“El Librotraficante” (book smuggler), otherwise known as Houston community college professor Tony Diaz, traipsed through Arizona earlier this month with a caravan of students and activists to distribute 1,000 works of Mexican-American literature to newly established "underground libraries.” As of January, Tucson’s public schools stopped classes devoted to Mexican-American literature in accordance with Arizona House Bill 2281. This bill restricts “ethnic” studies in order to save the district $15 million a year. But Tony Diaz knows that teaching a diverse spectrum of American experiences and opinions is crucial to a healthy democracy.
Education is violence prevention; young Latinos that are not allowed to celebrate their unique histories through American education will seek to validate their identities through other means. They will be more vulnerable to rivalries within ethnic groups and to the self-fulfilling prophecy of negative stereotypes.
The Arizona bill forbids texts that sympathize with groups opposing the U.S. government, as some Native American and Chicano texts do. As a byproduct, the ban also removed books such as The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea from Tucson's curriculums.
A report by Grad Nation, a campaign to end high school dropouts by the syndicate America’s Promise Alliance, found that one in three Latinos in America fails to graduate high school. Since 2002, 10 states, including Arizona, California and New Mexico, have seen a decline in graduation rates. Policy's like this new ban in Tucson, Arizona will only exacerbate this problem.
In many ways, U.S.-born Latinos face even more obstacles than immigrants. The same report revealed that, on average, Hispanic immigrants are healthier, have lower divorce rates, have fewer psychological problems and have lower incarceration rates than their U.S.-born children. Young U.S.-born Latinos proved twice as likely as young immigrants to say a family member or friend has been in a gang. What is making that difference?
Brandon Lowery of North County Times recently wrote that pop culture indoctrinates Latino youth to view gangs as glamorous and prosperous. But it more complicated than that. The difficulty native Latinos have navigating their cultural identity and patriotism might play a central role.
“Being Hispanic was looked on as lower class, taking lower paying and nonprofessional jobs.” My Chicano [American-born Mexican-American] father, David Cuen, described his struggle to become the first man in his family to graduate from college. “I had to shed my race to move smoothly through the system.” Minorities shouldn't have to make that choice. Ethnic studies, inhibited under the Arizona bill, is a vital way of acknowledging the diversity of American identities.
For Latinos issues of race, education, culture, patriotism, and language are all intertwined.
“I’m considered the albino in my family,” said Izabelita Flores, the daughter of a Mexican father and Salvadorian mother. Flores recently graduated from City College of San Francisco where she studied criminal psychology. She acknowledged that her Spanish fluency would probably be a professional asset, given the disproportionate amount of Latino inmates in California prisons. But she would confront racial barriers as well.
“Darker Latinos think, because I’m whiter than them, that I think I’m better than them. They never let me in fully,” she said. “Most people don’t expect me to know Spanish.” It's important to recognize that all of these variations are American.
A whopping 83% of third generation Latinos don’t even speak Spanish. Latinos that are not exposed early on to the diversity of minority experiences and constructive, peaceful ways to resist racism are more vulnerable to interracial conflict.
As Flores spoke, my mind flashed back to the day I teased my father for being “a gringo” who lost touch with the Spanish language. He pivoted sharply and pulled up his shirt, revealing an old scar across his back.
He said, this is where he was stabbed in high school for not being “Mexican” enough. Many Mexican-Americans families, like my father’s, have lived in what is now the American Southwest for hundreds of years. And acknowledging their history is crucial to combating the xenophobia and negative stereotypes that currently divide America.
Brown or white, Flores says her roots are red, white, and blue. She couldn’t describe herself as Salvadoran nor Mexican. “I’m Latin. I’m American,” she said.
A little reading could go a long way to normalize the tension felt by Latinos like Flores.
In 2010, I asked Mexican journalist Laura Villafuerte, and Chicano journalist Franc Contreras, to define “Latino.” According to Villafuerte, there is no singular Latin culture in America. She said each family’s culture is specific to where they’re from, and that each develops a unique sense of identity in reaction to the influences around them. Whether native born or an immigrant, one of the only experiences Latinos have in common is the struggle to assert their identity among an American public that often denounces their history and belittles their patriotism. Celebrating the “melting pot” of multicultural identities is one of the nation’s founding virtues.
“Latino is something that happens here in order to be counted by the U.S. Census.” Contreras said, effortlessly switching from Spanish into English.
“Ethnic” studies are a part of American history. Diverse cultures always have and will continue to be a part of the nation. The question is not if but how. And “how” depends entirely on the resources provided and the expectations youth have for themselves. Graduation rates won’t go up if a growing number of the country’s youth think the “American dream” doesn’t apply to them.
The celebration of diverse, positive role models is equally central to the nation’s future. As of 2007 the National Gang Center estimated that half of American gang members are Hispanic. If America hopes to curtail the amount of money it spends combating violence, poverty and racism, a mere $15 million on literature might be a great place to start.