"I Was Never at War with My Tongue": The Third Language and the Performance of Bilingualism in Richard Rodriguez

By Lim, Jeehyun | Biography, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

"I Was Never at War with My Tongue": The Third Language and the Performance of Bilingualism in Richard Rodriguez


Lim, Jeehyun, Biography


The Chicano writer Richard Rodriguez is perhaps better known for his opposition to bilingual education and his support for a monolingual public sphere than for his essays and journalism. His unrelenting dismissal of bilingual education as "attempts to make the language of the alien public language" (Hunger of Memory 34), combined with his writing skills and his adoption by conservative organizations as spokesperson for the Hispanic community, made him an easy target for scholars and activists in ethnic studies. (1) More than two decades after the publication of his controversial memoir Hunger of Memory in 1982, and after two essay collections that show a more nuanced and multivoiced Rodriguez, and further scholarship on the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, "neoconservative" seems to be the word most often used to describe Rodriguez today (Camacho 197, Parikh 64--95). What explanatory value this word has for interpreting Rodriguez's writing, however, is open to question. (2) His essay trilogy--Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, followed by Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992), and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002)--illustrates a deeply engaged struggle to understand and express his position as a writer within the cultural and political climate of the turn of the twenty-first century. One could say that the trilogy shows the evolution of a writer from someone painfully unwilling to admit his race--or sexuality, as many critics engaged in queer readings of Rodriguez have pointed out (3)--to someone who openly embraces and discusses his brownness. Viewed as a minority neoconservative, Rodriguez, and his essays, thus shed light on the internal tensions of multiculturalism.

Conflicting and contending views on multiculturalism characterize the post-civil-rights era's political and cultural climate. (4) On the one hand, there are "triumphalist narratives" that view multiculturalism as effective and functional in promoting racial equality and establishing a color-blind society (Kim, "Imagining" 989). Such narratives affirm and celebrate differences, but only in so far as differences are fundamentally depoliticized. In these narratives, differences play no role in the structural operation of the body politic--in, for example, the distribution of resources or the protection of citizens' rights. (5) On the other hand, critics view official multiculturalism as falling short of the ideals of the civil rights movement, and instead creating an illusion of having arrived at a color-blind society when, in fact, racial inequalities still abound. (6) Reading Richard Rodriguez offers a crucial insight into the perplexing nature of racial and cultural politics in the post-civil-rights era, when culture has become the most significant organizing rubric of difference. (7) His view on bilingualism is particularly important for it shows what happens when race is forcibly evacuated from cultural politics. In this essay, I trace Rodriguez's cultural politics as it emerges in his binary view of the public and the private. Rather than rehash the problem of the binary--a popular topic in Rodriguez criticism--I approach his separation of the public and the private through what seemingly exceeds that binary: his idea of the third language. I show how Rodriguez's third language harbors his desire to escape the public/private split, but how, as a de-racialized concept, it falls short as a critique of the binary. By reading his notion of "brown" as the unspoken racial undertone of the third language, I suggest that a performance of bilingualism ultimately characterizes Rodriguez's cultural politics.

Rodriguez's bilingualism may sound counterintuitive to those familiar with his poignantly delivered narrative of linguistic assimilation in Hunger of Memory, which shows a predominantly Spanish-speaking boy becoming an English-speaking citizen. In fact, Rodriguez is not bilingual--understood as having equal fluency in two languages. …

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