Sunday, August 24, 2008

E Pluribus, Unum: A Dictum for Change in Your Change

Take a penny (or nickel, dime, quarter); pick it up. Read the back. Old or new, you’ll find in tiny etching, E Pluribus, Unum. A Latin term that translates to “From Many, One.”

I never noticed it myself until I started college. My late journalism professor told us to get a quarter and flip it to the back. He asked us if we knew what it meant and went on this lecture about our founding fathers and how they choose this as the de facto motto to represent the power of our unified states to make one country.

He added that in modern times this phrase had more relevance than ever. He asked us to write a piece explaining what it meant to us. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I’m sure it wasn’t worth remembering. At 19 I was already jaded about all the patriotic rah-rah we were fed since elementary school. I knew all about the liberty and justice for all, the purple mountains majesty and that one of the first truths to be self-evident was that all men are created equal. I just never saw any of that in my South Bronx neighborhood.

But my professor had at one time an illustrious journalism career covering, among many world and political issues, the civil rights movement. He really believed that this motto had a new significance, but I still wasn’t seeing it. Born to Puerto Rican parents I was taught that we were American citizens and had been for hundreds of years since the Spanish American war. Yet almost every other interaction I had with a white person went like this:

WP: So where are you from?

Me: New York.

WP: No, where are you FROM?

Me: Uh, the South Bronx?

WP: (frustrated sigh): Where are your parents FROM?

Me: They’re from Puerto Rico.

WP: So you’re Puerto Rican.

Me: But I’ve never been to the Island….

And no matter how I explained we were Americans, it was always interrupted with “You’re Puerto Rican.” So there it was. I was raised to believe I’m American, but constantly reminded that I couldn’t really be. I was other. And so I turned more toward the culture of an island I’ve never been to. And I’ve been richer for it since.

Which brings me back to this motto, E Pluribus Unum. The one that should’ve always been our nation’s motto, but was replaced in the 1950’s by “In God We Trust.”

Admit it or not, our country’s wealth has always been and always will be our diversity. From that diversity comes our ingenuity, diplomacy and cultural richness. And now that we stand in the crux of a rapidly emerging world economy, it’s that diversity that will prove to be the most valuable asset of this nation of many races, backgrounds and beliefs.

As we enter the start of an historic election season, we discovered that people were a lot more comfortable with the prospect of a biracial, bicultural president. So much so that after a long tug of war with our first female frontrunner, it is Barack Obama who emerged as our Democratic candidate.

Still, there are some self-professed liberals who are nervous that someone of color couldn’t possibly represent the self-interests of all Americans. It reminds me of the Spanish saying: Ladron juzga por su condicion. (The thief assumes all think like a thief).

To those people I say it’s your time to put your money where your mouth is. If we Americans of color can vote time and time again for a white guy and hope he’ll remember us when he’s in the Oval Office, then you can surely muster up some trust too.

At a time of tattered diplomatic relations and a domestic landscape torpedoed by elite special interests, I can’t think of a better time to turn to each other, see the power of our diversity and finally put that motto to action. Our businesses and education will be better for it, and so will our country.

Paul, it took me a while but I think I finally get it. Thanks for everything and rest in peace.

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