Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
A great portion of Hunger of Memory covers Rodriguez’s childhood and his transformation into an adult. He is the third child of two middle-class Mexican immigrants in Sacramento and has two sisters and one brother.
Rodriguez describes his childhood as ‘‘awkward,’’ primarily because of the tension between his private family life and his more public life outside the household. Before Rodriguez was seven, Spanish was the primary language used in his home. He felt clumsy answering questions in English during class and feared any conversation that went beyond a few basic words. But after a trio of nuns from his school asked his parents to speak only English with their children, his world began to expand. Soon Rodriguez was less shy in school, and he became ‘‘increasingly confident’’ of his public identity.
While Rodriguez credits learning English with helping him become an adult, he also bemoans the fact that his family life, conducted in English, did not have the same, intimate feeling it once had. He and his brother and sisters spoke less with their parents, and the house became quieter. Eventually, Rodriguez began looking more toward his teachers as examples of what he aspired to. While feeling proud of his increasing abilities in school, Rodriguez also began to feel guilty for moving away from his parents. In addition, he occasionally felt ashamed of his parents’ halting English, and these feelings filled him with guilt.
Rodriguez also believes that becoming a student helped him become an adult. However, he is very cognizant that this same education placed a gulf between his beginnings and who he is now. He no longer finds it as easy to speak with his parents as freely as he used to, but he also credits his education with making it possible for him to understand and voice this struggle. ‘‘If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact,’’ notes Rodriguez.
Rodriguez writes with pride about his academic achievements, including his four years at Stanford University, a graduate degree from Columbia University, post-graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, and a Fulbright Fellowship that allowed him to research John Milton at the British Museum in London.
However, Rodriguez devalues his achievements as a student by characterizing his efforts as mere memorization. ‘‘I had been submissive, willing to mimic my teachers, willing to re-form myself in order to become ‘educated,’’’ he admits. As a ‘‘scholarship boy’’ Rodriguez admits that much of his success is attributable to his ability to memorize information, not to his broader intellectual strengths. But he defends this teaching methodology pursued by the nuns at the Catholic schools he attended, arguing that students must learn what is already known before they can embark on original thinking and creativity.
Race and Ethnicity
Even as a child, Rodriguez was keenly aware of his skin color and that he looked different from the other children in his mostly white neighborhood. Of his entire family, Rodriguez claims to have the darkest skin tone. When he was very young, his aunts would try various concoctions on his face to lighten his skin color, and his mother warned him against spending too much time out in the sun, lest his skin become even darker. She expressed concern that he would become like los pobres, the poor and powerless, or los braceros, men who labored outside all day.
Rodriguez claims to have heard very few racial slurs directed toward him as a child, and when he did hear one, he remembers being so stunned that he could not answer. But now he marvels at the response that his skin color gets when he is at a nice hotel or a fancy cocktail party. People assume that he has been on vacation or ask him if he has thought about doing any ‘‘high fashion modeling.’’
Rodriguez addresses being Catholic in the essay entitled ‘‘Credo.’’ Catholicism marked the passage of time in his early life as well as when he was a student at the neighborhood parochial schools. He remembers taking a break during class to march down the street to the church for prayers, the pictures of Jesus in every classroom, and dedicating his homework to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. His service as an altar boy during weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage taught him about the full spectrum of life. ‘‘Experienced in public and private, Catholicism shaped my whole day,’’ he writes, noting that it saturated his every waking moment until he left home to attend Stanford University.
As an adult, Rodriguez is still a practicing Catholic, but with some reservations. The changes to the liturgy resulting from the Second Vatican Conference in the 1960s have made him feel less close to the church. In an interview with Paul Crowley in America in 1995, Rodriguez complained about the ‘‘theatrical hand-shaking and the fake translations that characterize the vernacular Mass.’’ In the book, he remarks that these changes stem from the fact that the credo, the part of the Mass where the profession of faith is made, is no longer spoken by the priest but by the entire congregation. This has created a false sense of community, he argues, ‘‘no longer reminding the listener that he is alone.’’ But while he mourns the Catholic Church of his youth, he still clings to it. ‘‘Though it leaves me unsatisfied, I fear giving it up, falling through space.’’
Assimilation and Alienation
Rodriguez is a strong supporter of the idea that those who come to the United States should become assimilated into American society. He believes that those who would encourage non-native Americans to avoid becoming part of public society do them a disservice, not realizing that people do not lose their individuality by becoming part of public society. ‘‘While one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality,’’ argues Rodriguez. And it is from this position that Rodriguez argues against bilingual education, the concept that children should be taught using their first language for a period after they enter school.
The Role of Language
Spanish was the language spoken inside the Rodriguez household; English was the language spoken with the gringos. Rodriguez writes that, before the age of seven, when English was imposed upon him, coming home was a relief. ‘‘It became the language of joyful return,’’ he says of Spanish.
Once English became the household language and his skills in English improved, Rodriguez’s life changed dramatically. For the first time, he felt empowered to raise his hand in class and answer questions. He also began to feel connected to the world outside his house, the world of Americans. But, at the same time, Rodriguez noticed that he and his parents and siblings ‘‘remained a loving family, but one greatly changed.’’ Much of the old ease was missing, and there were fewer conversations between children and parents.
Rodriguez’s Spanish began to falter after he focused on speaking English, much to the concern of his many aunts and uncles. Even though this loss upset Rodriguez as well, he insists that his relatives were mistaken to assume that Spanish was the only thing holding them together as a family. This is the mistake, he says in the book, that proponents of bilingual education make. ‘‘Dangerously, they romanticize public separateness and they trivialize the dilemma of the socially disadvantaged,’’ Rodriguez writes. Only after learning to speak English comfortably did Rodriguez consider himself an American, finally able to acquire the rights due to him as an individual member of society.