Thursday, November 25, 2021

What's in a Name, an Enigma?

"En esta casa nacio Tomas Alva Edison, el 18 de Febrero, 1848"
    What is the definition of a Latino or Latina, anyway? I know a direct translation of Latino from Spanish to English is Latin, which to me indicates a descendent of the Romans, as in Italians. That doesn’t really fit the Spanish-speaking people of Latin America. So, is the concept fact or fiction? If it’s fact, I suppose the definition can be found in a dictionary or a history book. If it’s fiction, you can say it’s a “state of being,” open to interpretation. 
      Dictionary: “Latin—Of or relating to Latium, its people or its culture, or relating to ancient Rome, or relating to places and peoples using Romance languages.” 
     Hmm, French is a romance language. I don’t recall anyone calling a French person a Latin or Latino. Most Italians don't even see themselves a Latin or Latino. 
     Let’s look at “Latino” in the dictionary-- “A person of Latin American origin, male.” 
     That’s different from, say, “Hispanic”: “of or relating to the language, culture, and people of Spain, or Spanish speaking countries, especially Latin America.” 
     Now, that sounds a bit rhetorical. 
     Some in-the-know, like ethnic studies professors, might argue a Latino is a person of Spanish descent, including Latin American mestizos, but Hispanic, means of Spanish descent, as in Iberian Spanish, no hint of Indian blood, which can get confusing because I’m sure you can come across non-indigenous Latinos in Latin America, or as some Chicano New Mexicans claim, “puro hispanico.” 
     So, is Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, who has spent much of his career in the U.S. among Mexican-American actors and playing Mexican roles, like in Zorro and Desperado, Latino or Hispanic? Except in the Disney creation, Zorro was a Spaniard living in 1800s Los Angeles before the arrival of the Anglos. But by 1800, Spain had been in Mexico 280 years, a long time, and probably few pure-blooded Spaniards remained, so Zorro could have been Mexican. 
     What about Julio Iglesias or his American-bred son Enrique? And Rocio Durcal, Fidel Castro, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Selma Hayek, Javier Bardem, or his wife Penelope Cruz, Latinos or Hispanics, or, let’s play it safe, maybe they are all both? 
     My guess is if you probably asked, they’d identify with their country of origin, like Fuentes and Hayek proud of their Mexican-ness, but Fuentes didn’t like being pigeon-holed and saw himself as a citizen of the world. So, then, is ethnic labeling limiting? 
     If Latinos are descendants of Latin America wouldn’t that exclude anyone from Spain? They’d be straight-up Hispanics. What about Brazil, Belize, and Guyana? Are their folks Latinos, or do they get nixed because Spanish isn’t their country’s official language? Take Guyana, which started off Spanish but became Dutch in the 1700s. Their language is English. In Belize, which shares Mexico’s southern border, people speak English, Spanish, Creole, and different dialects of Maya? Are they Latinos? Their official language is English, going back to when it was British Honduras. See what I mean? 
     Do they all qualify as Latinos, or token Hispanics, less Roman and more Spanish? After all, Spain does owe them something for all the precious metals it extracted as well as the cost of human labor. Then, what about the vast numbers of indigenous people throughout north, central, and south America-- Latino or Hispanic? 
     I met some Chicano activists back in the 1980s, enthusiastic to bring famous Latinos into the fold. They viewed anyone with a Spanish surname "Chicana” or “Chicano.” 
     Take George Lopez, in one of his routines, he claims that thousands of Anglos run around the country following the Grateful Dead. “Jerry Garcia? Duh, Garcia!” Lopez stresses, suggesting Deadheads are crossing the country in caravans following a Mexican Mariachi?” 
     Lopez was just trying to show, humorously, how ubiquitous Mexicans are in the U.S. like Garcia’s fanatics who don’t make the connection that Garcia is Latino; except, is Jerry Garcia Latino or Hispanic? Like Joan Baez, Garcia (RIP) always claimed Spanish heritage not Mexican or Latino, and Spain, as everybody knows, is a completely different continent. 
     So, Garcia’s adoring fans were never following a “mariachi” but more like a flamenco musician, at the very least a leader of a Tuna, college student musicians, dating back to the 1700s, who traveled through university towns, followed by adoring students singing along, botas of vino raised high and not bottles of tequila, mezcal, or pulque. Do Garcia and Baez qualify as Latinos. My guess is both never considered it. They probably saw themselves as Americans. 
Tomas Alva Edison or Thomas Alva Edison?

 I recall, years ago, listening to a Chicano artist try convincing a group of students that Thomas Edison was Chicano--because of his middle name, Alva. I laughed at that one. Preposterous. I don’t remember the good professor’s evidence, but he did lay down some facts, which, later, got me to thinking, how did Edison get the name Alva, a name none of his siblings carried?
      American historians have Edison’s kin hailing from Amsterdam to Nova Scotia to Canada and into the U.S., first New Jersey, where Edison was born in 1847, and finally Ohio, where he started his career as the great American inventor we came to love as children. Interestingly, though, there isn’t a lot of U.S. documentation related to Edison’s middle name, Alva, but in Mexico, it’s a different story. 
     Mexican historian Luis Rocha, in his book, 100 Years of Light in Fresnillo, based on surveys, interviews, letters, and other documents, claimed Thomas Alva Edison was born in Sombrete, Zacatecas in 1848, his father a mining engineer, Samuel Alva Ixtlixochitl, from Pachuca. You still with me and haven’t fallen out of your chair, laughing? 
     Rocha is a serious historian. According to his version, John Edison, Thomas’s grandfather did, in fact, migrate from Amsterdam to Canada then to Mexico, not New Jersey. John Edison married Margarita de Alva Ixtlixochitl who sired Samuel Alva Ixtlixochitl Edison, Tomas Alva’s father, hence the name. 
Fact or Fiction?
     Rocha’s sources identify two other Alva families in Sombrete, Zacatecas, back in the day, who verified their relationship to Alva Edison. And, so it goes, Tomas migrated to the U.S. at an early age and became the great American inventor. The problem, I guess, is that nobody can find a birth certificate, not the American Thomas Alva Edison of Ohio and not the Mexican Tomas Edison of Zacatecas, who wouldn’t have had a birth certificate, anyway, but a baptismal certificate, and during the revolution of 1910, when revolutionaries swept through Sombrete, they destroyed all personal church records, a common rebel practice. 
      Still, today, in Sombrete, on the house at 19 Hidalgo Street, is a plaque that reads, “En esta casa nacio Tomas Alva Edison, el 18 de Febrero, 1848.” 
     Rocha has done his homework. He has produced documentation, both written and oral, for his book, based on another text by Fray de los Dolores Tiscareno, who published, Nuestra Senora del Refugio, and documents Tomas Alva Edison's roots in Mexico. 
     Of course, the American version is disdainful of anything Mexican, kind of like the battle of Alamo, which doesn’t merit but a blip in Mexican history, mainly because it was a rout, and the Mexican military viewed it with little importance at the time. 
     Mexican officers did write in their journals and made no mention of a "last stand.” The battle, in the early morning darkness, lasted all of thirty-minutes. Mexican casualties came mostly from friendly fire. Most American casualties occurred outside the Alamo’s walls, as the fleeing frontiersmen ran into the lances of the Mexican caballeros. The heroic defense of the old mission was a story fictionalized by American newspapermen writing thousands of miles away from San Antonio, in the safety of the offices in Chicago, Pittsburg, and New York. 
     Of course, U.S. historians never read Mexican accounts of the Alamo, distrusting anything Mexican, even if the Mexicans were the only witnesses. 
      So, what of Thomas, or Tomas? One website says of his birth, “It remains an enigma.” 
     True, much of the narrative surrounding Edison’s early life in the U.S. is inconclusive. Some historians even suggesting he came to the U.S. from Mexico alone, as Tomas Alva Ixtlixochilt, and was adopted by the Edison clan. 
     Now, a lot of people huff and puff--so what? How much does any of this matter. You think Joan Baez, Antonio Banderas, or the late Jerry Garcia gave it a second thought? Well, I suppose, they don’t need to, so well entrenched are they in their personal stories, their successful lives. But, what about ethnic American kids who are told to go back to from where “you” came, and “you aren’t American, or they go to where they came from, only to hear, “You aren’t Mexican”? 
      When I was a kid, I identified as American, until someone, usually a parent of an Anglo friend, asked, “What are you?” 
     The question always shook me. If I said Mexican, an image of my Spanish-speaking, Mexican-born grandparents, uncles, and aunts emerged. I wasn’t like them. I could barely speak Spanish, and I’d never been to Mexico. If I said American, an image of my Anglo or Italian friends appeared. I wasn’t like them either. Their families had migrated west from Oklahoma, Texas, some from New York and Chicago. So, I’d just say, “Mexican,” which, in my twelve-year-old bicultural mind, meant, I identified with the land south of the border, a land of, “I don’t need to show you no stinking badges.” 
     I guess it’s a person’s choice how he or she chooses to identify, and it can get complicated in 2021, especially as issues of White Supremacy arise. An American, with Latino-American roots, can possibly carry Mexican, Spanish, French, Indian, German, and Arabic blood. All of those cultures, and more, passed through the land Bolivar tried to unite as one Latin America. That’s a lot of identities. 
     Then there are the many indigenous people who never mixed, like Oaxacans, Mixtecas and Zopotecas, who walk the streets of Los Angeles, Queens, and Lansing Are they Latino or Hispanic? Then, does it really have nothing to do with bloodlines or geography. Is it a state of mind? 
     Luis Valdez thought so. In his classic play Zoot Suit, a blonde Anglo kid locked up in jail with his Chicano partners was confronted by a guard who asked him, “What’s a nice Anglo kid like you doing hanging out with guys like these?” His response, “I’m Chicano too, see,” and he meant it.

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