Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Hunger of Memory Analysis
As an eloquent and accomplished Mexican-American with impressive academic credentials, Rodriguez serves as a model and example of the triumph of the underprivileged individual. His success was achieved through individual and family effort, by overcoming his own past, rather than through outside intervention or institutional and governmental supports. Many white readers, especially critics of bilingual education and affirmative action, have embraced him as their spokesperson and point to his rejection of these programs as proof of their worthlessness.
Rodriguez is, in fact, a vehement critic. He considers bilingual education programs—which were unavailable to his generation—ineffective and even detrimental. He explains his rapid progress in school, to a large degree, by the willingness of his family to abandon domestic intimacy—the use of Spanish, the language of home—and adopt English, the public language. His parents, Rodriguez relates, agreed to speak English at home, however artificial the language and halting their command of it, when the nuns, their children’s schoolteachers, persuaded them that it was in their best academic interest. He ceased being Ricardo and became Richard.
As his parents stopped speaking Spanish, Rodriguez perceived a loss of intimacy. At the time, he associated intimacy directly with the language itself and believed that family closeness and warmth were possible only in Spanish. While he was never able to overcome this youthful sense of sadness and loss, as he matured he began to believe that the outcome made the sacrifice worthwhile. In the next few years, he found ample compensation when he experienced academic success and a growing self-assurance in his public persona. He started to read voraciously in English and to rejoice in the sense of mastery, first of words and then of authors and ideas, in the new language. He became disinterested in Spanish and was reticent to speak his native language, even when visitors and relatives who came to his home urged him to do so.
Some years later, upon further reflection, Rodriguez believes that the loss of intimacy experienced in childhood was not caused by the adoption of a new language but was a result of the process of education itself. Education, as he sees it, aims at transforming children as individuals. Bilingual educators, by refusing to acknowledge this fact, contribute to delaying unnecessarily the main function of education. In the case of ethnic groups, bilingual education serves to postpone, if not to interfere with, the process of linguistic assimilation that contributes to an individual’s adoption of an identity separate from his family’s. It also delays the experience of self-confidence in public society that is essential for success.
Advocates of bilingual education would argue that the sense of loss experienced by Rodriguez in his passage from Spanish / Mexican culture to English /American culture could have been eased, if not altogether avoided, through a more gradual acculturation in which the language of home, the language and culture of intimacy, need never be relinquished. A native language can coexist, even thrive, with the public language. They are not mutually exclusive. Academic skills learned in one are easily transferred into the other. To succeed in English-speaking American culture (gringo culture to Rodriguez’s parents), it is not necessary to suppress expression in the language of one’s ethnic origin. The loss of intimacy at home is not unlike the one Rodriguez experienced when the Catholic liturgy changed from Latin to the vernacular, a change that affected him deeply and about which he writes in some of the most moving passages of the book.
Affirmative action is another of Rodriguez’s targets, although he openly admits to having been the beneficiary of the program on a number of occasions. As a graduate student in the 1970’s, he won several prestigious awards and fellowships, and although he amply met the criteria for such awards, he felt singled out because of his Chicano roots. When during his last year of graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, he was offered coveted teaching appointments at several colleges while equally qualified white fellow students had no such offers, he decided to turn them down. This autobiographical juncture affords Rodriguez the opportunity to delve into what he considers the irony of his predicament. On the one hand, he knows that he has devoted his life to becoming a member of English-speaking public society, for which he suffered the losses already discussed. Yet, after achieving his goal and distinguishing himself in public society, he is rewarded for being a member of an ethnic minority, the exact thing from which he made it his life’s work to escape. He believes that he does not need such rewards; he has already achieved. Affirmative action’s largesse should go to the truly underprivileged, to those who cannot read and write and are destined to a life of poverty and need.
The scenario that Rodriguez criticizes may have been prevalent during the early years of affirmative action and may have had the results he notes in certain areas of higher education. Rodriguez belongs, to some extent, to the first generation of Ph.D. candidates whose minority status and ethnicity, as later with gender, served as impetus, rather than obstacle, for the granting of academic appointments. Defenders of affirmative action argue that minority groups have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education and other areas of employment and that its programs have sought to correct the situation. The number of minorities pursuing careers in higher education has increased dramatically since the early 1970’s, in large part because of affirmative action. Those who followed Rodriguez in undergraduate and graduate schools under the auspices of affirmative action have been able to use the program to achieve a level of training and education that Rodriguez achieved on his own. Thanks to the program, they need not feel, as he did, alienated and alone. The fact that affirmative action was implemented at the end of Rodriguez’s education, making him the bemused recipient of its rewards, is simply an accident of history.
The polemical content of Hunger of Memory should not obscure the moving human story it relates. In fact, this is the most compelling feature of the work. The reader is easily captivated by Rodriguez’s skillful recounting of deeply felt experiences. He is both tender and incisive, public and private. He is able to re-create, in a language that is simple, intimate, and rich, the awkward moments and the sense of excitement distilled from the memories of his youth. In compelling prose, he evokes the mystery of the Roman Catholic Mass. In a tone of contrition he apologizes for his own success, guilty for having left behind countless Mexican-Americans. The pervading tone of the work as a whole is one of nostalgia, of sadness and loss that public success can never erase.