Convocation on Providing Public Library Service to California’s 21st Century Population  [Back] [Contents] [Next]

Remarks of Richard Rodriguez

Journalist and Author

May 23, 1997

I ask you to just look at me.  I come from another part of the world.  I come from South of the border.  My parents are Mexican immigrants and this is who I am.  This man who has an Indian face and a Spanish surname and an Anglo first name, Richard, who carries the voice that was given to me, shoved down my throat actually by Irish nuns, who taught me unsentimentally, the Queen's English.  You should wonder about the complexity that creates Richard Rodriguez, the centuries that have made this complexity.  I am not, in any simple sense, the creature of multiculturalism. I am the creature of something much more radical and that's the penetration of one culture by another, one race by another.  And so I stand here today, and I don't know which part is the Indian part speaking to you. Which leg is my Indian leg? Which leg is my Spanish leg?

You are listening to the complexity of all of that.  Do you understand?  Mexico doesn't have a notion of multiculturalism.  In Mexico, most Mexicans are some blend of races, usually a blend of the European and the Spaniard. But many of us also are African. We are totally all that - we are that before anything else.

Let me talk to you a little bit about the 15th Century.  In 1492, we are told that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.  What we are not usually told, of course, is that the Indians discovered Christopher Columbus and literally so.  On that day in October of 1492 when the sight of Columbus appeared on the horizon, the Indians came out of the forest to look at Columbus.  They didn't run into the forest. They came out to look.  Columbus thought he was headed for a good curry meal and the Indians came out to look at this guy.  A lot of time we portray the New World Indian as this victim of a European design, as someone whose whole history can be described purely as victimization. But we had a moment in human history where people who didn't beat each other, confront one another and they are both equally curious.  You know, sometimes that happens when strangers meet.  Sometimes strangers don't simply go to the opposite sides of the room.  Sometimes strangers are attracted by the foreignness, by their difference.  When I see you, I want to know who you are.  That's my Indian side again.  I'm not afraid of you.  Never have been.

By the 18th Century in Mexico, the majority population was mixed race, which means that there were more mixed race people in Mexico than there were either pure Indians or pure Europeans.  By the 18th Century in Mexico, the slave had long been freed. And the intermarriage between the Indian and the African in Mexico was so great, that it has never again been duplicated in the history of the Americas.

José Vasconcelos, the great educator/philosopher of Mexico in this century, talked about the Mexican as the cosmic race.  The European, the Indian, the African, and by the 19th Century, there was also an Asian migration, mainly Chinese, to the Western side of Mexico.

I remember a few years ago, I was on an interview show with Bill Moyers who is sort of the conscience of public television when Julia Child is not being the conscience of public television.  And he gets that sort of very worried Baptist look that he gets. I think he's a trained minister, and in the presence of real chaos he sort of gets that worried look. He pulled back in his chair in the middle of the discussion and he said, "Mr. Rodriguez, let's see if we can clarify this.  What are you trying to tell those nice people in Sacramento?"  He said, "Are you Hispanic or are you an American?"  Interesting choice that, don't you think?  And I said, "Mr. Moyers, I'm Chinese."

I believe that, incidentally.  I believe that you people have souls, as I have a soul.  I don't think that's a metaphor.  And I believe that we change one another in contact with one another.  I believe that if you get that chair too close to the chair next to you, you're going to end up looking like the person next to you.  You're elbows - pull them in, because take a look at who is sitting next to you (laughter).

I remember being in England a few years ago.  I was being interviewed on the BBC, and this woman said, "Mr. Rodriguez is in favor of assimilation."

And I thought to myself, I'm not in favor of assimilation any more than I'm in favor of the Pacific Ocean.  I didn't decide, when I was child walking down the streets, that I was going to become an American.  I didn't decide, "Well today I'm going to become 40 percent Mexican and 60 percent Gringo."  It doesn't work that way.  You end up walking like other people because that's what you end up doing.  In a few minutes, you're all going to walk out of this room with the same American slouch.  You don't think about that.  You don't premeditate that, but in fact you start behaving like one another.  You start sharing an impatience.  You start sharing a kind of American genius.

Now the Anglo-Saxon genius of the United States has always treasured the importance of the individual. As one who has benefited a great deal from that Anglo-Saxon inheritance, I would like to say that I am very grateful to the British for having given the New World that idea of the first person, singular pronoun - the "I."  I am. I feel. I think. I want. I know.

The Latin-American genius, on the other hand, is the first person plural pronoun, the "we."  That is what I want to talk about today because it seems to me, when I look at California these days and the Hispanic future of California (which is both demographic and real), what we are talking about really, is a cultural influence that is quite new and quite shattering to the conventional notions of the eye.

I would like to suggest to you, as an Indian that has a Spanish surname, that this room constitutes a "we."  That for all of your physical differences, for all of your age differences, for all of your cultural and religious differences, you have extraordinary things in common and that you are also responsible in various ways for making each other.  That is, your story is part of her story. And it is the business of American libraries, it seems to me, to be attune to that fact.  Blending.  Mixture.  Intermarriage.  Have you ever looked inside of a burrito?  Have you ever noticed how mixed up the burrito is?  The thing we [Mexicans] shocked America with was the notion that, in fact, we were not pure.  We have never been pure.  Our genius is for contamination.  We will contaminate you.

America keeps saying, "Well can't you stay on that side of the line? Can't you comprende that? That's your side of the line."  I keep telling young Latinos, "You know, instead of worrying about how much you're assimilated or not assimilated, if you really want to scare the United States of America, all you would have to say to the United States of America is "I'm going to marry you. I'm going to start dating your son. You're going to start eating my food, Neighbor."

Richard Nixon invented me in 1973.  Actually in 1972 he asked Cap Weinberger, who was then at the Office of Management and Budget, to determine the major racial and ethnic groups in this country. Richard Nixon sent all these bureaucrats off and they went to a hotel room, much like this presumably, and they sort of brooded over all your pictures and your phone books and they decided after one year, that there are in fact five major racial and ethnic groups in this country.  Count them - five.  The first - and this is no order of priority or preference - is the White, the second is Black, the third is Asian/Pacific Islander (you know those people in Honolulu), the fourth is American-Indian and the fifth is, ladies and gentlemen, coming up fifth but not last, is the Hispanic.

The interesting thing about Hispanics, of course, is that you can travel all over Latin America and never meet one.  There are no Hispanics in Latin America.  There are Bolivians, Chileans and Mexicans.  You have to come to Miami or Sacramento to meet a Hispanic.  There is a large controversy among us as to whether we are Latinos or Hispanics.  Hispanics are nothing if not people preoccupied by fathers and ceremony, and we worry a great deal about which is the right word for us. The argument against Hispanic is that it gives too much of our identity to Spain.

I have never understood why "Latino" is any less a colonial word since it is, after all, a Spanish word. It refers to the bosom of the Mediterranean and to Rome ultimately, the Latin World.  So I'd like to use the word Hispanic just because I'm not supposed to.  My mother always says, "Behave yourself," but I always liked the word I'm not supposed to use.  I think as an Aztec I would have used the Spanish just because I wanted their language.  I've always wanted your language; never been afraid of it.  And I like the idea too, that I would use an English word, Hispanic, to describe myself as a descendant of the Spanish Empire which is, in some way, the great triumph of Queen Elizabeth over the Spanish Armada.  The last triumph.  Her caked face cracking as she thinks about it.  All of those ships going down into the Atlantic and 400 years later there would be this Mexican-American who would call himself, in the language of Queen Elizabeth, Hispanic.

I should tell you that the majority of Hispanics in the United States, the vast majority of us, like 65 percent, are from Mexico.  The ones you will see on television, most of them are from Cuba because they're prettier.  The second largest number of us are Puerto Ricans and, if you think about it, the fact that most of us are Puerto Rican and Mexican is interesting.  Because I always have to make clear to American audiences that there is no Hispanic race in the world.  There is no Hispanic race.  Most Americans think that there are these brown people, somewhere on the floating Isle of Hispaniola who have little fingers and whose women put roses behind their ears. And the men are amorous but ineffectual lovers and that we all wear a size 7B shoes.  But I assure you that there is no race called the Hispanic race in the world.

There is in Latin America, every sort of race that you can imagine.  Every nationality is in Latin America.  There are Lebanese-Mexicans, there are Chinese-Mexicans, there are Black Brazilians. One of my closest friends in Los Angeles is blonder than the sun.  She considers herself a Mexican and she says, "Why is it whenever I say I'm Mexican, Americans never believe me?"  Indeed, why?  Well, because we think people who live South of the Border are these little brown people.  But I assure you, the most revolutionary aspect to Hispanicity is not that we are the third largest race.  We are not comparable to Whites and Blacks because we are an ethnic group, not a racial group.  You understand?

So what is really interesting is not that the census bureau reported last week that by the year 2005, Hispanics will outnumber Blacks. That is an impossible statement, because many Hispanics are Black.

By the year 2050, the projection is one-quarter of all Americans will be Hispanic.  The only sense that I can draw out of that fact is that by the year 2050, one-quarter of all Americans will identify themselves by culture rather than by race and that is interesting.  You already have Black Dominicans, for example, who have marked themselves as Hispanic.  And this seems to be just the beginning of new ways of imagining who we are in this room.  That not simply a racial identity is at stake here but our cultural identity.  How many Mormons are there in this room?  How many gays are there in this room?  How many widows are there in this room?  How many Southerners are there in this room?  There are new ways of organizing the information about who we are, that are cultural and not simply racial.

I would like to say that something is going on in this country right now that we have not seen before and it is part of what I consider the Hispanic future of the country.  And that is that we are looking for new ways to describe who we are because the old vocabulary not longer fits.

I met a young girl in Oakland the other day who told me that her father is Mexican and her mother is African-American.  I said, "What are you?"  She did not have a word for it.  You know what she told me? "I'm a Blaxican."

I raise these issues because it is your job, it seems to me, to introduce California to itself, and we don't have a vocabulary yet.  You don't have a vocabulary yet to even talk about what California is.  This place is not simply this little neighborhood over here and that freeway exit over there. Something else is going on here.

Karl Marx wrote in the 19th Century that in the history of the world, the discovery of gold in California, not far from here, would be a more important event than the discovery of the Americas by Columbus.  When Columbus found the Indians off the West Indies, Europe met the Indian. But when gold was discovered in California in the late 1840s, the entire world met itself.  It had never happened in human history before.  Never.

Suddenly you had African alongside of Australian alongside of Malaysian alongside of Filipino, alongside of Peruvian alongside of Indian alongside of Chinese, and they were all looking for the same gold.  Nothing would bring man to a part of the world faster than gold.  They were all at each other's necks, but it was the beginning of California.  You are the fulfillment of that moment.  Your libraries represent this extraordinary moment in human history that has never happened before.

I was in Merced, California recently and in Merced, the two largest racial ethnic groups are the Mexicans and the Laotian Hmongs.  And I was spending the day with these Laotian gang kids and they were really down on the Mexicans.  But I kept thinking to myself, you know, in the history of the world, Laotians have never lived alongside of Mexicans.  This is pretty amazing.  Well the Laotians were going on about how they hated the Mexican kids, and that Mexican kids were always getting in their faces.  They couldn't stand each other and so forth, and so on.  And I thought to myself, "What's not computing here.  There's something that's not making sense to me."  And then I realized it. You know what it was?  The Laotian kids were all speaking English with a Spanish accent.

We keep talking about how California is breaking apart. We cannot stand each other. It strikes me as at least important to notice that Los Angeles, the capital of this union in our state, has three times the national average of miscegenation, of inter-racial marriage.  What do you make of that?  You know the city in this state that has the highest number of inter-racial marriages?  Guess?  Stockton.  Blue-collar, bulky, good old boy, country music, sweaty Stockton.

I heard that Bill Clinton is going to have this meeting in a few weeks of people who call racial relations in America and I know what it will be like.  They will all tell us how terrible our race relations in America are.  And in many ways they are terrible.  But it'll be all the people from what I call the level of physics.  Up here.  Where they talk about society as this abstraction and then go on to another conference.

At the level of biology, something remarkable is going on in America.  At the level of biology, you're eating more salsa than you are ketchup. Because they interest me so much, I've been following Jehovah's Witnesses, and I've been going to some of the meetings around the state.  I want to tell you, this is considered working class Christianity. But in those congregations, there is a level of inter-racial participation that I see nowhere else in this state, the very bottom of the society.  I say that also about certain forms of Evangelical Protestantism.  It is amazing to me how racially mixed they are.  At the bottom, there is this thing going on.

Here we are in 1997, and we do not know what to make of Tiger Woods.  We don't know what name should we give him?  African.  Yes.  Tiger Woods.  Exactly.  African.  Asian.  Indian.  European.  He's Californian.  (from the audience, "He's a golfer.")  And he's a golfer.

On page 8 of his autobiography, Colin Powell says, that he is African, but he is also, by birth British, Scottish, Irish. And then he says what every African-American friend of mine has always said. Somewhere in the middle of our friendship, they say, "By the way, did you know my grandmother was a Cherokee?"  I don't have a single African-American friend who does not have a grandmother who is a Cherokee?  And Colin Powell says to Barbara Walters, "I'm American-Indian." And she says, "That's nice dear, but what does it feel like to be the first Black candidate for president?"

I say this quite seriously because it's interesting me more and more, but the Indian-African marriage in the United States is a story that has been rarely told in the American history books.  It is one of the most astonishing stories and it is truly the contra-story for all of our separation.  These two races were getting together with shared suffering. I don't know what brought them together.  But it is an extraordinary story.

There's a moment in the de Tocqueville journey across America when he, the Great European on his horse, comes upon these two women walking together.  This is in a Southern state in the 19th Century.  He sees these two women walking together.  One of them is Indian and the other is African.  And at the moment in which the women see him, they have opposite reactions.  The Indian, when she sees the European, runs into the forest.  The African waits for him to approach.  And de Tocqueville says, "Well here is the fatal mistake of both races, regarding the European. The Indian is too haughty; she does not want to have a relationship with the European.  The African is too docile; she cannot imagine herself except by reference to the European."

But nowhere does de Tocqueville wonder about what the Indian and the African were talking about.  Or why they were easy in each other's company.

You know, one of the things we need to do or understand as librarians is that some cultures are not simply separate entities, but they overlap.  That by the year 2007, the world population of Mormons is going to become the majority population. And the majority population is going to be Spanish-speaking (that was predicted, by the way, by Mormon prophesy).

One of the things that we should understand is that people are not simply separate from one another but that her history is also his history and vice-versa. And that whenever we try to celebrate a history - this week is Hispanic History Month - we must also show other races, other peoples, other nations as participating within that history.  It seems to me that that's a California insight.  That is not a New York insight.  That's a California insight.  To understand the way lives are interconnected and the way, in fact, my life is part of your life.

On March 17th, which is St. Patrick's Day, have you ever heard anyone say that this is a great day for Mexico?  I'm going to say that.  This is a great day for Mexico.  When the Irish started coming to this country in the 1840s, the argument against allowing Irish immigration into the United States was Mexico.  Not too many people know that, but then not too many people know very many versions of history.  Whose fault is that, I wonder, librarians?  Whose fault is that, I wonder, publishers?  Whose fault is that, I wonder, teachers?  Whose fault is that, I wonder, ministers?

In the 1840s, the argument against allowing the Irish into this country was Mexico.  The native's argument went, if you let the Irish into this country, they would unite with their fellow Catholics, the Mexicans, and overturn the Protestant State.  I've always thought that was a pretty good argument. But in fact it's an extraordinary story.  In fact there was real worry because a large number of Irish immigrant boys ended up in the Mexican-American War fighting on the American side.  General Scott, in fact, would go to Mass with these boys - he was a Protestant -  just to ensure that they understood that he was with them.  A large number of Irish recruits changed sides.  You will never hear their story in the American history books.  They became known in Mexico as San Patricios, the St. Patrick's Brigade, and they fight for Mexico against the United States of America.  There were a number of them who were apprehended by U.S. troops and hung on the Zocolo of Mexico City.  It is on the Zocolo of Mexico City on March 17th, every year to this day, that the Mexican President salutes the Irish Ambassador.

And we think to ourselves, well this is the Irish Week now, and we can't talk about anybody else, because this is Ireland's week. I keep saying to myself, "You know, there is no one in California who is innocent of anyone else's story."  I am Filipino.  I am Chinese.  I live in an Asian City.  I live in San Francisco.  In the same way that Sacramento changed me and turned me into a Valley Boy 40 years ago, San Francisco is making me Asian.  That's not a conceit.  That is a human fact.

Art Sadenbaum, when he was still alive at the LA Times, was a good friend of mine. I love smokers by the way.  I don't like smoking; I don't smoke myself, but I love smokers just because they're so abused in our society.

I was at this college in Colorado over the weekend and I was talking to these undergraduates and it was amazing.  There is nothing you can do to offend their moral sensibility.  You can get an abortion or not have an abortion. You can take drugs or not take drugs. You can do almost anything in society but one thing and that's, "Don't smoke in my room."

Anyway, I remember that at the LA Times, there is a tiny balcony where all these smokers have to go to smoke and so you meet the most interesting people there.  Everyone else has clear lungs inside but the people outside have really interesting ideas.  And I remember I was with Art on that balcony overlooking Civic LA one afternoon.  This was ten years ago maybe.  And he had seen the numbers.  He had seen the statistics that said that California was about to become a Hispanic State, that LA is a Hispanic City and so forth.

He sucked in on his cigarette and he said, "What do you make of that?  You know, are we all going to speaking Spanish in ten years?"  It has taken me about ten years to figure it out, or at least to have an answer.  What my answer would be, would be my nephew.

My nephew who has a Scottish surname who I recently was watching rehearse Hamlet.  He's a teenager.  He's caught in Hamlet some extraordinary adolescent quality.  You know we always get these middle-aged Lawrence Olivier's to play Hamlet and we forget just how juvenile Hamlet is.  How wonderful it is to hear Hamlet's voice changing because suddenly he's in the middle of an adult world and he doesn't know what to do about it.

So there he was up on the stage in tights; this kid who is the result of a conspiracy of the Dutch, the Scottish and Mexico - all of whom have created this boy who looks Italian, who's a pretty good actor, who is pretending that he's a Danish prince in English.

And I think to myself, "That's what it means to be Hispanic.  That's what it means to live in the Hispanic State of California."  Something like that is going on in human history and it's even more miraculous.  It's not even and not only that we are sharing our identities with one another, which is the easiest way of talking about this. The more interesting thing is that we are becoming one another.

Shirley MacLaine is under the impression that she is a 14th Century Peruvian Indian.  At the moment it is the Peruvian Indians that are becoming Protestants.  So you have all these granddaughters of the pioneers who killed off the Indians communicating with dead Indians while the Indians are working at the Holiday Inn making you your lunch.  It's really quite extraordinary.  It's almost as though you know there are only a certain number of possibilities in human history and once one group gets that, then the other group has to become them.

About three years ago I was on the border between the United States and San Diego...  I mean the United States and Tijuana.  And I met these three guys from Victory Outreach, which is an evangelical church that works with kids with serious drug problems and gang problems along the border, on both sides of the border.  You know Victory Outreach?  It's a terrific group!.  These boys were coming up to the United States of America, like 503 years after Columbus, to convert the United States of America back to Protestantism.

And I thought to myself, "That's kind of interesting, the Indians are coming this way to convert us back to Protestantism."  This year, in 1997, Victory Outreach is sending missionaries to Europe.  I didn't see that noted anywhere in the history books.  I see that Columbus made it over onto this side, on his Holiday Cruise with dispatch, but I don't see that we are noting that the Indians are going to Europe this year to France, to Paris, to London, to Frankfurt, to Amsterdam, to convert Europe back to Protestantism.  Isn't that interesting?

There's one word which I saw on your brochures which I just want to protest and that's the word "information."  I speak to a lot of library groups these days. I'm one of the last remaining writers, people who make their living as writers. I live in the age of Bill Gates and I know we're all supposed to sort of bow down at the Great Alter of Information but I don't.  I find information interesting and I find it useful but I just want to remind you that the libraries that I used as a child, the libraries that I still use, do not simply give me information.  I want to tell you quite plainly that all the things that information is not.  Information is not an idea.  Information is not a feeling.  Information is not an insight.  It is true that you need information many times to have a good idea, but information itself does not provide a good idea.  Information is not wisdom and there ain't much wisdom around these days.

Our president and various other politicians are wiring up our classrooms so that all these kids are on the 'Net. We have e-mail now to communicate with each other instantly.  You know, actually  can you Fed Ex it to me because I need it tomorrow.  Well actually, UPS has an 8:00 a.m. service, if you can send it to me.  You know, actually I needed it yesterday.  What do you need yesterday?  What are we communicating over e-mail that is so valuable?  Have you noticed?  No one is saying anything, but we're saying it quickly.  (laughter).

What you gave me, librarians, was a library that was so confusing.  It was not separated by ethnicities and race.  You gave me a library that gave me James Baldwin when I was about nine years old.  I remember reading, Nobody Knows My Name.  I remember reading about growing up in Harlem and I thought to myself, "This life is so different from mine. But why is it that my gut feels so tight with it.  Why do I feel connected to this man?"

And I remember reading My Antonia by Willa Cather and thinking to myself, "Hell, I've never even seen snow and I'm standing there on a train station on a snowy night and these immigrants from a place called Bohemia.  What is this?  Who is she?  And why do I care so much about her?  Why is her life mine?"  That is what you gave me.  You didn't give me information.  You gave me the deepest intuitions of a life and that is that we are connected to each other at some deeply human level.

There will always be ways in which I am one, single, I. And I deeply am grateful to this country, especially its Anglo-Saxon judicial system, for honoring my I-ness, for honoring all the ways in which I am separate from you.  Separate even from the people who love me.  Separate even from my family.  Those incredible subtle ways in which a child is always separated from its parents.  That mystery when you look into your child's eyes and realize that separation.

I have come to speak of the other knowledge, the Hispanic knowledge. And that is that we are constantly making each other, creating each other.  We are constantly eating each other's food, hearing each other's music.  There is no one in this room who does not speak Black English.  There is no one in this room who is not Filipino.  There is no one in this room, Compadres, who is not Hispanic.  Thank you very much.


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