An Interview with Richard Rodriguez
Raised in Sacramento, California, the son of immigrants from Mexico, essayist and journalist Richard Rodriguez has always grappled fearlessly with the intricacies of cultural identity—the clash and meld of race, religion, class, and language. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books: Hunger of Memory; Days of Obligation: and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. He was an award-winning essayist for PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and is a contributing writer and editor for New America Media and contributing editor of Harper’s. He spoke with associate editor Julie Polter in April, at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Julie Polter: You asked about our work on immigration. There are people in the white evangelical world who have been convinced of the need for immigration reform. Obviously many of the Latino evangelical and Pentecostal churches were there already.
Richard Rodriguez: People like Samuel Rodriguez [president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference].
Polter: Yes, he’s been very vocal.
Rodriguez: And really challenging to the church it seems, he threatened schism with the white and black evangelicals over this issue. I find that really quite interesting.
Immigration really does get at something that is central for the church to deal with: How shall we regard the stranger? That’s the first question. But the whole issue of poverty… coming to this culture from a working class past, I was always struck by fact that America is an enormously generous society to the outsider at some level and to suffering at some level. There’s an earthquake in Haiti and Americans give money immediately. But on the issue of poverty Americans are a little more troubled. Partly I think it comes from our puritan past, the notion of “election” and that the middle class really are elected in a way that the poor are not. There’s something disreputable about being poor in America. You know, that whole notion of “white trash.” It’s no where near so ferocious in other cultures, the way the middle class speaks to the poor, in my experience. The notion of “trash” is really quite remarkable.
What Samuel Rodriguez reminds me of is that the Hispanic comes from a culture in which suffering and poverty are not ignoble, but have some nobility to them. There’s an honor in being de los pobre, of the poor, and these are not bent people, these are not, as America insists, illegal. These are in some sense at the center of the moral life for Hispanics. I think that’s true for the Protestant as well as the Catholic tradition in Latin America.
Polter: So much of the Christian narrative is about being strangers, strangers wherever you go, being adopted children, about being border-crossers. Yet so many Christians seem suspicious of “the other” in one way or another. Do you have any thoughts on how have we gotten so disconnected from our own identities as sojourners, as adopted children of God?
Rodriguez: No one has ever asked me that. That’s a very interesting question. What troubles me most about America, partly because I’m in the Middle East so much, I think that we’ve become very much like our adversaries. That’s just as a historical fact. When you’re always at somebody else’s throat, and you’re always engaged in violence with the other person, you become very much like them, curiously enough. Cultures that are antagonistic toward one another become over time more like each other. I’m going to say something that I’ve never said in public, but it seems to me that since Sept. 11 that America has become very much more like the society that we see ourselves adversarial to.
I mean, for example, that the country seems to be moving, for patriotic reasons, toward a kind of theocratic notion of what it is to be American. What it is to be American is primarily to be Christian, or “Judeo-Christian.” That’s what you’ll hear on Fox News, for example, from these patriotic blabblers who haven’t been in a church for many, many years--they’ll talk about how we’re a Christian society and so forth. That sounds very Muslim to me, that people would say that about being Muslim in the Middle East. I don’t remember people saying that before Sept. 11 with that same intent, that we would establish our Americaness by virtue of our religion, of our religiosity.
The argument made against illegal immigration many times has flowed into, has bled into that patriotism issue, of what constitutes the outsider as a terrorist—we don’t know how to distinguish these people from Syrians or Palestinians coming across the line. That’s a perfectly legitimate complaint, that we don’t know how to see them, because they’re all brown people and they’re all illegal. And somehow the illegality is part of this new threat against the American state, the American stability. As Americans now we’re reading our Christianity in a very nationalistic way. That’s very troubling to me. But it’s also very much, curiously enough, Islamist. There’s something about the way we talk about our church that makes it seem as if we’re talking about our nation.
On the issue of illegal immigration, as an American I would probably be against it. As a Christian I’m called to a totally different program. On a number of issues it’s that way. On abortion, as a Christian I feel deeply offended by the notion of abortion, but as an American I feel, especially having seen societies where women are abused by men, and their bodies controlled by men, as an American I really feel the necessity of women owning their own bodies, controlling their own bodies, dealing with their own bodies. I’m always at odds. My Christianity and my Americaness are not equal partners, they’re adversaries in many ways. And I feel the Christian church has forgotten that.
Polter: An irony is that at a large pro-immigration rally recently in D.C., I almost felt patriotic. There was a Pentecostal woman with her Bible near me, and she had her little American flag, in front of a banner about God’s call to accept all people. In that way the immigration reform movement almost brings together the best of America and of our church. The danger of course is that the same symbols are used so differently by different people.
Rodriguez: In some ways, what I’m saying is that the deeper challenge this rally would present to America would be if there were no American flags at all, but just crosses. If people were parading in Washington down the Mall with the cross and that was their allegiance, that was what they were claiming. You see they have to say “we want to be part of America.” There were all those arguments about “What were all those foreign flags doing at the [previous] immigration marches? Why are people carrying Salvadoran flags, why are they carrying Mexican flags?” So the organizers hand out American flags.
They should be putting crosses in everyone’s hands, they should have someone walking with a very heavy cross, a penitential cross like you see in Latin American countries on Good Friday. That should be the theme—that “we are sufferers,” and “deal with us, Christian nation,” rather than flags. That would be more effective.
I think we get confused on the issue of whether immigrants are good for America. I’m surprised, frankly, that the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is the fastest growing religion in the country, is not more attuned to the issue, just because the Hispanic population is so crucial to the growth of the church. I think that projections are that now already the church has become in its rural population a Spanish-speaking church. It would seem to me that Utah would have a lot to say about the issue, if they could get past that… again as Mormons they have to play this super-American line, because they are suspect in America as an alien, non-Christian culture, so they’ve always overplayed their patriotism, while in some way they should be challenging to the country as Mormons. That may be too idealistic. It doesn’t seem to me possible that the churches should have an easy marriage with a country.
I remember Mike Huckabee, in the early stages of running for president, he was challenged by someone, I forget who, in a debate, because he had proposed that the children of illegal immigrants who were born in the United States should be given scholarships or some sort of financial aid for schooling . I thought that was a pretty elegant strategy—“so we won’t deal with the parents who are a problem, but the kids are American, and unless we deal with them, we’re going to have a real problem.” Because I don’t know another population in America, these kids, who hear their parents described regularly as criminals and to grow up as sons and daughters of criminals is psychologically difficult business.
But as soon as Huckabee started getting challenged on that, he started to back off. The Southern Baptist who had been pretty good on some of these issues began to blur some of their distinctions with right-wing Republicans. When we become the Christians appropriate to Fox News, we’re in trouble. If we’re not challenging to Fox News or for that matter to CNN, we’re in trouble. We’re not in the business of appealing to Sean Hannity.
Can I ask you something about Fox News? I was raised in an Irish Catholic church and I have a long and deep love for the Irish church, which was my church. But I know that there are two faces of Irish Catholicism. The violence the Irish had toward blacks in New York for example is well known. And the anti-immigrant marches by Irish immigrants in California, anti-Chinese marches. I know that tradition, I know that it’s there, I know it when I hear it from Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or Pat Buchanan. I know it.
But there’s also an Irish tradition that I was raised which, which was a tradition of real antagonism toward Protestant America, at a healthy level. The St. Patrick’s Day parade going down 5th Avenue, sticking it to the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, saying we’re here, putting the greatest emblem of Irish Catholicism, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, right on 5th Avenue, right in their world, so it’s unmistakable that the Irish Catholics are here. I love that.
In the 19th century there was this group of young Irish immigrant boys who went to fight in the Mexican-American war and who changed sides. They’re very well known in Mexico, the San Patricios. They’re known here almost not at all, America has wiped away almost all knowledge of them. Pat Buchanan would never mention them—if he knows of them he would never mention them. How do you account for these young boys who ended up fighting against Protestant America for Mexico? Well, there is that strain in the Irish Catholic too; I’m really interested in how this is playing out ethnically. How some of the fiercest voices, Pat Buchanan was saying about the Hispanic, that “we are culturally foreign to America,” that this was coming from a Scotch-Irish Catholic is deeply interesting at least, and is deeply paradoxical. You understand?
The real Irish have an interest in Latin America and Mexico in particular, because of their antagonism toward the Anglo, in many ways comparable to the Hispanic-Anglo schism in the United States, and there is some realization among the Irish that the Mexican is Irish.
Polter: John Edgar Wideman, recently wrote: “Race is a myth. When we stop talking about race, stop believing in race, it will disappear. … color wouldn’t disappear. Difference wouldn’t disappear. Africa wouldn’t disappear. In post-race America ‘white’ people would disappear. That is, no group could assume as birthright and identity a privileged, supernaturally ordained superiority at the top of a hierarchy of other groups.” Is it possible to make race disappear?
Rodriguez: In watching Pres. Obama’s ascent—I’m reading this new biography of him by David Remnick—I’m struck by how this brown man, who grew up cosmopolitan with a really dazzling mother, could have been the first brown president. But he didn’t have the imagination of that. This news that he declared himself on the new census form as black, strikes me as to how difficult it is going to be to give up these terms.
Here is a man who is genuinely brown—who has a Kansas white mother, a stepfather who’s Indonesian, who is brown as can be… and yet he is hungry for a mother, because his mother was doing research in Indonesian when he was growing up in Hawaii, he had a much more tempestuous childhood growing up in Hawaii, with kids who said hateful things to him, about being black, including a gym coach who said, “why don’t you run like a black man?” No one’s ever said things like that to me, growing up in America, so I’m not even sure with what authority that I’m saying it, his return to a traditional grammar of race, is in some sense as much a barometer of where we are right now, that he cannot go onto American television right now and say I am beyond race.
Whenever I’m asked about my race, whenever I’m asked any question—if you ask me if I’m gay, I always say no, I’m morose, if you ask me if I’m Mexican, I always say I’m Chinese. I just want to subvert those categories. I don’t know what they mean. What does it mean to be gay, that I wake up smiling? [laughs] It’s absurd. I don’t know what it means to be Mexican either, I’m not Mexican, I have an American passport. I’m intrigued that I have an Indian face, but equally intrigued by the fact that I could be Sephardic Jew, that my father’s family had some rumor of Sephardic Jews in the family. So I could be Jewish.
As I go down a street in Cairo one day—this is a true story—I’m trying to figure out why I feel so at home there. For the first time in my life I begin to think about Islamic Spain, that for 300 years Spain was Muslim. I know that Spanish has an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Arabic words within it, that by speaking Spanish, I speak Arabic. I know this intellectually. But it wasn’t until I got to the Middle East that I thought, “I might be Arabic.”
By 1492, the year that Columbus goes off looking for India and spices, Spain had expelled the Jew and the Moor. But it was too late. The Jew and the Moor were already within the Spaniard. So when the Italian under the Spanish flag comes to the new world to meet the Indian, already he’s bringing the entire cargo of the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian within himself.
I think of myself as part of that tradition. As a Christian I belong to that Abrahamic tradition, and I feel connected to Muslims and to Jews. I now feel defiant. I refuse to participate in the new racism that makes the Muslim other. I am Muslim, by virtue of being Christian, I am Jewish, by virtue of being Christian. You understand? In that sense, I’m very happy that anyone would think that I look Arabic. When I’m taken aside at airports and given a special search, in Toronto or Milan there will be this special room, with all these Yemeni old men and Syrian mothers. We’re all there together. And I think to myself, that’s where the Mexican Catholic belongs.
That’s not exactly an answer to your question, but it’s an answer.
Polter: Some have commented on the ambiguity of the census toward Latinos. How do Latino in the U.S. affect the country’s racial narrative?
Rodriguez: The sexual drama that Latinos represent is so different from the American experience. Particularly as it applies to the Indian. The Indian did not disappear in Mexico, the Indian is everywhere, the Indian is on my face. The idea that the Indian has died in America, or that the Indian is running a casino somewhere, is so odd. Bill Clinton says to me that he’s 1/16th Indian, that formula that white America has, that they have some Cherokee blood or something, but very, very remote, this thing that happened a long time ago, but otherwise Indians are dead. But Latin America has this different sexual history. There is in Mexico this tradition of the dirty Mexican. That’s an American term, the dirty Mexican. And that is that we are mixed people, that we are from the very beginning of our history a bastard race, that we are Indian and we are European.
As early as the 18th century, Mexico is a majority mixed race population, neither Spanish nor Indian. It remains to this day. It has absorbed lots of populations of Arabs and Africans and Asians, it keeps melting those populations, it falls in love with those populations. In my family, in the 1950s, it was nothing for me to have a Hindu uncle. At Christmas there were Hindu prayers over the turkey. That was just the way I grew up. So I didn’t understand the white and black dynamic. This white lady started showing up at Christmas because she’s engaged to my uncle’s nephew. So Mexico has this erotic subversiveness to America.
So Richard Nixon invents Hispanics, we became the third race in America, neither white nor black, but we are white, and we are black, we are Indian. We subvert all those categories that America has created. Because we are all those things. The problem for Hispanics is whether we’re going to buy into the America scheme, whether we’re going to see ourselves as separable from blacks. When the Census bureau began announcing in the 1980s that we were going to outnumber blacks, that we were going to become the most predominant minority group, you would think that the Hispanic leadership would have protested, would have said no, we are black, somos negros. But no they kept quiet, because numbers are power in America, and we have played that American game . We have allowed the American logic to place us between white and black, as neither white nor black. In fact affirmative action means that the blond Cuban from Miami is as Hispanic as the Indian from Bolivia who arrived yesterday. We are all Hispanic. But it is complete nonsense when it tries to adjust itself to an American map. The problem is whether or not Hispanics are going to live up to our subversiveness, or whether we’re going to play the American game of being neither white nor black.
Latin America has its own racism. You look at the telenovellas. This is the problem with being brown. It is a very indeterminate state. I’ve always called Mexico the capital of peroxide because there is this preference for blonde. There is something in us that is still enchanted with the whiteness, the blondeness. Watching telenovellas is like watching Swedish TV. It’s all these people speaking Spanish in Venezuela and Mexico, but they don’t look mestizo, they don’t look like me, they look European. My mother loved those shows, because she kept saying to me, “that’s what Mexico looks like. You think it just looks like poor people, because that’s who we have coming up here, but we have tall people, we have people with blue eyes and green eyes and blonde.” As if that were a point of boast about Mexico.
A lot of my nieces and nephews are German, Dutch, English surnames but they identify as Hispanic, and they do not look Hispanic. One of my nephews has three children who are blonder than the sun. His mother said to me recently, because they were applying to some school, “I hope that they’re not going to be discriminated against” and I said “why would they be discriminated against?” and she said because they’re Hispanic. I said, but they’re so blond.. How could America discriminate against them? Their surname is German--what is the classmate going to say , “you have one drop of Hispanic blood?” That’s the question, that generation, when the confusion is so vast , or the racial mix is so deep. When Obama’s sister’s grandchildren are related to but look so different from his grandchildren. What are these categories going to mean? I argue that right now the families I go to with the greatest diversity are where evangelical Christians are related to Mormons are related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, are related to Catholics. That’s the kind of family that is more interesting to me in terms of its diversity.
Polter: In a politically fractured society does art still have ability to bring culture together?
Rodriguez: I don’t know. I’m very pessimistic, because of digital culture. That’s the great divide. I get these requests from friends of mine to join them on Facebook. Facebook keeps emailing to say “we haven’t heard from you yet.” I’m not interested in talking to people I know every day, twittering with people I know everyday. The whole thing is absurd. I’m interested in talking to strangers and finding the commonality of our stories. But I’m more and more skeptical about whether the energies of the culture are in that direction. I think the culture is driven by a vast loneliness, which Silicon Valley has discovered and is making a lot of money from.
The need for people to bond by virtue of a common hobby, or a common sexual identity, or a common neighborhood, whatever that is, the death of the largest motifs, like the daily newspaper for example. That a city would have a daily newspaper, which would include death notices, birth notices, and weddings and the 4-H club winners, that is gone. I could find 4-H club winners if I’m looking for a specific person in Ames, Iowa, it’s easy. But I would never see them now in my daily newspaper, the way I used to. It’s not simply about art, it’s just that the commonality of experience isn’t being described right now. By virtue of the sheer plenty, whether it’s on televisions that have 500 channels so you’re apt to find whatever you’re looking for, whatever your proclivity is, you’re going to find it. But you’re not going to be with strangers anymore. So that’s lost. That’s just dying. I think the technology is allowing us to burrow into our little hives in a way that is very discouraging and I think very dangerous.
I rely on something in the human spirit that is adventuresome and rebellious. I was raised in an Irish-Catholic school. The nuns warned us at a very early age against the danger of mixed marriage, by which they didn’t mean marrying someone of another race, but the danger of marrying a Protestant, marrying a Methodist. So the first thing I did was go to a Protestant church. I think there is something in us that wants to rebel against stuff. I see the American teenagers in the most, strangest places. In Ghana, doing a junior year abroad in Bolivia, being where they should not be. And I just think that there is that curiosity. It just so happened that the Fremont Avenue Presbyterian Church had its doors open, on a weekday morning in summer, and I went inside to look to see what it looked like.
That is my only hope, that children will be rebellious. If the book is considered too dangerous, that they will read the book. If not, we’re doomed. We’re doomed. So much of the energy now, everyone is talking to themselves, walking around with their head at an angle, on a cell phone, they’re not looking at where they are, they’re not there. They’re talking to a friend. Social networking is really, really scary, because it suggests that we’re not curious, that in the middle of the most extraordinary street, we’re not there. We’re talking to someone back home, to someone that we already know.
Polter: You’re working on a book about the desert origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What led you to this topic?
Rodriguez: After Sept. 11, I grew closer to Islam, rather than farther away from it. The most shocking thing for me was that those men were praying as they drilled those 767s into the World Trade Center. When Osama bin Laden began to refer to crusaders, I was reminded that this was a religious war that we were involved in. That was European, killing each other over Protestants versus Catholic, heretics, orthodox vs. Roman Catholic, and so forth. But America having a religious war? That was new to me. So I was interested in Islam.
I didn’t know much about it, except I used to go to the Al Alhambra theater in Sacramento, before it got destroyed for a Safeway, and it was the most beautiful architecture, Moroccan-influenced architecture. I wondered why Hollywood films seemed more wonderful in a Moroccan style theater. That was a childish wonder, of course.
The other thing was that I’d always felt an attraction to the desert. I’ve hiked through deserts for much of my life and always had a secular curiosity about them—their beauty, their secrets, their survivability. But after Sept. 11, I suddenly realized that maybe I was being drawn to the desert because I’m a Christian.
I’d read so much of my Christian past through Europe. I’m a Roman Catholic, I was raised in an Irish Catholic church, I was schooled in religious controversies that had to do with Geneva, or Zurich, or Zwingli, or Calvin, or Luther. When I went to Union Theological Seminary for two years, it was all European theological drama. It didn’t engage this ecological question, that we are people of the desert. Christianity is a desert religion, a Middle Eastern religion.
This interested me very much, because that’s how we think of Muslims basically, as a desert people. It’s not so much how we think of Jews-- the Israelis boast that they have made the desert bloom, they have made the desert green. That the Jewish migration into the Middle East, that the reunion of the people with its lands, takes the form of transforming the land into a land of milk and honey, in biblical terms, which means swimming pools in Tel Aviv. It means banana plantations on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It means making fertile the land and boasting about it.
I’d never gone to the desert looking for Christ, and I never really went to the desert expecting to find Mohammed, and I never went to the desert expecting to hear the voice of God. But that’s exactly what I’m doing now. I have a driver when I’m there, a Palestinian driver who imitates Elvis Presley, and we drive around the Middle East, and I’m enchanted by the desert, and I’ve never felt so close to God as I do there.
I’m asking questions about how the desert protected Jesus, protected Muhammad, protected Moses. How they hid themselves in the desert. How the city—Mecca, Jerusalem—was often at odds with these prophets, these holy people, and how the desert took them in, and how God appears in the desert. The drama of mirage and the drama of dryness.
The first story of Abraham that we read in Genesis is a desert story: The desert God has come to a dry old man and told him that he will be fertile, that his wife is going to bear him a son. Overhearing this—I always imagine her as [the actress] Rhea Perlman—she laughs; the whole idea of becoming a mother is ludicrous to her. God says to her, do you think that there are things that God cannot do, that this is impossible for God? And suddenly there is this notion of fertility in the desert, that God will make the dry woman fertile.
And these two children, Isaac and Ishmael, the legitimate son and the illegitimate son: Abraham, who is this George Burns character, casts away his Egyptian servant when Rhea Perlman says “I won’t have her around.” She goes out to the desert and almost dies there with her son, until they are rescued by God, who promises them that they will have a race as numerous as the stars. There are all these stories of people dying of thirst or in old age being promised fertility.
So what am I doing in the desert? I’m looking for that God. The God who is promising a world of fertility in this dryness. The desert, by the way, is the fastest growing ecology in the world right now. There are dust storms in Beijing. The desert is the most implacable, most demanding ecology, and it keeps advancing.
We keep sending Christmas cards with these pictures of evergreens, a sort of Swedish Christmas, with the snow falling over Stockholm and Santa coming in with presents. But God is a desert God who comes in the middle of a desert winter. That’s thrilling to me. It’s like discovering that the world is round. It is so elementary, but so breathtaking in its simplicity. To go to Jerusalem and to find that it is a desert city is really wonderful. And demanding. I kneel to the desert god. Not to the variant Christmases of Santa Claus and snow bunnies.
Polter: Do you feel you’ve found life and beauty in the desert?
Rodriguez: This is a God who sometimes speaks to Abraham in a whisper, because the desert is so still. This is not a God who speaks through Cecil B. DeMille thunderstorms. This is a very subtle God, who wants to meet us in this place of desolation. All the images of heaven that we create are green. But our human experience is lived in the desert. That’s where we live with God.
I was in Las Vegas helping a friend who was dying of AIDS before Easter. It’s true what they say of Las Vegas, there are no clocks in the casinos. That means there is no Good Friday, no Easter Sunday. There is no time. But there’s water everywhere, swimming pools, fountains go up and down at the Bellagio to Frank Sinatra songs on the hour. The curious thing about desert cities like Las Vegas and Dubai is how deliberately they reject the landscape.
In some way the dream of the kibbutz, the movement of making the desert bloom, is part of that. We don’t like living in the desert. We want air conditioning. You could not live in Las Vegas without air conditioning. I know people who live in Tucson who say they love the desert, but they don’t love it at all. They live in these air-conditioned little cubicles. They run to their car, which is also air-conditioned, and go to their air-conditioned mall.
Polter: It’s as if people weren’t meant to settle in the desert.
Rodriguez: That’s right. And you should wonder what that means. Why are so many Bible stories about people wandering, these people who don’t settle, these people who don’t have a home, these people who are seasonal? It seems to me the truest model for what we are becoming is a pilgrim people.
Can I say something about the border? Mexico is a difficult neighbor. I know the gringos would like to have to have a nice neighbor like Switzerland. They yodel, they have chocolate shops, if you’re criminal you can put your money in a Swiss bank, and Switzerland will hide it for you. If you’re a Nazi you don’t have to worry about Switzerland because it’s neutral. It’s a nice country. So it would be very nice if we had a nice neighbor like Switzerland beside us.
Unfortunately you don’t. You have an antagonistic culture, a Catholic culture that is very different from low church Protestant America – you have a Catholic counter-reformation culture that is different in every way. At its most brilliant and its darkest, Mexico is a deeply cynical culture, Mexicans believe in original sin, they believe in the failure of human beings. Mexico teaches you to believe that you are a failed human being, that there is much sin in you, that you have stumbled, that you need repentance, that you are always asking a friend for forgiveness, that you have always done something. So that what Mexico knows is that there is this vast corruption in the world. It has led to a great tolerance in Mexico. The only reason you go to church is because you are sinner, not because you are saved. The whole tradition of Catholicism is penitential, seeking to deal with your sinfulness. That you would go to church to claim your election, to claim that you are born-again, it’s just impossible for the Mexican catholic.
The bad part of Mexico is that it is a very cynical country. This leads to tolerance, but it can lead to too much tolerance, you know that the police chief is taking bribes, that the judge is corrupt, that everyone is taking part in the graft. There are people in Mexico today who tell me that the biggest mistake the government is making is trying to go up against the crime bosses.
America is a very different society. We are a society that values, at least in our public life, purity. That when the price on the jar says $5, that’s not negotiable, it means something. In Mexico, 5 pesos doesn’t mean anything—it’s negotiable. The judge says you’re guilty—it’s negotiable. In America there’s this desire for things to be what they say they are. I love that about America. I consider this to be a Protestant virtue, what the Puritans called plain speech, that honesty requires no fancy language, just tell me, do you agree with this? Don’t go into this baroque Latin rhetoric, just tell me, do you believe in it? That kind of John Wayne language. I love that.
The problem with America is that we are very hypocritical society and that we allow under the cover of dark what we say we don’t tolerate in public. For example we don’t tolerate illegal immigration. But America is a land built on illegal immigration. Not only because that’s how we took the land away from the Indians, but that’s really in some sense, the vast criminality of our ancestors is what built our country, what allowed us to become pious, law-abiding citizens. One of the things I love about Las Vegas is that they’re now considering a museum that highlights their criminality. That people like Bugsy Siegel was one of the founders of Las Vegas. No city but Las Vegas would make American history so naked. This is why we all go there. Las Vegas is almost like Latin America. You have to go back to Des Moines and become a law-abiding citizen, but while you’re in Vegas you can do anything.
America has never confronted its criminality, what we did to Indians, the history of slavery. We expect descendants of slavery to just get over it—you know, there were a lot of bad things that happened, just get over it. I’m not a racist, we say, don’t brand me that I’m white, that my ancestors were privileged--when we came over we had nothing, we didn’t have affirmative action, we didn’t have any of that.
There is this hypocrisy in America, which certainly along the border has led to this perfect cultural exchange between cynical Mexico and hypocritical America, where anything that was illegal in America—and anything that was fun was illegal in America--sex, gambling, alcohol, everything Baptists would declare illegal, you would go down to Mexico to get. When the AIDS crisis happened there were so many drugs you couldn’t get, I would go to Mexico to get them. These are very deep themes in American life, that Mexico is attached to criminality.
What you have now is this meeting of a very cynical Latin American culture and a deeply hypocritical American culture. And that we are claiming that these people are bringing drugs to America against our will, despite the fact that U.S. is the most addicted society in the world—grandmas are raiding their bathroom medicine cabinets to get high, Rush Limbaugh was addicted—that Americans would claim that Latin America is bringing something into the U.S. that America doesn’t want, is the most astonishing thing.
Mexicans are being killed in Mexico, school children, because of the violence that is being caused by our addiction. Do you hear American politicians say, have you ever heard an American politician say to Mexico, “I’m sorry for what we’re doing to your country”? No. We’re talking about how they’re bringing, how criminals are coming into Arizona. Now the Arizona legislature says we will treat these people not just as illegal people, but as potential criminals. They’re bringing their criminality to our culture.
But who has been hiring these migrant workers? Who has been hiring them at their packing plants in Alabama and Iowa? Who’s been hiring them to sit with their relatives and take care of their children in Beverly Hills? Who’s been hiring these people? That we would not see our relationship to their crime is in some ways the worst thing about that border.
And I want to know why Americans are so sad. Would you ask your readers that? Why they need to be addicted? They can’t get out of bed without drugs, they can’t go to sleep without drugs, they can’t be alone without drugs, they can’t be with other people without drugs. What is the problem? What is your sadness? Please tell us. Please tell the world what makes you so sad.
You are undermining Afghanistan, you are undermining Thailand, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico with your addictions. Every five minutes on my computer I get notices of drugs that are available on the internet. How many drugs do you need to go to sleep? How many drugs do you need to get up? You all go to church on Sunday morning to and sing your hymns, but no one can tell me what the sadness in America is.
America is not prepared to talk about this right now. There’s some disconnect here. The greatness of our culture is our great individuality. I don’t know if it’s that we’re so lonely. The other thing is the permission this culture gives us to seek and enjoy. The great wisdom of that is that you seek in moderation, that you can’t keep upping the ante. These mansions you build for yourselves in the Hamptons or in Beverly Hills, that have 58 bedrooms aren’t going to bring you any more happiness. I know you don’t believe me, but they’re not. And these bankers who were giving themselves bonuses for failures of $100 million, it’s just a realm of excess that doesn’t bear any relation to reality. And that leads to a kind of fantasy life that can only be replenished by a kind of promiscuity of life experience and excess… I need a private plane, I can’t go first class on international carriers, I need my own plane. It goes on and on this way.
You see you’re getting me into a very melancholy mode.
Julie Polter is an associate editor at Sojourners.