The Universality of Rodriguez's Experiences Growing Up
Many critics have long considered Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez a confession and apology for his apparent rejection of his Mexican-American roots. For example, Carlos Hortas writes in Harvard Educational Review that Rodriguez wrote his autobiography as ‘‘an act of contrition, a confession through which he seeks the forgiveness of Chicanos and other members of ‘minority’ groups.’’
Some of these commentators, Hortas included, base their ‘‘apology’’ argument on the perception that Rodriguez seems happiest when he is a very young child, at home, speaking Spanish before the nuns have the talk with his parents that sets his life firmly on the English-speaking road. In a sense, these critics see Rodriguez as a sort of contemporary, Californian Adam: before he is introduced to English (the apple of a certain kind of knowledge), Rodriguez lives in a warm, supportive paradise, wanting for nothing. But after he is forced to abandon that which sustains him and is introduced to the world and to worldliness through English, ‘‘paradise’’ isn’t good enough for him anymore, and this makes him unhappy. Certainly, after a superficial examination of the text, this seems to be the case.
In one scene, for example, Rodriguez admits to rarely leaving the house as a small child and writes that, when he did, he felt uncomfortable. Neighborhood children, primarily white, silently stared as he walked by. The passage in which he returns to his house is written with an almost audible sigh of relief: ‘‘I’d hear my mother call out, saying in Spanish ... ‘Is that you Richard?’ All the while her sounds would assure me: You are home now; come closer; inside. With us.’’
This home he returned to was, for Rodriguez, a special place. He remembers being ‘‘an extremely happy child at home,’’ a home where he felt ‘‘embraced’’ by the sounds of his parents’ voices. His family’s use of Spanish, the language spoken almost exclusively inside their home, whispered to Rodriguez, ‘‘I recognize you as someone special, close, like no one outside. You belong with us.’’ And later, when Rodriguez is older, he hears someone speaking Spanish and remembers ‘‘the golden age of my youth.’’ Indeed, Rodriguez writes of his pre-school youth as an almost intoxicating time that no one would want to leave behind.
But after Rodriguez becomes educated and leaves his family’s house, his returns are not written of with the same warm glow. Rodriguez remembers the first time he came home from Stanford University for Christmas holiday, and paints the scene in anxious tones.
The first hours home were the hardest ... [L]acking the same words to develop our sentences and to shape our interests, what was there to say? ... One was almost grateful for a family crisis.
And in the final scene of the book, Rodriguez, as a grown man with a national reputation as an essayist, is home again for another Christmas. The careful mood has not changed much from the first college Christmas. As the holiday festivities break up for the day, Rodriguez’s father asks him if he is leaving now for home. ‘‘It is, I realize, the only thing he has said to me all evening,’’ notes Rodriguez.
So, yes, Rodriguez’s book is filled with sad moments after he begins school and learns English. But is the pain expressed in the book due to Rodriguez’s ambiguity about the value and power of his Hispanic heritage, or simply the result of a natural and inevitable growing up and away from his very close-knit family?
Certainly an argument can be made that, contrary to many critics’ contentions that the English language sent Rodriguez down the slippery slope of lost identity, English provided him with a way to be more confident about his place in the world outside of his family’s house. This is a confidence that every child must find by one means or another.
When Rodriguez attended class before his English...
(The entire section is 11,060 words.)