Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Life and Times of Rich

          What do Hispanics mean to American culture?  If we were to ask Richard Rodriguez, he might invite us to read a passage from the latest edition to his autobiographical trilogy expounding his life as a Hispanic in the United States.  “Hispanic”, a chapter from Rodriguez’ Brown: the Last Discovery of America, is a literary blend of irony, subjectivity, and sarcasm, decorated with illustrious personal anecdotes to help motivate Rodriguez’ idea that while people witness the “browning” of America today (Rodriguez uses the term “browning” to describe Latin immigration into the United States), America has been brown from the start.  Unfortunately, though, Rodriguez’ elaborate and sometimes overly complex rhetoric suppresses the core ideas of the piece, leaving the reader confused and uninformed as to the intricacies involved with the subject of Latin American assimilation.  At the same time, Rodriguez crafts a beautifully written essay that is both thought provoking and poetic.  “Hispanic” surely “force[s] upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas” (Stavans 30), but will reading it help us to learn anything about Latin American assimilation, or Latin America at all?  Or will we inadvertently be lost in a foreign sea of hyperbole captained by a man without any navigational skills?
          Upon reading "Hispanic", several instances arise where Rodriguez seems to repudiate his heritage, rather than promote it.  This shifting, oxymoronic rhetoric leads me to question Rodriguez' intent, as well as whom he might be writing this piece for, as his loyalties don't appear to lie with his Mexican ancestors or the ignorant Americans he addresses throughout the hard-to-follow text.  In the beginning of "Hispanic", Rodriguez renounces his heritage with a plethora of generalizations sociologically accepted in mainstream America; he defines "Hispanic" as "Ducking under the cyclone fence...Seen running from the scene of the crime (Rodriguez 422), which he believes will emotionally captivate his audience, thus blanketing his ulterior purpose of providing a sociopolitical poetic essay, rich with "a gamut of anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not always attuned to his own inner life" (Stavans 30).  While Rodriguez paints a poignant picture of the life of a Mexican-American, he sticks to what he knows best: the self-portrait.
          This aversion to that which is not Rodriguez’ masterpiece (himself), flourishes further into the piece as Rodriguez’ fluctuating fluency denounces Americans as being “soft on geography” (Rodriguez 429).  He is quick to teeter in this poetic playground by following with “But American obliviousness of the specific becomes a gift of prophecy regarding the approaching mass.  Our impatience has created the map of the future” (Rodriguez 430).  He believes American ignorance has shaped the modern world, as Americans’ lack of geographic perception in the past created the notion of a society of blurred borders, quite similar to the cultural diversity seen today.

          Additional proof of Rodriguez’ subjective intentions are seen in the beginning of the piece when Rodriguez follows his question, “Do Hispanics exist?” (422), with a discourse of his present purpose: “Look at all this!  Folders.  It looks like a set for The Makropolous Case.  I will turn instead to the death agony of a moth, the gigantic shuddering of lantern-paper wings.  Or I will count the wrinkles on Walden Pond.  I will write some of those constipated, low-paying, fin de siècle essays about the difficulty of saying anything in this, our age” (422).  It almost seems as though Rodriguez is avoiding pontificating the Americanization of Latinos that he has come to address so freely.  Ilan Stavans, a professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and author to several books related to Hispanic life, believes that Rodriguez shares similar writing qualities with British prose veteran, V.S. Naipaul.  In his critique of Brown: The Last Discovery of America—a piece accordingly entitled “The Browning of America”—Stavans asserts that when reading works from these two intellectuals, we must look past whether or not we agree or disagree with what they have to say and instead focus on “our own conception of who we are” (Stavans 30).  Rodriguez and Naipaul both “explore a culture through its nuances and not…through its high-profile iconography; they are meticulous litterateurs, intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important,…[retain] the position of the outsider looking in”(Stavans 30).

          But is Rodriguez an outsider?  Many might argue otherwise, as he was born in the United States.  However he does hail from Mexican immigrant parents who stem from an even greater lineage of the Latino people Rodriguez is so enamored by.  And he has accepted the term “Hispanic” to describe himself, so I can’t help but wonder what exactly it takes to be a part of this culture that has become the largest growing minority at 35.3 million (Stavans 31). 

          For some greater insight into what exactly it might take to be considered Hispanic, I turned to an article from a weekly English/Spanish newspaper called La Prensa—a column labeled “Hispanic: What Does it Mean to be Called a Hispanic?”  Much like Rodriguez states in “Hispanic”, the article accredits the Nixon administration for establishing the term “as a catch all for Spanish-speaking people in the United States…” (Herrera), but goes into much greater detail than the gallivanting Rodriguez by pointing out that using the term “Hispanic” made it easier for politicians to address the fast-growing minority who were beginning to shape a “political conscience” (Herrera).  “In the United States, the term Hispanic has become omnipresent.  In the past, for some immigrants, being called Hispanic represented a successful assimilation into the American culture.  For others, to be defined as a Hispanic was seen as a derogatory term” (Herrera).  So for a culture that can be summed up in a two-column article and made as black and white as the newspaper itself, why is it that Rodriguez has spent so much time “[pursuing] Hispanicism, as a solitary, self-appointed inspector in an old Hitchcock will dog some great Hoax” (Rodriguez 423)?  As previously stated, Rodriguez’ essay comes from his third installment of an autobiographical journey recounting life as a Latino in the United States.

          In his piece, Rodriguez frankly admits that his literary agent has “…encouraged from [him] a book that answers a simple question: What do Hispanics mean to the life of America?”  (Rodriguez 424).  So is “Hispanic” merely an assignment for Rodriguez and not a lifestyle?  In Brown is the Color of Philosophy, an interview focused on Rodriguez’ Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Rodriguez admits to interviewer Claudia M. Milian Arias that "Brown is a literary performance, not a scholarly one…I intend my work to be read in response to the political and social issues of our time” (Rodriguez 278).  One can only infer then that “Hispanic” in response to the question “What do Hispanics mean to the life of America?” can purely be read for entertainment, and not—as one might imprudently assume—to learn about Hispanics; or what they mean to America.

          As earlier mentioned, “Hispanic” stems from a larger work entitled Brown: The Last Discovery of America.  This autobiographical rendering, along with Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation (Rodriguez’ first two memoirs), attempts to answer the question “How did Hispanics become brown?” (Stavans 30).  Regrettably, this is another inquisition tarnished by lavish language and arbitrary accounts from Rodriguez’ personal life.  In his preface, Rodriguez warns, “You will often find brown in this book as the cement between leaves of paradox.  You may not want paradox in a book.  In which case, you had better seek a pure author” (Rodriguez xxi).  Rodriguez keeps his promise, as confirmation of his counteractive approach is evident as he rants about what it takes for a piece of literature to be considered a classic: “One cannot arrange a classic.  It is the reader’s life that opens a book.  I am dead.  Only a reader can testify to the ability of literature to open; sometimes this opening causes pain” (Rodriguez 12).  Rodriguez has allowed his mind to wander as far as the countless clauses his 232-page ramble will allow.

          After reading “Hispanic”, I felt almost altered—admittedly bewildered—and fundamentally enlightened.  Rodriguez composes an incredible landscape, depicting life as a Mexican American with language that is both beautiful and shows a “mind engaged” (Stavans 31).  Ultimately, however, Rodriguez’ lush jargon acts as a barrier, disabling the reader from understanding the importance of the subject matter presented in “Hispanic”.  The exclusiveness of his own affairs in an essay about cohesion in all races contradicts the main ideas found within Rodriguez’ piece.  Perchance this rhetorical paradox is a metaphor for what Hispanics mean to American culture?

“Sometimes they hate me for the freedom I describe to them.  Sometimes they are freed by my description” –Richard Rodriguez



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