July 27, 2007

Perspective:

Clashes of Civilization Stereotypes

By Rosa Martha Villarreal

In a story in the July 2, 2007 Des Moins Register, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo once again evoked Samuel Huntington’s theme of the “clash of civilizations” to assert that the culture of Latin American immigrants (especially Mexicans) threaten the very nature of American civilization. However, Mexico is a Hispanic culture (and Spain’s culture is part of Western civilization), and its Republican-style government and constitution are modeled on that of the United States. So why is Mexico being equated with, say, the Taliban? To borrow a term from Jacques Derrida, a negative perception has been “privileged” on Mexican culture as being primitive, ignorant, and anti-modern. These stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness that hardly anyone challenges the assertion that Mexico poses a “civilization” threat to the United States.

I found vivid examples of this negativity in a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling called “The Gift,” which, as he intones in his prologue, takes place in contemporary (1962) Mexico, just fifty miles south of the Texas border in a “remote, mountain village.” This episode provided the classic Mexican stereotypes so prevalent in American pop culture. The men wore straw sombreros and serapes, the women shawls and head coverings. The story was replete with stock characterizations: a greasy, buffoonish cantina owner; the fascist-like police commander; the doe-eyed orphan named —what else— Pedro. The only exceptions to these caricatures were those of the young, (and I may add, exasperated) American-like doctor and, of course, the space alien.

Let me say, first of all, that the region in the episode is my parents’ birthplace. My family’s roots in Texas and the Mexican states of Coahuila and Nuevo León go back to the 1500s, so as any self-respecting Texan will tell you, the borderlands consist mostly of plains not mountains. The border population was and is concentrated in towns, not villages. The Velázquez Spanish-English Dictionary translates “village” as a farm (rancho) or aldea,” i.e., a sparely populated hamlet. Though these “villages” (ranchos) did and do exist, a drive across the Texas border will reveal towns, complete with civic and religious institutions and even shopping malls. My parents grew up in such a town some 30 miles south of the Texas border.

So why, in the collective American consciousness, are Mexicans perceived to mainly live in “villages”? Why is Deadwood, U.S.A, (pop.1,380) considered a “city” and Zaragosa, Coahuila, (pop. 12,403) a “village”? This disparaging perception—that of a quaint, homogenous, pre-modern world—persists even in the most unexpected quarters. When one of my most talented college students wrote a paper on Carlos Fuentes’s story “Chac-Mool,” which is set in Mexico City, the student maintained that the protagonist lived in a “village.”

As for the manner of dress, again, any self-respecting Texan will tell you that American culture —and its manner of dress— has always been a big influence in the Mexican borderlands. I invite you to look at the early 1900’s photographs of my extended family (http://mvgdesign.us/pictures/photos.html and http://mvgdesign.us/web%20site/Site/Photos.html) and that of other Tejano and Mexican borderlands families. People are wearing contemporary clothing. The only hats worn are American style cowboy hats. That was in the early 1900s, so the assumption that Mexicans in the 1960s who lived on the Texas border dressed like colonial peasants is ludicrous and insulting. Yet even a writer of Mr. Serling’s caliber accepted these stereotypes as facts.

In the rural areas of Southern and Central Mexico in the 1930s, in the ranchos and hamlets, many people still wore the traditional dress described above. However, by the 1960s this, too, was passé, thanks to the influence of American culture. Among today’s (mostly illegal) Mexican immigrants, there are many people who, in actuality, are indigenous peoples—Mixtecs, Mayas, Nahuas—speak limited Spanish and whose cultures date back thousands of years. But they do not live in the colonial world of straw sombreros, either. Modernity is a contagion. They are not “invading” us to impose their worldview on us. They want to be us.

So which civilization is Huntington referring to, the real or the imagined? Let’s not forget that the highly idealized America of the visual media, like that of the primitive Mexico, is only a partial truth. This is not to say that immigrants from impoverished communities do not suffer from social ills that strain our social services, but these problems stem more from their poverty than from their civilization. Hispanic Americans share the mainstream’s concerns for national security and sovereignty, so when talking about cultures and immigration, a little introspection, realism, and respect represent a better currency.

Rosa Martha Villarreal is a member of PEN USA and the author of The Stillness of Love and Exile and Chronicles of Air and Dreams.

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