My own journey in regards to understanding our mixed nation society began when as a young girl, I was often confused by why certain Latinos looked as if they were European with their blonde hair and light eyes while others, with kinky, curly hair and dark skin tones, looked as if they were of African descent.  Within my own immediate family, the contrast was obvious: both my parents are La Raza, but my dad is light-skinned with green eyes, while my mother is dark-skinned with dark brown eyes and thick dark hair.

As a rebellious teenager, it bothered me how stereotypes were often perpetuated on Spanish-channel soap operas with the maids and shady-natured characters usually being played by dark-skinned Latinos while the rich and good-natured characters were played by light-skinned Latinos. The more I became frustrated with the injustice I saw all around me, the more I searched for answers by seeking out community organizations and activist events that spoke to my rebel soul.

As I learned about the history of oppression, from Europeans’ genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, to the colonization of Latin America, I began to understand why there existed such a spectrum of skin tones within the La Raza culture.  I connected the dots and it was quite a shocking realization to come to: La Raza, as we know it, is a culture that never was before, that was born out of the mixing of Indigenous, European, and African cultures.

My family is from El Salvador, which is located in Central Latin America.  The Mayas are the Indigenous group of that region. And although most African slaves were taken to South America, which is why Brazilians have a more obvious African heritage, there were Africans brought to Central America as well as to Mexico. And once I learned about this history and heritage of where I come from, everything made sense. But it was also frustrating because I didn’t understand why this history was not accurately taught in schools. For if it was, I felt like a lot of the violence and cultural clashes could have been avoided. It also made me question why we use the word Latino, Spanish or Hispanic to describe my ethnicity, since those words just seem to acknowledge the Spanish (from Spain) heritage more than the other two cultural heritages. La Raza, to me, seems the most accurate word as its’ literal translation is The Race.

That was my cultural coming-of-age in the 1990s. And as I saw the millennium unfold with more and more mixed children being born, I knew the need for a more inclusive school curriculum would spark battles such as the one in Arizona. Schools may be slow to update their curriculum and teaching methods, but music, dance, art, and film have provided us with a rich celebration of our diverse history and heritage. We have come a long way, but still have so far to go . . .

Kaira Portillo

Kaira Portillo

Kaira Portillo-Espinoza was born and raised in San Francisco, CA. She is grateful for having grown up around such a wide spectrum of diversity, which makes the Bay Area the unique place it is. Her first published book, Poems About This Roller-Coaster Ride Called Life, is a collection of poems she wrote throughout high school and college and explores issues of injustice, resistance, sexuality, and empowerment. See more articles by this author >