Latino Culture: Latin American, Pan-American, Global
Keynote address for the closing reception of Hispanic Heritage Month,
Hofstra University, October 27, 2010
A personal introduction: Being a Latina is not a limit, it is a door
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, an archipelago that has been an "unincorporated territory" of the United States since 1898. Because of our close but awkward relationship to the United States, other Latin American countries see us with a mix of pity, disdain and envy. Pity because Puerto Rico has never been an independent nation, disdain because they consider our culture has become too "Americanized", and ultimately envy because countries that have openly defied the power of the United States have paid a price.
When I was growing up, saying that Puerto Rico is a Latin American country was considered a radical statement. Even the nationalists who asserted our Latin Americanness could not deny that our historical ties to Latin America were weak and that they needed to be brought back to life. When I finished college, I was determined to get a doctoral degree in Latin American literature. Naturally, I thought, I would apply to universities in Mexico and Argentina. I was sure that the best place to study Latin American literature was Latin America, and that universities in the United States had nothing to offer in that area. I was wrong. I learned that decades of military dictatorships and civil unrest had resulted in a massive exodus of intellectuals, writers and professors, many of whom established themselves in the United States. In the end I chose to attend Duke University, where I worked closely with scholars from Argentina, Chile and Spain.
As soon as I arrived from Puerto Rico, a Cuban American student from New York City took me under her wing. Knowing that I had no winter clothes at all, she gave me her old L.L. Bean sweaters, and instructed me to stop wearing colorful clothes. She told me that, as a Latina, I couldn't afford to feed any stereotypes. What surprised me at that point was that she referred to me as a Latina. Since I was not born or raised in the United States, and I had only spent a total of seven days in the United States, I considered myself Puerto Rican and Latin American, not Latina. When I tried to clarify the matter with her, she said emphatically: now you are a Latina. My identity had changed. Was it something I ate on the airplane? How can identity be so changeable?
Today I teach my Global Studies students that all identities are indeed constantly contested and negotiated. What happened to me when I came to the United States was a change of social context that altered how I was perceived by those around me. In Puerto Rico I was just like everybody else, in the United States I was classified as different and belonging in the Hispanic category. Back in Puerto Rico I was also suddenly classified as different. Friends and family wanted to catch me mixing Spanish and English, and a cousin even complained that my skin had actually turned lighter. By coming to the United States I had become an alien both here and in Puerto Rico, and it seemed like I no longer belonged anywhere.
It is tempting to say that becoming a Latina was an experience of loss. I lost my day to day contact with Puerto Rican culture, and I no longer feel one hundred percent at home over there. But becoming a Latina has also enriched my life. Not only did I complete the PhD degree in Latin American literature and culture, I became an active participant in the creation of Latino culture, a culture created by Latin Americans of all walks of life in the United States in constant conversation with Latin American cultures.
Like all Latinos, I grew up bilingual and bicultural. In Puerto Rico all little kids learn bilingual songs in kindergarden like: "pollito-chicken, gallina-hen, lápiz-pencil y pluma-pen…" This teaches us at an early age that the world has many different ways of being, and many different ways of thinking. People with bilingual upbringing become receptive to difference. By this I mean not only respecting difference at a safe distance, but actually embracing it, and letting it change us. In the United States, my knowledge and my identity have become richer because of contact with people from all over Latin America and, indeed, from all over the world. Some people call us Latinos trying to restrict us to a predictable package of identity. They miss the point that being Latino means being open and having endless possibilities. If we look at our past, we are the result of the complex interaction of different indigenous, European, African and Asian cultures. If we look at our present and future, we continue to incorporate many other influences without losing ourselves.
Latino culture is created in the United States with elements taken from Anglo American culture and elements taken from different Latin American cultures. In the United States people from different Latin American countries live and work together. I would not have met so many people from different Latin American countries if I had stayed in Puerto Rico, or if I had went to study in Mexico instead of the United States. Ironically, a pan-Latin American culture is being born in the United States rather than in Latin America.
Understanding a transnational culture through food and music.
Latino culture is a culture of Latin America, and also a culture of the United States: it is a pan-American culture. It is a transnational culture because it is forged by people who cross national borders and nourish it with elements from more than one place. Latin American cultural practices come to the United States where they are transformed and then they travel back to Latin America where they are transformed again in a continuous cycle. The conviction that Latino culture is a pan-American culture made with elements from both Latin and Anglo America came to me during the research I did to write my book Latino Food Culture. I was requested to write this book as a part of a reference collection dedicated to the different culinary cultures of the United States. Other volumes in the series include Asian American Food Culture and African American Food Culture. My first reaction when I received the request was that there is no such thing as one Latino food culture because Latin American food traditions are very diverse. The cuisine of Mexico, for example, is well-known for its use of corn, beans, squash and hot chiles, whereas the food of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico is defined by plantains, rice, root vegetables and rarely uses hot chiles. People in Latin American countries are not necessarily familiar with the food of countries beyond their immediate region. In the United States, however, Mexicans, Central and South Americans live side by side with people from the Caribbean and beyond. Latin American regional cuisines have been introduced to one another in the United States. They are now being combined to create a new cuisine which is the heritage of all Americans.
There is a restaurant-driven Latino cuisine generally known as Nuevo Latino cuisine or just Latin fusion. This fusion cuisine has been created mostly by professional chefs who like to use Latin American ingredients, but who are adjusting the flavors to suit palates that like Mexican food without the heat of chiles, and ceviche without the acid of limes. The ingredients might be Latin American, but the taste and soul are not. But there is also a lesser known Latino fusion cuisine which is being created by home cooks who have started to experiment with the ingredients and dishes of their neighbors. The United States context has given Latino cuisine a distinctive character that distinguishes it from Latin American cuisines in their home countries. On the one hand there have been limitations imposed by the lack of availability of many fresh ingredients, by the low income of the majority of Latinos in the United States, and by the need for food to be convenient to prepare without too much time or labor. On the other hand, the closer proximity between different national and regional Latin American cuisines has encouraged cross-fertilization. Both the limitations and the creative cross-fertilization account for the distinctive character of an emerging Latino cuisine.
Restaurant menus often include Caribbean plantain chips, Peruvian ceviches, Argentine empanadas and Mexican tamales as if they all came from a single place. Such menus represent some sort of culinary United Nations, a testimony to the merging of Latin American cultures in the United States. Latino food is also increasingly accepted as mainstream food in the United States. A quick look at Hofstra's cafeteria items reveals breakfast burritos and the possibility of turning any ingredients you like into a wrap, which is nothing but a burrito. Indeed, tonight at The Netherlands residence hall you can enjoy a "Hispanic cuisine and fiesta karaoke night." Purists might protest that so many disparate dishes are never seen together in Latin America, but they are missing the point: it is a Latino feast, not a Latin American one. And Latino food is also going global. A scholar of Mexican history is writing a book called "Planet Taco," in which he explores the history of how California surfers have spread tacos all over the world. According to him, tacos can be found in places like Australia, Mongolia, and even in outer space thanks to NASA.
Music is an area in which the creation of a pan-American Latino culture is even more clearly evident. Take for example salsa music. People are often surprised to learn that salsa music was invented in New York City. Cubans and Puerto Ricans took elements of traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican music, which had been derived from African and Spanish music, to create a new musical form which can be described as a mix of a mix of a mix… Salsa was originally rejected in Puerto Rico as a deformation rather than a creation, but today it is regarded as the national music, even though it did not originate there. Today salsa is obligatory in ballroom dancing all over the world, and there is even an all-Japanese salsa band called "Orquesta de la Luz." More recently, the Panamanian and Puerto Rican origin reggaeton music is exporting a blend of different Caribbean and urban Latin musical forms to the whole world.
Hispanic heritage is a heritage of all Americans, and a heritage of the world.
The Hispanic heritage of the United States is not only a heritage of people of Hispanic descent: it is a heritage of all Americans. The indigenous nations of North America shared many common cultural elements. Spanish colonizers were the first Europeans to set foot in what today is United States territory. Both Latin and Anglo America have received massive migrations from Europe, Africa and Asia, and Latin Americans have been steadily migrating to Anglo America as Anglo America has been directly involved in political and economic processes in Latin America. So both Americas have a long common history. The ongoing creation of Latino culture happens in great part in the United States in interaction with its diverse population. This long and ongoing history of complex interactions between Anglo and Latin America goes beyond the separation by language and power. Many would argue that the further elaboration of the language known as Spanglish, which seamlessly combines English and Spanish, might eventually help overcome that boundary, and help to establish more equal relations between the two Americas. Originally shunned as an in-between language bred out of confusion, now more and more people embrace Spanglish as an expressive and artistic medium that is better adaptedthan plain English and plain Spanish to the complex realities of transnational cultures and identities.
Latino culture is made with elements from all over the world and also appeals to people from all over the world. It is a global and globalized identity. Let's celebrate the possibility of being Latinos without borders.