- Remarks of
- Journalist and
- at a Convocation on May 23,
1997 on Providing Public
- Library Service to
California's 21st Century Population
- 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. Your
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 a 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 I.
- 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 attuned 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
- 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. If 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,
- 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.
- 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
- 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,
- 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 [pointing to his head]. 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
- 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
- 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
fought 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 Altar 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
- 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
- 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.
- Richard Rodriguez is a graduate
of Stanford University and spent two years in a religious studies
program at Columbia University. Hunger
Rodriguez's autobiography, was greeted with great acclaim upon its
publication in 1982. The book won several awards, including
the Gold Medal for non-fiction from the Commonwealth Club of
California, the Christopher Prize for Autobiography, and the
Ansfeld-Wolf Prize for Civil Rights from the Cleveland
Foundation. His second book, Days of Obligation: An
Argument with my Mexican Father, was published in 1992 and was
one of three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize in the non-fiction
category in 1993.
- Rodriguez is an editor with
Pacific News Service in San Francisco, an essayist for the
MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, and a contributing editor for
Harper's Magazine, U.S. News and World
Report and the Sunday Opinion Page of The Los Angeles
Times. Rodriguez has produced two documentaries for the
BBC, and was the subject of a two-part profile on Bill Moyers'
"World of Ideas" television program. His articles appear in
numerous publications, including The New York Times, The
Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, Time,
Mother Jones and The New Republic.
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