Columnist Says Immigration Shapes Perspectives on Race, Identity Gregory Rodriguez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, talks about his new book Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America. Rodriguez explains his theory that Mexican immigrants are re-shaping the way Americans think about race and ethnicity.

Columnist Says Immigration Shapes Perspectives on Race, Identity

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In just a moment, we're going to remember Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, a man using dozens of times in films. He had a whole other life.

But first, we're going to have two conversations about race and identity. They're different, but they're linked by the idea that the way we think and talk about race in this country is antiquated and needs to change. First, the Los Angeles Times printed an eye-catching series of articles on relations between blacks and Latinos on its opinion pages.

Two of the writers joined us recently to talk about it and we want to continue our discussion with another of the essayists: Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez. Gregory Rodriguez has a long view of these matters. He has a new book. And forgive me in advance of the language offense. The title is "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the History of Race in America". He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: THE CORRECT TITLE OF GREGORY RODRIGUEZ'S BOOK IS "MONGRELS, BASTARDS, ORPHANS, AND VAGABONDS: MEXICAN IMMIGRATION AND THE FUTURE OF RACE IN AMERICA."]

Mr. GREGORY RODRIGUEZ (Columnist, Los Angeles Times; Author, "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now Gregory, the provocative title notwithstanding, this is a serious and comprehensive look at the idea of race in Mexico and how it differs from the way race has been lived in the U.S. and it's affecting that. So tell me what you're getting at with that tile.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The title is intentionally provocative and it's really names that were used for people who didn't belong in rigid racial systems. This is really a book that's telling us about not just about race in Mexico but how mestizo, the emergence of the mixed people, how they emerge in Mexico and how they've, how do they've existed in the U.S. for the past 150 years.

MARTIN: Now, as I said, you have a very long view of these matters because the book goes back to, what, the 15th century?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: 1519 to the present, yeah.

MARTIN: 1519? So tell me just briefly if you would, how did race begin in Mexico?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Race began as the same way as people wanted it to begin here. It began with the racial system that was rigid and segregated. The Spanish colonial overlords wanted people to be divided into two republics at the time. A Spanish republic and an Indian republic and the people's were not to have mixed. Over time, they did mix and over time, this interstitial intermediate group, mestizos, the mixed peopled, who the government didn't acknowledge. They over the centuries became the majority. And by doing so, they undermined this racial system. Now, as these people came north, they then later on confronted the Anglo-American racial system, which is also based on a bifurcation this time between black and white and on the notions of purity.

MARTIN: And you point out in your book that in the United States, and I think it's important to point out that that boundaries did move over time. But that in the U.S., that Mexican immigrants were at one point considered white or did that that distinction changed or was revoked?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Right. Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans from 1850 to 1920 were de facto whites. In one part because they were not black and that seems to be the ongoing definition of what black is in America it's that you're not white. And also from derived from the fact that Mexicans had been influenced by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the Mexican-American war. That treaty allowed for those 75,000 to 100,000 Mexican citizens who are in the conquered territory who remain for over a year to become U.S. citizens. So if only white people in the mid-19th century could become citizens of the United States and Mexicans were eligible for citizenship, then they then were in some sense white.

MARTIN: So how do you think this has affected the binary way that we think about - we have tended to think about race in this country?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well traditionally, it didn't. When Mexican-Americans were smaller numbers, they try to play both sides of the binary. As I'm suggesting early in the 20th century, Mexican-American advocates, because all whites were conferred by the degree to which you could convince others you are white, the strategy was the other white race strategy that they sought to claim and to embrace that whiteness.

Now, this changed with the advent of Brown versus Board of Education. There became, suddenly, an advantage to identifying yourself as an identifiable minority. Now early on, in the late 50s, early 60s, Mexican-American advocates wanted to sort of embrace this notion of identifiable minority without losing their whiteness. However, with the advent of race-based policies to remedy past discriminations, voting rights act to affirmative action, there became an incentive to claim non-whiteness. So almost overnight, Mexican-Americans went from claiming to be white to be claiming to be non-white. Now, in theā€¦

MARTIN: Wait, wait - let me just stop you there because I think some people might argue that that's either a cynical view of the matter or a politicized view of the matter.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: No, I mean, that's just the historical view of that.

MARTIN: Well, I think because some people might argue, they're sort of acclaiming white and if you can understand why they're, sort of claiming whiteness had advantages, but you also write about - let me just finish my question - you also write about the way that in some places - certainly not all - there was almost like a three-tiered system of racial hierarchy. And similar to what we're used to thinking about in Latin America or South Africa, for example, you have whites up here, brown here, you know, black at the bottom.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, that three-part system existed in very few places and generally in another place that was generally ruled by Latin Catholics. You know, the three-part system we're talking about existed in New Orleans and that was of black slaves, white free people, and a free people of color. So that the brown in this case, exactly, that was the interstitial category, that was similar to the Mexican system as well. And remember - in the same way that Mexicans had to deal with the binary Anglo-American system moving West, so did New Orleans. As the binary Anglo-American ways of system came West, that three-part system became collapsed into a two-part system, where there was just black and white. Hence, you know, Plessy versus Fergusson, Homer Plessy was something like one-ninth of African ancestry, and he was put up to be a test case because of the fact that he looked so white.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think all these means to us now?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: What it means to us now is number one, the history of Mexican American shows us the vagaries and the nuances and the machinations of race, that's, number one, and what people will do to impose a category on others, and what people will do to avoid categories that others have imposed on them. And right now what's happening is the hierarchy that the large numbers of Mexican Americans in this country, and particularly in the southwest where they're often majorities in the cities and counties and where they reside - they feel less obliged to be - to take a side on one side of the white-black binary and say that essentially we are mestizos; we are brown people. So it's the emergence of a brownness, but not in a sort of the racial purist sense, but the sense of brownness as a mixture.

When we look at the U.S. Census, about a half of Mexican origin people in California say their race is other in the U.S. Census. Now this is something that's directly challenging the way we categorize race when millions of Americans of Mexican origin and other Latino origins are bubbling other in their Census questionnaire every 10 years. When you have an a, b, c and d category and (unintelligible) millions of people are choosing e, none of the above, it calls into question the validity of the entire system itself.

MARTIN: Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation - it's a D.C.-based think tank. He joined us from NPR West to talk about his new book. It's called "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America."

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

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