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Long live the salad bowl! José Vasconcelos, Hugo Chavez and barbershops

20 December 2009

Randal C. Archibold in the 11 December  New York Times:

LOS ANGELES — A new, comprehensive survey of young Latinos paints a mixed picture of their footing in the United States. They express overall satisfaction with their lives, despite high levels of poverty and teenage pregnancy, while carving an identity based more on their parents’ home country rather than labels like “American” or even “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

…  the findings suggest, as the report states, “The melting pot is dead. Long live the salad bowl,” when it comes to how young Latinos and others perceive their place in America.

When asked how they first described themselves, 52 percent said their preference was for their family’s country of origin — Dominican, Mexican, Cuban, etc. — over American, which 24 percent favored. Even fewer, 20 percent, responded Hispanic or Latino.

The kids are alright… at least “Hispanic” or “Latino” has always seemed an inadequate term to me, too.  How much a tenth-generation Tejano, or a twentieth generation New Mexico “Spaniard” has in common with someone like Sonya Sotomayor (a New Yorker of Puerto Rican parentage) or Nuyorkino Dominicans, or Cholos from Califas,  or recent Zacatecan immigrant in Saint Louis or the middle-class Cuban-Americans  in Miami has never been completely clear to me.

Not that there aren’t commonalities — and not that most “hispanics” (a term more likely to be met with a shrug of incomprehension anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world outside in the United States, where “hispanic” has to do with large parts of the Iberian Peninsula, and a few adjacent islands… and nowhere else)… don’t to some degree have common concerns, much all Catholics in the United States —  whether descendants of the first families of Maryland, Louisiana Creoles,  or Irish, Czech and Italian immigrants (and their second generation children) faced the same common challenges in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The immigrant history of the United States isn’t all that different for any community — assimilation into the mainstream.  No one today would think of Tom Tancredo or Caroline Kennedy as swimming in the same  demographic pool — except maybe as white folks.  Ms. Kennedy might claim to be “Irish” and Tancredo (to the shame of good Sicilians and Neapolitans and Milanese and…) think of himself as “Italian” (if he thinks at all), but beyond that, their differences are based on things outside their ancestor’s commonalities.  I’m not sure Tancredo is even Catholic, which isn’t at all surprising, given that ethnic markers (like religion) tend to disappear over a few generations.  A lot of Tejanos are Methodists or Episcopalians, for example.

May the best man win

“Latin America” itself is a nebulous concept.  The term was invented by Napoleon III to justify French intervention in Mexico.  Where his uncle tried to claim he was spreading liberté, égalité, fraternité when invading his neighbors, Napoleon III was just looking for some higher cause when he invaded Veracruz. The French are Catholics and heirs to the Romans. Mexico was mostly Catholic, and were heirs to the Spanish (more or less) and, thus, more or less heirs to the Romans. Ergo… France had the right to “save” Mexico from itself… and incidentally control the markets of Catholic, Roman-heritage American nations. Or so, Napoleon’s spin-meisters claimed.

It didn’t fly, but the concept of “Latin America” has remained … and is somewhat useful, when speaking of the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking and culturally influenced nations of the Americas (as opposed to Roman Catholic and Romance Language speaking Haiti, or Quebec, which some “politically correct” folks also say are “Latin American).   This may be a Mexican website, but I have no problem with discussing events in Peru, or Brazil or Honduras — nations with more in common with Mexico normally than France or the United States.

Actually, the proper term may be “Bolivarian” … as in Simon, but given an extreme rightist spin in the 20th century by Josè Vasconcelos (who divided “Latin Americans” into Monroe-arians — those who were willing to take the United States, with its mercantilist, capitalist and — according to Vasconcelos — soulless values as a positive model or at least acquiesce to U.S. hegemony; and Bolivarians, defined by Vasconcelos as a larger version of New Spain — Eine Reich, Eine Volk, Eine Culto.

Of course, in the 21st century, Bolivarianism has a new meaning — associated with Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela — which defines itself as both anti-imperialist (especially against the United States, thereby accepting Vasconcelos’ definition of Bolivarian as “anti.Monroe-ist”) and pan-national, but quite different from Vasconcelos in rejecting domination by a single culture throughout the region.  A common language — and (for the modern Bolivarians) — more or less a common ideology (loosely defined as participatory democratic socialism), but in no way denying the national identity of different groups.

“Hispanic” does lump together very different peoples, and the kids are quite right to reject it.  As are the barbers of West Harlem, as Laura Martinez noticed (Mí blog es tu blog):

Among other readings right now, I’m delving into a book on the political theories of José Vasconcelos.  The guy was a loon, in a lot of ways (he lumped Benito Juarez, Jews, Rotarians and the PRI with the “Monroe-ists” and included Emperor Maximiliano with the Bolivarians… mostly on Mad Max’s attempts to restore the secular power of the Catholic Church) and — to no one’s real surprise — became a full-fledged fascist towards the end of his life.

Bolivarians, old and new and improved

Old and "new and improved" Bolivarianism

I’ve written before on Vasconcelos‘ contributions as an educational reformer.  While  I found it odd that a guy who spoke of “la raza cosmica” (incorporating what was then seen as the three “races” of the Americas… the Europeans, the Africans and the Native Americans) became an apologist for, and supporter of, the Master Race, it was probably inevitable, given Vasconcelos’ elitist belief that HIS particular mestijage (those conforming to the older Spanish ruling class sensibilities) were the natural masters of  “la raza.”  And, ironically, the source of all Monroe-ists — the United States government — has largely endorsed Vasconcelos’ concept, in creating an artificial category like “Hispanic” to cover a plethora of peoples with the assumption that there is a “master culture” uniting them.

Nezua, “The Unapologetic Mexican” (and note, that even though he’s a “native born” United-statesian, he is not an “unbowed Hispanic” or “unrepentent Latino”) talks of the “White Lens” … the tendency of the “white” majority in the United States to make assumptions about race and class and culture based on their own warped perspective.  Anyone who lives in Mexico or other “Latin American” nations is used to the “brown gringo” (there’s a nasty word for them in Mexico… “pocho” … bleached out) who visits this part of the planet, and looks at us though the “Monroe-ist lens”.  They may speak the same language, and go to the same churches, but their history and their sense of history is that of the imperial power to the north.  What is right to them is what is right to the country they come from.  Assimilated?  Perhaps… what is hopeful — both in the rejection of “hispanic” (and, I suppose in support for two barbers in one shop in West Harlem) — is that younger visitors, and younger emigrants from the North have retained a sense of nationalist identity,  seeing this part of the world though a Bolivarian lens.  Looking out at the world from under the different — Bolivarian — haircuts.

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