Hunger of Memory Essay - Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series Hunger of Memory Analysis

Richard Rodriguez

Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction Hunger of Memory Analysis

Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory is a personal account depicting one individual’s often painful experiences associated with alienation. Yet Rodriguez’s alienation is also universal, as all people suffer isolation and separation sometime in life. This theme is important to young people, who often question relationships with and separations from family, culture, education, religion, work, and self.

Rodriguez experiences alienation early in his life. At home, he associates Spanish with a “childhood of intense family closeness,” as his parents return each day to the securities and comforts of home contrasted with the strained, unnatural, outside world. Rodriguez is unable to speak more than fifty English words when he enters elementary school in Sacramento. The Catholic nuns who teach Rodriguez ask that his parents speak English to him at home, and they comply. The “public” English of school replaces the “private” Spanish of home. Rodriguez is in an alien environment at home as well as at school.

Rodriguez soon feels more comfortable at school and quickly loses his accent by speaking to classmates and teachers more than to his family. His teachers become his new authority figures, as he relies on them to tell him what to read, learn, and enjoy. With each academic advancement, Rodriguez becomes more separated from his own family and heritage. He uses language and education to “remake” himself and becomes more embarrassed by his parents’ lack of education and speech.

As the gulf widens between home and the outside world, the Roman Catholic church bridges the two worlds for Rodriguez. The church encompasses all of his life at home and parochial school. He believes that the church knows all, that it is constant, and that it respects and accepts his parents’ heritage. Yet, when the church changes from Latin mass to English mass or contrasts the obvious differences between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parishes, Rodriguez begins to separate himself from what he believes is a changing church. His gradual separation from Catholicism continues to alienate him from his beliefs and his family.

Rodriguez’s Hispanic heritage and skin color also contribute to his alienation. He is darker than others in his family, and he relates the family remedies that were used to try to lighten his skin. He admits his own association of skin color with menial labor and poverty. Based on his bias, he is ashamed of his own body and heritage. One summer, however, while working in construction and hoping to demonstrate to his father that he can do “real work,” Rodriguez learns that what separates him from other workers is his education. Therefore, his education provides him with his white, middle-class values and attitudes; his education alienates him, not his color, heritage, or body.

With this new understanding, Rodriguez fights the advantages that come to him because of his minority status. Because of his ethnic background, administrators believe Rodriguez to be “socially disadvantaged,” so he is offered opportunities and positions to fulfill affirmative action quotas. He refuses to associate himself with Hispanic activist groups because he identifies more readily with white, middle-class culture. After receiving his Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of California at Berkeley, Rodriguez is flooded with university teaching offers but believes the offers are only because he is Hispanic American and not because of his qualifications. Rodriguez turns down a teaching position at Yale University as a stand against affirmative action, thereby alienating himself further from his ethnic background and from his own profession.

At the end of Rodriguez’s autobiography, he admits his separation from his family, his religion, his heritage, his profession, and even himself. Yet the separation is not complete; there are still strong ties to each aspect of his life. He cannot and will not divorce himself from either his Hispanic or white cultures; he is a product of both worlds. He explains how he will continue to live with these painful conflicts and alienations.