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Who is Latin American? Canadian residents with roots in the Americas grapple with terms, identity

Many people from other parts of the Americas reflect on their identity in the month of October, also known as Latin American Heritage Month in Canada. Karla Martínez Pomier, originally from Havana and now living in Hamilton, is one of them.

October marks Latin American Heritage Month in Canada and Hispanic Heritage Month in Ontario

A collage of three photos shows a woman in a long grey coat smiling, a man with a hat playing guitar on stage and a man in a buttoned up shirt in front of green plants.

Before Karla Martínez Pomier came to Canada, she didn't relate strongly to being Latin American.

Martínez Pomier, a PhD candidate in chemical biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, was born and raised in Havana, Cuba. She arrived in Canada in 2015. Before the move, other than Cuban, she felt closest to a Caribbean identity.

But when she immigrated to Canada and found a community with Colombians in Newfoundland, labels started to have different meanings.

"You need to find a community, right? … And the best way [for me] was through the language, Spanish," she said in an interview with CBC Hamilton.

She started feeling like a part of the Latinx community, and now when she hears the term, she thinks of friends, of shared dishes and of "home."

Martínez Pomier is not alone in her experience of exploring her identity, something many from other parts of the Americas reflect on in the month of October, recognized as Latin American Heritage Month in Canada.

More than 20 countries, thousands of kilometres and countless cultures, races and ethnicities make up Latin America, but the terms Latino, Latinx, Latine and Latin American are among those used when describing the diverse people of the region.

Martínez Pomier, who is Black, continues to feel a distance from the Latin American identity.

She said people have assumed she's not Latin American, seem surprised when she speaks Spanish and she doesn't see herself represented when "Latinos" show up on TV.

"I still can't fully embrace [the terms], because I feel even inside the Latin American community, there is still racism against Black people," said Martínez Pomier.

At McMaster, she was introduced to the term Afro-Latina, something that finally made her feel represented.

Stacy Creech de Castro shares similar mixed feelings about the label Latin American.

Creech de Castro is from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. She teaches Introduction to Latin American and Latinx Studies, and Critical Contemporary Issues in Latin American and Latinx Studies at McMaster University.

She said the term is important but not always the right fit.

"I acknowledge the term's historical, cultural, and geographical significance, but I also know that sometimes this term doesn't fully capture … the complexities of identities," said Creech de Castro.

She uses "Latin American" in some contexts to describe herself, but racial stereotypes within and outside the community have also been part of her experience, where people will sometimes not perceive her as Latina because she's Black.

"This stems from the common misconception that Latinidad is synonymous with a specific physical appearance or ethnicity," she said.

Distancing from the term 'Hispanic'

Hispanic — those with Spanish roots or from Spanish-speaking countries — is another term often used interchangeably with Latin American.

In Ontario, October is called Hispanic Heritage Month, but the word is one some Latin Americans don't identify with.

"I don't like it," said Martínez Pomier.

The term groups Spanish-speaking Latin Americans with Spain, the country that colonized them.

For Martínez Pomier, a visit once to Spain included one of the most direct forms of racism she's faced. "But also, I blame Spain for all the problems that Latin America has in a certain way and all the racism [there]," she said.

Creech de Castro also prefers Latin American to Hispanic because of the connection to Spain.

"Afro-Latina, Latin American Caribbean, and Afro-Dominican highlight my African heritage within the Latin American context, and they emphasize my regional identity," she said.

Caio Miliante, a student from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, also has an imperfect relationship with the word Hispanic.

Brazil — the biggest country in Latin America — has Portuguese as its official language, so the term essentially excludes Brazilians.

Miliante said on occasion, during interactions with non-Latin Americans, he has been excluded from the label because of his native language, or it has been assumed he speaks Spanish because he comes from South America.

Coming to Canada changed perceptions

He now fully embraces the label of Latino, but it took him a while to get there.

In many ways, Brazil stands as its own entity, said Miliante, so it was hard to relate to the word Latino.

"You do not feel like you're a part of something bigger," he said.

However, when he moved south to Porto Alegre, a Brazilian city closer to the Uruguay and Argentina borders, that started to change.

"But only since coming here, to Canada, I really felt [the term] flourish with me," he said.

Miliante is a PhD student in materials science and engineering at McMaster. He moved to Canada in August 2022.

Only since coming here, to Canada, I really felt [the term] flourish with me.

– Caoi Militante, from Brazil

For Miliante, Canada's multicultural population and the increased proximity to others from Latin America once he arrived emphasized the similarities between Brazil and its neighbouring countries — from food to family structures.

"That [interaction] really opened my eyes," he said.

'Honour one's untold history'

Others from other parts of the Americas feel like "Latin American" is an oversimplification.

"I don't feel it's representative of who we are as people," said Quique Escamilla.

Escamilla is a Toronto-based Mayan and Zapotecan musician from Chiapas, Mexico. He is also the organizer of the Tlalli Festival, which celebrates Indigenous cultures through music and food, held on a farm outside of Hamilton in September.

He said the terms Latin American and Hispanic are similar in a sense — labels that serve the purpose of associating former Spanish colonies with a European standard.

"It's not representative of the real history of who we are as people," he said. "It's almost like Hispanic … just because you imposed a language on me, that doesn't mean that I'm of Spanish [origin]."

If anything, Escamilla said "Latin American" has been a term pushed by English-speaking countries in North America to alienate those people from others.

Escamilla is proud of his Indigenous background. But anti-Indigenous racism in Latin America has made some people in Latin America want to distance themselves from their own roots, said Escamilla.

The word "Indio" — Spanish for Indian — is used as an insult not only in Mexico but many countries of Latin America, Escamilla points out. The term is often used as a derogatory for low-class and uneducated folks.

"Once that has been set up as a standard term to mean, like 'the worst in society,' who wants to take that?" he said.

Even terms like "Mexican" contribute to the erasure of the Indigenous cultures, already diluted by colonialism, in what's now known as Mexico, he added.

"'Mexican' is from the tribes of the Mexica and I'm not from the tribe of the Mexica, I'm from the tribes of the Mayan," he said.

In recent years, he's seen the use of the word "Latino" almost as a trendy thing to brag about on social media, he said, and while the label can serve a purpose, he suggested people could instead focus on learning where they came from.

"I think it's important to acknowledge and honour one's untold history, and also our roots and our ancestors," he said. "We're here because of them."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aura Carreño Rosas

Freelance reporter, CBC Hamilton

Aura Carreño Rosas is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist from Venezuela, with a passion for pop culture and unique people with diverse journeys.

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