Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 that only one of their own could elicit.
Like Hunger of Memory, much of Days of Obligation appeared as separate essays prior to being collected. Though many of the essays take Rodriguez’s life as a point of departure, Days of Obligation is a more distanced, less polemical narrative than his first book. Rodriguez recalls, in “Asians,” the Sacramento neighborhood of his childhood and his Chinese dentist. He examines the apparent decline of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism among Hispanics in the United States and Latin America, referencing his own Catholicism. He details the consequences of the AIDS epidemic on the gay population of San Francisco, making no effort to avoid revealing his own homosexuality. As in Hunger of Memory, he focuses predominantly on Mexican and Mexican American culture and history, particularly in relation or contrast to the United States. In “Nothing Lasts a Hundred Years,” the closing essay, he recalls the argument he had with his father when he was fourteen and his father was fifty. His father told him that life is harder than he thinks. Nearly his father’s age, he now agrees with him, and honors him, fulfilling the obligation of the book’s title. Broader in its investigation, less personal and less specifically autobiographical than Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation nonetheless continues the discourse Rodriguez initiated in his first book and proves him to be an outstanding essayist and a major figure in Chicano literature.
Brown, published in 2002, is a collection of essays on a broad variety of topics, from the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel to Broadway musicals, in which the author works to subvert the notion of race in America as a distinction between black and white and suggests the color brown as a means of understanding both America’s future and her past. The book was nominated for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.
During the 1990’s and 2000’s, Rodriguez was often seen on the Public Broadcasting System’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in his capacity as an essayist. His abiding theme was the reexamination of race, and identity in general, in American society. His awards include the Frankel Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities (now known as the National Humanities Medal) and the International Journalism Award from the World Affairs Council of California. In 1997 he received the coveted George Foster Peabody Award, recognizing his “outstanding achievement in broadcast and cable.” He lives in San Francisco.