Absence Makes the Heart Romanticize: Looking at the Idea of Memory in Latin-American Communities.

What do you think of when you when think of home? The sights, the smells, or the people most likely. Now imagine leaving your home to move to a place where life seems better, work is easy to find, money is easily made, and everything is better. Only to find out that things are not what they seemed. The memory has romanticized leading one astray from the truth.

Oscar Hijuelos addresses this idea of romanticizing the homeland in his short story Visitors, 1965. Hijuelos portrays Hector Santinios, son of two rural Cuban immigrants, living in New York who struggles with his own identity as a Cuban-American. He paints an idealized Cuba in his mind to escape the cracked walls of his family’s apartment; imagining a Cuba full of light and freedom. However, as his relatives arrive from Cuba, we see the Cuba they come from. Fleeing from Castro in power, only a few items in their bags and the seer excitement to see all the food in the kitchen shows they have endured hardships to reach the United States and they will not take it for granted [1].

Hijuelos is describing a fundamental issue in United States on immigration.

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Author Oscar Hijuelos place his own experience as a son of Cuba immigrates when writing about the alienation he faced.

For many, coming to the United States is necessary for survival and to have a better life. However, once they arrive, they are faced with racism, discrimination, and treated as second-class citizens. Even when they risked their lives to reach a better place, they find themselves barred from society until they contribute. This has been standard in the United States since its creation and it still plagues it today. It is hard not to idealize a better place when the tenement housing is full of cracks in the wall. The land of opportunity but only for those who shed their past for its own. Even if the standard of living is better, the idea of coming to the United States has become romanticized. As the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca states in his poem Immigrates in Our Own Land;

 

“We came here to get away from false promises,

from dictators in our neighborhoods,

who wore blue suits and broke our doors down

when they wanted, Arrested us when they felt like,

swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.

But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.”[2]

Memory is a living idea. It is constant changing and evolving as one goes through life. Hijuelos describes Hector as a young man who struggles with his identity as a Cuban-American. He does not speak Spanish well, nor does he feel Cuban yet hates how he is Americanized.[3] But he loves the notion of Cuba, the place where his family is from and where he visited when he was young. His memory focused on all the pleasant aspects of life in Cuba, the most profound was a drink made by his Aunt Lusia. He describes it “with deep chocolate and nut flavors and traces of orange and mango, the bitter with the sweet, the liquid went down his throat, so delicious”. However, when he asks her about it thinking it was Cuban chocolate, her response is laughing as she tells him it was just Hershey syrup. [4]

This issue with immigration surrounds many Latino-Americans. They feel deeply connected to their past but even if they have been in the United States for generations, their history or story is not told. They are expected to shed their past and embrace the history of United States as their own. But that is not their identity. One should not be told to forget their rich history to embrace one that has yet to accept them. No one should be told to forsake their identity in order to become a part of a culture.

In addition, reminiscing and dwelling on this romanticized past can be harmful as well. Constantly complaining on how life was before makes it hard to look forward. Hijuelos shows this by the success of Pedro and Alejo. Alejo has lived in the United States for two decades and is trapped by his idealized memory of the past to move forward. By comparison, Pedro is driven, works hard to find a job and is grateful about every opportunity that presents and is successful. Hijuelos clearly shows the harm of idealized memory and how that affects the psyche of many Latino-Americans. Even Aunt Lusia, who has struggled to get to the United States, ignored her situation and focused on the past rather than the present since the society has ignored her.

FNMAL_logo
There is a current movement to place a national museum on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

 

This is where museums must play a longer role in telling the story of Latino-American and all immigrants seen on the fringe of society. Instead of forcing them to shed their past, by telling their history and incorporating it into the larger narrative, their history is not lost and they become a part of a society that accepts their culture and past. Recently, there is a movement to place a national museum of the American Latino on the National Mall in Washington D.C. which will make strides in keeping the history in the light rather than tossed away.

References:

[1] Hijuelos, Oscar, “Visitors, 1965,” Face to Face: Readings on Confrontation and Accommodation in America, ed. Joseph Zaitchik, et al. (Houghton Mifflin Company), 235

[2] Baca, Jiimmy Santiago. “Immigrants in Our Own Land.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 30, 2016. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179708

[3] Hijuelos, p.233

[4] Hijuelos, p. 234

Photo Credit:

humb1.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/504736/181475888/stock-photo-waving-flag-of-cuba-and-usa-181475888.jpg

http://www.whatsoproudlywehail.org/visitors-19

http://americanlatinomuseum.org/images/FNMAL_logo.jp

15 thoughts on “Absence Makes the Heart Romanticize: Looking at the Idea of Memory in Latin-American Communities.

  1. I really liked the comparison you drew between Pedro and Alejo in Oscar Hijuelos’s story “Visitors, 1965.” I honestly hadn’t picked up on the idea of being trapped by memory in regard to the two men’s respective positions. I wondered about Pedro’s success, and whether he had come into the country at a time when society and the government were treating Cubans better. Your interpretation very much illuminated things for me–the potential for regret over a lost way of life to prevent happiness in a different place.

    1. I agree, Kate. It’s interesting to look back at the readings this week and think of them in a memory context. First person narratives are seeped in memory, and when using/dealing with these kinds of sources, museums need to keep this in mind and contextualize the memory.

      1. I really like that you pointed out the power and problem of romanticizing the past and how easy it can be to do so. I think museums sometimes fall into this trap of showing the past how we want to remember it and gloss over the struggle that many people faced in trying to be recognized as a person.

  2. I found your sentence, “However, once they arrive, they are faced with racism, discrimination, and treated as second-class citizens,” an incredibly powerful statement. This fear that immigrants and migrants from American territories, such as Puerto Rico, will “steal our jobs” confounds me. Millions of people from Latin America work jobs very few American citizens would ever think of taking for low wages and no benefits. What people neglect to consider is the reality that people are not leaving their homes to drain the American economy. Many are fleeing oppressive, or even homicidal, governments to live without fear. Museums should play a major role in bringing this truth to the masses who might believe differently.

    1. I, too, would like to see museums address this more. Not only is the idea of “stealing our jobs,” incorrect and offensive, it also reinforces ideas of us vs. the intangible and elusive them. The idea that those jobs are OURS (Whose? White americans’? American citizens’?) is incredibly harmful and downright wrong. For a country supposedly built on the “American dream,” this mode of thought says that dream is only for certain people.

      1. Christine, I too, was considering this harmful idea of “us” or “them” or “ours.” Who constitutes these groups? Why are some entitled to jobs, services, opportunities, etc. more than others? This seems to be an ongoing national conversation, which I believe, museums can play an important part in breaking down these harmful exclusionary labels to encompass a larger narrative.

    2. I also find in heartbreaking that a person would leave dire circumstances in the hopes of finding a safer place to live, only to be met with racism and discrimination. It seems clear to me that there is a misunderstanding about why immigrants and migrants would choose to come to this country. Rather than bringing a “truth to the masses,” though, I think that museums could instead play a role in facilitating a conversation between these two perspectives, hopefully making people question something that they think they understand.

    3. I agree. Now more than ever, museums need to engage and with their communities and the general public on these difficult issues in order to break down barriers and these hurtful stereotypes. We often talk about whether or not museums should take a stance on issues that they present, or if it is more politically correct to just present both sides of the argument. I think on topics that directly effect the livelihood of these individuals, museums need to take a stance in order to create safe spaces within the museums, remain relevant to their diverse communities, and help change these negative and hurtful beliefs.

  3. It’s interesting seeing both sides of the coin here. Immigrants come to the US expecting freedom and opportunity, and are faced with bigotry and police brutality. When confronted with the harsh reality, many lose their idealistic view of America and start to idealize their former homes instead. Nowhere welcomes them, so they imagine that elsewhere is better.

  4. Throughout the readings I keep going back to the musical number in West Side Story, “America.” In it the Puerto Rican women talk about all the better things they have living in America, like having a washing machine in the house, not being pummeled by hurricanes, while the men reminisce about Puerto Rico and sing about emigrating back to the island. Each side makes good points– is it better to face the hatred in the United States for the chance of a better life, or return to a country that is familiar and ignore all the reasons for leaving in the first place?

  5. I really like that you bring up the movement to create the Museum of the American Latino in Washington, DC. Like we’ve talked about before, creating museums like the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we can make an effort to include these narratives in the larger picture of the United States. Like others have said previously, this question of “us”, “them”, and “ours” is such a complicated issue, and I think we should make it more of a standard to value a broader range of experiences, not just the white American.

  6. I really like how you get the reader hooked in the beginning by having hem experience the sensation of being an immigrant. You bring up some really important aspects of memory and the inner turmoil that most immigrants face on a daily basis. Museums have a chance to tell immigrant stories, especially today when there is a lot of xenophobia. Integrating immigrants into a society is a complicated issue, but perhaps opening the conversation in museums can lead to greater acceptance and a better possibility of looking toward a better solution.

  7. Josh, I really enjoyed your evocation of the significance and pull of “home” and the complex place this assumes for migrants and immigrants alike. But the most interesting part of your piece for me was your observation on the paradox that those coming to this country for a better life find themselves “barred from society until they contribute,” and then are never given the opportunity to contribute or continually find themselves boxed into a perception that what they do does not contribute, does not mean anything. It is a tragic paradox used to draw lines, boundaries, and divisions in and outside the mainstream, and I think it important that attention be given to understanding these distinctions and the inherent “worth” that is used to describe, as Christine mentioned, the variety of “our” experiences and labors, not “theirs” alone. And as my newsfeed streams by me, I can only attest to imperative significance of this discussion.

  8. I loved this reading and I think your blog unpacks it for the reader. Growing up near New York City, I have always been surrounded by many Latino immigrants and other people of Latino heritage. Most of my brother’s best friends are immigrants or first generation Americans. While I’ve spent a significant amount of time with these people, I have never been given this perspective on what their experience might be like. It is so important to have even a cursory understanding of the people in your community who come from different backgrounds and deal with problems that you might have never even considered. The battle for identity, the complicated relationships between family members making their way in a new country, the romanticizing of your heritage and home country… these are things that I’ve never had to even think about, but that people I know personally probably deal with every day.

  9. The part of the reading when Hector learns about his Cuban chocolate actually being Hershey syrup was so heartbreaking. It really shows how he misses and idealizes the Cuban lifestyle and his home. The entire feeling of not having a home or not belonging must be dreadful.

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