Saturday, March 17, 2007

Enanos in Our Midst

In the 1993 Argentinian film De eso no se habla (I Don’t Want to Talk About it), writer-director Maria Luisa Bemberg tells the story of Leonor, an uppity widow in the small town of San Juan de los Altares, who spends every waking hour trying to hide what’s on plain sight: That her daughter Charlotte is a dwarf. Leonor goes as far as, under the cover of night, to steal and destroy a neighbor’s front-yard figurines of elves and gnomes, and burn copies of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
With the townfolks’ acquiescence, and a handsome, full-size stranger who falls in love with the girl, the deception succeeds until the day the circus comes to town, and. . .well, go ahead and rent the video. You’ll enjoy it.
I was reminded of this wonderful film by the ongoing revolú about Herman Badillo’s assertion in his book, One Nation, One Standard, that, in so many words, Latino parents don’t care about education. Of course, that is a lie, as all generalizations are.
What is true is that many Latino parents, for various reasons, do not recognize the crucial role education plays in the future success of their children. What is true is that some public school systems fail to deliver the goods.
What is true is that popular culture does not promote love of learning in young people. What is true is that Latino students have the highest school dropout rate. What is true is that Latina adolescents have the highest teenage pregnancy and attempted suicide rates. What is true is that we don’t raise enough hell about it.
Yet, the Latino community has been up in arms for weeks, attacking the messenger and slashing and burning the decorative elves and Blanca Nieve y los siete enanitos. In our culture we do not look kindly on airing our dirty laundry in public.
Many Latino families do have, indeed, issues they do not want to talk about, no matter how minor or unimportant they may be. That is because, that other Latino thing: qué dirá la gente. What will people say.
Our “culture of discretion” is at odds with the current American “culture of confession,” in which people spill their guts about their problems on national television, or write books about their addictions or diseases or sexual abuse. We don’t want to talk about such things.
It’s a fact of life for ethnic and racial minorities to be on the defensive about our public image—of which we have no control.
We are burdened with collective guilt ascribed to us: one Latino does something bad, therefore all Latinos are bad. It’s exhausting to always having to be correcting people, explaining, pointing out that we’re not all criminals, or “illegals,” or ignorant. ¡Ay, ya!
On the other hand, we cannot deny that there are little people in our midst. That yes, they are different but not inferior, nor necessarily victims, that they may need help sitting on the stool at the bar, but that they have the right to sit there and have a drink like anyone else.
Like in the movie, the circus has come to town and we better have a serious discussion—and a plan of action—about the education of Latino kids before a whole generation leaves town.

Published in the New York Daily News/VIVA section
January 17, 2007