A Man of Two Heritages (Review of Days of Obligation)

The Wall Street Journal , February 17, 1993

Richard Rodriguez is an American, Sacramento-born. Unlike the many immigrants, foreign and domestic, who people California, "I was born at the destination," he writes in Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (Viking, 230 pages, $21).

His parents were from Mexico, his uncle from India, his teacher-nuns from Ireland. But Richard Rodriguez, the boy, embraced California, the land of new beginnings. As a child in the 1950s, he writes, "I craved ALL-NEW and ALL-ELECTRIC, FREE MUGS, AND KOOL INSIDE and DOUBLE GREEN STAMPS, NO MONEY DOWN, WHILE-U-WAIT, ALL YOU CAN EAT. At a coffee shop -- open 24 hours, 365 days a year -- I approved the swipe of the waitress's rag which could erase history."

Erasing the past is the California dream, a dream Mr. Rodriguez has abandoned at middle age. He has seen the new left destroy liberal ideals and AIDS destroy his friends' San Francisco paradise. And he has inherited his father's tragic sense of life: "My father remains Mexican in California. My father lives under the doctrine, under the very tree of Original Sin. Much in life is failure of compromise; like father, like son."

Mr. Rodriguez is known as a Mexican-American writer who rejects bilingualism and affirmative action. A decade ago, he was a promising literary critic who refused the academic life because universities wanted him to fill their quotas. His previous book, "Hunger of Memory," defended -- indeed urged -- the teaching of English to the children of immigrants.

With his passion for the common culture, Mr. Rodriguez is still no friend to the politically correct: "If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? ...Teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know that tragedies created the country that will create me," he writes. And, later, he says: "Hispanics and Asians have become the convenient national excuse for the accomplishment of what America has always wanted done -- the severing of memory, the dismantlement of national culture. The end of history."

Mr. Rodriguez believes that America's Protestant fathers bequeathed to us an essential optimism -- a belief in the individual pilgrim's progress toward the future. Mexico, by contrast, inherited the Catholic culture of tragedy, community, history as repetition. Like most dichotomies, this one can't be taken too literally; the Puritans also believed in such tragic concepts as "total depravity" and "limited atonement." But as a cultural symbol, it captures some essential truths.

In these beautifully written but often elusive essays, Mr. Rodriguez seeks to reconcile his two heritages, without reaching a satisfactory conclusion: "I believe the best resolution to the debate between comedy and tragedy is irresolution." The result is a maddeningly ambivalent book, but one that is truer than a simple choice would produce. Life is not comedy or tragedy but both; it falls into that third Shakespearean category, history. California and Mexico, Protestant and Catholic, comedy and tragedy cannot remain apart.

From his nephew's blond hair and dark eyes to a mission church with an Arabic dome, Mr. Rodriguez sees cultural synthesis everywhere. When he looks in the mirror, he knows the Indians are not dead. It is an obvious insight, as plain as the nose on his face: The "Hispanic" writer is the descendant of Indians. "I take it as an Indian achievement that I am alive, that I am Catholic, that I speak English, that I am an American. My life began, it did not end, in the sixteenth century."

The future isn't multicultural, but all mixed up, he suggests, writing: "Mexico City is the capital of modernity, for in the sixteenth century, under the patronage of the Queen of Heaven, Mexico initiated the task of the twenty-first century -- the renewal of the old, the known world, through miscegenation."

Today, capitalism unites north and south, giving still impoverished Tijuana the comic optimism of Mr. Rodriguez's childhood Sacramento. Visiting a Tijuana supermarket, he writes: "Commercial is bigger, more crowded, happier -- more prodigiously stocked than any supermarket I have seen ...{T}here are ceiling-high pyramids of six-packs, eight-packs, econopacks, super-savers. Boxes of detergents and bags of metallic-looking candies and packages of toilet paper come in gigantic Mexican `family' sizes never seen in America. There are luxuries, conveniences, necessities -- everything. Everything!"

Despite his grown-up sense of limits, Mr. Rodriguez retains a measure of optimism. Writing recently in the Los Angeles city magazine Buzz, he foresaw a hopeful future for a Los Angeles that has shed its innocence: "If any American city can heal the racial division of America, if any city can teach us what a multicultural America will look like, I think L. A. will be that city."