Beyond Ethnicity, A Shared America

Will the 21st century be one in which some of us transcend our ethnicity or our race? I've been contemplating this question since reading in the Monitor (Dec. 3) about Chicano writer Victor Martinez's prestigious National Book Award. In that interview, Mr. Martinez said, "I wanted to be an American writer, not just a Chicano writer. A lot of Chicanos disagree with me violently over that. My parents were born here. I was born here."

Martinez was awarded the prize for his first novel, "Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida," a collection of stories told from the perspective of a 14-year-old Mexican-American boy from California. The article says much of his work had been "confined to the literary ghetto of 'Chicano' publications, despite the fact that Martinez prefers to write in English and sees himself as a part of a broader literary tradition."

Martinez's sentiment about wanting to be an "American" writer echoed deeply in me, as I imagine it did in the hearts and minds of other Americans - Americans who are gradually transcending their ethnic and racial roots and offering something of universal value.

About 20 years ago another Chicano writer and theater director, Luis Valdez, commented on his own exploration of ethnicity: "I have concentrated on creating theater images rooted in the realities of the Southwest. Ethnic and regional as those images might be, I feel we have nevertheless penetrated through the superficial differences that separate us all.... Our study of Chicano culture has led us into investigations of the entire history of America, from the mythological origins of the Mayans to the latest statistics of gang warfare in the cities. We feel we are inexorably a part of the evolution of America."

An integral part of the whole

We find ourselves approaching the 21st century sometimes simply wanting to be "Americans." This is because our contributions to American society are large, because we have made inroads into certain fields, because in living and telling our stories racial and ethnic minorities have become an integral part of the larger whole.

Through a tumultuous second half of the 20th century we have joined some of our ancestors in bringing balance to the historical picture of who we really are. This effort is still bearing fruit for us and the country. By transcending a certain group in some instances we become neither vendidos (sellouts) nor Tio Tacos (Uncle Toms), but rather move more effectively within and outside our groups. Victor Martinez strives for that, as Luis Valdez did and other talented people will continue to do.

Look at Jessye Norman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Oprah Winfrey, African-American women who have built bridges to universal audiences. Look at Colin Powell, Henry Cisneros, and Federico Pea, whose skills and talents transcend ethnic and racial boundaries.

A Monitor review of Richard Rodriguez's book, "Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father" (Dec. 17, 1992), says: "His expansive view breaks through the biological confines of ethnicity into something like true humanity. It's what makes Rodriguez's work well worth reading." We should consider similar breakthroughs by other writers and accomplished individuals. Their lives and work help us discover richer cultural definitions of being American.

America larger than any one group

Our country is larger and stronger than any single group within it. In his State of the Union message President Clinton referred to America as "an experiment in democracy fueled by Europeans" that has "grown into an experiment in democratic diversity fueled by openness and promise.... People on every continent can look to us and see the reflection of their own greatness, as long as we give all of our citizens, whatever their background, an opportunity to achieve their greatness."

But our differences aren't easily overcome, nor are the feelings of Martinez's Chicano audience, some of whom might have preferred that he write only about and for Chicanos. But is this fair?

Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing about the dilemma of identity and race in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man," provides eloquent insights into the black experience. Writing about himself and the black experience, Mr. Gates speaks to me also. There are questions of authenticity (of being black enough), of the burden of representation ("the homely notion that you represent your race, thus that your actions can betray your race or honor it"), and of the sensation someone experiences when his or her ethnic group becomes the focus of the news media or the larger society.

Gates remembers when he was 14 years old and the news of the Watts riots reached his summer camp. He recalls being watched by all the white campers and experiencing "that strange combination of power and powerlessness that you feel when the actions of another black person affect your own life, simply because you both are black." In Martinez's book, a 14-year-old picks crops with migrants to save up for a baseball mitt: "I thought of the baseball glove, all clean and stiff and leather-smelling.... I imagined already being on the baseball team at school and people looking at me. Not these people picking chilies ... but people I had yet to know, watching me as I stood mightily in center field."

I see a young Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a young Victor Martinez like brothers of destiny, brothers who will grow up to be American men, living within, yet transcending, their extraordinary roots.

* Omar Chapa is a human resources management consultant and writer in the Seattle area.

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