Archive for September, 2015

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Deep Roots

September 15, 2015

 

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“So, your name is Ruiz. That’s funny, you don’t look Spanish.”

“I’m not. People who are Spanish are from Spain.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from here, but my parents were from Colombia.”

“So you’re Spanish then…”

Being Hispanic in the United States means many things. It means being part of a vibrant culture with a rich heritage of history, art, literature, and music. It means enjoying cuisines that are as varied as they are flavorful. It means family and the recognition of a collective inheritance preserved in names and stories and blood. Oh, yes, and it means a linguistic background of Spanish.

But being Hispanic also means other things. It means frequent confusion over national identity. And it often means to be plunged, rightly or wrongly, into the controversy over immigration.

Today is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, something which many people are barely aware exists. I believe it is quite necessary in order to increase awareness of the place this heritage occupies in our nation’s lifeblood.

When one examines the multi-cultural entity that is America, its Hispanic roots run deep. Most of the earliest arrivals to this country were Spanish. Over one third of the land — all of the southwest, most of the west, and Florida — were under Spanish control in the early period of colonization, and that influence still remains in the culture of those regions to this day.

But beyond that, the modern history of this nation is being impacted by its citizens of Hispanic heritage, currently accounting for seventeen percent of the population, making it the largest minority in the country. It is projected that by 2060 that number will rise to thirty-one percent. They are the product of the original Spanish exploration and colonization, people from Mexico and the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean as well as a new wave from Spain itself. Each has its own individual cultural characteristics with language as its common denominator. A better understanding of who these people really are is needed to offset the all-too-often negative images pervasive in the broader society.

It is certainly not a new phenomenon that a cultural group be branded by the stereotype of the lowest strata of its kind. Italian-Americans have been broadly painted as underworld mobsters in spite of the vast majority who are honest and hard-working. Irish-Americans bore the stigma of being drunken brawlers and Polish-Americans the dim lightbulbs, neither of which applies to most of those populations.

And so it is with Hispanic-Americans. The majority of Mexican-Americans are not cholos in lowriders. Not all Central Americans are gun-toting gang members nor are most South Americans drug-smuggling cartel members. And, contrary to common belief, most are not illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, the presence of these stereotypes in popular media belies this truth. I suppose a TV series about a Mexican-American gardener or a movie about an industrious Peruvian roofer or a news story examining the success of a store clerk of Dominican descent would not be as enticing to the viewing public, and that only serves to underscore the need for some accurate portrayals of this population.

We still labor over this question of exactly who is an American, and many continue to harbor the Archie Bunkerish idea that there are somehow “real” Americans that are different from these other folks who also populate our land. Somehow the concept that every person here other than the Native American Indians is in essence of immigrant stock seems to escape these “real” Americans.

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And just what is it that makes us American? Our skin color? The country from which our predecessors came? The food we eat or the religion we follow or the music we listen to? The amount of time that has passed since our familial forebears first arrived? Far too often such faulty criteria are used, and the result can only serve to perpetuate the gulf between us.

I would like those who are detractors to come visit my adult ESL classes some time to meet the people I teach. They are hard-working and right living, ordinary folks who happen to be Hispanic. They are good neighbors, attentive parents, and contributing members of society. Some of them toil all night doing the kind of jobs “real Americans” won’t take. After arriving home in the morning with just enough time to wash up and change clothes, they come to class to improve their English, trying to better themselves and in turn ensure their children a better future in their new country, a situation that has been a common thread throughout the long history of this nation.

I have come to know many of their children over the years, and they are as American as any of the other kids in their neighborhoods and classes. They speak English and love Disney World and join gymnastics or basketball or Student Council just like your kids did. And, as ought to be the case with every American, they should be able to be proud of their heritage just as you are of yours, for that is the true American way.

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