During the 1980s, I met a Hispanic woman at a Los Angeles airport. She had come to the United States from Cuba five years earlier. I asked her what she liked about her new country. She readily mentioned the many things she enjoyed. Freedom and opportunity were highest on her list. Then I asked her what she didn'tlike about her life in this country. She adamantly said, "I don't like being called a Mexican," revealing feelings of being devalued. She was surprised when I informed her that I am of Mexican descent and born Mexican-American. She then added, " Oh, but I see you are not like one of them!"
What did she see? In a short time, the woman had unintentionally, yet incorrectly, categorized herself and other Hispanics in this country. Our short conversation revealed that Hispanics are not all the same and pointed to the need for a better understanding of the realities and subtleties of racial and ethnic diversity. However, what this woman missed was her own collective identity as a new American citizen—she is now a Cuban-American.
A Life in the Hyphen
The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) epitomizes his commitment to change the lot of those living an in-between existence. The Samaritans, being both Jew and Gentile, were the half-breeds or mestizos of the time. Despite strong historical, cultural, and religious taboos, Jesus speaks with the woman. His disciples, carriers of the dominant Jewish tradition, are numbed, indifferent and both literally and figuratively "out to lunch" during this prophetic encounter. Meanwhile, Jesus affirms the woman's personhood and leads her to faith in him. She, in turn, spreads the good news of the Gospel to her community, creating a new cultural and spiritual paradigm.
The message conveyed in this story depends in part on where we place ourselves in it. Much like the Samaritans, today's ethnic Americans live between "two worlds." In other words, they live in the hyphen. To hyphenate is to connect or separate by a hyphen. The Aztec Indians in Mexico used the term Nepantla to describe an in-between, that is, a both/and, a middle type of existence.
Mexican-Americans were the first to face a life in the hyphen. Living along the Spaniards' El Camino Real (the King's highway), Mexicans became Americanos after the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848). This defining event for both nations forged a new identity. Those from 22 Latin American and Caribbean nations arrived later, each coming with their own history and cultural differences. But under the skin, we are all kin. We are all members of the human race and familia.
As I write, Hispanics have become very visible and the topic of many conversations, debates, and propositions, from the White House to the neighborhood grocery store. Present birth rates and immigration factors indicate that U.S. Hispanics will continue to grow for many years to come. The "Hispanic issue" is here to stay and begs to be settled constructively and effectively.
The contribution of Hispanics to America's future is being discussed. In Southern California, the question on the cover of the Orange County Business Journal asked about "the key to California's future." The editorial response, based on the research study "California 2025," stated: "It Depends upon How Far Latinos Take Us."