Living Writers Series Features Richard Rodriguez

Leah Robinson

Richard Rodriguez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, self-identifies as a morose homosexual and an enemy of hypocrisy. His writing and politics are undoubtedly defined by his unique personality, but Rodriguez draws a clear distinction between the author of his books and the man standing on the podium of Colgate University.

“The voice you hear isn’t the voice on the page. I intend to channel Richard Rodriguez on this podium,” he said as he spoke last Thursday, November 7 in Love Auditorium.

The books of dense, somber essays that Rodriguez completes, in his words, roughly every 10 years are heartbreaking, erudite and witty. His newest book, “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography,” explores his own considerations on religion and sexuality in a post-9/11 world. His contemplations take him back to both the real and metaphorical desert of the Bible, in which the god of all three Abrahamic religions made his spiritual home on earth. However, Rodriguez felt strongly that he owes the success of his newest work to his readers, as they are the ones who must try and understand him and complete his sentences.

“For those who are cursed or blessed to be able to write it is because they have mastered the art of talking to the stranger,” Rodriguez said.

As a young boy entering an all-white school in Sacramento, CA with a vocabulary of only 50 English words, Rodriguez learned first-hand how to adjust to speaking with middle-class American strangers. The author described his early struggles with language as intensifying his solitude, and said that a minority is someone who can’t make their voice heard because they are unable, for whatever reason, to speak with a stranger. Christening this problem the “silence of class,” Rodriguez spoke about his own struggle to learn to use his voice and reach out to the multitude of strangers surrounding him.

“It’s a tricky thing to be a writer,” Rodriguez put it.  However, Rodriguez remains a celebrated writer, both in his work as a journalist and author of fiction. With a B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D from the University of California Berkeley, Rodriguez has gone on to become a Fulbright Scholar, teacher, journalist and regular guest on PBS’s “NewsHour.” His written works include “Mexico’s Children,” “Brown: the Last Discovery of America,” and “Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Rodriguez’s novels have touched on his own journey from one world into another in which language assimilation played a key role. In order for one to be understood by others around him or her, the author pointed out, he or she must first conform to the rules of grammar and larger principles of that society that may not be the same as his or her own.

In his discussion of the allegiance that comes with learning a new language, Rodriguez brought his ideas of self-expression back to the Colgate community. College, the author pointed out, is a place in which one is never alone and is instead tied to a larger, communal process of learning and growing. While friends are integral to this course, Rodriguez challenges his audience to sit away from their friends, as one can feel self-conscious in front of their closest classmates in a way that silences their public voice. Those art forms that our society respects most deeply – the painting, the novel, the poem – show the artist as reaching out to the stranger in an effort to share their truest self.

“Your education, if you use it properly, will teach you how to talk to strangers – and that’s the most freeing art form in so many ways,” Rodriguez said.

Contact Leah Robinson at [email protected]