Race and Classification: The Case of Mexican America

By Ilona Katzew; Susan Deans-Smith | Go to book overview

6 Hispanic Identities in the
Southwestern United States

Ramón A. Gutiérrez

THERE IS A POPULAR STORY of recent vintage that circulates in folklore along the Mexico/United States border. It tells of an act of miscommunication, born of a mistranslation between a Mexican migrant traveling north and an officer of the U.S. Border Patrol trying to stem that immigrant flow. The migrant is a woman named Molly who is waiting in line to cross the border to the American side. After waiting many hours, her interview moment with the U.S. Border Patrol agent finally arrives. In a gruff and raspy voice the officer asks, 'Are you Tatina?” “No, no, no señor,” she replies. “Yo no soy la Tina. Yo soy la Molly. La Tina ya cruzó.” “No, no, no sir. I am not Tina. I am Molly. Tina already crossed.” The border agent was asking the woman about her ethnic identity as a Latina. The woman, clearly unfamiliar with this specific U.S.-based identity interpreted the question as best she could. She heard Latina not as one word but as two discrete words—la and Tina—and interpreting “la,” which mean “the,” and “Tina” as her friend's name. Indeed her name was not Tina; she was Molly. This story of miscommunication across national borders frequently provokes nervous laughter when heard by Spanish/English bilingual speakers in the southwestern United States. It shows not only how the racial and ethnic labels that operate in one national space often make no sense when transported just a few miles north or south and illustrates the ways in which national regimes monitor and surveil populations through the very act of defining them. In these matters of state, language clearly matters, for ethnic and racial insults hurled in one language, if not understood or lost in translation, hardly hurt or wound their intended victim. Yet the power of the state to impose classification and statuses clearly remains.

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