Author Savors the Melting Pot as Perfect Broth
Caldwell, Christopher, Insight on the News
Summary: Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez has mulled his ethnic background and concluded that the mixture of cultures is greater than its parts. The author's support for assimilation has led him to oppose both bilingual education and affirmative action.
In 1925 Mexican poet and educator Jose Vasconcelos wrote a meditation on race and migration in which he speculated that the great achievement of the New World would be uniting peoples into a universal race. La Raza Cosmica, as he called the idea and book, would be unique for its tolerance and achievements.
It was an astonishing leap of faith, coming in a century notable for both government-sponsored racial terror and special pleading on behalf of aggrieved and not-so-aggrieved racial minorities. Mexicans proud of their own mixed heritage point to the universalism of Vasconcelos's work as being, ironically, quintessentially Mexican, the perfect document of the nation's tolerance.
Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American writer from Sacramento, is an intellectual and spiritual heir of Vasconcelos's, which explains his criticism of racially based policies such as affirmative action and bilingual education as being inimical to the vision of a universal race. "One has to be clear," he says, "that the Mexican-American objection to assimilation is ironic," given that Mexico itself is "a melting pot culture." His 1982 memoir, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, used vignettes from his Mexican-American childhood to make what many conservatives consider what many conservatives consider the most damning case ever against bilingual education programs and affirmative action.
The essays in Rodriguez's second book, the recently published Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, are wider-ranging and less personal, dealing with such themes as the Columbian discovery, the evangelization of Latin America, the mythic elements of Mexican history, Asian immigration and homosexuality in San Francisco.
"Richard is very impressed by the complexities of life," says Joseph Epstein, editor of the American Scholar. "What I saw about him early on was an unwillingness to take the easy road, either professionally or intellectually. It took a lot of courage not to be made a dupe of affirmative action, for one thing. As a Mexican-American literary scholar, Richard had all roads open to him."
Rodriguez, trained as a Milton scholar in California and England, found there was a price to be paid for not accepting the blandishments of tenure at a major university; a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, he now has to rely on journalism to survive. (He is now at work on an article Giorgio Armani.)
Epstein, who published some of the early essays reprinted in Hunger of Memory and is credited by many with having discovered Rodriguez, thinks his importance as a chronicler of American life will continue to grow. "Every writer who's lucky finds his form," says Epstein. "And Richard, good as he is, is still struggling to do that in many ways. Temperamentally, Richard is more an artist than anything. His next stage will be getting out of journalism."
While Epstein looks forward to a Rodriguez novel, Rodriguez himself claims to be heading in the direction of literary criticism. "If I had a moment to write a piece that would never sell," he says, "it would be about literary bilingualism. I want to write about D. H Lawrence very much, and about Lady Chatterley's Lover as the great bilingual novel of the century.
"The haunted factor of Lawrence's life was that coal miner for a father. He ends up unable to speak with his father's broad Derbyshire accent; he won't let himself use it. It can't come out, and I understand that. He writes this novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which Mellors, the gamekeeper, is able to be bilingual in all the ways in which that is important. At various times, when he wants to separate himself from Chatterley, he will revert to this broad Derbyshire accent. …