by Rolando J. Diaz
I was born in Allende, Coahuila, Mexico, just about forty-five miles south of the U.S./Mexico border, and was raised in a placed called Eagle Pass, Texas, about 142 miles southwest of San Antonio. My mother was born in Allende, my father in Eagle Pass, and my only brother in Saginaw, Michigan. As a kid, I was a migrant worker. We worked on the espiga (detasselling of the corn plant) and the cleaned around the cotton plant. My mother made it to fourth grade, my father to sixth grade, my brother to ninth grade. I was the first in my family to graduate high school. When I first left Eagle Pass, I wanted to leave behind the whole Mexican thing. I didn't want to be Rolando Josue Rodriguez Diaz, but Roland Joshua Diaz. What does this have to do with the Hispanic experience in the United States? Oddly enough, many of the things that I thought were unique to me have also happened to so many other people. It's these shared experiences, then, that we must keep in mind as we celebrate our Hispanic cultures.
October 12, 1492. This was the date that Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colon, as we like to call him) landed in the "new" world. On this date, the western civilization of Spain was introduced to the indigenous civilizations which already existed at an advanced state in the "new" world. Although many of our first nations brothers and sisters point to this date as the beginning of the genocide of the indigenous people, Hispanics feel that this was the birth of our people. The mixing of the bloods. The origin of the mestizos. When Hernando Cortez took Dona Marina, or La Malinche, the Hispanic people were born. Half European. Half Indian.
As Octavio Paz points out in his book Labyrinth of Solitude, we as Hispanics are both "the conqueror and the conquered." Our soul is inherently divided and pulled from two very distinct and, at times, diametrically opposed forces. Corky Gonzalez mentions this cultural duality in his poem "Yo soy Joaquin" when he states, "I am Aztec Prince and Christian Christ." Two passions in one soul.
This intense cultural duality is what I brought with me from Mexico. I was already divided between Spanish religion and indigenous beliefs. Imagine my confusion when I tried to survive in the American way of life, which by definition calls for an abandonment of the old ways and encourages assimilation and acculturation. How could I be American when I was still not sure if I was Spanish or Indian? The languages of my indigenous ancestors had already been replaced by Spanish. Was this now to be replaced by English? Given the education policies in Texas back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, it is no surprise that even our Spanish language was almost wiped out by those who would have us assimilate into the American way and in the process obliterate our own traditions and language.
It was then that I learned about the great power that comes with the English language. However, I stubbornly held my to my Spanish. First of all, my mother does not speak English. Second, Eagle Pass is a community where Spanish is essential if one is to survive. Early on, though, I developed an understanding of the nuances of English. Imagine the historical irony when I went on to get a Master's degree in English and have even taught English at some of the major universities in the midwest! My father to this day gets a kick when he asks me, "Mijo, you teach the gringos their own language?" I guess so, dad. I guess so.
If it was not our language that was meant to be broken, then it was our spirit. Comedian Paul Rodriguez once said that the reason God gave us brown skin is because He knew we would have all the outside jobs. It was this inherent resistance to heat and exposure to the sun that helped my family and I survive those long days out in the fields. Up at 2:00 a.m. to catch the bus and get a good seat. Arrive at the corn fields at the crack of dawn. Work until noon and have our lonche paseado. Work until 5:00 p.m. Collect our $12.50.
Perhaps the compensation has gone up since then, but the ritual remains the same. The descendants of the Mayans, Aztecs, Spaniards have been reduced to doing the work that no one else wants to do. Have things changed? We should ask the people working in the grape fields in California, the people working in the cotton fields in Texas, the people working in the meat processing plants in Nebraska and Iowa. The irony is that we are still blamed for taking away jobs from Americans.
This continued oppression also works against us in our education. I mentioned earlier that I was the first to graduate from high school. Was this an experience unique to me? No. National statistics point out that Hispanics have a high school drop out rate as high as 50%. One in two Hispanic students never even makes it out of high school. What good does it do to have a population that is growing at six times the national average if half of us are not educated? What good will it do to be the largest ethnic minority group if the majority of us continue to be over worked, under appreciated, and under valued?
I was also the first to get a bachelor's degree. The first to get a master's degree. The first to get a second master's degree. And the first to work on a Ph.D. I look around and see very few people who look like me or know my cultural references as a Mexican. It is an interesting feeling to be at staff meetings or directors meetings and realize I am the only Mexicano in the room and that that no one in the room speaks Spanish but me.
The funny thing is that educated, experienced, and empowered Hispanics are a hot commodity today. Being bicultural and bilingual makes us uniquely qualified to operate in a global economy. And, much like an athletic superstar, we also go to the highest bidder. We must remember that our special talents make us valuable to our employers and that their very survival depends on people like us who know the difference between el Papa and la papa.
This constant flip-flopping between two cultures and two languages, however, can be confusing. I am Mexican-American. I tell people that I live in the hyphen. You will find me somewhere between chilaquiles (or migas con huevo as I call them) and Capn Crunch cereal. Entre dos mundos. Between two worlds.
I mentioned in the introduction that when I first left Eagle Pass, I wanted to leave behind Rolando Josue Rodriguez Diaz and become Roland Joshua Diaz. This is a very common phenomenon. I have known too many people who have even changed the pronunciation of their Spanish surnames. I am now back to using the name that is written in my Mexican birth certificate. It is who I am, and it reminds me of where I come from.
And yet, at work I still sometimes go by Roland. People always ask me what I want to be called, either Roland or Rolando. I tell them that I want to be called both. Since I am bicultural and bilingual, both names will suffice. Almost facetiously, I tell them that it all depends on which language they are speaking to me in. Roland or Rolando. In English o en Espanol.
A visual example of this cultural duality can be seen on the cover of the novel Pocho, by Jose Antonio Villareal. On one side you see what appear to be Mexican peasants dressed in white cotton outfits as they harvest their crop. On the other side you see the buildings of modern life. In between stands Richard Rubio holding his books, symbolic of his hunger for an education.
This cultural duality is very common. A student once came into my office with his goatee and mustache half shaved off, his hair parted own the middle, and was wearing two different shoes. He told me that he felt like two different people that day. He turned one way and said, "This my American side." He turned the other way and said, "This is my Chicano side." What I had experienced so many years before when I first left Eagle Pass, he was now going through.
The fact of the matter is that both sides are important. Both the Mexican and the American sides of who I am are just as valid. When ever I approach any given task, I bring my two tool boxes, the Mexican tool box and the American tool box. I take a little from one and a little from the other. When my family gets together for Thanksgiving, we have the turkey, the pumpkin pie, the cranberry sauce that comes from the can and is then cut into slices, etc. But we also have the taquitos, the menudo, the horchata, etc. When the 16th of September rolls around, I celebrate the independence of Mexico. When the 4th of July rolls around, I celebrate the independence of the United States. I am both. I am either. I live in the netherworld that exists between the two. Sometimes starting a sentence in English y acabándola en Español. Soy quien soy.
As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, we should remember that we as a people come from twenty two different countries. We are the products of both Spain and the Americas. We are united by our Catholic religion and by our Spanish language. And yet, we are also citizens of the United States of America. We should be proud to be a part of this country. Hispanics have earned the highest number of Congressional Medals of Honors compared to any other group. I would be the last one to do or say anything that would invalidate the cause for which many of these individuals gave their very lives.
As I said before, I was born in Allende, Coahuila, Mexico, just about forty-five miles south of the U.S./Mexico border, and was raised in a placed called Eagle Pass, Texas, about 142 miles southwest of San Antonio. My mother was born in Allende, my father in Eagle Pass, and my only brother in Saginaw, Michigan. I am proud of my Mexican-American history. My family history. At one time, I though I was the only one who understood El Chapulin Colorado, menudo, taquitos, fideo, barbacoa, and all the things that make me who I am. Many of these things have also happened to so many other people. It's these shared experiences that make us a culture.
We are Hispanics, Chicanos, Latinos, Tejanos, Mexicanos, Hondureños, Salvadoreños, and are known by many other names. We should take pride in our history. We should learn from what has gone on before. We should build on these experiences and work toward a future where the principals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" applies to us all.