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John Leguizamo: “Latinos Need To Demand Our Place In American History”

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Two recent pieces give us an important reminder of the history of Latinos in the Americas — and a reminder of the history Latinos can make if we make our voices heard at the ballot box this November.

In a New York Times op-ed, actor and activist John Leguizamo writes that “the dominant narrative is that we have just ‘illegally’ crossed the border or are ‘fresh off the boat,’” despite the fact “that Latinos founded some of America’s first cities”:

Latinos have been dying for America since before we were a nation. Why have our children not heard that thousands of Latino patriots fought for America in the Revolutionary War? Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish general, recruited Mexicans, Cubans, Native Americans and free African-Americans to fight against the British in the South, while Cuban women donated their jewelry and money to help the patriots. Where is the Ken Burns documentary about that?

Why don’t they know about the many Latinos in the War of 1812? Or anything of the 20,000 Latinos who fought valiantly in the Civil War? Or of those who earned Purple Hearts or the Croix de Guerre in World War I? Or of the up to 500,000 who served in the military in World War II?

It’s as if our heroism and sacrifice somehow counted less, as if we didn’t exist in history at all. Without a past to glorify and uplift you, how do you propel yourself into an unknown, tenuous future?

I’m only an amateur historian. But I am an expert on my own life and career. So to bring it around to more contemporary slights: Hispanics are the most underrepresented ethnic group in film and television. “Saturday Night Live” has only just hired its first Latina comic. Are we really to believe there are so few funny Latinos? We are similarly marginalized in business and corporate life.

This exclusion sends a painful message to every Latino child about how he is seen and judged. Latino people face a double challenge: to create our own positive self-image while battling against the way the broader society portrays us. Without textbooks in schools that do justice to our contributions to the making of America, and without media representation expanding to include more Latin faces and voices, we are vulnerable to a demagogue like Mr. Trump claiming that we are all “drug dealers,” “rapists” and “criminals.”

But a range of studies find no link between violent crime and immigration. The fact is that immigrants as a group commit far fewer crimes than the rest of the American population. Almost every immigrant is just here to make a better life for himself.

That can be hard to do when the states where many immigrants live — Texas and Arizona in particular — gerrymander Latino communities out of political power and limit funding to their neighborhoods. Latinos aren’t uniformly liberal; some are conservative because of their religious beliefs or fiscal views. And yet if all of the eligible Latinos voted, a number of states would turn from red to blue.

Latinos need to demand our place in American history, and in corporate, political and social fields. We must demand an equal share of the American dream, and not accept a downgraded version of it. We need to stop accepting exclusion over persecution. In this critical election, and in the future, I urge you all to register and vote, to be counted and heard.

In a second piece in The Guardian, John Paul Brammer writes that Latinos “been scapegoated throughout history, but we also have a strong tradition of protest and dissent. Now is the time to harness our growing voting bloc”:

To be Latino is to inherit a rich history of resistance. Our people, so often mistreated by both sides, but especially by Republicans, are waking up. I look at young Latinos who are taking to the streets to fight for undocumented people, to protect Daca, to free LGBT refugees from detention. It is a reminder that we were never truly silent, and that our voice is growing louder every day.

We need to harness this energy and direct it to getting Latinos to the voting booth if we are to make manifest our potential in this country. That includes pushing for more Spanish-language material from campaigns, dismantling voter ID laws that target Latinos, and actively engaging with organizations like Voto Latino that are working to get more Latinos registered to vote. It includes talking to our family members, especially those of us who speak English and have an understanding of American politics, about why it’s important to vote and why it’s more crucial than ever to be a part of the electoral process.

It’s important that we do: Trump wasn’t the first demagogue to use our community as scapegoats, and he won’t be the last.