Mexican identity in Canadian academia
An unsolicited opinion
- Mexican and Latin American scholars are being suggested to co-opt Indigenous identities for potential benefits within Canadian academia. This is very problematic.
- The discourse around EDI in academia seems to be dictated by an attention economy (like pretty much everything else) as opposed to social justice policies.
- The segregation and mistreatment of some minorities have been normalized enough to be completely ignored from the mainstream EDI discourse in academia, Mexicans among them.
So, what is a Mexican?
I have been noticing a very worrying trend. Worrying to me, at least. There seems to be a push (sometimes mild, some others more energic) for Latin American scholars to co-opt and declare an Indigenous identity to obtain certain kinds of benefits with the Canadian academic system. In fact, I have experienced this push myself. When I was applying for academic positions, I was suggested more than once by some of my colleagues within academia (people that care about me very much and have the best intentions at heart) to include mentions of my Indigenous heritage in my diversity statement in order to increase my chances of being hired for a tenure track position (like many other Mexicans, I do have Indigenous ancestry). I have consistently refused to do so but I realize now that I have never made clear why I refused and that although my reasons against doing this are very clear in my mind, they might not be as clear for my peers suggesting it.
Mestizo, not Métis
I will start by saying that like most Mexicans, although I have Indigenous ancestry, I am not Indigenous. I am not ashamed at all of my Indigenous heritage (although many Mexicans are) but, simply put, I am foreign to it. For the most part, Mexicans are mestizos, the Spanish word for métis, but mestizo and métis are not culturally interchangeable. The origin of Mexican mestizaje is rooted not exclusively in racial identity but as an ideological construct advanced by José Vasconcelos in La Raza Cósmica, a work that, unfortunately, has also led to particularly disgusting forms of racism in México (this same construct was later embraced and adopted by the Chicano movement [El Movimiento] in the U.S.). In consequence, most Mexicans assume to have Indigenous ancestry but we don’t really know where that ancestry comes from (in my case, I assume my pre-Columbian ancestry would be Huastec but only because my family has lived in the region for generations). To make it clearer in the Canadian context, the great majority of Mexicans lack the funds of knowledge that would make us Métis. By the way, if you want to learn more about this, check Dr. Samantha Hill’s dissertation: Race and nation-building: a comparison of Canadian Métis and Mexican Mestizos (UBC, 2001)
Now, I personally don’t see the point in bringing up an ancestry that is not backed up by its corresponding funds of knowledge in Canadian academia, because 1. it wouldn’t be of any real benefit for my students, my research or the institution that would hire me (particularly if my scholarship is not explicitly attached to my identity) and 2. if the institution in question has allocated a position (an already rare occurrence) intended for an Indigenous scholar, I wouldn’t want to take the opportunity away from a Canadian Indigenous scholar with the pertinent and relevant funds of knowledge. In fact, if we really think about it, the very prospect of a Mexican scholar benefitting from a call intended for a Canadian Indigenous scholar is inherent racist: Even if an actual Mexican Indigenous scholar applied for such a position, entertaining a notion of interchangeability between Indigenous identities is as problematic as assuming interchangeability between Asian identities, for example.
Turn down for what?
In her article Factors and Processes of Racialization in the Canadian Academe, Dr. Zuhra Abawi (2018) states: “The discourse of diversity in higher education operates through the lens of the corporatization of the university, whereby diversity is commodified as a marketing strategy to attract a plethora of both international and minoritized domestic student demographics”. My academic colleagues understand that Indigenous identities rank high in the current discourse about diversity in higher education. This is the reason many Mexicans and other Latin American scholars are being suggested to co-opt Indigenous identities with the best intentions. However, this implies that a) Latin American identities do not have enough “diversity currency” (more about this later) and b) the goal is to have more people “playing the role”, as opposed to infusing and enriching the institutions with Indigenous funds of knowledge.
Suggesting a Mexican scholar co-opt an Indigenous identity (to become a pretendian) is a risk that goes both ways but is definitely greater for the emerging scholars. I am convinced that, eventually, this topic will be brought up again by someone with actual authority and those Mexican (and other Latin American) academics that presented themselves as Indigenous will pay a high price. Now, those that recommended them to do so could eventually be questioned on whether they knew or not, putting their own reputations at risk. However, as it stands right now, the risks are relatively low for the latter group because the current demographic makeup of Canadian academia makes it very likely that those on the hiring committees, those currently tasked with determining whether a candidate is “diverse enough” or not, are as white as those suggesting Mexican (and other Latin American) scholars to pretend to be Indigenous to advance their own careers.
Now, you might ask yourself, what if an Indigenous scholar suggested a Mexican academic “flesh out” their Indigenous identity? Would that make it different? I honestly don’t know, I am not an expert. So far I haven’t encountered this scenario but, what I do know, is that even if the suggestion comes from an Indigenous Elder, that wouldn’t have an impact on whether the scholar in question has had access to Indigenous funds of knowledge or not. For me, at least, the litmus test is very simple: Can I confidently present myself publicly as Indigenous in México? I personally cannot. Why would I do it in Canada? Besides, I never asked the Salish people for permission to occupy this land. It was the Canadian government, the settlers, who stamped my passport (and every other Mexican passport) and granted me a permanent residency.
Follow the leader
As mentioned earlier, the notion that Mexican scholars might need to resort to co-opt Indigenous identities, suggests that Mexican identities have somehow less currency or, at least, are not a priority for Canadian academia. And you know what? That is perfectly fine. It would be even better if the powers that be were honest about this reality and had that clarity when accepting graduate students into the programs but that’s material for another rant. Given the historical precedent, I find it completely reasonable that Canadian academia privileges Indigenous scholars over Mexican scholars. But this also makes me wonder how are these decisions made within academia. How is it determined that some minorities’ identities will carry more clout than others during a particular period of time? I have my own observations.
There is really no way to quantify the generational trauma that comes with historical and racist abuse and therefore, there is no way to compare. Each of the groups that have experienced and suffered historical trauma deserves to be acknowledged, heard, seen and respected on their own terms. I will give academia the benefit of the doubt by assuming that their EDI units have the finger on the pulse and that they are not trying to quantify trauma but simply determining the order in which things should be addressed knowing quite well that academia is a very slow institution. But then, how is this order determined? Here are my two cents: The way academia manages its discourse about diversity is mostly, if not completely, based on visibility and media attention. Maybe you’ll be shocked, perhaps not. There is absolutely no study behind these assertions, these are simply the product of my own observations but I honestly think that it would be a fascinating study in the field of Cultural Analytics or Digital Humanities. Again, based solely on my observations, I would categorize the causes that academia privileges (in terms of integrating them into their discourse and hiring guidelines) into three kinds:
- High visibility issues: Causes derived from events generated specifically in the U.S. that gained visibility almost instantaneously. Interestingly, many of these events will have identifiable social media tags (e.g., hashtags). These issues tend to take priority.
- Medium to low visibility issues: Causes derived from events generated in Canada that gained moderate visibility in the U.S. Some of these events will have clear social tagging, some others won’t. These issues can take priority but that will depend on the reaction of the public.
- Invisible or non-issues: These are causes that haven’t been addressed because there is no real interest in addressing them. There could be events associated with these causes but those events would not be perceived by the media as relevant. Because there is no national or international conversation, there is no traction or need to be addressed.
Now, it is important to point out that the visibility of the cause does not determine its importance or gravity. The great difficulty in discussing these kinds of things is that it almost requires separating the mediatic phenomenon from its emotional effect on people. I am certainly not advocating for the use of an attention model to gauge the importance of a social justice issue. In fact, I wish to be very wrong about this. Anyway, allow me to elaborate.
High visibility issues
According to Universities Canada, the work of the Scarborough Charter on anti-Black racism and Black inclusion began in October of 2020. According to the website, the Charter “reflects our shared recognition of the realities of anti-Black racism and provides a concrete path forward to address these and create a more inclusive future.” The problem of anti-Black racism in Canada is definitely not new and documentation on this issue is neither rare nor obscure. The website of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation hosts a 2003 document by Rosemary Sadlier titled: Anti-Black Racism in Canada, A Historical Perspective. Sadlier (activist, educator) was at the time the president of the Black History Society and was instrumental in the recognition of Black History Month by the Canadian government in 1995. New Youth has a short article with linking resources to learn more about the topic. Again, not new.
The Scarborough Charter came shortly after Black Lives Matter went viral during the George Floyd protests but the BLM movement dates back to 2013 (when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the death of Treyvon Martin). In fact, the Canadian chapter of BLM was established three years before the Charter, in 2017. So why would Canadian academia wait for an American-based event of international proportions to engage in a concerted effort to “recognize the realities” of anti-black racism in Canada?
I would argue that the same could be said about anti-Asian racism in Canada. It is a massive subject with a long historical precedent (the Canadian Encyclopedia has a couple of good entries on the topic) but the attention that the issue currently receives in academic circles seems to be the consequence of a viral phenomenon, the Stop Asian Hate movement in the United States.
It almost seems like these long-standing, historical problems in Canada are only being discussed because the most recent manifestations (those coming from the U.S.) were the only ones worth paying attention to. A cynical person would infer that Canadian academia agrees that Black (American) Lives Matter and that it is important to stop Asian (American) hate more than addressing the endemic racism that both communities have faced in the country.
Medium to low visibility issues
In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement was implemented. Immediately after, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. The TRC operated between 2007 and 2015. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was established immediately after. This would have been the right moment to create specific positions for Indigenous scholars. But these events, while very important for Canadians, had virtually no impact on the U.S. The most recent turn of events was the TRC’s publication of the 94 calls to action.
However, almost concurrently with the creation of the TRC, a general interest in EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) had been growing steadily since the summer of 2017 both in the U.S. and Canada, making EDI a high visibility issue, one that needed to be taken seriously.
The need to address the lack of visibility of Indigenous peoples in academia, (an issue that should have preceded the TRC, by the way) was then lumped with EDI. For example, in 2017, the Canada Research Chairs Program released an action plan focused on “improving the governance, transparency and monitoring of equity and diversity within the program. These actions support institutions in making swift progress towards addressing the underrepresentation of the four designated groups (FDGs) — women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and members of visible minorities — within the program.”
Unfortunately, I do not have access to a database of academic job postings so I can only refer to the newsletters that I received from University Affairs but I dare to say that besides the odd occurrence, the number of job postings for academic positions explicitly for Indigenous scholars (at least in Education) increased starting 2017, not 2015. I also dare to predict that this number peaked between 2021 and 2022 when the graves of Indigenous children were found and reported in mainstream U.S. media. Now, in my view, the problem with lumping Indigenous scholars’ visibility with EDI is that an issue that should have come as a commitment to truth and reconciliation efforts after dealing with intergenerational trauma becomes an issue of diversity (which are not the same at all) and, under the gaze of diversity, you sure can have a Mexican scholar replacing a Canadian Indigenous scholar because they are both “others”.
Invisible or non-issues
By now it should be clear that representation is particularly important in academia. For example, in Visions by WIMIN: BIPOC Representation Matters, the authors, Jenny N. Ijoma, Mahnue Sahn, Kyeara N. Mack, Eman Akam, Kimberly J. Edwards, Xiaowei Wang, Anmol Surpur & Kelly E. Henry (2022) state: “From the perspective of BIPOC women trainees, the lack of BIPOC faculty who are visible minorities, particularly at the most senior level positions, often conjures questions of whether academia is a realistic career path for aspiring minority students.” In Canada, the fourth most common racialized minority are people from the Philippines, only behind South Asians, Chinese and Black people, respectively. How many Filipino or Filipina scholars do you know? How many Filipino and Filipina students do you see in classrooms across Canada? Well, maybe you think is not an issue of representation but social justice.
The Filipino community in Canada has endured several instances of discrimination, many of them sanctioned by the Canadian government. In Filipinos in Canada, Jon G. Malek states “In Canada, employers tend to hire Filipino women over men, who typically do not seek this stream of work. This gendering and racialization of Filipinas reinforce their image as compliant caregivers. The precariousness of life as a caregiver, as well as the racialized image created, has exposed many of the women in the [Live-in Caregiver Program] to abuse and vulnerability.” Although it is a very Canadian problem, the lack of representation of Filipinas and Filipinos (roughly 1 in every 10 visible minorities over 15 years old) and the racialization/discrimination they have endured is a non-issue in Canadian academia because they are perceived as having a historical implicit relationship of servitude with Canadians (just like Mexicans). There is no hashtag associated with it, there is no way to look for it in Google trends; therefore, not an issue.
We don’t talk about brunxs*
*Bruno, na. Adj. Brown or very dark in colour
Now, let’s go back to Mexicans. Mexico, Canada and the U.S. are parties in one of the most ambitious and unfair deals in current history. NAFTA was supposed to put the three countries in similar standing when it comes to trade. It didn’t, of course. Canadian mining corporations have incurred massive environmental and human rights abuses in Mexico and other Latin American countries while taking tax avoidance to unprecedented levels. The great majority of the lands that are exploited by these companies are (by the way) Indigenous, which is not short of a modern form of colonialism.
Mi casa es su casa
Again, I don’t have the data to back some of my claims but I am almost sure that there are more Canadian academics with properties in Mexico (I personally know a few) than Mexican Academics in Canada. If you are part of the academic community in Canada you can try the mental exercise of remembering a Mexican (not Latin American, Mexican) scholar and then recalling the last time that you heard about the retirement plans of a Canadian professor. Heck, maybe you are that Canadian professor. I get it, we are very lovely people, after all. This article published in CBC News says it all: “Over the last decade, the number of Canadians living in Mexico soared from 6,000 to 75,000, according to figures from Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) and the Canadian Embassy in Mexico” (…) “Strikingly, in the coastal city of Mazatlán, located in the home state of Joaquín (Chapo) Guzmán — the feared capo of the Sinaloa cartel — British Columbia-based Oceanside Developments Inc. is building a 360-unit, high-end beachfront condo project. Of the 107 units completed to date, 76% were sold to Canadians.” What this article doesn’t mention, of course, is the cost for the locals in terms of gentrification, but we don’t talk about brunxs.
My house is my house
Between 2006 and 2012, 70,000 Mexicans died of drug-related violence product of a campaign launched by the Mexican government to control and potentially stop the supply of drugs to the U.S. The problem of drug traffic in Mexico derives from a change in strategy of the United States government's War on Drugs initiated by Nixon. But while Nixon focused on controlling and limiting the demand for drugs within the U.S. (a problem that was at the time identified as an American disease), Reagan’s approach was to control and limit the supply, undoing the relative progress Nixon had and engaging in a direct conflict with Colombia (a proper war, American style). Since then, all American presidents have followed the same logic. Eventually, the increasing demand for drugs and the intervention of the U.S. in Colombia pushed the supply chain to Mexico. The Mexican government, out of pressure or naivité, started an internal conflict that was thought to peak in 2009. It didn’t. However, between 2006 and 2009 many Mexicans applied for asylum in the U.S. and Canada.
Also in 2009, the Canadian government decided to impose a visa requirement on Mexicans. As Dr. Liette Gilbert states in their 2013 article: Canada’s Visa Requirement For Mexicans and Its Political Rationalities: “The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 15 years ago resolved to ‘strengthen the special bonds of friendship and cooperation among the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Canada’s decision to impose a visa requirement on Mexicans, therefore, appears as a peculiar quinceañera gift offered to a so-called amigo and strategic economic partner.” Add the historical moment that Mexico was facing at the time and the quinceañera gift became a death sentence for many people. I experienced this reality first hand. At the time my family and I were living in my hometown, Tampico, a city that simply would never be the same. We were trying to flee the country when the visa was imposed. It took us three more years to finally get to Canada, in 2012.
You probably didn’t know this, but almost half of all foreign workers in agriculture in Canada come from Mexico. These workers (many of them actually indigenous, interestingly) experience pretty horrific forms of racism and abuse. In Barely legal: racism and migrant farm labour in the context of Canadian multiculturalism, Dr. Adam Perry (2012) explores how discourses of racism against migrant workers can subsist in parallel with discourses of multiculturalism. Dr. Perry argues that “The legal continuation and growth in the use of non-citizens to conduct labour distasteful to Canadian nationals have provided an effective means for the Canadian state to regulate the ongoing flow of non-preferred races on the margins while promoting a pluralist and ethnically diverse political image at home and abroad.” These workers operate in particularly precarious conditions, some of which are overtly illegal. Reports prepared by the Five Corridors project describe extensively some of these conditions.
For example, during the COVID crisis, several Mexican nationals died from outbreaks on Canadian farms, but the urgency for docile yet sturdy Mexican hand labour made it necessary to reach a safety agreement that should have been in place, to begin with. This kind of treatment of Mexicans is, of course, not new, some of these realities were captured more than 15 years ago in the 2006 film El Contrato, directed by Min Sook Lee.
This documentary from Min Sook Lee (Tiger Spirit) follows a poverty-stricken father from Central Mexico, along with…
So, borrowing the quote from Dr. Perry, are Mexicans a “preferred race”? Well, yeah, we are preferred in the Canadian fields and in our own land, serving margaritas to American and Canadian homeowners, for sure. Are we a “preferred race” in Canadian academia? Perhaps, it seems, but only if we are the right kind of Indigenous or if we are at least willing to play the role. As I mentioned before, Mexicans, just like Filipinos and Filipinas have an implicit relationship of servitude with Canadians.
I am, whatever you say I am
Based on the visibility model I described above and a couple of other reasons that I’ll discuss later, there is no possibility for Mexicans to be considered (let alone prioritized) in the academic diversity discourse, simply because Americans will never make anti-Mexican racism a thing, and if Americans don’t make it a thing, it won’t be a thing in Canada. Not that there is not anti-Mexican racism, there are plenty of examples. The former President of the U.S., Donald Trump, started his campaign by stating openly, without any kind of hesitation that Mexicans (not Latin Americans, Mexicans) are rapists and criminals (some are good people, though). Besides its proven effect on Mexicans' and Hispanics' mental health, the words of the then-Republican candidate led to a noticeable increase in anti-Mexican rhetoric across the board. The lack of reaction from the Canadian government didn’t go unnoticed. Canada’s “selective compassion” was denounced by a well-known Mexican political analyst in an open letter published in The Globe and Mail in 2017.
Hate crimes against Mexicans and Hispanics in the U.S. have reached historical heights. The American government separated migrant families and held Latin American children in cages (many of them Indigenous, interestingly) and reports of forced hysterectomies on Mexican and Central American migrant women were made public to the outrage of absolutely no one. Let me repeat: Children were separated from their families and held in cages. Forced hysterectomies. The attacks of the American establishment on the Mexican, Hispanic and Latin American identities normalize the discourse of hate against these groups. So why would Canadian academia respond? There’s no “Stop Hispanic Hate” campaign coming from the U.S., quite the opposite, and let’s be honest, there’s never going to be one because even the current democratic government holds the same policies. The number of people in detention centers has increased under the Biden administration and VP Harris has been very clear on the current government’s position on, let’s be honest again, “non-preferred races”. This kind of sentiment is far from new for Latin American migrants and, in the case of Mexicans, it is a well-documented historical affair.
The problem with Latinx
Besides the normalized racism against Mexicans, there is the issue of pan-ethnic identification. Hispanic or Latino were terms created by the U.S. government to ease the gathering of census data. These terms, by themselves, essentialize the identities of those attempted to be described by them. They invite the assumption that all of the nations conquered by Spaniards share cultural traits beyond a common language (“they all look and sound the same”). For Mexican-Americans, these terms were understood as an imposition in an attempt to dilute the Chicano identity. Dr. Laura E. Gómez gives a quite comprehensive history of the creation and adoption of the term Hispanic in The Birth of the “Hispanic” Generation: Attitudes of Mexican-American Political Elites toward the Hispanic Label. So, just to be clear, these terms are already colonial and, in some respects, racist. Making a colonial term (one imposed onto several groups of people) inclusive by adding an x at the end as opposed to an o or an a is both absurd and a good example of the American and Canadian approaches to EDI. Let me be clearer, the problem with latinx is not the x, is the latin.
A report by Pew Research from 2020 shows that only 3% of Hispanics in the U.S. actually use the term. In academia (including Canadian academia) this number is much higher because it shows performative affiliation. In fact, in a quite interesting turn of events, the term latinx is now accompanied by the o and a that were initially removed. So, “Latin” is the prefix imposed on several different national identities because we all look and sound the same (not a problem there), the x suffix is an attempt to make this already problematic term inclusive but, because people are not adopting it, let’s add the a and o that the x is trying to replace. It should be noticed that Latin Americans (an already neutral term) in our own countries are also fighting for inclusive language and use a completely different approach but adding an x at the end is definitely flashier than replacing a and o with e. A recent interaction I had summed it all perfectly. I was asked about my “racial background” at a semi-academic event and, because of how the question was phrased (racial background, as opposed to where are you from?) I responded “Latino, I guess”. “I think you mean Latinx”, they corrected me. The individual in question was white.
I must add that as a Mexican, I do not refer to my Chilean, Guatemalan or Salvadorean friends as latinx, I refer to them by their national identities and there is a reason for that, they are not the same. They have different cultural and historical circumstances, just like Mexicans do. These circumstances include the treatment that we had received from Canadians and Americans. Treatment that might be exclusive to Mexicans because we have a commercial treaty, and the combination of such treaty and the relative proximity between our countries make us subject to a very particular kind of neocolonialism and an indisputable perception of servitude. The category latinx erases all of that. It makes these circumstances easier to ignore. Bonus points: Mexico, and Mexican are words of Indigenous (Nahuatl) origin and gender-neutral in English.
So, in summary: No, I cannot say I am Indigenous. For EDI purposes, being Mexican (or Latin American) should be enough. I also know it is not enough and it won’t be any time soon.
In lieu of a positionality statement
By now I have pretty much given up on becoming a professor in Canada. Occasionally, I skim the calls that would loosely fit my academic profile the same way one would peek into the social media feed of a former high school crush. I am content with my career as a researcher in the private sector. I am a well-paid professional in a middle management position. I have adapted quite well thanks to the same skills that I thought would make me a good academic. I assume that because I had a professional career before starting my Ph.D., it was relatively easy for me to identify the skills that I would be able to transfer (and sell, although poorly) from my doctoral studies into my career in the private sector. So, as opposed to many other alt-acs (alternative academics), if I went back in time, I would have gone through the Ph.D. journey anyway. I love teaching and still do it consistently, I also enjoy researching and writing and I still publish in academic journals every now and then. I guess I cannot complain.
In my experience, many alt-acs experience feelings of absolute rejection of academia as an institution. Some would say rightfully so. Karen Kelsky (a former academic) has a powerful talk on the way academia operates effectively as a cult. For many leaving the cult, there is no going back. I am not necessarily on that camp. I know academia has disturbingly destructive and deceptive practices and, because I am still tangentially attached to it through my teaching, I also know some academics know exactly how destructive it is. But I also know that many others actually have no idea. I think academia needs a deep revision at every single level because it is indeed a very toxic institution but I also think it is worth the effort. Unfortunately, the push to change will not come from within the institution. Academia doesn’t welcome criticism from its own ranks but it reacts to the right kind of public pressure. Alt-acs, on the other hand, are for the most part familiar with many of the problematic corners of the institution and some of us want better academia for future scholars.
I am not naive, I know that a ranty will make no difference whatsoever but I do want to set up a precedent in case the opportunity to correct the course on the problem I try to discuss here emerges again, maybe even in a way prominent enough to be taken seriously.