Rodriguez is the author The Hunger of Memory (1982) and
Days Of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father
(1992). In 1993 he was awarded the The National Humanities Medal,
the highest honor conferred by the federal government for outstanding
work in the humanities. For more than ten years he has appeared
as a Peabody Award-winning essayist on The News Hour
with Jim Lehrer. He is an editor for the Pacific News Service
in San Francisco and a contributing editor of Harper's
and the Sunday Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times.
This interview first appeared in
Insight and Outlook.
LONDON: In Hunger of Memory, you suggest that supporters
of bilingual education are misguided. You write, "What they
don't seem to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child,
I considered Spanish to be a private language." In what way
was Spanish a private language for you?
RODRIGUEZ: In some countries, of course, Spanish is the language
spoken in public. But for many American children whose families
speak Spanish at home, it becomes a private language. They use
it to keep the English-speaking world at bay.
advocates say it's important to teach a child in his or her family's
language. I say you can't use family language in the classroom
-- the very nature of the classroom requires that you use language
publicly. When the Irish nun said to me, "Speak your name
loud and clear so that all the boys and girls can hear you,"
she was asking me to use language publicly, with strangers. That's
the appropriate instruction for a teacher to give. If she were
to say to me, "We are going to speak now in Spanish, just
like you do at home. You can whisper anything you want to me,
and I am going to call you by a nickname, just like your mother
does," that would be inappropriate. That is not what classrooms
SCOTT LONDON: Some would argue that students are stripped of their
cultural identity by being instructed in the dominant language.
Isn't there some truth to that?
RODRIGUEZ: My grandmother would always tell me that I was hers,
that I was Mexican. That was her role. It was not my teacher's
role to tell me I was Mexican. It was my teacher's role to tell
me I was an American. The notion that you go to a public institution
in order to learn private information about yourself is absurd.
We used to understand that when students went to universities,
they would become cosmopolitan. They were leaving their neighborhoods.
Now we have this idea that, not only do you go to first grade
to learn your family's language, but you go to a university to
learn about the person you were before you left home. So rather
than becoming multicultural, rather than becoming confident in
your knowledge of the world, you become just the opposite. You
end up in college having to apologize for the fact that you no
longer speak your native language.
these days that Latinos in California speak neither Spanish nor
English very well. They are in a kind of linguistic limbo between
the two. They don't really have a language, and are, in some deep
LONDON: Many people feel that the call for diversity and multiculturalism
is one reason the American educational system is collapsing.
RODRIGUEZ: It's no surprise that at the same time that American
universities have engaged in a serious commitment to diversity,
they have been thought-prisons. We are not talking about diversity
in any real way. We are talking about brown, black, white versions
of the same political ideology. It is very curious that the United
States and Canada both assume that diversity means only race and
ethnicity. They never assume it might mean more Nazis, or more
Southern Baptists. That's diversity too, you know.
LONDON: What do you mean by diversity?
RODRIGUEZ: For me, diversity is not a value. Diversity is what
you find in Northern Ireland. Diversity is Beirut. Diversity is
brother killing brother. Where diversity is shared -- where I
share with you my difference -- that can be valuable. But the
simple fact that we are unlike each other is a terrifying notion.
I have often found myself in foreign settings where I became suddenly
aware that I was not like the people around me. That, to me, is
not a pleasant discovery.
LONDON: You've said that it's tough in America to lead an intellectual
life outside the universities. Yet you made a very conscious decision
to leave academia.
RODRIGUEZ: My decision was sparked by affirmative action. There
was a point in my life when Affirmative action would have meant
something to me -- when my father was working-class, and we were
struggling. But very early in life I became part of the majority
culture and now don't think of myself as a minority. Yet the university
said I was one. Anybody who has met a real minority -- in the
economic sense, not the numerical sense -- would understand how
ridiculous it is to describe a young man who was already at the
university, already well into his studies in Italian and English
Renaissance literature, as a minority. Affirmative action ignores
society's real minorities - members of the disadvantaged classes,
no matter what their race. We have this ludicrous bureaucratic
sense that certain racial groups, regardless of class, are minorities.
So what happens is those "minorities" at the very top
of the ladder get chosen for everything.
LONDON: Is that what happened to you?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, when it came time for me to look for jobs, the
jobs came looking for me. I had teaching offers from the best
universities in the country. I was about to accept one from Yale
when the whole thing collapsed on me.
LONDON: What do you mean?
RODRIGUEZ: I had all this anxiety about what it meant to be a
minority. My professors -- the same men who taught me the intricacies
of language -- just shied away from the issue. They didn't want
to talk about it, other than to suggest I could be a "role
model" to other Hispanics -- when I went back to my barrio,
I suppose. I came from a white middle class neighborhood. Was
I expected to go back there and teach the woman next door about
Renaissance sonnets? The embarrassing truth of the matter was
that I was being chosen because Yale University had some peculiar
idea about my skin color or ethnicity signified. Who knows what
Yale thought it was getting when it hired Richard Rodriguez?
people who offered me the job thought there was nothing wrong
with that. I thought there was something very wrong with that.
I still do. I think race-based affirmative action is crude and
LONDON: I noticed that some university students had put up a poster
outside the lecture hall where you spoke the other night. It said
"Richard Rodriguez is a disgrace to the Chicano community."
RODRIGUEZ: I sort of like that. I don't think writers should be
convenient examples. I don't think we should make people feel
settled. I don't try to be a gadfly, but I do think that real
ideas are troublesome. There should be something about my work
that leaves the reader unsettled. I intend that. The notion of
the writer as a kind of sociological sample of a community is
ludicrous. Even worse is the notion that writers should provide
an example of how to live. Virginia Woolf ended her life by putting
a rock in her sweater one day and walking into a lake. She is
not a model of how I want to live my life. On the other hand,
the bravery of her syntax, of her sentences, written during her
deepest depression, is a kind of example for me. But I do not
want to become Virginia Woolf. That is not why I read her.
LONDON: What's wrong with being a role model?
RODRIGUEZ: The popular idea of a role model implies that an adult's
influence on a child is primarily occupational, and that all a
black child needs is to see a black doctor, and then this child
will think, "Oh, I can become a doctor too." I have
a good black friend who is a doctor, but he didn't become a doctor
because he saw other black men who were doctors. He became a doctor
because his mother cleaned office buildings at night, and because
she loved her children. She grew bowlegged from cleaning office
buildings at night, and in the process she taught him something
about courage and bravery and dedication to others. I became a
writer not because my father was one - my father made false teeth
for a living. I became a writer because the Irish nuns who educated
me taught me something about bravery with their willingness to
give so much to me.
LONDON: Why do we always talk about race in this country strictly
in terms of black and white?
RODRIGUEZ: America has never had a very wide vocabulary for miscegenation.
We say we like diversity, but we don't like the idea that our
Hispanic neighbor is going to marry our daughter. America has
nothing like the Spanish vocabulary for miscegenation. Mulatto,
mestizo, Creole - these Spanish and French terms suggest,
by their use, that miscegenation is a fact of life. America has
only black and white. In eighteenth-century America, if you had
any drop of African blood in you, you were black.
the O.J. Simpson trial there was talk about how the country was
splitting in two - one part black, one part white. It was ludicrous:
typical gringo arrogance. It's as though whites and blacks can
imagine America only in terms of each other. It's mostly white
arrogance, in that it places whites always at the center of the
racial equation. But lots of emerging racial tensions in California
have nothing to do with whites: Filipinos and Samoans are fighting
it out in San Francisco high schools. Merced is becoming majority
Mexican and Cambodian. They may be fighting in gangs right now,
but I bet they are also learning each other's language. Cultures,
when they meet, influence one another, whether people like it
or not. But Americans don't have any way of describing this secret
that has been going on for over two hundred years. The intermarriage
of the Indian and the African in America, for example, has been
constant and thorough. Colin Powell tells us in his autobiography
that he is Scotch, Irish, African, Indian, and British, but all
we hear is that he is African.
LONDON: The latest census figures show that two-thirds of children
who are the products of a union between a black and a white call
RODRIGUEZ: The census bureau is thinking about creating a new
category because so many kids don't know how to describe themselves
using the existing categories. I call these kids the "Keanu
Reeves Generation," after the actor who has a Hawaiian father
and a Welsh mother. Most American Hispanics don't belong to one
race, either. I keep telling kids that, when filling out forms,
they should put "yes" to everything -- yes, I am Chinese;
yes, I am African; yes, I am white; yes, I am a Pacific Islander;
yes, yes, yes -- just to befuddle the bureaucrats who think we
live separately from one another.
LONDON: There is a lot of talk today about the "hyphenating"
of America. We no longer speak of ourselves as just Americans
- now we're Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans,
RODRIGUEZ: The fact that we're all hyphenating our names suggests
that we are afraid of being assimilated. I was talking on the
BBC recently, and this woman introduced me as being "in favor
of assimilation." I said, "I'm not in favor of assimilation."
I am no more in favor of assimilation than I am in favor of the
Pacific Ocean. Assimilation is not something to oppose or favor
-- it just happens.
LONDON: Time magazine did a special issue on the global
village a couple of years ago. The cover photo was a computer
composite of different faces from around the world. It was a stunning
picture -- neither man nor woman, black nor white. This is the
kind of assimilation that many worry about -- the loss of things
that make us separate and unique.
RODRIGUEZ: Jose Vasconcelos, Mexico's great federalist and apologist,
has coined a wonderful term, la raza cosmica, "the
cosmic race," a new people having not one race but many in
who come to America today end up opposing assimilation. They say
they are "holding on to their culture." To them, I say,
"If you really wanted to hold on to your culture, you would
be in favor of assimilation. You would be fearless about swallowing
English and about becoming Americanized. You would be much more
positive about the future, and much less afraid. That's what it
means to be Mexican.
depressed by the Mexican gang members I meet in East LA who essentially
live their lives inside five or six blocks. They are caught in
some tiny ghetto of the mind that limits them to these five blocks
because, they say, "I'm Mexican. I live here." And I
say, "What do you mean you live here - five blocks? Your
granny, your abualita, walked two thousand miles to get
here. She violated borders, moved from one language to another,
moved from a sixteenth-century village to a twenty-first-century
city, and you live within five blocks? You don't know Mexico,
man. You have trivialized Mexico. You are a fool about Mexico
if you think that Mexico is five blocks. That is not Mexico; that
is some crude Americanism you have absorbed."
LONDON: You have described Los Angeles as the symbolic capital
of the United States.
RODRIGUEZ: I find LA very interesting, partly because I think
something new is forming there, but not in a moment of good fellowship
as you might think from all this "diversity" claptrap.
It's not as if we'll all go down to the Civic Center in our ethnic
costumes and dance around.
the LA riots in 1992, my sense was not that the city was dying,
as the expert opinion had it, but that the city was being formed.
What was dying was the idea that LA was a city of separate suburbs
and freeway exits. What burned in that riot was the idea that
the east side was far away from the west side. People went to
bed that first night watching television, watching neighborhoods
they had never seen before, streets they had never been on, and
they were chagrined and horrified by what they saw. Sometime in
the middle of the night they could hear the sirens and smell the
smoke, and realized that the fire was coming toward them -- that
the street they lived on, the boulevard they used everyday, was
in fact connected to a part of town where they had never been
before, and that part of town was now a part of their lives.
moment of fear, of terror, of sleeplessness, was not a death,
but the birth of the idea that LA is a single city, a single metropolitan
we have seen in the last three or four years is, if not optimistic,
at least something very young and full of Possibility. Women have
been telling men forever that childbirth is painful, that life
begins with a scream, not with little butterflies and little tweeting
birds; life begins with a scream. In 1992, LA came to life with
LONDON: If LA represents the future, does that mean we're looking
at more riots?
RODRIGUEZ: We're looking at complexity. We're looking at blond
kids in Beverley Hills who can speak Spanish because they have
been raised by Guatemalan nannies. We're looking at Evangelicals
coming up from Latin America to convert the U.S. at the same time
that LA movie stars are taking up Indian pantheism. We're looking
at such enormous complexity and variety that it makes a mockery
of "celebrating diversity." In the LA of the future,
no one will need to say, "Let's celebrate diversity."
Diversity is going to be a fundamental part of our lives.
want to live in Tennessee, God bless you, I wish for you a long
life and starry evenings. But that is not where I want to live
my life. I want to live my life in Carthage, in Athens. I want
to live my life in Rome. I want to live my life in the center
of the world. I want to live my life in Los Angeles.
by Scott London. All rights reserved.