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The Blending, and Clashing, of Cultures

Hispanic influences in North America predate the Anglo influx and are reasserting themselves through art

THE U.S.-Mexico border, some of those who cross it say, is not really a border but a scar. Will it heal? Will it bleed once more? When a Hispanic worker crosses this border, he sometimes asks, "Hasn't this always been our land? Am I not coming back to it? Is it not in some way ours?" He can taste it, hear its language, sing its songs, and pray to its saints. Will this not always be in its bones a Hispanic land?

But first we must remember that ours was once an empty continent. All of us came here from somewhere else, beginning with the nomadic tribes from Asia who became the first Americans. The Spaniards came later, looking for the Seven Cities of Gold, but when they found none in what is today the southwestern United States, they left their language and their religion, and sometimes their blood. The Spanish Empire extended as far north as Oregon and filled the coastal region with the sonorous names of its citi es: Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, San Bernardino, Monterey, Santa Cruz. When it achieved independence, the Mexican republic inherited these vast, underpopulated territories, but it lost them in 1848 to the expanding North American republic and its ideology of manifest destiny: the USA, from sea to shining sea.

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So the Hispanic world did not come to the United States, the United States came to the Hispanic world. It is perhaps an act of poetic justice that now the Hispanic world should return, both to the United States and to part of its ancestral heritage in the Western Hemisphere. The immigrants keep coming, not only to the Southwest but up the eastern seaboard to New York and Boston and west to Chicago and the Midwest, where they meet the long-established Chicanos, the North Americans of Mexican origin, who h ave been here even longer than the gringos. They all join to make up the 25 million Hispanics in the United States - the vast majority of Mexican origin, but many from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Central and South America.

It is the fastest-growing minority in the USA. Los Angeles is now the second largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, after Mexico City, before Madrid and Barcelona. You can prosper in southern Florida even if you speak only Spanish, as the population is predominantly Cuban. San Antonio, integrated by Mexicans, has been a bilingual city for 150 years. By the middle of the coming century, almost half the population of the United States will be Spanish-speaking.

The third Hispanic development, that of the United States, is not only an economic and political event: it is above all a cultural event. A whole civilization with a Hispanic pulse has been created in the USA. A literature has been born in this country, one that stresses autobiography - the personal narrative, memories of childhood, the family album - as a way of answering the question, What does it mean to be a Chicano, a Mexican American, a Puerto Rican living in Manhattan, a second-generation Cuban Am erican living in exile in Miami?

For example, consider the varied work of Rudolfo Anaya (Bless Me, Ultima), Ron Arias (The Road to Tamazunchale), Ernesto Galarza (Barrio Boy), Alejandro Morales (The Brick People), Arturo Islas (The Rain God), Tomas Rivera (Y no se lo trago la tierra), and Rolando Hinojosa (The Valley); or of the women writers Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek), Dolores Prida (Beautiful Senoritas & Other Plays), and Judith Ortiz Cofer (The Line of the Sun); or of the poets Alurista and Alberto Rios. Or consider the definitive statements of Rosario Ferre or Luis Rafael Sanchez, who simply decided to write in Spanish from the island of Puerto Rico.

An art has also been created here; in a violent, even garish way, it joins a tradition going all the way from the caves of Altamira to the graffiti of East Los Angeles. It includes pictures of memory and dynamic paintings of clashes, like the car-crash paintings of Carlos Almaraz, who was part of the group called Los Four, along with Frank Romero, Beto de la Rocha, and Gilbert Lujan. The beauty and violence of these artists' work not only contribute to the need for contact between cultures that must refu se complacency or submit to injustice in order to come alive to each other. They also assert an identity that deserves to be respected and that must be given shape if it is not visible, or musical beat if it is inaudible. And if the other culture, the Anglo mainstream, denies Hispanic culture a past, then artists of Latin origin must invent, if necessary, an origin. And they must remember every single link that binds it to them.

OR example, can one be a Chicano artist in Los Angeles without upholding the memory of Martin Ramirez? Born in 1885, Ramirez was a migrant railroad worker from Mexico who lost his speech and for this was condemned to live for three decades in a California madhouse, until his death in 1960. He was not mad, he was just speechless. So he became an artist, and drew his muteness for thirty years.

No wonder that the Hispanic culture of the United States must manifest itself as forcefully as in a Lujan painting, as dramatically as in a stage production by Luis Valdes, with a prose as powerful as that of Oscar Hijuelos with his mambo kings, or with a beat as life-giving as that of Ruben Blades in his salsa songs of city woes and streetwise humor.

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This vast flow of negation and affirmation forces newcomers as well as native Hispanics to ask themselves, "What do we bring? What would we like to retain? What do we want to offer this country?" The answers are determined by the fact that these people reflect a very broad social group that includes families, individuals, whole communities, and networks, transmitting values, memories, traditions.

At one end of the spectrum are 300,000 Hispanic businessmen prospering in the USA, and at the other is a 19-year-old Anglo-American shooting two immigrants to death for the simple reason that he "hates Mexicans." If one proudly spouts the statistic that Hispanic-owned businesses generate over $20 billion a year, one can also, far less proudly, report that immigrants are shot at by Anglos with the paint-pellet guns used in mock warfare games. If one records that whole communities in Mexico are supported b y the remesas, or remittances, of their migrant workers in the United States, and that these remesas add up to $4 billion a year and are Mexico's second largest source of foreign income (after oil), then one must also record that many migrant workers are run down by vehicles on black roads near their campsites.

And if, finally, one realizes that the majority of Mexican migrants are temporary and eventually return to Mexico, then one must bear in mind the persisting differences between Anglo-America and Ibero-America, as these continue to oppose, influence, and clash with each other. This article is an excerpt from "The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World" by Carlos Fuentes, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. Copyright (c) 1992 by Carlos Fuentes. Reprinted by permission.

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