Born Again Latinos:
Latinos, once so anxious to join the American
mainstream, have rediscovered a passion for their heritage
Clearly, Hispanic Americans have come out of the closet. Latinos are proud with a vengeance, brimming with a quiet fervor that has been building since the Civil Rights and Chicano movements. Born again, one might say.
Disciple Yolanda McDonald, a Mexican American who was teased by her classmates in Crown Point, Indiana, for being different-in her case, morena-embraces her culture with a devoutness seen only under tents on the outskirts of town.
"Yes, I'm Yolanda McDonald, a U.S. citizen and a very proud American. I live in the best country in the world and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," says the 31-year-old, who lives in Pennsylvania. "But I also have this cultural background that allows me to enrich America."
Vicky Santiesteban, 35, who was taunted by classmates in Miami for having a "spic" father and couldn't get far enough away from her Latino heritage during adolescence, says that now she gets extremely frustrated because she can't understand Spanish-a language she had no desire to learn when she was younger.
"When I first moved back to Miami, I went to the Cuban grocery store to order some steak and I couldn't communicate with the butcher because I didn't speak Spanish. It made me so mad I started to cry," she says, her voice still filled with hurt.
Her conversion came during studies abroad in Spain in 1989, when she read a sign in Salamanca. "When I saw the rock sign in front of the cathedral with the word Santiesteban carved into it, I really felt rooted," recalls the Cuban American.
Making the connection is an important first step. Dr. Frances Aparicio, a professor of Spanish and Latino studies at the University of Michigan, sees second- and third-generation Latinos searching for their identities. "I find that a lot of students look for courses that have to do with their heritage and culture," she says. "I see a lot of students wanting to reclaim their Spanish language."
Ricardo Castillo, an attorney in Phoenix, found his roots in college. "Basically, I didn't know a whole lot about my culture when I was at ASU (Arizona State University). I didn't know who I was. On a campus of 45,000-plus students, there weren't a lot of minorities," the 32-year-old Phoenix native recalls.
"I started hanging out with the Chicanos and Mexicans and attending Mecha meetings. I started rediscovering where I came from. I learned about my culture through Chicano history courses. I even learned Spanish in college. I questioned my parents because I was kind of mad and I felt cheated. I asked them why they didn't share their cultural values with me. Then I realized that when I was growing up they thought they were doing me a favor by not talking to us in Spanish."
Today, the popularity of Ricky Martin, Jennifer López, Enrique Iglesias, and other prominent pop culture icons is helping to make the connection easier for Latino children.
"Having these public figures does make it easier for younger Latinos to be Latino. I see it in my own daughters, who are sixteen and eight years old," Aparicio, a 44-year-old puertorriqueña living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says. "They are the ones listening to Jennifer López and Marc Anthony. I know this music makes them feel more proud, especially here in Michigan where Latinos are not a visible population. They hear Spanish being uttered on the radio and feel much more reaffirmed."
The celebrity icons certainly seem proud of their heritage. Rick Treviño, a third-generation Mexican American, was a bona fide crossover hit in 1995, before Ricky Martin's success, with the Billboard country chart topper She Can't Say I Didn't Cry. A full-fledged country star who followed in the footsteps of musical icons Merle Haggard and George Strait, Treviño says he was naively oblivious to cultural influences.
"I grew up in a predominately Anglo neighborhood on the north side of Austin," he says. "I was very indifferent to all cultures. I was born in '71 at the tail end of the movement and I'm sure my mother saw a lot of discrimination [against Latinos]. I think my mother never reinforced the importance of our culture because she was trying to make an effort to assimilate."
Unlike other third generation Latinos, Treviño says he never shunned his culture. "I never denied my culture, but at the same time I never thought about it," the 27-year-old singer says, adding that he wanted nothing to do with Mexican music.
"Growing up, whenever I would hear Little Joe or Mexican music I knew someone in my house was going to get into an argument. I associated the music with my father's problems and I would shut off," he says. "It was something I had to confront when I did the Los Super Seven record."
He's referring to the Latin-influenced record with Tejano musicians Freddy Frender, Flaco Jiménez, Rubén Ramos, and California roots rockers César Rosa and David Hildago. The album won a Grammy in 1999 for "best contemporary Hispanic roots album."
"I had to face the beast head on," he says about his experience recording the songs he associated with his father. Treviño has succeeded in taming the beast, because today he is infusing his country music with a Latin sound and raising his young son Luke to be culturally aware of his Latino heritage.
It seems as though mainstream audiences can't get enough of the Latin sound. Treviño's album Learning As You Go spawned three hit singles; Marc Anthony, Carlos Santana, Christina Aguilera, and Enrique Iglesias dominate the airwaves and MTV.
These celebrities are for the most part doing a good job of representing the Hispanic culture, despite the media's attempts to dumb them down. Ricky Martin, in particular, comes to mind. Sure, he has a confection-like image, but he is as devout as any "born again" Latino. In his TV specials and public appearances, he pays homage to the past and doesn't forget his roots.
On his recent CBS One Night Only show, he introduced his multiracial family and invited two Hispanic music legends to play on stage. During the telecast, Martin was visibly giddy with admiration while singing with Carlos Santana and José Feliciano.
Is it any wonder that Menudo-loving, General Hospital-watching, Broadway-attending newbies stand behind the handsome man with the gyrating hips? "I have tickets to Ricky Martin," McDonald admits. "I have to go see him because when I heard him speaking at some awards show I realized he wasn't just some pretty boy. He accepted the award on behalf of Vieques [in Puerto Rico]. It's such an injustice to the people [there] to have the U.S. naval base bombing their island for target practice. I'll support this guy because that's important."
A politically charged and confident generation-unlike predecessors who had to scream in the face of the non-Hispanic, white establishment to be heard-the younger Latinos are even glib enough to poke fun at those who tormented us during childhood.
"It's funny because, you know, my e-mail address is spicyvicky," says Santiesteban with a chuckle.
This attitude is what distinguishes younger Hispanics from old-school Latinos such as Chicano columnist Joe Olvera, 55, from El Paso, Texas. Olvera marvels at the younger generation's style and how it differs from his own confrontational, radical, angry approach to racial injustices in America.
"Today, it's all about being safe. When the Chicano movement started we were not safe. Now, everything in the past is forgotten and forgiven and you're moving forward," he says. "I grew up in a time when signs in restaurants read, 'No dogs or Mexicans allowed.' It's hard for me and people of my generation to forget that. I'm still an angry Chicano. Before I can tone it down, we need to have our say in the mainstream media."
Still, Olvera recognizes the accomplishments of the generation and is happy to see the changes.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm glad this Latino explosion is happening. I'm glad U.S. society is embracing us. It's about time," Olvera says.
The younger generation, the "born agains" who ride on the backs of the Affirmative Action and civil rights agenda our elders fought so hard to get implemented, are quietly and confidently building on past successes to open new doors.
mainstream brethren are crossing over to all that our culture has to
offer, we're crossing back-and staying.