George Zimmerman has a Latin American mother with light brown skin and a white, U.S. – born father.
I have a Latin American mother with light brown skin and a white, U.S. – born father.
Both George Zimmerman and myself have legal names in the U.S. that belie the full backstory of our blood ties.
While my legal name is Giselle Stern Hernández in Mexico, my legal name in the United States is Giselle Stern.
Between our skin tones and bone structure, we can “pass” for other things besides Latino/Latina. Depending on hair styles, clothes, makeup, jewelry, or the context of the moment that we’re in, we can be pegged for such nationalities as Mexican to Italian to Greek to Israeli. (Yes, I’ve been identified by others in all of those ways.)
This choice that George and I have to amplify or to tamp down a part of our identity is a powerful privilege chip that many people living in the United States don’t have to cash in.
Trayvon Martin didn’t have that privilege.
My friend Mr. Vulcan also doesn’t have that privilege. He was born and raised in the States, right here in California. Yet, he likes to tell the story of walking up to Customer Service at our local Home Depot. As he approached the counter, the Home Depot employee started waving their arms, saying, “Let me go get someone who speaks Spanish.”
My husband will also not have that privilege, once he arrives to the U.S.
The defendant’s brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., told Fox News Latino the family chose not to publicly identify with their Hispanic roots since the fatal shooting in order to emphasize self-defense – not race – as the central issue in the case.
“Our family very deliberately left the injection of another racial element off the table,” said Robert Zimmerman Jr., explaining the family decision was made by a concerted push by the brothers’ Peruvian mother. “Any color or race is capable of racism so claiming to be ‘not white’ and therefore ‘not culpable’ is a moot point.”
My head exploded when I read that. The simple fact of that deliberate choice, particularly in the U.S., reeks of tremendous race and class privilege.
But the fact that the decision was made by “a concerted push” by their “Peruvian mother” doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Jorge Ramos from his Univision show, Al Punto, conducted an interview with Gladys Zimmerman and Robert Zimmerman, mother and brother of George Zimmerman. At the 7:15 point in the video, Mr. Ramos asks Ms. Zimmerman directly in Spanish about the fact that both of her sons have visited Peru on more than one occasion. He then follows it up by talking about the discrimination that exists in Latin America, “not only against indigenous groups, but also towards people who have darker skin.”
When Mr. Ramos specifically asks her about this discrimination in Latin America, Ms. Zimmerman gives an answer that does not directly acknowledge anything of what Mr. Ramos just said. And then she states, “My sons don’t see skin color…I don’t see skin color.”
I cannot speak about Peru. But I can speak about Mexico. And Jorge Ramos knew exactly what he was talking about when he asked that question.
From my very first days in Mexico, through all of my ten years there, when I told people that I was from New York, I’d get asked some version of the following:
1. Were you afraid to live in New York with all of the black people?
2. Wasn’t New York unsafe, with all of the black people who live there?
3. New York must have been very scary/dirty/loud with all of the black people in it, right?
I’d love to tell you that this was only once in a rare while. This was all the time. Across class lines and city/pueblo lines. These questions came from Mexicans who had been undocumented in the States and Mexicans with papers who went for the weekend to Texas to do some shopping.
These questions have come from people in my own family.
The only thing that ever came a close second to the fear of blacks were the homophobic comments about, “all of the gays that lived in New York,” as well as anti-semitic comments about, “all of the Jews that were there as well.”
And while I’ve been filled with a rage and a sadness and a feeling of, “I knew it,” since George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict this past Sunday, I also feel like I’ve been carrying a dirty secret.
Because I’m absolutely, 100% sure that if you live in Latin America, you can’t miss, you cannot truly fail to notice the tremendous value placed on light skin.
You can be poor, but you better not be black. Because then it’s game over.
When my friend A Tall Drink of Water married her husband, the chatter that swirled around her from other Mexicans was that she’d be, “bettering the race,” when she got pregnant.
Do I even need to tell you that she has white skin, blue eyes and blonde hair?
Do I even need to tell you that her husband is like my husband, with dark skin, dark brown eyes and black hair?
And blacks in the U.S.? Demonized to within an inch of their lives by the majority of Latin America.
So within my rage and sadness about the George Zimmerman verdict is my rage and sadness about the refusal of many of both of my people, North American and Latin American alike, the stubborn refusal of many of them to recognize that not only do we have a profound race problem, but that the roots of that same racism run as far back as to the conquests and colonizers of both countries.
So I’m definitely not going to play along with the whole, “I am Trayvon Martin” campaign. Please.
Because the reality is that on paper, I have more in common with George Zimmerman than most people care to admit.
And if I were to have murdered Trayvon Martin in Mexico?
I’m pretty sure that I would’ve walked free there as well.