Converging Cultures

July 29, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We Americans are inclined, I think, to tell our national history by the way of England. We begin our history books with Plymouth Rock. This summer at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, it’s bee possible to consider an alternate narrative line, Father Spain, not Mother England.

Consider these paintings, these carvings, these weavings of Latin America. Consider the Spanish past, which may also become our future. Although many countries of Europe wanted part of the new world, the two countries which have had the largest influence were Spain and England, those great Renaissance rivals.

Here in the United States today we tend to remember the 13 original British colonies. We are apt to forget that a large portion of what became the United States of America was once the Colonial Territory of Spain. For three centuries, this is the way the Americas looked, the vice royalty of Peru extending from Santiago to Caracas, the vice royalty of New Spain extending from Guatemala well into what became the United States of America.

This exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum is called “Converging Cultures,” for what was distinctive about Colonial Spain was its genius for mixture, cultures, races, memory mixed in the South. Consider this 18th century statue of Mary. The ivory is from the Philippines, the carving is probably the work of Asian artisans imitating the dress Virgin Mary’s popular among the Indians of the Andes. Thus, does the Spanish Virgin Mary become Asian by way of the Incas.

The unifying pronoun of Latin America is the “we,” the Spanish nos otros. New Spain was a culture of mixture, the wavering Baroque line, the connection. The great pronoun of Anglo America is the English “I.” In 1588, the Spanish Armada was sunk by Elizabeth’s Navy, but is it possible that the war between these two rivals is not over and that a proxy conflict is now taking place in the U.S.?

American politicians promise voters a fence tall enough to separate us from Latin America. A movement is underway across the United States to declare the language of Queen Elizabeth I our national tongue, implicitly outlawing the language of Philip of Aragon from our public life. On the other hand, many Hispanics, especially in the Southwest, still refer to non- Hispanics as Anglos–an antique word, an absurd word for a population as ethnically diverse as ours, but a term also telling. As one British writer has remarked, the United States is the bratty child of England, though, of course, Latin America presses North every day.

Here in New York the other day I got into a subway car and was surrounded by Spanish, Puerto Rican accents, Cuban, Dominican, and there was a group of Mexican men, men who told me they’d come all the way from the state of Pueblo in Mexico to find work in this city. As new Spain looms, fallen members of the House of Windsor fly to New York, where they are embraced by publishers and socialites. Here in New York, the cultural elite curtsies toward London. Publishers, editors, critics sound a distinctly British accent.

The magazine that once represented the cities of the world, the New Yorker, is today a celebration of Anglophilia with British fiction, British scandals, British eccentrics. The forces of England and Spain are on the move. The American eye is spreading throughout Latin America, but the Spanish nos otros is coming this way, and we may not be able to build a wall against it, for as converging cultures, this show at the Brooklyn Museum makes clear Latin America has a long genius for mixing. Tonight, the Spanish Armada is headed this way and will be swallowed hole by millions of Americans at Taco Bell.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.