Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Rodriguez 1944-

American autobiographer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Rodriguez's career through 2001.

Rodriguez is principally known for his autobiography, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), which addresses the issue of minority alienation in American society. Arranged as a collection of autobiographical essays, Hunger of Memory earned Rodriguez a prominent place in Chicano literature for its reflections on the role of language in determining one's cultural identity. However, several of Rodriguez's opinions have been considered controversial by the Chicano community, including his arguments against affirmative action and his examination of the role of homosexuals within Mexican-American communities. Rodriguez continued his exploration of the self in his second volume of autobiographical essays, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992).

Biographical Information

Rodriguez was born July 31, 1944, in San Francisco, California, to Leopoldo and Victoria Rodriguez, a middle-class Mexican immigrant couple. Moving with his family to Sacramento, Rodriguez was educated in parochial schools, where he first learned English. A highly motivated student, Rodriguez earned a bachelor of arts in English from Stanford University in 1967 and a masters of arts in philosophy from Columbia University in 1969. Rodriguez also spent one year at the Warburg Institute in London after being awarded a Fulbright fellowship in 1972. Rodriguez enrolled in the doctoral program in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1970. Despite his success in the program, Rodriguez refused to submit his doctoral thesis on English Renaissance literature and rejected several teaching positions, believing that he was only being offered the positions due to the university's affirmative action policies. Rodriguez also feared that accepting an institutional role would complete his alienation from his Latin-American roots. Instead, he became a lecturer and freelance writer, publishing essays in the American Scholar, Harper's, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Rodriguez has won the Christopher Prize for autobiography in 1982, the Cleveland Foundation's Anisfield-Wolf Award for Civil Rights in 1982, a gold medal for Hunger of Memory from the Commonwealth Club of California in 1982, and the George Foster Peabody Award for his work on the public television program NewsHour.

Major Works

Hunger of Memory details Rodriguez's journey through the U.S. educational system and through what Rodriguez sees as his subsequent loss of ethnicity. Rodriguez combines aspects of the genre of the autobiography and the clear, direct prose of journalism to create a record of his formative years and assimilation into American culture. While attending elementary school in Sacramento, California, Rodriguez was required by his teachers to speak only English. This formed a clear dichotomy in Rodriguez's life, giving him a “public” voice (the Americanized English dialect that surrounded his education) and a “private” voice (the Spanish dialect that his parents still spoke at home). Claiming that language is the key factor for assimilation into American society, Rodriguez argues that to be successful in America requires the suppression and denial of one's cultural heritage, and, in particular, one's native language. By detailing his personal experiences, Rodriguez is able to explore the vast differences between the Latino-American and Anglo-Saxon cultures and his own difficulty with finding a sense of identity that involves both cultures. Hunger of Memory's autobiographical narrative also serves as a platform for Rodriguez to discuss his own opinions about culture and the ways cultures can be shaped by outside influences. For example, Rodriguez argues that certain social programs aimed towards promoting cultural diversity—including affirmative action—are flawed and should be focused more on correcting divisions in class rather than divisions in race. Rodriguez's 1992 book, Days of Obligation, is a collection of previously published autobiographical essays. In this volume, Rodriguez returns to explore many of the issues he addressed in Hunger of Memory, including language, religion, and the role of immigrants in America. He examines in detail his own feelings about his Mexican and Indian heritages as well as his experiences as a homosexual man living in San Francisco in the early 1990s, in a community that had been ravaged by the AIDS virus. Days of Obligation also focuses on how cultures are defined—the homosexual and heterosexual cultures, for example—and how these cultures can draw into themselves and create sub-cultures. The work concludes with Rodriguez deciding that he needs to reevaluate his Mexican heritage, acknowledging its importance for him both as an individual and as a writer. In 2002, Rodriguez published Brown: The Last Discovery of America, a critical examination of the effects that Hispanic culture and modern America have had on one another.

Critical Reception

Hunger of Memory has garnered positive reviews for its identification of cultural alienation and its examination of the search for identity. Many critics have praised Rodriguez's poetic and engaging prose, complimenting his blending of journalism and classical literary techniques. However, several reviewers—particularly from the Latino-American community—have been upset with Rodriguez's anti-affirmative action stance, and have felt that the narrative is primarily concerned with explaining to white-Americans why affirmative action programs fail. A number of Chicano scholars have disputed Rodriguez's social and political conclusions, contending that his works fail to consider all the facts surrounding certain issues and arguing that his positions subvert the value of minority cultures. In Days of Obligation, critics have noted that Rodriguez's prose became softer, more sentimental, and more sorrowful. The autobiographical essays in the collection have been commended for their lyricism and for exploring a wide range of cultures. However, some critics have been divided concerning Rodriguez's declaration of his homosexuality in Days of Obligation. Many have found Rodriguez's treatment of the subject to be subtle and thoughtful, while others have found it ambivalent and vague. A number of reviewers have also argued that the essays in Days of Obligation are presented with less coherence and structure than the essays in Hunger of Memory.