Rodriguez sketches the arc of his life in broad strokes. “Once upon a time,” he writes, he was a socially disadvantaged child whose life was a balance of intense family closeness and extreme public alienation. Now, he is an assimilated middle-class American man. However he doesn’t quite blend into his surroundings: he is still “exotic in a tuxedo” at a Beverly Hills party, and wonders if he is more monster than man.
This introduction establishes one of the key tensions within the book: private versus public identity. As will become clear, Rodriguez endorses the latter more forcefully than the former. But his persistent feelings of “exoticness” hint at his continuous battle with feeling out of place in many settings throughout his adulthood.
Rodriguez also lays out the various ways in which he has been viewed by different groups. Some people on what he calls the Ethnic Left see him as a brown Uncle Tom—someone who has been duped by white, mainstream society. He imagines a “dainty white lady” approaching him at a luncheon and sighing piteously over the fact that Rodriguez wasn’t able to “use” his Spanish in school. Other people, members of White America, want him to perform “a drama of ancestral reconciliation,” in which he returns to his Mexican roots. Rodriguez rails against these people, claiming no interest in “buried lives.” His focus, he claims, lies in the immediate: that is, the separation he has endured from his family as a result of his education. This will be the focus of his book and it is, he asserts, an American story.
Rodriguez is positioning his ideas in context. Many advocates of minority and Chicano rights movements felt that Rodriguez had “sold out” by denouncing policies such as affirmative action and bilingual education. Here, Rodriguez makes it clear that these people themselves are the fools—the derision with which he speaks of the white woman commenting on his life experience indicates that he believes the people who pity him don’t fully understand the dangerous implications of the policies they advocate. Rodriguez also takes a political stance by refusing to speak on behalf of Mexican Americans as a whole. Rather, he defines his project in his own terms, focusing on the Americanness of his story.
Rodriguez elaborates by describing his memoir as a pastoral, a hymn to middle-class life. He claims that writing about his lower-class childhood reminds him of the separation he has achieved from that life, thereby helping him define the man he has become. While his New York editor, calling him on the phone, thinks his memoir needs “more Grandma”—that is, more personal anecdotes—Rodriguez is determined to focus on abstract concepts that he finds important. These concepts include the way in which gaining a public identity permanently changed his life. Rodriguez maintains that language is the main force that has allowed him to shape this identity, and he admits that he is obsessed with the power of language. He closes the prologue with the bold claim that his memoir will be a parable for the life of his middle-class reader.
Rodriguez is at work defining his own goals for this book: he is determined to write the book he wants to write, rather than the one people expect. The language he uses here is important in itself because he is deliberately using terms (such as “pastoral”) that mark him as an educated individual with middle-class sensibilities. Thus, even on a sentence level, Rodriguez is beginning to build evidence for his claim that this memoir will serve as an analogy for middle class life writ large. It’s also worth noting that Rodriguez assumes that his reader is middle-class. It’s unclear if he sees this as an inevitable result of writing a literary memoir, or if he is actively defining the audience he wants.