december coverWhat Does it Mean to be Hispanic?

Throughout the world, there are nearly half a billion people who might struggle with the above question. While in this publication we generally use the term Latino to describe U.S. residents, Hispanic encompasses those natives of the Iberian Peninsula and the twenty countries of Latin America, including those of who’ve emigrated to America and many other countries. What binds us together, other than language, which is often shed within a generation? That’s the subject of What is la Hispanidad?, a Socratic dialogue (without the hemlock or slave boys) between two distinguished intellectuals, Ilan Stavans and Ivan Jaksic. They cover a lot of ground, from Queen Isabella to telenovelas, and illuminate many interesting issues along the way. If they don’t quite agree on an answer that’s fine, because their conversation is worth the journey.

IVÁN JAKSI: The purpose of this series of six conversations plus an epilogue is to investigate the parameters of Hispanic civilization. I presume our dialogue will be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

In other words, my idea is that the two of us engage in a discussionwith the hopes of mapping out this rather elusive field, as it has evolved historically.

ILAN STAVANS: A tall order. But I like to pursue large aspirations.

In his 1864 poem on Abraham Ibn Ezra, Robert Browning wrote: “What I aspired to be, / And was not, comforts me.”

IJ: I should be more specific about the inception of this book.It begins in 2007, when, unbeknownst to me, the New York office of the publishing house Palgrave Macmillan sent you the manuscript of my book The Hispanic World and American Intellectual Life, 1820– 1880. Thus began a dialogue that, done mostly electronically and by phone, with several tête-à-têtes in Santiago, Chile—all in all over a period of eighteen months—resulted in extensive exchanges about the interconnections of North and South in the Americas, as well as East and West between the two shores that frame the Atlantic Ocean. Casey Kittrell, an editor at the University of Texas Press, wholeheartedly embraced the prospect of turning the conversations into a unified book. Neal Sokol created the index.

IS: Given the scope of the endeavor, I propose dividing our conversations, to the extent possible, into thematic chapters.

IJ: Let’s start by setting the parameters of our topic, then concentrating on various areas pertaining to the shaping of the concept of Hispanic civilization. For instance, the emergence of Spain during the Renaissance as a unified kingdom and then as an empire, the foundation of the Hispanic American republics in the nineteenth century, and the strategies the latter undertook to define their national identity in response to those of Spain, France, and the United States.

IS: Another topic to discuss should be language as a tool in the formation of Hispanic identity.

IJ: Our inquiry should survey the intellectual debates of the independence period in Latin America between 1810 and 1865, and the way the nations of the Western Hemisphere developed in social, political, and religious ways during the twentieth century.

IS: But I want to have a chapter about pop culture: telenovelas, fútbol, music, the carnival . . . I want us to move away from an elitist realm that concentrates exclusively on ideas and meditate on the impact of figures like Tin-Tan and Corín Tellado. In addition, it is an imperative to focus our attention on Latinos in the United States.

This minority, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing, is an integral part of Hispanic civilization. In 2005 one out of every ten hispanos lived north of the Rio Grande.

IJ: Our task should be ambitious.

IS: Yes, but I’m sure it will also be entertaining. Also, it’s better to try and fail than not to try and then wonder what our limits were. I find the task we’ve set for ourselves timely, for at the outset of the twenty-first century, Hispanic civilization seems to be in a state of constant mutation. Of course, it has always been in transition. But the almost half a billion people always seem to be asking: Who am I? Where do I come from? What makes me different? Indeed, at the heart of our identity, in my eyes, is uncertainty about our condition.

Why are our political systems fragile? Other civilizations are more pragmatic and forward-looking. These types of questions have been asked by thinkers like José Enrique Rodó in Ariel (1900), Ezequiel Martínez Estrada in X-Ray of the Pampa (1933), and Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950).

IJ: Finally, each of us should feel free to combine the personal with the analytic. I’m hoping to produce a narrative that flows easily, one that is at once enlightening, intellectually entertaining, and grounded on personal experiences.

IS: I agree.

IJ: Let me start by pointing out the ubiquity of the word hispanidad. Why this prevalence? What does the word mean? When did the term emerge? In what context? With what scope?

IS: I’m also struck by the way it has become a banner.

IJ: For what?

IS: I’m not sure. An elusive sense of unity.

IJ: Among whom?

IS: For instance, I come across it when I watch the U.S.-based Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. It is also present in the festivities of Columbus Day, el día de la hispanidad.

IJ: I mentioned Hispanic civilization. Perhaps you and I need define what a civilization is, don’t you think? People use the word casually. Yet in the work of political scientists like the late Samuel Hunting ton, author of The Clash of Civilizations (1996), it acquires an ominous sound.

IS: The sociological, psychological, religious, political, cultural, and linguistic dimensions of a people conform a civilization, but the concept is more than the sum of its parts. A civilization is a way of looking at life, a way of smelling, hearing, tasting, and touching. And, more important even, a way of thinking, for each civilization thinks of the world in a different fashion.

IJ: Let’s move on to the matronymic, then: hispanidad.

IS: Should it be spelled with a capital H?

IJ: In English, yes.

IS: But capitalizing the H stressed all the more its pamphleteering nature. For Hispanic civilization, as I understand it, is one thing, and la hispanidad something altogether different. Thus, I suggest, for our own purposes, spelling it in lowercase.

IJ: How is Hispanic civilization different from la hispanidad?

IS: Hispanidad is an ideological stance, maybe even an argumentative approach, that is, the use of the specific elements of Hispanic civilization for a political purpose. In Spanish, una profesión de fe. It’s fascinating to me to follow the etymology of the term hispanidad. It’s absent in Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco’s Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (1611), the first “official” lexicon in Spain; this absence is thought-provoking, among other reasons, because Covarrubias’s volume, published under the imprimatur of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, appeared in between the first and second parts of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote of La Mancha. Over time, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have become emblems of la hispanidad. But the concept didn’t play a role in their author’s weltanschauung. There was no such a thing in the period. ...

IJ: And yet, the term hispanidad, as mentioned before, is laden with numerous connotations.

IS: Numerous and conflicting, it seems to me. In the chronological effort by lexicographers just mentioned, the word emerged in the early eighteenth century as relative to speech. But by the nineteenth century, the period in which the Real Academia Española consolidated its institutional standing, it reached wider into the epistemological realm, denoting a condition: lo hispánico, things exclusive to Hispanic civilization.

IJ: As I recall, there was even a highly political concept of la hispanidad in the twentieth century, put forth by the regime of Francisco Franco in Spain, for propaganda purposes, whereby lo hispánico meant “Catholic and anticommunist.” What was your first encounter with the concept?

IS: In Mexico, where I was born and raised, I don’t remember ever pondering the concept. Granted, I left the country at twenty five to become a newspaper correspondent in New York. It was only once I was living abroad, in La Gran Manzana, the Big Apple—that enormous fruit market of hispanidades—that I began thinking about it in any serious fashion.

IJ: In your memoir On Borrowed Words, you explore the way culture, in particular language, shaped your education.

IS: Indeed, in Mexico I was raised Jewish, that is, a member of a small cultural minority. That identity defined us in every sense of the word. We attended private school, in my case a Yiddish-language one, where the calendar honored Mexican as well as Jewish holidays. On Independence Day, September 16, for instance, there were no classes. Cinco de Mayo, commemorating the Battle of Puebla against the French, was also a day off . But so were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Our last names sounded different. And although my family was an exception, Jews lived in relatively wealthy neighborhoods like La Condesa, Hipódromo, Polanco, Las Lomas, and Tecamachalco.

In addition, we spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. That is, as a minority we had our own space, time, and words. It wasn’t until I moved to New York, in the mid-eighties, that I became Mexican, and, by extension, Hispanic.

IJ: Was this surprising or unexpected?

IS: I felt my hispanidad defining me in an elastic way, as if I had suddenly been splashed with a bucket of cold water. I had come to New York to be a newspaper correspondent and also go to graduate school. That I spoke Yiddish was inconsequential. More than inconsequential, it was useless. Aside from English, which was my ticket to mainstream society, using my Spanish allowed me to become a member of another minority. I used it with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Costa Ricans, and other Mexicans. Each of us used a different, idiosyncratic Spanish. But the linguistic differences that characterized our speech were less important than the similarities: we were all hispanos.

IJ: Hispanos and not hispánicos.

IS: Yes, hispano: a lazy collective noun, a variation of the English Hispanic.

IJ: Yet the term Latino—and, hence, la latinidad—has acquired more currency. When did Hispanic start to be used? And how about Latino?

IS: The term Hispanic came along in the United States, in an official manner, in the early seventies, during the Nixon administration. It was the first time the Feds openly referred to Latinos and, at first at least, the usage was perceived as a triumph. It was, after all, a statement of recognition. After centuries of being ignored as a de facto minority, the Nixon administration finally named the unnamable: the Hispanic community. Richard Rodriguez refers to this moment in his book Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002).

IJ: There is the issue of names, official or not, and the issue of national origin or experience, both of which add to the complexity of being hispano.

IS: When in 1993 I edited, along with Harold Augenbraum, the anthology Growing Up Latino, one of the first of its kind, for the U.S. publisher Houghton Mifflin, the working title was Growing Up Hispanic. Upon requesting permissions, we received severe warnings from a couple of potential contributors (Sandra Cisneros, among them) who refused to participate until and unless the word Hispanic was replaced by something else. But by what? One option Sandra Cisneros and others endorsed was Latino; actually, she wanted Latina and Latino. I thoroughly disliked that option; it wasn’t a title but a political manifesto. Gloria Anzaldúa wanted the book to be called Growing Up Mestizo and Mestiza.

IJ: Really!

IS: It was painful. The in-house editor, Marc Jaffe, laughed

about the whole name game. To satisfy everyone, should the volume be called Growing Up Hispanic, Latino and Latina, Mestizo and Mestiza, and ______ (fill in the blank)? The consensus was that we needed to embrace the most neutral, politically correct word: Latino.

IJ: Were you pleased with the outcome?

IS: Not in the least.

IJ: Why?

IS: I don’t like the term Latino. To me it’s as evasive as the term Latin America. This reminds me of a joke that circulated years ago, when the first George Bush was in office and his vice president was Dan Quayle, a Republican former senator from the state of Indiana not known for his high IQ. Quayle was about to tour Latin America. At one point he gave a news conference in which he was asked what preparation was he making for the trip. He answered that in order to better understand Latin American political leaders, he was brushing up on his Latin.

IJ: It’s a favorite misconception, just like the one implying that tourists to Mexico need to buy a dictionary of “Mexican” in order to understand the basics.

IS: Seriously, though, what’s Latin in Latin America Roman law?

IJ: You must know where it came from and at what point it started to be current . . .

IS: During the second half of the nineteenth century, a group of Spanish American exiles in Paris articulated the concept, la América Latina, as an emblem of unity. This was, clearly, a tribute to Bolívar’s Gran Colombia and a way to play against the emerging hemispheric presence of the United States as the powerful neighbor up north. Bolívar used the name Colombia in honor of Christopher Columbus, preferring that reference to that of Amerigo Vespucci. The region was known as las Indias Occidentales. And, during the colonial period, it had names that emphasized the freshness of the continent, la Nueva España among them. Yet América Latina—or its variant, Latino américa—has Eurocentric connotations. Its detractors perceive it as anti-indigenous and even racist. Borges, who was politically conservative, never used the term. In his view, it was a coverup for the false homogeneity that supposedly permeates the Western Hemisphere. As it happens, neither did his friend, the Mexican essayist, poet, diplomat, and Hellenist Alfonso Reyes, use it. For that matter, nor did Borges’s other non-Argentine colleague, the Dominican intellectual Pedro Henríquez Ureña, who suggested that we talk about la América Hispana and la América Portuguesa, embracing language as the ultimate identifier. (Borges edited an anthology of Argentine poetry with Henríquez Ureña. And with compatriots like Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo he edited volumes on Argentine stories, as well as anthologies of fantastic literature from around the globe. Intriguingly, he never published an anthology of Latin American literature.)

IJ: So, there was resistance to the Latin in the Americas. When did it become more accepted or even widely used?

IS: It was, clearly, a matter of generations. By the early twentieth century, América Latina still generated discomfort. However, the Colombian essayist Germán Arciniegas embraced it. So did the Venezuelan novelist Arturo Uslar Pietri. By midcentury, figures like Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa didn’t find it problematic. ...

IJ: However, there is little doubt that the perception of Latin America is different when one discusses it from afar.

IS: I fully agree. The fact that you and I are analyzing it in English, while you’re in Santiago, on the western side of South America, and I’m in Amherst and Wellfleet, in New England, surely colors our conclusions. More so, we two are children of immigrants, yours from the former Yugoslavia, mine from Poland and the Ukraine. And for a variety of reasons, both of us left our respective countries of birth— Chile and Mexico—immigrating to the United States . . .

IJ: . . . where we became Hispanic.

IS: Or Latino. What was your experience as a Latino in the United States?

IJ: My experience moving to the United States was similar to yours. I had a strong sense of national, in this case Chilean, identity, but soon after I arrived I realized that my sense of self was challenged by a larger and stronger community to which I also belonged, la comunidad hispana. In some ways, it was like going back to an ethereal sense of belonging to something larger than a narrow national community. I was born at the very end of the world, in the city of Punta Arenas by the Strait of Magellan, where many immigrants lived, and where several languages were spoken, though always in intimate circles, not publicly. I would hear Serbo-Croatian at home, English and German uttered here and there, but my father always insisted that we, his children, were Chilean, and that meant Spanish- speaking. I can’t even begin to describe how strong that sense was, as the school system and the strong military presence in that part of the country instilled it in us. And how incongruous! For when I moved to Santiago, the capital, at age eleven, I was a foreigner among my peers: my accent and vocabulary were different, in fact closer to the Argentine variant than to the dominant Spanish of the central valley of Chile, where most Chileans live. That was my fi rst shock, the first time I realized that I was Chilean, yet not quite. I tried very hard to assimilate, making all the necessary adjustments in language and demeanor.

But something was missing: an environment where I could really be at home. Except for short visits, I never returned to my hometown to live.

IS: Did you feel spiritually disjointed?

IJ: Just as you describe in On Borrowed Words when going back to Mexico for visits, I could tell there was a real rupture there. At the same time, this early experience helped me when at the age of nineteen, and in rapid succession, I lived through the military coup of 1973, escaped to Argentina in 1974, and returned to Chile only briefly, to leave again, this time for a period of thirty years in the United States. I have written elsewhere about all this, but let me emphasize Here just how puzzling and enriching it was for me to become

A part of la comunidad hispana (it was not latina, at least not at the time) in the United States. My closest friends were Puerto Rican, and through them I met a wide spectrum of hispanos, from hardworking boricuas (from the Indian name of the island—Borinquen) in the Bronx, to artists and writers in Greenwich Village, to longterm exiles from different Latin American countries. I was fascinated by their facility to switch languages, and I did my best to try to understand the process. Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary” became my favorite poem, as a true window into the islander experience in New York and beyond. In Buffalo, where I lived for some time, hispanos from different countries, or born in the States, gave me a sense of home and community.

IS: Did you have role models?

IJ: My mentor in graduate school was the Cuban Jorge Gracia, a very distinguished scholar, so that it was not just the food, the language, and the music that are so often cited to describe hispanidad, but true intellectual engagement, that became a fundamental part of this new sense of belonging. His work was primarily on metaphysics, but he was also a pioneer in the study of Latin American philosophy. So we worked together for many years analyzing the thought of various thinkers, until we came up with our coedited Filosofía e identidad cultural en América Latina, which we put together between the late seventies and early eighties, though it did not come out until 1988. I cannot describe the thrill of meeting with him, week after week, studying texts and putting them in both historical and philosophical context. I felt I was entering a new world. That was when I decided that my field would be the history of ideas, which it still is. I do not mean to romanticize all of this, for there was a much darker side to being hispano in the United States, and I was also struggling with my strong sense of being a Chilean national, despite being persecuted by the Pinochet regime and treated as persona non grata in my own country. But that’s another story. Once in the States, I found that I was exposed to all sorts of experiences, including a very significant Hispanic component. But I had to find my own way. There were no clear points of encounter for all of us Latinos.

IS: I find it intriguing that in the United States, October 12 is a holiday known as Columbus Day. What is celebrated? Apparently, the naming of the Americas, that is, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, which, historically, took place, according to the Julian calendar, on October 12, 1492, and on October 21, 1492, in the modern Gregorian calendar. In other words, since the Gregorian calendar is the most widely used in the world today— based on the traditional Incarnation year of Jesus Christ, hence known as anno Domini, it was first proposed by the Calabrian doctor Aloysius Lilius and decreed by Pope Gregory XIII, after whom it was named, on February 24, 1582, by papal bull Inter gravissimas—we should commemorate the arrival of the Genoese admiral about ten days later than we do. However, the central question isn’t the mistake that surrounds the date itself but the confusion about what is being celebrated. In Mexico and some parts of Latin America, the name is dramatically different: Día de la Raza. In Costa Rica it is called Día de las Culturas; in Colombia and the Bahamas, Discovery Day; in Hawaii, Discoverer’s Day; and the newly renamed (as of 2002) Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in Venezuela.

IJ: How about in Spain? What do people celebrate on October 12?

IS: Día Nacional, National Day. The emphasis is obvious. As Spain reached beyond its boundaries, its cultural modes made its population believe their horizons were wider. That is what imperialism is about: the belief that your country’s self ought to be expansive, global, encompassing other people’s daily routine. Starting shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return to the Iberian Peninsula from his first voyage across the Atlantic, as the support of Queen Isabella solidified, Spain ratified its imperial quest. That quest has antecedents: for example, the struggle for the diplomatic unification of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. In the Americas, the term Día de la Raza didn’t acquire currency until the nineteenth century, as the wars of independence spread across the continent. Yet the idea of a homogenized continental civilization, la civilización hispánica, might reach even further. ...

IS: So, do you feel Hispanic, Iván?

IJ: Yes, I do. My father was the son of immigrants from Croatia, but on my mother’s side the family had been in Chile for centuries. I slowly discovered that a part of me had much to do with the immigrant experience, but that has never detracted in any way from my consistent identification, at a deep personal level, as a member of the Hispanic world. People of my generation in Chile learned how to navigate other countries, languages, and cultures. We were a small, insular country, and chances are that I would not have left Chile had it not been for the military coup in 1973. But even after three decades of continuous residence abroad, something has always remained with me, a sense that I belong to a particular group of people, regard- less of nation, who speak the language and share views about life and world. It is not an exclusionary sense, but it only emerges with people who share the same experience, the same history, and who continue to build personal and social interactions on that basis. Before I left Chile, I felt strongly Chilean and only vaguely Hispanic. But in the United States I discovered how wonderful and enriching it was to be a part of a much larger community.

IS: What does the elusive sense of la hispanidad personally mean to you?

IJ: That we share a common language, and that despite independence from Spain and the resulting fragmentation of our countries, we continue to understand each other and bring the language to new levels of artistry. I have always been inspired by the work of Andrés Bello, who set out to preserve Castilian Spanish after independence but insisted on the peculiarities and legitimacy of local variants. Let me quote one of his passages from Grammar of the Spanish Language (1847): “I do not claim to write for Spaniards. My lessons are aimed at my brothers, the inhabitants of Spanish America. I believe that the preservation of our forefathers’ tongue in all possible purity is important, as a providential means of communication and a fraternal link among the various nations of Spanish origin scattered over the two continents. But what I presume to recommend to them is not a superstitious purism.” He succeeded spectacularly, in the sense that the Real Academia Española acknowledged his points and his contributions, and that his grammar is still the most used in Spanish America.

IS: As I mentioned before, when I go to the soccer stadium or when I turn on the TV to a Spanish-language network, I’m struck by the manipulation of la hispanidad done subtly during sports events, on music shows, and in commercials. The corporate media, it seems to me, is eager for the audience to be infused with a feeling of unity.

IJ: How so?

IS: Unity sells products. If you have a homogenized audience,

you’re able to influence its shared needs. A fractured body politic is less malleable. During the World Cup, for instance, TV commentators stress the existence of a Hispanic fan base that amounts to more than 400 million people worldwide and that, thanks to the athletes, the differences among, say, the Argentine, the Uruguayan, the Colombian, the Ecuadorian, the Paraguayan, and the Mexican teams might be minimized in favor of el fervor latino.

IJ: I suggest holding our discussion of el fervor latino for a later

portion of the conversation. First let’s place that shared need, as you call it, in historical context by looking at the emergence of Spain as a modern nation.

IS: An awkwardly modern nation.

Reprinted with permission from The University of Texas Press.