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A Taxonomy of Racism from Alvarado to Zimmerman

Last week our delegation from School of the Americas Watch made a visit to the Casa de la Memoria, or House of Memory, a new museum here in Guatemala City. What first caught my eye was a poster of early Spanish classifications of racial castes. It is the museum’s answer to the racist notion taught in schools here, that after the Spaniards arrival there was a “mixing of cultures”, kind of like peanut meets chocolate, or hip-hop meets jazz, to produce something new and beautiful — Guatemalan, or at least Ladino, culture. The narratives on the wall counter that pretty well —  the real history of rape, forced labor, and massacres were not quite such serendipitous events.

But the poster says it better. It starts off with a Spaniard meeting an indigenous woman (at an ice-cream social, no doubt), thus producing a “mestizo” child.  In the next panels, the mestizo children in turn start having kids, and things get complicated pretty quickly, if you’re as obsessed with race as the Conquistadores apparently were. There are a total of 16 classifications on the poster, each illustrated with parents of varying tones producing children with increasingly bizarre and elaborate names (and presumably an ever-shrinking sliver of civil rights).  The addition of “moros”, or Africans, to Central America begat yet more taxonomic challenges.  What really caught my eye was “lobo “.  Yes, apparently a child produced by a man whose parents were Spanish and black, and whose mother was Spanish, African and indigenous (leaving exact parentages aside for now, though the poster does not) gives birth to a wolf.

The next to last frame shows a child whose mother is a mixture I can’t quite decipher, and whose father is a mulato — this child is labelled, no doubt appropriately, a “No te entiendo”, or an “I don’t understand you”.

This poster and its classifications are astonishing and disturbing, of course, but we gringos dismiss it as exotic at our own peril.  Mulato is still a recognizable, if offensive, term in the US, and I don’t think one would have to dig too far into the archives of Mississippi or Louisiana to find a set of precise legal definitions (and associated explications of American apartheid pre and post-civil war) of mulato, quadroon, octoroon, and so on, each with their own specific legal implications as well.  The arcane images on the poster don’t only represent 16th century Mesoamerican sociology — they speak to the question of who our great-grandmothers could marry in Alabama, and perhaps whether your great Uncle inherited his farm or had to sharecrop it.

At the bottom of the poster it reads “Todos somos gente” – we are all people. But it’s clear that such a statement is still a protest as well as a fact.

Institutionalized racism today, whether in Guatemala, Florida, or Brooklyn, contains these same complicated calculations of personhood in its DNA. They are the sorts of calculations which were being made unconsciously in a courtroom this past month, as 12 people were given the task of deciding whether a young man possessing an unknown quantity of brown-ness, and playing loud music, is sufficient reason to shoot him. (Spoiler alert….yes, apparently it is.) There were few disputed facts in either the Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis cases, and it is clear enough that if a person kills another person over loud music, or skittles and hoodies, that is murder or manslaughter. The verdicts justifiably outraged and mystified so many. Yet tragically, the prosecutors had little trouble convincing enough jurors to define Jordan and Trayvon as thugs, or wolves, or “No te entiendo” ‘s, to reach the decisions they did.

The project of the museum in Guatemala City is education — a group of middle schoolers were headed in just as we left. In their country and mine, if we truly aspire to make “todos somos gente” our reality, we had better get on with it.

Richard Ring is a field biologist and activist from upstate New York. In 2002 he served three months in federal prison for civil disobedience at the School of the Americas located in Ft. Benning, GA. His Bureau of Prisons I.D. number is 91099-020.

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