“Blaxicans” and Other Reinvented
“Blaxicans” and Other Reinvented
The son of immigrant Mexican parents in San Francisco, Richard Rodriguez (b. 1944) grew up in a Mexican American section of Sacramento. He was educated in Catholic grammar and high schools, and he attended Stanford and Columbia universities, where he took a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, as well as the Warburg Institute in Great Britain. He is the winner of a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Peabody Award, which recognizes outstanding work in the electronic media. Rodriguez achieved recognition in 1981, when he published Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. The book includes a criticism of both affirmative action and bilingual education on the grounds that they tend to separate rather than unite people. He is also the author of Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (1992) and of Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002). He is currently working on a book about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Rodriguez has written numerous essays, which have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, American Scholar, Time, Mother Jones, Forum, and Nuestro.
The essay that follows was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication for college professors and administrators. In it Rodriguez argues that the old racial classifications—black, white, Hispanic, and so on—should be abandoned, for they misrepresent the cultural and ethnic realities of today’s America.
incomprehensibly, mythic, rind, aforementioned, perpetual, dilute, ineffable, mulatto, fallacious, archetypal, demythologizing
There is something unsettling about immigrants because … well, because they chatter incomprehensibly, and they get in everyone’s way. Immigrants seem to be bent on undoing America. Just when Americans think we know who we are—we are Protestants, culled from Western Europe, are we not? —then new immigrants appear from Southern Europe or from Eastern Europe. We—we who are already here—we don’t know exactly what the latest comers will mean to our community. How will they fit in with us? Thus we—we who were here first—we begin to question our own identity.
After a generation or two, the grandchildren or the great-grandchildren of immigrants to the United States and the grandchildren of those who tried to keep immigrants out of the United States will romanticize the immigrant, will begin to see the immigrant as the figure who teaches us most about what it means to be an American. None of this, of course, can we admit to the
Vietnamese immigrant who served us our breakfast at the hotel this morning. In another 40 years, we will be prepared to say to the Vietnamese immigrant that he, with his breakfast tray, with his intuition for travel, with his memory of tragedy, with his recognition of peerless freedoms, he fulfills the meaning of America.
In 1997, Gallup conducted a survey on race relations in America, but the poll was concerned only with white and black Americans. No question was put to the aforementioned Vietnamese man. There was certainly no question for the Chinese grocer, none for the Guatemalan barber, none for the tribe of Mexican Indians who reroofed your neighbor’s house. The American conversation about race has always been a black-andwhite conversation, but the conversation has become as bloodless as badminton.
I have listened to the black-and-white conversation for most of my life. I was supposed to attach myself to one side or the other, without asking the obvious questions: What is this perpetual dialectic between Europe and Africa? Why does it admit so little reference to anyone else? I am speaking to you in American English that was taught me by Irish nuns—immigrant women. I wear an Indian face; I answer to a Spanish surname as well as this California first name, Richard. You might wonder about the complexity of historical factors, the collision of centuries, that creates Richard Rodriguez. My brownness is the illustration of that collision, or the bland memorial of it. I stand before you as an ImpureAmerican, an Ambiguous-American.
In the 19th century, Texans used to say that the reason Mexicans were so easily defeated in battle was because we were so dilute, being neither pure Indian nor pure Spaniard. Yet, at the same time, Mexicans used to say that Mexico, the country of my ancestry, joined two worlds, two competing armies. José Vasconcelos, the Mexican educator and philosopher, famously described Mexicans as la raza cósmica, the cosmic race. In Mexico what one finds as early as the 18th century is a predominant population of mixed-race people. Also, once the slave had been freed in Mexico, the incidence of marriage between Indian and African people there was greater than in any other country in the Americas and has not been equaled since.
Race mixture has not been a point of pride in America. Americans speak more easily about “diversity” than we do about the fact that I might marry your daughter; you might become we; we might become us. America has so readily adopted the Canadian notion of multiculturalism because it preserves our preference for thinking ourselves separate—our elbows need not touch, thank you. I would prefer that table. I can remain Mexican, whatever that means, in the United States of America.
I would propose that instead of adopting the Canadian model of multiculturalism, America might begin to imagine the Mexican alternative—that of a mestizaje society. Because of colonial Mexico, I am mestizo. But I was reinvented by President Richard Nixon. In the early 1970s, Nixon instructed the Office of Management and Budget to identify the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States. OMB came up with five major ethnic or racial groups. The groups are white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/ Eskimo, and Hispanic.
It’s what I learned to do when I was in college: to call myself a Hispanic. At my university we even had separate cafeteria tables and “theme houses,” where the children of Nixon could gather —of a feather. Native Americans united. African Americans. Casa Hispanic.
The interesting thing about Hispanics is that you will never meet us in Latin America. You may meet Chileans and Peruvians and Mexicans. You will not meet Hispanics. If you inquire in Lima or Bogotá about Hispanics, you will be referred to Dallas. For “Hispanic” is a gringo contrivance, a definition of the world according to European patterns of colonization. Such a definition suggests I have more in common with Argentine Italians than with American Indians; that there is an ineffable union between the white Cuban and the mulatto Puerto Rican because of Spain. Nixon’s conclusion has become the basis for the way we now organize and understand American society.
The Census Bureau foretold that by the year 2003, Hispanics would outnumber blacks to become the largest minority in the United States. And, indeed, the year 2003 has arrived and the proclamation of Hispanic ascendancy has been published far and wide. While I admit a competition has existed—does exist—in America between Hispanic and black people, I insist that the comparison of Hispanics with blacks will lead, ultimately, to complete nonsense. For there is no such thing as a Hispanic race. In Latin America, one sees every race of the world. One sees white Hispanics, one sees black Hispanics, one sees brown Hispanics who are Indians, many of whom do not speak Spanish because they resist Spain. One sees Asian-Hispanics. To compare blacks and Hispanics, therefore, is to construct a fallacious equation.
Some Hispanics have accepted the fiction. Some Hispanics have too easily accustomed themselves to impersonating a third race, a great new third race in America. But Hispanic is an ethnic term. It is a term denoting culture. So when the Census Bureau says by the year 2060 one-third of all Americans will identify themselves as Hispanic, the Census Bureau is not speculating in pigment or quantifying according to actual historical narratives, but rather is predicting how by the year 2060 one-third of all Americans will identify themselves culturally. For a country that traditionally has taken its understandings of community from blood and color, the new circumstance of so large a group of Americans identifying themselves by virtue of language or fashion or cuisine or literature is an extraordinary change, and a revolutionary one.
People ask me all the time if I envision another Quebec forming in the United States because of the large immigrant movement from the south. Do I see a Quebec forming in the Southwest, for example? No, I don’t see that at all. But I do notice the Latin American immigrant population is as much as 10 years younger than the U.S. national population. I notice the Latin American immigrant population is more fertile than the U.S. national population. I see the movement of the immigrants from south to north as a movement of youth—like approaching spring! —into a country that is growing middle-aged. I notice immigrants are the archetypal Americans at a time when we—U.S. citizens—have become postAmericans, most concerned with subsidized medications. I was at a small Apostolic Assembly in East Palo Alto a few years ago—a mainly Spanish-speaking congregation in an area along the freeway, near the heart of the Silicon Valley. This area used to be black East Palo Alto, but it is quickly becoming an Asian and Hispanic Palo Alto neighborhood.
There was a moment in the service when newcomers to the congregation were introduced. Newcomers brought letters of introduction from sister evangelical churches in Latin America. The minister read out the various letters and pronounced the names and places of origin to the community. The congregation applauded. And I thought to myself: It’s over. The border is over. These people were not being asked whether they had green cards. They were not being asked whether they arrived here legally or illegally. They were being welcomed within a new community for reasons of culture. There is now a north-south line that is theological, a line that cannot be circumvented by the U.S. Border Patrol. I was on a British Broadcasting Corporation interview show, and a woman introduced me as being “in favor” of assimilation. I am not in favor of assimilation any more than I am in favor of the Pacific Ocean or clement weather.
If I had a bumper sticker on the subject, it might read something like ASSIMILATION HAPPENS. One doesn’t get up in the morning, as an immigrant child in America, and think to oneself, “How much of an American shall I become today?” One
doesn’t walk down the street and decide to be 40 percent Mexican and 60 percent American. Culture is fluid. Culture is smoke. You breathe it. You eat it. You can’t help hearing it —Elvis Presley goes in your ear, and you cannot get Elvis Presley out of your mind.
I am in favor of assimilation. I am not in favor of assimilation. I recognize assimilation. A few years ago, I was in Merced, Calif. —a town of about 75,000 people in the Central Valley where the two largest immigrant groups at that time (California is so fluid, I believe this is no longer the case) were Laotian Hmong and Mexicans. Laotians have never in the history of the world, as far as I know, lived next to Mexicans. But there they were in Merced, and living next to Mexicans. They don’t like each other. I was talking to the Laotian kids about why they don’t like the Mexican kids. They were telling me that the Mexicans do this and the Mexicans don’t do that, when I suddenly realized that they were speaking English with a Spanish accent.
On his interview show, Bill Moyers once asked me how I thought of myself. As an American? Or Hispanic? I answered that I am Chinese, and that is because I live in a Chinese city and because I want to be Chinese. Well, why not? Some Chinese American people in the Richmond and Sunset districts of San Francisco sometimes paint their houses (so many qualifiers!) in colors I would once have described as garish: lime greens, rose reds, pumpkin. But I have lived in a Chinese city for so long that my eye has taken on that palette, has come to prefer lime greens and rose reds and all the inventions of this Chinese Mediterranean. I see photographs in magazines or documentary footage of China, especially rural China, and I see what I recognize as home. Isn’t that odd?
I do think distinctions exist. I’m not talking about an America tomorrow in which we’re going to find that black and white are no longer the distinguishing marks of separateness. But many young people I meet tell me they feel like Victorians when they identify themselves as black or white. They don’t think of themselves in those terms. And they’re already moving into a world in which tattoo or ornament or movement or commune or sexuality or drug or rave or electronic bombast are the organizing principles of their identity. The notion that they are white or black simply doesn’t occur.
And increasingly, of course, one meets children who really don’t know how to say what they are. They simply are too many things. I met a young girl in San Diego at a convention of mixed-race children, among whom the common habit is to define one parent over the other—black over white, for example. But this girl said that her mother was Mexican and her father was African. The girl said “Blaxican.” By reinventing language, she is reinventing America. America does not have a vocabulary like the vocabulary the Spanish empire evolved to describe the multiplicity of racial possibilities in the New World. The conversation, the interior monologue of America cannot rely on the old vocabulary—black, white.
We are no longer a black-white nation. So, what myth do we tell ourselves? The person who got closest to it was Karl Marx. Marx predicted that the discovery of gold in California would be a more central event to the Americas than the discovery of the Americas by Columbus—which was only the meeting of two tribes, essentially, the European and the Indian. But when gold was discovered in California in the 1840s, the entire world met. For the first time in human history, all of the known world gathered. The Malaysian stood in the gold fields alongside the African, alongside the Chinese, alongside the Australian, alongside the Yankee.
That was an event without parallel in world history and the begin24 ning of modern California—why California today provides the mythological structure for understanding how we might talk about the American experience: not as biracial, but as the re-creation of the known world in the New World.
Sometimes truly revolutionary things happen without regard. I mean, 25 we may wake up one morning and there is no black race. There is no white race either. There are mythologies, and—as I am in the business, insofar as I am in any business at all, of demythologizing such identities as black and white—I come to you as a man of many cultures. I come to you as Chinese. Unless you understand that I am Chinese, then you have not understood anything I have said.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
a. In your own words, state Rodriguez’s thesis.
b. In paragraph 2, the author says we cannot admit certain things to “the Vietnamese immigrant who served us our breakfast.” What are those things? Why does Rodriguez say we can’t admit them?
c. What is meant by the term “Ambiguous-American” (paragraph 6)? What is la raza cósmica (paragraph 7)?
d. Explain what the author means by “the Canadian notion of multiculturalism” (paragraph 8)? What model does he want us to follow?
e. What does Rodriguez mean when he says that he was “reinvented” by President Nixon (paragraph 10)?
f. Why does the author object to being called “Hispanic”? Why does he object to comparing blacks and Hispanics?
g. Explain the reference to Quebec in paragraph 15. If necessary, research this question on the Internet.
h. Paragraph 16 ends with a curious sentence. Re-read that paragraph and explain what that sentence means.
i. On what grounds does the author claim to be Chinese?
j. What does he mean in paragraph 24 when he says: “California … provides the mythical structure for understanding how we might talk about the American experience”?
How would you evaluate Rodriguez’s introduction? What methods does he use to capture our attention?
As you learned in the introduction, this essay first appeared in a publication for college teachers and administrators. What in Rodriguez’s style indicates that he is writing to such an audience?
o. Often, writers define things by explaining what they’re not. Where does Rodriguez do this?
p. Where does the author use anecdotes? Where does he use contrast? q. What function, other than ending the essay, does the conclusion serve?
ENGAGING THE TEXT
a. In paragraph 15, Rodriguez claims that immigrants are “archetypal Americans” while citizens are “post-Americans, most concerned with subsidized medications.” What does he mean? Is he being fair and accurate? Explain why or why not.
b. In paragraph 20, the author asserts that today’s young people use categories other than those of race to identify themselves. Paraphrase that paragraph. Then, write a paragraph or two in which you support or deny that assertion.
SUGGESTIONS FOR SUSTAINED WRITING
a. Rodriguez tells Bill Moyers that he’s Chinese. Have you ever wished to be a member of an ethnic, cultural, or religious group other than your own? If so, which one, and why? Write an essay in which you define that group by discussing its most interesting or attractive characteristics, and customs. b. In paragraph 24, the author states that in California the “known world” has been re-created in the “New World.” His point is that a multitude of people from different countries reside in this state. Can you say the same about your campus, your state, your city, or your community? If so, write an essay that defines this locale as a gathering point for many diverse cultures.
If this assignment does not interest you, write an essay that begins by explaining how, in “Blaxicans,” Rodriguez views the attitudes of American citizens towards immigrants. Continue the essay by discussing your own opinions on this issue. c. Paragraph 23 of Rodriguez’s essay mentions that Karl Marx believed that the California Gold Rush was “a more central event to the Americas” than Columbus’s discovery. Write an essay that uses scholarly research to support or deny this claim.
As an alternative, you might write about another historical event that you consider central to the development of the United States. Possible topics include the Boston Tea Party, the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the Battle of Gettysburg, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Mexican American War, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. You can also look into the distant future and predict ways in which an event like the election of the first African American president will change the United States.
About and by the Author
London, Scott. “A View from the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez.” scottlondon.com (http:/
interviews/rodriguez.html): Adapted from a broadcast of the radio program Insight & Outlook, this interview first appeared in print as “Crossing Borders” in The Sun magazine of August 1997.
Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking, 1992.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Essays” (http:/
richard_rodriguez.html): Provides access to dozens of essays by Rodriquez online.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: Godine, 1981.
Woods, Richard D. “Richard Rodriguez” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Thomson Gale (http:/
On Race and Racial Classification
Hacking, Ian. “Why Race Still Matters.” Daedalus 134:1 (2005):102–16. “OMB Standards for Data on Race and Ethnicity.” The Office of Minority Health. US Department of Health and Human Services (http:/ /
minorityhealth.hhs.gov/templates/browse.aspx?lvl=2&lvlID=172): Includes links to important definitions and legislation.
Prewitt, Kenneth. “Racial Classification in America: Where Do We Go from Here?” Daedalus 134:1 (2005): 5–17.
Buscemi, Santi, and Charlotte Smith, 75 Readings Plus, New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2013. 12/20/11
Provided for testing purposes only.
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