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For his new book—inspired by the events of 9/11—essayist Richard Rodriguez traversed the globe for a full decade, from Paris to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and beyond, exploring connections between the world’s religions, while also attempting to reconcile the inherent contradictions between his Catholic faith and his sexuality. But the roots of his spiritual journey started in the pews of a Sacramento church and perhaps the unlikeliest of places—in the glow of the silver screen at the Alhambra Theatre.

By S.T. VanAirsdale
Photographs by Max Whittaker

 

O

n the morning of his 69th birthday on July 31, Richard Rodriguez steps out of Sacred Heart church and into the vast midsummer light of East Sacramento. He pauses on the sidewalk just south of the intersection at 39th and J streets and, with a subtle turn of his head, looks both ways. His eyes fixate north, as they have fixated countless times over the years from that very spot—across J Street, settling on a patch of land roughly diagonal from the church. It’s nothing remarkable: a parking lot at Mercy General Hospital, subsumed by sunshine and sirens. 

 Walking toward the space, Rodriguez observes it with bemusement. He stops beneath a sycamore tree, peering past its trunk as if studying the ghost of the building that once stood there—the yellow house at 935 39th Street, the house where Rodriguez grew up.

 “There were five steps up over here to the porch,” says Rodriguez. He climbs the soft slope of grass bordering the hospital property. “There was a chair you could sit in on warm days. At night the street was very sleepy. It was just a different California. The emergency entrance to the hospital was over there. The ambulances would go flying by; death would go flying by. I could see the people coming in and out of church down there. The church is the only thing that locates my memory.”

Rodriguez visits the location of his childhood home in East Sacramento, which is now a parking lot at Mercy General Hospital.Sacred Heart church, where Rodriguez was once an altar boy.It’s been 14 years since the church last located Richard Rodriguez’s memory, back on a day when the journalist, author and intellectual lightning rod had returned to Sacramento for an installment in his PBS NewsHour essay series on American life and culture. Prior to that, Rodriguez had shown the site to a BBC crew only to be approached by hospital security inquiring what business they had in the parking lot.

Earlier still, People magazine and CBS News joined him on trips back to the Sacred Heart school, where Rodriguez enrolled as a child knowing just 50 words of English; he has since become one of its most accomplished alumni. That old school building has been razed, replaced with a state-of-the-art campus across from its former site on 39th Street.

At least there is the church—always the church, returning Rodriguez’s gaze, locating his memory. In the decades since the one-time Sacred Heart altar boy moved on to his globe-trotting literary career, however, it is memory that has located Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez’s new book Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which arrives in bookstores on Oct. 3 and is his first in 11 years, is described as a collection of essays about spirituality in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks. The characterization is apt enough. It’s also incomplete for a book that so broadly, beautifully maps the ways that people, places and eras are shaped and influenced by spirituality.

Rodriguez reports on this phenomenon from deserts in the East and West. In one chapter he visits Jerusalem to survey the shared foundation of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In another he travels to Las Vegas, where he tends to a dying friend. Elsewhere he explores the more figurative desert of Silicon Valley, where young tech plutocrats remake thousands of years of shared culture into a parched, sterile wasteland of technology addicts. Rodriguez writes about having “studied so diligently to be a serious man”—a different spiritual chase that took him from Bishop Armstrong High School in Sacramento to Stanford and Columbia universities and other hallowed realms of academia.

Just shy of earning a doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1976, Rodriguez walked away from higher education altogether, rejecting a system that had staked so much on the cause of affirmative action over individual ability. Later, in his galvanizing 1982 book Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, he stirred controversy with his autobiographical case for ending bilingual education and racial preferences in colleges. Today, he is no less sure of those principles. “I really am attracted to that tradition of the solitary voice against the institution,” he says.

Elsewhere in Darling, Rodriguez confronts the challenges of being homosexual in the Catholic Church. In the title essay, Rodriguez contemplates the word “darling” and all its bittersweet meanings, culminating in a tribute to both the Sisters of Mercy who taught him and the modern women whose strength, power and resistance inform his own as a gay man. He looks beyond the scope of gay marriage to the subtleties of resistance—the more elemental struggle for personal freedom.

“The pope can moderate his position on gays right now,” Rodriguez says, citing Pope Francis’ vague approval of gay priests in comments made this summer. “But the church is not going to moderate its position on abortion, or on women’s control of their own bodies, anytime soon.”

Yet Rodriguez is neither a crusader nor a mere contrarian. He writes with sweeping depth and openhearted charm, and the ideas and perspectives in Darling remain anchored deep in the complications of Sacramento itself. It was here where the Sacred Heart church and the long-lost Alhambra Theatre—which Rodriguez describes in Darling as “the two temples of my youth”—imprinted their holy visions on a reverent boy. It was where a literature-loving teen reckoned with Western civilization between lurid turns at the Memorial Auditorium, peering through the smoky blue air as wrestlers and boxers waged war on Monday and Tuesday nights. It was in his high school classrooms where the young Rodriguez honed his writer’s voice in his mischievous “The Watchful Eye” columns for The Talon student newspaper, emulating the gadfly (and fellow Sacramento son) Herb Caen.

Later, it was on the roads leading into, around and, finally, out of Sacramento where a young man first grasped the troubling implications of a wide-open future. “In the 1950s, billboards appeared on the horizon that beckoned restless Americans toward California,” Rodriguez wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1992 book Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father. “Sacramento of the 1950s was the end of the Middle Ages, and Sacramento growing was the beginning of London.” For Rodriguez, this meant watching a thriving city annex and build upon the fields surrounding it. It meant riding his bike from East Sacramento to be among the inaugural shoppers to enter Arden Fair mall, and to pick up work as a teenager delivering lights to residential developments in suburbs to the north and south.

Rodriguez grew with that city until he left it. Returning in 2013, he makes it clear that he never let it go.

“The light of twilight on a summer night, it was just enchanting,” he says, unspooling another thread of memory from his youth at 39th and J. “I never had that again. It’s never been that again. That’s what Sacramento gave me.”

* * * * * *

That Sacramento is the city where Rodriguez had what he stresses was a rich childhood—the city to which his parents, Victoria and Leopoldo, relocated from San Francisco in the late 1940s. In Days of Obligation, Rodriguez writes of a doctor’s recommendation that the family move inland from the sea to relieve his older brother’s asthma. (The tack worked.) The family temporarily moved in with young Richard’s aunt and uncle, who resided on Folsom Boulevard near 35th Street. His parents decided against settling in the bustling Mexican community at the southern end of the city, opting instead for tony East Sacramento, mere steps from Sacred Heart.

And the church was very much the focal point for the family from the beginning. “My dad was very, very, very religious,” says Sylvia Schnetz, Rodriguez’s older sister who today lives with her husband near Land Park. “We were active in church festivals, the crowning of Mary and May Day and all that kind of stuff. We enjoyed doing all of that. As kids, we all went to church every Sunday. [My brothers] were altar boys. There were no altar girls at that time. The masses were all in Latin, and girls had to have their heads covered with some kind of a hat or a veil. That’s all changed. But when we grew up, that’s how it was.”

Rodriguez and his three siblings found themselves growing up in a neighborhood of budding diversity in which they were, nevertheless, the only Mexican family. Victoria Rodriguez hosted traveling Mexican nuns for lunch, exchanging prayers and offering donations for their homeland. They welcomed a nearby Spanish family that harbored a chihuahua and the church janitor, Fidel. They spent time with Monsignor Theodore, a priest from Mumbai, referred to them from Sacred Heart church. “The pastor would send them to us because there was nobody quite like us around,” Rodriguez recalls.

The Sisters of Mercy made a far more crucial visit to the Rodriguez residence. There, after observing young Richard’s struggles with English at Sacred Heart school, three nuns met with his parents to advise using English more frequently at home. Richard felt the tension in his family as he lost touch with their native tongue; he battled the uncomfortable silence and isolation he encountered while learning to read English.

His tension and loneliness abated as he delved deeper into books and the broader culture of the city. He delivered The Sacramento Bee, routinely replying in English to customers along the route who greeted him in Spanish. The evocative city outside invaded places like the Memorial Auditorium, where Rodriguez marveled at the brutality of those prizefighters and wrestlers ravaging each other to the baying pleasure of the crowds. He marveled further at the crowds themselves: the laborers at leisure and the bracing maleness of it all. “This was not a ladies town,” he recalls, noting that he’d used Boy Scouts meetings as alibis whenever his mother inquired into his whereabouts.

Indeed, more and more, Rodriguez was attracted to unorthodoxy and mischief—not to delinquency itself, but to the delinquents and their families. “I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. Nobody took drugs in those days,” he says. “But I was interested in you, especially if you had money and you were like that, you know? If your parents had money, and yet you were getting in trouble? If you were in juvenile hall? That really interested me—how you could play your dice this way. You had been given this and you threw it away.”