By Marco Portales
Thank you for joining us to celebrate Hispanic Heritage
Month at Texas A&M this year.
Many people need to be thanked for organizing the festive
activities planned between September 16 and October 15, 2004. Let’s hear an _expression of
appreciation for the organizers, the Hispanic Presidents Council, the Professional Hispanic Network,
the Aggie Memorial Student Center, Dr. James Anderson, V.P. for Institutional Diversity and Assessment,
Dr. Dean Bresgiani, V.P. for Student Affairs, and the group I represent here, MALFA, the Mexican
American/Latino Faculty Association.
Since I mentioned MALFA, I want to use this opportunity
to let all new Aggies know that, after working with the University’s administration for more than two
years, on May 28, 2004 the Board of Regents accepted President Gates’ recommendation to create MALRC,
the Mexican American/U.S. Latino Research Center. Currently a search committee is in the process of
selecting the founding director for a research center that seeks to study all aspects of the Latino
experience. Why? Because Latinos in the U.S. now number roughly 40 million people, including more
than 7 million Latinos here in Texas.
We, the Texas A&M Mexican American and Latino
faculty, are convinced that we need new knowledge and information about the largest American ethnic
group in virtually every discipline under the sun. Latinos, as we know, hail from all races and from
21 different countries. El Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebrates Mexico’s independence from Spain in
1821, but each of the other 20 Spanish-speaking countries also has its own history and stories of
On a festive day like today, ordinarily we talk about the past, about the
Diez y Seis de Septiembre, about El Grito de la Independencia promoted by Father Miguel Hidalgo in
Mexico, but, given where Latinos are today in the U.S., we need to consider the Latino Present because
that will shape our future.
When I was your age and in college more than 35 years ago, I
longed to read books written by Mexican American writers. I wanted to read books that spoke to the
world about our Latino lives and experiences in the United States. After all, Texas belonged to the
Spanish empire for 308 years before the Battle of San Jacinto ushered in The Republic of Texas in 1836.
For 308 years, the language of Texas era el Español, Spanish, and Hispanics or Latinos resided
throughout the Southwest in the areas known today as New Mexico, Arizona, California, and the southern
parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. But following the 1846 to 1848 War with Mexico declared by
President Polk, all of these lands, or 55% of the land that Mexico owned was ceded to the United States
for the nominal sum of $15 million, the same amount of money that Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana
Purchase from France in 1803. Such was the power of Manifest Destiny, the idea that God intended the
people of the U.S. to take over Native American lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That story, as
we know, is known as American History; and, as all of you know well, students are required to take
courses in that area.
What we are not required to take are courses in the people who
were displaced, the people whose histories we have know about and who have had to tough it out for many
generations. Over the years, I have discovered that is why Mexican Americans and Native Americans have
not written books that are widely known. In college I read Ralph Waldo Emerson, the writer who said
that every generation writes its own books. So where are the books written by the previous generations
of Mexican Americans, I asked when I was 19.
Well, our Latino ancestors were too busy,
struggling to make a living. They did not have the luxury of writing books. When one did, such as
Americo Paredes, who finished writing George Washington Gomez when he was 25 in 1940, editors told him
they were not interested in publishing the work of a Mexican American because they felt no one would
read such books. That is why Paredes’ book was put away and not brought out until 1990, or half a
century later, a year before I arrived at Texas A&M to teach.
Today, Latinos have
definitely arrived as far as the public consciousness is concerned. But here is the important point:
we have been here all along. Partially to celebrate that fact and mainly to provide you with what I
did not have when I was your age, I have been writing some books about the Latino experience since
arriving on campus. In November the Texas A&M University Press will published my nonfiction book,
“Latino Sun, Rising: Our Spanish-speaking U.S. World.” I wrote this book to share my experiences and
to provide future generations with some life stories, the type of stories that I missed when I was
growing up. It seems to me that people can use some narratives for traction, as it were, on which each
of you students can build your own future contributions.
Our challenge essentially means
that you have to ask your professors what the Latino contribution has been. We study and study and, as
most of you know, the disciplines and areas that most of you are required to study tend to be silent
about Latinos. How can it be that Latinos have lived in Texas and in the Southwest since 1528 when
Cabeza de Vaca roamed Texas and have so little to show for it? That is 476 years. How can Spanish-
speakers live for 24 generations (count them) and not have more than a handful of known books that tell
us stories about ourselves? How many of us, for example, can name, say, 5 Latino books? Try it. You
now know George Washington Gomez by Americo Paredes. Any other ones that immediately jump to mind?
People who know the field, of course, can name titles and authors, but most Americans will find the
There are, of course, other answers to the questions we are
raising. It is difficult to change the status quo, or the way things are. Why? Because the status
quo tends to block solutions to our needs. Because power concentrations usually run on established
tracks that have not traditionally taken us into account, brought us into the picture.
That is why, as Aggies, we need to encourage you to network, to learn how to develop common
goals so that the “Hispanic Voice” repeatedly emphasizes our needs and desires.
need to pursue is what I am beginning to call Integrative Research. Integrative research because
Latinos have always been part of American society. Integrative Research because we need to discover
and then articulate how we have always been here and what we have done. Integrative Research because
most of us do not know about our Latino accomplishments and the nature of the lives of previous
generations, because we have not been seen as players, participants and doers. This means that even
ancestors who have been exceptions to the rule have not often received credit for their achievements
and contributions. Let me give you a backyard example on which I will close.
walking by, admiring the new Chemical Engineering building that Texas A&M is building on the north side
of campus next to where the English Department is housed in Blocker. Working on the grounds, I saw a
worker who looked at me as I passed, so I said that the building looked very attractive. Without
skipping a beat, he quipped, “Si y todos somos Mejicanos,” that is, “Yes, and all of the workers are
Mexicans.” Do you think that the workers who helped build the wonderful-looking Chemical Engineering
building will even be in the pictures that we will see when the building is dedicated? Take a look at
the ground-breaking pictures of the people credited for building the George Bush School of Public
Service and that will tell us something.
I teach an Asian American nove
l by Frank Chin
lled Donald Duk (1991). In this imaginative recreation of history, Chinese American workers who were
hired to lay track for the Transcontinental Railroad from 1865 to 1869 were systematically excluded
from the American History book pictures. The Irish crews, on the other hand, the workers who “looked”
more “American” to the Public Relations-minded railroad leaders were given picture credit for building
the railroad– at the expense of the Chinese workers who were left out of the history books. Chin’s
novel attempts to rectify that fact. But how many people have read Chin’s work? Since we do not know
of that historical injustice, do we notice that the Mexican workers won’t be given much credit for
helping to build that building and others on campus?
I hope you can now see why we have
to carry out Integrative Research that will help us to include or integrate and then articulate us into
past history so that we can have a better present. By doing so, our Mexican, Mexican American and
Latino sons and daughters will gain confidence in themselves because they will know that their parents,
or people who looked like them, worked in constructing these buildings. They will have a vested
interest in Texas A&M because the energies of their parents have been invested in this campus. The
campus will not be a foreign, intimidating place, but a place that they will want to be at, and perhaps
If we educate our sons and daughters better, perhaps some of the
chemical engineers working in that building in 15 to 20 years will also be the offspring of those
Mexican workers. If we do not make a conscious effort to include them and other Latinos in American
society, history has shown us that we will be left out, much as I argue in “Crowding Out Latinos.”
(2000) If we do not change how Latinos are seen, we will always continue to look like new arrivals,
when, indeed, most of us have been here all along–for more than 20 generations, as we have seen. To
put more than 20 generations in perspective, we need to remember that we have only had about 6
generations of Aggies since Texas A&M was founded in 1876. And that we are only about 11 generations
or so away from the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Thank you for your kind