Actor and activist Edward James Olmos had a challenge for his audience Friday — name one national hero of non-Caucasian heritage who was born in the United States. Of the students and professors packing the Luce Hall auditorium, only two people raised their hands to offer a response.
During his speech, Olmos discussed race relations in America, focusing on the place of Hispanic-Americans and the complex situation resulting from the constant flow of Latinos, especially Chicanos, across U.S. borders. Olmos received an Oscar nomination in 1988 for his role as a math teacher in the movie “Stand and Deliver.”
“Over 50 percent of children under the age of five in the U.S. are Hispanic. The 2000 census said there are 35.3 million Latinos in the U.S.,” Olmos said. “Sadly, 52 percent of Hispanic teenagers drop out of high school. Clearly we all need to look at what’s going on in the Latino population.”
At the beginning of his 90-minute talk, Olmos described his experience growing up as a Chicano in East Los Angeles. Olmos said he was raised by his great-grandparents and emphasized the importance of being grateful to one’s family.
“Your great-great-great-great grandparents had to survive or you wouldn’t be here,” Olmos said. “And yet, we never thank our relatives or think of these long-ago ancestors.”
Olmos said he is proud of his Chicano heritage and that he does not see America as a melting pot.
“I have never ever found a culture that has lost its identity,” Olmos said. “I don’t even know what it means to say ‘melting pot.'”
Despite his pride in being Mexican-American, Olmos said he does not like to use the term “race” and thinks it is generally misapplied.
“The term ‘race’ was first used 600 years ago as the simplest way to excuse killing each other,” Olmos said. “Why should I kill him? Because he is a different race.”
Olmos used anthropology to support his opinion that “there is only one race, the human race.” He went back to the beginnings of mankind in Africa, and then traced the human journey from Africa to Asia and finally across the land bridge to North America.
“I am African first, Asian second, indigenous to North America third, and European last,” Olmos said. “When we look at other people, remember that we are all the same race — the human race.”
Antonio Maldonado ’05 said he liked Olmos’ discussion about common human roots.
“It was a way to show us we’re all united,” Maldonado said.
Later on in the lecture, Olmos talked about the importance of the Chicano community’s progress. He discussed one program in California where high school students mentor elementary school children, and college students mentor children in middle school. In the high school, the dropout rate fell from 58 percent to 2 percent over an eight–year time span — something Olmos said he is proud of.
Tom Brady, a physician associate of University Health Services, said he enjoyed listening to Olmos’ ideas about race and its impact on American culture.
“[He was] a very progressive voice,” Brady said. “He was entertaining and animated. I think he challenged your concepts of culture and its place in society.”