Changing Hearts and Minds During Hispanic Heritage Month

General view of the Zocalo square in Mexico City during the ceremony for the Bicentenary of the country's Independence, on Se
General view of the Zocalo square in Mexico City during the ceremony for the Bicentenary of the country's Independence, on September 15, 2010. AFP PHOTO/Luis Acosta (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)

From mid-September to mid-October, I'm flooded with an array of informational tidbits about Latino or Hispanic contributions. I read that one athlete or another claims Hispanic heritage or I'm asked to identify which celebrity belongs to one or another of the Latino ethnic groups. It is as if the mere act of being is sufficient cause for celebration. Role models are necessary, but in the long haul they don't cause me to stop and wonder how this nugget of enlightenment changes my perceptions about myself, or the Latino American legacy. I prefer to celebrate heritage by discovering Latino Americanos who have made a difference, whose legacy results in a transformative contribution, a game changer that brings pride and recognition to the many ways we've shared in building community and nation.

For example, when I first learned that a nineteenth century Mexican-American novelist produced two of the most provocative novels in American Latino literature, I wanted to know more. Who was this writer and why had I not heard about her in any of my college lit classes. What did she write about and why? How did she make a difference as a woman, a writer and a Latina?

The writer was Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton and her two most important historical novels appeared in print in 1872 and 1885 respectively. Believed to be the first Mexican American woman to write in English, her novels are considered precursors to Chicano literature which is, of course, American literature. Well, there was a major contribution right there!

As a Mexican Californian who married a high ranking American army officer from New England, Ruiz de Burton was a keen observer of social norms and cultural nuances. Her first book, Who Would Have Thought It?, challenges the issue of slavery and discrimination. The story opens with the tale of a prominent New England doctor appointed guardian of a ten year old, dark skinned, orphan girl from the Southwest. He brings her home to his Bostonian family causing an unexpected chain of events. The story reveals the pettiness and hostility embedded within his God fearing, abolitionist kin and unveils the hypocritical attitudes of the pious northerners against the outsider in a place and social class assumed to value equality and civility.

The second book was The Squatter and the Don. It portrays the romance of an Anglo squatter's son and the daughter of a Californio Don. The exploitation of Mexican American land and labor following the U.S. Mexican War, and the Anglo rush to claim land in the conquered territory, fuels the conflict surrounding the young lovers.

Informed by her own loss of inheritance, the writer vented her rage at a legal system that protected squatters' rights at the cost of impoverishing the newly minted American citizens - the former Mexican landowners. But Ruiz de Burton also understood that in spite of everything the future would be molded from the combined efforts of both, the Anglo American squatter and the Mexican don.

Constrained as she may have been by her sex and her ethnicity, in her writings Ruiz de Burton railed against the injustices suffered by her people at a time when women's voices, especially that of a talented Latina, were seldom heard. As a woman with familial bonds on both sides of the cultural divide, Ruiz de Burton's books demand recognition of the crippling effects of economic and negative societal transformations taking place during her lifetime. And as with all good literature, the writer gives us the historical insights to better understand the present.

Ruiz de Burton's work is a game changer. The Squatter and the Don and Who Would Have Thought It? helped shift the paradigm of American literature. Thanks to the Arte Publico Recovery project, Ruiz de Burton's books are available and included in college courses.

Like today's athletes and celebrities, Ruiz de Burton could well bask in the momentary limelight but her legacy takes her far beyond Hispanic Heritage month. Her work stands as testimony to the long history of Latinoamericans who have made a difference in how we value ourselves as a people and how we've shaped our society. Such contributions should be celebrated every month of the year.