David E. Hayes-Bautista is Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. His books include El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition and La Nueva California: Latinos from Pioneers to Post-Millennials. Before taking part in a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation event titled, “What Are the Social Consequences of Racist Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo, he chatted in the green room about ideal vacations, the Latino Big Bang, and which music genre he listens to, depending on what he’s doing.
What are you reading for pleasure?
I’m an academic; I write for pleasure. But I’m reading for pleasure a book, published in Mexico, on indigeneity, state, and society, in the colonial period and 21st-century society. What is an Indian? How is that defined? How does the state define—and what is the idea—of nationhood back in, say, the 17th century, in revolutionary Mexico, and now? So it’s a fascinating book.
What do you do to unwind?
My ideal vacation is to go somewhere around the world, find a little sidewalk café, sit down, and read and write and think.
When and where was your last ideal vacation?
I try to grab it whenever I can. Mexico City, Guadalajara, Valencia in Spain. Because I have my spots that I go to. I’ve only been to Buenos Aires a few times; Santiago [Chile]. I’ll find someplace that is that sort of place. Or in Paris. Actually coast-to-coast flights are somewhat like that. It’s five hours, no interruptions, no telephone calls, I can actually sit and think.
If you could time-travel to any period, where would you go?
There would be two periods I’m curious about, one of which I’m actually working on academically. There’s what I call “The Latino Big Bang” in 1848. It began on January 24, when James Marshall discovers gold. Ten days later, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo takes effect. And suddenly what had been a regional variant of Mexican society and identity and culture starts to become totally different. And within 15 years, it became the bilingual, bicultural society of Latinos de estados unidos—in time for the Civil War, when they had to declare, “OK, where do we stand on the issues of the Civil War? Whom do we support? Who do we oppose?” And it really happened in that 13-year period. And so I’m just really curious about it. And that basically laid the foundations of the bilingual, bicultural society of Latinos de estados unidos of today. Similarly, because of family history, I’m curious, when the Spanish came, seeing how the indigenous dealt with all of that. And they did become something different, but there’s also a lot of continuity, just as in those 15 years we stopped being Mexico, but we didn’t become assimilated into nothing. We became Latinos, living in the U.S. I’m interested in seeing times of massive cultural shifts, but also seeing the continuity, and seeing how do they do it.
What’s currently in heavy rotation on your iPod?
On my iPod playlist I have some very specific genres of music, and it depends what I’m doing. I had an uncle who lived here in L.A., and in the ’40s and ’50s they had a band and played Cuban music. He was a very sharp dresser, he always wore a zoot suit, he always drove a Pontiac convertible del año. That’s how I became a salsero. But I like the good old-fashioned danzón, rumba, mambo, the old-fashioned stuff. So that’s one genre. I also got deeply into flamenco guitar when I was in college. I also love Brazilian, particularly jazz, bossa nova. And classical.
And you say that you connect music with different types of activity?
Well, if I am going to start to write a paper, or a book, and I’m just sitting down thinking, “What do I want to say?” it has to be Beethoven, and at that time it has to be Beethoven’s Sixth. Nothing else works. And things just start to flow. Once that starts, then I can switch to other classical [works], Baroque—and I love, by the way, Mexican Baroque music. And then when I’m just at the gym working out, I’m doing something mindless, then I’ll put my iPod on shuffle, I get the old danzón, I get flamenco, I get jazz, I get Brazilian. But it’s stuff I don’t have to think very deeply on.
Where did you learn to swim, and who taught you?
I was born here in L.A. I have 8mm films of me—I’ve transferred them to DVDs—out at Santa Monica beach in 1948, ’49, just wearing my skivvies and going out to the surf. I surfed, I scuba dived, I lived in the ocean when I was a kid. We lived in East L.A., and I remember one of my earliest memories is coming up La Brea Avenue, where there used to be a lot of oil wells, with sand in my undies—scratching. I didn’t have a swimsuit, and it was just horrible.
Do you still go to the beach?
Rarely. Because you have to wear a wetsuit if you’re going to do it seriously. I made my own wetsuit when I was in high school, out of neoprene and glue. This is like 1959, 1960. First time I ever learned to dive, I went to a diver shop with some friends of mine from high school. What we were told was, Here’s a regulator, it goes in the mouth, don’t go up any faster than the bubbles. Bye! And so we were scuba diving off Bodega Bay. Didn’t realize they’d been dumping garbage [there] for decades—the sharks and everything! We could’ve killed ourselves. Then in college I got to Mexico and got into tropical waters. I went diving off the Palancar Reef off of Cozumel. I was down about 120 feet, no wetsuit, and it was warm. And I came back up, and tried to get in the waters here in California—this must have been about 1970, ’71—frigid, freezing! I thought, I have to put a wetsuit on to do it, I’m not going to do it anymore. I won’t even go into a heated swimming pool anymore. It’s too cold for me.