Oscar Villalon

[BOOKS EDITOR, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE]

talks with

Ilan Stavans

[NOVELIST/ESSAYIST/EDITOR]

“IT WAS A HELL OF A LOT TOUGHER TO KEEP COMING TO THESE SHORES FROM, SAY, THE UKRAINE IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY THAN IT IS TODAY FROM SINALOA, WHICH IS JUST DOWN THE STREET, RELATIVELY SPEAKING.”
What Hispanic and mainstream media needs to do:
Find sportswriters as good as the sportscasters
Fix the typos

There’s a joke, told by comedian Paul Rodriguez, about Latinos in the United States: Remember when Time put Edward James Olmos’s face on the cover of their magazine and proclaimed the ’80s “The Decade of the Latino”? It turned out to be more like a weekend sponsored by Bud. The sighing disappointment tucked into that punch line—of a people coming up short, failing somehow to achieve and maybe even reshape the American Dream—calls to attention how Latinos have been waiting more than a century for a time when their voices might be listened to and not merely heard.

The work of Ilan Stavans bears this out. A prolific author, editor, and essayist, Stavans is originally from Mexico City, where he grew up middle-class and Jewish. Stavans (who is nimble with Spanish and English) not only edited the Library of America’s I. B. Singer collection and The Shocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, but he also wrote a novel-like biography of Oscar “Zeta” Acosta—the Chicano civil-rights lawyer who wrote gonzo journalism long before his pal Hunter S. Thompson did—and authored a study on the evolving, uniquely American dialect of Spanglish. He’s written about his long love affair with words in a memoir, Dictionary Days, coauthored a graphic novel, Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History, and edited a Penguin Classic edition of the works of Nicaragua’s stellar poet Rubén Darío, not to mention his soul-searching The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America (1996). Along with Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Stavans’s book Hispanic… points to the new circumstances that frame the question “What does it mean to be American?”

Late in 2005, I had dinner with Stavans near the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. Over braised beef ribs we described our respective visions of the future for Latinos in the U.S. What came out of that conversation, as we segued between Spanish and English, was the way our concerns seemed absent from the pages of newspapers and the programming on television—really, from mainstream media altogether. What follows is the continuation of that conversation, carried out mostly by email. Many assertions are made here, and they all are open to debate. In fact, more questions are raised than plausibly answered. But one thing is indisputable: “The Decade of the Latino” will last long past ten years.

—Oscar Villalon

*

OSCAR VILLALON: We’re moving into new and, I think, thrilling times. Our country is finally going to be part of the Americas, which is an amazingly varied region, as you well know. The Spanish language, and Latino cultures, may have to be accommodated culturally in the same way Canada accommodates the Quebecois. The trick will be to avoid political fragmentation. So not only is this a seismic shift that papers need to be covering the hell out of, but it’s a cultural reality they need integrate in what they offer. The audience is now different. You need now to reflect the world for them as well.

ILAN STAVANS: That redirection isn’t likely to happen soon, I’m afraid. In my view, the core mission of the American media will change before newspapers focus on nonwhite communities and, along the way, our understanding of who is or isn’t white.

OV: How so?

IS: For one thing, impartial reporting is already on the way out. That is the effect of Fox on the horizon. It’s no longer important to report; the objective now is to persuade. But what I’m fascinated with isn’t the trite, repetitive tête-à-tête between liberals and conservatives. That tension goes back to the founding of the republic. I’m concerned with the ethnic wars.

Mainstream media doesn’t inform nonwhites—it simply typecasts them. By the time they realize this segment of society also wants a piece of the pie, it might be concluded that the dissemination of information cannot be unrestricted. I realize how outrageous this statement might sound. Of course, ours is the age of speed-of-light information. TVs, cell phones, iPods—these items are our permanent companions. They make us believe anything is reachable at any time. Or, better, that we, as depositories of data, are accessible all the time.

Today the haves and the have-nots are defined by that accessibility. If you’re part of the modern world, you’re in power—you’ve “whitened” yourself. Americans today don’t get the news from a central source. Ours is already a fractured world. The New York Times might be the paper of record, but for whom? In fact, my impression is that ethnic media will increase its status as a counter-establishment source. Under the First Amendment banner, I foresee cloning Al Jazeera, maybe not as politicized, although certainly as pride-shaking. In some ways, Univisión serves that function already. While entering the American living room without restriction, its programs regularly portray the white status quo as racist and anti-Hispanic. Sooner or later, that message will agitate people.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Oscar Villalon is the book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and is on the board of directors for the National Book Critics Circle. He and his wife live in San Francisco’s Mission District.

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