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A Creation of Outsiders

October 22, 2000|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation." The above article is an excerpt of his essay in the catalog of the show "Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000," which opens today at the L.A. County Museum of Art

SAN FRANCISCO — California's native-born children, whatever our color or tongue, realize very early that California takes every impression. Our parents, on the other hand, are often surprised by how many Californias they find when they get here. Nothing at all like they expected. Nothing like the movie.

My early intuition as a native son was that California was dreamed into being elsewhere. I noticed that paradigmatic Californians weren't so by birth. Richard Diebenkorn came from Oregon. Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma. Willie Mays, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Kerouac, Richard Neutra, Lucy and Desi, Edward Teller--all of them from far away. All of them living forever in California on the same street.

Mickey Mouse was conceived aboard the Santa Fe, westward bound. Minnie was drawn from hisrib, born here. As was John Steinbeck, born in Salinas; his house still stands. Steinbeck's generosity was to invent the Joad family's first view of orange groves, to believe that Oklahoma Joads were more important to the myth of California than their native-born grandchildren who live in suburban Bakersfield and complain about "the changes."

When I was a kid, the nationally advertised version of California was the GI version. Early in the 1940s, thousands of young men had seen California light from train windows--light receding as they shipped out toward tragedy. And in the midst of tragedy, they remembered, perhaps, some bong in the air that promised to redeem them.

After the war, the survivors returned with narrowed eyes, with the GI Bill, with FHA loans, to build a pacific ever-after. They buried the shudder of death beneath hard sentimental weight; beneath green lawns, all-electric kitchens, three bedrooms, two kids, a boy and a girl, and an orderly succession of Christmas lights, tacked up with much goddammit.

Many of these veterans were middle-aged by the time I was their newspaper boy. Many had jobs in the defense industry, because they would forbid tragedy. Each afternoon, I folded and lobbed the world onto their porches. But I was otherwise complicitous in their cover-up. I willingly played the innocent--the native--as did their two towheaded children, a boy and a girl, whooping through the bushes with pheasant feathers tied onto our heads.

I played another role. I played son of the Old Country, the tragedian. For I lived in "el norte," a memory of dread, which I took from my parents' eyes. I also put on Bombay eyes--my uncle came from India. My Mexican parents and my Indian uncle saw California as a refuge from chaos, but they understood that tragedy was preeminently natural.

My California was also imagined in the Azores, the wraith of some Atlantic storm. I grew up among Portuguese, Irish. My Catholic nuns came from Ireland and brought with them--as if it were ground into the glass of the spectacles they wore--a tragic vision. This despite the luxurious light of California opening over all. Can it have been a coincidence that my first allegiance to a writer was to William Saroyan, who had grown up in Fresno, under a cloudless sky, listening to Armenian grandmothers' tales of genocide?

Eureka! (I have found it.) California's official motto should be mistranslated: I have brought it. I folded California into my portmanteau and carried it over the sea, then across the Sierra. Or I invented California in my Kwangtung village, from the gaunt letters Hong-on-Sam sent his long-dead wife. I sketched California on the steps of my parents' brownstone in Brooklyn, listening to my grandfather's stories of castles in Poland.

A native son, I grew up in Sacramento, in a prairie house decorated with Mexican statues with imprecisely painted sclera and stigmata. Outside my window were camellias, every winter, red and white globes.

Any sense I have of California is beholden to the importations of Iowa and Spain and New England and Oklahoma and the Philippines. Without the prompting of Midwestern artisans, I would never have noticed the austerity, the utility, the beauty of California Indian baskets. Without the cues of newcomers, I would not have noticed the austerity, the beauty of California: Nancy, describing in letters from Ohio--this was years after she had left Stanford--her yearning for the scent of eucalyptus, and the smell of salt; her longing for brown hills and the chemical distance of the Santa Clara Valley, an ostensible autumn haze.

Gertrude Stein's famous skepticism concerning Oakland sounds native to me, though she wasn't. No "there" there. Why not extend that koan to the entire state? If you list California's famous exports to the world, you come up with a volley of blanks. I mean spiceless tacos, accentless newscasters, birth control pills, strip malls, hula hoops, cyberspace, Marilyn Monroe.

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