Richard Rodriguez Essay - Critical Essays

Rodriguez, Richard


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.

Principal Works

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1982

Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (autobiography) 1992

Brown: The Last Discovery of America (nonfiction) 2002


Alison Comey (review date 12 March 1982)

SOURCE: Comey, Alison. “View from the Melting Pot.” Christian Science Monitor 74 (12 March 1982): B1, B3.

[In the following review, Comey discusses Hunger of Memory and Rodriguez's personal struggle with cultural assimilation.]

You who read this act of contrition should know that by writing it I seek a kind of forgiveness—not yours. The forgiveness, rather, of those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed as a minority student. I wish that they would read this. I doubt that they ever will.

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez is the...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Tomás Rivera (essay date winter 1984)

SOURCE: Rivera, Tomás. “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis.” MELUS 11, no. 4 (winter 1984): 5–13.

[In the following essay, Rivera explores the concept of divisional experiences in Hunger of Memory and the polarization between the Anglo-Saxon and Latino-American cultures.]

[Editor's Note: Shortly before his untimely death, Tomás Rivera sent me the following essay. Except for minor typographical corrections, I have left the work, described by Chancellor Rivera as written from a “loose personal perspective,” as he wrote it. I wish to thank Rolando Hinojosa, Tomás Rivera's literary executor, for...

(The entire section is 4226 words.)

Alfredo Villanueva-Collado (essay date fall–winter 1988)

SOURCE: Villanueva-Collado, Alfredo. “Growing Up Hispanic: Discourse and Ideology in Hunger of Memory and Family Installments.Americas Review 16, nos. 3–4 (fall–winter 1988): 75–90.

[In the following essay, Villanueva-Collado examines the concepts of cultural separation and cultural alienation as explored in Hunger of Memory and Edward Rivera's Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic.]

An analysis of Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic, by the Neorican novelist Edward Rivera, and Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez by the Chicano writer Richard Rodriguez, reveals some...

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W. Lawrence Hogue (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Hogue, W. Lawrence. “An Unresolved Modern Experience: Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory.Americas Review 20, no. 1 (spring 1992): 52–64.

[In the following essay, Hogue discusses Rodriguez's attempts to create a new style of modernist text with Hunger of Memory.]

Two of the most common features of literary modernism are the radical rejection of history and the hostility between high art and mass culture. First, for a modern individual to experience the raw, unmediated present, he is required to reject the frozen structures of understanding inherited from the past. The rejection of history constitutes a revelation of time itself, for there is an...

(The entire section is 5654 words.)

Keith Henderson (review date 17 December 1992)

SOURCE: Henderson, Keith. “California Mix: Modern, Mexican, and Memories.” Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 16 (17 December 1992): 11.

[In the following review of Days of Obligation, Henderson comments on Rodriguez's continuing quest for self-identification.]

Richard Rodriguez's first book, Hunger of Memory, established him as one of the leading Hispanic writers in the United States. But watch how you use that word “Hispanic.” Rodriguez, whose new book is Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, calls the term “a complete political fiction.”

Rodriguez prefers to be known as a Mexican-American, and his...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Ilan Stavans (review date 26 March 1993)

SOURCE: Stavans, Ilan. “The Journey of Richard Rodriguez.” Commonweal CXX, no. 6 (26 March 1993): 20–22.

[In the following review, Stavans offers a negative assessment of Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father.]

It is a complex fate to be an American. James Baldwin liked to quote Henry James on the topic: “America's history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world—yesterday and today—are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word ‘America’ remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)

Richard Rodriguez and Virginia I. Postrel and Nick Gillespie (interview date August–September 1994)

SOURCE: Rodriguez, Richard, and Virginia I. Postrel and Nick Gillespie. “The New, New World: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez.” Reason 26, no. 4 (August–September 1994): 35–41.

[In the following interview, Rodriguez discusses American culture, cultural assimilation, and his growing pessimism towards multiculturalism.]

Essayist Richard Rodriguez, best known for his 1982 book Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, is usually classified as an Iconoclastic Mexican-American writer with little patience for political correctness. The description is accurate but incomplete. He is, more broadly, a student of America—a subtle and perceptive...

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Piers Paul Read (review date 4 March 1995)

SOURCE: Read, Piers Paul. “Rome versus Los Angeles.” Spectator 274, no. 8695 (4 March 1995): 34–35.

[In the following review, Read offers a positive assessment of Days of Obligation and comments on Rodriguez's exploration of the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Latino-American culture.]

At first sight, these essays [in Days of Obligation] by ‘a gay, Catholic Mexican-American’ journalist promise to be of little interest to Anglo-Europeans. We are a long way from San Francisco where Mr Rodriguez is an editor with the Pacific News Service. He does not write with the candy-coloured razzamatazz of the East Coast's Tom Wolfe. We are prepared to...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Bill Shuter (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Shuter, Bill. “The Confessions of Richard Rodriguez.” Cross Currents 45, no. 1 (spring 1995): 95–105.

[In the following essay, Shuter examines Rodriguez's descriptions of the formation of new cultures in Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation.]

Singular and somber, the voice of Richard Rodriguez has arrested the wandering attention of many viewers of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on the evenings when he is the guest commentator. (Whether it also arrests the attention of today's students I cannot be certain, but essays by Rodriguez appear in seven recent freshmen readers.) And just as firmly as it arrests attention, the voice resists...

(The entire section is 4657 words.)

Norma Alarcón (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Alarcón, Norma. “Tropology of Hunger: The ‘Miseducation’ of Richard Rodriguez.” In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, pp. 140–52. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Alarcón discusses Rodriguez's exploration of what it means to be an “American” in Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation.]

The historical condition of our times is to have “ethnicity,” albeit reconfigured and remapped in the aftermath of the civil rights movement in the United States. The Marxist mandate to acquire a class consciousness has been too limited to account for all...

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Laura Fine (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Fine, Laura. “Claiming Personas and Rejecting Other-Imposed Identities: Self-Writing as Self-Righting in the Autobiographies of Richard Rodriguez.” Biography 19, no. 2 (spring 1996): 119–36.

[In the following essay, Fine examines the development of Rodriguez's cultural perceptions throughout his two autobiographies.]

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez garnered both fiercely positive and negative reviews at the time of its publication in 1982. Heralded by the right-wing establishment as a model ethnic writer for his stands against bilingual education and affirmative action, Rodriguez found himself excoriated by the academic left,...

(The entire section is 6727 words.)

Antonio C. Márquez (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Márquez, Antonio C. “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory and New Perspectives on Ethnic Autobiography.” In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Matino and David R. Peck, pp. 237–54. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Márquez debates the problems of classifying Rodriguez's memoirs as “ethnic-autobiographies.”]


Hunger of Memory is comprised of a brief prologue, suggestively titled “Middle-Class Pastoral,” and six chapters: (1) “Aria,” (2) “The Achievement of Desire,” (3) “Credo,” (4)...

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Kevin R. McNamara (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: McNamara, Kevin R. “A Finer Grain: Richard Rodriguez's Days of Obligation.Arizona Quarterly 53, no. 1 (spring 1997): 103–22.

[In the following essay, McNamara discusses the various forms of cultural identity that Rodriguez describes in Days of Obligation, particularly the concept of double consciousness within San Francisco's homosexual community.]

The Mexicans, become Chicanos, act as guides on the visit to El Alamo to laud the heroes of the American nation so valiantly massacred by their own ancestors. … History is full of ruse and cunning. But so are the Mexicans who have crossed the border clandestinely to come and...

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Paige Schilt (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Schilt, Paige. “Anti-Pastoral and Guilty Vision in Richard Rodriguez's Days of Obligation.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40, no. 4 (winter 1998): 424–41.

[In the following essay, Schilt studies the pastoral qualities of several of the essays in Days of Obligation.]

The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his. From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil, and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant's hut, and I know, too, how frankly it afterwards disdains marble...

(The entire section is 7370 words.)

Norma Tilden (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Tilden, Norma. “Word Made Flesh: Richard Rodriguez's ‘Late Victorians’ as Nativity Story.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40, no. 4 (winter 1998): 442–59.

[In the following essay, Tilden discusses Rodriguez's views on homosexuality and the role of the Catholic Church as both a censor and a solicitor in his essay “Late Victorians.”]

In his 1982 autobiography Hunger of Memory Richard Rodriguez writes that for him as a child the Catholic Church “excited more sexual wonderment than it repressed”: “I would study pictures of martyrs—white-robed virgins fallen in death and the young, almost smiling, St. Sebastian, transfigured in...

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Henry Staten (essay date January 1998)

SOURCE: Staten, Henry. “Ethnic Authenticity, Class, and Autobiography: The Case of Hunger of Memory.PMLA 113, no. 1 (January 1998): 103–16.

[In the following essay, Staten explores the conflicts, contrasts, and flaws in Rodriguez's arguments on culture and cultural assimilation in Hunger of Memory.]


When Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez was published in 1982, it immediately became the center of a heated debate that has continued to the present. The book consists of a brief prologue and six loosely intertwined, loosely chronological autobiographical essays. In the prologue, “Middle-Class Pastoral,”...

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Jesse Alemán (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Alemán, Jesse. “Chicano Novelistic Discourse: Dialogizing the Corrido Critical Paradigm.” MELUS 23, no. 1 (spring 1998): 49–64.

[In the following essay, Alemán discusses the corrido tradition in Chicano novels and how Hunger of Memory fits into this tradition.]

As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, as heteroglot opinion, language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's.

(Bakhtin 293)

The dialogic nature of language Mikhail Bakhtin describes in “Discourse in the...

(The entire section is 6388 words.)

Petra Fachinger (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Fachinger, Petra. “Lost in Nostalgia: The Autobiographies of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 111–27.

[In the following essay, Fachinger discusses the differences in autobiographies written by authors from distinct ethnic and racial backgrounds, using the memoirs of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez as her examples.]

In “The Plural Self: The Politicization of Memory and Form in Three American Ethnic Autobiographies,” in which she compares N. Scott Momaday's The Names, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, and Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez...

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Further Reading


Castro, Juan E. de. “Richard Rodriguez in ‘Borderland’: The Ambiguity of Hybridity.” Aztlan—A Journal of Chicano Studies 26, no. 1 (spring 2001): 101–126.

Castro praises Rodriguez's works for the important social, political, and moral questions that they raise for the Chicano and Mexican-American communities.

Godine, David. “On Hunger of Memory.San Francisco Review of Books 7, no. 2 (summer 1982): 11–12, 26.

Godine explores the levels of alienation that Rodriguez describes in his autobiography Hunger of Memory.

Review of Brown: The Last Discovery of...

(The entire section is 162 words.)