I'm going to marry you
The subject of the U.S.-Mexico migration (the biggest in the world, one hears) is everywhere right now. But unfortunately, almost all one always hears is pessimism, fear, nationalism, and prejudice. Most people don’t realize there’s something new and wonderful emerging. It’s a shame one doesn’t hear more often from Richard Rodriguez, a profoundly polemical Mexican-American writer. In his books, his essays, and his interviews he reinvents the concept of being Mexican. He lies about it, of course (he is the first to acknowledge it), but his is a fiction that describes me, his is a fiction I want to believe in.
You’ll have to excuse me but I’ve never felt as a victim of the US, I am American! I’ve been devouring the US all my life! But then again, that’s just weird old me — always suffering from multiple-nationality-disorder, from dislocation (I’m of the web! How could it be otherwise? “My kingdom is not of this world”); perpetually naive, perpetually “falling in love with cultures not my own”, perpetually imbued with the “arrogance” that “the individual is in control of the culture.”
I’ve compiled here a long list of quotations from several of Rodriguez’s interviews and articles. I tried to stick with the topic of migration but I did a lousy job at that, this man is too interesting.
- From an interview to Mexico Business Magazine, November 1996
- From “A view from the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez”
- From “A view from the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez”
- From “Remarks of Richard Rodriguez”
- From “The New New World: Richard Rodriguez on culture and assimilation”
- From “La Plaza: Conversations with Ilan Stavans: Richard Rodríguez”
Somebody asked me whether I considered myself an Hispanic or an American and I said I was Chinese. The deepest respect I have for my Mexican heritage is its mestizaje [mixed race]: My father, who admires Franco, who’s very light-skinned, who has this complicated Catholicism, and my mother, who’s very indian looking, and has her Irish surname and green eyes. I see it in my own family. I love Mexico for that kind of complexity.
I love the fact that Mexico as early as the 18th century was already a mestizo society. That’s what I admire in Mexico. So when I come to the United States, that thing which is most Mexican in me is that thing which is unafraid to absorb the United states.
When I go to Mexico City I don’t see a lot of conquistadores. I see a lot of indians. I’m under the impression that the indians may have swallowed them. The startling idea keeps occurring to me that it’s possible that these indians are hungry for these other societies. I’m hungry. I want to learn Chinese. I’m going to Shanghai this year. That’s what’s Mexican in me. When I say I’m Chinese, I mean that my very Mexicanness has never allowed me to be afraid of borders.
If you were really Mexican, you’d say to the United States of America — it would terrify the United States — “I’m going to marry you. I’m going to marry your blond daughter. I’m going to move next door to you in Beverly Hills.”
I was down in Merced, California and, except for its old gringo population, the city is now dividing between Laotian and Mexican. That has never happened in the world before. The Laotian has never met the Mexican before in all of civilization. Now, they’re not only meeting each other, they’re going to the same school. They’re joining gangs and fighting each other, but they’re also falling in love. There are now children who are Mexican-Laotian, who look like no one in the world. I take that to be a great achievement of Mexico. Mexico should be proud that. I’m proud of it.
[From Scott London’s presentation of him:] Some Mexican Americans called him pocho — traitor — accusing him of betraying himself and his people. Others called him a “coconut” — brown on the outside, white on the inside. He calls himself “a comic victim of two cultures.”
My grandmother would always tell me that I was hers, that I was Mexican. That was her role. It was not my teacher’s role to tell me I was Mexican. It was my teacher’s role to tell me I was an American. The notion that you go to a public institution in order to learn private information about yourself is absurd. We used to understand that when students went to universities, they would become cosmopolitan. They were leaving their neighborhoods.
I think the universities have co-opted the intellectual, by and large. But there is an emerging intellectual set coming out of Washington think tanks now. There are people who are leaving the universities and working for the government or in think tanks, simply looking for freedom. The university has become so stultified since the sixties. There is so much you can’t do at the university. You can’t say this, you can’t do that, you can’t think this, and so forth. In many ways, I’m free to range as widely as I do intellectually precisely because I’m not at a university. The tiresome Chicanos would be after me all the time. You know: “We saw your piece yesterday, and we didn’t like what you said,” or, “You didn’t sound happy enough,” or, “You didn’t sound proud enough.”
I’ve recently gotten in trouble with certain gay activists because I’m not gay enough! I am a morose homosexual. I’m melancholy. Gay is the last adjective I would use to describe myself. The idea of being gay, like a little sparkler, never occurs to me. So if you ask me if I’m gay, I say no.
When you turn on Mexican television, it’s like watching Swedish TV: everyone is blond.
Tijuana was created by the lust of San Diego. Everything that was illegal in San Diego was permitted in Tijuana. When boxing was illegal in San Diego, there were boxing matches in Tijuana; when gambling was illegal, there was always Tijuana. Mexicans would say, “We’re not responsible for Tijuana; it’s the Americans who created it.” And there was some justification for that. But, in fact, the whore was a Mexican, the bartender a Mexican. Tijuana was this lovely meeting of Protestant hypocrisy with Catholic cynicism: the two cities went to bed and both denied it in the morning.
Those people who say that America is finite are some sense right. The environmental movement, for example, has a great wisdom to it: we need to protect, to preserve, to shelter as much as we need to develop. But I think this always has to be juxtaposed against the optimism of old, which is now represented in part by immigrants. I would like to see America achieve a kind of balance between optimism and tragedy, between possibility and skepticism.
The Census Bureau is thinking of creating a new category because so many kids don’t know how to describe themselves using the existing categories. I call these kids the “Keanu Reeves Generation,” after the actor who has a Hawaiian father and a Welsh mother. Most American Hispanics don’t belong to one race, either. I keep telling kids that, when filling out forms, they should put “yes” to everything — yes, I am Chinese; yes, I am African; yes, I am white; yes, I am a Pacific Islander; yes, yes, yes — just to befuddle the bureaucrats who think we live separately from one another.
But Mexicans who come to America today end up opposing assimilation. They say they are “holding on to their culture.” To them, I say, “If you really wanted to hold on to your culture, you would be in favor of assimilation. You would be fearless about swallowing English and about becoming Americanized. You would be much more positive about the future, and much less afraid. That’s what it means to be Mexican.”
What we have seen in the last three or four years is, if not optimistic, at least something very young and full of possibility. Women have been telling men forever that childbirth is painful, that life begins with a scream, not with little butterflies and little tweeting birds; life begins with a scream. In 1992, L.A. came to life with a scream.
If you want to live in Tennessee, God bless you, I wish for you a long life and starry evenings. But that is not where I want to live my life. I want to live my life in Carthage, in Athens. I want to live my life in Rome. I want to live my life in the center of the world. I want to live my life in Los Angeles.
A journalist once asked Chou En-lai, the Chinese premier under Mao Zedong, what he thought of the French Revolution. Chou En-lai gave a wonderful Chinese reply: “It’s too early to tell.”
There is no more telling question we Americans ask one another than “What do you do?” We do not ask about family or village or religion. We ask about work.
They talk incessantly about “culture” as though it were some little thing that can be preserved and kept in a box.
I am the son of a prophet. I am a fool. I am a victim of history. I am confused. I do not know whether I am coming or going. I speak bad Spanish. And yet I tell Latin America this: Because I grew up Hispanic in California, I know more Guatemalans than I would if I had grown up in Mexico, more Brazilians than if I lived in Peru. Because I live in California, it is routine for me to know Nicaraguans and Salvadorans and Cubans. As routine as knowing Chinese or Vietnamese.
My fellow Californians complain loudly about the uncouth southern invasion. I say this to California: Immigration is always illegal. It is a rude act, the leaving of home. Immigration begins as a violation of custom, a youthful act of defiance, an insult to the village. I know a man from El Salvador who has not spoken to his father since the day he left his father’s village. Immigrants horrify the grandmothers they leave behind.
Illegal immigrants trouble U.S. environmentalists and Mexican nationalists. Illegal immigrants must trouble anyone, on either side of the line, who imagines that the poor are under control.
But they have also been our civilization’s prophets. They, long before the rest of us, saw the hemisphere whole.
Now the Anglo-Saxon genius of the United States has always treasured the importance of the individual. As one who has benefited a great deal from that Anglo-Saxon inheritance, I would like to say that I am very grateful to the British for having given the New World that idea of the first person, singular pronoun — the “I.” I am. I feel. I think. I want. I know.
The thing we [Mexicans] shocked America with was the notion that, in fact, we were not pure. We have never been pure. Our genius is for contamination. We will contaminate you.
So I’d like to use the word Hispanic just because I’m not supposed to. My mother always says, “Behave yourself,” but I always liked the word I’m not supposed to use. I think as an Aztec I would have used the Spanish just because I wanted their language. I’ve always wanted your language; never been afraid of it. And I like the idea too, that I would use an English word, Hispanic, to describe myself as a descendant of the Spanish Empire which is, in some way, the great triumph of Queen Elizabeth over the Spanish Armada. The last triumph. Her caked face cracking as she thinks about it. All of those ships going down into the Atlantic and 400 years later there would be this Mexican-American who would call himself, in the language of Queen Elizabeth, Hispanic.
We keep talking about how California is breaking apart. We cannot stand each other. It strikes me as at least important to notice that Los Angeles, the capital of this union in our state, has three times the national average of miscegenation, of inter-racial marriage. What do you make of that? You know the city in this state that has the highest number of inter-racial marriages? Guess? Stockton. Blue-collar, bulky, good old boy, country music, sweaty Stockton.
I love smokers by the way. I don’t like smoking; I don’t smoke myself, but I love smokers just because they’re so abused in our society.
It’s not even and not only that we are sharing our identities with one another, which is the easiest way of talking about this. The more interesting thing is that we are becoming one another.
There will always be ways in which I am one, single, I. And I deeply am grateful to this country, especially its Anglo-Saxon judicial system, for honoring my I-ness, for honoring all the ways in which I am separate from you. Separate even from the people who love me. Separate even from my family. Those incredible subtle ways in which a child is always separated from its parents. That mystery when you look into your child’s eyes and realize that separation.
We are constantly making each other, creating each other. We are constantly eating each other’s food, hearing each other’s music. There is no one in this room who does not speak Black English. There is no one in this room who is not Filipino. There is no one in this room, Compadres, who is not Hispanic.
The interesting thing about America, the risky thing about America, is that when it opened itself up to immigrants, it opened itself to the possibility that it was going to become fluid and a stranger to itself.
No one is more American than the person who insists that he’s not. I said to these kids in Corpus Christi the other day, “I don’t mind that you go around pretending that you live in Mexico, and wear sombreros and so forth. I just want you to know that that’s an American thing to do — that insistence that I can decide whether I’m going to be Mexican or not.”
There is in the American experience continually this notion that we have sort of stumbled upon experience, that we have discovered sex, that we have discovered evil. I quote a woman at Columbia University who said, in the 1970s, “After Vietnam I will never believe that America is the good and pure country that I once thought it to be.” I thought to myself. “Where has she been all this time? Did she miss the part about the slaves? Did she miss that page about the Indians? Where does that notion of innocence come up?” We are innocent of history, of memory.
How do I account for the fact that, at a time when black and white relationships are so difficult in America, blond kids are listening to rap? Within what is desired is also what is feared. The stranger is the figure of the American but also the threat to American stability. Surely there is some part of us that wants to settle down, that doesn’t want to keep moving.
I was doing a documentary for the BBC a few years ago on American teenagers, and there was this girl in North Carolina who was telling us about how she wanted to become more Scottish. She was going to bicycle that summer in Scotland and get in touch with her Scottish ancestors. And my film crew, these Brits, said, “This idea of becoming more Scottish. That’s a very American idea, isn’t it?” Nobody in Scotland talks that way. And that’s exactly the point, that the American arrogance has always been that the individual is in control of the culture.
We seem not to believe that we can change the condition of [America…] We refer our problems to agencies or to the public realm because we sense more and more that some intimate circle has been fragmented.
Maybe Hillary Clinton’s generation is the great generation of this belief that if you can reorganize the public realm all will be well, that the public can redeem the private. I’m beginning to sense among the young today that there is some reversal now in the other direction, that the kids I talk to — I’m talking about the children we would normally describe as troubled children — are more and more looking for more intimate ways of organizing themselves and restoring themselves.
This woman came up to me the other day and said, “The only happily married people I know are gay couples.” I said to her “Maybe that’s part of the irony of our time, that people who didn’t have that intimacy have been spending more time on it.”
Education is not about self-esteem. Education is demeaning. It should be about teaching you what you don’t know, what you yet need to know, how much there is yet to do. Part of the process of education is teaching you that you are related to people who are not you, not your parents — that you are related to black runaway slaves and that you are related to suffragettes in the 19th century and that you are related to Puritans. That you are related to some continuous flow of ideas, some linkage, of which you are the beneficiary, the most recent link.
The issue of the Indian, which very few people have remarked on, is a public issue. My rewriting of the Indian adventure [into a story in which the conquistadors’ culture was in effect conquered, absorbed, and transformed by Indians through conversion and miscegenation] was not only to move the Indian away from the role of victim but to see myself in relationship to Pocahontas, to see myself as interested in the blond on his horse coming over the horizon. It occurred to me there was something aggressive about the Indian interest in the Other, and that you were at risk in the fact that I was watching you, that I wanted you, that I was interested in your religion, that I was prepared to swallow it and to swallow you in the process.
Maybe what is happening in the Americas right now is that the Indian is very much alive. I represent someone who has swallowed English and now claims it as my language, your books as my books, your religion as my religion — maybe this is the most subversive element of the colonial adventure. That I may be truest to my Indian identity by wanting to become American is really quite extraordinary.
The reason that American, this tongue that I’m using is the language of the world right now is because it eats everything. It swallows every language.
The moment at which you worry about the purity of your language, you lose the intensity that American English has always had, this devouring impulse.
From “La Plaza: Conversations with Ilan Stavans: Richard Rodríguez”, a video-interview transcribed here.
This video is for me the official inauguration of the video-web. Of course I’d noticed the sudden explosion of videos everywhere (those YouTube embedded flicks were a particularly clever move on their part), but it was only until this interview to Richard Rodriguez that I found something truly remarkable and interesting to me. Seeing Richard there, hearing him, is something very different to just his written words. Not better, mind you, but interestingly different.
And I thought to myself, Am I Latino? Am I Hispanic? What does that mean? Who is a Hispanic? What is a Hispanic? There are no Hispanics in Latin America. You have to go to Dallas, Texas to meet a Hispanic.
Somebody called me the other day a schmuck and I thought to myself I rather like that. I know it’s — I know what a schmuck is and I know that one should not like being a schmuck. But I like, I like being schmuck because I like living in a world of Yiddish. And that’s what it means to be American.
If tomorrow Americans decided to speak Esperanto, it’s fine with me. What I am interested in in that book (and it’s something that most linguists don’t even want to talk about because most of them live in a middle-class world of the academy) is the difference between the working class appreciation of language and the middle-class appreciation. And how for me as a child, the great distinction in my life was not between Spanish and English, but was between a language that was used privately this language of whispers. This language of closed doors, this language of shut windows-Spanish and the language which is used outside: the language of the gringo, the language of the stranger, the language of loud voices, the language of advertisements, the language of television, radio — this booming voice, this English that was shoved down my throat by Irish-Catholic nuns, God bless their souls, who taught me that it was my tongue. Chew it, they said. Bite it. Swallow it. It is yours.
I’m writing now very dense literary essays of a sort that probably most readers can’t or have no reason to appreciate anymore. I belong to a nineteenth century literary tradition, as much French or Spanish as it is American.* And now I find myself growingly irrelevant* except as I try to keep up with the pace of the pop culture by going on television as an essayist or by writing the newspaper op-ed pieces. But the essays that I love, the darkest part of the water that I swim in as a writer, is a part where, where I’m so deeply in conversation with myself, the essay, as Montaigne taught me, the essay of such complexity that I don’t know whether there are any readers of my books now.
I think there’s a paper tiger that Chicano academics create at various schools and they teach their students: Oh, don’t be like this. This is the pocho you want to avoid. Don’t become Richard Rodriguez. Don’t travel all around the world. Don’t be like him, a man who’s afraid of no one.
A man whose uncle was from India and whose every Christmas and Thanksgiving was filled with Hindu hymns, when Dr. Gupta, his sister used to come and sing over the turkey. Don’t be like Richard Rodriguez. Live in our little, little playa where there’s only Español and we can think about the conquistadors forever. Don’t dare to fall in love with cultures not your own. I don’t care about such people.
Which leads me to think that there is a hunger out there, which people are looking to television to satisfy. For ideas, for feeling, for impression. That every once in a while some weird Mexican guy comes along and says something on television and people will remember it to me two years later.
I am not going to replace African Americans in the imagination of the United States. They are part of my imagination. They form me. I reject the black and white America in which I am supposed to now play the new brown center.
INTERVIEWER: Were you reading Latin American writers?
RODRIGUEZ: No, you’ve seated before you a man of Latin American ancestry whose literary inheritance is almost all through the English language. What I prefer to call the American language. I have no literary connection except much later and in different ways to Latin American writers. But the great drama of my imaginative life as I was growing up was through say British fiction. The Victorians — Trollop, Thackery, Dickens, Austen, they were the writers who formed my imagination. And then D.H. Lawrence, the working class writer become the sublime writer of the earliest twentieth century. He changed my life. So, people say, you know — now I find myself in bookstores in a section devoted to Hispanic writers. I’m not a Hispanic writer. I’m a writer who comes out of some weird hybrid of cultures. I belong as much to England and probably more to England than I do to Mexico.
And they keep dabbing your face so you won’t shine too much. It’s all this vanity that’s not interesting because I’m not beautiful. If I were beautiful it would be very interesting, television would be. I would look at my monitor all the time, like those actresses one sees, you know, on the morning shows; kind of testing their beauty against the camera. In the absence of that, all I can offer you is this language. This is my only seduction.
I have to grab you. And this is in the middle of your cooking dinner or you’re scratching or you’re looking at your mail. I have to find you. My entire life now is looking for you and I don’t know whether I ever will.
Oh, and Richard, you know, you’ve found me. I am your reader.