By Sierra Williams
“Very friendly and open,” “dancing,” “lively,” and “warm,” are just a few of the words Margo Mindnich, a Communication Arts major at Marymount Manhattan College, used when asked to describe her first thoughts on Latin American culture.
Truthfully, these qualities are what most Americans think in response to a Latino reference: fast music, swinging hips, wife beater tank-tops, and baggy jeans. These are just a few of the stereotypes brought to mind as people think of Latin American culture, when there is much more than meets the eye.
After all, there is more to celebrate during Hispanic Heritage Month (which comes to a close October 15th) than siestas and quinceañeras. What about their history? Most Latin American countries celebrated their freedom from European rule in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In fact, those dances we are all so fond of – the salsa, the tango, the mambo, the cha cha – are products of slaves’ recreational dancing that evolved into iconic movements of an entire culture.
While these countries are now free from European oppression, poverty and illiteracy are still real problems south of the border. They boast some of the highest illiteracy and poverty rates across the board, but these are not Latin Americans’ only defining features. In fact, there are entire organizations dedicated to the spreading of Latin American culture and history.
One such organization is the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. They take great pride in promoting Latin American culture, specifically the organization’s literature department.
“AS is the premier forum dedicated to education, debate, and dialogue in the Americas,” stated José Negroni, Assistant to the Director of Literature at the Department of Literature at the Americas Society. “Its mission is to foster an understanding of the contemporary political, social, and economic issues confronting Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage of the Americas and the importance of the inter-American relationship.”
They truly are the front line for the spread of Latin American culture. In the past month, the AS-COA has held several events promoting Latin American literature, awareness of the culture’s history and politics, and art and music. They have featured Eugenio Chang-Rodríguez, a top figure when it comes to Latin American and Spanish political history, at a discussion panel of his book Pensamiento y acción en González Prada, Mariátegui y Haya de la Torre, an analytical piece on three of Latin America’s most prominent historical political essayists.
The AS-COA has even done a Q&A with Jorge Amado, a man who professionally translates Hispanic literature (mainly fiction novels) to English as a way to make these works more readily available to the United States people who generally, in Mr. Amado’s words, “like to read from their own backyard.”
There are other offices working hard to promote Latin American culture and banish the stereotypes that go along with this minority, but in truth, there are not that many prominent ones. The National Council of La Raza is a non-profit who is mainly working to improve Hispanic opportunities in the U.S., and the Latin American Cultural Center in Queens is solely for the use of Hispanic youths.
So while the outreach to expand Latin American culture is not as loud as it could be, stop and take a listen to the music, and you may just find yourself learning more than just a few steps to the tango.