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Vol. 3, No. 6, 2004

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interviewed by



Richard RodriguezRichard 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.

SCOTT 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?

RICHARD 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.

Bilingual-education 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 are about.

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?

RICHARD 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.

I worry 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 sense homeless.

SCOTT LONDON: Many people feel that the call for diversity and multiculturalism is one reason the American educational system is collapsing.

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT LONDON: What do you mean by diversity?

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT 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.

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT LONDON: Is that what happened to you?

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT LONDON: What do you mean?

RICHARD 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?

The 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 absolutely mistaken.

SCOTT 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."

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT LONDON: What's wrong with being a role model?

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT LONDON: Why do we always talk about race in this country strictly in terms of black and white?

RICHARD 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.

After 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.

SCOTT 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 themselves black.

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT 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, even Anglo-Americans.

RICHARD 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.

SCOTT 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.

RICHARD 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 their blood.

But Mexicans 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.

I'm constantly 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."

SCOTT LONDON: You have described Los Angeles as the symbolic capital of the United States.

RICHARD 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.

After 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.

That 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 area.

What 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 a scream.

SCOTT LONDON: If LA represents the future, does that mean we're looking at more riots?

RICHARD 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.

If you 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.

Copyright by Scott London. All rights reserved.


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