With the publication of his autobiography, Hunger of Memory, in 1982, Richard Rodriguez (rawd-REE-gehz) rose to immediate national attention as a fine, if controversial, essayist. Born Ricardo Rodriguez in San Francisco, California, in 1944, the son of Mexican immigrants, he moved with his family to Sacramento, where they had purchased a small home. Ricardo spoke only Spanish at home with his parents and siblings. In Hunger of Memory he describes his first experience of English-language society, encountered in the Catholic elementary classroom which transformed him from Ricardo to Richard. When his parents began to speak only the “public” language of English at home, at the recommendation of his Irish nun teachers, Richard suffered a loss of intimacy with his family. He later decided that the educational process itself accounted for his separation from his parents, rather than simply “public” (English) versus “private” (Spanish) language.
Rodriguez was raised Catholic and attended Catholic primary and secondary schools. He earned a B.A. from Stanford University in 1967 and an M.S. from Columbia University in 1969. He did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Warburg Institute in London. He received a Fulbright Fellowship (1972-1973) and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (1976-1977). Though he was offered several university teaching positions, he declined the offers because he suspected that he was benefiting from a misplaced affirmative action. That is, he was offered such positions because as a Mexican American he was a member of an underrepresented ethnic group, while he believed that his entire education and preparation had resulted in his complete assimilation into the majority. Rodriguez became an editor at Pacific News Service, where he served for more than two decades, and a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and the Sunday “Opinion” section of the Los Angeles Times. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, Time, Mother Jones, The New Republic, and other publications.
Rodriguez spent six years writing Hunger of Memory, sections of which first appeared in magazines. Hunger of Memory is autobiographical, but rather than presenting a chronological view of Rodriguez’s growth and development, it presents his life in essays focused on his development as related to broader issues. Having learned the public language of English and entered successfully into the linguistic and cultural discourse of the dominant culture, Rodriguez reflects on the relationship between language, family, and intimacy. Having been raised Mexican American and Catholic, he examines his Catholic faith and comments on liturgical changes to Catholic rites. Though Rodriguez was awarded funding for college and postgraduate study based on merit, assistance was also based partly on his minority status.
Having thus benefited from affirmative action, he critiques it as a misguided approach that—because it helps people based on ethnicity or race—often helps those who are no longer disadvantaged. Affirmative action, argues Rodriguez, should focus on class rather than race. Rodriguez also criticizes bilingual education as a program that prevents more rapid assimilation of non-English speakers, consequently maintaining or even aggravating their disadvantaged status in relation to the majority culture. Furthermore, Rodriguez sees education as a transformative process that gives the individual an identity as a member of a group, an identity denied the student of a bilingual program. Hunger of Memory exploded on the literary scene when first published: The book received more attention from mainstream critics than any other single work by a Chicano author. Mexican American critics and Latin Americanists immediately responded to the polemical nature of the text. Advocates of affirmative action and bilingual education registered the betrayal...
(The entire section is 1,929 words.)