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Feature 080315 Villarreal

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Importance of Being Invisible: The Politics of Hispanic Identity

By Rosa Martha Villarreal

In Ralph Ellison’s iconic novel, Invisible Man, the desire of the narrator, like African Americans, was to become visible, i.e., to be accepted as Americans as an integral part of the fabric of society and history.  In various existential novels—The Face of Another (Kobe Abe) and Face (Cecile Pineda), for example―the protagonist, deprived of a face seeks an ordinary face, one that will free him from the unwanted and horrified attention of others.  The face (or lack thereof)  presents a dilemma: we all want to stand out, to be seen. But the protagonists want to determine the nature of their visibility/ invisibility vis-à-vis society.  They do not want to be seen as the other, a grotesque, barely human personification of people’s most inner fears.

These literary works came to mind again with the start to the Presidential election cycle. Hispanics, whose votes are crucial to winning the presidency, are conflated with the issue of immigration reform, and for opponents of reform it is not enough to disagree on principle.  Instead, it presents an opportunity to unleash pent-up antipathy and even hatred of Hispanics.

1. The Straw Man Or The Phony Enemy

Anti-Hispanic sentiment is nothing new and, in fact, it had its beginning in the anti-Spanish propaganda of Queen Elizabeth I.  The stereotypes of the Spanish and their descendants have been repeated ad nauseam along with a few new ones (e.g., “rapists”).  For example, Theodore Roosevelt, upon reading Stephan Crane’s story “A Man and Some Other,” where an American frontiersman is killed by a Mexican, “urged Crane to write ‘another story of the frontiersman and the Mexican Greaser in which the frontiersman shall come out on top … [because] ‘it was more natural that way’” (Edward Simmen 5).

The current barrage about Hispanics is just the latest manifestation of this antipathy. It amounts to a straw man argument for cynical self-interest as in the case of Ann Coulter and Donald Trump. 

The major premise of fallacious argument is presented in this article in The National Interest:

Then there are the political implications—the growing concept that white Americans, declining in relative terms as a population segment, are going to be overwhelmed by people of color, who are expanding inexorably, in large measure because of immigration but also because of differential birthrates. Finally, there are the cultural implications—the idea, shared by many Americans, that the country’s cultural identity will erode progressively in the face of the immigration inundation.

[…]

But the most significant component—and the most emotional—is the cultural issue. For many Americans, the fate of America’s cultural identity is not a matter of mere frivolous concern, as many liberals argue. It is fundamental, which is why it unleashes strong emotions in many part of the country. And these emotions are heightened by the phenomenon of more recent immigrants being increasingly reluctant to shed their own distinctive elements of heritage and increasingly inclined to shun the concept of assimilation.

It’s very telling that the author identifies Americans as white Americans and their culture as the American culture.  Hispanics are “others” who resist the American modernity. (It is a given, that the United States is the quintessential modern country.)  Historian Colin Woodward, however, correctly surmises that there was never a single national identity but several regional identities composed of different nations. In his book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, he differentiates between a “state” and a “nation:

A nation is a group of people who share—or believe they share—a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artefacts, and symbols.

Among these eleven nations is “El Norte.” For Colin, this region covers not only the Southwest but northern Mexico.  For people in the Southwest, these similarities on both sides of the border are obvious, except for this:  Generations born in the US side are almost exclusively English speakers; and Hispanics, particularly Mexican Americans, intermarry at the same rate as Asians, meaning that there are many “hidden” Hispanics/ “Mexicans.” 

Thus, Hispanic culture is not foreign to the United States, and its people are not “others” but one of many variations of what it means to be American.  We were always here but were deemed invisible because we were weak.  When our visibility became known due to our sheer numbers (translate: votes),  we were deemed a threat because “white”  America—the America that historian Colin identifies as the Appalachian and New England-based cultures—couldn’t make us disappear in the melting pot as they had other immigrants.  However, other immigrations did not have an organic culture in North America.  My ancestors, for example, founded the first settlement in what today is Nacogdoches, Texas, in the early 1700s.

This demagoguery is not meant to control immigration which, (1) requires reform at the most; or (2) enforcement of current laws at the least.  Its sole and mendacious purpose is to stir up loathing and fear in the hearts of uninformed voters who have never bothered to Google the words “Mexico, Mexican culture,” let alone bother to read a book on Mexico and Mexican culture and history by real writers rather than demagogic charlatans. The numb and bigoted argument of Mexican cultural inferiority appears valid to culturally insecure people who have never actually visited Mexico beyond the mess called the border cities, if they bothered to travel at all.  They have never seen Mexico’s elegant and sophisticated colonial cities or the exquisite ancient cities of the Maya, Toltecs, Teotihuacanos, and Mexica.  Contemporary Mexico has outsized, world-wide recognized contributions to the fine arts, the letters, music, curation, and architecture. Mexico is a cultural superpower despite its war-riddled past, its failed political experiments, and its historic abuse by the rapacious powerful few.

Contemporary Mexico, like “el Norte,” is a construct of modernity. When one speaks of “assimilation” today, one means assimilation into modernity and its liberal political constructs. It does not exclude diversity, however.  For example the UK and Japan are both constructs of modernity, but they are simultaneously unique.  Therefore, the so-called “threat” is a straw man to justify a historic loathing of a culture.

2. On Being Invisible

Hispanics and their descendants—from those who have always lived here to recent immigrants—have enriched the American civilization project, not diminished it.  The Hispanic nation’s contribution to American cuisine alone speaks for itself.  A simple internet search, furthermore, reveals the contributions of Hispanics; for example, Dr. Albert Baez (father of the singer Joan Baez), a prominent physicist who invented the X-ray reflection microscope, is a native of Puebla, Mexico.  These contributions have not been recognized simply because of the willful blindness of traditional white culture.

Richard Rodriguez on several occasions compared the trajectory of Mexican Americans to that of Italian Americans.  The comparison is inaccurate in many aspects. For one, Italians do not have a historic, colonial presence in North America as a community. Rodriguez is correct, however, in his assumption of desire. Namely, like Italians we’re Americans but with our Latin characteristics.  Seeing Italian surnamed people in positions of power does not evoke contempt or suspicion nor foreignness as it did in the first half of the 20th century.  That’s the only kind of invisibility that the Hispanic community will accept: Invisible because of a lack of contempt.

That Hispanics must be denigrated to secure another people’s sense of triumphalism is a tragedy of human nature.  Call it Original Sin.  But it has no place in liberal democratic societies where reason, not dark human instinct, is the formative principle of a civilization.

Post-script: When Freedom is Compelled

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (On the Social Contract) warned against those individuals who refuse to integrate into the civil compact.  He said that it may be necessary to “compel a man to be free.”  For one hundred years, from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to World War II, Hispanics (mainly those of Mexican origins) faced obstructions to their political and linguistic integration, and remained in a limbo derided and decried by Octavio Paz in his Labyrinth of Solitude.  Much of this alienation was self-inflicted, a defeatism which accepted the Anglo-centric society’s definition of Hispanic Americans as “others.”  But the Chicano Movement, which at times espoused a separated identity (separate even from actual Mexicans), in reality accomplished the opposite: Not a separate identity, but reclaiming the identity that always was. It raised consciousness and compelled members of the Latino (not just Mexican) community to choose to participate as citizens, to identify with the political and social constructs that enable the citizen to be truly free.  Rather than stew in silent resentment, the Chicano Movement and its many leaders used legal methods and the power of language and persuasion.  They accomplished this by demanding better access to economic mobility and to institutions of higher educationas students and educatorsand demanding recognition of what was always a fact: Hispanic culture is American. They compelled their fellow Latinos to be free and exercise their rights as full citizens. 

Mr. Trump, Ms. Coulter, and the nativist pseudo-intellectuals have the freedom of speech to insult Hispanics. Their hordes of lemmings can fill the message boards with hateful words. But not without consequences. We will exercise our rights as free and engaged citizens to refuse you our business and especially our votes because we’re Americans, too.

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Rosa Martha Villarreal is a novelist and essayist and member of PEN USA.  She received the 2008 Josephine Miles PEN Literary Award, and a Silver Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction.  Her children’s novel, The Adventures of Wiglaf the Wyrm, which was inspired by the epic poem Beowulf, was published as an eBook in 2013.

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