Red Hot Chili Peppers Are Us


The Economist’s cover image for its current issue, “Firing Up America: A Special Report on America’s Latinos” has already stirred up some controversy, for obvious reasons. It’s another form of the horrendous stereotyping that affects not only Latin@s but any other non-majority group. It’s a fancy reductio ad absurdum: Latin@s are essentially red hot chili peppers, otherwise there would be no Mexican restaurants. Many Latin@ media tweeters are, of course up in arms.

The report does focus on Mexican-Americans, who, as prolific consumers of chili peppers, make up around 64% of all Latin@s. This leaves out a lot of us–I haven’t seen any complaints about the mag’s relentless coverage of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis as if it existed in a vacuum outside of its colonial status–and that is annoyingly typical. But the most problematic aspect of this special edition is the way it tries to assuage the racial fears raised by Samuel Huntington’s infamous treatise on the Hispanic Challenge from his 2004 book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.

The timing of Huntington’s screed was key, since it was published just eight years after his book Clash of Civilizations, which added “the West vs the Rest” to the lexicon of globalization’s view of word conflicts, identifying Islam as one of the major enemies of the “free world.” That Latin@s were identified by the highly influential political theorist (who passed away in 2008) as incompatible with American identity was significant, particularly when it came to light in those charged years immediately after 9/11. The tone the Economist sets in its introductory essay “From Minor to Major” (one of the few in the issue not behind a paywall) is obvious: “Hispanics are transforming the definition of what it means to be a mainstream American,” but there’s no need to fear, because even thought it may be hard to tell on the surface, we can and will assimilate.

Ain’t that a thing? It turns out that even in the Economist, a mag that gets down to the brass tacks of free-trade agreements, import-substitution economic models, hedge funds and complex financial products, the dominant theme is race and assimilation. The problem for such a perspective is how to explain that Latin@ assimilation, though seemingly scary and unlikely, will actually follow a similarly rewarding path the European ethnic assimilation did in the years following World War 2. Why should America be patient and allow this to happen? Because Latin@s are making the US demographic “younger,” are capable of losing their home country’s identity, and have a purchasing power of $1.1 trillion.

To achieve this state of assimilation, as the essay states with the appropriate level of irony, Latin@s are even capable of slandering their own people to get ahead, certainly a key skill required in the making of the American character. The essay describes a moment when Colorado congressman John Salazar encounters some Hispanics who don’t agree with his attempts to pass immigration reform, when “he was berated by Mexican-American constituents whose families had been in his valley “for ever” and  “asked him why he was trying to help the mojados (wetbacks)—a pejorative for Mexicans supposed to have swum across the Rio Grande.”

But even though most “moderate” Latin@s wouldn’t go as far as using the w-word, variations of this kind of rhetoric abound in the discourse about Latin@ empowerment. Some champion intermarriage as a solution, many simply do not question the American economic system or how its intervention in Latin America masquerades as “foreign policy.” This objection to the chili pepper cover in a sense seems like a full endorsement of the Economist‘s neoliberal point of view: “I was born in Venezuela, but I moved to the US when I was six years old. And if you ask me how I identify, I will almost never say Venezuelan — I am American,” says German Lopez of Vox.

What’s missing in the discourse about Latin@s in the US is an assertion of our dual consciousness, parallel to what African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” in which our adaptation to the US involves a selective “assimilation” in which our home country culture exists side by side with a new one in the North, one informed by a heightened awareness of the legacy of racism, slavery, and colonialism. It’s this double consciousness that has created most of our best work in music, theater, poetry, and film. Sometimes, even elected politicians promote it as a strength.

Latin@s should not be concerned with assuaging fears that we will disrupt American identity, rather we should revel in our ability to turn it upside-down. Our assimilation will not be one of submission to Anglo-Protestant values but one that joins with other similarly marginalized groups, one that rather than suppress differences, actively defines them as the source of our identity. When that happens for a sustained period, there will no longer be red hot chili pepper covers on major magazines, and we will not be reduced to anguished pleas for acceptance.




One thought on “Red Hot Chili Peppers Are Us

  1. I hope you can find a way to more easily post your commentary on Facebook and on emails. I really appreciate your perspective.

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