In early April 2020, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that Latinos—people of Latin American ancestry living in the United States—were the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio first reported the Department of Health findings during his daily briefing on April 8, 2020, the news made national headlines. The facts he relayed were stunning: 34 percent of people who had died from Covid-19 in New York were Latino. While Latinos currently make up 29 percent of New York’s total population, they represented 34 percent of the city’s Covid-19 related deaths. At the national level, the broader snapshot of Covid-19 related infections and deaths ultimately began to tell a story about Black and Latino life, labor, and death, that would be impossible to ignore moving forward. As the nation’s “essential workers,” Latinos and Blacks were clearly essential to the economy, but in practice they were seemingly an expendable commodity under capital.
As the pandemic unfurled in New York it also put into stark relief at least two significant inescapable facts with far reaching implications. First, the disproportionate rate of Black and Latino deaths due to Covid-19 relative to whites had a prehistory that could no longer be ignored and, second, that the alarming and racialized distinctions surrounding infection, life, and death would potentially herald unprecedented losses beyond New York. I consider the story of how and why this came to be of signal importance, and it requires an accounting. As we move through this pandemic, as it ebbs, flows, crests, and becomes an inescapable given for the foreseeable future, we should be aware of what we stand to lose if we ignore the lessons of the pandemic written on the backs of Black and Latino lives from the epicenter of the pandemic. Situating the historical context for understanding the state of Latino invisibility—from the nation’s civic life, labor, and death—is a starting point for redress and national accountability.
The Historical Context of Latino Invisibility
Though Latinos represent the country’s largest “majority-minority,” at nearly 60 million strong, they are nonetheless ahistorically depicted in the public sphere as “forever foreigners.” The historical facts tell a different story: more than 67 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are native born. Latinos have also been in the U.S. since the country’s founding. Yet despite the cultural and historical legacy of Latino participation, and their centrality to the creation of “America,” they are consistently represented in the public imagination as newcomers at best, or worse, as recent interlopers always already sacking the nation’s ever shrinking largesse. The United States is a forgetful country. The historical elision of Latinos from the nation’s founding narratives contributes to this forgetfulness as does the structural racism that manifests itself in most every aspect of civic life including diminished Latino access to educational opportunities and health care, not to mention their literal and symbolic exclusion from the national policy table. Therefore, we would do well to center the historical record.
When we consider, for example, that after the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), the U.S. colonized and annexed more than half of Mexico’s northern territories including modern-day Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada Utah, and Wyoming as well as Mexico’s claim to Texas — which had been under U.S. occupation since 1836—we begin to better understand both the literal and the symbolic violence enacted against Latinos by our national forgettings. And the colonization of formerly Mexican territories tells only part of the story. With the incorporation of former Spanish dominions such as modern-day Florida, and much of the states in the Gulf of Mexico region, not to mention Puerto Rico after the Spanish American War (1898), we are simply left with a historical lacunae that has yet to be fully accounted for.[i] So how is it that as a country we have not been unable to account for this important incorporation of a people, their cultural history, or their multiracial, linguistic and ethnic particularisms? Why do Latinos continue to be represented as a “foreign” imposition on the greater national largesse—the forever foreigners who are ostensibly sacking the national treasure trove of economic generosity while refusing to assimilate?
Latinos, of Mexican origin or Indigenous heritage, as well as Spanish speakers who lived in territories colonized by the U.S., all remained in the newly consolidated U.S. after 1848 as their language, customs, traditions and political influence waned along with their cultural visibility. This is an historical fact as are the waves of subsequent Latino immigrants that arrived well after the U.S. – Mexico War (1848). Documented, or not, Latino life and labor are a constitutive core of the American experience and not understanding that makes it impossible to comprehend, much less account for, the staggering number of Latino deaths wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. While it is astounding that these basic but signal historical markers continue to get white-washed in the historical record—and the national curricula which subtends American history—it is so neither by coincidence nor benign neglect. Let me explain why.
Latino Bashing and Covid-19
Now almost three months after NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio first reported the astounding number of Covid-19 deaths for Latinos and Blacks, the national pandemic picture is looking alarmingly similar to NYC’s initial outbreak. Let us consider some representative examples from across the country. In Illinois, for example, while Blacks represent “43 percent of people who have died from the disease and 28 percent of those who have tested positive,” they are only 15 percent of that state’s population.[iv] Blacks in Michigan “account for a third of positive tests” but represent 40 percent of deaths in that state even though they make up only 14 percent of its population.[v] And in Louisiana, about 70 percent of people who die from Covid-19 are Black even though they are only a third of the state’s population.[vi] As of this writing, the national picture for Latinos has also been bleak. Nationally Latinos account for over 25 percent of the deaths from Covid-19, in spite of the fact that Latinos represent approximately 18 percent of the population.[vii] Univision anchor Jorge Ramos summarized the stakes when he noted in a national town hall that Latino communities have been ravaged like never before: “one out of five Hispanic households, at least one of its members has lost his or her job in the last two months. Unemployment is the highest ever recorded.” [viii] To say that national leadership in the face of the pandemic has been absent is an understatement. As Anthony P. Browne notes in his essay for this collection, the national leadership has responded by following a familiar narrative of racist victim blaming. Let us look at but two recent examples.
Early in his bid for the presidency Trump infamously remarked that Mexicans and Central Americans coming to the U.S., and presumably those already in the country, were “bad hombres.” His signal racist anti-Latino dog whistle for Brown people, “hombre,” was recently invoked at his Tulsa rally on June 20, 2020. Despite dire health warnings about convening large groups in confined spaces in the middle of a global viral pandemic, Trump nonetheless brought together the largest number of people in the country since the pandemic’s initial outbreak. In Tulsa he offered an anti-Latino racist tale for his audience that illustrates the degree to which Latino bashing is sanctioned on a national scale, by the President, no less. Rhetorically associating Black Lives Matter (BLM), Latino bashing, and victim blaming, he began by stoking white grievance and white fears against Blacks and Latinos. “It’s one o’clock in the morning,” his fictional story began, “and a very tough—you know I have used the word on occasion—hombre, a very tough hombre, is breaking into the window, of a young woman, whose husband is away as a travelling salesmen, or whatever he may do, and you call 911 and they say I’m sorry this number is no longer working.”[ix] Warning his audience against protesters’ and activists’ demands for the “defunding” of the militarized police state, Trump used his racist anti-Brown epithet, “hombre,” to funnel white nationalist rage against both Black and Brown bodies at once. Additionally, it seemed of no consequence that at this “white” super-spreader event, the likes of Trump and DeSantis had decried Blacks and Latinos as the virus super-spreaders.
The dog whistle rhetorically conjoined presumed Black and Brown political interests by casting their demands for justice and police reform as a ruse driven by craven lawlessness and, not coincidentally, the potential violation of a white woman’s sexual vulnerability in the face of a “bad” Brown hombre who breaks into the home while her husband is away working. As a metonym for the nation, the home is the space that Brown bodies invade and that BLM protestors would make vulnerable to lawlessness because of demands to defund the police. Attempting to delegitimate protestors’ demands that anti-Black police violence be met with the redistribution of resources meant to protect Blacks and the communities the police ostensibly serve, Trump’s dog-whistle rendered an implicitly chaste white woman as the victim of Brown sexual trespass. That the dog whistle was also tied to the historically racist imaginary of Black male concupiscence over white female chastity was of no consequence to Trump. The expedient conflation of Black and Brown bodies, political interests and demands for justice, were subservient to creating easy scapegoats at the Tulsa viral “super-spreader” event. In Tulsa the President characteristically blamed cultural others and people of color by painting the national protests to reform the militarized police state as “lawless,” and the pandemic, what he called the “kung-flu,” on China, but not, of course, on his policies. And he continues to do so by ignoring the science required to mitigate the pandemic’s horrific consequences.
Following the President’s playbook, Florida Governor DeSantis eschewed blame for the state’s alarmingly high rates of recent Covid-19 infections and deaths by shifting responsibility to Latinos. DeSantis said that the spreaders of the disease were “overwhelmingly Hispanic” and attributed the increase in Florida—not to the fact he was one of the last governors to issue stay-at-home directives early on in the pandemic, or that he was one of the first governors to “reopen” the state—but on the type of agricultural labor associated with Latinos. He said, “Some of these guys go to work in a school bus, and they’re are all just packed there like sardines, going across Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and there’s just all these opportunities to have transmission.” In DeSantis’ telling, Palm Beach County, home of the President’s Mar-a-Lago, is susceptible to contagion only because of the labor and bodies that cross its otherwise contagion-free borders. The association between disease, death and Latinos is not coincidental. DeSantis had referred to Florida as “God’s waiting room” because of the state’s large number of elderly and retirees. Positing the Latino body as an exchangeable commodity under capital, while deflecting blame for the growing deaths in the state, DeSantis’ calculus marked Latinos, the forever foreigners, as always already dead political subjects. As of this writing, Florida now has all the markings to become the new epicenter for the pandemic. [xii]
While the historical invisibility of Latinos in the U.S. is commonplace, we must turn that history to different purposes by understanding the importance of Latinos to the national body politic because democratic practice and perfectible democracy requires it. The realities at hand are daunting. The impact of Covid-19 has been catastrophic for Blacks and Latinos, but the pandemic has also made it impossible to ignore Black and Latino communities and structural racism on a national scale. We must endeavor to learn from the legacies of Black demands for justice and the political protests that will invariably characterize our moment when the historical dust settles. From health care disparities, to brutal policing, and on through critiques of educational access and reform, the pandemic has made clear that the country’s very scaffolding conceives of people of color as exchangeable commodities under capital.
The historical record of Black and Brown demands for perfectible democratic practice gives us a template for moving forward. In 1968 the “Poor People’s Campaign” led by Martin Luther King, and after King’s assassination, Ralph Abernathy, provided a starting point from which to build the next potential chapter of Black and Brown coalitional politics. Following the examples of Black liberation movements, Chicano activist Rodolfo “Corky” González, one of the principle leaders of the Chicano movement’s Crusade for Justice, and many others associated with the Brown liberation movement, forged a multiracial alliance for the poor built on Black and Brown mutuality of support and advocacy. The result was a March on Washington that would bring attention to economic injustice, its effects on Black, Brown, and other economically ravaged communities, as well as the structural discrimination that delimited Black and Latino life. Although King was assassinated before the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign marched on Washington, D.C., it helped set the stage for the coalitional politics our post-Covid-19 moment requires. The very police state that delimited Black and Brown populations, thus preventing coalitions from emerging, is being reformulated before our eyes. And with it an historical and cultural awakening—and concomitant reckoning—that is unprecedented in our nation. It is time to turn that history subjection to different purposes.
[i] For a summary see Lázaro Lima, The Latino Body: Crisis Identities in American Literary and Cultural Memory (NYU Press, 2007): 22-54.
[ii] For a short summary of the Poor People’s Campaign see Gordon K. Mantler, “King’s Last March: Grassroots Voices, memory, and the Poor people’s Campaign,” APMReports (n.d.) (https://features.apmreports.org/arw/king/mantler.html).
Lázaro Lima (Ph.D., Maryland) is Professor of Latino Studies in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College, CUNY. A scholar and documentary filmmaker, his work centers on the political, historical, juridical, educational and cultural industries that enable Latino democratic legibility and participation to emerge in civil society.
Lima’s books include Being Brown: Sonia Sotomayor and the Latino Question (U of California Press, 2019), Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing, with Felice Picano (U of Wisconsin Press, 2011), and The Latino Body: Crisis Identities in American Literary and Cultural Memory (NYU Press, 2007). He is the executive producer and co-writer of two documentary films, Las Mujeres: Latina Lives, American Dreams (Deronda Productions, 2016), and Rubí: A DACA Dreamer in Trump’s America (Deronda Productions, 2019/2020). His films have been showcased at the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s Warner Brothers Theater, PBS, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, Fem Flicks and other venues.
Lima’s research, scholarship and creative work has appeared in the popular press, edited volumes, and academic journals including American Literary History, The Journal of Transnational American Studies, Revista Iberoamericana, A Corracorriente, The Wallace Stevens Journal (WSJ), and many other journals and public humanities venues. Lima currently serves on the board of The Journal of Transnational American Studies.
He is the recipient of grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Library Association, and many other institutions. The film Rubí: A DACA Dreamer in Trump’s America recently appeared on PBS (2020) and was awarded a BEA “On-Location Documentary” Award of Excellence.