Richard Rodriguez (born 31 July 1944) Mexican-American writer, associate editor with the Pacific News Service in San Francisco, an essayist for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and a contributing editor for Harper's magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
- You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London, they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and do not disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.
- "Twilight of the American Newspaper" in Harper's Magazine (2009)
- The genius of American culture and its integrity comes from fidelity to the light. Plain as day, we say. Happy as the day is long. Early to bed, early to rise. American virtues are daylight virtues: honesty, integrity, plain speech. We say yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no, and all else comes from the evil one. America presumes innocence and even the right to happiness.
- "Night and Day" in Frontiers (1990)
- Mexico is a nineteenth-century country arranged for gaslight. Once brought into the harsh light of the twentieth-century media, Mexico can only seem false. In its male, in its public, its city aspect, Mexico is an arch-tranvestite, a tragic buffoon. Dogs bark and babies cry when Mother Mexico walks abroad in the light of day. The policeman, the Marxist mayor — Mother Mexico doesn't even bother to shave her mustachios. Swords and rifles and spurs and bags of money chink and clatter beneath her skirts. A chain of martyred priests dangles from her waist, for she is an austere, pious lady. Ay, how much — clutching her jangling bosoms; spilling cigars — how much she has suffered.
- "Night and Day" in Frontiers (1990)
- As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
- Quoting a Mexican proverb in "Night and Day" in Frontiers (1990)
- His name was William Saroyan. He was the first writer I fell in love with, boyishly in love. I was held by his unaffected voice, his sentimentality, his defiant individualism. I found myself in the stories he told... I learned from Saroyan that you do not have to live in some great city — in New York or Paris — in order to write... When I was a student at Stanford, a generation ago, the name of William Saroyan was never mentioned by any professor in the English Department. William Saroyan apparently was not considered a major American talent. Instead, we undergraduates set about the business of psychoanalyzing Hamlet and deconstructing Lolita. In my mind Saroyan belongs with John Steinbeck, a fellow small town Californian and of the same generation. He belongs with Thornton Wilder, with those writers whose aching love of America was formed by the Depression and the shadow of war. ... Saroyan's prose is as plain as it is strong. He talks about the pleasure of drinking water from a hose on a summer afternoon in California's Central Valley, and he holds you with the pure line. My favorite is his novel The Human Comedy... In 1943, The Human Comedy became an MGM movie starring Mickey Rooney, but I always imagined Homer Macaulay as a darker, more soulful boy, someone who looked very much like a young William Saroyan...
Brown : The Last Discovery of America (2003)
- I write about race in America in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.
- I think brown marks a reunion of peoples, an end to ancient wanderings. Rival cultures and creeds conspire with Spring to create children of a beauty, perhaps of a harmony, previously unknown. Or long forgotten.
Chapter One : The Triad of Alexis de Tocqueville (online excerpt)
- Two women and a child in a glade beside a spring. Beyond them, the varnished wilderness wherein bright birds cry. The child is chalk, Europe's daughter. Her dusky attendants, a green Indian and a maroon slave.
The scene, from Democracy in America, is discovered by that most famous European traveler to the New World, Alexis de Tocqueville, aristocratic son of the Enlightenment, liberal, sickly, gray, violet, lacking the vigor of the experiment he has set himself to observe... His description intends to show the African and the Indian doomed by history in corresponding but opposing ways. (History is a coat cut only to the European.)
- The Indian refuses civilization; the African slave is rendered unfit for it.
But cher Monsieur: You saw the Indian sitting beside the African on a drape of baize. They were easy together. The sight of them together does not lead you to wonder about a history in which you are not the narrator?
These women are but parables of your interest in yourself. Rather than consider the nature of their intimacy, you are preoccupied alone with the meaning of your intrusion.
- A boy named Buddy came up beside me in the schoolyard. I don't remember what passed as prologue, but I do not forget what Buddy divulged to me: If you're white, you're all right; If you're brown, stick around; If you're black, stand back.
It was as though Buddy had taken me to a mountaintop and shown me the way things lay in the city below.
- In Sacramento, my brown was not halfway between black and white. On the leafy streets, on the east side of town, where my family lived, where Asians did not live, where Negroes did not live, my family's Mexican shades passed as various.
- In the Sacramento of the 1950s, it was as though White simply hadn't had time enough to figure Brown out. It was a busy white time. Brown was like the skinny or fat kids left over after the team captains chose sides. "You take the rest" — my cue to wander away to the sidelines, to wander away.
- My parents had come from Mexico, a short road in my imagination. I felt myself as coming from a caramelized planet, an upside-down planet, pineapple-cratered. Though I was born here, I came from the other side of the looking glass, as did Alice, though not alone like Alice. Downtown I saw lots of brown people. Old men on benches. Winks from Filipinos. Sikhs who worked in the fields were the most mysterious brown men, their heads wrapped in turbans. They were the rose men. They looked like roses.
- The first book by an African American I read was Carl T. Rowan's memoir, Go South to Sorrow. I found it on the bookshelf at the back of my fifth-grade classroom, an adult book. I can remember the quality of the morning on which I read. It was a sunlit morning in January, a Saturday morning, cold, high, empty. I sat in a rectangle of sunlight, near the grate of the floor heater in the yellow bedroom. And as I read, I became aware of warmth and comfort and optimism. I was made aware of my comfort by the knowledge that others were not, are not, comforted. Carl Rowan at my age was not comforted.
- Only a few weeks ago, in the year in which I write, Carl T. Rowan died. Hearing the news, I felt the sadness one feels when a writer dies, a writer one claims as one's own — as potent a sense of implication as for the loss of a body one has known. Over the years, I had seen Rowan on TV. He was not, of course he was not, the young man who had been with me by the heater — the photograph on the book jacket, the voice that spoke through my eyes. The muscles of my body must form the words and the chemicals of my comprehension must form the words, the windows, the doors, the Saturdays, the turning pages of another life, a life simultaneous with mine.
It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present. His voice, mixed with sunlight, mixed with Saturday, mixed with my going to bed and then getting up, with the pattern and texture of the blanket, with the envelope from a telephone bill I used as a bookmark. With going to Mass. With going to the toilet. With my mother in the kitchen, with whatever happened that day and the next; with clouds forming over the Central Valley, with the flannel shirt I wore, with what I liked for dinner, with what was playing at the Alhambra Theater. I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.
- In the Clunie Public Library in Sacramento, in those last years of a legally segregated America, there was no segregated shelf for Negro writers. Frederick Douglass on the same casement with Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Franklin. Today, when our habit is willfully to confuse literature with sociology, with sorting, with trading in skins, we imagine the point of a "life" is to address some sort of numerical average, common obstacle or persecution. Here is a book "about" teenaged Chinese-American girls. So it is shelved.
- It is one thing to know your author-man or woman or gay or black or paraplegic or president. It is another thing to choose only man or woman or et cetera, as the only quality of voice empowered to address you, as the only class of sensibility or experience able to understand you, or that you are able to understand.
How a society orders its bookshelves is as telling as the books a society writes and reads. American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe fractiousness, reduction, hurt. Books are isolated from one another, like gardenias or peaches, lest they bruise or become bruised, or, worse, consort, confuse. If a man in a wheelchair writes his life, his book will be parked in a blue-crossed zone: "Self-Help" or "Health." There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. The professor of Romance languages at Dresden, a convert to Protestantism, was tortured by the Nazis as a Jew — only that — a Jew. His book, published sixty years after the events it recounts, is shelved in my neighborhood bookstore as "Judaica." There is no shelf for irony.
- Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: "Ports have names they call the sea." Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use — high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject — there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.
- The liberal-hearted who run the newspapers and the university English departments and organize the bookstores have turned literature into well-meaning sociology. Thus do I get invited by the editor at some magazine to review your gay translation of a Colombian who has written a magical-realist novel. Trust me, there has been little magical realism in my life since my first trip to Disneyland.
- My reading was scheduled for the six-thirty slot by the University of Arizona. A few hundred people showed up – old more than young; mostly brown. I liked my "them," in any case, for coming to listen, postponing their dinners. In the middle of one of my paragraphs, a young man stood to gather his papers, then retreated up the aisle, pushed open the door at the back of the auditorium. In the trapezoid of lobby-light thus revealed, I could see a crowd was forming for the eight o'clock reading — a lesbian poet. Then the door closed, resealed the present; I continued to read, but wondered to myself: Why couldn't I get the lesbians for an hour? And the lesbian poet serenade my Mexican audience?
- Americans are so individualistic, they do not realize their individualism is a communally derived value. The American I is deconstructed for me by Paolo, an architect who was raised in Bologna: "You Americans are not truly individualistic, you merely are lonely. In order to be individualistic, one must have a strong sense of oneself within a group." (The "we" is a precondition for saying "I.") Americans spend all their lives looking for a community: a chatroom, a church, a support group, a fetish magazine, a book club, a class action suit... illusions become real when we think they are real and act accordingly. Because Americans thought themselves free of plural pronouns, they began to act as free agents, thus to recreate history. Individuals drifted away from tribe or color or 'hood or hometown or card of explanation, where everyone knew who they were... Americans thus extended the American community by acting so individualistically, so anonymously.
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982)
- Of all the institutions in their lives, only the Catholic Church has seemed aware of the fact that my mother and father are thinkers—persons aware of the experience of their lives. Other institutions—the nation’s political parties, the industries of mass entertainment and communications, the companies that employed them—have all treated my parents with condescension.
- My parents seem to me possessed of great dignity. An aristocratic reserve. Like the very rich who live behind tall walls, my mother and father are always mindful of the line separating public from private life. Watching a celebrity talk show on television, they listen for several minutes as a movie star with bright teeth recounts details of his recent divorce. And I see my parents grow impatient. Finally, my mother gets up from her chair. Changing the channel, she says with simple disdain, ‘Cheap people.’ My mother and my father are not cheap people. They never are tempted to believe that public life can also be intimate. And I realize that my parents will be as puzzled by my act of self-revelation as they are by the movie star’s revelations on the talk show. They never will call me cheap for publishing an autobiography. But I can well imagine their faces tightened by incomprehension as they read my words. (Why does he do this?)
- ‘Why?’ My mother’s question hangs in the still air of memory. The loneliness I have felt many mornings, however, has not made me forget that I am engaged in a highly public activity. I sit here in silence writing this small volume of words, and it seems to me the most public thing I ever have done. My mother’s letter has served to remind me: I am making my personal life public. Probably I will never try to explain my motives to my mother and father. My mother’s question will go unanswered to her face.
- Once upon a time, I was a ‘socially disadvantaged’ child. An enchantedly happy child. Mine was a childhood of intense family closeness. And extreme public alienation.
- I grew up victim to a disabling confusion. As I grew fluent in English, I no longer could speak Spanish with confidence.
- A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student.
- I never forgot that schooling had irretrievably changed my family’s life. That knowledge, however, did not weaken ambition. Instead, it strengthened resolve. Those times I remembered the loss of my past with regret, I quickly reminded myself of all the things my teachers could give me. (They could make me an educated man.) I tightened my grip on pencil and books. I evaded nostalgia. Tried hard to forget. But one does not forget by trying to forget. One only remembers. I remembered too well that education had changed my family’s life. I would not have become a scholarship boy had I not so often remembered.
- If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.
- If I ask questions about religion that my grandparents didn’t ask, it is not because I am intellectually advanced. I wonder about the existence of God because, unlike my grandparents, I live much of my day in a secular city where I do not measure the hours with the tolling bells of a church.
- I was the student at Stanford who remembered to notice the Mexican-American janitors and gardeners working on campus.
- This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story.
- I became a man by becoming a public man.
- Somehow the inclination to write about my private life in public is related to the ability to do so. It is not enough to say that my mother and father do not want to write their autobiographies. It needs also to be said that they are unable to write to a public reader. They lack the skill. Though both of them can write in Spanish and English, they write in a hesitant manner. Their syntax is uncertain. Their vocabulary limited. The man who sits in his chair so many hours, and the woman at the ironing board—‘keeping busy because I don’t want to get old’—will never be able to believe that any description of their personal lives could be understood by a stranger far from home.
- I was glad to get away from those students when I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study in London. I found myself in the British Museum, at first content, reading English Renaissance literature. But then came the crisis: the domed silence; the dusty pages of books all around me; the days accumulating in lists of obsequious footnotes; the wandering doubts about the value of scholarship. My year in Britain came to an end and I rushed to ‘come home.’ Then quickly discovered that I could not. Could not cast off the culture I had assumed. Living with my parents for the summer, I remained an academic—a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen, searching for evidence of our ‘cultural ties’ as we ate dinner together.
- It is education that has altered my life. Carried me far.
- The boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum. Thus with one sentence I can summarize my academic career. It will be harder to summarize what sort of life connects the boy to the man.
- To many persons around him, he appears too much the academic. There may be some things about him that recall his beginnings—his shabby clothes; his persistent poverty; or his dark skin (in those cases when it symbolizes his parents’ disadvantaged condition)—but they only make clear how far he has moved from his past. He has used education to remake himself. They expect—they want—a student less changed by his schooling. If the scholarship boy, from a past so distant from the classroom, could remain in some basic way unchanged, he would be able to prove that it is possible for anyone to become educated without basically changing from the person one was. The scholarship boy does not straddle, cannot reconcile, the two great opposing cultures of his life. His success is unromantic and plain. He sits in the classroom and offers those sitting beside him no calming reassurance about their own lives. He sits in the seminar room—a man with brown skin, the son of working-class Mexican immigrant parents.
- So little is said about the scholarship boy in pages and pages of educational literature. Nothing is said of the silence that comes to separate the boy from his parents.
- An Hispanic-American writer tells me, ‘I will never give up my family language; I would as soon give up my soul.’ Thus he holds to his chest a skein of words, as though it were the source of his family ties. He credits to language what he should credit to family members. A convenient mistake. For as long as he holds on to words, he can ignore how much else has changed in his life.
- When I sought admission to graduate schools, when I applied for fellowships and summer study grants, when I needed a teaching assistantship, my Spanish surname or the dark mark in the space indicating my race—‘check one’—nearly always got me whatever I asked for.
- I wanted, however, something more from the new middle-class institution than either the decadent romanticism of the sixties or the careerism of the seventies. I wanted students more aware of their differences from persons less advantaged.
- There is something called bilingual education—a scheme proposed in the late 1960s by Hispanic-American social activists, later endorsed by a congressional vote. It is a program that seeks to permit non-English-speaking children, many from lower-class homes, to use their family language as the language of school. (Such is the goal its supporters announce.) I hear them and am forced to say no: It is not possible for a child—any child—ever to use his family’s language in school. Not to understand this is to misunderstand the public uses of schooling and to trivialize the nature of intimate life—a family’s ‘language.’
- Supporters of bilingual education today imply that students like me miss a great deal by not being taught in their family’s language. What they seem not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I considered Spanish to be a private language. What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right—and the obligation—to speak the public language of los gringos.
- But the bilingualists simplistically scorn the value and necessity of assimilation. They do not seem to realize that there are two ways a person is individualized. So they do not realize that while one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality. Supporters of bilingual education thus want it both ways. They propose bilingual schooling as a way of helping students acquire the skills of the classroom crucial for public success. But they likewise insist that bilingual instruction will give students a sense of their identity apart from the public. Behind this screen there gleams an astonishing promise: One can become a public person while still remaining a private person. At the very same time one can be both! There need be no tension between the self in the crowd and the self apart from the crowd! Who would not want to believe such an idea?
- The policy of affirmative action, however, was never able to distinguish someone like me (a graduate student of English, ambitious for a college teaching career) from a slightly educated Mexican-American who lived in a barrio and worked as a menial laborer, never expecting a future improved. Worse, affirmative action made me the beneficiary of his conditions.
- my name came up in a conversation. Someone at the sherry party had wondered if the professor had seen my latest article on affirmative action. The professor replied with arch politeness, ‘And what does Mr. Rodriguez have to complain about?’ You who read this act of contrition should know that by writing it I seek a kind of forgiveness—not yours. The forgiveness, rather, of those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed a minority student. I wish that they would read this. I doubt they ever will.
- Courses were offered in such fields as nineteenth-century black history and Hispanic-American folk art. The activists made a peculiar claim for these classes. They insisted that the courses would alleviate the cultural anxiety of nonwhite students by permitting them to stay in touch with their home culture. The perspective gained in the classroom or the library does indeed permit an academic to draw nearer to and understand better the culture of the alien poor. But the academic is brought closer to lower-class culture because of his very distance from it. Leisured, and skilled at abstracting from immediate experience, the scholar is able to see how aspects of individual experience constitute a culture. By contrast, the poor have neither the inclination nor the skill to imagine their lives so abstractly.
- Intimacy is not trapped within words. It passes through words. It passes. The truth is that intimates leave the room. Doors close. Faces move away from the window. Time passes. Voices recede into the dark. Death finally quiets the voice. And there is no way to deny it. No way to stand in the crowd, uttering one’s family language.