In 2007, the first time I taught an evening course in Literature of the Caribbean, I was surprised to see that not one literature or Spanish language major signed up. The class was full of math and science majors who needed an elective. It was even held in the science building. It occurred to me that I needed to make the curriculum as entertaining as possible, so I incorporated educational games, library scavenger hunts, and movie versions of the books we were studying into the lessons. I also took the class to a Dominican restaurant. The owner’s school-age son already had the presence of mind to notice that they were “non-Latino students learning about our food and way of life.”
Up until then, I was setting a good example for them. The time I invited members of the Latino Student Union to be guest speakers, I ended up learning a lesson of my own.
The vice-president of the LSU was a tall, vibrant blonde who proudly proclaimed her love for a Dominican boyfriend. Like me, she had become a Latina by affinity. The other two young women took questions about being bilingual and going to school in a different culture. To this day, I remember little of what they said because I was fixated on a caricature that I had unwittingly created.
The time came to demonstrate merengue, one of the typical dances of the Dominican Republic. Music and dance are often included as part of the curriculum of “modern languages” or “other cultures in English” classes. The burning question is how, and it is something I grossly misunderstood. The LSU vice-president and I told the students to choose a partner, and we were moving with reckless abandon to the music. . . while the two Latinas who had been born into the culture hung back. I could not help but wonder, why are they holding up the wall?
Toward the end of the semester, I attended a community luncheon known as the Reconocimiento (Recognition) Awards and learned that one of them was the Young Latina Leadership winner. Oops! Without saying a word, I had metaphorically put my foot in my mouth!
At least the twenty-year-old with the Dominican boyfriend had youthful enthusiasm as an excuse. I was double her age and should have known better, so where was mine? The stereotype about “having rhythm” ended up working in Langston Hughes’s favor when, as one of only two “Negro” students (as he put it), he was elected class poet. His peers were elementary school children, and apparently, the teacher bought into the idea. Only when Hughes was hired to be part of a song and dance troupe as an adult did he discover that his lack of “rhythm” was detrimental.
Intellectually, I know that Italian Americans do not go around dancing the “Tarantella” at the drop of a hat. During a discussion years later, another local leader reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit called “The Manuel Ortiz Show,” where host and guests always broke into merengue. Glasses on the bridge of her nose, she of the severe countenance asked me, “Do you really want to turn us into a caricature?”
At least Betty White, who was almost 90 years old, was intentionally trying to be funny in this clip that aired on Dominican television. She dances (or makes a brave attempt) toward the end: