Why the writer Richard Rodriguez refuses to be put into a box

The city of San Francisco sits atop the steep hills of northern California. Founded by Spanish colonizers in 1776 and named after St. Francis of Assisi, it is home to over 800,000 people. In August, the weather in the city famously changes from one moment to the next—chilly to warm, sunny to cloudy and back again. Throughout the city’s streets, more surprising than the climate is the number of men and women experiencing homelessness. I was shocked by how many people were gathered in groups of 10 or more, block after block, something I had never encountered before. As I drive through these streets, I see cars with windows left open or signs that read “no valuables here”; I later learn that many of the individuals experiencing homelessness survive by breaking into cars to rummage for items to sell for food.

This reality of deep poverty seems especially jarring against the backdrop of the city’s architecture, a fascinating mix of modern and Victorian buildings. All along San Francisco’s hills are beautiful and pristine homes, towering Queen Anne houses with large bay windows and exuberant colors.

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In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez outlines his opposition to affirmative action and bilingual education.

It is in one of these homes that I first meet the Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez. He lives in a stunning three-level gray-and-white apartment building in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of the city. He welcomes me into his home and gives me a tour of each apartment in the building, all of which are unlocked and empty except for the one he shares with his partner, Jim, on the second floor. “I have lived in this lovely Victorian house since 1982—just shy of 40 years,” he says. “Lots of lovely ghosts here since my beloved landlord and several other tenants died here over the years. The house doesn’t seem empty to me—or cold.”

It is in this home that Rodriguez wrote his autobiography, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, published in 1982. It was his first book and tells the story of his journey from the first grade at Sacred Heart School in Sacramento to becoming one of the most recognizable Catholic Latino writers in the United States. Upon its publication, the book was extremely well received by critics and, in 1983, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.

Rodriguez has also found critical acclaim with Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. His essays have also been published in First Things, The New York Times, Mother Jones and Time magazine.

In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez outlines his opposition to affirmative action and bilingual education on the grounds that it prevents assimilation. “Bilingualists simplistically scorn the value of assimilation,” he writes. Assimilation, he insists, allowed him to “be able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society,” one who had “the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality.” This is a position readers have criticized; many have accused the author of betraying his own culture.

For me, as a Latina, Rodriguez felt like a contradiction in terms.

I read Hunger before meeting the author. For me, as a Latina, Rodriguez felt like a contradiction in terms. Despite being a brown, Catholic, gay man, who spoke only Spanish for the first six years of his life, he has spent much of his career arguing against programs created to help communities like ours. I wanted to put him into a box, but upon meeting him I quickly realized that part of his charm is his refusal to play to people’s expectations of who he should be.

***

Richard Rodriguez was born in San Francisco on July 31, 1944, to Victoria and Carlos Leopoldo Rodriguez, Mexican immigrants. They arrived in the United States from western Mexico in the 1930s; his mother from Jalisco, his father from Colima. His parents had very different relationships with Mexico, he tells me. “My mother loved everything about Mexico—the landscape of Jalisco, the family cow, the taste of Mexican ice cream, the sound of Mexican music, men singing,” he says.

His father, on the other hand, is what he describes as an “anti-Mexico Mexican.” Carlos Leopoldo was an orphan, raised by his uncle during the decades of anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico. In the late 19th century, President Benito Juarez passed legislation that repressed the Catholic Church in Mexico. In 1917, the government revised its constitution: The Catholic Church was banned from primary education, monastic orders were outlawed and clergy members were denied basic rights.

In 1926, President Plutarco Elías Calles enforced the “Calles Law,” which placed further restrictions on the Catholic Church and religious orders. During Calles’s presidency, from 1926 to 1929, there was the Cristero Rebellion. Over 40 priests were killed in Mexico between 1926 and 1934, including Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J.

He would not define his adolescence as a gay one but a Catholic one.

Rodriguez tells me that his father and uncle hid priests in family closets during this time. “One day, [my father] came upon a young priest he knew hanging from a noose, from a tree in the garden,” he tells me, adding, “My father decided that day to leave Mexico. He was nearly 20 when he boarded a ship and ended up in San Francisco.”

His family left San Francisco when he was 6. They moved to Sacramento, almost two hours north of San Francisco, after doctors suggested the warm and dry climate would help alleviate the symptoms of his brother’s asthma. Sacramento, he says, is the city that he truly considers home. Growing up there, he was an altar server and loved attending Mass. “I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful my life was and how mysterious it was,” he says. “I would be called out of class to go to a funeral in the middle of the morning.” During one such service, he had to help carry the casket because there was no one present. “It was the first time I’d carried death and I didn’t know how heavy death would be.”

He tells me that despite knowing he was gay at a very young age, he would not define his adolescence as a gay one but a Catholic one.

Catholicism has played a significant role in Rodriguez’s life and work. In Hunger, he dedicates a chapter, “Credo,” to his family’s faith, where he describes the way his parents’ faith shifted when they left behind their Mexican church for an Irish-American one in the United States. “I cannot overstate the influence of the Irish on my life and the lives of my family,” he tells me. “All the nuns who taught me English and then introduced me to the idea that I was an American, albeit a Catholic, were Irish—and the priests, too. Ireland played a very large part in my Americanization and my Catholic formation.”

"One must join the company of generations of tongues in order to voice oneself apart, in whatever tongue."

Along with the influence of the church during his adolescence, he describes himself as a young boy who explored the world around him alone. He would go to boxing matches and lectures, including one where he heard Malcolm X speak. It was during these moments, Rodriguez tells me, that he began to form his voice as a writer. “That’s how I came to be, the loneliness, the embarrassment of being an immigrant child, the intensity of it,” he says.

Rodriguez began writing for his high school newspaper. He later attended Stanford University, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. On the first of our two afternoons together, he tells me that he has navigated two identities, two Richards: the Richard at home who spoke only Spanish, and the Richard in the public world, the one encouraged by nuns to speak only English to better his education.

This dual reality he grew up with, different languages for different contexts, informs many of his positions, including his thoughts on bilingual teaching in the American education system. “I don’t think American education has taken seriously how difficult it is for working-class kids to achieve a public voice,” he says. “Teachers don’t do a good enough job impressing on students that their job as students is not to express themselves—their job is to make themselves understood by strangers.”

Why can’t language do both? I ask. Why can’t language allow us to learn how to express our thoughts and feelings while also preparing us to talk to others who are not like us? Rodriguez tells me, “This desire you express for students, particularly students of color, to express themselves as strangers, because that is how they are seen, is a great, and I mean that word exactly, romantic dream.

Hunger was rejected eight times before it was published by Bantam Books.

“The problem is that the language—any language the young would use—already was crafted by centuries before them, by the dead of their own race or nation, villains and saints both. One must join the company of generations of tongues in order to voice oneself apart, in whatever tongue. Speaking thus becomes an act of socialization, even if it is the declaration of separation.”

***

Hunger was rejected eight times before it was published by Bantam Books. Upon its publication, it was hailed as a success by critics. But for his family it was a source of humiliation.

Rodriguez admits that when the book was first published, he never thought his family would read it. The family’s humiliation was two-fold. “One, that I presented it at all, that I was talking about my relationship with my parents in public,” he says. “Two it was the boy, the immigrant, working-class boy talking about his embarrassment at their foreignness.”

His family hated the book, Rodriguez says, because it presented their lives for all the world to see—especially the white world. In “Mr. Secrets,” the book’s last chapter, Rodriguez recalls a letter his mother wrote to him prior to Hunger’s release: “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private,” she said. “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how divided you feel from the family?”

For most of Rodriguez’s career he has challenged the ways in which communities of color use language in America.

He had to tell Hunger, he says, because he was finishing a story. “What I realized in grammar school was that I was becoming a public person. I was getting a public voice, a voice that my father didn’t have. I was getting the voice of Richard Rodriguez.Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Rodriguez.

“I was getting that voice,” he goes on, “and everything that I did in school with writing and reading was giving me this voice. It was becoming an American voice, all these books that I was reading, from Faulkner to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Joan Didion. They were teaching me how an American sounds and what an American says—the impersonations that we have with our voice.”

Last year, Rodriguez spoke to students at Duke University about the various ways Latinos identify themselves. While he spoke, he refused to use just one term to describe the Latino community, choosing instead to use several like Latina, Hispanic, Latinx. For most of Rodriguez’s career—and his life—since Hunger, he has been dedicated to challenging the ways in which communities of color use language in America. These challenges often fall squarely into what is sometimes called respectability politics. (“Respectability politics” refers to the expectations of members of marginalized communities that their fellow community members conform to mainstream societal norms.)

 

No easy answers to these questions of language and identity arose during our time together, yet the more we spoke, the more I realized how pivotal Rodriguez’s voice is for Latino readers attempting to understand our role as American citizens in the 21st century. His next projects include an essay about the relationship Americans have to monuments like tombstones and civil war statues. Later this year, he will give a speech on Catholicism in Chicago.

Richard Rodriguez cannot be placed into a box, as hard as readers, including myself, may try.

“My admiration for African-Americans is that they found their voice in mimicking the slave owner’s voice,” he says during our last conversation, referring to African-American Vernacular English. According to Rodriguez, it is by embracing linguistic assimilation, by accepting English as the dominant language in America, that Latinos can truly achieve any kind of radical change. “Real revolution in language is taking the stranger’s tongue and using it better than he.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Todd Witherell
7 months ago

A wonderful appreciation. Mr. Rodriguez is a profoundly gifted writer. I have never read another writer who does what he does with italics. Beautiful, even mysterious.

Vincent Gaglione
7 months ago

My favorite piece by Richard Rodriguez is “Oh, Ireland”. It is a paean to the “Irish” nuns and priests who guided and influenced him through childhood. I have always loved it because it reminds me of my own childhood in West Harlem in a diverse community that started proportionally, though not predominantly, Irish. The parish church, its nuns, and priests, were Irish by all standards, with an Argentine Jesuit thrown in to serve the Puerto Rican and Cuban families. I see so many parallels to myself in what Rodriguez describes in that short piece, even if I also had a born-in-Ireland grandmother living with us in that tenement apartment. I re-read it often with great nostalgia and fond memories and I thank him for it.

I hear and understand his opinions and argument but, as a teacher, I also know how many students with a different mother tongue were forsaken when they could not acquire English as fast as Rodriguez did. At the least I want every child educated, even if first in the mother tongue. I would prefer literacy in some language to illiteracy in all.

Tatiana Durbak
7 months ago

And I have a ery different perspective. I am a Ukrainian Catholic, and I have taught my children and am now teaching my grandchildren Ukrainian. I believe that multilingualism is an asset, not something to hide, nor a burden,
Also, I am not fond at all of all of the Irish Catholic nuns and priests who let me know quite openly that they fervently believed that their Catholicism was (and some apparently believe that it continues to be) better than my own.
Assimilation is OK if it permits one to retain one's uniqueness and to value, cherish, and continue the culture of one's origins and ancestors. Parts of each of our cultures mingle with others and make American culture that much richer.

rose-ellen caminer
6 months 4 weeks ago

I hear you Tatiana.
Though one of my fondest childhood memories is the love, comfort and peace and warmth of two Irish mothers[ the mothers of my friends ] I always felt being around them. These were women from right off the boat.[plane]One was married to a WASP ,the other to a Irish- american NYU professor. I liked him too; he was the greatest story teller ever.Sometimes when we would see him coming home from work, we wold run to him and beg him to tell us a story.He told the greatest vampire and occasionally Ghost stories I ever.Once I was invited to dinner at his home, and afterwards he read us a long poem.it was about the horrors of war[ I wonder what the poem was,now], I did feel resentful about what he was reading;I did not want to hear such horrors, I started giggling like a silly girl , out of what was really a protest; why are you telling us about such horrors ,was my thinking ,at the time. He did not appreciate my uncouth ,unsophisticated , insensitive response.His off the boat Irish wife I knew understood],She was the only person I would run up to and kiss if I saw her ; it was not done then as it is now with kids].

My experience of the Irish nuns was like yours. They made everyone feel like; as the saying went; there are 2 kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were Irish. This was not taken as a joke by young children.The only other people they professed any liking for was my people; the French, who the Irish nuns often mentioned in a positive light.I even recall an Irish nun telling the class that in heaven the language spoken is most likely french. Really, she said that. No Irish nun or any nun today would even think such a thing. Any french influence on Catholicism, or on US history has been erased, revised ,supplanted with Spanish influences; "the first Catholic martyrs were not French Jesuits but Spanish" ones , I just learned.Our Lady of Guadalupe has supplanted our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for the US.I saw some tv,program where a new England priest was admonishing himself and the Catholic church in the US, for not having recognized our Lady of Guadalupe all these hundreds of years, as the natural patron saint of the US.The Irish nuns made non Irish kids feel inferior.I recall one such nun going on a long rant about how we should not be superstitous; a lot of the Italian -American kids had superstious parents, my Syrian Catholic father was too.; about the evil eye and the number 13. When we pressed him on it, he never would clarify but he said it only applied to people who believed in the "superstious" My french mother certainly was not a bit superstious;and she said that she thought all religions were a form of brainwashing, but that she believed in God, And in spite of saying that, she did love going to the mass in a small Polish church where a very old priest presided; She said ,she liked it there because the priest never talked about money, he only talked about God. Once in the big parochial school church mass my mother attended she yelled out at the priest during his preaching to us to give the church more money; why does not this money ever go to the poor , she yelled? I was mortified.My father supported the Church and told her the church does a lot for the poor! They had such disagreements all their lives.Though she was thrilled with Vatican 2 and complimented all the nuns when they came in wearing secular clothes. I vaguely recall she threw some sort of party for them.The only religious objects in our home was a crucifix in the kitchen , and a small oval framed picture of Jesus, on my father's dresser, [ a picture of Jesus I've never seen anywhere else]and over my parents bed hung a print of a famous Flemish painting of "Jesus being taken down from the cross". I remember when my parents bought it; they were fawning over the depiction of the women around the cross. Once my Irish- American friend took us up to her grandmothers house i believe it was, and i said could i look at pictures/She thought I meant her family photographs, but i wanted to look at all her holy pictures. My Italian -American friends had their home filled with religious iconography and I just loved being there and looking at all the pictures and statutes. That is how I wanted my home to be when I grew up.I resented my mother for not having our home. filled with such devotional displays.For my birthday all I wanted was a statue of Mary, When my Italian American baby sitter got me me one as a present I was thrilled. My mother thought I was nuts!

Any way; the Irish American nun admonishing the class about how wrong it was to be superstious, after ranting on about it, ended her rant by smirking and saying, get this;that when it comes to the Irish, because it it is SO much part of them, I think God will make an exception and forgive THEM! I could not believe my ears.And neither no doubt could all the other non Irish kids who heard her say this! Maybe that's why one of my favorite nuns,[besides the very old Italian nun who was always gentle and kind , who said giving homework to kids on weekends and over the holidays was bad for the kids and not fair to the parents, who showed us we did not have to be so driven[maybe also because I was her darling, she said I was a saint I better be and you all too[lol]! She never talked ethnicity and made us all feel equally loved. Like God was there,] was the other nun I was fond of who had us all breathing a sigh of relief, when, though she was light skinned like the Irish [ and don't kid yourselves, immigrants and their children can't tell a WASP from an Irish person.It is a false paradigm this narrative that once the Irish were not considered white. It is absurd. There exists "white privilege,"[racism] which is a power dynamic that impacts non whites; Black and Asian, but historically regarding all other immigrants,including what today we call "Brown" people, the privileged status was accorded to those labeled a "real American".Being a "real american" was the privilege.White privilege [racism] was in contrast to Blacks and Asians. and Natives[tribes]. Blacks of course WERE "real Americans", so were Natives, and Mexicans, but for both the Wasps and the immigrants only the WASPS, the founders of the nation state with its colonies and central government, had that privileged status. .And in THAT paradigm [Real Americans]Irish did not have that status.Neither did any one else. But Irish spoke English, looked like WASPS to other immigrants and had English names[ or what was English sounding to other immigrants].So in spite of the bigotry they experienced too, they could and did feel superior to the other non English speaking, non English named immigrants in their midst. And it showed. In their attitudes towards other group] told us that she was not Irish, she was Norwegian!Whew!

The greatest contribution so far of Latinos in the US, has been I think, to change US attitudes around language and the meaning of "under many one". I understand how MR. Rodriquez,and other Mexican Americans or any non English speaking immigrants or children of immigrants of his generation and before, would appose bi lingual education;and fret about the need to assimilate into the dominant Anglo culture.The Anglos [ and that includes Irish for they speak English] made non English speakers feel inferior for not having ditched their language. [My French mother would not buy into such a mindset. My Syrian [Catholic] father who loved the US for its innovation, creativity ,literature, movies, music ,Dorothy Day who he knew and her group who he was affiliated, did once say to my mother circa the 1980's;Americans are snobs.My mother replied, they used to be , but they've changed.] and so the Mexican Americans had it ingrained as had all non English speakers that ;this is America we speak English here. But the waves of immigrants from the seventies on, from the rest of Latin America, have rejected this imperative. They feel no inferiority about speaking Spanish,if anything they feel a superiority[lol] And thanks to their large numbers, and their push back against the Anglo culture, they have prevailed. Now Anglos are learning Spanish,now Anglos will as a matter of course ,use proper Spanish pronunciations for Spanish names. Now Mexican Americans who have been in the US for centuries, are claiming ethnic pride, [whereas they once hid their taco lunches from the Anglo students,I read]. Though Chicano, and Puerto Rican pride got its impetus from the Black Power movement, first and foremost, not from South/Central American immigrants.Now Babel and Rosetta stone are companies, because thanks to the Latin immigrants diversity, real diversity that includes language diversity is valued .The table have been turned upside down on the English speaking culture. Now Latino culture is even on par[as American as , as good as] Anglo culture.The Irish american Beto has taken on a Spanish name; that gives him cache, status.The critique against him is that he WANTS to be more Mexican, then the Mexicans.The Anglo culture is bending over itself to validate all things Latino/Spanish.
What is apparent now is that we were, prior to influx of people from South /Central America ,only nominally about diversity;we were not multicultural;yes we were from all over, we could keep and share our ethnic foods; Americanized for the Anglo palate, and we could have ethnic parades to celebrate with harmless but outdated stereotypes ,ethnic groups could have their charities and social clubs and resorts, on the side . But you better assimilate; dress like us, talk like us and try to make yourself even look like us.The Chinese were the exceptions; as long as they were relegated to being our servant class they could keep their language, and were not pressured to assimilate. Now they are being discriminated against at Harvard..A facade of diversity is what we had.It gave us cover to say to the world and to congratulate ourselves that we,unlike every nation on earth, could not be nationalistic, for we were made up of immigrant groups.We were "diverse'".And so were only united by our ideals ,And since we could not be nationalistic, which was atavistic, we were more moral then everyone else. We were the standard of morality for the world. "American Exceptionalism"which is also "American privilege", vis a vis the rest of the world[[imo] and of which US black,whites, brown and native people partake of this privilege.[imo].The facade made us perhaps even more nationalistic then most nations on earth. Hence the freak out about Trump using that word; he broke a cherished narrative, the taboo of using that word to apply to US.
The reality is that speaking more then one language , enhances a person and a nation IF the dominant group says[allows ,perceives, values] it does.It is a negative if the dominant groups devalues it .And they did,when MR. Rodriquez was growing up.It was when the South American Spanish speakers over decades [starting in 70's?] came in large enough numbers AND because they willfully refused to give in to the dominant Anglo culture's demands they cease speaking their language [and because people can now easily travel back and forth, and communicate with the country origin] that the English speaking culture, realized that since they could not beat em,numbers wise and as in the past through soft coercion, they would love the new reality and join em! These immigrants from Latin America below Mexico are the ones who spearheaded and succeeded in making Multiculturalism a true US value.

Dan Acosta
7 months ago

Disappointing that the title of this interview, "Why the writer Richard Rodriguez refuses to be put into a box," is contradicted by Ms Segura's attempt to place Rodriguez in three boxes: "Despite being a brown, Catholic, gay man,..."

Donald Jones
6 months 2 weeks ago

Great article about Mr. Rodriguez. I really do love his writing. Kalamazoo Metal Roofing

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