A California essayist on American optimism and how landscape shapes our imaginations

An interview with Richard Rodriguez.

  • Richard Rodriguez.

    Timothy Archibald
 

Page 2

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.