At the end of Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez’s 1982 account of becoming an American, he tells how his mother came across one of his articles and was moved to write to him. Her letter begins tenderly, urging Rodriguez not to blame himself, as he appears to do, for giving up Mexican culture in order to ‘make it’. Then: ‘Writing is one thing, the family is another ... Especially I don’t want the gringos knowing about our private affairs ... Please give this some thought. Please write about something else in the future. Do me this favour.’
Her plea for privacy was not only ignored, then and later: it was published for all the gringos to read. Rodriguez’s emancipation, while not unlike any child’s thrashing out of the nest, uses cultural polarities to deepen the pastness of parents. Throughout the Fifties, starting with a new school name, Rich-heard, the founding word of a new, public language, he grew into citizenship by mutation and mutilation, dragged into a windy, see-through, Protestant world where self-acceptance became possible. The boy who once scraped at his skin with a razor to remove the brown – his Indian looks being a source of regret to the family – becomes a man jogging in the sun. But right from the start of the process, communication at home dissolved into ‘bewildering silence’.
Here is a classic assimilationist drama, one which today’s militant Chicano romanticism and Californian leaflets about the Mexican ‘mudslide’ have rendered as old-fashioned as the trials of Hoggart’s 1957 Scholarship Boy – with whom Rodriguez closely identified. By 1960, the times were already changing. Born, unlike his parents, ‘at the destination’, Rodriguez groomed himself for a disappearing society. The Melting Pot was being supplanted by the Mosaic.
From this predicament, in ways more concerned with identity than with politics, Rodriguez draws his present voice as an essayist and broadcaster in leading cultural forums, from Harper’s magazine to the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. But he is still best known as the Chicano who spoke out against bilingual education and affirmative action. His misgivings about the new forces of cultural self-consciousness came to a head over a decade ago, when he veered off a promising academic red carpet, frustrated at being the constant beneficiary of affirmative action. In Hunger of Memory, he mocks his early attempts to square conscience with a policy favouring middle-class American (albeit Mexican-, Asian- or female) as though his own advancement struck a blow for the wetback. ‘Smiling at my irony, I would say that I had been invited to join “minority leaders” on trips to distant Third World countries ... Some listeners smiled back, only to say: “I guess they need their minority.” The comment silenced me. It burned.’
But did Rodriguez succeed in becoming plain American, consigning his hyphen to oblivion? A phrase in Hunger of Memory hints otherwise. ‘It would require many more years of schooling ... moving away from a life of closeness and immediacy I remembered with my parents, growing older – before I turned unafraid to desire the past.’ The essays in Days of Obligation scrutinise that desire, resurrecting ghosts the previous book had seemed to lay, testing the construction of self: the American education in optimism and innocence, set against the tragic instinct bequeathed by ancestry.
Rodriguez’s dilemma appears in countless forms. Order, sterility, comedy, solitude, dissent, artifice, the future v. mess, ferment, tragedy, promiscuity, orthodoxy, nature, the past. He has an eye for the telling opposition without being in the least simplistic. There is something Lessing-like in the secession from past enthusiasms, but rarely has hard-won conservatism so persuasively balanced the rigorous and the ornate. Revisiting familiar binaries, he doesn’t so much deconstruct them as fold them into one another. It was Puritan fear of the crowd, for instance, that made America plural: ‘Lacking a communal sense, how could Americans resist the coming of strangers?’ Mexico has surreptitiously re-invaded the South-West that once was stolen from her, but this victory encloses a counter-conquest, bringing home American goods and phrases, dollars to be kept in airtight jars, ‘saturated with rumour’. ‘Thus have Mexicans from America undermined the tranquillity of Mexican villages they thought only to preserve.’
With sometimes brutal and always un-American lyricism, Rodriguez explores the neuroses of Mexico as the false mother who cares less for her emigrant children than for her pride, and who in her male, city aspect is ‘an archtransvestite, a tragic buffoon’. Maleness is American, so that even the Statue of Liberty is hardened into a ‘stony schoolmarm’, scolding Mexicans for their resistance to change. Though Rodriguez was educated by Irish nuns, an ideal cultural bridge, he is almost all for that levelling schoolmarm. Hence his disquiet at Huckleberry Finn, the emblem of native dialect and cheeky independence – until he could recognise it as a truly indigenous founding myth, one that gives the lie to ‘American family values’. Family values are the ancient yoke of Latins.
One archetypal chapter takes a wander through the 21 missions of California, on the pretext of the beatification of their 18th-century founder, Junipero Serra. Sitting in old restored churches, the troubled Catholic seeks a historical, poetical understanding of himself in this crux of the Spanish, the Indian and the modern American, only to reach another question: ‘Have I, like the California Indians, sought some refuge from a world that can no longer make much sense of me?’ The piece ends with Father Serra’s letter to his parents as he departed on a mission that would fail, swallowed up by America’s amnesiac reconstructions: ‘Goodbye, my dear father! farewell, dear mother of mine!’ The immigrant’s fate, to lose the past, was already written.
This belief is at the root of Rodriguez’s objections to bilingual education. His attacks on it lack the wider political scope of his quarrel with affirmative action, which, as he rightly says, is a poor substitute for overhauling innercity primary and secondary education. The issue of bilingualism, on the other hand, is reduced to the personal, to ‘somebody’s childhood memory’. It is his own memory of family fracture as he became Anglicised that makes him question the idea that one might have it both ways, entering the public world on an equal footing while flaunting one’s difference, clinging to otherness. Cultural origins become distorted by sentiment and imagination, and the word ‘Hispanic’ is a ‘bureaucratic integer’. His lucidity on this last point has drawn criticism from multiculturalists for playing into the hands of reaction. But since then we’ve seen the Republican takeover of Congress and the approval of Proposition 187 in California, denying services and education to illegal immigrants. Other states are raring to follow suit. It is doubtful that a discourse as subtle, as perpetually self-qualifying, as Rodriguez’s could be of much use to anyone at the cretinous level of populist politics in America today.
In fact, Rodriguez is as out of step with the pretentious campus poncho-wearers who have relearned bits of Spanish as he was with that older generation of Mexican-raised immigrants – the relatives who reproached him for discarding a tradition of separateness and, he suggests, victimisation. This writing exists in a disembodied place, acutely unable to echo its time or to forgive society’s comforting fibs, reluctantly suspended between memory and speculation. One thinks of Barthes, whose demythologising vocation and not quite total self-exposure were similar. Much as Rodriguez keeps telling us how he was the class wit who grew up to be the heart and soul of many a jolly gathering, the reader gets an overwhelming sense of an aloof man with not much respect for his fellows and few close relationships. He ripped the veil off his mother’s privacy, but keeps it hovering over his own.
‘Late Victorians’, the chapter on gayness and his home city of San Francisco, is as close as we get to the truths that Rodriguez is uncomfortable with, while illuminating the deep metaphysical concerns of the book. A chain of paradoxes expressed in architecture and life-style sets the scene: ‘The grammar of the gay city borrows metaphors from the 19th-century house. “Coming out of the closet” is predicated upon family laundry, dirty linen, skeletons ... Within those same Victorian houses, homosexuals were living rebellious lives to challenge the foundations of domesticity.’ But there is a link between the florid Victorian aesthetic and its usurpers: ‘Why have so many homosexuals retired into the small effect, the ineffectual career, the stereotype, the card shop, the florist? Be gentle with me? Or do homosexuals know things others do not?’
Heterosexuals begin to think so. ‘The gay couple became the paradigm for the selfish couple – all dressed up and everywhere to go. At the same time as suburban housewives were looking outside the home for fulfilment, gay men were re-introducing a new generation in the city – heterosexual men and women – to the complaisancies of the barren house.’ And the barren house of the body becomes an ‘architectural preoccupation of the upper middle class ... Bodybuilding is a parody of labour, a useless accumulation of the labourer’s bulk and strength,’ simultaneously parodying the product: ‘Bodies are “cut” or “pumped” or “buffed” as on an assembly line in Turin.’
Amid all this frilly artifice, Rodriguez played ‘the dinner-party sceptic, a firm believer in Original Sin and the limits of possibility. Which charmed them.’ But like some ghastly vindication, death blows in. Aids kills ‘not as in some Victorian novel, the curtains drawn, the pillows plumped, Try a little of this, my dear ... Those who gather around the young man’s bed do not see Chatterton. This doll is Death. I have seen people wipe its tears, wipe its ass ... Men who sought the aesthetic re-ordering of existence were recalled to nature.’
Recently I heard Rodriguez’s soft sad voice on the radio, talking about the death of youth throughout society. ‘We Americans used to be famous for ignoring death ... Now that the young are dying of guns, of Aids, of drugs, we cannot use the idea of youth to evade death.’ In ‘Late Victorians’ he writes: ‘I do not believe an old man’s pessimism is necessarily truer than a young man’s optimism simply because it comes after.’ He rephrases this, as a question, at the book’s end. It’s no longer clear whether the ‘old man’ is the father, or Rodriguez’s premonition of himself. Despite his own polemical case that the loss of the past is inevitable, his Mexican father seems to have the last word in this argument. A belated consolation for the mother, perhaps.