THE LATINO DIASPORA AND HERMANDAD
At the moment the U.S. Census Bureau calculates there are about 60 million American Hispanics—not Hispanic Americans—in the United States, all of whom are American citizens. This is not counting undocumented Hispanics—not all of whom are from Mexico. Hispanic Americans are those populations of Hispanic America—some 541 million who live in 20 Spanish-speaking countries, not counting the 60 million American Hispanics who live in the United States. That puts the figure of Hispanics in the Americas at about 600 million (these figures are not absolute).
Of the 60 million American Hispanics in the U.S. 40 million [emphasis mine] are Mexican Americans—that is, two-thirds; 9 million are Puerto Ricans more than half of whom live on the continental U.S.; 3 million are Cuban refugees cum Americans by fiat known as dry foot. The remaining 8 million Hispanics are from 20 Hispanic countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. With the exception of Dominicans and Salvadorans the population numbers of the other American Hispanic groups are less than a million. In the aggregate, however the total number of the remaining American Hispanics—8 million—represents a significant bloc of Hispanics. But as a bloc they are not cohesive. Still, they cannot be discounted.
Of the American Hispanics in the United States, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans share a common origin—both of their histories are rooted in Spanish colonialism; both share histories of mestizaje as blended people of indigenous and Spanish roots. The most notable difference in these roots, though not in the extreme, is the proportionate presence of African American roots in Puerto Rico owing to the African slave trade of the Spanish government until 1898. This is not to say there was no African presence in Mexico. Some sources consider the Olmecs as African in origin because of the African features of the 15 colossal stone heads of basalt boulders they left buried at San Lorenzo and La Venta near Tabasco and Vera Cruz (1200-400 BCE), each weighing about 8 tons.
In the Hispanic Southwest of the United States the slave trade did not flourish after1828 when abolished by Mexico—with the exception of Texas which was a slave state until the Civil War. As an American colony slavery was prohibited in Puerto Rico after 1898. In Puerto Rico mestizaje produced Afro-Hispanics and Indo-Hispanics as well as Afro-Indo Hispanics. In the Hispanic Southwest of the United States the largest group of its populations was Indo-Hispanics. In both territories—the Mexican Cession and Puerto Rico—there remained vestiges of Spanish families not affected by mestizaje. These vestiges have created deep divisions within the groups. In New Mexico, for example, northern New Mexicans assert their Spanish roots and claim Spanish descendance. In Southern New Mexico Hispanics assert their Mexicanness—many identify themselves as Chicanos.
Diasporically Puerto Ricans are stratified by class; this is true of Mexican Americans as well. In Puerto Rico there is a diaspora in situ (on site), that is, they are not all physically dispersed—but because of their political condition as an American colony they think of themselves disconnected from their roots—in other words, they are not masters of their own ship. The three options open to Puerto Ricans pose a dilemma for them. While their Commonwealth status as an American colony has been ruinous, Puerto Ricans have not unanimously chosen either statehood or nation status. In the meantime, significant numbers of Puerto Ricans have left the island for the continental United States where more than half of them now reside. For these Puerto Ricans the diaspora is real, emotional as exemplified by the sad songs they sing in remembering their homeland—“adios, adios, Puerto Rico Querido” (from En mi Viejo San Juan de Noel Estrada, 1942).
This phenomenon emerges in the Mexican American diaspora in situ as well and the sad songs they sing of national loss—“Que lejos estoy del suelo / Donde nací / Inmensa nostalgia / Invade mi pensamiento” / how far I am/ from where I was born / immense nostalgia / invades my memory (from, Canción Mixteca de Miguel Aceves Mejía, 1912). The more physical diaspora is felt by Mexicans who, like Puerto Ricans, have left their homeland for the United States and have become amalgamated with their in situ kin. That situation of homelessness is exacerbated by the current situation of deportation that turns the “Mexican” diaspora on its head with undocumented Mexicans mourning their forced egress from a space they have come to call home. Unlike the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the Mexican exodus from the United States does not see a promised land in its future nor a Moses to lead them there.
Added to the emotion of deportation is the “loss” of the children left behind as U.S. citizens, children who have come to identify with the history of the Mexican Cession and the present day descendants of that Conquest Generation though they themselves have not lived through the history of rampant discrimination as the progeny population of “Mexicans” who endured race hatred and discrimination from 1848 to 1960 until the gains of the civil rights movement—known as the Chicano Movement—in which they participated.
Hence, Mexican Americans in their full bloom and Nuyoricans (continental Puerto Ricans) in their full bloom share a common experience. While they are not one historical people, they are one aggrieved population, victims of American race hatred because of their Hispanic origins—targets of La Leyenda Negra (The Black Legend). In this sense, all U.S. Hispanics are embraced in common cause as targets of La Leyenda Negra—especially American Hispanics of darker hues. In common cause all American Hispanics represent a formidable bloc of prospective voters—by 2018, there will be 65 million American Hispanics in the American population. Moreover, Chicano pundits point out, most Mexicans migrating to the United States are racially more Indian than Spanish. On their Indian side they are, thus, autochthonous people, here long before the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria (and the Mayflower). They are not immigrants. They are of the Americas (con raices de America/American roots), sharing a common mitochondrial bond with the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada.
By and large, American history tends to obscure or occult the fact that Hispanics have played an important role in the evolution of the United States, starting with the Spanish Jews of New Amsterdam absorbed by the English crown in 1674 and renamed New York. In 1803, acquisition of the Louisiana Territory brought into the American fold the Spanish settlers of the Louisiana Territory, particularly those in New Orleans. In 1819, the United States acquired Florida from Spain with its sizeable population of Spaniards.
These acquisitions don’t take into account the numbers of Spaniards who immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean between the years of the founding of England’s American colonies and 1819. Nor do they take into account the significant role Spain played in helping the English colonies succeed in gaining their independence. One of the stellar Spanish figures was Francisco de Miranda who later became President of Venezuela. Another Spanish stellar figure of the time was Bernardo de Galvez for whom Galveston, Texas, is named.
Perhaps the most significant acquisition of Lands with Hispanics was the territory wrested from Mexico as a consequence of the U.S.—Mexico War of 1846-1848, land that now comprises the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Importantly, Hispanics are not a homogeneous group which accounts for the dichotomy of identity as Hispanic or Latino. Generally, either term works, but each term has a specific reference to identity that quickly reveals the indeterminate nature of the terms Hispanic and Latino.
What’s surprising about diasporas is not only their nature but their legacies where ever in the world they have survived despite the animosities they have engendered. In the United States the Irish diaspora, the German diaspora, the Italian diaspora et al have added material value to the nation as have the Chinese, Japanese, and Philippine diasporas. What diasporas in the United States signify is the strength they engender in the national polity. The diasporic heroes of these groups create a national blend of heroics that magnify the principles of the nation. However different we may all be, those differences identify us as a nation. And in its evolution, the American language—not the English language—is the lasso of identity. H. L. Mencken had it right (see The American Language, Knopf, 1936).
As a consequence of diasporas the U.S. has many mother countries—how fortunate we are to be so mothered. Some years ago I made this assertion to an Elder Hostel group and was rebuked loudly by one of the members who exclaimed that there was only one mother country and that was England. Surprisingly the group silenced the dissenter with jeers that indeed the U.S. has many mother countries. This is not a put-down of England but recognition of the multicultural character of the United States. Readily visible is the diasporic character of the American cuisine, American sports, American attire, American travel, American entertainment, etcetra. We are as Jesse Jackson has so aptly described us—a rainbow people—a mosaic of colors. Think how impoverished we would be si el arco iris perdera su belleza / if the rainbow lost its beauty.
This growing population represents the strength of America’s future. American Hispanics are saving America, if you will—representing the human capital of America’s destiny and validating the immortal words of welcome enshrined in the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . .” The face of the United States is not a “white” face; strictly speaking, it never was. It’s a mélange of faces from all over the world. More and more, however, the face of the United States is becoming an Hispanic face. While immigration is an important consideration in the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population, that growth is powered principally by “fertility” and “motility” than by immigration. In the relatively near future, that growth will be amortized as the “human capital” that will help to forge the future of the United States despite its current meanderings with race-based politics and hate mongering.
It’s this growing hermandad / brotherhood that leads to Hispanic solidarity. We have more in common than what separates us despite the impression of immutable differences. At the moment an essential difference, though not aggravated, is the question of immigration—Puerto Ricans are not crossing a border in search of a better life. Puerto Rico is after all American territory. For Puerto Ricans going from the island to any part of the United States is like crossing from Texas into New Mexico or crossing from New York to New Jersey—they don’t need passports nor should they need to produce documents of identity.
In the frontier of time between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Americans are forced to confront the recurrent immigration issue, not only from the perspective of geopolitical divisions between nations-states but also from a more personal understanding of psycho-cultural dynamics.
The panoply of Hispanics identity covers a wide spectrum of the demographic terrain. Here lies the heart of why Hispanics, in the main, should be at the table of the immigration issue. At the moment, they don’t see themselves as equal partners in the immigration debate. By and large, U. S. Hispanics are aware that the majority of non-Hispanic Americans view them as recent immigrants to the U. S., failing to take into account their trajectory in the history of the United States and how their largest numbers (Mexican Americans) came to be Americans. U. S. Hispanics feel put upon that white Americans want to cloak them with the rainments of a white ethos instead of seeing them as unique individuals, contributing that uniqueness to the multicultural tapestry that is the United States. It’s this “myth of America” that distresses most U. S. Hispanics. And it’s the myths of America, according to many U. S. Hispanics, that impede genuine multicultural progress for the country. U. S. Hispanics are not arguing against control of U. S. borders but how that control is carried out and their inclusion in the deliberations.
At the moment, a fair number of U. S. Hispanics with roots in Mexico see control of the U. S. border with Mexico as predicated on the demonization of Mexicans and their U. S. kin—Mexican Americans. Nowhere is this more evident for U. S. Hispanics than the current immigration issue in Arizona. While there are those who see illegal immigration run amok, only 1 percent of people crossing the border on a regular basis do so illegally. Moreover, every highly developed country is faced with significant flows of legal and undocumented immigrants. None has developed adequate policies for coping with this mass of humanity that impacts both the sending and receiving nations but is most clearly evident in border areas.
In recent public comments Samuel Wurzbacher—known to most as “Joe the Plumber”—made an appearance at a fundraiser for a Republican Arizona State Senator candidate and told the audience that the way to solve the country’s immigration problem is to place troops along the border and “start shooting.” This is not the kind of rhetoric Hispanics want to hear. This kind of “rhetoric of hate” only fans lynch law wherever it’s uttered. How would other ethnic groups react to this kind of rhetoric about their group? Indeed, the United States needs a comprehensive immigration law that works on behalf of the American people but not at the expense of demonizing those who cross into the United States without appropriate documents, believing that in the United States they can improve their lives. My father believed this mantra which is why I have a PhD in British Renaissance Studies and Mexican American Literature.
What is most surprising, however, is that kooks like “Joe, the Plumber” can get away with spewing a rhetoric of hate with impunity. Surely this is not the dawn of Hitler’s Brown Shirts in the United States. Has the country moved so far to the right that this augurs the rise of American fascism? Elsewhere I wrote:
“What is most distressing in this immigration brouhaha is the dark force of anarchy in American democracy (cloaked as American exceptionalism or providentialism as Frederick Jackson Turner called it), something Alexis de Tocqueville missed in his whirlwind tour of the country in 1831-32, but noted almost 50 years earlier by the Spanish soldier Francisco de Miranda (The New Democracy in America)—precursor to Latin American independence—when he visited the United States (1783-1784), meeting (unlike de Tocqueville) George Washington, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and Thomas Jefferson.”
“Myth America: Velleities and Realities of the American Ethos,” Journal of Big Bend Studies, January 1994.
Where there is considerable congruity between Mexican American and Puerto Rican activities is in the area of cultural production—especially literature. Both shared in the development of Spanish literature of the Americas, though the literary wellsprings of the countries differed owing principally to the indigenous landscape of the countries and the Spanish region of origin of its administrators.
Early writings from Puerto Rico dealt with the flora, fauna, and Taino natives of the island, followed by personal letters and accounts of explorations and the inauguration of Spanish colonial life. Spaniards were meticulous in their observations of indigenous life and activities however skewed their perspectives and observations. Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico’s first governor, was prodigious as a lettrist and diarist. “Spanish cronists like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Fray Tomás de la Torre, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, and others are among the most notable writings about the island” (http://www.topuertorico.org/culture/litera.shtml).
The most notable literary figures of the time in Puerto Rico were “the poet Francisco de Ayerra y Santa María, a noted Latin scholar, and Alonso Ramírez, a carpenter’s son who authored a series of high adventures. After living for a time in Mexico, the Spanish author Bernardo de Balbuena arrived to Puerto Rico in 1620 with the largest known library in the West Indies (Ibid).” Fray Inigo Abad y Lasierra authored the first history of Puerto Rico in 1788. Titled The Geographic, Civil, and Political History of the Island of Saint John the Baptist of Puerto Rico (Ibid).
In 1849, Manuel Alonso Pacheco, publishes the cornerstone of Puerto Rican literature, El Gibaro, a book part prose and part poetry. A trio of outstanding lyrical and romantic poets emerged from this period: Lola Rodríguez de Tío (1843-1924), José Gautier Benitez (1851-1880), considered the most complete romantic poet of Puerto Rican literature, and “El Caribe“, the nickname of plume of José Gualberto Padilla (1829-96). Other distinguished writers of that era included Salvador Brau (1842-1912), Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903), and Alejandro Tapía y Rivera (1826-1882), the first author to achieve literary prominence (Ibid).
After the invasion and colonization of Puerto Rico by the United States in 1898, most Puerto Rican literature was written in Spanish until the Boricua Movement of the mainland in the 60s. The first site of the Boricua Movement on the mainland was Haarlem which became known as Spanish Haarlem. The first Boricua writer to achieve critical acclaim on the mainland was Piri Thomas with his autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets (1967), followed by the works of Nicholasa Mohr. “In 1973, she became the first Hispanic woman in the modern times to have her literary works published by the major commercial publishing houses, and she has developed the longest career as a creative writer for these publishing houses than any other Hispanic female writer” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholasa Mohr). In 1973, her book Nilda, which traces the life of a teenage Puerto Rican girl who confronts prejudices during the World War II era in New York, was awarded the Jane Addams Children Book Award. In 1975, her second book El Bronx Remembered was awarded the New Times Outstanding Book Award, thus becoming the first female Hispanic to receive such an honor. From 1988 through 1991, she taught at Queens College, City University of New York. From 1994 through 1995, she was Writer-in-Residence at Richmond College, the American University in London (Ibid).
“One author who writes about life both on the mainland and the island is Judith Ortiz Cofer. She was born in Puerto Rico but moved to the mainland and other places because her father was in the military. Her work (The Latin Deli) focuses on the effect on Puerto Rican Americans of living in a world split between the island culture of their homeland and the teeming tenement life of the United States” (http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/1997/1/97.01.01.x.html).
Perhaps the most influential Nuyorican poet is Miguel Algarin, founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Along with Nicolas Kanellos, Director of Recovering the Hispanic Literary Heritage of the United States at the University of Houston, I spent some time with Miguel Algarin in the early 80s, learning about Puerto Rican literature.
For my class on Chicano Literature I divide the syllabus between Roots and Traditions, each part with 3 stages:
I. AUTOCHTHONOUS MEXICAN ROOTS / SPANISH PENINSULAR ROOTS (0000-1521)
The works of this period are antecedently part of the literary roots of Mexican Americans. The book of Chilam Balam and the Popul Vuh, works of the Americas before Colon and Cortez, are as important to Mexican Americans as are, for example, El Cid or Don Quixote. This period reveals how these two literary roots figured in the development of Mexican literature and how, in turn, they have influenced Mexican American literature
II. SPANISH COLONIAL ROOTS (1521-1821)
This period includes those works of the Spanish Colonial presence in Mexico and what is now the Hispanic Southwest of the United States, works of the period whose focus deals not with Mexico but with some part of what is now the United States, comparable to the works of the British Colonial period (1607-1776) which are now considered American literature.
III. MEXICAN NATIONAL ROOTS (1821-1848)
Continuation of the previous period except that the geography of the above is now controlled by the Republic of Mexico. The focus here is on literary production in what is now the American Southwest before 1848, the northern Mexican borderlands.
IV. EARLY MEXICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE OF THE CONQUEST GENERATION (1848-1912)
Just as American literature really begins in 1776, so too Mexican American literature begins in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2) and the American acquisition of Mexican territory (now comprising the American Southwest) and the inhabitants of the severed territory. This is a period of transition for Mexicans–now Americans towards a bilingual and bicultural lifestyle reflected in their literature–the literature of the Conquest Generation. The historian Mario T. Garcia calls the Mexican Americans of this period “The Conquest Generation.
V. LATER MEXICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE OF THE AMERICANIZATION GENERATION (1912-1960)
The beginnings of this period (the Modern period of Mexican American literature) coincide roughly with the beginning of the Mexican Civil War (1910-1921) and the exodus of one-and-a-half million Mexicans to the United States. In this period, Mexican American literature, the literature of the Assimilationist Generation, is characterized more by its pastoral impulse than by its efforts to come to terms with the realities of Mexican American existence.
VI. THE CONTEMPORARY PERIOD AND THE GENERATION OF THE CHICANO RENAISSANCE (1960-Present)
Publication of Pocho (1959) marks the beginning of the Chicano period of Mexican American literature, writing characterized by a stridency drawn from the Chicano Movement (1960). The appearance of El Grito magazine in 1967 marks the beginning of the Chicano Renaissance. Quinto Sol writers Were in the vanguard of this literary movement.
With my work on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (first in the field), publication of “The Chicano Renaissance” (Social Casework, May 1971), and the literary anthology We are Chicanos (Washington Square Press) I’ve been fortunate to be an integral part of the development of Chicano literature and to be its literary historian y de ser parte de las raices de America / and to be part of the roots of America.
In spite of the history of colonization and civil rights abuses the raices de America (Latino culture) thrives and contributes to present day America often in imperceptible ways, but more often in stand-up ways that knock one’s socks off. One stand-up astounding Latino success is the Broadway play of Nuyorican Lin Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize drama Hamilton—a far cry from the 1957 West Side Story with Rita Moreno as the only Latina/o actor in the Broadway cast.
The Latino galaxy is glittering with stars, waiting unfettered in the wings (forgive the mixed metaphor) ready to take the stage. Juan Felipe Herrera carried the torch for Latino poetry as the first Chicano Poet Laureate of the United States. Other award-winning Latino/a poets include Tino Villanueva, Ricardo Sanchez, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Carmen Tafolla, Lucha Corpi.
Recently Junot Diaz (Dominican) received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Quiara Alegría Hudes (Puerto Rican), Pulitzer for drama, Sonia Nazario (Argentina) Pulitzer for non-fiction, Oscar Hijuelos (Cuban American) Pulitzer for fiction. Chicano authors honored for their works, Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, Tomas Rivera, Denise Chavez, John Rechy, Estela Portillo, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Ana Castillo, Luis Alberto Urrea, Felipe Ortego (NEA/Readers’ Digest Award for fiction, 1967).
Copyright 2017 by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University; Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, Texas State University System—Sul Ross. Photos of crowd scenes and of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo copyright by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. Cover of Down These Mean Streets used under “Fair Use.” Photo of Lin Manuel Miranda licensed under Creative Commons by Steve Jurvetson. All other photos in the public domain.