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from issue no. 06 - 2011


We and nosotros in the mosaic of the US

The rise of the Hispanic and African-American minorities makes ever more concrete the “e pluribus unum” and helps the US to understand the world better. Miguel H. Díaz, Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See, talks to us

by Miguel H. Díaz

Miguel H. Díaz, Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See [© Paolo Galosi]

Miguel H. Díaz, Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See [© Paolo Galosi]


The latest U.S. Census tells us that in the United States we have 195.8 million whites, 37.7 million blacks, 50.5 million Hispanics and 14.5 million Asians.

But if you ask the Hispanics about their identity, some answer that they feel black, evidently establishing in this way a link with the American black community.

Even before becoming a diplomat accredited to the Holy See, I had wondered how the African-American Catholics contributed to the effort of building bridges of understanding and cooperation, an effort that is now the main focus of my mission in Rome. And I had to admit that we have a lot to learn from the way they look at the world, at people, and at the encounter between religion and society.

The history of the African-Americans, and of black Catholics in particular, is marked by suffering, the violence undergone – along with lynching without trial – and goes through the colonial period, slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, the movement for civil rights – that produced figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. – and ultimately the civil rights laws. President Obama is the inheritor of this long history. We have before us people who fought so that, along with their humanity and dignity, their blackness also be accepted. The story of black Catholics is the story of an uncommon fidelity: they have had their prophets, have had great patience and perseverance, and above all they believed that in the end good would triumph over evil. And it is obvious, especially in their spirituals, that in asserting their humanity in the face of those describing them as less than human, they drew inspiration from a whole world of religious traditions from different cultures. Those who now suffer or seek their freedom thus can easily look to the example of African-Americans and black Catholics, that is at a history of loyalty and hope.

From the perspective of anthropology, African-American Catholics, similarly to Hispanics, have an essentially communitarian tradition, have a relational concept of the person in their own community. A community in turn conceived as a “beloved community”, according to the definition of the philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916), an expression then popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. It is, to be precise, the idea, based on experience, that those who live around you, who pray with you at Mass and the man from the building next-door belong to your family. It is an interdependence that has great value in the world today, because it gives a positive weight to the differences between people. Those who for so long have felt themselves perceived and not accepted as “other”, understand this well. African-Americans can give witness today and teach us the beauty of interdependence, of hospitality and of the golden rule of love of one’s neighbor.

A few years ago I reported in an essay the results of a debate between blacks and Hispanic intellectuals on the understanding that each of the two groups had about being “other”. What emerged was the whole value of community, and therefore the accent wasn’t placed on the I but on the person as a part of the we. We express this in Spanish by saying “nosotros”, a potent word, which is equivalent to the English we, but that literally carries the meaning of “community that encompasses the others”, accepting the differences. They are not just two words in the African-American and Hispanic dictionaries, but they have concrete consequences and explain all the concern that these communities have for social justice. Martin Luther King Jr. said he had “a dream for a better society”, and this in practice meant social and health care for all, an open education system, programs to deal with poverty and homelessness. In other words this is the theme of inclusion, which is global, and that can draw from these communities ideas and the just solutions verified by experience. So it is not surprising that an African-American candidate for the presidency then became President of the United States, having staked his campaign on the central model of Yes We Can, which tells us that we can achieve better results if we are together and not against each other, from the neighborhood, up to the level of international relations.

President Barack Obama at the end of a speech on health reform in College Park in Maryland, September 2009 [© Luke Sharrett/Redux/Contrasto]

President Barack Obama at the end of a speech on health reform in College Park in Maryland, September 2009 [© Luke Sharrett/Redux/Contrasto]

When in debates in the United States we dwell on secularization and there are those who say that there is no place in society for people with religious ideas, the African-American community has the answer ready. Even without troubling Martin Luther King Jr. again, we can repeat that nothing of the history of this community can be told and explained without reference to faith, from the gospel songs that aspired to liberation from slavery – including Amazing Grace – down to the whole of the cultural production that has its roots in faith and which has greatly contributed to the construction of the collective imagination of Americans. The African-American community does not separate the secular from the sacred, it finds a way of finding the holiness of behavior in the details of daily life. And I think this has value since it also reminds diplomats and politicians that religion is often misused – and will be again, because it belongs to the history of this world – but at the same time it remains a force that constructs the common good.

Finally, some people may fear that in the United States as these minorities, latinos or blacks, become important, that WASP culture may reject the novelty, with dramatic results in the future. I, however, continue to believe that the foundations of the United States will remain strong because we are “e pluribus unum”. It’s not the first time we’ve experienced demographic ferment and that entire communities make their entry into the States. I think that here the metaphor of the mosaic – or if you want the paella – is more relevant than that of the melting pot. Because all the pieces are maintained forming the final image, and all the ingredients are important in flavoring the paella: “e pluribus unum” precisely. This will also positively influence our foreign policy, because the United States – becoming ever more the microcosm of our planet – will better understand global dynamics thanks not least to their own internal ones.

Every community coming to the States came to become part of it, did not land on barren soil. And they now help us by giving their unique contribution. For example, the increased presence of latinos in the United States brings with it a Hispanic history and culture fully acquainted with the Jewish and Muslim worlds, highly valuable at a moment when the encounter with the Mediterranean world is becoming a priority. And it is also clear how much help the black community has given and can give the country in strategic terms. But it is the aspect of their uncommon fidelity that we shall forever carry within us.



(Text gathered by Giovanni Cubeddu and revised by the author)

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