"As we try to shape our identity, we're trying not to lose what's important to us."
Rising Voices of America
Thursday, July 26, 2007
This land is your land, this land is their land, and they hail from California to the New York island -- 34 of the best and brightest Latino college students, sojourning in Washington to do the congressional summer intern thing.
They arrived just in time to witness the spectacular flameout of the Senate's immigration reform bill in June, then to read about attempts to deny services to illegal immigrants in Prince William and Loudoun counties, then to immerse themselves in a project to provide services to one and all in Columbia Heights.
Washington makes them mad. And it inspires them.
It also has made them think deeply about who they are, and where they fit into this turbulent feat of political imagination and plain winging-it called America.
Such existential ruminations spark other considerations: Whom do you date? How good (or bad) is your Spanish? How comfortable are you with your skin tone? (Too dark? Too light?) Are you American enough? Is the reputation of la Raza riding on your every move -- or is that perpetual feeling of being watched just an illusion?
One of the first things they did upon arriving was question authority, as represented by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, host of the internship program, which is providing transportation, lodging and a $2,000 stipend for eight weeks. Why, the interns demanded to know, do the members of the caucus insist on calling it the Hispanic caucus? Don't they realize Hispanic is an oppressive, colonial term that emphasizes the Spanish (European, white) part of their identity? To them, Hispanic belongs in the same lame purgatory of embarrassing cultural artifacts as the Macarena and Speedy Gonzales.
The correct term, the interns informed the adults, is Latino, which, to the students, better embraces the three rivers of blood that cascaded together to form a People. White blood, African blood, Indian blood: Hispanic, Latino. Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, Colombian, Peruvian. . . . South American, North American . . . American?
Esther Aguilera, president of the institute, responded to her young charges by saying, well, yes, good point, but a few decades ago when the organization was forming, the U.S. census had gone with Hispanic, making it the official term. And thus the potent undertow of federal bureaucratic logic became another fact of Washington for the interns to experience.
Now, a few weeks after that baptismal rebellion over nomenclature, as the languid liberation of summer twilight settles over a plaza on the George Washington University campus, a group of the interns is sitting under a sculptural clock, sipping iced coffee and talking about identity. They're not who they were just a few years ago, but neither are they who they will become.
"I will never say I'm Hispanic," says Israel García, 22, a senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder. On his mother's side, his roots in a rural Colorado valley date back six generations, grafted with Apache stock. His father was an undocumented migrant lettuce-cutter from Baja California, Mexico, now a legal resident applying for citizenship.
García calls himself a Latino, an American citizen, but it's not that simple.
"I don't underestimate the power of us being allowed to name ourselves," he continues. "And to be able to say 'this' is who we are."