Violating the Boundaries: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

By Sedore, Timothy S. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Violating the Boundaries: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez


Sedore, Timothy S., Michigan Quarterly Review


VIOLATING THE BOUNDARIES: AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Richard Rodriguez was born in Sacramento, California, in 1944-at "the destination," as he sardonically calls it in his collection of essays, Days of Obligation-An Argument with My Mexican Father 1992. The destination, the California landscape, is constantly invoked as a theme in this collection and in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, 1983, the autobiography that made his name as an essayist, journalist, commentator, and maker of documentaries.

In Rodriguez's work, there is constant calibration of the distance between landscape and American dream, reality and myth, history and pseudo-history, idealism and disillusion. The firstgeneration descendant of immigrants from Mexico, Rodriguez has long promulgated the conviction that he was virtually re-created by his American education. He has become as American as Fitzgerald's Gatsby, springing "from his Platonic conception of himself," and repudiating his former self. America, to Rodriguez, is about second chances, about re-creating oneself

To many Chicano critics Rodriguez does not fit; he is an outsider. Rodriguez claims no place within Chicano literature. He is the Martin Luther of Chicanismo. So full of iconoclastic conviction is he that he must disagree with their point of view; he can do no other. He will not accept the idea of Chicanos standing between two cultures.

In person, Richard Rodriguez strikes rather a contrast to the sometimes solemn tone of his essays. He is personable, engaging, and quick-witted, outspoken yet cordial. But Rodriguez offers an eloquent voice from a post-Causa generation of Mexican Americans that has had to come to terms with what he finds to be an inevitable assimilation/alienation. "As much as the country is joined in a common culture," he writes, "Americans are reluctant to celebrate the process of assimilation. We stand together, alone."

RODRIGUEZ: I must tell you that I am not sure that I would like Richard Rodriguez were I not he. At some very simple level I can tell you that I don't like the voice. I don't even like the tenderness of Hunger of Memory; frankly, it's too soft for men. It's not Latino enough, it's a little too feminine, a little too American. He looks like Bambi on the cover. I'm not sure I like this guy. He whimpers too much. He's too soft. He's not what I want.

As a young Mexican American male in the city, I would want something tougher: I would want something more robust. When I think of the Chicano movement in its most wonderful forms I think of my friend Tony who died a few weeks ago. Tony was an artist, and he was a writer. He wasn't a great writer, but he was Chicano in the sense that he was a rebel. He tried to undo society in a wonderfully comic way. He belonged to a group called Culture Clash, and they began a movement about twenty years ago. Tony ultimately became a muralist instead of a performer, but he was always into adolescent forms of rebellion against the gringo society. He was like, "I'm doing the emblems, I'm doing the iconography." He mocked the culture by parodying it. He was constantly playing at the edges of the American culture.

Maybe that's what I would have wanted. I wanted a Rich Rodriguez with more guts, someone who was tougher. I think to myself, if I'm a Chicano and all of my life I've been stuck with losers, then I want somebody who's tough. I want somebody who represents us as a contender. Richard Rodriguez grew up in a little, close, white neighborhood with the Anglos. He's not what I would have in mind as a Chicano. He doesn't have the spirit.

TSS: Who is your audience then?

RODRIGUEZ: The majority of the letters I get from high school readers are from Chinese girls. I was asked once if I thought of myself as an American or Hispanic. And I said that I think of myself as neither; I think of myself as Chinese because I live in a Chinese neighborhood. …

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