Richard Rodriguez, journalist and man of letters, delivered the eighth of AEI's 2002-2003 Bradley Lectures on April 14. Edited excerpts follow. (The complete lecture is available online.)
I grew up in a black and white America, which had no place to put brown. America was a bitter, angry, old dialectic between Europe and Africa.
But in 1972, in a document called Statistical Directive 15, Richard Nixon invented Hispanics. President Nixon in that same year also invented Asians and Pacific Islanders. And so he implied that America was no longer a dialectic, but rather a pentagon, something closer to a circle, as Columbus imagined.
In a way, the largest influence we have had in the United States is to change the imagination of those of us who are not Hispanic. Because whereas once everything south of the border was regarded as exactly that--south of the border--now millions of people in the United States describe the United States as El Norte.
Americans had moved in one direction only, from east to west. And suddenly millions of Americans began to describe their progress from south to north and back again. So, in a way, we opened up the implications of Columbus's round idea, because not simply was the country to be viewed from east to west, but also from north to south.
I have traveled throughout Latin America and I have looked for Hispanics. Everyone tells you that there are no Hispanics in Latin America. Essentially, the whole category of the Hispanic--or the Latino, as some politically correct Latinos prefer--is in fact an American fabrication. Insofar as we are called Hispanics, it indicates that we live north of the border.
To distinguish Hispanics from the rest of Americans, we call the others Anglos, which is equally unsatisfying. I read a story in the Dallas Morning News about a quarrel in a Dallas high school between Anglos and Hispanics--in imitation of the Spanish Armada, no doubt--as though we could not find a way to describe ourselves except as remnants of the Old Spanish and English empires. We had no trust in the possibility that we belonged to the new world and had created ourselves differently in that new world.
Not a Racial Group
Beginning in 1984, I began to hear the predictions from the U.S. Census Bureau that Hispanics were destined to replace African Americans as the country's largest minority. This notion that Hispanics "replace" African Americans is obscene. In what sense do we replace African Americans? You cannot compare Hispanics to African Americans. Hispanic, indeed, is not a racial category; it is a cultural category. The notion of the Hispanic defining himself with reference to la cultura--culture rather than blood, as we in America have always defined ourselves, with reference to blood-was a radical idea.
Still, Hispanics have played the role of the fifth race in America. We have pretended that Hispanic is a racial category and we have accepted benefits that have been bestowed upon us as a racial group that should never have come to us racially. For example, at a time when it is not possible for Appalachian whites to be accepted as minorities, Hispanic whites can be accepted to American universities as minorities.
We are not a race. America has a great deal of difficulty putting its arms around that idea. Because I am Hispanic, I am appointed by various schools to play the part of the Canadian when it is diversity time in American high schools and colleges. Canada invented multiculturalism. All this time Americans have been reaching for the good clean bottle of Canadian water thinking it was pure, and we have been guzzling it down without a thought to the existence of a little virus in that water called multiculturalism.
The United States, the country of "I," has become a magnet for people from "we" countries, or brown countries filled with the first person plural pronoun, the nosotros, the we. Canada, like the United States, become very attractive to people of the "we." Canada offers the "I" and you hear it within multiculturalism. You do not have to give up your identity by becoming a Canadian.
There is Mexico--the alternative to Canada. Mexico describes its birth in the sixteenth century as a rape or a moment of violent eroticism, the hairy Spaniard having his way with the smooth Indian. A very different story indeed to anything the United States proposed. By the eighteenth century, the majority of the population of Mexico was "mixed"--mestizo.
There are people now rejecting brown. I am not speaking about khaki in the world right now. I am not in favor of turning everything flat. But I am in favor of a world in which we would learn from one another and recognize the three great desert religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--so brown, having influenced one another and shaped one another.