life in the hyphen stavans

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  • IEnn

    Lrf, in the llyphen

    What ifyo were you andtiJuuas I, Mister?Bom in 1885 in Jalisco, Mexico, the painter Martin Ramirez spent mN ot

    his life in a Califomia madhouse, in a pavilion reserved for incurable pa$nts.Since his death in 1960 he has become a syrnbol in Hispanic imm4rantexperience and is considered today a leading painter with a permanentplacein Chicano visual art. As a young man, Ramfrez worked first in the fieidlandthen in a laundry; he later worked as a migrant railroad worker, reloounSacross the Rio Grande in search o[ a better life and to escape the dang$ofthe violent upheaval sweeping his native land. He lost the power t6ulkaround I9I5, at the age of thirry, and wandered for many years, until thrlosAngeles police picked him up and sent him to Pershing Square, a sheltirlorthe homeless. Diagnosed by doctors as a "deteriorated paranoid sclruo-phrenic" and sent to the Dewitt Hospital, Ramirez never recoveredhisspeech. But in 1945, some fifteen years before his death, he began to daw'Ramirez was fortunate to be discovered by a psychiatrist, Dr. Tarmo Pasto,otthe Universiry of Califomia, Sacramento, who, as the legend .lui-t, rur *ir-ing the hospital one day with a few pupils when Ramirez approached hlrn'offering a bunch of rolled-up paintings. The doctor was so impressed rlthRamirez's work that he made sure the anist had plenry of drawrng matenalsro use. Soon Pasto began collecting Ramirez's work and showed it to a riln-ber of artists, includingJim Nutt, who arranged an exhibit of Ramirez's pilt-ings with an art deaier in Sacramento. Other exhibits soon followed-in \ewYork, Chicago, Sweden, Denmark, Houston, among other places-lnd

  • T H E H I S P A N I C C O N D I T I O N

    Ramirez, the perfect outsider, rvas a dazzling revelation at the exposition"Outsiders" in London's Hayward Gallery.

    ln a conrroversial text written ln June I986 to commemorate an exhibit,"Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters andSculptors," at the Corcoran Gailery in Washington, D C ' Octavio Paz, thelgg0 winner of rhe Nobel Prize in lirerature, claimed that Ramirez's pencit-and-crayon drawings are evocarions of what Ramirez lived and dreamed dur-ing and alrer the Mexican Revolution. Paz compared the artist to fuchardDadd, a ninereenth-cehrury painrer who lost his mind at the end of his life.As Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist and diplomat, claimed in his bookThe Buned Miwor, the mute painrer drew his muteness, making it graphicAnd Roger Cardinal, the Brirish author of Figures of Reality, argued that thearrisr's achievements should not be minimized as psychotic rambling andcategorized him as "a nay' painter." To make sense of Ramirez's odyssey' Dr'pasro concluded that Ramfrez's psychological disrurbances were the result ofa difficuk process of adapurion ro a foreign culture. Ramirez had left Mexicoat a rurbulent, riotous time and arrived in a place where everything was unfa-miliar and strange to him

    Ramirez's plight is representative of the entire Hispanic cuitural expen-ence in the United states. Neirher a diluted Mexican 10st in a no-man'slandnor a fully rounded cirizen, Ramirez symbolizes the voyage of millions ofsilenr itineranrbraceros and legal middle-class immigrants bewildered by theirsudden mobility, furiously rrylng ro make sense of an altogether differentenvironmenr. Bur Hispanics are now leaving his frustrated silence behind.Society is beginning ro embrace Larinos, from rejects ro fashion setters, fromoutcasts to insider traders. New generations of Spanish speakers are feeling athome in Gringolandia. (Etymologically, gringo' according to Webster'sDicrionary, is derived from gnego, stranger, but it may have been derivedfrom the Spanish pronunciation of a slang word meaning fast-spender, green-go). Suddenly the crossroad where white and brown meet, where "yo soy"meets "l am," a lile in the Spanglish hyphen, is being transformed. Many ofus Latinos already have a Yankee look: We either make a conscious effort tolook gringo, or we're simply absorbed by the cuhure's fashion and manners.And what is more exciting is that Anglos are beginning to look just like us-enamored as they are o[ our bright colors and tropical rhythms, our sufferingFrida lQhlo, our legendary Emesto "Che" Guevara. Martin Ramfrez's silenceis giving way to a revaluation o[ things Hispanic. No more silence, no moreisolation. Spanish accents, ovr mqners pecultar de ser, have emerged as

    L IFE IN THE HYPHEN

    exotic, fashionable, and even envrabie and in{luential in mainsrreamAmerican culture.

    However, just as Ramirez's art took decades to be understood and appre-ciated, it will take years ro understand the multifaceted and far-reachingimplications of this cuhural rransformarion, the move o[ Hispanics fromperiphery to cenrer stage. I believe rhat we are currently wirnessing a double,faceted phenomenon: Hispanizarion of the United States, and Anglocizarionof Hispanics. Adventurers in Hyphenland, explorers of El Dorado, we His-panics have deliberately and cautiously infiltrared the enemy, and now go bythe rubric of Latinos in the rerritories norrh of the Rio Grande. Delaing fulladaptadon, our objective is ro assimilare Anglos slowly ro ourselves.

    Indeed, a refreshingly modern concepr has emerged before Americaneyes-to live in the hyphen, to inhabir rhe borderland, ro exist inside theDominican-American expression entre Lucas y Juan Mejia-and nowhere isthe debate sunounding ir more candid, more historically enlighrening, rhanamong Hispanics. The American Dream has nor yer fully opened its arms rous; the melting por is still roc cold, too uninviring, for a total meltdown.Aithough the coliective characrer of rhose immigraring from the Caribbeanarchipelago and south of rhe border remains foreign to a large segment of rheheterogeneous nation, as "native strangers" within the Anglo-Saxon soil, ourimpact will prevail sooner, rarher lhan later. Alrhough srereorypes remaincommonplace and vices get easily confused with habits, a number of factors,from population growrh to a rerarded acquisition o[ a second language and apassionate retenriveness of our original cuhure, actuaily suggest that His-panics in the United States shall nor, will nor, cannor, and ought nor fo]lowpaths opened up by prer,rous immigranrs.

    According to various Chicano legends recounred by the scholar GurierreTib6n, Aztlan Azrlarlan, rhe archetypal region where Aztecs, speakers ofNahuarl, originated before their itinerant joumey in the founeenrh century insearch of a iand to setrle, was somewhere in the area of New Mexico, Califor-nia, Nevada, Uuh, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and the Mexicanstates of Durango and Nayarir, quite far from Tenochtitldn, known roday asMexico City. Once a nomadic tribe, the Aztecs settled and became powerful,subjugating rhe Haustec to the north and the Mixrec and Zapotec to thesouth, achieving a composire civilizarion. Larinos with these mixed ances,tries, at ieast six in every ren in the United Stares, beiieve they have an abo-riginal claim to the land north of the border. As native Americans, we were inthese areas before the Pilgrims of the Mayflower and undersrandably keep a

  • T H E H I S P A N I C C O N D I T I O N

    tellunc atachment to the land. Our retum by sequential waves of immigra-rion as wetbacks and middie-income entrepreneurs to the lost Canaan, rhePromised Land of Milk and Honey, ought be seen as the closing of a histori-cal cycle. lronically, the revenge of Motecuhzoma II (in modem Spanish:Moctezuma; in its English misspelling: Montezuma) is understood differentlyin Spanish and English. For Anglos, it refers to the diarrhea a tourist getsafrer drinking unpurified water or eating chile and arroz con pollo in LatinAmerica and the West Indies; for Hispanics, it describes the unhurriedprocess o[ the penetrat ion of and exert ion of inf luence on the UnitedStates-la reconquista, the oppressor's final defeat. Yesterday's vrctim andtomorrow's conquistadors, we Hispanics, tired of a history full of traumasand undemocratic intemrptions, have decided to regain what was uken awayfrom us.

    There is no doubt that the attempt to ponray Latinos as a homogenousminority and,/or ethnic group is rather recent. Within the various minorities,forces have always pulled unionists apart. As Bemardo Vega, a Puerto Ricansocial activist ln New York Cirv. wrote in his Memoirs in the 1940s:

    When l came to [NewYork] in I916 there was little interest in Hispanicculture. For the average citizen, Spain was a country ofbullfighten and fla-menco dancers. As for Latin America, no one could care less. And Cubaand Puerto Rico were just two islands inhabited by savages whom theAmericans had beneficially saved from the clutches of the lberian lion.Once in a while a Spanish theater company would make an appearance inNew York. Their audiences never amounted to more than the small clusterof Spaniards and Latin Americans, along with some universiry professors

    ,

    who had been crary enough to leam Spanish. That was it!

    I fhe constant growth of the Puerto Rican communiry gave nse to riots,j contro,rersy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: a! a time whenI there -ere no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life inI the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-

    Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the samecultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were inagricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American-Sourhwest. The Puerto Ricans, on lhe other hand, settled in the largeurban centers, especialiy New York, where in spite of everything the cir-cumsunces were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment,whether we wanted it that way or not.

    L I F E I N T H E H Y P H E N

    Und] the early eig

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