|ALBEQUERQUE, New Mexico, May 4 - Suzanne Barbezat, editor of About Mexico, an online travel magazine describes the origins of the piņatas in Spain and the Spanish priests that brought its rituals to the Americas; "el nuevo mundo" or "new world."
It is thought that the Aztecs had a similar tradition to honor the birthday of the god Huitzilopochtli in mid-December. Most Mexican Americans are familiar with the piņata as it is used to celebrate birthdays and special holidays. It is usually made of a clay pot decorated with colorful paper mache.
Piņatas, which are now mass-produced, can be found at a variety of outlets including grocery stores throughout the southwest and wherever Mexicans live. I heard that they were even found as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. The piņata is filled with candies and other sweets before the celebration. Participants, mostly children, take turns being blind folded and given a stick to try to break the piņata so that its contents can be spilled resulting in a mad rush to gather the sweets.
When on Jefferson Avenue in Dallas recently, I was impressed with the number of piņatas that hung in front of shops and stores along the sidewalk. Jefferson Avenue resembles Elizabeth Street in Brownsville in that it is teeming with Mexicans of all varieties; documented, undocumented, native born on either side of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. Many of them appeared to be on their way as far from Texas as they can travel. It was the iconic piņata that drew my attention and it grounds the perspectives to be shared in this column.
It seems that the Mexican American community, in the southwestern United States and especially in Texas, has become the piņata of preference for those within the right wing bent of the political spectrum and of both mainstream and alternative media outlets. This community is comparable to the piņata as it is filled with convenient and negative issues and stereotypes and then hung on a rope to be whacked by anyone with a stick who also happens to be blindfolded and misinformed to the reality of whom Mexican Americas are and are not.
The two most recent examples, among a litany of such, are articles that were published by Texas Monthly a major regional and national publication and Time, a national magazine that covers both national and international events. The Rio Grande Guardian covered the particulars of these contributors to the fillings for the piņata. Generally, both Texas Monthly and Time portrayed south Texas as a violent prone and not too safe region for families or businesses. It was the focus of these publications that caused the Rio South Texas Economic Council, [RSTEC] to initiate a marketing campaign to counter negative perceptions that were presented about south Texas, a region that is comprised of a 90 percent Mexican American population. It seems that the emphasis of RSTEC's endeavor is to offset any negative impressions that will hurt the economic wherewithal of south Texas industries and the private sector. That is certainly its prerogative since that is its charge. There are, however, other opportunities to tell the story about south Texans and their contributions to the social, cultural and economic framework of this state and nation.
As my friend and colleague, Dr. Francisco Guajardo, sees it, it is about how our stories convey the essence of what we are. The Mexican Americans encompass a community that is an important element of the fabric of what it means to be citizens of a diverse America. Contrary to what Sarah Palin may think, we are Americans and we have been and are contributors to the development of this nation's verve. It is imperative for this community to tell its stories so that they are a complement to the agenda of the marketing campaign that RSTEC has initiated.
I suggest that there has to be a strategy to such a process with a nexus or point from which these stories are generated. At present there is no such locale or media outlet in Texas and certainly not in south Texas that is viewed as a serious source of news about this region, this state and this nation's Mexican American community. The Rio Grande Guardian could be such a source. However that would require a change of strategic focus and financial resources.
These are some action items to consider: 1.) Be selective in the messages that are to be conveyed and get good writers to develop those 2.) Do not be reactive but responsive in that one cannot participate in an enterprise whose agenda is grounded in a "shoot, ready, aim" orientation 3.) Use every media outlet for the conveyance of these messages; the conservative right wing may be receptive since the Koch brothers are funding efforts by the Tea Party to garner Hispanic votes to support conservative politicians 4.) Make sure that the messages are timely and realize that there is a brief shelf life to every story, so do not leave the topic out there beyond its expiration date and finally, 5.) Go out and get the best storytellers whose roots are in south Texas to convey how this region had a positive impact on their careers and lives as Tejanos.
Let's consider these outstanding individuals whose lives represent the essence of the Rio Grande Valley. The first of these is my friend Oscar Casares, a storyteller whose life is grounded in Brownsville. He is now on the faculty of College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin where he also serves as the director of the Creative Writing Program. Norma Cantu is another friend and storyteller of note who is also from Brownsville. She is a legal scholar who was educated at Harvard but whose roots, like Oscar's, began at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville. Norma was the Chief Legal Counsel for both the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund [MALDEF] in San Antonio and for the Department of Education's Civil Rights Division during the Clinton Administration. She now serves as the Chair of the Educational Administration Department at UT Austin and is a Professor Law and Public Policy at this institution.
Mercedes has a native son, Rolando Hinojosa Smith, who is a novelist, essayist, poet and the Ellen Clayton Garwood professor in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He was the first Chicano Hinojosa author to receive the prestigious Premio Case de las Americas for Klail City y sus alrededores (Klail City), part of the series. He also received the third and final Premio Quinto Sol Prize (1972), for his work Estampas del Valle y otras obras.
A final scholar and author of note is my colleague and friend, Dr. Cecilia Balli, a professor of anthropology at UT Austin and an honor graduate of Stanford and Rice University. She has written many stories about south Texas and Tejanos and is noted speaker and advocate for the role of Mejicanas in the media and in academia. She is also a native of Brownsville.
These hermanos y hermanas have had their successful careers north of south Texas but their formative years were spent in the Rio Grande Valley. I wish that I could align myself with this illustrious group as I did graduate from Edcouch-Elsa High School but my south Texas life was rather erratic. I consider myself a mule, figuratively, from the Texas Panhandle community of Muleshoe.
I would encourage RSTEC and other such entities to develop a plan to identify and create a cadre of storytellers who can affirm the good about south Texas. I have learned that in marketing that there is no better referral than an individual who is satisfied with his or her experience whether it was in the purchase of a product or with a social encounter. The literature and work of thee individuals is replete with a passion for the Rio Grande Valley. The storytellers will provide an equalizer to the other efforts to convey what is good and positive about this region and its predominately Mexican American population. To fail to do so may only leave the piņata wide open to more negative impressions, rumors and half-truths that impede the continued enfranchisement of a vibrant citizenry of this state.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D., is a Chicano activist, writer and researcher. He left UT-Pan American as a tenured professor of leadership and research in 2012. His research is directed at exploring quality of life issues that impact the Mexican American community, principally in Texas and the Southwest. He writes regularly for the Rio Grande Guardian.