By Rodolfo F. Acuña
I approach the topic of culture with trepidation. Better minds than mine have written about it; it is also a hot button issue in the Mexican American community.
As important as culture is, there is a huge misunderstanding of role that culture plays, and some of us use culture as an excuse for our excesses.
In the early days of the Chicano Movement, students would tell me that marihuana was part of Chicano culture as if that made it acceptable. The same reasoning was applied to other “mind enhancing” drugs no matter that marihuana was not indigenous, its origins were in China and India, and later transported to Europe by Arab merchants, after which it was brought to the New World.
No matter that even the use of other psychoactive drugs were closely controlled by the ancients. Intoxication was permitted only for the ancient, people such as me. The distilling of alcoholic beverages was a European thing, and there was a difference between pulque and mescal, for example.
My anthropologist friends tell me that man invented culture, but that culture now controls man, which, if so, means that culture is not immutable; we can change it. Indeed, just looking back on my life, I can see culture has changed for the good, the bad and the ugly.
Cultural change is good when it has a purpose. When I was a child I remember my mother, grandmother and aunts making tamales. They prepared the masa dipping into a huge tin can full of pork lard.
Today canola and/or corn oil has been substituted for the lard even though connoisseurs tell me that the tamales don’t taste the same. My wife, however, is a health nut and won’t even use corn oil because of the potential for GMO contamination.
Culture, for me, is something that I enjoy, but believe that it is often glorified. For example, we live in a modern society and education is essential to the quality of our lives. I once got into hot water with culturists when I suggested that I would trade bilingual education for a guarantee that all Latino students could read and write at the 12th grade level.
Of course, the guarantee would have to include penalties such as those in charge of education would be held accountable, and if they failed they would have to make a public television apology and serve jail sentences. If they didn’t they would be like the Wall Street bankers and continue to profit from their malfeasance.
This sounds idiotic, but imagine the changes that would be made. The child’s parents would have to have a good paying job and housing would have to be improved. The culture of the community would have to change. It seems more reasonable than teaching children to pass a test and still be left behind.
Despite this I like my culture.
When I was a child I liked how my parents interacted with friends. I liked eating at a table that was full of people. During the depression, no one in our circle starved because there was always a fresh pot of boiled beans and day old bread that could be dunked into the broth.
I noticed that as I got older even my taste in colors changed. As I got more assimilated, all the colors in my home had to be off-white. It was more practical. Gone were the days when every house in the neighborhood and every room in the house was painted a different color, the brighter the better.
Colors were a very important part of our culture. My mother, my sister and cousins all wore bright dresses adorned with flowers. The only flower that was not represented was the geraniums – they were outside in Hills Brothers coffee cans. We were environmentalists before the word became chic.
There were other things in the culture that when I look back at them were not so equal. My male cousins would not be caught dead washing dishes. I was saved because my mother was legally blind and so I did chores such as the dishes and scrubbed the kitchen floor.
Also, as I think back, the only ones that I ever saw drunk were males. A good wedding was a failure if it did not have at least one good fight. Boorish behavior was generally a male thing.
This was not because there were genetic differences between males and females but because of the mores established by men. A woman that drank was a puta (whore) but you were only a puto if you were homosexual which was being like a woman. This is part of the ugly in all cultures.
Culture can and should change in these circumstances. Fewer people smoke today, and we eat tamales with the masa made with canola oil.
But it is hard for some people to let go.
For example, to some being a Mexican is ripping off a jalapeño and eating menudo. Some even carry it to the extreme and say the menudo is not menudo unless it is full of red chile. I was also saved from this, my maternal family is Sonoran, and we ate white menudo.
Bad habits take a long time to die. I was watching a concert by the late Jenni Rivera. I was surprised by the audience — mostly women, young and old. They were doing something that I have always enjoyed watching Mexican audiences do, they sang along, made gestures, and they actually knew the words of the songs. Americans have to put the words on the screen.
However, what turned me off was that many had a glass of alcohol or a bironga in their hands. It was not that women were doing it that turned me off, but that drinking has become synonymous with Mexican culture. Mexican songs have become like fraternity drink songs.
Does “Volver Volver” really sound better with a beer in your hand? Shouldn’t this habit go the way of larded tamales?
Songs do a lot to form culture. I love the song “Hijo del Pueblo” as sung by Jorge Negrete, but do I have to act out the part of a macho and strut around?
I love boxing, and loved to watch Enrique Bolaños, but did you ever see what alcohol did to him and other boxers and their families?
We live in a highly urbanized country, and poor people are controlled by various forms of addiction, i.e., the media, pop culture, alcohol and drugs. These addictions are barriers to our changing the gun culture of American society that wants to behave as if John Wayne was still calling the shots.
We live in a society that makes drastic cuts in education and services to the poor while allowing corporate bandits to accumulate almost 50 percent of the nation’s wealth.
It has become political to eat tamales without pork lard. The last time I looked at studies, lard contributes to obesity, clogs the arteries and in the year 2010, 13.2 percent of Latinos were diagnosed with diabetes – it was higher among Mexican Americans.
Alcohol takes its toll. I had a close friend who died a couple of years ago. I told him that I would never see him again. The last time I saw him was after a rosary. We went out to eat and he ordered an hochata and a beer. I told him that he might as well put a gun to his head, and I would not bear witness to his suicide, it would hurt me too much.
Alcohol has disrupted my own family. Uncles and cousins have died as result of alcohol. They neglected their children and their wives.
Trade unions learned early that management used alcohol to infiltrate them, take out their leaders, and break their strikes.
But how do we change culture?
In my lifetime, I have gone from a pack a day of cigarettes to none. From a fifth of Jim Beam to no alcohol, and cut down drastically on animal products. In other words, I have become more political.
You don’t change culture pointing fingers or bringing in experts to bear witness. Change is brought about by choosing — and forcing people to choose what they value most.
Dr. Rodolfo Francisco Acuña, called the “father of Chicano Studies,” is a historian, professor emeritus, activist and the author of 20 titles, 32 academic articles and chapters in books, 155 book reviews and 188 opinion pieces. Currently, he teaches Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge.