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Race and ethnicity

Jodi Arias Is Not White (and Other Lessons About Latinos)

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Thu, May 9, 2013 at 9:01 AM
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See coverage of the Arias case from our sister publication Phoenix New Times here.

There was a time when using the term "Mexican" was thought to be impolite. Perhaps that sentiment stems from the Chicano identity movement of the 1960s and '70s, when activists wanted it known that not every suspect wanted by police was Mexican. Not every dark-skinned American with a Spanish surname was Mexican. And what about those of us who were born here? We are American.

Thus began a delicate hat dance of terminology that has grown to ridiculous proportions. Witness L.A. celebrity attorney Mark Geragos comparing Jodi Arias to Casey Anthony on CNN yesterday:

Geragos said Arias, convicted yesterday of killing her lover after sex in Mesa, Ariz., in 2008, had only one thing in common with Anthony: They're both attractive white women whose alleged crimes mesmerized the nation.

Wrong.

Anthony, who was defended into acquittal by her Latino attorney, Jose Baez, after she was accused of murdering her toddler, is indeed white, as far as we can tell.

But Arias, a product of Salinas, home of the farm worker, is Mexican-American and mixed. Sure, you say, but she's light-skinned, and Latinos can be racially white anyway.

True, but in this context, Arias is as Latina as they come. You can see it on her face. As a translation of the Mexican saying goes, she has a cactus on her forehead. In other words, her looks give away her heritage.

And then there's that whole hot-blooded stereotype. Don't get us started. Hell hath no fury like a Latina scorned. Arias was convicted for cutting her boyfriend's throat and shooting him after a lovemaking session. (He had been seeing other women and was honest about it, apparently.)

Even without the stereotype -- there are plenty of examples of other kinds of women going Edward Scissorhands on the nearest male genitals -- the story was different in the Phoenix area than it was in the rest of America:

Here was a clear case of a clean-cut Mormon white boy having his life taken by a purported tramp who was clearly different.

Anthony and Arias? One woman got off, so to speak, and another didn't. We're not saying "race" played a part in this. But our boss, who has worked in Arizona, put it this way: If Arias had been acquitted, it would have been Phoenix's O.J. trial, with white riots in the desert.

The point here is that after a few hundred years of living together, America still treats Latinos like a curious specimen, a group apart, a fresh discovery that has yet to settle into a name.

A recent Vanity Fair story about a Manhattan club brawl between a former Hawaiian Tropic Zone venue owner (Adam Hoch) and a group of "European blue bloods" described a member of the latter (Diego Marroquin) as "Mexican-born."

Likewise, the husband of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Kyle Richards, Mauricio Umansky, has been described on the show as being from Mexico City.

Is "Mexican" still such a dirty word, all these decades later, that it dare not sully the good name of native, south-of-the-border rich people? You really can't get any more Mexican than being born in Mexico.

As for Arias? The Latino face should be as ingrained in this country's fabric as the Italian grandmother and the Irish cop. There should be no mistaking.

Look, as far as Geragos goes, we like the guy. He stepped up to defend an acquaintance, a journalist, arrested during the 2011 LAPD raid of Occupy L.A. at City Hall. That's solid.

But he should know better than to be looking at footage of an ever-so-obviously-Latina Latina and call her white. Don't let Arias' blonde phase fool ya.

His observation helped us recall so many instances of people in the heart of Los Angeles who, often well-meaning, mischaracterize their neighbors, from African-Americans to Korean-Americans who have lived side by side with us for decades and still call us Spanish, thinking it's polite.

Polite? Would it be polite to call blacks in South Africa "Dutch"?

This southwestern land, once a part of Mexico, never ceases to amaze. Learn your history, people. We're not Spanish. White? You think Arizona jurors thought a white girl killed this white man?

Mexican-American, Latino, American! All good.

Y'all should know us by now.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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