Hunger of Memory

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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, “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

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Affirmative Action
Affirmative action refers to a series of federal programs set up to address past discrimination...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez is a compilation of six essays, some of which were...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1950s: Five million new homes are built between 1945 and 1950; as a result, more than 50 percent of Americans own their own...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Rodriguez has structured his autobiography less as a timeline of his life and more around six different but important issues in his life....

(The entire section is 198 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo is a mix of autobiography and novel written by Chicano lawyer and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta....

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Couser, G. Thomas, ‘‘Biculturalism in Contemporary Autobiography: Richard Rodriguez and

(The entire section is 385 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.