For my CHI project this year, I am building a website that will host stories of Xicano cultural survivance in Michigan. I’d like to take the opportunity with this blog post to give a preview of one story to be featured on that site. Enjoy!
In 2004 my brother—stage name “the Latino Saint,” or “Saint” for short— released a crunk rap album entitled, Half Breed. As far back as I can remember, his music has pretty much always been about partying and taking pride in Mexican and Latino identities; this album is no exception. Half Breed takes its name from the mixed Mexican and white backgrounds from which we both come. As with most crunk music, much of the content is centered around alcohol, dancing and celebrating life with friends and family. Yet, in spite of the negative connotation of the term “half breed” itself, Saint delivers these club songs from an unapologetically Mexican perspective, reclaiming both the term and the concept of “half breed” and using it to assert his own position as a Mexican MC from the Midwest.
This album had an enormous impact on the formation of my own Mexican identity as a child, as did the many concerts I watched Saint perform at clubs across lower Michigan. I’d also often take my friends along with me to the concerts after sharing with them my brother’s CDs. While I didn’t think of it this way at the time, handing this music to my (mostly white and black) friends was also a way for me to affirm my own Mexicaness. We certainly weren’t learning about Mexican culture in school, so this was one of the few opportunities I had to tangibly hand something to my friends and say, “check this out” (literally) or “this is who I am” (figuratively). The concept of “half breed” resonated with me because of the bi-racial dynamics of my household, and because of positive manner in which it was presented to me through my brother’s music, but at times it also internalized for me a particular feeling of racial inadequacy.
This feeling can be best explained by considering it within the context of Jack Forbes’ analysis of cultural mixing. In his book, Aztecas Del Norte: The Chicanos of Aztlan, Forbes argues that terms such as “half breed” and “mestizo” are concepts that were created and proliferated by Spanish colonizers as part of a racist system used to control Native populations (188-189). In using this divide and conquer tactic, the Spanish turned Natives against one another by creating a racial hierarchy that quantifies people’s race and ethinicity, therein incentivizing competition over the privileges granted to those who assimilate with white, Western, or specifically Spanish cultural and social ways of being. From this perspective, to accept and utilize the concept of mestizaje—at least as it has been handed down by Spanish colonizers—is to play into the racial hierarchy and to enact violence against Native and Indigenous people.
Furthermore, Forbes’ argument also points out an inherent irony (read: prejudice) in the concept of mestizaje, which is that to say you are mestizo is to say nothing at all, because all cultures are always already mixing with one another. As he explicates, “[p]eoples categorized as ’half-caste’ or ‘mestizo’ tend to…reside in areas subjected to recent European colonialism…” and “they seldom possess the power or resources to determine their own destiny” (179). If all cultures are always under a process of transformation and mixing in response to constantly changing set of circumstances, yet colonized peoples are primarily the only populations in the world deemed to be “mestizo,” it would follow that there is something inherently wrong, less, or incomplete about those colonized people—from the perspectives of colonizers.
While my brother uses the colonizer’s terminology to name his album, Half Breed, I think his artistic approach is actually in line with Forbes’ activist and scholarly position on mestizaje. Saint avoids employing a perspective that is half of, mixed with, or less than what might be considered a “full bred” Mexican. Saint is not as concerned with this label as he is presenting his Mexicanness in a positive way—Forbes notes that before 1821, “Mexican” was used to refer to Nahua speaking people, primarily the Aztec or the Mexica.
When he uses the term “half-breed” he is not referring to his mixed indio and Spanish bloodline, but to his lived experience with a white mother and a Mexican father. For this reason, I do believe it is possible to utilize mestizaje in a way the affirms Indigeneity, because for many mixed people, we do have a concrete reality in which being a part of two distinct culture is an everyday reality. From an early age, this was the conflict me and my siblings were tasked with: navigating the reality of our actual mixed-race experience at home—a white side of the family and a Mexican side of the family—with the fictional rhetoric of “half breed” that tells us we are only part Mexican, part Latinx, or part Indigenous. Thus, the concept of “half breed” can affirm my one’s Indigeneity, but used in another way, it disrupts the wholeness of Mexicanness. Mestizaje is both a bridge and barrier.