ON BEING LARGELY LATINO–BEFORE IT WAS EVEN POPULAR
Growing up in the ’50s, my brothers and I were enthralled by the legendary frontiersman, Davy Crockett. We acted out pitched battles with the Creek Indians in our back yard, sang the popular theme song (“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!”), and wore our fringed jackets, coonskin caps–basically all things Crockett.
Of course, we watched the TV series with Crockett played by the firm-jawed Fess Parker. The show ended dramatically at the Alamo, but one of the episodes I remember most is Crockett, the newly elected U.S. Representative from Tennessee, giving his first speech before Congress. “I’m Davy Crockett, fresh from the back woods,” he says, cradling his trusty rifle, Old Betsy. “I’m half-horse, half-alligator and a little touched with snapping turtle.”
I loved that line. Over the years, I’ve echoed it without hesitation when people have asked me to describe my own heritage: “I’m half Cuban, a quarter Mexican, a quarter Hungarian–and a touch of Brooklyn.”
I tend to reflect on my mostly Latino roots every fall, when my birthday lands smack in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Month, oddly set between September 15th to October 15th. There’s actually some logic behind this mid-month to mid-month observance, which–I hadn’t known until recently–was created by President Reagan. National Hispanic Heritage Month is kind of a mash-up, celebrating the September 15th independence day anniversaries for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, in addition to the September 16th independence day for Mexico and September 18th for Chile.
Then, of course, there’s Columbus Day (El Día de la Raza), October 12th, the mistaken discovery of America by an Italian explorer commissioned by the Spanish Crown looking for something completely different, a way to enter the lucrative spice trade at the opposite side of the world. Oh well, mash him in.
What I value most about my immigrant ancestry is not only that it’s given me a unique personal identity; it makes me feel quintessentially American. It is this mashup–each immigrant group contributing distinctive histories, perspectives and traditions–that creates the “Wow!” of our nation. Columbus may not have found the spice trade, but the diversity he helped promulgate has been the spice of Western culture.
My own Hispanic journey began with my mother, who came alone to New York City from Havana in the 1940s. She was introduced to the city’s Latin American community under the watchful eyes of her aunt and uncle, who had arrived before her. Mom had a traditional Hispanic family. Her full name: Leslia Adela Eulalia Carmen del Sacramento Gonzëlez Martín de Roel. She married my father, Edmund, the son of a Mexican lawyer, Lorenzo Roel, and a Hungarian mother who met (where else?) in Brooklyn. It was a marriage of salsa and stuffed peppers. My Papa Lo, a strong-willed intellectual from Monterrey, Mexico emigrated in the early 1900s and decided that New York City was the center of the universe.
When my dad moved his family from Brooklyn to the wilds of Long Island in the early 1950s, Latino Island came with us: the piñatas, the black beans and rice, fried bananas and mangos. My brothers and I have pictures of each of us dressed up in a traditional Mexican mariachi suit when we were 7 or 8–it was the mandatory family photo op.
My mom, a teacher and artist, made sure her four sons learned Spanish. She also knew English grammar better than many New Yorkers, even though she often complained that sales people looked down at her, dismissively, when they heard her accent. And Mom made a point of telling us that while she was proud of her Latin heritage, “I’m an American now.” Ours would be a heritage that embraced both football and fútbol.
So I find myself troubled these days when I listen to our national discourse about immigration. Yeah, I get it. People are concerned about America’s “broken immigration system”; border security concerns; low-paid immigrants taking jobs away from Americans (who won’t take those low-paying jobs anyway); overburdened government services and schools. These are valid rational issues, but beneath them is a swirling emotional current: Fear. That is, fear of losing what people think we are as a nation.
Granted, you can’t deny demographics. As the country continues to become more ethnically and racially diverse, whites are losing their “majority status.” Within a few decades, most experts predict, we will become a society of pluralities, in part, because of the rapid growth of immigrant populations such as Latinos.
But so what? What has it really meant to be part of a white “majority” in America, when the majority has been cobbled together from dozens of European nationalities and ethnic groups, each with its own history, language, religions and traditions? We’re not exactly talking about pure white milk, here. Nor are blacks or Latinos particularly homogenous. Many Latin Americans, in fact, are the products of cultural and racial (white/black/brown) mash-ups even before they come north.
Some Americans want to erect high fences along the Mexican border and yell “Go home!” to thousands of Central American kids who would happily stay home–if their lives weren’t at risk. But we have little problem accepting Latinos when they serve our cultural interests. More than a quarter of all major league baseball players today are from Latin American countries, including some of the best in the game. Nor do we have a problem integrating Latin cuisines, from Live Más tacos to high-end menus that routinely feature exotic quesadillas and wraps, cilantro garnishes, black bean and corn salads, and mango-infused sauces.
We’ve come a long way over the last decade, as Latinos have become the fastest growing immigrant group in the nation. When I was a kid my friends would just blink when I explained that my background was Hispanic. No one blinks anymore. Today, the huge signs draped over the aisles at Home Depot are written in English and Spanish; so are many cooking instructions and directions to everyday consumer products.
Still, it’s often a long road from tolerance…to acceptance…to appreciation. In the public arena, the political parties have come to terms with the necessity of courting Hispanics, whether it’s Democratic-leaning Dominicans in New York or conservative Republican Cubans in South Florida. It’s a practical matter: You simply can’t win the presidency anymore without the Hispanic vote.
For me, Living the Life Latino is not about the Reconquista of North America. As I’ve gotten older, my heritage has become a way to reach out to others–either of similar or different background–as well as to reach inward, understanding how the experiences of my youth informed the way I’ve move into my later years. At the very least, keeping connected to two languages is bound to be good for my health. Most medical experts now agree that the brain can continue growing new cells well into old age–and one of the strongest cell generators is learning languages.
More than that, a bicultural mindfulness has helped me fully appreciate what is exceptional about America: the triple power of compassion, opportunity and hope. I know that despite our inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, offering refuge to the “tired, poor and huddled masses” of the world, we’re not always so welcoming to immigrants–partly because there are times when we feel pretty tired, poor and beleaguered ourselves. But our door remains open, even if less ajar. We’ll be there for the modern-day Columbuses, looking for new routes to riches. And for the new Norte Latinos–not just as a safe haven, but as nation richer for its diversity of ideas and culture that will continue to make us a stronger and wiser people.
Ron Roel, the Editor and Publisher of RoelResources.com, is a professional journalist and author. He helped found the weekly Act 2 retirement planning section at Long Island’s daily newspaper, Newsday, and continues to be active in several organizations that promote sharing and mutual support across the generations. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.