The Hispanic American Dream

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The Hispanic American Dream

Introduction

The term "Hispanic American" is a deceptively simplistic one. Hispanic Americans—Americans from a Spanish-speaking background—may be from many different ethnic and cultural groups that hail from dozens of countries. Some were already living on land that now makes up California, Arizona, and New Mexico long before the United States laid claim to it; some came to the United States as political refugees; some came seeking economic opportunities. As such, their American dreams reflect familiar themes across American literature, but with unique perspectives. In the late twentieth century, literature reflecting the rich history of the Hispanic American dream began to flourish, giving modern readers a chance to understand just how varied the experiences that comprise it can be.

America Dreams of Mexico

Jeff Shaara's historical novel Gone for Soldiers (2000) creates a portrait of soldiers and commanders who fought in the Mexican-American War, but it focuses mainly on white Americans such as General Winfield Scott and Lieutenant Robert E. Lee. Shaara accurately asserts that this war is greatly overshadowed in the American consciousness by the Civil War, which followed less than fifteen years later, but the Mexican-American War played a crucial role in expanding American cultural heritage while at the same time creating a rift between white Americans and Hispanics both in and out of the United States.

Although Shaara centers his novel on a handful of American military commanders who fought in the war (and later in the Civil War), he provides glimpses of the Mexican perspective on the conflict. In one instance, a Mexican reporter asks Scott whether or not he thinks the Americans have waged "a bully's war" against Mexico, which was still weak from fighting for its own independence against Spain. Scott avoids answering the complaint directly but draws comparisons between the soldiers on both sides of the conflict:

Men on both sides were ordered to march into the guns of the enemy, and they obeyed, they stood tall, and most of the time they did not run. The Mexican soldier who stood up to us at San Cosme gate is as much a hero as the man who finally pushed him back.

Chicano American Dreams

As a result of the Mexican-American War, the United States gained the territory that would become some or all of the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. The fact that Mexicans inhabited that land before it transferred to the United States did not make matters any easier for Mexican Americans to come. Louis Valdez's play Zoot Suit (1979) tells of an important event in relations between white and Hispanic Americans: the "Sleepy Lagoon" murder trial, in which more than twenty Hispanic youths were tried for the murder of José Díaz at a Los Angeles reservoir frequented by gang members. In the play, the "zoot suit"—with its baggy trousers and long watch chain—is a symbol of a uniquely Hispanic American subculture that thrives in southern California at the dawn of World War II. The character of El Pachuco is the embodiment of this subculture; he encourages protagonist Henry Leyva to recognize the hostile environment in which Hispanic Americans must live, and to fight back. When Henry tells El Pachuco he wants to join the Navy and fight for his country, El Pachuco tries to dissuade him: "Because this ain't your country. Look what's happening all around you … the Mayor has declared all-out war on Chicanos. On you!" Henry is ultimately arrested, tried, and convicted of murder thanks to an overzealous police force and reporters who sensationalize the story. Though his conviction is later overturned, his life is never the same. The same is true for the Chicano community as a whole: After the murder and trial, Hispanic men in zoot suits are routinely beaten and stripped by American soldiers on leave. While Zoot Suit is in many ways a chronicle of the failure of the Hispanic American dream, it also represents a unique story of success for Chicano artists: It was the first play written by a Chicano to be performed on Broadway.

Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) tells of yet another unique branch of Chicano American culture: descendants of the original Spanish settlers of New Mexico. In the novel, a young boy named Antonio witnesses events that bring an end to the peace of the small town where he lives. The two halves of Antonio's family represent dual identities within his Hispanic American heritage: His mother wants Antonio to become a farmer and priest, while his father would like him to become a vaquero (cowboy). Antonio's family takes in an old woman, Ultima, who leads Antonio to question his beliefs about God and the nature of good and evil. The woman is also involved in a mystical battle with three daughters of a man named Tenorio whom she believes are witches. At the same time, the townspeople feel the repercussions of World War II as young men leave to fight overseas; many do not return, and those that do are mentally or spiritually broken. Ultima and the war both represent a loss of innocence to Antonio and the town, with Ultima herself being killed in the end.

Cuban American Dreams

Of course, all Hispanic Americans are not of Mexican heritage. Anna in the Tropics (2003) is a play by Nilo Cruz that offers a glimpse of life in the Cuban communities of Florida just prior to the Great Depression. The play centers on a lector named Juan Julian, who reads news and literature to cigar factory workers as they work in exchange for a small amount of their pay. The newly arrived lector decides to read the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina to the workers, who all become swept up in the story as he progresses. The lector himself becomes a sort of voice for the factory workers when one of the owners tries to introduce new machinery into the plant and is voted down after an impassioned speech by Julian. As a parallel to the plot of the Tolstoy novel, one of the women at the factory, Conchita, has an affair with the charming lector. Ultimately, the lector—a symbol of the traditional ways and, according to some, a barrier to progress—is shot dead by one of the factory owners. The death of the lector is a symbol for the workers' loss of their connection to their Cuban roots.

Oscar Hijuelos paints a portrait of a different group of Cuban Americans striving to achieve their dreams in post-World War II prosperity in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989). In this novel, Hijuelos tells the story of Nestor and Cesar Castillo, two immigrant Cuban brothers who gain fame playing Latin music in New York in the early 1950s. For the brothers, their heritage is not an obstacle to be overcome; on the contrary, it is their experience growing up in a rich musical tradition that earns them fame and respect. Nestor dreams of realizing success in America, as an inspiring book he reads promises:

In today's America one must think about the future. Ally yourself with progress and tomorrow! The confident, self-assured man looks to the future and never backward to the past. The heart of every success is a plan that takes you forward.

The brothers even appear on the legendary television sitcom I Love Lucy with the Cuban American icon of success, Desi Arnaz. However, after Nestor is killed in a car accident, Cesar can no longer bear to play the music his brother wrote. The mambo itself serves as a metaphor for the Cuban American identity: After becoming wildly popular for a brief time, the musical style is incorporated into more mainstream American music and ultimately loses its unique cultural distinction.

Puerto Rican American Dreams

Tales of the experiences of Puerto Rican Americans often take place in New York City, which has several large Puerto Rican communities. Nicholasa Mohr's young adult novel Nilda (1974) focuses on a girl growing up in a community of Puerto Rican immigrants during World War II. For Nilda and her neighbors, New York is much less hospitable than it would be for the Mambo Kings's Castillo brothers. Mohr's characters live in poverty and face daily persecution. Nilda, the main character, must come to terms with her mother's death while she is still a young girl.

Almost a Woman (1998) by Esmeralda Santiago offers a similar tale, though without the conceit of fiction. Santiago's book, a memoir, chronicles her own life as an adolescent and young adult living with her Puerto Rican immigrant family in New York during the 1960s. As a child old enough to remember her homeland, Santiago recognizes the opportunity America represents, and she wants to become an actress. As the oldest of ten children, however, she must also help support the family. Her two responsibilities—to herself, to become a successful American, and to her family, to honor her Puerto Rican heritage—are often at odds. Just being in the United States, she finds that her cultural identity is to some extent a foregone conclusion. Soon after arriving in New York, she tries to clarify to another girl that she is Puerto Rican, not Hispanic. The girl responds, "Same thing. Puerto Rican, Hispanic. That's what we are here." In other words, white Americans see them as if they were all the same.

Dominican American Dreams

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez (1992) tells of yet another group of Hispanic American immigrants who sought refuge in New York: Dominicans fleeing the iron rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo during the 1950s. Like many other Hispanic American authors, Alvarez bases her novel on her own family experiences. However, the García family is different from most other Hispanic immigrant families discussed here. They are far wealthier, living on an estate in the Dominican Republic until their father's outspoken political views cause them to fear for their safety. The title suggests a story of loss; in addition to losing their accents, the García girls lose their home and at least some of their cultural identity. When Yolanda visits her family on the island as an adult after a five-year absence, she tells them about life in the United States:

In halting Spanish, Yolanda reports on her sisters. When she reverts to English, she is scolded, "¡En español!" The more she practices, the sooner she'll be back into her native tongue, the aunts insist. Yes, when she returns to the States, she'll find herself suddenly going blank over some word in English.

However, the story is told in reverse chronological order, ending with the girls as youngsters on their Dominican estate, which serves to emphasize the conflict between the cultures, as well as those elements of their heritage that they carried with them throughout their lives.

Chicana American Dreams

Mexican American women in particular have developed a body of literature that reveals the breadth of experiences even within a cultural and gender population segment. Ana Castillo's So Far From God (1993) is also set in New Mexico, and, like Bless Me, Ultima, the novel features mystical events that draw upon Catholic religion as well as traditional folklore and myth. In the book, a woman named Sofi witnesses the lives and deaths of her four daughters: Esperanza (Hope), Fe (Faith), Caridad (Charity), and Loca (Crazy). Loca even dies twice—the first time, when she is three, she is miraculously resurrected during her funeral. The three oldest daughters, whose names indicate the elements of Catholicism they embody, find that their lives cannot be saved by the qualities after which they are named. Loca, who experiences what seems to be an immaculate contraction of HIV—having never engaged in behavior that would expose her to the virus—is sainted after her second death. The novel represents a radical departure from traditional Hispanic American views on Catholicism.

In her work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Gloria Anzaldúa mixes poetry and prose just as she mixes up to eight dialects of English and Spanish to illustrate the existence of people who must live between cultures, not wholly belonging to any single heritage. The "borderlands" to which Anzaldúa refers are both real and symbolic: Having grown up near the Mexico-United States border, and possessing a mixed ancestry, Anzaldúa speaks of transforming landscapes both geographic and emotional. The author discusses the hardships faced by those who are not allowed to be fully integrated into society. At the same time, she points to the strength of a rich cultural heritage as a fundamental source of endurance for those who are kept from the mainstream. Of her faith and philosophy, she writes:

My spirituality I call spiritual mestizaje, so I think my philosophy is like philosophical mestizaje where I take from all different cultures—for instance, from the cultures of Latin America, the people of color and also the Europeans.

Real Women Have Curves (1996) is a play by Josefina Lopez that offers a decidedly different look at cultural heritage. In the play, Ana, a first-generation Mexican American woman who shows great academic promise, is pressured by her mother to forego college and work with her sister in a clothing factory in their East Los Angeles neighborhood. While Ana's mother and sister believe she should dedicate herself to helping the family, Ana believes that they are holding her back from achieving her dreams. Her vision of success is in direct conflict with the sense of duty and traditional values she has inherited from her family. As is the case for so many young Americans as they mature, Ana must balance her parents' dreams for her with her own.

Conclusion

The Hispanic American dream is best viewed not as a single interwoven tapestry of cultural heritage, but as a mosaic of many different traditions and cultures grouped together solely because they can all be traced in some way back to Spanish explorers and colonists. Though many of these cultures appear only subtly different to outside observers, they are indeed rich and distinct in their views on the promises and opportunities that America represents.

SOURCES

Alvarez, Julia, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Plume, 1992, p. 7.

Anaya, Rudolfo, Bless Me, Ultima, Warner Books, 1972; reprint, 1994, p. 68.

Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987, p. 238.

Hijuelos, Oscar, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989; reprint, Harper Perennial, 2000, p. 162.

Santiago, Esmeralda, Almost a Woman, Perseus Books, 1998, p. 4.

Shaara, Jeff, Gone for Soldiers, Ballantine Books, 2000, p. 377.

Valdez, Luis, Zoot Suit and OtherPlays, Arte Publico Press, 1992, p. 30.