Genius Can Come in Many Colors

By Rick Martinez
@ 1995 Hispanic Link News Service

Only 24 hours after writer Sandra Cisneros was honored with one of the nation's most prestigious awards, the tribute was dismissed by a New York art critic who sniffed that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation was simply being politically correct.

The selection of two Latinas -- Cisneros and fellow writer Alma Guillermoprieto -- among two dozen winners of "genius" awards was hailed by MacArthur Fellows Program director Catharine Stimpson as reflecting "a flowering of Latina culture in the United States in art and literature."

But in a National Public Radio commentary, critic Edward Lisson took issue with this year's selections, implying that Anglo males were overlooked.

Now we all know that critics are like carnival barkers, waiting in the wind to get to take a peek under the big top. Thus it would be just as easy to dismiss Lisson as someone with a lack of sophistication for words and ideas that originate from gawdawful places like Texas.

I'm not saying that Lisson had Cisneros, in particular, in his sights when he weighed in with his sniping at the MacArthur selections. However had Lisson been on West Martin Street in San Antonio, where Cisneros lives, the day he made his comments, he no doubt would have gotten his butt kicked. Many Cisneros fans took his comments personally.

Lisson's commentary does, in a large sense, illustrate the growing wave of passiveaggressive anger being directed at Hispanics and other groups on many levels.

Whether the topic is diversity in the work place, affirmative action, or the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur genius awards, ethnics of color and women who achieve some level of success are all too often measured against an imaginary white male who must have been passed over for this non-white male person to have succeeded.

Thirty years ago, when Hispanic writers like the late Tomás Rivera of Texas began to emerge and tell their stories, often steeped in the migratory existence of the farm worker family, the fresh perspective was lauded with university book deals, small awards and entry-level professorships.

Now, as Cisneros and her contemporaries take the Hispanic experience to the next level, there are those in the establishment who figure she must be the honoree in a beauty contest of political correctness, no doubt displacing much more deserving non-ethnic males who happens not to be the flavor of the day.

As we approach the millennium, what we are really seeing is the kind of class struggle that has been repeated throughout history.

Racial and ethnic minorities are inching their way up into bastions that a generation ago were not open to them. Many people don't like it. We will see the Cisneros scenario repeated again and again as Hispanics continue to excel in the arts, politics, the classroom and the boardroom.

This Cisneros criticism is yet another example of the fact that the world changes too fast for some.

The lesson for Hispanics is not to forget the dynamics of this class struggle and to lend a hand to those in their respective fields who come after them. For instance, my organization, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, conducted training sessions for 50 student-joumalists during our convention in El Paso this month.

It was no surprise to those who know Cisneros that the day after winning her $225,000 MacArthur grant, she was back in the barrio lecturing to students at San Antonio's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

This exercise on remembering your roots is exemplified in a line from Cisneros' work, the House on Mango Street: "You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are."

Last change: Aug. 9, 1995