Hispanic heritage in difficult times

Originally Appeared in : 9821-10/11/18

As another Hispanic Heritage Month comes around, the writings of the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes have special relevance. 


In a beautifully written book titled “The Buried Mirror: Reflections of Spain and the New World,” published in 1992 for the fifth centenary, Fuentes wrote: “We must remember that ours was once an empty continent. All of us came from somewhere else, beginning with the nomadic tribes from Asia who became the first Americans.”  


The Spaniards came next, to Florida in 1513, California in 1542 and New Mexico in 1598, their empire extending in a great arc to the West Coast and north to Oregon. Finally, the United States took possession of these vast territories after the Mexican War ended in 1848.


“So the Hispanic world did not come to the United States, the United States came to the Hispanic world,” Fuentes wrote. That was certainly what happened to both the maternal and paternal branches of my family, and countless others later considered “illegal” or imposters. When my ancestors came to New Mexico in 1693, they were just moving from one part of New Spain to another. They became U.S. citizens by the treaty ending the Mexican War.


From time immemorial, wrote the historian Carey McWilliams, migrants have crossed the now Mexican border in both directions following some of the most ancient trails in North America. And they are coming still, from Mexico, Central and South America, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.  


When the worker crosses the border, he or she finds a familiar environment, enough to ask oneself, in Fuentes' words: “Is it not in some ways ours? He can taste it, hear its language, sing its songs, and pray to its saints.” Fuentes thought it was perhaps an act of poetic justice that the Hispanic world should return, both to the United States and to its ancestral heritage in the Western Hemisphere.


As a result, as Fuentes wrote, Los Angeles is the second largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, next to Mexico City. San Antonio has been a bilingual city for more than 150 years. And thanks to Florida’s large Cuban population, one could get by speaking only Spanish. 


If not already, Hispanics will soon be the majority of Catholics in the U.S. They bring, as Fuentes wrote, “not only Catholicism, but something more like a deep sense of the sacred, a recognition that the world is holy, which is probably the deepest certitude of the Amerindian world.” 


Fuentes saw their diversity as an asset. “Is there anyone better prepared to deal with the central issue of the other than we, the Spanish, the Spanish Americans, the Hispanics of the United States?” For, as he wrote, we are Indian, black, European but above all mixed, Iberian and Greek, Roman and Jewish, Arab, Gothic and Gypsy. He sees Spain and the New World as centers where multiple cultures meet — for incorporation, not exclusion. “When we exclude, we betray ourselves. When we include, we find ourselves.”


Fuentes himself was a border crosser who lectured and taught regularly at the University of Notre Dame, where I met him. 


But what would he say we can celebrate in these difficult times? He would suggest our simultaneity of cultures, “the Indian sense of sacredness, community and will to survive, the Mediterranean legacy of law, philosophy, and the Christian, Jewish and Arab strains making up a multiracial Spain.”

Go to top