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Latin America in the world today

By Ilan Stavans

The Hispanic world is in the news lately, and the news is mostly good. Latinos in the United States are a growing political force, and developments in Latin America are at the forefront of world affairs.

To start with, Latinos, the largest minority in the United States (approximately 57 million strong and slated to double by 2030), are acknowledged to be the deciding factor in Barack Obama’s re-election. After years of political stagnation, a record number of Hispanics cast ballots for president this year, finally assuming the political power long promised to them. It is fair to say that after the 2012 presidential election, the United States is no longer the same in large part because Latinos have taken their place as a mainstream force in American politics and society.

The issue of immigration, which made diverse factions within the Hispanic community coalesce into a united front, is at the forefront of President Obama’s domestic policies. It is likely that he will soon bring to the table the status of millions of undocumented young people who were brought here by their parents or other guardians and who have contributed to the nation’s wellbeing through steady work and study. Republicans in Washington, whose conservative views on immigration lost them credence among Latinos, are beginning to re-think their position. Even conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity has recently announced that he has “evolved” on immigration, and now supports a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants without criminal records. This is a welcome transformation. In a country with a two-party system, a weak Republican Party threatens us all by leaving us with a one-sided view.

Those who are young and undocumented and seeking legal status are called Dreamers because of the way they were defined by the failed DREAM Act. I like the appellation. America may have the largest economy in the planet. Its military strength might be feared. But the American Dream is still what the country is about, and Latinos, especially those under thirty, are committed dreamers. The face of America will be different when their status is turned around, and when immigration is addressed in a responsible way by placing the right patrolling resources on the US-Mexican border: we need a more humane border security system that stops illegal crossings, together with an efficient method of granting visas to temporary workers.

Meanwhile, the world’s attention is focused on Latin America. The Mexican economy has been growing in the past few years, in spite of the fact that narco-traffic, and the government’s war against it, has caused more than 60,000 deaths. The country’s new leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, has promised to change gears, de-emphasizing the role of the military in an effort to reduce casualties. But trust in national politicians has always run low among the population; the running joke is that the biggest calamity to befall Mexico isn’t the drug cartels but the political cartels that traffic in people’s trust. One need only look at Ciudad Juárez, the epicenter of the tragedy affecting Mexico, to see the cause of that mistrust.

Ciudad Juárez at dusk looking west toward Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Photo by Daniel Schwen, 2004. Creative Commons License.

In Brazil, economic stability has proven to be so durable that financial specialists are calling it a miracle. To a large extent, this economic miracle is the work of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former union leader who served as the nation’s president until the end of 2010. Poverty has been dramatically reduced the middle class has grown, and Brazilian exports are reshaping the hemisphere. Ironically, it was a leader once arrested for his labor-organizing activities who turned things around.

Another benchmark in the history of commanding left-leaning governments that came to power in Latin America in the nineties was the regime of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s caudillo, who passed away on 3 March 2013. Not since Evita Perón and Ernesto “Ché” Guevara has there been such outpouring of emotion at the death of a political leader. In spite—or perhaps because of—of all his failings, Chávez metamorphosed himself into an icon the likes of which Latin America hasn’t seen for decades. His life-long connection to Simón Bolívar, known as El Libertador, who in the early half of the nineteenth century fought to create a unified, independent South America free of foreign intervention, makes him a hero whose legacy will be debated for generations. Postcards, watches, and coffee mugs with Chávez’s effigy are already sold to tourists not only in Caracas but also in countless places from Mexico to Cuba, from Bolivia to Argentina.

Argentina, known as a factory of trendsetters in the region (think of Jorge Luis Borges), has recently offered a new type of trailblazer: a Pope. Who would have thought that the first non-European leader of the Catholic Church to be elected would be from the place known as “el sótano del mundo” (the world’s basement)? Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, a Jesuit known now as Pope Francis (after Francis of Assisi), has already made a profound impression by making the role less pompous, more down-to-earth. He identifies with the poor, not with the ecclesiastically powerful.

And he is described as a conciliator, a quality that should come in handy as the bankrupted hierarchy of the Vatican tries to clean up its act after decades of accusations of child molestation. Pope Francis’ humility is particularly striking when one considers that Argentines have a reputation in Latin America as manufacturers of pomposity and self-aggrandizement. Maybe that’s why his first few weeks in office have been as surprising as they are refreshing in the Spanish-speaking world.

All this to say that Latin America is where things are happening. And the Latino population of the United States is as much a part of Latin America as it is of the country where Dreamers will soon be spelled without a capital D. For that reason, it seems to me that talking about North and South is no longer pertinent. Now it is just el mundo hispánico.

Ilan Stavans, Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies, is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. A native from Mexico, he received his Doctorate in Latin American Literature from Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books, including On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (Penguin) and Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (Harper). He is general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. His work, adapted into stage and film, has been translated into a dozen languages. His children’s book Golemito (NewSouth) will be out in May. And Pablo Neruda: All the Odes (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which he edited, is scheduled for October.

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