So, rather than becoming multicultural, rather than becoming a person of several languages, rather than becoming confident in your knowledge of the world, you become just the opposite. You end up in college having to apologize for the fact that you no longer speak your native language.
You learn in America to speak two ways. You learn in public discourse not to be very specific about your religious life. Or, if we talk about it, we'll find a secular way of doing it that will not be offensive to people of non-belief. So, that you go through life with these alternate voices.
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.
But lots of emerging racial tensions in California have nothing to do with whites: Filipinos and Samoans are fighting it out in San Francisco high schools. Merced is becoming majority Mexican and Cambodian. They may be fighting in gangs right now, but I bet they are also learning each other's language.
'm constantly depressed by the Mexican gang members I meet in East L.A. who essentially live their lives inside five or six blocks. They are caught in some tiny ghetto of the mind that limits them to these five blocks because, they say, "I'm Mexican. I live here." And I say, "What do you mean you live here - five blocks? Your granny, your abualita, walked two thousand miles to get here. She violated borders, moved from one language to another, moved from a sixteenth-century village to a twenty-first-century city, and you live within five blocks?"
Most American Hispanics don't belong to one race, either. I keep telling kids that, when filling out forms, they should put "yes" to everything - yes, I am Chinese; yes, I am African; yes, I am white; yes, I am a Pacific Islander; yes, yes, yes - just to befuddle the bureaucrats who think we live separately from one another.
It is not simply that these two cities are perched side by side at the edge of the Pacific; it is that adolescence sits next to middle age, and they don't know how to relate to each other. In a way, these two cities exist in different centuries. San Diego is a post-industrial city talking about settling down, slowing down, building clean industry. Tijuana is a preindustrial city talking about changing, moving forward, growing. Yet they form a single metropolitan area.
Those people who say that America is finite are some sense right. The environmental movement, for example, has a great wisdom to it: we need to protect, to preserve, to shelter as much as we need to develop. But I think this always has to be juxtaposed against the optimism of old, which is now represented in part by immigrants. I would like to see America achieve a kind of balance between optimism and tragedy, between possibility and skepticism.
Suddenly the land is haunted by all these dead Indians. There is this new fascination with the Southwest, with places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, where people come down from New York and Boston and dress up as Indians. When I go to Santa Fe, I find real Indians living there, but they are not involved in the earth worship that the American environmentalists are so taken by. Many of these Indians are interested, rather, in becoming Evangelical Christians.
Maybe the American Dream is too rich for us now in the U.S. Maybe we're losing it because we are not like our Swedish grandmother who came across the plains, hacked down the trees, and took the Spanish words she encountered and made them hers. Now her great-great-grandchildren sit terrified, wondering what to do with all these Mexicans. The American Dream is an impossible affirmation of possibility. And maybe native-born Americans don't have it anymore. Maybe it has run through their fingers.
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.
fter the O.J. Simpson trial there was talk about how the country was splitting in two - one part black, one part white. It was ludicrous: typical gringo arrogance. It's as though whites and blacks can imagine America only in terms of each other. It's mostly white arrogance, in that it places whites always at the center of the racial equation.
We're looking at such enormous complexity and variety that it makes a mockery of "celebrating diversity." In the L.A. of the future, no one will need to say, "Let's celebrate diversity." Diversity is going to be a fundamental part of our lives. That's what it's going to mean to be modern.
Intimacy is not trapped within words. It passes through words. It passes. The truth is that intimates leave the room. Doors close. Faces move away from the window. Time passes. Voices recede into the dark. Death finally quiets the voice. And there is no way to deny it. No way to stand in the crowd, uttering one's family language.
We're looking at complexity. We're looking at blond kids in Beverley Hills who can speak Spanish because they have been raised by Guatemalan nannies. We're looking at Evangelicals coming up from Latin America to convert the U.S. at the same time that L.A. movie stars are taking up Indian pantheism.
Of course, San Diego chooses not to regard the two cities as one. Talk about alter ego: Tijuana was created by the lust of San Diego. Everything that was illegal in San Diego was permitted in Tijuana. When boxing was illegal in San Diego, there were boxing matches in Tijuana; when gambling was illegal, there was always Tijuana.
When the Irish nun said to me, "Speak your name loud and clear so that all the boys and girls can hear you," she was asking me to use language publicly, with strangers. That's the appropriate instruction for a teacher to give. If she were to say to me, "We are going to speak now in Spanish, just like you do at home. You can whisper anything you want to me, and I am going to call you by a nickname, just like your mother does," that would be inappropriate. Intimacy is not what classrooms are about.
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.
I find L.A. very interesting, partly because I think something new is forming there, but not in a moment of good fellowship as you might think from all this "diversity" claptrap. It's not as if we'll all go down to the Civic Center in our ethnic costumes and dance around.
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.
In the Sacramento of the 1950s, it was as though White simply hadn't had time enough to figure Brown out. It was a busy white time. Brown was like the skinny or fat kids left over after the team captains chose sides. You take the rest — my cue to wander away to the sidelines, to wander away.
I keep trying to tell people that Los Angeles is already the largest Indian city in the U.S., that there are Toltecs playing Little League baseball in Pasadena, Mayans making beds at the Marriott in Westwood, and Chichimecs driving buses in L.A. Los Angeles is a majority-Indian city.
For them [LGBT group], language has to say exactly what it means. "Why aren't you proud of being gay?" they wanted to know. "Why are you so dark? Why are you so morbid? Why are you so sad? Don't you realize, we're all okay? Let's celebrate that fact." But that is not what writers do. We don't celebrate being "okay." If you want to be okay, take an aspirin.
The myth of the dead Indian goes back to the Protestant settlement of the U.S. 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 first book by an African American I read was Carl T. Rowan's memoir, Go South to Sorrow. I found it on the bookshelf at the back of my fifth-grade classroom, an adult book. I can remember the quality of the morning on which I read. It was a sunlit morning in January, a Saturday morning, cold, high, empty. I sat in a rectangle of sunlight, near the grate of the floor heater in the yellow bedroom. And as I read, I became aware of warmth and comfort and optimism. I was made aware of my comfort by the knowledge... Read more »
Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: "Ports have names they call the sea." Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use -- high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject -- there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.
The fact that we're all hyphenating our names suggests that we are afraid of being assimilated. I was talking on the BBC recently, and this woman introduced me as being "in favor of assimilation." I said, "I'm not in favor of assimilation." I am no more in favor of assimilation than I am in favor of the Pacific Ocean. Assimilation is not something to oppose or favor - it just happens.
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."
I think what education gives you is a voice. It gives you a way of talking to a judge. When a policeman pulls you off to the side of the road, you have a voice. When you cross a border, you have a voice. When you are writing to express your opinions, you have a voice.
For me, diversity is not a value. Diversity is what you find in Northern Ireland. Diversity is Beirut. Diversity is brother killing brother. 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.
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. I think race-based affirmative action is crude and absolutely mistaken.