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When Worlds Collide

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

Rubén Martínez says even though When Worlds Collide, the PBS documentary he co-wrote and hosted, is primarily about the first 100 years of Spanish colonialism in the Americas, it is startlingly relevant because of the current debate over immigration. “Immigration might seem slightly afield from the themes of the documentary,” he says, “but what we’re talking about is the long road that the immigrants in the United States today have been on over the last several centuries in terms of their cultural and political heritage.”

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Martínez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, travels all over the Spanish-speaking world to illustrate how the collision changed everything: from food to monetary issues, from religion to the creation of the mestizo race. Despite the widespread impact, the story begins and ends literally at home.

Q. When Worlds Collide opens and closes with you pushing your twin daughters in a stroller through a Los Angeles park. Why?

A. We decided to begin and end in L.A. because everything we are talking about has a literal presence or symbolic echo on the streets of L.A. and other cities. In the southwestern United States, we have a long history of contact here between Americans and Latin Americans, and that has not become a part of our national conversation. That story is barely beginning to become part of the national story. The discussion of Latin American history is talking about deep American history; the Spanish Empire was here before the British Empire.

Q. What are the best and worst things that the Spanish colonists did in the New World?

A. The greatness of Latin American music today obviously wouldn’t have happened without the guitar coming over. They were called lutes then. This whole new cultural expression resulted, even though at the same time there was all this death and disease, all this untold suffering. The worst? “La Quemada,” the burning of all the indigenous cities, the physical destruction of a culture and history. The scale with which the Spanish did that was astonishingly brutal.

Q. What was the most important concept or artifact that the Old World gave the New? That the New World gave the Old?

A. From the Old World to the New, the Church. It was an omnipresent institution in Spanish life at that time. [The Spanish] imposed this other order [on] the old indigenous culture, which was pantheistic. There were so many Catholic saints, the indigenous could pick and choose among them. What was a brutal imposition on one hand, of a foreign religion, [the indigenous] could make their own.

From the New World to the Old, the great literature that Latin America gave back to Europe and the world after the conquest. The Spanish we speak is not the Spanish of Spain. We gave them back their language, filled with new words, rhythms and meanings. There was a linguistic revolution that happened after the conquest. Latin America took in the great Spanish romantic tradition, and we gave back to Spain some fantastic poetry and literature, and that continues into today.
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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