The Strategic Advantages of Ethnic Ambiguity

About once a year, I visit the Roger Valdez Library and Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good otherwise known as my storage locker. It almost never fails that I find some precious item that illustrates some element of my legacy. Today was no different. While peeling away layers of paper and detritus in a box marked “kitchen utenzils,” probably by somebody I never met and who is dead, I found this screed written sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s when I was a Marxist.

And yes, I was Marxist, I think, in an ironic sense. That is, I took the view that we had not had yet fully experienced unbridled capitalism and therefore we could not push ahead to full communism until we had done so. Cool your jets comrade and have another beer, we’re not there yet. Then, as now, it was much easier to get laid as a communist; let’s face it, intellectual capitalists might be right, but they aren’t sexy.

I think, perhaps, I wrote this in that spirit. In reading it and transcribing it some 32 year later, I can’t help but believe that the essay itself was part a feint and delaying tactic, and part of what I still do today; refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member. The quality of the writing, long hand in one take, is astonishing to me even now.

The arrogance and haughtiness and big words persist in my writing today. Looking back at this boy, striving to be appreciated but not wanting to be noticed, wanting to be respected but uneasy with love, undaunted and boldly stupid arrogant, and so familiar with the abuse of disapprobation as to have made it a sacrament, I have to say I love him still. Reading this and writing it here was my way of saying, “Hey you little asshole, welcome to 2023. Some things never change!”

Note: I tried to keep everything faithful to the original including some of the crossouts when I thought they were relevant and legible.

I have often been confronted with the question, “What are you?” I usually pause and ask the person, usually White, to tell me what they think I am. They squint at my features for a moment and then with a hint of embarrassment say, “Mexican?” or “Asian?” When I reply, they often say, “You must be half, right?” I always reply, “No both my parents grew up speaking Spanish.” They shake their heads in disbelief and say, “You’re Mexican. Wow.” Then the conversation continues on some other topic.

I find their surprise satisfying. I am proud of what I am, and I try as much as possible to keep my agenda and my identity (political, ethnic etc.) as ambiguous as possible. I feel it is important to explain myself in some public forum because recently I was admonished and chastised by a member of one of the local “Chicano” groups. This person was not malicious, but she felt I was somehow incomplete and in fact in a she was suggesting I was not doing what I should for “my race,” and that I wasn’t allowing “my race” to do anything for me.

I feel it is important to address these issues not for just myself, but for others who find themselves to be neither sell-outs or part of some ethnic organization. I appreciate the chance to discuss these issues and suggest alternative actions from what I consider to be a unique point of view of ethnicity.

We must neither embrace the White capitalist world nor should we seek simply to escape it. In fact, there is not an escape from the system, one must decide either to incorporate themselves or combat the system or face being incorporated by the system. I argue that to declare ethnicity is to allow ourselves as minorities to be consumed by the system that has classified us as minorities in the first place.

To call ourselves Latino, or Mexican, or Chicano, is to provide the White capitalist establishment a clear conceptual location, conceptually. It provides them a way to categorize us, to package us for their own consumption.

Is “Chicano” any better than “spic” or “greaser?” No, because these this term only serves their purpose of dehumanizing us. My ethnicity is defined by my family and my neighborhood. My cousins, who do not reside in the Ivory Tower of the University do not see themselves as Chicanos – they know who they are, they feel no need to identify themselves to the establishment.

So much of the college experience is the formation of identity. I can understand the aimless feeling that many of us have in this setting. However, too often we get caught up, not in separation, not in selling out but assuming, incorrectly, that by simply wearing a t-shirt and attending a few meetings we can somehow overcome.

First, what do we want to overcome? The system? The White world? How can this be done? If you are a college student you have already been accepted, the University has its quota of Mexican-Hispanic-Latino-Chicanos. It is too late, you are already inside, you have already been purchased. You will be sold later when the University can claim that it has graduated thousands of degrees to Chicanos etc. and what’s more, 80% of those are employed. Employed where? Within the system.

I, personally, refuse to spend my energy fighting for the further enslavement of anyone to the wage system, to the system of consumption and exploitation. I know who I am. I will not, and cannot allow someone to assign me an identity, either Chicano or sell-out, because I am determined to maintain my own identity, rooted in my own experience with my family and its history.

We do need a sense of community. But how can we oppose discrimination and injustice without allowing ourselves to be boxed into a set of categorizations created, knowingly or unknowingly, for the benefit of the establishment?

We must see ourselves as splinters that work their way, uncomfortably, painfully, into the system. We must seek our credentials and our degrees in silence, waiting for the appropriate moment to infect the system, to sicken the system and in so doing bring about the change we want and need. Protests vent anger, emotion and frustration. Sometimes they bring change.

But we are at war. Warriors must remain hidden, concealed, lying in wait for the appropriate moment to strike. Taking to the street wearing t-shirts and mouthing slogans only lets the enemy know where we are. We must infiltrate, gain power little by little, planning all along to find the cornerstone of their system. We must know their secrets, gain their trust, know their myths and then when we have established ourselves, we can move.

Organizations are fine, they serve a purpose. But real activism takes place on the individual level. It requires a deep sense of anger and revulsion at the system. We, as individuals, must not spend this energy too quickly because our time will come. Until then we must seek out ambiguity, we must blur our ethnic identities and keep well hidden from those in power.

Hiding from power, sometime in 1992, probably reading a copy of the World Marxist Review.