September 18, 2014
Richard Rodriguez —
The Fabric of Our Identity

The second in a four-part series, "The American Consciousness."

After September 11, 2001, Richard Rodriguez traveled to the Middle East to explore his kinship, as a Roman Catholic, with the men who stepped onto airplanes and turned them into weapons of terror. What he learned illuminates some of the deepest paradox and promise of the world we inhabit. He is an especially intriguing conversation partner for right now — a life and mind straddling left and right, religious and secular, immigrant and intellectual. At the Chautauqua Institution, we mine his wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity.

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is a journalist and essayist. He won a Peabody Award for his original commentary on The NewsHour and received the National Humanities Medal in 1993. His books include Hunger Of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery Of America, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.

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In the Room with Richard Rodriguez

"The word diversity comes from the word divide. So when you’re talking about celebrating diversity, are we celebrating the fact that I am not you? What am I celebrating?"

The Mexican-American essayist Richard Rodriguez is one of America’s great observers of self and society. His lyrical writing embodies the way particular human experience, articulately recorded, can reveal deep truths about what is enduringly human and universally animating. A public conversation at the Chautauqua Institution.


The American Consciousness

Human identity is more fluid than ever before. How do we live gracefully in this moment of change, helping to shape it? How do we nurture common life, even as we are reinventing it? With Imani Perry, Richard Rodriguez, Michel Martin, and Nathan Schneider, wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity.

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Is it so difficult to see that some have crossed the line. It seems as Richard Rodriguez is more interested in understanding terrorists than he is that family values is a moving target that doesn't need to be judged by what he thinks are the the best family values. I appreciate many of his insights and his good humor. And whole-heartedly believe we have to hold all there is in one hand to go beyond what we now are. I just can't agree with some of his generalizations nor do I need to understand evil in order to know it's not a necessary part of a better world. I need to understand the innocents that are caught up in the sacrifices to a contemporary Baal.

I am appalled that you would have someone who does not recognize that many of those who abuse substances have no jobs. And a lot of the people who have no jobs have been forced out of them by illegals working in this country. I am not opposed to legal immigration. But I see the thrusting of their children into our country as an attempt to manipulate our emotions about poverty and danger in the world. BUT we cannot accept so many illegal people here working and taking jobs from people who came here legally, or are already US citizens. You are naive to accept his conclusion on the drug using. If you were to examine the food industry, from any business from McDonald's to the high end restaurant, you would find most of the workers there are illegals, mostly from Central America and Mexico.
HE is talking about AMERICANISM...and that is our heritage. And part of our heritage is SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. Be a real citizen and defend the laws of this country; do not oppose the laws of immigration. Or leave.
In addition, his glorifying the ARABS who destroyed people in this country who were citizens, is equally appalling. ISLAM IS TERROR AND HATE, not LOVE.

Richard Rodriguez is brilliant. Your comment, by contrast, is typical of the death rattle of a disintegrating society. "Separation of church and state" has never meant does not mean that religious people shouldn't consult their religious convictions as to political issues. The Bible itself is a political book. Jesus was Himself a refugee in childhood. Remember the flight to Egypt? He was also a lawbreaker, inevitably confronting the demonic powers-that-be in both Jerusalem and Rome. That's why He was crucified. Yes, as Christians we worship a convicted criminal. Let us not forget that.

Carol, I find it hard to believe that you're being edged out of employment at McDonald's, or as a housekeeper, or nanny, or from the work of bussing tables, or migrant farming by 'illegals'. Please tell us more about your experience trying to be gainfully employed in sectors of our society that would, in truth, be the remains of 'untouchables'--if we could honestly speak of the classism/racism that defines social mobility in America.

I listened with disbelief to Richard Rodriguez this morning. In addition to being arrogant (he disparaged anyone who does not agree with his views as "false prophets"; this gives one an idea of the breadth of diversity Rodriguez is willing to tolerate), he also said that the solution to the illegal immigration issue is that people whose families have been here for three generations should be relocated to somewhere else, like Australia. I thought this was a poor attempt at humor at first but it soon became clear through his tedious repetition of the point that it was not.

Well, Mr. Rodriguez, my father and his brothers and many of my ancestors before them fought in the armed services of this country. And those ancestors all came here legally, and played by the rules, and worked hard every day and made something of themselves by it. They built up this country. And I work my rear off every day as well. And now we are being asked to leave, so that illegal immigrants can take it over, because they have more "vitality"?

Has Mr. Rodriguez heard of the efforts to resettle African-Americans back in Africa to solve the "Negro problem", or the plans to resettle Jews in Patagonia to solve the Jewish problem in Europe? Those were justified in terms similar to his blather about "vitality" as well, though I am sure he does not appreciate the obvious parallels.

And I will say this too: I have visited East LA, and Lawrence, MA, and a lot of other places with high rates of illegal immigration. "Vitality" is not the word I would use to describe such squalor, though.

Has NPR really sunk this low, that it will broadcast such blatantly racist, patently offensive trash in such an utterly clueless manner. Shame on all of you, but shame on Richard Rodriguez in particular. You are a disgrace to this country.

I heard only part of this episode, but it struck me that neither Ms Tippet or Mr. Rodriguez mentioned the other end of the Mexican drug traffic: guns from us, the US. As I'm told there is exactly one legal gun store in all of Mexico, in Mexico City, run by the Mexican army. Yet the sickening butchery our second amendment buffs enable below the border passes without notice up here. These
destructive trades feed each other in perfect symmetry.It's the same dynamic as the relationship between the drug trade and the American prison industry

Mr. Rodriguez's thoughts and insights are most interesting and appreciated.

I would like to address some issues regarding the show.
Christa referred to her being part Cherokee, but "it doesn't show". Would she admit this if it did show?

Mr. Rodriguez's wondered why there is so much unhappiness in the USA. He asks this because of all the escape that he sees with drugs and alcohol. I also ask this all the time and it troubles me. In a country where there is so much plenty and potential to fulfill oneself, why is there such escape? I have concluded that there is a rather simple explanation. Americans' origins are significantly northern European and these people have long escaped, via alcohol primarily and historically. And still do so today, wherever they may live. However, today there are many more alternatives to alcohol for escape..sadly.

There is much stress and more in Mr. Rodriquez's voice. I think this is due to the situation we are in. Sadly, we are in a state of war essentially. Not just with Islam, but also on our southern border. After all, the term "reconquest" is used regarding our border. (Just as Mr. Rodriquez's acquaintance in Egypt predicted that once again Spain would be reconquered by Islam.)

Our border with Mexico has always reflected many tension points, white and brown, European and native American, Protestant and Catholic, Anglo and Hispanic, English language and Spanish language. So the tensions have plenty of bases.
When the USA took the southwest from Mexico, there were few Hispanics living in the southwest. Today, there are many more anglos in the Southwest as the surge of peoples comes from over the border, some using the language of reconquest. Hence, there is tension.

In times of tribalism and warfare, there is certainly more demand for purity, of all kinds. Peoples seem to then shore up their walls, just as Spain did with the inquisition after it had fought a centuries-long battle to push Islam, Arabs, Berbers, and Jews out of Spain, and to make it more purely Christian. (And at that time, Muslims and Christians moved out of areas where they were a minority.) But, as Mr. Rodriquez pointed out, there are 3 to 4,000 Arab words in Spanish!

All this said, I hope we can make peace out of all this tension, but the sound of Mr. Rodriquez's voice tells me that it will not be soon.

Great show. I like the observation on the word 'diversity'. We have a choice between love and fear, inclusion and exclusion, freedom and security. This excerpt from CONDITIONS OF FREEDOM , by John MacMurray (first published in 1949) applies to a country as much as it applies to an individual:

".....No man can compass his own
freedom for himself. He must accept it as a free gift from
others; and if they will not give it to him he cannot have
it. This is the law of freedom. Against it our fear and our
pride beat themselves in vain rebellion. If we struggle
to achieve our own private freedom we merely frustrate
ourselves and destroy its possibility; for we cannot free
ourselves from our dependence upon our fellows. That this is not so is one of the illusions of a sophisticated society."

I apparently heard things differently from some other listeners. What I heard Richard Rodriguez saying is that much of America's vitality comes from the fresh energy and hope of the newly arrived. If I am not welcoming that energy and vitality, then maybe I've overstayed my welcome--hence his humorous suggestion that anyone who is third generation or later should go somewhere else. He was nudging me to recognize whether or not I am contributing, or merely benefitting from others' contributions, to making America exceptional.

I live in an area which depends on immigrant labor for meatpacking. Trust me. There are not third generation Americans of any ethnic background clamoring for these jobs. And the first generation immigrants work exceptionally hard to ensure that their children and future grandchildren will not have to work there. The notion that illegals are taking desirable jobs from "real" Americans is largely a myth. Do unemployed software developers really want jobs as housekeepers or meatpackers?


>> And I think to myself, do they not understand that these religions — the
>> Abrahamic religions were religions of the Word. Are religions of the Word and
>> that they — that their power is in the weight of the Word. The Word became
>> flesh. You understand? And it is something carried in the Bar Mitzvah, in by
>> the child, the weight in its hands, it is kissed, it is revered as weight. That is
>> — it enters history and we seem as Christians, well, we sort of understand
>> that, but we sort of don’t. I tell Jewish audiences, if I ever go into a Bar
>> Mitzvah and the kid comes in with a kindle, I’m getting out of there.

Yeah. So I attended a very religious Jewish high school in New Rochelle, New York. And we had this teacher, Mr. S., who would come in the afternoons to teach us math. He didn't know much at all, really, about Judaism, so we tried to share some of our knowledge with him. "Did you know," one of us came to mentioning one day, "that according to Jewish law a Torah scroll has to be written by a trained scribe entirely by hand, ink on parchment, one letter at a time, all 304,805 letters of it. And that it takes six months of full-time manual labor, at very least, just to complete one such scroll."

Mr. S. reflected a few seconds, and replied in absolute seriousness, "Well, that's because God didn't know that we were gonna invent printing presses."

One of the most captivating dialogues I have ever experienced. Rodriguez speaks with a gentle and yet solid authority on the most important issues of our time. As a Hispanic woman I believe new introspections were opened for me in this interview.

This was one of the most compelling interviews I have heard on this program. I am saddened that the point Mr.Rodriguez was making that we as Christians in this country have forgotten the love Jesus came to share was totally overlooked by some listeners. Yes American was established by war and terror inflicted on the original inhabitants and we are still learning the lesson Jesus called us to when he commanded us to "love one another". I still have hope we will learn and in the meantime I thank Mr. Rodriguez for the courage to speak his truth.

"We don't recognize our own myth."

Thank you very much, Richard Rodriguez. Thank you for talking about difficult things. Thank you for talking period. Thank you for talking from first-person

You did have a Catholic as a guest, how about one who is more fully in line with Church teaching, as helpful as he was?

I just listened, belatedly, to this wonderful discussion with Richard Rodriguez and was struck by the quote Krista chose from his writings, in which he quotes Cesar Chavez: "I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!"
Krista said: So I guess today we'd say "humanity" and "human", but I want to suggest we leave this quote as it is. In other quotes I read, when Chavez was talking about humanity he encouraged one to be the "best woman" and "best man" one could be - in the same sentence.
I think here he IS talking about manliness. I think we err to erase manliness and womanliness from our discourse and to replace them with the gender neutral "humanity".
They are such rich words, so much more evocative, don't you think, than even femininity and masculinity?
But also, because the world, life itself, it not gender neutral. True, there are occasions when our humanity is what is challenged, what is called forth, but for all of us, our experience of humanity will always be filtered through the powerful lenses of our gender (now that is an even less poetic word!).
Many languages are gendered - in them, even the table, the chair, the salad, the utensils, have gender. Our language reflects life, and sometimes we need to make sure it stays rich enough even if we ourselves struggle to contain and handle that richness.
In this particular quote, it really sounds like Chavez is talking about manliness - about that ideal that speaks of strength, size, posture, pride, dignity and a kind of immovability that implies stability first with inflexibility and brittleness sometimes hiding themselves behind it. I don't think he is calling people to be human. I think he is calling men, who have to deal with manliness whether they choose to or not, to enlarge their experience of the most typically male courage and strength to include sacrifice, non-violence (the staying of one's hand and impulse) and commitment to justice - a commitment that more often will leave one motionless than in the comfort and clarity that comes with physical momentum. He is inviting all of us to consider that we reteach our instincts not to deny what "machismo" is but pry that term open in our own hearts so that when we see male sacrifice, we think, wholeheartedly - now that is real manliness.
In this sense, we have so, so far to go to reach the goal he has set us! And just think about how a similar statement about womanliness would read, you know?