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Rick Najera Headshot

Why This Latino Is Trayvon Martin Too

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Recently my son asked about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the so-called "White Hispanic" as some in the media have labeled him. My son is, as I jokingly call him, a 'Mixican' because he too is a mixed Latino. His mother is Irish and European and myself, a Mexican American. George Zimmerman is mixed as well. Obviously George Zimmerman is more white than Hispanic, so where does that leave my son in this story? My son Julian is 10 years old. He is a third generation American Mexican. He has light complexion with sandy brown eyes and very fine features; he looks classically white. He looks like an all-American boy. But he is not, he is a 'Mixican' as are most Latinos. We are mixed by a culture that is a reflection of our history. We are indigenous and European mixed together to create a "cosmic race" as we are called. Julian is the new American and now some may call him a "White Hispanic." He's only 10 and as each day passes, he questions me about race and culture. I miss the days when he asked easier questions, questions about things that I could easily answer.

But his world is becoming more complicated than the one I grew up in. After the verdict Julian asked me, "Why did George Zimmerman shoot Trayvon Martin?" He asked again, "Why did George Zimmerman shoot Tryavon Martin?" I explained, "Because he thought he was acting suspiciously and involved in criminal activity and that's why he followed him in his neighborhood." Then my son asked innocently "But, dad, why did he follow him?" Again I answered, "Well son, because he thought he might be a criminal." Then my son said with a hint of outrage, "Just because he was black?" I paused for a moment looking for another reason, and I really couldn't think of any other reason. "Yes," I said. "Yes son, because he was black." That was the most simple and truthful answer I could find. Children demand the truth; they have an innate sense of justice.

Then my son said, "But that's racist." He spoke with a voice I had never heard before -- full of conviction and righteous anger that only an innocent 10-year-old could somehow summon from the depths of his soul. I was dumbfounded. I said, "Son, I'm proud of you that you understand racism." And then he said something simple and profound. "I understand racism. I saw 42, the Jackie Robinson story." I had taken him months earlier to see the movie and in one particular horrible scene, Jackie Robinson was being taunted and called a racial slur -- the dreaded "N" word over and over again by the coach of the other team. I think it was the first time my son had even heard the word coming from the silver screen and I saw how it stung him. I had, at that moment, a revelation of Hollywood and how the power of its imagery can lift us up or tear us down.

What he had seen was racism, up close in a movie. He saw Jackie Robinson as a hero fighting against injustice. He saw himself in Jackie Robinson and related to him and admired him. Jackie Robinson was his new hero. But George Zimmerman, when he saw a young black man in a hoodie, he saw a criminal. Most likely, George Zimmerman had years of those images in his head fueling his suspicions born from Hollywood images that showed teenage black boys as criminals and dangerous. I work in Hollywood and I know the images we create and see, define us.

If I say apple what do you see? Some might see a red or a green apple depending on your experience with apples. When I say Latino or Mexican what do you see? You might see maids or Narcos or undocumented immigrants flooding a very porous border. That's what the media enforces and shows.

But when I say Latino or Hispanic, I see my people. I see my family, my son. When we show a black teenager in a hoodie, Trayvon Martin's mother saw her son. We interpret images that the media enforces and fills our mind with, over and over until those are the only images we see. I think in the end the media is to blame; more so than they admit. So many images of minorities are seen as criminals; whereas, the blonde Charles Bronson types or Arnold Schwarzeneggers fight to defend society. Unfortunately, these vigilantes are defending against the image of the minorities reinforced by the media, like a constant drum that has beat for decades and I think that's what George Zimmerman saw: A Hispanic identifying with his white side, far more than his Hispanic side. In his own mind he was a hero defending his neighborhood, so much that when he saw a black teenager in a hoodie, he saw a criminal, not a teenager walking home to his family. I recognize that this could have been my son, but due to my son's genetics, namely his fair skin, I also recognize he would not have met the same fate. And thankfully my son related to Trayvon Martin, sadly, more than George Zimmerman did. When I ask him what he is or who he is, Julian says, "Mexican American." Julian is proud and comfortable with who he is and his history. My wife and I send him to a multicultural school where he learns Spanish and English equally. Once he asked why he was learning two languages and why it was so important. I remember my answer, I said, "Because with two languages, you can make more friends." And he got it.

When people look at Latinos and wonder how we feel about Trayvon Martin, we understand racial profiling and discrimination. When people bring up immigration and other issues, they wonder why we Latinos are so adamant for a path to citizenship and fairness even though I'm second generation and my son is third. We cannot forget our other Latinos. We do not forget our families so easily. We have a shared history that we don't forget because we may have it better than our ancestors. The Republicans may have won the White House if they had supported Latinos and courted us more even though the Obama administration has deported Latinos in record numbers. But many felt with a Republican in office, it could get far worse. Between 2006 and 2008, according to the FBI statistics, there was a 35 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos; perhaps because the image of Latinos and other minorities are tainted in the media. Those images will only get worse as the middle class shrinks and we become more divided economically. Those images of people of color will hurt us far more than help us.

Unfortunately, our image is not defined or created by people with the same ethnic or cultural background and therein lies the real dilemma. In the end, image affects everything; as was the case with Trayvon Martin, only his led to tragedy. With this in mind, the real question is how can we stop this tragedy from happening again? We must first begin by understanding the problem. Recently, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) was quoted in saying that "writers are predominantly white, young male" and when it comes to Latinos, "we are treading water at best." In other words, we are not telling our stories in the media. We are not setting the record straight or balancing our images. And that needs to change. A case in point -- the Latino and American issue of immigration. This is a Latino issue, but an issue for us all. Latinos will not forget our brothers and sisters living in the shadows that are not documented. I myself come from a family that has fought and died in World War II and Vietnam and lately, in the Middle East. I did not cross the border; the border crossed me. I still see that Latino immigrant as one of my family. I have not forgotten where we came from. We can't. We need to remember, of the 11.1 undocumented people residing in the United States, 81 percent are Latino. They are our neighbors and in my son's case was his nanny.

My son reminded me of the power Hollywood has to create or destroy the Latino image that will ultimately help or harm us. The bigger question is what image will we relate to? I believe that not until we all see ourselves in each other, racial problems in America will only get worse. We all need to take the lesson to heart that we are that immigrant portrayed in the media. We are that farm worker portrayed in films. We are that black teenager in a hoodie -- and he is one of us . He is our child too. As for my son and myself, even though we are Latino, when it comes to race in America, we are we are all Trayvon Martin. And that's a lesson we need to remember and never forget.