A California essayist on American optimism and how landscape shapes our imaginations
by Jenny Shank
Richard Rodriguez grew up with Mexican immigrant parents, "a scholarship boy in Sacramento." His new book, Darling: A Spiritual Biography (Viking, October) is dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy nuns who taught him to speak English. Rodriguez's autobiographical essay collections include Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. "I'm not interested in writing a memoir to tell you what I did that year," he says. "I'm interested always in writing a biography of my ideas, of how I came to think about those things." In Darling, Rodriguez examines his faith, particularly what it means that three of the world's major religions were founded in the desert. At the same time, he ponders the state of American consciousness today, looking at Las Vegas, Nev., California and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. HCN contributor Jenny Shank recently spoke with Rodriguez from his home in San Francisco; the interview has been edited and condensed.
High Country News One of the main themes of Darling is the idea that Christianity is "a desert religion," as are Judaism and Islam. Can deserts today, especially those in the American West, contribute to one's faith in these desert religions?
Richard Rodriguez A lot of the things we think about the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God come out of the fact that the Israelites experienced a very specific ecology. The God who came to them was a desert God. One of the most important desert cities in the American West is Las Vegas. Las Vegas seems to represent a particular anxiety we feel in this landscape. This is not a landscape to which we feel immediately welcomed.
We have learned, in desert cities like Phoenix, to insist on the desert's sky by denying the desert's terrain. So we plant gardens that are not appropriate, we water the desert. In Las Vegas, there's this fantasy, this architectural idea of the denial of the desert: If the desert is flat, you build these shapes into the sky; if the desert is by definition emptiness, then you can fill it with toys. You can fill it with the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower or with golf courses.
I find Death Valley to be one of the most beautiful environments in the world, but it is really scary to hike around Death Valley. What everyone says about the desert, "Well, there's plenty of life in the desert," is also true, but we have to say that while coating ourselves with sunblock. The desert threatens us.
HCN I've never been to Las Vegas. I've been avoiding it.
RR I'm going to send you there! You have to go to Las Vegas. If you really love nature, you have to go there to see how frightened we are of nature; it's one of the reasons we light up the night in Las Vegas. Nature is no easy thing to live with.
HCN You discuss the contrast between Mexican "stoicism" and American "optimism" that plays into the conflict over our mutual border. Would an understanding of our countries' differences in outlook ease tensions?
RR What Mexico knows is the suffering of life. It's a culture based on that notion that to live is to suffer and to endure. Bravery is the virtue, not winning.
People come into the United States illegally because there's no food for the family or their mother needs an operation. There is a sense of obligation to other people. It's very rare to find somebody just coming on his own. Mexicans come searching for an American dream that has exhausted itself in the American consciousness. You meet optimism coming across the border from the South, from a tragic culture, at the same time that the optimistic culture of America seems to be in a kind of dejection or despair. That's the paradox of our border for me. The peasant is optimistic, and those who are guarding themselves against the peasant tend to be afraid. The collision between these two impulses is really strong.
No one is talking about the human drama playing out on the border, on that extraordinary landscape. At the very time when China has turned its wall into a tourist attraction and the Chinese are everywhere in the world, America builds a wall against the future. That should tell you a great deal about how it is with us right now.
HCN You write, "The traditional task of the writer in California has been to write about what it means to be human in a place advertised as paradise." As a Californian, is this a subject that has been important in your writing?
RR Oh, yes. In California, the sense of disappointment is very large around me, partly because the state changes so much. It's rather like Colorado in that sense. I remember when the Front Range was emptier, without suburban development. If you're past 30, you remember a completely different landscape.
There's this sense of disappointment that California was never what it advertised itself to be. In the early 20th century, when Los Angeles real estate interests began to advertise this ideal landscape and weather, people came out from New Jersey and Nebraska -- and then it became so crowded that they ended up on a freeway that wasn't moving.
But in some ways I'm optimistic about California because it's filling with people who came here from a different direction, from the South, people for whom California is not the West but El Norte. The West was always -- as defined by people from the East Coast -- an unraveling of history. You could find yourself alone in the West; you could be free of the confinements of the East by going West.
People who come to El Norte tend to go to cities, because that's where the jobs are. They tend to see the landscape between the South and the North as continuous. People, on the other hand, who come to California from Asia are seeing California as the beginning, not the end. So they are without that pessimism that has defined us in California -- people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge because there's no farther to go, we have reached the end of America. Asians say this is where America begins.
HCN How does the landscape in which a person lives affect his or her viewpoint?
RR For all of our talk about environmentalism, it's amazing how little we talk about landscape and how it informs our imagination. When you and I talk of the West, there are millions of people in California for whom this is not the West. My mother used to call California "El Norte," and I hated it because I wanted to live in California with cowboys. That was really glamorous. When she was talking about people coming to El Norte to get these jobs picking peaches, it wasn't glamorous at all to me. They didn't ride a horse, they were really poor and they spent their last bet on the ground.
Probably the most important consciousness of the West belongs to John Muir. Muir was from Scotland, and he describes California as the other side of the mountain. In some sense that's an East Coast vision of California. But in fact Muir came to California from the water as an Asian would, from the sea. He found in (the state) this beginning, but he also knew that it was limited. So he begins to sound this notion that we have to protect the land because it's finite. The environmental movement did not begin to talk about preserving America in the crowded brick cities of the East Coast. That begins in places like the forests of California, where people realize that in order to have it for another generation you need to protect it. It's the great gift of people like Muir to realize that there is a continent that comes to an end; there is a landscape of our imagination.© High Country News