Although I’m an admitted French and Italian theory whore, if I were still a full-time US literature professor, my ass would be in seat for several years worth of Spanish classes. I think what civil rights struggles were to Baby Boomer intellectuals, and what gender and gay/straight oppositions and entanglements were to mine, Anglo/Latino(a) entanglements and border crossings are to this moment.
Let me be clear: there is still a lot of urgent political work to be done on racial and ethnic issues, gender and sexualities. But I think the conceptual tools that people came up with over the last forty years or so to think about those things are good ones. These ideas are widely disseminated, part of graduate training in academia, and being taught well in many classrooms.
What I do mean is that an understanding of Anglo/Latino(a) issues are not yet at that stage of ubiquity. When I was getting a degree in American literature (from about 1986 to 1993,) I had to demonstrate an awareness of African American culture and history, and a facility dealing with questions of gender, sexuality, and queer theory. But I was not required to know Spanish, or to have a familiarity with Latino(a) culture and literature. What I knew was the result of choosing to do a comprehensive (one of the exams before you write your dissertation) on twentieth century ethnic American literature.
I’m not saying those tools aren’t out there, but the last time I checked (admittedly, about 2003), they weren’t easy to find, at least in English. A pivotal work here and there like Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldŭa or Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Paso por Sus Labios by Cherrie Moraga. But at least when I was in grad school, they weren’t part of a curriculum, not reading expected of any serious student of the cultures of the Americas the way that was the case for, say, The Souls of Black Folk. Indeed, if I didn’t have a concentration in Women’s Studies, I doubt I would have come across them at all.
About the time that I got a tenure track job in 1996, it seemed clear to me that just as it was important to understand my experience as a specifically white male one (along with all the inbuilt privileges that entails), it was important to understand my experience as an Anglo. Even more to the point, it seemed to me that just as queer theory had recast questions about gender in unsettling and helpful ways, Latino(a) studies could do the same for traditional ways of looking at US culture.
For instance, I think one of the most compelling things about Latino(a) cultures is that they are resistant to being mapped neatly onto traditional racial distinctions, as is indicated in the traditional category “White, non-Hispanic.” For me segments of some Latin(a) cultures are living examples of what ethnic heritage looks like when it’s not tethered to a racial anchor. Or, to be fair, not tethered as strongly as in many other ethnic traditions. If the dominant US culture has habitually reduced ethnicity to race, Latino/a cultures have always given it a bit of a problem, been more resistant to being crammed into restrictive racial categories, precisely because one could be both white and hispanic.
Just as Women’s Studies entailed rethinking masculinity as privilege instead of an invisible norm, and racial and ethnic studies entailed thinking about whiteness as something with a specific history (something not given, but created,) Latino(a) studies entails thinking about Anglo culture as something that defines itself partially in opposition to an image of an imagined other that is Latin, mostly Catholic, often (though not always) darker skinned, and so forth. For instance I’ve always suspected that when Anglo America imagines Latino(a) cultures it happens within contours first shaped in England. Specifically, England’s self-definitions in contrast to an image of Catholic Spain. If I’m right, part of what makes me who I am is this heritage of defining oneself and one’s culture against these images of Spanish-speaking others.
I’ve had plenty of stuff to contend with in the fourteen years since 1996, but I’m a little bummed that I wasn’t in a place where I could do more to incorporate Latino(a) studies into the regular, expected curriculum. I see a lot of stellar work out there, both in English I can read, and in Spanish I can’t read. But this wonderful work hasn’t reached the critical mass that I expected it to, the sense that any Anglo who thinks of themselves as thoughtful and politically engaged would be expected to have a good sense of Latino(a) culture, history, and the theoretical issues they raise. As is usually the case, people outside the academy, doing work in the community and speaking Spanish whether it was their first language or not, are way ahead of most professors on this one.
Given my existing priorities, the least I can do is make a commitment to incorporating more Anglo/Latino(a) issues into the classes I still teach and learn what I can. I can also put a bug in the ear of anybody hiring professors to teach about US culture that, as far as I’m concerned, a facility with Latino(a) issues should be part of the job description. And if there’s stuff out there you think I should shut up and read, please, please pass it on.