Dear Mexican: I’m curious as to the meaning of the term “Viva la raza,” which I have often heard expressed by my friends and family. I know what it translates to, but I don’t know why we say it. I happen to be what some call a “half-breed,” and therein lies my dilemma. Viva la raza implies that the person who says this saying or their audience is of a certain “race.” My mother’s family is from the state of Georgia and of French, Scottish and English descent, whereas my father’s family hails from New Mexico and has been in the northern part of that great state since 1627; if you count my indio ancestors (who are undoubtedly in my lineage, ’cause my grandmother is short and brown), my family was in the Santa Fe area prior to European settlement in the Americas. This makes me and my father’s people mestizos. In addition, my family may also be Jewish. It has come to light that many of the old Hispanic families of northern New Mexico are descendants of the “hidden” Sephardic Jews who pretended to be Catholic and moved to the New World in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition. In addition, aren’t most Hispanos (who hail from north of the border) and Mexicans (from south of the border) mestizos, and didn’t most of the Indians get killed by the Spaniards and Anglos? If so, raza, or “race,” seems to be artificial. Furthermore, I think this is true the world over with all of the so-called races. It seems to me that we are all half-breeds. It is my understanding that the human race is the only race, and that we all came “out of Africa.” With this in mind, shouldn’t we do away with Viva la raza! and come up with something new? Maybe Viva la herencia! or Viva la gente!
Dear Wab: So many questions, so little time! I’ll just concentrate on the viva part, since the rest of your preguntarumbles along like a Big Jim chile in a gabacho’s panza. No one is going to rally under slogans that translate as “Long live the heritage” or “Up with people”; they’re too fresa. And while I’m with you on the whole racial-classifications point, Viva la raza! will never be dropped, nor should it be. It ties anyone who says it back to the Chicano movement, where the term originated. (The earliest citation I could find was in a 1966 Los Angeles Times article that quoted legendary activist Bert Corona as exclaiming during a fundraising dinner in L.A. “Viva la causa, viva la raza, y viva la unidad” — “Long live the cause, long live la raza, and long live unity.”) The raza part connects the slogan to the idea of la raza cósmica — the Cosmic Race, the idea put forth by Vasconcelos of a day where humanity would trump the antiquated razas of the Enlightenment. The viva part is a direct descendant of the Grito de Dolores, the proclamation issued by Miguel Hidalgo ushering in Mexico’s War of Independence. It might seem strange to have non-Mexis shout “Viva la raza!” in this egalitarian society, but Mexicans don’t find it racist or exclusionary, because it isn’t. After all, we all have enough female cousins who have married gabachos and have bedded enough gabachitas ourselves to make us like y’all enough.
Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Orange County, California, author of Orange County: A Personal History and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and lecturer with the Chicana and Chicano Studies department at California State University, Fullerton. He writes “¡Ask a Mexican!,” a nationally syndicated column in which he answers any and all questions about America’s spiciest and largest minority. The column has a weekly circulation of over 2 million in 39 newspapers across the United States, won the 2006 and 2008 Association of Alternative Weeklies award for Best Column, and was published in book form by Scribner Press in May 2007. Arellano has been the subject of press coverage in national and international newspapers, The Today Show, Hannity, Nightline, Good Morning America, and The Colbert Report, and his commentaries regularly appear on Marketplace and the Los Angeles Times. Gustavo is the recipient of the Los Angeles Press Club’s 2007 President’s Award and an Impacto Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and was recognized by the California Latino Legislative Caucus with a 2008 Spirit Award for his “exceptional vision, creativity, and work ethic.” Gustavo is a lifelong resident of Orange County and is the proud son of two Mexican immigrants, one whom was illegal.