Is There a Doctor in the House

Yes. He Studies the History of Medicine in Literature.

By Judith Green

Anyone living in the United States for the past two decades or more has experienced the increasing multicultural transformation of the country. A nation whose historic racial/ethnic cultural divide has been largely along black-white lines now is characterized by a kaleidoscope of cultures and creeds. Whereas in We Hold These Truths (1960), the natural law thinker John Courtney Murray, S.J., confidently contended that it was possible to effect a civil dialogue between Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and secularists over the moral foundations of a democracy, today this task has become much more daunting as Muslims and practitioners of non-Western religions have become important players in any discourse regarding the nation’s moral compass.

As of the 2000 census, Latinos have become the nation’s largest minority group and in some cities constitute or soon will constitute (San Antonio the former; Houston the latter) an absolute majority of the population. In an increasing number of cities, Spanish billboards are beginning to dot the landscape; and in some media markets, Spanish-speaking radio stations top the ratings charts. On the religious front, the rising tide of Latinos has swelled the ranks of Catholics and Pentecostals in the United States. Moreover, the sheer number of Latino immigrants continuing to stream into the United States, our geographic proximity to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and the spread of Univision, Telemundo, and other U.S.-based Spanish-language media suggest this “Latinoization” of America will continue to grow, from Los Angeles to las Carolinas, from Laredo to Nueva York.

These trends have not bypassed the Lehigh Valley. Although this region has historically been associated with a multiplicity of European nationalities and cultures, especially German, the number of Latinos has been rising steadily over the past two decades.

Both in Allentown and Bethlehem, at least 20% of each city’s population is Latino. The number is significantly higher in terms of school-age population, because the average age of Latinos in comparison to non-Latinos is significantly younger: a portent of the future. Latino politicians are beginning only now to gain access to school boards and city councils. The local television station, Channel 69, broadcasts a Spanish television-news program on weeknights.

Given these developments, the question is not whether we must deal with multiple cultures in 21st-century America, but how? In my research on multiculturalism, I have observed that partisans in the multicultural debate either insist that some uniform vision of being “American” should be shared or revel in the uniqueness of each cultural community without much regard for what unites us a political people. Indeed, when culture is conceptualized as a “possession,” one is left with either the undifferentiated identity of the “melting pot” or the relativist identities of separate cultural enclaves.

However, if we think of culture as a relationship between people—a gift to be realized and shared—then we can envision a moral political community that neither assimilates nor separates cultural groups.

Sometimes when I do presentations on multiculturalism, I render my own cultural heritage by displaying the “Irish hex,” a Pennsylvania German hex sign with a large green shamrock superimposed on the stylized birds and flowers. This captures the world that I, an Irish-American in the very German-American culture of eastern Pennsylvania, grew up in. But if I were to be accurate today, that hex sign would have to be redrawn to reflect the impact that Latino culture has had on my life over the past two decades in Texas.

The point is each of us has a cultural “hex sign” whose attributes are constantly changing as we interact with other cultures. Seeking “unity in diversity” offers a much more constructive approach than either imposing a monoculture or rending our communities apart in a separatist fashion.

In my recent book, Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders (2002), I offer a constructive vision for moving beyond the assimilation-separatist impasse. I argue that the Mexican-American and Latino experience with mestizaje—the mixing of cultures without the dominance of any one—offers a basis for articulating a political theory of “unity-in-diversity.” The heritage of mestizaje conveys a “border mentality,” which accents the ebb and flow of cultures across boundaries with mutual enrichment being the outcome, in contrast to the “frontier mentality,” which sees alien cultures outside the common experience of an expanding civilization as elements to be exterminated. Indeed, in contrast to the “unity-in-uniformity” posed by assimilation or the “sheer diversity” posed by separatism, a mestizo democracy offers a vision of unity through the intersection of our differences that culminates neither in a tyrannical single cultural identity nor in an anarchy of separate ones. Ironically, rather than the growing “Latino presence” posing a threat (as nativists would have it), it suggests a spirit of mixing cultures that is vital for cultivating and embracing a multicultural democracy.

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Photo: John Kish IV