By Sikivu Hutchinson
Bitch, ho, honorary mammy, Buena mujer. When it comes to images of Latinas in American mainstream media it’s either Sofia Vergara jiggling out of her shirt channeling Charo or caregiver/maid extraordinaire Lupe Ontiveros clutching her rosary beads, eyes rolling heavenward. Similarly, the range of casting opportunities for African American women is just as limited, with over 70% of TV roles still going to whites. Cultural and historical stereotypes about hypersexual women of color continue to define public perceptions of black and Latina women. And while African American and Latina women have some of the highest poverty and intimate partner violence rates in the country they are also two of the most “churched” groups in the U.S.
Over the past decade the number of Latinas involved in Pentecostalism has skyrocketed. Many Latinos are breaking away from the pedophile culture, scandal, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church in a quest to find religious traditions that offer greater community involvement, accessibility, and social connection. According to the U.S. Latino Religious Identification Report, authored by Juhem Navarro Rivera and colleagues, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%).” Given these challenges it’s not difficult to see why fewer Latinas can publicly risk coming out as atheist or find safe humanist spaces that are culturally responsive. Until there are secular community-based social, cultural, and economic institutions that redress systemic racism, sexism, patriarchy, and economic injustice secularism will be hollow, abstract, and white-identified for the majority of working and middle class people of color. Addressing these issues, Los Angeles-based feminist artist and undocumented youth advocate Diane Arellano breaks down the politics of being a Latina non-believer in a reactionary misogynistic era:
What is your cultural/religious background (i.e. were you raised in a religious household) and when did you make the shift to your current belief system?
I’m a Mexican. I was raised in a de facto secular household. We were peripherally Catholic. Our observance of the Christmas season was more aligned with American mainstream consumerism than the traditional Mexican/ Mexican-American holiday rituals (Posadas, attending Christmas Mass, Christmas donkey song, etc.). We did and still do observe the Christmas tamales or pozole traditions though.
Somewhere in college, I felt the need not to proactively counter the general assumptions that as a Mexican woman, I must be a Catholic or Christian. This is conscious shift in my identity was informed by my interests and participation in activism. When I searched for models of Latino activists, I was very disappointed to see or read about “seeking strength” from “La Virgen” or claiming their work is the work of “God.” I thought about how oppression functions in communities of color and asked myself, “isn’t there a good argument that can be made about the Church’s role in institutionalizing the oppressive gender, race, class, and sexuality paradigms that these activists are fighting so hard against?”
How have atheism, free thought and/or secular humanism shaped your world view?
I don’t feel the shame or guilt that many of my religious women of color peers carry on their shoulders. In my experience, my religious friends often feel the pressures of complying with “good womanhood.” These pressures include having children that they aren’t at the very least economically ready for at an early age. Another pervasive cultural pressure is “where to find a good man?” This quest for “Prince Charming” is a burdensome weight on many young women, who often attach themselves to men not worth of any kind of attention. I used to feel those pressures too but at this juncture in my life I want to focus on things that matter to me. Leaving my religious identity has allowed me to do that. In essence I believe all women, but especially women of color, are policed so heavily that we seldom ever question or see beyond gender roles and gender expectations. Few of us ever think about what it would be like to pursue our own dreams vs. supporting “our man” or catering to the best interests of the family. What kind of world would this be if women were provided with the same encouragement, interest, and networks that are provided when a boy or man talks about his dreams and goals?
As an atheist/freethinker what are some of the main issues you’re concerned with?
I’m primarily interested in addressing violence against women of color (sexual abuse, emotional, and physical); the quality of educational opportunities in communities of color; job opportunities and promotion for people of color; and access to non-religious community resources for communities of color (day care, quality schools, food banks, shelter, Narcotics Anonymous).
How can atheism, freethought and/or secular humanism be promoted to appeal to larger numbers of Latinos?
I believe that having non-religious community resources can help people shift from a church-dependent consciousness into a secular or humanist one. I think, especially in communities of color, we tend make the assumption that if you do work helping people, then you must be a “Good Christian.” I can’t tell you how many times the parents of students have told me they include me in their prayers or “God bless me” for helping their children.
As an out atheist what has your experience been with family and other Latino or people of color community members?
I have no problem telling people I don’t believe in God. I’ve definitely encountered the hesitation that registers in expressions of people of color when you matter-of-factly, and without shame, announce, “I’m an atheist.” Most people quickly recover and move-on.
What are some culturally specific reasons Latinas should question and/or forgo organized religion?
To clarify when addressing your question, I’m speaking about Latinas in the US, particularly coming from the Latino experience of the Southwest. I am not including the experiences of Latin America, which range from hyper Catholic countries where religion and the government co-exist yet gay marriage is legal (this would be Mexico) to communist countries that have a historical distrust of and opposition to religion yet exhibit a schizoid hyper-religiosity. Latino communities are disproportionately impacted by high poverty rates, low college graduation rates, high rates of violence against women & children, and the highest teen live birth rates in the country. Statistically Latinas are not engaging in higher rates of sexual activity than other groups, yet our high live birth rates are probably being caused, in part, by hyper- religious homes where contraceptives fly in the face of what the Pope has declared, “good Catholic” behavior. Also, Christianity tends to construct sex as “dirty,” and many Latino parents don’t speak to their children about sex. Unfortunately not speaking to children about sex puts them in danger of being sexually victimized or engaging in unsafe sexual practices which make them more vulnerable to STIs/STDs or getting pregnant.
The Christian/ Catholic stance against abortion continues to deprive women of their right to self-determination. Given our communities’ high poverty rates and sky high teen pregnancy rates, I don’t understand how the Church, a moral leader in the lives of many Latinas, demands that women—often times teen age girls—give birth to children they are not prepared for economically and emotionally. Of course, the quality of life for that mother and her children is not as important to the church as imposing rule and having Latinas faithfully obeying.
How can atheism and/or secular humanism aid Latinos in developing a moral outlook on life and the world?
First of all the atheist American landscape is dominated by science preaching white men; and this is not a welcoming environment for Latinos or people of color. If the American atheist movement wasn’t so dogmatic about science as the great equalizer, and/ or so condescending about the religiosity in communities of color, then we could have a conversation that doesn’t replicate the racial and religious hierarchy that people of color are familiar with. White conference organizers often construct atheism and race as a black and white issue, so this leaves us feeling unwelcome. And why would we go somewhere that ignores us or thinks so little of us? A form of humanism which addresses social issues that have the greatest impact on people of color could help Latinos achieve self-determination. More Latino atheist leaders are necessary as are public voices opposing religion, and more people willing to share their non-believer status.
If you have traveled and/or lived in other areas have you noticed any regional differences in acceptance or “tolerance” of Latino atheists?
Yes, there are big differences in every Latin-American country. It’s important to remember that even though we (Americans) construct Latin America as a monolithic hyper macho culture; that’s not the truth. Every country has famous atheist thinkers, poets, artists, and pockets of atheist cultures.
18 thoughts on “Debunking La Buena Mujer: Latina Atheist Diane Arellano”
Hmm. I always like these interviews, and overall I liked this one, but I noticed a couple things this time around that troubled me, one in the introduction and one in Ms. Arellano’s statements.
This sounds a little silly, since over 70% of Americans are in fact white. To be more precise, the SAG data says that in 2008, 72.5% of TV and movie roles went to whites, and wikipedia says that in the 2010 census, 72.4% of Americans were white. What exactly is the problem with this? It seems fair to me.
Now, the disparity in lead roles is troubling, and it’s possible that the two studies defined race in different ways and the comparison is thus misleading. I note, for example, that the census counted 26 million people as both white and hispanic, so if by “white” the SAG means what the Census meant by “non-Hispanic white” then that makes a big difference. And of course a numerical balance in TV and film roles doesn’t help much if these roles portray race in a privileged and stereotypical way – you go into this right after the sentence I quoted. But you tried to portray the numbers themselves as problematic, and it’s not clear that this is the case.
I found this passage rather unsettling – specifically the comments about science. I can imagine good reasons to be mistrustful of scientific institutions – the first that comes to mind is that science, like atheism, is full of white men, many of whom are resistant to changing that fact. Another is that science is sometimes presented as the only valid source of knowledge, which marginalizes social and ethical issues which the methods of science are not well-suited to study. (Not to mention marginalizing the aforementioned women and people of color, who science won’t let through the door in the first place.)
Nonetheless, I don’t think that the secular movement will or should reduce our emphasis on science. When religion makes false claims, it is science more than any other field that disproves them. Science-based healthcare has been the greatest humanitarian force in history. Science grows crops for the hungry, pumps water for the thirsty, and makes heat and light for those trapped in the cold and dark. And science, along with its sister mathematics, trains the children in our schools in empirical and rational thought. The critical importance of science makes it vital that we solve the aforementioned inequities in its institutions. But notwithstanding those problems, there is no more natural or vital ally for secularism than science.
Robert B., you are derailing the conversation by informing Ms. Arellano what she should be concerned about.
She seeks a greater focus on social issues. People who can’t meet their day-to-day obligations due to poverty and bigotry aren’t going to give a shit about the wonders of science, no matter what benefits it can bring them.
If Ms. Arellano were unconcerned about science, she was free to refrain from mentioning it. And if she were actually concerned about scientism, as I am reliably informed is the case, she might have prevented my confusion by saying so more clearly.
And as for derailing – I’m aware that I was responding to minor points. Those were the only ones I had criticisms of. Was I supposed to argue with the parts that were right? It’s not like I tried to say that those two points invalidated the whole piece or anything.
Go back and read the damn article. Of course you are “troubled” because the interview frontally addresses the hierarchies of mainstream secularist politics that render the realities of people of color invisible. Firstly, the fact that the vast majority of TV (and film) representations are white-dominated would seem “fair” to someone who will never have to worry about being systemically dehumanized as a prostitute/criminal/maid/welfare dependent/illegal alien/spicy sex object for white boys — all roles that actresses of color are habitually shoehorned into, limited to and defined by in the real world. Secondly, if you want to play statistics, a significant number of Latinos classify themselves racially as white on the U.S. Census (over 30%). The SAG stats refer to European-American (i.e., non-Hispanic whites) whites dominating all roles cast in TV productions as well as 76% of lead roles. So where are the Latinos? Grossly underrepresented–and all the diversity training/diversity forums and diversity protests launched by activist industry groups of color have had little impact on these Jim Crow era numbers which remain largely static despite the fact that the U.S. in 2012 is increasingly Latino and Asian. Similar stats have been reported by the Writers Guild of America vis-à-vis white supremacy in film, both in front of and behind the camera. Given that the vast majority of directors, producers, screenwriters and casting agents are European American whites this disproportionality contributes to an earnings gap between whites and people of color in both the TV and film industries. If the numbers behind the camera are lily white it stands to reason that cronyism, colorism, and corporatism are going to govern who gets cast as the Americana Main Street family next door; the maverick world saving role model doctor; the compassionate lawyer; THE BRAINY HEROIC PHYSICIST extraordinaire who gets a love interest, a complicated back story, and 90 minutes of film time; the master of the universe action figure; America’s rom-com sweetheart, and the slacker “bromance” dude ad nauseum.
Finally, Diane’s critique of “science-preaching white men” is precisely why this interview is necessary. Several scientists of color, including the esteemed evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves and science historians Evelyn Hammonds and Harriet Washington have challenged and highlighted traditions of scientific racism that continue to inform racial and gender disparities in health care access, public policy, clinical trials, prisoner rights’, reproductive rights, and mainstream perceptions of people of color. Who the fuck is addressing the apartheid politics/history of science, the scientific establishment, and academia in the New Atheism? And yes Graves et al are all academics that have had to fight tooth and nail for their scholarship in a white supremacist field in which research by people of color is consistently underfunded and marginalized. The New Atheist movement has been dominated by the reductive Eurocentric view (espoused most prominently by Dawkins and Harris) that somehow science in and of itself is a moral panacea and that it exists in a cultural and historical vacuum—a posture that has been extensively critiqued by skeptic Massimo Pigliucci and myself. The racial othering of African, Asian and indigenous bodies emerged from Enlightenment-based regimes of rationalism, positivism and empiricism upon which white supremacy, imperialism, slavery and racial apartheid were based. In other words, reason and science emerged in the U.S. on the back of the racial other; and this legacy is still reflected in the demonization, under the guise of science, of working class black people to Barack Obama. So before you make paternalistic comments caricaturing atheists of color who challenge scientism as anti-science do some reading, i.e., Harriet Washington’s excellent Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Graves’ The Race Myth, Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
So many good points in there. One thing that really disappointed me when the New Atheists arrived on the scene was that they brought all the materialism and atheism out of the tradition with the Marxism somehow amputated. For awhile, I was trying my best not to let the individual failings of the leaders (for instance Hitchens’s sexism) tar the whole movement, and I even thought of Harris as “the sane one,” but then I saw his racist tirade on racial profiling and gave up hope. An atheist movement without the marxism is useless, in my opinion. I’m not saying an atheist movement has to be some Zola-reading, communist political party. But any movement that sets out to address any injustice (even the injustice of the religious tampering with the rights of the non-religious) needs to start with some kind of awareness of how other injustices (racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, etc) work together.
And just to bring it back to the topic at hand: Who cares if POC get roles in numbers that reflect their actual numbers when 1. the roles they get are all really stereotypical and 2D (like I bet the most popular film role for Latina actresses is sexed up maid). And 2. A lot of their work is regulated to places like BET or films that are considered “black” rather than simply “mainstream.”
Incidentally, I read an article about Toni Morrison about how she’d rather just be known as a writer than a black writer. And it’s true so many great writers of colour get into print, but then can’t attain mainstream success.
Let’s go back and read my damn comment, then, since you find careful readings of things so important:
All you have to say is “yes, that’s the case – the two sources are using ‘white’ differently, so the difference is 8.8% instead of 0.1%.” And I say “Oh, okay, then. In that case, yeah, those numbers are pretty fucked up and unfair.” I might also say things like
Somehow it comes to me that these are the sorts of things I might happen to say. If the topic were to come up, y’know.
And how the hell am I supposed to tell the difference between anti-scientism and anti-science without asking? On the basis of a couple of casual insults like “science-preaching”? That’s just a slightly important distinction to make, since one of those things is completely valid and necessary and the other is destroying the planet! I mean, I guess maybe I jumped in too fast and didn’t express the nuance – maybe I should have spent a paragraph or so listing some valid criticisms of science, which I thought perhaps Ms. Arellano might be referring to. A paragraph like this:
Do you think that if I’d said something like that, I might not have been mistaken for a clueless techno-preacher, advocating science as a perfectly moral solution to every problem in the world? Or would I have had to mention every single fuckup and atrocity in the history of science before I passed the test and could be presumed to have a working brain?
(And not for nothing, practically everything in the U.S. emerged on the back of the racial other. Democracy did, charity did, even feminism did. It’s a racist system, and was even more so in the past. That doesn’t mean that democracy is bad, that charity is bad, that feminism is bad, or that science is bad. So you can stop shouting genetic fallacies at me.)
Right. “Science” does not equal social, racial or gender justice, that is her point, period; and we’re fucking tired of being patted on the head and told that all backward false consciousness-mired religious Negroes and Mexicans need is a little bit of Darwin and inequality will disappear. None of the big rock star white atheists or white atheist organizations have been on the frontlines of our issues — i.e., racist mass incarceration, sexual violence against women of color, racist/sexist reproductive justice policies, undocumented immigrant rights, lethal police force, apartheid education policies, epidemic homelessness amongst straight and LGBTQ youth of color etc. On the other hand many radical, progressive and liberal religious organizations of color have been and continue to be–joining with the few secular community-based orgs of color that are out there. That is what radical atheists of color who espouse social and economic justice are agitating about and challenging in the science-as-magic bullet white male atheist stance which, steeped in privilege and entitlement, is willfully ignorant of the politics of coalition-building. And that is why the mainstream atheist movement will continue to be lily white, academy-besotted and 1% driven (as evidenced by the scores of conferences we have attended in which POC can be counted on one hand), while courageous women of color like Diane will be marginalized and underrepresented.
For further reading:
Honestly, why the hell should they be “on the frontlines” of what you consider (and say) are your issues?
I get intersectionality, but what you sound like you’re basically saying is that in order for you to bother with the New Atheists, they’d basically have to give up atheism as their issue and focus on stuff you care about instead. I agree that social justice of all types should be more on their radar than it is (personally, speaking for myself, I’m kind of tired of most of them ignoring women generally, and everyone ignoring handicapped people, whom I notice you never mentioned, incidentally), but I disagree that they should need to focus on those issues. Only so much time in a day.
With allies like that, who needs enemies? Can’t we all focus on issues we’re interested in and consider that we might be going to the same place in different ways?
I dunno maybe because, as you no doubt had to have read,
On the other hand many radical, progressive and liberal religious organizations of color have been and continue to be
And them being issues that concern all of soceity and anyone who says they embrace humanistic values.
Lupe Ontiveros played a maid 300 times on TV and in films. 300 hundred times. Seriously. One actress.
Don’t you think Latinas do stuff in real life other than cleaning hotel rooms and acting sexy? If so, shouldn’t they be allowed to do something on TV or in the movies besides cleaning hotel rooms and acting sexy?
I’m glad to hear that you agreed with me when I wrote:
As a southwestern latina (S.Co/N.NM), I have points of agreement with Ms. Arellano as well as numerous points of disagreement. (Full disclosure, I’m not Mexican, I’m 14th-gen hispanic american — I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed my family). I agree with Robert’s points, and don’t find them derailing at all. The author herself identified TV disparity as her own concern, but Robert noted that her point was weak. I agree that it’s a stretch to complain about a cohort not appearing in greater percentages on screen (or in gov’t or any given profession) than the numbers we have in actual reality. That’s just too much to ask right now.
On the science point I a-da-mant-ly disagree with Arellano. Science is reality, and it’s fucking awesome and beautiful. Many latina women are fully capable of — and do — realize and appreciate this; the rest need to grow up, seriously. Yet Diane (joined by Ms. Cutter Gynofascist) seems to assume, without any basis, that latinas are not motivated by the beauty of science, and are so not-with-it that they can’t think beyond their own poverty or [other stereotypical latina problem]. This is insulting and condescending to many, many latina women who do science, and support science every day. Further, there are a few of us who, thanks to good sense and a little effort at birth control, didn’t get pregnant as teens.
I just can’t relate to the idea that latinas can’t relate to “science preaching white men” or that “this is not a welcoming environment for Latinos or people of color.” Why the hell not?? Even if you are focused on “social issues,” you must know that scientific thinking will get you much farther than any other method of thinking.
Finally, are we really being “so condescending about the religiosity in communities of color?” I used to be defensive of my community’s religiosity even after I stopped believing. At some point I realized that I personally think hispanic/latina religiousity IS RIDICULOUS and embarrasing and worthy of condescension. That’s a problem we secularists share, not something that divides us.
Oh please; this is not about condescending to anti-science (i.e., irrational) people of color. It’s about the racial and historical politics of science and scientism as reinscribed by white male dominance in mainstream atheist discourse. See my comment above and for further reading:
I agree with the blackfemlens article in that, of course, science is not a magic bullet against hierarchy, racism, sexism etc., this is pretty obvious. While it is nice to note that biology currently does not lend support to racist ideas, values such as gender and racial equality can not come as corollaries out of the scientific process as a matter of principle but must simply be agreed upon by society.
Your article seems to go much further than that, and dismisses science as a source of inspiration and as a central foundation of atheism based on the existence of racist scientists and racist notions in science in the 19th and early 20th century. Science is not owned by white people. Science is not a sociological trend, and I find the tendencies by equality activists themselves to paint science as a construct that is somehow supposed to be “male”, or “white”, quite disturbing. Reality is described by science, and nothing will change that. By linking it with the sociology of its past propoents, I fear that you are locking the door to knowledge for minorities who should instead try to own science as something that transcends race, gender, culture. Am I wrong? Have I misunderstood you completely?
I didn’t say that this is “about condescending to anti-science (i.e., irrational) people of color.” Ms. Arellano herself asserted that the atheist movement is both “dogmatic” about science as well as ” so condescending about the religiosity in communities of color.” My point was that these comments come across to me as implying that people of color are somehow impaired in our ability to understand or be inspired by science, and that is by definition condescending. Further, that criticizing one’s belief as ridiculous (because it is) is not necessarily condescending. You want to talk about “the racial and historical politics of science and scientism as reinscribed by white male dominance in mainstream atheist discourse?” Let’s talk about seeing all the hispanic kids in one’s school getting funneled into shop and home economics classes, with no encouragement to push themselves to learn the harder science and math subjects, because teachers and counselors assume they’re either too lazy, uninterested, or incapable of that level of understanding. We need to own science, not declare it a white male dogma.
“Science” does not equal social, racial or gender justice; that is her point, and the thrust of her entire critique, period. Eminent scientists of color like Graves, Hammonds and Washington, as well as humanist scholar Anthony Pinn, have all argued this in their work. The educational apartheid that consigns students of color to science illiteracy is based on the institutionalization of non-college prep drop-out mill school cultures that operate on a “deficit model” that criminalizes Latino and especially Afr-Am youth with disproportionate suspension and expulsion, assignment to special education classes, and “tracking” policies that shut them out of AP and honors classes. Students of color are academically disenfranchised because they are disproportionately shunted into schools with overcrowded classrooms that lack highly qualified culturally responsive teachers who are trained in their subject area; a full complement of A-G college preparation classes; and school counselors that aren’t saddled with hundreds of students. Aside from the critique in “Moral Combat,” there has been no secular humanist critical consciousness around the “New Jim Crow” immorality of educational apartheid. So we’re fucking tired of being patted on the head and told that all backward false consciousness-mired religious Negroes and Mexicans need is a little bit of Darwin and inequality will disappear. None of the big rock star white atheists or white atheist/humanist organizations have been on the frontlines of our issues — i.e., racist mass incarceration, sexual violence against women of color, racist/sexist reproductive justice policies, undocumented immigrant rights, lethal police force, apartheid education policies, epidemic homelessness amongst straight and LGBTQ youth of color etc. On the other hand many radical, progressive and liberal religious organizations of color have been and continue to be–-joining with the few secular community-based orgs of color that are out there. That is what radical atheists/humanists of color who espouse social and economic justice are agitating about and challenging (building on historical traditions of liberation struggle forged by non-believers and skeptics of color like A. Philip Randolph, Hubert Harrison, James Foreman, DuBois etc. whose scientific materialism was ALWAYS deeply informed by a global class critique of capitalism, racism, imperialism and workers’ rights) in the science-as-magic bullet white male atheist stance which, steeped in privilege and entitlement, is willfully ignorant of the politics of coalition-building. And that is why the mainstream atheist movement will continue to be lily white, academy-besotted and 1% driven (as evidenced by the scores of conferences we have attended in which POC can be counted on one hand and Latina/AA/Asian women are virtually non-existent), while courageous women of color like Diane will be marginalized and underrepresented.
For further reading:
Don’t dismiss my concerns just because they don’t happen to parrot yours.
I understand that you’ve done academic analyses of education apartheid. I’m talking about a “softer” phenomenon – the deeply ingrained notions that science and math are “white” subjects. Would you disagree that such attitudes are imposed by teachers and families upon children, and those children grown into adults who impose that attitute upon themselves and their kids? Is that not an “othering” of ourselves that we need to take responsibility for? I think some comments in this interview are an example of that.
I fully agree that science does not equal social, racial or gender justice. The first time I hear a white atheist leader claiming that it is, I’ll walk straight up to that person and inform them otherwise.
[…] Hutchinson profiles Diane Arellano in the Black Freethinkers blog. Sample quote: Somewhere in college, I felt the need not to […]