Interview with a Mestizo. Are You Home? Are you Awake?

Original post found here:

Mestizos Come Home! is a book you’ll want to read and then reread. You’ll also be compelled to buy more books, copies of the book for your friends and copies of all the literature and references cited in the book. Mestizos Come Home! shares what Mexican Americans have accomplished since the 1960s, but also addresses important issues regarding community and its future in the United States. Rudolf Anaya says this book is a “must-read” for those who wish to understand the future of the United States. The research for this book reaches back to the eighteenth-century. La Bloga sits down with the author, Robert Con Davis-Undiano, Neustadt Professor and Presidential Professor at the University of Oklahoma and executive director or World Literature Today.

This interview is much more thorough and longer than a contemporary internet format, but I trust La Bloga readers will appreciate it. Before you listen to Maria Hinojosa’s upcoming Latino USA show featuring Robert Con Davis-Undiano, you can read the complete La Bloga interview below.

Melinda Ann Palacio:

Where did the idea for this book spring from? How did you decide to combine the body, low rider culture, literature, and the sense of place Atzlan?

Robert Con Davis-Undiano:

My initial thought was to write a much simpler book than what I ended up with.  A few years ago, I was struck constantly that people said things in the media about Latinos and Mexican Americans that were patently untrue—just inaccurate.  For example, people casually talk about Latinos not wanting to assimilate into mainstream U.S. culture.  Every Latino knows that this isn’t true. Assimilation is at least a three-part process of acculturation and involvement with the new culture, and it does not happen overnight. Sociologists have studied this question specifically in regard to Latinos, and Latinos are not taking longer than any other group to assimilate.  So I wanted to correct some of these misunderstandings and put on display some of the great accomplishments of Mexican American and Latino culture.

I chose topics like the body, land, and the Chicano cultural “voice” because these issues are not always discussed in the culture, and I knew that they would be enlightening to non-Latinos.  Especially the issue of the body is a far-reaching issue that encompasses much about Latino culture and Latino history in the Americas and helps to contrast Latinos in so many ways to mainstream culture.  That topic is so important that it threatened to take over the whole book.  In a word, I chose the topics that I thought would be most enlightening to mainstream culture.


This book is such a thorough text on the call home for Mestizos and Chicanos who claim Mexican American identity. Were your intentions always so all encompassing? Did some of the chapters start off as something else?


This is an excellent question.  I started out with the specific aim of bridging non-Latinos and Latinos, to bring the two cultures closer together.  What I soon discovered, however, was that the backlog of misunderstood history and culture was greater than I had thought, enormous, and it really cut across all of Latin America.  That’s when I read Eduardo Galeano and others who had already identified the pattern of cultural “amnesia,” the way in which mestizos have been systematically excluded and marginalized from so much about life and community in the Americas.  Basically, the Spanish in the colonial period created the pattern of marginalizing everybody who was not blanco, especialy blacks and those with complex racial identities.  That pattern is still part of the historical legacy of culture and community in the Americas.  I was able to see that so much of what needed to be exposed, put in the open, and discussed was covered over and made invisible, like a body hidden after a crime.  I further saw that, owing in part to the Chicano Movement and the Chicano Renaissance, much that blocked these issues and kept them hidden was no longer relevant or a barrier.

So you are exactly right when you ask if these chapters started out more simply and then got more complicated.  That’s what happened.  Once I realized that I could break some of these barriers and enable honest and revealing discussion about life and culture in the Americas, and that no one else was waiting in line to do this work of cultural recovery, I doubled down and committed to the more thorough task of recovering cultural and historical material that had been covered over for centuries.  From that moment forward, I saw recovering the body as an especially important act of cultural recovery that I had the responsibility of doing to try to make some good things happen in the culture.  I felt very committed to this project once I began to think of this project in these terms.


Are you disappointed with policies imposed on Chicanos and do you feel that some of us may have dropped the ball in the journey to making those advances?


Yes, of course.  I’m disappointed that the country has not connected more with the Latino community and is committed (for the time being) to seeing us as the enemy.  This is lazy thinking and does not begin to present America at its best.  This approach also betrays the “American Idea” that the country is built on.  For example, the Founders were not very astute about race or gender—in fact, they were notoriously negligent and a product of their time in both areas.  But on the issue of class and community, they imagined a multicultural democracy, and this was a crazy high goal to achieve.  They left out indigenous people, for sure, but the idea in the abstract was amazing. No nation had ever done it, and there was no reason to think that the U.S. could pull it off either.  In fact, the country has never gotten nearly as close to the goal of being an accepting multicultural democracy as most of us would like.

By creating the “American Idea” and putting us on this path, the country, in effect, reenacts its own founding every time a new community comes here to assimilate.  When we as a country fail at assimilation, the spirit of the Founders fades a little and begins to die.  When we as a country can assimilate new communities, we are rediscovering liberty as we form new bonds with people who are different from us.  We are rediscovering democracy when we allow our communities and how they work to evolve and change in response to the new people who are becoming a part of us.  When we succeed even a little at these tasks, it does not take very much, the spirit of the Founders brightens in us and comes alive again.  In other words, the American Idea only continues to live as long as we stay true to the idea of a multicultural democracy that the Founders had in mind.  We don’t have to be that country that they dreamed about, but it is a great and noble goal, and we shouldn’t take a pass on what we can still achieve of it.

How these goals relate to the indigenous community and mestizos in general is clearly complicated, and much of that history is shameful, and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t.  But those goals are still real and incredibly valuable, and I would like for Mestizos Come Home! to be one powerful reminder of what the American Idea is and the part that Mexican Americans and Latinos can play to keep that vision alive.  If the country as a whole were more cognizant that it has a stake in how well Mexican Americans fare in becoming a part of this country, they would be more generous and accepting in regard to the Dreamers and on issues of immigration and acculturation.  I am saying that the country as a whole DOES have a stake in the fortunes of communities who come here to assimilate, but the country these days does not generally remember this fact.  That situation needs to change.


You show how ideals of beauty for the Mestizo body have traditionally favored white European standards. What would help change this idea and celebrate the brown, Mestizo body?


I think that we have a great deal of cultural recovery to do.  I’m ultimately less of a romantic and more of a rationalist in that I believe that people can’t care about something that they don’t know about.  There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit about the history of the Americas that needs to come out and become a part of what Americans know about their country.  Once there is some general understanding that the creation of the “brown body” was a social and political act and not a natural development, an outgrowth of nature, we all will be able to see that people are not color coded and not destined to live out the script that is part of their racial nature.  Yes, we all look different, and some of us are brownish, black, or whatever, but the categories that the Spanish created were artificially constructed and designed to inhibit and limit people in a colonial setting.  Those categories had nothing to do with who we are.

The human genome project has been very helpful in this regard by exploding the notion that ethnic communities differ greatly from each other.  They don’t, and we need to retire the notion of a variety of human species that can be ranked according to their excellence as human beings.  I hope that my discussion in the book of the origin of race theory in the eighteenth century will help people to focus on the bad science and destructive aspects of all racial approaches to explaining human behavior.  The underlying assumptions of racial categories were never science, and it is time to dislodge the Reign of Race as we have known it in the Americas.  It is time for the eighteenth-century-inspired Reign of Race to be over.


You mention in the prefacing pages, “Everyone should have a stake in the success of the Mexican American community’s journey and the quest for social justice?”

Is this how we would have avoided a Trump presidency?


In a word, yes.  Right after the election, the New York Times published a list of six books that could help explain the leadup to the Trump presidency.  J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was one of them—you get the idea.  I got all six books and read them quickly.  Easily the most impressive of the six books was Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal (2016).  He basically argued that we as a culture ignored the millions of people in the working class who were suffering with high unemployment and the general destruction of their way of life over the last thirty years.  The democratic party and most of the country thought that “white people” in that class could get retrained, would find new jobs, and they would be alright.  They weren’t. The democratic party also abandoned the working class over the last thirty years and began focusing on the upper professional class.  Add to this fact the disappearance of the traditional trade unions, who used to educate their members and keep them on track in voting and cultural participation, and we start to see that the country made a horrible mistake in abandoning a whole social class and pretending that there was no real problem.  Trump played to that class, which Hillary (who I supported) seemed not to acknowledge, and the rest is history.  There needs to be some very sober rethinking of how we all played a role in electing Trump.  Even if there had been no actual Trump, this problem was waiting to happen for historical and economic reasons.  Historically, revolutions are fought over smaller issues!


I see this book as a forum for sorting through topics that need our attention. Do you foresee a part II and part III of this book in which you might document future problem solving to acculturation?


A part II and a part III are interesting ideas that I had not considered.  If I can see that this book has been genuinely useful in its critique of the country, and if it seems that there would be an audience for more, I would certainly be open to extending this book’s analysis far more broadly.  I just want this book to do some good, and if more is needed in a kind of sequel, I would be up for that.


A continuation of the first question. What gave you the idea to present a continuum of antepasados (dead testimony) and the historic record with recent texts made up of the current creators of literature?


Problems like racism always have a history, and to get to the bottom of the problem you must always take ownership of that history.  I was actually more surprised that others had not done much of this work before I did.  Why, for example, has there been virtually no general discussion in the culture of el Sistema de casta in the U.S.?  That’s weird.  In the casta tradition is a fully articulated record of the roots of racism in the Americas, and no one wants to understand that history and discuss it?  That can’t be.  When I saw such instances of flagrant oversight and dismissal of important and relevant material, I realized that something bigger was going on.  The cultural amnesia that has become habitual in the Americas is still dominating our thinking and perceptions long after the casta system ended.  This and many other instances of cultural amnesia are now not so much intended by anyone as simply left in place and serving some people while leaving many others out.  In this book, I was hoping to put in play some of those missing pieces to connect the past and present so that others would be motivated to continue this work in adjacent areas.  I’m still hoping that I have done that.


Can you talk about how the impact of this book would make a statement like, “Go back where you came from,” obsolete?


Mexican Americans and Latinos long ago became a part of the fabric of the U.S.  The time to object or to reject their influence passed sometime in the nineteenth century, and the Chicano Renaissance signaled the passing of a threshold when the evidence of Mexican American and Latino influence in the U.S. was made too clear to be refuted at any level.  As the heirs to the Chicano Movement and Chicano Renaissance, we cannot pretend that Latinos are not woven into what this country is about.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is signaling the crossing of that threshold, too.  I think that he and other Latinos also have the appreciation of the Founders that I mentioned earlier and also recognize the wonderful goal of a multicultural democracy—now, of course, a goal that includes gender and racial equity.  Latinos “get” the Founders, and now we just need to help the rest of the country once again to recognize and value living the American Idea—that amazing goal that we can realize and achieve far better than the Founders ever could in their own time.


What book projects are you looking to next?


Right at this moment I am working on starting a Latinx Studies program at the University of Oklahoma, and that has taken up some time.  I like your idea of a sequel to Mestizos Come Home!, and if there seems to be a demand for more discussion along the lines of what that book is saying, it would be fun to track some of the same themes through the publication of really current fiction, like the amazing work that you are doing in your books.


Thank you for taking the time to speak to La Bloga. Is there anything else you’d like to add?


I want Latinos to talk to each other more.  If we are going to pull together the pieces of our souls and “own” the Americas once again, as Galeano referenced, we need that time together to talk and think.  We need to become dedicated resolaneros who are not content to mimic mainstream culture and mirror accepted notions of who we are.  We can recapture some of the energy of the founding of this country and the inauguration of the Chicano Movement when we connect with each other, with our indigenous brothers and sisters, and with all people across the Americas who are disenfranchised, people who don’t feel that they belong to the place that they are from.  In the past, there were strict prohibitions to having those discussions.  Now we must be willing to break through the barriers of amnesia that are still keeping us from what we need to accomplish for ourselves.  When we work together, we see that in a democracy nobody wins unless everyone does.  Once we get past this period of economic unrest (it is very hard on people when their livelihood is threatened; they are not at their best), I believe that we will see a better side of America come forward.


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