As part of the semi-idyllic period that is the sabbatical between Christmas and New Year’s I read a clever book by Mexican writer Jorge Volpi entitled “El Insomnio de BolÃvar,” which loosely translates to “BolÃvar’s Insomnia.” In this tome Volpi explores whether the concept of Latin America exists or is an exotic construct crafted by foreigners. The author doesn’t seem so convinced about Latin America, at least as most of the world sees it in the form of a quaint form magical realism, balmy banana republics or a whole other slew of extreme stereotypes.
According to a somewhat caustic Volpi Latin Americans aren’t that much different from the rest of modern societies, don’t have a lot in common with other Latin countries, don’t interact all that much with each other, and tend to look somewhere else for inspiration. And that somewhere else for many, especially writers and artists, is increasingly the United States. Ironically it is when confronted with the U.S. and its somewhat simplistic take on the region that a true pan-regional Latin identity surfaces. This makes Latin Americans soul brothers and sisters with Canadians who also deepen their sense of pride when comparing notes with their American neighbor.
And while the book scores some good points by studying the erstwhile notion of cultural identity in a digitally connected global village where broken English is the most spoken language, my epiphany after the read was slightly different. This book clarified that the true modern day Latin Americans that BolÃvar had in mind are U.S. Latinos.
Yes, this smorgasbord group of forty million representing close to over 20 nations, different levels of Spanish, and with a shared migration from Latin America and its troubles, represents the future of Latin America in a global setting. This presents interesting opportunities for Latinos in the United States to play a stronger role in shaping a global Latin economy and culture.
But you might ask aren’t U.S. Latinos, first and foremost Americans. Yes, we are. But the beauty about this double life of sorts is that by living in both cultures we accurately embody the full range of the term Latin American. Additionally, unlike the traditional view of Latin American that began only south of the Rio Grande, U.S. Latinos incorporate the most populous country in the hemisphere. We also have what individual Latin American countries lack, a shared experience where individuals from different countries interact to build varying degrees of group identity, increasing to its crest in the case of second and third generation Hispanics who begin to truly call themselves “Latinos.”
Don’t get me wrong. This is by no means belittling Latin American countries, their rich heritage and potential for the future, especially with countries like Mexico and Brazil who are in the same category of India, Russia and China as emerging global powers. It’s more of reminder that as the world becomes more hegemonic in terms of cultural and political influence, U.S. Latinos have a strong opportunity to help shape and benefit from a stronger global Latin culture and economy. This is not anything new, Indians living in the U.S. have and continue to play a strong role in investing in the Indian economy, especially in the information sciences arena, and linking new opportunities to the U.S. and other economies.
So what does this all mean. It means that we should take a broader look at what being U.S. Latino is all about and leveraging our Latin American cultural background as an additional competitive advantage in a more global business and creative economy. It means a continuation of our bilingual, ideally tri-lingual (importance of Portuguese as Brazil expands), tradition. It also means knowing that a stronger Latin America creates many opportunities for us in areas such as import-export, business, cultural exchanges, and more. This is especially the case in the booming creative economy where Latin American and Latino talent and their prowess for storytelling and innovation have so much to offer.
At the end, a global Latin culture presents immense opportunities and U.S. Latinos have a unique vantage point to do this as they already live that experiment. It seems after all that BolÃvar’s dream might have been real all along, but seems to be instead thriving in East Los Angeles, San Antonio, Nueva York, Miami and other places.
By Roberto Ramos
President & CEO, The Vox Collective