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For Some Young Latinos: Donkey Jaws And Latino Roots

The quijada is an instrument made from animal jawbone.
Farida Jhabvala Romero
Radio Bilingue
The quijada is an instrument made from animal jawbone.

We love hearing stories of how you straddle all the different cultures in your life. That's why we're sharing this report, about retro-acculturation, from our friends at Latino USA.

The process of integrating into mainstream America is a complex one if you are an immigrant. Often, people lose touch with their country of origin.

But for people like Marco Polo Santiago, the reverse is also true. Second, third and fourth-generation immigrants are seeking out their roots and creating a trend of their own.

Santiago, 36, was born in Los Angeles and is also a native English speaker. He grew up playing hip-hop and heavy metal. But now, he leads a band in Oakland that plays an Afro-Colombian style called "cumbia."

Santiago's journey from hip-hop to cumbia began a couple of years ago, when he took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born. He came across a woman playing a quijada — that's the skeleton of a donkey jaw.

"It was my first time witnessing that," Santiago said. "You've got a piece of carcass on stage that you are using as a musical instrument, and I was just fascinated by that, you know?"

Of course, Santiago decided he had to get a quijada for himself. His search took him to indigenous and Afro-Mexican parts of Oaxaca where few outsiders ever go.

Along the way, he discovered a club where people danced to the kind of music his parents liked, including the cumbia.

"We were like, 'Wow, this is really great music,'" he recalled. "I always knew it, but it kind of just hit me on the side of the head, like it really opened my eyes and ears to it, right?"

Santiago is a textbook example of what Jackie Hernandez calls "retro-acculturation." Puerto Rican and raised in Manhattan, Hernandez is the chief operating officer of the Spanish-language Telemundo television network, which has made it a point to reach retro-acculturated Latinos.

"It's moments in your life, times and passages you experienced, when you want to really re-embrace your culture, your language, your traditions," Hernandez said.

Former journalist Guy Garcia is president of the research group Ethnifacts, and he calls this cultural straddling being "ambicultural."

"Latinos across the board are embracing a kind of dualistic identity, an identity that is contextual, that's much more fluid," Garcia said. "It's not 'this or that,' it's 'this and that.'"

But you don't have to have a donkey jaw in your living room, or even be, for lack of a better term, 100 percent Latino to be part of this trend. Take Chelsea Smith, for example. She's 27, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mom from East Harlem, and a dad from St. Louis who is African American and Jewish.

Like any teenager, Smith spent high school trying to fit in.

"And then once you got to college it was very much like, 'No, proclaim your difference. Own it, and do the research to understand why you have different feelings,'" said Smith. "And so I kind of spent the next four years researching those feelings."

Smith dated a Latino man, took Spanish lessons and learned how to dance salsa. But the strongest pull to her roots was spiritual. She started studying Santería, a religion that combines West African and Roman Catholic traditions, which her mother and grandmother practiced at home.

"What drove me, I guess, to be a Latin American studies major was questioning why this was a motivating factor of how my grandmother was going to organize her life of faith, and why my mom bought into it, and whether there was really a role for me," Smith said.

And Smith found that there was a role for her. Not only did she write her undergraduate thesis on Santería, she also took her retro-acculturation to an even deeper level, getting initiated into the religion herself.

Guy Garcia says stories like these reflect a pattern that's been true throughout the country's history: as diverse groups join the mainstream, they change it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

For 25 years, Maria Hinojosa has helped tell America’s untold stories and brought to light unsung heroes in America and abroad. In April 2010, Hinojosa launched The Futuro Media Group with the mission to produce multiplatform, community-based journalism that respects and celebrates the cultural richness of the American Experience. She is currently reporting for “Frontline” on immigration detention.
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