Saturday, December 16, 2006

What is Wrong with Hispanic Studies in the USA?

As a former professor, I find it interesting to once again be a student at a university. I now get to see things from the other side of the lecturer’s podium, to see academic life from the student’s point of view.

As a student working toward a second degree, I am required to take many courses outside my main field of study (the French language) to broaden my mind, an idea that I generally approve of. Some of the courses that I have taken fill a cultural diversity requirement by exposing me to minority (non-European) cultures in the USA. In theory, I find that to also be an excellent idea. However, because I speak Spanish and many of my friends are from Latin America, it seemed natural for me to take courses in a field that may loosely be described as Hispanic studies. One was a linguistics course entitled Spanish in the Southwest. In this course, we looked at the way Spanish is spoken in the Southwestern United States: in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The second was a cultural geography course that was principally concerned with the appearance of majority Hispanic neighborhoods in U.S. cities. The linguistics class was taught in Spanish; the geography class in English.

I learned something in both courses—quite a bit in the linguistics course, rather less in the cultural geography course. In both courses, the other students and I read essays written by academics. In the linguistics class, we also had the opportunity to analyze, interpret and discuss the articles, some of which were well reasoned and insightful, although negative opinions about the articles were not always well received. We also wrote several essays in the linguistics class, in Spanish, in which we were encouraged to apply what we had learned. In the cultural geography class, we were expected to learn material by rote and repeat it back on multiple-choice examinations. We did write one essay in which we were expected to condense a poorly written book and summarize its contents. I was graded down on this essay, because I analyzed the book and pointed out its short comings instead of merely condensing it. The professor’s words were: “Remember, this is a 300 level [junior-level] class, not a graduate seminar.” I hasten to add that there was a creative aspect to this course. The class was divided into groups, and each group was assigned to observe the characteristics of houses in a Hispanic neighborhood and report its findings to the class.

However, my purpose in writing this blog entry is not to compare the two courses but to point out two weaknesses that they had in common, and which I believe are weakness of the field of Hispanic studies in general. Those weaknesses are: 1) low academic standards and 2) a pronounced tendency to stereotype non-Hispanics. The first accusation is more difficult to substantiate without writing an entry so long that it would seriously try the reader’s patience, although the implication that I wrote my essay at too high a level may hint at the problem. Therefore I will limit this blog entry to the second accusation: Academics who study the Hispanic population of the USA, although they justifiably describe the rich diversity of the culture of Latin American immigrants and their descendants in the USA, almost universally stereotype non-Hispanics as people with a uniform and bland culture that contrasts sharply with the varied and colorful Hispanic cultures.

This stereotyping is made easier by the way in which non-Hispanics are identified in almost all publications authored by academics in the field of Hispanic studies. The accepted term among them for non-Hispanics is Anglo in English or anglosajón in Spanish: an identification that is almost nonexistent in the English-speaking population of this country. The related term WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon protestant) is normally used pejoratively to imply that the person so designated is a member of a colorless elite, and Anglo used by itself seems to carry the same implication.

It is not uncommon to find sentences in writings about Hispanic culture that picture Hispanic culture as succeeding “despite strong Anglo opposition.” Such a statement implies that all of these nasty Anglos are united in their (probably racist) desire to oppress Hispanics. The term Anglo implies a uniformity of purpose and common sense of identification among non-Hispanics that does not exist. It makes it easier to stereotype non-Hispanics and it ignores the fact that the non-Hispanic population of the U.S. includes people who came from (or whose ancestors came from) Africa, Asia, and such non-Anglo European countries as Poland, Italy, Ireland, Russia, and France, who have different views of the world, and who have varying opinions about Hispanics. The first step in eliminating this negative stereotyping would be to recognize that the A-word is inaccurate and that to some groups, it can be almost as insulting as the N-word is to black Americans.

The professor asked the cultural-geography class how many students identified themselves as Anglos. No a single person raised a hand. Why not? I believe that most English-speaking people in the U.S. identify the term Anglo with England as evidenced by the hyphenated adjective Anglo-American, which could be used to describe, for example, a company with both English and U.S. owners. The Anglo portion of the hyphenated adjective clearly means British. However, many more Americans are of German or Irish descent than English. Even people of English ancestry left that country to come to the USA, and if they ever had an Anglo identity, they left it behind in the old country.

There is a rule among people of good manners that one does not call a group of people by a name that members of that group would not use to describe themselves. Thus educated people, including academics, use correct nomenclature such as Mexican, Polish, Italian, and Afro-American to describe ethnic groups and avoid the alternative names that are associated with negative stereotypes. Yet, many of those same academics will abandon political correctness and use the term Anglo to refer to non-Hispanics. Some people, such as many of the Irish who suffered so greatly under British rule, object to being mistaken for English and therefore find the term Anglo insulting. Even if no one objected to the word Anglo, its use to refer to all non-Hispanics, or even to non-Hispanics of European descent, would still encourage stereotyping. It implies that people whose ancestors came from many different cultures and who often still show the signs of a diverse heritage can be grouped together under a single identity with uniform characteristics and a uniformity of purpose, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim—whether white, black or brown, whether of Asian, African or Southern European heritage. I suggest that professors who study Hispanic culture in the U.S. immediately abandon the A-word and replace it with the more-accurate term “non-Hispanic.” The later acknowledges that people may come from different cultures and may have different values.

I left hanging the accusation that the field of Hispanic studies tolerates low academic standards. That may be the subject of a future blog entry.