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In One Color, He Sees Many Shades

'Brown' author Richard Rodriguez finds a symbol for America's blend of cultures


SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Heights is about as white a residential area as you can find anywhere. Perched above the glorious San Francisco Bay, the neighborhood is a place from which you can only look down. If you see a brown face, chances are it belongs to someone trimming a hedge or painting a Victorian home--or to Richard Rodriguez, the writer and social critic, whose caramel skin and Indian features bespeak his Mexican American origins but whose jazz-like prose, propulsive and discursive, defies such easy characterization.

Yet if Rodriguez is something of an anomaly in this rather pale environment, it's unlikely that he would blend in exactly anywhere. Being different seems to be the pigment of his consciousness.

"I'm powerfully Catholic and at war with the church at the same time," he says, sitting in his book-crammed Pacific Heights apartment, across the street from a hilly park. "I'm Catholic and I'm equally homosexual. One part of me is sex. One part of me is sin. It shapes my heart, my soul, my mouth, everything. It's impurity. I'm brown."

"Brown" is also the name of Rodriguez's latest book, the conclusion of an inadvertent trilogy (all from Viking) that started with the celebrated "Hunger of Memory" and continued with "Days of Obligation."

The first book dealt with class, specifically the writer's unease with his own rise in the world via affirmative action scholarships. The second traced the influence of ethnicity on his life. The third addresses race, what race means to Rodriguez and what race means to America. All the volumes walk a tightrope between the personal and the public, between the potentialities of assimilation and the pitfalls of alienation. "There's an anger in all of my books," he says.

To Rodriguez, brown is not necessarily Latino; it's any admixture of hues available in a multicultural society. Rodriguez mentions a letter he received from a woman whose grandparents were Korean and African American. She called herself a Baptist Buddhist. Brown is adulteration, whether by accident or design. Think Tiger Woods--or even Madonna, who continually reinvents herself with a fluidity that could be called brown.

"We're facing an extraordinarily brown moment in America," Rodriguez says. "I've come as a prophet of brown to tell you that your grandchildren will be brown."

Brown, Rodriguez likes to say, is what happens when you mix all the other colors on the palate. "Clean your paintbrush and you get brown," he says.

"I write of a color that is not a singular color," his book begins, "not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color produced by careless desire, even by accident; by two or several. I write of blood that is blended. I write of brown as complete freedom of substance and narrative. I extol impurity."

Like its predecessors, "Brown" has been greeted with acclaim.

"One of the most eloquent and probing public intellectuals in the country," wrote Marie Arana in the Washington Post. " ... There are few writers in America as unpredictable and fearless as this."

"This was a Horatio Alger story," noted Anthony Walton in the New York Times, "but unlike any that had previously been written; both the starting point and the place of arrival were rigorously analyzed and nothing put under more scathing scrutiny than the writer himself--his own ambitions, embarrassments, dreams and shame."

Rodriguez's expressive struggle with his own identity has clearly touched the zeitgeist. Recently, for example, the Quad Cities along the Iowa-Illinois border picked "Hunger of Memory" as a community book to read and Rodriguez appeared at several events. At one high school, a student rose to say how affected he was by the book. "Before I read this book," he said, "I was nothing. Now, I am something."

Rodriguez was born in 1944 in San Francisco, the son of working-class Mexican immigrant parents (his folks were married at St. Dominic's, the church Rodriguez attends just down the street from where he now lives). He grew up in Sacramento, learning English at Catholic school from Irish nuns. His father had two years of formal education and Rodriguez soon found himself straddling two very different worlds.

"Education is like going to a foreign country every day," he says. "It overturns the traditional authority structure because the child knows more than the parent; it's very upsetting to some children."

He learned to write by reading the works of African American novelists such as James Baldwin, the descendants of slaves who took the language of their masters and made it their own.

"There are a lot of forces at work in my life," Rodriguez says. "My brown is of many hues. I become browner by living. In some ways I've become Protestant just by breathing the air. I've meditated with Buddhists, I've studied with a rabbi. I take my wisdom from many sources."

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