Tippett, Rodriguez: ‘Brown is the new color of American identity’

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Krista Trippett, host of “On Being,” and Richard Rodriguez, author, journalist and public intellectual, speak during the Interfaith Lecture at the Hall of Philosophy on Wednesday.

Richard Rodriguez believes God is brown. Brown, he said, represents complexity — of religion, of ethnicity, of language.

Rodriguez, a journalist, author and public intellectual, was the third guest in Krista Tippett’s weeklong lecture series, “Conversations on the American Consciousness.” Tippett, who is host of NPR’s “On Being” and creator of The Civil Conversations Project, explored such concepts as family values, identity, church experiences and the issue of immigration with Rodriguez. They gave the Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Growing up Catholic in Sacramento, California, Rodriguez was surrounded by Irish nuns who made him globally aware of Europe.

“The power of religion to make us reflective of the lives we are leading seems to me to encourage an inwardness which I would call intellectual,” Rodriguez said.

Tippett then steered the dialogue to Rodriguez’s ideas on family values, relating them to his Mexican heritage and his childhood endeavors to learn a new language. She read an excerpt of his previous work: “Americans like to talk about the importance of family values, but America isn’t a country of family values. Mexico is a country of family values — this is a country of people who leave home.”

Families pay a high price for the education of their youth, Rodriguez said. It’s a psychological price and, in a way, a betrayal.

“That I’m going away from the family,” he said. “That I’m going to get ideas that are too big for me. That I’m going to begin to reject my own culture. And, in fact, it happens.”

Tippett connected all of this self-realization from the church and cultural background to Rodriguez’s self-identification as “brown.”

“One of the themes that you’ve been writing about and talking about here in the 21st century is that the color of your skin,” Tippett said.  “Brown, in all its variety, is the new color of American identity.”

The idea of being mixed — racially and religiously — is difficult for Americans to accept, Rodriguez said. The reality is even whites have different skin pigmentations and features inherited from multiple ethnicities. These differences are a result of interracial marriages, not limited to marriage between white and black, but between Spanish and Indian, Italian and Irish, Muslim and Christian, and it’s creating a society that not only self-identifies with multiple ethnicities, but also multiple religions.

“Within the complexity of that is the brownness that may envelope us,” he said.

Tippett asked Rodriguez to talk about the Abrahamic desert religions he discussed in his recent book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.

These religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are distinctive because God becomes temporal in a specific time and place, that place being the desert, Rodriguez said.

“It is a holy landscape,” he said. “It is also a landscape that drives us crazy.”

Today, America’s desert city, Las Vegas, has been translated to the Middle East. It’s another mixing process, but a perverted one. Rodriguez used the example of Dubai, which has a hotel with an ice chamber for snowball fights, and Mecca, where a person can stay in a hotel shaped like Big Ben and go shopping in super malls.

“There is — in the middle of the holiest space in Islam — this invasion of place, of what the desert is,” he said. “This is where we were meant to encounter God.”

Flashy buildings and lights are the opposite of what is held most important in these desert religions. Rodriguez said it’s the concept of the cave, or shade, twilight and darkness that serve as “consolations or gifts.” Muhammad has his revelation in a cave, Moses is put in the mouth of a cave to avoid the blinding light and Jesus is both born and resurrected in a cave.

“We are people of the dark, and we should accept that darkness as part of our faith,” he said.

Tippett switched their topic to immigration, specifically children struggling to cross the Mexican border into the United States.

“It’s noticeable — that silence of Christians on this issue,” Rodriguez said. “It is quite clear to me what the Gospels tell us to do with a stranger in our midst. Unless I misread that, in which case you have to inform me what the Good Samaritan was all about.”

Tippett said she believes there are American voices along the border advocating for the issue, but admits it’s a topic widely undercovered by journalists.

“You have some particular insights into this border,” Tippett said. “This Mexican-American border which so defines us, but I think we tend be oblivious to it a lot of the time until something blows up like this.”

She continued by asking Rodriguez to expand on his observations of “psychic tension between Mexican stoicism and American optimism.”

Mexicans are confused by the unhappiness of Americans, he said, who use drugs in their own country and create turmoil over the substance in other countries.

“The paradox of the border right now is that you see young people coming to the American border for the opportunity of America, at exactly the time when Americans are importing drugs from Latin America because of the despair of our unhappiness,” he said. “The paradox of that movement in both directions is so interesting to me and so little noted.” 

These immigrants are following in the same American ideals found in classic literature, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the American way of leaving home to obtain an education and better one’s self, he said.

“There they are — they’re 7 and 8 years old and they’re at their border and we’re horrified by them now because we don’t even recognize our own myth,” he said.

The problem today, Rodriguez said, is that people don’t understand who they are anymore. In a religious sense, churches have erased the power of physical weight — Scripture is being read off Kindles instead of books, people are being cremated instead of buried. In a more secular sense, people don’t realize the interconnectedness of their own languages.

When in Cairo, Rodriguez kept hearing Spanish in the Arabic language. What he realized what that the Spanish language is comprised of more than 3,000 Arabic words, incorporated when Spain was a Muslim country. Then he remembered his mother using Spanish words to express hope that sounded like Allah.

“Linguistically too, we belong to civilizations far way,” Rodriguez said. “And what I began to realize of course, is the Muslim is within me. And it certainly was on my mother’s lips.”

It’s evidence of that brownness, of the mixing process as far back as the 16th century, he said.