There’s a Hispanic Living in My House

Posted on May 17, 2022


Years ago, when growing up in Lima, Peru I knew more or less that I was a little gringuito. That’s gringo in the diminutive or little gringo. If you still don’t know what a “gringo” is, that’s what we Americans are called in Latin America.

It’s a common term in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world of Latin America. One legend of its origins is that during the Mexican-American War of 1848 the Mexicans overheard American soldiers marching through Texas, California and Mexico singing a favorite song of the times, Green Grow the Lilacs. “Green grow” sounded like “gringo” to Spanish-speakers. Ergo, gringos.

There were a few other gringuitos (little gringos) in my neighborhood of San Isidro in the Lima suburb of Miraflores, among them Andy Hedreen. Andy’s parents were from Washington State and his dad was one of the pioneers of the modern fishing industry of Peru that catapulted them into a world producer by mid-twentieth century.

I left Peru when I was nine with my parents when my dad, working for W. R. Grace & Co., was transferred to the New York office. I lived in Plainfield, New Jersey until seventeen when I went off to college in Durham, North Carolina.

I never thought of myself as anything but a gringo, even born in the USA just like Bruce Springsteen (need a few bars from the song if this were a video). That my mother was born in Chile I didn’t think of as odd or unusual, nor that we spoke Spanish often, at home especially, but generally not in mixed company. It simply would not have been polite. And besides my mom, Maria Rosa or “Marocha” was her nickname, spoke excellent English, although certainly accented. I never noticed the accent until much later in my life when a friend mentioned it in passing.

Then the census of 2010 I think defined Hispanic for the first time as a category to check when filling out the form. I don’t remember checking “Hispanic,” since Hispanics or Latinos were to my mind largely Mexican immigrants, or sons and daughters, of Mexicans, with some Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans thrown in the spice the mix. Most were mestizos of mixed indigenous, Black, and Spanish heritage.

There were lots of Cuban-Americans here too, especially of course those who fled Fidel Castro’s communist regime that came to power in the early 1960s. They were, to my mind, “Cuban-Americans” not Hispanics. But they were as much Hispanics as the Mexicans of course, and any other immigrant from Latin America, like from Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, etc. on down the South American continent. But the Cubans were escaping a communist dictatorship which had a different, harder political tone to it than a plain old dictator like Anastasio Somoza or Juan Peron of Nicaragua and Argentina, respectively.

“Strong men” as rulers in Latin America were not unusual. Communist ones on the other hand carried an anti-American sting to their politics. The newest ones escaping a communist regime are running away from Venezuela and I think the last statistic I read was about five or six million have fled.

Sometime early this century companies and institutions began counting their Hispanics when reporting data of who they employed or worked for them. It was the thing to do, and, besides, government agencies, especially but not always under the Democrats, tended to favor the trilogy of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as the formula for distributing government funds, in everything from education to unemployment compensation.

Even hiring practices were changing. Traditional measures or qualities of applicants were being abandoned. In my field of history for example, in the hiring process we normally examined publications and their quality, teaching evaluations, and service to the field. Now we were being sensitized to include more women and minorities in our hires often regardless of their professional credentials. It was a new world of equity rather than excellence.

So, before I retired, I informed the Department of History that we now had a Hispanic on the faculty. They kind of looked at me strangely, “what’s Larry talking about?”

Me, I informed them. Actually, we had two before a dear colleague of mine, Helen Delpar, retired. Her mother I was Colombian and her father a Greek. Wow! A double!

When we hired Helen in 1974 or 1975 the hiring committee of Ed Moseley and me could have cared less if Helen was a Laotian biped. She had published a widely circulated reader in the field of Latin American history, had written her Ph.D. with one of the most distinguished professors of Latin American history, Lewis Hanke, at Columbia and was charming to boot. We were lucky to get her.

I don’t think my colleagues ever really bought into my newly discovered Hispanic past. Larry was just messing with the data to make us look better.

And they were largely right. My Mexican gardener Gustavo is a lot more Hispanic than me, 100% veracruzano (from the province of Veracruz) and one of the hardest workers I know, with a wide knowledge of many things which I can depend upon. We need more Gustavos since Americans seem unwilling to enter the work force these days, preferring government checks. That subject for another day.

For now, adiós amigos. ¡Hasta el próximo encuentro en el periódico!

Published as “There’s a Hispanic in my house,” Sunday May 14, 2022 in The Tuscaloosa News.