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MARCELO CAPLAN: ‘Self-identification is the most important thing’

BORN IN BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Marcelo Caplan is an electrical engineer by trade, and a professor of Science and Technology in the Arts at Columbia College Chicago. “I am a man of multiple backgrounds Latino, Jewish, white,” Caplan, 59, said. He identifies himself as a Latino Hispanic man who has been around American culture for over two decades. 

What do you think of the term Latinx to identify people of Latin American or Spanish background?

I don’t see any problem with identifying proud Latino/Hispanic people in that way. I believe self-identification is the most important thing. I identify myself as a Latino, a Jew, and an immigrant. Although I’ve lived in many countries this identity has never changed, a Latino born in Buenos Aires. I doesn’t bother me how others define me because I define myself. 

Has your experience as a Latino person isolated you to the way you grew up, or have you been able to branch out culturally?

I can only speak on my personal experiences. In Argentina, I was a Jew. In Israel, I was the Argentinian. When I moved to Panama, I was the Gringo. I don’t feel that I am integrated into the society we live in. I feel I don’t have any background in common with people. Although I look white to some, I don’t have anything that connects me with the standard Caucasian background. 

How has these labels changed you from your country of birth, and now living in the U.S.? If in any at all.

Labels never define me. I know what people could think but that doesn’t bother me at all. I also know how I need to be prepared to react to certain things/situations, but I never let a label define or change me.

Well, that’s good. How do you navigate us culture? What type of culture shocks have you experienced while living here?

The first cultural shock that I had when coming to the U.S. was I noticed that everyone was fake. Everyone is smiling in your face, asking you how are you and how can I help you, when no one really cares. In my home country Argentina, or even when I was in Israel if someone asked you one of these questions it was because they were actually concerned. I have learned to just say hello and move on. 

Do you speak Spanish? How do you view Spanish as an attribute of your identity? Is it important to you?

I grew up speaking Spanish, I prefer Spanish now. I have gotten better at American literature and language over time. However, I don’t identify with the Americans writers, I identify with Latino writers like Vargas Llosa, or Benedetti. These are the kind of authors I identify with, the stories they tell are close to me and my early life. Spanish is my mother’s tongue, so it is my comfort language. Although I speak Hebrew and English, I never put Spanish as a second or third language, internally. Spanish is my language. 

So, do you think in Spanish?

I am not verbalizing what I am thinking all the time, so I want to feel comfortable whenever or whatever I think so I use Spanish. You will not hear me singing in English, I sing in Spanish because I grew up with those songs. I am fully immersed in the Latino culture. I am not immersed in the American culture, although I have lived here for 24 years.

“In Argentina, I was a Jew. In Israel, I was the Argentinian. When I moved to Panama, I was the Gringo.”

Would you say your culture is better than someone else’s who is of a different ethnicity or country?

A culture has values. Now, I respect all cultures and I take my cultural values for me. I will respect what you do as an African American, and I will respect what you do as a white Caucasian American all the time. I do have one condition though; don’t try to tell me what I need to do within my culture. We must just respect each other, which is the beginning to all good relationships between human beings.

I totally agree. I think that you mentioning just mutual respect is very important and a lot of people, especially Americans, lack that understanding of mutual respect and being able to express themselves and not impose their own views on other people. Does cultural appropriation bother you?

I believe that if someone needs to appropriate to other cultures to express themselves, they are missing the point. It’s not about where it’s from, it’s about if you like it and respect it. Like the taco for example, if you just say I love tacos that’s fine with me. I will never claim that tacos are from America because that is false, I will just appreciate the taco for what it is. If you must appropriate from other cultures to feel any kind of void that they have, I think that is fine. 

I know you’re a science teacher. Are you an engineer also?

I am an engineer. Yes.

So how was that transition going from being an engineer in other lands to come into the US and implementing different techniques/styles here?

There is no major difference between lands. My goal no matter where I was, was to be a functioning technician and engineer, which I was. Now my goal is to bring my learning about science to life and express it to others. This is why I created science and technology in the arts, to express my love for science and educate others as much as I can no matter where I am.

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