The New, New World: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez on culture and assimilation


Essayist Richard Rodriguez, best known for his 1982 book Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, is usually classified as an iconoclastic Mexican American writer with little patience for political correctness. The description is accurate but incomplete. He is, more broadly, a student of America—a subtle and perceptive observer of the tension between individual and community, self and culture, optimism and pessimism, in contemporary life. He is also deeply ambivalent, especially in his more-recent work, including last year's Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. In that book, Rodriguez struggles with the loss of optimism, both his and California's, since his youth in the 1950s—the discovery of what Thomas Sowell might call "the constrained vision," the knowledge that "much in life is failure or compromise," just as his Mexican father said. For Rodriguez, though, this sense of life's limits is wedded to an appreciation for its possibilities. Editor Virginia Postrel and Assistant Editor Nick Gillespie talked with Rodriguez in Los Angeles in late April.

Reason: You became famous in the early 1980s for opposing bilingual education and affirmative action—specifically for turning down jobs as an English professor that you thought you were offered on the basis of your ethnicity. Have you changed your mind about that?

Richard Rodriguez: No, I guess I haven't. Although I miss teaching. I go back to the university campuses today with some reluctance.

Reason: Why is that?

Rodriguez: For example. I was at CSUN [Cal State, Northridge] a few months ago. and I had to pass through some kind of approval of the Chicano studies program for my visit to be sanctioned. And it just becomes too tiresome. There is some etiquette—that I have to meet with the Chicano students to defuse whatever their anger is.

Reason: And what are those meetings like?

Rodriguez: Well, they're usually tedious. At Northridge there was a long speech where I was harangued by a woman from the history department, but clearly Chicano studies also. about my misunderstanding of Mexicans, about how Mexico has come to terms with it its Indian identity. There have been a few times—for example. at U.C.-San Diego last year—where I did lose control of the audience. There were a number of students who were so disruptive that it was difficult to go on.

Reason: What do you make of that sort of attitude among college students?

Rodriguez: As it applies to me, I find it curious. I think of myself as left of center. I'm horrified that the left in America is as intolerant as it is these days. The level of incivility among people who are otherwise engaged in discussion of ideas also is surprising to me.

Reason: Where do you think it comes from?

Rodriguez: If you ask me about these individual students, I think they are required to think of themselves as representing a cause. Their admission is in the name of a larger population for whom they feel responsible, and they do claim to have a kind of communal voice to speak in the name of the people. If you have e a different opinion, then you are not of the people.

Multiculturalism, as it is expressed in the platitudes of the American campus, is not multiculturalism. It is an idea about culture that has a specific genesis, a specific history, and a specific politics. What people mean by multiculturalism is different hues of themselves. They don't mean Islamic fundamentalists or skinheads. They mean other brown and black students who share opinions like theirs. It isn't diversity. It's a pretense to diversity. And this is an exposure of it—they can't even tolerate my paltry opinion.

Reason: Days of Obligation got a friendlier response than Hunger of Memory, partly because it was more Mexican.

Rodriguez: I think of it as more Catholic rather than more Mexican. An older man is writing this book. I thought of my earlier book as a more deeply Protestant book: my objection to the popular ideology of that time: my insistence that I am this man, contrary to what you want to make me: my declaration of myself, of my profession—political and personal; my defiance of my mother's wishes in publishing this memoir. It seemed to me very Protestant and very self-assertive—in the best sense.

This later book is much more Catholic and much more troubled. I'm much more interested in the intervention of the tragic in my life now. The AIDS epidemic has been a large part of that, but that isn't the only aspect. I quite clearly live in a California that has lost its charm, in a place that no longer quite believes in a future.

Reason: You suggest in your book that Mexico itself and Mexicans in America have become the comic side, the optimistic side, and that it is actually blond California that is getting pessimistic.

Rodriguez: That's part of the great irony. We've always assumed that America somehow belonged on this land. Well, maybe you can put America in a suitcase and take it to Hong Kong. Maybe you can take it to Shanghai. And maybe what our Scandinavian ancestors of the 19th century would recognize as America, or as an American city, they would see more clearly in Tijuana now than they would in San Diego.

Reason: What do you mean by the America that you could take to Hong Kong?

Rodriguez: The notion of self-reliance. The notion of re-creation. More and more I'm sensing that that kind of optimism belongs now to immigrants in this country—certainly to Mexicans that I meet—and less and less so to the native-born.

Americans seem to be tired. They talk about a lot of problems. I'm not depressed about the problems on the horizon, because I think that's where you get solutions. We'll start growing our spinach in space only when we run out of space. What I worry about is that when you talk about zero population growth and that sort of thing you are really talking about a sort of stopped time, where the whole process of evolution gets called into question.

Reason: Why do you think people today talk so much about culture?

Rodriguez: Because there is an enormous sense of discontinuity in our lives. A friend of mine who was writing a book on Orange County once took me to this enormous shopping center—South Coast Plaza—where there were Iranians and Mexicans and everybody, and I said to him, "Do you feel flattered that the whole world has come to where you used to bicycle across open fields?" And he said. "Of course I feel flattered. It s an extraordinary idea that the entire world would come to your playground. But at some other level I feel enormously besieged, and in some sense displaced, that here they're coming and they have no memory that I was here." We may become some new tribe of American Indians, who remember a California once upon a time and now are in the presence of rude people whose memory doesn't extend that far.

So we start asking questions about what our culture was and what their culture seems to be. Most people tend to use culture in a static sense—he represents this culture and I represent this culture. I think culture is much more fluid and experiential. I belong to many cultures. I've had many cultural experiences. And the notion that I've lost my culture is ludicrous. because you can't lose a culture. You can change a culture in your lifetime. as in fact most of us do. I'm not my father. I didn't grow up in the state of Colima in Western Mexico. I grew up in California in the 1950s. The notion that I've lost his culture is, of course, at some level true, but not interesting. The interesting thing is that my culture is I Love Lucy.

Reason: Are there political implications to this view of culture versus the static view?

Rodriguez: The interesting thing about America, the risky thing about America, is that when it opened itself up to immigrants, it opened itself to the possibility that it was going to become fluid and a stranger to itself. The great 19th-century argument against immigrants was not racial or ethnic but primarily religious. The argument against the Irish migration was a very interesting one, and one I've always taken seriously: whether or not an Irish Catholic can become a good American. Because in some way, as a Catholic in this country, I'm at odds with America. There is a prevailing ideology, a culture, which we change and adapt and resist and in various ways ignore and become part of. But in some sense it's not an easy relationship for the outsider, nor is it an easy relationship for those who are within the culture to know what to do with these outsiders.

The argument ends in the 19th century with this remarkable reversal from the anti-immigrant biases of the 1850s. Americans start talking about themselves as belonging to the tradition of the immigrant—we are all immigrants. And we see ourselves in the disheveled figure of the woman loaded down with the suitcase and garlic and crucifix. Who knew what she was saying? But we recognize in that movement away from her past that there was some great American drama that we saw ourselves as part of.

Reason: How do you account for the fact that in the beginning of the 20th century, as we were accepting the myth of the immigrant as the true American, the first broad-based restrictions on mass immigration started to be discussed in an active way?

Rodriguez: How do I account for the fact that, at a time when black and white relationships are so difficult in America, blond kids are listening to rap? Within what is desired is also what is feared. The stranger is the figure of the American but also the threat to American stability. Surely there is some part of us that wants to settle down, that doesn't want to keep moving.

Reason: You've written, "Protestantism taught Americans to believe that America does not exist—not as a culture, not as a shared experience, not as a communal reality. Because of Protestantism, the American ideology of individualism is always at war with the experience of our lives, our culture. As long as we reject the notion of culture we are able to invent the future." Isn't the paradox of American culture that it emerges out of the living of individualism?

Rodriguez: What I was arguing in that paragraph is that it is possible to share the experience of individuality but that it is always paradoxically so. And that there is an anti-intellectual bias in America based upon a constant rejection of the elder, of authority, of the past. There is in the American experience continually this notion that we have sort of stumbled upon experience, that we have discovered sex, that we have discovered evil. I quote a woman at Columbia University who said, in the 1970s, "After Vietnam I will never believe that America is the good and pure country that I once thought it to be." I thought to myself. "Where has she been all this time? Did she miss the part about the slaves? Did she miss that page about the Indians? Where does that notion of innocence come up?" We are innocent of history, of memory.

What I'm arguing is that there is a tradition that immigrants should be taught as much as native-born Californians. A tradition of America which connects us to one another, despite the fact that the strongest thing that we could say about one another is that we are disconnected. But the woman I know in Berkeley who drives her red Volkswagen around to this day with a bumper sticker that says "Question Authority." There is not a more conventional American ideal than "Question Authority."

Reason: In the context of immigrants. you've said that America is irresistible, that parents think that their children can pick and choose but that you can't resist it. Does that mean that the concern about assimilation is needless?

Rodriguez: Some part of it will be natural and inevitable. But no one is more American than the person who insists that he's not. I said to these kids in Corpus Christi the other day, "I don't mind that you go around pretending that you live in Mexico, and wear sombreros and so forth. I just want you to know that that's an American thing to do—that insistence that I can decide whether I'm going to be Mexican or not."

I was doing a documentary for the BBC a few years ago on American teenagers, and there was this girl in North Carolina who was telling us about how she wanted to become more Scottish. She was going to bicycle that summer in Scotland and get in touch with her Scottish ancestors. And my film crew, these Brits, said, "This idea of becoming more Scottish. That's a very American idea, isn't it?" Nobody in Scotland talks that way. And that's exactly the point, that the American arrogance has always been that the individual is in control of the culture. In some way, the people who are most individualistic, and most insistent on their refusal to assimilate, are the people who are most deeply assimilated.

The joke on Mexican Americans is that Mexicans now are Americanizing themselves at probably a faster rate than we are, and we may turn into British Columbians. You go up to British Columbia, and there are these more British-than-the-British Canadians, with their picture of the queen in their dining room and tea cozies and so forth. My fear is that Mexican Americans may turn into people who are in some kind of bubble in history, while these new Mexicans are going back and forth.

Reason: You talk a lot about two things that are related. One is intimacy, and the other is the tension between the public and the private. How do you reconcile the public and the private, the communal and the individual life?

Rodriguez: I don't have any large scheme for that settlement. I do think that we go in cycles as a society. Remember Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book called Moral Man and Moral Society about 40 years ago, 50 years ago? If one were to write a book like that today you would have to almost reverse the title, Immoral Man and Moral Society. Dealing with a problem like the homeless, we have almost no sense that as individuals we can make any difference. We seem not to believe that we can change the condition of the American household. which is in disrepair—mothers unhappy, mothers being beaten by papa, the children being abused by somebody. We refer our problems to agencies or to the public realm because we sense more and more that some intimate circle has been fragmented.

Maybe Hillary Clinton's generation is the great generation of this belief that if you can reorganize the public realm all will be well, that the public can redeem the private. I'm beginning to sense among the young today that there is some reversal now in the other direction, that the kids I talk to—I'm talking about the children we would normally describe as troubled children—are more and more looking for more intimate ways of organizing themselves and restoring themselves.

Reason: Like?

Rodriguez: Like Nation of Islam. Victory Outreach. The most successful rescue structures in this society are not governmental but are cases of one person taking another person. There is a man named Joe Marshall in San Francisco who has something called the Omega Boys Club. He used to be a junior-high-school teacher. and he realized that these kids basically did not have a home. He was expecting them to study a geography lesson, and they hadn't had breakfast. They were without such preliminaries in their intimate life that they had no way of living in the public life. So he committed himself as an individual to becoming their father essentially and to relating to them one on one—"I will be here for you." And he's had enormous success. He's sent over 100 kids to college—kids who would not normally fall under any umbrella of the ideal student. I'm more and more taken with that possibility, that what we are looking for now is some way to redeem the house.

I write in the "Late Victorians" chapter [in Days of Obligation] about the homosexuals who do not have a family, whose deepest secret was not held against the city but was held against their own parents. And they came to San Francisco in the 1970s and moved into the Victorian houses. They loved those symbols of 19th-century domestic stability, with four generations raised one story upon the other—behind this great wooden door. This woman came up to me the other day and said, "The only happily married people I know are gay couples." I said to her "Maybe that's part of the irony of our time, that people who didn't have that intimacy have been spending more time on it." I sense that there are very large groups of people who are without intimate life and who are looking for it now. And increasingly these looking are not looking to government.

That's partly the reason for the rise of certain sorts of religious fundamentalism. which has within it a deep communal assurance and intimate assurance. There is down the block in my yuppie neighborhood this Filipino evangelical church. If you do not come tonight they will come looking for you. I don't want to say that ominously, because that's not the way they would describe it. But they miss you. And they eat together. They are there in the morning—I go jogging at 6:30 some mornings and they're coming out of church, and I think to myself, "This is insane. What have they been doing? When did they sleep?" Clearly something is going on in there that's not liturgical, or is so powerfully liturgical that it engages the re-creation of community in a city that is otherwise oblivious and hostile to them.

Reason: What do you think about the attraction of Latin Americans, both here and in Latin America, to evangelical Protestantism?

Rodriguez: Catholicism is a religion that stresses to you constantly that you can't make it on your own, that you need the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and the saints, St. Jude, and your grandmother—candles and rosaries and indulgences and the pope. There are all these intermediaries, because you facing God would be hopeless.

Suddenly, into the village comes this assurance that you don't need padrecito. You can read the bible yourself—you don't need someone to tell you what it says. You don't need the Virgin Mary, you don't need the saints, you don't need anybody. God is speaking to you. And just because your father beat your mother, just because your grandfather was poor, doesn't mean it has to happen to you. You can change your whole life around. This is all based on the Easter promise and not, as the Catholic church has always based it, on some Good Friday suffering.

Reason: Protestants always have empty crosses.

Rodriguez: It is an enormously powerful motif, the notion that Christ just got off the cross and walked away somewhere—went off to L.A.—and you could do it too. I think Protestantism is most successful in those cases where people are beginning to taste and sense discontinuity. And they begin to make sense out of it as providential. Protestantism also establishes, in a time of social change, the memory of the village. Within the storefront church, you can hold hands and remember what it was like in another time.

It will be one of the great changes of Latin America, the Protestantization of Latin America. and I think in some way that it will change the United States. The relationship of the evangelicals in places like Texas where there are rednecks and Mexicans together is really very interesting. The new Mexican who is now appearing in places like police departments—this is a new face of Latin America, and it is not necessarily one that we want.

Reason: How so?

Rodriguez: I think there has always been a charm to Latin America as being sort of morally lazy. We've always used it as a place where we could go to after dark and do whatever we wanted that we couldn't do here. We never really expected that Latin America was going to become a moral Clorox for our society, and maybe there's a ferocity there that we don't expect.

Reason: Aside from the desire to have this Latin America of easy virtue. are there bad consequences to that?

Rodriguez: How shall I put this? Mexican cops have never been cops I like to deal with. And there can be this ferocity—you see it in New York now with a lot of Puerto Rican and Hispanic households, the ferocity against the gay movement, the Rainbow Curriculum, for example. I see myself as a homosexual man—much freer in America than in Latin America.

Reason: So that the danger is that in adopting a sort of American Protestantism, a religious version of individualism, they will not, do not, adopt the tolerant individualism, the political individualism?

Rodriguez: We're talking about a low-church Protestantism. It is part of the paradox of the Protestant tradition that there has been this intolerance within a religion otherwise powerfully concerned with the individual. It is a paradox within Catholicism that a religion so communal would otherwise be so individualistic—in the sense that people are so private.

Reason: The association of immigration with welfare in the political discourse, particularly in California, has become very tight, and yet of course everywhere you go in L.A. all you see are immigrants working. What do you make of that?

Rodriguez: It may have something to do with some Anglo-Saxon prejudice about the South—that these people really are not workaholics. In fact. every Mexican I've ever known has been haunted by a kind of work lust that is just extraordinary to me—it terrifies me.

It may also be that, well fine, this generation is going to scrape the dishes and wipe your grandmother's ass when she's an invalid, but that's not what their kids are going to do. When they start becoming American, we're going to have to pay for the kids, who are not going to do that work; and who are going to be bitter. There is some logic in that. Ironically so. Isn't it interesting that we find that their Americanization is meaning that they would work less?

There is also this fear of the workaholic, which expresses itself especially against Asian immigrants. That they're working too hard. I've quoted that man who said to me. "Asians are unfair to my children because they work too hard." For a lot of people, the complaint about Asians is that not only do they work very hard but their work is multiplied—that it is entire families working, while I'm working here as a solitary being.

There is not a great deal of praise given to these immigrants, who have sometimes two and three jobs. A lot of these people are maintaining the quality of life in California. They're the ones who are planting the trees, mowing the lawns, cooking the Italian food in the yuppie restaurants. They are the ones who are maintaining what's left of the California dream, and of course they are the ones who are accused of destroying it.

Reason: Where do you think this backlash against immigrants is going?

Rodriguez: In the short term. I think it could be very ferocious. What worries me most is the black and immigrant split—the threat that blacks feel as they are replaced, literally, in places like Miami and Los Angeles. I think that could be very dangerous. I do know a number of black kids whom I've tried to get work for—as dishwashers, bus boys—and I'm told by employers that they don't hire black. They'll say, we hire Chinese, or we hire Mexican, or we hire Central Americans.

Reason: Much of the debate about immigration gets into issues involving public schools. There is this very powerful myth of the public schools as the conveyors of American culture and American ideas—the great assimilating mechanism. You went to parochial schools. You were taught by nuns who were not even American born, Irish nuns. You grew up with an incredible sense of difference from the surrounding culture. And yet you say those schools Americanized you. What does that tell us about the public schools?

Rodriguez: The irony is a true one. We used a lot of skills that came out of a medieval faith. The stress that the nuns placed on memorizing. The notion that education was not so much little Junior coming up with a new idea, but little Junior having to memorize what was already known. Education was not about learning something new. It was about learning something old. The nuns said about my sister, criticizing her to my parents that she has a mind of her own.

At the same time, that taught us some basic things. We knew certain dates of American history. I knew certain poems by Longfellow. I knew how to multiply. I had a sense of the communal within that tradition. I could not only name popes, but I could also name presidents. I memorized the 48 state capitals. We were in the 13th century, but the 13th-century skills prepared us in some remarkable way to belong.

Reason: Do you think more education like yours, in terms of curriculum and structure, would be a better form of education?

Rodriguez: Absolutely, because I think that education in that sense should be anti-American. There is enough in America out on the street to convince little Johnny that he's the center of everyone's universe—that his little "I" on his skateboard matters more than anybody else's right to walk on the sidewalk. What the classroom should insist on is that he belongs to a culture, a community, a tradition, a memory, and that in fact he's related to all kinds of people that he'll never know. That's the point of education.

It is, curiously, because of the Americanness of the public schools that they are less able to do what private schools can do, and that is teach us our communal relationships. American institutions end up becoming very American, and you have schools now that are supposed to teach little Hispanic kids to be privately Hispanic. That's not the point and never was. The point of education is to teach Hispanic kids that they're black.

Reason: What do you mean by that?

Rodriguez: Education is not about self-esteem. Education is demeaning. It should be about teaching you what you don't know, what you yet need to know, how much there is yet to do. Part of the process of education is teaching you that you are related to people who are not you, not your parents—that you are related to black runaway slaves and that you are related to suffragettes in the 19th century and that you are related to Puritans. That you are related to some continuous flow of ideas, some linkage, of which you are the beneficiary, the most recent link. The argument for bilingual education, or for teaching black children their own lingo, assumes that education is about self-esteem. My argument is that education is about teaching children to use language of other people.

Reason: The public language.

Rodriguez: If you all decided tomorrow that you wanted to speak Spanish, I would be the first one insisting that that's the issue. One of the reasons I haven't gotten involved in the English Only movement is because I thought they were misplacing the emphasis. I support the use of English in the classroom because that's what this society tends to use. English is the de facto official language of the classroom, of the country. If you all changed tomorrow and decided you all wanted to speak Esperanto, then I would become the great defender of Esperanto. I'm not an Anglophile.

Reason: Your writing has become increasingly private. The reason Hunger of Memory was so controversial was that, even though it was a personal memoir, it took stands on public issues—bilingual education, affirmative action.

Rodriguez: I do think there are public issues in Days of Obligation. Religion is a public issue. The majority of reviewers ignored the fact that this book was primarily about being Catholic in America, not about being Hispanic in America. I'm not Catholic to them, I'm Hispanic. And I'm not gay to them, I'm brown to them. And I'm not Indian to them, because they know who the Indians are—the Indians live in Oklahoma.

The issue of the Indian, which very few people have remarked on, is a public issue. My rewriting of the Indian adventure [into a story in which the conquistadors' culture was in effect conquered, absorbed, and transformed by Indians through conversion and miscegenation] was not only to move the Indian away from the role of victim but to see myself in relationship to Pocahontas, to see myself as interested in the blond on his horse coming over the horizon. It occurred to me there was something aggressive about the Indian interest in the Other, and that you were at risk in the fact that I was watching you, that I wanted you, that I was interested in your religion, that I was prepared to swallow it and to swallow you in the process.

Maybe what is happening in the Americas right now is that the Indian is very much alive. I represent someone who has swallowed English and now claims it as my language, your books as my books, your religion as my religion—maybe this is the most subversive element of the colonial adventure. That I may be truest to my Indian identity by wanting to become American is really quite extraordinary.