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The Latinization of America

Latinos Gain Visibility in Cultural Life of U.S.

by Mireya Navarro

September 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

HOUSTON -- Lucy Lopez is 72 years old, but she still remembers the name of her kindergarten teacher: Miss Jones. On the first day of school, Miss Jones put Lucy in a corner for not knowing how to count to four in English.

So when she had children, Lucy and her husband, Gabriel, both born in Texas of Mexican parents, gave some of them non-Hispanic names like Debra Susan and Adam Floyd. They spoke to the children only in English.

But for the third Lopez generation, there is less pressure to choose between two cultures. Sofia Angela Lopez, 16, a granddaughter, postponed her "quinceanera," the traditional 15th birthday celebration, so she could have a "sweet 16" party instead. She sings alternative rock in English, and hymns at Mass in Spanish. When she debates history with her father, he sounds like a Mexican in Texas and she sounds like a Texan of Mexican descent.

"He sees America as, 'This was Mexico, this was our land,' that kind of attitude," she said. "I feel it was Mexico, but to tell you the truth, I don't really know how Mexico is. I'm more like, 'This is America now."'

The America of Sofia Lopez is an increasingly Hispanic nation, home to 31 million people of Latin ancestry, a rapidly growing number that in the next five years is expected to surpass African-Americans as the largest minority group and will most likely make up a fourth of the nation's population in 50 years, a demographic trend that has provoked both debate and celebration. Even as Californians vote to end bilingual education, news magazines proclaim and applaud the Latinization of popular culture.

But what the growth has also done is to help "Latinize" many Hispanic people who are finding it easier to affirm their heritage. And as they find strength in numbers, as younger generations grow up with more ethnic pride and as a Latin influence starts permeating fields like entertainment, advertising and politics, Latinos are becoming visible in ways that offer glimpses of what their larger presence may mean for the United States.

So right does Carlos J. Guerrero, 34, a Houston businessman and Texas native, feel about his heritage these days that he just ordered his first guayabera shirt, through the Internet. So right it feels to be Latino, said Nestor Rodriguez, 51, co-director of the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research, that he no longer regards tacos as a "peasant's meal."

"It's not that we're regaining our culture," Rodriguez said. "It's that now tacos are everybody's meal."

Jose Alberto Medrano, 24, a political science student at the University of Houston and a legislative aide, has even stopped going by Albert, the name he used in grade school.

"It just didn't feel threatening to be Jose anymore," the Chicago-born Medrano said. "I used to feel I would be discriminated against, that it wouldn't be socially acceptable. It's cool to be Hispanic now." (Last year Jose replaced Michael as the most popular newborn boy's name in Texas and California.)

At Youth Engaged in Service College Preparatory School, the charter school Sofia attends in Houston, a group of classmates discussed what they rejected of their parents' culture. They tended to identify attitudes and beliefs: deep religiousness, or the sexism that limits the aspirations of girls.

"My mom thinks girls should not play sports," said Elvia Flores, 16, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 6 and who plays soccer.

At the same time, however, there was no trace of shame, no fear of appearing foreign for embracing other parts of the culture. They all spoke Spanish, although some of them admitted to speaking poorly. Sofia, who aspires to be "a lawyer or FBI agent," said she planned to pass on to her children what she termed "sentimental" traditions, like observing the Day of the Dead. And they all find inspiration in the achievements of any Latino, whether Jennifer Lopez, the Puerto Rican movie star, or Sammy Sosa, the Dominican home run star.

Such comfort level with heritage is far higher than that of the previous generation. John Lantigua, a Miami journalist and novelist whose father was a Cuban immigrant and whose mother was Puerto Rican, said his parents pursued the American dream in the 1950s by moving from the Bronx to the New Jersey suburbs and forbidding him to speak Spanish.

"I used to find scrapbooks in my house from the days before I was born, when my parents would go out to the Palladium and the Copacabana," Lantigua, 51, said. "I knew my parents had had this other life that I wasn't encouraged to have."

Many members of Lantigua's generation reacted by trying to recover what had been denied them, self-consciously immersing themselves in Latin culture.

"As I was planning my life, I knew I didn't want to live like that, with that lack of connection to a community," Lantigua said. "I've spent my whole adult life going back to it, to reconnect with that culture."

David E. Hayes-Bautista, 53, a Mexican-American who is director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health at the University of California at Los Angeles, also grew up with parents who "thought the best they could do was to protect us from being Latino."

"The Chicano movement was a reaction to that," Hayes-Bautista said. "We used to worry about whether a true Chicano would eat a hamburger. My children would say, 'What? That's crazy. Eat a burger if you're hungry.'

"They don't worry about losing anything. They are surrounded by people like them."

So much so that in the age of "Livin' La Vida Loca" and "Yo quiero Taco Bell," when the Hispanic presence is increasingly prominent in the popular culture, Sofia Lopez's parents worry that their daughter, who is growing up in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood and attends a mostly Hispanic school, will end up too Americanized.

"Our culture gets lesser and lesser as times change," said Sofia's mother, Oralia Lopez, 39.

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