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Abstract

Introduction

Since my first visit to the campus in 1992, I have looked forward to this event. Tuskegee University is a world famous campus with many firsts in science and higher education. And it gives me great pleasure to speak about Latinos and Afro-Latinos.

My presentation has three objectives: first, to address the historical origins, and challenges facing U.S. Latinos; second, to expand on the national interest in U.S. Latinos and the surfacing issues of our relations with African-Americans, and, third, to advocate coalition building and suggest ways of working together.

I wish to begin by citing a few caveats from Earl Shorris, author of Latinos: A Biography of the People, (New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1992):

First, according to Shorris: “Any history of Latinos stumbles at the start, for there is no single line to trace back to its ultimate origin.” This statement reminds us that the historic origins of Hispanics and Latinos have many roots and branches. As such, the issue of our identity depends a lot on where our story begins and our knowledge of history.

Second, Shorris stated: “Latino history has become a confused and painful algebra of race, culture, and conquest, it has less to do with evidence than with politics, for whoever owns the beginning has dignity, whoever owns the beginning owns the world.” Shorris reminds us that speeches like mine are assertions of pride and essentially political, i.e., presented with a desire to persuade and convince of a particular viewpoint or position about Latinos and Hispanics. He is correct about “dignity” and it is clearly my intent to show the historic “firsts” of U.S. Latinos.

I should add that the Center I head is currently aimed at enhancing Latino heritage within the Smithsonian’s exhibitions and collections of its 16 museums and galleries of history, art, science, air and space and the National Zoo and research centers. In fact, I am on a mission to address a scathing report entitled: “Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos” (Smithsonian, 1994).

The report concluded: “[the] Institution almost entirely excludes and ignores the Latino population in the United States. This lack of inclusion is glaringly obvious in the lack of a museum facility focusing on Latino or Latin American art, culture or history; the near-absence of permanent Latino exhibitions or programming; the very small number of Latino staff, and the minimal number of curatorial or managerial positions; and the almost total lack of Latino representation in the governance structure. It is difficult for the Task Force to understand how such a consistent pattern of Latino exclusion from the work of the Smithsonian could have occurred without willful neglect.”

I mention “willful neglect” to assert my belief that politics and dignity play a big role in my work and comments, “… for whoever owns the beginning [of history] has dignity, whoever owns the beginning owns the world.”

But, quoting from another caveat from Shorris:

Third, “according to the rules of conquest, the blood of the conquered dominates, but the rules are not profound, they are written on the skin.” Shorris reminds us that every version of history has its adherents. Every history that is taught evokes the bias of the dominant group. He also intimates that white Americans have their version of history. Likewise, black Americans have their own version of history. That is the result of a race conscious society. But a question also raised is: “If people are brown, “multi-racial” - what part of their racial make-up dominates their history?” Do Latinos relate their identity to race and racial treatment? Are brown people more white oriented than black? What’s “written on the skin,” of Latinos? If, for example, a Latino appears to be European, what history will they choose? Will the history be of the “dignified” or the “conquered?”