Hispanic Nation

Culture, Politics, and the Constructing of Identity
Geoffrey Fox

Chapter One
Imagining a Nation

WHEN MY SON ALEX first came to the United States from Puerto Rico at the age of seven, he brought a book which would come to have special importance to him. Pedrito Qué-Soy-Yo (Peter What-Am-l) was about a little animal who was looking for his own kind. He asked the ducks if he was one of them, but the ducks said, "No, you're too furry." He asked the beavers, but they said, "No, beavers don't have bills like yours, or webbed feet," and so on. Pedrito, dejected and alone, just kept waddling on.

In Evanston, Illinois, in the 1960s, nobody else we knew had a kitchen smelling of culantro and comino, nobody else gestured as vigorously as we did or stood as close to others when they talked, embraced friends as we did when they met, or spoke Spanish- habits that were spontaneous to my Puerto Rican wife and that I, although originally a midwesterner, had also picked up in Latin America. Most puzzling of all to Alex, the Evanstonians he met insisted on dividing all people into "blacks" and "whites," and Alex, with his large, dark eyes and long black lashes, thick, wavy black hair, and tawny skin, was both and therefore neither.

Looking for his kind, at first Alex tried to be "black," which was a new idea to him. He had known dark-skinned people in Puerto Rico whose lighter-skinned relatives would sometimes call them negro (black) as a term of affection, but Alex had never before seen blacks treated as a distinct cultural and status group, with their own behavior rules. Alex soon discovered that playing with "black" kids (many of them no darker than he) and bringing them home and visiting their-homes was to shun and be shunned by most of the white kids—who were usually no lighter than his own baby brother. Playing with white kids meant shunning the darker ones. Alex had been thrown into a society whose rules he could not obey, and this made him confused, angry, and for a while, withdrawn.

Color wasn't the only conundrum. He was also being treated as a foreigner, even though Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. The school principal demanded U.S. Health Department certification before admitting him, and his homeroom teacher asked him how close Puerto Rico was to Madagascar (not very).

Pedrito in the story finally found his kind. He was, he discovered, an ornitorrinco (platypus), and there were lots of others like him. And a few years later, when we moved to Chicago, with its large Puerto Rican and Mexican communities, Alex discovered that he could be "Latino."

The "knowledge of fundamental belonging—that is, to be French, American, Mexican, English, is . . . one of the deepest needs of persons," wrote Virgil Elizondo, a Mexican-American priest and liberation theologian. "When this need is met, it is not even thought about as a need; but when it is missing, it is so confusing and painful that we find it difficult to even conceptualize it or speak about it."'

Elizondo was writing about what he called "the 'unfinished' identity" of the mestizo, which in Mexico is a person of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry. But his observation on the need for a resolution of the conflict holds for all people who are between any two cultures. Among them are some 25 million people in the United States who trace their origins to somewhere in the Spanish-speaking world.

In a similar vein, James Baldwin wrote, "I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else."2 But, as Baldwin well knew, the quest for identity is not just a matter of finding the key to one's own personal gate. Like Pedrito the platypus, we hope to find others of our kind once we get that gate opened. Even more than platypuses, we humans need a community to confirm, and help shape, our identity. Unlike platypuses, however, we can take part in defining who our kind are, that is, which community we want to associate with, because human identity is not determined solely, or even mainly, by inherited characteristics.

This is true even for African Americans, the people whose self-definition is the most restricted by conventional attitudes in this country toward skin color, hair texture, and other "African" inherited traits. Ghanaian scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued that identity for African Americans is not really centered on such physical traits. More important is "something that goes with" African descent, at least as it is understood in America: "the experience of a life as a member of a group of people who experience themselves as—and are held by others to be—a community in virtue of their mutual recognition—and their recognition by others—as people of a common descent."3 In other words, physical characteristics are useful signs of membership, but what matters most is the sense of community. This is why someone who is physically "black" may not be accepted as "really black" if he or she does not share the values, speech patterns, and other habits of this supposed community.

Descent has even less to do with the identity of the people we call, and who sometimes call themselves, Hispanics or Latinos. This is mainly because they don't have a common biological descent. "Hispanics," the Census Bureau reminds us whenever it uses the term, "can be of any race." They can also be of any religion and any citizenship status, from undocumented to U.S. citizen by birth, and may have any of over twenty distinct national histories. They do not even all share the same first language. The effective definition of Hispanic in contemporary American ethnospeak is any person who either speaks Spanish as a first language or had some ancestor who did, even if this person speaks only English. Others whose ancestors may never have really mastered Spanish but who had Spanish surnames imposed on them by their conquerors—Mayans, Quechuas, Filipinos, and so on—are often given, and sometimes willingly assume, the label "Hispanic. "

These diverse people are a community only to the extent and only in the ways that they imagine themselves to be. And the only sort of community they can imagine themselves to be is that vague sort we call a "people" or a "nation.'

Identity, Community, and Nation

In a provocative little book based mainly on his experiences in Indonesia, political anthropologist Benedict Anderson defines "nation" as "an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."4 It is imagined, he explains, as bound by language and traditions and endowed with certain political rights. The members do not all know one another personally and may, in fact, have very little in common beyond the language and a few of their traditions, and even these traditions may be recent inventions.5 Yet they feel affiliated to one another and to some larger collective entity and may even, as with the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia, go to war against their real geographic neighbors to promote their imaginary, national fellowship.

This way of imagining one's relationship to unknown others, Anderson argues, was virtually unknown before the seventeenth century. Earlier imagined communities had been based on a shared faith, such as the fellowship of Christians, or a myth of common ancestry, but not on language. Most communities were not imagined so much as experienced; that is, one's community was simply made up of people one saw and dealt with almost every day. According to Anderson, the concept of a community of all those who spoke the same language came as a result of "an explosive. . . interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human diversity."6

Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the economies of European societies grew rapidly (agricultural revolution, population growth, improvements in navigation and banking practices); this growth led to incursions into Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well as large-scale internal migration, colonization, and the forced transport of slaves. Thus, for millions of people the home village ceased to be the relevant community, and they had to look for other bases for alliances and solidarity. Meanwhile, the new technology of the printing press was establishing a common lore among those who read the same language, proffering a new possible basis for community. Finally, there was the "fatality of human diversity," which meant that those who did not read the same language were excluded from the imagined community.

Today a similarly explosive interaction is igniting nationalist movements around the world, and again the detonators include rapid economic changes and new communications technology. These same factors, which in places as dissimilar as Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Chiapas are sparking bloody nationalistic revolts, in the United States are contributing to the (so far) more peaceable creation of the new national identity of Hispanics.

More specifically, deindustrialization, unemployment, and a drop in real per capita incomes in Latin America over the past twenty to twenty-five years, caused by the precipitous decline in the values of traditional exports and other shifts in the global economy, plus the attendant political and civil strife in the region, have driven recent migration to the United States. Once here, people from more than twenty Spanish-speaking countries and hundreds of regions that previously had little contact end up crowded into the same neighborhoods and begin creating communities based on their shared language and shared new experiences in this country. These personal contacts enhance the importance of Spanish as a group identifier and bond across national differences, as Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican mothers band together for better day care in the Bronx or Salvadoran and Mexican and Peruvian youth form a soccer league in New Jersey or California. Such contacts predispose people to a feeling of kinship with other Spanish speakers they have never seen: an imagined community.

Imagining the new community is made easier by the new communications technologies, including television and the post-television media, such as the Internet and on-line computer services. Television has already proved more powerful than was the printing press for diffusing the images of an imagined community. All viewers of nationally broadcast Spanish-language television become parts of a united audience, learning of the same events and hearing their language spoken in relatively homogeneous accents, not easily identifiable as Puerto Rican or Mexican or Argentine or Cuban, but simply as Hispanic. And on television the imagined community also has faces, making it more like one's real, day-to-day community.

One of the most popular Spanish-language dictionaries, Pequeño Larousse llustrado, defines "nation" as a "natural society of men among whom the unity of territory, origin, history, language, and culture inclines toward a community of life and creates the consciousness of a common destiny."7

Like nationalists everywhere, the promoters of the imagined community of Hispanics—let's call them pan-Hispanicists—speak as though this community were a "natural society," as though it existed previous to and independent of any conscious intervention by them. They may be partly right. Spanish speakers and their descendants from places as widely separated as Chile and Mexico often feel a simpatía, a recognition of themselves in the other, that they do not have with non-Hispanics. But for this vague mutual recognition to translate into community rather than warfare, as with those most intimate enemies the Serbs and Bosnians, or into competition, as between Dominican and Puerto Rican grocery-store owners in parts of New York, common institutions and a shared ideology have to be created.

The promoters of Hispanic unity need a history which emphasizes the common events and "forgets" the dissimilar or conflictive ones. "The essence of a nation," French philosopher Ernest Renan observed, "is that all the individuals have much in common, and also that they have forgotten many things."8 This is why Hispanics in the U.S. put such stress—far more than do people in Latin America—on the mythical date of origin: El Día de la Raza, (The Day of the Race), October 12, 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed in the Antilles and, so the story goes, began the mixing of Europeans, indigenous Americans, and Africans to create a new, hybrid people. Pan-Hispanicists may also refer to the common political and cultural history of more than three hundred years of Spanish colonialism. What you will not hear much about from them are the slaughters of indigenous peoples as part of the conquest or the later wars between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, between Paraguay and Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, between Paraguay and Bolivia, or among the five Central American republics, most recently Honduras and El Salvador, in 1969. The imagined community, unlike its real components, is unitary and harmonious.

"Unity of language," the next element in the Larousse definition of a nation, is the most important constituent of the Hispanic nation. The language is a mark of membership. It is also a source of pride, because it connects U.S. Hispanics—even those who barely speak and read it—to a prestigious literary tradition that runs from Cervantes through the Nobel Prize winners Gabriela Mistral, Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Camilo José Cela. And it is, of course, a practical tool for building institutions, being a required skill in many U.S.-based organizations that in one way or another serve a large and growing Spanish-speaking clientele, from community-based service organizations to ad agencies to the whole Spanish-language media industry. Today Americans of Spanish-speaking ancestry who do not speak the language often try to learn it, and most want their children to learn it, too. The growth of Spanish-language television makes this much easier, since they can learn by watching soap operas and other entertainment. It also tends to standardize the emerging North American dialect of Spanish and increases its usefulness.

U.S. Hispanics are not—most of them, anyway—laying claim to a united territory. It may therefore be objected that Hispanics cannot become a "nation" because they have neither a flag nor a land to fly it over. And if they did, where would it be? A secessionist chunk of the American Southwest? East Harlem? Miami?

But today, thanks mostly to television, this lack of territorial specificity is no obstacle to a sense of nationhood. As one of the most insightful media analysts has observed, "The relationship between group identity and group territory is tied to the traditional relationship between place and information access.... By severing the traditional link between physical location and social situation,...electronic media may begin to blur previously distinct group identities by allowing people to 'escape' informationally from place-defined groups...."9

By the same token, the media also permit people to "enter" a group informationally, facilitating the formation of new group identities. Today television and the newer communications technologies create a virtual Hispanic-land which is as seductive and convincing as the fabled Cipangu on the maps of Columbus. Viewers of Spanish-language television news and entertainment see one continuous Hispanic territory that stretches across the United States and all the way to Spain and the nineteen Spanish-speaking countries of Ibero-America. This vast imagined homeland may well be sufficient to anchor the imagined community.

As Guillermo Gómez-Peña's hybrid multiculti character El Johnny tries to explain to the ethnopolice in the performance poem "Califas,"

it's confusing
we know
our nation extends
from the tip of Patagonia
to the peak of your tortured imagination.10

* * * *

Copyright © 1996 by Geoffrey Fox.

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