How It Starts

in Culture by

They tell me Spanish is my first language, and I guess it was, technically. It’s also said that I’m Honduran and Puerto Rican, though I’ve had to learn what those mean. I’m still figuring it out. Raised with a bit of culture from each, I’ve studied their history and kept up to date on current events. I’ve even been to Honduras — twice — while Puerto Rico remains la isla del encanto no visitada. Soon, I promise. Both are part of a region in America (the Americas?) considered “Latin,” and since my descendants hail from it, that makes me Latino. I’m not even getting into the whole Hispanic thing.

What exactly “Latino” means, no one’s sure. There are so many subcategories as to make the main one useless. The Latino multitude is multicultural, multicolored, multilingual, multinational and multigenerational. If I told you so-and-so is Latina, that would be the only thing you knew about her. If you’d never seen her, you wouldn’t know what she looked like. If she were a stranger, you wouldn’t know what she’s into, or if she even spoke Spanish. If you didn’t know her name, you couldn’t be sure she had a Spanish one. For such a widely used label, “Latino” doesn’t describe much about any individual person.

And yet, not only are there Latinas and Latinos, there’s even a supposed Latino community, with its own Latino media, Latino music, Latino literature, Latino culture and Latino vote. Latino consumers buy Latino products, watch Latino shows and get their Latino news from Latino sites. As a Latino writer, I’m expected to write about Latino issues from my Latino perspective. For years I’ve written about immigration, gentrification, the crises in Honduras, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Brazil… all because I’m Latino(?) and needed to engage Latino readers. Truth is, all the stuff I’ve written about since I decided I needed to write back in 2007 represents a mere fraction of who I am, what I think, and how I live.

I’m a human being first and foremost, so my interests and influences are varied. Just as Gabo learned technique from Faulkner, and Selena modeled herself after Donna Summers, so too have I stolen from eclectic sources. I’m a fan equally of Junot Díaz and Cormac McCarthy, for very different reasons. I tingle with Neruda, but I prefer Philip Levine. In food or music, I’ll swallow it whole and ask for seconds. Does this make me unique among Latinos? Of course not, and that’s my point. We — and here I mean everybody — are being specialized, told to like this and that but not those. Who’s to tell me what should make my heart skip and what shouldn’t? Does something about my tastebuds make me crave cuchifritos and gag on Thai? Resoundingly, no. And why’s that? Because, as it turns out, races don’t actually exist — there’s no division within the one, sole human species. You like what you like and, as Rae Sremmurd says, “I like what I like!” We’ve been nurtured into our pigeonholes, but naturally we’re not confined to them.

In the aftermath of our most recent charade, the United States finds itself waking up from a bad dream and into a living nightmare. It’s been discomcombulating for everyone, even me, who spotted the flash a mile away and still jumped at the thunder. Too many people are not on speaking terms with reality. This country may have more potential than any before it but realizing that potential will require a hard look in the mirror. That includes me and, if you’re a United Statesian too, you. We have to stop pretending and start being authentically ourselves. But first we’ll have to discover who we’ve been this whole time. That’s what ENCLAVE is — my first attempt at creating a place where we can start to make sense of ourselves, as individuals and as a whole.

Many of the contributors — writers, graphic artists, videographers, photographers — will be Latinos, but some won’t be. Many of the people discussed will be Latinos, but, again, others won’t. My goal, my dream, is to never have to confine myself to so-called “Latino topics” so long as I live. I plan on studying, traveling, meeting people, witnessing life and sharing whatever I think or feel with whomever has the time or the inclination to read my words. This site isn’t for you but for me, and any serious person who wishes to join me in a lot of self-exploration.

Cimarron Canyon, New Mexico (Hector Luis Alamo)

I spent the last week of July driving across the country, from Chicago to Las Vegas, with my partner Ro, her cousin (and my best friend) Andy and my 12-year-old stepdaughter. As usual, I was the navigator. We could’ve made a straight shot of it — hitting Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, and then winding our way through the Rockies to Utah and then down into the Mojave Desert and the Las Vegas Valley — but I’m a wanderer. And since I was in charge of plotting our course, how could I resist taking the scenic route and seeing more of America’s grand vistas? So we hung a left at Denver (where I chatted with Jon Marcantoni over coffee in the shadow of Castle Rock), breezed through Colorado Springs, had lunch in Raton, New Mexico, took yet another detour through Cimarron Canyon, around Eagle Nest Lake and its countless prairie dog towns, then meandered through Valle Escondido, Carson National Forest and Picuris Pueblo, reaching Santa Fe just after sunset. Yeah, that was one day. After breakfast at the Plaza Cafe, we wandered the historic district and took in Saint Francis Cathedral. Then we split for Albuquerque, across the New Mexican desert, a handful of Pueblo reservations, and maxed out on Navajo tacos in Window Rock, near Fort Defiance. The Devil’s Highway carried us up past the imposing Shiprock to Four Corners where we took the obligatory photo of our feet, each of us standing in one of the four states. From there we crossed the Martian landscape toward Chinle, the red heart of Navajo Nation, on the western end of the Canyon de Chelly, where we crashed for the night. We grabbed lunch the next day at the Bright Angel Lodge, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, flew past the Hoover Dam around dusk and rolled down into a vast bed of gold flecks — Vegas, baby.

That trip changed me somehow. I felt (still feel) smaller, but my own potential now seems limitless. It’s hard to say what did it. Probably all of it. Every incredible thing I saw, every breathtaking view, had been there long before I or anyone else laid eyes on it, and it’ll be there long after anyone remembers our names. So why have I been holding back? Why haven’t I taken hold of myself and my life? Why have I left so many questions unasked?

I’m not one to believe in signs, but something happened within minutes of our reaching Las Vegas that I think bears mentioning. As we were filling up on gas and wondering where we’d find a decent slice of pizza, a shooting star streamed across the darkening sky above the valley. It was the largest and longest-lasting I’ve ever seen (and I used to be something of an amateur astronomer back in the day, so I’ve seen my fair share). It was so large that I first thought it was a plane. But then I realized it was too bright and moving too fast to be any plane I know of, and as I pointed it out to the others, it began to break up like a spaceship disintegrating in the upper atmosphere. We just stared at it, mouths agape. It meant nothing, but it meant something.

The world feels up in the air, what with the circus of an election we just survived and the clown we just elected commander in chief. We need some serious soul-searching, to go back to the beginning and start with basics. What are the basics? What do we know about ourselves and the world around us? What have we forgotten? What have we been ignoring? I’ve discovered a path that should carry me through the rest of my life.

Anyway, this is how it starts…


Featured image: Hector Luis Alamo

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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