July 14, 2000


Brave New Mundo — The Cactus Wall Has Fallen on Both Sides of the Border

By Richard Rodriguez

Last week, after Mexicans elected Vicente Fox their new president, a U.S. journalist gushed: "The Cactus Wall has fallen."

In more ways than one, I'd say. For what we are witnessing in Mexico is also apparent throughout the United States. The line separating "us" from "ellos" is blurring.

Consider Mexico: Not so long ago, Mexicans would refer to citizens of the United States as norteamericanos. But then the North American Free Trade Agreement forced Mexicans to look at the map: Mexico is a North American country.

Last week, Fox appeared on U.S. television, wearing a Reaganesque grin. He urged the formation of a "common market" of Mexico and its fellow North American neighbors. He made the suggestion in English. Fox speaks fluent English. He's not the first Mexican president to do so. But he is the first to be so unguarded. (Earlier presidents, for reasons of Mexican pride, were more cautious about speaking English in public.)

Last week, while Fox was holding an unprecedented bilingual press conference in Mexico City, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, on a swing through California, was insisting to audiences that the GOP has "corazon," and Vice President Al Gore was mocking his Republican rival for promising voters only "palabras."

Clearly, some change is going on — on both sides of the border. Mexico is becoming North Americanized. The United States is becoming — what shall we say? — Latinized.

Because, in centuries past, a large part of the United States was ruled by Spain, then Mexico, it is perhaps ludicrous to speak of the Latinization of the United States today as something "new." Yet, of course, it is. England and Spain left more of their mark on the New World than any other European country. But they were Renaissance rivals.

Antagonism marked the borders that separated each culture from the other. To this day, one hears of cafeteria battles between "Hispanic" and "Anglo" high school students, proxies in a sea battle between the Spanish armada and Queen Elizabeth's navy.

But now, a change. Mexico's new president carries an English surname and is not shy about his knowledge of English. Texas, a state with a long history of friction with Mexico, has a governor who is not shy about his Spanish fluency or his Mexican in-laws. Pity the nativists on both sides of the border! Because Mexico is the smaller country and poorer, the Mexican nativist perhaps could have anticipated our brave new mundo. American nativists have more reason to be surprised, but they would do well to remember that none other than President Richard M. Nixon was the father of today's Hispanic America.

In 1973, the Nixon administration described America as a pentagon: no longer just a black-and-white dialectic between Europe and Africa. Nixon colonized America. His administration proposed five possibilities on the affirmative-action form. There is white, there is black, there is Asian/Pacific Islander, there is American Indian/Alaskan Native, and — last but not least — there is Hispanic. (Choose one.)

Initially, many Mexican Americans resisted the Nixonian label. After all, Mexicans in America represent 70 percent of the total number of Hispanics. So many felt their story and status diminished by Nixon's sweeping Hispanic category. Others regarded the English word as too colonial and chose "Latino," the word that remains today the more politically correct. In truth, however, Latino is doubly colonial. For it is, after all, a Spanish word, and it connects the descendants of Latin America to the far shores of the Latin empire, which is southern Europe.

I prefer Nixon's term. Hispanic is appropriate to our confused state of affairs. Here is an English word that describes the descendants of Latin America, living in the United States. Soy Hispanic.

The purpose of Nixon's five categories was to flatten differences, rather than to compartmentalize us from each other. Nixon would have said, I think: To get rid of a minority, to make it disappear into America, throw money at it — and affirmative-action privileges, and little flatteries. In 19th-century America, Irish and Italian immigrants were told that they were "white." (America is a country of broad strokes.) Just so, does America today tell Peruvian and Salvadoran immigrants that they are alike, Hispanics.

The immigrant may refuse the label. But with time, the experience of America forces it. If you are Mexican and live in the United States, you end up knowing more Salvadorans than you ever would in Mexico. If you are Cuban in Miami, you hear a standardized Spanish accent on Spanish-language television. If you are a Dominican in Hartford, Conn., you end up hearing politicians call you Hispanic; after a while, you come to believe them. Those of us today who call ourselves Latino or Hispanic are, in fact, merely acknowledging our Americanization. We're like the Vietnamese teenager who told me recently that she only dates "Asian" or the woman who cares for my parents and who calls herself a "Pacific Islander" — we have all become children of Nixon's America.

Today's politicians try to come up with an Hispanic agenda, to seduce voters. But neither side has come up with anything more than a middle-class American agenda. For by the time Hispanics assume a public face and a voice, by the time we begin to vote and assume our full place in this country, we want what other middle-class Americans want — jobs, health insurance and good schools. We want mobility for our children. Within a decade, many of today's Hispanics will disappear into the American mass as we marry out of the group and into the nation.

But here is the curious part: Even while Nixon's label Americanized us, it simultaneously Latinized you. That little noun — from the start — became synonymous with fertility and ascending totals. Government statisticians kept score. Nineteen million Hispanics became 22 million, which became 25 million, then thirty-something.

The best thing about Hispanic numbers is that they force Americans, at last, to realize that Latin America is not far away. Latin America lives within our borders. Young Americans (not Hispanic) do not find it surprising, consequently, to find salsa, rather than ketchup, on the kitchen table or to hear Tito Puente's music, happily sounding everywhere in the city, from the grave.

The danger of Hispanic numbers is that they will be used as a way of ignoring American blacks. One regularly hears from the Census Bureau, for example, that Hispanics are soon to outnumber blacks and become America's largest minority. The prediction is an absurdity, because you cannot compare a racial group — blacks — to an ethnic group — Hispanics. My best hope is that Hispanicity might release blacks from the old black-and-white dialectic, which white liberals insist on maintaining.

To a country where blood has been crucial to identity, Hispanics bring a vocabulary for mixed blood, like "mestizo" and "mulatto." Most important, Hispanicity is culture or the illusion of it, the memory of ancestors or their ghosts. Today, white Cubans describe themselves as Hispanic, not white; and there are black Dominicans who describe themselves as Hispanic, not black.

In this way is America becoming a Hispanic nation: Everywhere around us, culture is overcoming race. There is Chinese hip-hop in Dallas. The best golfer in America — and the world — is an African American Indian Thai. The Idaho skinhead's favorite food is burritos. Maya Indians sing Baptist hymns in Georgia. And politicians run for the American presidency in the year 2000, speaking the language of 16th-century conquistadors.

Richard Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father."

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