Tuesday, June 21, 2016


As the school where I have taught for the last 28 years prepared to be absorbed into the local high school, there was a great deal of moving, and we teachers stacked unwanted items into our Large Group Instruction Room (Note: if you're older than 35, it's what a multi-purpose room is now called.).  We were allowed to scavenge out anything we wanted before the rest was sent to the DI (Deseret Industries, the LDS thrift stores).   Mounds of books were there for the taking, and I took plenty!
Among the books were some from our teachers' library, and I grabbed a large pile of crime novels by Tony Hillerman.  With the help of the local public library's filling in the gaps for the novels missing in the stack, I've now read the nearly the first 10 in the series, so I've got a good feel for the recurring characters and the setting, as well as Hillerman's style.
Overall, it's a pretty good series -- obviously, or I wouldn't still be reading it ten books in and prepared to read the rest.  But Hillerman, in trying to make Navajos always the heroes, goes a little overboard with racial stereotyping of every non-Native American race.
Mostly, whites are stereotyped.  The white characters in the books are usually either portrayed as foolish for their wannabe Indian ways or else angry and unappreciative of the desert or of other cultures.  This is forgivable, I suppose, as the whole purpose of the series is to make readers more aware of Navajo life and culture, so I guess making whites the "Other" works.
But one of the main things of which Hillerman makes fun in nearly every book is that white folks can't tell one tribe from another, that "all Indians look the same."  (OK, fair enough.  I'm not sure I could tell a Cherokee from an Iroquois, but Navajos are usually pretty easy to spot.  One gets to be familiar with their genetic traits when one sees them around in Southern Utah enough.) He really pounds this theme.
This is why I found it hilarious that Hillerman totally and completely misses his own stereotyping -- probably actually racism at this point -- of Latinos in book 9, Talking God.
In the story, a middle-aged man has been murdered and his body has been left in the brush near a train track.  All identification has been removed from the body -- even his dentures have been taken -- so that the murderer cannot be traced through the victim.
Hillerman's two protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are both working on the crime from separate angles.  Leaphorn learns from the Amtrack people that among the victim's possessions recovered from the sleeping compartment of the train were a couple of books in Spanish.  He also learns that the Amtrack employee who gathered up the victim's things is a man named Perez, who speaks Spanish and apparently had some conversation with the victim at a point or two before his murder.
Leaphorn, desperate for clues as to the victim's identity, grills Perez for two pages about everything the victim said or had in his room.  (Note: this book was written in the 1980s.  Apparently, it was not normal for people to have their names on their train tickets or to reserve sleeping compartments at the time, because Hillerman never has Leaphorn ask about that.)
Now, Leaphorn supposedly speaks some Spanish (later in the book he manages some fairly complex sentences, including the irregular formal command tense of the verb "to come"), but  he speaks only English to Perez.
Now, here's the irony: Hillerman, who for 9 novels has made fun of whites who think all Indians are the same, clearly thinks all Latinos (he calls them "Hispanos") are the same.  At no point does Hillerman have Leaphorn ask Perez or Perez volunteer his opinions as to where the murder victim is from.  Hillerman seems completely unaware that a Spaniard doesn't speak like a Mexican who doesn't speak like an Argentine who doesn't speak like a Cuban who doesn't speak like a Chilean (which is, incidentally, what the victim turns out to be, whereas Perez is likely to be Mexican if he's from the West or Puerto Rican or Cuban if he's from the East; either way, he'd have been able to tell by the victim's speech alone that the man was from Chile or Venezuela and from his looks that he was unlikely to be Peruvian -- as the victim was quite tall).  But Hillerman, he who makes fun of "all Indians are the same" clearly has "all 'Hispanos' are the same" in his own belief system.

1 comment:

  1. We all have our pillars of knowledge...and prejudices. You're surprised? he mumbles. *wink*