The Return of the Native: The Past Meets the Future in Mestizo America
Richard Rodriguez is the Mexican-American author of the seminal book on Mexican immigration to the U.S., Hunger of Memory, as well as Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. He is also a regular commentator on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States.
San Francisco—The United States today is facing the return of the native. In the American scheme of things, the Indian had disappeared from history—reluctantly, sadly, tragically, he was eliminated. He had gone into retreat in our memories.
Suddenly, spilling out from over our southern horizon are people who were supposed to no longer exist.
The discomfiting thought occurs to us that history has not ended. That, instead, we are in the middle of another turn of the wheel our words can’t describe. We are facing a future we can’t name.
So we have decided to call these immigrants “Hispanics” in reference to the Spanish king who once ruled Mexico and the American Southwest. But most of these faces that are coming toward us are people of mixed blood—mestizos.
Clearly the imprint of the Indian is on their faces. It is on my face! The long struggle between the US and Mexico began as a fight over land in the 19th century. Mexico used to be the larger of the two countries but lost its enormous northern lands—now the US Southwest, from Texas to New Mexico to California—when America began to expand westward.
There remains an anxiety on the part of both countries about this memory. Mexicans have a sense that this is a land that ancestrally was Mexican, although there is a recognition that it is no longer. But for the US to see that land being populated again by Spanish-speaking people is to remember that extinguished part of its history.
That unsettles many Americans because they’re not used to this repetition of history. They do not have a circular sense of time in which events repeat themselves, but a linear sense of history going one direction only—into the future.
This most recent wave of immigration is likely to change not just the destiny of the US but of Latin America as well. The “Hispanic” population in the US is now over 40 million people. That is equivalent in size of a large country in Latin America.
For those of us living in the US, a new Latin American sensibility is being born. One of the things I’ve seen in the huge pro-immigrant demonstrations here recently is not simply families walking together—the son walking with the father, the mother with her babies—but also Colombians walking alongside Mexicans, walking alongside Dominicans, walking alongside Guatemalans.
A new pan-Hispanic identity is being born for the first time—in the US! These people are no longer members of their ethnic or national groups; they’re marching as some new nation of the Hispanic world. That is quite revolutionary.
At the same time, we are seeing the reunion of the hemisphere from another angle. America is discovering itself within the Americas. This is quite a new discovery for a country that has traditionally written its history from east to west. Now it is populated by millions of people, here both legally and illegally, who describe the US as “El Norte.” This presence forces the country to also imagine itself anew along a north-south axis.
The immigrant experience in the US is profoundly different than that in Europe. For example, Arabs and North Africans in France confront a completed country and culture every day in the subway, on television, in a bakery, on the radio. France, like the rest of Europe, has a long-formed and finished culture that does not need them.
In the US, we have a long tradition of immigrants being the very ones who forge the American identity. There was no identity here when the first immigrants arrived—except that of the Indian faces now coming back. In this country, the immigrant, at least theoretically or mythically, has a possibility of adding to the country.
Of course, there are those in America who now say, “We are a complete nation. We don’t need any more immigrants.” But by and large, the idea that immigrants contribute to the formation of a work in progress still dominates the American imagination.
Truly, in America today, the past and the future are meeting each other. It is at this border of time that the US now plans to put tanks and soldiers, and there is talk of a wall.
What this obsession reveals, perhaps, is the nativist anxiety of a relatively young country that has been black and white since its founding. A future marriage to Latin Americans, literally and figuratively, means the introduction of the mestizo or mixed culture—what Jose Vasconcelos, the education minister at the time of the Mexican Revolution, called “la raza cosmica.”
In some profound way, this transformation is subversive, freeing America from its black/white dialectic. Ultimately, what we mestizos bring to the US is a sense of impurity. After all, we are a people who violate borders. That is our gift.