Long before I arrived at his presentation tonight, I knew that an evening with Edward James Olmos was going to be rewarding. After all, here is my favorite actor from one of my favorite shows (Battlestar Galactica) who is a social activist coming to our campus to speak about one of my favorite topics (social justice). No matter what my expectations however, they were far surpassed by the man who took the stage tonight and shared his gifts and talent. In all it turned out to be two hours of my life that could not have been better spent anywhere else.
Leaving the house lights on so that he could see each of us, Olmos began by talking about his own identity, or more aptly identities. Thanks to my education I have long viewed race as an imperfect social construct that creates more problems than it settles, but it took Olmos to really bring this to life for me and help me appreciate the destructive power of racial identity. Olmos reflected on his identity as a Chicano; half-Mexican and half-Spanish, born in the United States. He talked about the power of an identity that was five hundred years old, commenting that he would not be who he was without this mixture of cultures, and the strength that he draws from both. But before he could be a Chicano, European or a Mexican, he had to be indigenous to the Americas, a history of forty thousand years. And even before that, he had to be Asian for many thousands of years before those people crossed the Bering Strait into North America. And of course before that, he had his roots in Africa, as do we all.
The point is an obvious but powerful one; all of humanity comes from Africa, and the reason we are “different” from one another now is because we took different migratory routes off of our original continent. What Olmos wanted us to remember was that we have more in common than we have separating us, a fact too often forgotten. He drew upon Battlestar Galactica to see how one amazing science fiction series dared to challenge us by making us think about what it means to be human, particularly when we might identify more with the machine-race Cylons than we do with humanity. And it was that show’s grappling with issues of human rights, suicide bombers, terrorism, reconciliation, and right to life versus right to choose that ultimately resulted in the cast and creators of Battlestar being invited to the United Nations to discuss those very same issues in detail.