Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodríguez is a memoir that explores Richard Rodríguez’s coming-of-age in an America that challenges him to understand what it is to be a Mexican American and what it is to be a Catholic in America. At the heart of this autobiography is Rodríguez’s recognition that his is a position of alienation, a position that he accepts with resignation and regret. As the title of this collection of autobiographical pieces suggests, he remembers his early childhood with nostalgia, while acknowledging that his coming-of-age has resulted in his displacement from that simple, secure life.
The most critical aspect of his education and his development of an adult self is language. He explores his first recollection of language in the opening essay, which describes his hearing his name spoken in English for the first time when he attends a Catholic elementary school in Sacramento, California. He is startled by the recognition that the impersonality and public quality of this announcement herald his own adoption of public language—English—at the expense of his private language—Spanish. Rodríguez has begun to be educated as a public person with a public language.
This education, as he recalls it, occurred before the advent of bilingual education, an event that Rodríguez soundly criticizes. In his view bilingual education prevents children from learning the public language that will be their passport to success in the public world, and he uses his own experience—being a bilingual child who was educated without bilingual education as it was introduced into the American school system in the 1960’s—as an example.
Rodríguez offers himself as another example in criticizing affirmative action programs. Turning down offers to teach at various postsecondary educational institutions that he believed wanted to hire him simply because he was Latino, Rodríguez began what has been his persistent criticism of affirmative action policies in America.
Still another object of his criticism in Hunger of Memory is the Roman Catholic church and its changed liturgy, language, and rituals. Recalling the religious institution that had shaped his identity, he regrets the changes that he believes have simplified and therefore diminished the mystery and majesty that he associates with the traditional Catholic church. He is nostalgic about what has been lost while accepting the reality of the present.
In providing an account of his education, Rodríguez also provides an account of his profession: writing. From his early choice of a public language to his later choice to write about this decision, he paints a self-portrait of a man whose love of words and ideas compels him to explore his past. Rodríguez accepts the adult who writes in English and who writes about the person whose identity is defined by his struggle to find his own voice.
Richard Rodriguez, in his autobiography Hunger of Memory, recounts how his education has led to both benefits and losses. Rodriguez had acquired a first-rate Catholic-school education in the white suburbs of Sacramento, California, which allowed him to pursue higher education with all of the adequate scholarly preparation that most Mexican American youth are not afforded. The social and personal costs of this education, however, have been high.
Rodriguez’s education cost him his connection to his culture and family. Although this loss had been painful, he adds, it also gave him entrée into American society, which is what his parents had always wanted for him.
The autobiography is divided into a prologue and six chapters. Each chapter, an essay both personal and political, also focuses on a theme and follows a loose chronological telling of Rodriguez’s education. In the prologue, Rodriguez states the purpose of writing the book: to document the history of his schooling. He also affirms that the autobiography is about his Mexican heritage and about the way language has determined his public identity.
In chapter 1, “Aria,” Rodriguez discusses having lived in a white middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento and having attended a Catholic elementary school. The author then begins a discussion on private language (Spanish) and public language (English), saying that nuns from his school had visited his home to encourage his parents to speak only English at home, which they had done from that point on. The author had noticed the silence that took over the home once everyone began to speak only English. He then engages in a discussion on bilingual education and why he rejects it.
Chapter 2, “The Achievement of Desire,” offers a long reflection on how academic success changed Rodriguez: It separated him from his parents and his culture. He describes his mother’s jobs as a typist and his father’s jobs as a laborer, and he discusses his love for books, which, he says, were crucial to his academic success. Also while in college, he had traveled to London on a dissertation fellowship and then returned home to his parents for the summer. Chapter 3, “Credo,” discusses growing up Catholic and examines the differences between Mexican Catholicism and Anglo Catholicism and secular culture and Catholic culture. Finally, he tells his readers about his dislike of the changes in the liturgy.
In chapter 4, “Complexion,” Rodriguez recollects family members’ fears of having children with dark skin and his mother’s constant concern that Rodriguez stay out of the sun. At the age of eleven or twelve, Rodriguez had attempted to shave off the brown of his skin. One summer, while in college at Stanford, he had taken a job working construction. He writes that after working at this job, he no longer felt ashamed of his complexion. He became convinced, more than ever, after working one afternoon with Mexican day laborers, that his education is what separates him from los pobres, or manual labor.
In chapter 5, “Profession,” Rodriguez describes his time in higher education in the 1960’s, during the Civil Rights movement, and in the 1970’s, which saw the first affirmative action programs in colleges and universities. He says that he had benefitted from such programs, yet he adds that he rejects affirmative action. While at the University of California, Berkeley, he had been given many opportunities to teach at universities, while his white friends had not received the same. He rejected all teaching offers as a means of protest.
In chapter 6, “Mr. Secrets,” Rodriguez writes about how his mother had found out from a neighbor that he had published an essay about his alienation from his family and culture. His mother wrote him a letter to express her concern about these topics, and she asked him to stop doing so. His response is that his intention in the essay had been to praise what had been lost. He closes this chapter underscoring that education has divided his entire family.
Some of the most controversial and discussed themes in Rodriguez’s autobiography are language, race, and affirmative action. His conservative viewpoints on these issues have made Rodriguez a favorite of the political Right and a target of Chicano and Latino activists.
Rodriguez begins Hunger of Memory with a reflection on language and how it marked the beginning of his acculturation and subsequent disconnect from his family. He recounts the trouble he was having in school because of his limited English proficiency. Speaking Spanish at home, the nuns from his school argued, had been hurting the Rodriguez children and their ability to progress in school. The parents’ obliging the nuns begins the alienation between Rodriguez and his parents. Rodriguez insists that the Spanish language has no place in the education of children, that to “speak the public language of the gringos” is both a right and obligation. He denounces bilingual programs and argues that full assimilation is necessary if children are to have public identities and the full rights of citizenship. Scholars, in response, argue that Rodriguez’s own disconnection from his culture and family explains exactly why such programs are needed.
Rodriguez writes that his sense of inferiority and ugliness growing up had been caused by prejudice against him for his dark brown skin. He vividly recalls that this prejudice came not only from whites (in the form of racial slurs) but also from his own family—for example, his mother warning him to stay out of the sun and aunts generally fearful of children being born with dark skin. He acknowledges that family members reacted this way because of the social mistreatment of dark-skinned people, recognizing that darker skin symbolized poverty and oppression. He even attempts to shave off his own “brownness” at one point. However, it is his experience of los pobres that makes him realize his skin color does not matter. He had worked alongside middle-class, educated, white labors, and when a crew of Spanish-speaking Mexican laborers were brought on the job, he wanted to but could not feel connected to them. He had realized that no matter how dark his own skin, his education erases the color. At minimum, as a public person, he can defend himself and his rights, which leads him to finally embrace his dark skin.
This realization leads to Rodriguez’s objection to affirmative action. His higher education began to unravel, he writes, during the Civil Rights movement, after he was labeled a minority. His vehement objection to affirmative action comes from his belief that such programs are misguided. He argues that the failure of affirmative action is that only middle-class people of color, and not poor people of color, benefit from affirmative action. He continues, writing that people of color like him, educated and middle class, will ultimately be successful regardless of the program. He then suggests that racism, specifically institutional racism, is more an issue of class than of race. Reform should focus on primary and secondary schooling, but this reform should not include more culturally sensitive education. Rather, he argues, primary and secondary schools should acculturate people of color. The irony here is that Rodriguez was the beneficiary of such programs (which he acknowledges), and he continues to write about such issues, decades later.