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The Boston Globe
'Spanglish' Looks At What It Is To Be Latino
By Diego Ribadeneira
March 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.
In a nation where so many claim different roots, trying to come up with acceptable ways to define racial and ethnic groups is a difficult and, very often, contentious endeavor. This is indisputably the case with Latinos, whose explosive growth is rapidly shifting the political, economic, and cultural landscape in many parts of the United States.
But who is a Latino? The latest census, in 2000, found that people of Hispanic heritage identify themselves as biracial, even tri racial.So Hollywood stereotypes notwithstanding, the Latino world is far from homogeneous. Cubans in Miami, Puerto Ricans in New York, and Mexicans in Los Angeles share a common language, yet they have unique experiences.
"There are several borderlines between us," Ed Morales writes in the introduction to his book "Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America." "One between first-generation immigrants and American citizens of varying levels of assimilation, and more between Caribbean Latinos, who are more influenced by African culture, Mexican/Central American Latinos, who are more influenced by indigenous Meso-American cultures, and South Americans, whose societies tend to be more Euro-colonial in tenor."
Nevertheless, with the rise of superstars such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Ricky Martin, Latino culture has become part of the pop mainstream. But what exactly is Latino culture?
Morales, a poet, fiction writer, and journalist, makes an ambitious and impressive attempt to provide a credible answer. Setting aside "Hispanic" and "Latino" as problematic, Morales prefers to use the term "Spanglish." But he broadens the term beyond language to encompass a multicultural, multiracial identity.
"Spanglish is what we speak, but it is also who we Latinos are, and how we act, and how we perceive the world," Morales writes. "It's also a way to avoid the sectarian nature of other labels that describe our condition, terms like Nuyorican, Chicano, Cuban American, Dominicanyork."
Latino culture, Morales says, foreshadows what the United States is becoming: a hybrid society in which it will become increasingly difficult to put people in simple categories.
"Living in Spanglish" is "an informal invitation to those who seek to end the tyranny of black and white," Morales writes. "It's always been easy to see race in these terms, the terms of the opposite poles of the spectrum. But . . . we are in a new age in America today. It is an age in which the nuances of brown, yellow, and red are as important, if not more so, than black and white."
Morales takes us on a tour that ranges from music to movies to literature, highlighting how Latinos have striven to integrate their native roots with their experience in the United States.
He provides an insightful look at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the East Village performance venue that has been a hotbed of Spanglish culture, a place to celebrate a transnational identity. According to Morales, the cafe spawned a movement that "began to embrace the idea of using the experience of Latinos . . . as a metaphor for multiculturalism."
In music, salsa, which has become a staple of nightclubs, is a quintessential example of the Spanglish phenomenon. The great musician Willie Colon, a Nuyorican who first emerged in the South Bronx in the late 1960s, helped create the sound of salsa by taking advantage of New York's rich Latino stew. He, as Morales notes, "melted together the sounds, fusing merengue (from the Dominican Republic) with bomba (from Puerto Rico), and throwing it in a guaguanco (from Cuba)."
The book does suffer from sloppy editing. In some cases, Morales repeats a point or a fact. And in his effort to take a wide-lens view of "Latino," Morales sometimes strays too far afield from the central theme. In a relatively brief book, he covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and it feels, at times, as if Morales is trying to shovel as much into his narrative as possible.
Still, this is a fascinating read, and Morales is a bright thinker. This is a timely book as the United States confronts a fragmented racial and ethnic future and the influence of Latinos grows.
"Latinos give the chance for America to move beyond identity politics," Morales says. "The Latino cultural `style' has the potential to free everyone from the guilt of having to reconcile with a strict definition of identity. Being Latino is being everyone, embracing the entire spectrum of human behaviors and tendencies without fear."