2713 Clay Street San Francisco, ca 94115

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2713 Clay Street

San Francisco, CA 94115

April 22, 2009

To The Students of Robert Martin's Senior Class:

First of all, I apologize for taking so long to reply to your letter (and essay), dated March 11th.  I have been traveling in the Middle East, where I have been researching a book on the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and the influence of the desert ecology on their experience of God.
I, too, was troubled by the illogic and the many slanders against Catholics, non-English immigrants, Latinos generally, and Mexican Americans particularly, in Professor Samuel Huntington's book, WHO ARE WE?  
In Huntington's defense, the book was written late in his career (he has since died, suffering from Alzheimer's disease) and its many weaknesses of argument and focus seem at least partially attributable to that fact.  Unfortunately, the book's publication only feeds the widespread nativism that has regularly surfaced in America since the beginning of non-British immigration in the 19th century.  
In any case, I want to congratulate you for managing to write with passion and also great intelligence.  Throughout your analysis, I was struck by the carefulness of your argument.  I appreciated especially the way you demolish the tired "Atzlan" claim to the Southwest by reminding the reader that before the Spanish arrived, and before Mexicans claimed the land, native civilizations called the region home.
Let me complicate your thinking with two footnotes.  
One, I think, Hispanics puzzle Americans because we are NOT a racial group--we are an ethnic group (people whose sense of identity gets formed by culture, rather than blood).  Sometimes in your paper, I felt that the old language of racial oppression was overcoming your precision.  The discrimination suffered by Hispanics is not usually "racism" exactly.  It is, as Huntington's book makes clear, an attack on our cultural meaning.
There is, for some of us, of course, a racial component to the discrimination we face.  Those who have darker skins and facial features more Indian or African than Spaniard, often experience racism.  But, as a friend of mine who grew up in West Texas remembers, the racism against his family was complicated.  At the "segregated" movie theater his light-skinned brothers were allowed downstairs; his mother and his sister (who were dark brown, with strong Indian features) had to sit upstairs.
Two, I wanted to hear more about the relations between Mexican Americans in your area and other groups, not simply "Anglos".  In traveling around the country, I am struck by the tragic tension between Latinos and African Americans--a tension that is often rooted in economics.  Many African Americans do not forget, either, the way earlier immigrant groups would advance, by separating themselves from black Americans.  (What are we to make of the fact that today so many low-wage employers seem to prefer to hire Latinos rather than African Americans or poor whites?)
My uncle was from India.  My father worked for Chinese dentists.  My earliest teachers were Irish immigrant Catholic nuns.  I have written about how "brown" my childhood was.  It occurs to me now that the argument against ethnic separatism is that it restricts a person from fully living the rich confusion and variety of America.  
When I visit many high schools, I notice immediately how segregated the cafeteria often is.  Jocks sit with jocks.  Mexican (immigrants) sit with other Mexican immigrants (not with Mexican Americans).  Gays sit with gays.  Goths sit with goths.  Etc.  
The real point of education is to experience the stranger!  While it is well and good to hold onto aspects of Mexican culture, the task before you is to encounter other Americans whose ancestry is Chinese or Nigerian or French.  Skip the Mexican restaurant and try Ethiopian!  Learn to speak Arabic! 
The only intellectually brave thing I did when I was your age--because I was fascinated by African-American culture--is that I went to hear Malcolm X speak, at a time when he usually only spoke to black audiences.  I remember coming to the door of the auditorium and realizing that in a room of black I was the solitry brown.  But I went in, and the men standing guard at the door let me in.
Finally, I am sitting here looking at your signatures.  I love that Richard Hernandez signs himself with an exclamation mark.   I love that Eva Maria Lopez has stars.  But I am struck by the fact that most of the signers of this letter are female.  I see it everywhere now in colleges, where women are now the majority.  I wonder what it will mean for your lifetimes that women are now becoming better educated than men, that women are traveling more in college "study abroad" programs.
Robert Martin, your teacher, is a remarkable teacher--as I am sure you know.  He has tried to get me to visit your class.  I live in San Francisco and plan only one trip to Los Angeles in May.  (I am scheduled to give some sort of public presentation at Disney Hall downtown--but I am not sure of the details.)  My fear is that I will be in southern California when you will be focused on final exams or focused on graduation ceremonies.
If we do not meet, I wish you every success.  I wish you bravery.  The life of the mind is a lonely life.  It also allows you to meet every civilization on earth.  I hope to meet you someday on a street in Cairo or Capetown or Bejing.
Yours sincerely,

Richard Rodriguez  

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