Richard Rodriguez’s slim volume Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father is a veritable fruitcake of metaphors, allusions, and paradoxes. What exactly does this excerpt mean? “Uncle Sam has no children of his own. In a way, Sam represents necessary evil to the American imagination. He steals children to make men of them, mocks all reticence, all modesty, all memory. Uncle Sam is a hectoring Yankee, a skinflint uncle, gaunt, uncouth, unloved…”
Or this? “Mexico perceives America as sterile, as sterilizing, as barren as the nose of a missile. ‘Don’t drink the water in Los Angeles,’ goes the joke, ‘it will clean you out like a scalpel.’ Because Americans are barren by choice, Americans are perceived by Mexico as having relinquished gravity. Within the porticos of the great churches of Mexico are signs reminding visitors to behave with dignity. The signs are in English.”
Whatever it is he’s saying, it gets people stirred up. When Rodriguez tried to speak at the University of California at San Diego several months ago, determined hecklers prevented him from finishing. Attempts have been made at several universities to have his writings, including his first book, Hunger of Memory, published in 1981, removed from assigned reading lists. Rodriguez has become something of a media celebrity, partly because his views are so provocative. His essays have appeared in Time, Harper’s, the New Republic, and even TV Guide; he is an occasional guest commentator on the McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour; and he does regular pieces for the Los Angeles Times and the Pacific News Service.
Rodriguez was recently invited to the University of Chicago to speak. When we met, I discovered that he is only slightly less enigmatic in person than in print. It’s not that he’s high-handed or distant. On the contrary, he is a marvelous conversationalist who wants desperately to be understood. But his mind moves on so many levels simultaneously and the graphic images flash by so quickly that it’s difficult to keep pace.
To catch the major message (or the host of little related messages), one has to consider the man himself and where he came from. He is a 49-year-old son of Mexican immigrant parents; he is strongly Roman Catholic, strongly gay, and strongly opposed to multicultural education. He was raised in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood of Sacramento, California, and schooled by Irish nuns who left him with vicarious nostalgia for the Emerald Isle. He is one of those people who delight in reconciling (or at least finding common denominators in) seemingly contradictory ideas.
During his early years he regarded himself as just another American eagerly embracing the language and culture of his neighbors. When he went to college (the University of California at Berkeley), however, he began to question who he really was and how he was regarded by American society. “Suddenly,” he says, “I was a minority student, simply because of my name. I was supposed to be something special.” After he earned a graduate degree in English literature, he was inundated with teaching offers from colleges “even though my accomplishments were in no way superior to those of many other graduates with Anglo-Saxon names. I was very uncomfortable. I didn’t see why I should be receiving undeserved benefits.”
Rodriguez pondered what all this meant, traveled widely, and came in time to agree that he was special, though not in the way college affirmative action officers understood the word. Here’s how he opens the first chapter of Days of Obligation: “I used to stare at the Indian in the mirror. The wide nostrils, the thick lips. Starring Paul Muni as Benito Juarez. Such a long face–such a long nose–sculpted by indifferent, blunt thumbs, and of such common clay. No one in my family had a face as dark or as Indian as mine. My face could not portray the ambition I brought to it. What could the United States of America say to me? I remember reading the ponderous conclusion of the Kerner Report in the sixties: two Americas, one white, one black–the prophecy of an eclipse too simple to account for the complexity of my face.”
But the Indians, he had been taught in school, were dead and gone, the victims of European aggression. How then explain the obvious survival of the Indian in himself, and the sea of Indian faces he encountered in his visits to Mexico? He didn’t come upon the conquistadors or anyone claiming to be their descendants, only Indians who spoke Spanish. Perhaps the Indians were nearly exterminated north of the border; something else, obviously, had occurred south of the border.
This fascination with the Indian side of himself and the Indian presence in Mexico seems to be central to Rodriguez’s critique of what’s right and what’s wrong with the culture of the United States and that of Mexico.
In a nutshell, here’s what I gathered he’s saying: American culture today–as it has evolved or devolved–is individualistic (me first), optimistic (the sun’ll come up tomorrow), practical (just get the job done), future oriented (the sky’s the limit), and decidedly Protestant (God helps those who help themselves). In California, he notes in his book, “it is still possible…to change your name, change your sex, get a divorce, become a movie star.”
By contrast, Mexican culture is communal (family and village centered), pessimistic (viewing life as inevitably tragic), contemplative (finding mystery everywhere), past oriented (highly respectful of ancestors and tradition), and decidedly Catholic (geared toward order, stability, unity). “Seek the Mexican in the embrace of the family,” he writes, “where there is much noise. The family stands as a consolation, because in the certainty of generation there is protection against an uncertain future. At the center of this gravity the child is enshrined….The child does not represent distance from the past, but reflux. She is not expected to fly away, to find herself. He is not expected to live his own life.”
To put the contrast another way, as Rodriguez does often in his writings and in conversation, America is male, Mexico female.
He is careful, however, not to enshrine either culture (one reason proponents of both sides can get furious at him). He admires America’s relentless optimism and sheer material achievement, just as he admires Mexico’s veneration of history and roots. By the same token he takes shots at the shallow, quick-fix attitudes that pervade American culture and the gloomy fatalism in Mexico that leads to inertia.
But Rodriguez finds something else in Mexican culture that gives it an edge–something that comes directly from the Indian component–and he is surprised that historians have not given it more attention. Indian culture, he explains, is assimilationist by its very nature; in the face of threat and oppression, it adapts, it compromises, it changes, somehow it survives. That is what he sees in the teeming millions when he visits Mexico City and it’s what he sees in his own face. He looks at the history of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish as, in fact, a paradoxical conquest of the Spanish by the indigenous population of Mexico. Assimilation shows up clearly in Mexican religion. The people are overwhelmingly Catholic, to be sure, but it is a Catholicism that no 16th-century Spaniard would recognize. The “unofficial flag” of Mexico today is Our Lady of Guadalupe, he notes, the Jewish Virgin Mary transfigured into a dark-skinned, native-dressed, Aztec-speaking Indian “who has become more vivid with time, developing in her replication from earthy shades of melon and musk to bubble-gum pink.”
The joke, he writes in Days of Obligation, is that “Spain arrived with missionary zeal at the shores of contemplation. But Spain had no idea of the absorbent strength of Indian spirituality…. Catholicism has become an Indian religion. By the twenty-first century, the locus of the Catholic Church, by virtue of numbers, will be Latin America, by which time Catholicism itself will have assumed the aspect of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Brown skin.”
Asked to expound further on this point, Rodriguez presents another of the poetic images he delights in using: “When the [16th-century] priest imposed conversion on the young Indian, forcing her to receive the sacred host, she swallowed the priest as well.”
Catholic authorities, cautions Rodriguez, should not be overly alarmed by the recent inroads of Protestant fundamentalism in Mexico. Because of its assimilationist bent, he is convinced, the culture will see to it that some new creative strain of the old faith emerges, a strain whose features are as unimaginable now as present-day Mexican Catholicism was to the 16th-century missionaries.
Assimilation is the foe of preservation, and that is where Rodriguez’s ideas grate on the politically correct. When the Mexican immigrates to the United States, there is an inevitable clash between the communal, motherly culture from which he comes and “the shimmering first-person-singular” culture of the new country. The resolution, Rodriguez implies, is neither clinging to the old (huddling in some Spanish-speaking barrio) nor leaping mindlessly into the melting pot. Assimilation means creating something that didn’t exist before, and he broadens his recommendations on this point to include not only immigrants from Mexico and other countries but blacks, gays, and other minority groups with special backgrounds or interests. Yet Rodriguez is rarely blunt; his views are often encased in poetry and symbols that can rarely be reduced to syllogisms.
This is as close as he comes to directly lambasting multiculturalism in Days of Obligation: “There are influential educators today…who believe the purpose of American education is to instill in children a pride in their ancestral pasts. Such a curtailing of education seems to me condescending; seems to be the worst sort of missionary spirit. Did anyone attempt to protect the white middle-class student of yore from the ironies of history? Thomas Jefferson–the great democrat–was also a slaveowner. Need we protect black students from complexity…? American history has become a pageant of exemplary slaves and black educators. Gay studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies–the new curriculum ensures that education will be flattering. But I submit that America is not a tale for sentimentalists.
“If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city. Teach me about mad British kings so I will understand the American penchant for iconoclasm. Then teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know the tragedies that created the country that will create me.”
No one can escape into their own cultural cocoon, says Rodriguez; no one can live in a culture and remain aloof from it. The task of assimilation lies heavy on everyone. Hiding inside one’s ethnic, racial, or sexual identity is futile and self-destructive.
Rodriguez’s conclusions, he readily acknowledges, are not based on scholarly studies or sociological surveys, only on observation, insight, and a vivid imagination. “Of course,” he says, “What I’m really doing is creating myth.” He says it with a wry smile because, as he knows full well, myths have both a longer life span and a deeper impact on culture than even the best scientific studies and surveys.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.