Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hispanic Heritage Month opens up a can of worms

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ever-pressing issue of what we of Latin American descent are supposed to be calling ourselves (and what we're supposed to be asking others to call us). Are we Hispanics? Are we Latinos? Do we really need a catch-all term?

With September 15 - October 15 being Hispanic Heritage Month, there has been more of a dialogue regarding, uh, Latino-ness. How nice to see a month devoted to all of us Latinos, where for those four precious weeks we are held up to the nation much like a show-and-tell session and discussed. So often, discussions about how integral a particular heritage is to this country's success are somewhat superficial. I walk into my local grocery store and see a big picture of Antonia Coello Novello, right there nest to the apples, reminding me that Latinos Are Important.

So I was surprised to see an article on about how being of Latin American descent in the US is a trickier, more complicated proposition than perhaps many Latinos might think. I was surprised to see certain points being made that I had tossed around in my own head but did not believe were also entertained by many others. Moreover, it made me ask some questions of myself, and how I view this whole issue of being a Hispanic in the USA and my relationship to the rest of the people lumped into that term.

Case in point: Suzanne Oboler, a professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at John Jay College in New York, states that she does not believe that there is such a thing as a Latino identity. Nevermind what people outside of that group think about that -- what do Latinos themselves think about this? My first thought was that I do agree with this statement, but I also would have thought that people, say, who are Latino activists, would balk at this idea. What about Latino unity? What about la raza?

I don't believe in la raza. I believe that there are millions of us who share a similar colonizer. From her we obtained our language and some cultural idiosyncracies. But take one look at a map and you'll see that Latin America is really, really big. Top to bottom, side to side, the geographical landscape is vast and heterogeneous. Beaches. Mountains. Deserts. Rainforests. Life adapts to these different landscape and geographical traits. Indigenous populations in the Caribbean were not the same as in Central America, who were not the same as the ones in South America. Sure, there is cross-pollination: Taíno indians in the Caribbean are said to be descendants of indigenous peoples in the area now known as Venezuela. But those Venezuelan tribes became the Arawaks in the Caribbean, who then became the Caribs, and then came the Taínos. There's a lot of time and a lot of change in between that initial migration and the finished product. And that's just one small example.

Nowadays we just need to look at our cultures in their current incarnations to see that one label does not fit all. There are, say, some similarities in some of our foods, but I believe that is more often seen because of regional proximity than any kind of homogeneity across the Spanish-speaking Americas. People asking me if I had a lot of Mexican food in Puerto Rico, or even looking to me to be an arbiter of which local Mexican is the most authentic, will be greeted with the same answer: "Huh?" I may enjoy a hearty chimichanga at my local Mexican joint, and may recognize some of the flavor profiles, but not being from Mexico I could not tell you what's authentic; I can just tell you whether or not I like it.

A marketing executive cited in the article feels that there is indeed a Hispanic profile: "Those areas include interpersonal relationships (Latinos tend to emphasize family; individuality is not as important), perception of the future (the group is less driven toward goals), and spirituality (the group tends to be more fatalistic, more likely to say they have no control over their lives)." I find this argument simplistic and, frankly, more indicative of an attempt to find any similarities, any at all, in order to support a hypothesis (in this case "this will sell to Hispanics").

Another surprising statement came from a woman named Anna Rivas, who is from Colorado and the child of Mexican parents. She says that when asked where she is from, she replies, "'My parents are from Mexico.' And I don't say, 'I'm Hispanic or Latino, or I'm from Mexico,' because I'm not."

That one was a shocker to me. Not so much saying that she isn't from Mexico -- because, in fact, she is not -- but not identifying herself with her parents' ethnic background at all. But see, given what I wrote above, about not being so sure that there is a "Latino identity", why should I be surprised? This made me realize that I might subscribing to a double-standard: if I don't believe there is a single Latino identity, then why would it startle me to see that someone doesn't identify with any of it?

I think that it's not a double-standard, in the end, but another example of how none of this business is black-or-white. Here's what I still find surprising: Ms. Rivas is not the grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrants. Her own parents came from Mexico, and in one single generation any ties to the homeland seem to have been chopped off. I think of other groups in the US who countless generations after the first member of the family emigrated still feel the pull of their ancestral country's culture. Ms. Rivas doesn't expound on how this happened; perhaps her own parents decided she needed to assimilate to their new home, maybe it was her own choice, or maybe it wasn't a choice at all and it just turned out this way. Whether or not she sees herself as belonging to the larger group is not what strikes me so much, it's more the idea that a cultural link can be lost in the space of one generation.

So where does this leave Latinos in the US? I suspect we're all over the map on this: from the Latino Studies student, who may have visions of revolutionaries and la raza in his head, to the Puerto Rican who was born in New York and finds himself at a crossroads between hamburgers and arroz con pollo, to someone like Ms. Rivas who simply can't identify with her parents' home country -- nevermind identifying with the idea of being Hispanic, we're apparently all over the map. How do we start to understand each other's vastly different experiences? Just because we're not all in the same boat, does that mean that there can't be a certain level of unity? A certain level of camarederie, even if it's just predicated on the luck of conquistador's draw, that we ended up with a common backstory? I think the key here is to understand that we have not all had the same experience, that just because one person may still speak Spanish and eat rice and beans every day doesn't mean the person next to you is the same way. I think when we start to accept our differences (and to accept that we are, in fact different from each other -- this is something that is hard for many people to even acknowledge, especially those of us born and raised in Latin America, and I'd like to write about that later) hopefully it will be easier to see in which areas we do stand together.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, the Internet is incredible. I was googleing myself just to see what was out there and happened across this blog in which you mentioned a quote that came out of my mouth (well, sort of. What was published wasn't exactly what I said). After reading your response, I felt inspired to reply.
You see, I'm a non-Catholic (I consider myself to be spiritual but not religious), vegetarian (for 20+ years), animal rights advocate who got a degree in environmental studies (although I now work in the tech industry), don't have or want any kids, and speak Spanish poorly. As you see from this brief description, I don't share some of the most important values and qualities that are typically associated with the "Latino" or "Hispanic" labels. My closest friends come from various ethnic backgrounds(Japanese, Portugese, Brazilian, Italian, and just plain old white mutts). There are many mixed ethnicity couples amongst us. We are all intrigued by each other's backgrounds, but I don't think any of us are clinging to those identities (otherwise we would mostly socialize with people from those cultures rather than with each other). The label "environmentalist" says much more about who I am than does the label "Hispanic".
I hope this helps others who were shocked by my comments to understand a little bit better what I meant.