LA RAZA: THE PAN-ETHNIC UMBRELLA
The term La Raza literally translates as “The Race,” but it is more colloquially understood to mean “The People.” It celebrates the multiracial and ethnic heritage of Latinos in the United States. The lineage of La Raza is the Spanish Conquest of the indigenous Indians of Mexico and the resulting mestizaje, or the mixed racial and ethnic identities, of indigenous, Europeans, and Africans unique to the Americas. The Raza Studies Department at San Francisco State University states on their Internet site: “In practical usage, the term Raza refers to mestizos or mixed peoples; we have the blood of the conquered and conqueror, indigenous (i.e., Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Yaqui, Zapotec and numerous other Native Americans), European, African, and Asian.”
The term became popularized during the Chicano movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but its roots lie in the philosophy of Jose Vasconcellos’s “La Raza Cósmica.” Vasconcellos was a Mexican educator, philosopher and writer, and he served as both the Mexican secretary of education and the president of the National University of Mexico. In his 1925 work La Raza Cósmica, Vasconcellos predicted the birth of a new race of people of multiple races and ethnic heritages—a “cosmic race’—that would take precedence over white Spanish or European hegemonic racial categories.
La Raza Cosmica, however, was an ideal that was far from real. At the time, people of mixed racial and ethnic heritage in the Americas were the objects of miscegenation laws, segregation, indentured servitude, and poverty. Arguably, Vasconcellos made some impact with this term. Mexico and other South American and Caribbean countries used this concept and term to rename October 12 from Columbus Day, a celebration of the discovery of the so-called New World, to El Dia de la Raza, a celebration of the anniversary of the birth of a new race. In many of these countries, October 12 is a national holiday celebrating the confluence of civilizations (European and indigenous) in the Americas. In 1928, México made El Dia de la Raza a national holiday.
LA RAZA UNIDA
By the mid-1960s, particularly among Chicanos, children born in the United States of Mexican parents began rediscovering Vasconcelos and incorporating “La Raza” into organizational names. In Texas, Chicano youth formed the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) in 1967, and the used the slogan “La Raza Unida” to sponsor conferences and organize and rally their supporters. By 1970, MAYO had formed a new political party that spread to nineteen states and the District of Columbia under the name La Raza Unida (LRU). This party lasted as an independent political party for a decade.
Other groups followed suit. The Southwest Council of La Raza was formed and headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1968. It eventually became National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the premier civil rights advocacy organization for Chicanos and other Latinos. In the early twenty-first century, NCLR is headquartered in Washington, D.C., with a multimillion dollar budget and hundreds of staff members. In Seattle, Washington, in the late 1960s, a Chicano community development group named its building El Centro de la Raza. In Los Angeles, California, a Chicano student group began a journal titled La Raza at about the same time. Católicos por la Raza was the name chosen by a group of religious practitioners protesting the building of a new cathedral far removed from the barrios in East Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Law students on many campuses across the country organized themselves under the name La Raza Law Students Association. Upon graduation and admission to the various state bar associations, these lawyers formed La Raza Lawyers. There is also a Committee on Raza Rights. At the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, La Raza Law Journal has been published since 1981. At San Francisco State, a group of students pressed the university to form La Raza Studies, an academic course of study, in the late 1960s. In 1999 the department’s title was shortened to Raza Studies because of the redundancy of the article La in Spanish with “The” in English. In 2005, radio stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco began to advertise themselves as “Raza Radio.’
LA RAZA: THE PAN-ETHNIC UMBRELLA
From the 1960s to the 1980s, grassroots leaders of the Chicano movement—such as César Chávez (California), Reies López Tijerina (New Mexico), Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (Colorado) and José Ángel Gutiérrez (Texas)— frequently incorporated the term La Raza into their political rhetoric. La Raza became synonymous with persons of Mexican ancestry in the United States. From 1970 to the present time, Mexicans are the largest group among those labeled “Hispanic” by the U.S. government.
The U.S. government persists in pressing Spanish-speaking people or those of Latino heritage to identify themselves by “race” on the U.S. Census form, and then to also identify themselves ethnically as “Hispanic.” Hispanics are divided into racial groups and nationalities by the U.S. government, and thus essentially fractured from both within and without. Over the past four decades, La Raza has become an inclusive term that provides group shelter to those who reject the government-imposed term Hispanic, those that prefer Latino as a self-identifier, and many of the immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean who have arrived in the United States since the mid-1970s.
Ethnic labels for the diverse nationalities that have come to the United States blend into La Raza, an umbrella term of pan-ethnic identity and solidarity that promotes cohesion. Yet because of the racialized nature of U.S. politics, immigrants arriving in this society often learn to choose ethnic labels such as Latino and Hispanic, terms that lack meaning in their former countries of origin and that did not exist in the United States four decades ago. Such ethnic labels are U.S. products, and many people so labeled are rejecting them.
Acuna, Rodolfo F. 2004. Occupied America, 5th ed. New York: Longman.
Gutiérrez, José Angel. 1998. The Making of a Chicano Militant: Lessons from Cristal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Navarro, Armando. 2000. La Raza Unida: A Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two-Party Dictatorship. Philadelphia: Temple University.
Raza Studies Department, San Francisco State University. “Why the Term Raza.” Available from http://www.sfsu.edu/~raza/.
Vasconcelos, Jose. 1966 (1925). La Raza Cósmica: Missión de La Raza Iberoamericana, Argentina, y Brasil. Mexico: EspasaCalpe.
_____. 1997 (1925). The Cosmic Race, bilingual ed, translated by Didier T. Jean. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
José Angel Gutiérrez