Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The diversity of "the Hispanics"

In most contemporary discussions about American culture, immigration, and politics, “the Hispanic community” serves as convenient shorthand for a large and diverse group of people. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, Alvaro Ramirez explains how different histories, cultural roots, and places create differences and even divisions among people of Hispanic descent.

Ramirez comes to the topic via an interesting path. He immigrated to the US as a child and grew up here in Youngstown. But his journey has taken him back to Mexico and to California, for part of his education and as a college professor. While he teaches courses on Spanish language and Latino Studies, his research focuses on the great Spanish writer, Cervantes, whose masterwork Don Quixote influenced much of Western literature, including the novel as a literary genre. As Ramirez explains, this 16th century tour de force is still relevant in today’s world, as we debate the relationships between the individual and society, tensions around cultural identity, and social change.

As I commented in my blog after interviewing Armando Labra in September, I think many people in the Mahoning Valley think, mistakenly, that Mexicans are all new arrivals here. Part of that is because of all the public discussion about illegal immigration, which encourages us to assume that anyone of Mexican descent is in the U.S. illegally, and part of it may be that for most of us, Mexicans are visible locally through the several Mexican restaurants that have opened in just the last decade. But, as both Labra and Ramirez remind us, Mexican workers started coming to the Mahoning Valley in the 1920s and 30s, to work in the steel mills, just as many Italians, Slovaks, and other European immigrants did.

We also assume that all Hispanics are the same, but Hispanic culture simply doesn’t exist in the singular. Puerto Ricans have a very different history, not only in their country of origin but here in the U.S., than do Cubans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, and Mexicans. For each, national history, culture, even language vary, as do their experiences coming to this country. Even within these national groups, experiences differ. As Ramirez notes, being Mexican in Youngstown is different from being Mexican in Los Angeles. So, too, have the experiences of Mexican immigrants differed. In the 1940s, the U.S. government encouraged Mexican immigration, so those who came to El Norte then may well have different perspectives. Context matters.

So when you hear political pundits talk about “the Hispanic vote,” pay attention. Which Hispanics are we talking about? When you hear about Hispanic culture, consider which one, at which moment, and in which location.

No comments: