As the Mother Road proves, culture survives and guides, even if we must look to the heavens to be reminded. In Cannon's painting, indigenous laborers look up to the Gods in hopes of relief of their people's exploitation and erasion.
T.C. Cannon 1970
This painting by William Henry Holmes depicts a Mexican worker women washing clothes in a river. Since America's first days owning the land of the West, exploitation of people of color has fueled development, and this painting highlights the stealing of their land, labor, and culture.
William Henry Holmes 1985
Mother Road acts as a paradigm of America’s ability to create oppressive and unnavigable situations for all that cannot squeeze into its socially-constructed “American” white identity. As a domestically born citizen, Martín introduces the idea of white privilege to his new comrade when he explains, after getting punched in the gut as a consequence of his words of self-defense, that “the only thing [he] did wrong was look different” (Solis 26). As the play progresses, Solis highlights the complexities in recognizing privilege through William’s character development and the dialogue between Martín and William. At the start of their trip, William is unable to recognize his own privilege, but as he and his distant relative run into trouble with law enforcement and the general public, he comes to acknowledge the tiringly difficult environment America offers people of color.
At the beginning of their trip to Oklahoma, William is entirely blind to his own privilege that comes simply from being a white person. Following a tense and eventually violent run-in with people at a gas station, William invalidates Martín’s claim that he was only subjected to violence because of his race. “Oh for chrissakes,” William says, “I wouldn’t read too much into that” (Solis 24). In rebuttal, Martín reveals the inherent difficulty of the privileged to recognize their own privilege as he replies, “Sure you wouldn’t. You’re white” (Solis 25). The way in which Martín responds to William’s ignorant invalidation deepens the significance of this exchange within the context of their evolving relationship—the script describes that as Martín responds, he looks directly at William for the first time. In purposely making eye contact, Martín is confronting the disparity in life experience between himself and William that comes from something that William for all his life had overlooked: his inherent privilege from being white in America. In this way, Martín’s response is performative in its confrontation through eye contact—he verbally confronts William’s privilege while emphasizing it with his purposeful gaze. William’s whiteness is normal by America’s standards—he is the status quo, the overlooked, the unseen, which is why it is so difficult and takes time for him to recognize his privilege. The reason Martín is subjected to discrimination throughout the course of the play is because he is a living threat to the normality that William represents. The people at the gas station that mistreat Martín do so because they see him as this threat to the “single national language and core Anglo-Protestant culture” that Samuel Huntington describes in “The Hispanic Challenge” (Huntington 259). At first, by seamlessly fitting into this white American culture, William cannot see the benefits of his own white identity. However, as he is continuously put into the same situations as Martín, he eventually evolves to recognize that, indeed, “the only thing [Martín] did wrong was look different” (Solis 26). However, it is a long path to enlightenment.
As their journey progresses, their dialogue deepens William’s understanding of identity in America. In discussion of Martín’s mother and her wishes for Martín’s future in America, William asks, “Ain’t that what she come to this country for? To make you a bonafide citizen?” (Solis 27). Through this question William reveals his perspective on what it means to be a citizen. Martín’s response, however, explains that for people of color in America, having citizenship is not equivalent to having American identity in the eyes of other Americans. To William’s inquiry Martín replies, “What’s the point when they can take our identity whenever they want?” (Solis 27). In his response, Martín shows that his mother giving him citizenship still had shortcomings—she did not grant him fair treatment as an American. In fact, even his citizenship is subject to robbery, which is shown when his ID is taken from him by premise of him looking like an illegal alien. “What’s the point?” he asks, of being a citizen if being a citizen does not grant you the respect and dignity enjoyed by others of a socially-endorsed American identity: white identity. In “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” Renato Rosaldo emphasizes this disparity between having citizenship and having true social and cultural dignity as a citizen. In order for a group of people to truly be respected in their environment, Rosaldo explains that “one group must not dictate another group’s notion of dignity, thriving, and well-being” (Rosaldo 410). Martín explains that even if two people are equal in having citizenship, there can still be inequality in whether or not their identity grants them the dignity enjoyed, yet unnoticed by others.
Although not his final recognition of privilege by way of identity, William comes to indirectly acknowledge his white privilege after Martín goes into hiding following a violent exchange with a state trooper. Recalling their experiences thus far into their trip, William concludes, “everything I done this trip has put him in the mouth of trouble. He’s been called names, punched in the gut, treated like crap, and I’m the cause of it” (Solis 69). Although he had been the perpetrator of the problems that had come up during their trip, William was not the person that suffered the consequences. Instead, Martín was the one taking blows for conflict that was not initiated by him. This situation in which a person of color is unfairly treated for no reason other than the way they look and the misguided beliefs taken on by white people as to what their appearance says about who they are translates into a nation-wide issue elaborated upon by Acuña in “Greasers Go Home.” As William explains, Martín has no fault to justify his treatment. His identity, simply by not being a white American identity, subjects him to the pervasive detriments of America’s treatment of inhabitants of color, where their only virtues are their ability to contribute to an economic, social, and judicial system that has no regard for them (Acuña 163).
Ultimately, Mother Road reveals America’s unjust environment for those excluded from white American identity and the difficulty of showing the privilege granted by this identity to white Americans. William and Martín’s dialogue proves the difficulty of showing a white person their own privilege in a nation in which whiteness is what it means to be an American. William had to experience, firsthand, the plight of a person of color in order to recognize the inherent inequalities overlooked and yet ferociously preserved in America. After all, we live in a world in which there are no racists.
This painting of the Mexican-American war displays a foundational conflict in the treatment of Latinx Americans for years to come. It is still ingrained in American culture that those who have the gun power to take the land are the rightful owners of that land.
McLean County Museum 1857
Latinx heritage has been subjected to the trials and tribulations of white identity and greed for all of modern history, but still perseveres through all attempts at dismantling vibrant Latinx culture. No matter the constructions and limits entrenched by white American identity, our culture remains a point of unification and pride in America.
Las Sandistas 2018
Huntington, Samuel. “The Hispanic Challenge.” 2009, Foreign Policy.
Rosaldo, Renato. “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy.” 1994, Cultural Anthropology.
Acuña, Rodolfo. “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.” 1981, Harper & Row.
Solis, Octavio. Mother Road. 2019, OSF Ashland.
The inequalities observed in Mother Road hold great relevance to discussions today of the current Trump administration's treatment of Hispanics, both legal and illegal. Ultimately, as eventually acknowledged by William, being an American means more than having citizenship. Being an American means contributing to a collective pursuit of dignity and cultural freedom, one that must be protected from robbery by the hands of white American identity.
El Universal Publication 2016
The Mother Road of Route 66 is characterized by its travelers of today and the past. It connects the West to the Midwest and remembers the crossing of all its laborers, both White and Non-white, both American and almost American.
Green Book 2018