New Book Explores Latino Contributions to America
Robert Con “R.C.” Davis-Undiano, whose father was a native of Mexico, his mother from Oklahoma, has long been aware of the racial stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexican Americans and Latinos held by many Americans. And while race-based fallacies and assumptions disturbed him, he didn’t consider these issues to rise to a level of urgent importance.
That is, not until after the election of President Barack Obama.
Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today at the University of Oklahoma, became increasingly dismayed by news reports of rising levels of racial discrimination and violence across the nation.
As accounts of race-based violence seemed to escalate U.S. communities, he also was disturbed by the directions in public policy in Arizona, his birth state, across the Southwest, and the country that “were reshaping communities” to suppress acknowledgement of racial diversity, especially “Latino culture and civil rights.” Davis-Undiano cited Arizona’s 2011 passing of a law outlawing the teaching of a Mexican American studies curriculum in the Tucson public schools.
“All of a sudden,” he said, “I realized that misinformation really does matter.”
With his recognition that distortions of America’s racial legacy led to a pushback against diversity, Davis-Undiano began a five-year research project to write Mestizos Come Home! Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity, scheduled for publication this month by the University of Oklahoma Press (oupress.com). (“Mestizos” refers to people of mixed indigenous and Spanish origins.)
Davis-Undiano, who also holds the titles of Neustadt Professor and Presidential Professor at OU, shared that he hopes the book will attract a broad readership.
In the introduction, he writes: “I would like Mestizos Come Home! to work for two audiences. A Mexican American and Latino audience should see important parts of themselves in my discussion of their cultural and social achievements since the 1960s. I want them to be inspired and a little proud as they read about how they have overcome the challenges of immigration and acculturation. I also want them to be encouraged to succeed further in their quest to embrace the United States as their home.
“A second audience, a general one unfamiliar with Mexican American culture, will discover that community’s (our) formidable achievements, values and aspirations in a history that is likely unknown to them. . . . Finally, this is also a book about the ways that Mexican Americans are influencing the U.S. mainstream to reshape American values and attitudes for the current century–making America better.”
Written in a reader-friendly, nonacademic voice, Davis-Undiano’s book explores some of the ways that Mexican Americans have changed the country and their own culture since the 1960s, with emphases on the casta (caste) system and race in Spanish colonial America, mestizo identity in the history of the Americas, ideas about indigenous ties to land, contrasting European and Mesoamerican views of the human body, popular culture, the rise of a “voice” representing the Mexican American community, and the cultural significance of Chicano literature and Chicano studies in higher education.
In this landmark work, Davis-Undiano addresses pragmatic questions, such as how these various practices impact Mexican Americans and shape U.S. culture.
The book pays homage to the countless Latinos, including his father and uncles, grandmother and aunts, who sacrificed to build a better future for their families—including today’s Mexican Americans who “work hard every day to keep our community vital and advance the interests of our culture to make America better.”
Another practical goal of the book, he says, is to “embolden Latinos to refine and finish the process of acculturation, to make still-needed changes, to no longer feel a need to apologize for their U.S. presence, and to ‘come home’ fully to their American lives.”
The book focuses on Mexican American and Latino history and culture as they pertain to life in the United States, but Davis-Undiano hopes that readers will extrapolate its findings to the broader world, appreciating diversity rather than denigrating people who are different. Simply put, he says, “it’s time to end the nightmare of ‘race’ and see people for who they are.”