The Last Discovery of America
Viking, 256 Pages,
For author Richard Rodriguez, America’s future has a very
distinct color—and that color is brown. This less-than-shocking,
but timely, pronouncement lies at the core of Rodriguez’s
latest book, Brown: The Last Discovery of America.
Anyone who doubts Rodriguez’s contention needs only to take
a look at the 2000 Census figures. With Latinos the fastest-growing
ethnic category, poised to become the nation’s largest minority
group by 2040, there can be no question that racial issues
are changing in America. And pegging identity to skin color
is a very complex and murky thing where Latinos are concerned.
Rodriguez wastes no time in addressing that fact—and he does
so elegantly, with characteristic erudition and heartfelt
remembrances. In fact, Brown makes several arguments
What began with earlier memoirs—Hunger of Memory and
Days of Obligation—reaches a conclusion, of sorts,
with Brown. In each of his memoirs, Rodriguez plumbs
the depths of race, class, and ethnicity. However, in Brown,
Rodriguez has become the defiant and proud poster boy for
the blessings of mixed blood and for all miscegenation.
is nothing short of a celebration of mixed blood and mixed
origins. Rodriguez uses himself as the prime example by describing
himself as equal parts “Conquistador” and “Indian,” and in
doing so, states the case that usual discussions of race along
black-white divisions will no longer do. That was the racial
discussion of the 20th century. The vexing racial questions
facing Americans in the 21st? They have to do with complexity,
according to Rodriguez. And complexity—especially as racial
origins and identities are concerned—is a characteristic many
Latinos bring with them when they cross the border or step
off the tarmac at JFK.
It’s hard to imagine an author more qualified to write about
racial impurity, shifting identities and racial complexity
than Rodriguez. As an openly gay Catholic from a Mexican-American
family, a graduate of Stanford and Columbia, and a journalist,
Rodriguez travels in so many different worlds at once he offers
a a highly individualistic vantage point from which to discuss
Like Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation,
it is likely that Brown will appear on many reading
lists on college campuses. And rightfully so, since what it
means to be brown (or a Latino from a multifaceted heritage)
is a dialogue not often heard these days, even though advertisers
and networks are falling all over themselves to court the
new, vibrant—though seemingly underknown—demographic of Latinos.
Not only does Brown suggest that color is shifting
in America, it argues that the browning of America will undo
its traditional East-to-West Coast perspective. The challenge,
according to Rodriguez, calls for a new North-South realignment.
It’s a realignment brought about by a flock of immigrants
arriving from points south, and those points constitute a
vast geography. From the Rio Grande to the windblown peaks
of Tierra Del Fuego to the languor of the Caribbean, a vast
pool of immigrants awaits. But this realignment is already
taking place with the dawn of the North American Free Trade
Agreement. The result? Many are already thinking in a hemispheric
sense, according to Rodriguez. The idea of a North-South realignment
is a truly novel one, and it sets Brown apart from
Rodriguez’s other works.
Will Americans be up to the challenge of embracing this new
paradigm? Or will they continue to be aloof about the racial
complexities that affect Latinos? If someone is Latino—and
brown—are they from Mexico? If not, are they from Latin America
or the Caribbean? Will they call themselves Latinos? Hispanics?
Argentineans? And why are some Latinos browner than others?
The book inspires such questions, for sure. And, for many,
these are questions previously unasked—even for those conversant
with Latino culture.
Rodriguez’s book also speaks to such 21st-century environments
like Los Angeles, which is now becoming the brownest of cities.
Although L.A. is a Western city, it is a “Southern” city in
Rodriguez’s mind. Not the South of Faulkner, but that of Los
Lobos. No doubt the mélange of cultures, architecture and
media that emanates from L.A. speaks to the very heart of
Rodriguez’s argument: Impurity is good. Rodriguez sees being
brown as the result of a fecund synergy (to borrow a buzzword
from the Hollywood executive’s lexicon).
The sad thing is is that Brown may be doomed to preach
to the converted, as Rodriguez is well aware. Nothing irks
the author more than the likelihood that this book, like his
others, will be shelved with other Latino American and brown
authors on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Borders.
It’s ironic that the book makes such a good argument against
pigeonholing and is destined for such box-stuffing itself.
Of the three memoirs, it may be that Brown will stay
longest in the public’s imagination, for the way it posits
a new future and poses new questions about race and Latino
identity. For those who feel that miscegenation is less a
curse than a blessing, Brown will prove inspirational
reading. For closet eugenicists, it bodes nothing but a dark