Here Comes the Neighborhood

Richard Rodriguez examines the Hawaiianization of the United States

BY Richard Rodriguez

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"No one wears clothes in Hawaii, everyone is falling in love, race is melting in Hawaii."

Started in 1996 by the Pacific News Service (PNS), New California Media (NCM) “works with a collaboration of ethnic news organizations to connect ethnic audiences with one another and with the larger civic life.” Noted author and PNS editor Richard Rodriguez delivered the closing address at the organization’s 2005 Expo at Columbia University; the following is adapted from his remarks.

I am not sure why I am here. I think the conference organizers decided on some whimsy that at the end of the day, when everybody else is blissed out, there should be a representative of the old media. I’m shelved in most Borders bookstores under “Latin American Studies.”

I’m not Latin American, but I am a study.

I’ve come to tell you about a hot summer day with my cousin. My cousin-whose father was from Bombay, India, and her mother from Jalisco, Mexico. We were trying to figure out what name she should have. What name should you give a child who is of India and Mexico? What is that?? What noun is that? We sat around and talked and I said to her, “I will go to Columbia University and they’ll tell me what name to give you.”

And here I am and I am wandering around the conference booths for Filipino radio, Ukrainian radio and Mexican-American newspapers. I would like to say to you: Do not forget that you have neighbors. That whatever voice you sound, it is being overheard. And whether you are on the number 6 subway line [in New York] or the 38 Gary bus in San Francisco, there are other people hearing you, other people listening to you, albeit in fragments. That your language exists within this city. You have neighbors, neighbor. You don’t simply live in this ghetto of your own advertising imagination. We overhear each other, we smell each other’s spices. And once in a while, despite the protests of grandparents who tell us to stay away from “that type,” we fall in love with each other’s bodies.

I was in Rosette, California, a city that divides almost evenly between Mexicans and Laotians. In the history of the world there has not been a meeting between the Mexicans and Laotians. Yet here they are meeting in the high schools and they don’t like each other. I was talking to these Laotian teenagers, and they were telling me all the reasons they don’t like the Mexicans. Because the Mexicans were bullies and they took up all the room and you know all the rest. And I was writing this all down. But something didn’t compute. And then I realized what was wrong: The Laotians were speaking English with a Spanish accent.

I heard on the “Today Show” that demographers have announced that Mexicans constitute one of every seven Americans. And we are only destined, Matt Lauer said, to grow more numerous. We have more babies than you do. And I thought to myself, I don’t know what that statistic is telling me. One in seven Americans is Hispanic–I don’t even know what a Hispanic is. Having not met one exactly. Although I hear lots of reference to Hispanics, Hispanics were invented by Richard Nixon in 1972! And here we are, children of Nixon sounding the anthem. Good Nixonians talking about Hispanics. I am more interested in the fact that the new Hispanic neighborhoods of Los Angeles are also the old African-American neighborhoods: South Central, Compton, Watts. I am interested in the black migration out of L.A. Where are those people going? I am interested also that people are not going. People are not going and people are living side-by-side. Mexico is side by side with Africa. And there are riots in the schools and there is dislike and distain and distance. And I wonder, when I hear demographics, I wonder if demographics are destiny. Whether simple numbers are going to make Hispanics the winners in this struggle. But I don’t think so. I’m thinking of a shrewder strategy-connection. As early as 1983, the U.S. Census Bureau began to predict that Hispanics were about to replace African Americans, (that’s the verb they used) would replace African Americans as the country’s largest minority. It was an obscenity, this notion of replacing. And did the Hispanic politicians protest? What does it mean that Hispanics were replacing African-Americans? We walk in the room and they have to leave?

A few blocks from here is where Malcolm X was killed. Malcolm X was a hero of mine. The only brave thing I did growing up in Sacramento, California, was to go see Malcolm X when he came to Sacramento. At a time when his audiences were largely restricted to African Americans, I went. Bravely, stupidly, not knowing that I would be a problem at the door. There I was, a brown child at the door, with these two men at the door looking at me, computing behind their eyes: Who in the hell is this Mexican kid, what does he want? They let me in. I do not forget that act of generosity today.

The people who taught me the most about what it means to be American are African Americans. I can remember my childhood, in the ’50s in Sacramento, watching on a small black-and-white TV the last days of black-and-white America. I watched the civil rights movement snake its way through the vicious small towns of the south-Cicero, Oxford-and then the big towns-Memphis, Little Rock, we shall overcome. And I watched it every night with the knowledge that I was watching something as epic as a Russian novel. I was watching my own Americanization and that these people were teaching me what it is to be a member of society, and I will not tolerate Hispanic media that does not acknowledge African Americans as neighbors, vecinos. I do not tolerate it when I see young Latinos working on Martin Luther King Day, and I ask them why, and they say well, he was for them, dos otros. And I say, you are wrong, he was one of us.

The real future of media is Hawaii. The Hawaiianization of the United States is preceding and we do not know what name to give it. We do not know how to speak of it. Hawaii is the most desegregated state in the union. No one wears clothes in Hawaii, everyone is falling in love, race is melting in Hawaii. The second most desegregated state in the union is California. Something is coming. Despite the predictions of most New Yorkers, sometimes things come from the other direction. Something is coming from the West Coast; it’s coming across the Rockies, and one of these days it will get to the New York Times.

We decided at the end, my cousin and I, we decided that she was a redundancy. She was an Indian Indian. And we laughed and laughed and now we meet them everywhere in America. Kids who have no names. A guy comes up to me in Baltimore, and says, my wife is Jewish, I am Hindu, my children call themselves hin-jews. You become a Buddhist by becoming an American, you become an African American when you become American. You become many more things than your grandmother or grandfather was when you become American. And these media we are creating better acknowledge just how overlapping our lives are, otherwise, you are speaking to one generation only.

Here we are, children of Nixon, and I think, “Where do we go next?” And then there’s Jennifer Lopez. I love Puerto Ricans. They are speaking my language. There is something that comes from being of an island that is Latin American and North American, that is English-speaking and Spanish-speaking that is here and it is there. You grow up with a certain flexibility. Flexibility! Puerto Ricans are way ahead of Americans in the pop moment. And then there is Jennifer Lopez, within three years she moves from P-Diddy, then she gets married to a dancer whose name I don’t remember, than she is with Ben Affleck, and then she is with Marc Anthony. Now that is flexibility.

I want to be a Puerto Rican.


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