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Breaking into the '90s. A New World in Time. Walls fall, debts rise, politicians thrive, environments suffer-a look over the shoulder and over the horizon. : Next Face for a New California: The Cultural Clash of 'I' and 'We'

December 31, 1989|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez is a contributing editor to Opinion and an editor for Pacific News Service.

SAN FRANCISCO — Quivering like hounds, demographers point at the growing nonwhite population of the United States, of this state in particular. By the turn of the century, half the Californians will be nonwhite. Demographers are not novelists. They cannot imagine what they predict.

The other day I had my vision of the future and it came just before Christmas, as unexpectedly as the knowledge of sex or death comes to a child. I was at Serramonte Shopping Center, south of San Francisco, in the proper North Pole spirit, searching for toys to give my 6-year-old nephew, my 3-year-old niece. Instead, like silent Cabrillo, I discovered new California--the warm ocean of faces from Asia and Africa, from Samoa, Latin America and the Philippines. The rarest complexion was white--the blonde girl--but her boyfriend was black.

As we wrap up a decade, the media are filled with the drama of Europe discovering itself. As the Continent moves toward unification and tribalism, perhaps America's destiny is to discover the whole world in a California shopping center.

The United States, for most immigrants, was a rejection of Europe even though Americans were accustomed to thinking of their country as a European discovery, a European idea. People escaped fathers or kings or the inevitable poverty of the village by sailing away to America. America, the new world. What vision does that incantation conjure now?

While Europe fashions new coherence and gathers optimism, American classrooms have students from everywhere in the world, who speak in 40 or 50 foreign languages, only one of which, Spanish, derives from Europe. Europe now boasts of her cumulative wealth--the Marshall Plan paid off--and its high level of education. America fears the burden of a nonwhite future.

For plain racial reasons, some Americans will resent the new look of this country. At some more complicated level, Americans will wonder about the coherence of a country where not everyone looks like an astronaut, where astronauts do not look like John Glenn, where we no longer mean the same thing when we speak of God or Founding Fathers or even "the West." The controversy of American education in coming years will be one of shared knowledge: Are there facts, dates, scarlet letters we can teach in common?

In the mid-19th Century, the nativist argument against Irish immigration was a religious argument. The United States was about to go to war with Catholic Mexico. The fear was that the Irish would conspire with Mexican papists to overturn the Protestant state. The question was whether America would be diminished by allowing Catholics--historical enemies of Protestant individuality--to share in the fledgling Protestant creation.

But America's Protestant tolerance-- faith in individualism--could not, after all, exclude the outsider. The Irish came. America was truest to itself when it risked dissolution. The Irish became Americans.

Many decades later Americans wonder if America risks too much, if America will remain a European idea, if America can welcome so many non-Europeans without losing some necessary "character." To remain true to the idea of itself, America has no choice but risk.

Yet Americans regard the advent of a new Europe with envy and unease, being accustomed to think that only we can make the new. Cutting loose from Europe is our creation myth. It is unsettling to watch Europe turn its back on America.

We ought instead feel a sense of triumph, the flattery of history. Americans took from Europe the 18th-Century first-person pronoun--the modern "I." Americans polished that pronoun, invested it with the myth of invincibility. No state has advertised the "I" as relentlessly as California--in music, in movies, on freeways. Now we hear the American "I" proclaimed by masses in the Eastern Europe square. "I" is whispered in villages in the jungles of Latin America. The American "I" is the reason so many want to come here. And yet Americans begin to fear the passing of our influence. What if every city becomes Los Angeles?

Last spring, Americans watched in awe as Chinese students--clothed in an armor of conviction we had made--drew the Excalibur "I" from a stone in Tian An Men Square while American elected officials wrung their hands and tut-tutted.

Are Americans afraid of history? Or have we entered a post-American phase? As the rest of the world grasps our "I," Americans seem unable to wield it any longer, afraid of 50 languages, wary of variety.

Perhaps there is reason. Americans (like Western Europeans) speak a new environmentalism--the grammar of global "we"--even as Latin Americans hack down jungles, clearing a path to the future the way Americans did in the 19th Century. Now Americans speak of protecting the "quality of life."

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