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Obama: Face of America’s Mestisaje

Eastern Group Publications, Commentary, Yolanda Nava Posted: Nov 14, 2008

Barack Obama as president of the United States marks an epochal watershed in American history. The results clearly present America’s new face as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society, or more accurately, a “mestizo” (mixed race) nation.

The presidential campaign of this son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas was closely watched both at home and across the world, and especially by the hopeful eyes of Spanish-speaking people of African descent in Latin America. It was anticipated that a win by a biracial man here in the United States would also open up further opportunities for people of color across the hemisphere.

Only in recent decades have U.S. Census choices moved beyond black and white. Those of us who grew up near the U.S.-Mexican border have been long aware of the mixed world of color and cultures.

However, despite the shifting demographics, too many journalists, beltway pundits, and pandering politicians continued to define the world in black and white, even as African Americans intermarried with “whites” and other ethnic groups, and the growing Hispanic/Latino population surpassed the numbers of African Americans in the 2000 U.S. Census. Many were surprised to discover that Latinos had fanned out in all directions; into southeastern states like Georgia, even Latinizing Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. How many realize that Boston, Massachusetts is the 20th largest Hispanic city in the United States?

Ten years ago a survey published in USA Today revealed that 57 percent of American teenagers dated interracially. Hispanics comprised the largest number—98 percent. This comes as no surprise as Hispanics are already mixed, whether they are mulatto Puerto Rican, or mestizo Mexicans.

Familiar to those of us in the Mexican southwest, mestizaje is the face of the “new” America, from Canada all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America. The truth be known, America was never just black and white. From the time African slaves were brought to these shores and to the Caribbean, Mexico and South America, there has been love as well as war, with intermarriage between different races, ethnic groups, and cultures taking place for more than four centuries. (And do not forget this intermarriage, this intermixing, took place among the peoples of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East before clerics, settlers, and sailors crossed the Atlantic).

So extensive was the mestizaje in Mexico and Latin America that educator, Mexican philosopher, secretary of education and 1929 presidential candidate José Vasconcellos, defined the new people created by the mixing of European, Indian and other “races” in a 1925 essay titled “La Raza Cósmica,” The Cosmic Race. His “fifth race” was an admixture of all the races in the world with no respect to color or number, to erect a new civilization and the “universal era of humanity.”

That new era is already upon us. Yet there is another important theme which Barack Obama addressed that resonated with voters. It is our common values as Americans. He reminded us that “we the people” are one people, one America.

This is why Obama’s call to unity captured the hearts, minds and hopes of so many, because we inherently know that it is the values we live, and the principles we believe in—equality, democracy, freedom, honesty, justice, hope—and not the color of our skins, which form the collective community, “one nation under God.” And it is these virtues and principles that are so gracefully exemplified in the president-elect, that carried him to the White House and that will make him a great president.

To watch this acknowledgement of the new face of America, and to acknowledge our deepest felt virtues as a nation make me feel especially proud of my country.

Yolanda Nava is a broadcast journalist, columnist and author of the Latino book of virtues “It’s All in the Frijoles: 100 Famous Latinos Share Real-Life Stories, Time-Tested Dichos, Favorite Folktales, and Inspiring Words of Wisdom and Good Food, Good Health: From Field to Feast Wellness Handbook.”

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