W. Kamau Bell: despite toxic rhetoric, Latino Americans build their best lives
Know your history: America has been Latino for most of its history, Bell says
Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on Kamau Right Now! on KALW in San Francisco and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
So it’s happened. Donald Trump is the GOP’s presumptive nominee. This is not a drill. All 16 of the GOP’s best (and mostly) whitest have dropped out of the race.
And it seems like everybody is freaking out. Republicans. Democrats. Even my fellow progressives, after months of using the inherently faulty strategy of, “I’m not even going to say his name because I don’t want to give him any more attention than he’s already getting,” are finally beginning to understand how close this President Trump thing is to being a reality.
He’s not Beetlejuice or The Candyman. He doesn’t appear on your TV just because you say his name three times. He’s already on your TV, especially now that he’s the last Republican candidate standing.
But there is one group I bet is not freaking out about the idea of future President Trump, and who it is may surprise you. It’s the Latinos living in Los Angeles who I hang out with and get to know on this Sunday’s “United Shades of America.”
And after filming the episode, I know one thing for sure: I screwed up. I only halfway paid attention in high school Spanish class, and it may be too late now to catch up, no matter how many levels of Rosetta Stone I order. But I’m going to try (and I owe my Spanish teacher an apology). Because as much as Donald Trump wants you to think that if you don’t watch out, America is going to “turn” Latino, Latinos are here to tell you cheerfully: “Too late! It already did!” Or, more accurately, “Muy tarde! Ya paso!”
And it already was too late almost 200 years ago. This is because America has always been in large part Latino. If Donald Trump was to build that M. C. Escher-esque wall between the U.S. and Mexico based on the maps of those countries in 1821, well, that wall would be all the way up on the border between California and Oregon. That’s right! Back then, California was Mexico, so if you think you are hearing a lot of Spanish in that state now, well, you have no idea how much Spanish you’re not hearing there.
And here’s another bit of breaking news. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was pronouncing it “Cal-LEE-fornia,” he was right – he just didn’t realize he was accidentally speaking Spanish.
So despite the rhetoric of the right that demonizes, criminalizes and attempts to demoralize and sometimes outright arch-villianize Latinos, every Latino person I met during this episode was very hopeful about their future, no matter how dire their circumstances in the present seemed to me. And not even just hopeful, but extremely joyful about their lives and futures.
That is a trait I recognize from people in my own community. No matter how much we have to fight and struggle to better ourselves and our circumstances, we know “we gon’ be alright” (to quote the prophet, Kendrick Lamar). I guess I was surprised by this common feeling, because I met people in Los Angeles whose lives seemed so much harder than anything I could have imagined experiencing in my own life.
As I point out in the episode, many members of Latino communities are wary of speaking on camera, because they are or someone they are close to is undocumented. But I met a Latino family who, like many Latino families in this country, has mixed status. This means some family members are U.S. citizens and some are not. And this family not only very generously opened up their home to me for dinner, but they were also happy to tell their story on camera and use their real names.
So much for hiding in the shadows. Unlike her younger brothers, the oldest daughter, Maria, was not a U.S. citizen. But like most high school seniors, she was way more focused on getting into college (preferably one as far away from home as possible) than she was scared of “La Migra” (The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) coming to get her and her family.
I also talked with the band Las Cafeteras; Carlos Portugal, the co-creator and director of Hulu’s popular series “East Los High” (which has one of the first all-Latino, English-speaking casts in history); Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo; graphic artist Ernesto Yerena Montejano; guests at a quinceañera and people in the streets of the predominantly (for now – one guy asked me if I was there to “gentrify his neighborhood”) Latino neighborhoods of East LA and Boyle Heights. And some version of two major themes about what it means to be Latino in America came out of every conversation.
The first: how important it is that they never forget their history and culture – and that one way to do that is to remix their traditions with the current day so they will grow into the future. The second: no matter what people do or say to try to keep them out of this country, they ain’t going nowhere. Because they are this country.
Again, I was shocked by their attitude. When you watch the news, you can get the impression that Latino Americans are somehow skulking, fearful at every turn of the nation’s scorn and the country’s capriciousness around that whole classic American idea of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But that’s not the case. Latinos are here, they’ve been here, and they also know that backup is on the way. According to the U.S. Census, the Latino population is going to more than double what it is today by the year 2060. And that is certain to make Donald Trump, and the people who like Donald Trump, “se van a volver locos!”
That means “freak out.”
Thanks to @luchando1970 on Twitter for the Spanish help. I hope my efforts here to make up for lost time in Spanish class – and the stories you can watch this Sunday – drive home the main point: Being American is more about the person than their paperwork. Now, I’m off to buy some Rosetta Stone.
W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on Kamau Right Now! on KALW in San Francisco and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.