Beyond the Hyphen: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans

2005 Commonwealth Humanities Lecturer

Ilan StavansOn March 31, 2005 Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, delivered the 2005 Commonwealth Humanities Lecture at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington. Co-sponsored by the Foundation and MassINC, publisher of CommonWealth magazine, the Commonwealth Humanities Lecture recognizes a Massachusetts scholar or writer for his or her contributions to public understanding of civic life or public affairs in Massachusetts.

Over the past decade, Ilan has devoted himself to furthering the understanding of Latinos in the United States in general, and in the state of Massachusetts in particular. On this subject, he has taught some of the earliest college courses and has given many lectures across the state. His goal, he has said, is to “enlighten people about the challenges of a multicultural, multiracial, polyglot society like ours.” He has been heavily involved in drawing attention to the important role that minorities, especially Latinos, play in public life and civic affairs, through his lectures, his writings in newspapers such as The Boston Globe, his appearances on radio and television (he is host of the PBS-WGBH program La Plaza: Conversations with Ilan Stavans), his teaching, his scholarship, and his research on Hispanics and Jews in our state.

Ilan has written several canonical works, including Growing up Latino (1993, in its thirteenth printing) and The Hispanic Condition (1995). He has noted, “I have made it my quest to approach the English language as an instrument of democratic cohesion and to understand the various ‘minority tongues’ used in the United States that function as counterpoints of sorts to Shakespeare’s tongue, among them—and primarily— Spanglish.” Professor Stavans has published the first dictionary of Spanglish, titled Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003, in its fifth printing), and has debated in public the role language plays in public life and civic affairs for African Americans, Latinos, and other immigrant groups.

Ilan also has devoted his talent and energy to examining Jewish life in this country, publishing a number of works, including The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998) and The Inveterate Dreamer (2001), as well as The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature. The subject of the Jewish contribution to America is at the heart of Singer100, a series of thirty national events that he organized with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities on the occasion of the 2004 centennial of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s birth.

Ilan Stavans was interviewed for Mass Humanities by Executive Director David Tebaldi prior to the Commonwealth Humanities Lecture.

David Tebaldi: Your writing on ethnic identity is an unusual blend of cultural criticism, historical analysis, and reflection on your own experience as a Jewish-Hispanic-American. How does your personal history inform your scholarly work?

Ilan Stavans: In spite of the way the Oxford English Dictionary defines “identity” (“the quality or condition of being the same in substance”), I can’t think of a more malleable word: it changes as we change, and vice versa. I come from a family of immigrants, Ukrainians and Poles who settled in Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century. And I’m an immigrant myself, having moved to the United States in 1985. An integral part of the immigrant odyssey is the refashioning of the self: the person I was prior to that crucial year and the person I am today are dramatically different. My becoming an American is, unquestionably, the most transforming experience I’ve ever gone through. In my book The Hispanic Condition, but especially in On Borrowed Words, I’ve sought to map out the transformation. I’ve done it from an interdisciplinary perspective because I believe the disciplines we’re taught about at school cannot be separated from one another. Society is in constant fluidity and so is our knowledge of it. I’ve also avoided endorsing science as the only way to tabulate the world. Our subjectivity is better in comprehending our circumstance than any lab experiment.

DT: You’ve suggested that the epithet E pluribus unum might apply not only to the country as a whole but to Hispanics too.

IS: What characterizes Hispanics as a group is their multiplicity. There are Latinos of various races, classes, and national backgrounds. Some are foreign-born, speak Spanish, and are unwilling to cut the umbilical cord with their original homes. Others became part of the United States as a consequence of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.A couple of years ago the US Census Bureau officially declared Latinos, approximately 40 million, to be the largest minority in the nation. Canada, by the way, has a population of 32 million.

DT: But how would you describe the unum in the multiplicity? Over the years, you’ve expressed discomfort with the term “race.” Do you concur with Orlando Patterson’s view (in The Ordeal of Integration) that race is a pernicious social construct?

IS: Rather than a racial minority, Latinos are a minority group. There are mestizo, black, Indian and Caucasian Hispanics, and, of course, Hispanics of mixed racial background. In my view, race, which I understand to be a biological and social construct, is useless to understand Latinos. Other categories, such as language and class, are more helpful. (Jews are also not a racial group.) In any case, among Latinos the unum is the result of a shared sense of history and cultural metabolism (diet, ideas, music, etc.) but it materializes when politics is at stake. Notice, for instance, the way Hispanics, among themselves on a daily basis, emphasize their divergent idiosyncrasy, yet TV networks like Univisión and Telemundo always stress the common ground—they’re a business, after all. This common ground is evident not only in marketing. It is particularly visible in politics: in national, state, and local elections, Spanish-language media talks about el voto hispano.

DT: In describing American society, what is the difference between the metaphors of the melting pot and the mosaic? You’ve written an essay on the topic.

IS: “Melting pot” is a term popularized by a British Jew, Israel Zangwill, author of Children of the Ghetto and The King of Schnorrers, in a 1908 play about America as a land of additions. It suggests a stew in which different ingredients lose their individual flavor. The metaphor stresses assimilation as a one-way street. In the mosaic—and its sibling metaphor, the quilt—each ingredient coexists with the rest, but their flavor remains untouched. America went from being a melting pot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to becoming a quilt in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The pressure today from conservative forces is to return to the bygone vision of a one-way street. But the challenges ahead are numerous. Multiculturalism is best appreciated as a mosaic, not a melting pot. For what purpose should it be reformulated as a stew?

DT: In a study of demographic changes in greater Boston, the Rappaport Institute at the Kennedy School of Government found that while the area is more ethnically diverse, it is also more segregated. Boston is at a crossroads, the study concluded: one path leads to the consolidation of segregation and the growing isolation of people of different races and ethnicities, and the other leads to greater integration, a diverse mix of populations throughout the metropolitan region.

IS: Massachusetts is undergoing a metamorphosis, although less visibly than people might think. With an estimated population of 6,450,000, the state has stubbornly retained its ethnic and class structures.

The percentage of whites is 84.5, noticeably higher than the national median. In 2000 there were 5.4 percent blacks, whereas in the rest of the country there were 12.3 percent. The percentage of Hispanics was 6.8, in comparison with a national average of 12.5 percent. One result is an abysmal number of minority-owned businesses.

On the other hand, the state has a higher concentration of foreign-born people—12.2 percent vis-à-vis 11.1 percent in the entire United States. And in comparison with other states, Massachusetts, on average, has more households where a language other than English is spoken. Interestingly, Massachusetts has a higher percentage of Asians than the rest of the United States, and the number of people older than 65 is also above the median.

Finally, the concentration of knowledge and wealth in the region is substantial. The median household income a few years ago was $50,502 whereas the national average was only $41,994. And the number of people enrolled in undergraduate and graduate degrees is higher than anywhere else. This, no doubt, is a perplexing picture.

The study by the Rappaport Institute shows the extent to which old ethnic bastions, formed around urban centers, are left untouched. One cannot avoid concluding that while Massachusetts is a state with a strong sense of tradition, it is also quite stubborn, priding itself in its culture of liberal politics yet emphasizing divisions rather than bridging them.

DT: Can you suggest social policies likely to lead to greater integration?

IS: Segregation is a cancer in Massachusetts. This is obvious in urban centers, from Boston to Holyoke, from Lawrence to Worcester. I’m not a policy maker. Still, it strikes me that we’re in desperate need of a visionary politician, able to create consensus at the state level, in order to build bridges across classes, educational, and ethnic minorities. I’m worried about the disparity between the haves and have-nots in terms of access to knowledge and technology. In a region so astonishingly rich in scientific and academic resources, a major part of the future generations isn’t invited to the party. It is time to go beyond guilt. If W.E.B. DuBois defined the 20th century through the color line, the 21st one is about ethnic miscegenation and intellectual cross-fertilization. To limit power to those “in the know” is to remain attached to archaic models of development. It is crucial that, through an alliance encompassing people from various fields—politicians, economists, scientists, geneticists, and experts in the humanities—a strategy is established to implement bank and student loans to immigrants, build areas where affordable housing is geared toward diversifying the neighborhood and not endorsing racial differences, opening up universities and labs to traditionally excluded groups, etc.

DT: Do you think the arts and humanities have a role to play?

IS: Yes, a decisive one . . . . A single sentence, the Talmud says, can change a life. Massachusetts needs to be invited to a statewide conversation on diversity and the future. Public libraries, along with TV, radio, and printed media, need to serve as forums and conduits. Again, the concerted effort needs to be done paying attention to numerous disciplines. The funding should come from public and private sources. The conversation needs to focus on what the state has accomplished in its history: how did we become a people, what brought us together in the first place, etc. The essential question, though, isn’t about yesterday but about tomorrow.With the amount of power and resources available to us, in what way should we respond to the challenge of an incessant migration from places other than Europe? And how is our collective culture likely to change in a world where borders are becoming sheer abstractions? The amount of intellectual stamina in this state is astonishing, far surpassing that of any other region in the world. But our colleges and universities are too snobby and pretentious; their outreach efforts to the local community are inadequate and ineffective. Similarly, our state politicians are too interested in perpetuating ethnic strongholds. Our big businesses and corporations are naïve when it comes to understanding the urgent needs of our multicultural population. People live next to one another, but not together. We’re a pluribus but not an unum.

DT: You may recall that early in his first administration President Bill Clinton called for a “national dialogue on race,” and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities at that time, Sheldon Hackney, launched a major initiative he called a “national conversation on what it means to be an American.” Conversations took place all across the country, including here in Massachusetts. Hackney even came to Massachusetts to participate in a conversation in Lowell, perhaps our most ethnically diverse community outside of Boston.Were you involved in any of these efforts? Why do you suppose such efforts don’t have more of an impact?

IS: It was an endeavor coming from above, not from within the community. It was an utter failure because it insisted on seeing America as a country in black and white while the country is already in Technicolor. An effort to engage Massachusetts in conversation needs to recognize the plurality of colors in our population.

It should also be nonpartisan. The shortcomings of the race debate during the Clinton Administration bruised everyone, but should not tarnish our potential to engage in a constructive discussion.

DT: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who came of age during the desegregation of his hometown of Piedmont, West Virginia, comments in his memoir, Colored People, that for many of the members of the older generation of blacks, integration was experienced as a loss. At the sociological level as well, integration brought about the demise of vibrant and self-sufficient black communities, with black-owned businesses, black schools and colleges, etc., that provided members of those communities with sustenance, solidarity, and upward mobility. Do you see a downside to integration?

IS: First, let me express dismay at the fact that your otherwise incisive questions persist on using the black experience as the sole paradigm. Have you read essays and memoirs by Cambodians, Pakistanis, and Chileans? Are you familiar with cultural critics of other ethnic backgrounds? In this exchange, we’ve used the word “change” almost a dozen times. The humanities are about moral values but they are also about transformation. That transformation might be psychological, spiritual, or ideological. But if our foundations don’t change from inside out by expanding their intellectual horizon, why should we expect them to have an impact on people today? Ours is a world moving at astonishing speed. The old premises on which the 20th century established itself are quickly vanishing. In any event, Gates’s view on integration is based on a false assumption. There is no human engagement that doesn’t involve, at some level, a sense of loss. Yet every loss is also a gain. In the process of assimilation, a two-way street is traveled: the individual is changed by society and society is changed by the individual. America is constantly being renewed by new waves of immigrants, who in turn are renewed by America.


©2005 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2005