What it means to be Latino: a tour de force interview with Richard Rodriguez author of Darling, a Spiritual Autobiography.

Author:Trevino, Joseph
Position:The Latino agenda - Interview

First of two part

Some connoisseurs of the United States literature believe that Mr. Richard Rodriguez is the country's best living essayist; not just the best Hispanic essayist, but the master of American essayists.

His writings during the last four decades have described and homed in on the Latino and American fabric like no one has, with a riveting prose, a wise, keen eye and the art of noticing what few grasp. In a landscape where everybody is searching to be "authentic" and few become that, Mr. Rodriguez has proven to be the real article.

Born in Sacramento, California, in 1944, Mr. Rodriguez became part of American literature with Hunger of Memory, his autobiography about growing up in both worlds, telling us the price one has to pay for becoming assimilated; the loss of family, the vicissitudes of loneliness, the growing pains of leaving the womb of a private, homely life for the brusque, often savage arms of a public one.

Affirmative action. Bilingual education. Mexico. Race relations. Immigration. God. Homosexuality.

From Mr. Rodriguez, you never get what you expect. He gives you so much more.

His vision is far above the trivial, at odds with the mundane. He is a gentleman writer, a modern Jonathan Swift, an Albert Camus with an elegant style that is so far above the petty that most other columnists seem trifling in comparison.

Take his view on Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary to California who came under fire when Pope Francis recently canonized him. Rodriguez, who understands as a Californio the California dream, is not dreamy about Serra or the Native-Americans who became or were forced to become Catholic.

"The postmodern judgment of Serra derives from our imagination of Indians as innocent. Serra did not approach naked Indians with the reverence we might feel for the angelic dolphins ... Rome had decreed that Indians have souls, were therefore the spiritual equal of Europeans--equal, too, in their need for evangelization," he wrote in the superb Days of Obligation, published in 1992.

Mr. Rodriguez, who is Catholic and very open about his homosexuality, wrote what may be the most beautiful elegy of the Latin Mass of his boyhood days as an Altar boy in Credo, a chapter of Hunger of Memory. Again, he is a rebel who has been belittled as a conservative by progressives imprisoned in their own vagaries.

Some of his critics, conservative or liberals, who have chided him for not agreeing with their views, harangue him or do what Latinos seem to do best when they feel offended: pretend to ignore, dismiss or look the other way.

Though he has never catered to his critics, one gets the feeling that lately Mr. Rodriguez yearns for Latino readers. He is widely respected by mainstream readers and reviewers of tony publications, but Hispanics readers seem to be elsewhere.

An essayist for PBS, a former opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times and for many magazines, Rodriguez is currendy promoting Darling a Spiritual Autobiography'.

Latino Leaders caught up with Mr. Rodriguez at his home in San Francisco, California. Our publication has done thousands of interviews lately in search of what it means to be Latino, of a Latino agenda (if there is one) and where should we go from here.

Most interviewees, especially from the corporate world, have fallen flat. Not Rodriguez. He answered everything we could dish out and with his graceful style, came back with answers that you do not foresee, telling us why we are so lonely, what it really means to be Latino and why the likes of Donald Trump dislike us.

Latino Leaders--These days you are promoting your latest book.

Richard Rodriguez--My latest book was a book called Darling. I need to say to Latino audiences I don't exist as a Latino writer. In bookstores I'm in a section called Hispanic literature usually, but I don't exist in the Spanish speaking worlds. I'm not translated into Spanish in Latin America, I don't have any relationship as a journalist to Mexico. I did know Octavio Paz and he was very admiring of my book on Mexico called Days of Obligation which was published in 1993. But when I go to Mexico as a journalist I don't go with Univision. I go with the BBC. So in some sense I'm used by non-Latinos as a way to understand the Latino world. What that means is that I have a lot of freedom. I don't exist within the Latino world; my authority is outside the Latino world.

LL--Tell us about Darling....

RR--The first chapter of "Darling" is called "Ojala", which is about my discovery and encounter with the Arab within us. The Spanish language has about 35004000 words that are Arabic in origin. Spain was a Muslim country for many centuries, so already within us is this Arab civilization, so when my mom used to say "ojala" when I was a boy going to school she would say "ojala" it's not going to rain, "ojala" you are not going to need a rain coat. I don't think she realized and I didn't realize at the time that she was speaking the name of Ala. Already there is in us this circle, time is not a straight line that we are connected with civilizations in the past and what is ahead of us is behind us. As I go to the Middle East after September 11 to try to understand Arab civilization and the magnificence of Israel. I'm more aware that I'm not moving to a foreign culture; I'm moving to some part of myself. In many cases the future ahead of me brings me back to my past so I ended up in Cairo feeling more Latino than I felt in Los Angeles. I was connected to these people in some way linguistically and there was some link in us that was very deep. Our heritage is complicated. Any of us that come from Latin America, because so many races meet there, have met there and within my own family. My mother was a very dark skinned Mexican woman with Indian features. My father was more European looking. Within my father's family there were Jewish relatives so already the complications of being Catholic, Jewish, Indian and Spanish begins in Mexico. By the time they come to the U.S. were already beginning the complexity and continuing it in a new country. The U.S. doesn't know what to do with our complexity because the U.S. is a country largely organized by blood rather than by culture. People are interested in your race, your blood, whether you're white or black principally and not the complexity of your culture. Nobody knows what to do with you. If you say yes I'm catolico and I'm also a judio, and that I'm also in Cairo and beginning to realize that I'm an Arab at the same time, nobody knows what to do with that complexity because they always want to simplify culture and they are puzzled by race.

The other day the New York Times had a feature, a poll about race relations in America and the only categories they used was white and black. I wrote a letter which they never published. I was really offended by this; there are many millions of us who do not consider ourselves to be white or black. The problem with America is they don't know what to do with the complexity of Latino, nor do we as we become Americanized know what to do with ourselves. Because we are beginning to think that Latinos is a race, that we constitute a new race in America and that we allow ourselves to be compared to white and black as if these were different categories from us. Many Latinos are white, black, chino, mestizo, of many races. We haven't even told our children how to understand what it is to be Latino. They are under the impression that's their race rather than the end of race which is was it really represents and the significance of Latino is the power of culture.


LL--What's your view on spirituality and how has it evolved? How has your own spiritual life evolved?

RR--I'm still Catholic; I have always been interested in religions around me. I went to two years to a seminary in New York. I have studied with rabbis and I'm now...

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