Keynote Address for Unidos:
2022 National Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration of the U.S. Dept. of Energy
In 1999, Mayor Ronald Loveridge of my hometown — Riverside, California –- asked me to lead a new city initiative, the Mayor’s Multicultural Forum. He also asked the Forum to begin by drawing up a position statement on diversity. We called the document “Building a More Inclusive Riverside Community.” The City Council adopted the document, making inclusivity a basic city principle.
That was more than two decades ago. Today you constantly hear variations of that idea. Take DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As a diversity consultant, lecturer, and workshop presenter I often use those terms, sometimes without giving them much thought. So when you asked me to speak on the topic of inclusivity, I had to make a decision. Should I give a traditional Hispanic Heritage speech filled with the usual once-a-year truisms about Latino this and Latinx that? Sort of a Hispanic Groundhog Day? I decided no. You deserve something more original.
So I reflected on the connection between the Latino experience and the idea of inclusivity. This led me to an unexpected revisiting of my personal journey. Those reflections helped me reconsider the idea of inclusivity.
I began by taking two words of DEI –- Equity and Inclusion — and recombining them into Equitable Inclusion. Not conditional inclusion, but rather the idea that we all deserve more than just being included. We deserve being included equitably. That’s how you foster true belonging, not superficial accommodation. As I thought about inclusivity, I identified three adjectives that characterize equitable inclusivity, three adjectives that I will explore through a Latino lens, drawing upon my personal journey.
Let’s start with the first word: authentic. In 1933, my father, Carlos Cortés, a Mexican Catholic immigrant from Guadalajara, married Florence Hoffman, the Jewish American daughter of Ukrainian and Austrian immigrants. I was born the next year, 1934, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, a racially segregated, religiously divided community, like much of the United States in those days. I wrote about that experience in my memoir, Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time, referring to my parents’ unique-for-its-time marital combination. This made them an odd couple, so I, too, became an oddity.
I later adapted my memoir into a one-person play, which I perform around the United States. I’m going to present a brief scene from that play. It takes place in the fall of 1949 at the beginning of my sophomore year, when I shifted to another Kansas City high school. __________________________
So in front of my new classmates I repeat, several times, that my name is Carlos, not Carl. Of course I didn’t win. In fact, the teacher kicks me out of class and sends me to the principal’s office. They call my folks. Dad storms over to school.
Now Dad didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did…whhh. I’m afraid he’s going to be furious with me for getting into trouble on my first day at my new school. But he’s not. In fact, he’s proud of me for standing up for my name, his name, our Mexican name.
Dad lectures the principal. “My son’s name is Carlos. His father’s name is Carlos. His grandfather’s name was Carlos. His great-grandfather’s name was Carlos. And I’ll be damned if you’re going to call him anything but Carlos.” After that, they didn’t.
Oh, I guess I ought to mention the class where this happened — Spanish.
I now refer to such events as Carl Moments or Being Carled. Carl Moments are situations where people encounter obstacles to authentic inclusivity. When things happen that communicate to you that your inclusivity is conditional. You’re welcome . . . but . . . or if . . . or sort of.
Unlike conditional inclusivity, equitable inclusivity incorporates the idea of personal authenticity. But authenticity can create complications. Sometimes you may be too ethnic; in other cases, not ethnic enough.
In 1968 I became a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside — UCR — and later chair of the Chicano Studies Program. Along the way I developed a reputation as a public speaker on diversity matters, including the Latino experience. Nobody called me Carl, but there was something else.
I happened to be a güero: a light-skinned Latino. Occasionally someone might say: “Oh, you’re trying to pass as white.” No, I’ve never passed as anything. I’ve just lumbered through life with the authentic skin my folks gave me. But sometimes that’s proven to be a problem for others.
Once I was invited to give a luncheon talk at a statewide education conference. The invitation came from an Anglo who had never met me. On the day of the conference I introduced myself to him. His face fell. Caught off guard, he said something that others may have thought, but suppressed. “Uh, we were hoping for someone, uh, a little darker.” With help from Neil Simon’s film, The Goodbye Girl, I had a ready answer. “This year I’m working on younger. Next year I’ll work on darker.”
But conditional inclusivity can also go in other directions. In 1979, my late friend Tomás Rivera became Chancellor of UCR, the first Hispanic chancellor in University of California history. Tomás was not a güero. After his first speech to the UCR academic senate, one professor remarked: “You know, I can understand why Governor Brown put a Chicano in as Chancellor at Riverside — for political reasons — but did he have to –- look so much like a Chicano?” Tomás had been Carled.
Let’s examine these three incidents. In each case somebody had difficulty dealing with individual Latino authenticity. A high school Spanish teacher who deemed my first name too odd for inclusion in the classroom. A conference organizer who considered my skin color too light to fulfill his needs and ethnic stereotypes. A professor who could accept a Chicano Chancellor, but not one who looked too much like a Chicano. That is conditional inclusivity.
I’m sure each of you has experienced personal Carl or Tomás moments, when something happened that communicated the idea that the authentic you didn’t quite merit equitable inclusivity. And being Carled might not involve ethnicity or race. It might involve sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or some disability.
Maybe a Latina whose colleague turns to her and innocently asks, “How do you say that in Spanish?,” forcing her to explain, maybe publicly, that she was not raised speaking Spanish. 62 million Latinos share commonalities, but we aren’t all alike. Our personal authenticities vary.
So let’s move on to the second adjective: additive. Equitable inclusivity must not only be authentic. It should also be additive. That is, inclusion in a way that “they” — whoever “they” are — become recognized not just as having their own special authenticity, but also having the capacity to add through their authenticity. Not just accepted or tolerated or exoticized, but respected for what their specialness adds to the community, to the organization, and to our nation.
When I joined the UCR faculty in 1968, the campus had about 4,500 students, but only around one hundred Chicanos. Many of them did not feel a sense of total belonging on that virtually all-white campus. To help create their own ethnic space, they formed the United Mexican American Students. Later it became known as MEChA.
But the MEChA students soon encountered a very new experience. One of the undergraduate students in my Chicano History class was named Woodrow Díaz. But Woody was not a Chicano; he happened to be Puerto Rican. This was several years before people began talking much about Latinos and Hispanics. Ethnically alone on campus, Woody asked if he could join MEChA.
The MEChA students embraced Woody. They made him an honorary Chicano, but he also remained supremely proud and forthright about his Puerto Rican identity. nd MEChA turned out to be better for it, because Woody added a unique richness, dimension, and perspective through his ethnic authenticity. Woody’s inclusion in MEChA was additive, not just authentic.
Twenty-five years later, in the winter of 2000, my book, The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity, was published. I was asked to give the plenary address about Latinos and the media at a national conference on Latino youth.
After my talk, a man named Chris Gifford and a woman named Dolly Espinal invited me to join them for lunch. Turns out they were part of the team that was developing a new children’s television series, and they asked me if I would consider joining them as a consultant. I did and ultimately became the Creative/Cultural Advisor of that show, Dora the Explorer, and its sequel, Go, Diego, Go!” For more than twenty years I have been working with the show’s multi-ethnic creative team that includes Hispanics of multiple backgrounds and national heritages. They all add unique perspectives.
As we developed Dora, the idea of inclusivity was central to our thinking. The character of Dora had to be inclusive, a Latina inclusivity role model. So we positioned Dora as an intercultural bridge-builder. When she encounters challenges, she overcomes them by uniting other characters into a team, sometimes involving both animals and people.
We considered making Dora ethnically specific: Mexican or Cuban or Dominican or Puerto Rican. But I argued for a different approach: let’s make her pan-Latino. A proud Latina, but with no specific national-origin identity. Then let individual Latino pre-schoolers of all backgrounds –- and their families — identify with Dora in their own unique ways.
And that’s what happened. In fact, not only Latino kids identified with her. So did kids of other backgrounds. And not just in the United States, but around the world. Dora, a Latina, connected with all kids.
And she drew upon her ethnic authenticity to add to their lives. Consider language. You don’t have to speak Spanish to be authentically Latino. But Spanish is a core element of Hispanic culture. Speaking both Spanish and English is part of Dora’s Latina authenticity.
Because most of the show’s characters are monolingual, either in English or in Spanish, Dora constantly draws on her bilingual skills to build intercultural bridges. And she reaches out to viewers by adding Spanish words to their vocabularies and encouraging them to use those Spanish words to help Dora and her friends overcome challenges. In the process Dora continuously demonstrates the additive value of being bilingual and how this can contribute to greater inclusivity.
Sometimes inclusivity became the central theme of an episode. Take the episode entitled “First Day of School.” Tico and Boots set off for their first day of school. But it’s not just any school. It’s an inclusive dual immersion school using both Spanish and English. So monolingual English-speaking Boots and monolingual Spanish-speaking Tico become more empowered because they are learning each other’s language. In the process they also help each other learn language. Their classroom inclusivity is additive.
Now let’s move on to the third adjective of equitable inclusivity: capacious. As in capacity or capacidad. Beyond simply being authentic or even additive, the idea of capacious inclusivity addresses a deeper, richer dimension: a more inclusive sense of we-ness. Not a we-ness that forces you to surrender your special authenticity in order to be part of it. Rather a we-ness that highlights its diverse parts while at the same time fostering a broader sense of mutual identification. A we-ness in which we all become co-participants in the project of equitable inclusivity. I am both me and a unique part of we.
I am currently engaged in a Latino project that pursues such capacious me-to-we inclusivity. It’s called The Cheech. The Cheech Marin Museum of Chicano Art & Culture, which opened in Riverside in June of this year.
Cheech Marin –- actually Richard Anthony Marin — has had an incredible career: stand-up comic; filmmaker; actor; and much more. But Cheech is also a renowned art collector, specializing in Chicano art. And he is a visionary. Cheech, the Riverside Art Museum, and the City of Riverside have collaborated to create this new museum that features Cheech’s extensive personal collection and also mounts exhibits of other Chicano art.
I was honored by being selected as the Consulting Humanist for The Cheech. In that role I am conducting a series of filmed Conversations at The Cheech. At this point I’m not sure how these conversations will be disseminated, but they may become part of a documentary film on the history of The Cheech. We’ll see.
Two weeks ago Cheech and I had an hour-long filmed conversation. We explored many nooks and crannies of his art collector career and his role in creating The Cheech. We also talked about the wonderful opening special exhibit, featuring the astonishing work of two brothers, Einar and Jamex de la Torre, especially their jaw-dropping two-story lenticular, which sits prominently in view as you enter the museum. You can look at it endlessly, because as you move from place to place, the lenticular’s myriad images change to reveal fascinating surprises.
I specifically asked Cheech about his personal vision. Whom does he hope visits the museum? His response was simple, elegant, and profound: everybody. He wants everybody to embrace Chicano art. He wants The Cheech to be a capaciously inclusive institution, in which people of all backgrounds immerse themselves in the specialness of Chicano art and become enriched because of it.
Cheech wants people to recognize that Chicano art is unique. but also adds to the broader world of Latino art. Symbolic of that vision is a section called Sala José Medina, named in honor of Riverside’s current state legislator. A former graduate student of mine, José has been a major force behind The Cheech as well as authoring the bill by which California became the very first state to establish an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation. José is a Panamanian American.
But Cheech also wants Chicano and Latino art to be viewed as central to American art, both art of the United States and art of the Americas. Art that is part of an expanding, more capacious vision of our nation. Art that is authentic, adds to the American story, and can bring diverse people together through a capacious reconceptualization of what it means to be an American.
Through capacious inclusivity, Chicano art and Latino art can become everybody’s art. Not through surface enjoyment or the tawdry process of cultural appropriation, but rather through mutual respect, mutual enrichment, and mutual identification. Art that broadens our understanding of commonalities and differences not as antagonists, but as continuously interacting contributors to a more equitably inclusive United States of America.
So thank you for accompanying me on my personal journey of reflection. The rest is up to you. All of you. Here’s our common challenge: can we make equitable inclusivity a guiding vision for our nation’s future? You can all play a part.
You can play a part by being proud and forthright about your special authenticities and by supporting the authenticities of others.
You can play a part by treating uniqueness as additive and by providing opportunities for others to draw upon their uniqueness to enrich our workplaces, our communities, and our nation.
You can play a part by expanding your personal capaciousness, by recognizing difference as an essential part of a vibrant whole, and by embracing otherness as part of the we-ness of a more equitably inclusive America.
I’m not suggesting that those things will solve all of the world’s problems. But maybe, together, we can move the inclusivity needle further away from being conditional and more toward being equitable. Maybe we can reduce the number of Carl and Tomás moments and build upon such models as Woody, Dora, and Cheech. That’s our challenge. That’s my hope.
And I also hope I’ll have the opportunity of meeting some of you in person one of these days. If that happens, feel free to call me whatever: Mr. Cortés, Dr. Cortés, or just plain old Carlos. They all work for me. Just one request. Please don’t call me Carl.
2 thoughts on “From Conditional to Equitable Inclusion: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation – by Carlos Cortés”
Thank you for sharing this, Carlos! Equitable Inclusion is a fantastic lens from which to view this work. I was particularly struck by the idea of “personal authenticity.” Expectations get set all too easily in people’s heads about who someone else is and what they are capable of because of the color of their skin. I have experienced the same, and I think it’s endemic to our DEI field. I was told early on in this work that White people have no credibility, so I need to make sure people know as soon as possible that I am also Native American. My mother, who is the Native American half of me, was taught, “Don’t ever talk about it,” because she was light-skinned enough to pass for White. How can we ever be expected to be anything other than who we are, especially when it comes to the color of our skin? Your article triggered many more thoughts for me (I loved, “I am both me and a unique part of we”), but for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave it there. Again, thank you for such a thought-provoking talk/article.
Thank you Carlos for this wonderful keynote and republishing it here! May this indeed move the needle for all who read it, reduce “Carl moments,” and show a path to more equitable inclusion. We can all play a part in cultivating organizations and interactions that create space for me-we and feel capacious, additive and authentic. Thank you!