Wednesday
Jul152015

The Perils of Heritage

We are all descended from losers.

Take me, for instance. My family came from El Salvador, a charter member of the Third-World Nation Hall of Fame that is best known for crippling poverty, psychotic gangs, bloody civil wars, murdered priests, and raped nuns.

I’m also part Italian, which lends itself to stereotypes of Mafia hit men and the original unwashed horde of immigrants. In addition, Italy is currently on its 982nd post-WWII government (not exactly a source of pride).

And I’m a touch Irish as well. So here comes the drunken, brawling Irishman, everybody.

No, I’m not self-loathing. In truth, I’m grateful for my mélange of ancestry. I regularly sing the praises of Latino culture, and it’s not bad having a connection (however distant) to Da Vinci and James Joyce.

However, everyone’s culture has black spots, and our efforts to honor our ancestors should not extend to overt denial and large-scale myopia. But they regularly do.

No society is great at recognizing its historical mistakes and sources of shame.

For example, many Russians still think Stalin was a great guy, a lot of Japanese believe that whole Nanking thing was overblown, and the Turks won’t acknowledge they were a little, teensy-weensy bit mean to the Armenians.

As for America, it is only in recent decades that we have even begun to acknowledge what happened to Native Americans, and we still don’t know how to address slavery.

This brings us, of course, to the Confederate flag.

A recent survey said that most Americans (57%) believe that the flag is a symbol of Southern pride, more than it is an emblem of racism. Well, of course many Americans think the flag isn’t racist. They’ve been told that for generations. And for generations, they have been wrong.

But still, let’s look at the reasons why the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is regarded as an icon of Southern pride.

As far as I can tell, the Confederate Army’s legacy constitutes of three things:

  • ·      Being led by racist slaveholders
  • ·      Waging the bloodiest, most violent act of treason in American history
  • ·      Getting its ass kicked by the Union Army

I’m looking over that list, and I don't see a whole lot to be proud about.

Perhaps it is too painful to admit that the Confederates weren’t fine gentlemen who were fighting for the honor of their states. They were assholes.

The sad thing is that Southerners have much they can celebrate. We’re talking about the land of Faulkner, and the birthplace of blues and jazz, and some of the best cuisine in the country. And while we’re at it, go ahead and play up Southern hospitality, which in my personal experience, is a very real thing.

But none of those things have the visceral impact of that blue X on a red background. None of those concepts conjure up the tortured self-righteousness of the Lost Cause and the romanticism of mint juleps and content Negros singing spirituals.

It is too difficult for Southerners to admit that their ancestors weren’t gallant or valiant. Lee, Jackson, Davis, et al were way past the wrong side of history, to the point where to honor them as respectable is Orwellian. No doubt, many of them were brave and fought hard for their cause, but that can be said about any army, including all the really bad guys.

And as many have pointed out, no other industrialized nation celebrates the legacy of a failed rebellion against its government. No other country says, “Yes, I know they killed millions of their countrymen for a horrific and shameful cause, but let’s put up monuments to them anyway.”

Understand that I don’t mean to pick on the South or assert that my background is so superior. As I stated, my roots are in El Salvador, so I know how difficult it can be to admit that a lot of your predecessors were reprehensible (and yes, US interventions and neo-colonialism are big factors in the dark history of Central America, but that doesn't let Salvadorans off the hook for their homegrown evil).

My point is that the relentless romanticism of heritage — along with misplaced regional or ethnic pride — are not just abstract annoyances. As we’ve seen, they have very real consequences in American society.

We see it in the ranting of a homicidal gunman. We see it in the denial that racism even exists. We see it in the refusal to look forward and accept a new society, because to do so would somehow dishonor our great-great-great grandmothers. We see it whenever we refuse to work on our personal and cultural flaws, because after all, we must be amazing based on our noble lineage. And we see it whenever we dismiss unvarnished facts in favor of some soothing fairy tale.

Now, it’s true that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. But adhering to that maxim to the point of hyper-reverence locks us into cultural handcuffs to the past, with all of its mistakes and prejudices and outright brutality.

Perhaps it’s time that we take pride not in the opinions of our forbearers, but in being mature enough — as individuals and as a nation — to transcend the antiquated and misbegotten hatreds of people who just happened to be born before us.

So how about all of just say that we’re better than our ancestors, and our descendents will be better than us?

Because no matter where you’re from, that’s pretty much the truth.

Wednesday
Jul082015

Demolished

Say you open a small business. You run it for a few years, do pretty well, and always pay your debts (especially the rent) on time.

Then you arrive at work one morning to find a bulldozer parked in the pile of rubble that used to be your store.

You might get the impression that something was slightly amiss.

Well, recently, a piñata store in Austin was demolished, without the storeowners’ knowledge and with their possessions still inside. The storeowners, who are Latino, say that the greedy landlords bulldozed the store because they could get more money from the tech companies that are moving into the area.

The storeowners had a lease through 2017 and had just paid the rent for the upcoming month. When confronted about their reckless destruction of the store, one of the landlords (yes, a rich white guy) used the term “roaches” to describe the storeowners. Remember that the storeowners are Hispanic. Clearly, the term “roaches” was not an accident.

The incident shows how Latino neighborhoods are literally and figuratively being displaced for upscale residents. There have been numerous flare-ups in Austin over gentrification, with many Latino leaders claiming that rich newcomers are driving out long-time residents. And there have been similar disputes in New York, Los Angeles and other cities, often in Hispanic neighborhoods that are changing rapidly.

And here’s where it gets conspiratorial.

A recent study implied that Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be gentrified than African American neighborhoods.

Harvard researchers analyzed patterns across Chicago and found that gentrifying neighborhoods tended to be predominantly Latino or white working class, with fewer African Americans.

The study implied that Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be gentrified in the traditional sense (i.e., young white newcomers moving into the area). And they are also more likely to receive the theoretical benefits of gentrification (e.g., urban renewal and municipal investment). No word, however, on what happens to Hispanic residents when the bulldozers get revved up.

Keep in mind that the same study also implied that there is a tipping point, where the percentage of African Americans in a neighborhood either makes gentrification likely or unlikely.

Basically, too many black people keep the white people away. 

Why are Latino neighborhoods more attractive to white gentrifiers? Well, there is no hard data on that, and it’s unlikely that a future study will include the question, “Why are you ok moving in next to brown people, but not black people?” Although the answers would be illuminating, to say the least.

The researchers said that in addition to their statistical proof, there is anecdotal evidence that Latino neighborhoods are viewed as more desirable to gentrifiers than African American areas.

For example, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn — often pointed to as the prime example of gentrification — previously had a large Latino population. That’s not the case anymore, as the cliché of the young hipster inevitably features a white guy (usually with some bizarre nineteenth-century facial hair, but that’s another story).

In response to this dark side of gentrification, some Latino community leaders in Los Angeles launched the “gente-fication” movement (“gente” is Spanish for “people,” but you already knew that).

The idea is that upscale Latinos will stay — or in some cases, move into — Latino neighborhoods and revitalize the area themselves rather than rely on newcomers. The trend has slowly caught on in other cities, such as New York, Houston and Phoenix. 

Although results are difficult to quantify, the LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights may be in the midst of a Latino renaissance, due in part to the gente-fication movement. And community activists are attempting to duplicate the neighborhood’s success in other Los Angeles areas.

But the movement has drawn fire for what some claim is an exclusionary, or even racist attitude. After all, if you’re saying that you want a specific racial or ethnic group to move in — whether it’s white, black, Latino, or other — things quickly get uncomfortable.

Where all this will lead is a mystery. Perhaps gentrification will wipe us all out. Or maybe we’ll achieve some kind of balance where newcomers enrich neighborhoods while long-time residents maintain the area’s culture.

In any case, hopefully no more piñata stores will get bulldozed.

Wednesday
Jul012015

A Big Old Tangent

For the homophobic, Confederate-flag-waving guy who hates Obamacare, it's been a tough week.

I’ll have more to say about these whiplash changes that are gripping America, and I’ll try my best to avoid gloating.

But that’s in the future. For right now, let me indulge in a little self-promotion.

First, there is my initial interview as a novelist. I’ve been interviewed before for my blogging and article writing, but this was the first one where I got to say the phrase “my book.” Anyway, here it is:

Second, there is the interview I did for my old friends at Being Latino. It too was about my novel Barrio Imbroglio. You can find that here:

And lastly, there is the interview I did for the Kindle Chronicles. This one is a podcast, so you can hear my voice and everything. Crazy! That one is here:

I’ll be talking more about my book soon. But in the meantime, I’ll be busy sending out rsvps to all the gay weddings I’ve been invited to.

It’s gonna be a fun time.

Friday
Jun262015

Anybody Remember “Cocoon”?

My abuela is past 90 and shows no signs of ill health. I wonder if she will visit me in the retirement home, because I will end up in one of those places long before she does.

I mention this because more Americans are entering “the sandwich generation,” where they raise their kids while taking care of their aging parents. It’s a common scenario, and the premise for at least a couple of failed sitcoms.

Indeed, in post-recession America, multiple generations under one roof is not uncommon. And for Latinos, economic necessity and strong familial bonds increase the odds that individuals will one day have to take care of their parents. But that scenario doesn’t seem to faze us.
 
In fact, more than 90% of Hispanics say providing assistance to elderly loved ones will be a positive experience, a higher number than the general population. And while more than half of all caregivers to the elderly report being stressed about the situation, only one-third of Latinos who care for an older person say that it has caused stress.

Yes, as I’ve written before, putting one’s aging parents in a retirement home is unthinkable for many Hispanics. Latino culture is strongly focused on the family, and it is often assumed that elderly parents will eventually go live with their adult children. As one Latina writer puts it, “We open our doors and bring [elderly parents] home, we care for them, and we do not set them aside like a piece of old furniture.”

Of course, that’s a little harsh on all you non-Latinos who plan to stuff mom and dad in one of those old folks’ homes at some point. But it is — how can I put this? — pretty much damn true.

Now, there is a dark side to this. Perhaps because Latinos often presume that elderly parents will eventually go live with their adult children, just 10% of Latinos report that they have done much planning for their long-term care.

So when madre or padre does move in, stresses such as overcrowding and conflicting needs can pile up. Still, we seem to be handling it well so far.

As for my abuela, thus far she has not had to move in with any of her kids (or more likely, her grandkids). She lives by herself, where she cooks, watches TV, and reminisces about the past.

But I bet she’s also plotting how to spend the inheritances she will get, considering she will outlive all of us.

Wednesday
Jun172015

Another Option

It was not my intention to create a trilogy about the Latino publishing scene, but that is what has happened. My previous two articles were about big publishing’s snub of Hispanic authors and the rise of small presses. And now I will complete the triumvirate by detailing the virtues and flaws of self-publishing e-books.

But for this analysis, I needed an insider’s perspective. So I sat down for coffee with Pedro Huerta, Amazon’s Director of Kindle Content for Latin America.

[Full disclosure #1: I have recently self-published a novel on Amazon.]

[Full disclosure #2: I don’t drink coffee. I actually had tea.]

Huerta is excited about Amazon’s second annual Indie Literary Prize for Spanish-language authors. The contest, which runs from July 1 to August 31, is open to any writers who upload their Spanish-language e-books to Amazon’s KDP platform. From the presumably hundreds of entries, five finalists will be named. The winner will be published in print by La Esfera de los Libros, and his/her book will be translated into English and published in digital, print, and audio formats by AmazonCrossing.

“Authors can submit a 10-page poem or a 500-page novel,” says Huerta. “We’re open to all genres, and it’s a great opportunity for new writers to get discovered.”

Of course, it’s fair to ask if winning the contest will really help Spanish-language authors further their careers. After all, self-publishing is a crowded, frenzied mob scene where high-quality books struggle to stand out from the waves of semi-illiterate, self-righteous and just plain insane manifestos that wannabe authors hurl at readers.

No, it’s not pretty.

Now add in the fact that we’re talking about Spanish-language e-books, which have an even smaller audience in America than English-language printed works do.

However, Huerta is undeterred. He says that self-publishing is the democratization of literature, where even the most outlandish writers can find an eager audience. And he says that if anything, this approach is more relevant for people who prefer to read in Spanish.

“Even in the best bookstores in America, the Spanish-language section is limited,” Huerta says. “What we’re doing is bringing the greatest bookstores in Mexico City, in Barcelona, to everyone in America.”

But will Americans be buying? Well, as we all know, the Hispanic population in America is increasing. And bilingualism, once an exotic and politically suspicious activity, is on the rise as well. Thus, it stands to reason that the audience for Spanish-language books is also getting larger.

Furthermore, Latinos are more likely to use mobile electronic devices than the general population. Because Hispanics are so plugged in, it’s pretty easy to imagine Latino readers devouring e-books on their Kindles, Nooks, and laptops.

Amazon is aware of these intersecting cultural trends, and the company doesn’t want to be left behind.

“Latinos love to read,” Huerta says. “And we want them to read. Whether it is a traditional book or on a Kindle, we want reading to be a daily part of everyone’s life.”

So will winning Amazon’s contest set a Spanish-language author on the path to becoming a household name, a sort of Latino version of Dan Brown or Stephen King? Huerta says that’s a possibility, but he adds that this is not really the point.

“There are Latino authors who want to be the next John Grisham, and that’s great,” Huerta says. “But the goal is increased visibility for all good writers. It’s not just about winning the contest. It’s about encouraging authors to get their work out there, and helping readers discover them.”

Huerta imagines a future where authors take wild, experimental chances because no one can prevent them from publishing online. He says that many writers will create books that are aimed at an audience of a few hundred, or even just at their immediate loved ones. And he points out that another advantage of e-books is that they never go out of print.

“What are the stories to be told?” Huerta asks. “Let’s capture all of them, online, and keep them forever.”