Finding His Religion

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.
Richard Rodriguez



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.

Rodriguez visits the location of his childhood home in East Sacramento, which is now a parking lot at Mercy General Hospital.

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.

Sacred Heart church, where Rodriguez was once an altar boy.

Sacred Heart church, where Rodriguez was once an altar boy.

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.”

As Rodriguez turned to writing, that conflict—the individual versus the community—inflected his work with an edge of its own. He consumed the columns of Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle legend whose urbane-insider milieu supplied the template for Rodriguez’s earliest published pieces, as fervently as he devoured the work of Richard Francis Burton and William Saroyan. Pat O’Brien, who mentored Rodriguez as an English teacher at Bishop Armstrong High School, encouraged his student to develop his own voice.

“I told him at one point, ‘You’ve got to get deeper than Herb Caen, because he’s just reporting gossipy kind of stuff about people,’ ” says O’Brien, 81, who also advised the school’s Talon student paper and remains in contact with Rodriguez. “ ‘And it’s OK, but I think you can do better.’ So he did.”

* * * * * *

The decade of travels chronicled in Darling place Rodriguez in locales as disparate as Saudi Arabia and London, Israel and New York, and Egypt and Paris. In the latter city, in 2004, he watches on TV the aftermath of train bombings in Madrid, where he is set to travel in a matter of days—until he is diagnosed with renal cancer. Later, back in San Francisco, from a bed at St. Mary’s hospital, Rodriguez watches on TV again as Lance Armstrong churns his way up the Champs-Élysées en route to his latest Tour de France title. Today, recovered from his illness, Rodriguez calls cancer one of the greatest journeys he’s ever taken. “That journey between life and death is very much in the book,” he says, “and it’s the continuous theme of all of these chapters.”

That theme echoes one of Darling’s most telling lines, in which Rodriguez describes cancer as yet another “story that leads away from home.” It all naturally raises one of the fundamental questions of all of Rodriguez’s work: “What exactly is home?”

Rodriguez has contemplated that question for much of the half-century since he left Sacramento to study English at Stanford University. Currently he makes his home in San Francisco, in a one-bedroom apartment where he has worked off and on for more than 30 years. He finished Hunger of Memory there, writing longhand at the same vintage wooden table in the same Victorian home across from Alta Plaza Park where, years later, he would complete his subsequent books Days of Obligation, the 2002 essay collection Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and Darling.

Rodriguez retreated to the Bay Area after spending a few years in Los Angeles—escaped to there, really, fleeing the vortex of vapidity that he felt pulling him from the writing career that he craved. He’d had some taste of success as a public intellectual in the ’70s, when he was invited to universities, conferences and other gatherings around the world, where he defended his distaste for the affirmative action movement. “I truly did leave the university over the issue of affirmative action,” he says, recalling his rejection of a Yale job offer based on the school’s minority-hiring preference. “I really did feel—and I still do feel—that including Hispanics in the categories of affirmative action is very problematic, because we are not a race.”

Few writers, let alone Mexican American writers like Rodriguez, were saying this at the time. His critics dismissed him as a “coconut”—brown on the outside, white on the inside. His embattled notoriety fueled new ideas and sparked essays like “Going Home Again,” a 1974 piece for The American Scholar about his development as both a son of Mexican immigrants in Sacramento and an impassioned student of the English language. The attention also eroded Rodriguez’s relationship with Los Angeles, where his disillusionment with the glamour set simplified his decision to leave the city and focus on his writing. “It occurred to me: This is the way it’s going to be until I get boring to them,” he says, reflecting on the diminishing returns of Hollywood life. “And I’ll have my little BMW. I’ll live in the Canyon. I’ll go to a lot of gallery openings, and then …”

Rodriguez trails off. “I didn’t know how to end the sentence,” he adds. “So I began to write Hunger of Memory.

He pacted with the New York publishing giant Knopf, with whom Rodriguez subsequently fell out when his first draft of the book’s challenging essays about class, race, faith, family and education defied the publisher’s more commercial expectations. “It found nine rejections, I think, from different publishers,” Rodriguez says. “None of them were interested. It wasn’t a Latino autobiography. It wasn’t what they thought of—a kind of scrappy kid in East L.A. or Bed-Stuy or something, who goes to Yale and has an interesting love affair with the girl from Park Avenue. This was not that. This was something else.”

The project idled in Rodriguez’s desk drawer for two years. Rodriguez had already moved on to other projects when his partner Jim furtively mailed a copy of the manuscript to David R. Godine, a small but influential publisher whom Jim had taken notice of at the bookstore where he worked. An editor with Godine signed Rodriguez up, and Hunger of Memory emerged on bookshelves in the winter of 1982.

The book’s profile exploded after a rave on the front of The New York Times Book Review. “The exquisite clarity of Mr. Rodriguez’s writing is the product of long care,” wrote critic Paul Zweig, “an attention to nuance that, one senses, is not only esthetic but moral. … Mr. Rodriguez offers himself as an example of the long labor of change: its costs, about which he is movingly frank, its loneliness, but also its triumph.”

More than 30 years later, Richard Rodriguez remains with Jim, and Hunger of Memory remains in print. Rodriguez travels from university to university, seminar to seminar, to discuss the book and his subsequent work. He carefully distinguishes between the man who wrote that book and the persona it helped create, self-deprecatingly joking about the implications of the years. “Usually [the students are] reading Hunger of Memory, my earliest book, and there’s a picture of me that looks like Bambi on the cover,” he says. “They’ll look at that cover and they’ll look at me, and when they’re really funny—and kids can be really funny at that time and age—they’ll look at me and say, ‘What happened?’ ”

Rodriguez tumbles into his warm, winsome, troubled laugh. “I had cancer, and my parents died,” he continues. “A good number of my friends died from AIDS when they were in their 20s and 30s. And everything—everything—tells on your face after a while.”

* * * * * *

Richard Rodriguez (second from right) at age 4 with his family in the backyard of their East Sacramento home; Rodriguez as a first grader at Sacred Heart

Above: Rodriguez as a first grader at Sacred Heart; (bottom) from left: Richard Rodriguez (second from right) at age 4 with his family in the backyard of their East Sacramento home

Rodriguez has the face of a man to whom ghosts have called out. Open, curious, encumbered. His eyes mourn a bit, even as they smile. The ghosts have found him in Sacramento, in San Francisco, maybe everywhere. His apartment building dates from the 1860s and, to hear Rodriguez tell it, was a boarding house and a single-family residence before transitioning to its present collection of “gay, over-decorated apartments.” His deadpan dovetails with more sober reflections about the stories that old buildings know—the lives they witness, the secrets they keep. The bookshelves around him bulge with the literature of ages and continents; the memories of friends lost to AIDS swim in the skylight that diffuses the heavens onto his writing table.

Even Rodriguez’s iconoclasm has a ghostliness of its own in 2013—that of a mainstream eminence whose years of work for outlets like Harper’s, Time, the Los Angeles Times and various others find him distant from the inciteful, polarizing tone of his early career. “Richard is one of the few intellectuals who talks and writes in the language everyone speaks,” says Jim Lehrer, former anchor of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. “He finds meaning in the ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. His essays for the NewsHour were as much special gems as he is.” In 1997, Rodriguez won a Peabody Award—broadcast journalism’s most prestigious prize—for his NewsHour features.

A portion of Darling itself grew from “The God of the Desert,” a 2008 essay from Harper’s Magazine in which Rodriguez appraises global monotheism from its epicenter in Jerusalem. “I admire his writing immensely,” says Harper’s chief editor Ellen Rosenbush, “because he has a way of writing extremely simply, and yet the sentences and the phrases are full of impact and meaning and depth. And I just find there’s no one like him, really.” Rosenbush chuckles. “I wish he would write faster so that I could publish more of what he writes.”

More than a decade after completing Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation and Brown—books that Rodriguez has called his “trilogy on American public life and my private life” and which Rosenbush suggests should be “required reading for everybody in America”—their author views Darling as a welcome, if painstaking, change in direction. (Harper’s excerpted the essay “Darling” as well in its July issue.)

“I’ve been thinking about the desert a lot for the last 10 years,” Rodriguez explains. His inquiry started soon after the 9/11 attacks, when Rodriguez says he saw the desert source of his Christian faith reflected in that of the Muslim terrorists. This recognition of shared roots led to other epiphanies for Rodriguez, such as Spain’s plundering of the Arabic language for words like ojalá—or, “God willing.” This foreign adaptation of praise for Allah became a favorite phrase of Rodriguez’s mother. As the title of Darling’s first essay, “Ojalá” introduces the book’s recurring concept of faith and language as life’s most intriguing mysteries.

“I played the dark-skinned wise man marveling at the baby Jesus in the flatbed of a truck,” he says. “I never knew at home that when my mother said ojalá that she was speaking Arabic. I had no idea of it! I had no idea that Arabic was on our tongues, you know? Or that our cousins, [whose last name] was Alvarez—all you need to do is put a little hyphen on it and it becomes al-Varez. You’re just transported on a carpet into a different part of the world. I had no idea I was connected to that world.”

The desert of Darling is peculiarly, hauntingly redolent of Sacramento, where Rodriguez grew up reconciling the valley’s intense heat with its hard-wrought, almost miraculous fertility. During summer months, young Richard took great care watering neighbors’ lawns and camellias—shielding them from sure ruin—while the families disappeared on vacations to more hospitable climates. He traveled around to farms with his uncle, an Indian dentist, to Quonset huts inhabited by ailing laborers. He reeled from the sensuality of the city in July and August—the blast of the sun on his skin, the coolness of the water on his lips. Even the dew on the grass at funerals, where Rodriguez was often a pallbearer following services at Sacred Heart, enthralled the altar boy carrying oblivion in his hands.

And then there was the Alhambra.

If the sensual power of summer captivated Rodriguez, then the Moorish-style “Showplace of Sacramento” rivaled Sacred Heart for sheer spiritual grandeur. “I became a Christian at the Alhambra Theatre,” Rodriguez writes in Darling, recounting the transcendence of viewing Otto Preminger’s epic Exodus in the extinct movie palace built in 1927. “We watched the blue eyes of Paul Newman survey the Mediterranean, espy the approach of the Promised Land, rising and falling, from the prow of the ship. It did not occur to me to imagine another point of view. I saw Palestine from the sea. I became a Zionist at the Alhambra Theatre.”

In person, Rodriguez acknowledges the cheekiness of the connection—just one example of the lilting undercurrent that also helps separate Darling from his earlier books. (He writes as well of watching Bible films from the Alhambra’s balcony, “where I sat portioning a box of Milk Duds to last through a crucifixion.”) Yet he returns more often to the darker implications of the Alhambra Theatre’s eventual demise in 1973—the taunting of the fountain and the lone exterior wall left behind to memorialize the theater, the architectural whimper of the Safeway that replaced it, the betrayal of the Sacramentans who worshipped Hollywood’s earthly deities in its dark sanctuary.

“I remember sleeping once in the Judean desert with some Bedouin,” Rodriguez tells me, alluding to his Middle Eastern adventures recounted in Darling. “You can hire Bedouin to hike, and we slept under the Judean sky. And I thought of the Alhambra ceiling, because it lit up. It was this enormous dome, and it lit up. If the movie was boring—if Bette Davis was boring—you could just look at the ceiling. Because that was enchanting, you know?”

Rodriguez, pointing to the skylight over his writing table, lets his hand fall on the table’s surface. “That’s what you took away from me.”

“I became a Christian at the Alhambra Theatre,” writes Rodriguez in his new book, Darling. The ceiling, in particular, was “enchanting,” he recalls.

“I became a Christian at the Alhambra Theatre,” writes Rodriguez in his new book, Darling. The ceiling, in particular, was “enchanting,” he recalls.

To be clear, Rodriguez is less accusatory than resigned. There is no one to blame for this lingering psychic phantom itch. It’s perhaps the central theme of Darling and of Rodriguez’s work for the last four decades: There is only then, now, and the individuals throughout who make up the difference.

There is Rita Spillane, for example, by some seemingly random grace. During Rodriguez’s recent birthday visit to Sacramento, Spillane drives onto the Sacred Heart school campus while watching Rodriguez enter on foot through an adjacent gate. Rodriguez’s curiosity had taken over, and Spillane’s own curiosity about an unfamiliar, uninvited guest prompts her to call the school’s principal, Theresa Sparks, who comes out to investigate. The three introduce themselves in the courtyard and share a laugh stoked by memory: Spillane says she was working in the office at the old school another time Rodriguez stopped in with journalists. “I know who you are!” Spillane exclaims to him today.

Rodriguez gestures toward the neighboring house, a white wooden structure cosseted by a thick, verdant shroud of trees. “Mrs. Luther used to live there,” he says.

“She still does,” Sparks says.

“She still does,” Rodriguez repeats, his voice tapering into a stunned whisper.

“She’s 95,” Sparks adds. “A great neighbor. Raised 12 children who went through Sacred Heart. She told me when she moved in there was a cow in the yard.”

Eventually, Spillane reaches into a plastic tub she has balanced on her hip. She produces a brick from the old school building and gives it to Rodriguez. He scans the inscription: Sacred Heart School, Est. 1934. “I’ll send you some money for it, OK?” he says.

“Just remember us,” Sparks replies.

The women invite Rodriguez on a tour of the new school. The cornerstone of the original Sacred Heart school has been transplanted to the opulent multipurpose center. Inside, the proscenium above the stage communicates a prayer: “Jesus meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like yours.” It’s a translation of the prayer on the baldacchino down the street at Sacred Heart church, Spillane says—“since most people’s Latin is a little rusty.”

They exit back to the courtyard and Rodriguez returns to his car, parked on the east side of Sacred Heart church. “They gave me a brick!” Rodriguez tells Jim, who awaits in the passenger seat. They have not yet married, and Rodriguez doubts they will—at least not the way the state of California has codified it.

“I don’t like appropriating the language of heterosexual marriage to homosexuality,” he says, noting that he and Jim however do plan to officially recognize their union soon at San Francisco’s City Hall. “I’m looking for my new language, the way the feminists found the word ‘Ms.’ as a completely new vocabulary for a completely new world. I’m looking for a new vocabulary for my relationship. But we’ve been each other’s completion for 30 years.”

Rodriguez drives Jim on a brief tour of Sacramento before they leave. Rodriguez points out the space where the Tower Café now resides, a former drugstore from which a 16-year-old named Russ Solomon humbly launched the music-selling enterprise that would become Tower Records. Rodriguez briefly gets lost looking for Joan Didion’s childhood home at 22nd and T streets—mere blocks away from the original Christian Brothers campus at 21st and Broadway, which Rodriguez attended as an underclassman before graduating up to Bishop Armstrong. (The schools have since combined under the Christian Brothers name.)

They pause to view the historic John T. Greene house on H Street between Alhambra and 33rd, which remains as fine a vision to Rodriguez today as it was when, as a preteen, he collected subscription fees there as a Bee paperboy. Its meticulous design and oriental elegance still transfix him. The long structure looms into the sunlight, throwing crisp noontime shadows over the city around it. Soon, the shadows will be as long as the memory of their visitor—this son of Sacred Heart and the Alhambra Theatre, this citizen of the world.

“I don’t know whether that family still owns that house,” Rodriguez says. “But my goodness, was that something. That was as enchanting as Sacramento was to me. Do you know what I’m saying? I drive through it, and everything is the same, and nothing is the same.”

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