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The Sun Interview

Crossing Borders

An Interview With Richard Rodriguez

My grandmother always told me that I was hers, that I was Mexican. That was her role. It was not my teacher’s role to tell me I was Mexican. It was my teacher’s role to tell me I was an American. The notion that you go to a public institution in order to learn private information about yourself is absurd. We used to understand that when students went to universities, they would become cosmopolitan. They were leaving their neighborhoods. Now we have this idea that, not only do you go to first grade to learn your family’s language, but you go to a university to learn about the person you were before you left home. So, rather than becoming multicultural, rather than becoming a person of several languages, rather than becoming confident in your knowledge of the world, you become just the opposite. You end up in college having to apologize for the fact that you no longer speak your native language.

Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories

Janet The Cow

They’re all gone now, but when I was a kid, there were cows all around my house, even though we were only twelve miles from downtown. Half the kids I went to school with, their parents owned cows. Even my own parents, a dozen cows, penned in the field across the street, behind my dad’s saloon. Big brown cows with white faces and large, sad eyes — and long eyelashes, longer even than the ones my mom kept in her top dresser drawer.

Mulberry Street

The Story Of A Photograph

One morning in the midseventies , I noticed out of the corner of my eye a large model of a three-masted clipper ship sitting in the dusty window of a sailors’ club on Mulberry Street in New York City’s Little Italy. It reminded me of a model ship my brother and I had kept in our room when we were children — nothing special, but intricate like this one, with tiny portholes and little ropes along the decks. Thinking of my brother, I decided, for the sake of the past, to photograph the clipper ship. I attached a lens to my camera, but when I looked through my viewfinder, I realized that I’d inadvertently selected a wide-angle lens; if I didn’t switch to a normal lens, the photograph would include not only the ship, but two adjacent doorways and a dark stairway leading to a cellar. I started to unscrew the lens, but then had second thoughts. Looking again through the viewfinder, I discovered the image was full of unexpected intrigue: The ship seemed to radiate an odd, human, fabricated beauty amid the surrounding darkness of doorways. And the sunlight slanting down Mulberry Street filled the sails and touched gently upon the adjacent cement surfaces. The light was passing and would illuminate this side of the street for only a few more minutes. I took the picture.

Safety

I don’t want her to go. Not by car. Not with her best friend from college. Two young women traveling in Mexico.

“You can camp just about anywhere,” Mara assures me. She read this in a guidebook. I’ve read a few things, too: about dysentery and cholera, about naive travelers who run afoul of harsh drug laws, about the restless machismo of Mexican men. But what can I say? My daughter is twenty, nearly twenty-one.

The Telephone

When I was growing up in Magdaluna, a small Lebanese Village in the terraced, rocky mountains east of Sidon, time didn’t mean much to anybody, except maybe to those who were dying, or those waiting to appear in court because they had tampered with the boundary markers on their land. In those days, there was no real need for a calendar or a watch to keep track of the hours, days, months, and years. We knew what to do and when to do it, just as the Iraqi  geese knew when to fly north, driven by the hot wind that blew in from the desert, and the ewes knew when to give birth to wet lambs that stood on long, shaky legs in the chilly March wind and baa’ed hesitantly, because they were small and cold and did not know where they were or what to do now that they were here.

Fiction

Fritz: A Fable

Fritz, a gray, wolflike German shepherd, howled so terribly at some intruder that his owner, Igor Lovrak, went into his larder and greased his great-grandfather’s rifle and thumbed gunpowder and bullets into the barrel before he dared walk out into the yard. Even then, he trembled, expecting to find bears or a band of thieves closing in. Just as Igor stumbled outside in his wooden clogs, Fritz leapt so violently at something that he tore out of the ground the thick pipe to which he was chained and, with a terrible din, jumped over a hedge. A cat scrambled up the lamppost, barely escaping the dog. The cat climbed to the tilted and capped light fixture, placed its paws over the edge, and, once settled, didn’t move at all. Although usually obedient, Fritz wouldn’t listen to Igor’s shouts to heel, and continued leaping toward his aloof enemy. Igor, who was built like a weightlifter, dragged Fritz back by his chain, but lost almost as much ground as he gained. Finally, Igor hauled Fritz into the basement and locked the door — the dog knew how to open unlocked doors — but that didn’t prevent Fritz from howling his ugly song of hatred all night. Unable to sleep, Igor marveled at the power of Fritz’s voice. After so many bursts of wind from the lungs, you’d expect the dog’s vocal cords to snap. Instead, it was lgor’s nerves that snapped; he took up his ancestral gun and headed for the basement, but his frizzy-haired wife, Dara, stopped him. “Hey, leave that gun alone,” she said. “What good could you do with it?”

The Blue Devils Of Blue River Avenue

Our first house, in the autumn of 1963, was a small, mustard-colored tract home in the older working-class suburbs of northeast San Diego. Before that we’d rented. My father had been a mailman, but now he was a schoolteacher. There was nothing on the other side of our street but a mountain and a few cows. Around the corner was a Jack-in-the-Box, where you could talk to the clown and get a hamburger for fifteen cents. They got rid of the clown eventually. For a while you could get deep-fried jumbo shrimp in tissue paper with fries; fried chicken, too, almond brown with miles of crust. It was years before I figured out the secret sauce on the hamburgers was Thousand Island dressing. Behind the Jack-in-the-Box was a Thriftimart with a colossal red neon T that burned in the sky twenty-four hours a day. It was like a crucifix, a giant symbol of grocery-store truth flaming against the mountain. People who came to visit my parents would be guided by the giant red neon T. About ten years later, Safeway bought the store and took down the T, but the Jack-in-the-Box is still there. The cows are all gone: we ordered them through the clown and ate them with Thousand Island dressing.

Readers Write

My Block

I grew up in a simple, one-story white frame house with dark green shutters, in a quiet suburban neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. Our half-acre lot was dotted with large pine trees and shrubs. In the springtime the mimosa trees sprouted feathery pink blossoms, and daffodils and narcissus grew alongside the fence.

My life back then, in the fifties, was simple: playing touch football with my cousins on the plump St. Augustine grass; whittling sticks on the front steps; rolling in the yard with our cocker spaniel’s new puppies; riding down the hill in my little red wagon. On summer evenings, the kids on our block would emerge to escape the stifling heat and humidity that built up indoors each day. We’d play kick-the-can or freeze tag, and sometimes catch fireflies and put them in a jar to make a magic lantern.

Personal Stories By Our Readers ▸
Quotations

Sunbeams

Paradise is exactly where you are right now, only much, much better.

Laurie Anderson

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