The Spanish arrived from Europe in what would eventually become the United States nearly 500 years ago and began to mix with the indigenous people they met and conquered. Native Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, Caribbean islands, and other nations eventually meshed their native languages and cultures to become the population we now term “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

In those 500 years, the Hispanic and Latino people have made great contributions to the arts and sciences, as well as providing a major workforce that continues to build and support what we now call the United States. Hispanics make up approximately 18.5 percent of the U.S. population and 47 percent of the population of New Mexico. Eleven other U.S. states have a population of 1 million or more Hispanic residents: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Among U.S. states, New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic ancestry, at 47 percent (as of July 1, 2012).

According to Pew Research, a law passed by Congress in 1976 defined Hispanics as “Americans of Spanish origin or descent… Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries,” not including Portugal or Portuguese speaking-Brazil.

Despite their large numbers, myriad contributions celebrated during this Hispanic Heritage Month, the fact that their ancestors built civilizations eons before the Europeans arrived, and their European DNA, Hispanics today face widespread racism and bigotry. 

Racism against Hispanics is a complicated issue, noted now retired Distinguished Professor A. Gabriel Meléndez, former director of the Center for Regional Studies at The University of New Mexico.

First, one difference in terms of the experience of other groups in the U.S. is that Mexican-Americans were incorporated in the country as citizens en masse at the end of the U.S. Mexico War in 1848 and as a result of an international treaty. So technically, the group should have had all the rights of the American citizen, he said, adding that the other comparable group is Puerto Ricans, who have been citizens since 1898.

A. Gabriel Meléndez
A. Gabriel Meléndez

Meléndez observed that despite what has been called “ascriptive citizenship” (ascribed but not always acknowledged) large sectors of the Hispanic community have continued to lag socially and economically due to structural inequities that go back for decades.  

“Up until the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican Americans or Chicanos found themselves with limited opportunities to enter the professions, to access educational opportunities   ̶ especially university degrees   ̶ to move beyond established housing patterns or see their fair share of tax funding returned public schools or to improvement projects in towns and neighborhoods that were historically Mexican American," Meléndez said. "While individually it is not easy to draw a direct causal line between racism and ethnicity, discrimination is easy to see as an expression of the institutional insensitivity that has denied opportunity to Mexican Americans. It should be noted that we are talking about a very heterogeneous group, one that emerges out of the historical process known as mestizaje, that is the mixing of ethnicities, cultures, and classes over time that happened here in the border states but also Mexico and other countries in Latin American.

"The very idea of racial hybridity produced misunderstanding in earlier times and was borne of an irrational fear of miscegenation an idea built on faulty racist logic. I think that structural inequity is observable in a number of well-documented discriminatory practices. Economic segregation and educational disadvantages have all combined in a way that suggests that segments of the Chicanx or Latinx community have occupied a second-class standing the American life. This makes for a disproportion representation in negative categories of social life, such as shorter life spans, higher indices of health-related pathologies, higher numbers of incarcerations, lower educational attainment, and the like.”

“Some things have changed and gotten better, but the reality is, we still have a long way to go.”

 Rosa Isela Cervantes

Rosa Isela Cervantes is the director of El Centro de la Raza and Special Advisor to the President on Latino/a Affairs at UNM. Her father was born in Mexico and her mother in New Mexico and she lived for several years in Mexico as a child. She is pursuing her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from New Mexico State University. She also serves as Principal Investigator for the College Assistance Migrant Program serving students from migrant and seasonal farm-working backgrounds.

El Centro de la Raza got started during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “There was a battle by people of color to find equity in this country,” she said.

Cervantes believes there is a combination of factors contributing to racism.

Rosa Isela Cervantes
Rosa Isela Cervantes

“Colonization comes through with a sense of power to overtake another community. There is the idea that you have to overpower rather than coexist,” she observed. “In order to take over people you have to minimize who they are, and you do that by criminalizing and dehumanizing them. To justify expansion, you put down the people whose land you took over.”

Some racism is direct and hostile. Cervantes knows of UNM students who have been called names such as “wetback,” a derogatory term for Mexicans that refers to crossing the border into the U.S. by wading or swimming across the Rio Grande. However, students often don’t want to report such incidents.

Students will talk to each other about incidents like this, Cervantes remarked, “But they don’t necessarily want us to step in with a formal complaint.”

Racism isn’t always in hostile, face-to-face encounters, but rather subtle, what Cervantes termed “little things, micro-aggressions.”

“They will try to change your name,” she noted, by anglicizing Spanish names. “People try to call me Rose instead of Rosa.” Or some Hispanics are made to feel ashamed of their Spanish names and they try to change them to an English translation or equivalent.

Hispanics are also often judged by the color of their skin.

“People assume we all look one way,” Cervantes said.  “But racially, we go from the whitest white to darkest black. We run the gamut when it comes to skin color. There is so much intersectionality with Latinos.” Not all speak Spanish and not all identify as Hispanic.

As a woman with fair skin, Cervantes has found that people are surprised when she introduces herself and states her name which is clearly in Spanish.  “People say ‘Wait… You’re not who I thought you were.”

“They’re small ways, but they chip away at you.”

Racism happens in the classroom too. Hispanics form the largest population on campus, approximately 44 percent, Cervantes said. Unfortunately, something happens to many Hispanic students between entering and leaving UNM.

“We do really well at admitting Hispanic students coming in high numbers and we are working on retaining Hispanic students, but they don’t graduate in the same numbers,” she noted. Racism in both subtle and more obvious forms can be a factor.

Hispanic students say they don’t see people like themselves in the curriculum. Books and presentations include Black and white people but don’t often show the spectrum of people of color in between, Cervantes noted.

“So students don’t see themselves,” she said.

Occasionally when students of color or with Spanish surnames excel, teachers will imply they cheated assuming they don’t speak or write English proficiently.

Cervantes recalled family and friends sharing their experiences of being punished for speaking Spanish at school. She also remembers her mother having to advocate for her siblings who mostly spoke Spanish when starting elementary school and teachers wanting to put them in special needs classes.  Her mother fought the school, saying speaking Spanish and needing to learn to speak English better was not a disability.

Cervantes also recalls her first semester at UNM and her English professor who told her “You’re not going to pass my English class because you think in Spanish.” Cervantes went on to excel and complete her MA and currently is in a doctoral program, but that teacher’s words still stick with her. “Twenty-some years later I still question my writing skills.”

Cervantes and her five siblings all graduated high school not just in the top 10 percent of their classes but in the top 10 students.

Many Hispanic UNM students are the first in their families to attend college, Cervantes speculates that it is as high as 70 to 80 percent, although this data is not officially collected. She is in the minority, as both her parents graduated from college.

The number of Hispanic staff and faculty lag behind and do not reflect the state or university demographics.

“We’re working to help diversify and change the landscape of the faculty. There needs to be more people who look, share experiences, and sound more like you,” Cervantes noted. 

With a limited staff and budget and large student population, El Centro and other programs work hard to meet the needs of Hispanic students. By joining with other programs such as American Indian Student Services, African American Student Services, Chicana/o Studies, and others, “we do as much as we can for as many as we can,” Cervantes said.

She added that El Centro staff have been working hard during the pandemic. “We’re trying to figure out how to connect. Students are having a hard time. We want to build community so students feel they have a familia on campus. It’s part of what we do.”

Cervantes said ENLACE is another program that works with Hispanic students. According to the website, ENLACE is a statewide collaboration of gente who represent the voices of underrepresented children and families – people who have not traditionally had a say in policy initiatives that have had a direct impact on their communities or their families. Programs centered on family and community engagement, student-to-student mentoring, the establishment of sound policies, development of culturally relevant curricula, professional development for educators, encompass the essence of what ENLACE New Mexico fosters.

Hispanics continue to experience and battle racism in the classroom and the world.

Cervantes sees progress. She was delighted to see UNM President Garnett Stokes’s Weekly Perspective email on Sept. 14 highlighting Hispanic Heritage Month Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, remarking, “I’ve been at UNM 20-plus years and I don’t remember ever seeing a president’s message highlighting Hispanic heritage so prominently.”

“We need to move forward. Not everyone is having the same experience at UNM,” Cervantes observed. “We need to have real conversations and listen to each other and find ways to make bridges. We need to let go of the idea that what it means to be an American is to speak English or look one specific way.

“Some things have changed and gotten better, but the reality is, we still have a long way to go.”