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On Thursday, Department of Justice prosecutors threw the book at the Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio, recommending a 33-year sentence for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. If applied, this would exceed even the 18-year prison term given to Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, who was — like Mr. Tarrio — convicted of seditious conspiracy.
Prosecutors argued that the stiff sentence would reflect Mr. Tarrio’s leadership role in the unrest, despite him not being present at the Capitol that day. They highlighted that he is purportedly an “articulate, charming and gifted communicator,“ who excels at attracting followers and creating “compelling spectacles.”
The embrace of racist ideologies of late by Latinos like Mr. Tarrio and Mauricio Garcia, the Texas mall shooter who praised Hitler on social media, have led to much debate. After the Texas shooting, the right-wing commentator Mark Levin wondered how a person can “be a nonwhite and be a white supremacist?”
Some have tried to make sense of this uncomfortable reality by attributing it to false consciousness, self-hatred or a misguided attempt to assimilate into mainstream society to avoid discrimination. But I wonder if what really troubles observers is the idea of a Latino identifying with a racist movement, or simply the idea of a Latino in the United States identifying as white?
Mr. Tarrio’s case seems particularly vexing given his Afro-Cuban heritage, but being Hispanic does not insulate you from racism. Some people simply “don’t see themselves as what they are,” Ana Navaro said on “The View” in May. Maybe that’s because what we “are” doesn’t fit neatly in a box. For many of us, filling out a job application or medical form can lead to an existential crisis. As a brown-skinned, curly-haired Latina what I “am” often depends on the context, or my mood: “Black,” “Other” or “Prefer not to say.” Government forms often clarify that “Latino” is not a race, but rather a racially diverse pan-ethnic group. And yet, in practice, we are routinely racialized and treated as nonwhite. Just look at the census, which states that Hispanic populations can be of any race, but then clearly distinguishes between those who identify as Hispanic and white, and those who are “White Alone, Not Hispanic or Latino.” The implication being that if you’re Hispanic, and also white, then you’re at best a different, not quite so American shade of pale.
Mr. Tarrio himself employed this logic in his defense, claiming that he cannot be a white supremacist because he is of Cuban descent. Instead, he and his fellow Proud Boys call themselves “Western chauvinists.” The 2019 documentary “The Right-Wing Latinos of Miami” sheds insight on the mind-set of these white-identifying Latinos. In it, a Latino Proud Boy argues that Latin Americans are essentially “displaced Spaniards.”
While this claim may seem ridiculous, it speaks to the deep history of Hispanophilia and Eurocentrism in Latin America. Just as “Western chauvinists” in the United States cling to their European heritage by celebrating Celtic culture, many Latinos hold onto Eurocentric standards of beauty, aesthetics and culture.
It should come as no surprise that some Latinos are racist. After all, Eurocentrism and racism has been a hallmark of most Latin American nations. This has historically included race-based immigration policies, bans on mixed-race marriages, state-sanctioned “ethnic cleansing,” and other more nuanced forms of discrimination against people with Black and Indigenous ancestry.
The Dominican and Haitian relationship, marked by racial violence like the 1937 massacre that led to the execution of as many as 20,000 Haitians and recent citizenship restrictions and deportation campaigns that rival those of the Trump administration, serves as a prime example. The Dominican Republic is far from an isolated case.
Scholars have pointed to this historical and cultural context to explain Latino participation in white supremacist movements, calling attention to enduring forms of racial discrimination within our communities. But that doesn’t fully explain this phenomenon. After all, second-generation Latinos like Mr. Tarrio were raised and socialized within the racial and cultural fabric of the United States, not Latin America.
The debate surrounding the seeming paradox of Latino white supremacists reveals that integration has its limits. No matter how much Latinos like Mr. Tarrio may wish to claim their own identities as displaced Spaniards, American exceptionalism hinges on the idea of Latin America being fundamentally racially distinct from the United States. This is how it justifies the closing of its borders and the implementation of inhumane policies toward its neighbors. Even though the notion that our diverse nation, built on chattel slavery, Indigenous genocide and imported labor, is racially closer to Europe than Latin America borders on magical thinking.
Latin American political leaders also lean on American exceptionalism to make the case that racism is an American disease. Fidel Castro proclaimed that his revolution “eliminated” racism. The Puerto Rican statesman Luis Muñoz Marín claimed that racism was a foreign concept to Puerto Ricans. While they and others imagine their homelands as integrated, mixed racial spaces, this myth has long obscured the intense discrimination experienced by Black and Indigenous communities.
The concept of whiteness is as much a fabrication as is Latinidad. After all, race is a social construct and whiteness is a moving target from which other ethnic groups have come in and out of. (Let us not forget that for decades Mexicans were counted as white on the census because of their Spanish ancestry.)
Yet however much Mr. Tarrio may identify with whiteness, it seems that in his time of need he turned to the Afro-Cuban gods. On the site formerly known as Twitter, Denise Oliver-Velez, a professor and former Young Lord and Black Panther, chastised his use of religious beads, commonly used among practitioners of Santería, as a “falta de respeto,” or disrespect. “Looks like the Orishas want him to go to prison,” she writes. If the Justice Department gets its way he will certainly have ample time to contemplate the paradoxes of his choices.
Yarimar Bonilla, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author and editor of several books, including: “Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment” and “Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm.”