The Browning of America

The Browning of America


In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of Memory, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown: The Last Discovery of America. This isn’t a trilogy about history. It isn’t about sociology or politics either, at least in their most primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy and morality.

Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is Rodriguez’s only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.

The other trunk of this genealogical tree I’m shaping is V.S. Naipaul, or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread Rodriguez’s oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs, intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in. Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a Chicano–that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of animosity against him. I don’t know of any other Latino author who generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate to love him.

Why this is so isn’t difficult to understand: He is customarily critical of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community, for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not race but individual talent should be considered in a person’s application for school or work–not one’s skin color, last name or country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the “uncivilized” natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.

Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez’s agent, as the author himself puts it in “Hispanic,” the fifth chapter of Brown, “encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering îles flottantes.”

The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe, since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often prefers to use the term “Hispanic” in his pages) might be seen as nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican… and the whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred spirits?

Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For the question that runs through the three installments is, How did Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture. “Brown as impurity,” he reasons. “I write of a color that is not a singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color produced by careless desire, even by accident.” It is the color of mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from 1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity, would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.

But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I’m afraid. The gestation of race in the Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to other racial mixtures, among them those termed “mulattoes” and “zambos.” Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and Jorge Luis Borges. “Brown,” in Rodriguez’s conception, might be the color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does “brown” really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity. Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful. But the term “brown” has specific political connotations as well. It is, to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest was La Raza, but “brown” also found its way into manifestoes, political speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.

Rodriguez isn’t into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la hispanicidad in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are also uninvolved with him.

Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation, but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the right message. Rodriguez’s English is still the Queen’s English: overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor the other? Isn’t that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that Rodriguez’s volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre de memoria in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation. That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author’s resonance is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his “The Pachuco and Other Extremes,” the first chapter in his masterpiece The Labyrinth of Solitude, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco–a social type of Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely–as a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He embraces Paz’s cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz’s anti-Chicanismo, and in general Paz’s negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that it was neither good nor bad, “it is simply an aberration.” In any case, reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable, enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he has talked of “hating Mexico”), at least they will be acquainted with his opinions.

All this is to say that Rodriguez’s response to “What do Hispanics mean to the life of America?” is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans. Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot, la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according to the latest US Census data–35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one counts only those officially registered–are still on the fringes, fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.

These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy; Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in Brown he announces:

A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school. Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.

This sums up Rodriguez’s approach: a micromanagement of identity delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and an argument with the author’s own mexicanidad as personified by his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay Latino.

Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He renders them and their dialogue thus: “Two girls. Perhaps sixteen. White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys. The one girl saying to the other: …His complexion is so cool, this sort of light–well, not that light.” And Rodriguez ends: “I realized my book will never be equal to the play of the young.” This need to capture what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn’t always successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But I’ve managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez’s three volumes only tangentially.

There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third about “a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation,” race. But Rodriguez is quick to add:

race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there lurks the possibility of romance.

So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of Memory the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as “the dark father of Hispanicity.” “Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term Hispanic,” Rodriguez argues, “in part because it was Richard Nixon who drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform.” A similar reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York Times, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut: It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I’ve learned to respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the intervening years.

At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. “This is not the same as saying ‘the poor shall inherit the earth’ but is possibly related,” Rodriguez states. “The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the brown shall.” This is a statement for the history books. In his view, America is about to become América–everyone in it a Hispanic, if not physically, at least metaphorically. “American history books I read as a boy were all about winning and losing,” Rodriguez states in “Peter’s Avocado,” the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with a typical twist, continues, “One side won; the other side lost…. [But] the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer died. The ex-slave inherited her husband’s chairs, horses, rugs, slaves. And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?”

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