Sociologist Richard Alba is a professor at the City University of New York who studies race, ethnicity, and international migration. Before participating in a panel on whether American diversity and democracy can go hand in hand, he sat down in the Zócalo green room to talk about his childhood in the Bronx, and two things he used to enjoy but no longer consumes: alcohol and meatballs.
Did you have any nicknames as a kid?
All my nicknames were riffs on Richard. Richie was probably the most common. There are still people who call me Richie; it calls back my childhood, so I find it somewhat embarrassing.
What’s the last habit you tried to kick?
I’ve pretty much stopped drinking alcohol, but that’s for medical reasons. It was so ingrained a habit I thought it would be very difficult to do, and I was amazed to discover it wasn’t that difficult to do.
What’s the most annoying question people ask you about the Bronx, where you grew up?
I suppose asking would I go and live there again is the most annoying question.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
Advice I didn’t follow, actually. My mentor told me not to write too much, and he was probably right, but I didn’t follow his advice.
If you had one extra hour in the day, what would you do with it?
When I was a young man, I was a very good photographer, and so I have this big sort of storehouse of images that I took then. If I had more time, I would learn to print color images, and I would print some of them.
What’s your favorite fictional immigrant story?
The book At Weddings and Wakes [by Alice McDermott]. It’s an Irish-American story—and it’s about New York in the ’50s, a period I know New York in, having grown up at that time. It just gets so many of the details right.
What keeps you up at night?
Not much keeps me up at night anymore, I’ll tell you. I guess if I were worrying about anything, it would be how my children will turn out. When will they deliver grandchildren?
If you could annex a country to become the 51st U.S. state, which would you choose?
Mexico for sure. I think there’s already just such a strong connection between Mexico and the United States. I think that Mexico would add a lot to our country in the sense that it provides a kind of depth of history on this continent that we don’t have. I think it would change the national story in such interesting ways.
Where do you go to be alone?
I love to write in the morning in my apartment with my coffee, preferably with loud music. Although my wife is there often, I actually feel very self-enclosed in those moments.
What person or restaurant makes your favorite meatball?
I don’t actually care for meatballs that much anymore. I used to love them as a child, but they were homemade meatballs, and I’ve never found meatballs that could compete with homemade meatballs, and the woman who cooked them is no longer on this planet—a great-aunt.