A View From the Melting Pot

by Scott London

When Richard Rodriguez entered first grade at Sacred Heart School in Sacramento, California, his English vocabulary consisted of barely fifty words. All his classmates were white. He kept quiet, listening to the sounds of middle-class American speech, and feeling alone. After school he would return home to the pleasing, soothing sounds of his family’s Spanish.

When his English showed little sign of improvement, the nuns at his school asked Rodriguez’s parents to speak more English at home. Eager to help their son, his mother and father complied. “Ahora, speak to us en inglés,” they would say. Their effort to bring him into the linguistic mainstream had far-reaching results. Rodriguez went on to earn a degree in English at Stanford and one in philosophy at Columbia. He then pursued a doctorate in English Renaissance literature at Berkeley and spent a year in London on a Fulbright scholarship.

Though Rodriguez had his sights set on a career in academia, in 1976 he abruptly went his own way, supporting himself through freelance writing and various temporary jobs. He spent the next five years coming to terms with how education had irrevocably altered his life. His first book The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, published in 1982, was a searching account of his journey from being a “socially disadvantaged child” to becoming a fully assimilated American, from the Spanish-speaking world of his family to the wider, presumably freer, public world of English. But the journey was not without costs: his American identity was only achieved after a painful separation from his past, his family, and his culture. “Americans like to talk about the importance of family values,” says Rodriguez. “But America isn’t a country of family values; Mexico is a country of family values. This is a country of people who leave home.”

While the book received widespread critical acclaim and won several literary awards, it also stirred resentment because of Rodriguez’s strong stands against bilingual education and affirmative action. 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.”

Rodriguez explored the dilemmas of ethnicity and cultural identity more directly in his second book, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. “The best metaphor of America remains the dreadful metaphor [of] the Melting Pot,” he wrote. The America that he described is a new cross-fertilizing culture, a culture of half-breeds, blurred boundaries, and bizarre extremes.

I spoke with Rodriguez about the dilemma’s of cultural identity and the “browning” of America in an interview that has been widely published over the last ten years. It appears in a new book, The Little Brown Reader, edited by Marcia Stubbs, Sylvan Barnet, and William E. Cain. It has also been given new life by The Sun magazine in a section online called “Favorites from the Archives.”