Tag: ethnic identity

Anybody Remember “Cocoon”?

My abuela is past 90 and shows no signs of ill health. I wonder if she will visit me in the retirement home, because I will end up in one of those places long before she does.

I mention this because more Americans are entering “the sandwich generation,” where they raise their kids while taking care of their aging parents. It’s a common scenario, and the premise for at least a couple of failed sitcoms.

Indeed, in post-recession America, multiple generations under one roof is not uncommon. And for Latinos, economic necessity and strong familial bonds increase the odds that individuals will one day have to take care of their parents. But that scenario doesn’t seem to faze us.

In fact, more than 90% of Hispanics say providing assistance to elderly loved ones will be a positive experience, a higher number than the general population. And while more than half of all caregivers to the elderly report being stressed about the situation, only one-third of Latinos who care for an older person say that it has caused stress.

Yes, as I’ve written before, putting one’s aging parents in a retirement home is unthinkable for many Hispanics. Latino culture is strongly focused on the family, and it is often assumed that elderly parents will eventually go live with their adult children. As one Latina writer puts it, “We open our doors and bring [elderly parents] home, we care for them, and we do not set them aside like a piece of old furniture.”

How-to-Get-Rid-of-Broken-Furniture-sm

 

Of course, that’s a little harsh on all you non-Latinos who plan to stuff mom and dad in one of those old folks’ homes at some point. But it is — how can I put this? — pretty much damn true.

Now, there is a dark side to this. Perhaps because Latinos often presume that elderly parents will eventually go live with their adult children, just 10% of Latinos report that they have done much planning for their long-term care.

So when madre or padre does move in, stresses such as overcrowding and conflicting needs can pile up. Still, we seem to be handling it well so far.

As for my abuela, thus far she has not had to move in with any of her kids (or more likely, her grandkids). She lives by herself, where she cooks, watches TV, and reminisces about the past.

But I bet she’s also plotting how to spend the inheritances she will get, considering she will outlive all of us.

 

 


How Very Droll

By now you’ve seen that infamous photo in a Florida high school’s yearbook. The shot pictured six students dressed in ponchos and sombreros and wearing fake mustaches, with one student wearing a shirt labeled, “border patrol.”

It’s offensive and idiotic, of course. But that’s not really the point.

Kids do dumb things, and rather than lambast the students in the photo, it would be better to point out to them that such behavior has no redeeming value. If that doesn’t convince them to be a little more aware of the culture in which they live, let them know that thanks to social media, such ill-conceived photos will haunt them for years to come.

No, the issue here is not the kids.

The problem is the adults. I’m taking about the parents who raised their kids to think it’s hilarious to embrace racial caricatures. And yes, I’m aware that some of the students in the photo are Latinos. If anything, that’s even worse.

And I’m talking about the yearbook advisors who saw nothing wrong with the photo. Hey, I was on my high school yearbook’s staff, and our advisor vetoed things left and right. I can’t imagine the teacher who looked at this and said, “Eh, a pointless and mean-spirited jab at Hispanics. Whatever.”

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More than anything, I’m talking about the defenders of the picture, who are out in force on the internet. So let’s look at some of the adult excuses we’re hearing over what should be a pretty clear case of foolish, needlessly hurtful adolescent behavior. Here are some of my favorites:

It was only a joke. If you’ve ever said this to justify an insult, you have either never been on the receiving end of a verbal assault, or you are too dense to realize when someone was attacking you under the guise of humor. In either case, you were probably able to shrug it off because you are in a position of social power (racially, economically, etc). It’s a tribute to your lack of empathy that you figure everybody shares your charmed life.

Lighten up, it was funny. This is an amped-up version of the previous excuse. To any adult who actually thought the photo was hilarious, here are a few pointers about humor, before you really kill ‘em at your next stand-up routine. Humor tends to work when it’s directed at those in authority (rather than at a demonized underclass). It also works when it reveals profound truths or upends convention (rather than wallow in hackneyed, false stereotypes). In brief, the picture was about as witty as frat boys lighting their farts.

I’m German, and people have called me a kraut. I’m continually stunned that people believe all ethnic terms have the same resonance. No one hurls “kraut” as an insult in 2015 America. Now if you were bombarded with this term in, say, 1944, it might be different. In any case, terms that call out your European heritage bounce off a shield of cultural power, based on sheer numbers and societal influence. You can easily laugh them off. But don’t worry. In the future, when Hispanics are more than a quarter of the U.S. population, maybe we’ll smirk in smug condescension at “wetback.”

People are too sensitive. Yes, how great it was to live in the good old days, when offensive comments were met with forced laughs and seething hatred. Well, I have news for you. Society isn’t any more sensitive than it ever was. But people who gritted their teeth and let it go in the past are sick of your bullshit. So now you’re going to hear about it. And I can say—with a bit or irony—that if you don’t like it, tough.

Those kids shouldn’t apologize. It’s the illegal immigrants who should apologize. Hey, thanks for verifying that your issues with undocumented people have absolutely nothing to with race or ethnicity. Nope.

Soon we won’t be able to say anything out of fear of offending someone. If you mean that you can’t pull out tired racial stereotypes and rub them in people’s faces, well yes, I weep for your lost world.

Finally, there is the issue that the Latina student who called attention to the photograph, Jessica Morales, has been insulted, denigrated, and mocked for her decision to speak up about the picture. To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t scream that her fellow students were racists or demand a cash payment for pain and suffering or get all histrionic.

Her critics, however, are content to sit behind their keyboards and attack her, mostly under a cloak of anonymity of course.

Yes, kids being unintentionally offensive is bad. But adults being loudmouthed bullies is a hell of a lot worse.


The Future’s Uncertain

I recently waxed ecstatic about California, the state I live in. I do indeed love living here, but I never claimed that it was perfect.

For example, a recent report shows that when it comes to Latinos, my state has some issues. And those issues are reciprocal, in that as Latinos go, so goes California.

You see, the study has found that among all racial and ethnic groups in California, Hispanics have the lowest well-being score. What, exactly, does that mean?

Well, rather than just look at a group’s median income or rate of cancer or percentage of sunny dispositions or collective weight or any of the other statistics that offer us interesting but isolated insights into a demographic’s existence, these researchers created an overall well-being score.

The number is based on a group’s overall health, educational level, earnings, and other factors, all put together. Think of it as a GPA rather than an individual grade.

Well, measured on a 10-point scale, Latinos had a well-being score of 4.09. That’s bad.

thumbsdown
I mean, would you want to date someone who was barely a 4 out of 10? Now imagine an entire group struggling under that number.

For the sake of comparison, Asian Americans had the highest score at 7.39. Whites and blacks were in between but noticeably better than Hispanics.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers found that native-born Latinos fared better than immigrants did. But by any measure, California’s Hispanics are far from thriving.

That’s terrible news, of course. But it goes beyond dark days just for la raza.

Hispanics are poised to become the state’s largest ethnic group, and more than half of California’s children are Latino. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see that the study’s results could be ominous for the state’s future. With such a large percentage of the population struggling, the whole state will be dragged down.

The study’s authors conclude that California needs to improve the well-being of Latinos if the state hopes to thrive.

Well… yeah.

But there is some good news. While Latinos have the lowest well-being score, they’ve made great strides since 2000, and they’re moving up more quickly than any other group.

So at least we have forward momentum on our side. With hope, that will be enough to keep Cali golden.

 


More to the Story

Recently, I wrote about the dismal publishing scene for Latino authors. Well, I was remiss in at least one aspect. I implied that Hispanic writers are limited only to pitching the big New York publishing houses or jumping into the self-publishing quagmire. There is another option.

 

Namely, it is the world of small presses. Now, in the past, the phrase “small press” invoked images of ink-stained loners cranking out bizarre manifestos. Well, you’ll be glad to know those guys have moved on to troll internet comment pages across the web.

troller

The small presses that exist today are often professionally run, highly principled organizations that focus on marginalized or experimental writers. And when it comes to Latino authors, we may be entering a golden age.

I’m talking about presses like Arte Publico, Floricanto, and Editorial Trance, all of which have been doing great work for years. And there is also Aignos Publishing, co-founded by Jonathan Marcantoni and Zachary Oliver.

 

Marcantoni says that Aignos, and other small presses that have a similar focus, look for writers who push boundaries and challenge readers to question their worldviews. Authors who embrace their distinct cultures — something Latino writers are well-known for doing — may find a home at Aignos or a similar small press.

“A small press gives authors the legitimacy of being affiliated with a company, one that is taken seriously by media and festivals and awards, in a way writers never get as self-published authors,” Marcantoni says. “Well-established small presses have marketing plans and publicists, plus the distribution channels are on par with what large presses use.”

Indeed, I can speak to this issue, as my own self-published novel, Barrio Imbroglio, is selling somewhere between hot cakes and lukewarm waffles.

It would certainly help to have an established marketing team behind me (my current marketing team consists of me and my cats).

Marcantoni says that when it comes to small presses, “the Latino author gets the best of both worlds: world-class distribution, a company backing their efforts, and creative freedom.”

That combo often leads to great books. For example, Aignos recently published Nuno, by Carlos Aleman. The novel is a lyrical love story set in pre-Castro Cuba and the aftermath of the revolution. Marcantoni says that Nuno doesn’t fit into mainstream expectations of Latino literature. As such, it lines up with Aignos’ mission of pushing writers to develop their views and skills instead of pressuring them to make the bestseller lists.

“No one should be a writer to be famous,” Marcantoni says. “It should come from a desire to express yourself and touch the lives of others.

So will we see more Hispanic authors telling their unique stories via small presses, touching the lives of more and more readers? Well, there’s ample reason to be optimistic about such a future.

“The Latino community can stand out as one of artists seeking to raise the bar of what storytelling can be,” Marcantoni says. “And there are publishers out there who will support you.”


Maybe He Had It Coming

So if I haven’t mentioned it lately, I’ve published a mystery novel featuring a Latino detective.

Although there are plenty of book series with Hispanic sleuths, none of them have really broken through to the mainstream (so you gotta love my odds of being the first).

In any case, I read a lot of mystery novels, the better to study and learn about the genre.

detective-150

Recently, I was reading a bestseller from a few years ago, by an author I don’t want to mention, because I might, you know, need a blurb someday. The detective in the book is white, of course, and oh so very angsty and tortured.

About halfway through the novel, the detective is doing something shady and illegal, but as is often the case with flawed anti-heroes, it is in the service of uncovering a sinister truth, so as readers, we let it slide.

However, in the process of committing this ethically dubious act, the hero is stopped by a Latino (the first one to appear in the book). So what happens?

Well, our main character insults and threatens the Hispanic guy, demanding that he get the hell out of the way. Then threats are made to call immigration and get him deported. When this fails to dissuade the Latino character — who, it is important to remember, is actually trying to do the right, legal thing — the hero pistol-whips him.

I’m not kidding. The sole Hispanic in the book… trying to be good and pure… gets degraded and physically assaulted by the white hero.

It’s not hard to read the subtext in this one.

I’ll also mention that in the next chapter, the hero narrates how that illegal action saved the life of a pretty white girl and how this proves the detective isn’t such a bad person after all.

No mention of the Latino who got his meddling ass pistol-whipped.

 


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.

Escher-1024x963

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.

 


Many Languages, One Voice

When my cousins from El Salvador first came to America, they didn’t speak English. Of course, they were kids, so they rapidly learned it. Today, everyone in my family, except for my abuela, embraces English as their primary mode of communication. My cousins’ children (and mine) will have to make an effort to be bilingual and not leave Spanish in my family’s past.

But other families don’t face the dilemma of losing the mother tongue. In fact, about 5 million children in the United States don’t speak English as their primary language. This constitutes 9% of all US public school students. Now, that number includes a lot of kids who speak Tagalong or Russian or Mandarin or something else that most of us don’t recognize.

But it’s fair to say that many of the children who speak English as a second language (ESL) communicate only in Spanish.

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Because we’re hearing more Spanish than ever in the country’s schools, the Obama administration recently issued the nation’s first set of federal guidelines on the rights of ESL students. The guidelines remind school districts across the country of their obligations under the law.

Among other things, all schools must identify ESL students in a timely manner, offer them language assistance and provide qualified staff and resources to help them learn English. In essence, ESL students have the same rights to a quality education as students who speak English, and schools must avoid segregating English learners from other students.

I know this is a shocker to the nativist crowd, but you can’t just yell, “Speak English, damn it!” at perplexed kids.

The decision makes clear that students who speak Spanish, or other languages, are becoming more common, and the American educational system has to meet their needs. The Obama guidelines are a welcome indicator of that fact.

Of course, it’s a little sad that anyone has to be reminded of this in the first place.


Buckle Up, Gente

To the lengthy list of the many challenges that face Hispanics — economic stagnation, educational struggles, health problems, discrimination, cultural disrespect, and so on — add a simple one: car crashes

car crash

Because of language barriers, long-held traditions and other factors, Latinos are less likely than other ethnic groups to wear seatbelts. As a result, young Hispanics are about twice as likely to die in a traffic crash as their white counterparts, and car accidents are the leading cause of death in America for Latinos between the ages of 5 and 34.

How fucked up is that?

Well, to address this crisis, the National Latino Children’s Institute has launched a new campaign to increase seatbelt and car-seat use among Hispanics. The multimedia campaign will provide crucial information about safe driving and riding practices, and it offers resources that can be customized for the diverse Latino population.

You have to love the program’s tagline, which is “Hagalo por su familia, ¡abróchese el cinturón!” (“Do it for your family, buckle up”).

That’s right. Hispanics might not think of buckling up to save their own lives, but you throw familial responsibility in there, and you have resonance. The tagline basically says, “Do you want to disappoint your mother by getting killed in a car crash? Huh, do you?”

I think we all know the answer to that one.

 


Teen Angst

It’s not easy being a teenager. The zits, the hormones, the awkward encounters with the opposite (or same) sex — it’s all stressful. And you can’t even buy even buy a damn beer, at least not legally, until your teen years are long over.

But if it sucks to be an adolescent, it sucks more to be an immigrant teenager in a new country. Take all the angst that faces every teen, then add language barriers, cultural confusion, discrimination, and general discombobulation. It’s not pretty, is it?

However, in a surprising conclusion, a recent study says racist acts may affect the mental health of US-born Latino teens more than teens born in Latin America. The study, by the Society for Research in Child Development, showed that US-born Latinos who faced discrimination had higher levels of anxiety and depression.

How can this be? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that immigrant teens who face bigotry would feel more alone and alienated than a kid born here?

alienation

Well, the researchers said foreign-born teens might have stronger attachments to their Latino heritage, and thus may feel less stress when discriminated against. But native-born Hispanics, who are still trying to figure out how to balance their heritage and their American tastes, are more likely to feel ostracized and betrayed by the culture in which they grew up.

The researchers point out that discrimination has damaging effects on mental health, and stress has long-term health implications for Latino teens. In this way, it supports other findings that show second-generation Hispanics often perform worse than immigrants in a number of lifestyle areas, including mental health.

So is there any good news in this depressing study? Well, the research also implies that Latino immigrants, even children, often demonstrate high levels of psychological strength and resiliency.

Basically, you can’t shut ‘em down.

 


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.

elena

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.


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