Nicaraguan Professors in the United States Talk about Racism

Juliet Hooker (l) and Victoria Gonzalez

Political scientist Juliet Hooker and Historian Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera: Racism also exists in Nicaragua, but it manifests itself in a different way.

By Cindy Regidor (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Racism exists in the United States, Latin America and Nicaragua, but it’s manifested and experienced in a different way. It’s not the experience of Afro-descendants alone, because it forms part a social hierarchy based on a scale “that puts what’s closest to white on the top, and on the bottom what’s closest to black or indigenous.” This is colorism, or social stratification according to skin tone. Two Nicaraguan academics, Juliet Hooker and Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera have studied the phenomenon in the United States and have felt it in their own lives.

Juliet Hooker is from Bluefields on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, and she’s currently a professor of political science at Brown University in the United States. She holds a doctorate from Cornell University and has specialized in topics such as racial justice, multiculturalism, Latin American political thought, Afro-American political thought, and the politics of the Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples in Latin America.  She’s the author of two books: Race and the Politics of Solidarity (2009), and Theorizing Race in the Americas: (2017).

Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera, originally from Matagalpa, holds a doctorate in History and is a professor at California State University in San Diego.  She’s the co-editor of the book Radical Women in Latin America: Left and Right, andhas also published Before the Revolution: Women’s Rights and RightWing Politics in Nicaragua, 1821–1979. She has currently co-authored another book: Sexual Diversity in the Pacific and Central Zones of Nicaragua: 500 years of history.

In this interview, Juliet Hooker and Victoria Gonzalez speak about the recent protests against racism and police brutality in the United States and the lives of Nicaraguan migrants in the US. They also explain why Latin Americans often fail to identify the racism that exists in our societies. They point to our unawareness of history as one obstacle for eliminating racism, and conclude that if we’re to achieve a “new Nicaragua” that’s more inclusive, it’s vital that we review the nationalism that has persisted and that ignores a sector of the Nicaraguan population.

It’s now been more than a month since the protests in the United States began, stemming from the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of police officers. Juliet, how would you describe the social movement that has arisen from this event?

Juliet Hooker: These protests didn’t arise only because of the death of George Floyd – they’re part of a protest movement that began with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson [Missouri]. Those protests were organized around demands that had been ongoing: against police violence, against racism. These demands then became organized as the Black Lives Matter movement. From 2014 until 2016, there were many protests; the demands against state and police violence were made very visible. These challenges to racism diminished a little when [Donald] Trump was elected president and there were a series of crises that took over the agenda, but they exploded once again with the death of George Floyd.

The protests have been massive, and in the context of the pandemic it’s clear that people are risking their lives to try and make change in the United States in matters of racial justice.

Victoria, do you consider that this is a moment of change that will define in some way all these struggles and demands that different groups have been making for decades?

Victoria Gonzales-Rivera: Part of what has distinguished this wave of activism and protest has been precisely the fact that it has included many sectors of the US population. On the one hand, you have all the historic racism, and on the other, you have a president who doesn’t want to and can’t resolve the situation, or at least offer some response.

The debate on social media hasn’t only been about racism, but also about the disparagement of the protests on the part of some sectors. Have the majority of these protests been peaceful or violent?

Juliet Hooker: The majority have been peaceful. There’ve been moments of violence, but I think that we also have to think about how we look at the question of violence, because we’ve also seen violence on the part of the police against the people that are protesting police violence. This violence has also been directed against journalists.

In many cases, if there are protests that become violent, that turns into an excuse to say: “we don’t have to pay attention to the real demands of the people in the streets who are trying to change the problem of racism in this country.”

That criticism [of the violence] also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that at times people become violent because they think that these problems can’t be solved through the electoral route or the peaceful route. These are also people who have already suffered state violence, and during the protests themselves we’ve seen that the police also provoke violence. There’ve been cases of peaceful protests in which the police have provoked the people who were there and have attacked journalists who were simply reporting on what’s happening.

One of the protesters’ principal demands is to end police brutality and also to defund the police. What do these two petitions mean, and how could they be materialized?

Victoria Gonzales-Rivera: One of the things that people may not know is that during the past 30 years, the amount of money that’s been invested in the Police departments has increased enormously. So, it’s super logical, it’s not really radical at all, to say: “Know what? We should decrease those funds.” That is, the financing being given to the police departments should be decreased a little, and we must also diminish the militarization of police departments, which has been quite grave.

I believe that this can be understood in Nicaragua, because of the historic experience with Somoza’s National Guard, and later with more recent events: the police have a special responsibility. Violence on the part of the police isn’t the same thing as violence on the part of a common everyday citizen, on an individual level.

On the topic of police brutality – Does this only imply a demand that those responsible for Floyd’s death go to jail, or is there a lot more to be done?

Juliet Hooker: When police officials commit these brutal police acts, the least we can ask is that they lose their jobs, and that legal proceedings against them go forward. However, I think that the movements are asking to go beyond this. They’re demanding that the police culture change, that this idea that the police is the citizen’s enemy change, and that instead some thought be given as to how there can be less of a police state and more of a safeguarding state, one that helps citizens and not just represses them.

There are people both within and outside the United States that insist that racism doesn’t exist. They even argue that more black men die at the hands of other black men [than at the hands of police].  How would you answer them?

Victoria Gonzales-Rivera: We come back to the same thing: that the State’s responsibility is to care for their citizens, not to kill them. It’s good you mentioned this, because I’ve noted on social media that many Nicaraguans from the Pacific and Central zones mention exactly that, like an echo of what racist people in the United States also claim.

It’s very, very important to clarify, to emphasize, that institutionalized violence, the violence that occurs because there’s an institution backing you that allows you that type of violence, is very different from the violent acts that people commit for other motives, right?

Is President Donald Trump a racist?

Juliet Hooker: Yes, I believe so. It’s not something that we have to ponder – we already know the answer. His presidential campaign and his administration have been based on fomenting racism. The way he connects with his base is by telling them: “Look, you’re in danger. These immigrants are coming here to take over your country. These criminal black people are trying to dominate you. You’re at risk.”

When he says: “We want the United States to go back to that bygone era, to a glorious past,” – What was that glorious past? It was a past when women didn’t have the same rights, when there was a racial hierarchy that was codified in the laws, when there were fewer immigrants and less racial and cultural diversity.

His political platform is based on that racist idea that the United States is a white country and that those who should dominate in all spheres are the whites, and that order must be protected against all those “others”.

Do you believe that the protests are going to have an effect on the upcoming presidential elections? Could Trump be reelected despite the public demands?

Juliet Hooker: To date, the polls indicate that people are rejecting the way in which he’s dealt with the protests. There’s been a level of support for the demands to combat racism that hadn’t previously been seen.

What’s been the experience of Nicaraguan migrants in the United States? Is there racism directed against them as well?

Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera: As soon as we arrive in the United States, even those of us who are very light-skinned – the ones we call “chele or chela” in Nicaragua – we’re seen through a racial lens. Because of our last names; because we speak English with an accent; because we live in Latinx neighborhoods; they confuse us with already established groups in the United States, like the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans or the indigenous populations, against whom there’s historically been a ton of racist policies.

The other thing is that in the United States people of what they call “mixed blood”, or mixed race, are looked on with disdain.

So, on the one hand, many of the Nicaraguans who arrive in the United States experience racism; but on the other hand, many of us later, for different reasons, also adopt racist perspectives, racist ideas. We repeat comments, maybe without thinking, but sometimes on purpose, that are not only offensive, but also problematic. These comments, that we call microaggressions, do have consequences.

I believe that the personal experiences of the great majority of Nicaraguans are difficult in terms of racism. We’re eternally considered foreigners, although we have papers, although we speak English, although we have doctorates, although we’re – quote – “full participants” [in society]. But the racism [against us] constantly continues, on a daily basis.

And in your case Juliet?

Juliet Hooker: Especially now, there’s a lot of racism against immigrants and specifically against Latinx immigrants. It’ always been there, but I believe that it has increased, and obviously we Nicaraguans are part of that.

Even though immigrants at times wouldn’t want to identify their situation, or make a distinction and say: “I came legally”, but really when people say something to you, or get upset because you’re speaking Spanish in a place where you supposedly shouldn’t, it’s not a question of whether you’re documented or not.

There are migrants – Latinx, Nicaraguans – who come and have already suffered racism in Nicaragua, then come here and also suffer racism. That is, it’s not something new, but a different form. However, you keep experiencing it. This contradiction exists, because you’re supposedly part of the Latinx group, but within that group there are also hierarchies.

Has this been your case? What has your own experience been?

Juliet Hooker: Yes, that’s been my case. I’m from the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, from Bluefields, so because I have an English surname, because we were an English colony, a lot of times people in the United States don’t know I’m Nicaraguan. They simply look at you like an African-American or a black. I suffered racism in that way.

On the other hand, you can experience racism when you’re in groups of Latinx’s. For example, in the house where I was born, in my city, we spoke Creole, not Spanish. I speak Spanish because I was also raised in Nicaragua, but Spanish isn’t necessarily my only native tongue. There’s this idea that Latinx’s in the United States are identified because they speak Spanish, but in some cases that doesn’t apply.

Racism is manifested differently in different places, both local and national. But there are also some things that are common – these racial hierarchies that put everything closest to white on top, and on the bottom everything closest to black or indigenous.

You wrote a book about race, the topic of race and racism in the Americas. Is this subject perceived differently in the United States from how it’s perceived in a Latin American country such as ours?

Juliet Hooker: Many Latin Americans define racism as that which was seen in the United States, mostly at the beginning and throughout the 20th century. The idea is that racism is racial segregation as it existed in the United States up through the 60s.  In Latin America, they say, there’s more mixing of the races, there’s more mestizaje [biracialism], and there’s not that extreme separation of races, therefore, there’s no racism.

The idea that Latin Americans aren’t racist becomes an idea that’s central to Latin American nationalism. This idea that we’re better than the United States, because we’re not racists like they are. This becomes a part of the Latin American anti-imperialist thinking. Simply put, it isn’t so: there’s racism, but it’s a racism that’s manifested differently.

Victoria, you have also written about this topic. In Confidencial, we published an article where you speak about the experience of your father, and also speak about the racist system in Nicaragua that doesn’t teach the history of our black population, that has converted the Caribbean Coast into an “exotic other” region. You also assert that it’s hard for many Latinx to accept that we’re racist, as Juliet says. Why?

Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera: I grew up in Matagalpa. In effect, the family of my Dad, especially on the side of my paternal grandmother, are Afro-descendants who were originally from the city of Leon. There’s a lot of racism n Matagalpa, but the greater part of that racism is directed against members of the indigenous communities. There are a large number of indigenous communities in the [north-central] zones of Matagalpa and Jinotega. But – what happens in Nicaragua? The people from the rural areas are looked on with great scorn. So, a lot of people are going to tell you: “We don’t discriminate against them because they’re indigenous, but because they’re from the countryside.”  And, what’s really happening? Well, obviously, both things are intertwined.

Families like mine are very common. A large number of people in the urban areas, along the Pacific coast and central zones of Nicaragua are Afro-descendants. Some of us have white skin; however, it’s something that we don’t know how to digest. Why? Because many people think that slavery didn’t exist [in Nicaragua], that they didn’t enslave Africans in the Central and Pacific zones. It’s hard to believe that people didn’t know this, isn’t it?  But if it isn’t taught in school, where would you learn it?

Many people, even today, say: “Let’s talk about the good as well as the bad things the [Spanish] Conquest left us.” That type of conversation not only isn’t useful, but it also overlooks the fact that, by definition, Conquest and Colonization, are systems where some benefit from the oppression of others. So, one part of the problem is that we don’t know our history.

The current Nicaraguan government proclaims itself anti-imperialist. On that same line, their discourse rejects racism. How much has Nicaragua actually advanced in the last ten years in terms of overcoming the barriers to structural racism that affect the indigenous communities and those of the Caribbean Coast?

Juliet Hooker: There’ve been moments when, yes, they did pass laws to try and recognize the country’s cultural diversity: these include the Autonomy Law that’s in the 1987 Constitution. One of the failings of that Autonomy Law though, is that they really think about it as a question of cultural diversity and not of structural racism.

The difference in power that exists isn’t recognized or thought about. However, historically the Caribbean Coast has been governed almost as a semi-colonial dependent, when people’s demand is to be able to govern themselves within the framework of a national state.

What we’ve seen is that there are moments in Nicaragua’s history in which there’s a recognition of the cultural diversity [of the Atlantic Coast regions], but there’s never been a change in the patterns of structural racism. That’s what happens with this government: the demands that Atlantic Coast residents have made for decades continue in the same way, but there hasn’t been a change in those fundamental structures.

In terms of the cultural and social aspect of everyday life, do you think anything has changed for the better in Nicaragua in the last few years?

Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera: I’d like to say yes. I believe that the answer is yes, there’ve been advances, at least in the level of consciousness on the part of certain people or certain groups. I also believe that, in some ways, the social networks – which are perhaps more accessible than before – have helped to have a dialogue.

Part of the problem is that it’s not easy to find information. It’s not like I can tell you: “All the books are there; you’re the one who decided not to read them.” Not at all. Where is that book? There are articles, of course. Juliet, your work is very important and the work of many others, but it’s not like I can say: “Look, here’s this book on the history of African slavery in the Pacific zone or the Central area of Nicaragua, and the only thing you have to do is to download the PDF file, or buy it in a bookstore.” No, that book doesn’t exist.

So we, the academics, have been part of the problem, in part because many of us are outside of Nicaragua and we publish only in English, we don’t publish in Spanish.  The other fact is that because we may hold a doctorate in History or whatever, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re really involved or committed to the anti-racist struggle.

We need to begin on a very personal level and ask ourselves where we learned what we know. Where did we get it from?  Why do we think x or y? That should be the starting point, beginning with the upbringing of the new generations. Many of us in Nicaragua have believed the racist discourse about ourselves. That’s problematic, because if a person doesn’t feel good about themselves – How are they going to treat others well? If you think that you’re inferior, because – well, I could tell you about a large quantity of racist ways in which we see ourselves – in no way are you going to help change the world and create racial justice. [We can’t do that] if we can’t see beyond the racial hierarchies, even within ourselves, within our family and when we look at ourselves in the mirror.

In April 2018, a massive protest began in Nicaragua, a citizen rebellion to escape an authoritarian government. But later, other demands also began to be presented and “a new Nicaragua” was spoken of, and is still being spoken about: a Nicaragua with the rights of all people restored, an inclusive Nicaragua. Is it possible to achieve a Nicaragua that’s free of racism?

Juliet Hooker: I think we have to be clear that eliminating racism isn’t something that we’re going to achieve tomorrow, or that we’re going to achieve in ten years, but that has to be the goal.

I’d say that there are two things we have to keep in mind about this moment in Nicaragua and what the future might hold. One, is that Nicaraguan nationalism has gone through stages. I’ve written about that. In general, even when that official nationalism has recognized our cultural diversity, there’ve always been elements of racial hierarchy within it. When this idea of the Nicaraguan nation is taken up, you have to look at what are the vacuums, what are the problems with Nicaraguan nationalism, and in what ways Nicaraguan nationalism historically hasn’t included certain people, hasn’t been equally inclusive.

The other thing I’d say is that when we think about what real democracy in Nicaragua might look like, it’s necessary to think about a democracy that goes beyond the participation of the different parties and things like that. Real democracy – because democracy has to do with the power of citizens – also implies, for example, real autonomy for the Atlantic Coast, in which its citizens really have the right to make decision about the region.

Juliet says that racism can’t be done away with from one day to the next.  Victoria, for you, where should we begin?

Victoria Gonzalez-Rivera: Access to education should be improved, of course, but also to education about history, formally and informally.

Those of us in academic circles also have to make decisions (…) It’s a question of structures that are really enormous, it has to do with the Ministries of Education (…) What we want is a history that includes all of us, everybody.

I know that there’s a great need to be able to discuss these subjects, but there aren’t any spaces. Sometimes there’s nowhere to find information that can be trusted. Sometimes there’s too much information that we shouldn’t trust.

The role that the media plays is very important in guiding people and giving them a space.  Openings are lacking for people of all ages, but the young people concern me greatly.

Juliet, where would you begin to solve the problem of racism in Nicaragua?

Juliet Hooker:  I agree that education is central. One thing that can be done, that should be done, is to begin teaching our history, our real history, about questions of race and racism at all educational levels. It shouldn’t be something that you have to go and research by yourself, but it should be part of all levels of education.

There are also people in Nicaragua, for example, activists, indigenous activists, Afro-descendants on the Coast and away from the Coast, who are working on issues of racism and who’ve spent a long time working on these subjects. One way to begin is to give them attention and an opening.

It’s something that we can all begin to become aware of, and to ask ourselves: “if I’m in my work, and I see that issues have arisen that maybe are racist, that aren’t right, do I have the courage to be a person who says, ‘No, this isn’t right’”?  I don’t want to imply that it’s a question we’re going to resolve only on an individual level, because there are many things that have to come from public policy.

But, yes, there’s a role for people individually, and in our families. What advice, what lessons, are we giving to our children, to the people we relate with, about how other people should be treated, about who we value and why? Those are things that we can begin to work on individually and on a family level as well.