Monday, January 9, 2012

Latino Teens Sit This Dance Out

As the interlocked rivals of the culture wars furiously spin out of control, many Latino teens sit this dance out, gazing at each other and at the world.

I recently asked a group of students, ages 12 to 17, which types of social media posts interested them. Two of their answers surprised me. One was their strong aversion to political messaging. The other was their lively interest in cultural identity.

Politics is too much like school,” said one girl to an enthusiastic chorus of agreement. A boy resented teachers who use class time to politic, even in classes unrelated to government.

These teens, however, did enjoy cultural topics and were interested in discovering how different people relate to each other and perceive experiences.

In my college years of the early 1980's, discussions of cultural identity were invariably wrapped in politics. They were inseparable. We Mexican Americans were taught that our music was a reaction to our oppression.  Not much fun there.

I see now that it is impossible to accurately contort cultural history into that frame. Culture is much more interesting than that. Also, it is unhealthy to see one’s heritage as a sideline reaction to a larger ideological struggle. 

Political messaging can be a valid and powerful function of music.  But it is politics that fits within culture, not the other way around.

This new generation seems to have broken the linkage. They want to know how cultural identity, similarities and differences affect individuals. They do not see culture as a function of politics. They see it as a network of relationships.

In 25 years of teaching music and culture, I have sought to understand the deeper functions of both. At our Academy we teach our students the process of the cultural arts so that they may find ways to understand their worlds and discover their own solutions.

A deep generational divide separates our society. The old cannot shake themselves from ideological battles that are increasingly bitter and intractable.  The young people with whom I work seem to be turning a deaf ear and blind eye to all that. Like sitting through a family argument at a holiday dinner, these kids seem to view the culture wars as an obstacle course that they must cross in order to pass school classes and get on to their own lives.

Some may see it as apathy but I see it as a brilliant option to despair among this group whose immigrant families are caught in the middle of one of the most vicious battles of the culture wars. These kids, after all, see themselves as normal American teens. And it is within the glow of teen optimism where they have a shot at developing perspectives that may lead to real solutions.

Their commentary on culture and politics is a good start. I am thrilled that they value human relationships above all because relationships lie at the core of both culture and politics. Many of our leaders and their followers have sadly forgotten that.

In the dance of the culture wars I believe these kids are the ones behaving like adults.