Montezuma’s revenge is not what you think. Instead, suggests essayist-journalist Rodriguez, the emperor’s true revenge may be in the dismantling of the idea of racial differences among white, brown and every other hue.
“After the conquest of Mexico,” writes the author, “some conquistadors married Indian princesses and daughters of chiefs.” So they did, and the Spaniards who came after that first generation of conquistadors married other Indian women, while some Indian men married white women. The result was the mestizo, the Mexican: the race that melded all other races, with “a great variety of phenotypic traits.” The upper crust kept itself as white as possible and used skin color as a measure of race and social position. This way of reckoning among whites, creoles, mestizos, indios and other phenotypic types was carried over to the frontier. Once gringo census takers arrived, Californios gave themselves promotions so that, as Rodriguez quotes a historian as remarking, “everyone acquired some fictitious Caucasian ancestry and shed Negro backgrounds—becoming, in effect, lighter as they moved up the social scale.” Today, Mexican Americans—who, as Rodriguez points out, constitute two-thirds of the Latino population in the United States—self-identify on the census differently depending on their perceived social status. The upper class considers itself white, but the vast majority of Mexican Americans check “other race,” even as most identify ethnically as Hispanic or Latino. As Rodriguez’s lucid book demonstrates, now that whites are no longer the majority in California, there is not much talk there of majorities or minorities, even as census officials worry that this confounding of race and ethnicity will “undermine the validity of all the other racial categories.” In other words, given the growth of the Latino population and high rate of intermarriage, the “other” will do what its forerunner did, namely subvert and redefine the notion of a melting-pot nation.
Of great interest to the demographically inclined, and those who wonder what America will look like at the tricentennial.