Latino Studies and Black Studies: Bonds and Divergent Paths

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released information that confirmed it: Hispanics have become the largest minority group in the United States, with a total of almost 39 million people. That reflects a faster rate of growth than many observers had expected. Judging by the media coverage, the news is exciting to Latinos, whose time is coming as a defining political and cultural force. Yet it is apparently sending chills in some quarters, not least among them African-American observers. “I hope this doesn’t become a demographic political one-upmanship,” Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, cautioned when he spoke with reporters last winter. Not long after, The New York Times ran a front-page story about an academic conference in Harlem on the state of black studies. The headline: “New Topic in Black Studies Debate: Latinos.”

By most accounts from participants, the conference barely addressed the relationship between black and Latino studies. It was The Times that emphasized competition. The unspoken but implicit assumption seemed to be that lower-class status in American society is a privilege: When it comes to money in academe, the lower the social position of a minority group, the wider the chances of finding the funds for research on it, and the greater the likelihood of seeing material pertaining to the group reflected in the curriculum. I wasn’t present at the Harlem conference, but I’ve heard similar rumblings on my own and other campuses.

So have Latinos replaced black people as the new poor? Will that catapult them into wider recognition on campuses?

The very questions are insulting. Worse, they obscure the bridges that can and do exist between the fields. Of course there is poverty. From the Dominican Republic to Bolivia to Argentina, poverty has, for centuries, been intensely ingrained. The northbound intercontinental odyssey of people dreaming el sueño americano has, to a large extent, been a consequence of that condition. Although there is, happily, a growing Hispanic middle class in the United States, Latinos are near the bottom of the social and economic ladder: Abuse of undocumented labor remains a curse, the lack of English-language proficiency a handicap. Teenage pregnancy is the highest of any group in the United States, and dropout rates, from middle-school students on up, are dismal.

What does that have to do with the college classroom or scholarly oeuvre? To answer that, one needs to examine the historical roots and intellectual scope of Latino studies and black studies, the bonds that unite them, the divergent paths that separate them. Only then can one begin to assess whether the Hispanic demographic explosion is a sign, as innuendos suggest, that the age of African-American studies as the acknowledged leader of ethnicity on campus is coming to an end.

Imagine a newspaper headline, “Roll Over, Jewish Studies: Here Come Latinos.” Or whispers about Latino studies’ elbowing Asian studies off the radar screen. Somehow, that seems far-fetched. Sure, since 1492, when the Americas were pushed precipitously into modernity, an array of outsiders has made them their stage: explorers, missionaries, chroniclers, and immigrants from everywhere on the globe — Spain, Portugal, and a host of other European, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations. The hemisphere is, indeed, a melting pot, albeit a roiling one. Witness how a group like Latinos, north and south of the Rio Grande, represents the hodgepodge: white and black and brown; Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jew, Buddhist. Given that multiplicity, why aren’t there more ties between Latino studies and other area studies? Why is the sole connection — or competition — with black studies?

In one sense, the reason isn’t complicated: Black studies and Latino studies share a birth date in the civil-rights era. Other similar endeavors, like Asian-American studies, are of more recent coinage and have less to do with the political upheaval of a period that saw a symmetry between Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez.

The study of Spanish as a language, and of Spain and the Americas as political and historical subjects, goes back to the 19th century, although it was only after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910, that Hispanic topics began to find a more solid, albeit still marginal, seat on campuses. But a discipline devoted to Hispanics in the United States didn’t emerge until the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Chicano and Puerto Rican student activists, in the Southwest and New York, respectively, pressured colleges for curricular representation. Unlike, say, Jewish studies, which has developed in large part thanks to off-campus philanthropy, Latino studies, like black studies, started from the bottom up, with little support from outside the university. In fact, compared with those of other area studies, outside funding sources remain minuscule, perhaps a reflection of the economic status of Latinos and African-Americans in society at large.

The term “Latino” is relatively young: It arose in the late 1980s and ’90s to oppose the use of “Hispanic” in government documents (the latter appearing during the Nixon administration, a discomfiting fact to many Latinos). “Hispanic” grew out of the early emphasis on Spanish language and culture — la civilización hispánica. It was symptomatic that, when the Dominican scholar Pedro Henr&iacutequez;Ureña gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University in 1940-41, he discussed the literary legacy of the Portuguese and Hispanic Americas, by which he meant Brazil and the Spanish-speaking territories whose roots were in the Iberian empire of the Roman Catholic sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabela — but not the Latino population in the United States. There was no Latino studies in the ’60s because a rubric encompassing various national groups from the Americas was, by and large, inconceivable at that time — even though the Cuban revolutionary thinker José Martí, everybody’s favorite precursor, wrote manifestos on the subject in the 1880s.

Then, through marches, sit-ins, building takeovers, and protests, Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, as they came to be known, by then already the largest subgroup within the Latino minority, began to claim their identity, particularly at institutions in the West and Southwest. They forced college administrators to consider programs that not only emphasized Spanish culture, but also echoed the patterns of life at home and on the street. Similarly, Puerto Ricans at institutions such as Hunter College struggled to open up the classroom to the experience of Nuyoricans like the intellectual figures Bernardo Vega and Jesús Colón.

Next, as the Latino minority in the United States grew rapidly in the 1980s, the need to emphasize not only the experience of Chicanos and Puerto Ricans but also that of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and others began to be addressed. And not just in the Southwest and New York. Important programs in Cuban studies and Dominican-American studies, for instance, were established or solidified in places like the University of Miami and the City University of New York’s City College. Similar endeavors rapidly emerged in places as disparate as Cornell University, Indiana University at Bloomington, Santa Monica College, and the University of Connecticut, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of Texas at San Antonio. The Latino experience, it was increasingly recognized, had to be seen through a prism not just of national background but also of continental identity.

Black and Latino studies have thus shared theoretical frameworks and, often, asked parallel questions. In both fields, for example, the recovery of “forgotten texts” has facilitated the retrieval of collective memory. Postcolonialism, in its various forms, has spurred analysis (and sometimes obfuscation). To a large extent, an ideology spanning center-to-left-to-radical views has also pervaded both fields.

But Latino studies strikes me as less unified — which is an obstacle when mounting a campaign for funds or for a solid place in the university. A conference on a Northeastern campus can continue to be ignored in the Southwest because it focuses predominantly on Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans, and not Chicanos. To some extent, such schisms are also true of other area studies. Jewish studies concentrates on American Judaism, the Holocaust, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The attention to Jewish themes from other regions of the globe, and especially the Sephardic tradition that ponders the diaspora from the Iberian Peninsula — some 200,000 people left in 1492, according to some estimates — and its dissemination into the Ottoman Empire, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Americas, is still, unfortunately, limited and divisive.

Similarly, in black studies different programs emphasize various aspects of the study of race. Moreover, the tension with African studies per se, and with themes that relate to the Caribbean and Brazil and to immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, often takes a toll not only in the classroom but also in camaraderie among faculty members. (A change of heart does seem to be taking place because of globalization, with bridges bringing African and African-American topics closer together in recent years.) However, the Hispanic world is a puzzle assembled with pieces not always comfortable with one another, a situation that is particularly reflected in the fragile montage of outlooks that Latino studies is turning out to be.

Notwithstanding its compartmentalization, the field is booming, largely in response to demographics, pressure from students, and the progression of knowledge. Professors, students, and administrators recognize Latino studies as the “hot” kid in the neighborhood: Enrollment in courses is growing exponentially, more centers are being established and faculty appointments approved, and — perhaps most evident to the public — scholarly books in the field are providing a healthy bonanza. A colleague of mine is upset because he isn’t able to get a monograph on Italian-Americans published. “Perhaps I should replace ‘Italian’ with ‘Puerto Rican,'” he taunts me.

As in black studies, the intellectual model is interdisciplinary, drawing on a multiplicity of tools used by anthropologists, historians, sociologists, political scientists, literary critics, and cultural-studies specialists. The pluralism is necessary to capture the Latino experience in the United States. Combined with the compartmentalization of the field, though, it generates bewilderment. And envy. Academics in related fields, who study Iberia or Latin America, for instance, sometimes refer to their Latino-studies colleagues with a mixture of downright confusion and excessive enthusiasm.

What unites the various programs? Will Latino studies end up devouring the efforts of specialists on Latin America?

For administrators, especially in institutions with growing Latino populations, the range of concerns that were fought over decades ago in relation to black studies is now becoming more pressing: Where should the discipline sit in the curriculum? In ethnic studies? American studies? Latin-American studies? Or should it be treated autonomously, with its own center to giveit the independence that black studies has often achieved? When placed in ethnic and/or American studies, the weight is placed on Latinos as a minority in the United States; when placed in the Spanish department and/or in Latin-American studies, the suggestion is that Hispanics are an extremity of the Spanish-speaking Americas in El Norte. When Latino studies is on its own, students and scholars can more easily focus on the complexities of identity — national, transcontinental, and global. But should it be on its own? As an adviser invited regularly to talk to presidents, deans, and faculty members, I find that the answer varies from institution to institution.

Still, I’m seeing more of what happened last year at Harvard University. Around the time that some members of the African-American-studies department left amid strained relationships with the president, Lawrence H. Summers, other faculty members put in a proposal for a center of Latino studies. The rationale was threefold: demographics, demographics, demographics. But the argument was partly made through comparison with black studies, and it sounded like the litany of a younger sibling complaining of lack of attention (at least, again, judging from news-media reports): Why allocate money (endowed professorships, research funds, handsome and spacious facilities, etc.) to African-American studies and not to Latinos?

The initial reaction of President Summers was similar to the one a few years ago at Amherst College, where I’ve taught for a decade, and at other Northeastern colleges and universities: If the institution bends this time, it will have to do so again; Asians are likely to come next, and after them Arabs, and then … an impossible balkanization. Keep in mind the financial implications: Black studies was established faster than Latino studies, at a time when both the nation’s economy and higher education were growing. Today, the market has changed. States are strapped, institutional endowments are down, and, as a consequence, there is resistance to embarking on new programs. Moreover, while I believe that, after the culture and identity wars, the atmosphere for studying racial and ethnic groups is more benign than it once was, a weariness has also set in, a fear that too many splits already divide the campuses, and a reluctance to push that trend farther.

There’s something else going on here as well. Again and again, I hear that black people can make a special case for black studies because their experience grows out of slavery, which grants them the special status of the “designated other” in the United States. A dean recently asked me: “How does one correct that kind of mistake?” She wanted to give Latino studies a fair share but couldn’t quite get beyond the guilty feeling that, somehow, black studies needed to be viewed differently. I can understand her point, but is suffering quantitative? A proposal to build a United States National Slavery Museum has triggered questions about whether it is trying to rival the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Isn’t it time to discuss also a monument in honor of the many, many undocumented immigrants from south of the border and from Cuba who have died anonymously? Again, it sometimes seems as though people feel the need to rank pain. What remains unexplored is the assumption that martyrdom is the only ticket to group identity.

Yes, the problem is larger than university life. A few weeks ago, for example, I got a copy of a two-volume set of American journalism, Reporting Civil Rights, an astonishing compendium of newspaper articles and essays, published by the Library of America. Including entries by James Baldwin, Murray Kempton, and King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the mosaic of voices was far-reaching. Anybody that was somebody was included … except Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos. Not a single speech by César Chávez or Dolores Huerta, not a report on the grape boycotts and the struggle of the United Farm Workers union. Weren’t those also highlights of the civil-rights era? Aren’t they also quintessential to our collective memory? The volumes are slated to be used in the classroom for educational purposes, and they should be — but who is to speak for Latino history if, even in canonical endeavors, we are but ghosts, only our silence speaking loudly?

The truth is, despite — and perhaps because of — its common origins with Latino studies, black studies has paid marginal attention to Latinos. The news media may be hyping the competition between the fields more than the scholars in them do, but there is still, has always been, some ambivalence. I’ve seen syllabuses on African-American culture: Little, if anything, relates to the Americas, only to the United States. Caribbean studies is different: In the past few years, efforts have been made to discuss race in places like Brazil, but, unfortunately, those have had little impact in many black-studies courses and scholarship.

Langston Hughes visited Cuba; Dizzy Gillespie and Latin jazz go hand in hand, thanks to Paquito D’Rivera and others; Latino baseball players like Nomar Garcíaparra entered the game in the footsteps of Roberto Clemente, who in turn had followed in the steps of Jackie Robinson. Yet beyond those occurrences, what gets discussed? At bottom, there have only been scattered efforts to relate black studies and Latino studies. Among black people, the feeling toward Latinos is colored by la indiferencia. Other area studies aren’t too different. It might be a question of language, at least of verbal discomfort: Spanish, after all, remains one of the crucial keys to understanding the Latino condition in the United States. Bilingual education, for better or worse, brings people together and sets them apart, and for decades Latinos have been defined by it.

There is also a deeply rooted racism in the Latino community, no doubt complicating any efforts to look at what black and Latino studies share. The hierarchical nature of society in colonial Latin America always placed Indians near the bottom, slightly above black people. That heritage is difficult to shake.

All this isn’t the least surprising. We’re as segregated on campuses, as envious and as self-righteous, as we are on the larger stage. The purported rivalry between black studies and Latino studies, however, is a mirage. The picture is much more complicated — a mixture of neglect, resentment, and ambivalence, with the added ingredient of fierce competition among all fields for money and position. Surely we can be honest with ourselves and ask some key questions that have been hidden by the media’s superficial stress on rivalry. How can we pay attention to individual ethnic groups and not promote an academic culture of tribes? How can we understand culture in a way that promotes an understanding of often interrelated diasporas? How long should we dwell on the violence of the past? Is “Latino” an artificial concept that serves more to define us against other groups than to identify us? Must we continue to believe that the United States is the sole melting pot in the world?

I’m convinced that the time has arrived to reflect on the Latino experience in the United States. You may not feel it when you browse through the pages of The New York Review of Books, the nation’s highbrow forum of ideas. How many articles on Latinos have you read there? Or in that paper of record, The New York Times, where Latino-related pieces so often pop up as a quota-driven afterthought. Of course, such complaints shouldn’t be leveled only at New York. Still, the metropolis is in many ways the nation’s true capital and the arbiter of intellectual taste. But demographics do, and will, have an impact. In the process of reflecting on who we are, Latinos on campuses must be brave enough to explore their thorny connections to black people, Jews, Asian-Americans, indigenous people, and the white majority. After all, a classroom is a microcosm of society.

Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. Among his latest books, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which he edited, was just released, and Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (Rayo) will be published in September. He is currently editing the Encyclopedia Latina (Grolier Publishing).

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