Why the term 'la raza' has complicated roots in the US

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The National Council of La Raza announced this week that it was changing its name to UnidosUS, dropping a word that has deep roots but may have hurt the organization in moving toward the future.

The change to remove "la raza" comes amid a backlash from conservatives and a desire by the civil rights group to appeal to younger Latinos in the United States.

The term la raza — meaning "the people" — has roots in post-revolution Mexico and in the U.S. Chicano Movement of the 1970s which helped elect some of the nation's first Latinos to public office. Often mistaken for its literal meaning in English, "the race," la raza has been used to describe people whose families have migrated from Latin American countries.

But in the ever-evolving discussions of race and ethnicity in the U.S., some Latino advocates see the term as outdated and no longer useful in an era of a racially diverse society and President Donald Trump.

A look at the history of the term la raza in the United States:

La Raza Cósmica

Following the Mexican Revolution, cultural philosopher José Vasconcelos penned the essay "La Raza Cósmica," or "The Cosmic Race," in 1925 in response to white supremacist rhetoric coming out of the United States and Europe. Vasconcelos argued that a "fifth race" of people had emerged in the Americas that encompassed races from around the world and transcended all the others.

The mixture of the indigenous and the Old World, he wrote, were "the moral and material basis for the union of all men into a fifth universal race, the fruit of all the previous ones and amelioration of everything past."

José Angel Hernández, a University of Houston history professor, said Vasconcelos became the first Mexican presidential candidate to campaign in the United States among Mexican-Americans. There, he spread his message about "la raza cósmica."

The Chicano Movement

After World War II, some Mexican-American civil rights leaders fought against racial segregation. They also argued that Mexican-Americans were white or "a class apart" who didn't fit into a black/white racial U.S. legal structure.

But radical activists from the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s rediscovered Vasconcelos' essay and rejected notions that Mexican-Americans were white. They established the La Raza Unida Party in South Texas in 1970 to give more political power to Mexican-Americans in Texas and California.

They fielded candidates for city council and school board seats and eventually for Texas governor. Maria del Rosario Castro, the mother of former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Texas Congressman Joaquín Castro, was an active member of La Raza Unida Party.

At political rallies in Texas and at marches in California to support Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers, young Latino activists yelled, "Viva La Raza!"

Out of the political upheaval, a more moderate group was formed — the National Council of La Raza — with the help of Ford Foundation funding in 1968.

Conservative Backlash

The National Council of La Raza developed into a major Latino civil rights organization, hosting U.S. presidential candidates and receiving sponsorship dollars from tobacco, automobile and oil companies.

Still, because of the group's outspoken stances in support of immigrant rights, some conservatives attacked the organization as being "anti-white" and pointed to the term "la raza" in its name. Conservative pundits also often confused the National Council of La Raza with the defunct La Raza Unida Party, wrongfully attributing its philosophies about Aztlan — the mythical homeland of the Aztec in the present-day American Southwest — to the mainstream NCLR.

During his campaign, Trump criticized a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against him by mentioning that he was a member of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association.

Mike Madrid, a California GOP consultant, said such attacks were unfair. "But you can't have it both ways. You can't have a group based on identity politics and not expect a backlash," he said. "I think other groups will change their names."

More diverse U.S. Latino population

In Latin America and part of the U.S., Columbus Day has been rebranded as "Día de la Raza," or Day of the Race. The day is meant to honor the meeting of Europeans with indigenous populations that eventually created a new mixed population.

But Claudia Milian, director of Latino/a Studies in the Global South at Duke University, said the term is not as encompassing for U.S. Latinos as some might believe and is more of a Mexican-American term.

The Latino population in North Carolina, for example, contains many Central American indigenous migrants who are suspicious of any talk of racial theories since it usually meant destroying their way of life and culture, Milian said.

"So I don't know if la raza would work for some indigenous migrants here," Milian said. "After all, to them, it was la raza who were trying to wipe them off the face of the earth."

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