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THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Latinization of America
Latinos Gain Visibility in Cultural Life of U.S.
by Mireya Navarro
September 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
HOUSTON -- Lucy Lopez is 72 years old, but she still remembers
the name of her kindergarten teacher: Miss Jones. On the first
day of school, Miss Jones put Lucy in a corner for not knowing
how to count to four in English.
So when she had children, Lucy and her husband, Gabriel, both
born in Texas of Mexican parents, gave some of them non-Hispanic
names like Debra Susan and Adam Floyd. They spoke to the children
only in English.
But for the third Lopez generation, there is less pressure
to choose between two cultures. Sofia Angela Lopez, 16, a granddaughter,
postponed her "quinceanera," the traditional 15th birthday
celebration, so she could have a "sweet 16" party instead.
She sings alternative rock in English, and hymns at Mass in Spanish.
When she debates history with her father, he sounds like a Mexican
in Texas and she sounds like a Texan of Mexican descent.
"He sees America as, 'This was Mexico, this was our land,'
that kind of attitude," she said. "I feel it was Mexico,
but to tell you the truth, I don't really know how Mexico is.
I'm more like, 'This is America now."'
The America of Sofia Lopez is an increasingly Hispanic nation,
home to 31 million people of Latin ancestry, a rapidly growing
number that in the next five years is expected to surpass African-Americans
as the largest minority group and will most likely make up a fourth
of the nation's population in 50 years, a demographic trend that
has provoked both debate and celebration. Even as Californians
vote to end bilingual education, news magazines proclaim and applaud
the Latinization of popular culture.
But what the growth has also done is to help "Latinize"
many Hispanic people who are finding it easier to affirm their
heritage. And as they find strength in numbers, as younger generations
grow up with more ethnic pride and as a Latin influence starts
permeating fields like entertainment, advertising and politics,
Latinos are becoming visible in ways that offer glimpses of what
their larger presence may mean for the United States.
So right does Carlos J. Guerrero, 34, a Houston businessman
and Texas native, feel about his heritage these days that he just
ordered his first guayabera shirt, through the Internet. So right
it feels to be Latino, said Nestor Rodriguez, 51, co-director
of the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research,
that he no longer regards tacos as a "peasant's meal."
"It's not that we're regaining our culture," Rodriguez
said. "It's that now tacos are everybody's meal."
Jose Alberto Medrano, 24, a political science student at the
University of Houston and a legislative aide, has even stopped
going by Albert, the name he used in grade school.
"It just didn't feel threatening to be Jose anymore,"
the Chicago-born Medrano said. "I used to feel I would be
discriminated against, that it wouldn't be socially acceptable.
It's cool to be Hispanic now." (Last year Jose replaced Michael
as the most popular newborn boy's name in Texas and California.)
At Youth Engaged in Service College Preparatory School, the
charter school Sofia attends in Houston, a group of classmates
discussed what they rejected of their parents' culture. They tended
to identify attitudes and beliefs: deep religiousness, or the
sexism that limits the aspirations of girls.
"My mom thinks girls should not play sports," said
Elvia Flores, 16, who came to the United States from Mexico at
age 6 and who plays soccer.
At the same time, however, there was no trace of shame, no
fear of appearing foreign for embracing other parts of the culture.
They all spoke Spanish, although some of them admitted to speaking
poorly. Sofia, who aspires to be "a lawyer or FBI agent,"
said she planned to pass on to her children what she termed "sentimental"
traditions, like observing the Day of the Dead. And they all find
inspiration in the achievements of any Latino, whether Jennifer
Lopez, the Puerto Rican movie star, or Sammy Sosa, the Dominican
home run star.
Such comfort level with heritage is far higher than that of
the previous generation. John Lantigua, a Miami journalist and
novelist whose father was a Cuban immigrant and whose mother was
Puerto Rican, said his parents pursued the American dream in the
1950s by moving from the Bronx to the New Jersey suburbs and forbidding
him to speak Spanish.
"I used to find scrapbooks in my house from the days before
I was born, when my parents would go out to the Palladium and
the Copacabana," Lantigua, 51, said. "I knew my parents
had had this other life that I wasn't encouraged to have."
Many members of Lantigua's generation reacted by trying to
recover what had been denied them, self-consciously immersing
themselves in Latin culture.
"As I was planning my life, I knew I didn't want to live
like that, with that lack of connection to a community,"
Lantigua said. "I've spent my whole adult life going back
to it, to reconnect with that culture."
David E. Hayes-Bautista, 53, a Mexican-American who is director
of the Center for the Study of Latino Health at the University
of California at Los Angeles, also grew up with parents who "thought
the best they could do was to protect us from being Latino."
"The Chicano movement was a reaction to that," Hayes-Bautista
said. "We used to worry about whether a true Chicano would
eat a hamburger. My children would say, 'What? That's crazy. Eat
a burger if you're hungry.'
"They don't worry about losing anything. They are surrounded
by people like them."
So much so that in the age of "Livin' La Vida Loca"
and "Yo quiero Taco Bell," when the Hispanic presence
is increasingly prominent in the popular culture, Sofia Lopez's
parents worry that their daughter, who is growing up in a mostly
Hispanic neighborhood and attends a mostly Hispanic school, will
end up too Americanized.
"Our culture gets lesser and lesser as times change,"
said Sofia's mother, Oralia Lopez, 39.