Book Review

Brown Like Us?


Like most good Chicano undergraduates, I was ready for Richard Rodriguez when he came to speak at the University of Houston. I had read (twice) his first book, Hunger of Memory–the infamous memoir that slammed affirmative action and bilingual education, and made him a symbol of shame amongst Chicano academics. In my hand was a list of questions I planned to ask the man who was referred to in my Mexican American Literature classes as a “self-hating Chicano” and a “puppet for the conservative America” (though his books were always required reading for those courses). I made sure I sat in the front row so Rodriguez would notice my “Who’s the Pilgrim?” t-shirt.

When I was handed the program for the lecture, I noticed the odd title of his speech: “The Browning of America.” What does this anti-bilingual education, anti-Ethnic Studies pundit know about “the Browning of America?,” I thought. I was expecting to see a title like “Real Heroes Don’t Wear Sombreros.”

Then he spoke. “The browning of America is an erotic inevitability,” he said. “It began with La Malinche, who may not have been raped by Cortez as we have been led to believe, but may have actually wanted Cortez.” Chicano students looked at each other, puzzled. “I didn’t think this guy would know who La Malinche was,” one student whispered to me. Rodriguez went on to say that the persistent migration of “Latin American peasants” to the U.S. was a revolutionary act that was dismantling borders. Latino immigrants were erasing borders faster and better than NAFTA or any Latin American businessmen. “I admire today’s immigrant for their subversion,” he added.

More baffled looks. More itchy heads. Subversion? Admiring the immigrant? Was this man in front of us the same man who wrote Hunger of Memory? The same man we had been taught to scorn, ridicule, and even hate?

It wasn’t. The Richard Rodriguez who stood before us looked nothing like the man on the cover of his first book, published 15 years earlier. Moreover, he rarely mentioned bilingual education, affirmative action, or the status of Ethnic Studies programs in America. Instead, he spoke of being brown in a black and white country, the Latinization of the United States, the resurrection of the Indian–subjects that we had thought would never capture his interest. When a student asked why he exhibited so much “self hatred” in Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez laughed at the question.

“I once went up to a professor who wrote a book that influenced me and told him how much I loved his book,” he said. “He told me he had since disowned that book. Some books are merely photos of writers at that time.” That was about as close as he got to mentioning his first book.

I left the lecture hall confused. Up to that point, I thought Rodriguez symbolized the overly Americanized Latino who, deep down inside, wanted to be white. He was the Super Assimilated relative we mocked at family functions. (At the same time he made me happy that there was a Mexican American in this world more acculturated than I was, since I didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t have a Latino first name.)

Like a number of Chicanos, I had pigeon-holed Rodriguez into this symbol of shame, and used him as a measure of my own politically correct notion of identity. But that afternoon I discovered that Hunger of Memory was an old picture of Rodriguez. And very few of us had the updated Polaroid.

Brown: The Last Discovery of America is the third book of the nonfiction “trilogy” that began with Hunger of Memory 20 years ago, followed a decade later by Days of Obligation. While those two books were meditations on class and ethnicity in America, Brown is a meditation on race–a meditation he began seriously working on around seven years ago.

“Every book finds its author at a different point in his life,” Rodriguez recently told me. “The biggest difference with this new book, I think, is that Brown finds me as a middle-age man.” The book has received rave reviews from East Coast liberals who have always seen Rodriguez as the foremost public intellectual and “original thinker” on Mexican Americans (though these same folks are likely not to know of any others).

Since Days of Obligation, Rodriguez says he has confronted old age and has watched his parents dying. He has lectured on campuses about the Latinization of America and has still faced hostile Chicano students protesting and interrupting his speeches. However, he has engaged in very public debates with anti-immigrant nativists like British-born Peter Brimelow. He has continued as a regular essayist on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and as a prolific op-ed contributor to newspapers across the country. His subjects mainly focus on race in America and the growing Latino population.

“Brown is a very personal book,” Rodriguez explained, “though it is more subtle than Hunger of Memory and less subtle than Days of Obligation.”

It is also his least linear book–part memoir, part social criticism, part long tangents (and there are many of them). Rodriguez brings the reader up to date with what’s been happening in his own life, while also trying to explain what the growing Latino presence means to America. His main message is that the presence of U.S. Latinos, more accurately mestizos, people of multiracial origin, is fundamentally and culturally changing the way the nation looks at race and at itself. He uses his experience as a journalist, writer, and American as an example.

“I write of a color,” Rodriguez writes, “that is not a singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color produced by careless desire, even by accident; by two or several. I write of blood that is blended… I write about race in America in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.”

“Brown is not just a meditation on race,” Rodriguez said. “It also concerns shit–which is brown–and the mud into which Genesis says we will all return and Spanish Cubanism and the cleaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

Rodriguez debunks the idea of “Hispanic” as a race, calling it a meaningless bureaucratic creation of the Nixon Administration, which tried to classify all Spanish-speaking people in the United States as a single group. Instead he argues that the very creation of Brown is based on a swallowing up of different peoples into the New World melting pot of the Americas, a subversive and ironic act. It is based on obtaining new and old cultural traits from others, then forming a new identity, even one that transcends national borders.

It’s a poetically powerful, if not romantic, notion of Brownness. If everyone has sex with everyone else, we’ll get a world of mestizo-looking people, peace and love would reign supreme, and racism, as we know it, will disappear. The problem is that in this brown and mestizo world, there are still racial hierarchies and privilege, just as in all Latin American countries. Rodriguez alludes to, but never addresses this.

His Chicano critics will be surprised to learn in Brown that a pre-Hunger Rodriguez was an admirer of James Baldwin’s work. (In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez argued that there was no such thing as African American Literature.) His Chicano critics will also be surprised to learn that a pre-Hunger Rodriguez actually attended a Malcolm X speech. (He never tells us what Malcolm X said or how it affected him. Why was he attracted to Malcolm X? His politics? His humor? His looks? Unfortunately Rodriguez has a tendency to offer bold declarations and then fail to follow up on them.)

The old Rodriguez of Hunger of Memory hasn’t completely disappeared. The author complains, for example, bookstores still segregate books by the race and ethnicity of writers, and still shelve his books in “Hispanic Studies.” (Actually, I found Brown under “Native American Studies” in a Manhattan Barnes and Noble.) He wishes they would just place literature with Literature and that readers would overlook a writer’s ethnicity. This does happen, of course, but when a Mexican American essayist writes three books about being Mexican American, well, his books will likely be placed next to Elizabeth Martinez’s De Colores Means Us. (On the other hand Bill Goldberg’s memoir on wrestling is rarely placed under “Jewish Studies”; nor are Bob Vila’s books on home improvement shelved in “Chicano History.”)

Moreover, sometimes Rodriguez shows his age while writing about race. He mentions that while working out in an “expensive gym” he heard hip-hop blast from the speakers and concluded that this “wasn’t music” nor was it an authentic piece of art from working-class blacks. This may be an accurate statement, especially if he was stair-stepping to Mystikal’s ” Shake That Ass” or any other Bling Bling ballad. But anyone purporting to write about race and culture in America should withhold judgment until after he had heard less commercial, more political hip-hop tunes. (From Nas, Erika Badu or Common, for example. Then again, I doubt I could get any viejos from my family to tolerate Ja Rule.)

But there are more substantial problems with Brown: Most importantly, Rodriguez is often all over the map. He moves from Lawrence of Arabia to Malcolm X to the Puritans to Nixon in one chapter. Then it’s on to Edmund Wilson, Queen Victoria, and the Oregon Trail. Unfortunately, he never gets around to making it clear what they all have to do with the browning of America. And yet, despite its flaws, Brown is still a very engaging book, one that forces the reader to challenge assumptions about race and culture in America. Rodriguez’s prose flows like soft music to the ears, even when his message (and ideas) breaks your heart. The reader will be glad to learn that yes, the updated Polaroid does have color. Rodriguez has evolved. So should we.

Former Houstonian Russell Contreras lives in New York City, where he is currently working on a memoir.