American Paradoxes

Richard Rodriguez arrives at the small, windowed café in San Francisco looking softly formal, wearing a slightly wrinkled linen jacket on this glittering late summer afternoon. We’re just steps away from the hospital where he was born, in 1944, though he was raised in nearby Sacramento, where his father worked as a manual laborer and his mother as a typist. Rodriguez is gracious and a bit shy, and one can still see the Catholic schoolboy he was in his manners. But he is not afraid to show emotion: during conversation, he often leans into the table’s edge to press the urgency of his point. His large, round eyes tear up. When he laughs, his entire face opens. His elegiac voice, in person as on the page, is rich with the awareness of loss, which he holds alongside the celebration of progress. Rodriguez expresses sorrow over his fading confidence and competence in his first language, Spanish, which began when he was small and the nuns paid a visit to his parents to suggest that speaking English at home would be preferable for the boy’s progress. Rodriguez went on to attend Stanford on scholarship, receive a master’s degree in theology from Columbia, and spend several years studying Renaissance English literature at UC Berkeley. But he has paid a price to speak and write in precise, elegant, unaccented English.

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