Richard Rodriguez is a refined, eloquent guy sometimes described as America’s leading essayist. He loves discussing D.H. Lawrence and the English Renaissance in fluted, lilting tones. His career has convinced him that he needs all kinds of chops. “I’m not afraid of you,” he says, eyes widening, in a San Francisco coffee shop that rarely sees disembowelments. “If you go after me right now, I’m not afraid of you. I know what to do.” Criminal friends of his, he explains, taught him to fight dirty in exchange for schooling them in pronouns and prose. “And I know how to kill you — I know what part of the anatomy to go after.” He laughs, but he means it.
In his dapper suits and perfectly sculpted hair, Rodriguez recalls a 19th-century man of letters; Oscar Wilde with the face of a Mayan statue. It wasn’t too long ago that he was perhaps the most hated Latino in America, at least in intellectual circles. Some of the anger has cooled. But his public appearances, most of them at colleges and universities, still draw protests, rings of campus cops, angry denunciations and threats of flag burnings and violence. To those who view him as a literary figure, he’s a major American prose stylist, an Orwellian skeptic, the finest living Mexican-American writer.
Rodriguez, 57, enjoys life; he comes across as comfortable in his own skin. He’s self-deprecating in a way only the truly secure can be. (“I’ve got a peasant’s body,” he says. “It has no grace, but I could probably build a pyramid if you whipped me hard enough.”) His sanity is surprising, because the basics of his biography should have him in therapy — every day of the week. He’s a deeply Catholic, publicly gay Latino writer most famous for his conservative opinions. While it’s not fair to call him a right-winger, as he has been tarred over the years, he was the first Hispanic to come out against bilingual education and affirmative action, which earned him plenty of enemies.
Back then, in the 1980s, the anger against Rodriguez was bold and unambiguous: He was a Benedict Arnold, a turncoat, a “coconut” (brown on the outside and white on the inside). In his first book, 1982’s Hunger of Memory, and in the essays that led up to it, he enraged the Latino intelligentsia and much of the white left. These days, the ire remains, but the criticism — at least the public criticism — is more polite. “Precisely because Rodriguez has become such an imposing figure,” says lefty Los Angeles journalist and author Ruben Martinez (Crossing Over), of the new mildness. “But at university cocktail parties, among ethnic-studies types, you’re still gonna hear a lot of the comments from 20 years ago — that he’s a reactionary, that he’s a Latino Uncle Tom, that he’s used by the right. Just the name Richard Rodriguez can still raise hackles in a lot of academic spaces, especially among macho Chicano [political] types.” (A surprising number of Latino scholars failed to return calls from New Times, perhaps wary of airing dirty laundry outside the Latinocentric press.)
Rodriguez’s new book, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, is about all kinds of things, but always circles back to race and ethnicity. The book completes a trilogy of idiosyncratic memoirs — the first, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, devoted to class; the second, Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, dedicated to religion. The three complicate almost every assumption Anglos have about Hispanics, and establish their author as a radical nonconformist. Brown, which comes out this week, ranges across topics like the country’s surging Latino population, its blending into the larger American culture, a riff on the color brown and the history of racial mixing (which Rodriguez finds entrancing). Brown also includes a bravura chapter on Richard Nixon, “the dark father of Hispanicity.” Even the author’s opponents grant him his beautiful style.
“He’s a brilliant writer and critic, very perceptive,” says Richard Griswold del Castillo, a professor of Latino culture at San Diego State University. “My differences are with his politics of individualism. I think he’s much too ambivalent about affirming his Mexican-ness. He wants to be an individualist, like Emerson and Thoreau. He doesn’t want to be part of a larger community.” But Rodriguez’s individualism is “egoism” and “self-deception,” the scholar says.
“One of the strengths of the African-American movement is its building upon a very powerful literary and intellectual tradition,” Griswold del Castillo says. “Starting with the slave narratives, through W.E.B. DuBois and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Malcolm X recognized that the lone wolf who cuts himself off from a tradition cuts himself off from building that tradition.” The Latino world has so few public intellectuals, he says, that it’s unfortunate Rodriguez won’t play for the team.
Rodriguez has heard this kind of thing for years, and despite his offering of potential caf? violence, he doesn’t break a sweat thinking about it now. “I’m such a loner, you really can’t hurt me,” he says. When Rodriguez dresses down, as he has on this day, in a crisp overcoat and shades, he looks like a spy, trying to blend in but given away by his meticulousness. “I don’t exist within your society; you can’t rub me out.”
What society does Rodriguez really belong to? Some authors are famous for their affiliations, for whom they represent; Rodriguez is best known for refusing to become a representative Latino. And the defining move of his life was not accepting an opportunity but turning one down.
Rodriguez’s first and still most notorious book is about his education — his first steps out of an intensely close working-class immigrant household into the more public world of the Catholic school. It begins with the Irish nuns who, as he put it, “traveled 7,000 miles to shove the English language down my throat” — an act for which he is eternally grateful. He concedes, though, that it is a cruel compromise to venture from your family’s tongue: Education, he says, changes the student profoundly, distancing him from the culture of the home. Working-class students and “scholarship boys,” he says, can never entirely go home again. (Rodriguez, for his part, has held on to his native Spanish.)
The thematic center of Hunger, and the beginning of Rodriguez’s career as a writer, comes near the end of his formal education. In 1976, with a dissertation completed, and after years struggling for a doctorate in Berkeley and London, he turned down a tenure-track faculty job at Yale. It was the kind of offer his peers would have given their left legs for, and Rodriguez knew it. What really bothered him was the way schools would lower the bar for a middle-class “person of color” like him, but not for a poor white Appalachian. (It’s one of the many ironies of his life that this sometime conservative insisted on the importance of social class, while an academic establishment captivated by Marx was so fixated on race that it overlooked class entirely.) Instead of taking his Ph.D. — he’d done all the work required — he burned with bitterness toward academia for treating him like a “minority student” and walked away.
When he thinks about it now, the anger comes back, and the sadness. He remembers sitting on a train pulling away from New Haven, seeing the city’s lights and thinking how proud his family would have been at his teaching there. “I was abandoning all of my childish dreams of the East Coast, the Ivy League, the Gothic spires — it was not going to be mine,” he says. “It would be too much of a puzzle to do that. I would lose myself in the process.” He especially resented the way mainstream, white-run institutions used people like him to give themselves bragging rights. As he writes in Hunger, “Administrators met their angriest critics’ demands by promoting any plausible Hispanic on hand. They were able, moreover, to use the presence of conventionally qualified nonwhite students like me to prove they were meeting the goals of their critics.”
Not only did he turn down that job, he left the academic world altogether. This made noise in academic and literary circles, as did an essay he’d published in an academic journal, later reprinted in the American Scholar, called “Going Home Again: The New American Scholarship Boy.” His essays against affirmative action and bilingual education began to draw the attention of the conservative movement, but the romance never got past the flirting stage. “There was the governor of a western state who said, “I really want to introduce you to some friends of mine — I could send a plane and pick you up and take you out here to have lunch with these friends,'” Rodriguez recalls. “I was never very interested in them. I’d rather have met Goldie Hawn.” (In fact, he says in an aside, “I find Goldie Hawn, a woman who has looked the same for the last 30 years, to be much more interesting than, say, Sylvia Plath.”) Rodriguez turned down a few more conservative overtures, and then they stopped coming.
Lydia Chavez, a Berkeley professor and author of The Color Bind: California’s Battle to End Affirmative Action, admires Rodriguez’s integrity, his refusal to be drawn into the right’s corporately funded think-tanks and foundations. “He’s someone who could have really used the money the Heritage Foundation would have offered him — to sit in an office and have all the research materials he wanted.”
The basis of Hunger‘s argument is that public institutions — schools, universities, voting booths — shouldn’t make people more private, more separate (as advocates of bilingual ed and multiculturalism suggest). Rather, it should bring them into a public realm, a common language. “If the barrio or ghetto child can retain his separateness even while being publicly educated, then it is almost possible to believe that there is no private cost to be paid for public success,” Rodriguez writes disapprovingly. “Such is the consolation offered by any of the current bilingual schemes.”
But Rodriguez also avoided getting drawn into the English-only movement, giving a speech against the group U.S. English. He sees its members as defensive, stern — “putting a fence around the language, killing our wildness.” His sense of the language is playful. “The thing about American English that interests me so much,” he says, “is that the American tongue is not British. Someone called me, very recently, a schmuck, and I love that I exist in Yiddish. I know what a schmuck is, and I know it’s not something that one wants to be. But I love that there’s no one who doesn’t know what a schmuck is.” Leftists, he says, often see learning English as a concession to Anglo-Saxon hegemony. But the American language is wide open, shaped by the slaves who spoke it in the 19th century, the stray words brought by immigrants from Europe and Latin America. The American language, he says, is a mixed marriage, one brokered by warring factions — like “a negotiation between grandmothers” — laced with words like schmuck, sauerkraut, spaghetti. Everyone should speak a language, he says, that currently belongs to everybody.
Instead of becoming a tool for the right, Rodriguez became a much more nuanced, unpredictable writer without surrendering his tough-mindedness. Since Hunger, he’s written on a huge range of topics: Brits traveling in Mexico, the L.A. riots as the city’s rebirth, gringo cuisine, the Gold Rush, California’s rivalry with Texas, and George W. Bush’s status as “America’s first Hispanic president.” (Bush, Rodriguez says, is as comfortable with Latinos as Bill Clinton is with black people, and Bush feels the proximity of Mexico and Latin America.) And he’s written about the inevitability of illegal immigration, into the United States and elsewhere. “The peasant began the reunification of the Americas, long before the globalists at Microsoft, or President Clinton, started talking about it,” he says. “The world is melting.” Rodriguez’s pieces in the Los Angeles Times Opinion section stand out boldly in a paper that continues, whatever its gains in local news gathering, to lack style and graceful writing. (He also appears on PBS and contributes to the radio network Pacific News Service, where his leftish bosses dodge flak for giving him a forum.)
Rodriguez writes about California better than anyone since Joan Didion — its collision of movie culture and the reality of poverty, of Protestant optimism with Catholic tragedy, of American individualism with a Mexican sense of shared fate. The highlight, so far, is 1992’s Days of Obligation, the incisive and lyrical second book that’s essential reading for anyone interested in the literature of California post-Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: Rodriguez weaves all his themes together intricately, and its essays seem funnier, wiser, more perfectly imagistic on each rereading. Santa Rosa poet and critic Dana Gioia describes Days as having a sharp edge, “like the shine on a knife as it cuts into something.”
Rodriguez is still best known for Hunger of Memory, though. It’s another irony of his life that this book, which marked his declaration of independence from ethnic politics and the university, now accounts for a large portion of his income because it is required reading in Latino studies courses.
Part of what incenses Rodriguez’s critics is that he doesn’t see himself as a Latino writer, much less a “Chicano” (a word that retains its uncompromising Mexican Nationalist tinge from the 1970s). He has enormous admiration for some Spanish-language authors — among them late Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz (who was himself a contradictory and controversial figure), but many of his idols are dead white European males not sanctioned by the La Raza crowd. His odd range of influences is what makes his work unpredictable, and rich: If Rodriguez were a musician, he’d be Alejandro Escovedo, the dark, introspective Austin singer-songwriter who combines Tex-Mex with classical cello and homages to the Velvet Underground.
It started with his growing up. In the blast-furnace heat of Central Valley summers, as his father strangled chickens behind a house painted “shocking Mexican colors,” Rodriguez dreamed of coal mines and dark Nottingham skies. He was reading D.H. Lawrence, the prim, repressed novelist and poet known for his incandescent prose and the obscenity scandal surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As different as the reader’s and writer’s experiences were, Rodriguez responded to the Englishman’s tight-knit working-class families. He recalls a scene where a young coal miner has died: “His body is being cleaned on the kitchen table, by his mother and his wife, and they are both claiming some part of it, if not all of it. Each with their grievance against him.” He responded to the physicality in Lawrence’s work. “There’s a moment in Sons and Lovers, where Paul’s brother has died, and I love the way that body is described coming out of that small blue house, the way the body shifts in the coffin, the way the men have to struggle with that weight.” Rodriguez, who’d hauled caskets and sung as a choirboy at endless funerals, could tell that Lawrence knew of what he spoke. The fact that Lawrence, one of the most genuinely erotic writers in the language, was also sexually ambivalent didn’t hurt.
Most important, though, was the way Lawrence showed the young Rodriguez that a writer would have to betray — bring uncomfortable family secrets and anxieties out in public, criticize his own culture. Hunger of Memory is full of dirty laundry that Rodriguez washes publicly, and he writes of his parents’ apprehension with him speaking candidly to a gringo audience. “In no way do I compare myself with Lawrence,” he says. “But the risks he took routinely allowed me to do it in my book. [Otherwise] I wouldn’t have done it to my family. My mother, particularly, was so dead-set against me writing that kind of book.”
And betray he does in that book and elsewhere — criticizing the institutions that have sustained him. The identity, for instance, that Rodriguez has clung most strongly to over the years has been his Catholicism — so ardently that his essay about gay culture, AIDS and architecture called “New Victorians” is deemed by many homosexuals to be “too Catholic.” But he’s angry these days with the church: His Catholicism, he says, can be a real problem — especially when the church is refusing to own up to its flaws, as in the ongoing scandal over pedophiliac priests. “Because I don’t see pederasty as love,” he explains. “And this is from a church that teaches me that my love is a vanity; [homosexuality] is what the church calls a “lifestyle.’ At the very time we are discovering that the men who view my love as not love are themselves engaged in the most hideous distortion of love, with children. And they don’t even have the courage, the manliness, to apologize to those of us who have to pay their legal fees.” He’s still incensed that San Francisco’s archbishop paid $180,000 in church money to support the Knight Initiative, the anti-gay marriage ballot measure named for homophobic state senator Pete Knight of Palmdale. “I’m so angry about that that I can hardly speak.” Rodriguez adds, however, that he couldn’t leave the church if he tried. “Catholicism is so basic to my psychological makeup, especially my sense of tragedy, that I can’t imagine my life without it.” He finds it funny that Americans pick up and put down such identities as if they were suits of clothes; he can’t do it.
Rodriguez is best known for criticizing Mexican, and Mexican-American, culture. While Chicano activists often celebrate their Aztec past, Rodriguez says he identifies with the Indians who sided with the Conquistadors and fought against the Aztecs, or with Cortez’s Indian wife. He sheds no tears for the Aztecs. “Because the Aztecs were decadent, they were totalitarian, they abused other Indian tribes. And they were finished. They had grown so decadent — they were like certain forms of fundamentalist Islam, the death culture was so strong. I’ve read descriptions of blood flowing down their pyramids — the muck of it,” he says of the Aztecs’ custom of human sacrifices. “I would have fought those people.”
For any writer, but especially an ethnic or regional one, the choice of literary fathers is never just a private decision. Not only does it have political consequences, but it shapes the way the work sounds, how deep it goes, or doesn’t go. “I have read a great deal of Mexican-American literature, both as a reviewer and an anthologist,” says Dana Gioia, who admires Rodriguez. “And there is a phenomenon one can’t help noticing: The work is in English, but the writer’s native speech is Spanish. So you’re listening to English that is frequently without much echo — the undertone that gives much of poetry and fiction its power. Most Mexican-Americans come from poor, largely unlettered families — and I’m talking about my own family here, too. They don’t have much connection to the literary tradition in Spanish. And for a variety of reasons they’re reluctant to use the literary tradition in English.” They end up, Gioia says, cut off from both languages.
Rodriguez, by contrast, has ranged over the American, English, Spanish-language and European traditions, with a special fondness for the labyrinthine novels of Vladimir Nabokov and the enraged essays of James Baldwin. Rodriguez, who studied the English Renaissance in London for three years, looking for “the source of the language,” now sees himself as writing in the tradition of Orwell and Thackeray. “In many ways, I’m writing to the past as much as to the future,” he says. “Writing as much for the dead as for the living.” He explains that when he spoke at the funeral of his father (who died last year), he was as much honoring the tradition that made him as elucidating the mourners. He’s increasingly skeptical that readers exist who can make sense of complicated prose, but he refuses to dumb down his work. His attitude is oddly monastic, as if he were a friar recovering a lost culture. “I love those dead white men,” Rodriguez says, “and I’m comfortable to be in conversation with them for the rest of my writing life. I don’t particularly worry about whether the generations that follow [will read me] — it seems to me that’s their problem.” Rodriguez points out that until the 19th century, even the greatest British writers were writing in an illiterate society.
Clearly, leaving the academy left a bad taste in Rodriguez’s mouth. “I went through an anti-intellectual phase, and L.A. attracted me,” he says. “The paganism of L.A. attracted me. I remember seeing the Warren Beatty film Shampoo — I remember seeing Beatty flying down Sunset on his motorcycle in that movie, and I thought to myself, “There — there I will be. I want to live in a city where the dilemma of an oversexed beautician is considered a serious subject for a movie.” For Rodriguez, the city’s mystique came from John Rechy’s novels (City of Night) and Hollywood glamour. He thinks back to his attitude at the time: “I wanted to care about who’s at The Bistro today the way I used to care about who’s being reviewed in the New York Times.”
David Rodes, now an English professor and museum director at UCLA, taught Rodriguez at Stanford in the mid-’60s. “I was extremely opposed to his being [in L.A.],” Rodes says. “I told him very strongly that he should not [go]. If you are going to have a job as lonely as a social essayist, you need a community. I thought Los Angeles would be full of gaudy toys that would distract Richard.”
Considering he makes his living writing about himself, Rodriguez becomes unusually bashful when speaking about his time in Lotusland. He’s written little about those years, and speaks, uncharacteristically, in euphemisms like “The city was very generous to me.” He was either a kept man or a recipient of riches, or some of both. “I’d come out [of the closet], and L.A. was my pagan phase,” Rodriguez admits. “I was enchanted by the place.” Though he never had a day job, he lived in Brentwood, and recalls the years of his early 30s as an enormous party.
“L.A. was a city of conversation — dinner parties and conversation and seduction,” he says of the late ’70s and very early ’80s. “It was a very witty city. It was wonderful. It could not happen today, because brown is not exotic. But I was exotic in those years. And I could talk. It was precisely because I could speak, from this [brown] body.” He attracted rich patrons who resembled the French sophisticates of the 1910s — whose collections of African masks and statues expressed their fondness for the primitive. They saw Rodriguez as an artifact.
He remembers wearing clothes a Rodeo Drive store had given him and whipping down Sunset in a blue BMW coupe, through the deep green of Holmby Hills, to a Beverly Hills gallery opening at which he was mistaken for “an Indian tennis player.”
Today, Rodriguez sees L.A. as the capital of the world, and considers it a far more lively and intriguing city than the civilized but provincial hamlet he now calls home. He sees L.A., in its teeming life, ethnic mixing and weird juxtapositions, as setting the course for the nation. But he was constantly distracted as he tried to write Hunger in the undergraduate library at UCLA; his old professor, it turned out, was right. “I wasn’t getting it finished — I was always going over to Geneva, and staying at the Beau Rivage, and reading fashion magazines at the swimming pool,” he says. “It’s not a good way to write a book, especially an angry book. So I came back to San Francisco, when I was 34 or 35, lived briefly in my parents’ basement. I had nothing; I’d left everything behind. I had a bicycle. When the book was finally finished, it got turned down; [publisher Alfred A.] Knopf didn’t want anything to do with it. They wanted an ethnic memoir — you know, growing up on Whittier Boulevard, a gang kid, robbing a bank. So I got turned down by eight other publishers.” He figured his success would be small or nonexistent. “By that time, I thought the book would be nothing.”
When Hunger came out, on the boutique Godine press, it was too big, not too small. Because of the personal nature of his writing, he found himself having to defend his parents, his relationship with his family, to people who had never met them. Living in San Francisco upon the book’s publication, he came back to L.A. to appear on TV talk shows, and he got a fuller, less romantic sense of the city. One morning, on Merv Griffin’s program, he appeared on the same couch with a Mexican-American opera singer and Orson Welles; later that day, Merv was to be joined by the cast of Falcon Crest. Welles, his directing career decades behind him, did some magic tricks, and Rodriguez spoke about Hunger of Memory. The two hit it off, and in the parking lot afterward, the author gave the filmmaker a copy of his book. “The parking lot is now teeming with people because they’ve all come to see the cast of Falcon Crest,” Rodriguez recalls. A man called out, and handed Rodriguez his autograph book, which stunned him. This fan, unbelievably, was more interested in Rodriguez than in Welles. “I realized at that moment what L.A. was,” the author says: Because Welles was past his prime, he was a nobody — somebody who performed magic tricks on a talk show. Rodriguez, a briefly “hot” author, had more celebrity juice. “[Welles] wasn’t of the moment,” Rodriguez concludes. “L.A. is of the moment.”
When Rodriguez was a kid in the 1950s, he would go to wrestling matches outside Sacramento. This was before wrestling became chic with the middle class, which came with television: In those days, he was surrounded mostly by Mexican farm workers and elderly Okie wives. Rodriguez usually sided with the sport’s scoundrels and rogue figures over the good guys. “I felt that the villain told the truth,” he says, “in a way that the hero did not.” One of his favorite wrestlers was Ben Sharpe, who wore a black mask but was rumored to be, in real life, a good guy who adopted children and helped the down-and-out. The young Rodriguez kept trying to squint hard enough to see through the wrestler’s mask, to see the decent man beneath the bad stage manner.
When Richard Nixon came onto the political stage, Rodriguez squinted again. He responded to Nixon’s darkness, his furtiveness, and wondered what was beneath it. Rodriguez knew about the politician’s Red-baiting and other unsavory qualities. “But I was interested in him the way I was interested in Ben Sharpe — I wanted to know how far his villainy ran. There was something so transparent about Nixon, about his ambition, about his insecurity, about his shabbiness. I was drawn to him immediately, because in all those ways I found myself akin to him.” In 1960, the young Rodriguez saw Nixon sweating through his five-o’clock shadow as he debated the composed, golden John F. Kennedy on television. “And what I said in the book is true. I knew Whittier College would always be bested by Harvard,” he says, describing a world view that is unusual for a registered Republican: “Nothing could be done about it. The game is rigged.”
His connection to Poor Richard (as he calls him) got even deeper. “It was during his administration that the category of “Hispanic’ was officially described as one of the major categories of America. Under Johnson, I was increasingly allowed to become a kind of surrogate black. But it was during Nixon that America was described as a pentagon” — with five colors representing the five racial groups. Chicano activists rejected the term “Hispanic” because of Nixon’s coinage, only to embrace it later because it helped bolster affirmative action and other claims to group identity, Rodriguez says.
The author’s complicated relationship with Nixon is the centerpiece of the new book, Brown. Rodriguez was drawn to the subject of Hispanic America as he watched how slowly and grudgingly the country was waking up to its Latino presence. (Latinos make up 46.5 percent of Los Angeles and 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, as of the 2000 census.) The first big sign, he says, came from advertising agencies, like the Coors billboards in the 1980s hailing “The Decade of the Hispanic.” Then, in the ’90s, politicians came around. The last to buy into the idea were Latinos — who were more likely to see themselves as Cubans or Dominicans or Mexican-Americans. “And there was this strange noise coming out of the Census Bureau,” he says referring to the prediction a few years ago that Hispanics would soon replace blacks as “America’s largest minority.”
This statement drives him crazy: “The Census Bureau,” he writes “manages to both to trivialize the significance of Hispanics to our national life, and to insult African-Americans by describing Hispanics as supplanters.” And he laments the way Hispanics — who he stresses are an ethnic group and not a race — have allowed themselves to become a new “population segment, an ad-agency target audience, a market share.” He sees Latinos as increasingly merging into a larger identity from their roots as Cuban-Americans or Mexican-Americans — and thinks they should merge further, becoming part of a “mongrelized,” melting-pot United States. He thinks Americans are better off blending into the common American culture, rather than backing into hostile corners. At the same time, he says, L.A. is coming full circle, returning to the “brown” city it was until the 1840s, before California statehood. He’s got a Whitmanesque, I-hear-America-singing optimism about the whole thing.
Brown is full of strong insights and sharp imagery. Here is Rodriguez, for instance, on black-white relations: “It is like listening to a bad marriage through a thin partition, a civil war replete with violence, recrimination, mimicry, slamming doors.” And it is full of lines that people are bound to misunderstand. For instance, what he means by “I grew up wanting to be white” is much more intricate than it seems on first blush.
Written after he had read Puritan diaries, Hunger is the Protestant book built with the spare, clean lines of a New England church. Days of Obligation is the Catholic book: It is tragic, verbally ornamented; its language is so rich as to be almost baroque. “For this third book, this Brown book, I was looking for a brown style,” Rodriguez says. “I was interested in the rhetorical devices that were brown, like contradiction, like irony. I was trying to puzzle the reader.” On that, he’s succeeded roundly. The new book has some stunning moments, but it is so infused with ambiguity that readers will be puzzled about where some of his arguments are going. Because talk about race so often becomes invective or sound bite, he wants, with Brown, to speak more subtly. He doesn’t want his thinking simplified — but the book goes into the ether.
It veers from mixed-race kids — “children who are unnatural to any parish because they belong to no precedent” — to the Sun Belt to cubist painting to Desi Arnaz. Sometimes it works, and the effect is both powerful and poetic, recalling William Gass’ On Being Blue and Herman Melville’s “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter from Moby-Dick. But the best qualities of Rodriguez’s writing — his sense of grievance, of isolation, of lonely, hard-won wisdom — are harder to find. The energy of his first two books comes from their arguments — with the academic and educational left, and then with his father and Mexican culture in general. If he’s still arguing, it is not clear with whom.
Rodriguez is writing about topics bigger and harder to predict than anything he has ever tackled — about how America’s ethnic map is changing, how California is browning, how Protestantism is awakening in Latin America. He gives off a sense of delight and possibility when he speaks about new cultural hybrids. But his Benetton view of the mongrelized culture — what he calls in a magazine essay “Keanu Reeves, sushi tacos, blond Buddhists, Salvadoran Pentecostals” — does not illuminate.
He writes about ethnicity with the same optimism with which he sees the American language, as open and full of possibilities: The Latino with a Korean girlfriend and blue contact lenses is like a language that can accommodate both sauerkraut and spaghetti. But the metaphor doesn’t entirely hold. White people won’t leave the language. But they will leave the increasingly brown, increasingly mongrelized cities — partly because of the multi-ethnic teenagers Rodriguez champions who call themselves “Blaxicans.” He doesn’t wrestle with this hard reality, with issues like white flight, which happened with a vengeance in L.A. after the ’92 riots. Rodriguez does write briefly in Brown about white militants moving to Idaho and Montana, and he’s aware of skinheads and their defensive rage. But he says nothing, for instance, about California’s rash of gated communities, or the white majority in the San Fernando Valley that could soon secede from the brown city.
The author Pico Iyer (The Global Soul) calls Rodriguez “a tragic idealist” — someone who brings a dark, Old World sense of history to the New World, without surrendering his faith in human nature. Rodriguez’s best writing walks that line. But there is not enough tragedy to cut the idealism this time around.
Rodriguez has a handful of speeches ready for when he’s confronted by an angry Latino studies professor or an earnest student asking what it is like to be a “sellout” or a “disgrace.” Laughing, he compares himself to a politician running for office, always braced to defend himself. One of them goes like this: “Mexico sold our parents out. I don’t know why you’re Mexican patriots when the country betrayed us at every step. It betrayed my father and mother, it took everything away from them, and it lied about it. During the time when my parents were young, during the revolution, Mexico didn’t even have the courage to describe its civil war as a civil war — it called it the revolution. And its constant corruption, which led to the depletion of the land and its resources, forced my parents out of the land. That’s the sellout, that Mexico betrayed its own citizens. And you tell me that by not being a Mexican patriot I’m a sellout?”
A few years ago, Rodriguez spoke at Cal State Northridge, a school with one of the country’s oldest and most militant Chicano-studies programs. In some ways it was a standard appearance — he was insulted by sermonizing academics, who reminded him and his audience that he was “not one of us.” But what happened, later, just a few months ago, was unusual: Rudy Acu?a, a Northridge professor considered the father of Chicano studies, wrote a letter to Rodriguez. Acu?a explained that he had not been at the speech but that he had heard that the writer had been treated shabbily and wanted to apologize. “We don’t have to agree with everything a person says to appreciate his work,” Acu?a says today. “There’s room for a Richard Rodriguez. Sometimes he infuriates me. But in order for us to improve as a culture, we need to have dissenting voices. I would urge my colleagues to reevaluate their hatred of Richard.”
The apology from Acu?a, a ’60s radical and stalwart leftist, shows how far Rodriguez’s image has traveled since the angry days that surrounded Hunger. It is good for Acu?a and Latino studies that more Latinos are opening up to the writer and his work. But is it good for Rodriguez? While there’s less wrath toward Rodriguez these days, there’s also less fury in his writing.
Some compare Rodriguez, in his willingness to criticize his native culture, to V.S. Naipaul, the bitter Anglo-Indian novelist and poison-penned travel writer who won a Nobel prize last year. “I think there’s a certain element of Naipaul to Richard,” says Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College who edits the Latino literary journal Hopscotch. “But then again, Naipaul has been on the move for years, getting people angry, then he moved on and sharpened that position. I would love to see [Rodriguez] view America from the outside, from other places, or look at other parts of the world. I think his prose would be enriched by it, because his perspective would change. He’s become almost an obsessive, viewing the same problems: There’s him looking at himself in the mirror, looking brown and trying to cut himself.” (Rodriguez writes in one essay about, as a boy, trying to cut the brown out of his skin with a razor.) “It’s an image that as an adolescent you have, then you move beyond. But I can’t tell you how important it is for me that Richard Rodriguez is there. We need him.”
Once a young firebrand, Rodriguez is becoming an elder statesman. But his is a state occupied solely by him. The author himself doesn’t think he will ever be taken seriously as a writer — since whites see him as “a Hispanic author” and Hispanics (Acu?a’s concession notwithstanding) have had little use for him. “I would find Richard Rodriguez to be a very odd character indeed if I were a young Latino,” Rodriguez says. “He’s not what I’m looking for. I want someone more like a literary Jesse Jackson — someone who says “I can, and I am,’ and all that. This guy is always asking too many questions, about why we left Mexico, what Mexico is to us — he’s exaggerating some shadow anxiety I might have. And, plus, he’s queer, he’s a fag. And I don’t need this. Some high-pitched guy coming to tell me about his anxiety about Spanish… Plus, I can’t read his stuff lately. I don’t know if he’s living on a another planet somewhere, but he’s writing prose these days that disqualifies me as a reader.” Rodriguez aims his newspaper articles at a broad audience, but his books are written for what he calls “a more patient reader.”
Yet Gioia, the poet, thinks Rodriguez has made a permanent mark on American letters. “Richard Rodriguez is the closest thing Latino literature has to a George Orwell, and just as Orwell was originally treated as a traitor to the left, he has in the decades since his death emerged as the most honest and incisive writer on the British left. Rodriguez, I suspect, will ultimately be eagerly claimed by the right, the left and the middle. Rodriguez is a truth teller, and truth ages much better than partisan ideology.”
Either way, Rodriguez is a cautionary figure, a lonely thinker who brings some Mexican tragedy — and strangely, some English skepticism — to cheery mainstream America. When he speaks out of his delight and optimism — about the browning of America, about racial mixing, about L.A. as the city of the future — he sounds like a genial, intelligent liberal. When he writes out of his rage, out of his internal contradictions, he sounds like no one else. Human lives and human history being what they are, it won’t be too long before Rodriguez finds something to be angrier about and flares up again.
Richard Rodriguez is scheduled to appear at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 18.