Cinco de Mayo: A Celebration of Mexican Heritage


Cultural backgrounds of Hispanic Americans


According to the 2000 U.S. census, the number of Hispanics living in the United States totals more than 35 million. Hispanic Americans represent nearly 13 percent of the total U.S. population. According to the census, nearly 59 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are Mexican Americans. Puerto Ricans make up about 10 percent of the Hispanic population, and Cuban Americans account for about 3 1/2 percent. People from Central America, South America, and Spain together make up about 9 percent. Many Hispanics did not specify a place of origin on their census forms.


The various Hispanic groups in the United States have tended to maintain their separate identities over the years. Since the 1970's, however, efforts to unite Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and other groups have gained increasing support. Such efforts often emphasize cultural similarities that date back hundreds of years.


Cultural bonds


The Spanish language and the Roman Catholic religion are among the oldest and most important cultural bonds that unite Hispanics. During Spain's colonial period, which lasted from the 1500's to the 1800's, Spanish missionaries and landowners spread their language and religion throughout the areas they controlled. As a result, nearly all Hispanic Americans can speak Spanish, and a large majority are Roman Catholics.


Hispanics in the United States today speak a variety of Spanish dialects, depending on their country or region of origin. But the speakers of one dialect can usually understand the speakers of another with no difficulty. Although some Hispanic Americans do not use Spanish at all, most continue to speak Spanish in their homes and teach the language to their children. Many adult immigrants have difficulty learning English, but their children usually grow up speaking both Spanish and English.


Another unifying element is the recognition of common problems. Those Hispanics who are not fluent in English face obstacles in schooling and employment. Moreover, some white, English-speaking Americans regard all Hispanics as one group--a group whose ancestry and linguistic and social background are different from their own. Such perceptions have led to discrimination in housing and employment that affect all Hispanic American groups and foster unity among them.

National and ethnic origins


Within the Hispanic American minority, there are people of different national and ethnic origins. Physical appearances vary widely and often show the blending of European, American Indian, and African features that has occurred over many generations. Most Mexican Americans are mestizos--that is, they are of white and American Indian ancestry. Their white ancestors were mostly Spaniards who colonized what are now Mexico and the American Southwest. Their Indian ancestors were living in these regions when the Spaniards arrived. Many Puerto Ricans are of mixed Spanish and African descent, with their African ancestors having been brought over by the Spaniards to work as slaves. Other Puerto Ricans have some American Indian ancestry as well. Most Cuban Americans are of Spanish descent, though some blacks and mulattoes (people of mixed European and African ancestry) also emigrated from Cuba.


Where Hispanics live


About 90 percent of Hispanic Americans live in urban areas, particularly in Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, and many cities in the Southwest. About a third of all Puerto Ricans living on the mainland live in New York City. The New York City area is also home to large groups of Hispanics from Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. Chicago has large Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American populations. Colombians and other South American groups have also settled in Chicago. Mexican Americans form the largest Hispanic group in most Southwestern cities, including Los Angeles and San Antonio. Los Angeles also has small Cuban, Guatemalan, and Puerto Rican communities. Miami has the largest Cuban-American population of any U.S. city. Large numbers of Nicaraguan immigrants have also settled in Miami and other cities in southern Florida. Some recent Hispanic immigrants have settled in smaller cities, such as Boise, Idaho, and Yakima, Washington.


Settlers in the West Indies


In Puerto Rico and Cuba, early Spanish settlers came into close contact with the Arawak Indians. At first, the Spaniards and the Arawaks enjoyed friendly relations. But as more Spaniards settled Puerto Rico and Cuba in the early 1500's, they took land from the Arawaks and forced the Indians to work for them. The Arawaks rebelled against this treatment, but their stone weapons were no match for the Spaniards' guns. Fighting, physical abuse, and disease began to take a heavy toll among the Indians. By the mid-1500's, almost all of the Arawaks in Puerto Rico and Cuba had died.


Soon after the first Spanish settlers arrived in the West Indies, they began to import black Africans to replace the rapidly dwindling Indian labor force. Although the hundreds of thousands of enslaved blacks brought to the Spanish colonies far outnumbered the Spaniards, the conditions of slavery limited contact between Spaniards and Africans for many years. The blacks were able to maintain much of their own culture, including religions, folklore, and music. The Spanish colonists, meanwhile, carried on a fairly traditional way of life. Cities in Puerto Rico and Cuba resembled European cities in appearance. Spanish musicians performed the music of Spanish composers in concert halls and churches. The few artists working in the colonies also tended to imitate the European styles of the day.


Spanish and African influences in Puerto Rico and Cuba


Eventually, the Spanish and African influences began to blend in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The Spanish influences dominated in language, religion, and architecture. Although many blacks had been baptized as Christians, they combined Christian religious observances with their traditional ceremonies. They also identified some Christian saints with certain African deities.


Other aspects of African culture had a wider influence in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The music and dancing of the Africans became an important contribution to Latin-American culture. Blacks also told traditional African tales that became part of the folklore of the islands.


Probably the most obvious aspect of cultural blending in the West Indies was the intermingling of population groups. Many of the Spanish men took African mistresses or wives. Today, most Puerto Ricans have both Spanish and African ancestry. Many Cubans also have mixed ancestry.


Aztec influence in Mexico


In Mexico, the empire of the Aztec Indians covered large areas of central and southern Mexico by the early 1500's. The Aztec capital was Tenochtitlan, one of the most important centers of trade and religion in the Americas. With an estimated population of 200,000 to 300,000, Tenochtitlan was also one of the largest cities in the world at that time.


Religion and war were the focal points of Aztec society. Much of the Aztec's art, music, and poetry was intended to glorify their many gods. To remain in favor with their gods, the Aztec practiced human sacrifice. They waged war almost constantly to obtain prisoners to be used as sacrifices.


A complex, highly organized society grew up around the Aztec's religion and military activities. A large government was needed to administer the empire. Laws were strictly enforced by a system of courts, and criminals were often punished harshly for even small crimes. The Aztec encouraged their children to develop a sense of social responsibility from an early age. All children were required to attend school, where they prepared to become priests, warriors, craftsmen, or householders.


Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, the Spanish government moved quickly to establish political control of the new territory. It was the Roman Catholic clergy, however, that most effectively introduced Spanish culture among the Indians. Spanish priests and friars started missions where they instructed the Indians in Spanish, Roman Catholicism, and various practical crafts. The missions did not succeed in molding the Indians to live and work in a European society. But they did help start the process of mestizaje, the blending of Spanish and Indian cultures.


Spanish and Indian cultures in Mexico


As in the West Indies, the language and religion of the Spaniards came to dominate. But like the Africans in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Mexican Indians transformed many Spanish religious ceremonies. For example, Spanish priests used Christmas carols called villancicos and solemn pageants called posadas to teach the Indians about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. Over the years, Indian composers wrote many villancicos about nonreligious subjects. The Indians also turned the posadas into festive processions that took place in people's homes rather than in church.


In the arts, the talents of Indian sculptors, craftsmen, and musicians were recognized by the Spaniards. Indian wood and stone carvings decorated many buildings that otherwise were of traditional Spanish design. New kinds of music were produced by musicians who combined the sounds of European and Indian instruments.


The Spaniards brought many technological improvements to Mexico. European farming methods and equipment generally brought better harvests than did Indian methods. But in some cases--the cultivation of corn, for example--the Spaniards adopted Indian techniques.


The intermixing of population groups took place in Mexico, as it did in the West Indies. But in Mexico, the intermingling occurred mainly among Spanish men and Indian women. The children of Spanish and Indian parentage became the mestizos, who today are the largest population group among Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

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