Learning To See Ourselves as North Americans

August 29, 1993|By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

We do not think of ourselves as North Americans -- that is the problem. Politicians and diplomats have lately been talking about a North American Free Trade Agreement, but what, in God's name, is a North American?

We know what a South American is. Certain images come quickly to mind: Carmen Miranda, rain forests, Carlos Gardel doing the tango.

And we know Central Americans: Maya Indians with big noses, civil war cutthroats, drug dealers, the Panama Canal. But what is a North American?

Every morning, every night on TV, the happy weatherman or weatherlady stands in front of a map of the United States of America. Living in California, I hear about thunder storms over Long Island or a drought in North Texas. But about tomorrow's weather in Calgary or in Guadalajara there is not a word. On the weather map there is only a vacant space where Canada and Mexico silently lie.

A Canadian novelist who grew up in Halifax once described to me how, every autumn, he could "smell the north approaching." That is the way he referred to it. The north -- as though it were a person, a ghost.

Canada and Mexico are north-south countries. In Canada the barely inhabited north is where the indigenous population lives; unchanging Canada, as eternal as the white winter sky.

On the other hand, it is the southern extremity -- the smiling, unguarded border with the United States -- which is the problem. Pop American culture is slipping over the border, melting the border, threatening a Canadian distinction.

Canadians are very different from Mexicans except in this crucial respect: They are both aware of the otherwise oblivious United States. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

The remark is usually attributed to Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican president who was otherwise famous for selling much of Mexico to British and U.S. interests.

In Canada the north is the unchanging side, but Mexico's unchanging side is her southern half.

Southern Mexico is where the great stone civilizations were built and endure, albeit in ruins. Mexico sees her identity as arising from the Indian, so it is the jungle south that feeds the continuity of Mexico.

On the other hand, Mexico regards her northern extremity as the problem. Yes, El Norte represents the new future for many Mexicans -- Mexicans speak of the north as we in the United States used to speak of the "frontier," meaning an unbounded future.

But El Norte is also the nightmare horizon of Mexico. Mexico lost her far northern territory to the gringo in the 19th Century. In earlier distant Indian centuries, the nomadic iconoclastic tribes of Mexico lived in the north; they would sweep south, overturning stone cities. In the 19th century, Mexican rebels and gangsters escaped to the north and the north hid them. Today the pagan rock music, the blond breasts, the turistas come from the north.

The United States has all the while been oblivious. We were born in opposition to Europe. If we thought of ourselves in opposition to a foreign place, it was Europe. Henry James was interested in the lost American living in London or Rome, not Toronto or Mexico City.

The calamity of our civil war split the national imagination north against south. But after the civil war, it was our manifest destiny to move west, the nation healing itself, forming itself, as the country extended itself into the west.

The honorable president of Mexico, the honorable Canadian prime minister, flanked the president of the United States. The three men signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Environmentalists, trade unionists, many other Americans, didn't like the idea from the start, don't trust it. Ross Perot went on TV the other night to warn us, mispronouncing Spanish words with his high Texas twang.

Lima and Santiago are South American cities -- there are plenty of brown people in both cities. Part of the problem is that we don't recognize ourselves in the Mexican or in the Aleut Indian either. We like Canada. Love her forests. And envy her white cities -- the low crime rate. But we condescend to Canada as to a spinster aunt.

The fact is that there is no weather in Halifax or Oaxaca City today. At least on a TV weather map. Beyond all political and economic considerations, we do not imagine ourselves with them, North Americans. At least not yet.

Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation," examines the cultural gap that prevents us from identifying with the people both south and north of our borders. This article, written for Pacific News Service, was adapted from an essay for the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.

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