Donald Trump's attacks on a federal judge presiding over civil action against Trump University have revived a deep branch of U.S. history composed of anti-Latino hatred.
His use of the term “Mexican” to describe an Indiana-born jurist recalls the term's historic, Hollywood-produced use as a pejorative.
“He's a Mexican,” Trump said Friday of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
And conservative media outlets quickly jumped on Curiel's membership in the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, essentially the Latino attorneys group for the region. Trump called the group “very strongly pro-Mexican.”* Invoking a Ku Klux Klan term, the right-wing website Infowars called Curiel a “Hispanic Grand Dragon.” La raza, literally translated, means “the race.” But it doesn't mean the master race.
Luis O. Osuna, president of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, explained that la raza “translates to the people and the power of people banding together for justice.”
Indeed, it's not uncommon to hear a Mexican say mi raza, as in mi gente or “my people.” While you could argue that this proves the conservatives' point, please note that Mexican is not a race, and that Mexico has demographic influences ranging from African to Lebanese, Austrian to Chinese. There's more on the word Mexican below.
The term la raza has roots in the 1925 essay La Raza Cósmica, by onetime Mexican presidential candidate José Vasconcelos.
His work referred to the many so-called races of Latin America — European, African, Asian, indigenous — which helped this crossroads of Earth transcend the old world and create a new cosmic hybrid for humanity.
In no way has the word been understood to refer to racial purity, superiority or homogeneity.
“During the civil rights movement, this was adopted by Chicano and Mexican-American political activists,” said Christopher Arriola, secretary of the California La Raza Lawyers Association, a statewide umbrella group.
“La raza is a phrase that connotes pride and ethnic solidarity among Mexican-Americans,” said Laura E. Gómez, a professor at UCLA School of Law. “It became popular in the 1970s, with the rise of the Mexican American civil rights movement, which in many ways was inspired by the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s but which had many other catalysts as well.
“Many civil rights and other organizations use the term in their names,” she said. “For example, when I was a student at Harvard College in the early 1980s, the Mexican-American students' organization was called La Raza.”
Some of those civil rights groups have been saddled with misunderstood and sometimes anachronistic names, not unlike that of the NAACP. Indeed, La Raza Lawyers has its roots in the bootstraps Latino activism of the 1960s and '70s.
“Many of the young lawyers coming out of law school at the time wanted to use the term,” Arriola told us.
La Raza Lawyers was founded by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and a small group of colleagues in 1972.
The Mexican American Bar Association had already been established in L.A., in the late 1950s, but Reynoso and his cohorts (who were in Northern California) clearly wanted something more potent, Arriola indicated.
California La Raza Lawyers spawned affiliates throughout the state and created a national umbrella group that changed its name to the Hispanic National Bar Association in the 1980s, Arriola said.
“It's fair to say that in the '70s in part and in the '80s there weren't very many Latino lawyers, and there still was some very obvious discrimination,” Arriola said. “You'd walk into court and they say, 'Are you an interpreter or a defendant?'”
The idea behind La Raza Lawyers was never to create a group based on racial identity, however, but to provide professional support for a struggling minority, he said.
To this day, Arriola said, only 6 percent of California State Bar attorneys are Latino. The state's Latino population is approaching 40 percent.
“To say there's not a need for an advocacy group is hard to argue,” Arriola said.
Though much has been made of a 2014 La Raza Lawyers scholarship to an undocumented student, the 300-member San Diego group does not limit its awards to Latinos, Osuna said. Curiel was on the scholarship fundraising board that year but was not involved in choosing recipients, he said.
The undocumented scholarship winner had come “to the country as a young child through no fault of his own” and was eligible to attend public colleges and universities in California as a resident, Osuna said.
Meanwhile, Trump argues Curiel can't give him a fair shake because he's “Mexican” and thus would be naturally revulsed as a result of the GOP nominee's promise to build a border wall.
Conservative media allege that Curiel's membership in La Raza Lawyers points to pro-Mexican bias. La Raza Lawyers was created in order to fight against anti-Latino bias in the law profession. La raza is a term that is, at its heart, inclusive.
“I grew up in L.A. and O.C.,” Arriola said. “People still use the term 'Mexican' pejoratively. There were worse terms that could be very hurtful. Which is why people chose empowerment terms like la raza or Mexican-American or Chicano.”
San Diego State University professor of English and comparative literature William Anthony Nericcio wrote the book on the use of words like “Mexican” as a pejorative. It's called Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America.
The word has been used as an insult for at least 100 years in this country, he said. “The notion of the Mexican is supercharged with negativity,” Nericcio says.
In the late '60s and early '70s Mexican-Americans fought back, taking back their heritage and proclaiming pride in their roots, regardless of the American imagery that goes with it.
Hispanic National Bar Association president Robert T. Maldonado had to call Trump out in February for saying Curiel was “hostile” and “Hispanic.”
Clearly Trump has graduated from Hispanic to Mexican in an attempt, some argue, to divert attention from allegations of fraud in the Trump University case.
“There's a century-long tradition of Hollywood immortalizing the image of the Mexican as pejorative,” Nericcio says. “This is the well from which Trump draws water.”
*Added at 11:59 a.m. Tuesday, June 7, 2016