Hispanic American Experience

author: Sandy Donovan
Lerner / Twenty-First Century Books, USA Today, 2011
grades 6-up 
Latin American

Whenever she hears someone talk about “Hispanics,” My dear friend, Elizabeth (“Betita”) Martinez says, “I am not ‘high-spanic’ or ‘low-spanic.’ I am Latina.” Spanish, French, English and Portuguese are the colonial languages on this hemisphere. They were forced on the Indigenous peoples who managed to survive the onslaught of the colonists.

The term “Hispanic American” refers to the basis of one of these dominant languages—Spanish—and implies a Spanish-based culture, when, in fact, most of our cultures are Indigenous with a Spanish-language influence. This influence is based on the Spanish invasion and conquest of the Americas, which killed over 90 million people in a little more than 500 years—including many of my relatives. Generally, we prefer the term “Latin American” or “Latina/o,” both of which accommodate the diversity of languages and cultures, with Spanish being the main language of law. The US Census also currently uses “Latin American.” It’s an ongoing political issue.

As with most cookie-cutter productions such as this, from the “USA Today Cultural Mosaic” series, the text is uneven, veering from surprisingly progressive to totally inaccurate.

Overall, the text gives a good overview of Latin American history and our people’s roles in mainstream America. There is a good selection of writers, artists, musicians, scholars and architects. Also discussed is religion’s role in immigrant communities, and here and there are informative USA Today articles with data on the Latin American presence. These include articles on “A Country or a Continent?” “Most Foreign Born from Latin America,” “English Rates First in Latino Families,” “Selena Returned Me to My Mexican Roots,” and “More Hispanic Catholics Losing Their Religion.” These add a current flavor to the book.

But, for example, in this discussion of Latin America’s history:

They came to Central America, South America, and to the part of North America that became Mexico. Some Spanish settlers married Native Americans. The native [sic] peoples spoke many different languages. When they traveled or relocated to new areas, they often could not communicate with other native [sic] peoples. But many learned Spanish. Soon the Spanish language became a common thread.

For one thing, the Spanish were not settlers; they were military guards, protection for the priests and explorers from the “heathens.” They set up guarded missions to create accommodations for other “explorers.” My own family traces our history to a Sergeant Tiburcio Diaz, a guard at Mission San Diego. I’m pretty sure he didn’t “marry” my great-great-great, etc., grandmother, but his name is on a birth record the priests kept. And I am sure she had to learn Spanish to survive—just about all my Indigenous ancestors did, or they died.

Then there’s this:

In the late 1800s, many Spanish-speaking immigrants began arriving in the United States….When they arrived, they seldom spoke English. Often they built Spanish-speaking communities. But usually they learned English at their new jobs. Their children learned English at school. Most of the descendants of these early Spanish-speaking immigrants no longer speak Spanish. But their grandparents and great-grandparents left their mark on everyday language in the United States. Most Americans know that amigo means “friend” and siesta means “nap.”

Do you have to be Latina/o to understand how condescending and offensive this is?

And this:

Luis Valdez wrote several plays about the Mexican American experience. For example, his play Zoot Suit (1972) tells the story of race riots in Los Angeles in the 1940s. During the riots, some Mexican Americans wore zoot suits—baggy suits with padded shoulders. The term soon became a derogatory reference to Mexican Americans.

And from a caption on the next page, “Some participants in the riots dressed in zoot suits, like the one in this photo from 1943.” Young readers (or any readers who do not know about what is commonly called the “Zoot Suit Riots,” will infer that the Mexican Americans who wore zoot suits were the antagonists of the race riots. In truth, they were the victims of both the white race riots, instigated by US sailors on leave in Los Angeles, and the police and “criminal justice” system. Furthermore, zoot suits were a national phenomenon. The great Cab Calloway probably started the fad with his performance of “Minnie the Moocher,” and even Malcolm X talks of wearing a zoot suit to fit in with the cool guys.

And this (brackets theirs):

[In reality, de la Hoya] grew up in a small apartment where roaches were so plentiful that he regarded them as pets.

Now, “in reality,” it’s possible that this is a story that Oscar de la Hoya told or wrote somewhere about his life. This is very different than something being written about him in the third person. It’s offensive!

There are more glaring oversights and errors.

• While there are ten pages, including full-color photos, having to do with cooking (“foods of many flavors”), there are only two short paragraphs about labor struggles, or any struggles at all. And the word “racism” is used only once.

• An “immigrant” is a person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another. Since Puerto Ricans are Americans, full citizens of the US, they may migrate from, say, San Juan to New York City, but they do not immigrate to the US. So the sentence, “Sotomayor was born in New York City to Puerto Rican immigrants” is wrong, because her parents were natural born citizens; and the term, “Puerto Rican Americans” is redundant.

• Carlos Santana, who popularized his amazing fusion of salsa, blues, jazz, and Afro-Cuban beats, is presented here as a singer. Please, anyone knows he is one of the greatest guitarists who has ever lived.

• A correction for the sanity of every person from East Los Angeles: Olvera Street is not in the barrio of East Los Angeles! It is located in downtown Los Angeles, next to Phillippe’s French Dip Sandwich joint and across the street from Union Station. East LA is across the Los Angeles River and is a large neighborhood composed of many smaller barrios, including Boyle Heights, Maravilla Gardens, Echo Park and many others.

• And especially annoying is the color photo of a young Latina child hugging an American flag, an in-your-face reference to Latin (the little girl) and American (the flag). If she’s in Los Angeles, she would be holding a Mexican flag. Sorry, cultural nationalism is alive and well, all across the country. Even in Miami, a child would more likely hold a Cuban flag, even if her family were anti-Castro, as most right-wing Cubanos are.

The Hispanic American Experience is marginally recommended.

—Judy Zalazar Drummond
(published 4/7/13)

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