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'Impure genius'?
New Latin American sensibility is being born in the U.S., says Richard Rodriguez

By Richard Rodriguez
5/26/2006
[Episcopal News Service] 

Note to readers:
The following opinion article is reprinted by ENS with permission of the author, Richard Rodriguez, who has addressed numerous Episcopal Church groups, including the House of Bishops, the National Association of Episcopal Schools, Episcopal Communicators, and various cathedrals, parishes and diocesan convention meetings. Rodriguez, a Sacramento-born Mexican American, has been a regular essayist on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and is the author of three books, "Hunger of Memory," "Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father," and "Brown: The Last Discovery of America." The following article also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 19, 2006.

[Special to ENS] -- The United States is facing the return of the native. In the American scheme of things, the Indian disappeared from history: reluctantly, sadly, tragically, he was eliminated. He went into retreat in our memory. Yet, suddenly, spilling out from over our southern horizon are people who were supposed to no longer exist.

The discomfiting thought occurs to us that history has not ended. Instead, we are in the middle of another turn of the wheel our words can't describe. We are facing a future we can't name.

So we have decided to call the newcomers "Hispanics" in reference to the Spanish king who once ruled Mexico and the American Southwest. Although most of these faces coming toward us are Mexicans of mixed blood — mestizos — the imprint of the Indian is clearly on their faces. It is on my face!

The long struggle between the U.S. and Mexico began as a fight over land in the 19th century. Mexico used to be the larger of the two countries but lost its enormous northern lands — now the U.S. Southwest, from Texas to New Mexico to California — when Americans began to expand westward.

There remains an anxiety on the part of both countries about this memory. Mexicans have a sense that this is a land that ancestrally was Mexican, although there is a recognition that it is no longer. But for the U.S. to see this land being populated again by Spanish-speaking people is to remember an extinguished part of our history.

This unsettles Americans because they're not used to the repetition of history. They do not have a circular sense of time, in which events repeat themselves, but a linear sense of history going one direction only — into the future.

The most recent wave of immigration is likely to change not just the destiny of the United States but of Latin America as well. The Latino population in the U.S. is now more than 40 million people. That is equivalent in size to several of the largest countries in Latin America.

A new Latin American sensibility is being born — here, in the U.S.! One of the things I've seen in the huge pro-immigrant demonstrations is not simply families walking together — the son walking with the father, the mother with her babies — but also Colombians walking alongside Mexicans, walking alongside Dominicans, walking alongside Guatemalans. These people are no longer members of their ethnic or national groups; they're marching as some new nation of the "Hispanic" world. That is quite revolutionary.

At the same time, we are seeing the reunion of the hemisphere from another angle. America is discovering itself within the Americas. This is quite a new discovery for a country that has traditionally written its history from east to west. Now it is populated by millions of people, here legally and illegally, who describe the U.S. as El Norte. Their presence forces the country to also imagine itself anew along a north-south axis.

The immigrant experience in the United States is profoundly different from that in Europe. For example, Arabs and North Africans in France confront a completed country and culture every day in the subway, on television, in a bakery or on the radio. France, like the rest of Europe, has a long-formed and finished culture that does not need them.

In the United States, we have a long tradition of immigrants being the very ones who forge the American identity. There was no identity here when the first immigrants arrived — except that of the Indian faces, which are now coming back. In this country, the immigrant, at least theoretically or mythically, has a possibility of adding to the country.

Of course, there are those in the United States who now say: "We are a complete nation. We don't need any more immigrants." But by and large, the idea that immigrants contribute to the formation of a work in progress still dominates the American imagination.

Truly, in the U.S. today, the past and the future are meeting. It is at this border of time that Washington plans to put soldiers, and there is talk of a wall.

What this obsession reveals, perhaps, is the nativist anxiety of a relatively young country that has been black and white since its founding. A future marriage to Latin Americans, literally and figuratively, means the introduction of the mestizo, the mixed culture — what Jose Vasconcelos, the education minister at the time of the Mexican Revolution, called la raza cosmica. In some profound way, this transformation is subversive, freeing the U.S. from its black-white dialectic.

Ultimately, what we mestizos bring to the United States is a sense of impurity. After all, we are a people who violate borders. That is our gift.