Hunger of Memory

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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 has been invited to appear on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “Today,” and other television talk shows. He has, he says, “become notorious among certain leaders of America’s Ethnic Left . . . the brown Uncle Tom, interpreting the writing on the wall to a bunch of cigarsmoking pharaohs.”

Those who were already opposed to affirmative action and bilingual education found in Rodriguez a stunning “minority” witness. Those who are ideologically committed to those programs have vilified him as a traitor. Neither side is much interested in the niceties of his quiet exposition, the evidence of his own experience.

Rodriguez is opposed to affirmative action because it does not address the root problems of illiteracy and low achievement, problems which begin at the elementary school level. Affirmative action, he says, takes a student such as himself who has already “made it” and makes it even easier for him. It is fundamentally unfair, as he must acknowledge in a bitter conversation with a fellow graduate student, a Jew, whose record is as excellent as Rodriguez’s—but who has no job offers, while prestigious schools are competing to offer Rodriguez a job. It was during this coversation, Rodriguez writes, that his “mind reared—spooked and turning—then broke toward a reckless idea: Leave the university. Leave.”

Rodriguez is opposed to bilingual education because he believes its proponents are mistaken about the fundamental nature of education. The purpose of education, he believes, is to provide students—whatever their “background”—with a public identity, a public competence. He says early in the book, in a passage emphasized by italics: “A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student.” This is seminal insight. Any attempt to take the necesary pain out of education results in a bad education—whether by deferring the plunge into English, the public language, or by overemphasizing “creativity” and “originality.” The best synonym for “primary ’education,’” Rodriguez observes, “is ’imitation.’” Education does not come naturally; rather, it “requires radical self-reformation.”

This last point deserves more emphasis, for the perceptions that underlie Rodriguez’s critique of bilingual education (and not that topical issue itself) are crucial to his richly suggestive autobiogaphy. In one sense, Rodriguez emphasizes,...

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“education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process—a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom.” It is for this reason, as the pioneering studies of Walter Ong have shown, that many cultures have developed what Ong calls “chirographically controlled” learned languages, languages “always learned with the assistance of pen and ink” in contrast to the “mother tongue.” Among these learned languages were Latin, Sanskrit, classical Chinese, classical Arabic, and Rabbinic Hebrew. For centuries, all students in these cultures (the students were usually exclusively male) had to master a public, learned language in sharp distinction from the private language of the home.

The unifying theme of Hunger of Memory is the “radical self-reformation” required by education. In Rodriguez’s case, this meant a gradual but steady distancing from his working-class Mexican parents and their world. The book is dedicated to them, a very lengthy dedication which, after expressing that sense of distance, concludes: “For her and for him—to honor them.” In a moving passage near the end of the book, Rodriguez quotes from a letter his mother wrote to him some years ago when an essay which was the germ of Hunger of Memory was published. She asks him not to write about their family and other personal matters: “’Writing is one thing, the family is another.’”

Just as his education is representative of the educational process, not atypical because of the great distance between his “background” and the public world in which he has achieved success, so the tug between public and private which Rodriguez feels as a writer has wide implications—about writing, about the nature of language, about contemporary American culture. He reflects that he will probably never try to explain his motives to his parents: “Like everything else on these pages, my reasons for writing will be revealed to public readers I expect never to meet.”

Those public readers will be grateful to Rodriguez for his sensitive reflections—never murky or pretentious—on what he is doing while in the very act of doing it. This self-reflective writing-about-writing will make his readers conscious of certain paradoxes in which they participate as readers: “The reader’s voice silently trails every word I put down. I reread my words, and again it is the reader’s voice I hear in my mind, sounding my prose.” This intimate communion can be achieved only through distance—the writer alone in his room, writing to strangers—and in a shared, public language. “Such is the benefit of language: By finding public words to describe one’s feelings, one can describe oneself to oneself.”

In a time when pretentious, jargon-ridden musings on all manner of self-reflective phenomena are all the rage, Rodriguez’s graceful illumination of certain paradoxes of language and communication is a breath of fresh air. Indeed, he has fashioned in Hunger of Memory an elegant “self-consuming artifact” such as the Renaissance poets he knows so well might admire. He has written a book which gradually catches up with itself, so that by the end he is reflecting on his writing as he is writing. He has written a book about deciding to be a writer, and he has become a writer by writing about it. He does all this without a touch of preciousness or self-consciousness.

Rodriguez’s style blends the formal and the colloquial; sentence-fragments abound in his conversational idiom, and he uses parentheses liberally, on virtually every page. “No longer would people ask me,” he writes, after the advent of Chicano consciousness, “as I had been asked before, if I were a foreign student. (From India? Peru?)” It is both a public and a personal style, distinctively that of Richard Rodriguez, whose readers—a multitude of strangers—will look forward to meeting him again.

Form and Content

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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 orderly linear exposition to inform the reader; nor does Rodriguez identify by name the people who influenced him. Substantial portions of his life, such as his adolescence, are hardly mentioned. Instead, each component of the book, while acquainting the reader with an important stage, episode, or insight in the author’s development, is, more than anything else, a self-referenced, and often-repetitive discourse on an issue of broad sociological, philosophical, educational, or political relevance.

While Rodriguez’s recollections are interesting enough to capture the reader’s attention, his aim is not to entertain. In Hunger of Memory, autobiography serves primarily as a backdrop for the discussion of themes of much greater scope. Controversy and tender memories become artfully intertwined to give texture to the work. The book’s first chapter, “Aria,” for example, examines the relationship between language, family, and intimacy while the reader learns about Rodriguez’s memories of his youth. The third, titled “Credo,” discusses Rodriguez’s reaction to changes in the Catholic liturgy and explains his deeply felt Catholic faith. Chapter 5, “Profession,” recounts the benefits extended to Rodriguez, already an adult, by affirmative action programs. This section is used as a platform for Rodriguez to turn his experience into a case study of how misguided the entire program has been.

During the 1970’s, earlier—and at times quite different—versions of some of the book’s chapters appeared as individual essays in prestigious journals such as The Columbian Forum, The American Scholar, and College English. Largely because of the controversial nature of Rodriguez’s positions on bilingual education and affirmative action, these articles brought their author numerous speaking engagements, much public attention, and a book contract to write an autobiography that eventually became Hunger of Memory. Rodriguez tells the reader, in the prologue, that his New York editor urged him to write the book “in stories”—recollecting and reminiscing—not in essays, a suggestion that the writer admittedly ignored. Elsewhere in the prologue he describes the end result of his efforts as “essays impersonating an autobiography,” recognizing the fact that Hunger of Memory is more a polemic than the story of his life.

A number of controversial themes run through the work. Rodriguez is critical of advocates of bilingual education. He is in favor of cultural assimilation, and he opposes affirmative action programs although he has benefited from them. He argues that race and ethnicity have played too central a role in the national debate and in policy-making circles responsible for new social programs and legislation. In these discussions, he believes, the influence of class as a factor in predicting success has been largely ignored by those who view ethnic groups as homogeneous and refuse to admit that important distinctions exist among members of any particular group.

To a large extent, Hunger of Memory is an attempt to explain Rodriguez’s own life in the light of the last point. He thinks of himself as an individual whose experiences differ radically from those of many of the members of his ethnic group—Mexican-Americans. Rodriguez calls the writing of the book an act of contrition, wherein he seeks the forgiveness of those poor, hardworking, and illiterate fellow Mexican-Americans who would be the legitimate beneficiaries of affirmative action. He knows that he has left them behind, as he left his parents behind, and in their faces he recognizes little of himself.

Form and Content

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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 lose his private Spanish language, thereby slowly alienating him from his family.

Rodriguez’s discussion of language is interwoven with his educational experiences, which he outlines in “The Achievement of Desire.” He elaborates on his own accomplishments as a “scholarship boy,” one who gains an education through imita-tion and memory skills rather than by exercising independence and critical thinking skills. He describes allowing educated teachers to replace his uneducated parents as authority figures while advancing from parochial schools to Stanford, Columbia, and Berkeley.

In the next three chapters, Rodriguez more specifically discloses how language and education affected him personally. In “Credo,” he explains how his Roman Catholic background became the link between his public language of parochial school and his private language and beliefs of home. His other unifying link with family is discussed in “Complexion,” where Rodriguez describes his skin color, his Hispanic-American heritage, and the conflicting effects that his assimilation into an educated culture have had on him. He refers to himself as a “coconut”: brown (Hispanic) on the outside and white (in attitudes and education) on the inside. In the chapter “Profession,” Rodriguez details how his minority status based on skin color provides him with numerous educational and professional opportunities that he believes are undeserved because of his complete assimilation into white, middle-class culture.

The final, brief chapter is “Mr. Secrets,” in which Rodriguez brings readers back to the prologue’s present. In “Mr. Secrets,” Rodriguez notes the effect that assimilation, language, and education had on his family. He, his lawyer brother, and two business executive sisters contrast powerfully with his Hispanic, Spanish-speaking parents. Readers end where they begin, yet there is now a developed understanding of how Rodriguez arrived at that point in his life and of some consequences of his journey.

Historical Context

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Affirmative Action
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 factor of several considered.

Rodriguez’s book, which received widespread national attention because of his unexpected stand against affirmative action, was written and published during a period of American history when the issue of affirmative action was contested. Generally, Rodriguez sides with those who argue that affirmative action psychologically harms the individuals it claims to help, creating a caste of people who are never truly assimilated into the mainstream of American public life. Others assert that such programs intensify hostilities toward minorities. Rodriguez also condemns affirmative action programs in education for considering only ethnicity and gender and for failing to recognize that a greater handicap to advancement is years of poor pre-college schooling.

Bilingual Education
The issue of bilingual education in the United States began during the colonial period, and teachers struggled to educate students who spoke only German, Dutch, French, or Swedish. More recently, though, the federal push for bilingual education occurred in 1967, when a bill was introduced in the U. S. Senate amending the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to help local jurisdictions establish bilingual education programs. The primary goal of this program was to assist the children of new immigrants by providing school lessons taught in their native languages at the beginning of their American educational experience. The first Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1968 and renewed in 1974.

By the mid to late 1970s, serious concerns arose about the effectiveness of bilingual education, especially for Spanish-speaking students. The annual cost of the program grew from $7.5 million in its first year to $150 million in 1979.

Opponents of bilingual education assert that English is the new international language and is required to secure a good job in the United States and also that preserving multiculturalism through language threatens the ‘‘melting pot’’ function of the public schools and creates national disunity. Rodriguez sides in his book with the opponents of bilingual education, arguing that success in the United States relies on English skills. ‘‘The bilingualists simplistically scorn the value and the necessity of assimilation,’’ he writes. Rodriguez attributes his success, in fact, to learning English early in his education, despite the gulf it created between his Mexican culture and himself.

However, advocates for bilingual education argue that unless non-English-speaking children are taught in their own languages at the start of their schooling, their education will suffer. As well, they believe that the education establishment in the United States should take advantage of the many languages spoken by the new immigrants to give students exposure to a world and a nation that is increasingly diverse.

Literary Style

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StructureHunger 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 Tone
Rodriguez writes these essays in the first person, and his is the dominant voice throughout. This offers readers direct access to his thoughts and feelings, but readers of any autobiographical writings should be aware that everything the author reveals is colored by personal opinions and beliefs. In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez does not (and should not be expected to) give equal space to those who may disagree with his interpretations of events.

Rodriguez’s tone is usually one of pride in what he has accomplished, but he also belittles himself and reveals a few less-than-stellar personal qualities. Often, authors use this technique to make a character appear more human and likeable. Rodriguez’s pride in his own academic achievement is mitigated by his argument that what made him a good student was not intelligence but his willingness to memorize whatever he was asked to memorize. When he writes about selecting Stanford University for his undergraduate work, he admits that he did so not only because of its excellent academic reputation but also because ‘‘it was a school rich people went to,’’ and he wanted to be around them.

Compare and Contrast

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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 ambitious young Chicano (an American of Mexican descent) who is a partner in a garage with the older and cranky Ed Brown, a white man played by Jack Albertson.

Today: According to many Hispanic groups, fewer and fewer network television roles are going to Hispanics. They point out that one of the few Hispanics in a leading television role is Martin Sheen, who plays the U. S. president on the NBC drama West Wing. His real name is Ramon Estevez.

1950s: The issue of government aid to parochial schools is fiercely contested. The Catholic Church opposes all legislation that specifically prohibits public money from going to church-run schools. In 1950, more than three million American students attend parochial elementary and secondary schools, such as the ones Rodriguez and his siblings attend in Sacramento.

1970s: Controversies about public support of parochial schools continue. In 1973, the Supreme Court declares unconstitutional a New York State tax provision that grants a tuition tax credit benefit to parents of non-public school students.

Today: The issue of government vouchers for private schools—payments made by the government to parents or to educational institutions for students’ education expenses—is a volatile one. Many parents believe that they should have a choice in where their children are schooled and that the government should foster such choice through tax relief and vouchers.

1950s: The most contested issue in education is the desegregation of the country’s public schools. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court decides the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In its decision, the Court declares that the segregation of races in schools is unconstitutional.

1970s: With desegregation largely accomplished, the nation’s attention turns to affirmative action. After a decade of strengthening affirmative action in education, the United States Supreme Court limits some of its aspects in the 1978 decision Bakke v. Regents of the University of California. In this decision, the high court rejects the use of numerical quotas designed to increase university minority enrollment but permits programs in which race is only one of the factors considered.

Today: Supporters of the goal of a color-blind society continue to challenge advocates of race-conscious solutions to discrimination. The United States Supreme Court has upheld key affirmative action measures in the past, but a series of recent rulings cast doubt on the future of affirmative action.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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, pp. 214–16.

Zweig, Paul, ‘‘The Child of Two Cultures,’’ in New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1982, pp. 1, 26.

Further Reading
Beckwith, Frances J., and Todd E. Jones, eds., Affirmative Action: Social Justice or Reverse Discrimination?, Prometheus Books, 1997.
Frances Beckwith is an opponent of affirmative action, while Todd Jones supports these programs. They have edited a collection of articles and essays addressing this issue and provided readers with a cool-headed approach to understanding it.

Kingston, Maxine Hong, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, Vintage Books, 1989.
Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir of growing up Chinese in Stockton, California, is the story of a young girl living in two worlds. She hears from her mother amazing stories of China filled with the supernatural, but she lives among the non-Chinese, the American ‘‘ghosts,’’ in California.

Stavens, Ilan, The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America, HarperPerennial Library, 1996.
Ilan Stavens brings his own experiences to this examination of the history and attitudes of Hispanics in the Americas. Stavens’s experiences include his childhood as a middle-class Jew living in Mexico City and as a white Mexican student moving into a diverse Latino community in New York City.

Suro, Roberto, Strangers among Us: Latinos’ Lives in a Changing America, Vintage Books, 1999.
Journalist Roberto Suro considers the issues critical to understanding Latino immigration to the United States. He covers topics such as poverty, bilingual education, and the relationship of Latinos to other ethnic groups.


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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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