Where diversity is shared — where I share with you my difference — that can be valuable. But the simple fact that we are unlike each other is a terrifying notion. I have often found myself in foreign settings where I became suddenly aware that I was not like the people around me. That, to me, is not a pleasant discovery. London: You've said that it's tough in America to lead an intellectual life outside the universities. Yet you made a very conscious decision to leave academia. Rodriguez: My decision was sparked by affirmative action. There was a point in my life when affirmative action would have meant something to me — when my family was working-class, and we were struggling.
But very early in life I became part of the majority culture and now don't think of myself as a minority.
Yet the university said I was one. Anybody who has met a real minority — in the economic sense, not the numerical sense — would understand how ridiculous it is to describe a young man who is already at the university, already well into his studies in Italian and English Renaissance literature, as a minority.
Affirmative action ignores our society's real minorities — members of the disadvantaged classes, no matter what their race. We have this ludicrous bureaucratic sense that certain racial groups, regardless of class, are minorities. So what happens is those "minorities" at the very top of the ladder get chosen for everything.
Rodriguez: Well, when it came time for me to look for jobs, the jobs came looking for me. I had teaching offers from the best universities in the country. I was about to accept one from Yale when the whole thing collapsed on me. Rodriguez: I had all this anxiety about what it meant to be a minority.
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My professors — the same men who taught me the intricacies of language — just shied away from the issue. They didn't want to talk about it, other than to suggest I could be a "role model" to other Hispanics — when I went back to my barrio, I suppose. I came from a white middle class neighborhood. Was I expected to go back there and teach the woman next door about Renaissance sonnets? The embarrassing truth of the matter was that I was being chosen because Yale University had some peculiar idea about what my skin color or ethnicity signified.
Who knows what Yale thought it was getting when it hired Richard Rodriguez? The people who offered me the job thought there was nothing wrong with that. I thought there was something very wrong. I still do.
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I think race-based affirmative action is crude and absolutely mistaken. London: I noticed that some university students put up a poster outside the lecture hall where you spoke the other night. It said "Richard Rodriguez is a disgrace to the Chicano community. Rodriguez: I sort of like that.
The notion of the writer as a kind of sociological sample of a community is ludicrous. Even worse is the notion that writers should provide an example of how to live. Virginia Woolf ended her life by putting a rock in her sweater one day and walking into a lake. She is not a model of how I want to live my life. On the other hand, the bravery of her syntax, of her sentences, written during her deepest depression, is a kind of example for me. But I do not want to become Virginia Woolf.
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That is not why I read her. Rodriguez: The popular idea of a role model implies that an adult's influence on a child is primarily occupational, and that all a black child needs is to see a black doctor, and then this child will think, "Oh, I can become a doctor too. He became a doctor because his mother cleaned office buildings at night, and because she loved her children. She grew bowlegged from cleaning office buildings at night, and in the process she taught him something about courage and bravery and dedication to others.
I became a writer not because my father was one — my father made false teeth for a living. I became a writer because the Irish nuns who educated me taught me something about bravery with their willingness to give so much to me. London : There used to be a category for writers and thinkers and intellectuals — "the intelligentsia. Rodriguez : No, 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.
Rodriguez : Yes, 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. After the second chapter of Days of Obligation , which is about the death of a friend of mine from AIDS, was published in Harper's , I got this rather angry letter from a gay-and-lesbian group that was organizing a protest against the magazine.
It was the same old problem: political groups have almost no sense of irony.
For them, language has to say exactly what it means. Why are you so morbid?
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Why are you so sad? Don't you realize, we're all okay? Let's celebrate that fact. We don't celebrate being "okay. Rodriguez : In some ways I consider myself more Chinese, because I live in San Francisco, which is becoming a predominantly Asian city. I avoid falling into the black-and-white dialectic in which most of America still seems trapped. I have always recognized that, as an American, I am in relationship with other parts of the world; that I have to measure myself against the Pacific, against Asia. Having to think of myself in relationship to that horizon has liberated me from the black-and-white checkerboard.
Rodriguez : Yes, although it was something I did not know about as a child. The Indian had been killed in cowboy movies, or was playing bingo in Oklahoma. Also, in my middle-class Mexican family indio was a bad word, one my parents shy away from to this day. That's one of the reasons, of course, why I always insist, in my bratty way, on saying, Soy indio! Mexico has to confront her Indian face, and yet she refuses to do so.
When you turn on Mexican television, it's like watching Swedish TV: everyone is blond. London : That's true in the U. What you see on television is a very distorted picture of American life. What really terrifies Americans right now is the prospect that the Indian is very much alive, that the Indian is having nine babies in Guatemala, and that those nine babies are headed this way.
This is one reason why Americans hold on so dearly to the myth of the dead Indian.
Rodriguez : That's right. I don't deny people their fantasy life, but I do think that we desperately need to start realizing just how complicated our reality is in America. Sitcoms just don't show us that. I keep trying to tell people that Los Angeles is already the largest Indian city in the U.
Los Angeles is a majority-Indian city. Of course, since we don't see the Indian as a living figure — having turned the Indian into a kind of mascot for the ecology movement, a symbol of prehistory — we can't see the Indian among us.
But what really terrifies Americans right now is the prospect that the Indian is very much alive, that the Indian is having nine babies in Guatemala, and that those nine babies are headed this way. Rodriguez : Yes. The myth of the dead Indian goes back to the Protestant settlement of the U. The Pilgrims wanted to start a new life in America. They wanted to believe that in some sense they had come to a new Eden and that they could leave history behind in Europe.
So they convinced themselves that this land had no history, that this was "virgin" land. This made the Indians' presence inconvenient. The Indians had to be either killed, or herded into reservations, which were essentially concentration camps, and forgotten. Their history had to be absolutely obliterated so that we could believe that we were living on virgin soil.
London : Another place the Indian turns up today is in books about spirituality and native wisdom. Rodriguez : Suddenly the land is haunted by all these dead Indians.
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