Exploring Opportunities and Finding Identities

Cholo PowerThis post was submitted by Dr. Carlos Alemán, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, and James Madison University Professor in Residence at Thomas Harrison Middle School.

I recently traveled with my partner to Peru to present our research at the VIII Communication Conference of Americas in Lima, and to explore potential partnerships with the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola for a study abroad program in Cuzco. The plan is to offer two courses for participating undergraduates of James Madison University: Intercultural Communication, and Communication and Tourism. Of course, we had to tour Macchu Pichu and sites of the Sacred Valley.

As an American visiting Peru for the first time, my experience in that country was unexpectedly familiar. True, the number of Kentucky Fried Chicken chain restaurants and omnipresent Coca-Cola products was a bit disconcerting, evidence of global marketing and cultural exportation.  But the friendliness of the Peruvian people, the chatter of an accommodating Spanish language, and the near identical weather conditions as in the United Stated helped to make the dramatic contrast in terrain, tradition and trade conditions easy to adapt to. By the end of the visit, I literally began to dream in Spanish.

After hiking the ruins of Ollantaytambo, Melissa and I toured the vendors at the town market square.  There we saw the typical tourist fare: warm caps made from the fleece of baby alpaca, beautifully embroidered head bands, and a variety of knit pants worn by some cholo youth. Growing up Mexican-American in California, the term cholo was used as a derogatory reference to the weed smoking, hairnet wearing, gang banging imaginary pachuco of the dominant mass media. However, I learned of its appropriation among Peruvuian mestizo as a referent to one’s self as being without complex to the colonializing image of Caucasian European, which was all the more reason to buy a pair of the pants. Luis Morales sings,“Cholo soy, y no me compadezcas.”

Melissa and I entered a shop occupied by two women and a young girl doing her homework.  As the girl completed her writing assignment, the elder woman, perhaps 25 years old, read the sentences aloud, offering praise for ideas expressed and guidance for grammar. With her work completed, the young girl went outside to play, leaving the women to continue a discussion that began before we arrived.  The elder contrasted the good manners of the girl to that of boys in the community. The younger woman retorted, asserting that it was better that the children be educated in writing than good manners.  The two argued courteously as we sifted through the handmade bamboo flutes in search of an authentic Peruvian artifact at a bargain price.  “Cúanto?” I asked.  “Cinco soles,” the younger woman replied.  I gave her the money and she artfully wrapped the $2 flute in a sales bag handcrafted from newspapers.  As she handed me the bag, she said, “We were just fighting.”  I smiled.  Their disagreement was all too familiar.

In many Latino families, bien educado or “well educated” refers to how well a person is raised, and is a characterization of learned manners for acting toward others, particularly family. Ironically, the pursuit of learning in institutions of higher education often requires developing an independence from, if not critical reflection of, the constraining common sense produced by the shared beliefs and values of one’s family and community.  Consequently, the situation of higher education is sometimes presented as a sort of identity dilemma for Latin@s, as a choice between self-identification and self-development.

One challenge to supporting the successful pursuit of a college education then is how to help students learn to see identification as a continual process of development, rather than as a choice of development at the expense of family identity.

Check out our Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ShenandoahValleyScholarsLatinoInitiative !

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