FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail