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Mixed Blessing
By Edward Ortiz

Brown: The Last Discovery of America
By Richard Rodriguez
Viking, 256 Pages, $24.95

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 too elegantly.

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.

Brown 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 race.

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 future.

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