On Being Latino With a New York Accent

The term, Latino, a word that describes the blending of Hispanic and American cultures, conjures up a myriad of vibrant images. In my mind, the word even has color.
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The term, Latino, a word that describes the blending of Hispanic and American cultures, conjures up a myriad of vibrant images. In my mind, the word even has color. Not the subdued beige and pastels of a lazy summer's day, but brilliant reds, and dazzling blues, and sunburst yellows, against the backdrop of urban gray. Visible in the street murals of the Lower East Side, in the piragua ices sold from wagons in El Barrio, in the boldness of our artistic expressions, these colors are esteemed by people who themselves form a human rainbow mosaic.

Latino is present in the unconfined energy and beat of "Latin" music, as it breaks out of windows and store fronts to induce the rhythmic swaying of hips and intricate dance steps. It is the beauty of Spanish, English and Spanglish that is molded in the imagination of our literature and drama. It is found in the street games and sports leagues of neighborhoods where softball, baseball and soccer reign supreme. These all are visible signs of being Latino in New York.

But there are other sides to being Latino that are more subtle and difficult to describe. The essence of being Latino, sometimes called Latinismo or Latinidad, is intrinsic to our every day experiences. These are the encounters that allow us to understand and appreciate the term through example rather than just in its visual, concrete forms.

For me, Latino is a six-year-old, third-generation, Mexican-American great-nephew who, when listening to adults conversing about cultures and languages, asks, "what about the people who speak 'Californian'?" Californian, you see, is Spanish for him. Latino is a second cousin who goes out of his way to stop in the Bronx to pick up a jug of Mavi -- the ubiquitous drink made from the bark of the Mavi tree -- because it will remind me of my Puerto Rican roots, and a sugar cane stalk for the children so they can understand where they come from. Latino is when an esteemed friend and colleague pulls me aside at a party to explain the secret of making his Cuban black beans, a recipe that goes back several generations. And I attempt to duplicate it for my own family served alongside an American hamburger.

Latino is when our Puerto Rican Congressional representatives, citizens by birthright, take strong political stands to defend the Dream Act for all Latino and other immigrants. It is the camaraderie of dozens of Puerto Rican and Latin American organizations around New York gathering each year to celebrate their Latino pride in Heritage Day parades. Latino is when we use different names for the same thing, like Mexican salsa and Caribbean sofrito, or Puerto Rican mofongo, Dominican mangu and Cuban Foo-foo, showing both, our individuality and our commonality. And our delight when we discover the differences and similarities in the experience.

Latino is when my Chicana colleague and I invited a group of women to suggest a cover photo of a typical Latina and they responded with a number of possible images including an Afro-Latina, an Indigenous-Latina, a European-Latina, a mestiza, and a mulata. They were all representative Latinas! Years later we presented our final choice -- an image of two mestiza women at the turn of the twentieth century -- and were complimented by a young scholar who thought we were portraying two lesbians. And that is also Latino.

Pressing issues relevant to the Latino population will, no doubt, invite divided or united responses. That is a testimony to our diversity. Latinos are not monolithic. But a sense of Latinidad also infuses our perspectives. To appreciate the many sides of being Latino is to understand the many sides of being American.

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