From Ongoing, a working essay
I was an American and a Texan legally at birth courtesy of the Constitution before I became a Mexican-American sometime in the mid-1960s courtesy of the civil rights movement and a Hispanic in the 1980’s courtesy of the Census Bureau before I became a Latino in the 1990s courtesy of Frank del Olmo of The Los Angeles Times. For the time and age in which we live, Hispanic/Latino suffices, though I suspect that will change in the future, but to what I have no idea.
I knew and liked Frank and liked Latino very much, and like my family and peers and community and America itself, my becoming is an ongoing process. Many years later, I still am all of the above and have become much more—along with the 56 million Hispanics and/or Latinos who have moved America into a new phase and chapter in its history.
Today — the age of information and of a new demography — is not about being Hispanic or Latino or Hispanic/Latino. Today is about something else entirely. It is about vision. It is about the road ahead. It is not about a fanciful post-racial history; it is about prelude to survival as the American economy almost certainly contracts as a share of the world’s economy in the face of global competition. Unmindful of what the future has deposited at our doorstep, many of us, forced to use labels to feed demographic data computer banks of a diverse nation, can engage in drawn-out discussions about whether we are Hispanic or Latino or neither.
For me, other definitions about the future matter more, such as leadership — especially leadership of thought that can redefine a community and that gives it greater purpose. The future is not about labels as it is about self-leadership that culminates in personal and professional success.
Others might have time to dwiddle and dwaddle about terms and labels. For me, Hispanic/Latino suffices. It fits all, combines all. Indeed, the future might well demand that we become more Hispanic/Latino and more American simultaneously.
That is not to say the Hispanic/Latino community is not inchoate. Indeed, it can seem highly disparate. America itself is an amorphous mass. The identity of Hispanic/Latinos, symbolized by a clash over taglines, is still in the making because America’s identity itself is always in the making. This is a monumental consideration for a future that is not going to be what we thought it was, and the manner by which we create the new America will greatly influence what we ultimately become.
A vastly changed economy, a furiously aging and changing population, a fiercely competitive world, a worrisome climate, a loss of faith in institutions—these are the subjects driving the make-up of our new being, and the debate they sow and the anxiety they breed are changing the very definition of what being an American is. Already, some Americans want to amend the Constitution to exclude many legally-born citizens from being considered Americans. However boorish the threat, the more important point is how easy it seems to change what an American is – revealing a fragility in the nation’s identity that is becoming increasingly more fluid and worrisome.
That so fundamental a change as amending the Constitution is milling about casually in the air and that the economic and fiscal condition of the country is increasingly in doubt should be enough to convince Hispanic/Latinos of the need to develop a new way forward.
Whether we want to believe it, America’s current travails are not about one prolonged economic recession but about a process that began years ago, at about the country’s new demography began to gain momentum, driven more so by the dramatic decline of the birthrates of the white, non-Hispanic/Latino population. For years we were warned about the structural changes in the economy that would cause millions of Americans to lose their jobs. Those forces gathered intensity during the last 40 years, and whole industries began to crumble before our eyes. The steel, automobile, textile, furniture and a host of other industrial sectors buckled. If they exist at all today, they mimic their former selves.
The country still manufactures and produces an enormous amount, but the world has changed, and it was destined to change long before the terroristic attacks on September 11, 2001. The emergence of the computer industry and information technology helped shroud the transformation of the economy and, in many cases, spurred the decline of employment through enormous gains in productivity. Economists also told us that the cost of health care and the country’s aging population would cause additional fiscal grief.
Instead of addressing the issues head on, our disregard of them has culminated in angry times. The ongoing acrimony on Capitol Hill and in local and state governments over taxes, public debt and government spending is only a symbol of our collective failure.
Concurrent with the great transformation that reshaped the American economy, demographic change has generated another critical challenge that the country would be unwise to ignore or dismiss: The promise and peril of the Hispanic/Latino community. Hispanic/Latinos in particular would be irresponsible if they did not stop and consider the full potential impact of their growing population on the country—a reverberation that will be amplified as other population groups continue to decline in size and importance.
The expanding Hispanic/Latino population that I have followed closely during four decades of change needs to make dramatic progress in its social and economic standing to reach its full potential when America needs them most. Unless they succeed, America probably will fail.
More than once, I have been asked why Hispanic/Latinos as a group consistently lag behind in almost every positive social indicator. I think I know why, and it boils down to reasons that are hard to write about, for they revolve around conflicts in identity and purpose that have kept the talent and promise of many Hispanic/Latinos bottled up and that have sidelined others after making unwise choices in their personal lives.
Hispanic/Latinos are no different from any group. We are talented, creative, hard working and productive—except that living in disparate settings did not integrate many of us fully into mainstream society, so we spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with ourselves and our identities. Hispanic/Latinos can and must regroup to help push ourselves and the country forward into the future.
The reason I write is that I do not exempt myself from not having lived up to my own potential. At several key points in my life, I could and should have taken the next step that would have taken me to the next level of my profession. But suffering from the same equivocations that give too much respect to authority and institutions — and that I have come to recognize in many of my peers — I chose differently.
That is not to say that my life has not been interesting and at times exciting, and I have seen the best and worst of the Hispanic/Latino community.
My most important achievement is that I have traveled across the country on land many times as a boy and again as a professional, and therefore have seen the country change. Traveling across America more than a few times and living and working in four of its five time zones have me more than the benefit of studying reams of demographic, market and election data. Data alone yields an incomplete picture of an always-changing nation.
Not until one sees and feels the throbbing heat of Miami and then fights off the chill of the hills of California while spending the night with workers harvesting avocados can one claim to have some insight into the present and the future. Being enveloped within the canyons of the skyscrapers of New York City and then taking in the smallness of the capitol building of New Mexico yields perspective. To go see how Hispanic/Latino parts of Oklahoma have become and to travel stretches of North Dakota and stop at a café in which every face is white, non-Hispanic/Latino and over the age of 70 is to witness history in the making.
History now demands successful and competent and productive Hispanic/Latinos in far greater numbers for America to survive. And it seems clearer still that a new road has to be constructed altogether, for how we arrived here is obviously not enough — and we have a long way to go.
For a long time I have thought that Hispanic/Latinos when they reached a certain critical mass would require a new intellectual framework to see the future through and not repeat the past that has left so many behind. That moment has come.
To prolong the American Experiment and to improve our own civic standing, Hispanic/Latinos initially must help restore civil decorum to public discourse. Passions or old slights or old wounds should not overcome our sense of fairness to others and, more important, to ourselves as we gain demographic strength.
The biggest challenge is to convince all Americans that we are the future in almost every sense of the word. And that America’s survival is critical to the survival of the world. We cannot expect Brazil, China, India or Europe to lead the fight against climate change.
And so, as carefully and as wisely as I can, I try to put hope into written form. Others, no doubt, can do this better. I do not write to entertain, and I write mostly in dollops to survive the internet, which decapitates reading. Deep down, I am as suspicious of skinheads and as I am of skimheads.
Above all else, I write to fulfill the ultimate responsibility of every Hispanic/Latino in the country today: To grow and to become more than what we are. I string together some thoughts and ideas that might perhaps be regarded as helpful.
The rest I leave to history.