Don't call me Latino, I'm Cuban." So reads a poster in the Sociology Department of Florida International University. Those of you who are not of Latin American ancestry may have a difficult time understanding why it is so frustrating to be incorrectly labeled or worse yet, lumped, as "Latino"--what is there, after all, in a name?
I admit that as a freshman, I wondered at divided nature of Harvard's Hispanic community, and the mysteriously absent "umbrella" organization. It has taken me almost two years to realize that such an organization is not only unrealistic and impracticable, but also undesirable. As a Hispanic, I have come to understand the necessity for varied and specific cultural organizations. As a Cuban-American, I welcome the appearance of CAUSA, the Cuban-American Undergraduate Student Association, onto the campus cultural scene.
North American of Latin American ancestry, and more recent immigrants from Latin America, are grouped as "Hispanic only because there is wide-spread ignorance among Anglos of the cultural and political differences among us, which are often more significant than the similarities. Apart from loose cultural connections like language and, to a much lesser degree, religion, there is little binding the Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Cuban communities in this country. We are much different racially (the ethnic composition of Cuba, for example, which is principally African and European, is vastly different from that of Mexico, which is mainly Native Indian and European), and even the way we view our experiences in this country are different.
The Cuban migration, for instance, is distinct from the Mexican and Puerto Rican migrations because it stems primarily from political rather than economic causes. Since the majority of Cubans who came to this country in the 1960's and 1970's were members of the middle-class in their own country, they were often better educated than Puerto Ricans or Mexicans, who were generally from the lower-middle or lower classes, and who had arrived in the U.S. seeking better economic conditions.
Moreover, because the Cuban immigration was largely white, Cubans were less likely to encounter racial barriers and more likely to assimilate with American society. The Cuban community is politically far to the right of the Puerto Rican and Chicano communities not only because of its relative wealth (still below that of the average Anglo-American), but because of the traumatic reaction brought on by the Revolution and exile.
In addition to the sharp political and economic divisions produced by disparate migration, the strong nationalism of Latin American countries conspires to separate Hispanics in the U.S. Many Mexicans, for instance, still feel more culturally significant than other Hispanics because of their strong literary and scholarly tradition, and unique mix of Indian and Spanish culture. Cubans and Puerto Ricans are no different in their sense of specialness. While this pride in one's uniqueness is undoubtedly useful in unifying to reach difficult and specific national goals, it can also lead to classism, racism, and chauvinism.
Sadly, this bigotry produced of pride does exist in almost every nationally varied Hispanic group. And, in fact, it is only since I have been at Harvard, where I have been exposed to such a varied group of Latinos, that I have experienced that type of strong discrimination.
I have been told by another Latino that Cubans should withdraw from the Hispanic community because of their more conservative idealogy. In a recent job interview, I was questioned by a fellow Hispanic who, as soon as he found out I was Cuban, began to wonder whether I had taken advantage of Hispanic programs. "Tell me," he said, "you've participated in Latino programs in the past but it seems you refuse to give back. You don't seem very socially active for your Latino community." The problem was neither my actual social activities or political orientation but my perceived orientation--because he was a Hispanic who "knew how reactionary those Cubans are."
At the recent Ethnic Studies demonstration for Junior Parent's Weekend, protesters claimed that Harvard lacked even one tenured Latino professor. A second stack of posters defined the term "Latino" as referring only to Chicanos or "U.S. Latinos." Though the call for more faculty diversity is warranted, Harvard does have a tenured Cuban-American professor--his name is Jorge Dominguez, and he is a worldreknowned expert in political science. Though organizers claim the error was an oversight, I was left wondering how much of that oversight had to do with tensions within our communities. The mistake was pointed out after the second run of posters and will, hopefully, be corrected in the future. Nonethless, the fact that a correction even has to be made is symptomatic of the failure to define who we really are.
Apparently, since Jorge Dominguez was not a U.S. born professor, he was not a real Hispanic--bringing up the disturbing possibility that about half the Spanish-speaking community in this country, including the parents of most Latino students, are not "Latino." Gabriel Garcia Marquez is not Latino. Neither is Carlos Fuentes, Rigoberta Menchu, Carlos Salinas de Gotari, Juan Carlos, Fidel Castro, or Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
Under some existing definitions that are often bandied about, being "Latino" doesn't even have anything to do with speaking Spanish, or knowing the rudiments of your own culture, but about holding certain political positions and supporting particular social causes.
The Hispanic community is really not a community at all, but a convenient construct that pretends the problems of the Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Cuban communities can be dealt with in one fell swoop. The division of Hispanic groups on campus, therefore, is something that should be accepted as a reality and, ultimately, championed.
It is only through these individual groups that we, as Dominicans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, can find out who we truly are and what the significance of our lives in this country really is. It is only through these groups that we can each assess the degree of cultural assimilation that we have already undergone--whether that assimilation will be done quietly, or forcefully enough to make American culture reflect the diversity of our experience--whether we see ourselves ever returning to the countries of our parents' birth.
The future for Hispanic groups lies not with pipe-dreams of unity for a broad ethnic group which cannot even be defined, but in small, strong organizations like CAUSA, La O, FUERZA, and RAZA. Know your own culture and history; understand your community well enough to bargain for it; speak your language (without which you can't begin to do the first two things); decide, culturally, where you're coming from and where you're headed--and then we can talk, logically and intelligently, about where our interests really intersect.