Arturo Madrid: Challenging Hispanic Stereotypes

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Arturo Madrid’s ancestors made a home on American soil before the Mayflower arrived, but strangers still ask him, “Where are you from?” Weary of being perceived as “the other,” he has devoted himself to challenging the stereotypes that keep Hispanics outside the American mainstream. Madrid is a teacher and president of the Tomas Rivera Center, where he focuses on issues and policies affecting the Latino community. 



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. We Americans like to think of our country as the great melting pot, where ethnic and racial differences dissolve in a warm mixture of brotherly and sisterly love. But as we all know, the reality is rather different.

In the 1920s, the U.S. set up a quota system to specify the number of immigrants from each nation we’d accept; almost anyone from Northern Europe could come, only a handful from Russia, Poland and Italy, and nobody at all from Japan. As for the Indian, who was here first, the descendants of slaves and the Hispanics of the Southwest, well, although their families have lived here longer than many whites, they remained outsiders in the Promised Land. My guest tonight has a suggestion for a more appropriate metaphor to replace the myth of the melting pot. Join me for a conversation with Arturo Madrid.

[voice-over] Arturo Madrid’s ancestors made a home on American soil before the Mayflower landing, but strangers still ask him, “And where are you from?” Tired of always being perceived as “the other,” he has devoted himself to challenging the stereotypes that keep Hispanics outside the mainstream of American life.

Born and raised in a small mountain village in New Mexico, he pursued a career in education. He’s taught and held administrative posts at Dartmouth, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Minnesota. Since 1985, Dr. Madrid has been president of the Tomas Rivera Center, affiliated with the Claremont Graduate School in California. The institute is one of the first in the United States to focus on issues and policies affecting the Latino community. That’s where we talked.

[interviewing] You said on another occasion that you’d spent most of your adult life trying to explain who you are not. In what sense?

ARTURO MADRID: Well, what happens is that people look at me, find out what my name is, and find out what my profession is -I was trained to be a professor of Spanish -and somehow I am no longer part of their mental set. That is, I am not part of an American reality that they know, and so surely I must be from somewhere else; Latin America, Spain, wherever.

So what I have to explain is that I’m American. And then I have to explain that my parents aren’t first generation, nor that my grandparents are first generation. I have to explain that, in fact, my ancestors have lived here for a long time. So in that sense I have to explain that I’m not somebody from some other country who’s emigrated to the United States. That’s what I mean by explaining who I am not.

BILL MOYERS: What did it say to you that so many people perceived of you, native-born American, as an outsider, as from somewhere else, an alien?

ARTURO MADRID: Well, it was problematical for me because that was not part of my experience. My parents were educated folks. My mother was both an appointed and elected public official in New Mexico where I came from. People who had names like mine and looked like me held professional appointments and political appointments and were part of the larger world.

So I did not suffer that experience that so many other people of Mexican origin, folks, or Latinos in general, experience in America, of being defined out. I knew I was part of the fabric of the society. I had come out of a community where we were part of that fabric. And so this defining out began to be a problem for me at that point. And so I struggled against it, and to try to understand where that was coming from. And how, really, my experience related to that of Mexicans and other Hispanics in the U.S.

BILL MOYERS: Defining out. That’s an interesting word. What did it mean to you?

ARTURO MADRID: Simply it meant that by virtue of the fact that my name was not Smith or Jones that somehow my presence had no validity in the American nation, in American institutional life. That somehow what I had experienced, what my family and the people around me had experienced was marginal to what took place in the larger society. That is, that we were not seen as part of the American nation, but somehow an accretion to the American nation, or some way of an addition that was not really valid. We were somehow not Americans, we were Mexican.

BILL MOYERS: When did you begin to feel that you were “the other?”

ARTURO MADRID: That was most acute for me; two places. One was school, where we had a sense of what that larger reality was, and the other one was church. Because there were two kinds of churches. There was the American church and there was the Spanish church. And we belonged to the Spanish church. And although in some of the communities where my parents lived there was no Spanish church and we went to the American church, still in all we knew that our rightful place was in the other church, not in the American church.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you know that?

ARTURO MADRID: Because there was nobody else like us in that church. And because it was something you felt very much, that somehow you were different.

BILL MOYERS: Did you feel you were not wanted in any other church?

ARTURO MADRID: Not so much not wanted as more tolerated than anything else. There was clearly a space for us, a space that my parents and my grandparents have made for us. But certainly it was not a comfortable space. That’s not to say that there weren’t young people and older people in that church that had not made us feel comfortable, but there were other people who clearly were not comfortable with us being there, and who projected that upon us.

BILL MOYERS: What does it make you feel to I’ve never been an outsider. I grew up in a Culture in East Texas where I belonged. What happens to you when you’re made to feel like you’re “the other”?

ARTURO MADRID: It makes you angry, certainly. But I would say that it does some other things as well. It makes you resentful of the experience of other people around you and the opportunities they have, which you begin to realize you can’t have. It certainly makes you determined, makes you work very hard.

But let me say that I think that there are many responses to being defined out. In some cases, people fight against being defined out. In some cases, people accept it. In many other cases people are not even aware of the fact that they’re being defined out, and function fairly normally without being conscious of the fact of being defined out. And they bump their heads once in a while, and they sit up and say, “What was that all about?” In my case, it just made me more determined.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that the perception of Hispanics is changing now that you are the dominant, becoming the dominant, minority in America? And already are the dominant minority in California, Arizona, Texas, places in the Southwest. Do you think-How do you think Hispanics are perceived now by the public at large?

ARTURO MADRID: Yes and no. It’s changed, to go back to your original question. But some of the mindsets that have historically obtained, continue to obtain today.


ARTURO MADRID: That is that this population really is not interested in things that Americans are interested in, namely good education, namely political participation, namely social economic wellbeing across lines. That we’re very much focused only on immediate family, that our allegiances have to do with the historical culture and with a nation that is outside the United States. And that somehow some of the old saws, some of the old myths are there, that we’re lazy, that we’re present-time oriented, that we’re fatalistic. All those myths that have defined us, maldefined us, misinterpreted, are still very much there under the surface.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you’re working against 200 years of experience.

ARTURO MADRID: That’s right, that’s right. But it then becomes more important for us to challenge some of that discourse that puts us down, that denigrates us, that dismisses us. Or the discourse that trivializes us, some of those mental sets, constantly.

BILL MOYERS: Studies show that Hispanic kids do not do as well in high school as others, and that their dropout rate is, what, 47 percent, almost 50 percent in some cases. And there is the stereotype, as you suggested, that the Hispanic community in general doesn’t expect very much from its kids, or expect their kids to get very much from education. Why is this so?

ARTURO MADRID: Well, I think that we have to look at the situation historically. But I think, most importantly, I think we have to look at what our research, our studies, show us. And what our studies show us is that Latino parents have very, very high aspirations for their children, with respect to the educational process and with respect to employment and economic well being. And that the children share those very high aspirations, that they want to do well in school, they want to get ahead in school, they want good jobs, they want to do well economically. But that their expectations, both parental expectations and the expectations of the children, are not very high. Somehow there’s a signal that is being sent by the larger society and by its institutions, and being received exceptionally well by the parents and by the children, that you’re not expected to do particularly well. And so that dual message is communicated by parents to children, that, yes, we’d like you to do very well, but we don’t expect you to do very well. For example, in the school area. Overwhelmingly Latino kids end up in schools that are very large.

BILL MOYERS: Very crowded.

ARTURO MADRID: Very crowded. That are not very attractive, the physical plant is not particularly attractive. Very soon they find out that the teachers are not very happy about being in those schools. And the materials that they have are not really adequate ones. And that sends a very powerful signal very soon to children.

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

ARTURO MADRID: That we really don’t value you. And we don’t expect you to do very well, and we’re not going to ask very much of you, because obviously you can’t do it very well.

BILL MOYERS: Because if were —

ARTURO MADRID: It gets internalized very quickly.

BILL MOYERS: If we value you, we’d be giving you better facilities, better books, better resources.

ARTURO MADRID: Let me give you an example of this. There are schools in this part of the country where the administrators have estimated that between day one and day X of the school year, there will be 40 percent attrition in the number of Latino school children who will be attending these schools.

BILL MOYERS: That many will drop out, 40 percent?

ARTURO MADRID: That many will drop out. And so kids show up for the rust day of school, there’s not enough school rooms, there are not enough teachers, there are not enough desks, there are not enough school books to go around. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy by day X, and they dropout.

BILL MOYERS: And the kids are smart enough to get this?


BILL MOYERS: And the kids perceive this?

ARTURO MADRID: Perceive it, figure it out very soon. You know you’re not wanted.

BILL MOYERS: But that’s — schools are something we can do something about.

ARTURO MADRID: That’s right. That’s right, absolutely. We can have smaller schools, better teacher-to-student ratios. We can have teachers that really expect that the kids can learn, and demand that they learn. We can make sure that they have all of the advantages that other kids in more, in better economic situations, they have. And you can make a difference very fast.

BILL MOYERS: Does the use of language within the home, of the Spanish language within the home, make it more difficult for these kids when they get to a school in a society where English is the language?

ARTURO MADRID: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if the language becomes a protective kind of environment, or the use of the language creates a protective environment and the child is not disposed to go out and take on the larger world, in that sense, yes, it becomes a problem. But, no, if the child learns that there are really two ways of being, two codes at work here. And that he or she can function equally well in both worlds. Let me tell you what is my normal experience in
this regard. Mainly because it is one of those issues that comes up regularly.

BILL MOYERS: Very big issue now. Bilingual education.

ARTURO MADRID: When people meet me, as I said earlier, when they find out what my name is, when they find out what I do, inevitably I get asked, “Dr. Madrid, what do you think about bilingual education?” And my response to that is, “Gee, I don’t think you’re interested in finding out what I think about bilingual education; I think you’re interested in telling me what you think about bilingual education. And I’m not interested in what you think about bilingual education, because that’s really not the issue.” “It’s not?” “No,” I say, “the real issue is literacy.” And I say, “And did you know there were approximately 25 million illiterates in the United States today? And that the overwhelming majority of those folks are monolingual English-speakers?”


ARTURO MADRID: The issue is not bilingual education. The issue is not Spanish dominant, or English dominant, or Chinese dominant. The issue is whether you are a literate person. And people who are literate in one language can become literate in another language very fast. The issue is do you communicate that literacy is important? Do you communicate that it’s important to learn how to learn on a constant basis? And do you communicate that using the language in a variety of ways is much more important than whether you are a monolingual English speaker.

If you use bilingual education in America’s schools, it’s mainly to move children from their home language to English. And there’s precious little reinforcement of the home language. There are some schools where that, in fact, does take place, and where, in fact it’s very effective. And that has to do with homes where children are beginning to be literate in the home language and are taught to be literate in English at school. But for the most part, most kids do not become literate in the language of the home, they become literate in English, if at all.

BILL MOYERS: There are Hispanics, like Richard Rodriguez, who oppose bilingual education because they say that English is the one public language in this country and that if kids are going to go out into that world, and do what Arturo Madrid did, they’ve got to function in that public language. It may not be desirable, but it’s necessary because that’s the way this country is set up, and there is only one language. What’s your response to that?

ARTURO MADRID: My response to that is that Richard Rodriguez is putting up a strawman. And using that strawman to flail a means of addressing the real issue, which is to make people literate, which is to empower people, which is to give them a public voice. Bilingual education is only a means to an end, it’s not an end in itself.

BILL MOYERS: And the end is?

ARTURO MADRID: And the end is literacy and empowerment and public participation. That is, participation in the larger life of the society. If I have a public voice, it’s not because simply I’m a literate person, but because I feel that it’s necessary and important for me to participate in the larger life of the society, and because I’ve found ways to get the larger society to listen to me.

I become stronger, I become more compelling, my voice becomes more compelling because I can draw on two different experiences, on two different traditions, on two different cultures, on two ways of knowing and being. If I were to be denied one or the other, I do not think my voice would be as strong, and I would not feel as empowered.

BILL MOYERS: No, but the public voice you have used to become the leader you are in this field is English, and you want all those other little Madrids coming along to do the same, don’t you?

ARTURO MADRID: Yes, but I can speak. to the two communities, and that’s my principal point. That if I need to, I can speak. to the two communities. And I’m sensitive to the tensions, to the dynamics that obtain in those cases.
Yes, my public voice is an English voice, and I want everybody to speak English. That is not the issue. But English alone is not enough. Literacy is important, empowerment is important. That is, a sense of participating in the larger life of the society. And I keep using that phrase over and over again. But I mean feeling that your vote means a difference, feeling that you have the same protections, legal protections, that everybody else does. Feeling that you have similar economic opportunities, feeling that you can go into a space in America and be treated appropriately. That is as important as speaking English. Speaking English in and by itself only is a rust step. And I will not back away from the importance of English, but I will not back away also from the larger feeling of empowerment that is necessary for people to be able to get a public voice.

BILL MOYERS: Since 1965, 70 percent of all the immigrants coming to this country have come from Latin America, south of the border, from Asia, from the Caribbean, 78 percent of all the new arrivals have come from these three areas. What do you think this says about our future?

ARTURO MADRID: Well, first of all, what it says about our present is that we have to start dealing with our population in a very different way than we have historically. That is, we can’t write off the human resources anymore. We have to take advantage of the human resources that we have. Namely, you can’t just put 20 percent of the population on welfare. You can’t put another 30 percent of the population on unemployment. Every person matters. To the extent that we turn our backs on the new immigrants and on the populations that have been here for a long time but who have never participated fully, to the extent that we do that, we mortgage our future. We assure ourselves that we will not be able to compete either economically or politically or socially with the rest of the world.

BILL MOYERS: Does this mean that there’s a melting pot in our future finally? Or are we going to remain this boiling cauldron in which all of these factions are indissoluble? Or to change the metaphor, like a great quilt of many patches?

ARTURO MADRID: I like the quilt of many patches. But I think there is also going to be a cauldron. And it is not in our interest for it to be a cauldron. We need to work together, we need to start respecting differences. We need to recognize first of all that diversity and change are our future. Demographic diversity particularly. We’re going to have many more different kinds of people living next to us, going to school with us, working with us. We’re going to see them on the pages of our books and our magazines, and on TV and in the movies. We need to learn how to deal with that diversity, respect diversity.

And we need to understand that the only constant we have today is change, that everything is changing, our economic structures are changing, our social structures are changing, our technology is making changes. We need to understand those two things. And if we understand those two things and begin to deal with them, we won’t have that cauldron boiling. Maybe we can get it down to the simmer. If we really work at it, maybe we can change that metaphor and not talk about, about the cauldron or a pot. maybe we can talk about a salad bowl, where there are many different ingredients. And they come together, even though there’s radishes and tomatoes and onions in there. But still and all they come together and form a whole, a salad.

BILL MOYERS: The myth is that we have been accepting of immigrants, that we have welcomed them and protected them, that we tolerate diversity and pluralism. But the reality has not been that benign, has it?

ARTURO MADRID: It has not. And particularly not so for the Latino population. They’ve been denied many of the protections of American society. They’ve enjoyed some of the advantages and some of the benefits, but been denied some of the protections. Some of those protections that have been denied are legal protection. Some of the advantages that have been denied — and they’re not so much advantages as rights — are good education, access to good housing, for example, to good medical care. Those things are terribly important If you are not well rooted in the society, if you always feel that your roots are very, very thin, very superficial, then any storm will knock them out, any storm will make it very difficult for the plant to grow. And this is what’s happened time and time again to the Mexican-origin community.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a term in Spanish for that, is there not? Artera de flora?

ARTURO MADRID: Yes, oflora de tiera. That is, a flower that has very shallow roots, spare plant, a spare plant whose roots do not go deep. In the desert we live — we’re desert people — and in the desert, that’s part of what happens. We have very spare plants, very thin sometimes, and those plants don’t last We have to figure out ways of sending deeper roots into the soil and making it possible for people to function well in this society.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there’s a story that illustrates the possibility of that It’s about your grandmother. Do you know the story I’m talking about?


BILL MOYERS: Tell me that story.

ARTURO MADRID: Well, my grandmother at the beginning of the 20th-century and her family decided they were going to leave their small mountain village in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northern New Mexico and move down to the valley, the Rio Grande Valley. It’s not your valley, it’s not the lower Rio Grande Valley, it’s the Upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. It’s a more temperate climate, there is better land there, and they had a sense that the future would be better.

My grandmother, being a very religious person, went to her pastor to ask his blessing that she decided she’d move her family to the valley. And the pastor said, “Well, of course, but I want you to promise something to me before you leave then.” And she said, “What is that?” And he said, “I want you to promise me that you’re going to go to church when you get to the valley.” And she says, “Well, yes, of course I will, but why do you ask?” And he said, “Because in the valley there is not a Spanish church, there’s only an American church.” And she said, “Well, I don’t know what difference that would make. I speak English, write English, I read English. And I would be able to worship there without any problem.”

And he said, “No, you don’t understand. It’s not that you couldn’t worship there, it’s that they might not welcome you into the fellowship, and that’s why I want you to promise me that you’re going to go to church. And furthermore,” he said, “I want you to promise me that if they don’t let you in the front door, that you go in the back door. And if you can’t go in the back door, that you go in the side door. And if they don’t let you in the door, then you come in through the window. But you must go in and you must worship there.”

And that’s in a sense what has happened to many of us in American society, and in the life of American institutions. Some of us were able to come in through the front door with all our credentials. Most of us had to come in through the back doors, through side doors. And many, many, many came through windows. Now what happens then is that in many of those cases we ended up in the back rooms, we ended up in the side rooms, we ended up in the lobby and the niches of the churches. We really didn’t get to participate fully in the life of the society. Some have, most have not.

So our struggle is to continue to be accepted in that larger space of American institutions and to participate fully. And when that happens, I think we can begin to change some of the other things that happen in society.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From the Tomas Rivera Center in Claremont, California, this has been a conversation with Arturo Madrid. I’m Bill Moyers.

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