November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Lilvia Soto/Latin in America

After the Banquet…

An Invitation to Aristocracy

 (ed. note: The following speech by Lilvia Soto, as she writes in her prelude, was presented to a Latino audience on a U.S. college campus in 2009, but its messages apply to all humanity.  We trust you’ll reflect on it as a forward-looking call to responsible global citizenship as it was meant to be for the young people to whom it was presented three years ago.)

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of La Casa Latina: The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Hispanic Excellence, on Friday, September 25, 2009

In August 2004, I went to live in Mexico, the country of my birth. When I moved there, I was afraid. Afraid that they would say to me: “Gringa, go home.” After all, I had left when I was 15, had gone back only for short vacations, and everybody I had known while growing up had died. But, nobody asked to see my birth certificate. No one asked me to prove that I am Mexican. They welcomed me with open arms. They opened their homes, their families, and their literary circles and invited me in. Mexico has one of the busiest, most vibrant literary scenes in the world, and I have been welcomed into it.[1]

With distance, one gains perspective. Living in another culture during the last five years  has allowed me to do a comparative analysis of this one. In spite of the poverty, the drug violence, and the corruption, I have found Mexican society more peaceful than this one. Mexico has not started a war of choice or invaded another country. The average Mexican, the man with a 5th grade education, who never reads a book, is smarter than the average American. If you ask this typical man, a hard-hat worker in a maquila making 500 pesos a week, or a ranch hand who can barely sign his name, about the United States, he will tell you that this country is ruled by corporations and that it invaded Iraq for oil. This average José is not fooled about Mexican society either. He is aware of social injustice and corruption in government. Mexicans are by nature skeptical. They don’t believe the myths about their history or the hype about their superiority. And they don’t devote their energy to hating others. They don’t hate immigrants. There are many American expatriates, some working illegally, living in Mexico, but nobody is racially profiling them, hunting them down, or building private, for-profit prisons to hold them. Whenever I come back to the United States, and turn on the TV, I have to turn it off immediately. The noise, the name-calling, the demands for revenge or punitive measures, the fear of gays, immigrants, the old, the uninsured, the ones who wear turbans, or tunics, or a beard, seem to come right through the screen. The hatred is deafening. I wish I could tell you a fairy tale, but I cannot. I believe you are inheriting a very sick society. I believe with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Morris Berman, Chris Hedges, and others, that we are living through the final phase of the American Empire. It makes me sad, especially for you, the young. But having said all of this, I also say that giving up is not an option, and that you have a vital role to play in this final phase–the role of the conscientious objector, the objector to endless war, foreign invasions, torture-dispensing American-run black-hole prisons in foreign lands, run-away greed, pollution, hunger, lack of medical insurance, watered-down education, mindless entertainment, racial profiling, hate crimes, and cruelty of any kind.

On September 1st 2009, The New York Times published The University’s Crisis of Purpose by Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard and former professor of history and Director of the Women’s Studies Program here at Penn. It was published in “Crossroads,” a series of essays that is trying to examine changes in the collective American experience.

According to Dr. Faust, modern universities are faced with almost irreconcilable demands. They must be practical and at the same time, transcendent. They must assist in the solving of immediate national needs and simultaneously pursue knowledge for its own sake. They must add value, and question values. Dr. Faust asks us to remember that universities should be about more than prosperity. Human beings need more than jobs. They need a historical sense and the freedom and imagination to search for meaning for their individual lives and for the life of their society. Unlike other institutions in the world, universities should embrace and nurture the critical perspectives that look beyond the present. They should be society’s critic and conscience. They should produce doubt that is often inconvenient, as well as knowledge. They should raise the questions that are necessary to a healthy society. If they are to fulfill their transcendent mission, universities should have breadth and depth of vision, and they should be messy and creative places, filled with a polyphony of voices.

I hope that when Dr. Faust talks about the need people have to search for meaning for the life of their society, she means more than their local or national society. I hope she means that people have the need to search for meaning for human society. There are artists and cultural critics today who, like Morris Berman (Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire) believe that America is entering a dark age and its final phase as an empire. If it was never smart to have an ethnocentric view of the world, and if we accept that that limited view is partially responsible for the twilight of this culture, then it makes sense to say that today, more than myopic, it would be suicidal to hold American society as our only horizon.

________________________

“You carry all of civilization in your veins, and it is important that everybody learn and that you never forget that you are not new-comers to the American continent, to history, or to the realms of art, culture, and ideas. You have countless treasures hanging from the branches of the tree that grows in the garden of your multicultural house.”

________________________

My mission is to remind you that you, as Latinos, own some of the most important voices of the polyphony of this and any university, of this country, of the world, because as the heirs of many ancient civilizations, you are in a unique position to offer perspectives that go beyond the limited frontiers of this time and this place. Your ancestors are the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors that for centuries intermarried in the Iberian Peninsula and produced the 15th Century explorers who came to this continent and married the Yoruba and the Mandingo from Africa, the Tainos and the Caribes from the Caribbean, the Incas from Peru and Bolivia, the Toltecs and the Aztecs from Mexico, the Mayans from Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras, to produce the Latin American mestizos who came North and married each other or the English-Americans, the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, the Polish-Americans, the African-Americans, and the native Americans to produce you–the Latinos of the United States. Each of these old, inseparable, indistinguishable strands has come together to produce each of you–a unique and very special genetic and cultural mix. You carry all of civilization in your veins, and it is important that everybody learn and that you never forget that you are not new-comers to the American continent, to history, or to the realms of art, culture, and ideas. You have countless treasures hanging from the branches of the tree that grows in the garden of your multicultural house.

You belong here. You are entitled to sit at the table and partake of the banquet of modern civilization. Some of its most succulent dishes were prepared by your ancestors. And don’t forget that everybody sits around the circumference, for there are no more centers. Unfortunately, you are also going to have to partake of the bitter leftovers of the banquet of the civilization that turned, while we were fighting over the crumbs, post-modern.

As Latinos, you have in front of you dazzling opportunities and daunting challenges. I want to remind you that every privilege implies an obligation. You have the opportunity to influence the world by getting a world-class education. You have the obligation to accept the challenge, to strive for excellence in everything you do, to be role models for your brothers and sisters, for all the Latinos who are not going to have the same opportunities. But beware. It can be tempting for anybody, especially for members of a minority group, to accept appointments into the halls of power, where they will be expected to serve the unbridled ambitions of others and to follow unethical orders. You have the obligation to become role models in the manner of César Chávez or Sonia Sotomayor. In the worst-case scenario, she will write many minority opinions, and if one or two more judges retire, then her vote can have a real impact on the future. If not, her only constituent is her own conscience, and her only obligation, to leave a record of those conscience-guided decisions for posterity. Do not become role models in the manner of Alberto González or General Ricardo Sánchez of Abu Ghraib infamy. Latinos have no need of  that kind of notoriety. Do not be seduced by evil that poses as official power. Your obligation as Latinos is to become thoughtful, principled, visionary, often obscure, leaders–a civilizing force for an age that is entering darkness. Strive not for economic, political, or military power, but for moral authority.

Because you carry in your genes such a rich mixture of ancient civilizations, you have the obligation to make your voices heard in the polyphony of this university, of this country, of the world. You must use your distinctive voices with their deep historical sense to question the assumptions of American society. You must use your critical perspectives to be this country’s conscience, to raise the questions that are necessary for a peaceful humanity and a healthy planet. You must speak, and you must remember that, as Martin Luther King said, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

As multicultural human beings, you, more than others, have the possibility of having your views of the world transcend your indigenous cultures, to develop habits of critical thought about received opinion and a questioning attitude about all assumptions, and to have an attitude of humility, for you know that human culture is non-hierarchical, that it is a culture of interdependent cultures and a tradition of cross-fertilizing traditions, and that the weave of your own cultural heritage is made up of many strands. As you gain in your appreciation of the depth, complexity, and richness of other ways of thinking and being, you begin to realize that the other is not your enemy, that she is your interlocutor, your complement, and your memory, for without her you would suffer from amnesia and self-mutilation. As multicultural human beings you know that you must love, filled with wonder, what you don’t know, that you must recognize yourselves in the difference, and feel reverence for all life.

As the group of young people closest to my heart, I want you to remember that reality is multiple; the universe, a constant flux; education, a life-long process; imagination, the twin of intelligence, and that to live an ethical and meaningful life means to live with ambiguity and contradictions, to strive for interdependence, to arrive at synergistic solutions, and to embrace the other. Above all, to embrace the other, always learning from her, enlarging the human possibility. As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe says: “Whatever you are is never enough. You must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism” (Anthills of the Savannah).

Finally, I want to encourage you to be aristocrats. For this, I follow the definition of E. M. Forster, the British novelist, who in his 1939 essay “What I Believe,” (Two Cheers for Democracy) says:

   I believe in aristocracy, . . .  Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.

[ . . . . ]

On they go – an invincible army, yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People – all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the Chinese Civil Service or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple, as one of them remarked, is the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.

So, my dear, dear, Latino students, be aristocrats. Be aristocrats of the spirit. Be sensitive, considerate, and plucky, and slip through the net. Your kingdom is the wide-open world.


[1] In 2010 I moved back to Arizona. I still receive invitations to participate in poetry festivals all over the country, and they still publish me in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies.

 

About the author:

Lilvia Soto.  Chihuahua, México, 1939. Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. She has taught Latin American and Latino literatura at Harvard and other American universities. She was the co-founder and first director of La Casa Latina: the University of Pennsylvania Center for Hispanic Excellence. She was the Resident Director of a Study Abroad Program for students from Cornell, Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania in Sevilla, Spain. She has participated in numerous international literary conventions and festivals in Spain, Mexico, and the United States. She has published poetry, short fiction, literary criticism, and literary translations in journals and anthologies in the United States, Canada, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela. She has an English-language manuscript of poems about the American Iraq wars and another English-language collection of poems that dialogue with Iraqi poems. She has also completed an English-Spanish collection about language and her experience living in Spain. She is currently working on a bilingual collection about her return to Mexico in 2004, where she lived for six years, and the recovery of cultural and familial roots. She has published essays and given lectures on Spanish, Spanish-American, and Chicano writers (Leopoldo Alas [Clarín], Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, José Emilio Pacheco, Alejo Carpentier, Fernando del Paso, Salvador Elizondo, Guadalupe Villaseñor, Laura Esquivel, Lucha Corpi), as well as on the history of the U.S.-Mexico border, the culture of Hispanics in the U.S., and the poetry of Chicana writers. As a consultant she offers Spanish-English translations and workshops on intercultural communications. Her translation of a poem by the Mexican poet Alberto Blanco appears in this issue of Ragazine.CC. You may contact her at lilviasoto@hotmail.com