In Hunger of Memory, conservative chicano writer Richard Rodriguez reflects on his formative years as a Mexican-American dealing with the duality of his immigrant society. Language, physical characteristics, economics, culture, family and sexual relations are some of the arenas of conflicts discussed in his testimonio. One of the most notable dilemmas stems from his difficulty in overcoming the distance between his European heritage and his Mexican roots.
Recommend this product?
Of all the hyphenized ethnicities in the USA, we find that the Spanish-American has gone the way of the buffalo on the cultural frontier. No other group of European ancestry has struggled so hard to submerge themselves within the colonial provinces of their diaspora. The Mexican joins the Puerto Rican, the Cuban, the Dominican Republican, the Central American and the South American in proclaiming their uniqueness as a people despite fervently embracing the Hispanic label they have so willingly accepted from the US government. Never has a racial group been so united as a political element yet divided among their selves.
Rodriguez devotes considerable space in his articulate yet somewhat meandering piece to his disapproval of bilingual education. He goes even further in demonstrating the stigma endured by adults struggling with everyday conversation in a monolingual society. It is typical of the difficulties faced by millions of Spanish-Americans from different countries trying to assimilate into an English-speaking community. The population explosion within Spanish-American society has resulted in a growing political force that is demanding greater flexibility within racially mixed communities. Bilingual education is proving to be an increasingly debatable issue.
The most resonant argument comes from other ethnic groups in America who were never accorded the same conveniences as they struggled for prestige and prosperity in their adopted country. There had never been a political bloc demanding bilingual education in German, French, Gaelic, Italian, Hebrew, or any of the languages of the countless nationalities interwoven into the fabric of American society. To extend this privilege, many argue, is tacitly allowing for an educational handicap that could not otherwise be overcome by the Hispanic community.
Rodriguez points out how the language barrier both excludes the Hispanic and insulates them from the predominant society. He recalls sitting at the dinner table, joining his parents in mocking the pronunciation of English words, free and clear from the humiliation of the outside world in openly revealing their speech deficiencies. He also remembers the subtle estrangement from his family as he became more fluent in English. Pocho was the most painful of epithets, portraying him as one who turns from his ethnic Mexican society.
Physical characteristics also prove a daunting obstacle in the assimilation process, although there is little that certain physiological types can change for different reasons. Rodriguez remembers how his family prized the fairer complexions in their bloodline, while using derogatory terms of endearment in referring to the darker-skinned members of the family. He recalls how skin care was seen as an important part of one's self-image. Avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun was as important as homemade salves designed to lighten one's pigmentation.
Anthropologists point to more basic choices that can influence the genetic qualities of offspring. One famous researcher proposes that man's instinct for self-perpetuation and preservation of his bloodline will lead him to seek a mate whose physical traits exhibit a higher quality of pedigree. It explains the attitude of the Hispanic towards the gueros and negritos in their lineage. Yet it seems ever more paradoxical that the Mexican will often reject the Spanish heritage that brings the light complexion and finer features into his bloodline.
The practice of racial hygiene is one that brings along with it some of the most fearsome images of the last century. Dr. Josef Mengele, a German researcher, performed extensive experiments throughout the war years in 40's Europe that ended with highly controversial and often disastrous results. If anything, his work has proven that governmental and legal tampering with natural selection can lead to outright genocide. Yet, we also see how the rejection of an ethnic group within a larger community can produce similar results. Can this practice of reverse discrimination be a factor in the eradication of the Spanish-American from the Hispanic community?
Taking Mexico as an example, we would find the question of genocide to be an even more pressing issue. According to the Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, the Mexican population is composed of three main groups: people of European descent (mostly Spanish), the Native Americans, and the people of European and Native American descent, called mestizos, roughly sixty percent of the population. If the European were to be oppressed by a new government, we would see episodes of ethnic cleansing paralleled only by Bosnia and Iraq. Barring this, we must ask why the Mexican would choose to turn his back on what appears to be a substantial group within his own place of birth?
There is evidence of a class struggle that plays a greater part in this conflict. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the Catholic/Protestant struggle has been hyped up by the media, but what it boils down to is a conflict between the rich Loyalists and the poor Republicans. The Loyalists are frightened of the prospect of Marxist revolution taking them down a similar road traveled by the upper class in Cuba, who found themselves driven from their homeland by a dictatorship similar to that in the Pancho Villa paradigm demonstrated in Reed's Insurgent Mexico. We also see in Puerto Rico a wave of panic spreading throughout the bourgeoisie, who hear stories of increasing rebel activity along the countryside repressed in the media by the government. Interestingly, these are two ethnic groups that have long prided themselves on their Spanish heritage, their guero traits that help distinguish them from the jivaritos. Perhaps we are seeing evidence of the same proletarian movement that purged the Spanish from the Americas, only now on a sociocultural level.
We can see how the American government has played a significant role in enforcing this policy of genocide against the Spanish-American. Until the latter part of the 20th century, the US Census Bureau recognized four races of man: white, black, yellow and brown. It was in the 60's that a 'brown' race was declared, and the Spanish-American and his various progeny were lumped together as Hispanic. In one swoop, the Spanish-American was not only deprived of his European ancestry but declared non-white and reassigned to a homogenous ethnic group.
This is all the more ludicrous when seen from a European standpoint. Geographically, Spain lies along the border of Italy, both considered as Latin racial groups. The languages are so similar that it is common for persons fluent in Italian to be able to read and write Spanish on a basic level. Yet, in America, it is rare to see the media depict the Italian as a Latin-American. This distinction has been reserved for the Spanish-American and his descendents, facilitating the Hispanic category as a dumping ground. In contrast, the Italian community successfully defended itself against racial stereotyping, having prevented the producers of The Godfather from using the word mafia in the movie at the same time the genocide of the Spanish-American was well underway.
Psychologists refer to the self-fulfilling prophecy in explaining how the majority of Hispanics, in rejecting their Spanish heritage, find themselves embracing the mestizo characteristics their families once despised. Researchers claim that a person will follow a self-image one creates in fulfilling the predictions they and their peers have set for themselves. By 'not taking care of themselves', as one of Rodriguez' aunts called it, or interbreeding with a darker stock, the Hispanic allows himself and his offspring to fall into a stereotype tending towards menial labor, low academic achievement, and an inferior social position reserved for a lower class of society.
Again we refer to the economic difficulties facing Hispanics who have accepted the lower echelon as their lot in American society. Rodriguez points to the homogenization of the Hispanic as he is synthesized into the workplace. Dark-skinned people with limited communication skills find themselves in low-paying, arduous jobs where curious uniforms set them further apart from mainstream society. Once the individual is resigned to the stereotype, the easier it is for society to maintain its distance in ostracizing the foreign host. Economic growth proves extremely difficult as the dominant group strives to maintain its status within the national industry.
John Reed, in his Insurgent Mexico, tells of the rebellion of the Mexican against the Spanish noblemen and their descendants who controlled the economy and political power in Mexico. Again it is the dark-skinned peasant, devoid of education and social skills, who falls prey to the upper class of European heritage subjugating their 'inferior' brothers. Although achieving considerable status within their own social groups, the Mexican ranchero finds himself trapped by concepts of racial identity and family traditions, preventing him from seeking a place in the upper echelon of society. Again we see a paradox as the lower crust of Mexican peony readily enlist in the army as 'shock troops' capable of the vilest depredations against their own people. Reed attributes this to the economic disparity that both the rancheros and Federales seek to overcome, though with radically different outlooks on racial and class loyalties.
Perhaps by exploring the historical aspects we can better understand the underlying problems at the heart of the matter. In his Jamaica Letter, Simon Bolivar wrote to the Duke of Manchester offering his insights into the background and prospects of the liberation movement in South America. Bolivar declared that the South American was 'a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers'. He cited the fact that, though Americans by birth, this second generation derived its rights from Europe, had to assert those rights against those of the natives, and ultimately defend them against the 'invaders'.
By 1810 Bolivar had made good his promise to defeat the Spaniards and liberate the northern regions of South America. Only his dream of bringing Venezuela and Ecuador under the banner of a Gran Colombia failed because of the ethnic rivalries that divide the Hispanic population to this day. Aside from this, we question the rhyme and reason of Bolivar's quest in severing the ties between Spain and South America once and forever. We see a mirror image in the war of independence between England and America. The American colonists, though largely from Britain, were comprised of Irish, German, French and other ethnic groups who held no allegiance to England. Why was there no schism between the nations as we saw in South America? Again the racial question rears its ugly head.
Even more detrimental to the Hispanic argument for separation from their European heritage is the level of decadence into which the Aztec Empire had descended in Mexico. In 1519, three hundred years before Bolivar, Hernan Cortes was astonished by the barbaric rituals practiced by the depraved Aztec military regime. Ritual murder was practiced an average of twenty times a day by the imperial rulers. It took Cortes nearly two years to reduce the Aztecs to slaves and their cities to rubble, according to Brian M. Fagan in his People of the Earth . Yet, as the historian notes, if the Spanish had never arrived, it was highly likely that the Empire would have imploded and made room for a future successor. It would have fed off itself until only bones and marrow remained.
This would prove that the Spanish conquest of the Mesoamerican people was justified by natural selection, the survival of the dominant species of Indian eventually crossbreeding with the Spanish. We can see that the Hispanic might bear grievance against the Spanish for the bastardization of his enslaved ancestors, but there is an equal chance that there would have no remnant of any random strain were the Mesoamericans allowed to continue on their self-destructive course. Also, the issue of extended family arises when we consider the fact that the Spanish were the progenitors of untold numbers within the slave society. Does one act with violence against half-sisters and brothers, visiting upon them the sins of the mutual father?
The Spanish marched on to further conquest, crushing the great Peruvian empires with minimal manpower and sacrifice. Francisco Pizarro, according to Fagan, established a puppet regime but was forced to destroy the Incans is suppressing a bloody revolt. Again we see a pattern of natural selection, the Incans decimated by plague and civil war that threatened their extinction. We can also see how the uprising led by Bolivar routed the Spanish from South America, liberating the Indian from his yoke of oppression under the conquerors.
The theme of family is recurrent throughout Rodriguez' testimonio. In it he speaks of the duality of racial values, pointing to how the Mexicans speak proudly of the guero in the family. The European characteristics of fair skin, hair and eyes leave little room for doubt of the family's Spanish descendency. In one revealing episode, Rodriguez' mother expresses pity for the negritos, the dark-skinned laborers toiling in the sun, its rays casting them ever further into literal and physical darkness. In view of this, it cannot be denied that the Hispanic family would have higher hopes for the lighter-skinned offspring in the family. Rodriguez attests to this in underscoring the duality of the Hispanic family in denying their Spanish heritage while embracing its racial characteristics.
In continuing to pursue the question of family values, we point to the fact that the Hispanic community is, to a large extent, practicing Catholics. Therefore it can be assumed that their religious traditions play a major role in their family life. In this regard, no words can be more paradoxical than those of Pancho Villa, as recorded in Reed's Mexico. The following was an excerpt from a discussion between Villa, who had taken over the Governor's palace in Chihuahua and had declared to the shocked consuls of Europe that he was expelling the Spanish from the land.
"We Mexicans have had three hundred years of the Spaniards. They have not changed in character since the Conquistadores. They disrupted the Indian empire and enslaved the people. We did not ask them to mingle their blood with ours. Twice we drove them out of Mexico and allowed them to return with the same rights as Mexicans, and they used these rights to steal away our land, to make the people slaves, and to take up arms against the cause of liberty. They supported Porfirio Diaz. They were perniciously active in politics. It was the Spaniards who framed the plot that put Huerta in the palace. When Madero was murdered the Spaniards in every state in the Republic held banquets of rejoicing. They thrust on us the greatest superstition the world has ever known - the Catholic Church. They ought to be killed for that alone."
Most people of Hispanic origin would excoriate Villa for that alone. Yet, when taken in the overall context of the quotation, many would justify his anger at the Church by pointing to the injustices endured by the Indian as an overriding concern. It forces us to ask whether we can separate the imperialistic goals of the Church, as reflected in Nunez' Relacion, from those of the Spanish Empire. If we cannot, then what we have left justifies Villa's indictment and warrants the rejection of both the Spanish and Catholic traditions from those of the Pan-American. If the Hispanic community can forgive and forget the Vatican support of Spanish imperialism, then we demand to know why the purging of its Spanish heritage continues.
In reviewing the history of the Church in Latin America, we see the Church as the spiritual force behind the throne, sanctioning and tacitly condoning State policy at every turn of the screw. The history of human rights abuses is rampant over three centuries, and the presence of the Church remains constant throughout. Complicity is defined by Webster as 'partnership in crime'. If the Church has stood by and watched the atrocities committed without using its enormous influence to intervene, there are few courts of law that would not seek an indictment for negligence against millions of Latin Americans in the New World. Yet the Hispanic continues to indict the Spanish for their crimes while the Church appears to have been long exonerated.
Before we dismiss these parallels as irrelevant, we must face the fact that the Spanish, over the decades, have been used as a scapegoat by the Hispanic community for continued injustices committed by governments under full knowledge of the Catholic Church. If the Hispanic chooses to indict the Spanish, then he must also indict the Roman Church as a co-conspirator. If, on the other hand, he chooses to forgive the Church, then he must also come to terms of resolution with his Spanish ancestry.
The reconciliation between the Hispanic and their Spanish ancestors is long overdue. Although the damage is comprehensive and grievous, there is no better time to begin rebuilding than now.