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When Worlds Collide

PBS documentary examines the clash of Old World and New World cultures

Q. Did writing your book Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail inform your work on this documentary?

A. Sure. When I was traveling around doing research for that book, I was fascinated by the way migrants in small American towns were carving a new cultural space for themselves. This is indigenous America discovering the United States. There was something fresh and dynamic and a little scary at times, but the way they were trying on American pop culture, especially the kids, there was something fresh about it. That sense of contact echoed in my mind while doing this project.

Q. The documentary talks a lot about mestizo culture. Is there a new Hispanic culture being created in the United States? What are its distinguishing features?

A. Huge areas of the Southwest and heartland towns have received massive infusions of Latin American immigrants who have created immigrant enclaves. It’s tough to talk about a moment when the geographic dispersal of other immigrant groups was this big. The melting pot is a cherished American ideal, but when we talk about it, it doesn’t really translate to mestizo culture. I think it means difference becomes sameness, Middle American culture. There is plenty of evidence in places like L.A., long-standing Latino neighborhoods, that this culture isn’t melting away. Kids speak Spanglish, they understand the Spanish language but respond in English. Then you look at the food and the music; it’s still there. This culture, maybe because it’s just across the border, that probably has a lot to do with [why it hasn't been absorbed as much into the melting pot]. And that, being able to be a Mexican and an American, that’s closer to the definition of being mestizo where these differences are in constant contact.

Q. You also talk about how Spanish history has been left out of the textbooks. What should be included?

A. The history before 1492 is so important — the way the Spaniards looked at religious and racial differences back then. They had come out of 700 years of domination [by the Moors]; they were justifying themselves as superior to the Muslims and Jews, puffing up their chest. That attitude arrives in the Americas, fresh, at the very moment of contact. And you can’t underestimate the impact of that.

Q. Do you think the older and younger generations viewing this will have different perspectives on what is presented?

A. Older Latinos have a particular notion of mixed race history that is probably “old school.” The older generation, if you went to grade school in Latin America, the education you got was very big broad brushstrokes, big historical figures, Benito Juárez, and that was a wonderful part of our history  —  but it’s old-school history. The younger generation lives these historic issues in a much more dynamic way. A 20-year old Latino kid in L.A. will be speaking Spanglish, listening to bachata, hanging out with a multiethnic crew. That experience of culture and history is in some ways closer to the 16th century. You could say in many ways the 16th century was the birth of globalization; there was a dynamism, this stuff was new. Today, as a result of globalization, there’s a freshness about contact, and a dynamism you can see in popular culture.

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