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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama, the Mestizo Mutt

How gratifying to hear our new president-elect, Barack Obama, offhandedly characterize himself as a “mutt” at his first press conference after the presidential election. I sensed a self-deprecation meant to keep himself grounded. Also, it was a revealing look at how he might see himself, between black and white, a representative of the new world of the United States, as a society comprised not just of many races, but also a society where the races are often mixing to create something unique. We were already this new world a long time ago, but it has taken the election of Barack Obama to see ourselves more clearly than ever before.

Mestizo, as some of you may know, means ‘mixed blood,’ and has been the reality in Latin America for centuries. Spanish blood. Aztec blood. Incan blood. Portuguese blood. Mayan blood. African blood. Asian blood. Mexicanos are mestizos, and this history has often been a source of shame, rather than pride, of being conquered and of losing our heritage. Perhaps there is great difference when the union of races begins out of domination, rather than out of an uneasy, unexpected love.

In the United States, as Mexicanos and other Latinos inhabit parts of the country beyond the Southwest, to Kansas and Minnesota and Iowa, there has been a reaction against these newcomers, their brown faces, the Spanish language, and even their religion. Can we be open-minded enough not just to accept them for who they are, but to take them in, to change ourselves as we learn from them? Can these Mexicanos, outsiders in a new land, can they change themselves too? Are they flexible enough, and adaptable enough, to change and become an integral part of America? Are we all practical enough to search for and discover a new middle ground for all of us?

For this is what being mestizo, a mutt, has always meant for me. It has meant the promise and reality of new possibilities. It has been to value practicality and adaptability to the circumstances above all. Being mestizo is the opposite of trying to be pure, or of thinking there was ever any heritage, or history, that was pure. Being mestizo is about being suspicious of categorizations, that ‘whites’ are this way, that ‘blacks’ are that way, or that ‘Latinos’ are always so and so. Categorical thinking has always been at the heart of racism, and really, at the heart of non-thinking, meant to ‘understand’ quickly so as to appease an irrational fear or a doubt. Mestizaje breaks the established category, and creates something new, perhaps over time just another category that has to be broken again to escape yet another rigidity. Remember: ‘white’ America is composed of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, German, and other immigrants who were once the outsiders in our new world.

So being a mutt mestizo is about the details. I married a Jewish woman. Why? Because she was the one who took my heart away junior year at Harvard. I wasn’t looking for a ‘Mexicana,’ or a ‘woman from Harvard,’ or ‘somebody who could speak Spanish with my parents.’ I saw Laura, and how she was, and how we were together, these wonderful details, and they trumped any category I had in my mind about who I wanted to be with forever. Love is about the details, and so this Mexican mestizo created another mixture with a Jewish woman, and now with our children. The cycle of mixing and remixing continues. We are all mestizo mutts now, and we are a family.

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