hispanic

Hija de Caguas y La Habana

In observance of Mother Language Day and because its topic makes this appropriate, the rest of this post is in my native Spanish.

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He pensado mucho de mis raíces.  Soy una criatura de combinación, hecha de muchas piezas, cosida difícilmente junta.  Soy americana, boricua, cubana, y en unos meses, canadiense.  Nací en una ciudad, de padres ciudadanos y campesinas, quienes llegaron a madurez en New Jersey después de niñeces en las islas del Mar Caribe, inmigrantes sin inglés.

Viví en New Jersey, rodeada de las culturas italiana-americana, boricua-americana, e irlandés-americana.  Viví también en Miami, en el medio de la cultura cubana-americana y la mezcla de cosas raras y únicas que es el sur de la Florida.  Vivo ahora en Canadá, en donde tengo que construir cosas familiares de partes salvadoreñas, jamaicanas, y polacas.

No sé si jamás veré los lugares de mi pasado.

Años van a pasar antes que podrá volar a New Jersey para ver la calle donde viví.  Mis padres me dijeron que la casa ya no parece como acuerdo, que las rosas ya no crecen en el patio y la mata de acebo hace años se murió.  Quizás es mejor que no lo veo.  Hay carboneros por acá, y casi nadie que quiero ver por allá.

Mi familia no quiere bregar con la idea que yo soy la persona que soy.  Cada vez en cuando me llaman, pero no ha sido similar que antes.  Ahora se oye la tristeza o el coraje en sus voces cada vez que oyen la mía, como que están hablando con una fantasma de una memoria.  Lo que oigo es literalmente nostalgia: dolor en sentir que algo se perdió y no se consigue más.  Ya no me piden a llamarlos.  Mi familia en Miami es, por su cuenta, mucho más pequeña ahora, consistiendo de la minoría de mis relaciones que no me han repudiado y amigos que han quedado cerca.  Si vuelo a Miami otra vez, tendré que solicitar amigos para albergarme, porque jamás podré sentirme seguro en la casa de mis padres.  Hay recuerdos queridos por allá, y cultura familiar, y comida que me hace llorar.  Quiero regresar, eventualmente.

Nunca he visto a Cuba ni a Puerto Rico personalmente.  Quizás algún día tendremos dinero suficiente para visitar a las islas que me dieron las culturas de mis padres, para que yo pueda ver así cerca de donde vengo.

Nunca he tenido una relación especialmente cariñosa a mis raíces culturales.  La cultura hispánica todavía da apoyo a sentimientos homofóbicas, anti-transgéneras, anti-ateas, y de varias otras formas opuestas a lo que yo vivo.  El machismo hispano es famoso, severo, asqueroso, y vergonzoso, y no quiero ningún parte en preservarlo para las generaciones futuras.  Las generaciones futuras merecen mejor que eso.  Hay mucho para criticar en nuestra historia, especialmente ahora que el poder de la Iglesia Católica sobre las sociedades hispánicas se está debilitando.  Fue posible, con mi distancia y mi expulsión de la compañía hispanohablante, que yo rechazara el resto.  Fue posible, con esa ruptura, que rechazara mi raza también.

Ni quería ni pude.  Aunque podría ser blanca en un contexto específicamente latinoamericano, no soy blanca por acá.  Traigo detrás de mi cienes y cienes de años de revolución y resistencia, yuca y maíz, sol y arena.  Detrás de me tengo los atentos finales de Hatuey y Agüeybaná de conseguir un archipiélago Taino fuera de control español.  Detrás también tengo los esclavos africanos quienes nos dieron las delicias de nuestra cocina: sancocho, tostones, mofongo.  En ser rechazada de la cocina de mis padres y prevenida a quedarme conectada a mis raíces de esa manera, tuve desaire recargada a conocer de dónde vine.

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Twelve Grapes

There’s a tradition scattered around Latin America, inherited from 19th-century Spain, about grapes on New Year’s Eve.  One eats las doce uvas de la suerte as the old year turns into the new one, assigning each grape a resolution, hope, or desire.  As with many traditions, it was invented for cynical, consumerist reasons, in this case by vintners in Alicante to sell their excess grapes.  It grew into its significance, becoming a magical ritual to ward off ill fortune and mischievous spirits and then into a tradition maintained for tradition’s sake.

My family has consumed las doce uvas de la suerte every year that I can remember, in between glasses of champagne and the din of festive noisemakers and fireworks.  The fireworks and little trumpets and such were well in excess of what my sensory sensitivities deemed tolerable, without fail, but I liked the grapes.

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Guayaberas and Banana Leaves

I hid them in a garment bag.  I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore.

Much of how I maneuver within womanhood was determined by my current environment.  I’ve been watching women and building preferences for as long as I’ve been alive.  The core of my style was settled long ago, pretending then to be a statement of preference for the other women in my life, with a tactile longing I only recently came to understand.  But its current expression owes much to where I am now.  Nearly my entire wardrobe is from the heaps of donations I’ve received, filling my closet to bursting and slowly being evaluated for whether and how I’ll actually wear each item.  The friends who provided these items have fairly different styles of their own, and I accepted their largesse knowing that I’d be picking and sorting through it as my style evolves.

Most of those friends are Canadian.  None of them are Hispanic.  And it makes me wonder.

How different would I look if I had recognized myself in Miami, instead of in Ottawa?

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Salsa Fuerte, Vergüenza Profunda

Yesterday was Ontario’s provincial election, a frustrating event for this American citizen.  Even if Canada were just enough to enfranchise its permanent non-citizen residents, that would not give me a say in how this peculiar country runs itself.  My status in Canada is, for now, temporary, and my voting will continue to be in the far more globally significant Florida, where a handful of badly filled ballots or a rash of felony convictions can be the difference between a drawl-feigning warmongering theocrat or an environmentalist deciding what the world’s largest army will do.  As it was, Ontario’s Liberal Party sailed into a majority government with no particular difficulty, a source of both elation and disappointment for Ontario’s progressive constituents.

Canada’s parliamentary system affords a much larger niche for third parties than the United States’s legislature.  In Canada, if one party’s candidates get 35% of the seats, a second party gets 40%, and a third party 25%, that 40% party will have to form a coalition with one of the others, and that coalition will select the Prime Minister and otherwise set the government’s agenda.  If a particular attempted coalition cannot get along well enough to form the government, the coalition dissolves and another one tries.  This entanglement between the executive and legislative branches means that the leaders of Canada cannot, usually, afford to ignore people who didn’t vote for them, and it means that third parties that manage substantial segments of the vote don’t necessarily disappear behind the ones that got slightly more, because they can become necessary coalition partners.  A system like this one still eventually converges on two parties—it takes a much more complicated system to preserve more than two poles indefinitely—but it takes much longer and affords those third parties and their constituents a much greater voice in the meantime.

Suffice to say, there’s a much greater possibility to vote one’s conscience in Canada, even if some situations demand voting for whoever stands the greatest shot at keeping the Conservatives out of a particular seat.

So it was with curiosity and interest that I surveyed the pamphlets and cards that the various candidates and advocacy groups kept leaving in our mailboxes.  Most of them were political boilerplate, a series of minor promises next to a candidate putting on the best trustworthy-and-not-smug mug xe could manage.  But I had to give one of them a lot of extra attention.

Did you know Canada has a Communist Party?

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Off-White

I’ve never really thought of myself as a person of color.  I’m Hispanic, on both sides of my family, but that’s not necessarily what people see.

Mom has a look that blends into the swarthy shades of whiteness that define the region surrounding New York City and even more so South Florida, invisible against the Italians whose struggle made southern European shades acceptable in the United States.  But she has the low hairline and dark curls that made Carmen Cansino unacceptably “Mediterranean” for movies in the 1930s, the traits that led Cansino to undergo electrolysis, skin bleaching, and relentless hair dye to become Rita Hayworth, finally “white” enough for success.  For those who know what to look for, she is unmistakably Hispanic; to everyone else, she’s another dark-haired white woman who speaks with a Hoboken accent when she’s excited.

And Dad?  Dad has the ruddy complexion of someone who has worked hard jobs in the sun for decades, but it’s there all the time, even in the years he spent managing grocery stores and apartment buildings.  His edges are sharper than hers, his accent different enough that I hear it as no accent at all until he slips a little Cubanism into his sentences.  He, too, could tell people he was Italian or Greek or unqualified “white” if he wanted to, except that he actively cultivates the most Cuban mustache in the history of Cuban mustaches.  He, too, is invisible to people who don’t know what Hispanic people look like, or who don’t talk to him.

In the places where I’ve been, middle-aged white folks who spend a lot of time in the sun get talked to in Spanish first.  Sometimes, they answer in Spanish.

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Vladimir and Ayn Walk into a Bodega

If it were only the different worldview, it might be easier to be a Hispanic-American atheist in the United States.  The US was born secular, and that spirit of permissiveness has made sure that no individual faith can claim a majority.  Roman Catholicism is the single largest denomination, and they and the agglomerated flavors of Protestantism together claim most of the United States’s people, but no faith can call itself the faith of Americans.  No faith is a given of American-ness the way Romanian Orthodoxy is for now built into the Romanian condition, or Twelver Shia Islam into the Iranian.  It is only by eliding the differences between Christian sects and pretending that fundamentalist Protestant home-churches have more in common with liberal Catholic non-church-goers than they do with Twelver Shia Islam that the people of the United States become a “Christian people,” and Americans who profess to some other faith, or none, become something Other.

If it were only refusal to partake of the rituals, it might be easier as well.  There is more to Hispanic-ness than the Catholicism that characterizes most of us.  Someone who doesn’t attend the local church’s Christmas show or baptize their children is still more odd than threatening, if they make the right apologies.

But there’s an elephant in the room that turns a Hispanic-American’s “I don’t believe” from mere blasphemy and cultural denial and rebellious affectation into a writ of enmity against kith and kin, no more and no less than treason.  A big, red elephant emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

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The Speedy

Every Hispanic person in the English-speaking world gets this question.

Liberals all eventually have to answer for the Clenis.  Latinos have to answer…for Speedy Gonzales.

Speedy Gonzales, the fleet-footed cartoon mouse with an outrageous Mexican accent and ethnic costume who spends his time outsmarting and outrunning various cartoon gringos and peninsulares in the service of his large family.

Speedy Gonzales, that bit of Latin America amidst the classic Americana of Loony Tunes that brought at least a little of Mexico’s rich culture to American attention, however flawed.

Speedy Gonzales, who predates the rest of the classicstill-relevant Hispanic cartoon characters on Anglophone media by decades and was, for eons, our only representation in the medium.

Speedy Gonzales, who made sure that every single frigging time someone learns my last name, I hear catch phrases.

Thanks to that fifty-year-old cartoon mouse, being a GonzaleZ in the English-speaking world means hearing way too many “¡Ándale arriba!”s thrown your way and no one ever spelling your surname correctly even though it’s the original Spanish spelling minus the Anglo-confusing accent mark.

I kind of resent the little guy for that, if nothing else.  But the rest of my feelings about the Speedy aren’t quite that simple.

Cartoon Network ceased broadcasting Speedy Gonzales in 1999, citing concerns that the segments were racist.  After all, that accent is so heroically overwrought that Chris Tucker couldn’t do an impression of it.  Speedy’s costume is arguably not even Mexican (that’s a San Fermín festival kerchief), making his Mexican-ness clueless as well as ham-fisted.  The majority of the other Mexican characters aren’t any better, either.  Where some are fairly well-done depictions not at all out of place in Revolution-era Mexico, the rest are all always wearing the same filthy outfit complete with a sombrero no matter what time of day it is.  And they spend almost all of their time smoking, getting drunk from clay bottles, and dancing to Mexican music.  Speedy’s brother Slow Rodriguez shoots someone in the face for messing with him.  This nonsense comes from higher up in the same well of racism that gave us Bugs Bunny’s blackface hunter, and needs to be acknowledged if we are to be critical consumers of popular culture.

But the thing is, Speedy is the hero.  He spends all of his time tricking equally outrageous caricatures of white Americans and wealthy Mexican landowners into dynamiting themselves, and he does it all for the love of his friends and family.  He’s determined, snarky, inventive, and virtually fearless.  And he almost always wins.  Is it any wonder that Mexicans in particular are awash with affection for Speedy Gonzales, who gives Americans who think they’re all lazy poncho-clad alcoholics and bandits their comeuppance?  Is it a surprise that Speedy Gonzales has become a cartoon role model, held as a dependable and capable heroic ideal by thousands of Latino families?

He even sings Cielito lindo correctly.  Not a garbled mishmash of Spanish-sounding syllables designed to sound familiar to Anglophone ears—he sings the actual words, in all their cloying sweetness.

If anything, Speedy Gonzales is a potent, almost tragically unsubtle commentary about class relations in Latin America.  It’s an even more powerful escapist fantasy of a scrappy Latino showing some overly entitled gringos what’s what.

And when you’re from a lineage that still gets on Anglophone TV primarily when the writer needs a drug runner or a wife-beater or a cuckold or a dark-haired beauty to bring sympathy to a street gang, it doesn’t matter that Speedy Gonzales is from elsewhere in Latin America, at home in a desert you’ve never seen, singing Cielito lindo instead of Guantanamera—you hang on to that.