Sunday, February 28, 2010

¿Quién es latino? Part I

Which actress has Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage?

More examples on the next post.

Americans are interested in race. We are often confused by it, often afraid to talk about it, and often, despite our best efforts, filled with misconceptions. I've noticed that many Americans are confused by Latin Americans. We don't understand their history- even in relation to U.S. history. We have labels like Hispanic, Latino, Spanish and Chicano that we don't know how to use. And we have images - Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz - of what we think Latin Americans should look like that are stereotypical or simply incorrect (Antonio and Penélope are from Spain, not Latin America).

I was inspired in the classroom one day when a black student of mine declared that people from the Dominican Republic could not be black. "Black is black" he said. Even though he was wrong, I knew what he meant. For my student, black didn't just mean the color of his skin. It didn't just mean his ancestors came from Africa. For him, black was his culture. Black was everything; the way he spoke, the music he listened to, the type of church he attended. And he could see from my lesson on the DR that Dominicans don't share any of these cultural aspects with him. So he concluded they couldn't be black.

This prompted me to write out a lesson on the difference between race and ethnicity. I defined the terms with my class, making sure they understood that ethnicity or culture, was not determined by race or phenotype. We also talked about nationality as something separate from race or ethnicity. I talked briefly about the history of Latin America, indigenous populations, Spanish colonization as well as later immigration from other parts of the world. Then, I had the students look at a series of posters I had made the night before. I had cut out pictures from People en
Español of various Spanish-speaking celebrities like Shakira and Alex Rodriguez and also popular American celebrities like Beyonce and Christina Aguilera. I put some pictures side by side and asked a question. For example, I might have put a picture of Zoë Saldaña and Penélope Cruz and asked "Which actress has Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage?"

The students were given time to walk around the room and look at the posters and answer the questions by voting beneath the pictures. The students took it very seriously. They thought about it. They knew most of the questions were tricks. Obviously I was baiting them. I was expecting most students to vote for Penélope Cruz as I had just discovered the opinion some of my students held about Latinos of African descent.

After all the students had voted, we tallied the results and then talked about the answers. The discussion at the end wasn't as honest as it could have been. Few of the students would admit they voted one way or another based on characteristics they expected of Latin Americans. But the intended result was achieved: the students came to realize that Latin America has genetic diversity, possibly even more than the U.S. There should be no stereotypical Latino look, just as there should be no typical American look. It was an interesting lesson.

Using celebrities that the students already knew and care about was successful. The Spanish textbook did a good job showing diversity, but because the students didn't know the models in any sort real-life context, they didn't care if there was a blonde girl and a black boy on the cover of their Spanish book. But they did care to know that the beautiful Zoë Saldaña was both black and Latina.

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