Submitted on Wednesday, 10/12/2011, at 2:30 PM

By William Sweet

Ilan Stavans, Amherst’s Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, grew up Jewish in Mexico, but it took moving to New York in the mid-1980s for him to identify as a Mexican and, by extension, a Hispanic. He acknowledges that some people might bristle at the notion of a Yiddish-speaking grandson of Eastern European Jews asserting his hispanidad—his Hispanic identity.

“We come from different nations. We have different histories, different cuisines, although all of them have some commonalities,” he said. “So who is and who isn’t [Hispanic]? Who establishes the yes and the no? Is this a club that you have to belong to by having some sort of paid membership?”

 Ilan Stavans

In his latest book What is la hispanidad?: A conversation (University of Texas Press), Stavans and his co-author, Iván Jaksić, professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and director of the Stanford University’s Bing Overseas Studies program in Santiago, Chile, grapple with these kinds of questions.

The book tracks the elusive Hispanic ideal by way of cultural guideposts: from Cervantes to Neruda, from Xuxa to churrascos, from soccer to soap operas. While literature and history are important to the discussion, pop culture bears a significant weight for Stavans, who takes an amused pride in having appeared on the Univision variety program Sábado Gigante to discuss his writing on Spanglish.

“If I am just flipping through the television channels and my eye and ears stop at a Mexican soap opera, there’s immediately something that touches my sensibility,” he said. “I can react just in a passing second to something someone said, and it will bring all sorts of memories of my background that probably won’t happen to somebody else.”

“I want us to move away from an elitist realm that concentrates exclusively on ideas and meditate on the impact of figures like [Mexican entertainer] Tin-Tan and [Spanish novelist] Corín Tellado,” he writes early in the book.

This discussion comes at a crucial time for Hispanic Americans. Stavans noted that, even as Latinos are the youngest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, many Latinos check the box next to “Other” on census forms.

“Hispanic” (Stavans prefers it over the term “Latino”) remains a “contested term, but it is a term that retains a lot of gravitas,” he said. “It is becoming more essential to debate who we are.”

“I often wonder what is it that makes me a Latino, and what do I share with a person of Puerto Rican background, Cuban, or Argentine or Colombian? What is the glue that makes a culture come together?” he asked. “Hispanics and Latinos are not an ethnic and not a racial group. We are a minority group. And that’s a strange but very important distinction. We can be white and black and mestizo and Asian. We can come from different class backgrounds; we can speak different languages. There are many Latinos who live in the United States who don’t speak Spanish anymore.”

What is la hispanidad? is in the form of a dialogue, a discourse that ebbs and flows much in the fashion that Hispanic identity does, the author said. Stavans, who last wrote in dialogue format with Veronica Albin for Love and Language (Yale University Press, 2007), said the new book is less debate and “more a joint trip, a tour taken together.”

This trip started in 2007, when Jaksić’s publisher sent Stavans a manuscript of Jaksić’s book The Hispanic World and American Intellectual Life, 1820–1880, and the two writers began corresponding by phone and email. Over 18 months of discussion, which included meeting in Santiago, they decided to organize their correspondence into a book.

“We realized there was much to say,” Stavans said.

Stavans and Jaksić plotted out topics and cut and pasted the conversations when the dialogues meandered, while editing to preserve the conversational tone. They set a four-day time limit for each participant’s turn with the manuscript, in order to keep it fresh. They went back and forth about 300 times this way, Stavans said.

“I am in love with conversation … I think Latinos use words to reconfigure the world just as Jews do,” he said. “We were schmoozing.”

Stavans said he finds this format “enormously liberating. It allows us to improvise, to connect the dots that would not be otherwise connected. And that trepidation, not knowing exactly where you’re going or what information you have at your disposal, how to maneuver it, makes it electric. In the end, it is incredibly nutritive, because you end up surprising yourself.”

“I think the conversation as a form has been devalued and diminished in our modern society,” he added. “In academia, we are often too stuck in our own positions to be able to open up to others. I learned to hear another person really closely and hear stories that I thought I knew.”

Hear Ilan Stavans and Iván Jaksić talk about the book in a recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders.