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.
Rodriguez is at his most profound on America’s most powerful myth: race, an ignoble lie he hopes to debunk. “I write about race in America in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America,” he audaciously proclaims.
Again, Rodriguez’s biography is the key to his sociology. He grew up in pre-civil-rights America as neither black nor white. He was born into a family that “suggests Mexico’s confused colonial past. Gathered around a table, we appear to be from separate continents.” Richard’s complexion was “terra-cotta.” His mother was constantly telling him to stay out of the California sun even though he bore no risk of sunburn.
Existing outside America’s racial binary, he lived the absurdity of our racial caste system, sometimes as an honorary white, sometimes as a dishonored black. Rodriguez grew up in a white neighborhood in Sacramento that was open to Mexicans but closed to blacks and Asians. So, presumably, he was white on account of his admittedly adulterated Iberian blood? Not, as he discovered, in a Memphis bus station, when a hand yanked him away from the whites-only water fountain by his hair.
To understand his personal history (something future-tense America denies has relevance) and his race (something Jim Crow America could not comprehend), Rodriguez resolved to visit his ancestral homeland. Expecting to travel from the Californian future to the Mexican past, Rodriguez was surprised by what he found upon landing. For all its crumbling stucco facades and undrinkable tap water, Mexico City struck him as more modern than New York or Tokyo: “Mexico City is the capital of modernity, for in the sixteenth century…Mexico initiated the task of the twenty-first century—the renewal of the old, the known world, through miscegenation.”
Rodriguez extols Mexico’s ease with racial mixing, as made evident in New World Spanish’s “piquant lexicon for miscegenation,” with its centuries-old catalog of complexions: “mestizo, castizo, alvina, chino, negro torno atras, morisco, canbujo, albarrasado, tente en el aire, canpa mulato, coyote, vorsino, lobo…” Without ignoring or apologizing for Latin America’s dark-to-light racial hierarchy—“certainly in Mexico, white ascends”—he argues that if the United States were to adopt Mexico’s postmodern (and correct) understanding of race as fungible, then our American confidence in an unbounded future would be more justified. By learning from Mexico, America could become more fully American. “What Latin America might give the United States,” Rodriguez notes, “is a playful notion of race.”
After his return to California, Rodriguez sees this beginning to happen. Being born all around him is a Mexican-hued society—and it is not merely immigration from Latin America that is responsible for it. Americans of every skin color are coupling, and their children are coming out in varying shades of the color that is all the colors at once, the one you get when you melt all your crayons together in the sun: brown. Walking down Fillmore Street, Rodriguez overhears one white teen describe her new crush to a girlfriend: “his complexion is so cool, this sort of light—well, not that light…sort of reddish brown…like a Sugar Daddy bar—you know that candy bar?”
For Rodriguez, renewal through the acceptance of racial mixing is our New World destiny. It is an old story, though one that Protestant America has always had more trouble with than Catholic Mexico. In the National Palace in Mexico City, a Diego Rivera mural depicts the first post-conquest Mexican as a tan, green-eyed newborn staring out from a papoose. Meanwhile, in the United States, we require DNA evidence before we’ll admit that a founding father was also the father of mixed-race slaves or even consider that our first “black” president is likely descended from an African-born Virginia slave on his “white” mother’s side. Rodriguez, like Mexico itself, is candid about his mixed heritage. “I am the same distance from the conquistador as from the Indian,” he writes. “Righteousness should not come easily to any of us.”
By honestly facing our mixed-race heritage, Rodriguez hopes his fellow Americans may discard the us/them mentality of racial oppressor and racial oppressed that ensures that past wounds never heal. Race is a family dispute within American families—the Jeffersons, the Obamas, yours?—and, in a larger sense, among the human family. For Rodriguez, the key to unification is acknowledging that we’re already united.
But Rodriguez realizes that Americans may not want to follow him down this path. When he runs his theory by a light-skinned black friend—the same distance from the slave-master as from the slave is he—the friend drags him back to American reality, which is to say American myth. He’ll happily give up the one-drop rule, the friend replies, just as soon as the San Francisco Police Department does.
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In his latest work, Darling, Rodriguez tries to apply his race-subverting ideas about “brownness” to gender and religion. As with the either/or dichotomy he challenged on race, he intends to examine the fault lines of male/female and Christian/Jew/Muslim. This time, he will write about gender and religion in hopes of undermining gender and religion.
In the title chapter, Rodriguez discusses the gay parishioners of a Roman Catholic Church that refuses to marry them but will not excommunicate them. Departing from the conventional wisdom that the civil rights movement is the best historical parallel to today’s push for marriage equality, Rodriguez claims that the women’s movement—with its subversion of patriarchal norms through the public title “Ms.” and the unapologetic single mother—is the better fit. Finding his gay male self within the sisterhood of feminism is Rodriguez’s “brown” move on gender.
Similarly, after 9/11, when his San Francisco friends were washing their hands of the matter with vehement professions of atheism, Rodriguez implicated himself in the conflict by publicly identifying as a “Judeo-Christian-Muslim.” Rather than separating himself out and claiming the righteous high ground by dismissing the 9/11 hijackers as the Other—Islamo-fascist barbarians or some such—Rodriguez seeks to mediate the family dispute between his fellow monotheists. Sticking to the approach that yielded such success in the past, he books a flight to the Holy Land.
Given the fruits of his trip to Mexico City, it would seem an auspicious plan. But Rodriguez’s account of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a bust. Eschewing the social observation that has always been his strength, Rodriguez focuses instead on the significance of the region’s desert ecology to the birth of monotheism. Here, as with his musings on feminism, the poetry of his prose blurs his focus rather than sharpening it, leaving the reader to wander in the wilderness. It’s not that his arguments are necessarily wrong—maybe the women’s movement really is a better model than the civil rights movement for marriage equality—it’s that the reader does not have the confidence to join him in this leap of faith.
This is tragic, because Jerusalem—a dysfunctional family blown up to a metropolitan scale—cries out for the Rodriguez treatment. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the various denominations of a faith whose central theological thrust is universalist have had to turn over the front-door key to a Muslim family lest they lock each other out. Meanwhile, the local Palestinians and the Israelis—nearly half of whom are Arab Jews, though woe unto the person who uses that term—spar over who can claim exclusive cultural patrimony over the falafel sandwich. Few even comment on the workaday insanity of a municipal administration that oversees separate-but-equal Israeli and Palestinian public bus systems (Lord knows how they tell all those green-eyed bus drivers apart). If there was ever a place where the physical “separation barrier” springs from a mental one, Jerusalem is it.
Yet Rodriguez doesn’t give Jerusalem—or feminism—the Richard Rodriguez treatment. Even in America, it seems, writers are bound by their personal histories. You can’t order anything you want. Yet Rodriguez’s approach remains refreshing. He writes from his particular perspective against particularism. As a gay, male, Roman Catholic, middle-class, mestizo Mexican-American, he implores us all, weighed down as we are by our own particular modifiers, not to segregate ourselves from the rest of humanity. In doing so, he offers hope for a way forward in our most contentious debates. He makes no secret that he will challenge his readers, that he won’t toe anyone’s party line. “I extol impurity,” he writes. If you can’t deal, “you had better seek a pure author.”n