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The Blending of America

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Today, Think Tank is joined by author and journalist Richard Rodriguez. He is an editor at the Pacific News Service, contributing editor for Harper’s magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Rodriguez is the author of the book, Brown: The Last Discovery of America. The topic before the house, the blending of America this week on Think Tank.
Ben Wattenberg: Welcome to Think Tank, Richard Rodriguez.
Richard Rodriguez: Thank you, Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: Let me begin by asking you to give us a short thumbnail biography if you could.
Richard Rodriguez: Sure. I am the son of Mexican immigrant parents, grew up working class in Sacramento. I can safely call myself a minority when I was growing up. That is, I was socially alienated from American society from the first year’s landing of my life in this country.
Ben Wattenberg: What language did you speak?
Richard Rodriguez: I was Spanish speaking, but it was a very rural Spanish of limited vocabulary. My parents were from village cultures of …my father had two years of Mexican grammar school education. My mother had slightly more.
Ben Wattenberg: What did he do for a living?
Richard Rodriguez: My father made false teeth, and there were all these…I remember him in his white smock with…surrounded by all of these grinning false teeth, but he was a very…he’s a very sober man. This language came to me early through the agency of Ireland. I was educated by a group of Irish nuns, wonderful women, determined, brave and unsentimental, who forced the English language down my throat. They were members of an order called the Sisters of Mercy.
Ben Wattenberg: Where did you get your post-secondary school education?
Richard Rodriguez: After the nuns everything was easy. I became a scholarship boy, conventional Nineteenth Century American education. I went to Stanford University, then went to Columbia University, then I went to a Center in England for Renaissance studies, called the Warburg Institute, and then to Berkley.
Ben Wattenberg: You were an English major?
Richard Rodriguez: My main field of interest was English Literature. Language has always been my major preoccupation. This language, which the Irish gave me. It is something that I never stopped wondering about and tasting these words, these nouns and adjectives and adverbs on my tongue.
Ben Wattenberg: How did you enjoy Stanford? What kind of life was that?
Richard Rodriguez: This was the beginning of the Sixties and all the confusion of those years was part of my Stanford education. I did not find it an intellectually challenging time. I found those first years of my education to be the formative years which leads me to believe that to this day that if you want to improve the education for young poor children in this country, get them into those first years and get that schooling, first, second, and third grade. Those are the years when we lose children in this country. By the time you get to Stanford, you’re on a different roller coaster. You’ve already, you’re already determined of…or pushed into a future of inevitable success.
Ben Wattenberg: Did you go all into tweeds and pipes and stuff when you studied in England?
Richard Rodriguez: I flirted with that idea of being sort of the wag at high table, but no, finally I know what I know about myself is that I will never be English, but I will always be Irish.
Ben Wattenberg: I’ve heard a saying that I understand it is used now by Latino mothers to their children without any desire to deprecate Spanish but they say Spanish is the language of bus boys to get their kids to speak English. Does that sound right?
Richard Rodriguez: I think my parents really did comply with that encouragement to pick up from these Irish nuns. I think it came with obvious costs. About those costs I’m quite frank, and the first book I wrote, called The Hunger of Memory, which is a story of my education. It’s a story of what it costs emotionally for a child to move from a working class culture to a middle class one, and my dissatisfaction with some of the programs of what I call the “ethnic left.” At a time when I was in graduate school, suddenly I was a minority in the eyes of the university when, in fact, in my own sense of my life, I had become a middle-class American. No longer anything like the child I had been when I was severely disadvantaged. I also began to hear people say that I think children should speak their family language in the classroom, and I really began to test out those ideas in that first book. It’s a very controversial book to this day because of my skepticism about bilingual education and my determination that children should not be held back in ethnic or native cultures but encouraged to think of themselves as American.
Ben Wattenberg: Right. So you would agree with the Ron Unz proposition that ultimately sunk bilingual education here in California?
Richard Rodriguez: Yeah, it wasn’t the Ron Unz proposition, it was originally begun by four Latino mothers trying to get their children out of this enormous bureaucracy called bilingual education, and they couldn’t do it.
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, but he picked up the flag didn’t he?
Richard Rodriguez: I don’t want to denigrate that, but I do want to say that this came from the community too….
Ben Wattenberg: I understand.
Richard Rodriguez: …and that finally parents, given the survival of their children, are not sentimental, and I think Hispanic parents want for their children the best they can get, and I don’t think my parents were any exception. I wrote this book called Hunger of Memory, and my critics began to say that I was ashamed of being Mexican, or I didn’t want to look at the mirror. I didn’t want to deal with this Mayan face that faced me every day. But I thought to myself, well, I’m not sure if I’m ashamed of being Mexican. I don’t think of myself as Mexican. I think of myself as American of Mexican ancestry. I wrote a second book called Days of Obligation, which was a book about what it is to be related to Mexico. The most powerful sense for me as a writer, as a young man, was through Catholicism, and the sense of the tragic, which is very, very strong in Spanish culture. Very different from the kind of Protestant optimism that is in the United States. This third book, Brown, is a book about race, and it is occasioned really by the prediction that I began to hear about fifteen years ago by the Census Bureau that Hispanics were destined to replace African-Americans as the country’s largest minority. I remember hearing down on the freeway, hearing that census and feeling the impropriety of that prediction. In what way, I thought to myself. In what way do I replace African-Americans? I don’t replace African-Americans. I owe my life to them.
Ben Wattenberg: It’s also hokum in a lot of ways, that idea that Mexicans will become, that Latinos will become the largest minority, because you know, Latinos come from forty different countries. If you took five or six Eastern European countries, and said, that’s an Eastern European block, it would be twice as large as the Latino block, but somehow we’ve gotten into this political correctitude that, you know, here that the Census Bureau puts us in five dumb pigeon holes which are white…
Richard Rodriguez: …black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Eskimo. Coming in last, but not least, ladies and gentlemen, the Hispanic.
Ben Wattenberg: Who are, and then it says right on there, Hispanic is not a race, so you got this …
Richard Rodriguez: It is the interesting thing I should say…
Ben Wattenberg: And you got white and then you have…that gives you a special category for us majority whites, which is White/Common Non-Hispanics say, oh, there’s my friend the White/Non-Hispanic Joe Jones. I mean, it is the most…there are some people including the most recent director of the Census Bureau and I must say myself who think that is the dumbest question and it ought to get off the Census.
Richard Rodriguez: I agree. Clearly, my interest in brown, the color, as I began to think about the color, which is curiously associated with Hispanics, although many of us are as you know, are not brown. In fact, many of us have come from all the races of the world. There are African-Hispanics. There are White Hispanics and so forth. The curious thing about brown for me is that, when you get brown, it’s by mixing colors together. Then I think to myself, if I am brown, it is not because of this. It is because I was created in the Sixteenth Century from the mixture of two races. From the Conquistadors, the Spaniard meeting the Indian, from that blending which Mexico uses as the basis of its beginning. The mestizahe. The mestizo being of those two races. The intuition of black America has always been toward this notion of inevitable blending. There are words in Black America to describe the possibilities that happen as a result of people falling in love with each other. Races meeting and creating children who look like none of their grandparents. It was that idea of brown that began to more and more preoccupy me, and America as a brown nation, I thought to myself, you know, it’s been going on for a long time.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, it would be…is it fair to say you say America is a brown nation? Would it be fair to transpose that and say, you look into the demographic future, and it is America as a blended nation?
Richard Rodriguez: Yes. But I look into the past. Colin Powell, says on page nine of his biography that he’s African, but he’s also Caribbean Indian. He’s Scotch-Irish. He’s Anglo-Saxon. Something has been going on in this country for a long time.
Ben Wattenberg: It’s…the Tiger Woods thing is even better. What did he call it, calliblenation?
Richard Rodriguez: That’s right, and he said, I will not deny my mother.
Ben Wattenberg: Who is from Thailand.
Richard Rodriguez: From Thailand. I am not simply black. I’m not black. He says, I’m African and I am Thai. I’m American Indian and yes, there’s that tie again. You know, the relationship of American Indians and Africans in this country is very old.
Ben Wattenberg: And you write about it very eloquently.
Richard Rodriguez: The first chapter of this book is about my relationship to African-Americans because it’s in this time where we’ve compartmentalized ourselves and we think of ourselves as separate continents or separate planets, it seemed important for me to word it about how for this Mexican-American kid in Sacramento, California in the Nineteen Fifties, my relationship to African people was central to my imperative identity. I used to watch on the Chet Huntley, David Brinkley show every night on a small black and white television this remarkable thing that went on every night. The Negro Civil Rights Movement. That implicated me. It wasn’t something that was happening to them. It was part of my America. It taught me what it meant to be American. When I started reading writers like James Baldwin, he created my literary voice, so that when I hear years later that Hispanics are replacing African-Americans, it is not only offensive to me the way I think of myself as an American but it also is anti-historical. That’s not the way it happened.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, you know, you put a close identity between Latinos and Blacks and yet coming from the political world, and just from driving around in a lot of taxis in a lot of cities, there was a lot of hostility between Blacks and Latinos.
Richard Rodriguez: That’s exactly why I’m stressing this point, because it’s enormously worse. It seems to me that here in Los Angeles, in the major African-American neighborhoods, South Central , Compton, are becoming Spanish-speaking, and there is all this bluster in the morning paper and the advertising agencies that this sleeping giant is emerging, and I don’t like that just because it’s not only…it’s politically explosive…
Ben Wattenberg: And it’s also you know, I mean without deprecating because it’s obviously it’s a major minority group but it’s only twelve percent of the population. Eighty-eight percent of the population, and eighty-nine percent of the population….
Richard Rodriguez: But you know who sees us like this. Who sees us like this are advertising agencies. They’re the ones that found these numbers quite early. They’re the ones that are now saying that Spanish now is the… United States is the fifth largest Spanish speaking country in the world.
Ben Wattenberg: Right. You claim in the book that the only place in the world where Hispanics live is in America.
Richard Rodriguez: That’s right. You have to go to Dallas, Texas to meet a Hispanic. You will not meet a Hispanic in Columbia or in Bolivia today.
Ben Wattenberg: Or in Mexico City.
Richard Rodriguez: Or in Mexico City. But when you hear someone say I’m a Hispanic, you know that you’re in the United States and the same with these other terms, Pacific Islander. The woman, this lovely woman who takes care of my mother, I think she’s from Tonga. She won’t tell me. But I say, where are you from? She says, I’m a Pacific Islander. I think, well, she’s an American. The same with Asian. There are no Asians in Asia. There are Chinese, there are Vietnamese and so forth. These are American categories. They were given to us curiously enough by Richard Nixon. It was the Richard Nixon Administration, and maybe Nixon in his wisdom and also, perhaps even in his malice, was seeking to undercut the Black Civil Rights movement, which was moving from stoicism to anger, and maybe Richard Nixon wanted to prove something or to weaken that movement by saying, you know, this country is no longer, as the Kerner Commission had reported at the time…had predicted a black and white country, but we are now in a new covenant he said. You know now…and the NBC peacock was unfurling its wings, Americans were thinking in color and suddenly he presents us with the idea that we are a pentagon. The trouble with these categories is that they are not true. They are inventions of the United States. They are not descriptions of our past. They are descriptions of our future. When my aunt from Mexico marries my uncle from India and their children might began to realize quite early. Well, I remember sitting on the porch with one of my cousins and realizing that there was no name in America for what she was and we decided that she was a stutter, that she was an Indian-Indian, and that she was entering some new category in America.
Ben Wattenberg: You are making the case that race and ethnicity really shouldn’t matter, that we’re moving down the road to a blended America and I salute this and yet, you talked of the three books that you talked about and particularly this latest one, Brown, are all about race and ethnicity. So are you sort of violating Rodriguez’s First Commandment which is, it’s not about race, but by the way, I’m gonna write my books about race?
Richard Rodriguez: No. I’m writing this book, as I said in the introduction, as a way of undermining race. I write about race in order to undermine race. I write about Hispanicity precisely to expose its fraudulence as a term.
Ben Wattenberg: Oh, we’re gonna get lots of mail then on that. That’s good. Right.
Richard Rodriguez: These…you know, I’m a writer and I have been at war with the political classes in this country for twenty years. When they started pasting on my forehead terms like “minority,” I started stretching those words and saying, “what is that? What word are you using?” When political activists start talking about using a child’s family language in a classroom, I say, “Oh yeah, show me what that might mean in my life. How do I use a family language in the classroom?” And now politicians are saying, you are Latino, you are Hispanic. And I think to myself, “Oh yeah?” You know, what does that mean, when I live in California among the Chinese and among Philippinos and have Irish nuns who are teaching me the language? What does it mean to be Hispanic in this country except that I’m part of this great mix, of this great brown mix. That’s what I want to do. I want to subvert the language by writing as a writer does, not as a sociologist, not as an anthropologist. I am writing as a writer does to undercut these political terms.
Ben Wattenberg: I did a one-on-one interview, not an interview…I did one-on-one hand-to-hand combat with Pat Buchanan on his new book, which is really an anti-Mexican-American screed in my judgment. But he brought up this issue of Reconquista, that there are Mexican-Americans who say we really want to take back this part of America. It was stolen from us, the whole victimization group. And I tried to…I got a lot of mail in and I answered it, you know, how common a view is that? Is that just eleven kids at a liberal arts school?
Richard Rodriguez: Yeah. That isn’t…I think most of them…and my father left Mexico with the idea of leaving Mexico, he wasn’t carrying Mexico in his suitcase. He was leaving Mexico because Mexico had betrayed him and he knew what most Americans know in this country, that except for the music and the food and the relatives left behind there was very little to love that was left behind. On the other hand, it seems to me that we are at a moment, a NAFTA moment that Bill Clinton announced, where we are becoming a north-south country. This is a country that traditionally has always written its history one-directionally from east to west. We hand our children history books and again, on the east coast they move west across the Great Plains over the Rockies, across the Sierra and so forth. Now we begin to feel like we can…you know, certainly as I was growing up with Mexican parents, the United States described as el Norte. I always thought that was just akin to oddity of their geography. I clearly know that living in a country that is beginning to reorient it self within the Americas.
Ben Wattenberg: It’s almost the opposite of “go west young man”.
Richard Rodriguez: “Go north young man.”
Ben Wattenberg: “Go north young man.”
Richard Rodriguez: Or “go north young woman.” I think our grandchildren will regard Brazil as more proximate in their lives than Belgium. In that sense, something quite revolutionary is going on. You asked me about Reconquista, I think in some way there is a kind of reunion of the Americas happening right now, and it is quite remarkable to me. If you had told that there would be an American President who spoke as well as and as easily and with as much pleasure as George Bush does, who is at the same time, has a Mexican President on the other side of the border who’s giving press conferences in English, an executive of the Coca Cola Bottling Company. But Coca Cola by the way consumed in greater quantities in Mexico…
Ben Wattenberg: Per capita.
Richard Rodriguez: …per capita than in the United States, and that he was giving press conferences in Mexico City. I mean, I would have told you that you were smoking something, and it is happening.
Ben Wattenberg: And the President’s brother who is the Governor of Florida has a wife from Mexico.
Richard Rodriguez: Right. That he met in Mexico, and clearly, there is this thing is going in the Americas, we are falling in love with each other, and…
Ben Wattenberg: And just as we fall in love there are lover’s arguments?
Richard Rodriguez: Yes. There are…there are…
Ben Wattenberg: And some big ones.
Richard Rodriguez: But I was in Santa Barbara the other day and someone said that there had been a hate crime over the weekend, and I thought to myself, well, I mean, you know, yes. But I think to myself, you know, of the love crimes in this country too that there were Black men lynched for the mere offense of glancing at her, she white. And the penalty you pay for love in this country sometimes is very, very fierce. The mountain man who married the Indian and who was forced by the Calgary to either leave her or to move into her reservation. I mean what’s been going on in this country for a long time is that we have been falling in love with each other and no one wants to talk about that.
Ben Wattenberg: There’s a phrase for it, the “melting pot”. And the melting pot, which was sort of pooh-poohed for a while, you look at multiculturalism and Beyond the Melting Pot, the Moynihan Glaser book, and separateness, and yet you look at those Census figures and you see the intermarriage rates of Polish Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans. I mean in the Jewish community it is what they used to call a scandal, that you got more than fifty percent of the Jews out-marrying and so this is part of the new blended America, but it all comes with some pain for the previous generation.
Richard Rodriguez: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: It happens in the Latino community. It happens in the Black community.
Richard Rodriguez: Yes, I know, but what I’m also saying is…
Ben Wattenberg: But it happens.
Richard Rodriguez: It is been happening for a long time.
Ben Wattenberg: For a long, long time.
Richard Rodriguez: And we have repressed a lot of this in our history.
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah. Let me ask you a question. One of your heroes is Benjamin Franklin.
Richard Rodriguez: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Tell us how that comes about.
Richard Rodriguez: Well, as a son of immigrant parents, I loved Franklin’s optimism and his sense of competitiveness, his sense that determination will win the day in America, and I kept my lists and imagined Philadelphia and the young country. I loved that he was an inventor because he was, in fact, the man who believed in self-invention. There were two figures in my childhood that I was very interested in. Franklin and Richard Nixon was the other one. Nixon, even the dark Nixon, because you, I remember reading his book Six Crises as a young man and his invocation of his childhood, listening to the train whistle go through Yorba Linda, the train going east and with every California boy imagining the distance of that journey that Nixon would take. What happens with Nixon because Nixon becomes the figure, earlier, of course, Lyndon Johnson, but Nixon who invents the category of the Hispanic, becomes the figure who teaches me how to cheat in America. Franklin had taught me that if you work very hard in this country you get ahead. Nixon comes into my life at one time in which he tells me, you know you can get a pass. What Lyndon Johnson was saying to African-Americans, we can say to you, you can cheat in this country. We can call it Affirmative Action and you can leap ahead of other people on the basis of this specious racial identity.
Ben Wattenberg: But I have read what you’ve written and you haven’t cheated. You paid your dues.
Richard Rodriguez: Icheated in the sense that when it came time for me to look for a job, the jobs came looking for me, and that was at a time when so-called white kids did not have those jobs. When Richard Nixon teaches me to cheat in this country, he betrays his own dream of himself, which was almost a Franklin insense of working hard and never being…using disappointment, using failure, Nixon used to write.
Ben Wattenberg: The other person you mentioned at some length is President Johnson. I was a speech writer on that staff and he used to tell us, “My mother used to shake me by the ear at six in the morning and say, Lyndon, Lyndon, get up, all the other boys are already doing something.” You know, that was his sort of Franklin experience.
Richard Rodriguez: But there was about Johnson that kind of shrewdness about how to the play the game in Westminster or the Medici Palace. It was always a sense of…there’s always in these great places a Lyndon Johnson, watching more vein men play out their games, watching the Kennedys in their vanity play over again, waiting for his moment. There was always about Lyndon Johnson a kind of shrewdness…that I quite admired about him. These three figures show up in this chapter called “Poor Richard,” which is as much a chapter about myself. But in some sense they point me in three directions in America. I still want to believe in Benjamin Franklin’s America. I still hope that for young people listening to me today that hard work will win the day and that they will believe that.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Well, on that note, speaking of Lyndon Johnson waiting for his moment or the moment, I would suggest that your moment has arrived and that we are all the better for it. Thank you so much for joining us Richard Rodriguez, and thank you. Please remember to send us uh, you comments via e-mail. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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