The Hyphenated American

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from Venezuela. For more, click here.

Caracas - In the parlance of hyphenated identities, Nelson Agelvis would be an 'American-Venezuelan'. He was born in Venezuela, grew up in Kansas City, speaks with an American Midwest twang, and now teaches media studies in Caracas. But he says such labels, and hyphenated identities in general, are "uniquely American."

We listen together to Super Tuesday coverage on the radio of his Ford Explorer. As American pundits ponder the possibility of the "first female president", or "the first African-American president," Nelson wonders aloud if such distinctions cause the U.S. more harm than good.

"In Venezuela," he says, "the media doesn't mention the race or origins" of its subjects, whether they’re Carnaval dancers packing clubs now, or foreign politicians running for president.

"[My students and I] don't fixate on Obama as the first black candidate….And we're really puzzled by the way Americans do,” he says. “It seems to us like a form of racism. Americans don't realize how racist they are….By always discussing race, they just perpetuate their problem."

Nelson’s brush with American racism came early. In 1975, when he was three years old, his family moved to Kansas City so he could have an "international childhood." He spent a decade in school there, as the short kid with the foreign last name. Either because of height or origin, he frequently got into fights. In tenth grade, his parents decided to send him back to Venezuela to “find his roots”, and once there he found that his American identity was suddenly an asset. "I was the cool gringo kid who knew the disco and rock scene backwards and forwards, and followed baseball like a religion." He and a Polish girl were stars in Caracas, he said, even though his Polish friend back in Kansas had been mocked mercilessly.

This is one simple anecdote, but it’s one that’s repeated by Nelson’s students, two decades his junior, who've spent summers in the U.S. where teenage Americans asked them, "if Venezuelans lived in trees or had TV." Wealthy students share these anecdotes in between laughs. Together with news clippings about the government’s poor Hurricane Katrina response, or the plight of illegal Hispanic migrants, they reinforce an image of the racist United States. And the government of Hugo Chavez perpetuates this image, teaching members of its 50,000-strong Frente Francisco Miranda, a social-service/pro-Chavez organization about “the unfinished struggle” of Malcolm X.

For this reason, Nelson is particularly skeptical of defining ethnic or racial divisions. He sees it more as a political tactic, especially under Chavez, than as an appeal for group solidarity and pride. "Chavez is trying to introduce the idea of Afro-Venezuelans now," to consolidate his support among Venezuela’s poor, who are largely darker-skinned. That adds a racial element to a struggle already defined in terms of class and sovereignty.

I press him on this. Isn't an attempt to wash away hyphens just a way of masking the problem of racial inequality? He concedes, "Yes, there is racism here. It is true the higher you go in the corporate world, the lighter-skinned the bosses become." But he insists that there are better ways to resolve the problem of racial inequality than the American model of differentiation and ethnic mobilization. What that is, exactly, he doesn't say. But an Obama win might force him to re-think his position.

VenezuelaAmar Bakshi