Feature photo by José Eduardo Silva
Mainstream society likes to romanticize Latino culture as being highly collective — a tight-knit group wherein everyone looks out for one another. It’s not even rare to find such nonsense coming from Latinos themselves, who paint the community as a society in which duty to family and neighborhood trumps all else.
But any Latino with half an eye open knows the truth. Most Latinos have become just as individualistic as Anglo Americans, if not more so.
This assessment of the Latino community may seem harsh, but it’s also the truth. Too many Latinos have adopted individualism as their personal philosophy. We’ve inadvertently become followers of Ayn Rand and Herman Cain, who recently said, “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” It’s an ignorant and insensitive thing to say, and unfortunately, it’s something that could’ve easily been said by any one of my friends or family members.
You hear it first from your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles: Don’t complain. Never be late or call off sick. Hard work makes you worth something. If you sweat long enough, you’ll have a nice car and a house. You can buy yourself things. Your spouse will be happy.
After college, your family starts telling you about the success of the people they know your age. If you’re a man, it goes: So-and-so has a nice job working for the city. You should see the car he just bought himself. If you’re a woman: My friend has a daughter your age who just had a baby. Her husband makes good money, so she gets to stay home and be a good mother. All of this is to place constant pressure on you and remind you that you must compete. Men have to be richer and women have to be better wives and mothers. It’s you against everybody. And if you refuse to compete, it’s only because you’re lazy and a loser.
Around this same time, individualism is fully adopted by your friends and is exacerbated by what I call hip pop, the popularized form of hip-hop culture that promotes individualism in all its vaingloriousness. For young men, the downtown bar or club provide the stage for individualistic displays, but individualism is all around when you’re in your twenties. Money and property become the metrics of success, so young Latinos scramble to amass as much of it as they can and show it off to others incessantly. In the stampede, collectivists are ridiculed as weak dreamers destined to be trampled under the superior might of individualists.
Individualism, of course, affects Latino politics as well. Many Latinos think that members of historically oppressed groups (Blacks, gays, and even Latinos) tend to use oppression as an excuse not to achieve. Racism exists, these Latinos admit, but Black people are poor mostly because they don’t try hard enough. The same Latinos blame Latino poverty and lack of achievement on lazy immigrants or Latino collectivists who place group success before individual success. As a result, many Latino individualists shamefully side with Republicans on issues concerning social welfare, affordable housing, affirmative action, wider access to health care, equal education reform, and many of the laws and initiatives aimed at benefiting large majorities in the Black and Latino communities.
Latino individualism also has the potential of raising tensions toward the Black community and even within the Latino community itself. Latino individualists see themselves in competition with members of the Black community and view the rates of Black poverty, incarceration, substance abuse and violence as evidence that Blacks have an inferior work ethic. The Black community, the individualist contends, finds itself so hopelessly disempowered because its members have given up. And Latino individualists even feel the same way about the so-called Latino failure within their midst. Whereas collectivists stress the importance of community uplift by lending a hand to those in need, individualists look to disassociate themselves from poorer, less educated Latinos, whom the individualists view as an embarrassment.
Somehow, the Latino community needs to begin the long trek back toward the sense of a shared struggle. Individualism serves a purpose, but like any appetite, it needs to be checked. Latinos should strive to be successful, but we shouldn’t feel the need to step on anyone in order to do so. We also shouldn’t degrade other Latinos who don’t share our individualistic virtues. Because without Latino collectivists, Latino culture and community would become as antiquated as Latino collectivism is today.