SMITH: Honor Mexican heritage, but assimilate to excel 
Tucson Citizen


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Last week I stumbled across the best piece of prose I've read in muchos moons, one of the most persuasive arguments yet expressed in a cultural wrangle that's been simmering since the Gadsden Purchase . . . and it appeared in the very space you're perusing right now. But one day earlier. I came this close to saying something really smart.

Instead Hector Ayala said it, and he is to be commended - and thanked - for it.

Hector teaches high school English and writes a monthly column for the Perspective page. Judging from his name, I'm thinking he is of Mexican descent; his ancestors could be Peruvian for all I know. Not knowing is part of the point here.

Hector's column began with a reminder that Hispanics have recently been certified as this country's major minority, amounting to 14 percent of the population. In the same paragraph, he noted that the decade that saw them pull ahead in the numbers race also witnessed worse social and economic conditions among Hispanics than they previously faced. Which, given historic example, is sorry news  indeed.

And amid numerous anecdotal and rational examples of what this implies, Hector hit the nail square on the melon as to how come. He did it with an incident in one of his classes where a kid in the back of the room blurted out, "Why do you talk so white?" That was Hector's epiphany. In that instant it became clear to him that the major cultural and political influences on that boy's life were essentially divisive and thus, if their aim was to improve the kid's prospects in life, doomed to fail.

The Classic Comics version of Mexican-American (or Hispanic, if you include Peruvians, Colombians, Panamanians, Bolivians and so on; but I've got a whole other diatribe on that issue) history in America goes like this: The United States buys southern Arizona, steals south Texas, overruns California and annexes a lot of Mexican citizens. Some of them begin assimilating into Yanqui culture, but they aren't always welcomed with open arms or open minds.

After a couple centuries of this, young Mexican-Americans have had enough and get radical. As they grow older they gain political power and urge the next generation to assert their ethnicity, cultural history, language. Guilt-ridden gringos buy into it.

Oversimplified but true. And has this been a good thing?

Only up to a point. And that point was left behind when the frustrated kid in Hector's classroom essentially said that strong, proud sons and daughters of Mexican ancestors are not going to "talk white" or act white, or grow up to see themselves as an integral part of American culture.

OK, mihijito, if you prefer it that way, spend your life working in a llanteria and congratulate yourself on maintaining your apartheid.

And the loudest of your political and cultural heroes will praise you for your strength and purity and shout slogans with their fists in the air and your kids will be no better off than you.

Am I saying, or did Hector Ayala in his inspiring essay say, that kids from families that speak Spanish must put that language and the culture of Spanish-speaking countries behind them and become little Anglicans? No. They and I and all of America would be poorer for that, as we would suffer as a nation and culture if we lost our touches of Italian-ness, Irish-ness, African-ness.

But all of us need - when we grow up and have families that need leadership, love and grocery money - to learn the talk and the walk of the culture we live in. This isn't the law, it isn't the dictatorship of the plutocracy, it's just common sense.

This nation is one of the most culturally diverse on the planet, with colorful ethnic contributions from every other nation. But the dominant culture speaks English, wears wool-blend suits and keeps its ethnic backgrounds at home, in the family album, brought out for special holidays. It's fine to drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day, but the children of Erin figured out a hundred years ago that they couldn't take their intramural fights and Irish history to work with them every day and have any hope of improving their lot in American life. Same with Italians, Swedes and so forth.

Most of them assimilated. Some of them cling to the old ways. Few of them hate America and what it stands for.

Nobody likes being hated, not even an overwhelming majority with no rational fear of losing its clout. The trouble with setting yourself apart from the mainstream culture you live in, is that the majority of the majority will resent you in return and get even for the insult - the implied criticism of your refusal to "talk white." Guess who loses when 14 percent don't want anything to do with 86 percent. 14.

I won't waste my breath saying that I love Mexican culture and some of my best friends are Mexicans. Hell, I was born in Tucson in 1946 and I live now in Santa Cruz County: I am at least 40 percent Mexican already.

I would like to have some serious chunks of African-ness, some Sicilian and a touch of Tahitian to go with the Dutch and Scottish my parents lent me. And some more Mexican.

But I won't likely get any from a kid who sets himself apart and doesn't want to share ... or be shared with. That's the Great Truth we of the class of '64 at Tucson High School learned:

When you've got Chinese and Mexican and black and white and Lebanese, rich and poor and  in-betwixt to pick from, you've got a great class of kids and a hall full of interscholastic trophies.

And nobody has to forfeit his family pride to be a part of the larger whole. Thank you, Hector, for opening our eyes to that.

Citizen columnist Jeff Smith is a local boy trying to make good. His column appears on Wednesdays.  Contact him by phone at (520) 455-5667 or by e-mail: jsmith@tucsoncitizen.com.