"The sooner we face that the United States is a Latin American country the better for all of us"
It was the moment during Pandoland when you could absolutely hear a pin drop.
Jose Antonio Vargas had already shared a lot of straight talk about the South — some of it cautionary, some inspiring, some encouraging, and some challenging. The audience in Nashville had applauded him for all of it.
But then he said this:
"51% of all Californians under the age of 25 are Latino. The sooner we face that the United States is a Latin American country the better for all of us. That's not a bad thing. The country is going to get more Asian and more Latino. That's just a fact."
Even for me that was a provocative statement. Not because of the race implications. I’m a believer that the end of white male privilege is a better world for all of us, and living in California the idea of a Hispanic majority isn’t a stretch.
But something about phrasing it that way strikes at our very identity as a nation. We are used to seeing Latin America in terms of geography, as a place in the Southern Hemisphere. Are we really just years away from a Northern Latin America to go along with Southern and Central Latin America?
It's a fascinating quesiton, and one I'd never really considered. If we become majority Hispanic, what would stop us from being considered a “Latin American” nation? And would it be a problem if we were? Once you filter out the pejoratives people think of when they think of “Latin America” like drug cartels and poverty, it comes down to whether you think America’s national identity is something stagnant to be protected at all costs or inherently malleable, with each generation.
You only have to look at civil rights to see the appeal of being defined by who we are now versus the days of slavery. But for some, considering ourselves a “Latin American country” may be a bigger threat to their sense of national identity than affirmative action, a black president or gay marriage.
It’s a bit rich to believe that “America” must always be defined its past, but only a past that begins with the Founding Fathers and not a moment before. After all, they were immigrants too—a fact that Vargas argues white people don’t think about enough.
It's also one of the themes he explores in his upcoming MTV documentary -- "White People" -- about white privilege in America. “People of color and immigrants always get asked: ‘where are you from.’ We never seem to ask white people that question,” he said to the majority white crowd in Nashville. “I just find that so interesting. I know where I’m from. I know how I got here, and I know who paid for it. And I think if we are really going to talk about immigration, if we are really going to talk about race in this country, we can’t have that conversation and not talk to white people about it.”
And I thought coming out as an undocumented immigrant was ballsy.
Vargas’ point reminds me of arcane arguments about grammar you find in comment sections. There are militant “grammar nerds” who insist on the rigidity of language as taught in school ten years ago, and then there are those who believe English is a living language, adapting to let in colloquialisms and slang.
It also reminds me of blind adherence to a sports team. They can change logos, shed players on an annual basis, switch owners, and even move cities, but it’s still considered the same “team.” Are you just rooting for empty uniforms at a point? Is that what “America” is? A Ben Franklin logo updated and restyled and passed down from generation to generation but always with a white European face?
Living in a San Francisco neighborhood like the Mission, I'm OK with North America becoming North (Latin) America. As Vargas says, where many of us live it’s already the reality. It doesn’t change the values of the nation, the economic structure, and it might just make the lousy parts of America better.
But to his point, the many parts of America still struggling with Black and White issues may not have even started to grapple with this greater racial complexity.
“All of these Southern states are being remade by immigration,” he said on stage. “I just heard that one in eight people in Nashville is an immigrant. One of the fastest growing immigrant cities in the South. So, when we talk about race how do we make sure we are broadening the conversation?”
With the recent spate of racial violence, and the ensuing protests, you could argue that the conversation on race in America has actually been narrowed. If even the most basic issues around race can't be resolved, how can we possibly process the fact that 12 million undocumented people are hanging here in limbo? Vargas called the country's inability to deal with all these people a “farce.”
“You know there are 12 million undocumented people like me in this country, about 160,000 of us in Tennessee,” he said. “I mean, you know we’re here. You know we’re working. You know we’re driving. We go to the same church. So what do you want to do with us? You know, we can’t all mow your lawns and babysit your kids and serve you drinks. Or is that what you want us to do?”
Vargas recounted the time he called the government to report himself as an undocumented immigrant. It's a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has seen his excellent previous documentary, "Documented."
“I actually called the government and was like, ‘Hi, I haven’t heard from you. What do you wanna do? The woman from Homeland Security said ‘no comment,’ and you know I think ‘no comment’ is a metaphor for how people think of us. There is no sense of urgency. Every day that we’re sitting here, someone is getting deported and separated from their family.”
Here's the full video of Jose Antonio Vargas at Pandoland...