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Art exhibit dispelling stereotypes of Hispanic culture

The image of Hispanics in this country is a grotesque distortion of reality. Greasy criminals. Cocaine cowboys. Immigrants on welfare.

These stereotypes are destroyed by a monumental art exhibit that just opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Mexico, Splendors of 30 Centuries" shows that Hispanic culture is infinitely richer than the cardboard cutout that mainstream America accepts and even some Hispanics identify with.

Beginning with the fierce jaguar head that greets visitors at the entrance, continuing with the European-style work of the colonial period and ending with the fusion of European and Native American styles forged in this century by painter Rufino Tamayo, the exhibit captures the staggering artistic vitality of a people.

And as if to top off this tour de force of Mexican culture, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Mexican essayist and poet Octavio Paz (who is, by the way, author of the introduction to the show's catalog) the day after the exhibit opened.

The arts and literature of Mexico are just one expression of Hispanic culture. Paz is the second successive Spanish-language writer to win the Nobel _ the 1989 award went to Spanish novelist Camilo Jose Cela. These two men are living examples of ancient traditions that began millennia ago on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in pre-Columbian America and in Iberian Spain. These traditions have nurtured not only unknown "ethnic" artists, but also geniuses of universal influence and renown.

The Hispanic world has produced painters of the stature of Spaniards Diego Velazquez, Francisco Goya, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, Colombian Fernando Botero and Cuban Wilfredo Lam.

The list of important writers is endless. Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, the first and perhaps the greatest of novels; Mexican nun Juana Ines de la Cruz composed poems of great lyricism and beauty in the 17th century; and while North Americans Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner were the literary giants of the first half of the 20th century, the second half belonged to South American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Hispanics are even beginning to make progress writing in English. The most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

Today in the United States, this cultural treasure trove is practically unknown not just to many Anglos, but even more tragically, to many Hispanics.

American society has a narrow view of the Hispanic world. People see poor immigrants in the cities and criminals on TV and assume that's all there is to the civilization. The images stick because the public doesn't want to think too much. All that's needed is a couple of easy-to-pin labels.

The danger these labels carry becomes worse when Hispanics begin to believe them _ and act accordingly.

The irony is that Hispanic acceptance of stereotypes is not born of passive submission to what Anglo culture imposes. On the contrary, the people I'm thinking about are culturally aggressive and bristling with ethnic pride. But this aggressiveness and pride are misdirected.

The problem is summed up in a rap music video by an East Los Angeles Chicano musician named Kid Frost. The video shows youths hanging out in gang colors, doing nothing more than looking tough and spraying graffiti, while Kid Frost sings that "this is for the Raza." In other words, that this is what Hispanic culture is all about, that we should be proud.

No doubt, there are Hispanic neighborhoods all over this country in which youths hang out looking tough and spraying graffiti. But why glorify this? Why reduce Hispanic culture to gutter level?

What Kid Frost sings about wouldn't matter much if it were understood in context. For instance, everybody knows a heavy-metal group like Guns n' Roses is nothing more than one expression of one segment of Anglo youth _ it does not represent mainstream culture. Kid Frost's music, in the same way, speaks for one segment of Hispanic youth and has nothing to do with the rest of Hispanic culture, but I don't think the general public understands that.

So don't tell America, Mr. Frost, that street thugs represent all of Hispanic culture. I know better, but many other people don't. Do you? Come to New York, Kid, and we'll go see the show at the museum.

- Roger E. Hernandez is an adjunct member of the journalism faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Cuba, he came to the United States in 1965 when his parents were exiled by Fidel Castro.

1990 King Features Syndicate Inc.