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Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation is a book about the disappearance of cultural identity across history. Rodriguez locates this in the indigenous peoples of Mexico in the sixteenth century and also in Mexicans coming to California. The ten essays which comprise this book are set in various points in history, many from the childhood and adult perspectives of Rodriguez himself, narrated in the first person.

He describes how America is innately a culture of immigrants, which promotes a unique strain of identity that is tied to individuality, optimism, and opportunity. Rodriguez observes how this mindset has been enough to permanently convert some Mexican immigrants into “believers” in American culture. The “amnesia” that Rodriguez discusses, however, is not unique to immigrant Mexicans; America forgets how it used to welcome immigrants, and how it was a culture of immigrants itself before that. What’s also interesting, particularly in the essay “In Athens Once,” is that this cultural assimilation can transcend borders. Mexico’s Tijuana is hope to Americanized forms of entertainment, and likewise, Mexico City is a locus for interracial relationships and so is, in Rodriguez’s estimation, a progressive city.

Days of Obligation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2338

In Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez pushes the poetic style of his much-acclaimed memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) to even more ambitious literary and cultural limits. In the earlier book, Rodriguez dramatized how his successful academic education as a “scholarship boy” painfully but inevitably alienated him from his immigrant parents, and he surprisingly argued against affirmative action and bilingual education. In contrast, Days of Obligation presents a much wider range of personal experience and cultural issues: historical, religious, educational, and racial. His title refers to Catholic feast days of such importance that the faithful are obligated to remember and attend them, and his essays at their most powerful focus on days of the past—in his own life and in history—to which he and the reader must attend.

Although he subtitles the book as an “argument,” Rodriguez pursues neither a single consistent argument nor an unbroken autobiographical line. Rather, he plays numerous variations on the contrasts he derives from an argument he had at the age of fourteen with his father:

“Life is harder than you think, boy.”

“You’re thinking of Mexico, Papa.”

“You’ll see.”

For Rodriguez, the contrast between Mexican and Californian sensibilities expresses the tensions in himself and in American life between Catholicism and Protestantism, communalism and individualism, cynicism and optimism, past and future, age and youth—between a tragic and a comic view of life. As Rodriguez uses “tragic” and “comic,” the words take on rather specialized meanings: The tragic view emphasizes the inescapability of sin, limitations, compromise, failure, and death; while the comic view emphasizes the limitless possibilities of new beginnings, new ideas and ideals, and new sorts of people and societies.

Although Rodriguez claims in his introduction that the purpose of his book is to explore the “wisdom” of both perspectives, the weight of his sensibility tends to fall on the tragic Mexican side, and his tone is usually ironic. This tendency toward a Mexican attitude is fortunate for the reader, however, for the prevailing sense of irony and tragedy helps to keep the reader oriented through a book whose structure and style are sometimes bewildering. Although the general progression of chapter topics is from the old to the young (from the first chapter, on the Indians of sixteenth century Mexico, to the closing chapters, on Rodriguez’s youth in Sacramento, California), shifts back and forth in time are common, both from one chapter to the next and within particular chapters. This structure of the book can be accounted for partly by its disparate origins in a number of essays that Rodriguez had previously published in journals, magazines, and other books. But the bold manner in which Rodriguez frequently changes voice, time frame, and focus within individual essays suggests the serendipitous method of his quest for truth, which may appear with surprising immediacy and directness, or with an unexpected paradoxical twist. Although the variety and exhilaration of Rodriguez’s writing can therefore be appreciated fully only from page to page, an overview of the book’s ten chapters may help to clarify the continuities that tie the book together.

“India” begins with Rodriguez looking in the mirror, wondering how he should feel about his conspicuously Indian face. He sardonically considers attitudes in the United States and Mexico that place the Indian in the past or outside history while denying the presence and diverse character of Indians who live in the present day. Rodriguez then reverses this tragically exclusionary view. He seeks to reclaim the honor of contemporary Indians, beginning with an imaginative interpretation of the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to Rodriguez, the appearance in Mexico in 1531 of the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned Indian symbolizes “the absorbent strength of Indian spirituality.” Mexican Indians have not merely passively accepted Europe and Catholicism; they have transformed it and, along with other Latin Americans, are in the process of taking it over through sheer force of numbers. Rodriguez praises Mexico City, the most populous city in the world, as “the capital of modernity” for its fecund miscegenation, which represents the renewal of the European Old World in the spiritual and sexual embrace of the New. Rodriguez’s conceit might be criticized for ignoring the numerous problems caused in Latin America by overpopulation, poverty, and political powerlessness, but it has the charm of a refreshingly original viewpoint.

“Late Victorians” presents a beguiling and poignant portrait of San Francisco, its gay community, and, of all things, its architecture. Rodriguez presents himself as a homosexual who was drawn into San Francisco’s gay community in 1979 and witnessed its blossoming in the gay liberation movement of the early 1980’s. In exploring the implications of the city’s architecture, Rodriguez notes how gays took over the Victorian houses that once had been bastions of the heterosexual family, compares the many-storied richness of these buildings to the many-“storied” richness of the Victorian novel, and contrasts the playful personality of Victorian houses with the chilly soullessness of downtown San Francisco skyscrapers and suburban tract houses. On a more melancholy note, Rodriguez recalls how he was skeptical of the utopian optimism of the gay liberation movement and held himself back from participating in its libertine sexuality. He mourns the fact that the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic confirmed his forebodings, but he finds an unexpectedly heartening soulfulness in the ways that San Francisco has formed a supportive community around its dead and dying.

“Mexico’s Children,” the longest and most richly elaborated chapter of the book, presents a compelling portrait of the opposing pulls felt by Mexican Americans toward the United States and toward Mexico. Rodriguez characterizes the United States as a land oriented toward the future, toward optimism, individualism, and financial opportunity. In contrast, Rodriguez imagines Mexico as a warmhearted but demanding mother, drawing her children back into the land of memory and communal intimacy. The irony of California’s futurist orientation is in its amnesia: It forgets that it was once Mexico, and in tightening its borders it forgets that it once encouraged the seasonal immigration of Mexicans as cheap agricultural labor. The ironic tragedy of the choice facing contemporary Mexicans and Mexican Americans is that they are in danger of succumbing to Californian amnesia. They may go to California intending only to make money and then return to Mexico, but they underestimate the power of Californian values to transform them and cut them off from individual and cultural memory.

“In Athens Once” further develops the contrasts of the previous chapter in an ironic dual portrait of Tijuana and San Diego. What fascinates Rodriguez about these proximate cities is how each maintains its national character yet at the same time has developed radically contrasting qualities as a result of the influence of the city just across the border. Tijuana, once a magnet of sinful escapism for the United States, still possesses a shady side in its essential cynicism, but it ironically has developed a beaming Yankee face. American families flock to “El Main Street,” the fifth most popular tourist attraction in the San Diego-Tijuana region, and manufacturing flourishes in a large industrial park of sweatshop assembly plants on the outskirts of town. San Diego, on the other hand, in some ways fits Rodriguez’s image of forward-looking America: “San Diego is the future—secular, soulless,” a “postindustrial city of high-impact plastic and despair diets.” San Diego, however, ironically has developed Mexican qualities: Part of the city has taken over Tijuana’s former role as a center for drugs and other vices, while another part identifies with “the past, guarding its quality of life” in memory of better days.

“Asians,” “The Latin American Novel,” and “Nothing Lasts a Hundred Years,” the final three chapters in the book, all intertwine Rodriguez’s memories of his Sacramento boyhood with his reflections on the dilemmas of American immigrants. “Asians” reiterates the argument from “Mexico’s Children” that Americanization means loss of memory, of cultural identity and communal tradition. Rodriguez sympathizes with immigrant parents who want to believe that their children can become successful in America yet resist Americanization, but he pessimistically believes that the power of America’s adolescent popular culture ultimately is irresistible. Curiously, however, the educational solution that Rodriguez proposes is not the way of multiculturalism, which holds with the immigrant parents that children should explore and preserve their ancestral heritages. “If I am a newcomer to your country,” he asks, “why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city.” Rodriguez holds that what will bring America together is the study of a “common culture,” focusing on such key Americans as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Mark Twain—the historical and literary figures who contributed the most to the dominant culture and to the primary ideas and forces that continue to shape it.

“The Latin American Novel” begins by considering the question, Why are evangelical Protestant churches having such success in recruiting members among traditionally Catholic Latin Americans? Historically, according to Rodriguez, Catholicism has been a communal religion most suited to the rural village, while Protestantism has been the religion of the individual, the city, and the literary form of the novel (since it deals with the individual standing out from the communal group). Rodriguez relates this religious contrast to his high-school friendship with Larry Faherty, a rebellious freethinker—and thus in some sense a Protestant and an ideal character for a novel—in contrast with Rodriguez himself, an “obedient schoolboy” and a Catholic. Ironically, Rodriguez comes to realize that his closeness with Larry ultimately resulted from his friend’s Catholic qualities of forgiveness and communal exuberance. Similarly, Rodriguez believes that the success of evangelical Protestantism among traditional Catholics is that they have revived the warm communal spirit of traditional Catholicism: “The small Protestant church revives the Catholic memory of the countryside. In the small evangelical church, people who are demoralized by the city turn to the assurance of community.”

“Nothing Lasts a Hundred Years,” the poignant concluding chapter, considers the numerous tragedies concealed behind the optimistic American façades of Sacramento, Rodriguez’s hometown. There is the tragedy of his father, who preferred San Francisco but yielded to family pressures and in Sacramento lost his hearing and much of his capacity to find pleasure in life. A tradesman who makes dentures, the melancholy father ironically spent his working days “surrounded by shelves of grinning false teeth.” There is the tragedy of the Irish nuns and priests in the Sacramento schools and churches, who like Rodriguez’s father and mother felt sadly cut off from their homelands far away. There is the tragedy of Rodriguez’s Uncle Raj, who came from India as a skilled dentist but then had to endure the humiliation of patients recoiling from him (“No nigger dentist is going to stick his fingers in my mouth!”). There is the historical tragedy of Johann Sutter, who in the mid-1800’s hoped to establish an insulated European settlement in the Sacramento Valley until his dreams were trampled by the gold rush of 1849, a symbol of the onrushing soulless American culture that Rodriguez deplores for its destruction of memory and communal spirit.

Upon finishing the book, the reader may pause to wonder what personal satisfactions Rodriguez has gained by attending to his days of obligation. At several points in the book, the author makes the ironic claim that tragic Mexican culture, with its acceptance of life’s limitations, is actually happier than comic American culture: “Tragic cultures serve up better food than optimistic cultures; tragic cultures have sweeter children, more opulent funerals,” and “Catholics have better architecture and sunnier plazas and an easier virtue and are warmer to the touch.” Rodriguez rarely seems happy himself, however, and he repeatedly characterizes himself as drawing back from the cultural qualities and pleasures he extols. In Mexico, he recoils from the food and drink; he declines an invitation from a priest he admires to go to Easter mass in a village outside Tijuana, opting instead for brunch with friends in La Jolla, California. In San Francisco, he berates himself for his “unwillingness to embrace life” with his libertine friend César and for his detachment as a “barren skeptic” at the AIDS memorial service that ends the chapter. In Sacramento, he believes that he ends up betraying Larry Faherty by failing to extend “the fervor our past demanded” when he meets him under difficult circumstances. Ultimately, writing the book may have been a way for Rodriguez to reconcile with his father, to concede that his father was right in emphasizing a tragic view of life. Or, like many a hero and heroine in the fiction of Henry James, Rodriguez may have found satisfaction in believing that he has seen the entire rueful truth about the situations he has lived through and that he has not spared himself from seeing the rueful truth about himself. Whatever Rodriguez’s satisfactions may have been, the reader’s satisfactions in his keenly sardonic company are many. It is interesting that the title of Rodriguez’s high-school newspaper column was “The Watchful Eye,” for that seems the role he is destined to play in literature and in life. Perhaps the ultimate irony of Days of Obligation is that it helps Richard Rodriguez, advocate of Catholic communal values, to come closer to earning an honored place in the Protestant individualist tradition of American literature, next to other detached observers of life such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, and fellow Californian Joan Didion.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, October 15, 1992, p. 397.

Insight. VIII, November 30, 1992, p. 23.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, September 1, 1992, p. 1115.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 15, 1992, p. 1.

National Catholic Reporter. XXIX, November 20, 1992, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, November 22, 1992, p. 42.

Newsweek. CXX, December 14, 1992, p. 80.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 7, 1992, p. 84.

San Francisco Chronicle. November 1, 1992, p. REV1.

The Village Voice. XXXVII, December 29, 1992, p. 91.

The Washington Post. November 28, 1992, p. F1.

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