California Mix: Modern, Mexican, and Memories

RICHARD RODRIQUEZ'S first book, "Hunger of Memory," established him as one of the leading Hispanic writers in the United States. But watch how you use that word "Hispanic." Rodriquez, whose new book is "Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father," calls the term "a complete political fiction."

Rodriquez prefers to be known as a Mexican-American, and his specific area of attention is the curious mix of cultural, religious, and political forces at work in his native California. In "Days of Obligation," the author applies a literary microscope to such disparate, yet connected details of California life as the lovingly preserved 18th-century missions founded by Fr. Junipero Serra, the meticulous restoration of San Francisco's Victorian architecture by the city's gay community, and the urban odd co uple of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.

What's going on between those two cities, which straddle the US-Mexican border, is a gauge of California's future, and indeed of the future of all of North America, according to Rodriquez. During a recent visit to the Monitor's offices in Boston, he put it this way: "On one side, you have a city [Tijuana] about to enter the industrial age, a kind of Dickensian city with palm trees; on the other side you have a city that is at the end of the industrial age. They are not in the same century. How are they g oing to live together?"

In a broad sense, his latest book revolves around the same question. Rodriquez's "argument" with his father is really an exploration of how the new California, with declining expectations and more closely bound to Mexico than ever, will coexist with older memories of how the state once was - and, as some would hold, ought to be. "There's a tension in California between generations, between a father and his son, between the Daughter of the Golden West and her immigrant ancestors," he said during his Bosto n visit.

The last reference is to an organization of native-born California women, some of whom can trace their ancestry in the state back to the 1849 Gold Rush. As Rodriquez notes in his book, the Daughters of the Golden West have been active in preserving early Spanish/Catholic sites, like the missions, which symbolize a philosophy and culture quite different from that of their pioneer forebears, most of whom trudged westward with their Protestant individualism firmly in tow.

Who are the ones bringing dreams of self-made fortunes to the state now? Rodriquez argues that they are the legions of young Mexicans rushing up from Tijuana. They are the vanguard, he says, of a Mexican nation that is collectively starting to shed its abhorrence of everything norte americano and is turning to free markets and economic opportunity. Mexico has the chance, he says, to become the crucial bridge between the United States and the rest of Latin America.

Rodriquez's references to ethnicity are notable for their lack of narrow nationalism. He's clearly proud, even fascinated, by his Mexicanness and his Indian heritage, but he sees them as streams feeding a bigger cultural identity, not as "causes." He criticizes bilingual education and multiculturalism as movements that constrict individuals' self-discovery, rather than advance it.

Irish nuns in Sacramento's parochial schools, Jewish professors at the University of California campus in Berkeley, and Chinese neighbors in San Francisco - all helped shape his cultural identity. That's what being an American is all about, Rodriguez argues - with his father or anyone else who happens to be at hand. We're in the American experiment together, he says, noting that black history, for example, is really our history.

His expansive view breaks through the biological confines of ethnicity into something like true humanity. It's what makes Rodriquez's work well worth reading.

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