As the mother of a brown son, the Zimmerman acquittal left me saddened and conflicted. Saddened because Trayvon Martin's life ended so abruptly and under unexpected circumstances. Conflicted because of the diverse reaction of society at large. In particular I was uncertain about the impact this event would have on the Latino community -- of which I am part. I keep asking myself: How can this catalytic event become a learning moment for me and my son?
The Peruvian-American, Latina in me was puzzled to see George Zimmerman in the media and not read or hear one single reference to his heritage. Defense attorneys aggressively conveyed that the case was not about race. Ok, so for once race and ethnicity are clearly and accurately defined. But the huge elephant in the room was Zimmerman's appearance and ethnic background. Is he Latino? Mixed? The press tried to clumsily address the issue by calling him a white Hispanic. So, I wondered how Zimmerman identified himself prior to killing Trayvon Martin? What box did he check in the U.S. Census? Did his self-identification shift after being indicted and during the trial? From what transpired in the courtroom, I would guess he does not really know. To which I say, have you looked yourself in the mirror lately, George? In other neighborhoods, people would have been chasing after you!
What is the lesson for the Latino/Hispanic community? As Latinos we take pride on our ability to manage a multi-dimensional identity fueled by the many races and countries of origin that are the backbone of our culture. This cultural DNA gives us the malleability to lead a hyphenated life despite others boxing us in a category created by the U.S. government. But does the ability to bend our ethnicity give us the right to hide parts of who we are when it is convenient? Is denying part of our background and culture going to become a survival mechanism de rigueur for the Latino community like George Zimmerman and his family did?
The issue of heritage hits even closer to home because I was born in Peru -- hometown of Gladys Zimmerman, George's mother. As the darkest student in a classroom of 40 girls, I experienced first hand the prejudice and racism of a country that -- although racially mixed -- heralds a staunch devotion and craving for a light-skinned identity. The absolute denial that racism is an endemic part of Peruvian culture is illustrated in the terms of endearment given to dark skinned kids. My own pet name was "Negrita" (blacky). Dad still calls me that every once in a while. Another example is the term "¡Ese negro!" (that black man! -- which could be translated into another much more derogatory term). Even dark, mixed-raced, Afro Peruvians use it -- accompanied by a condescending tone -- to address their dark-skinned peers. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! With all this background information, I could not help but wonder what messages did Gladys Zimmerman pass on to her children consciously or unconsciously despite news reports to the contrary? How many times has George been called, "Negrito" or "Cholito" (a term of endearment to highlight someone's indigenous features)?
As the mother of a Latino boy, I could not help but empathize with parents in the African American community who have been asking what to tell their sons. I ask myself the same question. I wonder how other Latino parents -- given the complexity and courage needed to proudly acknowledge our whole selves--are processing these events and what are they sharing with their children.
When my sweet son--who has an Anglo last name -- becomes a young man, will he be perceived as the other? Will we still be having these conversations then? How can we weaken the narrative of fear, prejudice and anger and replace it with a dialog of trust, truth, understanding and empathy?