Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father
Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father
by Richard Rodriguez
THE LITERARY WORK
A densely interwoven collection of ten essays, set in California and Mexico, ranging in historical purview from 1521 to the late 1980s; published in English in 1992.
Placed within the broad context of California’s position as a border state adjoining Mexico, these essays explore the often paradoxical contradictions of personal identity, ethnic politics, religion, homosexuality, and U.S./Mexican relations.
Born in 1944, Richard Rodriguez spent his youth in Sacramento, California, where his parents settled after emigrating from Mexico. He recounts his struggle to master the English language and assimilate into American society in his acclaimed, though controversial, autobiography, Hunger of Memory (1981). The book, which among other discussions argues against affirmative action and bilingual education, drew praise from conservatives and scorn from many Latinos, establishing Rodriguez as a formidable presence on the American literary scene. In subsequent years, his regular Sunday columns in the Los Angeles Times and his appearances on Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS’s)The NewsHour further broadened his role as an important commentator on subjects relating to Latinos, ethnic politics, Catholicism, California, and the West. Rodriguez’s second book, Days of Obligation, takes his readers on a series of journeys back and forth across the U.S./Mexican border, exploring the imaginatively fertile zone born from the clash of cultures, languages, histories, and traditions. The tensions of this mediating place, Rodriguez implies, are contained and embodied within himself, and his book is an attempt to work them through. Its settings encompass a wide range of historical contexts, from Spain’s conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century; to the founding of missions in California in the eighteenth century; to the growth of a homosexual community in San Francisco, California, in the 1970s; and to the ravages of the AIDS disease in the 1980s.
The conquest of Mexico
Rodriguez is deeply interested in the long and tangled history of the Americas, both before and after Christopher Columbus’s landfall in 1492. In order to tell his story, Rodriguez refers to events far back in the historical record, such as the conquest of Mexico in the 1520s. For him, these events exert a pressing force on the present, welling up at unexpected moments to shape contemporary reality. Rodriguez’s essays make strategic use of this perspective on history, as they shuttle back and forth between the present and the past.
A central event in the social history of the Americas, the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish gave birth to an entirely new culture, formed from the violent union of the so-called Old and New Worlds. (A European historian, Peter Martyr, coined the term “New World” in a 1516 account of the discovery of the Americas.) Within a few years of Columbus’s voyages, rumors circulated among the Spanish of splendid civilizations thriving in the interior of the new land. In 1518, at the behest of Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes sailed with a large army to the Yucatan Peninsula and along the eastern coast of Mexico. He encountered and battled several groups of indigenous peoples, defeating some and forging alliances with others. He also took a native woman, Malinche, as his mistress and interpreter. Her ability to translate and act as a go-between would later play a critical role in the conquest of the Aztecs, who ruled the region.
Cortés sailed further south and landed with his men at a spot he named Veracruz, located due east of the famed Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. To prevent his men from deserting and returning to Cuba, Cortés ordered his ships to be sunk in the harbor. Skillful in war and a master of deceit, Cortés created alliances with Indian nations, such as the Tlaxcalans, who resented the dominance of Tenochtitlan. With the aid of these new allies and Malinche, his translator, the conquistador marched into the Aztec capital, imprisoning the emperor Moctezuma after he had received Cortés in the city. Cortés then drew back from the city and marched to Veracruz to fight an expedition sent after him by the now-hostile Velásquez, who had grown suspicious of Cortés’s growing power and ambitions in Mexico. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Aztecs struck back, driving the Spaniards from Tenochtitlán in what the Spaniards would later call La noche triste, or “night of sorrow.”
Upon his return to the Valley of Mexico, Cortés regrouped his army and laid siege to the Aztec capital, now led by Cuahtemoc. Over a period of 75 days, the Spaniards blockaded the city, which was set in the midst of a vast lake and could be entered only by narrow causeways. In August 1521, weakened by thirst and starvation, the Aztecs finally succumbed to Cortés. The king of Spain, Charles V, rewarded Cortés with the titles of governor and captain of the territory, which the conquerors called New Spain.
Despite the ruthlessness and devastation of the Conquest, many Mexicans and U.S. Latinos have come to view it less as a story of military defeat than as a profound symbol of the union of two hemispheres, peoples, and cultures. In subjugating the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Spaniards were also forced to embrace and incorporate them, and, as a result, to bond with them in the creation of a wholly new culture. From the union of Cortés and Malinche (also called Malintzin or Dona Marina), in particular, Mexico traces the origins of the mestizo, the person of mixed Indian and European heritage. Throughout Latin America, and especially in Mexico, the influence of mestizaje (mixture) is evident, not only in the commingling of genes but in hybrid religious forms, language, and other social conventions. In the United States, the Indian population was depleted and driven onto reservations that were removed from the larger population. By contrast, the presence of indigenous Mexican peoples continues to weigh heavily upon the conscience and consciousness of Mexicans and U.S. Latinos alike. As Rodriguez notes, “In New England the European and the Indian drew apart to regard each other with suspicion over centuries. … In Mexico the European and the Indian consorted” (Rodriguez, Days of Obligation, p. 13)
The Virgin of Guadalupe and the conversion of Mexico
Though divided by a political border, Mexicans and Mexican Americans participate in many varieties of cultural expression that defy and transcend arbitrary national boundaries. Among the most significant of these is the shared tradition of Catholicism, brought originally by the Spanish and subsequently fused to the pre-Columbian religious traditions of the indigenous peoples. Indeed, one may attribute the success of Latin American Catholicism to its extraordinary ability to assimilate within itself the existing forms of native belief. This syncretism, in effect another kind of mestizaje, is perhaps most striking in the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico and the most revered symbol of Catholic veneration for both Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
According to Catholic legend, the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared in December 1531 on a hilltop outside Mexico City called Tepeyac. She had dark skin, Indian features, and spoke in Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue. The place she chose for this epiphany, Tepeyac, is itself significant, for it had once served as a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The apparition, however, was at first disbelieved, because its witness was not a priest, nor even a Spaniard of high rank, but a young Indian boy, Juan Diego. Upon hearing the miraculous story of the appearance of the Virgin, who requested that a church be erected in her name, the Spanish bishop to whom Juan Diego reported his vision requested that the boy bring proof of her existence. The Virgin directed Juan Diego to a place nearby and instructed him to gather the red Castilian roses she had caused to bloom there, in the middle of winter, and to bring them to the bishop. When Juan Diego once again approached the authorities, he unfurled his cloak to reveal the miracle of the red roses. As he spoke, the image of the Virgin herself was miraculously emblazoned on his cloak, sealing the authority of his vision. This cloak, many Catholics believe, is the very one now displayed in one of three churches built on the site of the miracle. Each December, millions of Mexican (and Mexican American) Catholics make a pilgrimage to the site, to worship at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The legend illustrates the adaptive power of Spanish Catholicism in the Americas. Though thousands of the indigenous were forcibly converted to the Catholic faith in the years just after the Conquest, many continued to cling to their ancestral religions. The appearance of the Virgin signified that the Church would not minister only to those of European descent, but also to Indians and to mestizos. Her dark skin and Indian features symbolize the transplanting of Catholicism to the Americas, and her association with the Aztec goddess Tonantzin demonstrates the in-between position that she occupies. As Rodriguez observes, “The joke is that Spain arrived with missionary zeal.… But Spain had no idea of the absorbent strength of Indian spirituality” (Days of Obligation, p. 20). The Church quickly publicized the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego, which led to the rapid conversion of many indigenous people, who felt a strong connection with La Morenita, or the beloved dark lady. Today, throughout Mexico, her image is everywhere, and it is impossible to understand the conversion of Mexico without telling her story.
Latinos in California during the 1980s and 1990s
As late as 1848 California was part of Mexico. It was called Alta (upper)California, and its inhabitants were known as Californios. This changed with the defeat of Mexico by the United States in the Mexican War, which is known in Mexico as the War of the North American Invasion (1846-48). As a result of the defeat, which ended with the capture of Mexico City by General Winfield Scott, the northern half of Mexico’s territory was ceded to the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo laid out the terms of the surrender, stipulating that Mexico would receive $15 million in exchange for this land, which included Texas, California, large parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and portions of Nevada, Colorado, and Utah. At the stroke of a pen, these territories were joined to the United States. Those who lived in the territories were told they could choose either Mexican or U.S. citizenship and keep their land, but in the aftermath of the war, many of these promises were broken. The land was wrested from people of Mexican descent, who suddenly became second-class citizens on their own home ground.
LATINO POPULATION IN CALIFORNIA AND THE UNITED STATES
1. Between 1980 and 1990 the total U.S. Hispanic population rose from 14 to 22 million. Of all states, California’s Hispanic population was the largest, growing from 4.5 million in 1980 to 7.7 million in 1990.
2. By the year 2000 the total U.S. Hispanic population is projected to swell to 31 million. By 2025, the Census Bureau predicts, it will rise to 51 million, and by 2050 to 88 million. Once again, California will lead all states in Hispanic population, with Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois following behind.
(Hornor, p. 3)
Newcomers nevertheless continued to emigrate northward from Mexico to el otro lado (the other side), drawn by the promise of steady work and improved economic conditions. While the population of Latinos increased across the Southwest, California has shown particularly strong gains. In fact, in California, Latinos will soon once again form the majority of the population, not by forcible re-conquest, but by the irresistible power of demographic change. By the 1980s Latinos comprised more than 40 percent of the population of Los Angeles, the largest city in California and the second largest, after New York, in the nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of “Hispanics” (its name for Latinos) will continue to grow at a rapid rate.
Yet, despite the growth of the Latino population, or perhaps in reaction to it, Latinos continue to struggle for equal opportunity. In California, especially, Latinos often find themselves the scapegoat for large-scale social ills. Most recently, Californians passed three ballot initiatives that were widely viewed as anti-Latino. The first, dubbed the “Save Our State Initiative” (Proposition 187), banned undocumented immigrants from receiving public education and public benefits, such as welfare and health care, except in an emergency. This proposition passed in 1994 with 59 percent of the vote. In 1996 a related measure (Proposition 229) was passed, prohibiting California from using “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group in the operation of the State’s system of employment, public education or public contracting.” As a result, minority enrollments plummeted at the University of California’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. And finally, in 1998, Californians passed the “Unz initiative,” which severely restricted the practice of bilingual education in the state’s public schools. Since the large majority of bilingual students are Latino, the initiative was strongly opposed by state Latino leaders. Taken together, these initiatives, and the demographic and political climate that brought them into law, illuminate the growing tensions faced by Latinos in California during the late 1980s and early 1990s—precisely the period in which Rodriguez wrote Days of Obligation.
Latinos, gays, and the AIDS crisis in California
Given the strong Catholic influence in Latino life, a powerfully patriarchal culture, and the norms of masculinity bequeathed by the ethic of machismo, Latino homosexuals have always occupied a problematic position on the margins of the culture. The Latino male, according to traditional formulas at least, should be feo, fuerte, y formal, or “rugged, strong, and decorous.” Latino popular culture is shot through with jokes and caricatures ridiculing the feminized man, who serves as a negative foil for the strong, silent type long enshrined in the public consciousness. According to Rodriguez himself, “The macho holds his own ground. There is sobriety in the male, and silence, too—a severe limit on emotional range. The male isn’t weak” (Days of Obligation, p. 57). The gay Latino male thus finds himself doubly dis-advantaged, standing outside the dominant culture by virtue of his ethnicity and outside the subculture by virtue of his sexuality.
The Chicano movement of the 1960s drew its inspiration from the broad agenda of the U.S. civil rights movement, which arose in protest over the unequal treatment, in law and culture, of black Americans. These struggles for political rights rested on the argument that the U.S. Constitution, which had promised equal rights to all Americans, constituted an unfulfilled mandate, since many Mexican Americans and blacks continued to suffer discrimination in the courts, the workplace, and in public venues.
Following this logic, gay Latinos have argued that Latino culture must itself come to terms with the demands of homosexuals for basic civil rights: to express themselves openly, to seek political representation, and to lay claim to their dual identities as Latinos and homosexuals. The AIDS crisis (or SIDA, as it is known in Spanish) has served to focus attention on such larger issues as access to health care and the stigmatization of those with communicable diseases. As a phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s, the period between Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation, AIDS also plays a particularly important role in Rodriguez’s development as a writer. Based in San Francisco during this period, Rodriguez saw firsthand the flowering of a Latino homosexual community in the city’s Castro District. Playing off the meanings of domestic architecture, Rodriguez describes the scene in the Castro: “Two decades ago, some of the least expensive sections of San Francisco were wooden Victorian sections. It was thus a coincidence of the market that gay men found themselves living within the architectural metaphor for family. … In those same years—the 1970s—and within those same Victorian houses, homosexuals were living rebellious lives to challenge the foundations of domesticity” (Days of Obligation, p. 30).
Long celebrated for its laissez-faire, sometimes lawless, and certainly unconventional lifestyles, San Francisco has been a haven for homosexuals for nearly 30 years. According to one critically acclaimed history: “Between 1969 and 1973, at least 9,000 gay men moved to San Francisco, followed by 20,000 between 1974 and 1978. By 1980, about 5,000 homosexual men were moving to the Golden Gate every year. The immigration now made for a city in which two in five adult males were openly gay” (Shilts, p. 15). Thus, the city was hit hard by the tragedy of AIDS as the disease ravaged members of its homosexual population.
Just how many of these men were also Latino is hard to discern, especially given the cultural prohibitions against homosexuality and the unwillingness of many gays, Latino or otherwise, to be counted as such. Yet it is safe to say, given the proportion of Latinos to the overall population in California—1 in 5 in 1980, 1 in 4 in 1990—that the gay renaissance of San Francisco involved a sizable number of Latinos. It is known that the AIDS crisis, especially during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when information about the disease was not widely available, struck hard among Latinos. In any case, no statistics can adequately measure the loss of individual lives, nor the grief felt by those who are diminished by the victims’ passing.
Days of Obligation comprises an Introduction and ten interwoven essays. The Introduction finds Rodriguez in Mexico, on assignment with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), searching for his parents’ village. The opening of this section is striking and emblematic of Rodriguez’s method:
I am on my knees, my mouth over the mouth of the toilet, waiting to heave. It comes up with a bark. All the badly pronounced Spanish words I have forced myself to sound during the day, bits and pieces of Mexico spew from my mouth, warm, half-understood, nostalgic reds and greens dangle from long strands of saliva.
(Days of Obligation, p. xv)
This image literally embodies Rodriguez’s alienation from the homeland he seeks to explain to his television audience. Being in Mexico reminds Rodriguez that he is a stranger there. The food and water do not agree with him. He is an outsider in the land of his parents, and, like many visitors, he suffers from what Mexicans call, with a wink, turista, a temporary sickness that is a sign of being out of place. Of course, the food and water do not make them ill, for they are at home in their own country. Rodriguez, though, imagines that he vomits not only the contents of his stomach, but also Mexico’s version of words. Like the food he cannot keep down, the language is foreign to him. It is unfamiliar. His return to the fatherland is occasioned, at least at first, by alienation.
The stories told in Days of Obligation rely, as the Introduction does, on paradox and irony. Its essays do not apprehend experience from a safe, objective distance; rather they involve the musculature and nervous system of the author himself.
Chapter One, “India,” explores the mestizo legacy of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, viewed in the author’s divided selfhood and in Mexican/Mexican-American culture at large. Central to this essay is the pivotal story of Juan Diego’s vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Chapter Two, playfully entitled “Late Victorians,” combines an elegy over the loss of a friend to AIDS with a broader meditation on the fate of the gay community in the aftermath of that disease. Though the careful reader may infer that the chapter constitutes the author’s “coming out,” or declaration of his homosexuality, the essay in fact offers no such simple statement. As is characteristic, the writing employs careful irony and subject-less grammatical constructions to suggest, rather than proclaim, his position: “To grow up homosexual is to live with secrets and within secrets” (Days of Obligation, p. 30). Readers familiar with Rodriguez’s earlier Hunger of Memory will recall that one of its chapters was entitled “Mr. Secrets,” and that it, too, offered suggestive clues to the story outlined here. Recently, Rodriguez has more openly declared his homosexuality, delivering a lengthy personal essay on the subject as part of his regular stint on PBS’s The NewsHour (September 15, 1998).
The third chapter, “Mexico’s Children,” examines certain paradoxes in the life of Mexican immigrants to the United States, some of whom choose to assimilate, many of whom do not. The essay moves outward here to consider the various identities that result from a population at once settled and on the move.
The subject of the fourth chapter, “In Athens Once,” is the increasingly porous zone of the U.S./Mexican border, where cities such as San Diego and Tijuana, despite their important differences, are becoming inexorably joined by transnational cultural practices (language, media, cross-border migration) and the economic imperatives of free trade. According to Rodriguez’s essay, the growing interface along the border, where cultures and persons flow back and forth virtually unimpeded, promises to transform ideas of nationalism, personal identity, and political culture in ways that few have imagined.
Chapter Five, “The Missions,” takes the reader on a journey long familiar to every California child: the examination of the mission system and the legacy of its founder, Junipero Serra. As in the other essays, this one ranges far beyond its local theme. It takes up, for instance, the weighty question of how the status of the Indian differed between Spanish Catholicism and English Protestantism, the two religious-cultural world views that dominate and inform the history of the American West.
Chapter Six tells the story of Joaquin Muri-etta, a nineteenth-century Mexican whose exploits and death are the inspiration for a series of mythic tales about old California. On the trail of this mysterious figure, Rodriguez examines the myth-making quality of California itself.
“Sand,” the title of Chapter Seven, turns to more overtly autobiographical themes—Rodriguez’s vexed relationship with the two leading cities in California, San Francisco and Los Angeles, each of which reflects facets of the state and of the author himself.
Chapter Eight, entitled “Asians,” treats the growing influence and presence of the Asian American population in California. Once again mixing personal reflection with cultural analysis, Rodriguez’s essay ponders the future of California as it becomes the American focus of a new economic and political entity, the “Pacific Rim.”
“The Latin American Novel,” Chapter Nine, returns to questions of religion, proposing the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism as a useful lens through which to view U.S./Mexican relations.
The final chapter, “Nothing Lasts a Hundred Years,” circles back to questions raised at the start of the text. Rodriguez returns home to Sacramento, California’s capital, and in this “end” that is also a beginning, considers yet again his dual identities, his mixed heritage, and the peculiar journeys of his adult life.
The question of language
In his first work, Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez meditated long and lovingly on language itself: “I was a student of language. Obsessed by the way it determined my public identity. The way it permits me here to describe myself, writing” (Hunger of Memory, p. 7). As a graduate student of Renaissance literature at UC Berkeley during the 1970s, Rodriguez would have studied theoretical accounts of language that describe it in just this way. Language is both a force that shapes identities and a tool that allows or “permits” one to shape the world. In Days of Obligation, Rodriguez further explores such issues, with a renewed emphasis on language as a social, rather than merely a personal, medium. In “Mexico’s Children,” for example, Rodriguez takes up a favorite theme, the conflict between public and private. In Hunger of Memory he describes his upbringing as torn between the private discourse of Spanish, spoken as it was only in the home, and the public world of English, which he encountered in institutions such as the school and the university. Here, he points out that Spanish itself is structured along a division of private and public. Its forms of address vary according to the social context: “Tú belongs within the family. . . . listed, the formal, the bloodless, the ornamental you, is spoken to the eyes of strangers” (Days of Obligation, p. 54). The distinction between public and private is familiar in much social analysis, yet Rodriguez’s discussion of it suggests an inter-generational change as well as larger shifts. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, brought with them the Spanish grammar of both intimacy and formality. This becomes a key paradigm for Rodriguez, a legacy of Mexico, though as a U.S. Latino educated and writing in English, he is forced to employ a tongue that largely ignores the distinction. The inter-generational change results from a historical overlay of English and Spanish.
AN ARGUMENT WITH MY MEXICAN FATHER
The work’s subtitle, “An Argument with My Mexican Father,” hints at the text’s geographical and cultural orientation, for it suggests a conflict-driven dialogue between the U.S.-born Rodriguez and the Latin American world of his father. As a Latino, Rodriguez is acutely conscious of his difference from Latin Americans proper. Though he can visit Mexico, he is not Mexican. Yet he can no more ignore Mexico, and beyond that Latin America, than he can deny his dark skin, Indian features, and cultural memory. However problematic it may be, his connection to Latin America—its traditions, cultural assumptions, and history—is undeniable. The subtitle also suggests that for Rodriguez historical change is, at least in part, a conflict between generations, with his father representing Mexico and the claims of the Old World with its customary ways, and the son arguing for inexorable changes both in the fabric of Mexico and in the United States.
Latin American history is unintelligible apart from a consideration of the shaping force of language. Cortés and his armies brought not only the sword and cross, but also a new tongue, and hence a new grammar for consciousness and social relations. The change has been all but complete; the indigenous tongues of Latin America survive principally in such remote areas as the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico or in the Guatemalan highlands. With the exception of Brazil, which is Portuguese-speaking, Spanish is as dominant in Latin America as is English in the United States. In both regions, power is exercised through the dominant language. And in both regions, of course, history teaches us that the dominant language is also an imposed language, brought by European conquerors and settlers to the newfound lands.
“Vamos a lunchar”[We are going to have lunch]. “Elquiere parquear el carro”[He wants to park the car]. “I am going dancing with las girlfriends. “Horrific to language purists, such everyday Latino expressions illustrate the dissolving border between Spanish and English, Dictionaries” and grammar books specify almorzar for the English verb “to have lunch” and estacionar for “to park a car” Las girlfriends, as a hybrid formulation, defies categorization. Such expressions are known as Spanglish, an increasingly pervasive blend—a linguistic mestizaje—of two languages that conjoin and overlap in everyday usage, English words flow into Spanish, and Spanish grammatical forms pervade English, The combinations are unpredictable and lawless, obeying no rules. Sometimes, like rock en espanol (“rock-and-roll”), they come to seem inevitable, almost untranslatable. The marriage of English and Spanish might even suggest a more extensive interweaving of the tongues to come, though, given the history of English, it is more likely that English will simply absorb new expressions without a fundamental change in its structure or grammar.
Straddling the English-Spanish divide, Latinos are extraordinarily sensitive to the historical conditions that have produced the dominant tongues of the Americas: conquest, domination, demographic shifts, patterns of immigration, and changing political geographies. The effects of these shaping conditions are evident all around us. California, for example, with its Disneyland mascots, eight-lane freeways, and Hollywood dreamscapes, seems at first a familiar, “American” place. To look more closely, however, is to discover that beneath this rather thin veneer exists a rich Hispanic heritage, evidenced in patterns of settlement, the mission system, and, not least, in language. No Californian can avoid the public discourse that names its largest cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego), mountain ranges (Sierra Nevada), and valleys (San Joaquin, Santa Clara). These names are all of Spanish origin, bequeathed by the historical legacy of a California that until 1848 was part of Mexico. To pronounce them in Spanish is to remind oneself of this Mexican past. By contrast, to pronounce them in English, to Anglicize them, is to voice the historical change that replaced the once dominant tongue of Spain with the now official language of the United States, English.
Historical forces continue to shape the question of language in the United States and in the border zone between the United States and Mexico. Periodically, groups concerned over the increased use of Spanish as the lingua franca of Latinos have lobbied state legislatures for limits to and controls on the use of Spanish in schools, law courts, and the marketplace. Bilingual education is a hotly contested issue, with opponents arguing that its continuing practice in the schools does a disservice to the prospects of those it intends to help. Proponents answer that language and identity cannot be divorced, and that in the case of Spanish, the drive toward the all-English classroom is a thinly veiled attack on the historical significance of Spanish as the bedrock of Latino cultural cohesion.
The theme of language recurs throughout the essays in Days of Obligation, both overtly and more implicitly, in the personal experience of the author and in the larger historical events he examines. La Malinche, for example, is a go-between, the translator who makes the indigenous world of the Americas readable for Cortés. The Virgin of Guadalupe, Rodriguez reminds us, spoke to Juan Diego in his native tongue, Nahuatl, not in Spanish. San Diego and Tijuana, as the essay “In Athens Once” makes clear, are in effect one city, married by common economic interests and, perhaps more importantly, an increasingly shared culture grounded in the mutuality of English and Spanish, and in their hybrid creation—“Spanglish.” In San Diego telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) share the TV schedule with reruns of “Bonanza.” In Tijuana, English is as useful a currency for business as Spanish. The border is daily trammeled by forces it cannot contain: language and culture.
Rodriguez’s discussion of homosexuality also relies upon an understanding of language as an instrument that conceals and reveals, brands and affirms. Driven underground, homosexual culture, Rodriguez suggests, gradually sought refuge in irony, decoration, and verbal wit. His essay on homosexual life in San Francisco, therefore, takes as its central metaphor the richly decorated Victorian house, beautified by lace and whimsy. Taking refuge in pure style, the homosexual plays around the edges of language, as does Rodriguez. Long noted for its ellipses, gaps, and paradoxes, Rodriguez’s literary style is perfectly attuned to the task of discussing homosexuality without really discussing it. As noted above, nowhere does he declare his sexual orientation. Instead, the essay suggests, nudges, and implies. This may be viewed not as a failing, but rather as an embodiment of the argument the essay is making—that as a result of social repression, gays have had to master indirection. Granted, Rodriguez has subsequently ventured more publicly direct utterances, as in his aforementioned essay for The News Hour on PBS. Yet even here, the theme remains, for the essay is entitled “Language and Silence.”
Sources and literary context
Contributing to the slippery texture of Rodriguez’s prose is the literary genre he chooses as his vehicle, the essay. The form arose during the European Renaissance, and was practiced by such masters as Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), writers Rodriguez surely studied while pursuing his doctoral degree at Berkeley. Latin American literature, however, also has its own tradition of the essay, a genre invoked by such prominent writers as Octavio Paz (1914-98), Carlos Fuentes (1928-), and Carlos Mon-sivais (1938-). Indeed, one suspects that at least part of Rodriguez’s intent is to reply to Paz, and especially to the famous essay in The Labyrinth of Solitude (also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times) entitled “The Pachuco and other Extremes,” published in 1961. In this much-discussed piece, Paz, like other Mexican intellectuals after him, portrays Mexican Americans as “ashamed of their culture,” persons who are “wearing disguises,” suffering from a “lack of spirit” (Paz, p. 13). The essay marks their distance from their Mexican roots and heritage.
Rodriguez’s collection replies to Paz, not through overt refutation, but through a counter-strategy of celebrating the dissolving boundary between Mexicans and Mexican Americans. To work this subversive magic, Rodriguez goes back to the root meaning of the word essay, which stems from the French word essai, meaning a “trial” or “attempt.” Rich, allusive, ebullient in the play of language itself, the essay is fundamentally an exploratory genre, written with no predetermined end in mind. It does not prove a thesis, but sifts and sorts several. Freewheeling, open to contradiction and paradox, the essay “enjoys an idea like a fine wine; it thumbs through things. It turns round and round upon its topic, exposing this aspect and that; proposing possibilities, reciting opinions, disposing of prejudice and even of the simple truth itself—as too undeveloped, not yet of an interesting age” (Gass, p. 25).
While a predilection for fluid prose was evident in Hunger of Memory, it has become pronounced in Days of Obligation. Its essays are filled with gaps, discontinuities, ruptures, and ellipses. Not everything can be told, Rodriguez implies, even if one desires to do so. Language, although the chosen medium of the writer, inevitably falls short. And the subjects of his essays are themselves contradictory, making the task all the more difficult. Yet in his willingness to skate at the edge of meaning, to explore the ineffable, Rodriguez proves himself worthy of addressing the complex matters that stand at the center of Days of Obligation.
With Days of Obligation, Rodriguez appears to have crafted a work that will take him, finally, out of the narrow category of the minority writer who opposes affirmative action and bilingual education. Given his prominence, the work has been reviewed in many major journals and newspapers, and has drawn the attention of cultural critics and literary scholars in the academy. Not all the notices have been positive. In his review of Days of Obligation, Jonathan Yard-ley objects to the apparent obscurantism of Rodriguez’s elliptical style. The work, he claims, “never states in sufficiently clear terms either the nature of the argument or the author’s own line of reasoning” (Yardley, p. 3). David L. Kirp, by contrast, finds Rodriguez’s elusiveness a source of great appeal:“Days of Obligation reveals the writer as a tightrope walker who balances pessimism and the defeat of predictable expectations against the discovery of the profoundly unanticipated” (Kirp, p. 42). Perhaps most significantly, Latino intellectuals on the left have found in the work important imperatives for the ongoing critique of border consciousness, now a major area of inquiry in literary and cultural study of Latinos. Jose David Saldivar, in his acclaimed book on this subject, Border Matters, acknowledges that Rodriguez is “one of the fascinating new geo-cultural chroniclers of North-South interactions,” who is at the forefront of a new vision—that “the future of California is in its Latinoization” (Saldivar, p. 151).
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Press, 1987.
Gass, William H. “Emerson and the Essay.” In Habitations of the Word: Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Hornor, Louise L. Hispanic Amencans: A Statistical Sourcebook. Palo Alto, Calif.: Information Publications, 1996.
Kirp, David L. Review of DaysofObligation. The New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1992, 42.
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