Tag: Cuba

Genuine Imitation

When Senator Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, many media outlets noted that he became the first Hispanic to win a caucus, anywhere. But that milestone quickly became subsumed in a discussion of whether Cruz was really and truly Hispanic. Perhaps he was one of those LINOs (Latino in name only), or as I heard growing up, a coconut (brown on the outside and white on the inside).


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Personally, I accept both Cruz and Marco Rubio as Latino. But clearly, neither is illustrative of the Hispanic experience.

For example, picture Rubio playing up his family’s immigration experience to a crowd of Latinos in Texas. “Yes, my family came from Cuba, which means we were granted special status and didn’t have to worry about ICE raids like all of you. Now who wants me to kiss one of their niños?”

Or imagine Cruz talking about his privileged past to a crowd in East LA. That’s about as likely as him playing up the fact that he was born in Canada (which is apparently still a shocker to many Republicans), or denying the scientific consensus that he has a creepy face.

But it’s much more than their backgrounds, of course. As president, neither would tackle issues crucial to the Latino community. Rubio has flip-flopped so many times on immigration that it’s impossible to know what he believes. Perhaps more refreshingly, Cruz is upfront about his right-wing insanity, so we know he really couldn’t care less about affordable health care or better schools or other touchy-feely concepts that Latinos inexplicably want addressed.

As such, I would never vote for either of these guys, and stats show that most Latinos agree with me and, furthermore, aren’t too wild about the GOP in general.

But like it or not, they are both Hispanic. In any case, I’m not one to pass judgment on their Latino bona fides.

I’m fairly light-skinned for a Latino. I’ve never been to my family’s homeland (El Salvador). And my Spanish is lousy (ok, maybe a little better than Cruz’s). So does all that make me a fake Hispanic?

I hope not, because in that case, I would have to change the name of this website.


Publish or Perish

It may be apocryphal. But supposedly an unnamed New York publishing executive was once asked why there were so few books by Hispanic authors, or novels featuring Latino characters.

His response was a blasé “Hispanics don’t read.”

This is indeed bad news, as apparently none of you Hispanic readers are literate enough to even comprehend this article. And I’m not literate enough to write it, which is quite the paradox.


In any case, that publishing exec was clearly not familiar with Latin America’s rich literary tradition, exemplified by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the greatest writer of all time (let’s not debate this). He also didn’t know that one Latin American country, Cuba, has the highest literacy rate in the world.

But closer to home, why hadn’t this exec heard of the brilliant Junot Díaz or the groundbreaking Sandra Cisneros? Or did he believe only white people were reading those authors?

For whatever reason, our anonymous publishing executive refused to believe that the largest ethnic minority in America was interested in books. And in this refusal came justification for the continued blackballing of Latino authors.

“There are several factors contributing to the paucity of published books written by Latinos,” says Marcela Landres, an editorial consultant who publishes the award-winning e-zine Latinidad and co-founded the Comadres and Compadres Writers Conference.

“Primarily, we need more Latinos on the inside working in key positions, such as agents, publicists, sales reps, bookstore owners, and especially as acquisitions editors,” she says.

Landres adds that Hispanic culture itself is another barrier.

“Latinos immigrated to the U.S. so their kids could live the American Dream, which is defined by financial security,” Landres says. “Writing generally does not pay well, so our parents understandably pressure us to choose more sensible careers. In order to be successful as artists, Latinos need to respect our parents but perhaps not obey them.”

As any Hispanic can tell you, disobeying your parents is a tall order. But that is another story.

In any case, some Latino advocates believe that the big publishing houses have hoodwinked us into buying their mainstream books, giving them little impetus to change the formula.

Of course, one strategy to force change is to bypass the big publishing houses altogether. That’s what I did with my novel Barrio Imbroglio.

After some nibbles of interest from the majors, I got the picture that my black comedy tale — about a reluctant detective named Hernandez — didn’t fit in with the preconceived notions about Hispanic literature. Yes, I had the word “barrio” right there in the title, but where were all the undocumented immigrants and magic realism and metaphors using avocados? It was a little too different. So I’ve done what more and more authors — Latino and otherwise — are doing, and publishing directly to Amazon.

But this end run has its drawbacks.

“There are few Latino self-publishing success stories,” says Landres. “I have yet to see literary writers, and/or writers who take years to produce a single manuscript, whose self-published books have sold well. If you write genre and have a bunch of books ready to go, the odds are in your favor. If you’re a literary writer who spends years polishing a single manuscript, not so much.”

In addition to the self-publishing crapshoot, there is the unpleasant fact that — like it or not — the NYC houses still have the most influence on what people read. And they are not packing the midlist with Hispanic authors.

Now, this isn’t just a matter of fairness, nor is it even all about artistic integrity and the myth of meritocracy. A more fundamental reason becomes clear when one considers that “Latino children seldom see themselves in books.” Education experts say, “the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character motivation.”

Basically, there are only so many tales of brave and adventurous white people that Hispanic kids can read. At some point, they disconnect.

And if that is the future we want — a self-fulfilling prophecy where Hispanics truly don’t read — then we should just preserve the status quo.


Such a Princess

I hesitate to mention this, but I know way too much about Sofia the First.

You see, we have a two-year-old boy, and while we limit his TV time, he still catches the occasional Doc McStuffins or Jake and the Neverland Pirates. And Sofia is on right after Jake, so we’ve caught bits and pieces of the show (just enough to drive me mildly insane).

Now, it turns out that Sofia is going to be the launching pad for Disney’s first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor, who is inspired by “diverse Latin cultures and folklore,” according to the good people at Disney. She will receive her own TV show next year.


Of course, the issue of diversity is a touchy one in Hollywood. Just ask Sean Penn about Hispanic representation in the film world… well, on second thought, don’t ask him anything.

In any case, Elena’s arrival shows that Hollywood is sensitive to its reputation as indifferent to ethnic minorities, and that the entertainment industry is trying to improve the representation of Hispanics in pop culture.

But everybody’s a critic. And those critics are saying it’s too little, too late.

First, there is the issue that Elena is going to originate as a sidekick, and worse, there are no plans for her to have her own movie, despite the fact that many Disney princesses of various ethnicities and races have received their own feature films. Hey, Mulan got a pair of movies over a decade ago, and Asians are even less represented in film than Hispanics. So, yeah — what gives?

The second irritation is that Elena’s exact nationality is being kept vague. By not being specific about her homeland, critics argue, Disney is failing to explore the diversity within Hispanic culture, and instead using one brown-eyed princess as an interchangeable stand-in for all Latinas.

This is where I can be of assistance. I can tell you that saying Elena is from Cuba or Bolivia or Puerto Rico would be more bizarre than anything. That’s because the setting for Sofia is a magical dreamland where unicorns run wild, and little kids take classes on how to cast spells, and cutesy-pie dragons burst into song for no reason. Yeah, it’s that annoying.

But while most of the characters speak in a whiny faux British accent, it’s not specifically European. It’s otherworldly. So if this princess from, say, Mexico, just shows up, the effect will be a little jarring.

I told you I knew too much about this damn show.

Regardless, Elena is a step in the right direction. And even if I hated the idea of a Latina princess, it wouldn’t matter, because I’m going to see her, one way or another.

Yes, at this point, I’m just looking forward to the day when my son is finally old enough for Phineas and Ferb.

Living in the Past

Right around Christmas, President Obama freaked everybody out by announcing that we are normalizing relations with Cuba. That’s right — Cuba, the home of this guy.



It’s not like we’re going to be all buddy-buddy now. I mean, who does Cuba think it is? Our real friends are places like Vietnam, where we fought a long, bloody war that killed thousands of Americans for nothing. And then there is Saudi Arabia, which isn’t hostile or repressive or hosting tons of people who would love to slit our collective throats — nope, not our good allies.

It’s Cuba that has vexed multiple presidents, tantalized us with its proximity yet unapproachable nature, and provided the storyline for at least one X-men adventure. And now the United States will begin discussions with the nation to re-establish diplomatic relations. America plans to re-open an embassy in Havana, and the Obama administration will allow some travel and trade that had been banned under the decades-long embargo.

The move is hugely popular with Latinos. In fact, 75% of Hispanics support re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, compared with 64% of Americans overall.

But some Latinos, especially Cuban exiles, are infuriated. These are the people who fled Castro’s regime and took enough cash with them to set up a staunchly conservative community in Florida. For as long as I’ve been alive, Cuban natives have been the one subgroup of Hispanics who vote Republican.

So when Obama announced his decision, the predictable protests erupted in Florida. Senator Rubio declared that we were coddling dictators, and to hear some people talk, we would all be legally required to wear those annoying, pretentious Che Guevara t-shirts six days a week.

However, there’s something funny about Florida’s Cuban American community. Yes, polls show that 53% of Cuban immigrants oppose Obama’s plan, which I think is actually low. But there is a clear generational split, because 64% of U.S.-born Cuban Americans support Obama’s policy. That means almost two-thirds of the Cuban Americans who were born here — and who have little or no direct experience with Cold War politics — are saying, “It’s been half a century, so give it a rest.”

Of course, the older generation is aghast at this. They had Castro on the ropes… in that he is ancient and will soon die peacefully in his bed. But still, we just needed to give the embargo a little more time! Another decade or two would do it.

Leave it to the younger Hispanics, the ones born and raised in America, who are willing and eager to change the failed policies of the past. If they hurry, they might make it to Cuba and see the authenticity of their homeland before Starbucks moves in.

Here’s hoping.

The Big Five

For decades, saying that you were Hispanic was analogous to saying, “I’m Mexican.” That’s no longer true, of course (and I’m not referring to the whole “Chicanos are different from Latinos” debate). Rather, Hispanic culture, like everything else in America – except for the Deep South branch of the Republican Party – has grown and evolved.

Recently, the Pew Hispanic Center issued a report revealing where all these foot soldiers in the Brown Invasion are coming from. As you can imagine, the top two demographics – the Beatles and Stones of Latino culture – are Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. This is hardly a surprise, nor is the third-place finisher, Cuban-Americans, a shocker. As I’ve written before, Hispanic culture in the United States has often been relegated to East LA Chicanos, Nuyoricans, or Miami-based Cuban émigrés.

I was surprised, however, that number four on the list of Latino countries of origin is none other than my family’s homeland: El Salvador. The Dominican Republic comes in at number five.

These five countries account for the vast majority of Latinos in the United States, which isn’t so shocking when one considers that Mexican Americans alone account for more than sixty percent of the Hispanics in the United States.

The Center breaks down the traits of each group and contrasts them “with the characteristics of all Hispanics and the U.S. population overall.” That’s how I found out that Latinos who claim El Salvador as their country of origin are younger than the U.S. population but older than other Hispanics. I also found out that such Latinos have less education than other Hispanics, but they’re not as likely to have out-of-wedlock births. These are categories, of course, that no one wants to be tops in.

One thing caught my eye when going over the Center’s stats, however. People who responded to the survey were free to pick their country of origin, with few guidelines. As a result, the Center points out that “a person born in Los Angeles may identify his or her country of origin as Mexico. Likewise, some people born in Mexico may identify another country as their origin depending on the place of birth of their ancestors.”

So when it comes to counting Hispanics, it’s still an imprecise science.

Two for Two

I’m going to take a break from obsessing about myself (see my earlier posts) to look at the outside world. Two recent developments have proven that the Obama administration is serious about Latino issues. I never doubted the president’s sincerity or commitment, but I had gone on record as saying that Hispanic concerns would take a backseat in the early days of his administration.

I may – and this is as disturbing for me to write as it is for you to read – have been wrong. Furthermore, the president’s recent decisions have implications far beyond the interests of the Hispanic community. They potentially reveal the man for who he is and give some insight into what kind of leader he will be.

First, there is the news that Obama will press for immigration reform this year, which would fulfill a promise he made while campaigning for (and overwhelmingly winning) Hispanic votes. The president’s plan is vague at this point, and it reportedly involves the usual goals of increasing border security and convincing Mexico to hold on to their own people. The big-ticket item, of course, is the proposal to give the 12 million immigrants who already live in America some pathway to citizenship.

Yes, it’s the return of the dreaded “amnesty” provision.

I have, along with every other Latino writer, discussed this topic before, so I won’t rehash the arguments in depth. Suffice to say that conservatives believe that legalizing these workers is a slap in the face of law and order, and a surefire path to economic collapse.

The fairness issue can be debated, although let’s be blunt in pointing out that many of the people screaming about justice are actually just pissed that they had to endure overhearing Spanish in the grocery store. There’s nothing principled about their fear or hatred.

As for economic issues, I have a hard time understanding how more American jobs are going to be lost to people who supposedly have already stolen them. In fact, as columnist Ruben Navarrette has stated, a case could be made that “to help U.S. workers, we need to get the illegal immigrants legal and force employers to pay all workers higher wages and stop playing one group of workers off another.”

In any case, GOP members are hardly the people to lecture anyone on what’s good for the economy… I will refrain from additional cheap shots.

The second announcement from the Obama administration that got my attention was about Cuba. The president intends to make it easier for Cuban Americans to travel to the island and to send remittances. This decision – announced during what was apparently the first bilingual White House press conference – is a welcome first step in ending the arbitrary and counterproductive policy we’ve long held toward that country.

As usual, right-wingers are screaming about going soft on communism, as if our approach had done anything to bring democracy to Cuba. After all, it’s been a half-century or so; when can we expect to see results?

In addition, it wasn’t like the travel restrictions made any sense. Under the guise of getting tough on Castro, immigrants who live in Florida could rarely, if ever, visit their families. But over the years, multiple delegations of governors, members of Congress, and businesspeople were routinely allowed to land on the island. They would talk about trade issues with Cuban officials, all while saying, “We don’t officially recognize you, now please pass some of that kick-ass rum you guys make.” Basically, as long as the potential to make money was involved, we put a hold on our principled stand against oppression.

Obama’s decision will, in all likelihood, make it easier for immigrants to see their families, and perhaps it will be a catalyst for much-needed change. After all, a massive 71 percent of Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba. It’s difficult to get that many Americans to agree about anything, except maybe that Scrubs is long past being funny.

Perhaps the change is due to a lot of younger Americans wondering why we have normal relations with Vietnam, where 50,000 of our soldiers died, while we continue some absurd policy toward a tiny island run by a faded revolutionary on the verge of death. Maybe we’re finally ready to drop all the Cold War posturing.

Regardless of how these two proposals turn out, it is reassuring that Obama hasn’t forgotten how millions of Latinos set high expectations for his administration. Furthermore, it’s now clear that he didn’t just toss around promises like confetti in the hopes of garnering votes. The president is tackling controversial issues when he has more than enough drama to occupy him.

Few would criticize Obama if he took a temporary pass on hot-button social problems to focus on minor inconveniences (such as a faltering economy or a couple of wars). Indeed, many commentators expected him to do just that, and Republicans are delighted to lambast him for “trying to do too much,” especially when his decisions supposedly affect a small percentage of Americans.

But this is the crucial point. Obama can apparently see how disparate problems – such as immigration reform – tie into larger issues, like how our economy functions. It’s promising that he understands that concepts interlock and feed off one another, and necessitate a big-picture approach. He is thus far removed from someone who skips the analysis and goes with his gut (a “decider,” if you will). A person like that usually obsesses on a few basic agenda items, then becomes flummoxed when myriad “unforeseen” disasters occur and snowball. With hope, that will not happen to Obama.

In addition, and perhaps more important, these recent developments indicate that Obama is willing to fight, even when it would be politically easier to skip the tough battles. If that’s true, these decisions are not about kissing up to a key constituency. They are about improving a tattered nation.

And that, of course, is good news for the entire country.

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