“The child of immigrant parents is supposed to perch on a hyphen, taking only the dose of America he needs to advance in America.”
Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father defies definition, but if your heart is drawn to the issues of immigration and ethnicity our country is wrestling with, there is no more intimate or powerful prose to than that of Richard Rodriguez. His book invites you to sit with someone who is both an insider and an outsider. Rodriguez is seeking answers, but searching through poetry and narrative instead of ideology.
In Days of Obligation, the reader receives a tangible glimpse into the nuances of the immigrant experience, but they also learn exactly how far they might be from understanding a story they have not lived. For Rodriguez, immigration pulls children toward assimilation instead of tradition, while parents seek new opportunities and grieve the loss of their mother country. The author’s father is the quiet, powerful voice underlying this essay collection. He reminds us life is beautiful and difficult whatever path is followed.
The memoir begins with an unlikely journey. Rodriguez is searching for his parent’s unnamed Mexican hometown with a BBC documentary crew, and the first essay finds him doubled over a toilet, vomiting. Rodriguez is a South American Indian of Aztec descent, but he’s lived his life in California. As he looks for the unknown village, he searches for his thesis for Days of Obligation. Is he writing a book about countries, cultures or theologies?
It dawns on him he is writing about comedy and tragedy. California is a Grecian comedy, where the absurd can come true and “it is possible to start anew.” This comedy is built on the individualism of Protestantism, Rodriguez asserts, whereas the communal, largely Catholic Mexico knows tragedy, and is thus a happier place because “tragic cultures serve up better food than optimistic cultures; tragic cultures have sweeter children, more opulent funerals.”
As a California resident, his words resonate. The state, under its shiny veneer, is “such a sad place, really—a state where children run away from parents, a state of pale beer, and young old women; and divorced husbands living alone in condos.” Still, Rodriguez marvels at California’s achievement and its defiance of both history and ancestors.
Later essays go on to invite us into vignettes of Rodriguez’s life, as he explores what it really means to be an Aztec-blooded brown man in America, who doesn’t know a culture other than this all-consuming melting pot. Rodriguez is considered “other” in both America and Mexico, and when drawn at last to the country of his father, he does “not expect to find anything that pertains” to himself. His search gives the reader a glimpse of the complex Mexican and Indian histories, traditions and politics.
Modern-day Mexico is losing its men to the promise of a better life for their families in the United States. It is not America these men want, but its possibilities. Rodriguez says the immigrants do not know yet that America’s opportunity is all-encompassing. Once they learn, it will be too late.
America is an abstract place where “deliveries get made, phones are answered, brakes are repaired,” but it is also a place that teaches immigrant children to care more about themselves than the embrace of the family. America has a way of homogenizing. Politicians use the description ‘Hispanic’ to melt together the nuances of unique cultures. A “tumult of pigments and altars and memories” is ignored through the application of one label, and children are told this is who they are.
But Mexico cannot be fully disowned or muted; she is a memory, and she is present. Southern Californians are intimately acquainted with this truth. While the rest of the country might debate a wall, we see beyond the wall to Mexico. It’s here around us, in the carne asada and the lilt of local dialect. There is no dividing California up along neat lines. Tijuana is American callousness spilling over, and Southern California towns and farmland are planted firmly in Mexico’s family. This state used to be Mexico, but it’s not purely America. It can’t exist as just one or the other. The questions of immigration, opportunity and inheritance are never as clear as the talking heads on cable news would like to make them. Rodriguez says Tijuana fathers worry their teenagers will learn disrespect from America. San Diego says Washington is concerned about Mexican drug cartels. Still the Mexican father and his son will cross over and Americans will not connect their “hunger for drugs with the raising of drug lords.” On both sides there is desire and concern, but the border cannot be tidily contained.
Just north of the Mexico border, between the ticky tacky houses of modern California and the raw history of its wild past, stand the missions. Most of them have become theme park attractions, restored into a parody of themselves. Here, Rome planted gardens until Mexico won independence and missions became extinct. Eventually, they would be raised from the ashes. As Rodriguez sees it, “the missions were a rubble of popish nonsense but they were the oldest things around. If the missions were allowed to sink back into the earth, then what hope for the enduring influence of any Californian?” America is abstract, searching for itself and meaning, trying to find a politically correct tradition that it can enshrine. So the Protestants rebuilt Catholic missions as a way of saving the past and securing the future, but the restorations are often so devoid of understanding that they “preserve only strangeness.”
A few hundred miles above Mexico lies Los Angeles, a young, shallow, sprawling city built by immigrant children. Rodriguez says L.A. is tempting, but America is irresistible. Parents come for choices, but “here is inevitability.” Rodriguez narrates how American teachers tell immigrant children to speak up and look up, then go home to parents who can’t believe their children will look them in the eye. Immigrant parents came to seek opportunity for their offspring, but they do not know how to interact with the American creed of confident individuality. “The child of immigrant parents is supposed to perch on a hyphen, taking only the dose of America he needs to advance in America,” Rodriguez writes. This is, of course, impossible.
Rodriguez’s father is skeptical of American freedom. Immigrant mothers say that they do not want American children, fearing L.A., Huck Finn and Daisy Miller. Rodriguez admonishes these mothers: “She should have thought of that before she came. She will live to see that America takes its meaning from adolescence. She will have American children.”
In contrast to the communal spirituality of Mexican Catholicism, early America was Puritan, trusting the solitary life and leaving behind the English Church’s traditions. In this sense, Rodriguez says America brings loss. “The son of Italian immigrant parents is no longer Italian. America is the country where one stops being Italian or Chinese or German.” In the modern classroom, children learn parodies of cultures, but neither do they learn the authentic narrative of American soil.
While Rodriguez is searching for his Mexican roots, he reads of “British kings and dissident Protestants, because they were the beginning of us.” He confesses “America is not a tale for sentimentalists,” and asserts we should ensure history books are more real than flattering. It is the seventeenth-century Puritans, he says, that will help us understand the rebellion we see in the American city, and cowboys and Indians teach us the “tragedies that created the country which will create us.” When the reality of the American narrative is skipped over, immigrant children learn generic assimilation is of the utmost importance in creating unity. They aren’t encouraged to choose traditions and honor and preserve wherever they may be.
Rodriguez’s memoir draws to a close as he remembers a trip to Rome with his unimpressed Mexican father. Rodriguez’s mother has missed Mexico and idealized America. His father has been realistic and indifferent, never renouncing Mexico but never embracing America or the European cultures it came from, either. Rodriguez’s father is only satisfied by the catacombs in Rome: “He had seen the final things. He was confirmed in his estimate of nature.” Tragedy quelled the homesickness, bones upon bones swallowed up his lonely American struggle.
“Life is harder than you think, boy” he says to Rodriguez, then just 14.
“You’re thinking of Mexico, Papa.”
Sharon is a writer, photographer and educator, living in Southern California. You can find more of her work on Instagram @sharonmckeeman and at www.sharonmckeeman.com.