As the National Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, I would like to end it with a celebration of Latina women, on campus and in literature. According to the U.S. government’s webpage the month-long celebration begins on September 15th to mark the anniversary of independence for the following Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico (September 16th) and Chile (September 18th) also celebrate their independence days during the month
When I was a child, I was drawn to the subject of English not because of a love of language, but because of a love of story. I looked at houses in the small town in which I grew up only to wonder who lived in them and what their stories were. I watched television and read books for the same reason. I liked to think about all the different ways in which people lived their lives and whether they got to choose how they lived or who they were becoming. I knew one thing at an early age: I didn’t want to live my entire life in a small town in which people’s choices seemed to be as dull as the salt-and-peppered, meat-and-potato meals that they ate on a daily basis.
Watching West Side Story as a young girl was one of the ways in which I was introduced to another way of living life. The character who enthralled me was not Maria, the girl who falls in love with the Italian boy Tony. It was instead Anita, who works in the bridal shop with Maria and is the girlfriend of her brother Bernardo. Anita seemed to sizzle especially in the scene when she and the other girls sing that they like to live in America and are glad to no longer live in Puerto Rico. While I had no idea where Puerto Rico was or what went on there, I now knew that there were places where life was different from my own.
Clearly I have learned much about Hispanic cultures since the days I first watched this movie, but my interest in story and other ways of living are still of vital interest to me today. It was with this idea in mind that I sat down to talk with three Latina women who work at Southern Polytechnic State University. I met first with Bernice Nuhfer-Halten, a professor at SPSU who teaches Spanish and is the Language Coordinator, and with Dorianne Ayala, the Administrative Assistant for SPSU’s Teacher Education Program. I then met with Diana Cosme, the Administrative Assistant for the Systems and Mechanical Engineering Program. Below are a range of topics and responses from our discussions
What became clear to me as I was interviewing all three women was that all three were on some level “caretakers” not only in their families, but also within the roles they chose for their careers and that all three saw their mothers as important role models for themselves.
Bernice takes care of the language program at SPSU. One of her goals as an educator is to focus on Hispanic issues in such a way that people at SPSU come to understand the diverse cultures that make up the Hispanic heritage. Her own heritage is composed of a Polish mother and a Cuban father. She told me, “I felt Polish until we moved from Chicago to Miami when I was thirteen. I grew up eating pickled food in Chicago and fish in Florida. I am a ‘wanna be’ Latina. I picked up my understanding of the Hispanic culture through academic studies. My Mom didn’t understand Latinos at all, but she was my greatest influence—she taught me that you do what you have to do.” While Bernice may think of her identity as a “wanna be” Latina, I see her decisions to study the Spanish language and culture more as an act of reclaiming what is hers—the Latina aspect of her heritage.
Dorianne is also a “caretaker” in her role as anadministrative assistant. She told me, “Both of my parents are Puerto Rican, but my grandfather was from Spain. He was tall with a long nose, and my mother’s lighter coloring comes from him. My mom dyed her hair blond and was often seen as ‘white.’ My parents are divorced and my mother is my role model. She is a strong, independent woman—strong willed with loud vocals. In Puerto Rica girls are raised to be subservient to men. My aunts knew that their husbands were stepping out on them. It’s different over here. My mom didn’t remarry until a month before I was married. She looked out for me.”
It was Diana who helped me to see the caretaking role for all three women. She told me that there were lots of police officers and nurses in her family and that when her mother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, she didn’t think twice about leaving Atlanta to travel to San Diego in order to take care of her mother. Diana told me, “I was born a middle child of five and was raised in Brooklyn, New York. My grandfather (mother’s father) was a Spaniard and my other grandparents were Puerto Rican. My grandfather had a huge impact on my mother’s and father’s relationship as well as on my oldest brother Tony—grandfather taught him to read Spanish so that he could read the newspaper to him in Spanish since he was losing his eyesight. Daddy took care of my grandfather when he was diagnosed with dementia—he did everything for him since grandfather did not want a woman to wash him.” Diana’s parents separated when she was 12. Her mother was her greatest influence. Diana was proud that her mom went back to school for her GED and then earned her nursing license when she was forty.
All three of the women also talked about the concept of a Hispanic family. According to Bernice, Hispanic families see the mother’s role as a privileged one. Bernice sees no problem with “helicopter parents” because Hispanic families have always had parents who closely guarded their children. Dorianne indicated that in Puerto Rico the woman is pulled into the male’s family. Everything then revolves around his family. The family is the most important thing—“Puerto Ricans work to survive, but Americans survive to work. Everything is a party in Puerto Rico.” She indicated that she regrets that family unity isn’t as strong in the United States. Her family did go to Puerto Rico when her mother died since her mother had requested that they throw her ashes into the sea—she did not want to go into the ground. They had a party to celebrate her mother’s life and then threw the ashes into the sea.
Diana believes that Hispanic women are the transmitters of Hispanic Culture. She told me she was raised in the tradition of a Hispanic family. They ate Hispanic food and always had a pot of gravy and a pot of coffee on. Their neighbors in Brooklyn played a huge role as well since they all shared food with each other. Traditional Hispanic families guard their daughters closely. Diana told me, “I wasn’t allowed to go on a date without a chaperone—I was engaged and still had a chaperone. I had to be in when it got dark—it didn’t matter if it got dark at 8 p.m. or at 10 p.m. I had to be in.” She was worried that when her mother passed away nine years ago that her family would lose its closeness, but her siblings and she have stayed close. They all share everything that happens with each other and while one nephew bestows the blessing on elders that they are supposed to give to him, they are proud of their heritage. They love their Spanish music, their Spanish food (especially Moffongo, a dish that is well known in Puerto Rico for its layers of egg, plantains and spiced meat eaten with rice), and their Puerto Rican flag. While her mother insisted that she and her siblings always fly the American flag with their Puerto Rican flag, she and her siblings all have a Puerto Rican flag in their cars.
All three women indicated that Hispanic culture is a patriarchal culture. Diana summed this up best with examples from her family. She said, “My mother loved the boys the best. They couldn’t do anything wrong. The boys had a learning curve—the girls didn’t. The boys were on a pedestal and the girls took care of things. Mother loved her boys and her grandkids more than the girls.”
The Mexican Issue
Another thing all three women had in common was that they dislike how Americans tend to lump all Hispanic people under the “Mexican blanket.” Dorianne talked of being asked for a green card—Puerto Ricans are not “illegals” but they are seen as such by many people. She said that while the language and the culture of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are similar, they are not the same. Bernice tied this idea to “Anglos” feeling as though they have a sense of cultural superiority—they know the “right” way for how things should be done. They don’t see themselves as an ethnic group. Diana echoed what the other women said. “We need to educate people that not everyone is Mexican, especially in Hiram, Georgia where I live.”
Bernice summed things up by indicating that while there exist many similarities within Hispanic cultures, that the beans which each society eats help to determine ethnicity. Bernice rattled the names of different types of beans and cultures off so fast that I had to go to the Internet to learn more. According to Hispanic Culture Online, Frijoles Negros (black beans) are the most popular in Cuba, “Habichuelas” are eaten in Puerto Rico with fried plantains, Pinto Beans are smashed into refried beans in Mexico, and red beans are prepared as part of a vegetarian stew in Ecuador.
What also was echoed by all three women was that bias and skin color often go together in Hispanic cultures. Lighter skin is privileged over darker skin. Bernice noted that indigenous features and skin color in Mexico is more desirable than black skin color, but less desirable than white skin. Dorianne talked about her husband and his mother looking more “Indian: and that her three children have her color of skin but that they tan golden brown. Diana noted that Puerto Rican can be a very tight knit group especially when it comes to skin color. Her mother married a man with darker skin coloring and her siblings, who didn’t do the same, ousted her for it. When Diana married her Cuban husband, her mother let her family know that they were invited to the wedding but that they could not show any disrespect because she wouldn’t tolerate it.
Literary Latina Women
For those of you who have read this blog and want to know more accounts and stories from Latina women, here are a few I have enjoyed.
Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz is my favorite nun of all time. Born in seventeenth century Mexico, Cruz used her intelligence to become a scholar and a writer. When Sor Juana Inez faced criticism from the Catholic Church concerning her love of knowledge and writing, she reasoned strongly that it was better for the church and for children to have mothers with intellectual rights and to with access to education in “Reply to Sor Filotea.”
Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez are two of my favorite Latina storytellers (they are also poets, but as you may have noticed, I am all about story). Cisneros lives in her purple house in San Antonio, Texas and writes stories that are informed by her Mexican and American heritage. The stories often combine both the Spanish and English languages as they bring to life the stories of Latina girls and their families. I have read The House on Mango Street and Woman of Hollering Creek, and I am currently reading Caramelo.
Julia Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic. She was born in New York City and her family returned to New York when her family was in deep trouble due to her father’s work in the underground that opposed the dictatorship of Trujillo. While I love her novel In the Time of the Butterflies and its focus on the Mirabel sisters who were brutally murdered by the dictatorship, my favorite works are How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡YO! These are not Alvarez’s only works, but they are my favorites because they weave stories concerning one family with four girls through a number of different lenses in a number of different ways.
As you celebrate the last day of Hispanic Heritage day, I hope you have the time to reflect on the diverse stories and cultures we consider Hispanic.