Hunger of Memory Themes
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.’’
(The entire section is 1,281 words.)