KGOU

New Book Explores Mexican-American “Reawakening” Since The 1960s

May 26, 2017

Starting in the 1960s, the Mexican-American community began a period of reawakening.

In his new book, Mestizos Come Home! Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity, RC Davis explores how this community took hold of its past and cultural identity.

RC Davis is the executive director of World Literature Today at the University of Oklahoma and the author of "Mestizoes Come Home!: Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity."
Credit University of Oklahoma

“They said we are going to embrace our culture and we're going to learn our history, we're going to share history with others. We're going to invite people in to learn about our culture. So it was a very deliberate act of cultural recovery,” Davis told KGOU’s World Views.

Davis, the executive director of World Literature Today at the University of Oklahoma, says he decided to write his book because he started to see increased marginalization of people of color, particularly Mexican-Americans, during the Obama administration. He thinks a lack knowledge about Mexican-Americans and Latinos allowed some people to view them as the enemy.

“We need to understand that Mexican-Americans didn't just come here,” Davis said. “They were in the southwest before there was the United States, and the Mexican-American community has made huge contributions.”

Davis says Mexican-Americans and Latinos should “stop feeling the need to apologize” for the place they come from. He also says the American ideas of liberty and freedom strengthen whenever new communities are accepted into the nation.

“The American idea of a multicultural democracy is an outrageously ambitious, wonderful goal and the Mexican-American community has embraced that goal like few other communities have done,” Davis said.

Interview Highlights

On reclaiming identity

One of the traumatic things that's happened in the Americas over the last 500 years is that the people who are from the Americas don't feel that they are of or belong to the Americas. And they have a culture, they have a very rich culture that had made huge contributions not just in the United States but across Latin America and have been made to feel sort of like the enemy very often. People that really aren't a part of things and are being marginalized economically and culturally. So beginning in the 1960s, the Mexican-American community was really enacting one of these periods of awakening in America. I think to such a period going on right now where in response to the adversity of what they've been dealing with they said we are going to embrace our culture and we're going to learn our history, we're going to share history with others. We're going to invite people in to learn about our culture. So it was a very deliberate act of cultural recovery that started in the 1960s.

On race in the Americas

Part of the amnesia about the culture and the history of the Americas is not dealing with race and something that it really has never been talked about a Mexican-American studies or Chicano studies. Mainly it's been discussed by people in our history is the the tradition of what they call in Spanish "El sistema de casta," the casta system, in Spanish created a whole very complex system of judging people according to skin color and phenotype, their hair, eyes, etc. And these very complex issues like race, they always have a history, and you can never deal with them just by dealing with them in terms of what's visible what's available now. You've always got to go back and see how they develop. So one of the things that I did was went back and looked really carefully at what was happening in the 18th century with the casta system and how that event was happening right around the time that a philosophy of political philosophers and people that did sort of natural what they used to call Natural History in the 18th century were naming white people Caucasians. All of this was being sorted out in the 18th century.

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Full Interview

Grillot: RC Davis welcome to World Views.

Davis: Thank you so much great to be here.

Grillot: Well R.C. you've got a very exciting book coming out I can't wait to read it. Mestizos Come Home: Making and Claiming Mexican-American Identity. That's such a great title I can't wait to hear what this book's about. So start there. Just tell us. What is this book about?

Davis: Well I need to talk about it on just a couple of different levels. The most basic level this is going to tell people about six ways that the Mexican-American and Latino community has changed the country since the 1960s having to do with identity, land, popular culture, attitudes about the human body, cultural voice. And then the really big real rise of Chicano literature and Chicano studies. So you know people are going to learn a lot about the Mexican-American community, but it's got another message. And that is in the U.S. and across Latin America, and I'm not the first to talk about this, there's historically been a kind of amnesia about the indigenous and mixed mixed race peoples across the Americas. And this book is definitely a strike against amnesia, trying to bring much more awareness to the Mexican-American and Latino community. And also this is a book that deals with some of the most really vexing issues of our time that have to do with what it means to be a citizen in the Americas. What is it to have a past in relation to the ancient peoples of the New World? These are issues that we have not dealt with directly and adequately. So the book is really trying to open up some areas of discussion that have really been under attended to.

Grillot: I'm particularly interested in your use of “claiming” Mexican-American identity in your title. But what is the “claiming” part of it is there and is it going to do with reclaiming anything?

Davis: Yeah. No you're exactly right. "Reclaiming" is perfect, a kind of act of recovery, really. One of the traumatic things that's happened in the Americas over the last 500 years is that the people who are from the Americas don't feel that they are of or belong to the Americas. And they have a culture, they have a very rich culture that had made huge contributions not just in the United States but across Latin America and have been made to feel sort of like the enemy very often. People that really aren't a part of things and are being marginalized economically and culturally. So beginning in the 1960s, the Mexican-American community was really enacting one of these periods of awakening in America. I think to such a period going on right now where in response to the adversity of what they've been dealing with they said we are going to embrace our culture and we're going to learn our history, we're going to share history with others. We're going to invite people in to learn about our culture. So it was a very deliberate act of cultural recovery that started in the 1960s.

Grillot: You keep referring to the Americas and I think that this is an important point is that we forget that you know it's the whole Western Hemisphere that's the Americas - the North America, Central America, South America. And we often tend to claim America or American as us, as the United States the United States of America. We often are criticized for claiming that when we say American foreign policy or I'm an American what does that mean. I mean I've had Mexican citizens come to think that I too am an American. And so it's it's interesting that relationship and how a powerful country in this region has the ability to claim that identity as American and then Mexican-Americans and other others in the Americas reclaim it. I think that's just it's fascinating, to me, that relationship.

Davis: Well it is and I think it goes back to the discussion that often comes under the heading of exceptionalism. And there are there are truly senses in which America, the United States of America, is an exceptional place. But one of the ways that that has a really bad influence is to encourage this kind of isolationist view where the true history in the Americas of the way colonialism came to the Americas through the British but also through Spanish earlier. It's a story that shaped culture in the Americas. There are certain issues that can only, like race, that can only really be understood if you look across the Americas and not just isolate one part. And I think the isolation of the U.S. from the rest of the Americas has been one of the strategies, frankly, that's marginalized indigenous people and mixed race people across the Americas. If you can break up the picture and just look at the parts individually and not see what's happening, what's happened in the past you've effectively erased the history of the Americas and that's very that's a very bad thing to do.

Grillot: An important thing for us to remember. Well I want to get to kind of these contemporary relations. It's no surprise to you and others that there is perhaps this tense relationship right now between the United States and Mexico. There has been for a while. Obviously border issues are what they are. We do have, you know, people from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America coming across the border illegally working in the United States, you know, leaving whatever it is they they leave behind and there are all kinds of reasons why people migrate like this. But now we have these issues of walls being built and taxes being levied and you know this is a very important partner Mexico. This relationship is is a tough one. And so how is your book going to address or what kind of reaction do you expect?

Davis: Yeah I think what you're asking about really goes back to why I wrote the book. In the first Obama administration, I started to see that there was a kind of doubling down about racial slurs and and more marginalization of people of color, particularly Mexican-Americans and the black community in America. And I think for a while, I thought well this is just the way multicultural, complex societies like this work. People don't know enough about Mexican-Americans. And then as we got into the second administration, Obama administration, I really got alarmed. And I saw that the kind of thing the kind of things that I teach at University of Oklahoma and the book that I write would be illegal in Arizona. There was a really nasty kind of spirit moving through the country. And I realized that the lack of knowledge about the Mexican-American community was allowing people to turn Mexican-Americans and Latinos into the enemy, very often, and that alarmed me. And so I doubled down in my own way and thought that what's needed first is just some historical perspective. We need to understand that Mexican-Americans didn't just come here. Mexicans were in the southwest before there was the United States, and the Mexican-American community has made huge contributions.

Davis: So I think a lack of knowledge shapes the way people look at the border. The history of the borders very very complex. And the ability to bring people across the border as part of the workforce in and U.S. is historically very very important. That cannot stop. Industry in U.S., manufacturing, would come to a halt. So I realized that historically, it's possible to talk about these things now. It's possible to have the conversations about the Mexican-American community and its contributions and the ways in which the Mexican-American community, frankly, is making America better. The American idea of a multicultural democracy is an outrageously ambitious, wonderful goal and the Mexican Mexican-American community has embraced that goal like few other communities, as few other communities have done. And I think when America understands all of that, I think it's going to change what they what they see happening right now.

Grillot: One of my favorite books actually is Many Mexicos. People don't understand that Mexico is actually a very big and very diverse country. And Mexicans cannot all be painted with the same brush, just like all Mexican-Americans can't be painted with the same brush, or any other set of Americans can be. This is a very diverse community. Do you touch on that at all in your book?

Davis: I do. I talk about that quite a lot. And an issue that really has to come up is the issue of race. You know Mexican-Americans, I think, are viewed as people of color. Part of the amnesia about the culture and the history of the Americas is not dealing with race and something that it really has never been talked about a Mexican-American studies or Chicano studies. Mainly it's been discussed by people in our history is the the tradition of what they call in Spanish "El sistema de casta," the casta system, in Spanish created a whole very complex system of judging people according to skin color and phenotype, their hair, eyes, etc. And these very complex issues like race, they always have a history, and you can never deal with them just by dealing with them in terms of what's visible what's available now. You've always got to go back and see how they develop. So one of the things that I did was went back and looked really carefully at what was happening in the 18th century with the casta system and how that event was happening right around the time that a philosophy of political philosophers and people that did sort of natural what they used to call Natural History in the 18th century were naming white people Caucasians. All of this was being sorted out in the 18th century. And really sort of like bringing Atlantis to the surface you know bringing this history of how race happened in the Americas.

Davis: It's a very specific history. We can talk about it, and the fact is we are living with the tatters of that casta system now. If you live in the Americas and you look at the down at the skin on your hand or on your leg, you are looking through a lens that the Spanish Spanish created five hundred years ago. Now that system is not in place anymore but we have still sorted ourselves out as as communities based on race. And I think when people look at the underlying assumptions about race, most of the time they wouldn't accept it. You know that you can look at a person and through their the details of their hair and their eyes shape and their eye color and their skin color etc., you can know their destiny, you can know their value. I think when those assumptions are laid out, I think people are embarrassed by them. And I think we have to do more of that. The other thing, let me just add on here, is I think everybody should have a stake in what's happening in the Mexican-American community because that community is teaching the entire country how to live in a very diverse culturally very diverse ethnically very diverse society. If Mexican-Americans can't pull this off, the implications for the culture are not good. They need to be able to succeed because everybody is going to be following in their footsteps. The border will take over the whole country. We're going to become a border country with a very mixed and diverse community and in the future. So we need to be able to see them succeeding.

Grillot: Ultimately in the end what can we do or what should we do? What should Mexican-Americans do beyond obviously you know educating and talking about these issues? Is there anything more that can and should be done?

Davis: Well you know there are a couple of things to say here. I think people need to see what's at stake. You know, I want Mexican-Americans and Latinos to stop feeling the need to apologize for being the place they come from and they need to also feel that they belong there. And I want non-Latinos to understand better what Mexican-Americans are trying to achieve and what they go through every day. But I think I'd like people in general to understand that there's more at stake in the response to the Latino community for the whole country than people may realize. That the American idea, as I said before, is just amazing. The founders had great blind spots, but the idea of a multicultural democracy, if you're here you're family. You know, you belong. What that means is that every time a new community comes to the US the country really reenact its founding. So every time there's a new community, we're refunding the love of cultural diversity. We're rediscovering liberty and freedom and new personal relations and bonds. We're renewing democracy and the ongoing challenge of social evolution and change. So when the country can do these things, the American idea is strengthened. When the country can't do these things, when it can't pull it off, the American idea dims and weakens. So the country really does have a stake in what happens to Latinos and Mexican-Americans because this is really about America. You know, the lasting frontier, I would say, of what makes America rare and enduring is this ability to embrace new communities and continue to reenact our founding.

Grillot: RC Thank you so much for being here today and sharing your story with us and we look forward to reading your book.

Davis: Thank you so much. 

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