Monday, December 12, 2011

Latinos to Be the Majority
of U.S. Population by 2050:
Implications for Latina/o Authors

The face of America is changing rapidly, according to the latest U.S. Census data. If prognostications bear out, Hispanics (the term used in the Census) will be the dominant ethnic group in our nation by 2050. This would be a sea change for our country and one with many implications that we must seriously consider, as discussed below. (The article below first appeared in Aurelia Flores' blog, last month, and is posted here with her permission.)

One of the ramifications is the increased opportunities this new majority group could and should present to Latina/o authors nationwide. Modern Hispanic-American literature, as I've previously written about here, has grown significantly since the early 1960s. With a future nation whose majority is Hispanics, the demand for inclusion of our writings in America's English classes in kindergarten through the university level, in literary anthologies and textbooks, should be more pronounced. This, in turn, could and should have a ripple effect on the entire publishing industry, with its concomitant marketing programs, speaking engagements, and all the trappings that come with big publishing house releases.

But we Hispanic authors must lay the groundwork for this new era of higher literary visibility and prominence. Not only must we continue to hone our craft and increase our productivity, but we must be sure to groom the new generations of writers. This will entail, as discussed below, investing our time and attention more heavily in our children's education. Not only as parents, but as participants in a democratic society, we need to insure that our educational system receives all the resources necessary to boost it, to make it a strong vehicle of growth and enlightenment for all our nation's children, and particularly for our Hispanic children, who often lag behind others.

We need to keep abreast of educational issues and concerns more strongly than has been the case in the past. We need to monitor that educational programs are not the first tier of budget slashing as an automatic political response when economic times are hard. This has been the case this year and last, and most other times of crisis that I can recall. Cutting education is often a knee-jerk response by politicians; and, unfortunately, the citizens oftentimes just go along with it quietly. This must change.

Education in the United States is hurting a lot right now. Critics abound on the left and right of the political spectrum, and Congress often makes decisions that run counter to what educators know is the right path to take. Besides cutting education budgets, Congress, and many states as well, jump to charter schools, or vouchers, or other "silver bullets" that they mistakenly believe will result in better educational outcomes for our students. But--as a lifetime educator and school administrator--I can tell you that a good educational system is one that literally "takes a village": well-trained educators, devoted parents, and an engaged community. Let us work toward establishing this in each of our communities, and collectively, we can build an educational system that will prepare our children for the changes that we will all face in America.

As individual authors, we must engage with our reading public more than we now do. Can we mentor young writers? Can we visit schools and community writing groups to share our knowledge and inspire others? How can we individually and collectively pass our knowledge to aspiring writers and help a new wave of authors come to the fore? Yes, these are things we already do. But how can we expand these strategies? Again, we need to lay the groundwork for a broader pool of Latina/o authors to step up to the plate in the coming decades, to contribute greatly to the fabric of American Literature, and to expand the body of literature created specifically by Hispanics for the betterment of all.

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The post from Powerful Latinas follows:


by Thelma T. Reyna

The face of America is undergoing vast changes, and most of these pertain to “Hispanics,” as the 2010 United States Census referred to the Latino population. Because the growth of the White population in our nation is very small (one percent) and is decreasing, Whites are predicted to be a minority in about 40 years. At that point in our nation’s history, Hispanics are slated to become the largest ethnic group.

The shift has been rather rapid, with much of the change occurring in the last decade alone, in which Hispanics accounted for more than half of our nation’s growth. One out of every six Americans—over 50 million people—are now Hispanic. Latinos are expected to comprise one-third of America’s population in 40 years. In other words, one out of every three Americans will be Hispanic.

We must all be highly aware of the ramifications of this sea change. Our American society has been predicated throughout our history on the pre-eminence of the White culture, largely because our White population has consistently been the largest demographic group. Along with our country’s historical beginnings and historical evolution, plus the establishment of English as our nation’s language, a Eurocentric culture has flourished, has led our nation in all aspects of life, and has been the face of America to the world.

Hispanics and American Diversity

Diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths, however, and the infusion of increasingly diverse populations through the centuries has caused other cultures to slowly take their proverbial place at the table. Traditionally, the Hispanic culture, the Hispanic people collectively and generically, have been more of an afterthought, however. There has been a diminished focus on the Hispanic peoples in the United States, and this oversight of Hispanics has often been linked to the public’s association of this demographic group with a foreign language, with Spanish.

Inclusion of Hispanics in the social, economic, and political fabric of American life has been slow, as data regarding Hispanic representation in many American institutions and endeavors have consistently shown: professorships in our universities, the halls of Congress, municipal governments, school district leadership, judicial posts, corporate board rooms, and so on. In fact, Hispanic representation in these and other significant areas of participation and leadership has lagged behind representativeness attained concurrently by other ethnic minority groups, even in areas in which competent Hispanics were ready and available to step up to the plate.
Preparing for Future Influence

In a democracy, when a given group of people predominates in numbers, it is incumbent upon them to willingly take up the mantle of leadership, of responsibility for the well-being and prosperity of their society. Our White fellow Americans have done this throughout our history; they have led and shaped our society through crises, wars, immense change, and needed growth. They have predominated in government and in all our institutions, in public and private sectors, and have gone out into the world to represent our nation in good times and bad.

It goes without saying that none of this predominance would have been possible, or would have been effective, without perquisite education, training, and preparation for such roles. No society can flourish without its leaders being absolutely the best they can be in every facet of their work on behalf of the people they represent and are a part of. If indeed, Hispanics become the majority group in America by 2050, as the projections indicate, and if they are to have great, positive influence in the course and fate of our nation, there is much work that must be done.

The Advocacy of Professor Pachón

If Hispanics needed to listen to any one individual regarding their future lives in America, it was Professor Harry P. Pachón, whom the University of Southern California’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute called “among the most influential voices of his generation in public discourse about the Latino population.” Until his death earlier this month, Dr. Pachón was a USC professor of public policy and former Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund.

Dr. Pachón researched and wrote about Latinos’ education, political participation, electoral practices, and racial justice. For 40 years, he examined how public policies affected Latinos and their roles in society. Not partisan or demagogic, he quietly advocated for Latinos and studied their voting patterns....He worked tirelessly to educate Latinos about the importance of voting, to register them to vote, and to promote naturalization. He also focused on public education, informing Latinos of scholarship opportunities and of how they could rise to the middle class. His influence was tremendous.

Who will fill Dr. Pachón’s shoes? This remains to be seen, but the reality remains that many Latinos are still not accustomed to being a part of the political process in America, of having a voice that will be heard and valued....

What Happens Next?

The implication of Hispanics becoming a critical mass is even more compelling when we consider that they now comprise 23% of all people below the age of 18. In California, for example, 51% of all the children are Hispanic. Nationally, the average age of Hispanics is around 35. Consider how this Latino “population bulge”—when the present children become adults—might affect our nation.

There is time to prepare American Latinos for their future as the largest demographic group, but molding young Latinos to be good citizens in our democracy involves acculturating them and affording them ample opportunities for assuming responsibility in school and civic affairs, of training them to participate in democratic processes and decision-making. Our nation needs to understand census projections and to accept the reality, if it indeed comes to pass, that Hispanics will predominate demographically. It is in the nation’s interest that this large group of Americans no longer be treated as an afterthought.

Citizens of a diverse democracy should always learn about, respect, and appreciate the cultures of others. Only by understanding what other groups value and yearn for, what their goals, priorities, and needs are, can we assure that no group shall be left behind in our nation’s progress and prosperity. Knowing one another well serves as a deterrent to discrimination and exclusion. We must do this not only for Latinos but for all our people. Starting with providing the best education we can for all children, and holding high but reasonable expectations for them, we must involve parents in our schools and partner with them to prepare all our children to be bearers of the torch, to take our nation forward.

As I said, we have much work to do, but let us engage in it with an open heart and mind willing to embrace change, because, surely, change will always keep us on our toes.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

44th Anniversary of Ground-Breaking Latino Book:
Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas

Piri Thomas just died last month after a long, successful career as a novelist, poet, motivational speaker, educator....and very inspiring human being. He is best known for his memoir, Down These Mean Streets, one of the first books by a Hispanic author in modern-day American literature. His gritty, heart-wrenching memoir lives on in many languages all around our world.

My book review of Piri's book was first posted last week on . Jesus Trevino, editor of that blog, gave gracious permission for cross-posting it here.

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Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas

Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.

Two milestone events regarding the vaunted Puerto-Rican American author, Piri Thomas, occurred recently: He passed away last month in Northern California at the age of 83; and his iconic memoir, Down These Mean Streets, celebrated its 44th birthday. Though the first event breaks our hearts, and the second uplifts us, both attest to the longevity of Thomas’ artistry and influence and the wonderful luck our society has had in having Piri Thomas in our midst for all these years.

He died an icon, a proverbial legend in his own time. When Mean Streets was published in 1967, Thomas was one of the first modern-day Latinos to publish a book in English. He followed this break-out with two novels, a collection of short stories, and many poems, which he termed “wordsongs” and performed in varied venues all over the world. Yet it’s Mean Streets, which has been continuously in print, that cemented Thomas’ reputation as a literary tour de force and which readers most associate with Piri Thomas.

The book’s enduring fame is strongly warranted. One reviewer calls it “three books in one”: a coming-of-age saga chronicling the tragedies, crimes, and entanglements in Thomas’ life; an examination of the identity crisis many disadvantaged, mixed heritage youths undergo; and a story showing readers the bristling underside of Piri’s six years in the infamous Sing-Sing Prison of New York. Yet the author expertly weaves these separate themes together in his fast-paced, brutally authentic recreation of his difficult life growing up poor, half-Black, half-Puerto Rican, in an era of entrenched racism uglier than it now is.

The book begins in 1941, shortly before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and dragged the United States into World War II. To 12-year-old Piri in New York’s Harlem during the “Great Hunger called Depression,” the big “rumble” means that his father now has a decent job in an airplane factory. Otherwise: “Life in the streets didn’t change much. The bitter cold was followed by the sticky heat....War or peace—what difference did it really make?” Indeed, there is no distinction between Piri’s world before and after the great rumble, because his wars with his family, peers, racism, violence, drugs, crime, and society in general are just beginning and will disrupt his world for decades to come.

Piri is a dark-skinned child in a bi-racial family where, other than his Black father, everyone is light-skinned and can pass for White. He frequently clashes with his father, who treats him with less love and harsher physical discipline than Piri’s four younger siblings receive. Convinced that his father doesn’t truly love him because of his darkness, Piri seeks solace in the streets, where he navigates the unwritten laws of survival in the barrio: Prove yourself to be tough. Survive beatings at the hands of racist kids and rival gang members. Fight back hard. Don’t rat out enemies, and be “cool.” Above all, be loyal to your friends, going with the flow, “playing it smooth.” He emphasizes: “Never punk out.”

So by the time Piri is 16, he belongs to a gang, beats up rivals, uses drugs, slugs a teacher, engages in homosexuality, and robs a store: all in the name of group loyalty. When his parents move the family to Long Island for “better opportunities,” Piri is reviled by racist schoolmates, and he drops out of school to return to Harlem, often living on the streets. It breaks his mother’s heart, but Piri yearns for the security of the old neighborhood. His life of crime in Harlem, filled as it is with hunger, poverty, drug addiction, and isolation from family, is nonetheless tied to camaraderie, to unconditional acceptance, and is a siren’s song Piri cannot resist. He states: “All for the feeling of belonging, for the price of being called ‘one of us.’ Isn’t there a better way to make the scene and be accepted on the street without having to go through hell?”

Piri undertakes a double-layered odyssey to discover who and what he is. On the one hand, it’s a physical journey that takes him, as a teenager, through the Deep South, around the world with the Merchant Marines, and back and forth between Harlem and Long Island. Outside of Harlem, he faces discrimination almost everywhere he goes. It seems that Piri seeks a place that will prove his worldview wrong, that he wants proof that his skin color does not determine his value as a human being. Unfortunately, in these journeys, Piri does not find such a place.

On another layer, his odyssey is highly personal and emotional as he struggles to believe that he is loved fully in his own family. He tries to reconcile his affection for his family with his bitterness toward their “whiteness.” It’s an eternal battle in his heart. His utter devotion to his mother opposes his antipathy toward his father, whom he sees as having rejected his own Black heritage with lies about his lineage. Piri’s hatred of Whites is profound, but this creates immense conflict. He says: “It was like hating Momma for the color she was and Poppa for the color he wasn’t.” He also states: “It ain’t just that I don’t wanna be what I’m supposed to be, it’s just that I’m fightin’ me and the whole goddamn world at the same time.” It’s one of the book’s great ironies that, as Piri struggles to win full acceptance from his family, he rejects them and ostracizes himself.

An armed robbery in which Piri shoots a police officer and is almost shot to death lands him in prison, where, with time, he finally finds himself—through carefully choosing his con friends, studying every major religion, attending classes, and eventually turning to writing. “Every day,” the author writes, “brought a painful awareness of the sweetness of being free and the horror of prison’s years going down the toilet bowl.” He sought “a release from the overpowering hatred against a society that makes canaries out of human beings.” In a heart-wrenching reflection, he adds: “I wanted to tell somebody I wanted to be somebody.” The peace and release he ultimately finds are an apt denouement to his evolution.

Down These Mean Streets is a gritty, unflinching portrayal of one man’s decline and renascence. Piri Thomas’ rat-a-tat-tat dialogue injects a sensual immediacy that grabs the reader and doesn’t loosen up. The economical descriptions of the people, good and bad, who cross Piri’s path and fill his life are true-to-life. But the greatest treasures between the book covers are Thomas’ thoughtful, lyrical passages that underscore his renown as a poet. When Piri most doubts himself, when he most fervently fishes in his mind for answers to his fears, when he most reflects upon his learnings in prison—and his realization that, as he says, “Nothing is run the same, nothing stays the same. You can’t make yesterday come back today”—the author’s poetic words soar through the air and lend a gentle, almost spiritual layer to his book.

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