Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America

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9780312262327: Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America

Chicano. Cubano. Pachuco. Nuyorican. Puerto Rican. Boricua. Quisqueya. Tejano.

To be Latino in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has meant to fierce identification with roots, with forbears, with the language, art and food your people came here with. America is a patchwork of Hispanic sensibilities-from Puerto Rican nationalists in New York to more newly arrived Mexicans in the Rio Grande valley-that has so far resisted homogenization while managing to absorb much of the mainstream culture.

Living in Spanglish delves deep into the individual's response to Latino stereotypes and suggests that their ability to hold on to their heritage, while at the same time working to create a culture that is entirely new, is a key component of America's future.

In this book, Morales pins down a hugely diverse community-of Dominicans, Mexicans, Colombians, Cubans, Salvadorans and Puerto Ricans--that he insists has more common interests to bring it together than traditions to divide it. He calls this sensibility Spanglish, one that is inherently multicultural, and proposes that Spanglish "describes a feeling, an attitude that is quintessentially American. It is a culture with one foot in the medieval and the other in the next century."

In Living in Spanglish , Ed Morales paints a portrait of America as it is now, both embracing and unsure how to face an onslaught of Latino influence. His book is the story of groups of Hispanic immigrants struggling to move beyond identity politics into a postmodern melting pot.

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About the Author:

Ed Morales is a Village Voice staff reporter who has contributed to numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Miami Herald, San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Time and The Nation. He is also a poet whose work has appeared in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café and a fiction writer included in Iguana Dreams and Boricuas.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Living in Spanglish
1. THE ROOTS OF SPANGLISH The Pachuco does not wish to return to his Mexican origin, nor it would seem does he wish to blend into North American life. --OCTAVIO PAZ , The Labyrinth of Solitude  
Puerto Rico, 1974 This is not the place where I was born. --MIGUEL PIÑERO  
Greater East Los Angeles, February 20, 6:30 P.M. Home away from home away from home. --LUIS VALDEZ  
 
To be Spanglish is to live in multisubjectivity; that is, in a space where race is indeterminate, and where class is slipperier than ever. As an integral part of their history, Latin Americans engaged in a mass experiment in racial miscegenation. Social class was partially determined by relative skin tone, although family standing, the ability to trace lineage to Spain, and, of course, accumulated wealth were important factors. But the economic instability of Latin America made social class lines fluctuate wildly, and it didn'ttake much for a family's standing to slip rapidly over a brief period of time. When Latinos came to North America, some were able to transfer their class standing into American categories. But the majority of us came into the lower portions of the labor pool, bringing with us a fluid sense of race and class, and we began to immediately create a new multisubjective sense of ourselves, which could be thought of as Spanglish. Who are the Spanglish people and when did they appear? Legends of the conquest of Mexico point to La Malinche, a woman from the Maya nation that extended from Yucatan to Guatemala, who journeyed with the conquering Cortés into the heart of the Aztec empire as his translator. La Malinche, a.k.a. Doña Marina, served as an interface between Europe and the Americans, and has taken on all manner of criticism for "selling out" her own people and aiding the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, the seat of Aztec power. She was said to have borne a child to Cortés, the first mestizo child of the Americas. Malinche's betrayal was real, yet inevitable. Her actions don't constitute an utter betrayal of Mexico's indigenous people, since there were several tribes to the south and east of Tenochtitlan that joined Cortés's army merely because of rivalry with Moctezuma's clique. But La Malinche set off a chain reaction of race-mixing that gave birth to the encroaching Spanglish reality of the twenty-first century, and it is most fitting that she accomplished this at the intersection of two languages, two cultures. In order to survive, she took on both, became both. That capacity, in a nutshell, is what Spanglish is all about. To become Spanglish is to fuse the North American with the Latin American in a way that approaches the former with a healthy skepticism and takes care not to obliterate the essence of the latter. It is a sometimes violent, sometimes delicate rethreading of two parallel story lines, of long-separated siblings and hated enemies. Becoming Spanglish is inextricably linked with history and issues of race and class, and there are two tendencies that I consider central to understanding the process. First, the great majority of migrants and immigrants from LatinAmerica to North America came from the lower classes, and tended to be of darker skin tone than the elites of their origin countries. Second, their class standing tended to be fixed in Latin America and seemed to have more potential to change in North America, while their racial oppression, which was more subliminal in Latin America, became overt in the U.S. The process of becoming Spanglish was fairly painful at first, like growing a thick callus to protect against the hostile dominant North American world. The first stage of this process was in many ways a desperate struggle that involved an increasing alienation from the homeland coexisting with a strong desire to return. But the North Americanization process had its advantages for the darker Latin Americans: They were able to open their eyes to the subtle ways in which they were treated as second-class citizens in their homeland, and began to understand how to use North American laws to protect themselves. They became Americanized to the extent that they were leaving the semifeudal, postcolonial ways of their home countries at home. But just as Spanglish folks might have made a transition to a more conventional American identity, they pulled back and consolidated their position. They found a third option, the Spanglish way.  
 
The way we conceive of Spanglish, the language, today is primarily from the point of view of the Spanish language, absorbing English words, giving it something of a modernity and some of English's inherent flexibility. But the emergence of Spanglish in the U.S. had its origins in the reverse process, that is, English absorbing Spanish. It began with the period of the Mexican War, which was resolved by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That treaty formalized the U.S.'s acquisition of Texas, California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the sense that this moment did not involve immigration, I consider it a prehistorical Spanglish phase in which North and Latin America's boundaries were still being drawn. The people of the Southwest have variously identified withMexico, Spain, and the U.S., and engaged in a proto-Spanglish project that is closely related to today's phenomenon. What could have been a historical footnote in the treaty process turned out to be crucial to the future of Spanglish. Because of the fertility of the land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers, the originally proposed southern boundary of the U.S. as a result of its victory in the war, the U.S. negotiators insisted on its inclusion in its new territory. The acquisition of what became known as the Nueces Strip incorporated into the U.S. an area that was majority Mexican. By eating up this territory, America had irreversibly changed its internal makeup, and its culture. According to historian Carey McWilliams, the meat of the revered cowboy culture of the Old West was copied from the Mexican vaquero style. Words like bronco, buckaroo, burro, mesa, canyon, rodeo, corral, and lariat, all steeped in heavy symbolism, were imported from Mexico. This means every John Wayne movie you've ever seen is in Spanglish. Like John Wayne himself, who married a Latina, many strategic land alliances between incoming Scots, Irish, and Germans, and local Mexican landowners were accomplished by intermarriage, creating one of the more miscegenated societies within the U.S. border. The roots of the Chicano movement are all in the Southwest, from the rebel persona of the pachuco, to the first lands rights activists of the '60s. The extremely important symbolic figure, the pop star Selena, had as her axis of power all the towns between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. The Nueces Strip was an important incubator of Spanglish in North America, but its remoteness from the rest of the country diminished its overall effect, and its Hollywoodization tends to obscure Mexican contributions, "assimilating" it into Anglo America. Spanglish reality's formal beginnings can also be traced to the end of another war. In 1898, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the U.S. following its defeat in the Spanish American War. Under the guise of keeping European interlopers at bay, the U.S. finished off the Manifest Destiny project by seizingthe last remaining part of Latin America still owned by Spain at the turn of the last century. An intellectual debate raging in Latin America about what the "other" America's role would be in the modern world at this time is an important root of Spanglish. Writers like the Cuban independence activist Jose Marti and the Uruguayan essayist Jose Enrique Rodó came up with some lyrical, if fairly inadequate, romantic notions about the differences between North and Latin America. Martí argued against racial categorization because he saw it as an attempt to diminish and obliterate the importance of indigenous and African people--the "natural" people were the soul of "our America." Rodó wrote a famous essay called "Ariel" in which he uses the characters of Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare's Tempest as an allegory for North-Latin American relations. Caliban, which was originally read as Shakespeare's representation of the untrainable mulatto of the colonies, was used by Rodó to personify the U.S.'s crude, unthinking materialism, as exemplified by its rapid industrialization. In the '20s, José Vasconcelos, a Mexican writer of Italian-Spanish parentage, came into the fray with his essay "La raza cósmica." He proposed the idea that Latin America's mixed-race population constituted a "cosmic race" that would lead humanity in a new direction by focusing instead on purely aesthetic concerns. Vasconcelos's ideas have been dismissed as a loopy overreaction to positivism. They have also been criticized because they favor the European component of the race-mixing. But despite the fact that he was European-identified, Vasconcelos had an archetypal Spanglish experience. As an adolescent, he and his family moved to a border region in northern Mexico and young Jose attended an English-language prep school in Eagle Pass, Texas. His revulsion for northerners was a major influence in his motivation to declare mestizos as the savior of civilization. But Vasconcelos's, vision, though flawed, had a utopian excitement to it that feels like an antidote to North America's self-fulfillingprophesy of one-dimensional man. His idea, borrowed from many writers of his time, that humanity would eventually transcend physical labor, seems to be borne out by our increasingly technological world. And, as my increasing involvement with Spanglish culture tells me, the mixed-race future does seem to be coinciding with a humanity devoted more and more to self-development, yet mired in a North American culture wasteland severely in need of a shot of pure aestheticism. It is a culture happy to see itself endlessly reflected in the funhouse hall of mirrors in the last sequences of Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai, content to become virtual, soulless echoes of itself. Who will define the aesthetics of the high-tech future? What cultural force will break the postmodernist chain of repetition that makes the Police's "Every Breath You Take" the soundtrack for gangsta eulogy? The end of the Ariel versus Caliban debate coincided with the failure of the Caribbean independence movement, interrupted by the last war of the U.S.'s Manifest Destiny period. It was a period when the first waves of Latino immigration came to the U.S., much of it spurred by refugees from the Marti movement. It was a period before the massive migration of Latin Americans to the mainland U.S. became strongly evident, before we were making a significant impact on communities and civil society. Although many of these immigrants came merely to better their financial situation, many were part of the fallout from the failed independence efforts. The Americas were slowly beginning to approach each other. They needed to get an idea of what each other was about. It was a period in (which, at least on a symbolic level, America, through its nascent popular culture, began to become aware of "Latin-ness."  
 
"Yes, Mexico must be thoroughly chastised! ... Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that, while we are not forward for a quarrel, America knows how to crush, as well as how to expand!" --WALT WHITMAN, WRITING IN THE Brooklyn Eagle DURING THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR  
 
One early part-Latino immigrant played a major, if largely unrecognized, role in inserting the Ariel-Caliban debate into Modernist North American discourse. In Lisa Sánchez González's book, Boricua Literature, she contrasts the contributions of Arturo Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican migrant to the United States, and William Carlos Williams, whose mother was born in Puerto Rico and whose father was an Englishman raised in the Dominican Republic, a fluent Spanish speaker. Despite a clear Caribbean heritage, both men had their Spanglish characters elided by North American historical narrative: Williams became the link between Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and Schomburg a forerunner of African-American nationalism. (Adding to their invisibility was their lack of "Hispanic" surnames.) Schomburg was important for embarking on a Pan-Africanist project similar to that of Marcus Garvey's, envisioning his Spanglishness as that of a black man set free from Latin American colonialism. But whereas Schomburg and his proto Harlem Renaissance stature tends to be lumped in with the discourse of the African-American "other," Williams engaged in the mainstream American debate, "passing" for an Anglo-American. As Sánchez González observes, Williams wrote "in a panegyric tone that clearly inscribes the authenticity of mestizo consciousness as the American consciousness" in his collection of essays, The American Grain. The bilingual doctor/poet from Paterson, New Jersey, inspired by Rodó's essay wrote in Ariel's voice, critiquing America's Caliban-esque tendency. "The basic incapacity to touch, tenderly, the Other, is for Williams the definitive tragic flaw of Anglo-American cultural history," writes Sánchez González. "The juxtaposition of the United States' unparalleled power as a nation and its poverty of aesthetic-ethical (read sensual) grace is also an obvious thematic legacy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass." Like Rodó and Vasconcelos, Williams contrasts the Roman Catholic "compassion" of the French and Spanish conquest with the genocidal furor of the Protestant colonization of North America. And, like his Latin American predecessors, Williams ignores the African presence in his idea of "mestizo" consciousness in favor of the indigenous, creating a kind of new twist on Whitman's metaphor for the earth as woman. Whereas North Americans unapologetically raped the New World, the key to American happiness is the ability to seduce her. just as Schomburg predicted the feelings of liberation an American city like New York gave black Latin Americans, Williams prefigured the flawed claim to absence of racism that--for many light-skinned Latin Americans, as well as Williams's beatnik heirs--would render their arguments inadequate. FROM THE RIO GRANDE TO HOLLYWOOD I am not an American But I understands English. I learned it with my brother Forwards and backward And any American I make trcmble at my feet --"JOAQUÍN MURIETA," anonymous, CALIFORNIA MEXICAN "CORRIDO" (F01.KLORIC BALLAD) C. 1850  
 
In 2001, independent filmmaker Jim Mendiola made a short film called Come and Take It Day, which re-tells the story of the famous Robin Hood-style bandit Gregorio Cortez. Ironically, one of the contemporary characters in the film who lionizes Cortez finds that he is a distant relative of the Mexican American who turned the bandito in to the Texas Rangers--ambiguity and sometimes betrayal of the mother culture is one of the sticky problems of being Spanglish. The role of social banditry in the early "Americanized" Southwest was an important seedling for Spanglish culture. Men like Cortez, who killed a lawman in the early 19...

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