Hunger of Memory (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
Hunger of Memory is the intellectual autobiography of a young man still in his mid-thirties. It is an unusual book, difficult to categorize; it does not deliver the continuous narrative suggested by the word “autobiography” on the dust jacket, nor does it discuss except in passing the books and intellectual encounters which have shaped the author, as one might have expected from the subtitle: “The Education of Richard Rodriguez.” It is an unusually quiet book, unmarked by any violent or dramatic episodes. Indeed, the book’s climax is singularly undramatic: Rodriguez decides to give up a safe and promising academic career to write.
All of this suggests a book lucky to find a publisher, let alone a wide readership, no matter how well-written it might be. Yet Hunger of Memory, widely reviewed and widely discussed, has found that readership—has even become a cause célèbre, for all the wrong reasons. Rodriguez is Hispanic-American; he does not care to call himself “Chicano.” His parents were immigrants from Mexico. In Hunger of Memory he is highly critical of two government programs: affirmative action and bilingual education.
Because of this controversial stance, which he first took in several essays published prior to Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez is in demand as a speaker—to conventions of university administrators, to high school teachers of English, to women’s alumnae groups. He...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Hunger of Memory comprises a five-page prologue and six chapters of approximately thirty-five pages each. The six chapters that make up the body of the book serve to frame the narrative within a rather loose chronological structure. In the opening chapter, the writer/protagonist/narrator introduces himself to the reader while reminiscing about the time when, as a child of a family of Spanish-speaking Mexicans residing in the United States, he first experienced English-speaking society. This occurred when he began attending a neighborhood Catholic elementary school in Sacramento, California. The school’s population was predominantly white, as was the neighborhood where the Rodriguezes lived. The book closes with a description of the family’s annual Christmas gathering some thirty years later, when Rodriguez, now a Ph.D. candidate in English Renaissance literature with brilliant career prospects, acknowledges to the reader—and to himself—the extent to which his development and education have distanced him from his parents, particularly from his father, with whom he is able to share little more than nostalgic longings and inconsequential domestic details. This closing chapter is aptly titled “Mr. Secrets,” after the nickname given to the author by his mother in a tone of bittersweet reproach.
The middle section of Hunger of Memory provides additional autobiographical detail, but this material is deliberately vague. There is no...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez differs significantly from many personal experience stories by thematically portraying and arranging Rodriguez’s life solely through the consequences of an education. In a prologue and six chapters, Rodriguez reveals how his education affected his social class, language, learning, religion, ethnic heritage, work, and family. Rodriguez opens Hunger of Memory with a prologue entitled “Middle-class Pastoral.” He begins his story thirty years after the chronological first event of the book and tells the reader that he is a dark-skinned educator, a part-time writer, a celebrated lecturer, and a successfully assimilated middle-class American man. Rodriguez begins with the end.
In his first chapter, entitled “Aria,” Rodriguez drops back to the beginning and describes his first day at school in Sacramento, California, when he was able to understand only fifty English words. “Aria” establishes the importance of language, as it reveals the strong, positive relationship that he shares with his family. Rodriguez describes himself as a “listening child” who soon distinguishes differences between his parent’s insecure, broken public English in a cold, alien culture and their confident, natural private Spanish in a warm, loving home. As a seven-year-old, Rodriguez begins developing his public English language, with its advantages of cultural assimilation, but he also begins to...
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Affirmative action refers to a series of federal programs set up to address past discrimination against minority groups and women by protecting these groups against bias and by increasing their representation in the workplace and in educational institutions. These programs emerged from a complicated and hotly debated series of federal laws, presidential directives, and judicial decisions, beginning with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This act also created the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1968, the U. S. Department of Labor decided that employers should hire and promote women and minorities in proportions roughly equal to their availability in qualified applicant pools. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned not only employment practices in which discrimination against women and minorities was a motive, but those practices that, while not adopted with the intent to discriminate, have a discriminatory impact.
Between 1971 and 1989, several Supreme Court rulings established precedents that restricted some aspects of affirmative action. One of the more famous was the 1978 decision Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, in which the court rejected the use of numerical quotas designed to increase university minority enrollment but permitted programs in which race was only one...
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Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez is a compilation of six essays, some of which were published separately before being included in the book. Each one addresses a critical issue in Rodriguez’s life. ‘‘Aria’’ looks at the impact trading Spanish for English had on his life at home and at school. ‘‘The Achievement of Desire’’ covers Rodriguez’s love affair with education and studying but also addresses how being a ‘‘scholarship boy’’ created a huge divide between him and his parents. ‘‘Credo’’ addresses being a Catholic, and ‘‘Complexion’’ looks at Rodriguez’s awareness of himself as a Mexican American with dark skin. ‘‘Profession’’ deals with the decisions he has made about his academic career. The book winds up with ‘‘Mr. Secrets,’’ in which Rodriguez speaks to the struggle his parents have had with the autobiographical essays he has published.
Because these essays are self-contained, they do not necessarily fit together neatly and create a smooth time line of Rodriguez’s life and experiences. His writing moves between the periods of his life in each of the essays. In keeping with his assertion that the work is an ‘‘intellectual autobiography,’’ Rodriguez structures the book less in terms of passing events and more in terms of his emotional growth and maturity as a citizen and a man.
Point of View and...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: Five million new homes are built between 1945 and 1950; as a result, more than 50 percent of Americans own their own homes. Between 1950 and 1960, 75 percent of metropolitan growth occurs in suburban areas.
1970s: By 1970, about 40 percent of Americans are living in suburbs; both urban and rural areas are experiencing declines in population. During this decade, about 65 percent of Americans own their own homes.
Today: The so-called post-suburban age is seeing the rise of ‘‘edge cities,’’ areas of planned development on the peripheries of major cities but physically, economically, and culturally independent of the cities. In 2000, about 67 percent of Americans own their own homes, but the home ownership rate is only about 46 percent for Hispanics.
1950s: A weekly comedy show starring Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy, is one of the most successful television shows in the history of American broadcasting. First broadcast in 1951, the CBS show develops a loyal following of viewers entertained by its comic depiction of the married life of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, played by her real-life Cuban husband, Desi Arnaz.
1970s: NBC has a huge hit from 1974 to 1978 with the situation comedy Chico and the Man about two men from very different cultural backgrounds living in East Los Angeles. Freddie Prinze stars as Chico, an...
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Topics for Further Study
Rodriguez has structured his autobiography less as a timeline of his life and more around six different but important issues in his life. Choose an issue in your life—education, language, family—and write a few pages on this topic as they might appear in your own autobiography.
Research affirmative action. From your research, come up with a position on the issue and write a one-page essay aimed at persuading readers to adopt your position. Be sure to include reasons for your stance on affirmative action.
Pick one scene from Rodriguez’s book and write a short, one-act play based on it.
Rodriguez received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in London. Research this scholarship program and create a presentation explaining the program. What subjects can Fulbright scholars study? Where can they study? Are there any famous people who have received Fulbright Fellowships?
Have you ever lived in or visited a country whose language is different from your own? If so, what was this like? Did you take language classes or try to pick up the language by talking with people? What things did you find difficult because of your language difference? Write a short essay about this experience.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo is a mix of autobiography and novel written by Chicano lawyer and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. In this 1972 coming-of-age book, Acosta tells the story of his life: his birth in El Paso, growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and becoming a lawyer with the reputation for taking on impossible cases and challenging the status quo.
Jesus Colon’s 1961 collection of essays and other short pieces, A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches, reflects his concern for the working class. Some of the pieces are autobiographical.
Ernesto Galarza’s fictionalized autobiography, Barrio Boy, tells of the author’s birth in Mexico and his years-long migration to California during the Mexican Revolution. In the 1971 book, the author is orphaned but manages to graduate from high school and, like Rodriguez, to attend Stanford University.
Written in 1950, Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude explores the Mexican psyche through an examination of political power in post-conquest Mexico. Paz, who eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature, argues for democracy in this book, a stance that placed him at odds with Mexican leaders at the time it was written but won him kudos for his social criticism.
Richard Rodriguez followed Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez with another collection of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Couser, G. Thomas, ‘‘Biculturalism in Contemporary Autobiography: Richard Rodriguez and Maxine Hong Kingston,’’ in Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 210–45.
Crowley, Paul, ‘‘An Ancient Catholic: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez,’’ in America, Vol. 173, No. 8, September 23, 1995, pp. 8ff.(4).
Hortas, Carlos R., ‘‘Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez: Book Review,’’ in Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, August 1983, pp. 355–59.
Postrel, Virginia, and Nick Gillespie, ‘‘The New, New World: Richard Rodriguez on Culture and Assimilation,’’ in Reason, Vol. 26, August 1, 1994, pp. 35ff.(7).
Saldívar, Ramón, ‘‘Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography,’’ in Diacritics, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 25–34.
Stavens, Ilan, ‘‘Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez: Book Review,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 120, No. 6, March 26, 1993, pp. 20ff.(3).
Woods, Richard D., ‘‘Richard Rodriguez,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 82: Chicano Writers, First Series, edited by Francisco A. Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley, Gale Research, 1989,...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Diaz, R. “Thought and Two Languages: The Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive Development,” in Review of Research in Education. X (1984), pp. 23-54.
Hakuta, Kenji. Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism, 1986.
Hortas, Carlos. Review in Harvard Educational Review. LIII (August, 1983), pp. 355-359.
Kirkus Reviews. L, January 1, 1982, p. 55.
Laosa, L. M. “Ethnicity, Race, Language, and American Social Policies Toward Children,” in Child Development Research and Social Policy, 1984. Edited by H. H. Stevenson and A. Siegel.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, February 28, 1982, p. 1.
Newsweek. XCIX, March 15, 1982, p. 76.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, January 15, 1982, p. 88.
Rivera, T. “Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis,” in MELUS. XI (Winter, 1984), pp. 5-13.
Rodríguez, Richard. “Mexico’s Children.” The American Scholar 55, no. 2 (Spring, 1986): 161-177.
Zwieg, Paul. “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodríguez.” The New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1982, 1.
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