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Bill Moyers interviews Richard Rodriguez on NOW . 2.14.03
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think the-- mixture of races and cultures now has even grown more obvious and more profound. There is no one who is not participating in it in the United States now. in Atlanta, Georgia, I meet a young girl who says, "Do you know what I am?" I said, "No, I-- what are you?" She says, "I'm Korean-African." I said, "Oh, well, that's nice."
She tells me what all brown children will tell me at some-- in some version. She says, "My Korean grandmother thinks I'm too African. My African grandmother says I'm too Korean. So, I'm in the middle. I'm alone," she says. And then she says, "And that's only half of it."
And I say, "What-- what's the other half?" She says, "I'm a Baptist-Buddhist." She's not-- willing anymore to give up one of her identities. You know, in-- America there was a lot of white/black marriage in this country. But children had to choose one parent. Now, there are children are calling themselves both.
And they're not only doing that by virtue of blood but by virtue of religion. That is an-- in some sense, a revolution that's happening in this country. And no theologian is addressing it. This mixing of religious traditions.
BILL MOYERS: So, what is brown?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Brown is the color of our mixture. It's the color, ultimately of our American identity. It is the color we have resisted. It is-- it is not blue, the most erotic color in our imagination.
BILL MOYERS: You say brown is the color produced by careless desire
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes careless desire and curiosity, too. The child who wants to know what's on the other side of town. The-- the-- I remember-- there's-- -- always in so many stories that people tell me about their childhood, that moment of wanting to know what those people were eating over there.
I remember when I-- told you this story, I think 12 years ago, when we first talked that when my best friend a good Irish kid named Tom Keeting used to come over and pick me up for Cub Scouts on-- Monday nights, my mother, like other immigrant mothers, would run to the kitchen. Would put lids on everything.
So, she was embarrassed by our ethnicity by the-- by how Mexican our food was every night. And now, some day between that-- moment and today, America started eating Mexican food. And-- and suddenly, there is this interest in other people's food.
Now we are eating the Escheated (SIC) food. We go to restaurants where it's Vietnamese and Italian on the same plate. And we are swallowing it. Suddenly, you are eating mole at a restaurant in New York and mispronouncing it, pronouncing it correctly, understanding it or not understanding it. And--
BILL MOYERS: I-- could even tell the difference between good mole and bad mole.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That's because you're-- a Texan. And you Texans-- can I say-- can I just say something about Texas? The--
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Be my guest.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Tex-Mex is so much better than Cal-Mex. Because Texas in this long adversarial relationship that you described between the Texan and the Mexican, nonetheless, because you-- we were on each other's mind there gets created this fiery food that is both Texan and Mexican. And it tastes wonderful because it is-- it is-- it is the-- outcome of a an enormous struggle. In-- in California, the Mexican border is a vacuous border. Baja California barely exists in the imagination of most Californians. Cal-Mex tastes like a-- like-- Taco Bell. It-- it doesn't have any-- spice, any flavor. You Texans are two centuries ahead of us in the kitchen.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That is what brown is. I-- alone, I am nothing. I am nothing. But when-- the two of us meet, when you become my best friend in Sacramento, I-- when I go into your house, and I suddenly realize that you are not foreign to me, when I begin to borrow your language and your humor, when-- your mother invites me to dinner, and I begin to eat your food, when I begin to walk like you down the street, which is what Americans do, we all walk like each other, then I become brown.
BILL MOYERS: as you talk, I think that the story that's been front page news the last few days, that Hispanics have now become the largest minority in America. That they are out-distancing ahead of Blacks. What's the significance of that?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, what the significance of it is that no Hispanic politicians have noted just how outrageous a statement that is. For about 15 years, the census bureau has been prompting this-- -- pre-- this-- possibility that we are replacing, that's the word the census bureau uses, replaces African-Americans. That is an outrage to me.
The notion that I replace African-Americans, when-- I cannot imagine my childhood without the example of African-Americans in my life. I cannot imagine my writing life without-- the example of James Baldwin. I can't think of my childhood without the black and white television on which I watched the Negro civil rights movement snake it's way through the southern towns.
We shall overcome. And how the determination of a group of people not to live lives bent. But to stand up right, changed my sense of what it means to be an American. I do not replace African-Americans.
BILL MOYERS: But growing up in Texas, Richard, I remember that Hispanics Hispanics and Blacks regarded each other uneasily.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And I've wondered if that's because of race, or because America has always pitted the people at the bottom against each other.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think it's both. I-- and-- I do have a race. I am Mestizo. And that fact--
BILL MOYERS: Mestizo means?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: A-- a combination of the Indian and the Spaniard.
BILL MOYERS: Alright.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I have relatives who are very light skinned. I have relatives who look very Indian. I would guess in-- a-- in a small, Texas town in the 1950's, those of us who were very dark skinned would have been treated slightly differently than those of us in my-- in my own family, who are very light skinned.
BILL MOYERS: What do Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans have in common, except language?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, they have the-- in common, the idea that they have something in common. But-- beyond that, I'm not sure they have very much in common. And many of us don't speak Spanish.
Many of us who are two and three generations in this country speak what I call American, not English, but American. That is a language combined with a very brown tongue, in which there is German, in which there is Yiddish, in which there is-- lots of Spanish words, obviously. But what we have in common is the notion of Cutora. That our culture matters, much more than our race. So that--
BILL MOYERS: Culture more than race? So-- so--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Oh, well, it's not that Latin America is not racist. Latin America is-- in some ways more fiercely racist than the United States. I would never be on-- Mexican television. There's no way I--
BILL MOYERS: Why?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, look at this face. This is an Indian face I have. I was born in the 16th century, from some collision of Spain and the New World.
My mother was a-- my-- great, great, great, great grandmother was an Indian. My great, great grandfather was a hairy Spaniard. From that-- from that meeting, this violent collision of cultures, I was born.
BILL MOYERS: So, l--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But Mexico looks at this face, and they see-- they see the Indian. You cannot even say the word Indio in Mexico.
BILL MOYERS: Face not color. Features?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Oh-- yes, face and color.
BILL MOYERS: But-- but-- but--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: And-- and-- too.
BILL MOYERS: --I see your color - in Mexico.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But-- but not on television. You're-- Mexican television is like Swedish television. It's-- it's an exercise in peroxide. It's-- it's not-- it's not real.
BILL MOYERS: What is their favorite? What are they-- what are they after? White?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, they-- are after white. But they are also afraid of white.
Now the-- brilliance of the United States in some sense is that it allows us to change our culture. America is all about changing your culture. Culture gaps are the heart of what--
BILL MOYERS: Even though you can't change your class, you can change your culture?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Even though you can't change your race in America, you can change your culture. In Latin America, on the other hand, people are always changing their races. Everybody's getting married. In Brazil, there are over 300 versions of race.
If Poppy is this and Mommy is this, then the kid is this. We have a whole language in Latin America for mixture, for brown. But in Latin America there is-- notion of-- culture, which cannot be changed.
BILL MOYERS: Culture meaning?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Meaning music, religion--
BILL MOYERS: Food.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Food, language--
BILL MOYERS: Hobbies.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: So, when I write Hungry of Memory, my first book, and I argue for the necessity of American English, for young immigrant children from Latin America, I argue against bilingual education. That the accusation that is made to me by my critics is that I'm-- that I have betrayed my culture.
That's a very serious accusation. I write my second book DAYS OF OBLIGATION, as a way of saying, "What is my culture, Latin America?" The closest I can find is this-- is this-- line that connects me to Spanish Catholicism. This notion of the tragic, that Unomuno calls.
The sense of the tragic that I feel in my life, so different from the-- the gaudy optimism of the United States, where people barely die in this country. Everybody's passing away. In Mexico, people really die. And death is at much more of the center of the culture.
In-in the-- on a Mexican crucifix, Christ is always hanging on the cross. It's always Good Friday. On the American Protestant crucifix, I remember my first Protestant church, the first thing I see is that it was Easter. Christ had gotten off the crucifix and walked away. I wanted to be-- I wanted to be optimistic like that.
But always there was this sense of the tragic coming into my the Latin sense.
BILL MOYERS: What does brown mean for affirmative action?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Brown means this difference between -- say the blond Cuban and the Black Puerto Rican, and the brown-- Guata-- Mexican in Los Angeles, this makes our racial variety-- so embarrassing for those of us who claim that Hispanics are discriminated group. My first book, Hunger of Memory is the story of a scholarship boy. I wrote that book against politicians who were describing me ethically or racially in those years, who were describing me as a minority. At a point in which I had become middle class, and I was telling them the politicians in this first book, that you know, I'm not a minority. There are people who are minorities, including a lot of white kids who live in Appalachia, who are truly minorities.
BILL MOYERS: You resented that didn't you? RICHARD RODRIGUEZ Oh yes, t the way the liberal agenda has written out the white poor in this country for the last 30 years is an outrage
BILL MOYERS: Yes, there's this troubled me--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: And the way-- the way it is allowed-- those of us who are middle class, to advance on the backs of the poor, the-- by-- -- playing with that word minority, which is-- which is used-- as a numerical label. I am in this room with you, a minority. But I'm not culturally a minority.
We belong to the same world. But the assumption is that by advancing me, that I change the condition of those people in this country, who are culturally minorities. That is, those people who are outside, who do not speak this public language. Those Mexicans who work in east LA-- my tie with them isvery vague indeed.
But the notion that I'm a-numeric minority allows me to advance on the basis of their exclusion. Do you--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: --know what I mean?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But I will never forget-- I will never forget that that class barrier separates me. And I will never let you or anyone in America call me a minority because that trivializes their situation.
BILL MOYERS: I have to struggle with this because I was in the Johnson administration when we ushered affirmative action in because we understood that after 250 years of slavery and-- and repression we had to try to help some people get into the race who had never been allowed to run.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And yet at the same time, it became painful to recognize that the real losers in this were white working-class boys in the South
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes, no, I-- you know-- there are so many things about Lyndon Johnson that I that I admire. I read--
BILL MOYERS: And Richard Nixon. I find your view of Nixon sympathetic and compelling.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. I call him the my-- the Dark Father of Hispanicity. But I have a long relationship with Richard Nixon. And it is appropriate that I am his son in that cultural sense.
BILL MOYERS: Why are your his son?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: He named me. He named me Hispanic. And as long as I carry that name I am beholden to Nixon.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think maybe because he was a Californian. Maybe cause-- because he wanted to undercut the Black's civil rights movement, which had moved from the south, where it had been Protestant and-- and stoic. It had moved to the north and become secular and angry.
Maybe Richard Nixon wanted to undercut that movement as as a young activist changed from being Negroes to being Blacks, I am Black. Maybe Richard Nixon wanted to say, "Well, you're not the only show in town. Richard Nixon re-- really-imagines America. He gives us our five categories, which are the five categories of affirmative action.
BILL MOYERS: They are?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: White, Black, American-Indian slash Eskimo, Asian-- slash-- Pacific Islander and Hispanic. Hispanic is--
BILL MOYERS: So, that's the moment you came-- you became a Hispanic?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Until then, I was a Mexican-American. The conversation we haven't had yet, Bill, is whether and how many of us are black in this country? What are those categories? I am black mean anything in this country? I see people-- my UPS man who literally is brown.
I don't-- I don't know what race he is. He might be Samoan. He might be Filipino. He might be African or he might be some combination of them. The notion of being black as the notion of being white is becoming more and more difficult.
I have a friend in Portland, Oregon. She-- she looks a little bit like Lucille Ball. She married a Chinese. Every year-- she has Chinese Gringo kids. I don't know-- there's no category to describe what she is. So, every year the-- she would mark in the Richard Nixon categories that they were white and they were Asian. And one year the school administration said, "You can't be both."
And she said, "But they are both." And the woman said, "Listen-- Gertrude," she said, "you know, it's Tuesday morning. I have so much to do. Choose one." And then my friend said, "Well, which one should we choose?" And she said, "Well, we can use more Asians," she said.
So, one-- one year, one of the sons became Asian and the other son was white. And then we-- they'd reverse it. It is becoming like that. Whereas if you are black in America, you are black, even when you are not black. Even if you are mulatto, even-- as an actress in Hollywood who wins an Academy Award, who sits next to her white mother in the audience, gets up and receives an Academy Award, and all the cut-throats in Hollywood congratulate themselves for giving an Oscar this year to a black actress.
And her skin is lighter than mine. Even in 2002, which is when she won her Academy Award, it is still too difficult to say, "I am brown in Los Angeles, I am brown in Beverly Hills," where everything is possible.
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about Halle Berry.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. I'm talking about Halle Berry.
BILL MOYERS: And what does that say to you?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: it says that America really hasn't found a language to talk about our mixture. You know? Our secretary of state, Colin Powell says in page nine of his autobiography, "Yes, I'm African." he says. "But I'm also Caribbean Indian." The Indian-African marriage in the Americas is one of the most interesting-- marriages that took place.
Widespread, so that there is not today a single African-American friend of mine that does not say somewhere in the course of our friendship, "I'm part Indian." There's no word to describe the children who are African-Indian in this country.
BILL MOYERS: We don't have the right language.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No, we don't have the right language.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Colin Powell says he's also Anglo-Saxon. And he's also Scots-Irish. Nowhere in America do we have a history that's-- that-- that-- an erotic history that tells us about the mixing of these people.
About how we come to be as a people. Literally how we come to be. Instead, we have these categories: white, black, and now this new, ludicrous category that Richard Nixon invented for me, Hispanic. In 1972, I became Hispanic.
BILL MOYERS: So in the end, it is class that wins?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, it's-- it's-- it will be class except at-- at some level, the-- all of us play-- play parts in each others' lives. And I said-- you know I've been in-- I've been-- not so much an admirer of the-- illegal immigrant but a-- but an awed witness to their journey. The poor are in movement all over the world.
And they are forcing us to change the way we see the world. They are forcing on-- on us a notion that the-- we, as Americans, exist within the Americas. 'Cause--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: --because suddenly on the roof of my apartment there are these Guatemalan Indians singing in this-- this-- this high-fluted Indian voice this Spanish Colonial language that was forced down their throat. And they are singing under my skylight. And they are reminding me that Guatemala is not so far away.
BILL MOYERS: But the facts, the data show that inequality is great and growing. And that the Guatemalans singing on the rooftop across from your apartment has very little chance of the upward mobility that--
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. Exactly. What--
BILL MOYERS: --becomes.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Join me then in my criticism of affirmative action this movement that has-- that essentially has created a black and brown bourgeoisie in the name of the poor. But we-- what Richard Nixon's five category never gave us, what Lyndon Johnson perhaps would have wanted if he had-- if he had thought out the implications of affirmative action. And that is the education of the poor. Above all, the poor. Start social revolutions from the bottom and go up. Don't start it at the top and go-- and expect the-- the bourgeoisie to improve the condition of those at the bottom. You know, California right now has the highest-- except for Hawaii. Has the highest rate of interracial marriages. But they also have the largest number of per capita of gated communities in the country. This is happening simutaneously. We are marrying each other. We are-- we are violating borders. And we are also pulling back.
BILL MOYERS: You know, Richard-- when I read Brown over the weekend I-- I realized the bitterness, maybe the anger that I had detected in your first book and in our first interview is gone.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. Well, Brown gives me a way of dealing with my own-- contradictions. There's so many things within me that are-- that are-- that come from so many different sources. The fact that I'm homosexual but I'm also a Catholic. The fact that I'm-- that I-- that I hold my relationship with the English language so dearly that this language that I'm using now I love.
I love English literature. But I also see myself connected to the Spanish Empire. That I can-- I can embrace all those things makes me brown. And it allows me to accept the fact that I am a contradiction to myself.