest or most fully indigenous to the whitest, with the majority being indeed “in between”, and have had in general a more flexible attitude toward mestizaje than North Americans, this certainly does not mean that Latinos collectively and objectively embody anti-racism or are innocent of discrimination or simply essentialized perceptions of others along ethno-racial lines. For Morales mestizaje is an ongoing terrain of tension and struggle within the Latino population. As he shows with a host of examples, many Latinos have been inclined historically to seek inclusion in ways that involve sharing to some extent in white privilege and identifying as white, but he cites other examples – in particular from his own New York experience – of Latinos, whether dark-skinned or not, who identify, so to speak, with the “black” side of themselves and take part in struggles that involve opposing racism.

9Morales is neither strictly speaking a historian nor a political scientist nor a sociologist nor an anthropologist nor a practitioner of cultural studies in any strict academic sense, but he borrows from the toolboxes of all these fields in tracing through modern history and into the present the multiple and ever-changing ways in which Latin Americans have defined their place in society, or have had it defined for them. In providing his historical reconstruction of the U.S. “Latinx” experience, he does not hesitate to intervene with a strong orienting judgment, making no claim of axiological neutrality. As a left-leaning, anti-racist New Yorker who through his family has maintained close ties with Puerto Rico, he clearly favors and seeks to promote scenarios in which Latinos, “rather than simply creating a new shade of person somewhere between black and white”, use “this in-between space… to reveal the blackness and indigenousness often erased in Latin America by mixed-race utopian ideologies…” (5). Those who might prefer, in a more conventional academic mode, not to deal so openly in judgments regarding the choices Latinos make, can nonetheless appreciate the fact that in expressing such judgments and forcing discussion of them, he is also helping to expand research horizons. He sheds light on a range of choices and possibilities that do not appear on the surface of every social interaction but which, when understood, help greatly to interpret the experience of U.S. Latinos in their in-betweenness.

Mestizaje, or Having a Word

10As is well known, there is no readily available term in the English language for persons of mixed ethno-racial histories and/or mixed cultural heritages, or for the processes of mixing by which they came to be born. The terms métissage in French, mestizaje in Spanish, mestizagem in Portuguese etc., may refer, depending on the context, to matters more ethno-racial, or more cultural, or both. One could argue that the term is broad and even vague, but it exists and covers a need that is much more awkwardly addressed in English in its absence. US Latinos, it could be argued, have the advantage over monolingual speakers of English of having the term mestizaje at their disposal to account for a whole rich history from which they spring. Morales pursues the argument further, suggesting that, while nothing happens automatically, the notion of mestizaje could also be a lever for introducing new possibilities into US society, by subverting the stark binary logic of black and white.

Modes and Sites of In-Betweenness

11In all their diversity as a broad pan-ethnic category, Latinos (or Hispanics, or Latinx) embody several different forms of in-betweenness at once. The most obvious sense in which this is true is that they are neither clearly part of the white majority nor of the African American minority, and are often, though not always, in-between in a purely phenotypical sense. In the years of Chicano militancy starting in the mid-1960s, Mexican Americans often characterized themselves as “brown” and the term is still used by some, although today it is less automatically associated with the slogan of “brown power”. In what follows we will briefly examine three major sites, or types of situations, in which in-betweenness manifests itself and lends itself to field research that can help to reveal much about the ethno-racial, cultural and political dynamics at work in U.S. society. We will look first at the question of how Latinos label themselves; next at language and cultural expression; and finally at politics. These of course are not the only possible sites of in-betweenness but they are among those richest in research terrains to be explored.

Ethnic and racial self-categorization

  • 4 Victoria Hattam examines in detail the political processes by which this category was adopted, deve (...)
  • 5 Victoria Hattam examines how the ethnic-racial distinction has evolved in U.S. political discourse (...)

12The pitfalls and inherent ambiguities of ethnic labeling provide one type of illustration of Latino in-betweenness. Since the 1970s the U.S. Census has included a question about whether one belongs to Hispanic or Latino category,4 officially defined as an “ethnic” category, whereas the other major categories – White, African American, Native, Asian (or Pacific Islander), and subsets of these – are defined as “racial”. Although the distinction between the ethnic and the racial drawn by the Census Bureau carries no scientific weight, it does seem to suggest that Latinos embody an in-between mode of difference: it is not “racial”, i.e. not a vector of polarization historically, but “ethnic”, which connotes a softer mode of difference of the kind also associated with earlier generations of immigrants from Europe and classified as white5.

  • 6 The Hispanic Population 2010 Census Briefs, May 2011, p. 14.

13As Morales and a number of other authors have observed, the ways in which Latinos respond to the race question tend to show that these categories are not adequate to describe their situation. Indeed, in the 2010 Census, 53% of Latinos described themselves as white, 2% as African American, 1.4% as American Indian, 0.4% as Asian, but 6% chose “two or more races” and fully 36% chose “some other race”.6 The 2020 Census produced an even more striking result: of the 62.1 million Latinos (or 18.7% of the U.S. population), about 45.3 million, that is over 75%, were classified as “some other race” either alone or in combination with specific racial groups, whereas only 4.6% of non-Hispanics chose “some other race”. Furthermore, 93.9% of those who were classified as “some other race” alone were Latinos – 26.2 million out of 27.9 million (Jones, Marks, Ramirez and Ríos-Vargas).

14My object here is not to examine this question exhaustively but to suggest that this particular mode of Latino in-betweenness raises important questions that lend themselves to much closer and more nuanced study. For example, sociologist Laura E. Gómez, drawing on another source of data about self-identification, the 2018 American Community Survey, has observed significant differences among Latino national origin groups regarding their responses to the racial question, but notes at the same time that these differences need to be further nuanced by introducing the variable of place or region. For example, she writes:

More than twice as many Dominicans in Florida as in New York/New Jersey select the “White” category. A parallel dynamic exists for Puerto Ricans: those who live in Florida are much more likely to select “White” (70%) than those who reside in New York/New Jersey (45%)… It is telling that self­-identified whiteness is more popular among those living in the former Confederacy, suggesting that Latinos who live in the South may, in fact, adopt whiteness as a defense to racism. In a similar vein, Mexican Americans in California are more likely to identify as belonging to “some other race” (53%) than those in more conservative Texas (36%), while California’s Mexican Americans are likewise less likely to self-identity as White (40%) compared to Mexican Americans in Texas (60%). ( Gómez 89)

15The “some other race” category is a fascinating object of study from the standpoint of in-betweenness. The continued existence of the category, despite attempts to suppress it, reflects a political choice. For the Census Bureau it is a source of statistical headaches and was indeed nearly dropped after the 2000 census, but a member of Congress, José E. Serrano, Democrat of New York, and then ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, threatened to block funding for the next census, that of 2010, if the category was not maintained. For Serrano it was a matter of making the census reflect “the realities of race in America today,” that is, by allowing those such as many Latinos, who felt the need to opt out of the main four categories, to do so without being thought in error or responsible for “invalid” results.

16Another sociologist who claims to have produced a nationally representative study of Latinos, Nicholas Vargas, used an innovative methodology to determine which categories were meaningful to Latinos and in what manner. In his study conducted circa 2015, 42% of the respondents identified as white while fully 50% preferred “some other race”. The innovation came in asking all respondents whether other Americans see them as white. The results are most revealing: only 6% of Latinos answered yes. Only 2% of those having self-identified as white said that non-Latinos saw them as white (Gómez 91). “This research,” Laura Gómez concludes, “fundamentally challenges the assumption that Latinos who self-identify as White are, in fact, truly White, instead suggesting they have a tenuous attachment to whiteness at best” (Gómez 91).

  • 7 See Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and the Po (...)

17In another study reviewed by Gómez it was found that nearly eight out of 10 Latino immigrants with green cards (legal permanent residents in the official terminology) identified as white – much higher percentage than native-born Latinos. Gómez hypothesizes that green card holders, whose levels of education are higher than those of Latinos in general, may be making a claim on whiteness that is “aspirational rather than descriptive” (Gómez 92 citing Frank, Redstone and Lu). What they aspire to is full inclusion. On the other hand there is evidence in recent years that children of Latino immigrants grasp what their parents may not: in the words of Gómez, “that the White-over-Black racial hierarchy in the United States means that they do not belong in either category” (Gómez 92). “For the U.S. born children of Latino migrants, their racialized Latino identity grows out of their sense of exclusion,” she concludes, drawing on well-known research by Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas (Gómez 92, note 116).7 More recent research points in the same direction, including a study conducted among Latino millennials in Chicago, entitled Citizens but not Americans (Flores-González).

18While for some Latinos the claim of whiteness may be aspirational, for others it may be defensive, as shown for example in the research of Julie A. Dowling, conducted among Texans living both near the Mexican border and considerably further away. Those who lived near the border had a greater tendency to identify as white and, she writes, “to cling to whiteness not in spite of but because of their position as a stigmatized group” (Dowling 133).

19Much more could be said about these matters, for example regarding how Latinos who identify and are identified as black negotiate the in-betweenness of the Latino category. The research we have drawn on here is not meant to paint a definitive portrait of Latinos and their ethnoracial identifications, but only to show that the question is infinitely complex and requires regularly renewed study because, like any other subject related to race, ethnicity and identification, the ethno-racial identifications of U.S. Latinos are constantly evolving.

Spanish, English and Spanglish(es): Interpreting Bilingualism

20In-betweenness in a linguistic and more broadly cultural sense is also very much part of the Latino condition. Although today only 33% of US Latinos are immigrants and all the others are US-born, and although most native-born Latinos do not have anything approaching the same command of spoken and written Spanish as their parents or grandparents who immigrated, there is nonetheless a massive and highly noticeable presence of Spanish in the US, most of all in cosmopolitan cities such as Los Angeles, Miami and New York, but by now as well in many rural areas where not a single Latino had been seen prior to the 1990s (See Massey ; Valerio-Jiménez, Vaquera-Vásquez and Fox). This is due mostly to the presence of immigrants, but also their descendants who live in multigenerational households, or multilingual neighborhoods, and for whom Spanish is at least a familiar presence even if they do not fully master the language. It has been widely noted that many Latinos tend in everyday situations to “code-switch”, that is, change languages in mid-sentence and forge different modes of “Spanglish”. What exactly does this signify, however? The practices of language-mixing and “code-switching” popularly referred to as “Spanglish” take many different forms, from everyday speech to literary and artistic manifestations of Spanglish as a chosen in-between mode of expression. Here is a perfect sort of research terrain for the socio-linguistic analysis of situations of in-betweenness.

21The use of both English and Spanish by Puerto Ricans in the continental U.S., as studied by the cultural studies scholar Juan Flores (1943-2014), provides us with an important example of how socio-historical contextualization is crucial to interpreting given forms of bilingualism and interlingual expression. In a portion of his book Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity (Flores, Attinasi and Pedraza) Flores studies the persistent signs, via language and cultural expression, that Puerto Ricans were not experiencing what sociologists of immigration defined as a classic path to assimilation. Drawing on data from a study of the everyday language practices of Puerto Ricans of El Barrio (East Harlem), undertaken over a period of several years in the 1970s by the Language Policy Task Force of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, in which he took part, he observes, regarding the population studied, that “nearly all Puerto Ricans are bilingual to some degree, with second language skills acquired, for the most part, outside any formal language instruction.” Family networks, and Puerto Ricans more generally, “are affected by circulating migration, making bilingualism necessary” (Flores, Attinasi and Pedraza 162-163). The form of bilingualism observed “makes use of nonstandard and class-based vernacular speech”, which is “qualitatively different from separated bilingualism comprised of literate standards” (Flores, Attinasi and Pedraza 162-163). Contrary to education specialists who tended to look upon Puerto Rican bilingualism as a social handicap or even as a sign of “alingualism” (that is, lack of written or oral competence in either language), or at best as a sign of inevitable transition from Spanish to English, Flores insists on the importance of socio-historical and political context:

Just as four centuries of Spanish colonialism have been responsible for the Caribbean variety of Spanish that Puerto Ricans speak, so, too, is U.S. colonialism crucial to the language dynamic current in the last part of this century. The colonial state of Puerto Rico underlies such social conditions as complex and circular migration patterns, economic stratification, American citizenship and monolingual language policies.

22As for whether the Puerto Rican version of bilingual practice is a “tragic convergence of two nonstandard vernaculars” possibly leading to “alinguality”, Flores, using the findings of the Language Policy Task Force, makes a very different assessment:

Code-switching represents neither the lack of language nor structure convergence. Rather, sentences that used both Spanish and English were found to be grammatical in both languages; switching occurs only where the structures of Spanish and English are congruent. We found that balanced bilinguals engaged in more intimate intricate kinds of switching while those with fluency in one language avoided syntactic risks by switching between sentences or switching only independent particles and exclamations. Rather than compensating for monolingual deficiency, code-switching often signals an expansion of communicative and expressive potential. (Flores, Attinasi and Pedraza 165)

23The in-betweenness of being not just a “hyphenated American” but also being situated, culturally and linguistically, in a space in between the generation of immigrant parents and the mainstream of the host society, has given rise to much analysis and commentary. Among the best-known works today is that of a Cuban American literary scholar, Gustavo Pérez-Firmat. The very title of the book marks it as a landmark study of in-betweenness: Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way (Pérez-Firmat). His subject is the “1.5” or “one-and-a-half” generation, that is, the “intermediate immigrant generation whose members spent their childhood or adolescence abroad but grew into adults in [the U.S.]”. Although he borrows this concept from sociologist Rubén Rumbaut, he takes issue with Rumbaut’s emphasis on the necessarily “marginal” status of the 1.5 generation. For Rumbaut members of this generation are “marginal to both the old and the new world, and are fully part of neither” (direct quote) whereas for Pérez-Firmat “the inverse may be equally accurate: only the 1.5 generation is marginal to neither culture” (Pérez-Firmat 4, Rumbaut 61). He draws inspiration from the concepts of acculturation and transculturation as anthropologists have employed them, devising the term “biculturation”, a synonym of hybridization, which, he says, “implies an equilibrium, however tense or precarious, between the two contributing cultures.” “The hyphen is a seesaw: it tilts first one way, then the other” (Pérez-Firmat 6). Throughout his work he examines the roles and images of Cubans and Cuban Americans in music, fiction and television, from the days of the I Love Lucy show in the 1950s co-starring Desi Arnaz, to the Cuban American music scene in Miami, to the fiction of Oscar Hijuelos. Although it is assumed that the international context of the transition from Cuban to Cuban American is a tragic situation insofar as hundreds of thousands of individuals and families were uprooted and prevented from having ordinary contact with their country of origin, nonetheless the overall tone of Pérez-Firmat’s account is rather upbeat. Although the transition involves in its initial phases a predominant sense of estrangement and disconnection, the process, in his reading of it, ultimately leads to feeling at home in the new environment. The relation of Cuban Americans to U.S. culture is “appositional” rather than “oppositional” and is defined, he writes, “more by contiguity than by conflict” and by “collusion rather than collision”.

  • 8 Juan Flores (1941-2004) was also the author of From Mambo to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Lati (...)

24Clearly this a rather different account of Latino immigrant in-betweenness than that of Juan Flores concerning Puerto Ricans in New York. Flores emphasizes the subaltern social condition and the situation of racialization that characterizes the life of many Puerto Ricans of New York, all in a context of direct colonial domination, given Puerto Rico’s political status, which imparts to the “transition” of Puerto Ricans a less “appositional” character and, no doubt, more “oppositional”, at least to a degree, given the forms of passive resistance to cultural assimilation he never ceased to uncover in his work.8

  • 9 Among the wealth of other works we could cite, we can distinguish José David Saldívar, Border Matte (...)

25The two authors we have briefly presented here are simply illustrations of cultural and linguistic in-betweenness and can be studied fruitfully via concrete social situations or works of cultural expression. Other notable works could be cited in the areas of socio-linguistics, ethnomusicology, literary and cultural studies9.

Politics: The Trouble With Unity

26Latinos acting as citizens in the public sphere, as voters or activists or elected officials, or even as none of the above, provide another remarkable set of research terrains if one keeps in mind the kinds of questions raised with insistence by Morales. In Latinx, as we have seen, he extends the question of mestizaje from phenotype and language into the domain of how people who occupy in-between social spaces choose to represent and conduct themselves in concrete situations in everyday life or as citizens. He places great emphasis on politics because of the choices he sees as inherent in today’s Latino (or Latinx) condition – choices about identification or mode of expression, for example, which are always related, directly or indirectly, to societal and political choices.

  • 10 Doug McAdam & Karina Kloos, in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar Amer (...)

27Is there any equivalent of Latino cultural and linguistic in-betweenness in the area of electoral politics? In a context of growing polarization in U.S. politics over the past 30 years at least (let us say since the era of Republican Newt Gingrich as House Speaker under Clinton) if not much further back,10 it has become harder for any in-between political force to exist and it is highly unlikely that Latinos, in all their constitutive diversity, could ever be inclined to play such a role. Although Morales advocates a form of “strategic essentialism” based on the idea that the Latino condition is “grounded in our racialized bodies, borrowing from the body politics of black thinking as well as groundbreaking work by feminists” (Morales 185), he is not so naïve as to believe that most Latinos today think or act in such a manner.

  • 11 Political philosopher Cristina Beltrán has made a study of this question in The Trouble with Unity: (...)

28Indeed, however strong a case he makes for Latinos to define a “commonality among us that recognize[s] racial difference as an organizing principle” (Morales 187), there are few signs of Latinos being a political force unto themselves, other than journalistic speculation about the “Latino vote”, but searching for signs of broad Latino pan-ethnic voting bloc is a vain pursuit. It is well-known that Latino voters over the past several decades have shown a strong preference on a national scale for Democrats over Republicans, but the tendency is not so overwhelming as to suggest that there is anything resembling an emerging political unity among Latinos, or that there ever could be.11 Latinos who vote Democrat and lean to what is often called the center or center-left may be associated with positions on matters of race and ethnicity that take for granted the accomplishments of the civil rights era and the inclination to see those perpetuated and possibly even broadened and deepened. These are Latinos, be they working class or middle class, who may be inclined to take part in broad multi-ethnic alliances that include African Americans, like-minded whites, and any other progressive forces (broadly defined here), rather than seeking at all costs to see their inclusion in whiteness validated – in other words, the kinds of Latinos that Morales would like to see become more numerous and more affirmative. However, as was widely noted after the November 2020 elections, there are also significant numbers of Republican-leaning Latinos and even, in some places, significant minorities or localized majorities of Latinos who have supported Donald Trump, including a few places on the map (parts of southern Florida and south Texas) where support for Trump, even increased – while still remaining in the minority – between 2016 and 2020.

29Part of the answer to the question of Latino support for Republicans goes back much further than Trump. For at least two decades now, and most prominently since George W. Bush of Texas and his advisor Karl Rove, Republicans have also regularly made appeal to Latinos based on the idea that Democrats “treat them as victims”, or as an “ethnic bloc” whose vote can be “taken for granted”, and that the best way to declare their independence is thus to vote Republican. This has been just as regularly accompanied by targeted appeals based on social conservativism and religion, that is, the claim of being the party of “family values”, “right to life” (that is, opposition to abortion) and values-based patriotism.

30How can one begin to account for Latino support for Trump that was estimated to run nationally in 2020 at about 38% as opposed to roughly 30% in 2016 (Igielnik, Keeter and Hartig 9)? If, to make sense of this particular manifestation of Latino disunity, we turn towards Morales’ perspective, it might yield the following line of reasoning. First, it was evident for anyone who follows politics that this president was openly anti-immigrant and expressed overtly racist opinions about the peoples of certain countries located to the south, starting with Mexico and the countries of Central America, as evidenced by all the immigration policies devised and implemented under his authority. It was clear that Trump was no friend of minorities or ordinary working people, and no supporter, to say the least, of efforts to fight racism and social injustice more generally, since he did not hesitate to let armed actors into the mix of right-wing forces who made anti-racism into one of its prime targets. From this standpoint, advocacy of Trump is tantamount to support for an openly anti-Latino and more generally racist president; in Morales’ terms, Latino support for such a president would have to be an expression, in some manner, of the “white” dimension of their identifications as opposed to the “blacker” and more popular, more “rainbow” dimensions.

31However, a closer look at why given Latino voters have come to support someone like Trump reveals that some of the reasons they themselves articulate do not appear to correlate in any direct and transparent way with coordinates on a spectrum of class and race positions in the historical wake of the civil rights era, not to mention the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements of the 1960s and 70s. There are strategies at work, on the part of Trump and similarly inclined political forces, to suppress and discredit the whole subject of racialized inequality, not only by ignoring or minimizing its implications, but by presenting those who appeal to Latinos on this basis as “pandering” to an ethnic clientele, presenting ethnoracial minority groups as “victims”, etc. – a discursive move that has encountered success, in given places and at given times, far beyond what Democrats and progressives might have expected. In recent years this discourse has blended into another, already familiar one, in which Democrats are deemed to represent by definition the “left” or even the “far left” and are determined in their totality to promote “socialism” which, in their vocabulary is by definition incompatible with democracy or in any case with their proclaimed conception of national values. In southern Florida, among conservative Cuban Americans the denunciation of “socialism” is, of course, not a new formula but it has recently been enhanced and re-energized by the presence of other conservative groups, living either in exile by choice in southern Florida, including Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Colombians and others. The appeal to vote Republican on that basis is obviously a conservative move, but it cannot be reduced simply to an appeal to whiteness. If this were true, it would be hard to explain why some of the most hard-line radical right-wing groups in the U.S., such as the Proud Boys, have Latinos, and not necessarily the phenotypically whitest among them, among their most prominent leaders. In the case of the Proud Boys, the leader in question could be characterized as a Miami-born U.S. citizen of Afro-Cuban extraction.

32Somewhat more difficult to decipher after the 2020 election is the support for Trump in parts of southern Texas, along the U.S.-Mexican border, where the immense majority of the population is of Mexican origin. In 2020, Trump won in 14 out of 28 border counties that Hillary Clinton had nearly swept in 2016 with an average margin of victory of 33%. Biden’s margin of victory in the counties he did win was much lower (an average of 17%) (Ferman). It may be too early for research to account fully for this phenomenon, but journalistic reports provide important clues. One report from south Texas slightly after the November 2020 election indicates that some voters were persuaded that Republicans such as Trump were more likely than Democrats to defend the oil and gas industries in which they worked. It appears that here, as in south Florida, the Trump campaign depicted the Democrats as being on an excessively “leftward” trajectory, except that here the reference was less to “socialism” as this notion might resonate with conservatives and ultraconservatives in Latin America than to an ecological orientation judged too radical and a threat to the livelihood of certain categories of workers.

33Another report from a group of counties (Zapata, Webb, and Starr) in south Texas, while confirming that the relative Republican success had to do with questions of employment in the oil and gas industries, also stresses the idea that Republicans successfully appealed to Mexican Americans not as Hispanics or Latinos or Latinx, associated via this label with other groups far from Texas, but as Tejanos, that is, Mexican American border dwellers with their own regional history and sense of belonging (Herrera). This situation indeed poses a particular challenge to a perspective like that of Morales in which it is difficult to imagine that Latinos (or Latinx) would be taking distance from the inclusive pan-ethnic category itself.

34None of this is to imply that a more progressive and “rainbow” orientation is absent from Latino perspectives, even in Texas where the majority of voting Latinos do favor the Democrats. Much depends on location. In Chicago, the most dynamic forces in politics among Latinos lean distinctly to the left in comparison to almost anywhere in Texas. In recent decades there have been, at least at times, governing progressive if not left-leaning coalitions in which Latinos have played a major role. This has been true at given moments in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, as well in the southwestern states of Arizona and Nevada in recent years.

  • 12 For two different accounts of the Harold Washington experience in Chicago, see Manning Marable, “Ha (...)

35Chicago may be the first major city to show the way in building a progressive alliance including African Americans, Latinos and whites, as seen in the historic “rainbow” campaign to elect African-American mayor Harold Washington (1983-1987).12 At roughly the same period of time, another Chicago figure, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, undertook a “Rainbow Coalition” campaign to capture the Democratic Presidential nomination and won a number of primaries, though not the (1984, 1988). In both rainbow ventures, Latinos played key roles and helped make the experience possible for as long as it lasted.

36As these contradictory examples show, there is no simple and mechanical explanation for how ethno-racial self-identification correlates with political attitudes or stances. The in-between ethnoracial, linguistic or cultural spaces that Latinos may occupy clearly do not translate in any automatic way into given political attitudes or preferences. Understanding the complex correlations requires ground-level research, regularly renewed.

Emerging ethno-racial configurations

37In a final movement of this first approach to forms of in-betweenness among U.S. Latinos, it is useful to return to a more macro-sociological perspective in raising questions about how the U.S. social and ethnoracial order is likely to evolve in coming decades and how research may approach this question. Although it is not necessarily the vocation of the social sciences to engage in predictions, nonetheless the growingly pressing question of how ethnoracial relations might evolve in U.S. society in the future has generated much speculation and some fear, stoked by fearmongering regarding the emerging “majority-minority” demographics. The danger of such discussions being steered in very misleading directions makes the authority of the social sciences all the more important in investigating possible future scenarios in a controlled and responsible way.

38In this spirit, a few sociologists and political scientists who have devoted decades to observing ethnic and racial matters in the U.S. have on occasion attempted to project their analyses into the future by formulating hypotheses about possible new ethno-racial scenarios in the U.S., given rapid demographic change. One such author is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, on whose work Morales relies heavily in treating this question. In the expanded 2014 edition of his well-known work of sociology Racism Without Racists, Bonilla-Silva projects into the future demographic tendencies that he sees as imposing on white dominance the need to adapt to an emerging “majority-minority” population (Bonilla-Silva 225-253). In the year 2015 already, at least six of the 50 states and 122 (or 28%) of the 435 Congressional districts were “majority-minority” (Ballotpedia).

  • 13 In this vein of research the work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant should also be mentioned (Omi an (...)

39As both Bonilla-Silva and Morales argue, the simple fact of this diversity does not in itself guarantee an end to white dominance, but it may force the logic of white dominance to become – as in Latin America starting centuries ago – more inclusive around the edges, by providing enough space for some people of color to achieve, through social mobility, an “honorary white” status, which would also help to reinforce discourses of colorblindness. Latinos and Asians would be among the prime candidates for honorary whiteness, along with many people of mixed race in the US, and possibly Middle Easterners. “The new order,” Bonilla-Silva argued in 2014, “will be apparently more pluralist and exhibit more racial fluidity than the order it is replacing.” “However,” he continued, “this new system will serve as a formidable fortress for white supremacy”, that is, as a “kinder and gentler” version of white supremacy, in which “‘we are beyond race’ lyrics and color-blind music will drown the voices of those fighting for racial equality” (Bonilla-Silva 227, 231)13.

40How realistic is this scenario? How likely is it, in other words, that Latinos – or at least some Latinos – will come to occupy a middle or “buffer” zone in the ethno-racial configuration of U.S. society? Or, to the extent that this scenario contains elements of realism, how have the emergence of white supremacist tendencies within one of the two major political parties affected its realization? The Obama era may have appeared on the surface to be a time rather favorable to an extension of the status of whiteness – even if “honorary” – to a broader range of people, which could be thought in turn to contribute to an attenuation of racialized polarization, and hence to a greater opportunity for the discourse of colorblindness to gain currency. However, Trump’s electoral success in 2016 and all that ensued has shown that a strong and politically driven backlash is possible to the emergence of a “majority-minority” population. A hard right in power, engaging in fearmongering about immigrants, asylum-seekers, and people of color more generally, may indeed perturb efforts to soften the edges of the ethnoracial order, in spite of the demographic change that is likely to continue occurring – short, of course, of radically restrictionist immigration measures sustained over a long period of time.

41There is of course no social science capable of predicting with any certainty the future shape of society, and yet the framing of possible future scenarios by experienced social scientists may help to develop the “sociological imagination” that Charles Wright Mills famously encouraged (Wright Mills). Historically grounded critical thinking of a sort that Ed Morales represents is another possible source of inspiration. I have lavished attention on these approaches as a way of emphasizing that in research on this type of subject, attention to context is of equal importance to field methodology in interpreting micro-situations. The in-betweenness of U.S. Latinos manifests itself in numerous ways and none of these are frozen in time but are in constant and dynamic evolution.

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1 The term “Latinx” either remains unknown or is rejected by the vast majority of Latinos – all but 3 %, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Center in 2020 (Noe-Bustamante, Mora and Lopez).

2 Although the exact moment of this demographic shift occurred cannot be determined, it was first reported as fact by the U.S. Census Bureau in July, 2001 (Clemetson).

3 One of the classic expressions of the “rainbow people” thesis is a book by Clara E. Rodríguez, Puerto Ricans Born in the U.S.A. Boulder: Westview Press, 1989. For a sharp critique of it, see Roberto P. Rodríguez-Morazzini, “Beyond the Rainbow: Mapping the Discourse on Puerto Ricans and ‘Race’” in Antonia Darder and Rodolfo D. Torres (editors), The Latino Studies Reader: Culture, Economy and Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, p. 143-162.

4 Victoria Hattam examines in detail the political processes by which this category was adopted, developed and incorporated into the U.S. Census in In the Shadow of Race: Jews, Latinos and Immigrant Politics in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, chap. 5 (“The New Ethnics: Rereading Statistical Policy Directive 15”), pp. 111-128.

5 Victoria Hattam examines how the ethnic-racial distinction has evolved in U.S. political discourse over the 20th century in In the Shadow of Race, Jews, Latinos and Immigrant Politics in the United States, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, in particular chapters 1-3.

6 The Hispanic Population 2010 Census Briefs, May 2011, p. 14.

7 See Nicholas De Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. London: Routledge, 2003.

8 Juan Flores (1941-2004) was also the author of From Mambo to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, and The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning. London: Routledge, 2009. From Mambo to Hip-Hop includes a chapter entitled “Life Off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyrocian Traditions”, which is in part a critical homage to Pérez-Firmat’s pioneering work, in spite of the two authors’ differences of perspective.

9 Among the wealth of other works we could cite, we can distinguish José David Saldívar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997; Ana Celia Zentella, Growing up Bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997; Agustín Lao-Montes and Arlene Dávila (eds.), Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

10 Doug McAdam & Karina Kloos, in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 2014), traces a racially-themed phenomenon of polarization back to shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, since this led Republicans, starting with Goldwater and Nixon, to seek strategically, and with great success, to attract white voters in the South who were opposed to the changes brought about by the civil rights movement and thus motivated to break with the Democratic Party which had long embodied Jim Crow in southern states where that system prevailed.

11 Political philosopher Cristina Beltrán has made a study of this question in The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

12 For two different accounts of the Harold Washington experience in Chicago, see Manning Marable, “Harold Washington’s Chicago: Race, Class Conflict, and Political Change”, chap. 9 of Black Leadership: Four Great American Leaders and the Struggle for Civil Rights. London: Penguin Books 1999 [1998], pp. 127-146; and Andrew J. Diamond, Chicago on the Make: Power and Inequality in a Modern City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019, pp. 241-259.

13 In this vein of research the work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant should also be mentioned (Omi and Winant).

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James COHEN, « Latinos in the United States: Mestizo Logics vs. the Black-White Binary? »e-Rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Professeur à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW EA 4399
james.cohen@sorbonne-nouvelle.frJames Cohen est professeur en Études américaines à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle et membre de CREW depuis 2011. Ses recherches portent sur la société et les politiques étatsuniennes, sur les questions de race/ethnicité, d’immigration, et sur les relations internationales dans les Amériques. Il est l’auteur de Spanglish. Les enjeux de la « latinisation » des États-Unis (Le Félin, 2005) et de À la poursuite des « illégaux ». Politiques et mouvements anti-immigrés aux États-Unis (Le Croquant, 2012).

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