Whether we want to believe it, America is in trouble—real trouble. Its current travails are not about one prolonged economic recession. 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 changes have generated another critical challenge that the country would be unwise to ignore or dismiss: The promise and peril of the HispanicLatino community. HispanicLatinos 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 decline in size and importance.
The expanding HispanicLatino population that I have followed closely during those same four decades of change needs to make dramatic progress in their social and economic standing to reach their full potential when America needs them most. Unless they succeed, America probably will fail.
More than once, I have been asked why HispanicLatinos 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 HispanicLatinos bottled up and that have sidelined others after making unwise choices in their personal lives.
HispanicLatinos 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 themselves and their identities. HispanicLatinos 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. And I did not handle the frustration that comes from an unfulfilled life well.
That is not to say that my life has not been interesting and at times exciting. During a life committed to the HispanicLatino community, I have worked and lived in cities and towns throughout the nation. From a truly modest background, I was able to work in newspaper newsrooms and television production and have been at the center of important events and moments. I have been an editorial page editor of a major newspaper in Texas and a columnist whose opinions were published statewide. I have written speeches for members of the Cabinet. I was able to work at the White House. I have worked on presidential campaigns and on statewide runs for office. It has been a varied life, to say the least.
I have seen the best and worst of the HispanicLatino community. I had to balance journalistic objectivity when presented with hard and cold facts about some promising HispanicLatinos whom the public entrusted with great responsibility but were now knee-deep in personal and potentially public scandal. I helped a general of the Army organize a book proposal for his memoirs. I explored the Erie Canal and the marvels of its engineering one day and the next watched a ballet dramatically from backstage in New York. I have loved most of it. And I have taken great gambles with my life.
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 in its four corners allows one to be taken seriously when writing about its future. Studying reams of demographic, market and election data generated from computer banks does not give anyone anything more than 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 HispanicLatino parts of Oklahoma have become and to travel stretches of North Dakota and stop at a café in which almost every Anglo is over the age of 70 is to have witnessed history in the making.
After all of these years it has become apparent to me that many HispanicLatinos experience a void that leaves them undefined and that no one later fills with a driving vision or thrilling purpose. Before other events intrude, I want to reflect honestly on four decades of my existence and observations, and hope that they merge into a storyline on where HispanicLatinos are on the road to becoming what history now demands of them. I feel I should ask their permission. But I cannot, and so absent that, they are free to reject any or all of my ideas and interpretations of life.
But it seems clear enough to me that history now demands successful and competent and productive HispanicLatinos in far greater numbers than in the past so that America can 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 HispanicLatinos 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, and I hope I can contribute to it.
When discussing my intentions to write, I was warned by friends that I was certain to be pilloried, slandered and libeled and perhaps attacked physically. The blogosphere can be a nasty arena. Already, it is difficult. Self-examination is hard, painful and wrenching – but necessary. In my years as a journalist, I have received more than my fair share of threats, and I have survived worse.
The most common of attacks on me will come from those who will imagine self-hate in my writings—an occupational hazard of growing up as a member of a minority population in America and then writing about it. Having dedicated four decades to my community and having gone into debt to try to accelerate its progress through the political process that availed me little financially, I am not at this point going to worry about maligning it. Despite all, what I have done with my life is of great value to me and presumably to friends and colleagues who have encouraged me to write again.
At the bottom of my heart is not a sense of contrition but of agitation. I worry about HispanicLatinos having time enough to make the right progress fast enough to meet our new, historic obligations. What will bother me greatly is if we cannot engage in rational public discussion. In an age of anger and character assassination, to give way to recrimination shuts off the very creative thought and energy that must fire our communities from Miami to Midland to Modesto.
To prolong the American Experiment and to improve our own civic standing, HispanicLatinos initially must help restore civil decorum to public discourse. Passions should not overcome our sense of fairness to others and, more important, to ourselves.
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, though through allegories I tell stories that reflect the grit, honor and perseverance of the HispanicLatino. And I write in dollops to survive the internet, which decapitates reading. I am as suspicious of skinheads and as I am of skimheads.
Above all else, I write to fulfill the ultimate responsibility of every HispanicLatino 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.