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California Mix: Modern, Mexican, and Memories

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RICHARD RODRIQUEZ'S first book, "Hunger of Memory," established him as one of the leading Hispanic writers in the United States. But watch how you use that word "Hispanic." Rodriquez, whose new book is "Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father," calls the term "a complete political fiction."

Rodriquez prefers to be known as a Mexican-American, and his specific area of attention is the curious mix of cultural, religious, and political forces at work in his native California. In "Days of Obligation," the author applies a literary microscope to such disparate, yet connected details of California life as the lovingly preserved 18th-century missions founded by Fr. Junipero Serra, the meticulous restoration of San Francisco's Victorian architecture by the city's gay community, and the urban odd co uple of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.

What's going on between those two cities, which straddle the US-Mexican border, is a gauge of California's future, and indeed of the future of all of North America, according to Rodriquez. During a recent visit to the Monitor's offices in Boston, he put it this way: "On one side, you have a city [Tijuana] about to enter the industrial age, a kind of Dickensian city with palm trees; on the other side you have a city that is at the end of the industrial age. They are not in the same century. How are they g oing to live together?"

In a broad sense, his latest book revolves around the same question. Rodriquez's "argument" with his father is really an exploration of how the new California, with declining expectations and more closely bound to Mexico than ever, will coexist with older memories of how the state once was - and, as some would hold, ought to be. "There's a tension in California between generations, between a father and his son, between the Daughter of the Golden West and her immigrant ancestors," he said during his Bosto n visit.

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