By Leland Pan, Racial Justice Trainer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
September 15 – October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month, established in 1988. To start, there is the absurdity of the term “Hispanic,” a made up word by our country to imprecisely designate those who didn’t fit our original racial hierarchy but certainly weren’t extended the privileges of “white.” The term also defines people by the imperialistic acts of Spain rather than one’s identity. At the YWCA, we often use the term Latinx to be gender neutral, but even that is at times met with controversy due to it being an English invention being applied to a non-English heritage. Unsurprisingly, the label encompasses a huge diversity of ethnicities, much the way “Asian American” does; most people prefer to be referred to by their specific ancestral country. Such labels exist, though, to highlight similar treatment in this country. Similar to how many policies and stereotypes directed at some Asian groups get extended to all, much of our negative racial oppression directed at one Latinx group is targeted at all. Just as proof, look at the recent case of a man attacking someone wearing a shirt with the Puerto Rican flag for “not being American.” While some Puerto Ricans may not want to be a US territory or recognize its roots in racist colonialism, the truth is, Puerto Ricans are supposed to receive the benefits of US citizenship (aside from the critical issue of no representation in federal elections). More broadly, our racist rhetoric around Latinx communities, such as anti-immigration sentiment, is rooted in past racist policies against other demographics. No matter how imprecise our language is, as long as you’re not white, racism targets you.
The Latinx racial justice movement in Milwaukee is strong and deep, ranging from Jesús Salas’s work creating a migrant farmworkers’ union in Wisconsin, Obreros Unidos, which evolved into the current-day social service provider, UMOS, to the creation of bilingual education through the activism of now school board member Tony Báez. This tradition continues through the work of organizations like Voces de la Frontera, which, among other issues, is currently fighting racist deportation policies driven by ICE.
To honor this heritage, one has to ask: When will the rest of us step up? When will those of us not Latinx support Latinx-led movements? When will those of us not Black support Black-led movements? What does true solidarity look like in Milwaukee, and what happened to the dreams of activists like Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, believing in a vision of a Rainbow Coalition?
This goal is not easy. The status quo of racist, classist, and sexist oppression relies on division. When Fred Hampton came close to uniting the Black Panther Party, white college activists, Puerto-Rican-led Young Lords, and even gang members in the fight for racial justice, the Chicago Police Department and FBI assassinated him in his sleep. This was a man who reduced gang violence and sought to empower those most oppressed to take political action rather than violent action within their own communities. That is how threatening a “Rainbow Coalition” would be. Milwaukee would look like a vastly different city if Black, Asian, Indigenous, and Latinx communities shared political interests and strategies. If they knew each other as partners in the struggle and as friends. Chicago’s first Black mayor came through the uniting of Black and Latinx residents, with little support from white people. Similarly, Milwaukee is 64% non-white. We have the potential to usher in our first non-white elected mayor.
This month, I remember how honored and humbled I am by the Latinx movements in Milwaukee, fighting injustice in all avenues. Many of us who are not Latinx are doing the same in our circles, but this month may be a good time to ask – how can we be working, not in parallel lanes, but hand-in-hand?