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Stirring The Melting Pot: A Challenge to Notions of Integration

Category: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 edition of the Museum magazine.

What does it mean to be an American? For many decades, few questioned that our identity centered on a common subscription to a certain set of accepted values. With a new wave of immigration and a changing worldview, however, came the rising popularity of multiculturalism in the 1990s. Many rejected the homogenous “melting pot” for a diverse “salad bowl” that would preserve the cultures, languages and traditions of people’s native countries. So what now? Gregory Rodriguez set out to answer that question in December, with “Towards a New Mainstream?”-a lecture hosted at the Embassy of Canada in Washington, D.C., by AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. Following is an excerpt from his talk, which touches upon the challenges of shifting demographics, integration, assimilation and adaptability-and how museums can genuinely reach out to different populations. Video of the lecture and an accompanying discussion guide are available at

I have a very simple point to make, which is that we have forgotten what this country does well. Race was always a problem in this country. Ethnicity was always more negotiable, and when we look at the diversity of this country, we sometimes look at it through the prism of race and through the prism of multiculturalism, which I want to start off with. Multiculturalism was both an answer and a problem. It was an answer to the extent that it acknowledged-and it forced the majority population to acknowledge-difference and to acknowledge different viewpoints that may not be held by African Americans or Asian Americans or Latino Americans. I would argue that, at this point, it’s become sort of a glass ceiling and it’s not allowing us to look at what the country does well and needs to do well again, which is integration.

This notion that we have to build a new mainstream is the core of this talk. When we talk about diversity, we look so years ahead and we tend to say, “Oh, it’s going to be 25 percent Latino.” But we have no idea what that means. We have no idea what it means to be Latino in 2050. None. Clueless. Imagine 1908, an Italian immigrant somewhere in Brooklyn-could they have imagined Dean Martin? Could a Hungarian rabbi from the Lower East Side have fathomed Woody Allen? This is the process that we’ve forgotten.

Richard Alba, one of my favorite scholars, wrote an academic article about assimilation maybe 20 years ago, now, that began, “Assimilation has become America’s dirty little secret.” I think we’ve let the word be tainted. We’ve let it be taken over and demeaned and turned into something that it never was. Assimilation does not mean ethnic self-obliteration. In a very functional sense, it means the tendency of a newcomer to adapt their customs, their viewpoints, their habits in order to improve their chances and their children’s chances of survival in a new territory. Is that such a horrible thing? No. But we’re talking about it in terms of multiculturalism. Sometime, somewhere along the way, we solidified ourselves. We need to move beyond even multiculturalism. Did you ever notice how, in any big city, a panel has the black panelist and the Latino panelist and the Asian panelist, and it’s always the white guy who’s the moderator? You laugh because you know it’s true! We have to start thinking not in terms of the part and the whole. Where I come from [Los Angeles], where you’re going to be enjoying your conference in the spring, it’s majority Latino. We have to start thinking in terms of “they” becoming “us” and “us” becoming “they.”

I’d like to clarify one thing about diversity. We talk about diversity, museums say they’re worried about diversity, but are we really worried about Asian Americans? The African American population in the next 50 years will jump I percent. Asians will go from 4 to 8 percent. Whom are we really worried about? The Latino population jumps from 15 to 25 percent in the next 45 years; two-thirds of Latinos are of Mexican origin. Let’s be honest. We’re worried about Mexicans, and we’re worried about whether they’ll adapt and whether they’ll use our institutions.

“We don’t talk in terms of integration; we talk in terms of representation. Oh, he represents ‘they.’ I don’t represent anybody.”

One of the things I do as a columnist is say “our” and “we” a lot as an American, and you’d be surprised how many emails I get. I’m supposed to be the Latino columnist, and yet when I say “we” and I say “our,” it’s a provocation. We don’t talk in terms of integration; we talk in terms of representation. Oh, he represents “they.” I don’t represent anybody. You’d be surprised how many e-mails I get on a daily basis making assumptions about who I am, my cultural background. We tend to still think that whites behave as individuals and all non-whites act as if they’re representatives of their people. Individuality is wiped out if you’re not white. Occasionally I write a column about white people. Do you know how many [white] people have written books about Latinos? How many white people have written books about blacks?

The media often act as if Latinos and other non-whites live in alternative universes. The mayor of Los Angeles was a pivotal figure, the first Mexican American to lead Los Angeles in 100 years. He had an affair. How unusual for an American politician! He had an affair with an anchorwoman from Telemundo, Spanish-language news. What do you know? Several big [media] outlets said, “Ha, ha, ha, the mayor’s life is just like a telenovela.” The presumption there is that his cheating on his wife was sort of a Hispanic thing, wasn’t it? A columnist for the Los Angeles Times joked and said the mayor was playing “Quien es mas macho,” which was from a skit lampooning Latino stereotypes that Bill Murray did in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live. I said we just should have had a big graphic on the front of the paper with the mayor with a rose between his teeth. What’s worse is CNN called me that week, very nice producer calls me and says, “We’re hoping you can come on the show to talk about what the mayor’s affair says about Latino political leadership.” I said, ”I’d be happy to come on, as long as I can talk about what Bill Clinton’s infidelity means about white presidents, and what Jesse Jackson’s infidelities mean about black activists.” “Oh, well, can you recommend anyone else?” Role-playing. We don’t want diversity. We don’t want integration. We want the Latino to say this and the black guy to say this.

My wife and I were in a sushi place the other day in Pasadena, California. Next to us was this very nice elderly Anglo couple and their daughter. They were really lovely and started talking to the sushi chef about how they lived in Tokyo many years back, and they remembered this subway stop and, “Can I try a little bit of old Japanese on you?” and the guy was, like, “Yeah, yeah.” They left. I talked to the sushi chef. He was Korean. That’s not a one-way story. He was playing Japanese. The poor people, they didn’t know. When they were practicing Japanese on him, he had no idea what they were saying.

As we look forward, and if you look at these data, they play into our planning. The state of California projected Latino population for the next so years in the late ’80s, and they redid them and lowered the estimates. You know why? Because they realized they had based their estimates on immigrant birth rates during an immigrant birth boom. After the passing of IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act] in 1986, there was a little baby boom. They realized we’re essentially projecting behavior out from an immigrant population that may not look anything like their children or their grandchildren. It’s provocative that I say this, [but] children of immigrants are not their parents. You can ask any cab driver in Washington, “Will your children be like you?” and [he’ll] say, “Absolutely.” But they won’t be. That’s the American story and it continues to be the American story. So I think what the media and institutions like museums are obliged to do is help that process along-not a process of sameness but a process of closing the social distance between the foreign and the U.S. born and creating a space in which these people feel more and more comfortable in this new country.

“How to get that middle-class Mexican American or Puerto Rican American or Dominican American into your institutions is not a matter of speaking foreign languages half the time.”

So back to roles. I was at an international book festival in Mexico last week, and it was really, really fascinating because there, Mexican Americans are gringos. I moderated a panel with some Mexican American writers, and we all sat down and talked about what it was like to be in that in-between zone. My family’s been here for 100 years, and I’m still seen as an immigrant. But when you go back [to Mexico], you’re reminded you’re a total gringo.

I think sometimes cultural institutions in the United States don’t allow us to be Americans. They don’t acknowledge
that we are just as· American as y’ all. There is this tendency to do outreach, find representation, make you play roles, exoticize and keep you in that role. Constant and presumed foreignness-it’s a problem. In L.A., Gustavo Dudamel is a brilliant, world-class conductor. He’s ours. What it’s allowed the L.A. Philharmonic to do is outreach and put their ads in Spanish for all those gardeners who are going to the L.A. Philharmonic! What it’s allowed them to do is to mistake importing elite Latin Americans for integration. Mind you, he comes out of a system of youth orchestras in Venezuela that has a proven record of integrating people from the margins, and he is an inspiring figure, so no disrespect to him. But, at the same time, it made the L.A. elite arts community feel way too good about themselves because this is essentially what elites have always done. The extent that they paid attention to Mexicans was the extent to which they could find an elite from another country who looked just like they do and talked just like they did and wasn’t anything like the people they didn’t like down the street. It’s not integration. We did that with Placido Domingo, who is a Spaniard but lived in Mexico. What it’s done is made people avoid the broader issues of integrating and creating new audiences.

We over-assume social distance as regards Mexican Americans. There is a whole industry that’s dedicated to making us believe that the Spanish language is the future of the United States. It’s nonsense. What we find is that even the big rush of Spanish-language electronic media in the ’90s did not impair the linguistic assimilation of immigrants. In 1990, according to the U.S. Census, 65 percent of third-generation Mexican Americans (that means the grandchildren of immigrants) between the ages of 5 and 18 spoke only English. It’s pretty clear. Of the two-thirds who were bilingual, they tended to speak English better. Now, Richard Alba has done those data by distance from the border, and it’s very logical. You tend to be more strongly bilingual on the border, but with every little-increased distance from the border, it’s less so.

You look at the 2000 census: 71 percent of third-generation Mexican American children ages 5 to 18 spoke only English. This is a distinct group. It will continue to have distinct mannerisms and preferences and styles for a long time to come, but they’re speaking in English. It’s negotiating not that big divide that we think of; it’s negotiating the small divide. How to get that middle-class Mexican American or Puerto Rican American or Dominican American into your institutions is not a matter of speaking foreign languages half the time. I think the use of Spanish is oftentimes a crutch for cultural institutions. It is a way to say, “We’re going to build a large museum on the top of a hill in a place [with a name that] ends with ‘wood.’ We’re going to make it really hard to get to; but then we’re going to
put banners in Spanish in the ‘hood.” I think there’s too much of that.

One of the things I try to do in writing about this is acknowledge the true barriers that exist and then also look at the collisions, the convergences. We tend to think in terms of resistance, culturally. We tend not to say, “Hey, adaptability is kind of a cool thing, too.” Mixture is important. The history of Mexican Americans in the United States has been a history of mixture. Mexican American scholars said, “Oh, these are proud people who never change and they resist the Anglo.” It’s not true. There was always this adaptability. Within three weeks of crossing the border, there were studies-they wore jeans, listened to the radio. It still happens.

Borders Books opened its first bookstore in an all-Latino city in southern California called Pico Rivera, about 95 percent Latino of Mexican origin. They put all the books in Spanish. Guess what? It’s like a third-generation Latino city. One night, about a month later, after they realized no one was coming in, they changed the whole stock. We need to start breaking down, desegregating. None of these groups mean anything. “Asian” means nothing. Increasingly, we speak as if these groups were monolithic as if they didn’t have fissures and divisions and tensions within them. There’s no way to understand any of them and, clearly, by extension, there’s no way of understanding the future of the United States, and there’s no way of understanding how museums are going to reach out to them if you don’t allow for the notion of assimilation and the notion of change and adaptability.

Seven years ago, I was inducted into a sort of snooty intellectual club in Los Angeles. I was, like, that’s kind of cool, you know? I went to the first meeting, and some guy very jokingly said, “Hey, did you get in on the Mexican quota?” Pissed me off. I was, like, shit, is this junior high school? I left. I called my friend Tamar Jacoby, and I said, “”m inducted into this nice, elite, intellectual group, and I was made to feel different again like they’d done me a freaking favor.” Driving up the harbor freeway in Los Angeles, I said to her, “You know what? I’m going to start my own organization where everyone is welcome.” And I did. It was a whim. It’s called Zocalo Public Square. “Zocalo” means “public square” in Spanish. It’s sort of a play on “town hall” in a city that’s half of Mexican origin. It’s a lecture series and a Web publication. We’re not a big museum, we don’t have huge money, but we figured out something kind of brilliant on our own. By the way, about 90 percent of museums in the city of Los Angeles have invited us to do programs in their halls-the Getty, the Skirball, MOCA, the Autry. They were, like, wait a sec, what is Zocalo doing? You know what it is? It’s really simple. It’s staffing. My program director, Dulce Vasquez, was born in Tampico, was a sorority girl at Northwestern. Kicks ass. Laura Villalpando, who’s the field producer, is half Salvadorean, half Mexican. Our writer is a Yale graduate, Indian American child of immigrants. They just create a climate. I let them run it. [Economist] Paul Krugman has spoken for us; we had the great African American film director Carl Franldin, who did that great movie with Denzel Washington, Devil in a Blue Dress. We had a Mexican American journalist interview him. We don’t ghettoize. We don’t ask anybody to represent their group. We don’t invite anybody to speak for other anyone but themselves. That’s actually a marked improvement. You know who we’re getting? We’re getting the most diverse audiences in any lecture series, I bet you, in the country because it’s run by young, non-white women in their 20s and they’re learning. The point is, they’re trying to create a public square where there’s no dominant force. There’s no dominant ethnic group. There’s no dominant ideological group. When someone walks in, we don’t assume they think a certain way. We just allow it. All we’re trying to do is create space, and the museums of Los Angeles have responded incredibly generously.

“Narrow casting undermines the public square. We know that specialization is the enemy of accessibility.”

What I found out—and the second reason I founded Zocalo—was that civic life in my city was completely backwards. Even as the middle-class, native-born people of Los Angeles County were mixing, and neighborhoods were strikingly mixed (not the immigrant neighborhoods, they’re the most homogenous), out in the suburbs what we found out is that the civic life was incredibly segregated and divided. Sure, you can see Paul Krugman at the Jewish Democratic Club, at the Latino Engineers Society, at the Japanese American basketball team alumni [group]. So they’re all available, but they were never available in one place. To start it all off for Zocalo, I had my friend who was the Economist’s Washington bureau chief, Adrian Wooldridge, give the first speech (“How the Company Changed the World”] because no one would have expected it. It’s Zocalo, right? Is it going to be a Hispanic speech by the Hispanics? [Our goal is to] mix it up and get rid of expectations and not allow people to play roles. It’s about really re-imagining the mainstream. Sometimes it’s ethnically specific and you do things you know will get a largely African American crowd or a largely Asian American crowd, and it still happens. There will be that tendency, but the point is we’re not seeking it. We’re not seeking to speak to the choir. We rove around all these institutions.

That’s my contribution to this larger discussion. I think we need to think more in terms of integration, more in terms of the public square and how to broaden it. Right now, we’re living in a hard time for that; narrowcasting undermines the public square. We know that. We know that specialization is the enemy of accessibility.

One last thing we do at Zocalo is to ask fundamental questions. We don’t let the question get arcane. We get funded by health-care foundations, and they’ll say, “We want to do something on palliative versus hospice care and end-of-life issues. … “And do you know what we called the panel? “What is a Good Death?” We’re translating difficult, arcane ideas into fundamental questions, and it reaches more people. The specialists like it, but it also reaches beyond them. That’s our contribution to all this. I’m grateful to you for listening.

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