Don’t 500 years count for anything?

Don’t 500 years count for anything?

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BY GUEST WRITER: Dr. Kenya Carmen Dworkin y Méndez, Carnegie Mellon University Professor and Latin American Cultural Union Co-President

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the original author and DO NOT necessarily represent the views and opinions of Presente Pittsburgh Media.


It may seem a simplistic question, but the Hispanic* presence in the United States is a complicated and unfamiliar topic for many, both for Latino immigrants as well as native Latinos. Like it or not, the existence of a Hispanic Heritage Month should encourage us to acknowledge that the Hispanic presence in the Americas, and especially in what became the United States, began more than 100 years before the English colonization of this land. As important as 1776 is for U.S. history, when a nation of 13 contiguous and continental states that eventually expanded to include a total of 50, plus overseas possessions, was born. This view of history erases the prior arrival of the Spanish, in 1513, the first documented instance of European and Indigenous contact in what became the United States, one country in the poorly named “New World.” As far as we Hispanics are concerned, the “official,” “documented” history of the U.S. has never taken into account the ample textual evidence that the Hispanic presence has produced over 500 years after the so-called “Discovery.” It does not even acknowledge the fact that even the first printing press, without which there would be no “documented” history for anyone to share, came here from Spain via Mexico, and not from England.

One of the first challenges in attempting to do this is ‘categorization,’ as we are speaking of the textual evidence of many different peoples: Peninsular Spaniards and other Europeans; Indigenous as well as mestizo peoples; African slaves, mixed-race and Hispanized Africans; and the descendants of all of these groups. However, we must also take into account exiled refugees; border people and those who the border crossed in 1848; and all their descendants, too. Lastly, we must also acknowledge that chronology, too, can be either useful or an obstacle. We must be willing to see the past as it is conditioned through the lens of our present, and the future through the lens of those who looked forward from the past.

From the twentieth century back

            My general intention here is to present extremely limited but important evidence of the Hispanic presence here from the very earliest time, before the English colonization and before the U.S. came into being. But for now, I would like us to go back to the twentieth century and see just a few, minimal examples of Latino texts that are available to us today, thanks to much archival research and subsequent publication, mostly in Spanish, but with a few texts having been translated into English. There is the novel Lucas Guervara (1914), the first ever novel about Hispanic immigration to the U.S., written and published by Colombian Alirio Díaz Guerra (it is available in English, too). In its pages he offers a view of his experiences as an immigrant to this country and a counternarrative to the notion of the “American Dream.”

We also have a novel by Nicaraguan writer Gustavo Alemán Bolaños, La factoría (1921), which documents his hardships as a worker in a New York City factory. Las cartas gredalenses (1900), by Venezuelan Nicanor Bolet Peraza, contains a series of ‘diary-type entries’ and ‘letters’ that humorously but sharply analyze the ‘so-called’ benefits of the U.S. ‘achievements and “benefits.” In the novel Las aventuras de don Chipote, o cuando los pericos mamen (1928), which is available in translation, Mexican Daniel Venegas offers a poignant but Cantínflas-style story of the terrible trials of a rural Mexican who migrates North with is dog, Skinnenbones. Among the myriad journalists and chroniclers from the same century, several stand out, although there are many more: black Puerto Rican Jesús Colón and his brother Joaquín (1901-1974), and white Puerto Rican Bernardo Vega (1885-1965), whose prolific work reveal their own evolution from immigrants, to migrant citizens, to ethnics, and that of many others.

            Since women did not easily have access to printing houses, we must review just a few of the Latina journalists and poets who left their mark in the United States. Among them is Mexican-American Jovita Idar, who eventually became the editor-in-chief of the Texan newspaper La Crónica, in which she advocated tirelessly for the human rights of Mexican-Texas and other immigrants, and women’s suffrage, and railed against the actions of the U.S. government towards Texas and its Mexicans in the first four decades of the twentieth century. The New York newspaper Pueblos Hispanos contains most of the writings of Puerto Rican Consuelo Lee Tapia, who published incessantly about the tribulations of not only her own people, but of all immigrants, during the 1940s.

Another extremely well-known and beloved Puerto Rican, poet Julia de Burgos, who lived in New York and wrote about how in N.Y. Puerto Ricans were treated like racialized, second-class citizens, in perhaps her most famous poem “Adiós en Welfare Island.” Dominican immigrant Carmita Landestoy, on the other hand, published a book titled ¡Yo también acuso! (a play on the Émile Zola’s published letter in defense of accused Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus), due to her eventual but total opposition to the Trujillo regime in her homeland. Finally, Argentine-Chilean Emma Sepúlveda, wrote and published a collection of poems (which is available bilingually) titled Muerte al silencio [Death to Silence] about the physical and spritual horror of horror of Pinochet’s Chile.

Till next time

            For the moment, we have to end our brief historical journey. My next installment will connect the twentieth century with some of important texts from earlier centuries, going all the way back to the Spanish colonial period in what eventually became the United States. Reviewing some of these texts, when there are many others, does only minimal justice to revealing more than 500 years of Latino presence that could and should be recalled during Hispanic Heritage Month in the U.S.

* For the purpose of this article and the following one, I will be using the term “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeably, and even including the more recent term “Latinx,” which I know is problematic. However, there is not enough space here to properly analyze them.

Dr. Kenya Carmen Dworkin y Méndez was born in Havana, Cuba, but grew up in NYC. Totally bilingual in Spanish and English, she is a professor of Hispanic Studies and Translation at Carnegie Mellon University. Over the past 25 years, she has received a combined total of $250,000 in both research and community project education and arts grants, and serves on numerous editorial and research boards in the U.S. and abroad. In Pittsburgh, she volunteers as the Executive Director of Coro Latinoamericano, Co-President of the Latin American Cultural Union, and Co-Director of the CMU Hispanic children’s outreach program, CIRCULO. Contact Kenya at 412-721-9208 or kdworkin@andrew.cmu.edu.

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