Learning From Mexico
To those of a certain age who remember when Richard Rodriguez debuted on the public stage in the early 1980s, he will probably always be “the Latino who opposes affirmative action.” The American-born son of Mexican immigrants, whose mother was a bilingual secretary in the California governor’s office, Rodriguez charted a course from his local Catholic school in Sacramento to studies at Stanford, Columbia and Berkeley, and then a fellowship at the British Library. Finishing grad school just as university English departments were scrambling to diversify, Rodriguez spent the 1970s being asked to apply for junior faculty positions that appeared unseemly in their cushiness. He even won $1,000 from an essay contest he’d never entered.
Being affirmative action’s anointed one did not please him. The new America then emerging, with a mixed-race elite in place of an all-white one, appeared to Rodriguez as a funhouse-mirror image of social progress. The order of the day was not the truly “revolutionary demand” of ensuring quality primary and secondary schooling for all the kids in the ghettos and barrios and trailer parks, but rather integrating Princeton and Dartmouth by elevating people like him. To Rodriguez, affirmative action fell short by ignoring “the most fundamental assumptions of the classical Left” about the centrality of class. The Latinos who most needed to be uplifted were those he’d met working construction one summer during college—the ones without papers, without English, without a union. But tragically, in color-coded America, those “who were in the best position to benefit from such reforms were those blacks least victimized by racism or any other social oppression.”
Rodriguez would have none of it. He wrote to the English departments that were courting him, explaining, “I cannot claim to represent socially disadvantaged Mexican-Americans. The very fact that I am in a position to apply for this job should make that clear.” He nevertheless was still invited to interviews, and he resolved his moral quandary by withdrawing his name from consideration. Instead of becoming a professor at an elite university with tenure and a TIAA-CREF portfolio, Rodriguez worked as a freelance writer struggling to make rent each month in San Francisco. “The only point to becoming an intellectual,” he would later write, “was to become a public intellectual.”
A martyr but not a saint, Rodriguez supplemented his income in those early, lean years with gigs on the lecture circuit. He gamely played the role of the Latino who opposes affirmative action in a series of talks “at the Marriott Something or the Sheraton Somewhere…. introduced to an all-white audience and hear[ing] their applause so loud.” To critics on the left, he was a “dupe” and a “coconut,” an Uncle Tomás telling white conservatives who couldn’t have cared less about building a racially just society exactly what they wanted to hear. And, indeed, it is hard not to read Rodriguez’s “Sheraton Somewhere” episode as a kind of admission of sin from a writer who tells us, “One of the things I love about [confession in] the church is that motive is assumed: Because I am human.”
But playing the Latino who opposes affirmative action was merely the first act in Rodriguez’s public life. If you walked out in disgust during the intermission, you’ve been missing the ongoing performance by one of the keenest observers and most trenchant critics of American life.
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A child of immigrants will rarely be as childish—as guileless—as his schoolmates. Watching his Mexican father scanning the newspaper headlines each morning and muttering to himself, “Too much freedom,” the young Richard soon learned that there was more than one way—the American Way—to see the world. Though Rodriguez was “buoyed by the weightless optimism of the [American] West,” his father “never expected to escape tragedy by escaping Mexico, by escaping poverty, by coming to the United States.” A portion of the father’s outlook was bequeathed to his son, allowing Richard to see even California—“America’s America,” where Americans ran away to escape the social strictures of other parts of America—through critical eyes. He would eventually explain America to his fellow Americans through these eyes, in nonfiction essays distinguished by a power of observation more characteristic of novelists than pundits.
In Rodriguez’s view, life in Mexico is based on a hard truth—that suffering is inevitable—and America on a noble lie: the past holds no sway here. He sees our noble lie embedded in the most mundane aspects of American life. Even at the ubiquitous all-night roadside diner, “you will see the greatness of America,” he writes. “With that one swipe of the rag, the past has been obliterated. The Formica gleams like new. You can order anything you want.” And he sees it expressed in our greatest American characters, a pantheon of defiant originals who are completely unoriginal in that they are all cast from the same American mold. “There is a discernible culture…connecting Thomas Jefferson to Lucille Ball to Malcolm X to Sitting Bull,” he writes. “The immigrant child sees this at once.”
Rodriguez reckons it a sign of his own assimilation that he equates intelligence with defiance. As a teaching assistant at Berkeley, he gave students higher marks for challenging his assertions in class. When three Asian students accused him of racist insensitivity to their culture’s deference to authority, Rodriguez stood his ground. In America, he writes, “the best teachers realized…their obligation to pass on to their students a culture in which the schoolmarm is…a minor villain.”
As in Plato’s Republic, so in Jefferson’s: our hook-line-and-sinker belief in a noble lie shapes social reality for the better. Though the past does hold sway here—Americans are bound by race and class and circumstance—we are less bound than we’d be if we didn’t have such complete faith that we weren’t.
This sincerely believed falsehood begets facts on the ground, in America and beyond. Consider, for example, Rodriguez’s remarks about the US-Mexico border:
If you would understand the tension between Mexico and the United States that is playing out along our mutual border, you must understand the psychic tension between Mexican stoicism…and American optimism. On the one side…Mexican peasants are tantalized by the American possibility of change. On the other side…the tyranny of American optimism has driven Americans to neurosis and depression, when the dream is elusive or less meaningful than the myth promised…. American sadness has transformed the drug lords of Mexico into billionaires, even as the peasants of Mexico scramble through the darkness to find the American dream.
Here is a theory of Global North and South you will never read in The Economist or hear in a lecture by an international relations professor besotted with game theory and regression analysis. And it is a lot more convincing.