Local author recovers the nuances of Mexican-American and Latino identity through art and conceptions of the body 


What do you do when the essentials of identity — your body, voice and homeland — are both yours and not yours? This is one of many questions Mexican-Americans face in an often culturally hostile climate and one that preoccupies Robert Con Davis-Undiano in his new book, Mestizos Come Home! Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity.

Mestizos Come Home! was published in March as part of the Chicana and Chicano Visions of the Américas series through University of Oklahoma (OU) Press. At OU, Davis-Undiano is a presidential professor of English and the Neustadt chair. He is also the executive director of World Literature Today.

Davis-Undiano said the book — written over five years — arose from his realization that mainstream white American culture did not understand Latino or Mexican-American culture.

While he initially did not see great urgency in the project, an uptick of racist behavior and rhetoric after the election of President Barack Obama spurred Davis-Undiano to work.

“This book really addresses the problems that make up this dark time for Latinos,” he said. “I think I saw the dark time coming way back then, and I never dreamed it would get even worse.”

American identity

Mestizos Come Home! examines six areas of interest: mestizo identity, connections to the land, Mesoamerican depictions of the body, Latino connections to popular culture, the rise of Mexican-American cultural voices and the Chicano renaissance begun in the 1960s.

The book moves temporally and geographically across North America and Latin America to combat cultural amnesia by focusing on Mexican-Americans and mestizos, those who have both indigenous and Spanish heritage.

In one chapter, Davis-Undiano looks at the racially coded casta portraits from the Spanish colonial past to show how race has been culturally constructed and how negative perceptions can continue today. Later, he picks up with other representations of the body made through text and sculpture during the Chicano renaissance.

Much of Mestizos Come Home! focuses on reclaiming history and the pride in it by flipping the script on negative stereotypes of Mexican-Americans as invaders who threaten mainstream culture. Davis-Undiano said cultural recovery and information provide new ways of seeing Mexican-Americans and their historical place in the Americas.

“The whole Southwest, historically, just about a minute ago in 1848, was Mexico. In one fell swoop, Mexico lost about half of its land,” he said. “A lot of Latinos living in the Southwest really are from there. They really are home.”

According to Davis-Undiano, the contradiction of historically and literally belonging but not feeling like it manifests for Mexican-Americans and Latinos today.

“The Mexican-American community hasn’t taken any longer than any other community to assimilate into the culture, especially given the huge numbers,” Davis-Undiano said.

The nearly 34 million Mexican-Americans currently living the United States comprise about 10 percent of the country’s population and offer a cultural vitality that Davis-Undiano said remains integral to the country.

He said there will always be friction in the Mexican-American experience because there is friction in any democratic experience.

“The American idea, from the beginning, was this multicultural democracy. If you’re here, you’re family,” Davis-Undiano said. “If it succeeds only partially, there’s going to be a dynamism to the culture that is then the dynamism of American culture.”


Hybrid existence

This inherent hybridity of Mexican-American culture becomes clear on holidays like Cinco de Mayo, which Davis-Undiano positions as fundamentally dual, a layered phenomenon through which the resilience and pride of Mexican-Americans becomes apparent.

By furthering political and educational opportunities for Latinos and by recovering and reclaiming culture, he retains a sense of optimism for future comings-home.

“There is no invested voice,” Davis-Undiano said of current Latino political representation. “I want the book to be a plea to communicate to Latinos that the country can understand who they are. Mexican-Americans are as much a part of this culture as anybody else, and their contributions are there.”

A key part of “coming home,” in Davis-Undiano’s view, is the ability for Mexican-Americans and Latinos to put down roots, to cement their identities in the American landscape in ways they have previously been unable.

He said that his book wouldn’t change everything, but he wants it to be a voice in the right direction for Mexican-Americans and Latinos, with stakes for the entire country.

“They’re not only not the enemy,” Davis-Undiano said of Latinos, “but they’re the fulfillment of the American idea.”

Mestizos Come Home! is available on Amazon as a hardcover and Kindle e-book and as an e-book through Barnes & Noble, Google Play and Kobo. Visit oupress.com.

Print headline: Cultural homecoming, In Mestizos Come Home!, Robert Con Davis-Undiano recovers the nuances of Mexican-American and Latino identity through art and conceptions of the body.

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