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Brown Like You
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Richard Rodriguez

      . . . cultural observer. Author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father and Hunger of Memory, Mr. Rodriguez is also an editor at the Pacific News Service in San Francisco. He is a contributing editor for "Harper's" magazine, for the Sunday "Opinion" section of the Los Angeles Times and for The New York Times. He has been a regular essayist on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" since the early 1990s.


We don't yet know what it meant when Columbus and Indians found each other in 1492, says Richard Rodriguez, while we continue to live with the consequences. The beginning of a new century finds America in the midst of colliding ideas and an explosion of thinking which Mr. Rodriguez characterizes as "Brown" -- the color that combines all colors, includes the contradictory.

Richard Rodriguez is working to take America back from loud-talking pundits and politicians. He says America is brown in the same ways he is, a glorious blend -- descendent of the Conquistador and the Indian, a gay man and also a Roman Catholic, culturally descended from both the Spanish and the English empires, half-way between the greenness of youth and the white of old age in his middle years -- a melt-down that far surpasses the color of his skin. Why have we not talked about "brown" before when we embody it? Because, says Mr. Rodriguez, sex is at the heart of brown and Americans are uncomfortable with the fact that people fall in love. Love crimes, he says, are more dangerous today than hate crimes.

Acknowledging that people fall in love explained brown children playing behind Monticello. It now explains the American girl who says she's a Jewish-Muslim. Why is Richard Rodriguez able to see what he calls another energy at work, one that has always been at work in American culture but is seldom acknowledged? Because, he says, his deepest secret was an erotic one: he has always been in love with the "wrong" sex.

Since Mr. Rodriguez is confident religion is going to be the great energy of the 21st century -- dividing us, uniting us and causing conflict -- we need to leave behind the thrice-divorced pundits and politicians screaming "family values" and engage each other, struggle together to understand what it means to be an American. We need to bring the three communal desert religions to which most Americans adhere together with our Hellenistic culture of individualism. "We" and "I" are both required to create a shared future, he reminds us

Being alive today means living many lives, simultaneously, Mr. Rodriguez concludes. We change our identities the way kids change channels. He sees this as part of a larger shift, a dialectic he perceives as America moves away from its traditional East-West orientation to the country of El Norte -- posed between the desert and the tundra, between hot and cold, Canada's cerebral "multi-culturalism" joined to Mexico's deep understanding that people fall in love. Both are intent on melting down the identities which drive people apart. Mr. Rodriguez looks forward to the day when we all say "Yes" to every category offered by the Census Bureau, when we all belong to an American experience that connects African-Americans and the Chinese who helped build California in the 19th century, to Richard Rodriguez's Mexican ancestors. Only then will we know the true meaning of success.

[This Program was recorded May 21, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia, US]

Conversation 1

Richard Rodriguez tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why the metaphor of "brown" is so powerful. Mr. Rodriguez describes the jagged line he's recording in his essays. He relates art's cubism to the way it feels to be alive today.


Conversation 2

The present day is both hard and thrilling, Mr. Rodriguez says, giving examples. He wonders if we yet know the meaning of Columbus' arrival in the Western Hemisphere. He suggests his own childhood erotic secret helped him understand the unspoken energy of sex in the American culture. He elaborates, with examples of how eroticism is always retranslating the known world. Mr. Rodriguez explains why he believes religion is going to be the great energy of the 21st century and speaks of the three desert religions of the West, which he believes may be starting to enter a feminine phase.


Conversation 3

Reminding us that he was created in the 16th century when Conquistadors and Indians met, Mr. Rodriguez explains the advantage of Latin America's acknowledgement of brownness. He sees a dialectic opening up as America becomes part of El Norte, finding itself between one culture that champions the intellectual construct of multi-culturalism and one that understands people fall in love. He describes why English is not America's language. Brown, he says, results when cultures and religions combine, coming together within a single child. He offers examples. He reminds us of the conflict between America's three communal desert religions and the individualism embodied in America's Hellenistic culture.


Conversation 4

There's a cruelty toward youth in America, Mr. Rodriguez believes, confident we stamp it out early. He believes the source is parents' unwillingness to relinquish their own childish ways, then offers an alternative view, the positive side of this childishness in the culture. He explains his personal ambiguity about this cultural tension. Americans are not a tragic people, he says, America announces its identity through the newcomer. In contrast, Mr. Rodriguez tells his own story, contrasting his experience to that of his Mexican father. Latin America's sense of the tragic is explored. Mr. Rodriguez describes the opposing pulls of America's Puritanism.


Conversation 5

Mr. Rodriguez explains how his hostility to America's political conversation energizes him as a writer. The "chattering classes" are considered. We don't allow ourselves any of the fluidity of our lives, Mr. Rodriguez observes, refusing to be categorized himself, objecting when political talk shows narrow life to labels and frozen agendas. America is dulled by a false conversation, he insists, distressed that we rely on politicians and political categories instead of having conversations with each other. He calls people, instead, to the unwritten histories told in grandmothers' kitchens, not what's grabbed by the loudest voices. He assures us social class is among America's most silent topics, and expands.


Conversation 6

Valuing oneself within the context of where we come from is vital, says Mr. Rodriguez, convinced that success is never an individual accomplishment. He describes how his homosexuality has empowered him to re-describe America as a place where people fall in love in unsanctioned ways. He points out that love crimes are more dangerous than hate crimes in America and offers positive alternative scenarios.



We are deeply impressed by Richard Rodriguez' expansive humanity and his wide-ranging intellect, his grace with ideas crucial to our times and willingness to work to "take America back" from the loud and the intolerant. His essays are exemplary, his call to engage with each other instead of defaulting to frozen political agendas is bracing. We thank Richard for his work and for his friendship.

Related Links:

Richard Rodriguez extraordinary book, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, is published by Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam. Days of Obligation is also a Penguin Book. Bantam Books published Hunger of Memory.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning history, The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed tells the story of Thomas Jefferson's 40-year relationship with his wife's sister and slave, Sally Hemings. A story which well illustrates Mr. Rodriguez's views on love and sex in America.

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