In her new book, “Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism,” Laura Gómez, UCLA School of Law professor, wants to clear up some misconceptions about Latinos.

For example, she said, many Americans assume Latinos are recent immigrants, despite the fact that seven out of 10 Latinos are Mexican Americans, and 80% of them were born in the United States. Also, many think of “Latino” as an ethnic group, not a racial one — the U.S. Census doesn’t include Latino as an option under “race” — but most Latinos view the term as their racial identity.  

Latinos have a long history in the United States, and they will play a large role in the country’s future — according to Census data, by 2060, more than 30% of all Americans will be Latino. Gómez asserts that to understand race, politics and power in the United States, one must understand Latino racial identity. In this interview, Gómez discusses how different groups are racialized, how Latinos view themselves and why now is the time for reparations.

What do you mean by “inventing” Latinos? How is race invented?

What I want to invoke with the word “inventing” is a dominant idea in the social sciences called the social construction of race. It’s a reminder that race doesn’t refer to some real biological fact, but instead it is something that humans have given meaning to. When the Europeans colonized other parts of the world — in Africa and Asia, in the Americas — they came up with an idea to justify the way that they were treating the people they found in those lands, to justify taking gold and silver and human life.

Race became a glass that holds something. But what we put in the glass, that’s something that people choose to do. How we think about race changes over time and in different places. In the United States, what race meant in 1900 is not what it means in 2020. There are similarities, because once we have that history we can’t just throw everything out of the glass. It’s more like putting things on top. We create the sedimentation of these different layers — we don’t start over.

You write, “to put it bluntly, race isn’t real, but racism is.” Can you explain what this means?

There’s a conservative legal critique of this notion of race as socially constructed. The critique goes like this: if race is just made up, and race is not real, then we don’t need to worry about compensating people for racial injuries. We don’t need to worry about diversity in institutions because this race thing is not real. And my response is: well even though race is socially constructed and in a sense, invented, racism — the effect of that invention — is very powerful.

Why is it important to understand Latinos as a racial group rather than an ethnic group?

One of the overall takeaways of the book is how different groups in society are racialized. It varies from group to group. With African Americans, there has been a very strong emphasis on phenotype and how people look, specifically skin color. For Latinos, that hasn’t been the case, partly because Latinos look so many different ways. And why is it that Latinos look so many different ways? Well, it’s because of Spanish colonialism coming to the Americas. There was pretty much instantaneous mixture with indigenous women. So you have a mestizo population produced right from the beginning of Spanish contact because the Spanish didn’t bring women — they brought soldiers. Then the Spanish people all over the Americas decide that the indigenous population is not going to work out for labor, so they start importing African slaves to the Americas in huge numbers, and you get another mixture. So skin color doesn’t work as a way of identifying. So what other kinds of things are used? They tend to be things that sociologists would think of more as ethnicity. What language do you speak? Are you bilingual? Do you have an accent? Are you first or second generation?

Ethnicity tends to be something that we think of with respect to white people. Your parents came from Italy or your parents were Eastern European Jews. What we’ve seen with those immigrant groups over time is that within a couple of generations in the U.S., they assimilate. So the narrative for a long time about Latinos was, oh, they’re going to be just like those groups. They’re going to assimilate after a couple of generations. But lo and behold, that hasn’t happened, partly because there’s been a constant influx, unlike with Italians and other groups. For Latinos, it has continued continuously from 1848, when the U.S. took half of Mexico’s territory and people. 

Even third- and fourth- and fifth-generation Mexican Americans experience discrimination. They tend to live in segregated neighborhoods and go to segregated schools. This looks more like racism and less like ethnic conflict. I’m not the first one to say this, but I’m trying to put forward the claim that Latinos are actually thought of by most of us as a racial group, so let’s solve problems based on that idea, rather than getting caught up in this notion of ethnicity, which doesn’t quite fit the group. It keeps us from doing the kinds of things we need to do, like improving educational attainment and decreasing inequity.

The book outlines some policy ideas that constitute a program of reparations for Latinos. What are some of these ideas?

Thankfully, we’re talking a lot more about reparations to African Americans. I think that’s a long overdue conversation. In the context of African American claims, we tend to focus on slavery. As we should. We should focus on slavery and all of the wealth that African Americans produced in this country, and that they should get some of that wealth. We had reparations for the Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.

What would that look like for Latinos? It’s tricky because Latinos are such a diverse group. So I ended up focusing on that word reparations. And the root of it is repair. How do we repair the damage that racism has done? What I focus on mostly is immigration. Because of the way that American military, government and corporations infiltrated Central America and destroyed the indigenous way of life, and slaughtered so many people. People in Central America should get asylum here, like we had asylum for the Vietnamese, for Cubans. We must allow those folks in.

Another is amnesty, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented persons who are here, have not committed violent crimes and can prove that they’ve been here for a certain amount of time. Even though only 20% of Latinos are born outside the United States, most of us are embedded in immigrant communities in one way or another. I’m multi-generation U.S., but my son’s father is a Mexican immigrant. We are connected with immigrants, and having amnesty would say, “you are part of our community.” You’re going to be able to stop living in the shadows. That would help all Latinos. So it’s a very different way of thinking about reparations than for slavery. Again, we’re looking at a different story of anti-Latino racism. And so what does that suggest in terms of what we might do as a society to make amends, repair the relationship and bring people into the fold as full-fledged Americans.

Who do you hope reads this book?

There are two main audiences that I had in mind. One is Latinos themselves, because there’s such a hunger for just more information and more knowledge. Who are we? Where do we come from? How did things get this way? And it’s not only from college students. It’s people of all ages. I saw with my last book, “Manifest Destiny,” that there’s a real hunger. The other audience is people who don’t really have any knowledge about Latinos, or a very cursory understanding. This happens to include a lot of people in the media, in particular the East Coast and Midwest. And sometimes we don’t do a very good job in California either, in terms of our homework on these things. But in particular in the East Coast, I think where it’s very much a Black/white kind of framing, I would really like this book to reach those folks.