Rodriguez on the Pacific North East

June 26, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I am standing in a forest not so many miles away from Seattle, Washington. This is a part of the country we still do not readily name the American North. In coming years, it will become, I think, the most dangerous and the most optimistic point on the American compass, the North, El Norte.

Nearly 40 years ago, Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. The map of America lost its symmetry. More importantly, our imagination of ourselves was stretched in new directions. Hawaii took us far beyond the West Coast where we had imagined America ended. Hawaii taught us to see America through Asian eyes–West to East. American history books had always been written East to West across the page, beginning with Plymouth Rock, ending with cowboys and Indians.

The Civil War impressed the distinctiveness of the American South and our imagination. The Civil War divided America into North and South, but the North was never more than a political idea. Massachusetts was in New England. New York was an Eastern state. Illinois, even the Dakotas, were part of the Midwest. It is as though until Alaska, America did not have a North.

As a Californian, I have always thought that the East Coast invented the myth of the West. I think now that California is inventing a new region of the country, this North, a Northern exposure. As California has grown more congested, all the words, the entire romance that used to attach to the West, has begun to shift North. Alaska replaced California.

Alaska became renowned for its solitude, its vacancy, its pristine silence. From the perspective of California, Oregon is a Northern state and Seattle a Northern city. A whole tier of states now seem to cluster under the influence of Alaska–Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Northern parts of Colorado and Utah, along with Wyoming, and, of course, Montana.

Montana has been in the news lately for its militia men and its Harvard graduate who lived alone in a cabin. Latin American immigrants, millions of whom now live in the Southwest, refer to the United States as El Norte. Many ex-Californians eager to escape the congestion and the ethnic and racial complexity of the Southwest, head North. If smog-ridden L.A. is the tarnished capital of the West, Seattle is the capital of the new North.

This is a city proudest of its internationalism. Boeing will fly you anywhere in the world you want to go. Microsoft opens Windows. But this is also the city that many Americans regard as a refuge. Curiously, many Americans associate Seattle with safe, clean cafes, where you can sip the dangerous brews of the South, beans from Sumatra, Mexico, Kenya.

Natives of Seattle in Cheyenne, in Boise, tell me these days that they are chagrined and disturbed by the recent migration from the South. A culture of fear and alienation is thriving in the forest, imported from points South. Go North, young man. Skinheads are leaving California for Idaho at the same time that Guatemalan teenagers are headed to El Norte looking for work in Los Angeles.

The Northern highway is becoming the most important highway in the American imagination, linking fear to possibility. In the next century, the dusty road from the tiny village in Guatemala will be linked inevitably to the path that leads to the log cabin in a forest in the North.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.