Rodriguez remembers Sacramento in his books

May 4, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

California's great Central Valley has produced an abundance over the years - an abundance of wonderful literary writers. The California Council for the Humanities, aware of this fact, commissioned an anthology of pieces by Central Valley writers, "Highway 99," which has sold 12,000 copies and is now in its third printing.

"It seems to have tapped a hidden longing for what -- cultural self-identification? -- for people in the Valley," said Alden Mudge, publicity director for the council. "It seems to mean a lot to Valley residents to discover they have a long and deep literary heritage," he added.

In addition to publishing "Highway 99," the council also organized a series of public conversations with Valley writers. Last month, more than 800 people turned out to see Maxine Hong Kingston in Stockton and on a Sunday afternoon in late April more than 650 people came to the Sacramento Public Library to hear from Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez may be best known for his occasional appearances as an essayist on the evening Newshour with Jim Lehrer.

But his two autobiographical books, "Hunger of Memory," and "Days of Obligation," are must-reading for anyone who lives near or ever ventures to Sacramento.

Kevin Starr, state librarian, introduced Rodriguez, describing him as "a man bridging many worlds...a courageous sharer of his inner life." Rodriguez has become labeled "courageous" because of his insistence, particularly in "Hunger of Memory," that affirmative action policies not be applied to him when he began searching for a teaching job. He earned degrees from Stanford, Columbia and Berkeley and didn't feel at all under-privileged.

"I have been accused of being right-wing," he said. "But I did not want to be rewarded for being disadvantaged. I was not disadvantaged."

When Rodriguez was growing up, his mother worked as a secretary for Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. Legislators, lobbyists and jurists knew her by name.

Rodriguez spoke highly of his early education in Sacramento, at Sacred Heart Grammar School and Christian Brothers High School, where the Irish nuns filled his head with a love of D.H. Lawrence and the English working class.

"The Irish nuns taught me the queen's English," he said. Later he developed his own tastes in literature and cites as his favorites today James Baldwin, Willa Cather, William Saroyan and Joan Didion (the latter two also featured in "Highway 99").

Rodriguez said he never knew what he wanted to be when he was growing up. "I never guessed I'd be a writer," he said. He inherited a dislike of the land from his mother and always feared that he would someday have to work the earth to make a living. In a way that became true because he writes about the land, about his memories.

This is from "Days of Obligation": "We arrived late on a summer afternoon in an old black car. The streets were arcades of elm trees. The houses were white. The horizon was flat. Sacramento, California, lies on a map around 500 miles from the ruffled skirt of Mexico. "Growing up in Sacramento, I found the distance between the two countries to be farther than any map could account for. But the distance was proximate also, like the masks of comedy and tragedy painted over the screen at the Alhambra Theater.

"Both of my parents came from Mexican villages where the bells rang within an hour of the clocks of California. I was born in San Francisco, the third of four children. When my older brother developed asthma, the doctors advised a drier climate. We moved 100 miles inland to Sacramento.

"Sacramento was a ladies' town - 'the Camellia Capital of the World.' Old ladies in summer dresses ruled the sidewalks. Nature was rendered in Sacramento, as in a recipe, through screens - screens on the windows; screens on all the doors. My mother would close the windows and pull down the shades on the west side of the house 'to keep out the heat' through the long afternoons."

Now Rodriguez has another career as a TV essayist. He has a high-pitched voice and doesn't always enunciate clearly.

"I'll admit what you people are too polite to say," he told the audience at the Sacramento Library. "I'm terrible on TV." Rodriguez is bad on TV the way Julia Child or Ed Sullivan were terrible - so human that people loved them. His books, too, have that very human feel.

Rodriguez also made a pitch to young people to become readers and writers and find the stories sitting right in front of them.

"To young people I say: You cannot become a writer unless you are a reader," he said. "And the notion that this place has no history is a false one - we are full of history and ghosts. There are wonderful stories in between the slaughter of Indians, John Sutter, and the mistreatment of Chinese. There are many stories in California."

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