A Darker Shade of Crimson

Ruben Navarrette, Jr.

Read January 2005

I found this book while browsing for texts at the Brown bookstore; it had been assigned as reading for some other class. It proved to be in equal measures juvenile, ridiculous and fascinating.

If you're tempted to read this book, be aware that it's largely an unrefined rant, excepting the odd fine phrase (which is likely to repeat a hundred pages later). Navarrette is in awe of Harvard, convinced it is the best educational institution simply on the basis of its reputation (curiously, we virtually never hear about a class, a professor, a transformative intellectual experience...). His awe translates to mention of it on nearly every page, and his constant expression of his own identity in terms of Harvard (it's hard to imagine how he describe himself before he went there—and write about himself he certainly must have). He is still in awe of it (search for some of his articles on the Web), even as he fears it and hates its pressures. And for someone who appears to have begun with so much promise, he seems to have done so little, other than tokenize himself (note that he's now a ``Latino'', no longer a ``Chicano'').

What is compelling about this book is his description of his Chicano roots (as when he says (p. 60), ``I am embarassed to admit that even before I entered my first freshman class at Harvard, eventual distinctions [...] seemed, because of my cultural bloodline, out of reach''), and his relationship to them as he transforms. He skewers the notion of ``reverse discrimination'', highlights the principle that ``exclusion breeds prejudice'' (p. 182), and makes a case for affirmative action that is at least thought-provoking to my skeptical mind. Indeed, this is where his very personal style is at its best (as, for instance, when he juxtaposes a discussion of affirmative action with interviewing at Harvard with his blue-collar father at the same time as a rich legacy with his). I was also intrigued by how much of his discussion could apply equally to international students.

The other side of affirmative action, though, is the responsibility laden on students once they arrive at university—an onus accepted on their behalf, without their assent and, worst of all, typically without their knowledge. Navarrette points out, further, that many of them are ill-equipped to carry that burden (as he, who barely spoke Spanish, was). His rage is never better channeled as when he says (p. 85),

I remember, in one class, being called upon specifically by a section leader to explain the reasons why Hispanics might drop out of high school.
Well, as a Hispanic valedictorian, I'd have to say...that I have no fucking idea. How 'bout you?
Indeed, as the book progresses, we see his development from simply a human to an explicitly racial being. But this also brings out the worst in him, as he chastises others in the very terms he hated being applied to him (eg, ``fellow Chicanos seeing acceptance by denouncing affirmative action benefits that they had already accepted'' (p. 103)—this from someone who goes to great lengths to argue he has received none himself). His work with the Harvard Chicano group RAZA (representing a population of only 125—a shockingly low number for the early 1990s) turns increasingly politicized, rancorous and turbid (in his own words (p. 221), ``an ethnic organization that had promised support had delivered only judgment''—a searing indictment that fails to fully acknowledge his own role in that breakdown).

A significant fragment of the book discusses Navarrette's relationship with the altogether more thoughtful Richard Rodriguez. He begins by pre-judging him (though ``prejudice''—the act of pre-judging—is not a term Navarrette would apply to himself), then turns right around after meeting him. He comes to believe there Rodriguez's argument that education will inevitably (my emphasis) lead to a distance from roots, but never notices the importance of this part of the claim, nor justifies why he accepts it.

The last part of this book is a descent into the ridiculous. Navarrette entirely loses sight of the big picture. We learn all too much about his sex life, about his cocky performance in a Yale classroom, about his brief flirtation with graduate education at UCLA (which shows up in what appear to be his older biographical sketches on the Web—but not in what seem to be newer ones, where instead we learn he returns to Harvard for a graduate degree). We are left with a very sad portrait of a disturbed, confused person with, perhaps, a great deal of untapped talent.

This book is sub-titled, Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano. In part, the prominence of Harvard on the very title is a reflection of Navarrette's own mind. But what he misses is that the Odyssey has both drama and a conclusion. His drama is always just a little shaky, and his conclusion is non-existent.