Language, said the Bishop of Avila to Queen Isabella of Spain, is the perfect instrument of empire. Of the original imperial new world languages Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, Dutch and Danish, English and Spanish have prevailed. French, remains the language of Quebec and parts of Canada east and west of Quebec, also of some lesser populations in New England and Louisiana, Haiti and some islands in the Caribbean. Portuguese is the langiage of Brazil. Except for a pidgin heard in Surinam on the northern coast of the South American continent and some islands off the coast, St Maarten and a couple of others, Dutch has mostly disappeared. Danish is gone from those West Indies.
Hostility to the Castro regime in Cuba and American support for right-wing dictators like Trujillo and Pinochet spurred big-volume emigration to America. Latino seekers of a better life brought with them serious family feeling and high birth rates. Millions of Mexicans and other undocumenteds crossed the borders in search of work. The forty million Spanish speakers in the USA constitute America's largest minority. Aside from the Latino populations of New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, there are enclaves in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. There are in the combined Americas 300 million English speakers, but 350 million Spanish speakers.
Not all Latinos are Spanish speaking; Brazilians we know speak Portuguese, many Mexicans deny they are in any way Latino, pointing out that there are 450 languages other than Spanish spoken in Mexico.
Latinos come in different varieties - European, African, Amerindian, Mestizo, Chinese, Japanese - have big families, feel no need to inhabit a single territory, or to demonstrate they can govern one, or that such a state is the sine qua non of their survival. Phone cards make it cheap and easy to keep in close touch with Spanish speakers back home, friends and family members.
Americans tend to be indifferent foreign language learners. Richard Nixon might have been among the exceptions. Nixon kept his knowledge of Russian a secret from Russian officials so that they wouldn't know he understood some of what they were mumbling to each other in meetings.
For a time English was the only language Americans heard or wanted to hear. One-time Atlanta Braves relief ace John Rocker was the recipient of numerous journalistic beanballs for telling a Sports Illustrated reporter that he could "walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English.Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people..How the hell did they get in this country?"
A Texas judge in a custody case told a Latino mother that speaking to her young daughter in Spanish was akin to child abuse; the woman was ordered to either end the practice or risk losing her child. A former business executive who with his ex-lawyer wife set up an on-line sex video and toy operation said he switched businesses when he realized that their son was being raised by people who didn't speak English.
The Spanish writing on the wall led to the founding of US English , an organization that used to lobby to persuade individual states to pass English only legislation. Its board of directors has included Arnold Schwarzenegger. A full-page US English ad in The New York Times featured a headless dishwasher, the message in large block letters: "IF SOME NY EDUCATORS GET THEIR WAY THIS IS THE KIND OF FUTURE MANY OF OUR CHILDREN WILL FACE."
Opponents of bilingual education include the writer Richard Rodriguez: ".a way of exacting from the gringos a grudging admission of contrition for the 19 th century theft of the Southwest, the relegation of Spanish to a foreign tongue, the injustice of history.the romantic assurance of separateness."
I once told a CBC-TV interviewer that not providing primary and secondary school students in the francophone school system of Quebec with effective English language instruction was akin to not teaching them literacy or math. A week or so after the item aired a call came in from an aunt in Memphis. We just saw you on CNN, she said. Taken out of context my observation seemed to be striking a blow against bilingual education, the opposite of my point of view.
Language differences may assume a racial character; to speak a different language is to belong to a different species.
"Speak white," says a line in a piece of Québécois verse, "and tell us again about Freedom and Democracy."
In John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages (1961), Zorro, head of a Puerto Rican street gang named The Horseman, has a print of Guernica pinned to his bedroom wall: "You ever heard of a guy named Picasso? Now Pablo Picasso, man, I walked all the way down to a museum to look at his paintings. Now that cat is great, he's the greatest artist ever lived, man. He sings, and you know.you know Picasso, he's got the same blood in his veins I got in mine." From Zorro's perspective, there is no American melting pot: "Man, put yourself in my shoes. The niggers look down on us, the wops look down on us, the Irish were here before the Indians. Man, my people are a proud race. Puerto Rico ain't no African jungle."
Zorro and his gang fear the Italians and above all the gringos, quintessental anglo-saxon male progeny of sixteenth-century religious conflict in Europe, scourge of the Spanish treasure fleets. Who, in the words of Don Rumsfeld, knows in his blood that "weakness is provocative." Buffalo Bill Cody, Sonny Barger, Chet Baker, Walter White. Said Lord Palmerston: ".the half-civilized governments in Spanish America all require a Dressing every eight to ten years to keep them in order."
A tension that is the sub-text of the baseball cap art of Rueben Ortiz Torres. The Mexican artist, who divides his time between Mexico and Los Angeles, uses customized American baseball caps in part to deal with the post-Cold War complexities of Mexico-Latino-America relations, in part to escape the clichés of the Mexican art of the past. If the cap, first worn by the members of a late nineteenth century Brooklyn ball club, is the equivalent of an American flag planted on the heads of millions, perhaps billions of planetary citizens, how may one deflate its authority without turning one's back on a sport and a fashion one feels a great affinity for? The customized cap, an object d'art never actually worn by anybody, embodies a playful adversarial semiotic. The sport doesn't have to be baseball. Ortiz has re-done an L.A. Kings cap to read "Rodney Kings". There is a cap with Guatemalan embroidery, a MesTizo cap, an Aztecs cap, a Mayan Redskins cap, an Ojibwe cap with stitched lettering, beads and a feather, one bearing an airbrushed scene of the burning of Los Angeles, one with the words South Central America, a Browns cap, with the words "and Proud" added.
The Rueven Tyler Stallings essay in Desmothernismo: Ruben Ortiz Torres (1998) offered some insights into the artist's work: "In his customized Malcolm Mex Cap, Ortiz has taken the original cap with an X sewn on it in African heritage colors and customized it by adding iron-on or stitched-on letters.so that it reads 'MeXico.' The original X by itself is assumed, more than likely, by its producers and wearers to come from Malcolm X's name, but actually, within the history of baseball, the X is from the Cuban X Giants, a team from the Negro Leagues within the U.S. before the Cuban Revolution."
Cap of empire. In May 2002 The New York Times reported a conversation with a diplomat in Indonesia who had seen a boy wearing an Osama bin Laden t-shirt and a New York Yankees cap.A Yankees cap was glimpsed on the head of a girl in Shiraz, Iran worn over her hijab.One caught sight in a TV news item of a Chinese soldier clearing earthquake rubble wearing a Dodgers cap in the prescribed hip-hop back-to-front manner.In Ivory Coast, near the Liberia-Guinea border, Robert Kaplan observed men who wore rock-poster-like T-shirts under tribal robes, pump sneakers without laces and baseball caps.In Reynerie, France, an immigrant banlieu outside Toulouse, a crowd of several hundred teens most of Algerian background gathered around a Washington Post reporter there to cover the November 2005 riots. It looked, said the reporter, like a hip-hop convention --- the dress code was sweatshirts and loose fitting athletic gear and baseball caps worn at the ghetto angle. In December 2008 the papers carried photographs of ball-cap headed Bernard Madoff and Robert Mugabe... Mohammed al-Bibi, a fighter in his 20s, was wearing a grey New York Yankees baseball cap when he captured Muammar Gaddafi cowering in a sewage drain.
* * *
"Mothers, don't let your babies grow up to be busboys.I think that I shall never see any Chicanos on TV." Lalo Guerrero
I first heard the words Nueva York spoken in Jean Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965). Some Manhattan hotels make available a Spanish-language tourist booklet with maps and related information with the words Nueva York on the cover over a red-white-and-blue color photo of the El Edificio Empire State.
Twenty-five years ago the city's Hispanics came mainly from Puerto Rico. Today they come from twenty countries including Mexico, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador. The big numbers are from the Dominican Republic. Male and female, 18 to 30 years old, many poor, black, illiterate. There are more Puerto Ricans in the city, but Dominicans now comprise the city's largest immigrant group.
The Ortiz family, who live in Brooklyn, were the subjects of Aaron Mathews' documentary My American Girls: A Dominican Story (2001). Sandra, the mother, and her husband miss the island's communal existence, the extended family where no one has much and everybody greets you with a good morning whether or not they know you. Aaron told me that Sandra at one time worked for his parents. When she needed to say something to her girls, Marita 21, Aida 15 and Myra 14, she did it in Spanish, the girls answered in English. For Sandra and her husband, New York City, where "everybody works hard" was temporary, a ticket to a good life back home. They dreamt about returning to an island home of their own by the sea. We see them in the process of doing that, thinking they are returning at last, going back to where they belong.
Some Dominican parents think of the Dominican Republic as home and imagine a return. For the children born in the USA, the USA is home, the Dominican Republic, a vacation spot.Those who undertake the voyage of return, find that the poverty and the brutal politics are still there. They depart once again for America, this time for the last time.
Dominican children, young men and women, are caught between two worlds, that of their immigrant parents and the American street. In the Juno Diaz short story collection Drown (1996), the tough guy pose is de rigeur. We meet a character who as an infant had most of his face bitten off by a pig, the face that is no longer a face a metaphor for the identity crisis of Dominicans in America. The language issue contributes to the bifurcation of the immigrant consciousness and the immigrant world. English, Diaz said, is his language of writing, the only language he knows how to speak is Spanish. The book's epigraph is from the poet Gustavo Perez Firmat:
The fact that i
am writing to you in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
Most of the city's Dominicans live up in Washington Heights, on the Bronx border. It is a hood some yellow cabs will not drive into, supposedly because of the violent drug scene around the George Washington Bridge. Washington Heights has a history as an immigrant destination. It used to be a Jewish area with a different name. It is where Henry Kissinger grew up and lost some of his German accent. Some residents want to distance themselves, they don't want the area to be called Washington Heights. East Washington Heights is Spanish, noisy, colorful; west Washington Heights anglo, lower volume.
Latinos in America tend to reject the notion of the melting pot, increasingly inclined to see themselves in relation to each other and their fellow Americans as a salad.
Ydanis is a social science teacher at General Gregorio Luperon High School on 181 st Street. The general was among the more enlightened presidents of the Dominican Republic. The school is located in a commercial building above some shops. To gain entrance to the small elevator, one needs to show a photo I D to a bored overweight female security guard sitting behind an improvised plexiglass barrier.
Ydanis ran a pre-college program for incoming students, part of a new alternative high school project to ease the transition. Curriculum classes were taught in Spanish for the first year and a half, with some English classes, then bilingual classes, with the more advanced going into all English classes.
Understanding why Dominicans leave the homeland they love for the USA isn't rocket science. The current immigration trend, Ydanis explained, began near the end of the Trujillo regime, in the early 1960s. The opposition to Trujillo was influenced by Jewish intellectuals from Europe who in the late 1930s arrived as refugees. Emigration rose following the 1965 American invasion. In the 1980s, economic problems created a second wave. Then another. Dominicans, Ydanis said, now live in virtually every state in the union except North Dakota.
Dominican immigrants today, he thinks, have a different mentality. For one thing, they are better educated than a decade ago. They do not see themselves as aliens and outsiders. They are taxpayers and understand that they contribute.
Ydanis remembered the experience of being invited to a gang meeting. A fifteen year old spoke of witnessing the murder of a cousin. The gang was all he had. Ydanis said his goal was to save the students at Gregorio Luperon from this, from drugs, prison, an early death.
We were in a school classroom, the pledge of allegiance on the wall behind Ydanis. His students, he told us, are 14-18, 99% Dominican.
Ydanis said he takes the first week of his classes to explain the value of education, to establish friendship, trust. He wants the students to remember their history, who they were 500 years ago, that the generation 500 years from now will remember the people of today: "Some students think I have some crazy ideas."
The last day of school before the Christmas break. The students were partying. No blackboard jungle scene. Salsa in the cafeteria. The vibe happy, upbeat.
Why, Ydanis wondered out loud, is there no Barnes and Noble in the hood. Why indeed! When I got back home, I wrote to Barnes and Noble: "I was up in Washington Heights, NYC last month and in a conversation with a community leader the question arose as to why there was no Barnes and Noble in that hood." Barnes and Noble wrote back: ".we do appreciate your interest in having us in your (sic) community. Therefore be assured that I have shared your e-mail with our Real Estate and Development department and we will certainly keep your inquiry in mind..To formally thank you for your inquiry, I would like to send you a discount coupon."
A discount coupon? Not a voucher for a free book? Were things that bad at B&N?
Unable to tell from this whether a B&N outlet in Washington Heights was in the cards, I wrote back. "I thank you for your offer of a discount coupon. What I might propose instead is the distribution of a supply of coupons in Washington Heights. By doing that you would be helping to spread literacy and at the same time gauging the potential Washington Heights readership, which would assist B&N in assessing the viability of a B&N outlet in that community." I never heard from B&N again.
Ydanis had been a candidate for city council. He lost the election, said he would try again. An older man, he recalls, accepting a campaign flyer told him he shouldn't be running for office. Why, asked Ydanis. You're too serious, was the answer.
Ydanis walked us to the subway station at Juan Pablo Duarte and 181 st Street passed young couples and children shopping at the discount stores, tables of merchandise spilling out onto the sidewalk. Festive Christmas music drifted from the speakers hanging above the sidewalks outside the shops. In the station we said goodbye.
* * *
South Beach, Florida: December 2006. Makin' money and havin' a good time. Virtually all the FM stations were Spanish-language. A woman sitting at a sidewalk table at Jerry's Famous Deli on Collins Avenue told the Mexican bus boy in very firm Spanish that she was to be spoken to in English. Not herself Miami-born she explained, when I asked why she was so adamant, that it was because Miami was becoming Cuba North.
A Miami TV news anchor said that everybody wanted to live in Florida, that by the year 2050 the population of the city of Miami might approach 36 million.
The apparently expiring Fidel was big news. F.Castro indeed, said Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez. Apparently near death Castro had, she wrote, become irrelevant. Few would dispute the evident failure of the revolution. Cuban hardliners in Miami were urging an end to the US embargo and the normalization of travel between Cuba and the USA.
I kept encountering Cubans in South Beach who claimed they were Argentine. The fellow manning the hotel desk said he was sure Castro was already dead, that he didn't like him. Why, I asked, do you feel that way? He'd been to Cuba to visit a woman he'd met. He said he found much poverty and unhappiness there. The Argentine kid at Kafka's Internet Access on Washington Street said his Cuban friends were all waiting for Fidel to die. And then? "It will be his brother Raul who will be much worse.Nothing will change.The next day everything will be like the day before."
We were in South Beach for the Art Basel Miami Beach Fair. Christoph, a Berlin friend, had an installation in the show. His buddy George, a tanned, Cuban-born, well-preserved forty or so resident of South Beach told us when we asked that he too was from Argentina.
At a lecture on Latin American art an art historian from Harvard University applauded the abandonment by Latin American artists of what he dismissed as the figurative and folkloric stereotypes of the Cold War. Happily, in his view, these artists had seen the light and were now immersed in the conceptual work that marked the global art scene.
The centuries-old struggle for the Americas may not be over. Conquest can be temporary. Gringo America may be justified in fearing the ghost of the Spanish empire, the way the Aztecs feared their own imminent destruction and sacrificed human beings to prevent it, only to have their fate sealed by the arrival of conquistadors from across the sea.
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