Remember Something Ancient, Imagine Something New: A Look at ‘De Colores Means All of Us’

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Decolores Means All of Us by Elizabeth Martínez was first published in 1998, during a period of stifling political stagnation in the US. At the time, the dramatic twentieth century struggle between competing ideas for what the future would look like appeared concluded. Fascism, the Anglo-European desire to exterminate millions of subjected humans with advanced industrial machinery, had been spit roasted between the bayonets of the US and Soviet powers and dumped into compost pile of history. Socialism (or communism depending on who you ask), on the other hand, the idea of international human cooperation, mutual respect across social differences, and emancipation from the brutal necessity of wage labor and artificially imposed poverty, fared little better. Industrial backwardness, unrelenting civil power struggles, and constant military pressure from the remaining capitalist countries led by the US produced the iron dictatorships of the East many now associate with the term communism. After the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1989, it appeared that the US, with its “Liberal Democracy,” was the ordained victor of history.

Left with no further obstacles, the leaders of our settled capitalist world wasted little time in consolidating the so-called “end of history,” and got on with the tasks of globalizing the market, subjecting all humankind to the iron laws of profit, vastly expanding the military budget, and generally getting rich off the work of others. Many on the Left gave up on the idea of changing the world, while those on the Right were busy reveling in the realization of their victory. In many respects the 90s appears in hindsight as a lost decade, symbolized by a small, bitter, infighting Left overwhelmed by the “collapse of communism,” and the fusion of the right-wing agenda with the popularity of the Democratic party in a national leader like Bill Clinton.

All, however, was not lost. Compelled by the violence experienced by racialized people in a triumphant US, and inspired by the unrelenting fight against this system, many veteran grassroots organizers and a new generation of youth continued undaunted in the fight for liberation. Elizabeth Martínez was one such veteran (of the SNCC generation)—a bright light exposing other bright lights in a very dark night. Though published nearly twenty years ago, the new Verso reprint of De Colores Means All of Us contains many urgent messages for the current moment. Part history and part philosophy, De Colores Mean All of Us is a vital key to untangling the messy social structures of race, class, and gender in a specifically Borderlander US context.

“We need a vision in which we abolish the prevailing definition of the United States as a nation with a single, Euro-American culture and identity. Then we must re-imagine it as a community of communities that recognize their inter-dependence and relate on the basis of mutual respect. The nation’s very boundaries may have to change; after all, they’re only two centuries old and they were drawn through conquest and genocide. Think sin fronteras—without borders. Think what may seem unthinkable, and envision revolution.” 

Content-wise  De Colores Means All of Us is broken up into six parts: “Seeing More than Black and White,” “No Hay Fronteras: The Attack on Immigrant Rights,” “Fighting for Economic and Environmental Justice,” “Racism and the Attack on Multiculturalism,” “Woman Talk’ No Taco Belles Here,” and, “La Lucha Continua: Youth in the Lead.” If this seems like a lot, it kind of is. The book packs in a very solid two hundred and fifty four pages of Raza history and theory. However, Martínez never lingers on a singular topic for too long, manages to avoid the overly complicated phrasing notorious of much philosophy, and the undeniable freshness of her analysis and storytelling make for an enjoyable reading experience.

Seeing More than Black and White

For the Raza, Latinx, or general Borderlander reader, from the very beginning of the book, you may be confronted with the paranoid experience of having your mind and everyday life read. For instance, Martínez opens by tackling a question that continues to provoke passionate and seemingly never-ending argument up to the contemporary moment thanks to the X in Latinx: the terminology question. Is it Chicano/a? Latino/a? Mexican American? Hispanic? Though obviously written before the Latinx debate, Martínez’s contribution on the general matter remains in many ways more productive and relevant than much of the sound and fury that clogs comment sections on the issue today.

As she puts it, “At the heart of the terminology debate is the historical experience of Raza. Invasion, military occupation and racist control mechanisms all influence the evolution of words describing people who have lived through such trauma. The collective memory of every Latino people includes direct or indirect (neo-)colonialism, primarily by Spain or Portugal and later by the US.” Accordingly the terminology debate remains so heated precisely because it contains within it the struggle of colonized peoples to define themselves in non-racist and even anti-racist ways. The struggle over identity labels is part and parcel of the struggle for a different kind of world. Still, Martínez reminds us, words are words. “If liberatory terminology becomes an end in itself and our only end, it ceases to be a tool of liberation. Terms can be useful, even vital tools, but the house of La Raza that is waiting be built needs many kinds.” 

“As the world changes, so too must our understanding of race. If the idea is to dismantle the hierarchy atop which Whiteness sits, then naturally part of this process must be producing our own accurate understanding of how this hierarchy functions.”

From here Martínez opens out into a much broader historical conversation on the (still) prevalent understanding of race in the US as being a matter of Black and White. This bi-polar model, as Martínez argues, not only obscures the multitude of other racial identities undergirding the US, it also propagates a dualistic moral understanding that sees things as either one thing or the other (in other words, as the colonial europeans who founded this model saw things, “the civilized vs. the savage”). Such either/or thinking has accompanied mass genocides for as long as such things were possible.

Furthermore, as the world changes, so too must our understanding of race. As Martínez puts it so elegantly: “For a group of Korean restaurant entrepreneurs to hire Mexican cooks to prepare Chinese dishes for mainly African-American customers, as happened in Houston, Texas, has ceased to be unusual.” If the idea is to dismantle the hierarchy atop which Whiteness sits, then naturally part of this process must be producing our own accurate understanding of how this hierarchy functions, with all of the racial complexities confronting us today incorporated.

Martínez then changes tack to focus on the making invisible of the Latinx experience in the US. Beginning with a personal recollection of a confrontation she had with a White “Lion of the Left” (an academic) over the topic of Latinx activism in the sixties and his denial of such a thing, Martínez moves onto an extremely helpful historical takedown of the racist lies that pass for state level education in places like California and Texas.

Though the specific textbooks she is referencing may now be obsolete, pretty much anyone raised and educated in the border states will likely find the arguments they make (which Martínez dissects) to be completely in line with what we were taught. From the “brave defenders of the Alamo” schtick (among the most famous of whom were an escaped murderer, William Travis, a slave runner, James Bowie, and a gunfighting adventurer, Davy Crockett), to the defense of US provocation of the war with Mexico, and our subsequent violations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Martínez exposes the Eurocentrism of our historical education step-by-step.

Section one is concluded with a searching and eloquent reflection on the necessity for a new national origin myth. One that does not ignore what Martínez deems, “the three hidden pillars of our nationhood: genocide, enslavement, and imperialist expansion.” An origin myth that puts an end to the exclusively white nostalgia for “Dick and Jane” simplicity, and the vile militarism of Manifest Destiny which lies beneath it. A myth that, “lays the groundwork for a multicultural, multinational identity centered on the goals of social equity and democracy.” “At times,” Martínez quips, “one can hear the clock ticking.”

No Hay Fronteras; the Attack on Immigrant Rights and On

“In other words, globalization has made Mexican and other migrant labor —especially when undocumented— key to restructuring the U.S. economy. Scapegoating these same workers for U.S. economic problems is thus an act of supreme hypocrisy and political opportunism.”

Though every section in this book deserves in-depth exploration, such work is beyond the scope of this review. Some concluding highlights will serve as a placeholder for the later, more sustained work of others.

Martínez’s work leaps out of the page most strikingly when covering the 90’s higher-ed culture wars for or against multiculturalism (in a more immanent way than the recent work of someone like Angela Nagle in All Normies Must Die), and gets extra fresh in dedicating thought to things still emerging twenty years later, like indigenisma, decolonial thought, and xicanisma in part five.

“The time lag of the publication, as it is a re-issue of a book from the nineties, allows the reader a sense of historical continuity. The struggles of yesterday are both prologue and content of the struggles today and—as always—la lucha continúa.”

Furthermore, Martínez not only manages to avoid the, at times, laughably Anglo-male-centric aphorisms of much “hot new radical philosophy,” she also manages to avoid the smug contempt that identity-exclusive thinkers often times take on when dismissing such subject matter. As such, her more theoretical contributions to the question of politics in part six possess a novelty and insight that is uniquely important today.

This rare Borderlander dialectics comes to the surface precisely when Martínez takes on the issues of nationalism and the ambivalent relationship between “the left” and the Chicanx community. Against both aforementioned exclusive tendencies of Anglo-class and abajo-identity, Martínez defends the necessity of group identity, while also acknowledging the class-obscuring tendencies of cultural nationalism. Her dialogue with mixed-heritage Central American Edgar Cruz is highly instructive:

“Edgar Cruz...points out: “There is a lot of difference in politics as a result of those different backgrounds. For example, most youth who grew up in the United States come into politics through culture and affirming their identity. Latinos from South America focus less on racism and more on class.” We can add: those who came from areas of Central America that have been torn by civil war tend to think Chicanos don’t know much are real struggle. But the Centroamericanos and recently arriving Mexicans usually don’t know Chicano history.” 

This conversation continues to develop in the next chapter ¡Raza si! Nationalism…? and paves the way for Martínez’s even more fundamental attack on colonially-developed dualistic thought. Here she drags down the settled wall that has been built between “culture” and “knowledge” (or, in other words, “aesthetics” and “politics”). Inverting this hierarchy to posit artistic expression and cultural production as perhaps the premier site for building political alliances, she states:

“The affirmation of cultural strength, language and beauty is a very promising area of cooperation. An evening that brings together Black rappers, Chicano performance artists, Korean drummers and Native American poets, for example, can do more for cross-racial solidarity than a host of speeches. Expressions of mutual respect for cultural work may seem no more than a gesture, but gestures can be important if sincere.” 

Indeed, if the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre is correct, then gestures actually may be the prime building blocks of a new world, as these are what create social space to begin with. Speculation aside, in the era of Run the Jewels, the importance of such cultural significations can no longer be ignored or dismissed as merely “art.”

“To move towards unity, we don’t have to like each other personally. But we do need to work together, take risks together, march and picket and go to jail together, and perhaps even die together—or die for each other—before lasting trust can be born. In the meantime we must recognize our interdependence, and the need to build on it, as a fundamental, life-saving strategy. In short we can work on those two big tasks at once: getting our own communities together and building solidarity with others. They facilitate each other.” 

Overall,  De Colores Means All of Us is a rare book. Neither conventionally “academic” nor “journalistic,” Martínez is able to dish out devastating criticisms of both minute and larger issues with a comedic simplicity. Moreover, the time lag of the publication, as it is a re-issue of a book from the nineties, allows the reader a sense of historical continuity. The struggles of yesterday are both prologue and content of the struggles today and—as always—la lucha continúa. Where the book does show its age is undoubtedly in section three in which the author will likely lose most readers in the minutia of acronym-activism which has since fizzled out, but even here there are many lessons to be mined from the legal labyrinth of abajo non-profits, even if their obsoletion is writ large today by the Trump administration.

Whether a working adult with a desire for liberatory self-education, a student seeking decolonial alternatives to a Eurocentric academic workload, or a humanities professor putting together a critical syllabus, De Colores Means All of Us has a lot to offer.

“And the best lesson of all: women are the world’s most consistent alliance-builders. When women of color lead the way in a movement, it will almost always be stronger. When any women lead the way in uniting people, let tyrants beware.”