Richard Rodriguez

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Alison Comey (review date 12 March 1982)

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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 autobiography of a Mexican-American whose dark skin is frequently mistaken for a suntan. He has outdistanced los pobros, the swarthy laborers of common ancestry whose muscularity belies their absolute powerlessness. He has surpassed his parents who, their own imaginations stunted, made possible his exit, from their realm. He has relinquished “cultural identity”—that is, a single ethnic identity for both public and private purposes—for the anonymity of an educated middle-class man.

Though Rodriguez found his route through school during the 1960s and '70s alternately smoothed and mined by minority membership, he likens the fundamental change in him to that experienced by generations of American immigrants who leaped from the working class into the melting pot. Education necessarily alters the individual, he argues, thereby combining his moving personal memoir with a stunning attack on the bilingual education and affirmative-action policies on which today's underclass has staked its future.

Attending a Roman Catholic primary school, Rodriguez was forced to learn and use English. His resentment at being wrenched from the rich sounds of familial Spanish was eased by new confidence in his ability to make himself understood in and to understand the dominant gringo society. He learned that he belonged in the mainstream, not lingering on its fringes.

The lesson cost. As “the scholarship boy,” he guiltily closeted himself in his room at home, aware that to better his circumstances he'd have to part from them.

“Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view when I read,” Rodriguez remembers, comparing himself to “a blinkered pony.” “Rather, I read in order to acquire a point of view.” He discovered “that education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process—a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom.”

So saying, he derides the trendy wisdom that teaching children in their mother tongue prepares them for success in an English-speaking country. He regrets that college students indulge in “clownish display” of their ethnic heritage, pretending they can lead the masses and remain of them at the same time. He notes that access to higher education is futile unless minority students can keep up and advocates a nationwide literacy campaign at the elementary level to replace tokenism at the top.

Hunger of Memory weighs sorrowful loss against ultimate gain. “If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents,” Rodriguez writes, “my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.” Beautifully written, wrung from a sore heart, Hunger of Memory bears eloquent witness to this truth.

Tomás Rivera (essay date winter 1984)

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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...

(This entire section contains 4226 words.)

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he wrote it. I wish to thank Rolando Hinojosa, Tomás Rivera's literary executor, for advice and permission to publish this essay here. M. P.]

Although I was born in Texas, had lived in many states in the Midwest and had not lived in any Spanish-speaking country, until then, my public voice as well as my private voice was Spanish through my first eleven years. It was in the fifth grade, that eureka! to my surprise, I started speaking English without translating. I suppose that at that time I had two public voices as well as two private ones.

Hunger of Memory is an exceptionally well written book. It is a profound book, a personal expression which one learns to respect for its sensibility. To respect this type of sensibility is something I learned in the Spanish-taught “escuelita,” which I attended before entering public school at age 7. What Richard Rodriguez has written has great value. However, I have difficulties with concepts in the book which I consider anti-humanistic. For several reasons I consider Hunger of Memory as a humanistic antithesis. This book has been controversial for the Hispanic in general and in particular to the Mexican-American or Chicano. This has been the case much more so, I think, because it seems to be so well accepted by the North American public as a key to understanding the Mexican-American and debates related to bilingual education and affirmative action. Thus, it is important to define and perceive the book from different vantage points. Hispanics, Chicanos, and Latinos are not a homogenous group. They are as heterogeneous a kindred group as any that exists in our present society. They are at different levels of development, perception, understanding and as complex and therefore as complete as other human beings. Richard Rodriguez' book is a personal expression, an autobiography, and it must be understood as that in its singularity. It should not be used as a single way or method of understanding the bilingual, bicultural phenomenon of the Hispanic group.

I do not know Richard Rodriguez. I have seen him on television. I have read Hunger of Memory three times. I intend to read it again for it has much to offer. The work becomes more with each reading.

Richard Rodriguez' essays have a style and tone which complement and establish his concepts. Hunger of Memory establishes its tone through patterns based on the ideas of silence and the centrality of language—silence versus non-silence, silence and active language, silence and culture, silence and intelligence. The aggregation of silence seems to indicate that if a person does not speak, he/she lacks intelligence. This is a view generally held by many teachers in the classroom: how can one judge silence? If a child's hand does not go up, if a question is not asked, the teacher's perception is usually that there is a lack of intelligence. Richard Rodriguez insists on the presence of his signal-silence and the public voice. If a person does not speak he/she does not have a public voice. How can one have a personal voice only in silence as the only true aggregate? The author indicates that Spanish was and is his personal voice. But it is an inactive passive voice that became neutered, sterile, and finally silent—dead.

I find underlined throughout the text a negation of what is fundamentally the central element of the human being—the cultural root, the native tongue. As one reads each essay, one progressively recognizes that what is most surprising for Richard Rodriguez is that silence and his basic culture are negative elements, regressive ones. This pattern of negation is softened somewhat when he thinks of his parents and his love for his parents, but he ultimately comes to the thesis that this silence and the consequent inactive community is something regressive or negative. This dealing with silence reminds me of my efforts in struggling with this phenomenon of silence when I studied in Mexico and lived with Mexican families; especially in the rural communities, where I tried to write about what I considered the impenetrable face/masks and their silence. But I never thought for a moment that their masks did not conceal an imagination or thought processes, not that they were not developing and inventing constantly their own world view and perceptions. And that, although they were not speaking to me and hardly to each other, they were not actively thinking. Richard Rodriguez delves into silence, and writes from silence as he himself tells us, “I am here alone, writing, and what most moves me is the silence.” Truly this is an active task for him. Yet, with regard to his own family, he sees this silence as a non-force. He finally concludes simplistically, unfortunately, that his personal voice is Spanish and that his active voice is English. Surely, this is a humanistic antithesis.

It is necessary at this point to call attention to his development as a writer. He grew up and was taught in the humanities. The humanities have a clear base—at a minimum the explaining or aiding in the elaboration of a philosophy of life. Surely by the time one is twelve years old or so one has a philosophy of life. By then one has formulated and asked all the great philosophical questions and has even provided some answers. Whether one asks and answers in English or Spanish or in any other tongue is not important. The humanities, and certainly the study of literature, recognize this. As an educated scholar in literature, certainly, and much more so as a Renaissance scholar, Richard Rodriguez should know this. But his thoughts do not recognize this fundamental philosophical base. Clearly as a youngster of twelve or thirteen years of age he could not have, but certainly as an academic he could have reflected on the realities of his life, on the sensibility, and on the importance of what he did not know then and what he must now know. The humanities are also, to put it simply, a search for life, a search for form, but most significantly a search for wisdom. In this regard Richard Rodriguez starts out well. His search for life and form in the literary form of autobiography has as a premise the basic core of family life. But then Richard Rodriguez struggles with the sense of disassociation from that basic culture. Clearly, he opts to disassociate, and, as a scholar, attempts to rationalize that only through disassociation from a native culture was he to gain and thus has gained the “other,” that is, the “public” world. Without wisdom he almost forgets the original passions of human life. Is he well educated in literature? For literature above all gives and inculcates in the student and scholar the fundamental original elements of humanistic endeavor without regard to race or language, much less with regards to a public voice. The most important ideas that the study of the humanities relate are the fundamental elements and values of human beings, regardless of race and nationality. Ultimately, the study of the humanities teaches the idea that life is a relationship with the totality of people within its circumstance.

Then we come to the question of place and being. In Spanish there are two verbs meaning “to be,” Ser and Estar. This is quite important to Hunger of Memory. Being born into a family is equal to being, Ser. Education and instruction teaches us to be, Estar. Both are fundamental verbs. Ser is an interior stage, and Estar is an exterior one. To leave the Ser only for the Estar is a grievous error. Richard Rodriguez implies, at times explicitly, that the authentic being is and can only be in the Estar (public voice) and only there is he/she complete. And further, he states that authenticity can only come by being an exterior being in English in the English speaking world. In the Hispanic world, the interior world of Ser is ultimately more important than the world of Estar.Honra honesty, emanates from and is important to the Ser. Richard Rodriguez opts for the Estar world as the more important and does not give due importance to the world of Ser. He has problems, in short, with the world from which he came. Surely this is an antithesis to a humanistic development.

As with memory, the centrality of language is a constant pattern in the book. For the Hispanic reader the struggle quickly becomes English versus Spanish. His parents do not know the grand development of the Spanish language and its importance beyond their immediate family. However, Richard Rodriguez should, as an educated person, recognize this grand development. Surely, he could have given credit to the development of a language that has existed over six hundred years, which has elaborated a world literature, which has mixed with the many languages of the American continents, which is perhaps the most analytical of the romance languages, and which will be of such importance in the twenty first century. Instead Richard Rodriguez flees, as a young man, from this previous human achievement. This fleeing is understandable as a symbol of the pressures of the Americanization process. Yet, as a formally educated scholar, reflecting upon that flight, he does not dare to signal the importance that the language has. Instead he sees it as an activity that has no redeeming value. He gives no value to the Hispanic language, its culture, its arts. It is difficult to believe that as an educated humanist he doesn't recognize the most important element of Hispanic culture—the context of the development of the distinct religions in the Spanish peninsula—the Judaic, the Christian, and the Moorish. These distinct cultures reached their apogees and clearly influenced Spanish. As a humanist, surely he must know this. The Hispanic world has elaborated and developed much in the history of ideas. Richard Rodriguez seems to indicate that the personal Spanish voice lacks the intelligence and ability to communicate beyond the sensibilities of the personal interactions of personal family life. This is intolerable. Hispanic culture has a historical tradition of great intellectual development. He does not recognize the so-called “original sin” of the American continents. What is this pecado original that Hector Murena wrote about so eloquently? It is simply the act of transplanting the European cultures to the American continents. The conquest by the Europeans of what is today Hispanic America is one of the most fundamental struggles for justice. The Laws of Burgos (1511–1521), established in Spain before the conquest of Mexico, held above all that the Indian was a man of the world. This was a fundamental axiom. The evolved mestizo nations struggled through a racist colonial empire, but there was a mixture of races. This was less evident in the English-speaking world. I mention this because it appears to me that one of the greatest preoccupations of Richard Rodriguez is that he “looks” Indian. He speaks of his father as looking and being white. He speaks of his mother as looking Portuguese. It surprises me that as an educated humanist in 1982 he would still have that type of complex, colonized mind. He feels out of place in Bel Aire in L.A. because he looks Indian. He worries about what or how he will be perceived by the “Anglo.” These are honest and sincere perceptions. I respect his feelings. He does, however, remind me of students I had in the 50s and 60s who were struggling with their brownness.

The Hispanic colonial period evolved a racism based mainly on color and, of course, class. The colonial mind was preoccupied with color. When a child born to a couple was darker than the parents, he/she was called a “salto a tras,” a jump backwards, but if the child was lighter, he/she was considered a “salto adelante,” a jump forward; and if the child was the same color as the parents, a “tente en el aire,” suspended. At times Richard Rodriguez clearly illustrates a colonized mind. His reactions as a young child are understandable. As a writer, however, while interpreting these sensibilities well, he fails to analyze those pressures that force conformity and simply attributes negative values to the language and culture of his parents, who have, as he states “no-public-voice.”

It is well to recall briefly the formation of the Mexican nation and its history as it went from a political to an intellectual emancipation from 1811 to 1917. It took the Mexican nation over 100 years and 50 civil wars to evolve an independent, clear, and creative character. It is a unique nation. By 1930 the Mexican character was distinct—its art, music, literature, and culture were unique. It had developed a unique identity and character; it had accepted the mestizo. Surely, Richard Rodriguez must recognize, now that he is educated, that his parents came from a culture that was distinctly Mexican, and non-imitative, that his parents represent a culture with a singular identity. He offers, however, no recognition of the cultural uniqueness of his parents. Mexican culture had gone through its colonial and imitative period, its struggle for intellectual emancipation, and had arrived as an authentic, unique nation. His parents, therefore, recognize much better than Richard Rodriguez who the “gringos” are. This is a constant motif in the book. His parents know who they are themselves. They are no puzzle unto themselves. Richard Rodriguez says that change is a constant and should be constant and he argues that in order to change or to have the dynamics of change it is necessary to leave behind his Mexicanness, represented by the silence of the personal voice, the non-public voice, and his distinct cultural attributes. By gaining the other public voice, he asserts, he will become more authentic. Truly, this is antithetical to a humanistic education.

Richard Rodriguez' views remind me of two excellent books. The first one was published in 1930 by Samuel Ramos, El perfil del hombre en la historia de Mexico (The Profile of Man in the History of Mexico), and the other was published in 1950 by Octavio Paz, El laberinto de soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). El perfil discusses the inferiority complex of the Mexican. El laberinto reflects on the silence and the bursting out from that silence of the Mexican psyche. They are books eloquent in their perceptions of silence and the negativistic attitudes about the Mexican psyche. Samuel Ramos writes about el pelado; Octavio Paz has a marvelous chapter on el pachuco and now with Richard Rodriguez there is a total book on el pocho or what he considers to be el pocho.El pelado,el pachuco and el pocho can be considered alienated persons at the margins of culture. They do not represent the totality of the Hispanic culture in general, nor, in particular, the Mexican or Mexican-American culture. These are books about extreme people. What the pelado, the pachuco, and what Richard Rodriguez symbolize is a type of graffiti. By saying this, I do not seek to demean Richard Rodriguez' endeavor at all, but simply to point out that the most important element of graffiti is that it is an expression. Done in silence. Powerful. Exact. It calls out attention to itself as if saying “I want to understand myself,” “I want you, the passerby, to understand me. I am at the (extreme) margin. I want to be; I hunger to be part of your memory.” Graffiti beckons us. It calls to tell us that they are us—in an extreme way, that they exist between cultures, but outside a culture.

In spite of its humanistic antithesis, Hunger of Memory has an authentic dimension. Perhaps the most important element here is that Richard Rodriguez is a reflection of a North American education. Is he a reflection of the English professor or the place of preparation which doesn't really give him perceptions other than those of the English-speaking world? There is, ultimately, I believe, a lack of understanding of world culture; especially lacking is an understanding of the Hispanic world. It is a reflection of a North American education. He calls himself Caliban in “Mr. Secrets.” Who is Caliban? He is a slave, a monster, a character in Shakespeare's last play. Caliban represents the puppet, the person who is controlled. Caliban in The Tempest was driven by material instincts only. “Mr. Secrets,” the last chapter, is especially clear on this concept. Is Caliban a reflection of a North American education? Is it an indication of an education which refuses to acknowledge as important only that which is tied to the northern European cultures? Is it an attitude of non-inquiry in the teaching of humanities? Aren't racist impositions, Adamic and nativistic concepts and attitudes quite prevalent?

The great surprise of many of our students who study abroad is that of finding out that not everything is originated (truly) in the United States, and that in reality our cultural history is quite short and in many instances limited. Richard Rodriguez is saying that he now has a public voice, an authentic one. Before he did not. He now believes that he is more real, and this is absurd. The dimension that Richard Rodriguez gives the North American public in his book fits well within North American intellectual circles because he has ironically justified his context by “being” not one of “them,” but rather by having become one of “us.” The North American public accepts Richard Rodriguez quite well and much in the same manner that it accepted Oscar Lewis' studies of the poor in Puerto Rico and Mexico. In this manner, knowledge of the unknown is accepted, simplified, and categorized. One has to ask if Richard Rodriguez has a community now? Did he have a community in the past? Does he think that now because he has published and has been accepted as a good writer that he now has community? Richard Rodriguez exists between two cultures, but he believes it more important to participate in one world than the other. But it is possible to participate in many worlds profoundly and, without losing, but rather gaining perception and appreciation from all.

I want to place in opposition to Richard Rodriguez's work a body of Chicano literature which has precepts as profound and as well written. This body of expression has not had the same acceptance. Some of it is written in Spanish, some in English, and some in a mixture of both languages. It is not recognized well, basically because the works have not been published nor merchandised by major American publishing companies. In these Chicano works there is little hunger of memory, and much hunger for community. If Richard Rodriguez has hunger of memory, Chicano literature hungers for community. Those who labored, in the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s to establish a literature, accepted the task to develop a literature in the United States and that it was to be in languages understandable primarily to the Mexican-American community. The endeavor was a basic challenge to North American literary dominance. In 1965, there were few works written by writers of Mexican extraction in the United States. There were no courses being taught in Chicano literature. Today there are courses taught in Chicano literature in a total of 135 universities at the undergraduate and graduate level. It is recognized as a body of literature either as part of Mexican literature, as part of American literature, or as an offshoot of Hispanic-American literature. It has several intellectual bases, but this literature does not interest Richard Rodriguez even as a curiosity—even though, paradoxically, he is now inextricably part of that contribution.

The Chicano writers I have in mind were hungry for community. The manner of establishing that community was through remembrance and rediscovery of commonalities of the culture plus the need to accept the community in all its heterogeneity—that is, with all its virtues, with all its flaws, with all its energy, with all its apathy. It was important to recognize and to develop the basic elements of our community. Martin Buber's idea that “Community is the aspiration of all human history” was clearly before us. The Mexican-American as part of human history had to develop that community, to be part of it, or leave it. Rebecca West says that “Community is conversation,” and the Mexican-American community has not been silent since then. What the Chicano writer did was establish a community where there was a definite place, where dialogues could develop, and where the values of the community could be elaborated. There was little concern regarding acceptance by the larger/majority population. There is a more visible Chicano/Mexican-American community today because Chicano writers aided in underlining the realities that made up the community. Clearly Richard Rodriguez regards that community as living in silence. Actually that is why he is very alone. What one senses in Hunger of Memory is that his parents no longer speak. Ironically his parents speak louder than he. The sensibility of his writing effort, I dare say, does not come only from his training in the English language, but from those early day experiences when he was taught, I am sure, the way to invent himself in the world by his parents.

I said earlier that Richard Rodriguez reminds me of students I had in college in the 1960s who were embarrassed to organize themselves, who did not want to bring their parents to college to participate in college activities because their parents wouldn't know how to dress, and students who hardly respected the few Chicano professors who were then around. Truly, these students had the same type of colonized mind dramatized by Richard Rodriguez—honest, authentic, and naïve, particularly at this later date.

What Hunger of Memory therefore reveals is one more step in the intellectual emancipation of the Mexican-American. It represents a significant intellectual step because such views are so clearly articulated. His parents know who they are, who they were, and who the gringos were. They didn't stop talking to him because they didn't understand him, but because he no longer saw the significance of their life. Richard Rodriguez lost the memory of all the philosophical questions they had helped him face and answer long before he walked into the English-speaking world. A writer is lonely only if he has lost the sense of his community's aspirations and the integrative values. His parents are the thesis of his statement. Sometimes, he feels frustrated because they have not read Garcia-Marquez, Ruben Dario, but then he never read these writers to them. He hungers for a memory that could be so close, yet he doesn't seem to realize that satisfying this appetite is within reach.

Hunger of Memory is thus a humanistic antithesis for several reasons. First, because its breadth and dimension is so narrow, unaware as it is of the traditions that should inform it. Second, it is ultimately an aggregation of cultural negations. Richard Rodriguez prizes as authentic only that which he learns in the classrooms. Third, he underlines the silence of culture as negative. Finally, Richard Rodriguez believes that it is only through English that he thinks he can elaborate what is correct and not correct for the community as a whole.

In his last chapter, “Mr. Secrets,” as the family is leaving, and everyone is standing outside, his mother asks him to take a sweater to his father because it is getting cold. The last words of the book are “I take it [the sweater] and place it on him. In that instant I feel the thinness of his arms. He turns. He asks if I am going home now, too. It is, I realize, the only thing he has said to me all evening.”

Here Richard Rodriguez tells us that his father has been silent all evening. What he doesn't tell us is that he (Richard Rodriguez) has also been silent. He does not tell us about his own type of silence. If he has a hunger of memory it is mainly because he does not choose to communicate his more intimate memories. Can anything be that painful? Where is the real honra, the real Ser? The only positive cultural attributes which he signals throughout his book are those relative to the English-speaking world. Richard Rodriguez understands the needs for memory, but does not dare recover it totally. Why? The title is the thesis, but the content is the antithesis of the very title. This is a classic work, 1930 Mexican vintage, clearly seeking approbation of an inferiority complex. As Samuel Ramos stated in El perfil del hombre, it is not that the Mexican is inferior: it's that he thinks he is inferior. This was the legacy of Spanish colonization. Richard Rodriguez apparently decolonizes himself by seeking to free himself from a personal voice, but in so trying he will likely enter another colony of despair.

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

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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 surprising parallels. Not only do both writers deal with identity in terms of family, education, language and religion, but there is a conscious decision in each case to deal with biographical material. Rodriguez openly labels his narrative in the title. Rivera chooses to create a distance between himself and the text by adopting a first-person narrative persona, his protagonist Santos Malanguez, to whom the novel's subtitle would apply, rather than to its author.

The choice between autobiography as the discursive mode in Rodriguez and the fictional first-person narrative mode in Rivera signals a different ‘reading pact’ or ‘contract’ in each case. In the text by Rodriguez, author and narrator are one and the same: “they are assumed to be the same person, one who exists outside the book … The reader assumes that the narrator tells the truth, that what is narrated did happen.”1 In other words, the verifiability or truthfulness of the text depends on the degree of trust the author is able to generate in the reader, a form of personal privilege. Moreover, whatever message, moral, criticism or commentary the author may want to transmit is also going to be accepted on the basis of such privilege. If Rodriguez makes a statement and submits as evidence facts from his own life, then that statement cannot be refuted. On the other hand, autobiography lacks the quality of universal extension; the narrative applies to a unique human being in a particular set of circumstances leading to a particular set of accommodations. The more autobiography is beset with limits, the more it enables its subject to survive and define himself.2 In order for Rodriguez' text to achieve the quality of universal extension, it would have to be treated by its author as an exemplum, a tale with a universal moral, and he himself would have to become a kind of “everyman,” the events of whose life constitute a typology for his particular race or group.

Rivera's choice of a first-person narrative enables him to generalize from the beginning of his text. “Growing Up Hispanic” applies to Rivera, by virtue of his ethnic heritage, as well as to Santos Malanguez, who shares in that heritage, but it also applies to any Hispanic reader who can find within the pages of the novel Rivera's definition of what “growing up Hispanic” means at a particular time and place. By creating an openly fictional character, Rivera removes himself from any kind of authorial privilege; he does not validate Malanguez' adventures with ‘the truth’ of his own life, allowing the reader to reach that conclusion by himself. Moreover, the use of a first-person narrator enables Rivera to typologize openly in his exploration of “growing up Hispanic.” For him as well as for Rodriguez, there operates an intentionality having to do with a particular response to just such a process. Each response involves the perception and transmission of a particular ideology which shapes and frames the fact of “growing up Hispanic” in the U.S.A.

Raymond Williams defines ideology as “a system of meaning and values which is the expression or projection of a particular class system” or “a relatively formal and articulated system of meanings, values and beliefs of a kind that can be abstracted as a ‘world view’ or a ‘class outlook,’” and quotes Engels' letter to F. Mehiring, 14 July 1893:

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously indeed but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.3

According to Williams, common Marxist concepts of ideology are insufficient to describe “the relatively mixed, confused, incomplete or inarticulate consciousness of actual men” in any period of society (109). Instead, he proposes the concept of “hegemony,” traditionally defined as political rule or domination, expanded by Marxism to include relations between social classes, and finally redefined by Antonio Gramsci as a complex interlocking of political, social and cultural forces by which the whole social process relates to specific distributions of power and influence.4 Thus Williams differentiates between “ideology” and “hegemony:”

Hegemony is then not only the articulate upper-level of ‘ideology,’ nor are its forms of control only those ordinarily seen as ‘manipulation’ or ‘indoctrination.’ It is a whole body of practices and expectations over the whole of living; our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values—constitutive and constituting—which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives. It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense, a ‘culture,’ but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes.


Discourse, as defined by Michel Foucault, is “not simply that which expresses struggles or systems of domination, but that for which one struggles; it is the power which one is striving to seize.”5 Discursive practices “embodied in technical processes, in institutions, in patterns of general behavior”6 would, because of their overall pervasiveness, have to be included in Williams' concept of “hegemony.” Those reflecting cultural and social values are, by virtue of this inclusion, implicit and omnipresent, constituting themselves into what Richard Terdiman calls “dominant discourse:”

The inherent tendency of dominant discourse is “to go without saying.” The dominant is the discourse whose presence is defined by the social impossibility of its absence. Because of the implicit potential towards automatism, the dominant is the discourse which, being everywhere, comes from nowhere; to it is granted the structural privilege of appearing to be unaware of the very question of its legitimacy.


Every dominant discourse projects what Gerald Prince has called a “narrataire,” an individual who figures as “the internalized conscience of the conventional and simultaneously as resistance to any deviation from its norms.”7 However, for every dominant discourse there is a “contrary and transgressive counter discourse” (65) which functions to point out the limits and flaws of the dominant. Its characteristic tone has been identified as “a corrosive irony concerning the here and now” (76) and its ultimate purpose “to unmask the fetish character of modern forms of social domination” (75). Gerald Cohen defines the principal term: “To make a fetish of something or fetishize it is to invest it with powers it does not in itself have.”8 Even though counter discourses constitute themselves in opposition to the dominant discourse, they paradoxically reaffirm the privileged positions of the latter (107) as they reflect the ideological terms from which they are trying to distance themselves.

Family Installments and Hunger of Memory, insofar as they deal with aspects of hegemony and ideology as they apply to “growing up Hispanic,” may then be examined in the lights of the terms just defined. Dominant discourse, in Terdiman's usage of the term, is as culturally pervasive as Williams shows hegemony to be but embodies the values of a dominant class, as ideology does. On the other hand, counter-discourse expresses the relations of subordination and domination contained in the concept of hegemony but absent from the concept of ideology.9

The ‘reading pact’ must also be taken into account at this point. It is my intention to show that Rodriguez wants (1) to show the process by which he, as an individual, has accepted and internalized ideology; (2) to set himself up as an example of a successful “narrataire” to the reader. He tries to achieve these goals by means of a narrative which fetishizes dominant discourse. In his case, there is no such thing as “growing up Hispanic,” since the individual must, in order to manipulate dominant discourse, give up his ethnic identity. As we shall see, isolation and even ostracism is not too high a price to pay for successful assimilation.

Rivera, on the other hand, maps out a pattern of “corrosive irony” which identifies his text as counter-discursive, and proceeds to reveal the fetish character of each manifestation of dominant discourse by means of what Terdiman has called “re/citation,” that is, the imbedding of fragments of dominant discourse within counter-discourse, out of context, in order to illuminate their essential illogicity (207). However, since dominant discourse tends to incorporate counter-discourse, Santos Malanguez also goes through a process of absorption into the dominant. This occurs through the agency of an element from an established type of counter-discourse which has been allowed to set itself up as a species of counter-ideology: the world-view embodied in poetic utterance, and more specifically in the poetry of British Romanticism. Santos Malanguez is able to fight and ultimately resist assimilation by means of corrosive irony, which enables him to examine the boundaries of hegemony and to expose ideology by means of a ruthless analysis of its discourses. I have chosen to call such a stance adaptation, as opposed to the term used by Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is quick to reveal his goals. He sets out to prove that dominant discourse manifests itself as public language—that is, English—and that bilingualism is impossible.10 Throughout his text, he gets up a system of binary oppositions based on such a premise: public language (English)/private language (Spanish); public life (North America)/private life (Mexico); gringos/parents; school/home. The first term is always privileged. He makes clear the reasons for the adoption of such a system: “What I did not believe was that I could speak a single public language” (19). He also states the aims and consequences of its use:

But the bilingualists simplistically scorn the value and necessity of assimilation … they do not realize that while one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality.


Private individuality/public individuality—it seems as if Rodriguez had, within his antinomic system, created a term which is, by its very nature, contradictory and based on a mystification of language—that is, the unfounded belief that language, by itself, can achieve assimilation for individuals who are linguistically or racially different and by virtue of this fact are excluded from becoming “narrataires,” upholders and defenders of dominant discourse.

It is the experience of being different that Rodriguez first records, but in terms that point to the further development of his argument: “In the early years of my boyhood, my parents coped very well in America. My father had steady work. My mother managed at home. We were nobody's victims … We lived among gringos and only a block from the biggest, whitest houses” (12). If anything, it is the family unit, with its insistence on a separate language and separate cultural mores that can be singled out as generating difference: “I grew up in a house where the only regular guests were my relations … Our house stood apart. A gaudy yellow in a row of white bungalows. We were the people with the noisy dog. The people who raised pigeons and chickens. We were the foreigners on the block” (12–13).

Language—in this case, Spanish—remains, according to Rodriguez' account, the only barrier to total acceptance into the mainstream. This situation is quickly remedied by the intervention of “narrataires” in the shape of Irish nuns who visit the Rodriguez household to ask that Spanish not be spoken at home: “‘Is it possible for you and your husband to encourage your children to practice their English when they are home?’‘Of course,’ my parents complied” (21).

Such a visit has dramatic consequences for the Rodriguez family. It breaks up the hierarchy in several ways. It separates the children from their parents in terms of overall communication: “The family's quiet was partly due to the fact that, as we children learned more and more English, we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents. Sentences needed to be spoken slowly when a child addressed his mother or father” (23). It creates identity/identification conflicts: “My mother! My father! After English became my primary language, I no longer knew what words to use in addressing my parents” (23–24). It sets children against parents in terms of language correctness: “A second grade student, I was the one who came home and corrected the ‘simple’ grammatical mistakes of our parents” (44). Finally, it upsets the traditional position of the father: “Though his English improved somewhat, he retired into silence. At dinner, he spoke very little. One night his children and even his wife helplessly giggled at his garbled English pronunciation of the Catholic grace before meals. Thereafter he made his wife recite the prayer at the start of each meal … Hers became the public voice of the family” (24).

Rodriguez is able to justify all of the above-mentioned changes only by asserting that intimacy and language are not related, in other words, that language plays no role in the creation of relationships in the sphere of what he chooses to call “private life”; however, it seems to play just such a role in the sphere of public life. Since Spanish is the language of private life, what Rodriguez must do in fact is to devaluate Spanish and then devaluate language:

An Hispanic-American writer tells me: “I will never give up my family language; I would as soon give up my soul.” Thus he holds to his chest a skein of words, as though it were the source of his family ties. He credits to language what he should credit to family members. A convenient mistake. For as long as he holds on to words, he can ignore how much else has changed in his life.


Speaking specifically about his family, Rodriguez adds:

I would dishonor our closeness by holding on to a particular language and calling it my family language. Intimacy is not trapped within words. It passes through words. It passes. The truth is that intimates leave the room. Doors close. Faces move away from the window. Time passes. Voices recede into the dark. Death finally quiets the voice. And there is no way to deny it. No way to stand in the crowd, uttering one's family language.


An examination of the previous passage reveals not only a devaluation of language but surprisingly enough a devaluation of intimacy itself, as powerless before the passage of time and ultimately death. It thereby illuminates the passage where Rodriguez describes his relationship to his grandmother; there he reduces communication to prelinguistic levels by eliminating the need for content: “Our relationship continued. Language was never its source … My only relative who spoke no word of English … The words she spoke were almost irrelevant to that fact—the sounds she made. Content. The mystery remained: intimate utterance” (36).

If private language is reduced to meaningless utterance, public language is turned into a fetish. It is through his education at the hands of Irish Catholic nuns that young Richard changes linguistic identity: “I also needed my teachers to keep my attention from straying in class by calling out Rich-heard—their English voices slowly prying loose my ties to my other name its three notes, Ri-car-do” (21). Theirs is a task of socialization leading into absorption by dominant discourse, as well as of education:

Stressing memorization the nuns assumed an important Catholic bias. Stated positively, they believed that learning is a social activity; learning is a rite of passage into a group. (Remembrance is itself an activity that establishes a student's dependence upon and union with others). Less defensively, the nuns distrusted challenges to authority.


Rodriguez thus identifies the hidden text of Catholic education—socialization by means of obedience to dominant discourse, that “authority” which he mentions without ever defining or explaining it.

Edward Rivera, on the other hand, ruthlessly exposes the process of socialization at the hands of “narrataires” such as Irish Catholic educators. Correctness in the language of dominant discourse becomes not so much a desirable goal as an instrument with which the “narrataires—the nuns—remind their hapless students of their inferior condition, as when sister Felicia decides who is to receive, as charity, a communion outfit: “Shyness and poor English were unmistakable signs of someone who needed to have his outfit bought for him.”11 Education, according to Michel Foucault, is very much involved with discourse: “Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with it.”12 Rodriguez stresses the socializing function of education; Rivera, the “lived dominance and subordination of particular classes” that reveal it hegemonic structure.

Rivera also shows how, when “corrosive irony” is applied to language incorrectness, it can be turned into a political counter-discourse. When Sister Felicia bargains with a merchant at “La Marqueta,” the Hispanic market in El Barrio, the following dialogue occurs:

‘Anyway Sister,’ he went on, ‘if Jorge Mercado is wrong, he'll give you a free crucifixion claps. And if you are the one who is all wrong, I don't charge extra.’

‘It's cru-ci-fix, Mr. Mercado,’ she corrected. ‘And clasp. Claps is a verb, sir. Third person singular.’

‘That is what I say,’ he said, winking at the rest of us.


The wink establishes a relationship of complicity between the students and the wily merchant, who has just assured himself of a big sale by pretending to be more ignorant than he really is. At the same time, it reveals the sexual pun intended by him as a joke—a dimension of language which the nun—supposedly its champion—ignores. Thus she becomes an imperfect “narrataire.” The means by which socialization takes place involve devaluation of the students' ethnic roots and the mystifying privilege of the narrataire's own. Thus, socialization presupposes a rewriting of cultural history. This is how a nun scolds the class after she catches one of the students picking her nose:

They probably all ate standing, or squatting right there on the kitchen floor, like their ancestors the Caribs, cannibalistic Indians from the jungles of South America (we had read about them during the history hour …) She went on to tell us that the Caribs hadn't even discovered friction, that's how primitive they were. It was the Europeans … who had brought them friction, the True Faith and other forms of Christian civilization.


The word-play here is twofold, containing on the one hand a possible sexual allusion of which the nun remains blissfully unaware and a reference to the Spanish usage of “friction” as a word to mean discontent. History in grammar school is used to destroy the students' ethnic identity. In intermediate school, its purpose is subtler: to differentiate between types of Europeans, ultimately privileging the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon races over the Mediterranean Latin races. This is an Irish Brother's version of the fall of the Roman Empire:

But the Roman lechers had done it merely to intimidate and seduce young Christian beauties. And for that—their cruel pagan lechery—God had destroyed their vast evil empire. He had let the blond alemanes from the north inside the great gates of Rome … Then, as everyone knew, the bad-and-bold blondies had converted to the True Faith, and everything had ended happily for Christianity.


Rivera is far more explicit about the true nature of Catholic education and its direct relationship to dominant discourse, which reveals itself as a discourse of power exercised not only through cultural but through corporal violence as well: “The law there seemed to be that if your teacher didn't let you have it good from time to time, there was something morally wrong with him or her” (74). The narrataire's physical description reinforces the image of physical violence: “What's so funny, Chief?’ Brother Lomosney, seventh grade, would ask. He had a powerful neck and shoulders and a regulation crewcut. He had spent four years in the Navy before joining the ACB's and liked to use sailor jargon in class” (108). Two points are worth noticing: the pun on the acrostic letters, which upsets the traditional ABC's, and the reference to sailor jargon. Rodriguez mystifies language acquired through Catholic education whereas Rivera, by re/citing it, exposes its status as a cultural fetish. The nuns do not know slang; moreover, they utilize language as an instrument of cultural oppression. Santos Malanguez reports on an overheard conversation between two nuns. They are speaking about a fat boy: “‘And it all can be blamed on his stomach,’ I heard Sister tell one of the other nuns one day. ‘What that boy needs is a gag around his mouth.’ ‘Or a zipper,’ said the other sister” (94).

The Brothers in charge of intermediate school also use language to put down the students but, ironically, their usage reveals their own precarious position as recently created narrataires. In other words, they speak incorrectly but get away with it by virtue of the power they hold as defenders and transmitters of dominant discourse: “Whatsa matter with youse guys today? You're acting like a bunch of fat blue whales. A school of purposes. Either youse got too much spermacity in your heads to understand what I'm driving at, or youse haven't been listening” (120). Once again, the sexual undertone, the fact the audience is composed of teenagers full of the sexual tensions proper to their age and contained in the phrase “spermacity in your heads” eludes the producer of discourse, making him an imperfect narrataire. But he shares an essential identity with all of those other narrataires which Santos has begun identifying as the sources of oppression: “And he was Irish. So were the cops Virgilio was always threatening to call on him … The Irish sided with the Irish, the Italians with the Italians and the Latins with the Latins” (118). Thus unwritten discourse comes to the fore: “The law was that you always sided with your own kind” (118). So much for assimilation through the fetish of the “melting pot.”

Once Rivera has demystified the language of dominant discourse, he proceeds to demystify education as a medium of assimilation. Bro' Leary gives his students a test on Julius Caesar which makes absolutely no sense at all but which the students are forced to take seriously. It so happens that Bro' Leary is going through a public nervous breakdown. Rivera gleefully re/cites the questions. For the students, the material itself makes no sense. One particular test question reveals Bro' Leary's confused perception of who his students are: “Could this tragedy have taken place in a Catholic country? E. G. Ireland? Italy? Porto Rico? Poland?” (135). Rivera adopts the point of view of his protagonist:

Somebody … should have wised him up and told him that even Saint Misery's eight graders, lots of us with second-language problems … and a deep addiction to two-fisted comic books, weren't likely to know or give a damn about what an ancient English fag in tight pants and balloon bloomers was talking about in his tedious Roman “tragedy” … They dressed like fags and talked like fags.


Rodriguez treats religion as an issue separate from education, in spite of the connection between the two that exists for him (as well as for Rivera), and focuses on it from the antinomic perspective of language and race: “I was a catolico before I was a catholic … It was first in Spanish that I learned to pray” (81); “With the move to America, my mother and father left behind that Mexican Church to find themselves … in an Irish-Mexican parish” (77). He differentiates further between classroom Catholicism—associated with dominant discourse and public life—and home Catholicism, associated with the culture he is leaving behind. There is no doubt as to what type of Catholicism Rodriguez will choose: Speaking about the American church his family attends, he comments: “I grew to love its elegant simplicity: the formal march of its eight black pillars towards the altar; the Easter egg shaped sanctuary that arched high over the tabernacle” (86). His language changes abruptly when he describes the religious practices at home:

Religion at school and at church was never nighttime religion like religion at home … Religion at home was a religion of bedtime … the dark at the foot of my bed billowed with malevolent shapes … I was introduced to the spheres of enchantment by the nighttime Catholicism of my demons and angels. The superstitious Catholicism of home provided a kind of proletarian fairy-tale world.


Rodriguez has made a fetish of religion as a public activity, devaluating its function as an individual expression of faith. Rivera, on the other hand, demystifies religion, beginning with its essential assumptions which, within his protagonists' discourse, remind the reader of the nun's put down of her students' ethnic roots: “The tasteless wafers had been turned … into our Saviour's flesh, fit for human consumption. Some of us cannibals back in the pews couldn't wait to get our teeth into him” (98).

The key episode as regards the positioning of religious discourse within dominant discourse and hence ideology, concerns Santos' first communion. We have seen how it has already been demystified as an opportunity for the narrataire—Sister Felicia—to assert her charges' linguistic and economic inferiority when she goes to buy them communion outfits, and how those very characteristics are turned around by the merchant for his advantage, since while pretending to submit to dominant discourse, he is in fact, through parody, deconstructing it. At the point where Santos is already in church, Rivera manipulates the different strands of the narrative in a scene where they flow together, creating a multileveled text reminiscent of the auction episode in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Joseph Frank, in his seminal essay on spatial form in literature, explains how Flaubert achieves spatial form within narrative by juxtaposing events that are supposed to be perceived simultaneously by the reader, one event highlighting the other ironically. In Madame Bovary, such an effect is achieved in the episode where, at the same time there is a livestock auction at the agricultural fair and the name of the winners are being called out over the roar of the crowd, Rudolph woos Emma on a balcony above the stage. Thus the lovers' discourse is shown in all its banality by juxtaposition with the discourse of farming and business, while at the same time its essential identity with it is revealed.13

Rivera's handling of the communion scene follows a similar pattern, exposing the relations of domination and subordination present within an hegemonic economy. Santos, frozen with fear, approaches the altar and stumbles. He can't open his mouth; the priest brings the Host violently down and breaks it over the boy's nose. One half of it rolls out on the floor and another priest goes on all fours to retrieve it. As if that were not enough, the organ player for the ceremony, who is a patriotic Puerto Rican having a fight with his employer, the parish priest, over low wages, bursts into the Puerto Rican national anthem. Santos, disgraced, returns to his pew and as he does so he pees in his pants out of shame (104–05). Ethnic shame. Santos, as a seven-year-old, re/cites for the reader fragments of the dominant discourse's view of Puerto Ricans, thereby exposing the subtext of what is only superficially a religious ceremony:

The trouble was that you had to look good in front of all those ‘foreigners,’ otherwise they'd start buzzing to each other about “that little P.R. over there who can't even talk a straight line to the abiding presence. He must have got grogged first thing he gets up in the morning … can of six-pack in a little brown bag … keeps Rheingold and Schaefer in business … a sin to receive in that state … eighty-proof mouthwash … I hear they even wash their hair in it.


At the same time, Rivera exposes the ideological position of the narrataires through their comments. One priest addresses the other: “‘This whole neighborhood's going to the …’ But Father Rooney cuts him short; ‘Not here, Matt. Later, in the rectory’” (105). Sister Felicia's reaction is even more predictable: “She led me back to my pew by the arm she'd pinched, and as she was sitting me down she put her mouth to my ear and said: “Ssantosss Malanguezzz you are a disgrace to our school, bearing down on ‘disgrace.’ ‘You are not fit for First communion and maybe never will be. We have a lot to discuss tomorrow morning’” (105). It is worth mentioning that the boy's parents not only not mention the incident, but celebrate the occasion as if communion had actually taken place (105–06).

Rivera has juxtaposed the political, ethnic, religious, educational and economic discourses which constitute hegemony as imbedded in a religious ceremony, revealing that the ultimate aim of dominant discourse is the preservation of power for those who are its narrataires and the denial of such power for those who choose an adversary position, that is, become counter discursive. The relationship between power and discourse is further explored in the chapter where Rivera deals with Santos and his father in terms of their respective rhetorical modes and, simultaneously, their encounters with police.

Santos' father is fond of oratory (221), poetry readings on the radio (233) and traditional Puerto Rican music (242–43). Santos, meanwhile, who has come into contact with English poetry by means of an anthology given to him by a neighbor, begins to fall in love with poetic discourse in a most specific way: as a mirror to his most intimate feelings. Here poetic discourse functions as a private language, in opposition to his father's public language, the language of radio and oratory. This is the exact reversal of what is found in Rodriguez' text, where he proudly boasts: “the boy who first entered a classroom barely able to speak English, twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum” (44), where he has gone to work on a dissertation on Renaissance studies. Rodriguez thus identifies literature with dominant discourse, public life and access to power. Rivera identifies it slowly at first and then with passion, as a type of counterdiscourse—that is, a medium for exposing ideological discourses as well as a vehicle for the expression of the inner self. But the process, in Santos' case, involves a rejection of his father's rhetoric:

Papi's Fada: “Oh, my country! sublime Eve, host of the soul, chalice of life, whoever can forget you forgets God himself! But he who takes communion in your temple redeems himself!” … My anthology: “A hand that can be clasped no more—Behold me, for I cannot sleep / And like a guilty thing I creep / At earliest morning to the door.”


Santos becomes conscious of the disparity between life and literature, and to relieve the resulting tension goes walking in Central Park. One night he is stopped by police who, finding a pencil on him, harass him for lack of any further evidence as well as to assert their roles as narrataires: “The frisking officer wanted to know quickly what the hell I was doing with a goddamn pencil on the avenue at that time of night … The constable wanted to know whether I was a numbers runner, a pervert of some kind, a graffiti nut” (237). He goes home and throws the anthology away: “I simplified by telling myself one had to take sides. ‘You can't have it both ways; you are not supposed to: oil and water’” (238).

In this passage lies precisely the choice between adaptation and assimilation for ethnic minorities. Santos is at a crossroads; he must reconcile public and private discourses, each with a version of his identity. Richard Rodriguez faces the same crossroads and chooses dominant, public discourse, thereby choosing assimilation: “In public … full individuality is achieved, paradoxically, by those who are able to consider themselves members of the crowd. Thus it happened to me: only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality” (27). This, however, necessitates a fragmentation of the self, which Rodriguez strangely calls “the freedom so crucial to adulthood, to become a person very different in public from the person I am at home,” adding: “In the company of strangers now, I do not reveal the person I am among intimates. My brothers and my sisters recognize a different person, not the Richard Rodriguez in this book” (190).

For Santos Malanguez, no such road is possible for, as we have seen, he is constantly reminded of the position assigned to him within hegemony's dominant discourses. One further reminder, though, comes from members of another minority. Santos follows a friend to the park and strays into territory controlled by a black gang whose members steal his money and make him wallow in excrement. He is spared further indignities because his friend, who is both Puerto Rican and black, pleads his cause, but he is advised to keep to “his” side of the park (159). This happens to Santos just after he has boasted of his burgeoning assimilation: “I had been mistaken for a Jew, an Italian, a Greek, even a Hungarian; and each time I had come away feeling secretly proud of myself for having disguised my Spik accent, and with it my lineage. I could almost feel myself melting smoothly and evenly into the great Pot” (148). Rivera's message is clear: racial difference makes any attempt at assimilation a failure. For racially mixed minorities, assimilation means adopting ideology's racist perspectives and abandoning those in one's own group whose skin color does not correspond to one's own.

Santos is caught between a dominant discourse, which excludes him, and his father's rhetoric expressive of values he no longer holds dear. Literature provides an answer. After his encounter with police, he takes the anthology, which his mother has retrieved, back to his room, “looking for odes and sonnets to self-pity … ‘a drowsy numbness pains my sense’ was one of the ones I found useful” (238). At this point, literature still functions as a private language. It becomes a full-fledged counter-discourse when Santos uses it to describe his father's encounter with police, the old man having been arrested on a false identity charge while there is a neighborhood search for a pervert. Santos, who loves his father deeply, states: “Behold, the dreamer cometh. A dreamer of dreams. Let us slay him” (239).

It is crucial to note here that poetry is at the same time a critique of ideology and is contained in the cultural framework from which ideology originates. Adaptation is an acceptance of the former without acceptance of the latter, and a systematic analysis of the relationships of power which constitute hegemony. Thus Santos is able to break with his father's culture as manifested in oratory, certain types of music and even language, and at the same time he rejects the ideology of the cultural framework where he now finds himself. This double rejection is clearly illustrated in the episode, just prior to the father's death and the mother's return to Puerto Rico, where Santos does not come home for Christmas, spending the night instead in a Single Occupancy Hotel. When he does come home, he is chided for not having attended Mass:

“I don't like those priests too much.”

“What's wrong with them?” he said.

“They're all Irish.”


“I don't know.”

“A priest is a priest,” she said. “No matter what the nationality.”

“Maybe you're right, Mami. They are all the same.”

“It sounds as though our son is turning into a bigot,” she said. Then she looked at me. “Is this something one learns in college?”

“Depends,” I said, offended. “It so happens I learned it before I got to high school.”

“Not in this house,” she said.

“And you've been keeping it a secret all these years?” Papi said. I put my fork down and stood up. “It wasn't hard to.”


Assimilation leads to narrataire status; therefore, Rodriguez will attack bilingual education (11, 19, 26, 27), Black English (33), affirmative action (147, 149–50) and any expression of ethnic identity, such as the word “Chicano” (159–60), as impediments to individual acceptance of ideology's discourses. He holds on to the ideological belief in education as a cultural fetish—that is, he attributes to it the power to lift individuals to narrataire status: “The reason I was no longer a minority was because I had become a student” (147). He even warns the reader that “education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process—a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom” (68). His words are ironically illustrated in the person of Santos Malanguez.14

Adaptation leads to a challenging of hegemony's relationships of power and the adoption of a critical, ironic stance by means of available counter-discourses. Santos Malanguez finds his own in poetic utterance. Edward Rivera finds his in “corrosive irony,” a systematic critique of ideology and exposure of hegemony which reveals how the privileged status and power of dominant groups is preserved and maintained. Adaptation does not imply a loss of identity or a fragmentation of the self, as in the case of assimilation. Assimilation is a fiction; to pretend it does occur is an act of bad faith, of lying to others and to the self, as when Richard Rodriguez states:

The registration clerk in London wonders if I have just been to Switzerland … My complexion becomes a mark of my leisure. Yet, no one would regard my complexion the same way if I entered such hotels through the service entrance. That is only to say my complexion assumes its significance from the context of my life. My skin, in itself, means nothing.


Santos Malanguez, would, however, advise Richard Rodriguez not to stray too far into Central Park.


  1. Valerie Raoul, The French Fictional Journal: Fictional Narcissism/Narcissistic Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986): 7.

  2. Linda Peterson, Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986): 195.

  3. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977): 198, 109, 65.

  4. In Williams, 108.

  5. In Rupert Sawyer's translation, which first appeared in Social Science Information (April 1971: 7–30), and was later reproduced as an Appendix to the Pantheon edition of The Archaeology of Knowledge, this concept is translated quite differently, reading: “Similarly historians have constantly impressed upon us that speech is no mere verbalization of conflicts and systems of domination, but that it is the very object of man's conflicts” (216).

  6. Richard Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985): 55. In Rupert Sawyer's translation, which first appeared in Social Science Information (April 1971: 7–30), and was later reproduced as an Appendix to the Pantheon edition of The Archeology of Knowledge, this concept is translated quite differently, reading: “Similarly historians have constantly impressed upon us that speech is no mere verbalization of conflicts and systems of domination, but that it is the very object of man's conflicts” (216).

  7. In Terdiman 76.

  8. In Terdiman 76.

  9. Upon confirming Williams' definition of ideology as it appears in Terdiman by checking the quote in Marxism and Literature, I discovered to my surprise (and chagrin) that Terdiman had made up a quote from lines out of two pages of text. Moreover, what Terdiman identified as Williams' definition of ideology turned out to be Williams' definition of hegemony. See Terdiman 42 and Williams 108–09. Hegemony is the term with which Williams would substitute the term ideology.

  10. Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Boston: David Godine, 1982): 10.

  11. Edward Rivera, Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1982): 85.

  12. Michel Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Languages (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972): 227.

  13. Joseph Frank The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963): 50.

  14. It may very well be that, if it not had been for my students' listless and at times violent reaction to Hunger of Memory in the classroom, I would have never had the courage to admit to myself that I was just as discomfited in using it as a text as they were in being forced to read it. The whole time I had the impression the book was founded on a series of illogical leaps, carefully hidden within a deceptively simple, even elegant, style. It was when I was able to show them the manipulation of language and thought present in the text that my students eagerly undertook an analysis of it. In older terms, Rodriguez could be called an “unreliable narrator,” that is, one who wants to ensure the reader, by means of language, into a world-view that the reader himself rejects.

W. Lawrence Hogue (essay date spring 1992)

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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 epochal shift in the very meaning and modality of temporality, a qualitative break in our ideological style of living history.1 In the modern project, there is, what Irving Howe calls, a “bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and the limiting assumption of rationality.”2 A writer imbued with the modernist spirit will be predisposed toward experiment, if only because he or she needs to make visibly dramatic his break from tradition. His or her theme will tend to emphasize temporality, the process of becoming, rather than being in space and time. An individual infused with the modern impulse wants emancipation from all traditional social roles and traditional modes of servitude because they keep the self stifled and imprisoned.

Second, literary modernism or modern art aspires to save the dignity and autonomy of art and life from the culture of everyday life, from the vulgarities and contaminations of mass culture, and from the constraints of traditional culture that denies individuality. This means that modernism has been obliged to withdraw from what an ever-expanding commercial taste has managed to appropriate and then market as “high art.” Literary modernism promises a new life, and the “new” becomes the chief emblem of positive value.

Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory (1982) is a modernist text which breaks with the prevalent styles of perception of the past with the hope of creating a new style. Unlike Tomás Rivera's … And the Earth Did Not Part (1971), Rudolfo A. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and Guy Garcia's Skin Deep (1988), which break with the prevalent styles of modernists and retreat to the values and conventions of the traditional, pre-modern Mexican American historical past, Hunger of Memory (1982), like The House on Mango Street (1984) and Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) by Sandra Cisneros, rejects the values and conventions of the historical past and promise new life. They embrace modernity because they “had to pass through it [modernity] before the lost unity of life and art could be reconstructed on a higher plane.”3 The protagonist/narrator and heroines in these texts want to achieve some historically unmediated encounter with the real that will compliment their own subjective experiences.

The autobiographical narrator in Hunger of Memory has existential crisis moments. These are moments when, according to Paul de Man, a radical rejection of history becomes necessary to the fulfillment not only of his freedom, his “human destiny,” but also as the “condition for action.”4 His break with community, family, or the working class Mexican American past is the radical impulse that stands behind his “genuine humanity.”

But, although he represses the past, the autobiographical narrator in Hunger of Memory is not able to arrive at a new style, to have a successful unmediated encounter with the real. He looses his modernist impulse, reaches an impasse, and becomes a symbol of alienation and dehumanization. Finally, the autobiographical narrator in Hunger of Memory atrophies and becomes entrapped in upper middle class conventions and values, thereby repressing his racial self and his subjective individuality. It will take a postmodern vision which recognizes, accepts and incorporates America's diverse cultural forms and lifestyles to accommodate the narrator's subjective individuality.

Hunger of Memory reverberates against the prevalent style of Chicano cultural nationalists who make an ideology of working class Mexican American culture and then proceed to define Mexican American social reality and all Mexican American experiences against that ideology. Hunger of Memory revolts against bilingual education, Affirmative Action, and Chicano cultural nationalists because they assume a definition of Chicano or Mexican American culture that excludes its narrator's subjective lived experience. It also revolts against the majority White society for its inability to see a Mexican American as an individual and for seeing Mexican Americans as constituting a monolithic, homogenized group.

The style or narrative technique that the narrator Richard Rodriguez uses to define his modern subjective experience is Richard Hoggart's concept of the scholarship boy: “I found in his description of the scholarship boy, myself. For the first time I realized that there were other students like me, and so I was able to frame the meaning of my academic success, its consequent price—the loss.”5 The scholarship boy chooses to move from the intimacy and security of his working class culture and to join the middle class by pursuing an education. He moves between his home and the classroom, which are at cultural extremes. Within the family, the scholarship boy has the intense pleasure of intimacy; he has his family's consolation in feelings of public alienation. At school, he is instructed to trust reason, the intellect. From his parents he learns to trust spontaneity and instinctive ways of knowing. He is taught to express and trust his feelings. In the classroom, his teachers emphasize the value of reasoning and of reflection.

According to Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy, the scholarship boy comes from the working class, whose members are for the most part destined to academic failure. Most working class students, he believes, are barely, if ever, changed by the learning experiences of the classroom. It is only the exception who succeeds and becomes a scholarship boy or girl. First, the working class student—with the intense gregariousness of the working class child—has difficulty adjusting to the required discipline of the classroom. Unlike middle class students, the working class student goes home and sees in his parents a way of life that is not only different from, but actually is starkly opposed to that of the classroom. It is only with “extraordinary determination and the great majestic assistance of others—at home and at school—that a working class student can succeed” (47).

Richard Rodriguez the narrator interprets his life, or imposes a structure on his life, by using Hoggart's concept of the scholarship boy. As he reconstructs his life in Hunger of Memory, he moves from the intimacy and security of his family's working class Mexican American culture to the American middle class through education. He moves between his home and the classroom which belong to two different conceptions of time and space. Richard spends the first six years of his life in a close-knit, working class family where Spanish is spoken exclusively. Because he sees only Mexican Americans speaking Spanish, he perceives it as a private language which connotes “closeness” and “intimacy.” To Richard the narrator, the family's Spanish voice insists: “You belong here. We are family members. Related. Special to one another” (18). Richard's home is one where “the only regular guests were [his] relations.”

The family's culture and language insulate and marginalize Richard and his family from the language and the cognitive style of the rest of the community, including Anglos and the general English-speaking American public. Anything outside this insulated Spanish home and culture is considered the “other.” Until Richard is seven years old, he does not know the names of other children who live on his street. To survive in the English-speaking American public, Richard's parents spoke a “hesitant, accented, not always grammatical English. And they would have to strain—their tense bodies—to catch the sense of what was rapidly said by los gringos” (13).

Entering elementary school, which is one of the carriers of modern, secularized consciousness, Richard encounters his first crisis. He comes into contact with individuals—teachers and students—who are agents or carriers of modern consciousness. His “classmates were white, many the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives.” In this contact, Richard becomes conscious of another conception of time and space. And with this contact, his transformation from a working class Mexican American student to a middle class American or scholarship boy begins. The nuns ask his parents not to speak Spanish to him at home, and Richard forgets or represses his Spanish. The consequence is an alienation from the communicative infrastructure of everyday working class Mexican American life. Thus, he learns classroom English and acquires a public identity: “One day in school I raised my hand to volunteer an answer. I spoke out in a loud voice. And I did not think it remarkable when the entire class understood. That day, I moved very far from the disadvantaged child I had been only days before. The belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public, had at last taken hold” (18). In internalizing the language and cognitive style of the general English-speaking American public, Richard the narrator is able to see himself as an American citizen with a normative public identity. This new public identity will give him, he believes, the freedom to seek the rights and opportunities for full public individuality.

Of course, Richard's conscious decision to repress his working class Mexican American past and to become the exception and succeed as a scholarship boy costs him enormously. It cuts him off from his parents. First, there is less communication with his parents. Then, as Richard and his siblings learn more English and receive more education in American schools, they share fewer words with their parents. Eventually, Richard develops a psychological block and represses his Spanish entirely because it is a painful reminder of how much he has actually changed. Second, there is the loss of closeness and intimacy that had once existed at home: “The house I returned to each afternoon was quiet. Intimate sounds no longer rushed to the door to greet me” (13).

But Richard the narrator is not able to repress completely Spanish or his family's working class Mexican American culture. When he hears Spanish spoken in public, he is reminded of his repressed past: “Sometimes in public, hearing a stranger, I'd hark back to my past. A Mexican farmworker approached me downtown to ask directions to somewhere … And his voice summoned deep longing. Another time, standing beside my mother in the visiting room of a Carmelite convent … I heard several Spanish-speaking nuns … assure us that yes, yes, we were remembered, all our family was remembered in their prayers” (25–26). The Spanish voices he hears in public recalls “the golden age of [his] youth.” Later, there are other moments when he feels guilty or fails to repress successfully Spanish and his working class Mexican heritage. “I evaded nostalgia. Tried hard to forget. But one does not forget by trying to forget. One only remembers” (50). But to become a successful scholarship boy, he cannot give in; he must continue to repress this past.

It is only after Richard the narrator reaches a certain level of success—after he has completed the graduate work towards his Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature and is researching his dissertation—that he can gesture nostalgically toward the past. He grows nostalgic because his success as a scholarship boy, as a scholar, becomes precarious. Although he has successfully abandoned his past, he does not feel that he has successfully entered the “community of academics.” Until the moment that he has this revelation in the British Museum, Richard's distance from the past has been measured by how successfully he has become a scholarship boy: “The boy who first entered the classroom barely able to speak English twenty years later concluded his studies in the stately quiet of the reading room in the British Museum” (43).

But, at the zenith of his success as a scholarship boy, Richard the narrator encounters another crisis. He feels alienated from the public identity he has adopted: “I found myself in the British Museum, at first content, reading English Renaissance literature. But then came the crisis: the doomed silence; the dusty pages of books all around me; the days accumulating in lists of obsequious footnotes; the wandering doubts about the value of scholarship. My year in Britain came to an end and I rushed to ‘come home’” (160). This means that Richard has not been successfully assimilated into his American public identity, or has not become Hoggart's acclimated scholarship boy. He has not become the successful middle class American male that he claims to have become.

Despite the fact that Richard the narrator informs the reader constantly that success and gain for the working class Mexican American come only through education, he never shows the success or the gain—certainly not at the personal level. Early in his life, Richard discerns the need to reject Spanish and working class Mexican American culture because they would doom him to failure. Only through education and a public identity does he have the opportunity to succeed, to become successful. But what does success mean for Richard? Existential freedom? A form of personal speech? One's own unique style? Careerism? Celebrity?

According to Hunger of Memory, being a scholarship boy does not mean existential freedom, a form of personal speech or one's own unique style. The scholarship boy is not original: “The scholarship boy is a very bad student. He is the great mimic; a collector of thoughts, not a thinker; the very last person in class who ever feels obliged to have an opinion of his own” (67). Because Richard is preoccupied with being a scholarship boy—that is, imitating, rather than assessing critically, the classical education offered him—he represses his own desires, his own alienated modern experiences, his own individual style—the very things that are the true source of creativity and originality. In short, the convention of the scholarship boy does not “fit” Rodriguez's modern experience—basically that of being torn between two cultures, for no social role in modern times can be a perfect fit.

Additionally, Richard the narrator's concept of education, which he labels a success, appears vacuous. It does not provide for intellectual growth or personal development. He reads books not because they will offer him growth personally and intellectually, but because they represent to him the image of the educated person. “What did I see in my books? I had the idea that they were crucial for academic success, though I couldn't have said exactly how or why: In the sixth grade I simply concluded that what gave a book its value was some major idea or theme it contained. If that core essence could be mimed and memorized, I would become learned like my teacher” (62).

For Richard, books and the concept of the scholarship boy are not vehicles he can use to find a language or style to articulate his own experiences of alienation and fragmentation. They do not become the tools he can use to refashion consciousness, or to remake the self. Instead, they exist as objects that allow him to escape his existence as an existential being who is caught between two American cultures. They become ornaments to validate his adopted image of the middle class American male. “When I read William Saroyan's The Human Comedy, I was immediately pleased by the narrator's warmth and the charm of his story … Another summer I was determined to read all of the novels of Dickens. Reading his fat novels, I loved the feeling I got—after the first hundred pages—of being at home in a fictional world where I knew the names of characters and cared about what was going to happen to them. And it bothered me that I was forced away at the conclusion, when the fiction closed tight—like a fortune teller's fist—the future of all the major characters really resolved” (63).

In this response to Dickens's novels, Richard gives a sanitized reading of them. He omits or excludes the social criticism that is so much a part of Dickens's fiction. He excludes any discussion of the horror of poverty and urbanization that is evident in Dickens's “fat novels.” He represses Dickens's criticism of an economic system that makes slave laborers out of children. Lastly, he ignores the harsh realities of urban life that Dickens describes in minute detail. Wouldn't some of these unpleasant features of human exploitation in Dickens be likely to remind Richard of the plight of his parents and other working-class Mexican Americans whose work consists of a “dark succession of warehouse, cannery and factory job”?

Entrapped in a suit that does not fit, or in the image of Hoggart's concept of the scholarship boy, Richard's portrait of himself lacks any sense of perception or vision. Because, as a scholarship boy, he is forced to be “hollow within,” he takes on the perspective or point of view of the teacher in his presence or of the book he is currently reading: “I lacked a point of view when I read. Rather, I read in order to acquire a point of view” (64). And although the adult Richard the narrator criticizes this method of learning, Richard the author shows nothing from his adult life to indicate that he is no longer “hollow within,” that he has a larger scheme or perspective to view his life.

There is only one instance in Hunger of Memory where Richard the narrator speculates on the significance of being a scholarship boy. When he returns home to live with his parents after spending a year at the British Museum, he surmises that being a scholarship boy allows him to think abstractly and conceptually about himself and his parents. “The ability to consider experience so abstractly allowed me to shape into desire what would otherwise have remained indefinite, meaningless longing in the British Museum. If, because of my schooling, I have grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact” (72).

More importantly, although Richard the narrator claims to be a successful scholarship boy and a middle class American male who has assimilated into the dominant American public identity and who becomes nostalgic while researching and writing his Ph.D. dissertation in Renaissance literature at the British Museum, a close scrutiny of the portrait of his life as it is reconstructed in Hunger of Memory proves otherwise. Hunger of Memory shows unconsciously a Richard Rodriguez who has always been marginal to the experiences of the middle class, white, American male because he is a person of color. The problem is that the convention of the scholarship boy that he imposes on his life forbids him to talk about his private self, his subjective modern experience. Discussing Richard's marginalization from his Mexican American working class background, Ramón Saldívar argues that Richard “feels himself capable of functioning only as an isolated and private individual, deprived of any organic connection with his ethnic group, his social class, and finally even his own family. He is a solitary man, and he does not feel himself part of the social whole. Privacy and isolation are his essential features, even when he functions in the public arena.”6

But Richard is also marginal to his adopted public identity, to middle class white America. It is the “isolated and private” Richard who is marginalized from both working class Mexican American culture and the dominant American society. White Americans single him out for ridicule because of his dark skin: “In public I occasionally heard racial slurs. Complete strangers would yell out at me … A boy pedaled by and announced matter-of-factly, ‘I pee on dirty Mexicans’” (117).

Furthermore, unlike most middle class, White Americans who have no identities outside of their class, Richard is fully aware that his origin does not derive from middle class America, but from a racial group that is discriminated against because of its skin color. Growing up he listens to his parents talk about the mistreatment of Mexicans in California border towns. He hears the stories of his relatives being refused admittance to an all-White swimming pool because they are brown. Also, Richard's interest in the “progress of the southern black Civil Rights movement” shows a profound emotional and personal identification with the dispossessed, the downtrodden.

Also, more importantly, nowhere in his education, or in his movement in the dominant American society, has he been perceived as a middle class American. Throughout his elementary school and secondary school, Richard is perceived as being different from the middle class American norm. During elementary school when he walks home with his White classmates, Richard encounters daily racial remarks. “Such remarks would be said so casually that I wouldn't quickly realize that they were being addressed to me. When I did, I would be paralyzed with embarrassment, unable to return the insult” (117). In high school, he is withdrawn and marginal. He does not fit in socially; he avoids school dances and other activities.

Even in college, he is perceived differently. At Stanford University, he is aware that he is different from the “golden children of Western America's upper middle class” (130). Unlike them, he notices and feels connection with the Mexican American janitors and gardeners working on campus. On a visit to the home of one of his upper middle class White friends, he becomes conscious of, and identifies with, the Black maid. As a college student at Stanford and later at Columbia and Berkeley, he is reminded that he is not just another middle class American male. At Berkeley, he recognizes that his White classmates do not perceive him as being one of them: “To many persons around him, he appears too much the academic. There may be something about him that recalls his beginnings—his shabby clothes; his persistent poverty; or his dark skin (in those cases when it symbolizes his parents' disadvantaged condition) …” (65). The Hispanic students at Berkeley also remind Richard that he is different, that he is not just a middle class American male. When they need someone to teach a minority literature course at a barrio community center on Saturdays, they ask Richard and he refuses.

Finally, Richard's experience as a scholarship boy and his internalization of the cognitive style and the values of high art and canonical Western literature (“I have taken Caliban's advice. I have stolen their books. I will have some run of this isle,” 3) alienate him from other Mexican American students. Richard feels uncomfortable with Mexican American students who call themselves Chicano—“a term lower-class Mexican Americans had long used to name themselves”—who embrace working class Mexican American culture, who talk loudly in Spanish on campus, and who “graduated to work among lower-class Hispanics at barrio clinics or legal aid centers.” They belong to the working class Mexican American culture that he has rejected. Richard sees those Mexican American students who come to Berkeley through an Affirmative Action program as constituting an experience that is different from his. To him, they are minority students who, unlike him, are alienated from public life. He is a scholarship boy who has used education to become a middle class American. They have come to the university in a group; he has come to the university singly. They are still tied to their parents' working class culture; he has rejected his parents culturally.

But, as the above discussion shows, experientially, Richard the narrator is not a middle class American male. His alienation from his own working class background and from middle class White Americans constitutes his subjective modern experience, which goes unresolved in Hunger of Memory. Richard never attempts to define his own existence, to create a new life outside these two social groupings. Instead, he imposes Hoggart's concept of the scholarship boy on his existential existence and it fails, thereby forcing him into an impasse. The impasse comes when Richard goes on the job market, where he is treated not as a successful scholarship boy who has made the transformation from the working class to the middle class, but as a minority who is an excellent candidate for an Affirmative Action position.

Thus, he enters another crisis. Realizing that he has not been able to assert successfully his adopted public identity as a “nonwhite reader of Spenser and Milton and Austen,” Richard the narrator rejects all minority jobs offered. “I wanted this life [academic life]. But I had to protest. How? Disqualify myself from the profession as long as Affirmative Action continued? Romantic exile? But I had to. Yes. I found the horizon again. It was calm” (171). He also rejects Affirmative Action—the government programs which aim at making higher education accessible to the poor, or to “socially disadvantaged” minorities—because it offers reforms solely in racial, rather than class terms: “No one seemed troubled by the fact that those who were in the best position to benefit from such reforms were those blacks [and other minorities such as himself] least victimized by racism or any other social oppression—those culturally, if not always economically, of the middle class” (145). Is the problematics of his subjective modern experience ever resolved? Does he find a voice and a narrative to capture successfully his modern experience?

Hunger of Memory's uncritical acceptance of the ideology of the scholarship boy and of the middle class American male as the norm and as the only option for success for working class Mexican Americans in the United States denies it the options and possibilities presented by the emergence of various forms of “otherness” in the American cultural sphere—“otherness” that would give Richard the critical space to critique canonical Western literature, the middle class American male convention, and the concept of the scholarship boy. “It was especially the art, writing, film-making and criticism of women and minority artists,” argues Andreas Huyssen in After the Great Divide, “with their recuperation of buried and mutilated traditions, their emphasis on exploring forms of gender- and race-based subjectivity in aesthetic productions and experiences, and their refusal to be limited to standard and canonization, which added a whole dimension to the critique of high modernism and to the emergence of alternative forms of culture.”7 This pluralizing rhetoric of postmodernism has something to do with the sociologically significant emergence of women, minorities and gays in the cultural sphere—an emergence that rejects the abstract category of single otherness and undermines the legitimacy and sanctity of a canon or tradition that defines the middle class American male as the norm. In the culturally diverse postmodern American society echoed in Huyssen's comments, the concepts of the scholarship boy and of the middle class American convention become not the only American forms of culture, but two among many forms of American culture.

A Richard Rodriguez, the author of Hunger of Memory, who had the vision to recognize, accept, and incorporate America's diverse cultural forms and lifestyles would have enormous freedom. First, he would no longer be “annoyed … to hear [Chicano] students on campus loudly talking in Spanish,” for Spanish would be considered one of America's many languages. Second, he would accept the urban Black teenagers whose voices he cannot “inch past” because they have the sounds of the outsider, because they would be recognized as not outsiders but a part of America's rich, diverse population. They represent one of America's many diverse public identities. Third, with a vision that incorporates America's diverse cultural forms, Richard could embrace bilingual education and Black English because their “feelings of public separateness” and their “brazen intimacy” would be viewed as other cultural forms along with those of the Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, and Greek Americans who also contribute to America's diverse population.

More importantly, a healthy postmodern American vision that incorporated all of America's diverse cultural forms and public identities would allow Richard the narrator to accept his own existential condition as a being who is caught between two American cultural forms. He could become proud of his brown body; he could engage his guilt for not being macho, admit his “sexual anxieties” and his “physical insecurity” (130). He could embrace not only his educational achievements or the concept of the scholarship boy, but also his working class Mexican American culture and the Spanish language. Both could co-exist. Lastly, with a vision that incorporated all of America's diverse cultural forms, he could devise a definition of his own life that was in harmony with his own lived experiences.

But, rather than seek existential freedom, a new life in the plurality of American cultures, Richard the narrator supersedes the model of the scholarship boy with another model, that of the American upper middle class celebrity, a model which has it own features of fame, fortune, and the good life. It is a commodified and reified status, disconnected from history and social reality, which attempts to transcend race and class. It is only as a celebrity that Richard purports to achieve his Americanization. “In the past months I have found myself in New York. In Los Angeles. Working with Money. Among people with money. And at leisure—a weekend guest in Connecticut, at a cocktail party in Bel Air” (3). His Americanization is reinforced on those occasions when he has been travelling abroad for several weeks and returns to hear “the high sound of [middle class] American voices.” He listens to those voices with pleasure, “for [their sound] is now the sound of [his] society—reminder of home” (14).

As a celebrity, Richard's dark complexion becomes not the reason for ridicule as it is for working class Mexican Americans, but as a “mark of his pleasure.” The hotel clerk in London wants to know if he has just arrived from skiing in Switzerland. The bellhop in New York wants to know if he has been tanning in the Caribbean. His “complexion assumes its significance from the context of his life.” If he had entered the hotel through the service door, his dark complexion would have been perceived differently. But when Richard the narrator appears on the lecture circuit as a celebrity, he is immediately historicized by members of the audience. He is confronted with the label of the minority, which he has rejected. Because he is “marked by indelible color,” he is anointed by some White Americans “to play out for them some drama of ancestral reconciliation” (5). They define him not as a celebrity but as a racial minority.

To be called a celebrity means that you are famous or known for something. Richard the narrator is not famous or known because he is a successful scholarship boy. There are many scholarship boys who are not known. Richard is a celebrity because he, a Mexican American, takes positions on such social issues as Affirmative Action, bilingual education, and cultural diversity that generate the official order, the ideological position of those Americans who take a single hegemonic approach to American life and culture. He, as a Mexican American, is a celebrity because he opposes those people of color and women who threaten the stability and sanctity of a Western, White, male-dominated literary canon and tradition:

In 1974 I published an essay admitting unease over becoming the beneficiary of Affirmative Action. There was another article against Affirmative Action in 1977. One more soon after. At times, I proposed contrary ideas; consistent always with the admission that I was no longer like socially disadvantaged Hispanic Americans. But this admission, made in national magazines, only brought me a greater degree of success. A published minority student, I won a kind of celebrity. In my mail were admiring letters from right-wing politicians. There were also invitations to address conferences of college administrators or government officials. My essays served as my ‘authority’ to speak at the Marriott Something or the Sheraton Somewhere.


Richard the narrator's essays, which draw “admiring letters from right-wing politicians,” echo the conservative American trend to repress, and therefore re-establish hegemony over, the dissenting voices of women, gays, and people of color who are demanding the right to speak for themselves, in their own voices, and have those voices accepted as legitimate.

Lastly, although Hunger of Memory is entrapped ideologically in upper middle class American conventions and values that prevent it from realizing its modernist quest for authenticity, it is received differently by mainstream and Chicano critics. Hunger of Memory takes positions on volatile social issues such as Affirmative Action, bilingual education, and cultural diversity that generate the official order. Therefore, it can be easily appropriated to generate the ideological position of those Americans who take a single hegemonic approach to American life and culture. This, perhaps, explains the enormous attention it generates and its subsequent institutionalization. It is perhaps the only text written by an American of Mexican [and Hispanic] descent that has been reviewed and, sometimes, highly praised by reviewers in The New York Times Book Review,The Atlantic Monthly,Time,Harper's Newsweek,The American Scholar,Commentary, and the Harvard Educational Review. In addition, selections from Hunger of Memory are included in anthologies used in freshman composition courses throughout the United States. But Chicano critics such as Ramón Saldívar, Tomás Rivera, and Arturo Madrid expose Hunger of Memory for its “force of ideology behind the mask of aesthetics.”8


  1. Terry Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism, Postmodernism,” in Against the Grain: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1986): 139.

  2. Irving Howe, “The Idea of the Modern,” in Literary Modernism, edited by Irving Howe (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1967): 17.

  3. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): 172.

  4. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983): 147.

  5. Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (New York: Bantam Books, 1983): 46. All further references will be to this edition and will be given in the text.

  6. Ramón Saldívar, “Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography,” in Diacritics 15 (Fall 1985): 27.

  7. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide, 198.

  8. Saldivar, 33; see also Tomás Rivera, “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis,” MELUS 11.4 (1984): 5–13; rpt. in Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works, Julián Olivares, ed. (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1992): 406–14.

Keith Henderson (review date 17 December 1992)

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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 specific area of attention is the curious mix of cultural, religious, and political forces at work in his native California. In Days of Obligation, the author applies a literary microscope to such disparate, yet connected details of California life as the lovingly preserved 18th-century missions founded by Fr. Junípero Serra, the meticulous restoration of San Francisco's Victorian architecture by the city's gay community, and the urban odd couple of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.

What's going on between those two cities, which straddle the US-Mexican border, is a gauge of California's future, and indeed of the future of all of North America, according to Rodriguez. During a recent visit to the Monitor's offices in Boston, he put it this way: “On one side, you have a city [Tijuana] about to enter the industrial age, a kind of Dickensian city with palm trees; on the other side you have a city that is at the end of the industrial age. They are not in the same century. How are they going to live together?”

In a broad sense, his latest book revolves around the same question. Rodriguez's “argument” with his father is really an exploration of how the new California, with declining expectations and more closely bound to Mexico than ever, will coexist with older memories of how the state once was—and, as some would hold, ought to be. “There's a tension in California between generations, between a father and his son, between the Daughter of the Golden West and her immigrant ancestors,” he said during his Boston visit.

The last reference is to an organization of native-born California women, some of whom can trace their ancestry in the state back to the 1849 Gold Rush. As Rodriguez notes in his book, the Daughters of the Golden West have been active in preserving early Spanish/Catholic sites, like the missions, which symbolize a philosophy and culture quite different from that of their pioneer forebears, most of whom trudged westward with their Protestant individualism firmly in tow.

Who are the ones bringing dreams of self-made fortunes to the state now? Rodriguez argues that they are the legions of young Mexicans rushing up from Tijuana. They are the vanguard, he says, of a Mexican nation that is collectively starting to shed its abhorrence of everything norte americano and is turning to free markets and economic opportunity. Mexico has the chance, he says, to become the crucial bridge between the United States and the rest of Latin America.

Rodriguez's references to ethnicity are notable for their lack of narrow nationalism. He's clearly proud, even fascinated, by his Mexicanness and his Indian heritage, but he sees them as streams feeding a bigger cultural identity, not as “causes.” He criticizes bilingual education and multiculturalism as movements that constrict individuals’ self-discovery, rather than advance it.

Irish nuns in Sacramento's parochial schools, Jewish professors at the University of California campus in Berkeley, and Chinese neighbors in San Francisco—all helped shape his cultural identity. That's what being an American is all about, Rodriguez argues—with his father or anyone else who happens to be at hand. We're in the American experiment together, he says, nothing that black history, for example, is really our history.

His expansive view breaks through the biological confines of ethnicity into something like true humanity. It's what makes Rodriguez's work well worth reading.

Ilan Stavans (review date 26 March 1993)

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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 exactly what it describes.” The rise of multiculturalism, which perceives the melting pot as a soup of diverse and at times incompatible backgrounds, has made the word “America” even more troublesome, more evasive and abstract. Is America a compact whole, a unity? Is it a sum of ethnic groups unified by a single language and a handful of patriotic symbols? Or is it a Quixotic dream where total assimilation is impossible, and where multiculturalism leads to disintegration?

Baldwin's statement acquires a totally different connotation when one realizes that historically “America” is not only a nation but also a vast continent made up of many peoples and nations. From Alaska to the Argentine pampas, from Rio de Janeiro to East Los Angeles, the geography Christopher Columbus mistakenly encountered in 1492 and Amerigo Vespucci baptized a few years later, is also a linguistic and cultural multiplicity. America the nation and America the continent exist in a complex symbiosis. Thus, Latinos in the United States, some 22 million according to the 1990 census, encompass various subgroups that include Cubans, Mexicans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans (who are twice American): as children of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and, also, as citizens of the so-called New World.

Richard Rodriguez, arguably the most visible and controversial Chicano intellectual, epitomizes their plight. Born in a white neighborhood in Sacramento in 1947, and an editor at the Pacific News Service in San Francisco, he is part Mexican and all U.S. citizen: twice American. Sociologists and politicians persist in seeing his ancestors as the newest wave of immigrants, second-class citizens at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But the truth is that Rodriguez's ancestors were in the territories north of the Rio Grande before the Mayflower Pilgrims. It was only after the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty signed in 1848, in which Generalísimo Antonio López de Santa Anna gave away and subsequently sold half of Mexico to the White House, that many of them unexpectedly, even unwillingly, became a part of an Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking reality.

A decade ago, at thirty-five, Rodriguez (spelled without the required Spanish accent) published his first book, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, an explosive autobiographical narrative detailing his humble beginnings in California, and how he was raised with expectations that led to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and a dissertation on John Milton researched at the British Museum. His parents were first-generation immigrants from Mexico, thoroughly traditional in their Catholicism. Spanish, what Rodriguez calls “the private language,” was used at home; English, the entrance door to the melting pot, prevailed in public places. He was sent to Catholic school where rigid Irish nuns oversaw his assimilation. His bilingual experience resembles that of Amy Tan, Eva Hoffman, and thousands of others. In this regard, Hunger of Memory was not the first U.S.-Hispanic memoir. A number of other remarkable personal narratives by Hispanics, many seasoned with fictional ingredients, opened up the field. In 1972, for example, Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, a Chicano lawyer and activist, wrote The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo in the style of Hunter Thompson's “gonzo journalism.” And before Acosta there were Ernesto Galarza's Barrio Boy: The Story of a Boy's Acculturation, actor Anthony Quinn's The Original Sin, singer Joan Baez's Daybreak, and Jesús Colón's A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches.

Hunger of Memory comprised of five separate essays, was an engaging analysis of the writer's journey from silence to voice, from anonymity to celebrity, from South to North. In it Rodriguez issued a vociferous personal attack against bilingual education and minority quotas as well as exploring his personal Catholicism and, although indirectly, his homosexuality. Before Linda Chavez and other neoconservatives, he attacked liberals for rejoicing in the promotion of blacks and Hispanics as “victims,” and for allowing their guilt to shape affirmative-action programs. He argued vehemently, for example, that requiring Spanish instruction in the classroom is dangerous because it creates an abyss—sense of separateness between the student and mainstream America.

A true agent provocateur, Rodriguez's first book, already a minor classic, became a favorite target of attack for student activists and politically correct university professors, who sometimes seemed eager to demonize the writer. But the truth is, as Rubén Martínez and other critics have perceived, that Rodriguez is not any sort of right-winger. Political analysis is neither his interest nor his strength. Rather he is offended when his writing is used for the partisan endorsement of government programs, and he responds accordingly. He gets even angrier when his work is exploited for ideological reasons. In interviews and articles, he has described the book as another Labyrinth of Solitude, the ground-breaking study of the Hispanic psyche published in 1950 by the Mexican essayist Octavio Paz. But I find this characterization incomplete. Rodriguez's voice is alienated, anti-Romantic, often profoundly sad. While Paz embarks on an archeology of the Hispanic cultural idiosyncrasy, Rodriguez is strictly personal. He does not offer historical analysis so much as meditative and speculative autobiography—a Whitmanesque “song of myself,” a celebration of individuality and valor in which, against all stereotypes, a Mexican-American becomes a winner.

Unfortunately, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, meant as a sequel to Hunger, is a disappointment. Rodriguez's Mexican father perceived the world to be a sad place; as a child, his son saw it as a fiesta. Adulthood, however, has taught Rodriguez to reverse his childhood view. He now sees California, with a Hispanic population of over 7.5 million (34.4 percent of the state population), as a culture of comedy while Mexico personifies tragedy. In California the present lives; in Mexico history continues to count.

Like Hunger,Days of Obligation is a collection of essays. But this new volume lacks the coherence of the first book. The recurring themes—AIDS, barbarism vs. civilization among Hispanics, religion—are developed independently. “Late Victorians,” the third essay, examines Rodriguez's circumspect homosexuality. “The Latin American Novel,” a misleading title, is a study about the impact and value of both Catholicism and Protestantism south of the Rio Grande and among the Chicano population in California. Rodriguez talks to a number of Anglos and South Americans who see Jesus Christ as the embodiment of the centuries-old suffering collectively endured since the arrival of the conquistadores. Yet he ponders the impact of Protestant missionaries who are succeeding in converting poor, Spanish-speaking believers (there are some 50 million Protestants from Mexico to Argentina), seeing in it a sign of Catholicism's unadaptability and fragile standing in modern times. As a believer who regularly attends Sunday Mass, his analysis offers powerful insights into traditional Catholic symbols. “Catholicism,” says Rodriguez, “may be administered by embarrassed, celibate men, but the institution of Catholicism is voluptuous, feminine, sure. The church is our mother; the church is our bride.” He thanks the church for the schooling he received—his views of life, death, sex, and happiness—and yet, throughout the years not only has he lost the strength in his faith but he foresees immediate crisis for the church. “Should a Mass in San Francisco be performed in Spanish?” he wonders. English, after all, is this nation's “unofficial” official language. Will multilingualism eventually divide the church? Unfortunately, he never gives solid answers to these questions.

“The Head of Joaquín Murrieta” is the most engaging and powerful essay. It studies a well-known legend of a nineteenth-century, Mexico-born bandido in Fresno County. Murrieta was an outlaw, a kind of Robin Hood who fought the Anglo establishment out of grief and outrage, giving money and happiness to the poor and dispossessed. His death, like that of Pancho Villa, has been turned into legend. During the Gold Rush, Murrieta, from Sonora, Mexico, traveled to California with his brother, wife, and probably other relatives and friends. His fate remains obscure. Apparently, a bunch of drunken Anglos raped his wife, tortured him, and hanged his brother. During the next few years, disguised as an old man, an Indian, or what have you, he searched for every one of his torturers and killed them. The American authorities placed a bounty on his head. He turned into a vengeful criminal, a symbol of the Chicano animosity against the English-speaking establishment.

Murrieta has metamorphosized into a hero among Chicanos. He often acquires different citizenships and identities: Pablo Neruda, for instance, the 1967 Nobel Prize winner, portrayed him as a Chilean in a poem. Rodriguez's obsession is with Murrieta's bounty-branded head—according to rumors it was returned to the United States by state troopers for reward money. Where is it? Who has it? The author of Days of Obligation comes across a Chicano academic and priest, Alberto Huerta, who is anxious to find it in order to bury it with dignity as a gesture of reconciliation. As Huerta puts it: “All of us need to face our guilts and fears, if we are to become reconciled with one another.” Turned into detectives, the writer and Huerta follow one clue after another until they eventually meet a curious antiquarian who claims that the deformed and monstrous head he keeps hidden is that of Murrieta.

In imaginatively exploring the life of such a myth, Rodriguez comes to see the Rio Grande as a psychic injury dividing the idiosyncrasies of Mexico and the United States. Murrieta is an emblem, a symbol of divergence, part American and part Mexican. Unfortunately, this image, much like others in the book, lacks sufficient historical and cultural weight. The reader finds insightful comments that explain the tension between these two countries described by Alan Riding as “distant neighbors,” but never an overall perspective that truly penetrates history. The results are fragmentary.

Shortcomings aside, Rodriguez is an extraordinary writer and a man of polarities—a chameleon, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of sorts who considers himself first a gringo and then a Mexican. Such divided loyalties remind me of Saul Bellow's cultural allegiances. His craftsmanship as an essayist, the artful playing of ideas and incidents, although in the spirit of Montaigne and John Stuart Mill, fits well the American tradition of transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson and twentieth-century masters like Mary McCarthy. Inevitably, his contribution stands next to James Baldwin's legacy, perhaps because the two have so much in common: their homosexuality, their deeply felt voyage from the periphery of culture to center stage, their strong religiosity and sense of sacredness. Rodriguez is a brilliant actor: without sentimentality or fear, he plays the part with great subtlety and intelligence. He is the embodiment of that complex fate shared by those born twice American: hybrids always living in the hyphen, with one leg here and the other across the Rio Grande.

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

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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 observer of the tension between individual and community, self and culture, optimism and pessimism, in contemporary life. He is also deeply ambivalent, especially in his more-recent work, including last year's Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. In that book, Rodriguez struggles with the loss of optimism, both his and California's, since his youth in the 1950s—the discovery of what Thomas Sowell might call “the constrained vision.” the knowledge that “much in life is failure or compromise,” just as his Mexican father said. For Rodriguez, though, this sense of life's limits is wedded to an appreciation for its possibilities. Editor Virginia Postrel and Assistant Editor Nick Gillespie talked with Rodriguez in Los Angeles in late April.

[Reason:] You became famous in the early 1980s for opposing bilingual education and affirmative action—specifically for turning down jobs as an English professor that you thought you were offered on the basis of your ethnicity. Have you changed your mind about that?

[Rodriguez:] No, I guess I haven't. Although I miss teaching, I go back to the university campuses today with some reluctance.

Why is that?

For example, I was at CSUN [Cal State: Northridge] a few months ago, and I had to pass through some kind of approval of the Chicano studies program for my visit to be sanctioned. And it just becomes too tiresome. There is some etiquette—that I have to meet with the Chicano students to defuse whatever their anger is.

And what are those meetings like?

Well, they're usually tedious. At Northridge there was a long speech where I was harangued by a woman from the history department, but clearly Chicano studies also, about my misunderstanding of Mexicans, about how Mexico has come to terms with its Indian identity. There have been a few times—for example, at U.C./San Diego last year—where I did lose control of the audience. There were a number of students who were so disruptive that it was difficult to go on.

What do you make of that sort of attitude among college students?

As it applies to me, I find it curious. I think of myself as left of center. I'm horrified that the left in America is as intolerant as it is these days. The level of incivility among people who are otherwise engaged in discussion of ideas also is surprising to me.

Where do you think it comes from?

If you ask me about these individual students, I think they are required to think of themselves as representing a cause. Their admission is in the name of a larger population for whom they feel responsible, and they do claim to have a kind of communal voice to speak in the name of the people. If you have a different opinion, then you are not of the people.

Multiculturalism, as it is expressed in the platitudes of the American campus, is not multiculturalism. It is an idea about culture that has a specific genesis, a specific history, and a specific politics. What people mean by multiculturalism is different hues of themselves. They don't mean Islamic fundamentalists or skinheads. They mean other brown and black students who share opinions like theirs. It isn't diversity. It's a pretense to diversity. And this is an exposure of it—they can't even tolerate my paltry opinion.

Days of Obligation got a friendlier response than Hunger of Memory, partly because it was more Mexican.

I think of it as more Catholic rather than more Mexican. An older man is writing this book. I thought of my earlier book as a more deeply Protestant book: my objection to the popular ideology of that time; my insistence that I am this man, contrary to what you want to make me; my declaration of myself, of my profession—political and personal; my defiance of my mother's wishes in publishing this memoir. It seemed to me very Protestant and very self-assertive—in the best sense.

This later book is much more Catholic and much more troubled. I'm much more interested in the intervention of the tragic in my life now. The AIDS epidemic has been a large part of that, but that isn't the only aspect. I quite clearly live in a California that has lost its charm, in a place that no longer quite believes in a future.

You suggest in your book that Mexico itself and Mexicans in America have become the comic side, the optimistic side, and that it is actually blond California that is getting pessimistic.

That's part of the great irony. We've always assumed that America somehow belonged on this land. Well, maybe you can put America in a suitcase and take it to Hong Kong. Maybe you can take it to Shanghai. And maybe what our Scandinavian ancestors of the 19th century would recognize as America, or as an American city, they would see more clearly in Tijuana now than they would in San Diego.

What do you mean by the America that you could take to Hong Kong?

The notion of self-reliance. The notion of re-creation. More and more I'm sensing that that kind of optimism belongs now to immigrants in this country—certainly to Mexicans that I meet—and less and less so to the native-born.

Americans seem to be tired. They talk about a lot of problems. I'm not depressed about the problems on the horizon, because I think that's where you get solutions. We'll start growing our spinach in space only when we run out of space. What I worry about is that when you talk about zero population growth and that sort of thing you are really talking about a sort of stopped time, where the whole process of evolution gets called into question.

Why do you think people today talk so much about culture?

Because there is an enormous sense of discontinuity in our lives. A friend of mine who was writing a book on Orange County once took me to this enormous shopping center—South Coast Plaza—where there were Iranians and Mexicans and everybody, and I said to him, “Do you feel flattered that the whole world has come to where you used to bicycle across open fields?” And he said, “Of course I feel flattered. It's an extraordinary idea that the entire world would come to your playground. But at some other level I feel enormously besieged. and in some sense displaced, that here they're coming and they have no memory that I was here.” We may become some new tribe of American Indians, who remember a California once upon a time and now are in the presence of rude people whose memory doesn't extend that far.

So we start asking questions about what our culture was and what their culture seems to be. Most people tend to use culture in a static sense—he represents this culture and I represent this culture. I think culture is much more fluid and experiential. I belong to many cultures. I've had many cultural experiences. And the notion that I've lost my culture is ludicrous, because you can't lose a culture. You can change a culture in your lifetime, as in fact most of us do. I'm not my father. I didn't grow up in the state of Colima in Western Mexico. I grew up in California in the 1950s. The notion that I've lost his culture is of course, at some level true, but not interesting. The interesting thing is that my culture is I Love Lucy.

Are there political implications to this view of culture versus the static view?

The interesting thing about America, the risky thing about America, is that when it opened itself up to immigrants, it opened itself to the possibility that it was going to become fluid and a stranger to itself. The great 19th-century argument against immigrants was not racial or ethnic but primarily religious. The argument against the Irish migration was a very interesting one, and one I've always taken seriously: whether or not an Irish Catholic can become a good American. Because in some way, as a Catholic in this country, I'm at odds with America. There is a prevailing ideology, a culture, which we change and adapt and resist and in various ways ignore and become part of. But in some sense it's not an easy relationship for the outsider, nor is it an easy relationship for the outsider, nor is it an easy relationship for those who are within the culture to know what to do with these outsiders.

The argument ends in the 19th century with this remarkable reversal from the anti-immigrant biases of the 1850s. Americans start talking about themselves as belonging to the tradition of the immigrant—we are all immigrants. And we see ourselves in the disheveled figure of the woman loaded down with the suitcase and garlic and crucifix. Who knew what she was saying? But we recognize in that movement away from her past that there was some great American drama that we saw ourselves as part of.

How do you account for the fact that in the beginning of the 20th century, as we were accepting the myth of the immigrant as the true American, the first broad-based restrictions on mass immigration started to be discussed in an active way?

How do I account for the fact that, at a time when black and white relationships are so difficult in America, blond kids are listening to rap? Within what is desired is also what is feared. The stranger is the figure of the American but also the threat to American stability. Surely there is some part of us that wants to settle down, that doesn't want to keep moving.

You've written, “Protestantism taught Americans to believe that America does not exist—not as a culture, not as a shared experience, not as a communal reality. Because of Protestantism, the American ideology of individualism is always at war with the experience of our lives, our culture. As long as we reject the notion of culture we are able to invent the future.” Isn't the paradox of American culture that it emerges out of the living of individualism?

What I was arguing in that paragraph is that it is possible to share the experience of individuality but that it is always paradoxically so. And that there is an anti-intellectual bias in America based upon a constant rejection of the elder, of authority, of the past. There is in the American experience continually this notion that we have sort of stumbled upon experience, that we have discovered sex, that we have discovered evil. I quote a woman at Columbia University who said, in the 1970s, “After Vietnam I will never believe that America is the good and pure country that I once thought it to be.” I thought to myself, “Where has she been all this time? Did she miss the part about the slaves? Did she miss that page about the Indians? Where does that notion of innocence come up?” We are innocent of history, of memory.

What I'm arguing is that there is a tradition that immigrants should be taught as much as native-born Californians. A tradition of America which connects us to one another, despite the fact that the strongest thing that we could say about one another is that we are disconnected. But the woman I know in Berkeley who drives her red Volkswagen around to this day with a bumper sticker that says “Question Authority”—there is not a more conventional American ideal than “Question Authority.”

In the context of immigrants, you've said that America is irresistible, that parents think that their children can pick and choose but that you can't resist it. Does that mean that the concern about assimilation is needless?

Some part of it will be natural and inevitable. But no one is more American than the person who insists that he's not. I said to these kids in Corpus Christi the other day, “I don't mind that you go around pretending that you live in Mexico, and wear sombreros and so forth. I just want you to know that that's an American thing to do—that insistence that I can decide whether I'm going to be Mexican or not.”

I was doing a documentary for the BBC a few years ago on American teenagers, and there was this girl in North Carolina who was telling us about how she wanted to become more Scottish. She was going to bicycle that summer in Scotland and get in touch with her Scottish ancestors. And my film crew, these Brits, said, “This idea of becoming more Scottish. That's a very American idea, isn't it?” Nobody in Scotland talks that way. And that's exactly the point, that the American arrogance has always been that the individual is in control of the culture. In some way, the people who are most individualistic, and most insistent on their refusal to assimilate, are the people who are most deeply assimilated.

The joke on Mexican Americans is that Mexicans now are Americanizing themselves at probably a faster rate than we are, and we may turn into British Columbians. You go up to British Columbia, and there are these more-British-than-the-British Canadians, with their picture of the queen in their dining room and tea cozies and so forth. My fear is that Mexican Americans may turn into people who are in some kind of bubble in history, while these new Mexicans are going back and forth.

You talk a lot about two things that are related. One is intimacy, and the other is the tension between the public and the private. How do you reconcile the public and the private, the communal and the individual life?

I don't have any large scheme for that settlement. I do think that we go in cycles as a society. Remember Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book called Moral Man and Immoral Society about 40 years ago, 50 years ago? If one were to write a book like that today you would have to almost reverse the title. Immoral Man and Moral Society. Dealing with a problem like the homeless, we have almost no sense that as individuals we can make any difference. We seem not to believe that we can change the condition of the American household, which is in disrepair—mothers unhappy, mothers being beaten by papa, the children being abused by somebody. We refer our problems to agencies or to the public realm because we sense more and more that some intimate circle has been fragmented.

Maybe Hillary Clinton's generation is the great generation of this belief that if you can reorganize the public realm all will be well, that the public can redeem the private. I'm beginning to sense among the young today that there is some reversal now in the other direction, that the kids I talk to—I'm talking about the children we would normally describe as troubled children—are more and more looking for more intimate ways of organizing themselves and restoring themselves.


Like Nation of Islam. Victory Outreach. The most successful rescue structures in this society are not governmental but are cases of one person taking another person. There is a man named Joe Marshall in San Francisco who has something called the Omega Boys Club. He used to be a junior-high-school teacher, and he realized that these kids basically did not have a home. He was expecting them to study a geography lesson, and they hadn't had breakfast. They were without such preliminaries in their intimate life that they had no way of living in the public life. So he committed himself as an individual to becoming their father essentially and to relating to them one on one—“I will be here for you.” And he's had enormous success. He's sent over 100 kids to college—kids who would not normally fall under any umbrella of the ideal student. I'm more and more taken with that possibility, that what we are looking for now is some way to redeem the house.

I write in the “Late Victorians” chapter [in Days of Obligation] about the homosexuals who did not have a family, whose deepest secret was not held against the city but was held against their own parents. And they came to San Francisco in the 1970s and moved into the Victorian houses. They loved those symbols of 19th-century domestic stability, with four generations raised—one story upon the other—behind this great wooden door. This woman came up to me the other day and said, “The only happily married people I know are gay couples.” I said to her, “Maybe that's part of the irony of our time, that people who didn't have that intimacy have been spending more time on it.” I sense that there are very large groups of people who are without intimate life and who are looking for it now. And increasingly these people are not looking to government.

That's partly the reason for the rise of certain sorts of religious fundamentalism, which has within it a deep communal assurance and intimate assurance. There is down the block in my yuppie neighborhood this Filipino evangelical church. If you do not come tonight they will come looking for you. I don't want to say that ominously, because that's not the way they would describe it. But they miss you. And they eat together. They are there in the morning—I go jogging at 6:30 some mornings and they're coming out of church, and I think to myself, “This is insane. What have they been doing? When did they sleep?” Clearly something is going on in there that's not liturgical, or is so powerfully liturgical that it engages the re-creation of community in a city that is otherwise oblivious and hostile to them.

What do you think about the attraction of Latin Americans, both here and in Latin America, to evangelical Protestantism?

Catholicism is a religion that stresses to you constantly that you can't make it on your own, that you need the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and the saints, St. Jude, and your grandmother—candles and rosaries and indulgences and the pope. There are all these intermediaries, because you facing God would be hopeless.

Suddenly, into the village comes this assurance that you don't need padrecito. You can read the bible yourself—you don't need someone to tell you what it says. You don't need the Virgin Mary, you don't need the saints, you don't need anybody. God is speaking to you. And just because your father beat your mother, just because your grandfather was poor, doesn't mean it has to happen to you. You can change your whole life around. This is all based on the Easter promise and not, as the Catholic church has always based it, on some Good Friday suffering.

Protestants always have empty crosses.

It is an enormously powerful motif, the notion that Christ just got off the cross and walked away somewhere—went off to L.A.—and you could do it too. I think Protestantism is most successful in those cases where people are beginning to taste and sense discontinuity. And they begin to make sense out of it as providential. Protestantism also establishes, in a time of social change, the memory of the village. Within the storefront church, you can hold hands and remember what it was like in another time.

It will be one of the great changes of Latin America, the Protestantization of Latin America, and I think in some way that it will change the United States. The relationship of the evangelicals in places like Texas where there are rednecks and Mexicans together is really very interesting. The new Mexican who is now appearing in places like police department—this is a new face of Latin America, and it is not necessarily one that we want.

How so?

I think there has always been a charm to Latin America as being sort of morally lazy. We've always used it as a place where we could go to after dark and do whatever we wanted that we couldn't do here. We never really expected that Latin America was going to become a moral Clorox for our society, and maybe there's a ferocity there that we don't expect.

Aside from the desire to have this Latin America of easy virtue, are there bad consequences to that?

How shall I put this? Mexican cops have never been cops I like to deal with. And there can be this ferocity—you see it in New York now with a lot of Puerto Rican and Hispanic households, the ferocity against the gay movement, the Rainbow Curriculum, for example. I see myself—as a homosexual man—much freer in America than in Latin America.

So that the danger is that in adopting a sort of American Protestantism, a religious version of individualism, they will not, do not, adopt the tolerant individualism, the political individualism?

We're talking about a low-church Protestantism. It is part of the paradox of the Protestant tradition that there has been this intolerance within a religion otherwise powerfully concerned with the individual. It is a paradox within Catholicism that a religion so communal would otherwise be so individualistic—in the sense that people are so private.

The association of immigration with welfare in the political discourse, particularly in California, has become very tight, and yet of course everywhere you go in L.A. all you see are immigrants working. What do you make of that?

It may have something to do with some Anglo-Saxon prejudice about the South—that these people really are not workaholics. In fact, every Mexican I've ever known has been haunted by a kind of work lust that is just extraordinary to me—it terrifies me.

It may also be that, well fine, this generation is going to scrape the dishes and wipe your grandmother's ass when she's an invalid, but that's not what their kids are going to do. When they start becoming American, we're going to have to pay for the kids, who are not going to do that work and who are going to be bitter. There is some logic in that. Ironically so. Isn't it interesting that we find that their Americanization is meaning that they would work less?

There is also this fear of the workaholic, which expresses itself especially against Asian immigrants. That they're working too hard. I've quoted that man who said to me, “Asians are unfair to my children because they work too hard.” For a lot of people, the complaint about Asians is that not only do they work very hard but their work is multiplied—that it is entire families working, while I'm working here as a solitary being.

There is not a great deal of praise given to these immigrants, who have sometimes two and three jobs. A lot of these people are maintaining the quality of life in California. They're the ones who are planting the trees, mowing the lawns, cooking the Italian food in the yuppie restaurants. They are the ones who are maintaining what's left of the California dream, and of course they are the ones who are accused of destroying it.

Where do you think this backlash against immigrants is going?

In the short term. I think it could be very ferocious. What worries me most is the black and immigrant split—the threat that blacks feel as they are replaced, literally, in places like Miami and Los Angeles. I think that could be very dangerous. I do know a number of black kids whom I've tried to get work for—as dishwashers, bus boys—and I'm told by employers that they don't hire black.

They'll say, we hire Chinese, or we hire Mexican, or we hire Central Americans.

Much of the debate about immigration gets into issues involving public schools. There is this very powerful myth of the public schools as the conveyors of American culture and American ideas—the great assimilating mechanism. You went to parochial schools. You were taught by nuns who were not even American born. Irish nuns. You grew up with an incredible sense of difference from the surrounding culture. And yet you say those schools Americanized you. What does that tell us about the public schools?

The irony is a true one. We used a lot of skills that came out of a medieval faith. The stress that the nuns placed on memorizing. The notion that education was not so much little Junior coming up with a new idea, but little Junior having to memorize what was already known. Education was not about learning something new. It was about learning something old. The nuns said about my sister, criticizing her to my parents, that she has a mind of her own.

At the same time, that taught us some basic things. We knew certain dates of American history. I knew certain poems by Longfellow. I knew how to multiply. I had a sense of the communal within that tradition. I could not only name popes, but I could also name presidents. I memorized the 48 state capitals. We were in the 13th century, but the 13th-century skills prepared us in some remarkable way to belong.

Do you think more education like yours, in terms of curriculum and structure, would be a better form of education?

Absolutely, because I think that education in that sense should be anti-American. There is enough in America out on the street to convince little Johnny that he's the center of everyone's universe—that his little “I” on his skateboard matters more than anybody else's right to walk on the sidewalk. What the classroom should insist on is that he belongs to a culture, a community, a tradition, a memory, and that in fact he's related to all kinds of people that he'll never know. That's the point of education.

It is, curiously, because of the Americanness of the public schools that they are less able to do what private schools can do, and that is teach us our communal relationships. American institutions end up becoming very American, and you have schools now that are supposed to teach little Hispanic kids to be privately Hispanic. That's not the point and never was. The point of education is to teach Hispanic kids that they're black.

What do you mean by that?

Education is not about self-esteem. Education is demeaning. It should be about teaching you what you don't know, what you yet need to know, how much there is yet to do. Part of the process of education is teaching you that you are related to people who are not you, not your parents—that you are related to black runaway slaves and that you are related to suffragettes in the 19th century and that you are related to Puritans. That you are related to some continuous flow of ideas, some linkage, of which you are the beneficiary, the most recent link. The argument for bilingual education, or for teaching black children their own lingo, assumes that education is about self-esteem. My argument is that education is about teaching children to use language of other people.

The public language.

If you all decided tomorrow that you wanted to speak Spanish, I would be the first one insisting that that's the issue. One of the reasons I haven't gotten involved in the English Only movement is because I thought they were misplacing the emphasis. I support the use of English in the classroom because that's what this society tends to use. English is the de facto official language of the classroom, of the country. If you all changed tomorrow and decided you all wanted to speak Esperanto, then I would become the great defender of Esperanto. I'm not an Anglophile.

Your writing has become increasingly private. The reason Hunger of Memory was so controversial was that, even thought it was a personal memoir, it took stands on public issues—bilingual education, affirmative action.

I do think there are public issues in Days of Obligation. Religion is a public issue. The majority of reviewers ignored the fact that this book was primarily about being Catholic in America, not about being Hispanic in America. I'm not Catholic to them. I'm Hispanic. And I'm not gay to them. I'm brown to them. And I'm not Indian to them, because they know who the Indians are—the Indians live in Oklahoma.

The issue of the Indian, which very few people have remarked on, is a public issue. My rewriting of the Indian adventure [into a story in which the conquistadors' culture was in effect conquered, absorbed, and transformed by Indians through conversion and miscegenation] was not only to move the Indian away from the role of victim but to see myself in relationship to Pocahontas, to see myself as interested in the blond on his horse coming over the horizon. It occurred to me there was something aggressive about the Indian interest in the Other, and that you were at risk in the fact that I was watching you, that I wanted you, that I was interested in your religion, that I was prepared to swallow it and to swallow you in the process.

Maybe what is happening in the Americas right now is that the Indian is very much alive. I represent someone who has swallowed English and now claims it as my language, your books as my books, your religion as my religion—maybe this is the most subversive element of the colonial adventure. That I may be truest to my Indian identity by wanting to become American is really quite extraordinary.

Piers Paul Read (review date 4 March 1995)

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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 watch what comes from California but do not associate that particular culture with wisdom imparted through the written word.

First impressions are misleading: perseverance reveals a delightful writer who is not slick but amusing, not clever but wise. The poetic nonchalance of his style conveys not just his own mellow personality, but the necessary ambiguity of his ethnic designation.

America has long imagined itself clean, crew-cut, ingenuous. We are an odourless, colourless, accentless, orderly people, put upon and vulnerable to the foreign. Aliens are carries of chaos—Mexicans are obviously carriers of chaos—gray air, brown water, papacy, leprosy, crime, diarrhoea, white powders, and a language full of newts and cicadas.

Here Rodriguez writes ‘we’ as if he is one of the odourless, colourless Americans, not one of the carriers of chaos. At other times he is less certain. Indeed, his detachment is part of the phenomenon he sets out to describe—the anguish of the spiritually ‘displaced person’ in the brash vulgarity of California today.

Undoubtedly Rodriguez is well aware of the paradox: that the brown colour of his skin (and perhaps his proclaimed sexual orientation) gives him an unusual freedom of expression in the land of the politically correct. Were he a white Anglo-Saxon, he could hardly show such contempt for multiculturalism. ‘God,’ a student tells him in Berkeley, ‘it must be cool to be related to the Aztecs.’ In a witty anecdote from his first essay, ‘India,’ Rodriguez describes how a Pakistani journalist visiting San Francisco asks where he can find a store selling authentic Indian artefacts. Rodriguez does not know. ‘Two Indians staring at one another. One asks where are all the Indians, the other shrugs.’ We sense here something of a Californian V. S. Naipaul.

But Rodriguez is more than an iconoclast: he has something positive to say. In an essay called ‘The Missions’ he describes the chain of churches built by the proselytizing Franciscans coming north from Mexico to convert the naked pagans of California, now meticulously restored by the preservation societies who conserve but fail to understand the significance of the past: ‘the triumph of history over memory.’

Now, he suggests, the new pagans are ripe for reconversion:

Do you know what Latin Americans are saying about you? About us? They say the United States is such a sad place. So much tragedy!

With some courage, Rodriguez insists that salvation can only come from the old faith of those who built the missions.

California does not look to Rome for justification. California is the Vatican's adversary in a competition for the imagination of the world.

To some it will seem odd that a self-proclaimed homosexual should promote a religion that still insists that homosexual acts are a grave sin: but that, to Rodriguez, is the genius of Catholicism:

The Catholic Church assumes it is the nature of men and women to fail. You can be a sinner and remain a Catholic. You must consider yourself a sinner to remain a good Catholic … Everyone knows that Catholics run better restaurants than Protestants. Life is hard. Flesh is weak. Consolation is in order. Lapses are allowed for … At its best, Catholicism is all-forgiving.

He even defends the Church's treatment of Galileo, his provocative audacity reminiscent of that other unorthodox sage, Ivan Ilych, a German Mexican, I think, rather than a Mexican American.

Rodriguez's chief fear—one I would share—is that the Catholic Church in America is losing the battle, is itself becoming corrupted by the American ideal. ‘The central mystery of Roman Catholicism,’ he reminds us, ‘is the mystery of the incarnation. God became man. The word took on flesh.’ Now he sees the church ‘stumble over a Protestant issue like multiculturalism.’ When a group of priests (‘only one wears a Roman collar’) ask him whether mass should be said in English or Spanish, he suggests Latin. The priests groan. Rodriguez feels himself to be the only Catholic in the room. He tells the priests turned social engineers:

You are using the poor to distract you from your failing enterprise. I'm beginning to suspect that you speak Spanish because in English you no longer believe. …

Bill Shuter (essay date spring 1995)

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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 characterization. Rodriguez can hardly be described as an “ethnic writer” in any usual sense of the phrase. His sense of his own ethnic identity is, as he repeatedly acknowledges, too conflicted, too uncertain. In fact, he is probably best known as a skeptic of much that has been undertaken in the name of preserving ethnic identity. It was as a minority student in graduate school that he first attracted public notice with several articles formulating his reservations about the cost of affirmative action programs to those who benefit from them as well as to those who do not, and his subsequent essays and his two books, Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation, contain grim assessments of bilingual education and of the possibility of a multiethnic culture. Briefly put, his position is that an authentic ethnic identity cannot survive, and should not be expected to survive, either a public education or the acquisition of a public self.

But Rodriguez is neither an ideological nor even a particularly rigorous critic of the commitment to ethnic diversity shared by so many intellectuals and academics. He is both something less and something more. Something less, because his own ethnic characterizations are, if taken literally, often as suspect in their own way as those he questions:

The endurance of Mexico may be attributed to the realm of tú, wherein the family, the village, is held in immutable suspension; whereby the city—the government—is held in contempt … Mexicans are notorious in the United States for their skepticism regarding public life. Mexicans don't vote. Mexicans drop out of school.

(Days, 60–61)

Mexicans are always late or, refusing to be circumscribed by time, they resort to mañana.Mañana is the Mexican's gloss on the light of day. Mañana, by definition, will never come. Mañana intends to undo all the adages of the English language. Waste not, want not. Don't put off till tomorrow. A stitch in time.

(Days, 87–88)

One has learned to be cautious in speaking of these matters, but it seems safe to suppose that a more prosaic writer like Arturo Madrid would read such metaphorical probings of the Mexican psyche as at bottom no more than “stereotypes.” The Yuppies Rodriguez observes in San Francisco he describes as “gay camp followers” who have rejected the Northern European ethic “in favor of the Mediterranean, the Latin, the Catholic, the Castro, the Gay” (Days, 37). It is largely with the force of metaphor that Rodriguez arrests and retains the attention of his readers, but I have quoted enough to suggest how it is that what constitutes his characteristic strength as an imaginative writer would constitute his principal limitation if he were mistaken for a social critic. None of the ethnic figures in his narrative, not even Mamá and Papá, can entirely escape being subsumed on occasion into metaphor. At times one is compelled to entertain the supposition that the alienated ethnicity of Rodriguez himself is a trope. Of what, it is not easy to say.

Something less, then, than a critic of multiculturalism, Rodriguez is, in another sense, something more. That sense is harder to specify however, because what Rodriguez is not is always more apparent than what he is. We so regularly encounter his views on current issues in Harper's and The New Republic as well as on public television that it is tempting to suppose the present state of our critical discourse offers us the terms we need to characterize him. In fact, however, he is more accurately characterized by an analogy from the remote past. Richard Rodriguez is certainly no Saint Augustine, but he is admittedly his disciple, and there is something to be learned from tracing the analogies between the two men, since even the points at which analogy fails are instructive.

The confessional mode of Hunger of Memory is only the most apparent point of resemblance. Like Augustine, Rodriguez was born an ethnikos and shaped by his education in the language of public life into a homo urbanus, the movement from cultural periphery to cultural center taking the form of a movement from south to north. Like the unregenerate Augustine, Rodriguez was ambitious. For status: “With money. Among people with money. And at leisure—a weekend guest in Connecticut; at a cocktail party in Bel Air” (Hunger, 3). “I tempt vulgarity to be reassured. I am filled with the gaudy delight, the monstrous grace of the nouveau riche” (Hunger, 137); but even more for a public voice, for his “own public identity” (Hunger, 25). And also vain: the reader recalls him studying his mirrored image on occasions opportune and inopportune. And, of course, proud: addressing a group of Catholic priests on multiculturalism: “I feel myself the only Catholic in this room” (Days, 196); and moving to San Francisco in 1979 (“To Carthage I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves.” [Confessions, 36]) he “found the company of men who pursued an earthly paradise charming. Skepticism became my demeanor toward them—I was the dinner-party skeptic …” (Days, 41–42).

In retrospect these sins are always before him. His narrative mocks the desire for a public identity that impels it. At a party he is asked, “Have you ever thought of doing any high-fashion modeling? Take this card” (Hunger, 3). At a gallery opening he is mistaken for a tennis player from Bombay. His reflected image is often ludicrous or grotesque. A mirror in a Beverly Hills shop catches him uncertainly assessing the effect of orange shirt, black-and-white checked coat, and straw hat:

At that moment, the door opened and Cesar Romero walked into the mirror.

“Great-looking coat,” he said, tapping my shoulder lightly as he passed.

(Days, 157)

Inspecting his pumped body in the mirror of a San Francisco gym, he acknowledges: “From homosexual to autosexual … to nonsexual. The effect of the overdeveloped body is the miniaturization of the sexual organs—of no function beyond wit” (Days, 39). Pride, overreaching itself, totters and is abased:

I feel myself the only Catholic in this room.

No, that's not true. I understand these men well enough. I am their creation and they are mine. I still go to mass each Sunday. I go to a half-empty church. I go early—a “quiet mass,” a low mass, a cold mass—so as not to dispel the illusion that the fat, full life of the Church is going on elsewhere. …

(Days, 196)

Attending a commemoration service in a Castro district church during which volunteers from an AIDS Support Group are asked to step forward, he watches an “old monkey,” a “wizened butterfly,” a “powdered old pouf,” leave his pew and stride “into the sanctuary to take his place in the company of the Blessed … while I, barren skeptic, reader of St. Augustine, curator of the earthly paradise, inheritor of the empty mirror, I shift my tailbone upon the cold, hard pew” (Days, 46–47).

Original Sin. My childhood catechism—which was also that of Rodriguez—defined it with memorable succinctness: “Our nature was corrupted by the sin of our first parents, which darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.” A traditional Christian doctrine, Original Sin was given its orthodox formulation by Augustine, for whom, however, it was as much a matter of psychological insight as of theological necessity. It distilled the sad wisdom he had acquired from his observation of the perversity of the human will and of humanity's blindness to the hollowness of all human aspiration and to the failure inherent in all human endeavor. Rodriguez memorized the Baltimore Catechism as a boy and read St. Augustine as a young man, but in his case it seems that the sense of Original Sin, like the sin itself, was inherited:

My father remains Mexican in California. My father lives under the doctrine, under the very tree of Original Sin. Much in life is failure or compromise; like father, like son.

(Days, 219)

Rodriguez has had frequent occasion to recall his father's skepticism: Californians “driven to despair by the relentless optimism of their state” (Days, xvii); educators seduced by the “foolish and certainly doomed” supposition that the “ghetto child can retain his separateness even while being publicly educated,” that “there is no private cost to be paid for public success” (Hunger, 34–35). And yet by subtitling his second book “An Argument with My Mexican Father,” Rodriguez signals his conviction that Original Sin is not the whole of moral wisdom. “I do not believe an old man's pessimism is necessarily truer than a young man's optimism simply because it comes after” (Days, 27). In the “debate between comedy and tragedy,” the “best resolution … is irresolution” (Days, xviii). (A more uncompromising skepticism will, of course, question even this “resolution,” for while the habitually irresolute may indeed secure themselves from disillusion, can they be said ever to have known either the “sappy wisdom” of spring (Days, 27) or the darker wisdom of age?)

Nor was Original Sin the whole of moral wisdom for Augustine. To seek the origin of sin is to suppose there was a time when sin was not. “Whence is evil” in a world created by a supremely good God (Confessions, 128)? The question long perplexed Augustine as he struggled with his own inclination to Manichaeism. That in some sense evil does not exist he came only gradually to recognize: “whatsoever is, is good” (134). “And I enquired what iniquity was, and found it to be no substance, but the perversion of the will turned aside from Thee, O God” (137). Augustine's inquiry, the substance of his Confessions, was a self-inquiry, an incessant probing of the obscurer regions of his inner life. Under his relentless introspection whatever seemed stable in the soul—desire, memory, will—proved to be divided, contradictory, alienated from itself. His characteristic grammatical mood is therefore either interrogative or precatory—a chain of unanswerable because paradoxical questions concluding in prayer.

Nowhere is Rodriguez more the disciple of Augustine than in his protracted introspection into the insoluble paradoxes of conflicted and alienated selfhood. Of course, his confessions of alienated selfhood can no longer be conducted in the language of Augustine. The categories in which the soul of the late twentieth century seeks to know itself are, ostensibly at least, more ethnic than Platonic. But the quarry is no less elusive. (“There is no rest, where you seek it. Seek what you seek, but it is not there where you seek.”) For to seek one's ethnic identity is already to have lost it. There is, therefore, no such thing as “minority literature.” Alex Haley's Roots “tells us more about his difference from his illiterate tribal ancestors than it does about his link to them.” “Any novel or play about the lower class will necessarily be alien to the culture it portrays.” “The child who learns to read about his nonliterate ancestors necessarily separates himself from their way of life” (Hunger, 161).

“I felt that I had somehow committed a sin of betrayal by learning English. This original sin against my family told whenever anyone addressed me in Spanish and I responded, confounded” (Hunger, 30). Rodriguez has subtitled his first book “The Education of Richard Rodriguez,” but it might as well have been titled “The Confessions of Richard Rodriguez” because as he recounts it, the history of his education is the history of youthful transgression. His original sin was a sin against intimacy, a violation of the enclosed warmth of family life, of that private place to which, without reflection, one knew that one belonged. And the violation was an act of linguistic self-consciousness. He remembers the distress and apprehension with which he heard his father—confident and authoritative when speaking Spanish—struggle to make himself understood to a teenage gas station attendant. His sense of distance from his family only increased when his parents, following the advice of his teachers, undertook to speak English rather than Spanish at home. It was then he resolved to master “classroom English,” becoming a conscientious and successful student (Hunger, 22). Only much later could he confess his guilty secret: his alienation from his early family life was not merely the price of his success but the actual cause of it. (Our childhood catechism told us that one of the necessary conditions of serious sin was “full consent of the will.”)

And yet, Rodriguez insists, there was a kind of paradoxical necessity in his betrayal of early intimacy because without it (O felix culpa) the child would never have become a man. One might therefore suppose that the education that separated him from his family afforded him a sense of selfhood, of individuality. This is not, however, the way he remembers the value of his education. For a student like himself, “the best synonym for primary ‘education’ is ‘imitation’” (Hunger, 67). The admiration he once felt for his parents was transferred to his teachers:

The very first facts they dispensed, I grasped with awe. Any book they told me to read, I read—then waited for them to tell me which books I enjoyed. Their every casual opinion I came to adopt and to trumpet when I returned home.

(Hunger, 49)

Such habits persisted. As a graduate student of English literature he derived his opinions from “Frye or Empson or Leavis” or repeated the observations of his professor. He seemed “to have no thoughts of his own” (Hunger, 66). When he attempted to write up his notes for his dissertation on Renaissance literature he could produce only “sentences that were overly cautious, timid, strained brittle under the heavy weight of footnotes and qualifications. I seemed unable to dare a passionate statement” (Hunger, 71). He began to yearn nostalgically for that ethnic garden from which he had banished himself by his education. But what he could not return to he could remember. No longer at home either in the garden or in school, he at last found his own voice—that singular and somber voice we hear in Hunger of Memory.

Although the paradoxes of ethnic identity are never far from the surface of Rodriguez's writing, they are hardly the only paradoxes the reader finds there. Rodriguez's confessions of divided selfhood often uncover fissures too deep for a purely ethnic geology to chart. His Catholic identity above all must be distinguished from his ethnic identity. Early in his parochial school education he learned that others shared the faith of his parents (the nuns, in fact, made him something of an Irish Catholic), that Catholicism was the religion of his school as well as of his home, that “Catholic” named his public as well as his private identity. Rodriguez still calls himself a Catholic (a practicing Catholic, a “loyal son of the church”) in a sense in which he does not call himself a member of an ethnic minority, but he is no longer certain what his profession means. He, like the church to which he belongs, has changed. Both have lost faith in “communal Catholicism” (Hunger, 106). Whereas Catholics once defined their world by their Catholicism—those who were not Catholics were “non-Catholics”—to be a Catholic today is to be “defined by a non-Catholic world” (Hunger, 80). The problem of an American-Catholic identity is, I have been told, one that troubles even the American bishops. In what sense can an American be a Catholic, or a Catholic an American? Catholics are by tradition the most “communal of Christians” (Days, 176); Americans, however, profess individuality, choice, social mobility, pluralism, egalitarianism, self-reliance. Having embraced these values himself, Rodriguez recognizes that he has become “like a Protestant Christian” (Hunger, 110).

The Catholicism of his youth was a quite different matter. (What other Catholics old enough to remember recall with amused indulgence as immature enthusiasms, Rodriguez describes with unembarrassed longing, with something like desire.) There was a time when Catholicism shaped his whole day, his whole year. Morning and bedtime had their proper prayers. Prayers divided the segments of his school day. Altar cloths and vestments changed color with the liturgical seasons. On the Catholic calendar in his bedroom (as opposed to the secular calendar in the kitchen), “every day was something” (Hunger, 93). Living in Catholic time, one knew who one was and sensed one's difference from those for whom Ash Wednesday, All Saints Day, and Good Friday were days like any other. Nothing confirmed the Catholic sense of identity more than the Mass. Nowhere else were his parents treated with the respect their inherent dignity deserved. “Only the liturgy has encouraged them to dwell on the meaning of their lives. To think” (Hunger, 91). The Latin Mass encouraged private prayer, but one knew that the Mass was also the great public prayer of the church, celebrated in Latin to signify that the church was universal and timeless.

At the time of Vatican II Rodriguez was a student at Stanford. A liberal Catholic, he favored the Council's efforts to bring the church into a closer relation with the modern world. But the reformation of the liturgy he consistently deplored. His reflections on the revised liturgy are mordant but just and confirm the theological principle lex orandi,lex credendi (how we pray is a reflection of what we believe). The bishops would do well to ponder them. The vernacular liturgy divides Catholics. A multiethnic parish that offers one mass in English and another in Spanish is really two parishes. (He proposes restoring Latin.) At the Kiss of Peace, an action meant to symbolize fellowship, Catholics “shake hands like figures on a music box,” and Rodriguez feels “isolated sitting in half-empty churches among people I am suddenly aware of not knowing” (Hunger, 101). He entertains the shrewd surmise that the pressure to “de-Europeanize” the Roman Church came not so much from Third World Catholics as from middle-class Catholics in North America and Western Europe, inhabitants of the “secular city” (Hunger, 107). The initial word of the Creed—once Credo, “I believe”—has been changed to “We believe” in an effort to assure Catholics they are not alone or solitary in their faith. “This assurance is necessary because, in a sense, it no longer is true” (Hunger, 106).

Rodriguez still attends mass, regretting the loss of his childhood faith, marveling that he once “so easily prayed with others—not simply alone” (Hunger, 100). A “citizen of the secular city,” he no longer shares his daily life with members of what we used to call the “Household of the Faith.” “By choice I do not confine myself to Catholic society. Most of my friends and nearly all of my intimates are non-Catholics” (Hunger, 107–8). As an older Catholic I too often go to early mass, a “quiet” mass, a “cold” mass, nostalgically remembering the old rite (I once gave a videotape of the Latin mass to my parish church—for the archives, as it were). Like Rodriguez, I am unmarried, but sometimes I attend a later mass and am reminded that what makes it a “noisy” mass, a “warm” mass is that it is a family mass. In one respect at least the church has not changed. It still insists on the sanctity of the family and on the obligation of parents to transmit their faith to their children. Still, something has been lost. The church Rodriguez and I remember so affectionately knew better how to comfort those who are alone. The daily mass at dawn (attended mainly by a handful of older women in black) the devotions, novenas, and benedictions seem in retrospect like so many consolations reserved by a compassionate church for the widowed, the unmarried, and the childless.

What is the genre of Hunger of Memory? Rodriguez, whose doctoral dissertation dealt with literary genres in the Renaissance, has addressed this question and has offered more than one answer (Hunger, 71). At one point, he describes his book as a “middle-class pastoral,” in the sense that it exhibits the ambivalent self-consciousness of a middle-class writer reflecting on the lower class (Hunger, 6). But the title page advises bibliographers, librarians, bookstore clerks, and the Library of Congress that Hunger of Memory is to be classified as “an autobiography,” a designation he later qualifies as “essays impersonating an autobiography” (Hunger, 7). Both descriptions are accurate. I would only add that, as I suppose Rodriguez is aware, the first autobiography of the inner life was written by Augustine and that in its literal sense, the word “essay” designates a tentative, often inconclusive effort. Taken in this sense, it aptly describes the mode in which Rodriguez, like Augustine, undertakes his exercise in self-knowledge.

Like Augustine, Rodriguez must answer the question, To whom does a man address his spiritual autobiography, his “confessions”? Augustine of course addressed his confessions immediately to God (“Let me know Thee, O Lord who knowest me; let me know Thee, as I am known,” 196) and indirectly to his “fellow-citizens” or “fellow-pilgrims,” “sharers of my joy, and partners in my mortality” (199). Rodriguez writes, can write only, to a reader who does not know him, someone “with a face erased,” a “gray presence. Unknown, unfamiliar … All that I know about him is that he has had a long education and that his society, like mine, is often public (un gringo)” (Hunger, 182). Those who do know him will not recognize the divided self to which he confesses in his public voice. A close friend, a woman “who knows who I am,” mocks the somber voice of his autobiographical essays, “‘All that Spanish angst,’ she laughs, ‘It's not really you.’” “From such an intimate one must sometimes escape to the company of strangers, to the liberation of the city, in order to form new versions of oneself” (Hunger, 190).

What he writes will also be incomprehensible to his parents, in more than one sense. The distinction between public and private life, between one's public and one's private self, is, for his parents, perfectly clear and never to be compromised. When she read one of his earlier autobiographical essays his mother wrote him in protest (Like Augustine, Rodriguez has an insistently prayerful mother, although her prayers, unlike Monica's, have remained unanswered.):

“You say too much about the family … Why do you have to do that? Writing is one thing, the family is another. … Especially I don't want the gringos knowing about our private affairs. Why should they? Please give this some thought. Please write about something else in the future. Do me this favor.”

(Hunger, 178)

To Rodriguez, however, the distinction is less clear because it is more paradoxical. He shares his parents' contempt for all public displays of intimacy, but he insists that there is a place in public life for the “deeply personal.” Indeed, the most “deeply personal” things can be “revealed only to strangers.” “There are things too personal to be shared with intimates” (Hunger, 185). What is remarkable in such passages is not Rodriguez's suppression of the distinction between the public and the private—many writers would acknowledge its necessity—but the erection of a new distinction between the personal and the intimate. A public expression may well be more personal than private, but in what sense are we to understand an intimacy from which what is “deeply personal” has been withheld?

In fact, the Latin voice of Augustine discloses more and withholds less than the gringo voice of Rodriguez, which is never, like Augustine's, the voice of a convulsed heart. Here is Augustine after the death of a youthful friend:

I wondered that others, subject to death, did live, since he whom I loved, as if he should never die, was dead; and I wondered yet more that myself, who was to him a second self, could live, he being dead.


This is Rodriguez at the bedside of a dying friend:

César said everyone else he knew might get AIDS and die. He said I would be the only one spared—“spared” was supposed to have been chased with irony, I knew, but his voice was too weak to do the job. “You are too circumspect,” he said then, wagging his finger upon the coverlet.

(Days, 42–43)

César's was a sin of vanity, a belief in the possibility of an earthly paradise, but the “greater sin” was, Rodriguez confesses, “my unwillingness to embrace life” (Days, 43). It is his original sin in another form. To write, to address his gringo reader, to assume his public identity, he must disconnect his phone and avoid “complex relationships” with “troublesome” lovers or “troubled” friends (Hunger, 176).

Although Rodriguez does not, like Augustine, confess to actual sins of the flesh (“Give me chastity and continency, only not yet,” 158.), his confessions are hardly devoid of erotic sensibility. They are, in fact, suffused with it. The erotic feeling, however, is elusive, unfixed, refracted. He is hardly the only Catholic to observe that the ritual of the church “excited more sexual wonderment than it repressed” (Hunger, 84). (One recalls the sensual, perverse, or blasphemous reveries not only of Camille Paglia but of Baudelaire and even of Augustine: “I dared even, while thy solemnities were celebrated within the walls of Thy church to desire [concupiscere], and to compass business deserving death for its fruits” [39].) More characteristic is his allusion to the Catholic part of himself as “ancient, cynical, feminine,” or his sense of Protestantism as male and of Catholics as children. Or his “first conscious experience of sexual excitement” observing the frankly physical admiration with which his mother regarded his father diving into a public swimming pool (Hunger, 123). Or the adolescent grown divorced from his body now in his thirties admiring the “torso, the soccer player's calves and thighs, the arms of the twenty-year-old I never was” (Hunger, 136). Or the young man's attraction to the physicality of Mexican gardeners: “I tried to deny it by looking away. But what was denied became strongly desired” (Hunger, 126).

The divided self to which Rodriguez confesses is fissured sexually as well as ethnically. He can no more serve as the spokesman of a sexual minority than as the spokesman of an ethnic minority. A reporter's unhappy description of him as a “gay man from a macho culture” dissipates his alienation in an attempt to name it. His own response to the question “Are you gay?” was more truthful than evasive: “No, I'm morose” (Yaco, 2). The singular and somber voice of Richard Rodriguez is unforgettable because it is unclassifiable. Although it resembles Augustine's in a number of ways, it lacks Augustine's emotional and psychological range. Nor has Rodriguez made his confession, as Augustine made his, in the hope of edifying his readers. In the final analysis, he has no program to offer them. There are moments, however, when, like Augustine, he seems to ask for their prayers. To a priest who asks for his “agenda,” he replies, “I have no agenda, Father … I have no prescription, I have no intention. I am lonely” (Days, 197).


Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Edward P. Pusey. New York: Modern Library, 1949.

Grossman, Ron. “Richard Rodriguez.” Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1993, sec. 5:1–2.

“Richard Rodriguez.” Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas II. Ed. Andie Tucker. New York: Doubleday, 1990, 82–90.

Rodriguez, Richard. “An Education in Language.” The State of the Language, Ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980, 129–39.

———. Days of Obligation New York: Viking, 1992.

———. “Going Home Again.” The American Scholar 44 (1974–75): 15–28.

———. Hunger of Memory, 1982. New York: Bantam, 1983.

———. “Leo Carillo as Andy Hardy.” The Columbia Forum 2 (1973): 35–40.

Teller, Mary E. “Rodriguez, Richard.” Contemporary Authors. Ed. Hay May. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 429–30.

Yaco, Link. “Godfather of Latin Punk Addresses Cultural Identity.” Ann Arbor News November 28, 1993, F1–F2.

Norma Alarcón (essay date 1995)

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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 the elements in the formation of raced ethnic groups in the context of the Americas. It increasingly appears as well that in the Euro-American terrain the formation of a proletarian class consciousness has become more of a step on the way to the formation of an unstable bourgeois liberal subject, given the hegemony of the ideology, than to becoming the “subject of history.” Consequently, the contemporary entwinement of modernism (in the guise of aesthetics, positivism, enlightenment capitalist liberalism, and their conditioned Marxist contestations) and postmodernism (marking the refractedness and sinister side of the enlightenment project of progressive rationality, the multiplicity of life-world group formations, and the crisis of the male-biased liberal, political subject) gives rise to complex questions with respect to the cartography of culture and politics pertinent to the so-called ethnic canon, especially in its currently subordinated position to the nation and its canon (Harvey 1989; Jameson 1991; Laclau and Zac 1994). Thus, the primary questions before us are, What is an American? What is America? What are the Americas?

It is not enough to assume ethnic identity in the context of the nation. One must pursue the conditions of its production and constitution and the structural and rhetorical forms engaged in the process. The extent to which ethnicity (raced or not) and gender can or cannot be refused is also of paramount importance given the constitutive contradictions to which the speaking/writing subject is subjected with respect to questions of identity-in-difference (Trinh 1989; Anzaldúa 1987; Spivak 1988). For the “aesthete” like Richard Rodríguez, contradictions emerging from sociopolitical inequalities and spheres of institutional power may be turned into biting, (un)witty, and playful ironies as he insists in the too absolutist separations of the public and the private in classical liberal terms. The boundaries and traffic between the aesthetic and the political are a debatable nexus of analysis and discourse through the structures produced.1

Perhaps no other U.S. writer of Mexican descent has simultaneously embraced and undermined the political subject of bourgeois classical liberalism as has Richard Rodríguez. Indeed, Rodríguez's salient critical apparatus entails the deployment of the extremely dichotomized political categories of the private and the public, such that the private pertains to culture and experience, and the public to the (unquestioned) institutional or public political sphere of the nation-state. It is clear that his anti-affirmative action and antibilingual education positions assume a bourgeois classical liberal understanding of the public sphere. In the words of Nancy Fraser, such understanding of the public sphere assumes “that it is possible for interlocutors in a public sphere to bracket status differentials and to deliberate ‘as if’ they were social equals … and that a single, comprehensive public sphere is always preferable to a nexus of multiple publics” (Fraser 1994, 80). The call for “as if” they were social equals requires the construction of a “public persona” with a greater or lesser degree of dissonance with the “private” one. Under these conditions, the demand for group representation as people of Mexican descent (that is, as an ethnicized group) in the public sphere makes no sense, must be subsumed under the private and thereby rendered irrelevant—along with non-English languages—to the public sphere. English becomes, then, the common denominating language of the public sphere and all differences may be erased. The mandate, under these conditions, is for the formation of bourgeois classical liberal political subjects devoid of difference, devoid of (produced or constructed) “ethnic” trappings, indeed of gender and sexuality. In the liberal political context of Euro-America, then, it is no accident that the most sustained critique and challenge of the domains of the private and the public continue to emerge from feminist theorists, since it is what counts as private and/or public that becomes a salient issue in contemporary politics and demands for radical democracy (Pateman 1989; Fraser 1994; Eisenstein 1994).2

In a sense, then, Rodríguez's deployment of these political categories in his work is part of a noncritically acquired education that in effect leads him to the (unsustainable) refusal of ethnicity, except as a private phenomenon that is then opposed to his construction of a public persona. Notwithstanding the historical naïveté of his political positions—which make him a popular public speaker in neoconservative spheres—it is the structural and rhetorical traffic between experienced culture and politics, which he cannot neatly sever into the private and the public, that undermines the political public persona to which, in his view, we should all aspire.

Rereading Hunger of Memory and other of his works from the hierarchical structure and discourse generated through the pivotal scene in the section “Complexion” enables us to track the double binds, which are often played for ironic effects, and the political economy's constitutive contradictions, which become inescapable for people of Mexican descent in the United States on the one hand, and for the (im)migrant's location on the other. A simultaneous reading of the constitutive contradictions of (im)migrants from the point of view of a Mexican location requires a reading of the displacement of campesinos/Indians from the economy and their exclusion from forming a public persona under Mexican conditions. In effect, the Chiapas neo-Zapatista movement is a recent dramatic example, in Mexico, of the political economy's productive processes and the displaced people's claims to citizenship in the Mexican nation-making history (Burbach 1994).

The section titled “Complexion” in Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory may be said to be structured by the mediating category of (im)migration. This analytical maneuver enables the displacement of a reading of the work as “merely” that of an emblematic passage into a self-making, self-determining Anglo-American political liberal subject and brings into relief the salient constitutive contradictions that (im)migrants of Mexican descent undergo as they cross and recross the geopolitical border Mexico-United States (Rouse 1991). Moreover, it offers the possibility of reading Rodríguez's “ironic” mapping since his clear intentions are often enunciated by marking his privileged difference from (im)migrants, whom he wittily calls los pobres. (The only other Spanish term used is los gringos.) He points to his entry into the public sphere as a citizen-subject who “could act as a public person—able to defend my interests, to unionize, to petition, to speak up—to challenge and demand” (138). On the other hand, Rodríguez situates the (im)migrant as silent: “Their silence is more telling, they lack a public identity. They remain profoundly alien. Persons apart. People lacking a union obviously, people without grounds” (138). As (im)migrants subject to the waged-work realm of private capital and cultural spaces, Rodríguez underlines their lack of a “public identity” through which to defend their “rights” as workers. If they have a “public persona” at all it is as collectivized (im)migrants, displacing the possibility of individualized “rights” claims, thus highlighting the liberal justice system's vexed question of the rights of individuals versus the rights of (raced, gendered, and ethnicized) groups, as groups, a tension that is deeply implicated in the formation of the nation. As if proximity to (im)migrants bespoke a contagious disease, Rodríguez claims his “rights” as citizen-subject, reconfirming liberal ideology, and declares, “I would not shorten the distance I felt from los pobres with a few weeks of physical labor. I will not become like them. They were different from me” (135–36).

By marking the economic difference in Spanish-language terms, the (im)migrants are not just any (im)migrants but Mexican ones (or Latino ones), making as much the point that citizenship is as dependent on economic well-being as on speaking English. As a result, through the substitution of los pobres for (im)migrants, Rodríguez undermines the liberal “as if” proposition of social equality; that is, economic inequality becomes a sociopolitical one as well. By reversing the substitution of the ideological romanticization of the U.S. formation, (im)migration narrative is put on trial as it is revealed that (im)migrants are impoverished people with virtually no rights. In this scenario, los pobres as (im)migrants are constituted as the other of the bourgeois classical liberal political subject. Thus the political economy's constitution of this grouping (i.e., immigrants) is rejected for the pleasures of the hyperindividualized citizen-subject. On the one hand, it is precisely the tension between groupings (via the processes of the political economy) and individuals that historically overdetermined minoritized subjects put in evidence; on the other hand, Rodríguez's “refusal” to recognize this tension leads him to forget his (im)migrant status via the father, which, interestingly enough for us as readers, produces the unintended “irony” that undermines his claimed grounds. Moreover, the very “Complexion” that produces the relationality to the (im)migrants (discussed shortly) and undermines his separationist politics may well have the effect of turning him into an alien in Governor Pete Wilson's California. The separatist's politics are double and simultaneous (1) from (im)migrants, (2) between the private and the public, such that (im)migrants become part of the private sphere and silenced. (See note 2.)

Yet Rodríguez's marking of his difference works not only in the direction of the (im)migrant worker but also in the direction of the “authentic” (i.e., Anglo-American) nonalien, without much grasp of the production of an alie(n)ation insofar as the (im)migrant has no “grounds” for a “public persona.” The autobiographical impulse moves toward dis-alie(n)ation through the desire not to be ethnicized as “Chicano” or “Mexican American” but rather one who is an “American,” as Rodríguez claims in his essay “An American Writer.” Terms such as Mexican American often function in his work as “merely” sociological categories unrelated to the practice of aesthetic writing—which again is a hyperindividualized project in Rodríguez—and bound to compete as aesthetic object in the aesthetic sphere of debate.

Euro-American liberal “rhetoric, in its Americanizing power to interpolate selfhood along consensual lines of upward mobility, social regeneration, and affirmative self-making,” has often been the critical reading par excellence of autobiography (Wilson, 118). Given the fact that such is the salient self-identity narrative in Hunger of Memory, the work implicitly falls in line with the “Americanist discourse, which no matter how critical it gets of existing society, only is granted professional legitimacy and social currency if it can evoke an affirmative relation to ‘America’ as the process of national self-affirmation and international self-assertion” (ibid., 124). This form of critical reading becomes the corresponding partner to notions of the public and the private in liberal political discourse, which calls for the homogeneous making of the citizen-subject. Rodríguez follows the ideology of what Wilson refers to as “the master-narrative of Americanization” (ibid., 109), through the mediating categories of the public and the private, thus promoting the (hyper) individuation of liberal political philosophy, which has often found its ideal discursive genre in autobiography on the one hand, and capitalist formation on the other (Sprinker 1980).

Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, Rodríguez is aware of his undeniable, metonymically articulated relation to the (im)migrant via racialization and language. Through this evident relation, “White America” would want him to “claim unbroken ties with [the] past” (Hunger of Memory, 5). What he would relegate to the past is constantly present in the figure of the dark-complected (im)migrant. A “clean” break with the past becomes impossible in a nation whose very formation has been constituted through racializations. Thus, he is actually trapped in-between the “past” that is not past and the “future” that is not present. Desire, which is ever the future, is “misrecognized” by Rodríguez in the salient ideology of “Americanization.” It has been the “misrecognition” of choice for many (prima facie male) (im)migrants. Rodríguez, however, does not consciously seize the historical entrapment, which is the one that often pertains to minoritized intellectuals in the United States.

Wit, with its concomitant use of inversions, irony, sarcasm, parody, and contradiction, is even more salient in Rodríguez's more recent work. Having learned the difference in socioeconomic class from the British, who until recently believed themselves a pale island, he has also learned the racist difference in Anglo-America, but he is too polite to say so. Mexico, whose “melting-pot” ideology has called for miscegenation, becomes, in his wit-producing grammar, an assimilationist country, while the United States, with its myth of assimilationism, becomes the country of criminalized miscegenation. He does not have to use an imaginary past—which in any case he cannot remember—as a shield because he carries it on his face—“Look at this Indian face!” (“An American Writer,” 10). Indeed, he is not supposed to remember, since just about the time of the Anglo-America of Manifest Destiny Mexicans began to make much of their mestizaje, or what Rodríguez calls their assimilationist policy. Thus, if the Anglo-American nation-state formation is murderously manifested, the Mexican one is forcefully miscegenated and vice versa. One can very well ask what might be Rodríguez's aim through this baroque wit, characterized in literature by complexity of form and bizarre, ingenious, and often ambiguous imagery; characterized as well by grotesqueness, extravagance, or flamboyance.

The cover of the November 1991 issue of Harper's promotes Richard Rodríguez's essay “Mexico's Children” (subsequently collected in Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father), as “The end of cultural and racial purity: Mixed Blood—a celebration of our mestizo world.” Between covers, Rodríguez proclaims: “I have come at last to Mexico, the country of my parents' birth. I do not expect to find anything that pertains to me” (51). (A Mexican national anonymous reader said he did not read much that pertained to him; in fact, the essay seemed to him a form of “Chicano” writing!) Rodríguez, however, concludes his tourism by remarking that “the Indian stands in the same relation to modernity as she [sic] did to Spain: Willing to marry, to breed, to disappear in order to ensure her inclusion in time; refusing to absent herself from the future. … I take it as an Indian achievement that I am alive, that I am Catholic, that I speak English, that I am an American” (56). Indian, Catholic, English, American are four trope-producing terms that Rodríguez employs for the concatenation of his cultural and political persona. To round out the visit to Mexico, he states: “Mexico City: Europe's lie. … Each looks like mine. … where, then, is the famous conquistador? We have eaten him … we have eaten him with our eyes. I run to the mirror to see if this is true. It is true” (56). (Rodríguez plays here with a Mexican idiom applied to those that look too directly at another: “Comérselo con los ojos.”) These observations bind two transformative effects—masculine into feminine and conquistador into Indian, respectively—turning through the consuming eyes.

In this later work, where he works tropes through the Indian face, Rodríguez contradicts an earlier position. In “Late Victorians,” for example, he had elected—“barren skeptic” that he is—to be a “reader of St. Augustine, curator of the earthly paradise, inheritor of the empty mirror.” As curator, he administers by and large a rhetorical museum, and the mirror is empty. He has chosen the role of spectator, “shift[ing] my tailbone upon the cold, hard pew” (66). This “American Writer” does not fail to remind us that he too is a professional (ironic) Aztec: “God it must be cool to be related to Aztecs” (“An American Writer,” 10). In the course of everyday transactions the body is textualized by others. He observes to his Anglo-American audience, “I am one of you” (11), as he exclaims, “Look at this Indian face!” (10). He is told by both San Francisco and Berkeley liberals, as well as his grandmother, to maintain his culture, “whatever that means” (10). Americans end up sounding like one another, he observes, and “We do not, however, easily recognize our common identity” (4). But he claims to retain “aspects of culture, the deepest faiths, and moods of my ancestors, an inheritance deeper sometimes than I dare reveal to you, formal you” (11). The theme of secretive, in this instance, privatization continues, and the clue to the put-down of his Anglo-American audience is in that “formal you.” If Americans do not differentiate linguistically between an informal “private” you and a formal “public” you, he begs the privilege to invoke the Hispanic usage, albeit embroiled in the baroque effects of colonization. He distances himself from “you” through linguistic practices that are alien to the “egalitarian” linguistic mask of Anglo-America.

Rodríguez's baroqueness is not book-learned from Indo-Hispanic America but from his orally rooted and disenfranchised father who learned the proper grammatical address, and from the British from whom he learned about manners, socioeconomic class, and the forms appropriate to it—especially those that deploy the wit/conceit of the upper classes or the aristocracy. The implication is that the colonized servants learn “conceit” from the aristocrats or upper classes and subsequently hold up a mirror, albeit rhetorical. In a sense, this accounts for Rodríguez's fondness for the pastoral, the form of impersonation “felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor,” where the elite get to be shepherds for a day and conduct a “courtship between contrasted social classes” (Burke, 123). According to Burke, William Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral, which Rodríguez read, was a “response to a vogue for ‘proletarian’ literature,” and thereby “profoundly concerned with the rhetoric of courtship between contrasted social classes” (ibid.). Thus, it should be no surprise that Rodríguez would use the conceits of the form as the devices to propel his rejection of self-proclaimed Chicano “proles” on the one hand, and the “egalitarian” mask of Anglo-America on the other, through the very fulcrum of middle-class America, the “universal” class and its bourgeois liberal subject.

In many ways, Rodríguez places in question those who are fond of claiming citizenship by saying “I am an American” and think they know what they mean. To this Rodríguez replies implicitly, “so am I”—though most of his book learning has been English/British through education (recently he has added Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes to the list), his socio-economic and political life is (Anglo) American, and his affective life is represented through working-class Mexican Spanish (which he cannot write). If the aristocrats can play at being shepherds, Rodríguez can play at being an aristocrat. He acts the aristocrat and simultaneously courts him. But he can also play at being an American and fly east from California, “against the grain of America, into the dark” (“An American Writer,” 3). Rodríguez's rhetorical impersonations involve what Butler has called a complex “double inversion that says appearance is an illusion” (Butler, 337). In Rodríguez's vocabulary, the outside appearance is Indian/feminine but the “essence” inside the body is aristocratic/masculine. At the same time, it symbolizes the opposite: the appearance outside is aristocratic/masculine but the “essence” inside is Indian/feminine, operating via the tropes produced as a result of “eating through the eyes.” Enacted impersonations place the truth of identity in question while simultaneously producing other possibilities as in the case of “neoethnicity” gambits. For example, a book by Danny Santiago (Famous All over Town), an Anglo whose name was James, won a Casa de las Américas Prize as a Chicano book. More recently, the Cherokee tale The Education of Little Tree was discovered not to have been written by a Cherokee but by Asa (Ace) Carter, a white supremacist who wrote speeches for former Alabama governor George C. Wallace and worked for the Ku Klux Klan.

The complicity between the demand for authenticity and its subsequent commodification, and the ease with which we can pass as “authentic” by learning the “right” things, come with the territory of having “ethnicity” in the Americas today. In a sense it is an additional aspect of its production in advanced capitalist nations. Richard Rodríguez says with Trinh T. Minh-ha “Like you/not you,” the “in-between zones are the shifting grounds on which the (doubly) exiled walk” (Trinh, 70). And to mark this duplicity, Rodríguez translates the style of the drag queen through the rhetorical museum of the Indian. Much, one might say—as Derrida's Nietzsche in Spurs—translates the style of the man through the rhetorical museum of the feminine. In the Trinh T. Minh-ha citations, the exile is double because the Insider is Outsider, the Outsider is Insider, “Outside in Inside Out.” Further in the never-ending play of the rhetorical, Rodríguez reveals his “ethnicity” because he is an American, and he reveals his Americanness because he is an “ethnic.” “I suspect,” he says, “ethnicity is only a public metaphor, like sexuality or age, for a knowledge that bewilders us” (“An American Writer,” 9). But in the United States, for example, those that continue to be “ethnic” (or in Mexico, “Indians”) are those who are unable to miscegenate, that is, they could not actually pass for or impersonate an “Anglo-American.” Manifest Destiny is the move of Anglo-America against the grain: “Undercutting the Inside/Outside opposition, her intervention is necessarily that of both a deceptive insider and a deceptive outsider” (Trinh, 70). In the rhetorical museum of (wo)man, the impersonator is virtually always feminine (ibid., 74). Yet this baroque wit, which we insist on calling “postmodern,” is an inversion of the pastoral for Rodríguez, for we have the “shepherd” playing at the “aristocrat,” or, shall we say the Caliban playing at Prospero: “I have taken Caliban's advice. I have stolen their books. I will have some run of this isle” (Hunger of Memory, 3). Rodríguez's performance of raced ethnicities finds resonance in the Supreme Court's nation-defining statement in the Bakke decision, which claims that “all groups in the United States are a minority, each of which so far as ‘racial and ethnic distinctions’ go is rooted in our Nation's constitutional and demographic history” (Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 1221). According to this vision, the United States is a “nation of minorities,” each of which had to struggle “to overcome prejudices not of a monolithic majority, but of a ‘majority’ composed of various minority groups of whom it was said—perhaps unfairly in many cases—that a shared characteristic was a willingness to disadvantage other groups” (ibid.). Since the civil rights movement puts in crisis the myth of the “melting pot” of nation-making Anglo-America, ethnic raconteurs and “disadvantaging majorities” from all academic disciplines including jurisprudence are all now embroiled in “identity” formation discourses.

Is a bourgeois pastoral subject all a “true” American can have? Rodríguez's fascination with the pastoral is due to the paradigmatic and ideological function that he saw in the form. However, since the form itself is ironically mannered, he is drawn deeper into its wit, very self-conscious of the fact that not all is as is, perhaps a variation on the ser/parecer theme of the Spanish baroque itself. Tomás Rivera observed of Hunger of Memory that Rodríguez's use of the verb to be is one of locatedness, of place, rather than of predication. Rivera gets at this by nothing that in Spanish there are two verbs to signify to be,ser and estar (contrast this with ser/parecer—that is, ser pivots two contrastive verbs). Rivera theorizes that the first reflects interiority and the second exteriority, and that the core of “our” life is the family, the interiority, the intimate—completely the reverse of what Rivera assumes that Rodríguez claims. Rivera sees Rodríguez as claiming that the core of his life is the “public” one because he silences his immediate family, refusing to educate himself on Hispanic culture, his genealogical family as well. I think Rivera is preliminarily on the right track on his observations of the use of to be—as being and as situatedness. It is the play between those possibilities, including ser/parecer, that Rodríguez puts into play through his usage of tropes in the English language. However, Rivera glides too easily from individual interiority to the family to the private and presumes that they correspond in too symmetrical a fashion to ser, leaving estar to designate the “public.” No assessment has been made of Rivera's linguistic claims on Hunger of Memory; at this point this becomes an instance of the traffic between Spanish and English.

For Rodríguez the use of the Spanish language is something to savor. The contrast of Spanish and English is a contrast between gliding and stumbling, mellifluous sliding and screeching. He sentimentalizes the working-class users of Spanish (shepherds?) from the point of view of English usage (aristocrats?). Spanish, for Rodríguez, represents his parents, who betrayed him by insisting that he do as the nuns say and learn English. He does so with a vengeance (as we have come to learn) in order to hurt his parents—and, in a childish way, both to keep the intimacy of what his parents offered and to distance himself from them. Through this emotionally charged relationship, he privatizes Spanish, relegating it to the domestic sphere, and severs it (unsuccessfully) from English, which is relegated to the public sphere. His rage at the break—the discontinuity between home and school, past and present that every Spanish-speaking child experiences in the United States—is displaced toward Chicanos who demand bilingual education. Moreover, he refuses to claim, as Rivera would want him to, a heritage that is not his, playing on the finer point of possession/dispossession—the political displacement and dispossession of his father from Mexico. To claim a heritage is to use it as a shield, yet simultaneously he relegates his (im)migrant father to silence.

Insofar as judicial affirmative action narratives have hitched constitutional consistency and coherence to the privileged rights of the individual who is above “political and social judgments” pertinent to groups, Rodríguez is in complete agreement with the system. According to the Supreme Court, “Nothing in the constitution supports the notion that individuals may be asked to suffer otherwise impermissible burdens in order to enhance the societal standings of their ethnic groups” (Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 1223). It will not be suffered that the individual's worth be tarnished by “stereotypes of groups”; moreover, “innocent individuals should not be forced to bear the burdens of redressing grievances not of their making” (ibid.). The pursuit of self-possessed individuality in Richard Rodríguez takes place according to the Constitution of the United States as coded in the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet he also demonstrates, unwittingly, the limits of the refusal to play the Anglo-American ethnic game. Anglo-America's politics continue to be predicated on acquiring visibility through ethnicity, not race, a factor that makes the justices shutter as it may imply a “two-class theory.” It was the incorporation of race into the Constitution that henceforth made denial impossible, yet that is eroded through the ethnic dance. In my view, the hidden episteme in Rodríguez's pastoral is the rage at our embodied history, for while his wit may pass muster, his face does not. As a result, the face becomes a weapon along with wit. How else can he tell us that his body is as textualized as his speech? Yet he knows what he is about as he asserts, “There are those in America who would anoint me to play out for them some drama of ancestral reconciliation. … But I reject the role” (Hunger of Memory, 4). Who are the ancestors? Who are those?

Richard Rodríguez's “bad faith,” if I may use such an antiquated existential phrase, and even on occasion his egregious politics, lie in the silencing of the disenfranchised—(im)migrant labor. He does so politically by continuing to allow his bioexemplum to serve as the preferred citation of right-wing liberals. In some sense, Rodríguez demonstrates that neoconservative liberal cynicism knows no bounds, as it rhetorically feeds its own trope machine by the selective filtering of the discourses of emancipation. In Hunger of Memory, as George Yúdice has observed, “arguments against affirmative action and bilingual education, because these policies construct a certain minority identity, are a significant indictment of liberal morality (or hypocrisy to be more exact)” (Yúdice, 222). Rodríguez's unsustainable refusal of a minoritized identity blunts the edge of his anger, as he prefers to advance his “public” and “scholarship boy” persona, which has become a carbon copy of the literate dominant even as he admits that such an obedient and imitative persona voids him of critical thinking. He has discovered, however, that totalizing self-construction is elusive.

Caught within the limitations of a self-avowed spectatorship, the demands of participatory democracy, the textualization of the body, and the will to conserve some notion of the “American” way, Rodríguez has been as much silenced by some criticism as he has silenced the Mexican (im)migrant. Displacement and dislocation are at the core of the invention of the Americas. However, it is not the dispossessed (im)migrant laborer or Indian as presence but her absence from the public sphere, as citizen-subject, that continues to drive the nation-making processes. Rodríguez's major unintended question may well be, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (Spivak 1988). To which his answer is no because she lacks a public persona. Yet he would deprive her of the possibility of a public persona by insisting on an identitarian figuration of the public sphere, while simultaneously performing the tropology of differences as aesthetic project closed off from the sociopolitical sphere. Thus, in Rodríguez's writing trajectory, difference is aesthetic and private, identity is political and public and must be subordinated to prevailing hegemonic views of the public sphere. One might well say, from this point of view, that not even the Supreme Court justices agree completely!


  1. It is interesting to note that Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity relegates irony to privatized aesthetic spheres, blocking off questions of its sociopolitical implications. For further comment on Rorty, see also Honi Fern Haber's Beyond Postmodern Politics: Lyotard, Rorty, Foucault. I would question, however, the feasibility of leaping to beyond. In his work Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference, Ramón Saldívar also pursues the too absolute a separation between the private and the public in Rodriguez's work and attendant problems.

  2. The political twists and turns of the private and the public are being played out in California through its Proposition 187, which was passed in the 1994 elections. The Proposition would have schools report undocumented (im)migrant children to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which goes against children's protected educational rights under the Family Educational and Privacy Act. See the San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 1994: A1, A15.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Burbach, Roger. “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas.” New Left Review 205 (1994): 113–24.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory and Psychoanalytic Discourse.” In Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Eisenstein, Zillah R. The Color of Gender: Reimaging Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” In Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies, ed. Henry A. Giroux and Peter McClaren. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

Haber, Honi Fern. Beyond Postmodern Politics: Lyotard, Rorty, Foucault. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Lilian Zac. “Minding the Gap: The Subject of Politics.” In The Making of Political Identities, ed. Ernesto Laclau. New York: Verso, 1994.

Pateman, Carole. The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 98 S. Ct. 2733, 57 L.ed. 2d 750 (1978).

Rivera, Tomás. “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis.” MELUS 11:4 (winter 1984): 5–13.

Rodriguez, Richard. “An American Writer.” In The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 3–13.

———. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking, 1992.

———. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: Godine, 1982.

———. “Late Victorians: San Francisco, AIDS, and the Homosexual Stereotype.” Harper's (October 1990): 57–65.

———. “Mixed Blood, Columbus's Legacy: A World Made Mestizo.” Harper's (November 1991): 47–56.

Rouse, Roger. “Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism.” Diaspora 1:1 (1991): 8–23.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Sprinker, Michael. “Fictions of the Self: The End of Autobiography.” In Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman/Native/Other. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Wilson, Rob. “Producing American Selves: The Form of American Biography.” Boundary 2 (summer 1991): 104–29.

Yúdice, George. “Marginality and the Ethics of Survival.” In Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Laura Fine (essay date spring 1996)

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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, and by Latino critics who felt he had betrayed his ethnic community.1 Indeed, in a recent article, Chicano writer Ruben Martinez labels Rodriguez “the Mexican-American Chicanos love to hate” (18). Although the book carefully mixes personal narrative and political exposition, critics overwhelmingly concerned themselves with simply the latter. In dismissing the complexity of both Hunger and his second autobiography, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, in favor of castigating him for his political stands, critics have essentially misread Rodriguez's texts.

While critics of the genre have long questioned the truth-value of autobiographers' self-representations, with political autobiography the temptation to assume an absolute identity between the actual writers and their political stances remains pronounced.2 Readers of autobiography seem more willing to grant writers provisional, complicated identities in some areas of their inscribed lives than in others. If an autobiographer, for example, describes herself at one point as a teenager in love with a certain person and later as an older woman in love with somebody else, no one would likely assume that one of these inscriptions reveals the “true self” of the writer, yet a reader may well assume a political statement or stance definitively represents the “real” writer. The autobiographies of Richard Rodriguez demonstrate the limitations such assumptions place on accurate readings of texts in this genre.

Rodriguez's autobiographies enact a simultaneous and paradoxical drama of self-assertion—through the claiming of multiple identities—and self-concealment. His autobiographies present his struggle to prove himself the author of his own identities, despite the early efforts of his parents to shape his identities for him, and despite the efforts of critics to pigeonhole him within a single limiting identity. Together, his two autobiographies provide ample evidence of how critics have failed to notice the multiple “selves” Rodriguez represents in his texts, and have not come to terms with his re-writing/righting of his identities.

In Hunger Rodriguez plays out his conflicted identities for an audience of readers with which his relationship is uneasy at best. One condition of his public success has been to leave his working-class Chicano background behind him, a condition he laments throughout his first autobiography. Rodriguez realizes that his own ethnic community will not read his texts, since it is composed mostly of people who do not read literature, let alone texts written in English. Forced to direct his autobiographical revelations to a middle-class, educated, mostly white audience, Rodriguez's characterization of the “gringos” who have embraced his political stands against affirmative action and bilingual education—the “gringos” who will read his writing—is laced with asperity.

Rodriguez's “Prologue” commences a strategy he will use throughout his autobiographies of presenting “gringo” representations of him in quotation marks, and then his own unquoted response. For example, he quotes his New York editor's concerns about his text: “‘The strength of this manuscript is in the narrative. … Let's have more Grandma’” (7). Then, instead of providing his answer to the editor, he directs his explanation to his readers: “But no. Here is my most real life.” This strategy allows Rodriguez to supply cues to his largely white audience about how he wishes to be read, about how not to misread him, and allows him to reinterpret “gringo” representations of himself in his own words so that he always has the final word. Indeed, his whole text in some ways is his response to white, and for that matter, Chicano, misinterpretations of him. His text represents their misrepresentations of him, allowing Rodriguez the final authoritative self-representation. Far from being a pawn of the “gringos” for whom he writes, Rodriguez's prologue marks him as a “righter” of other-imposed identities.

Critics have found much evidence in Hunger, particularly in the chapter entitled “Complexion,” to impose on Rodriguez the identity of a self-hating ethnic. According to one critic, “The young Rodriguez regards himself with the same loathing that Prospero and Miranda manifest towards Caliban. … Rodriguez presents his physical self as a ‘monster’” (Paredes 291). Popular culture has also seized upon this classification of Rodriguez. Rodriguez recounts being telephoned by one of Oprah Winfrey's talent coordinators who asked, after noting that he had been highly recommended, if he would like to be in a show about “self-hating ethnics: you know, like French people who don't like cheese” (Lecture). Yet while there is much fruit in this chapter for such claims, “Complexion” is as much about Rodriguez's rejection of his family's efforts to shape his identities as it is about his troubled relationship to his skin color. In inscribing his own self-representations over the palimpsest of others' representations of him, he rights attempts by others to write him.

Early in “Complexion,” Rodriguez recalls his mother's displeasure when his skin became darkened by the Sacramento sun: “You look like a negrito. … You're so careless!’” (113). For his mother, dark skin is associated with the powerless field laborers, los braceros, men who work with their arms. Even more disturbing for the young Richard than these oft repeated chastisements were the conversations the women in his family would hold in front of him about dark skin: “It was the woman's spoken concern: the fear of having a dark-skinned son or daughter. Remedies were exchanged” (116). The effect of his family's attitudes about “feo” (ugly) dark skin on the young Rodriguez are most vividly represented by his using his father's straight razor to try to shave off, to “somehow lessen … the dark” when he was eleven or twelve years old (124). Although this chapter seems to provide evidence that Rodriguez is indeed the self-hating ethnic his critics have labeled him, such a cursory conclusion too glibly simplifies Rodriguez's complex evocation and masking of his confused ethnic identity.

Obviously, absorbing such familial attitudes toward dark skin would prove damaging to a boy's sense of his physical identity. Yet so overwhelming does his family's criticism of his physical identity feel that it obscures the extra-familial racism from which these views about racial inferiority stem. Nothing “heard outside the house, regarding my skin, was so impressive to me” (117). In “On Becoming a Chicano,” an early article, Rodriguez admits that as a child he felt “a surge of self-hatred whenever a passing teenager would yell a racial slur” (46). In “Complexion” he also relates how he “would be paralyzed with embarrassment, unable to return the insult” (117). This response follows naturally from what Rodriguez has learned about his own ethnic identity. His family has taught him to believe in his ethnic inferiority, so that when others yell a racial insult, he feels badly about himself, not angry at them. Indeed, he goes so far as to present extra-familial insults as less damaging, since in contrast to his family, his white school friends would come to his rescue, shouting back the insults he himself was unable to return.

Since Rodriguez foregrounds his struggle against his family's tyrannical imposition of negative ethnic meanings, he spends little time analyzing the sources from which his family's racism derives. In fact, when he presents himself at the end of the chapter free from the negative ethnic identity his family stunted him with in boyhood, public racism seems altogether to melt away. Now as a wealthy tourist in foreign luxury hotels, his dark skin becomes a mark of leisure: “My complexion assumes its significance from the context of my life. My skin, in itself, means nothing” (137). One reviewer offers apt criticism of Rodriguez's claims:

He does not perceive racism in the fact that at a luxury hotel it is assumed that his dark skin is dark because he has acquired a tan. He does not see that the other hotel guests are inferring that someone of a darker race would not normally be staying at such a hotel; someone who was naturally darker would not be in the same hotel with them.

(Hortas 358)

From this perspective Rodriguez's desire to present his success and wealth as resulting from his breaking free of the fetters of his family's willful imposition of identities on him, in this case a racially inferior identity, depends on what so many of his critics have attacked him for: his denial of outside racism. He cannot portray himself as a happily powerful member of the dominant class and show himself still engaged in the struggle against the shaping of his identity by racist others.

At the same time Rodriguez struggles with his ethnic identity, his increasing expertise in language evolves into a new conflict of sexual identity. He feels his love of literature violates the ideals of Mexican male identity stressed by his family, the most important quality being that of the formal male, a steady, responsible, serious man who “never verbally revealed his emotions” (128–29). At home the young Richard plays the role of the formal male, “But outside the house—my God!—I talked. Particularly in class or alone with my teachers, I chattered. (Talking seemed to make teachers think I was bright)” (129). Rodriguez thus is praised precisely for violating the codes for male behavior stressed at home. A further consequence of this conflict is his concern that his chattering self ties him more closely to his mother than to his formal father. His love of speech, his love of language and literature, feel to Richard “unmanly” (129).

Rodriguez presents the long-delayed resolution of his early troubled wrestling with his sexual and ethnic identities through the symbol of los braceros his mother warned him about early in his childhood. As he grows older, Richard continues to try to sort out his family's negative representations of these men with what he himself sees in them:

And though I feared looking like them, it was with silent envy that I regarded them still. I envied them their physical lives, their freedom to violate the taboo of the sun. … I was unwilling to admit the attraction of their lives. I tried to deny it by looking away. But what was denied became strongly desired.


Gay critics have found in such prose the hint of the homosexuality Rodriguez does not claim publicly for ten more years: “The real attraction of those shirtless men he describes is not their poetic lives but their muscled bodies. … Gay readers knew how to read between the lines in order to find the beads of identity being dropped” (Kirp 16). Yet while the young Rodriguez's budding sexual attraction for men is implicit here, an attraction he attempts to deny, los braceros represent more than objects of sexual desire. Most importantly, these figures are powerful men, at least physically, who freely violate his family's rules of behavior for Latino men. In embracing their darkness, they represent a freedom from the negative dark-skinned identity his family has helped him internalize. Los braceros show Rodriguez an escape from his hatred of his body.

The escape comes during a summer while he is an undergraduate at Stanford. He accepts a construction job and finally abandons himself to the physical sensations of his body. Shirtless, he derives “too much pleasure in the physical labor,” luxuriating in the feeling of his “chest silky with sweat in the breeze” (132). While Rodriguez breaks “the curse of physical shame” he felt throughout his youth and adolescence, he realizes he is not truly one of los pobres, “the poor, the pitiful, the powerless ones” (113), for he is not forced to use his body for an entire life of exacting physical labor—he will return to his prestigious university in the fall. Thus Rodriguez carefully inscribes himself as a bracero with a difference. A long-distance runner who almost every day jogs “ten or fifteen miles, barely clothed” (136), Rodriguez now exults in the physical masculinity he once gazed at with longing in los pobres. But since as an English speaker Rodriguez has achieved a public identity, he manages to incorporate their power without their powerlessness. Ironically, it is the chatty, “effeminate” part of himself, the part which violates his family's codes of ideal male behavior, that allows him the public power los braceros—and his family—lack.

Rodriguez not only incorporates the power of los braceros in this chapter, but of his parents as well. In portraying his parents in their early adulthood, Rodriguez traces their desire for a wealthy lifestyle which, unlike him, they were forced eventually to abandon. Looking at photographs taken of his parents before they had children, Rodriguez draws a portrait of their lives as it has come to him through stories. In one picture his parents pose in front of a luxury hotel: his mother's “hair falls seductively over one side of her face” while his father wears “a double-breasted suit, an unneeded raincoat draped over his arm” (121). These pictorial images of wealth are followed by further evidence of an enviable lifestyle. On Fridays they would go to the San Francisco Opera House, and on Sundays his father would “don Italian silk scarves and a camel's hair coat to take his new wife to the polo matches in Golden Gate Park” (121). But his father's warehouse job in the end exhausts him; haggard, he loses the energy to keep up an active lifestyle. Finally, children halt forever their awkward social climb:

By the time they had a family, my parents no longer dressed in very fine clothes. Those symbols of great wealth and the reality of their lives too noisily clashed. No longer did they try to fit themselves, like paper-doll figures, behind trappings so foreign to their actual lives.


The symbols of the wealthy lifestyle his parents participated in were just that. Puppetlike, his parents only played the role of the wealthy people they longed to be. The time, energy, and money that children demand make the Opera House days a distant memory.

Rodriguez portrays the dream and extinction of his parents' dream in order to contrast the successful achievement of his own boyhood dreams. In his autobiography, he asserts himself as the powerful man who contains the powerless figures of his parents. The son assumes the wealthy identity his parents were forced to cast off. The thirty-something Rodriguez looks in the mirror at the muscular body of “the twenty-year-old” man he meets in his reflection, and appraises what he sees:

The dandy. I wear double-breasted Italian suits and custom-made English shoes. I resemble no one so much as my father—the man pictured in those honeymoon photos. At that point in life when he abandoned the dandy's posture, I assume it … when my parents would not consider going on vacation, I register at the Hotel Carlyle.


Rodriguez has become the authentic article: he is in actuality what his parents could only clumsily play at being. Indeed, what his parents took so many pains to warn him against when he was a child has materialized much more nearly for them than for himself. Los pobres would find much more in common with his jaded parents than they would with the powerful public figure of the autobiographer Rodriguez now is. Moreover, he himself has become the taunting symbol of what his parents longed to be precisely through his strenuous violation of the boundaries of the identity they tried to set for him. It is his “unmanly” love of language and his swaggering acceptance of his dark, and now thoroughly muscled body, that has allowed him to usurp his parents' authority, to right/write their false assumptions about him. Finally, his implied homosexuality affords him a freedom not available to his parents, whose aspirations were weighed down by children. Ten years later, in a chapter of his second autobiography, Days of Obligation, Rodriguez writes of “the perennial heterosexual annoyance with the homosexual's freedom from childrearing, which … relegates the homosexual outside ‘responsible’ life” (36). Here again, in violating the norms of identity set by his traditional parents, he succeeds through his own agency in becoming everything they could not become through their very conventionality.

In “Complexion,” Rodriguez claims as powerful the dark-skinned and “unmanly” talkative identities his family taught him to hate. Through the autobiographical enterprise, he rights the identities others tried to write for him. Although the identities he insists upon may not tell the whole story of Richard Rodriguez, his conscious and unconscious shaping of his autobiography produces a text much more complex than the pronouncements of his critics would allow.

Ten years after the publication of Hunger, the middle-aged Rodriguez produced a second, more mature autobiography. For Rodriguez, adulthood means changing and asserting new forms of self. In Days of Obligation the autobiographical persona shifts from chapter to chapter, even within chapters. Richard Rodriguez the autobiographer, Richard Rodriguez the protagonist, Richard Rodriguez the man—none can be pinned down to any single position. At times, perhaps weary from being attacked by liberals and Chicanos, and of being held up as an example of a “model” ethnic by the right-wing establishment, the autobiographical persona descends to the ironic voice of the outsider. Only sporadically does the voice sound like the confident narrator of Hunger.

In his second autobiography, Rodriguez grapples with confused or previously masked identities. The chapters entitled “Late Victorians” and “In Athens Once” stretch his claims of identity to include searching analyses of his homosexuality and ethnicity. In writing these new self-perspectives, he attempts to right his earlier self-claims. In Hunger, for example, Rodriguez asserted little interest in the origins of his ethnic identity: “Aztec ruins hold no special interest for me. I do not search Mexican graveyards for ties to unnameable ancestors” (5). In Days of Obligation, by trekking to Mexico to attempt to understand his Mexican and Indian identities, Rodriguez does precisely those things. In making this new journey, Rodriguez presents himself as an arrogant naive protagonist who encounters and must come to terms with his own confused identities. The competing perspectives of writer and performer highlight the complexities of both self-claiming and self-writing/righting.

For Rodriguez, while Mexico in part represents home, his Spanish-speaking family life, on another plane Mexico is a part of himself he literally cannot digest. The preface of Days, “My Parents' Village,” opens with Rodriguez on his knees vomiting in a toilet in Mexico City: “All the badly pronounced Spanish words I have forced myself to sound during the day, bits and pieces of Mexico spew from my mouth, warm, half-understood, nostalgic reds and green dangle from long strands of saliva” (xv). He does not feel himself to be an authentic Mexican, although his ethnicity would seem to connect him to the country of his parents. While he only half understands his ethnic identity, his familial ties to this country evoke a nostalgia, perhaps induced by the loss of his familial identity. The opening of Days highlights his confused ethnic identity.

Rodriguez presents his identity confusion through his convoluted literary form. In his preface, Rodriguez poses questions about the structure of his text to his readers: “How shall I present the argument between comedy and tragedy, this tension that describes my life? Shall I start with the boy's chapter, then move toward more ‘mature’ tragic conclusions?” (xvii). Rodriguez associates “comedy” with California, with the Protestant optimistic, individualistic impulse that informs America, that informed him as a youth. He associates “tragedy” with the communal pessimism of Catholicism and Mexico, represented by his father. Since letting the middle-aged man have the last word “would underplay the boy's wisdom” (xvii), Rodriguez presents his life “in reverse.” Rejecting a simple linear narrative that would suggest that what came earlier logically led towards a singular conclusion, Rodriguez assumes a form that will reflect the complexity of his experience and his autobiographical enterprise. Since he believes in the end “the best resolution to the debate between comedy and tragedy is irresolution” (xviii), his book's structure will reflect that irresolution, as the separate essays build towards no focusing conclusions, but rather reflect the complexity of the many issues of identity discussed.

Hired in this case by the BBC to report on Mexico for a European audience, Rodriguez the protagonist is the stereotypical “ugly American.” With a television crew he is chauffeured through various villages in search of one his “parents would have known as children” (xv). The crew, who blasts Bobby Brown tapes through their rolled-down windows, is dismayed when Rodriguez keeps rejecting villages. Finally he spies the village he wants to film: “This is perfect, I kept saying from the back seat, perfect” (xviii). The church bells indicate it must be noon, and when he sees a crowd of women wearing dark shawls, he figures it must be market day: “All the better,” he thinks (xviii). As the noisy production team slowly closes in on the village, however, he sees the people lifting a tiny coffin. The crew hurriedly and awkwardly tries to back away from the crowded funeral, but has almost no room to maneuver. Confident in his ability to find his preconceived notions of Mexican life in Mexico, the arrogant protagonist learns his first lesson.

This misplaced confidence also calls attention to the autobiographer's self-conscious explanations of his text's structure. Indeed the preface's title is simply an artificial construction. The protagonist searches not for his parents' real village, but for one which fits his preconceived image of their home in Mexico. The preface too highlights the inaccuracy of the autobiographical enterprise, since the writer's needs and desires necessarily manipulate the “facts.” The divided voices of the autobiographer and protagonist work against the assumption of any single coherent autobiographical identity. Readers are not to assume that any of the voices in the main text are reliable. The following chapters make it clear that to assume any single statement Rodriguez makes, or identity he claims, represents the “real” or whole Rodriguez is to reduce the complex writer to one of his many personas.

In a chapter attacked by gay groups for its stereotypical depiction of the gay lifestyle, Rodriguez examines his homosexual identity. GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,

complained that “Late Victorians” recycles all the homophobic chestnuts about gays as pitiful, peripheral, unnatural people whose fate is to become tired old queens—and embraces the new homophobia that condemns gays as morally irresponsible children whose insistence on endless play brought AIDS upon themselves.

(Kirp 16)

Yet this is only half the truth. Rodriguez analyzes stereotypes about gays, and indeed seems to accept some of them as true. But the drama of the essay unfolds in Rodriguez's attempt to distance himself from the stereotypical gays he discusses, only to find that the people embodying the stereotypes are superior to the manipulative autobiographer who describes them.

First the stereotypes. Rodriguez characterizes gay men as usurpers of heterosexual privilege who remain free from heterosexual obligations and responsibilities. Most gay male couples have two incomes and no children: “Leisure defined the gay-male revolution” (35). The 1970s witnessed the migration of homosexuals to San Francisco precisely because “the city was famed as a playful place” (35). Rodriguez meditates, too, on stereotypical gay male occupational choices: “Why have so many homosexuals retired into the small effect, the ineffectual career, the stereotype, the card shop, the florist?” (33) He concludes that “society's condemnation forced the homosexual to find his redemption outside nature” (33). According to Rodriguez, by unconsciously or consciously accepting his lifestyle as unnatural, the homosexual immerses himself in artifice.

Rather than questioning the truth behind the stereotypes he presents, Rodriguez's purpose lies in distinguishing himself from the gays he analyzes. He aligns himself with St. Augustine, the great Catholic and autobiographer, who knew that “earth is not our true home,” and even with Elizabeth Taylor, who knew her “cerulean Richard Burton days on her yacht” must end (26). With the onslaught of AIDS, Rodriguez imagines “St. Augustine's meditation slowly hardening into syllogism” (40). Rodriguez sees in AIDS the end of the pleasure-loving gay men. But not of himself. One of his good friends who lies dying of AIDS tells him that of everyone he knows, Rodriguez would be the only one “spared” because he is “‘too circumspect’” (43). Indeed, unlike the gays who flocked to San Francisco in the 1970s to seek their pleasures, Rodriguez came for different reasons: “I came here in order not to be distracted by the ambitions or, for that matter, the pleasures of others but to pursue my own ambition” (41). He is a serious writer, not a sexual player.

Yet Rodriguez hints at his membership in the group he takes pains to distinguish himself from. After describing stereotypical gay men's fascination with artifice, Rodriguez states that their “impulse is not to create but to recreate, to sham” (33). The comment holds true for Rodriguez himself, whose text recreates a life, a recreation which is necessarily a “sham,” since the life itself can never actually be recaptured. Rodriguez further aligns himself with these “unnatural” homosexuals when he analyzes his new-found recreation, body building, which he labels “a parody of labor, a useless accumulation of the laborer's bulk and strength” (39). Body building evidences his own interest in artifice. Finally, the chapter's title derives from Rodriguez's analysis of how gay men ironically swarmed into Victorian houses in San Francisco, houses which exemplify traditional heterosexual family values, forcing the City's residents to witness the “renovation of Victorian San Francisco into dollhouses for libertines” (31–32). And yet Rodriguez intimates his identity with such libertines when he carefully describes the Victorian house he lives in, as well as his own attempts at interior decoration (34).

While Rodriguez does not deny his homosexual identity, neither does he assert it as powerful. “To grow up homosexual is to live with secrets and within secrets” (30), he observes, which seemingly accounts for his noted circumspection. Yet it is just this discretion that serves as a foil to the powerful homosexual identity asserted by those the autobiographer characterizes in stereotypical terms throughout the chapter. As his friends begin to die of AIDS en masse, the autobiographer notes that he and St. Augustine were right “that the garden of earthly delights was, after all, only wallpaper.” Yet Rodriguez also realizes a deeper truth: “I saw that the greater sin against heaven was my unwillingness to embrace life” (43). Sitting in moral judgment, Rodriguez has carefully analyzed the homosexuals whom he sees as unlike himself, while distancing himself from the identity he shares with them.

In the final scene of the chapter, Rodriguez finds himself sitting in a church watching as a procession of volunteers from an AIDS support group is called to the front to be recognized by the congregation. Rodriguez's attention is caught by an elderly, frail gay man sitting in front of him, “a powdered old pouf” who fills Rodriguez with loathing: “Certainly he is what I fear becoming” (46). Yet, to Rodriguez's surprise, this man is one of the volunteers who “with the most beatific dignity … strides into the sanctuary to take his place in the company of the Blessed.” Again Rodriguez characterizes himself as the arrogant judge who is forced to reconsider his assumed superiority by the heroic, selfless actions of the homosexuals who proudly bear their sexual identities. “These learned to love what is corruptible,” Rodriguez writes at chapter's end, “while I barren skeptic, reader of St. Augustine … I shift my tailbone upon the cold, hard pew” (47). “Late Victorians” thus does not conclude with Rodriguez embracing his own sexual identity, but with his realizing the cost of its repression. Yet because he subtly aligns himself with the gays he earlier castigates and later praises, he renders his sexual identity powerful by association. While he criticizes what amounts to his own ascetic self-absorption, his narrative opens up the possibility in the future for the claiming of a powerful homosexual identity in the tradition of those homosexual he once dared to scorn.

Rodriguez further disassembles his self by distributing it across the landscape he inhabits. In “Late Victorians,” Rodriguez states that “San Francisco, though complimented world-wide for holding its center, was in fact without a vision of itself entire” (38). The City was unable to reconcile the divided interests of downtown and the neighborhoods, nor could it connect gay Castro Street to heterosexual Union Street, or the Latino Mission district with the Sino-Russian Richmond. Like the City's discrete identities which meld into no whole, Days of Obligation witnesses the autobiographical self divided.

This division spreads over a larger terrain in the chapter “In Athens Once.” Though the autobiographical persona is similar to the one used in the preface, Rodriguez ironically contrasts his protagonist's meanderings with the biblical notations which provide the chapter's structure. Beginning on “Palm Sunday,” the chapter recounts the protagonist's movements on each day of Holy Week, ending on “Easter Sunday.” The structure is ironic because the protagonist's concerns during the daily visits to Tijuana from San Diego during this holy time of the year are largely secular. The protagonist stands midway between the preface's arrogant, insensitive protagonist and another American citizen in Tijuana—a kind, compassionate Jesuit priest from Berkeley, named Father Lucas. Unlike the Rodriguez of the preface who forced himself into a community in which he does not belong, Father Lucas speaks Spanish fluently and busies himself working in poor communities. He runs a station at which volunteers pass out food to the needy, and as he makes his way through the community, it becomes clear that the people accept and respect him, crowding around him and asking him to bless their houses (97–98). During Holy Week, while Rodriguez visits Tijuana on secular business, Father Lucas leads various religious rites. On Holy Thursday, he washes the feet of twelve teenage boys who impersonate the Twelve Apostles “according to the ancient rite of divine humility” (98). Even more poignantly, unlike the Preface Rodriguez who barrels his way into a child's funeral procession, Father Lucas spends Holy Saturday looking for a coffin for a baby whose family is “too poor to afford more than a shoe box” (105). Father Lucas is the exemplary Californian in Mexico, who travels there not out of self-interested motives or any assumption of superiority, but to live authentically among the people he finds there.

As in the preface, and unlike his foil Father Lucas, Rodriguez again plays the “ugly American” journalist, staying for a week at the “Inter-Continental Hotel” in San Diego, descending to Mexico each day to work on his story, a piece on the city of Tijuana, neither staying overnight in Mexico nor drinking the water (93). According to one critic, Rodriguez “comes across as farcical, a self-parodying Hispanic Prufrock (Do I dare to eat a taco)” (Perera 64). Rodriguez and Father Lucas spend Holy Week very differently: when Father Lucas asks him to come to the commemoration of Easter Sunday, Rodriguez refuses, not telling him he intends to have brunch with friends in La Jolla (105). Still earlier, as Father Lucas leads a Good Friday service, Rodriguez chooses to participate in an altogether different rite, accompanying a border patrolman as he hunts Mexicans attempting to enter the United States illegally. They meet another officer who hands Rodriguez his night-vision telescope, and Rodriguez feels himself being seduced into the officers' world: “He calls me sir. He invites me so close to his chin, I smell cologne as I peer through the scope. It is as though I am being romanced at a cowboy cotillion” (101). Later, as they cruise in search of illegals, Rodriguez does not “separate” himself “from the patrolman's intention,” but participates in the officers' quasi-erotic drive to secure their victims. He realizes the people lurking in the dark are “[d]ishwashers, gardeners, field workers. Faces [he] has seen all [his] life” in the United States. Nonetheless Rodriguez places himself in opposition to them. When the patrolman catches several Mexicans, he suggests Rodriguez take some pictures and question them: “I stare at the faces. They stare at mine. To them I am not bearing witness; I am part of the process of being arrested. I hold up my camera; their eyes swallow the flash” (101–103). On Good Friday, Rodriguez plays Judas to members of his ethnic community, participating in the authorities' efforts to “crucify” them, to kill their dreams of reaching the United States.

Yet the protagonist of “In Athens Once” is not identical to the Rodriguez of “My Parents' Village.” Although the protagonist in the later chapter is still an inept outsider, he makes steps toward forging a Mexican identity. Initially though, Rodriguez records his attempt to memorize the route a taxi takes him. Although he has been in worse neighborhoods in the United States, he feels less safe here: “Because Mexico is brown and I am brown, I fear being lost in Mexico” (96). The country Mexico promises Rodriguez a loss of his sense of individuality—the same problem he experienced as a child within his Mexican American family. Rodriguez fears losing his status as a United States citizen in Mexico, for judging by his exterior, how would anyone know he is an observer rather than a member of the Tijuana community? No longer accompanied by a media crew marking him as foreign, the outsider fears being swallowed up by the community. The Protestant individualist fears being engulfed by the Catholic communal impulse, threatening to equalize the identities that make him feel superior or at least separate from the Mexicans he encounters.

Yet when Rodriguez comes under the influence of Father Lucas, who manages to recruit him to pass out day-old pastries to children after the mass commemorating Holy Thursday, his perspective changes. After Rodriguez throws package after package to the hungry crowd, Father Lucas drives him around Tijuana, and they eventually get lost. Like the media crew from the book's preface, they must back out of dead ends. Yet after making a few turns, Rodriguez sees in the distance “the lights of downtown Tijuana, and beyond, the glamorous lights that cradle San Diego Bay” (99). Far removed from the arrogant spectator he was in the preface, he comments on the view before him: “It is a sight I never expected to see with Mexican eyes” (99). His reluctant participation in the day's holy communal activities has for the first time made him experience himself as a member of his ethnic community who views the United States as Mexicans do.

Rodriguez uses his ambivalent narrator to underscore Tijuana as a metaphor of self. Tijuana maintains different identities depending on who is analyzing it. Mexican officials, American businessmen and tourists, and Tijuana residents all characterize the city in contradictory terms. For people in San Diego, Tijuana represents the border, “meaning a clean break, the end of us, the beginning of them,” while from the Mexicans' point of view “Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end” (83–84). To the people in the capitol, as the furthest city from Mexico City, Tijuana “is a city without history, a city without architecture, an American city” (83). For American tourists, Tijuana consists of the “tourist street called Avenida Revolution,” where little girls and blind old women hawk Chiclets (81). From yet another perspective, Tijuana supplies “great numbers of the Mexican poor” for the businessmen at Rodriguez's San Diego hotel to exploit for their own profit (95). Finally, for Tijuana citizens, the authentic center of Tijuana is a place no tourist ever visits. This is “an American-style shopping mall,” called the Rio Plaza, a place Rodriguez stumbles upon only because his cab driver needs to buy liquor for Easter. A “city within a city,” this is where Mexican teenagers and families congregate (104).

The lesson Rodriguez learns in Tijuana is that despite what various groups attempt to make it, despite the contradictory ways people see it, the city maintains and withstands other-imposed identities while remaining simply itself. Indeed, “itself” is a web of contradictions. Rodriguez realizes that the “theme of city life is the theme of difference. People living separately, simultaneously.” The city, like Rodriguez, must be able to contain contradictions and competing identities. On Easter Sunday, when asked by friends at brunch in La Jolla what he thinks of Tijuana, Rodriguez shrugs: “It's there, I say.” He cannot communicate to his friends the complexity of the city, the complexity he attempts to portray to his readers: “But what I want to say is that Tijuana is here. It has arrived.” Tijuana is more than the simplistic assumptions Californians have of it. On Easter Sunday, the sky fills with an image of Tijuana “with hang gliders, drifting, silently drifting, like wondrous red- and blue-winged angels, over the sea” (105–106). In this chapter Rodriguez attempts to resurrect Tijuana from the images others impose on it, to make it rise above Americans' inadequate conceptions of it. In his new understanding of Tijuana, Rodriguez too rises above his outsider's secular characterization of the complex city, at the same time suggesting the complexity of representing any “self.” In Rodriguez's attempt to write the richness of subjectivity, he rights notions that a “self” can be pinned down to any single representation or identity.

While the precarious nature of “truth” in autobiography has become a critical commonplace, many readers still assume a fundamental identity between “real-life” autobiographers and the political pronouncements of their texts. In his autobiographies, Richard Rodriguez dons competing identities in order to shape a new subjectivity through the act of self-writing/righting, a performance that defies the attempts of others to categorize him. The tension between the identities he assumes and those he masks or denies produces multilayered self-writing that critics have over-looked because of the unpopular political stands he takes. Reading self-writing solely for its political content, though, obscures the implications of an author's choice to write within the genre of autobiography. Indeed, misreadings of Rodriguez's writing result from attempts by critics to read his texts as political manifesto rather than autobiography. In reading political autobiography one should be no less mindful of the writer's choice of genre than in reading, for example, political poetry. Reading autobiography solely for its political content is akin to reducing poems like Yeats' “Easter 1916” to political tracts. The primary concern of autobiographers like Rodriguez is not promulgating a political agenda, but evoking the rich complexity of personal identity. Thus to assume one of a slew of competing personas represents the “real” Richard Rodriguez is to ignore his use of the genre of autobiography to shape self-inscriptions that capture the complex twists of subjectivity.


  1. For positive reviews, see Comey, Yardley, and Zweig; for negative reviews, see Danahay, Hortas, Paredes, and Saldivar.

  2. For compelling discussions of the precarious nature of truth in autobiography, see Adams, Eakin, Rose, and Smith.

Works Cited

Adams, Timothy Dow. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990.

Comey, Alison. Rev. of Hunger of Memory,Christian Science Monitor 12 Mar. 1982: B1.

Danahay, Martin A. “Breaking the Silence: Symbolic Violence and the Teaching of Contemporary ‘Ethnic’ Autobiography.” College Literature 18.3 (Oct. 1991): 64–77.

Eakin, Paul John. “Malcolm X and the Limits of Autobiography.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 181–93.

Hortas, Carlos R. Rev. of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez.Harvard Educational Review 53.3 (1983): 355–59.

Kirp, David L. “The Many Masks of Richard Rodriguez.” San Francisco Examiner 15 Nov. 1992, Image sec.: 10–16+.

Martinez, Ruben. “My Argument with Richard Rodriguez: Or, a Defense of the Mexican-American Chicanos Love to Hate.” LA Weekly 2–8 Oct. 1992: 18–21.

Paredes, Raymund A. “Autobiography and Ethnic Politics: Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory.Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives. Ed. James Robert Payne. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1992. 280–96.

Perera, Victor. Rev. of Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father.Nation 256.2 (Jan. 18, 1994): 63–66.

Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking, 1992.

———. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam, 1982.

———. “On Becoming a Chicano.” Saturday Review 28 Feb. 1975: 46–48.

Rose, Barbara. “I'll Tell You No Lies: Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and the Fictions of Authority.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 9 (Spring 1990): 107–26.

Saldivar, Ramon. “Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography.” Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990: 154–70.

Smith, Sidonie. “Construing Truths in Lying Mouths: Truthtelling in Women's Autobiography.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 23.2 (Fall 1990): 145–63.

Yardley, Jonathan. Rev. of Hunger of Memory.Washington Post 21 Mar. 1983: B1.

Zweig, Paul. “The Children of Two Cultures: Hunger of Memory.New York Times Book Review 28 Feb. 1982: 1+.

Antonio C. Márquez (essay date 1996)

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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) “Complexion,” (5) “Profession,” (6) “Mr. Secrets.” The book's subtitle explicitly announces its subject matter and the six chapters are variations on a theme. The six parts form the orchestration of Rodriguez's life; or as he describes the book, “Essays impersonating an autobiography; six chapters of sad, fuguelike repetition” (7). Rodriguez's autobiography (he mocks the term “ethnic autobiography”) is about his education: “I wrote this autobiography as the history of my schooling” (6)—but it is also about the discovery of a vocation and the search for an identity. Spanning from elementary public school in Sacramento, California, to Ph.D. studies in Renaissance literature at the British Museum, Rodriguez's life-story is a querulous assessment of his heritage. In recasting his life and his educational experiences, Rodriguez raises central issues in relation to Mexican and Mexican American cultural history. The most controversial aspect of Rodriguez's book turns on his assertion that his education led to his separation from family and Hispanic cultural roots and that it was a necessary and beneficial separation. He contends that the assimilation into Anglo American culture and the mainstream of the United States is necessary to attain a public identity and to achieve success within that society. Both praised and vilified, Hunger of Memory has become the eye of an ideological storm. An outspoken critic of bilingual education and affirmative action, Rodriguez has quarreled for more than a decade with what he calls the “ethnic left.” It is an issue that prompts a sardonic voice in Hunger of Memory: “I have become notorious among certain leaders of America's ethnic left. I am considered a dupe, an ass, the fool—Tom Brown, the brown Uncle Tom, interpreting the writing on the wall to a bunch of cigar smoking pharaohs” (4).

There is cause for Rodriguez's self-proclaimed notoriety. What is to be made of a Mexican American writer who says, “Thomas Jefferson is my cultural forefather, not Benito Juárez,” who unabashedly claims that “the drama of my life was not an ethnic drama. … The writers who teach me best about the drama of my own life are not American. They are British … I cannot imagine writing my own life without the example of [D. H.] Lawrence” (“An American Writer,” 5). Here is a man who makes no bones about what he values and what has given meaning to his life as a man and writer; and nowhere in this confessional celebration can be seen an acknowledgment of the traditional roots of Mexican American or Chicano culture—of its legends, heroes, artists, writers and those who serve as example or inspire us to rise above ourselves. No wonder that Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory incited an angry chorus of condemnation. It earned him derisive tags of vendido (sellout), agringado (a Chicano who aspires to Anglo middle-class values), and tío taco (Chicano Uncle Tom).

More expressive condemnation took the guise of academic criticism, as Chicano scholars and critics assailed Rodriguez's posturing in Hunger of Memory Tomás Rivera, a major figure in contemporary Chicano literature, led the attack with “Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis.” Rivera praises Rodriguez's prose style, but he rebukes Rodriguez's deliberate separation from the mainstays of family and culture. Explicit in the title, Rivera's central point is that Rodriguez in denying his heritage denies the very essence of human community and one's identity as a social being. More emphatically critical, Ramón Saldívar sees Rodriguez as a menace that threatens the social fabric and cultural integrity of Chicanos: “The individualized voice of the unique artistic sensibility represented among Chicanos by Richard Rodriguez is one example of the disruption of the organic Mexican American community” (136). Extending censure to Rodriguez's appreciative readers, Héctor Calderón decries “the moral outrage that the media and the political right have accorded Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory for shedding his Mexican working class identity for that of a middle-class ‘American’ male” (217). José David Saldívar joined the chorus with these trenchant remarks: “Rodriguez's autobiography is a highly marketable lyric of rhetorical angst. … Although Rodriguez continually tells us that he suffers from a sense of the subaltern's lack of advantage, from the evidence it is clear that he suffers more from a profound sense of snobbery and bad taste” (136–37). Widely anthologized in college readers, Hunger of Memory's currency added fuel to the charge that Rodriguez had provided a sop for “the most receptive audience imaginable: the right-wing establishment and the liberal academic intelligentsia” (R. Saldívar, 158).

Why did Rodriguez's book meet with a critical firestorm from Chicano scholars and critics, and at the same time earn recognition and praise from non-Chicano scholars and critics? Invariably, admirers of Hunger of Memory praised Rodriguez's expressive honesty, eloquent ruminations, and the literary bent of his autobiography. On the other hand, detractors either ignored the stylistic merits of the book or acknowledged them but were chafed by Rodriguez's refusal to celebrate ethnicity and cultural resistance. The question hinges on a more important concern created by the differences and problems in reading ethnic literature. For the sake of a general clarification, it can be argued that Chicano readers read Hunger of Memory differently than do non-Chicano readers. And it is reasonable to expect that these differences may extend to teachers who teach and students who read Hunger of Memory in the classroom. Moreover, the crucial matter is that the character of ethnic literature itself is changing and will continue to change. Hunger of Memory is an important work because it raises a problematical issue: What is ethnic literature?

Genaro Padilla, a discerning critic who has done the most extensive research and the best scholarship on Chicano/a autobiography, offers a judicious assessment and acute point on the directions that are being taken by writers like Richard Rodriguez: “Whether Rodriguez and his antecedents … should be disavowed is an issue different readers must decide for themselves. However, precisely because their lives refuse to conform to some of the images we have created for ourselves, especially in recent years when we have radicalized that self-image, their autobiographies do force us to recognize variations of the Chicano self” (303). The “variations of the Chicano self” in autobiographic writing exact the recognition that Chicano/a literature, like other ethnic literatures, is undergoing a complex process of evolution, change, expansion, and redefinition. Cultural anthropology submits the consensus that no culture is static; change is part of the dynamic of any culture, and it is certainly true of ethnic cultures and societies. The new forms of autobiographic writing assess, modify, qualify, transmute, and can also reject what has gone before—what is often called “traditional culture”—and seek new ways to express the sense of difference. In some cases, the certitudes of ethnic identity have given way to confusion or skepticism. “Ethnicity is only a public metaphor,” Rodriguez muses, “like sexuality or age, for a knowledge that bewilders us” (“An American Writer,” 8). Rodriguez's work, for better or for worse, is a harbinger of new directions in ethnic autobiography.

In several respects, Hunger of Memory deviates from the norms of ethnic autobiography and counters cultural-literary theories on the subject. In The Ethnic Eye: A Sourcebook for Ethnic American Autobiography, James Craig Holte posits a basic characteristic of ethnic autobiography: “One of the conventions of the conversion narrative is that the writer becomes a spokesman for the community. … The development of a self takes place in a community apart from middle class America, and the writer becomes, in the narrative, the voice of the community” (7). Hunger of Memory diverges from both prescriptions. Rodriguez calls his autobiography “a middle-class pastoral,” and he declines any representative role. Other Chicano autobiographies meet Holte's requisites. Barrio Boy, by Ernesto Galarza, is an excellent example and serves as a striking contrast. Especially in the light that Galarza's autobiography has been used as a cultural-literary measuring stick; some critics have compared Barrio Boy and Hunger of Memory, using the comparison to praise Barrio Boy as a true and valuable Chicano autobiography and to condemn Hunger of Memory as a false, pretentious, and ultimately self-serving autobiography. Clearly, Galarza assumes a representative voice and places himself in a collective historical experience: “What brought me and my family to the United States from Mexico also brought hundreds of thousands of others like us. In many ways, the experience of a multitude of boys like myself, migrating from countless villages like Jalcocotán and starting life anew in barrios like the one in Sacramento must have been similar” (1). In contrast, Rodriguez takes the tack of individuality and directs the reader not to presume an ethnic representation: “Mistaken, the gullible reader will—in sympathy or in anger—take it that I intend to model my life as the typical Hispanic-American life. But I write of one life only. My own” (7). Rodriguez's disavowal smacks of egotism, but we must not lose sight of what characterizes his narrative: it is the autobiography of a writer. The “ethnic drama” of Hunger of Memory is secondary to the act of writing and to the metaphors of self that have modified ethnic autobiography.

From another quarter, William Boelhower's “The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States” contends that there are several constants in ethnic autobiography: “The infinite variations of ethnic autobiography are always on a single theme—a hyphenated self's attempt to make it in America. At the center of ethnic autobiography, of course, is the gnawing absent presence of an old world heritage” (133). This view presupposes a tension in ethnic autobiography between the necessity to assimilate and a cherished attachment to the old country. Barrio Boy, again, follows the conventional format; Galarza expresses the immigrant's hope of a new life and destiny in the United States, and he also looks back with nostalgia and holds fond memories of “the solid Mexican homeland, the good native earth” (196). Quite differently, Rodriguez sees “the old country” as remote from the immediate realities that shaped his life and he is embarrassed by his parents' sentimentality for “Mexican ways.” The counterpoise of Barrio Boy and Hunger of Memory sustains Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong's acute observation that students of ethnic literature have not adequately measured the differences between ethnic autobiography and immigrant autobiography. Wong's focus is on Asian American literature, but she briefly covers Hunger of Memory and advances it as an example of a pattern in ethnic autobiography: “As is made clear in a recent ethnic autobiography, Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory (1982), loss of the mother tongue and acquisition of English may fundamentally alter second generations' alignments with both the ethnic culture and Anglo culture” (152). The prime value of “Immigrant Autobiography: Some Questions of Definition and Approach” is Wong's persuasive argument that the universality of an ethnic literature is not a given and that historical periods and generational differences must be included in valuations of ethnic autobiographies.

With the clarification that Barrio Boy is an immigrant autobiography and Hunger of Memory is an ethnic autobiography (however problematic), the counterpoint and the story of the Rodriguez family must be placed against the backdrop of Mexican-Chicano history (see “Teaching The Work,” below). In Days of Obligation, Rodriguez ironically recounts his parents' passage and how their homeland remained an enduring attachment: “My parents left Mexico in the twenties: she as a girl with a family; he as a young man, alone. … At some celebration—we went to so many when I was a boy—a man in the crowd filled his lungs with American air to crow over all, ¡VIVA MEXICO! Everyone cheered. My parents cheered. The band played louder. Why VIVA MEXICO? The country that had betrayed them? The country that had forced them to live elsewhere? … Mexico was memory—not mine” (53). Rodriguez's play with the ironies of history and his parents' contrastive roles reiterates a significant facet of Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez is a native son, and he marks the sociohistorical, generational, educational, and cultural changes in Mexican-Chicano history. He recounts in Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation how his parents made an uneasy truce and accommodation with their adopted country: his father admired the progress and opportunities offered by the United States but saw little else of value; his mother is often described as sentimentally singing Mexican songs and dreaming of returning to Mexico. In contrast, Rodriguez and many Chicanos of his generation—and more so of the present generation—feel no allegiance or nostalgia for Mexico. As Rodriguez often ruminates, mind and heart now reside north of the Rio Grande. He views with skepticism the myth of Aztlán, the retrieval of a heroic pre-Columbian past, and the celebration of an Indo-Hispano heritage. Hunger of Memory contains this dismissive aside: “Aztec ruins hold no special interest for me. I do not search Mexican graveyards for ties to unnameable ancestors” (5). Here, Rodriguez meets head-on the cultural nationalism that surfaced during the Chicano movement of the 1960s, which he derides as nostalgia wrapped in Zapata-Pancho Villa romanticism. Understandably, such spoutings raised the hackles of the so-called ethnic left, and Hunger of Memory compounds the problem when Rodriguez attacks Chicano academicians:

The students insisted they were still tied to the culture of the past. Nothing in their lives had changed with their matriculation. They would be able to “go home again.” … Leisured, and skilled at abstracting from immediate experience, the scholar is able to see how aspects of individual experience constitute a culture. By contrast, the poor have neither the inclination nor the skills to imagine their lives so abstractly. They remain strangers to the way of life the academic constructs so well on paper. Ethnic studies departments were founded on romantic hopes.


In effect, Rodriguez's attitudes and the purpose of his autobiography diverge from the sociohistorical concerns that have formed the bedrock of Chicano/a literature and criticism. In “The Evolution of Chicano Literature,” a key work of Chicano literary history, Raymund A. Paredes encapsulated the most common definition, or description, of Chicano/a literature: “This leads us to the final question: what exactly is Chicano literature. … Chicano literature is that body of work produced by United States citizens and residents of Mexican descent for whom a sense of ethnicity is a critical part of their literary sensibilities and for whom portrayal of their ethnic experience is a major concern.” This predominant view underscores the ethnicity of Chicano/a literature, which transcends literary boundaries and where the import is placed on social, cultural, and political aspects of the experience. “In an age when the literature of the United States is marked by profound pessimism and a retreat from the national culture,” Paredes also argues, “Chicano writing is notable for its celebration of ethnic values and traditions” (72–74). The last point implies an ethical component to the oppositional or alternative values endemic to Chicano/a literature. Paredes's formulation of the nature and purpose of Chicano/a literature has its undeniable merits, but it also has limitations (acknowledged by Paredes) when it comes to works that do not fit the mold. How can it apply to or include a work such as Hunger of Memory? What if a work questions ethnicity or quarrels with its relevance? Is it less valuable because it does not affirm ethnicity? Does this mean that Hunger of Memory is not a work of Chicano literature and not an ethnic autobiography? Without a doubt, Hunger of Memory is a problematic work. Part of the significance of Rodriguez's embattled autobiography is that it raises engaging questions about the relation of culture to literature, and literature to culture. Foremost, we must consider that neither “culture” nor “literature” is homogeneous, unchanging, and static.

To this end, new perspectives are being shaped by scholars who have fused ethnography and literary studies, and these perspectives have marked a new direction in cultural criticism that may prove useful in approaching ethnic literature. Werner Sollors's schema in “Nine Suggestions for Historians of American Ethnic Literature” serves as a point of departure: “Ethnicity is not merely a matter of cultural (let alone biological) survival; ethnicity is constantly recreated as people (and ethnic authors among them, of course) set up new distinctions, make new boundaries, and form new groups” (95). Sollors has significantly contributed to the perspective that has taken the rubric of “the invention of ethnicity.” Part of the strategy of this line of inquiry is to place ethnic literature within the purview of postmodern cultural and literary theories. In The Invention of Ethnicity Sollors advances a fundamental premise: “By calling ethnicity—that is, belonging and being perceived by others as belonging to an ethnic group—an ‘invention,’ one signals an interpretation in a modern and postmodern context. There is a certain, previously unrecognized semantic legitimacy in insisting on this context” (xiii). Michael M. J. Fischer, an anthropologist who had done ground-breaking work in applying postmodern literary and cultural theories to the study of ethnic literature, amplified Sollors's premise to form an engaging thesis centered on autobiographic writing:

… so ethnic autobiography and autobiographical fiction can perhaps serve as key forms for explorations of pluralist, post-industrial, late twentieth-century society. … What the newer works bring home forcefully is, first, the paradoxical sense that ethnicity is something reinvented and reinterpreted in each generation by each individual and that it is often something quite puzzling to the individual, something over which he or she lacks control.


Fischer's conspectus covers signal works of Chicano/a literature and he concludes his overview of Hunger of Memory with a point that confirms the problematic nature of Rodriguez's autobiography: “The antagonism/anxiety directed towards Rodriguez's autobiographic argument, as well as the commentary on the political didacticism of earlier Chicano writing, pose the key issues for the creation of authentically inter-referential ethnic voices, as well as alerting us to the diversity within the Chicano (not to mention the larger Hispanic-American) community” (220). This and similar critical writings confirm that Hunger of Memory is a key text in postmodern autobiographic writing.

Considering Paredes's disquisition, for example, that Chicano writing offers an alternative to a mainstream literature marked by “a profound pessimism and retreat from the national culture,” what happens when Chicano/a literature moves into the mainstream or departs from its oppositional roles? Can a culture and its literature remain isolated, unaffected, and pure? Again, we are faced with a problematic situation that is a prime concern of Chicano cultural studies. Renato Rosaldo, an anthropologist who has also expanded his interests to literary and cultural criticism, makes an intrepid suggestion. His work on Chicano cultural poetics, specifically the aptly titled “Changing Chicano Narratives,” takes off from ethnographic studies on culture difference and historical change, and Rosaldo challenges “the received notion of culture as unchanging and homogeneous” (35). Surveying Chicano chronicles and historical narratives, he notes that the traditional role of the Chicano writer was to engage in cultural resistance, at the same time providing a social analysis and critique of the dominant society. This role has slackened, Rosaldo points out, as the culture and its literature have changed: “Once a figure of masculine heroics and resistance to white supremacy, the Chicano warrior hero now has faded away in a manner linked … to the demise of self-closed, patriarchal, ‘authentic’ Chicano culture” (148). Nothing that it is young Chicana writers who have most vigorously revised the canon, Rosaldo marks the significant shift in the literature as a result of these writers' challenge of “earlier versions of cultural authenticity that idealized patriarchal cultural regimes that appeared autonomous, homogeneous, and unchanging” (161). Beyond the scope of this essay, an interesting question arises when we consider that Chicana writers, lesbian and male homosexual writers (Richard Rodriguez, for example) are at the forefront of the new wave of Chicano/a literature. The matter, here, is the clarification that determinants such as historical change, generational shifts, social class, gender, and alternative lifestyles have impacted and will continue to affect Chicano/a literature in specific and ethnic literature in general. Subsequently, previously accepted views of culture and literature are being questioned and in some cases replaced by new dimensions in cultural studies. Rosaldo, for instance, concludes with the expectation that new Chicano narrative forms will create “a fresh vision of self and society” and they promise “an alternative cultural space, a heterogeneous world” (165).

Whether Hunger of Memory achieves a fresh vision of self and society is open to question. What is quite evident is a sense of self not grounded on a collective ethnic identity, but on a metaphor of self as writer and instrument of language. Like the general drift of postmodern literature and criticism, the most recent scholarship on ethnic literature stresses language, discourse, and intertextuality. For instance, Werner Sollors adds a postmodernist qualification to his exposition on “the invention of ethnicity”: “At this juncture the category of ‘invention’ has been stressed in order to emphasize not so much originality and innovation as the importance of language in the social construct of reality” (x). In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez explicitly announces the subject matter of his autobiographic excavation and the primacy of the literary act: “This autobiography, moreover, is a book about language. … Language has been the great subject of my life. … Obsessed by the way it determined my public identity. The way it permits me to describe myself, writing” (7). Manifested throughout Hunger of Memory is the author's self-consciousness as a conduit of words and meditator of language. Paradoxically, this attitude accounts for the originality and uniqueness of Rodriguez's book and also for its oddness and spareness.

Peculiarly, much of Hunger of Memory is wrapped in indirection. The reader senses omissions or deliberate evasions, and we are faced with the curiosity that intimate, personal information is absent from Rodriguez's “autobiography.” Who were his friends in school? His best friend? Who was his first girlfriend, boyfriend, or first love? What was his first sexual experience? What were his favorite songs, movies, sports, and so on? These are mundane questions, but they are the stuff of adolescent life. Moreover, did he experience the confusion, joy, and the seemingly heart-wrenching fears and doubts that come with adolescence? Such questions of childhood and adolescence, common in autobiographies that cover formative years, are conspicuously absent from Hunger of Memory. It is an “autobiography” by self-definition and by tacit assumption, but there is little of what we have come to expect in autobiographies. Rodriguez hits the mark in one of his self-reflexive moments (he not only writes his autobiography, he also explains it to us): “Writing this manuscript. Essays impersonating an autobiography; six chapters of sad fuguelike repetition” (7). The vital clue is that Rodriguez is an essayist who masks polemics with the autobiographical act.

Rodriguez's passion is reserved for a lengthy exposition on the social and philosophical nuances of language. His polemical thrust is that language creates and defines a public self, and this process would separate him from his ethnic roots. He maintains that the apprehension of English and the culture it articulates diminished and eventually replaced the language and culture of his parents: “At last, seven years old, I came to believe what had been technically true since my birth: I was an American citizen. But the special feeling of closeness at home was diminished by then. Gone was the desperate, urgent, intense feeling of being home; rare was the experience of feeling myself individualized by family intimates. We remained a loving family, but one greatly changed” (23). The “ethnic drama” that surfaces in Hunger of Memory turns on the “losses” and “gains” that Rodriguez tallies in his middle-age years. Hunger of Memory is a work nerved by contradictions, paradoxes, and sustained irony; at the heart of its narrative strategy is the truism that something is lost every time something is gained. Ironically, Rodriguez's autobiography is a success story and a story of failure. Rodriguez measures the losses: the language of his parents—language of intimacy; the assurances of family identity; the shared knowledge of a heritage; and the pathos of not being able to go home again. It occasions one of the most poignant moments in Hunger of Memory: “If I rehearse here the changes in my private life after my Americanization, it is finally to emphasize the public gain. The loss implies the gain: The house I returned to each afternoon was quiet. Intimate sounds no longer rushed to the door to greet me” (27). He also acknowledges the gains and accepts, in balance, that they outweigh the losses: the language of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Lawrence; a public language and public identity that provided passages to all quarters of the world; and a sense of being “American” and part of the great experiment called the United States. The gains also provided, of course, the means and measures to write and publish Hunger of Memory—and for Rodriguez to become “an American writer.”

The saddest inflection comes in the conclusion of Hunger of Memory, where Rodriguez shifts from his attack on academia and affirmative-action programs to summarize his presentation of his parents: “But I do not give voice to my parents by writing about their lives” (186). Or anyone else for that matter, since the only voice is the autobiographical I: the discovery of self that caps his exploration of the past. The pathos that laces Hunger of Memory, from start to end, attends Rodriguez's controlling metaphor: “What preoccupies me is immediate: the separation I endure with my parents in loss. This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story” (5). Indeed, Rodriguez's autobiography is part of a national experience. But his credo must not be seen as a joyous celebration of birthright; Hunger of Memory makes it amply evident that it is a sensibility that garners the confusion, ambivalences, and paradoxes that accompany the problematic task of “making it in America.”

What is unequivocally clear is that Hunger of Memory documents an author's search for a literary voice to express and give shape to the experiences of his life. Ultimately, it is a quest for a metaphor of self. Rodriguez's metaphor of self is triparted: the impulse to write autobiography, the act of writing itself, and the self-image created through language and literature. The adage that narcissism is the pitfall of autobiography finds a variant in Rodriguez's extreme self-consciousness as a writer. From start to end, Rodriguez favors the romantic image of the lonely, isolated writer exalting his individual voice: “Each morning I make my way along a narrow precipice of written words. I hear an echoing voice—my own resembling another's. Silent! The reader's voice silently trails every word I put down. I reread my words, and again it is the reader's voice I hear in my mind, sounding my prose” (186). At the end, that is what lingers in the reader's comprehension of Hunger of Memory: Rodriguez's prose and a metaphor of self that subsumes ethnicity to the celebration of the autobiographical act.


How long
how long
have we been searchers?
We searched through
our own voices
and through
our own minds
We sought with our words
We are searchers
and we will continue
to search
because our eyes
still have
the passion of prophecy.

Tomás Rivera's “The Searchers” touches on the essence of the Mexican American experience. The history of Americans of Mexican descent (Chicanos) has been a search and a struggle to find their rightful place in a nation that they did not adopt but rather adopted them. The struggle to retain their language and heritage is historic and heroic, especially in view of the fact that their culture has often been denied, devalued, and suppressed. Mexican Americans share a commonality with other ethnic groups in similarly facing the opposing or intolerant ideologies of the dominant culture. To some degree, there are parallels to the historical patterns of the European immigrant experience and Chicano/a literature also shares some similarities with African American and Native American literatures. Notwithstanding these similarities, the Mexican American experience and its literature have a distinct sociohistorical context. The social, historical, and political singularity of the Chicano experience is rooted in a tragic chapter of American history. Save Native Americans, no other ethnic group has a longer history or a closer attachment to the American West and Southwest. “As for Mexican-Americans,” Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong points out, “the history of annexation makes their situation unique” (143). Indeed, it is a unique history, and the historicity is caught in a common refrain among Chicanos: We did not come to the United States; the United States came to us. The phrase not only captures the consequences of Manifest Destiny and Anglo American expansion into the Hispanic Southwest, but also differentiates the Mexican American immigrant experience from European immigrant patterns. Some historians prefer the term migration, noting that historically the Río Grande (formerly the Río Bravo) is an artificial, political boundary created by the United States when it imposed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 on Mexico. The term Mexican American or Chicano, in effect, originates in 1848 with the annexation of Mexican territories; it was a historic juncture marked by the uprooting and disenfranchisement of the people who had lived and remained north of the Río Bravo.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the people of these territories civil liberties, legal and property rights, and the freedom to practice their culture and language; however, as was the case with many treaties made with Native Americans, the terms were never honored and this failure fomented many years of injustice, discrimination, and segregation. The tragic consequence was that Mexican Americans became “foreigners in their own land.” One commentator on Chicano history has underscored the lasting significance of these events: “Since the current status and daily existence of most Chicanos can be linked to the failed promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it figures strongly in Chicano literature, both as a historical event and as a commentary on the Chicano's place in American society” (Shirley, “Chicano History,” 299).

The second most momentous event in Mexican-Chicano history was the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), a virtual diaspora that occurred as multitudes were uprooted during these turbulent years. It is part of a historic drama and this facet of the Mexican American experience could have been a chapter in, say, Oscar Handlin's celebrated work, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People (1951). Instead, this story was to be told some twenty years later in books such as The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans, where Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera capture the scope of this historic event: “The 1910 Revolution, a period of great violence and confusion in Mexican history, directly affected the Southwest. … No one knows precisely how many Mexicans were involved in this great exodus; one estimate holds that more than one million Mexicans crossed over into the United States between 1910 and 1920” (123). This historic migration would become a major theme of modern Chicano literature. For instance, José Antonio Villarreal's prototypical novel, Pocho (1959), is anchored on the “North from Mexico” migration theme: “the great exodus that came of the Mexican Revolution. By the hundreds they crossed the Rio Grande and then by the thousands. … The bewildered people came on—insensitive to the fact that even though they were not stopped, they were not really wanted. It was the ancient quest for El Dorado, and so they moved onward, west to New Mexico and Arizona and California, and as they moved, they planted their new seed” (1).

In actual history, Leopoldo and Victoria Moran Rodriguez were part of that exodus and Richard Rodriguez was one of the new seeds planted in a new land. He was born July 31, 1944, in San Francisco, California: a native son. Later the Rodriguez family moved to Sacramento and it became the setting for Rodriguez's recollections in Hunger of Memory. From his parents' starting point in Mexican villages to San Francisco-Sacramento is a long distance—in time, space, and generational change.

Out of the historical whirlwind of wars, revolutions, uprootings, migrations, and the constant struggle to survive in an often hostile society came pressing issues that beset Mexican American communities and which have become common themes in Chicano/a literature. From the start, Mexican Americans were caught in a conflict between their historical-cultural roots, which extend to pre-Columbian times, and their participation in “the melting pot” of the United States. And from the start they had to wrestle with the dilemmas of assimilation and acculturation. It is a historic and present quandary that extends to other ethnic groups: “The very language used to describe ethnic and immigrant experience underscores the notion of change and conversion. The image of the melting pot … is both complex and confusing” (Holte, 6). The persistence of these quandaries is evident in Hunger of Memory and other contemporary Chicano autobiographical works (for example, Arturo Islas's The Rain God [1984] and Migrant Souls [1990]). The most immediate question that arises is: Can a balance be found? What is the reach and weight of the hyphen that often separates “Mexican American”? Is Mexican American a single term, a compound term, or even antithetical? Can that space be filled with a sense of identity or can one be invented from the ethnic materials that remain or those that have been transformed out of necessity? These questions lie at the heart of la búsqueda de identidad (the search for identity), the overriding theme of Chicano/a literature. Taking a nominal example, Rodriguez's parents have traditional first names, Leopoldo and Victoria. When did Ricardo swirl into the melting pot? At what point—and why—did their son become Richard? It happened to Rodriguez and it happened to many Chicanos across the generations. Some took extreme measures in attempting to deny what they were and in attempting to be what they were not. Name changes (both first and last), denial of one's ethnicity, and various forms of evasion and denial are part of the legacy of racial and ethnic discrimination. These attempts to either deny or ignore cultural roots indicate a breach in the continuity of ethnicity, and they have social, cultural, and political ramifications. Literature has taken a major role in the exploration of the exigencies and pressing problems that confront the survival and continuity of Chicano culture and ethnicity.

Rodriguez's position in Hunger of Memory is clear-cut, and he takes to task those who “scorn the value and necessity of assimilation” (26). Staying with Rodriguez's terms, what is the value of assimilation? Why is it necessary? Rodriguez's tally of “losses” and “gains” does not satisfy, but it does not lessen the importance of the issue. Without a doubt, the process of acculturation entails losses and gains; it is a compromise between the past and the present, the traditional and the new, the familiar and the foreign. Each generation and every ethnic group has had to deal with the paradoxes of “the melting pot” and “the American dream.” The losses and gains have been dear; the measure can be found in the individual and collective ethnic experience. The most appropriate subtitle for Hunger of Memory is “the Americanization of Richard Rodriguez.” In one very significant way his autobiography is not unique; it is a brief chapter in the larger story that frames the ethnic drama of America. Thus, it is proper to place Hunger of Memory in a comparative context; placed not only next to other works of Chicano/a literature, but also compared and contrasted to other contemporary ethnic autobiographies: African American (for example, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings [1970]); Asian American (Maxine Hong Kingston's The Warrior Woman [1972], for instance); Native American (N. Scott Momaday's The Names [1976], for example). Cultural memory binds these diverse works in a common purpose. The retrieval of the past is a salient feature of ethnic literature and the foundation of all autobiographical writing. “History lies in persistence of memory,” wrote Eudora Welty, “in lost hidden places that want to be found and to be known for what they are.” There is, after all, a hunger of memory in all of us.

In specific and in relation to other works in this section, a series of questions can be considered as discussion topics or as theme topics.

1. A central concern of Chicano/a literature is the assimilationist theme and the tension between conflicting traditions and values. How does Hunger of Memory address this situation? Is Rodriguez's view singular or is it evident in other works of ethnic literature?

2. How convincing is Rodriguez's argument for the value and necessity of assimilation? Are there important factors that he overlooks or ethnic cultural values that he ignores?

3. The subtitle of Hunger of Memory is “the education of Richard Rodriguez.” To what degree is formal education an instrument of acculturation? What are Rodriguez's views on the educational process? Why does he criticize bilingual education and cultural pluralism?

4. Excepting Anglophonic immigrant groups, what is the special bearing of the American experience that requires a person to lose his or her native language and accept another language? Must one, as Rodriguez argues, replace that language with English in order to succeed in American society?

5. How do literary works differ in style and outlook among writers who retained their first language (for example, Anaya and Cisneros) and writers who lost their knowledge of Spanish (Rodriguez, for instance).

6. How does the Chicano urban experience (for example, San Francisco-Sacramento in Hunger of Memory Chicago in The House on Mango Street, and Los Angeles in The Moths and Other Stories) differ from the rural experience (New Mexico in Bless Me, Ultima, for example).

7. Richard Rodriguez in Hunger of Memory and Helena María Viramontes's protagonists in The Moths and Other Stories have “arguments with their fathers”; that is, they note a cultural transition and question the patriarchial authority of traditional Mexican culture. How do Rodriguez and Viramontes differ in presenting this concern? How are they similar? How do gender roles affect the nature or particulars of the two narratives?

8. Hunger of Memory,Bless Me, Ultima,The House on Mango Street, and The Moths and Other Stories are works of cultural memory. How is the recapturing of the past or the “invention of the past” a fundamental part of ethnic consciousness? Why is family history an important part of cultural identity? How do these works differ in their approaches to cultural memory and the valuation of the past?

C. Bibliographies

1. Related Works

Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, San Francisco: Straight Arrow Press, 1972. A powerful, disturbing autobiographical novel with a frank focus on cultural deracination.

Anaya, Rudolfo A. Bless Me Ultima. Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol, 1972. The most famous rite-of-passage novel in Chicano literature; a boy comes of age in a small New Mexico town and discovers the power and lasting beauty of his cultural heritage.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1983. A series of well-crafted stories or vignettes that dramatize a young Chicana's coming of age in a Latino community in Chicago.

Galarza, Ernesto. Barrio Boy. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971. A famous and popular Chicano autobiography which describes the author's journey after the Mexican Revolution to settlement and acculturation in California.

Islas, Arturo. The Rain God. Palo Alto, Calif.: Alexandrian Press, 1984. An autobiographical novel set in El Paso, Texas, in the 1950s; combines mythology and historical narrative to create a Chicano brand of magic realism.

Rivera, Tomás. … y no se lo tragó la tierra / … And The Earth Did Not Part. Berkeley, Calif.: Quinto Sol, 1971. A classic work of contemporary Chicano literature and one of the most influential works of fiction; existential dimensions are given to migrant life in Texas, and the migrants' loss and suffering is given the dignity of tragic drama.

Villarreal, José Antonio. Pocho. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959. The prototype of the modern Chicano novel; mixing historical chronicle and autobiographical fiction, the first sustained exploration of assimilation and its impact on cultural heritage.

Viramontes, Helena María. The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985. “The Moths,” Viramontes's best known work and an excellent example of feminist Chicana fiction, complements Hunger of Memory by examining and resisting traditional concepts of Chicano culture.

2. Best Criticism

Hogue, W. Lawrence. “An Unresolved Modern Experience: Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory.The Americas Review 1 (Spring 1992): 52–64. Clear, informative outline and analysis of the content of Hunger of Memory; focuses on complex issues of cultural heritage and unresolved issues.

Márquez, Antonio C. “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory and the Poetics of Experience.” Arizona Quarterly 2 (Summer 1984): 130–41. An essay in genre criticism focusing on Rodriguez's style and the relation of his autobiography to Chicano literature.

Rivera, Tomás. “Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis.” MELUS 4 (Winter 1984): 5–12. Arguably the best criticism on Hunger of Memory; criticizes Rodriguez's politics and ideas, but praises his style and literary gifts.

Saldívar, Ramón. “Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography.” Diacritics 3 (1985): 25–34. An exercise in academic criticism and literary theory that analyzes Hunger of Memory and compares it unfavorably with Barrio Boy.

Woods, Richard D. “Richard Rodriguez.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Chicano Series, 214–216. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. A library reference source and biographical essay providing general information on Rodriguez's background and career.

3. Other Sources

Boelhower, William. “The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States.” American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Paul John Eakin 123–41. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Calderón, Héctor. “At the Crosswords of History, on the Borders of Change: Chicano Literary Studies Past, Present, and Future,” 211–235. In Left Politics and the Literary Profession, ed. Lennard J. Davis and M. Bella Mirabella. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Fischer, Michael M. J. “Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 194–233. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Holte, James Craig. The Ethnic I: A Sourcebook for Ethnic-American Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Rivera. The Chicano: A History of Mexican Americans New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Padilla, Genaro. “The Recovery of Chicano Nineteenth-Century Autobiography.” American Quarterly 3 (September 1988): 286–306.

Paredes, Raymund A. “The Evolution of Chicano Literature.” In Three American Literatures, ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., 33–79. New York: Modern Language Association, 1982.

Rivera, Tomás. “The Searchers.” In Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works, ed. Julián Olivares. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

———. “An American Writer.” In The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors, 3–13. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

———. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, New York: Viking Press, 1992.

Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Saldívar, José David. The Dialectics of Our America. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Shirley, Carl R. “Chicano History.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: Chicano Series, 296–303.

Sollors, Werner. “Nine Suggestions for Historians of American Ethnic Literature.” MELUS 1 (1984): 95–96.

Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia. “Immigrant Autobiography: Some Questions of Definition and Approach,” 142–70. In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Paul John Eakin.

Kevin R. McNamara (essay date spring 1997)

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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 work here.

—Jean Baudrillard, America

“Remember the Alamo,” children in Sacramento learned to say. Remembering what?

—Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation


When Richard Rodriguez personifies the United States in Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, he imagines a truck-stop waitress, “a blond or a redhead—not the same color as at her last job. … Morning and the bloom of youth are painted on her cheeks.” The bringer of new beginnings, with “one complete gesture [she] pockets the tip, stacks dishes along one strong forearm, produces a damp rag soaked in lethe water, which she then passes over the formica” (55). The trope of open road is a staple of American cultural criticism, from frontier legend to Jean Baudrillard's post-metaphysical musings, but this anti-maternal mother of us all, this pure product of American placelessness, is in the grain of another of Rodriguez's predecessors, William Carlos Williams.

The affinity between Williams and Rodriguez, is deeper than this one character: Days of Obligation and In the American Grain are concerned with the different cultures that share the U.S. and what they might create. For both authors “the American” is an Anglo Protestant. Writing during a period when “the general feeling against Puritanism … slipped into high gear” (Gregory xviii), Williams did not undertake to do justice to the complexity of Mather—or Franklin, for that matter. He was not wholly without appreciation for the early settlers; as he tells it, in those first hard New England winters, the Puritans' “tight-tied littleness” bloomed into a “courage, close to the miraculous” (American Grain 110) that enabled their survival. Yet, he insists that their fear of a world that reveals human limits left its indelible mark on the nation's unconsciousness. The Puritan mission to subdue “‘the Devil's Territories’” (83; quoting Mather) spawned Franklin, “Work[ing] night and day, build[ing] … a wall against that which is threatening, the terror of life, poverty” (156). For Rodriguez, too, the normative American landscape is a product of the Puritan unconscious: from its gated suburban communities to its southern border, the disposition of space in the U.S. reflects the Puritan injunction to “Build a fence around all you hold dear and respect other fences” (Days 163).

Thus the “northern strain” (American Grain 68) and its pathology of success manifest in labor-saving devices that free their maker, not from necessity but from contact with the unclean things of the world. It makes a virtue of statistics: “The United States, without self-seeking, has given more of material help to Europe and to the world in the last ten years in time of need than have all other nations of the world in the entire history of mankind” (American Grain 174), but this technology-mediated humanitarianism is born of fear of “serv[ing] another, with a harder personal devotion” (American Grain 176), a fear that defined Puritan America from its beginning, as Williams suggests by an anecdote of the divine who would call a converted Indian Brother, yet “would not suffer the contrite Indians to lay their hands upon him, … but drew back and told them to address themselves to God alone. … Afraid to touch!” (American Grain 119). Rodriguez suggests that the attitude survives today as a sublimated nativism: “The best thing about immigrants, the best thing they bring to America, we say, is their ‘diversity.’ We mean they are not us—the Protestant creed” (Days 165).

Rodriguez and Williams both play this American against another American who is Spanish and Catholic, a fatalist who lives in the sure knowledge of tragedy and therefore does not fear betrayal by the world. Combining qualities of these two American types, Williams sought an alternative America of reenergized individualism that would overcome the hobbles of the Puritan inheritance. To a significant degree, he wrote In the American Grain in the tradition of earlier “discoverers” like Crèvecoeur and Whitman, who created their nation and their selves to mirror each other.1 Having once observed to Horace Gregory that his own “mixed ancestry” had led him to feel “from earliest childhood that America was the only home I could possibly call my own. I felt that it was expressly founded for me, personally, and that it must be my first business in life to possess it” (Letter 185), Williams inscribed a national genealogy that reflected his own complex, divided character. For those American “fools” who “do not believe they have sprung from anything” (113), In the American Grain was to be their family album.

Despite his ancestry, it was difficult for Williams to imagine the strains, Latin and Anglo, Catholic and Protestant, actually combining. The Spaniards of In the American Grain appear as successive waves of one collective force, “stirred by instincts, ancient beyond thought … which they obeyed under the names of King or Christ” (27). By contrast, Williams' Anglo heroes are Protestants, their protests against threats to their individuality: Boon, who “solved most [problems] according to his nature by leaving them behind”; Morton, who spurned the Puritans to live as a “pioneer taking his chances in the wilderness”; Houston, who ran away at fifteen to join the Cherokees (132, 75, 212). These men who live among the Indians (whom Williams treats more as part of nature than as another strain of American culture) and who are secure in the knowledge of their own bodies, are Williams' antidote to the repressive social norms of the Anglo-ethnic elite—as they are elsewhere in his poems, stories, and essays, and as they are in the work of a host of other writers whose tales of “males taking on the bestiality of their animal or subhuman opponents, celebrate individual freedom … while dehistoricizing capitalist forces of change and inverting bourgeois sexuality” (Leverenz 759).

Rodriguez has less trouble imagining the convergence of Latin and Anglo in the New World. If Hunger of Memory fell into Williams' trap, recounting Rodriguez's life as the story of a Mexican kid who became an American Individual, Days of Obligation performs a more complex interrogation of identity as Rodriguez attempts to conceive what the mixing of these cultures portends. Eschewing the facile opposition between cultural determinism and the romance (from Crèvecoeur onward) of being reborn as an American, Rodriguez constructs a genealogy of American self-reliance and a more complex argument about the relation between cultures and individuality. Moving, in Days among ethnoi all at some point marked as “we,” he enacts a poetics of cultural miscegenation, something Williams could not do because he sought to ground identity outside the realm of social and cultural production. Rodriguez's story will once again be representative of “Americanization”; this time, however, it is a story of making a hybrid life and culture amidst the various cultures that share California.2

As I have already suggested, Rodriguez does not abandon Williams' constellation of “race” and religion. Rather, by repeatedly invoking these collective identities and their conventionally ascribed characters in divers contexts, Rodriguez deconstructs their self-identities; he exposes the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the histories that are repressed by cultural essentialists, nativist culture-warriors, and individualists who still imagine themselves free of all external determinations and constraints. Playing national myths, group identities, and received ideas off each other, Rodriguez creates himself as a point where cultures converge and are renewed. As such, his essays form an exemplary response to the challenge facing cultural studies: “to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale,” and “to study how, despite their differences, [peoples] have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict” (Said 330–31). His essays also offer a way to think beyond the increasingly ethnically polarized condition of the nation and, indeed, the world.


Rodriguez begins by asking how to explain the California of Protestant settlement that supplanted the Spanish who supplanted the Indians; how does one understand a place where it is possible “to change your name, your sex, get a divorce, become a movie star” (xvii), other than as the postmodernization of the Puritan New Jerusalem: a range of secular conversions, a series of exercises for keeping the world at bay? Los Angeles is particularly emblematic. Describing the city at mid-century, he makes it a post-mortem on Williams' hopes: “Los Angeles was a Protestant dream of a city. … Its tone was comic. Its scale was childish—giant donuts and eight-lane freeways. Los Angeles was not the creation of foreign parents escaping tragedy; Los Angeles was the creation of American children” (Days 151–52). The evidence is everywhere. He might have referred us to Joan Didion's chronicles in The White Album of California's “Pentecostal mind,” … “which gets messages only from God, ‘forcible impressions’” (97, 96), her notes on the Unity Church, “the general thrust of which is that everything works out for the best” (103), or her account of the spiritual wanderings of the state's former Episcopal bishop, James Pike, “a man who moved through life imagining that he was entitled to forget it and start over” (57). Or, he might have taken us to Forest Lawn, where death is banished by decree of “The Builder,” Hubert Eaton, who “believe[d] in a Christ that smiles” and the “memorialization of loved ones in sculpted marble and pictorial glass … controlled by acknowledged artists” in “a place where lovers … shall love to stroll and watch the sunset's glow; … where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books.” Most of all, Eaton believed in the protection of “an immense Perpetual Care Fund, the principal of which can never be expended—only the interest therefrom used to care for and perpetuate this Garden of Memory.” In any case, it is the Golden Land Baudrillard describes as “neither dream nor reality[, but] … a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved” (28).

Only doubt had crept into the Californian Eden by the time Baudrillard's traveler's tales were translated. The “Fall” may be dated to 1978 and Proposition 13, a property-tax limitation measure that did not so much proclaim despair as it did a desire on the part of people who a decade earlier thought their futures limitless to conserve their gains beyond the reach of greater social claims. It would take more than rising property taxes to puncture the California dream, but increased taxation and the Proposition 13 reaction came with a prolonged recession, net losses of industrial jobs in the 1970s and 1980s (Soja 197–208), and post-Cold War aerospace and engineering layoffs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Especially among the white working class, for whom recession intensified feelings of precarious economic and social position, and among politicians who prey on resentment, the blame for crime, declining wages, and strains on underfunded social services has been focused in election after election, locally and nationally, on “illegal aliens.”3

The accusations incite vicious racism that Rodriguez does not ignore. He registers the anger in those voices of Americans rewriting history as a litany of blame: “the Ku Klux Klan; nativists posing as environmentalists, blaming illegal aliens for freeway congestion. And late at night, on the radio call-in shows, hysterical reasonable American voices say they have had enough” (84). However, he locates the Californian crisis and the center of his analysis not in the race-baiting itself but in what he takes it as a manifestation of—Anglo-Californians' recognition of history as limit. Something akin to history has always had its place in California, he notes, and it often has a Mexican inflection, but “The Days of the Dons” and the Ramona pageants that are based only loosely on Helen Hunt Jackson's Indian-rights romance celebrate an imaginary West now marketed in real-estate advertisements for red-tile ranchos with vaguely Spanish names like Mission Viejo, which Edward Soja suggests is a bilingual pun (231).4 What Rodriguez has in mind is something with more of an edge of impending tragedy: the tone of the evangelists on local television and radio, where Robert Tilton's promises of contributions returned sevenfold on Success in Life sound far less earnest than readings of AIDS, earthquakes, and brushfires as prophecies of impending doom, some California writers—he singles out Didion (Days 217)—or the Native Daughters of the Golden West (122), who mourn the passing of an old order. The problem for the Golden Daughters, Rodriguez notes, is that in “a state that honors only the future” the past is always “condemned … to oblivion” (123). So they preserve the missions out of a need to assert that the past—any past—has happened, out of fear of becoming California's next Indians. Rodriguez is enough of a student of the Puritans to know that when Mather set about compiling the Magnalia Christi Americana, after the witch trials, he wrote with a sense of an ending. That precedent focuses Rodriguez's understanding of Californians’ turn to history.

Having shown an America grown middle-aged and anxious about its future, Rodriguez crosses the border to Catholic, traditional Mexico and finds in Tijuanans a youthful, pragmatic wisdom. His challenge is to find a reason for optimism in this city where “Mexican cynicism met American hypocrisy” (88). His method is to make us think differently about the culture of the border and its relation to the renewal of American culture, difficult as it will be in Tijuana, which is disowned by both countries. From the perspective of Mexico City, Tijuana is an American city; that is, “a city without history, a city without architecture” (83), a city without even a zócalo. North of the border, Tijuana is no longer a sleepy border town where Americans do what they wouldn't at home—get falling-down, puking drunk, find raven-haired women who love with Latin passion (for Mexico the ideal of beauty and wealth is a blonde5), pick fights with the locals and outrun the cops, as they do in coming-of-age movies like Losin' It, a raunchier, racist American Graffiti. In the U.S., Tijuana has become the object of Anglo-Californian paranoia: the source of Ross Perot's “giant sucking sound” and the alien invasion force against which Pat Buchanan, Pete Wilson, and too many other jingoists have defined themselves.

But here, as throughout Days, the outcast and the hybrid become the foundation of Rodriguez's cosmopolitanism, his vision of miscegenated culture. What the American arguments gloss over in their allegations of pollution and job transfers is that maquiladoras are created by U.S. industry's search for cheaper labor and less regulation, that the Pacific is fouled by sewage spills off Point Loma and into Santa Monica Bay as well as Baja, that the “illegal” Mexican day laborers and domestic help so essential to the California lifestyle are criminally underpaid. What Tijuanans recognize is that a border is where cultures are mutually implicated: San Diego is, from the perspective of Tijuana, “el otro cachete, the other buttock” (87). As Mexico's economy and mass culture consume America, so, too, Mexico is part of American life. (How could it not be when California is itself part of historic Mexico?) “Mexicans have invaded American privacy to babysit or watch the dying or to wash the lipstick off the cocktail glasses,” Rodriguez writes. “Mexicans have forced Southwestern Americans to speak Spanish whenever they want their eggs fried or their roses pruned. Mexicans have overwhelmed the Church. … Mexicans have taken over the grammar-school classrooms” (72), asserting the survival of the Indian in a Mexicanized Spanish once the property of the conquistadores who “destroyed” the cultures of Mexico.

Rodriguez's optimism seems jarringly discordant with the consistent stratification of this social topography into white masters and Hispanic servants. His description suggests instead the distribution of power in Mike Davis' study of racial and class divisions in Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But it is in matters of faith and outlook, in the energy of the exchanges across the permeable border between cultures, not in present institutional relations, that Rodriguez grounds his argument and his optimism. He notes, for instance, that the number of Protestants in Latin America has increased from a few hundred thousand early in this century to over fifty million today (176), and that the conversion is not solely a North American phenomenon. The failure of an Irish Catholic hierarchy to accommodate the practices of Latino parishioners may explain their exodus, as Davis proposes in his own chapter on Latino Los Angeles (323–72), but the explanation says nothing about why Latinos become Pentecostalists rather than convert to so-called “mainstream” Protestantism—or abandon Christianity altogether.6

Rodriguez looks into the converts' faith and tells us that the evangelical churches tend not to offer radical social visions: they preach salvation and sell it through an image of success created by missionaries who travel village to village in their suits, ties, and pressed white shirts (183). At the same time, disenchanted children of the golden dream become “Catholics” or “Indians,” seekers of comfort, consolation, communion with nature. In this reading, the second conversion of the Indies portends the revitalization not of a Mexico that is already youthful, but of a California, a United States, grown old and cranky. This argument is a central theme of Days of Obligation. It rests on a belief Rodriguez has since made explicit: The U.S. has a native-born problem, not an immigration problem. The vitality of the U.S. has long rested on the ability of immigrants to integrate into American society, to overcome the stagnation induced by the culture's putative defenders, and to transform it. In the optimistic energy of the Latin American and Asian immigrants who are arriving in California (and converting to Protestantism in large numbers—the Golden West Baptist Church, across the street from my old apartment in Westminster, holds Sunday services in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and English), Rodriguez discovers the agents of his unsentimental vision of cultural renewal through miscegenation.

His argument is “unsentimental” because in Days he refuses to mourn Indians who are not exterminated but living differently, and he deliberately stints on his sympathy for immigrant parents who fear the “Americanization” of their sons and daughters: “Foolish mother. She should have thought of that before she came” (161). The scene inside one Vietnamese home in San Francisco is emblematic: “on the floor … next to the television, is a bowl of fruit and a burning want of joss” (159).7 The television is not in this scene an unalloyed evil. While I do not doubt that Richard Rodriguez the literary intellectual takes a dim view of much that it brings into the house, Richard Rodriguez the video-essayist understands the medium's potential. For the new immigrants, and particularly for their children, the television is a window onto a culture that they know exists because they are outside it, as Spanish-speaking young Richard was (172).


From a perspective seemingly authorized by an assertion in Days that “In Mexico one is most oneself in private, … in America one is most oneself in public” (54), the consequence of Rodriguez's and other Mexican Americans' contact with American institutions, particularly the schools, could be described as a loss of cultural inheritance, and thus of personal identity. Indeed, pointing to the contradiction between “the American ideology of individualism” (163–64) and the socializing function of education, Rodriguez speculates that “the only other institution as unsentimental and as subversive of American individuality [as the military] has been the classroom” (162). For their different purposes, left-cultural critics, multiculturalists, and New-Right fundamentalists may all agree and appeal to authentic selves and authentic culture to “escape from what society, the school, the state, what history, has tried to make of us” (Appiah 75). But Rodriguez's own analysis of such claims is withering, as he turns his attention to self-creation within these zones of cultural exchange.8

It is not that Rodriguez imagines he has remained the same person or that his education let him become what he really was. He writes movingly of education as a journey from home and family, of it leading at points to resentment of both his parents' lack of education and the very education that moves him away from them. Yet, he comes to see how the experience is also empowering. In part, it is a matter of realizing that his familial position inevitably must change as he grows up and that by his successes a child from a socially marginal family becomes less marginal. At least as importantly, he shows how his education gave him new ways of understanding his experience, an understanding he could not have gained had he remained inside his family and its traditions.9 Indeed, he never abandons the question of inheritance because in Days of Obligation, as in Hunger of Memory, he is his own primary text—not, like Williams, as a perpetual beginner, but as someone shaped by his experiences in several cultures that have some claim on his “identity.”

By showing how identity is produced by combinations and recombinations of these cultures, many of them elective, Rodriguez makes most vivid the activity of cultural miscegenation and his belief that identity is constructed in, and as part of, public life. His critique of authenticity has strong affinities with Richard Sennett's argument against revived ideals of community that have as their goals the creation of a warm and intimate public space comprised of people who live and think alike. An inheritor of the Chicago school's vision of urban pluralism, Sennett argues that “what gets lost in this celebration [of the local territory as morally sacred ground] is the idea that people grow only by processes of encountering the unknown” (Fall 295). Ideally, the city should be experienced as a field of provocations where we discover our abilities and our limitations in the course of “find[ing] grounds for a common life with … others who do not, who cannot, understand” our own experience in its fullness (Conscience 136). Through life with people among whom differences may be lessened but do not exist to be overcome, Rodriguez notes, we realize an individuality that “is achieved, paradoxically, only by those who are able to consider themselves members of the crowd” (Hunger 27).

In Days' first two chapters, on Indians and gays, Rodriguez surveys his options for self-making, deferring the question of identity by multiplying his affiliations. It is a method entailed by the argument of the book, which is against the comforts of group identity and in favor of miscegenation as the means of making the old world new. The opening vignette is a scene very much in the grains of Williams' American history: a British documentary film crew (a caravan of air-conditioned autos, tape decks booming) guided by Rodriguez rides into the Mexico of narrow streets, crumbling buildings, open doors, to discover itself in a zócalo, amid mourners at a child's funeral (xviii). Rodriguez may seem Mexican to the British, but to the Mexicans, as to himself, he is a North American spewing “badly pronounced Spanish words” (xv). However, his Indian features bear witness to finer distinctions than can be accounted for within the polarities of Spanish and English/Mexican and American. The reader confronts at once, over Rodriguez's shoulder, “the Indian in the mirror” whose “long face” marks the author as different even within his family (I) and recalls his photograph on the back of the dust jacket, and its contrast with the painting of fair-skinned conquistadores on the front.

Creating a space for himself between these alternatives is no easy task, for if the black and white pages of the Kerner Commission's “Two Americas” report, the media representations of the 1992 L.A. Riots, and the polls on the O. J. Simpson trial create no space for Americans of other hues, Rodriguez argues that Mexico, no less than the U.S., has difficulty accounting for the survival of the Indian. While Mexico may have “taken its identity only from the Indian,” and it may “measure all cultural bastardy against the Indian” (12), the Indian in this story is a talisman—the natives Junípero Serra saw “go about entirely naked like Adam in paradise before the Fall” (116). Theirs is a green world fated to defilement; their lives are a myth against which two societies measure of their modernity, except when, as recently in Chiapas, a group of living Indians force their way into the record of the present.

In Days, Rodriguez embraces the Indian in himself, although identification with the repressed other of Mexico and the United States offers no reconciled identity. Indeed, his difficulties multiply. He is snubbed by one of his Native American students at Berkeley, who tells him, “You're not Indian, you're Mexican” (5), even as another (presumably white) student, a willing victim of romantic racialism, gushes, “it must be cool to be related to Aztecs” (2). Meanwhile, his aunt constructs a genealogy to prove the family's “common origin: eighteenth-century Salamanca” (2). Yet these moments of refusal and denial are as important to the story Rodriguez tells as are the affinities he elects. They remind us, as do the perceptions of the film crew and the Mexican villagers, that if identity is a social construction it is dependent on how one is perceived as well as on how one perceives oneself. If aligning oneself with the duration of a culture is a way of inoculating or insulating a fragile and contingent self against the vicissitudes of human time, it is limiting as well as empowering, a device of racist cultures for manufacturing purity.10

When, a few pages later, he is claimed as a fellow Indian by an Oxford friend who is reclaiming that part of his heritage, Rodriguez corrects him: “Mestizo” (9), having earlier noted that “Mestizo in Mexican Spanish means mixed, confused” (2). With that name of universal exclusion (the person of mixed race as the one who belongs nowhere), the argument of Days begins. But his subject is not cultural homelessness; Days ends with the mestizo as cosmopolite, the person who belongs everywhere. If, through an old black man of Paterson, Williams says, “‘White blood and colored blood don't mix’” (American Grain 210)—though they did, by violence, throughout the history of American slavery and frontier settlement—Rodriguez affirms that all cultures mix. Calling it “an Indian achievement that I am alive, that I am Catholic, that I speak English” (24), and an Indian achievement, as well, that on a crowded street in Mexico City he sees thousands of faces like his own but nowhere the pale conqueror (24), Rodriguez rewrites the clash of the Old and New Worlds, casting La Malinche, Cortés' Indian lover, as the seducer of Spain, the agent of the “epic marriage of Mexico” (22). The Indians met the Spanish, resisted or consented, but in converting they transformed what they joined. Spain made the Indian a Catholic, but Catholicism became “Indian” when the brown-skinned Virgin appeared to the Indian, Juan Diego, who converted the Spanish bishop to his faith in that miracle; Spaniards made the Indians Spanish-speakers only to have Spain pushed to the edge of the Spanish-speaking world.

Certainly, the encounter with the new world was violence, as even Williams argued again and again: the destruction of Tenochtitlán by Cortés, the agon of the explorers against the new land, that “most beautiful thing which [they] had ever seen” (American Grain 26), a desire that consumed Columbus, De Leon, and De Soto, or even, cannily, the equal violence of the Puritans' recoil. For Williams, it was an obstetrician's insight: all birth is violence. Rodriguez used the same metaphor in the aftermath of the L.A. riots to describe “The Birth Pangs of the New L.A.” (“Slouching” 1), and he extends it to Cortés' landing in 1519 when he proclaims “My life began, it did not end, in the sixteenth century” (Days 24).

What passed in the 1500s was a European dream of innocence recaptured and a certain construction of Indian identity produced by that desire. In claiming that the vehemence of the “postmodern judgment of [Father Junípero] Serra derives from our judgment of the Indian as innocent” (115), Rodriguez contends that “postmodernists” have dehistoriziced the cultural other in order that it might again fulfill a Western need, this time by being an ideal self for cultures that suffer a collective loss of faith in their goodness and their future. In doing so, he oversimplifies the historical record: there is no room for the more venerable Las Casas, whose remonstrations against the brutality of the encomienda system testify to his far-seeing humanity. Yet Rodriguez simplifies deliberately. His reevaluation points to a significant paradox engendered by our more humane judgment of other cultures: to the Catholic mind, “history is inevitable, tragedy inevitable, innocence impossible” after the Fall (Days 115). To recognize, as the Doctors of Salamanca did, that the Indians were “invincibly ignorant” because they “never, and through no obvious fault of their own, had the opportunity to hear the Gospel” (Pagden 38), is to see human souls in need of salvation.11 Even as Spain sentenced its Jews and Moors to exile and damnation, the Salamanca theologians and their representatives “made a beeline for Indians. The Indians were the reason they had come” (Days 115). Thus, the irony of history as Rodriguez sees it: Serra's detractors, not the architects of the conversion of the Indies, fail to recognize the Indians' humanity.

Having situated himself at the confluence of three cultures, Rodriguez introduces sexuality as another mode of self-identification in a second street scene: a parade of “gay dentists, black and white lovers, gays from Bakersfield, Latina lesbians” down the streets of San Francisco, which memorialize “nineteenth-century men of action, men [named] Clay, Jackson, Scott, Pierce” (26–27, 30). Here is a rich image of the complexity of (post)modern urban community, one that implies the potential for conflict in any field of difference. While homosexuality is another part of Rodriguez's identity, it is a subject position against which the dominant forms of American and Mexican manhood define themselves. When he asks about this city, named by the Spanish for the Italian saint, whose it is, he responds that “Architectural historians credit the gay movement of the 1970s with the urban restoration of San Francisco” (30). Again, he oversimplifies: revitalization involved consortia of bankers, bond brokers, lawyers, contractors, civic and private agencies, and, no doubt, a lot of favors. But his oversimplification opens another problematic: the perspective from which that judgment is issued would in other instances be dismissed as hegemonic—it is more concerned with restoration of tour-book vistas and the property tax base than it is with the continued vitality of marginal neighborhoods. It was into those working-class neighborhoods that gays brought their capital and aesthetic values, much as, at the same time in many other cities, straight, white, yuppie “reverse-block-busters” displaced marginal communities and drove up property values. Communities of working-class ethnics in San Francisco were no less displaced because gays were also socially and politically marginal. From the standpoint of the uprooted, the salvation of the city was no less an act of violence against an established culture than was the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, although the technologies of conquest were modern and bloodless.

With new economic relations came new resentments against gays. Rodriguez reminds us how vicious homophobia often is by recalling Dan White, the city supervisor who became San Francisco's “ultimate gay-basher” when he murdered City Supervisor Harvey Milk. An “ex-cop, ex-boxer, ex-fireman, ex-altar boy” (36), White could not have been more ideally suited (or stereotypically named) for his role: he combined embattled masculinity with service to institutions that have suppressed gay culture. Rodriguez takes this murder in an unexpected direction when he explains that White grew up in the Castro and came to feel that as it became a gay neighborhood “Gays had achieved power over him” (36). This observation is almost unspeakable now, during the AIDS pandemic, but Rodriguez's commitment to his subject—what happens when cultures mix—moves him to ask if queer-bashing mightn't be a reaction against gentrification, and therefore a class-based animosity, as much as it is homophobia. These two forms of resentment toward gays are not in fact separable, because ideals of virile masculinity have been powerful in the U.S. working class as a response to the feminized, spectatorial culture of the professional classes. Rodriguez's insistence on reading beyond the obvious and real victimization of homosexuals because of their sexuality to gay-bashing's intersection with the resentment of the displaced working class reminds us that the fault lines of power of the identities of groups are complexly fissured. Although “the gay movement rejected downtown [development interests] as representing ‘straight’ conformity” (38), “straight culture” is fragmented by ethnicity and class. If, as a City Councilman, Dan White was no longer working class, gays were by no means entirely outside the political structure. What the argument strongly implies, what the book as a whole argues (what Williams argued about the Puritans) is that change is inevitable, and the attempt to deny it is as much a form of violence as are the forces of change themselves.

Rodriguez's moving pages on HIV extend his contention about the inevitability of change, taking us beyond the realm of human interventions that result in miscegenation in a way that strikingly caps his argument about the interconnectedness of culture and history. Of death from HIV, which he explores through personal reflection and accounts from the city's gay newspapers, Rodriguez makes his most moving case for the tragedy pendant to all dreams of utopia and for the knowledge born of tragedy. Prolific in artifice, approaching the body, too, as the material of art, these “men who sought the aesthetic ordering of existence” are “recalled to nature” by “a plague of absence … condensed into the fluid of passing emotion” (45, 40). The “impulse … to convert, … to fragrance, to prettify” (33) peels back to expose lesions on blotched skin, strong beautiful bodies now skeletal, wit gone speechless in a parched mouth. Rather than marginalize gay life in these words, Rodriguez makes it central to western culture, for art is (at least, was) venerated as a realm of freedom and modality of truth.

The spectacle of early death is testimony to human limits and human vanity, but death on this scale, we may feel, must say more. In his account, it speaks to the conditions out of which community arises, a lesson perhaps easier to accept from a distance—for instance in that Mexican village preparing for a child's funeral, where Days of Obligation begins. Rodriguez is thinking not of the gay community itself, but of a larger community composed of, and shared by, “nurses and nuns and the couple from next door, co-workers, strangers, teenagers, corporations, pensioners. A community … forming over the city” that has “learned to love what is corruptible” (45, 47). Like Williams, Rodriguez argues that the fear of what is mortal keeps most Americans at a distance not only from others but from themselves. Going further, he contends that only as we recognize the inevitability of death and renounce our illusions of self-sufficiency, only as we separate the ability to care from the desire to absorb, to transform, to annihilate difference, are we able to serve others with the respect of which meaningful community is made. What Rodriguez describes here is a community of others, of people who share no myth of common identity but have learned to see the other as “you” instead of as “them”—as “downtown,” “gay,” “yuppie,” “ethnic,” or “Catholic”—and to see themselves as implicated in each other's survival.

At a time when we mourn the decimation of the gay community, when the Indian is mourned by whites and Native Americans, Rodriguez asks readers to consider an alternative: what if the Indian really were converted, not exterminated or pretending to be Catholic? And he tells us that visual consumption works in multiple directions, that “gay life” is not other than, a threat to, so-called American values. It has been consumed by a generation and reemerged as a model for American success: the dink (dual income, no kids) household, the couple that's “all dressed up [with] everywhere to go” (37). The new ideals of domesticity have been learned from “the gay house in illustrated lifestyle magazines,” the pleasures of urbanity and the preoccupation with remaking the body were rediscovered by gay urban pioneers (37, 39). By the process he calls miscegenation the gay and the Mexican are part of America; the reverse is equally true.

Rodriguez is no curator of cultures. The meditations of Days of Obligation suggest as well the thoughts on exile of a fellow Catholic, the twelfth-century French monk, Hugo of St. Victor, quoted by the Palestinian American Said, who found the passage reading Auerbach, “the great German scholar” who spent the years of World War Two in Turkey (Said 335). Said explains that Hugo's axiom, “The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign place,” teaches “the universal truth of exile, … that inherent in each [love or home] is an unexpected loss” (Said 336), a lesson also present in Sennett's ideal of cities as places of provocation. Rodriguez's case for miscegenation also rests on his belief that cultures, no less than people, are caught up in the rhythms of becoming and dying, and that people give meaning to cultures at least as much as the other way around.

The pace of exchange has accelerated with the diminishment of space, and it is by no means all for the good. The world culture of fast food, mini-malls, and office buildings that look the same in Toronto or Taiwan belongs to no one; the absorption of third-world peoples as reserves of cheap labor is of no immediate benefit to them. But people as well as capital traverse borders and cultures: the Indians who live half the year in Oaxaca and half in Fresno, dealing with two currencies, three languages, and “several centuries” (“Slouching” 6), or my colleague from Olomouc who is by “nationality” Polish, by birth and citizenship Czech, by first language and home Silesian, by profession an Americanist. As they move, they carry what is vital in their cultures with them. In the intricate, often unconscious activity of everyday life, the common life of cultures and individuals is made new.


  1. Raised in a suburb by parents who belonged to the Unitarian Church, Williams had roots that extended into Spanish America. His mother was of Basque and Sephardic ancestry; her father, Williams writes, considered himself “more French than Spanish” (Autobiography 317). Born and christened in Puerto Rico, raised in Santo Domingo, she was schooled in art in Paris. Williams' “father was an Englishman who lived in America all his adult years and never became a citizen” (Autobiography 14).

    A book of self-creation, In the American Grain is an argument for poetry as much as about history: “The book's as much a study in styles of writing as anything else,” Williams wrote to Gregory (187). He planned to end his text with Poe and the lesson that the frontier is inward—the Lincoln chapter was requested by his publisher (Autobiography 236). Frederick Jackson Turner had eulogized the frontier's role in social regeneration by cultivating self-reliant qualities in men who struggle violently and valiantly against a wilderness that first masters them. Transferring these qualities to writing, Williams images Poe as a “pioneer” (American Grain 226) who turns from contemporaries still in thrall to Europe. The character of the wilderness is grafted onto the materials of poetry: they are “hot, angry, … WOULD not be destroyed” (American Grain 225); in the manner of Boon and Houston, Poe is “willing to go down and wrestle” (225) with the locus by which his “genius [was] intimately shaped” (216), “darkening as he goes, losing the battle, … going under” (223). For Williams, too, the new world was inward: he sought from contact with the virgin page a new spring and all that flows from it.

  2. Days of Obligation also discusses the Asian peoples of southern California. This material lies largely outside the focus of this article. It does, however, allow Rodriguez one passage that could be paradigmatic for the text as a whole, when he remarks, “My Mexican father was never so American as when he wished his children might cultivate Chinese friends,” having already explained that “so polite, so serious are Chinese children in my father's estimation. The Spanish word he used was formal” (171, 160).

  3. In the year of the Willie Brown ads, Curt Pringle, the Republican candidate for the California Assembly in my Orange County district, erected sham “citizenship checkpoints” and staffed them with private security forces dressed to resemble immigration police in a successful attempt to intimidate Latino voters (see Luther).

    Davis offers an excellent account of the economic forces that produced the urban fringe and its anger in his chapter on Fontana (375–435). From a different perspective, Didion on biker movies (99–101) is equally invaluable.

  4. I take Soja to mean that the town, properly Misión Vieja (although it was not the site of a mission), actually names a developer's strategy of conjuring the romance of the Spanish past; hence, “Mission: Viejo.”

  5. Rodriguez frequently mentions the association of fair skin with beauty and success (e.g., Hunger 37; Days 11, 73, 75, 214), and the superstitions that have grown up around it (for example, Hunger 113–23). It is not simply a cultural seepage from the United States—although it is that, too (Hunger 113–39). The bias is also learned from the complexion of Mexican business and politics, and Rodriguez argues that it reflects a hegemonic ideological association of Europe with modernity and the future of the nation, Indians with tradition and a more or less distant past (Days 2, 15, 74).

  6. A scan of Davis' index turns up one entry on Evangelicism, one on Protestantism, and the instruction, “see also WASP dominance” (456).

  7. “Americanization” too often functions as a valuative term, not an analytic term. In a curious turn, multinationalism and youth culture gain a single provenance. Even the International Style of architecture, slow in crossing the Atlantic but now virtually synonymous with the anonymity of urban space, is Americanized. By the terms of this critique, the strongest critics of American narcissism (Americans at the forefront) become its proponents. But is a Mexican American kid in California who listens to Public Enemy and develops a taste for sushi becoming “Americanized?”

    My own experienced in two fora where “Americanization” was the focus of discussion (the 1995 conference of the Baltic Association for North American Studies, in Tartu, Estonia, and a two-day panel, “American Cultural Imperialism or Global Modernization?,” at the University of Utrecht) suggest at least in some circles a growing dissatisfaction with the limitations of “Americanization” as a description of cultural change that is really multi-leveled.

  8. Rodriguez's resistance to other-centric curricula is not aimed against teaching the history of America's cultures (169); it is based on a judgment that such syllabi, no less than the rightly discredited versions of American history as the story of a select group of white males, ignores the nation's complex and contested public culture. The important figures in any group's history are not “figures of diversity,” he writes, “but … persons who implicate our whole society” (170) by recalling it to its principles, and demanding recognition from all Americans. Indeed, one can no more understand the history of black or Hispanic America without knowing the history of its relation to white America than one can understand the history of white America absent its relations to Africans, Latinos, Asians, and Indians. As Rodriguez writes, “to argue for a common culture is not to propose an exclusionary culture or a static culture” (170), but to work through a history that informs our present.

  9. The insight comes as he reads Hoggart (291–304) about the “scholarship boy.” His experience reading Hoggart also testifies that a lived sense of existing in two cultures in shared by members of any group for whom a deep investment in education has not been formative of family life.

  10. Rodriguez's argument that those multiculturalists who privilege cultural identity over individual and historical variety are the new Puritans becomes more interesting when one considers it not simply as a claim about separatism (of course, the Puritans were not separatists; the Pilgrims were) but in light of Sennett's extension of Max Weber's thesis about The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to explain “the myth of a purified community” as a collective psychological defense against otherness and the unknown in middle-class white suburban communities (Uses 27–49).

  11. Evaluating Aztec and Inca civil societies by the light of Aristotle's Politics, Francisco de Vitoria argued that these peoples were neither subhuman nor natural slaves. Likening the Indian to the European peasant, who is fully human if untutored. Vitoria “liberated him from a timeless void of semi-rationality and set him into an historical space where he would be subject to the same laws of intellectual change, progress and decline as other men are” (Pagden 99). While locating Vitoria's writings within the context of the colonialism it justified, Pagden is equally careful to demonstrate that the debates at Salamanca were not intended to justify that undertaking.

Works Cited

American Graffiti. Dir. George Lucas. Universal Pictures, 1973.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Baudrillard, Jean. America Trans. Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso, 1988.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London and New York: Verso, 1990.

Didion, Joan. The White Album. 1979. New York: Noonday, 1990.

Gregory, Horace. Introduction. William Carlos Williams. In the American Grain. New York: New Directions, 1956. ix–xx.

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life with Special Attention to Its Publications and Entertainments. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1992.

Leverenz, David. “The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumpo to Batman.” American Literary History 3 (1991): 753–81.

Losin' It. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Embassy Pictures, 1983.

Luther, Claudia, and Steven R. Churm. “Lawsuit Planned Over Guards at Polling Places.” Los Angeles Times 15 Nov. 1988, sec. 1:24.

Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana; or the Ecclesiastical History of New England. London, 1702.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Rev. ed. London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1992.

———. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. 1982. New York: Bantam, 1983.

———. “Slouching Toward Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times 11 April 1993: Mr. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Sennett, Richard. The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. New York: Knopf, 1990.

———. The Fall of Public Man. 1976. New York: Norton, 1992.

———. The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London and New York: Verso, 1989.

Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography. New York: Random, 1951.

———. In the American Grain. 1925. New York: New Directions, 1956.

———. Letter to Horace Gregory, 22 July 1939. Selected Letters. Ed. John C. Thirlwall. New York: McDowell-Obolensky, 1957. 185–88.

Paige Schilt (essay date winter 1998)

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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 firesides and paneled halls.

—Hugo of St. Victor, from Didascalion1

In the prologue to his 1982 book Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez defines himself as a specifically middle-class pastoralist. As did Raymond Williams, Rodriguez suggests that the position from which one identifies with rustic life is all-important to the nature of the compensations that this complicated structure of feeling can provide:

Upper-class pastoral can admit envy for the intimate pleasures of rustic life as an arrogant way of reminding its listeners of their difference—their own public power and civic position. (“Let's be shepherds … Ah, if only we could.”) Unlike the upper class, the middle class lives in a public world, lacking great individual power and standing. Middle-class pastoral is, therefore, a more difficult hymn. There is no grand compensation to the admission of envy of the poor. The middle class rather is tempted by the pastoral impulse to deny its difference from the lower class—even to attempt cheap imitations of lower-class life. (“But I still am a shepherd!”)


Even as he outlines the middle-class pastoral, Rodriguez maintains a suspicious relation to it. The emphasis on his middle-class status is meant to deny any easy access to the intimate world of his Spanish-speaking, working-class childhood. To pretend otherwise would, he suggests, blur “the distinction so necessary to social reform” (6). Here Rodriguez is insisting, as he will throughout Hunger of Memory, on a measure of irreconcilability between the private world of the immigrant family and the public world of citizenship and education. The necessity of loss in the transition from one realm to another is key to his attempted intervention in debates over American education. Ironically, some of the most attractive (and marketable) moments in Hunger of Memory are precisely Rodriguez's depictions of the embracing, close-knit, Spanish-speaking family. Thus, as he positions himself in the opening pages of his memoir, he must be clear that his book is not “a drama of ancestral reconciliation”: “Caliban won't ferry a TV crew back to his island, there to recover his roots” (5).

In the introduction to his second book, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father Rodriguez first appears with TV crew in tow, as the presenter for a BBC documentary on the United States and Mexico. However, Rodriguez remains the uneasy observer of his familial and cultural background. Indeed, if Hunger of Memory announces itself as a heavily qualified pastoral, Days of Obligation opens with an image that might be called “anti-pastoral”: “I am on my knees, my mouth over the mouth of the toilet, waiting to heave” (xv). Richard Rodriguez introduces his second book with the image of himself, not in the intimate folds of the Mexican American family, but in Mexico itself, vomiting like a tourist. Clearly, this is no return to Eden. His Mexican sojourn had begun, Rodriguez explains, with looking for a village he had never seen, the village of childhood imagining and parental memory. Here the vision of an authentic, communal past is recognized as a nostalgic dream, mediated by myth and memory. Rodriguez allows the reader to savor the irony implicit in the BBC's choice of himself, “a man who had spent so many years with his back turned to Mexico,” to “introduce Mexico to a European audience” (xvi). The status of Mexico as an authentic and accessible origin for Mexican Americans is in question here, as it is when Rodriguez imagines himself regurgitating “badly pronounced Spanish words” (xv). Throughout Days of Obligation Rodriguez devotes himself to correcting pastoral visions of Mexico as the natural and provincial past. However, in spite of his attempts to provide a more sophisticated picture of Mexico's position in a cosmopolitan, international future, Rodriguez's narrative remains within what is essentially a pastoral structure, separated from any meaningful engagement with the complex individuals and situations he observes.

In The Country and the City Raymond Williams construes pastoral broadly as a “structure of feeling” organized around “the contrast of the country with the city and the court: here nature, there worldliness” (46). Significantly, the idealized life of the country is most often located in the past. In its most general form, pastoral is “a conventionalized pattern of retrospection that laments the loss of a ‘good’ country, a place where authentic social and natural contacts were once possible” (Clifford, 113). Williams is concerned with the pastoral both as an imaginative response to change and fragmentation, and, simultaneously, as an ideology of expanding capitalism, in which the structure of contrast and retrospection works to obscure specific historical relations between the wealth of the city and modes of ownership and production in the country. The historical disconnection between the commercial, ambitious, changing city and the vanishing virtues of an older way of life constructs a distinct position of observation: when community and authenticity are located definitively in the past, the pastoral observer can only intervene by conjuring these values in an idealized landscape of memory: “Thus a humane instinct was separated from society; it became a sympathy and a pity after the decisive social events” (83).

Critics of historiography and ethnography, interrogating, in Hayden White's phrase, “the content of the form,” have found pastoral a problematic trope for historical and cross-cultural representation precisely because of its dissociating and dehistoricizing tendencies. Most relevantly, in an article on Chicano autobiography, Ramón Saldívar comments that “in relying upon the pastoral form,” Hunger of Memory constructs a homogenous vision of public, rhetorical life, while “the purely private side of the individual is huge, abstract, schematized, and tends to produce archetypal images” (28). Saldívar suggests that the pastoral constructs an exclusive relationship between private (intimate, authentic) and public (mediated) selves, one which forecloses an understanding that “the ‘private’ is always already a familial institution and a linguistic network that form a person” (29). Because specifically Mexican and Mexican American experiences are located within the private, Rodriguez cannot engage with them as “existing social practice, the life of the collective folk (of la raza),” for alternative versions of the self in society (33). There is no sense that histories and identities can be interrogated and reformulated. Thus, Rodriguez cannot conceive of his entry into the English-speaking public world as anything other than a stark break, a loss of the nurturing, communal family world. Saldívar interrogates the pastoral as a means of putting the ideological content of narrative strategies on the table, then moves on to ask what other modes of figuration could allow for the sociohistorical complexity of personal experience, and hence conceptualize enculturation as an ongoing process in which “the possibilities for identity are complexly dispersed” (32)

The limitations of pastoral as a trope for representing the cultural encounter of migration and acculturation, its inability to do justice to the complexity and historicity of private or folk experience, are also at issue in another literature of cultural encounter: ethnography. In “On Ethnographic Allegory,” James Clifford suggests that pastoral tropes have historically informed cross-cultural representation. Clifford notes a persistent tendency to construct encounters with cultural otherness as a search for lost human origins or “uncorrupted” human nature. Insofar as this “conventionalized pattern of retrospection” laments the loss of authentic community and union with nature, it presents multiple problems for cross-cultural representation. Pastoral ignores the extent to which “primitive” or “pre-literate” communities are already mediated by language, narratives, and rituals (117). Moreover, because ethnographic pastorals situate cultural otherness as prior to the time of Western history, they deny the history and resiliency of unfamiliar cultures. Without a recognition of their past, unfamiliar societies are reified, frozen just as they are at the moment of “discovery,” and the entrance into Western history and Western-style progress is conceived as disintegration (112). Thus, Clifford notes, pastoral narratives locate the ethnographic observer beyond the demands of a response to a viable society (114). Like Saldívar, Clifford suggests that a heightened awareness of the narratives “implicitly or explicitly at work” in ethnography will open up a self-conscious space to develop new tropes of cross-cultural representation. Among others, Clifford suggests “syncretism” as a structure that might allow ethnographers to conceive of cultures as changing without losing their traditions.

The transition from Hunger of Memory to Days of Obligation echoes the different generic concerns of Saldívar and Clifford. Although it is still structured around autobiographical insights, in Days of Obligation Rodriguez offers himself as an observer of the cultures of California and Mexico. Three of the essays in that volume, “India,” “Mexico's Children,” and “In Athens Once,” deal at length with visits to Mexico. Throughout these essays Rodriguez depicts himself as a tourist, a stranger who, like the gringos, dares not drink the water. In all three, he warps and redeploys the trope of pastoral in order to call into question some of the same ideas that Saldívar and Clifford find problematic: human origins, authenticity, cultural purity, the primitive, and native passivity. Yet although he flirts with notions of mestizaje, syncretism does not replace pastoral as Rodriguez's narrative for conceiving of either cultural circulation between the Europe and indigenous Mexico or the acculturation of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Rodriguez dismantles the pastoral vision of Mexico as rural, indigenous, provincial, and static because he feels it is inadequate to represent the complexities of Mexican history and modern-day Mexican life. He is particularly critical of Mexican and Chicano nationalist attempts to construct Mexican and Mexican American identities out of a reified, simplistic version of Mexico's past that denies the influence of Catholicism and colonialism. But in the place of a nostalgic, pastoral identity, he offers not a vision of specific and creative cultural mixture, but an understanding of certain cherished Mexican values as universal. The Mexican (and Mexican American) subject is worldly, receptive, mobile—not limited by ties to blood, land, or specific histories.

By constructing himself as just such a dislocated, cosmopolitan subject, Rodriguez is able to move fluidly between subject positions, to represent the U.S. and Mexico from a number of contradictory points of view. However, severed from conventional filiations, this observer does little more than hold these contradictory realities up to one another; his vantage point is detached, ironic. In positioning himself beyond specific cultural and historical connections, he attempts to transcend the ethical relationships implicit in seeing and seeing through others. Thus, while his anti-pastoral engages and complicates simplistic versions of Mexican and Mexican American experience, it remains within the pastoral structure of the observer positioned beyond any significant response to the scene he observes. And yet Rodriguez's text maintains an uncomfortable sense that vision is both implicated (in power relationships) and implicating (in relationships between seer and seen). His attempts at transcendent, mobile vision are haunted by the relationships he refuses and a desire for connection made to seem impossible by his totalizing vantage point.

The first essay in Days of Obligation, “India,” begins with a quotation from the Spanish traveler Cabeza de Vaca about an encounter with a group of Indians who “sent their women and children to look at us” (1). This reference to the Indian gaze announces the beginning of an attempt to reverse the conventional-looking relations embedded in European travel literature, which naturalized European projects of dominance and appropriation by emptying the imperial landscape of any returning gaze, any sign of resistance (Pratt, 52). Rodriguez is critical of Mexican discourses on “Indian passivity” and American textbooks that consign Indians to extinction. In an encounter with an Indian beggar outside Mexico's magnificent Museo Nacional de Antropologia, he notes the paradox of a society that marginalizes Indian people and yet constructs its self-image out of the glory of its Indian heritage. The function of this indigenous heritage as a kind of anticolonial pastoral is made explicit:

The rhetoric of [the tour guide], like the murals of Diego Rivera, resorts often to the dream of India—to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the world before conquest. “Preconquest” in the Mexican political lexicon is tantamount to “prelapsarian” in the Judeo-Christian scheme, and hearkens to a time when Mexico feels herself to have been whole, a time before the Indian was separated from India by the serpent Spain.


It is not just official Mexico, however, that attempts to construct an identity through a romanticized Indian past. Rodriguez tells the story of his friend who searches for signs of Indianness in his mother's propensity for gardening:

Because the Indian has no history—that is, because history books are the province of descendants of Europeans—the Indian seems only to belong to the party of the first part, the first chapter. So that is where the son expects to find his mother, daughter of the moon.


Rodriguez's answer to the “daughter of the moon” is the “living Indian,” who can be found on the streets of Mexico City or London. Working-class Mexican men like Andrés, the driver for Rodriguez's Mexico City hotel, are “eager for the world,” Rodriguez notes. “He speaks two languages. He knows several cities. He has been to the United States” (22). Rodriguez compares such men to Indian guides and translators in European annals who facilitate and “preserve Europe's stride.” He continues, “These seem to have become fluent in pallor before Europe learned anything of them” (22). Here Rodriguez disrupts the conventional portrayal of the Indian as the passive victim of colonization and replaces it with the image of the attentive observer, eager for cosmopolitan knowledge. In another such twist on the translator figure, Rodriguez portrays the infamous La Malinche as “the seducer of Spain,” who draws near out of active curiosity (22). Later, Rodriguez represents himself as the active, curious, “living Indian.” On the way to a performance at the Queen's Theatre in London, he catches a glimpse of a culturally revealing conjunction:

The last time I was in London, I was walking toward an early evening at the Queen's Theatre when I passed that Christopher Wren church near Fortnum & Mason. The church was lit; I decided to stop, to savor the spectacle of what I expected would be a few Pymish men and women rolled into balls of fur at evensong. Imagine my surprise that the congregation was young—dressed in army fatigues and Laura Ashley. Within the chancel, cross-legged on a dais, was a South American Shaman. Now, who is the truer Indian in this picture? Me … me on my way to the Queen's Theatre? or that guy on the altar with a Ph.D. in death?


Again, the logic of “India” inverts the traditional significations of Indianness, reversing the tendency to equate Indianness with fixity or passivity.

In place of the nostalgic, preconquest Indian mother as a symbol of Mexican national identity, Rodriguez offers the Virgin of Guadalupe as a figure who “symbolizes the entire coherence of Mexico, body and soul” (16). But the Virgin is not offered as an image of the syncretic and resistant blending of Indian and Christian religion. Rodriguez directly addresses and dismisses this familiar explanation for the success of Christianity in Mexico:

The superstition persists in European travel literature that Indian Christianity is the thinnest veneer covering an ulterior altar. But there is a possibility still more frightening to the European imagination, so frightening that in five hundred years such a possibility has scarcely found utterance.

What if the Indians were converted?


If the Indians were converted, as Rodriguez clearly believes, then the unspeakable truth is that the legacy of Christianity and European culture is being played out in Mexico. Catholicism is not a mask for Indian religion, “Catholicism has become an Indian religion” (20). Moreover, the Western tradition has become an Indian tradition: “The Indian eye becomes a portal through which the entire pageant of European civilization has passed. … The baroque is an Indian conceit. The colonial arcade is an Indian detail” (23). Rather than equating Mexico with folk art or the primitive, Rodriguez constructs the Indian as the heir and rejuvenator of an elite Western civilization, thereby contesting representations of Mexico as a place of stasis, death, and decay.

Rodriguez develops his critique of the desire to cherish and maintain a specific cultural past understood as Indian and rural in the essay “Mexico's Children.” The essay begins with typical pastoral imagery. In his childhood, Rodriguez notes, Mexican farmworkers commuted between past and present. But he immediately undercuts this image of disjuncture, arguing that the geography of the American Southwest so resembled Mexico that it mitigated “the sense of dislocation otherwise familiar to immigrant experience” (49). On one page Rodriguez calls Mexico a country “where things are not necessarily different from when your father was your age,” but on the next he imagines Mexican teenagers watching Dallas on TV, being filled with American ambition (51–52). The construction of Mexico as the uncorrupted, traditional antithesis of the commodity-ridden, amnesiac, modern United States is continually invoked only to be undermined. Similarly, Rodriguez lyrically constructs the Mexican family as the realm of intimacy, the realm of :

At the heart there is —the intimate voice—the familiar room in a world of rooms. is the condition, not so much of knowing, as of being known; of being recognized. belongs within the family. … Usted, the formal, the bloodless, the ornamental you, is spoken to the eyes of strangers. … Usted is open to interpretation; therefore it is subject to corruption, a province of politicians. Usted is the language outside Eden.


The “Eden” of the Mexican family is contrasted to the slipperiness and inauthenticity of both usted and the American pan-usted, “you.” However, Rodriguez juxtaposes his idealized portrait of the Mexican family with an image of how the Mexican government manipulates this very conception of familial Mexico in order to legitimate its own power: “REMEMBER. THE STRENGTH OF MEXICO IS THE FAMILY. (A government billboard)” (62). The paradise of the Mexican family is revealed as already invaded, corrupted by the public sphere. The family life Mexicans cherish is in fact a construct mediated by advertising, politics, the media. There is no authentic relationship to this “private” realm.

Throughout “Mexico's Children,” Rodriguez is concerned with what might be labeled performances of Mexicanness or Mexican heritage like the PRI's performance of Mexican family unity. In the United States context he examines how the Chicano movement appropriated images of Mexican rural life: “We are people of the land, we told ourselves. Middle-class college students took to wearing farmer-in-the-dell overalls” (65). Rodriguez suggests that there is something inauthentic in this attempt to claim a rural, indigenous past. Like the Mexican national enshrinement of the indigenous, this constructed Chicano identity does not face up to the complexities of Mexican American identity. That Rodriguez sees the reified symbols of the Chicano movement as inadequate to the modern, cosmopolitan reality of Mexican American life is evident in his treatment of Cesar Chavez. Rodriguez describes the United Farm Workers' 1966 “Lenten Pilgrimage” through California's Central Valley:

Lines of men, women, and children passed beneath the low, rolling clouds, beneath the red and black union flags and the flapping silk banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their destination was the state capital, Sacramento, the city, Easter. They were private people praying in public. Here were the most compelling symbols of the pastoral past: life on the land (the farmworker); the flag, the procession in song (a people united, the village); the Virgin Mary (her consolation in sorrow).


Rodriguez subtly questions the authenticity of the pastoral display by showing how this private, religious, rural realm is being mobilized for public, secular, metropolitan ends. Perhaps even more important, however, is the claim that this reified heritage is irrelevant to the lives of Mexican Americans, who live largely in cities and who have achieved a measure of American success. Rodriguez calls Chavez “Gandhi without an India,” a leader without a constituency (68). In the midst of the modern complexity of Mexican American life, Chavez's continual invocation of the past can only remind Mexican Americans of “who our grandparents used to be” (70). In contrast, “[Henry] Cisneros reflected our real lives in the America of usted” (68). Cisneros's image may be just as constructed, just as inauthentic, but its contradictions correspond to the contradictions of Mexican American reality.

The explosion of the Mexican pastoral is carried to its extreme in Rodriguez's portrayal of his trip to a Mexico City nightclub. Over dinner one night, a group of Mexicans (headed, ironically, by the curator of the National Anthropology Museum) chide him for his old-fashioned, Catholic, reactionary vision of Mexico. As the antidote to his obsession with “memory and faith,” they take him to see a stage show, complete with canned music, dry ice, and a blonde singer. Rodriguez emphasizes the technological, artificial, and performative aspects of this version of modern Mexico: “The goddess's microphone is so revved up, her voice rides over our skulls like a metal lathe. Mid-routine, the goddess hesitates, evidently overcome with nostalgie de la boue” (76). Ironically, this technologically enhanced goddess sings a song about memory: “Vete pero no me olvides.” This repulsive being makes her way over to Rodriguez, and he is forced to participate in her performance of memory:

I sing to her of my undying love and of rural pleasures. Tú.Tú. The ruby pendant. Tú. The lemon tree. The song of the dove. Breathed through the nose. Perched on the lips.

Anything to make her go away.


This is perhaps the most self-reflexive moment in the entire essay; Rodriguez is forced to parody his own nostalgic construction of Mexican intimacy. But Rodriguez is not willing to embrace this performance as a symbol of the mixture of past and present, rural pleasures and technology. Like the UFW pilgrimage, it is at once inauthentic (the “goddess” is bored as she sings) and not broad enough (the Mexicans who bring him here revile the Catholic and colonial history of Mexico).

The alternative to this sordid image of degraded Mexicanness is Rodriguez's Mexican American nephew. Rodriguez stands in his sister's backyard and surveys “all his compliant toys fallen where he threw them off after his gigantic love-making. Winnie-the-Pooh. The waist-coated frog. Refugees of some long English childhood” (71). Unlike Rodriguez, who learned Mexican nursery rhymes, this nephew will sing about “Banbury Cross.” The child has light hair but dark eyes in which Rodriguez believes he can discern a trace of Mexico, “the unfathomable regard of the past,” as well as the vistas of Sesame Street. Although it too contains elements of pastoral (the English country garden), this image of cultural mixture is valued differently than the “corrupted” Mexican pastoral. Rodriguez positions his nephew as the inheritor of multiple cultural traditions: “What will he know of his past except that he has several? What will he know of Mexico, except that his ancestors lived on land that he will never inherit?” (71). Rodriguez treasures this worldly child, alienated from any particular territory, yet able to claim the cultures of the world as his birthright.

In his celebration of a worldly, dislocated heritage, Rodriguez perhaps resembles the early-twentieth-century writers who inaugurated modern conceptions of the humanistic scholar. Edward Said suggests that figures like T. S. Eliot, frustrated or disillusioned with familial and national ties, what Said calls filial relationships, turned to “institutions, associations, and communities whose social existence was not in fact guaranteed by biology, but by affiliation” (614). The move from filiation to affiliation was conceived as a move from nature to culture, from the parochial to the transcendent. In the humanities, under the influence of Eliot, affiliation has taken the form of initiation into the company of scholars through knowledge of a literary tradition defined, explicitly or implicitly, as European (Said, 616). Similarly, Rodriguez, dissatisfied with a parochial construction of Mexicanness and finding the relationship between Mexico and “Mexico's children” in the U.S. problematic, positions his nephew as a member of an affiliational community that he belongs to not by virtue of blood, but by virtue of upbringing. Significantly, this affiliational community, which supposedly transcends any particular territorial ties, is signified by the symbols of a specifically European tradition. For Rodriguez the imaginative appeal of certain images, certain texts, transcends national boundaries in such a way that, although they may originate in England, they can delight a Mexican American child in California. They may even contribute to his personal history and his sense of himself.

Rodriguez is able to champion both a universal cultural tradition and a specifically Mexican sense of history because the values that he associates with Mexico actually transcend national boundaries. The Mexican sense of history that Rodriguez invokes is not the reverence for a rural past that he deplores in the Chicano movement and parodies in the nightclub scene. Nor does it consist in claims to a particular piece of land: Rodriguez makes light of Mexican Americans' claims to “the mythic northern kingdom of Atzlan” and celebrates his own nephew's lack of a land-based tie to Mexico (66, 71). Rather, “the knowledge Mexico bequeaths” to the child is the same knowledge that has stayed with Rodriguez's father in his life in the United States (71). This knowledge, as it is revealed throughout Days of Obligation, involves memory, but not necessarily the memory of a specific history. In the last essay in the book, “Nothing Lasts a Hundred Years,” Rodriguez describes this knowledge: “My father knew what most of the world knows by now—that tragedy wins; that talent is mockery. … My father remains Mexican in California. My father lives under the doctrine, under the very tree of Original Sin” (219). This knowledge “that most of the world knows by now” might be better described as Catholic or “Old World” rather than specifically Mexican. To make this point, Rodriguez ascribes the same kind of knowledge to the Irish nuns who taught him that “The story of man was the story of sin, which could not be overcome with any such thing as a Declaration of Independence. … We all must die” (221). Thus, to maintain a Mexican sense of history is not to maintain a parochial and separate cultural identity but to partake of a sensibility that stretches across historical time periods and territorial boundaries.

This particular understanding of a Mexican knowledge is present also in Rodriguez's exploration of the city of Tijuana in the essay “In Athens Once.” Here Rodriguez continues to deconstruct familiar representations of Mexico. If Americans fear Mexico as a source of contamination, chaos, and death, “Mexico has a more graceful sense of universal corruption,” bequeathed by Spanish Catholicism (88, 90). This sense has been both Mexico's weakness, in terms of tolerance for political graft, and the strength of a city like Tijuana, which does not respect rigid boundaries or restricting notions of Mexican identity. Tijuana is open to change. People move back and forth in Tijuana, but what is perceived in Mexico City as a dangerous dilution or corruption of Mexicanness (“Mexico City worries about a cultural spill from the United States”) is actually a productive encounter, creating the possibility of innovation (83). In contrast, San Diego attempts to maintain a rigid sense of boundaries, guarding itself from corruption: “On the American side are petitions to declare English the official language of the United States; the Ku Klux Klan; nativists posing as environmentalists, blaming illegal immigration for freeway congestion” (84). Rodriguez reverses the conventional temporal configuration of Mexico and the United States: San Diego, desperate to enshrine its quality of life, is the past, while Tijuana, open to change and productive contamination, is the future (84). With its burgeoning assembly plants Tijuana may not look like “traditional” Mexico, but Tijuana is the worldly, international citizen that Rodriguez's nephew may someday be:

Tijuana is an industrial park on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Tijuana is a colony of Tokyo. Tijuana is a Taiwanese sweatshop. Tijuana is a smudge beyond the Linden trees of Hamburg. There is a complicity between businessmen—hands across the border—and shared optimism.


Tijuana is a place where Old World cynicism and American optimism meet to make progress and profits, but still do not completely reconcile. In Tijuana, Rodriguez has a sense of the endurance of poverty (the poverty that is the condition of economic growth), while San Diego seems an oblivious “Twelfth Night” of spandex and Frisbees (95).

The hint of the ethical dilemmas of Tijuana's maquiladoras can serve to introduce an important question: how is Richard Rodriguez, traveler, positioned in relation to the things he observes in Tijuana and in Mexico at large? I have already pointed out how Rodriguez parodies and undercuts his own sentimental construction of Mexico in the nightclub scene, but I would like to examine the ways in which Rodriguez constructs his own observing subjectivity in Mexico through play with the “looking conventions” of European travel literature, a genre which has historically been implicated in the appropriation and exploitation of Third World resources. In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt describes how both eighteenth-century natural history writing and nineteenth-century sentimental travel writing about Africa and Latin America attempted to construct observation as an essentially passive and innocent activity, unrelated to “conquest, conversion, territorial appropriation, and enslavement” (39). In natural history writing about non-European lands, human presences are minimized, creating the impression that “European authority and legitimacy are uncontested” (52). Moreover, the travelers themselves are “chiefly present as a kind of collective moving eye on which the sights/sites register; as agents their presence is very reduced” (59). This posture of passivity works to deny the imperial power relations which both authorize and are authorized by the traveler's explorations. Still, the European desire for appropriation and domination is apparent in sweeping descriptions from promontory heights that imply a mastery of the landscape and in language which portrays the alien landscape offering itself up to the knowledge of the traveler: “The eye ‘commands’ what falls within its gaze; mountains and valleys ‘show themselves,’ ‘present a picture’; the country ‘opens up’ before the visitors” (60).

In contrast to the passive gaze of the natural scientist, Rodriguez's presence in Mexico is not innocent or uncontested. In the preface he depicts his BBC film crew as thoughtlessly disrupting a rural Mexican funeral with its blaring, inappropriate music. These not-so-intrepid explorers are silenced and chased away by the “village idiot” (xviii). In “India,” Rodriguez thematizes the active indigenous gaze and explores how the construction of indigenous people as passive legitimized European projects of “discovery”:

In European museums, [the Indian] is idle, recumbent at the base of a silver pineapple tree or the pedestal of the Dresden urn or the Sevres tureen—the muse of European adventure, at once wanderlust and bounty. … Filled with the arrogance of discovery, the Europeans were not predisposed to imagine that they were being watched, awaited.


Justifying their own endeavors through the perceived passivity of the Indians, the European explorers could not conceive of indigenous people as interested observers able to “consume” European culture and to create the sophisticated Mexican culture that Rodriguez celebrates in Days of Obligation.

In the midst of this critique of imperial looking relations, Rodriguez abruptly positions himself in the role of explorer:

I had a dream about Mexico City, a conquistador's dream. I was lost and late and twisted in my sheet. I dreamed streets narrower than they actually are—narrow as old Jerusalem. I dreamed sheets, entanglements, bunting, hanging larvaelike from open windows, distended from balconies and from lines thrown over the streets. These streets were not empty streets. I was among a crowd. The crowd was not a carnival crowd. This crowd was purposeful and ordinary, welling up from subways, ascending from stairwells. And then the dream followed the course of all my dreams. I must find the airport—the American solution—I must somehow escape, fly over.


This vision might be more accurately labeled a conquistador's “nightmare.” In the place of limitless vistas there are narrow streets, filled with signs of incipient life (larvae). Moreover, this landscape is already heavily peopled. In the face of such a challenge to his presence, the conquistador dreams of the air, of distance and mastery. The joke of the dream is, of course, that the scene is not inherently threatening: this is not the chaos of carnival, these are working people going about their business. And if the conquistador's desire for the air is a desire for separateness and discrete identity, Rodriguez's next words deny the possibility of separation: “Each face looked like mine. But no one looked at me” (21). This American conquistador cannot fully separate himself from the crowd, his presence is not remarkable. Still, Rodriguez wishes for mastery, “As the plane descends into the basin of Mexico City, I brace myself for some confrontation with death, with India, with confusion of purpose that I do not know how to master” (21). But what he finds in Mexico City is not death but “living Indians,” not confusion but the cultural complexity of the latest stage in the Western tradition. The quest for separateness and mastery is ultimately discarded for the comfort of recognition, familiarity. The conquistador has been absorbed, consumed by the “Indians” of Mexico City.

Initially, Rodriguez's foray to Tijuana seems to be constructed around a similar dynamic of the gaze. Upon entering Tijuana, Rodriguez tells us, offers of Chiclets and taxis “teach the visitor the custody of his eyes,” lest he be implicated in an economic exchange (81). It would seem that the gaze is not innocent. Looking has the power to create relationships, responsibilities. But at the same time that Rodriguez presumably fends off gum merchants, he notices a Mexican boy up on a ledge, observing the crowd: “He is surveying; his eyes are slits, appraising, rejecting; his eyes slide like searchlights, but do not rest on me” (81). This gaze from up above is apparently impersonal; Rodriguez cautions himself not to imagine that he has been singled out. This tension between the responsibility-provoking, implicated gaze and the distanced, impersonal gaze is played out in two parallel vignettes from “In Athens Once.”

In the first vignette, Rodriguez accompanies a Jesuit priest to a poor section of Tijuana for a special mass on Holy Thursday. As he approaches the place where he will meet Father Lucas, Rodriguez notes, “Because Mexico is brown and I am brown, I fear being lost in Mexico” (96). This fear of being lost intensifies when, after the mass, Rodriguez is supposed to hand out day-old pastries to the children. The giveaway goes awry, and he is swarmed by a “zombielike” crowd of Mexicans (98). Rodriguez avoids contact with the mob by throwing the packages of pastry to the “edge of the crowd,” away from himself. Later, when some teenagers attempt to get his attention, he looks the other way. But in spite of these attempts to remain separate and unconnected, his fears of being lost in Mexico are seemingly realized when he and Father Lucas become literally lost on the way back from the mass. As they finally emerge from a baffling hive of unlit dirt roads, Rodriguez is rewarded with a vision of the lights of San Diego. “It was a sight I never expected to see with Mexican eyes,” he says, implying that his refusal to make eye contact (and thus make relationships) has finally ceded to identification with a Mexican point of view (99). However, in the vignette that follows the Holy Thursday mass, it becomes clear that the nature of this identification is transitory and nonbinding. Rodriguez has not entered into any responsibilities by virtue of this Mexican vision.

The parallel to Holy Thursday is a vignette about Good Friday, which Rodriguez spends on the U.S. side, at a border patrol station. As a journalist he is assigned to a patrolman. Like Rodriguez, the patrolman is also Mexican American, a fact which marks Rodriguez's commitment to portraying the complexity of Mexican American life, his refusal to portray Mexican Americans as innocent victims of Euro-American oppression. In the course of the night, Rodriguez is offered binoculars and a night vision telescope with which to survey the border. Rodriguez represents these offers as a seduction: “It is as though I am being romanced at a cowboy cotillion” (101). This is the seduction of omniscient vision, of knowledge and mastery. At times, Rodriguez himself begins to sound like one of Pratt's European travel writers, downplaying his own agency in this surveillance operation, making it seem as if he is merely being swept along: “In the dark, I do not separate myself from the patrolman's intention” (102). And yet, however comforting the notion of passivity might be, Rodriguez does acknowledge his participation in the relations of power embedded in border surveillance. When the patrolman arrests a group of Mexicans, he offers Rodriguez a chance to take pictures: “I stare at the faces. They stare at mine. To them I am not bearing witness; I am part of the process of being arrested. I hold up my camera; their eyes swallow the flash—a long tunnel, leading back” (103). This is not an unpopulated scene that passively offers itself up to be seen. The faces stare back. What is more, it is an exercise of power, the arrest, which makes Rodriguez's look possible.

It is in the difference between “bearing witness” and “observing” that the essay's construction of Rodriguez's subjectivity can best be understood. As the passage above suggests, the author rejects the notion of a look that does not implicate the seer in relationships. At the same time, however, the passage suggests that Rodriguez refuses any responsibilities incumbent in those relationships. His refusal to bear witness, to take responsibility for what he sees, is elaborated in the final pages of “In Athens Once.” These pages include yet another promontory vision, this time from the fashionable Tijuana neighborhood of Chapultepec. Rodriguez notes that the architecture here is not Spanish-Colonial, but rather a kind of “international eclecticism” (104). The picture windows of these houses face the United States, and Rodriguez names this view “the modern vision of California” (104). “International eclecticism” might also serve as a label for Rodriguez's fluid, cosmopolitan spectator position. His parable about Athens epitomizes this position:

In Athens once, I remember sitting in an outdoor café, amid sun and cheese and flies, when a hearse with a picture window slid by, separated from its recognizing mourners by rush-hour traffic—an intersecting narrative line—which, nevertheless, did not make mourners of us, of the café.


This image of the spectator who sees and yet remains separate, unimplicated, is offered as a symbol of city life. Insofar as Rodriguez's visit to Tijuana has been a tour of radically different points of view, this story works to link Tijuana to the other “great cities of the world,” where people live “separately, simultaneously” (105).

And yet, this position of separateness is haunted by what it disavows. On the last day of his visit, Easter Sunday, Rodriguez refuses an invitation from Father Lucas to return to the impoverished colonia of Flores Magon. He maintains his fluid positioning, moving from his hotel in San Diego to mass in Tijuana and then to brunch in La Jolla in a couple of hours. At brunch, however, the priest's tale of searching the previous day for a coffin in which to bury an infant returns to him. “In Athens Once” is both a tale of movement and a tale of interrelatedness, a story about the impossibility of forgetting Tijuana in San Diego. This is not, however, a story of mutual responsibility or connectedness. Taken together, the two cities form one city, but it is a “city of world-class irony” (106). Incongruity is the foundation of irony, and the perspective necessary to recognize incongruities and to hold them in suspension is distance, restraint. Rodriguez realizes that innocent vision is a myth, that he is transformed and implicated by the things he sees, but he struggles to remain the cosmopolitan café sitter, savoring contradictions between the U.S. and Mexico without attempting to reconcile them, maintaining “custody of his eyes” in order to refuse inconvenient relationships. The essay ends with a view of hang gliders drifting over the sea like “angels,” an image of the transcendence that the mobile, but earth-bound, Rodriguez is not able to attain.

During his visit to the fashionable Chapultepec district, Rodriguez finds an American-style shopping mall, a symbol of modern day Tijuana. His only purchases are five bottles of Liquid Paper correction fluid, which we might read as the tools with which he will correct previous, disingenuous, pastoral visions of Mexico. Throughout the travel essays Rodriguez explodes conventional depictions of Mexico as rural, isolated, authentic, and static. In “Mexico's Children,” he critiques the Chicano movement for constructing a confining ethnic identity out of romanticized memories of a rural, Indian past. Rather than basing identity on the claims of land or blood, Rodriguez imagines an identity sundered from specific territories or local histories. In this model, the subject can transcend the specificity of birth to lay claim to the history and traditions of the world. Rodriguez reconceptualizes Mexican identity as a universal, ironic, Catholic knowledge of futility, a persistent sense of Ubi Sunt. Armed with this worldly identity, he constructs a narrator who can move between the living Indian and the conquistador, from the poorest section of Tijuana to a U.S. border patrol station. But the price of a belief in the fleetingness of earthly life is detachment, and the price of this subjective mobility is sympathy, connection: if Rodriguez becomes too involved with the poor of Tijuana, he cannot make brunch in La Jolla. He is allowed to travel with the border patrol as an “objective” journalist; he cannot become an advocate for the people he photographs. Sophisticated enough to realize that seeing is situated both in space and in relations of power, Rodriguez's tour of Mexico is haunted by the relationships he disavows in order to maintain his fluid, ironic spectatorship.

To critique Rodriguez's construction of a universal, mobile identity is not to fall into the limitations of essentialist identities based on blood or culture. Similarly, to critique Rodriguez's version of multiperspectival spectatorship is not to deny the possibility of multiple perspectives and identifications. In thinking about vision and epistemology, Donna Haraway suggests “embodied vision” and “situated knowledges” as alternatives to objectivity conceived as “transcendence of all limits and responsibility” (190). Embodied vision does not lead to solipsistic knowledge based on one-dimensional narratives of identity. The notion of situated knowledge recognizes the specific and multifaceted nature of individual identities, and thus opens up the possibility of identification:

The topography of subjectivity is multi-dimensional; so, therefore, is vision. The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see without claiming to be another.


If we can imagine a traveling subject who sees, not from a guilt-ridden promontory height, but from a partial, specific, and embodied locale, we can imagine the possibility of provisional, critical understanding. We can imagine narratives that bridge, without flattening, difference.


  1. Quoted in Edward Said, “Secular Criticism.”

  2. As José Limón has pointed out to me, Rodriguez's sentimental construction of family language here omits the use of “usted” within the family as a marker of age and status.

Works Cited

Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Allegory.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 98–100. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.

Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992.

Said, Edward. “Secular Criticism.” In Critical Theory since 1965. Edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, 605–24. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986.

Saldívar, Ramón. “Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography.” Diacritics 15:3 (1985): 25–34.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Norma Tilden (essay date winter 1998)

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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 pain. … At such moments, the Church touched alive some very private sexual excitement” (84). In the autobiographical essay “Late Victorians: San Francisco, AIDS, and the Homosexual Stereotype,” which appeared eight years later in Harper's, Rodriguez works out a discursive embodiment of this sexual and religious “wonderment,” now complicated by the pressures of a rich literary tradition, both narrative and elegiac. Rodriguez's memoir evokes the inherited forms it retraces; these include classical and Christian elegies, spiritual autobiographies, American myths of westward expansion, and the emerging genre of AIDS memorials as performance art.1

At the heart of Rodriguez's revisiting of these narrative sites is liturgy. In “Late Victorians,” under the guise of a memento mori, Rodriguez writes a nativity story suffused with the language and iconography of Latin Catholicism.2 Drawing upon the Catholic liturgy of his Mexican American heritage, Rodriguez works out a liturgy of his own—an evocative, ceremonial prose through which he reasserts the sacramentality of material things.

When “Late Victorians” first appeared in Harper's, it was identified as a chapter in a forthcoming book to be called Mexico's Children. Two years later, however, the book was published as Days of Obligation, its title taken from the Roman Catholic calendar of annual “feast days” so important that they carry the obligation to attend mass. Taken together, these two titles encompass a dialectic of Catholicism and ethnicity within which Rodriguez constructs his autobiographical essay, shaping the narrative to serve, among other things, as both a subtle “coming out” story and a deeply ritualized elegy for those “late Victorians”—San Franciscans dead of AIDS—whose community he memorializes.

A folk religion most clearly reveals itself in what a culture celebrates. Rodriguez's essay, which celebrates a spectacle culture shared by Catholic and gay sensibilities,3 operates not merely on the level of reference and allusion but on the level of ethnopoetics: inherited structures, symbols, postures.4 Against a backdrop of San Francisco's Victorian architecture, Rodriguez juxtaposes seemingly disjointed reflections on everything from a friend dying of AIDS, to the mythic American journey westward, to the culture of bodybuilding. Rodriguez weaves these disparate concerns into a narrative performance that echoes the ritual of the Catholic mass, celebrating the Eucharistic ingesting of flesh and blood—the sacramental exchange through which the material becomes sanctified and the sacred, corporeal. Exploring his own relation to the gay community of which he writes—and thereby effecting his own subjectivity among the “late Victorians” whom he eulogizes—Rodriguez plots a nativity narrative that replicates the Catholic view of the Nativity as a “feast” celebrating God's condescension into human flesh and, in this case, human words.

At the very center of cultural Catholicism is a profound ambivalence about bodies. They are, on the one hand, earthbound things to be transcended; on the other, they provide the material sites where the believer works out salvation. Catholic iconography glorifies the martyred bodies of its saints: witness the hunkish St. Christopher, the languid St. Sebastian, the budding beauty of the virgin martyrs. Grace manifests itself in bodily perfection. In Catholic lore there is no such thing as a homely virgin. Despite the heavenward gaze of our statues and the upward trajectory of our salvation stories (Merton's “seven storey mountain,” Dante's conical paradise), Catholics are, for better or worse, hooked on bodies as the necessary instruments of salvation.

Bodies. In the old Latin-rite Mass, with its elaborate choreography of stand, sit, and kneel, there was one moment which always puzzled my childhood sense of decorum. After the sermon, the congregation stood for the Creed. Behind each classroom grouping of schoolchildren sat the nun who taught them, and each nun had a clicker to signal when it was time to change positions. “Credo in unum Deum …” With those words came the signal to stand tall, both feet on the floor, to testify to belief. But right in the middle of the Creed, the clicker sounded again: “Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem, descendit de coelis” (“Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven”)—CLICK—“Et incarnatus est” (“and was made flesh”). “Et Homo Factus Est.” At this crucial point we were to genuflect in unison, falling to our knees in imitative homage to Christ who had, as we heard it described, “come down” to earth to take on flesh and blood.

The rubric called for a gentle flexing of the knee, but always we threw ourselves into it, vying to see who could hit the kneeler hardest. And inevitably there would be one boy, usually the biggest, who managed to miss the cushioned kneeler altogether, hitting the floor with a resounding thud that set all the kneelers bouncing.

After the fall came the expulsion. The nun would shoot out of her pew, veils flying, and be on him in a flash, dragging him down the aisle and out the side door by one ear. All the while, the unfortunate boy would protest in a loud whisper that he had fallen, that he hadn't done anything wrong, only dropped to the ground as we were supposed to do. And although we didn't yet have the theology to explain it, we knew he had a point. We were gathered to celebrate a fortunate fall, reiterating a singular ritual of descent in a Church otherwise focused on “offering things up.” In this rubric, we honored Christ who, as the nuns explained it (implicitly slipping into the language of social class), had “lowered Himself” to take on human flesh and thereby redeem human sin. Redemption required Incarnation.

Having grown up in that same Latin-rite Church,5 Richard Rodriguez is similarly fascinated by weight and physicality—by things that, like a big Catholic boy, fall hard and heavy. There is a passage in the “Credo” chapter of Hunger of Memory which could serve as an apology for the pervasively incarnational intuition of the “Late Victorians” essay. In this earlier, more explicitly religious testimony Rodriguez considers what it means to “profess Catholicism” as an adult living in a secular society. Here he claims the “materialist” impulse as a central legacy of his ethnic Catholicism, and he traces this legacy directly to his Church's reverence for the mystery of the Word made flesh:

In a cultural sense, I remain a Catholic. My upbringing has shaped in me certain attitudes which have not worn thin over the years. I am, for example, a materialist largely because I was brought up to believe in the central mystery of the Church—the redemptive Incarnation. (I carried the heavy gold crucifix in church ceremonies far too often to share the distrust of the material still prevalent in modern Puritan America.)


If the Mexican culture of his home is persistently Catholic, so Rodriguez perceives America as persistently Gnostic and Puritan. Hyphenated identity places him, as cultural Catholic, on a materialist fault line. Ethnicity registers as shame, focused on the body. Not surprisingly, then, Rodriguez associates his childhood assimilation into American society with a progressive sense of separation from his physical self. In the “Complexion” chapter of Hunger of Memory, he connects his negative feelings about his own male body with his ethnicity, recalling how, growing up in California, he “grew divorced from” his body because of its dark complexion:

I denied myself a sensational life. The normal, extraordinary excitement of feeling my body alive—riding shirtless on a bicycle in the warm wind created by furious self-propelled motion—the sensations that first had excited in me a sense of my maleness, I denied. I was too ashamed of my body. I wanted to forget that I had a body because I had a brown body.


Rodriguez's alienation from—and reclaiming of—the body expresses itself in the ethnopoetics of “Late Victorians,” and here is where a meditation on death by AIDS becomes, at the same time, a nativity story. In its conflation of feasts, Redemption and Incarnation, Rodriguez's essay takes on the paradoxical spirit of a richly sensational carnaval, at once a valediction for and a celebration of flesh.8 Out of an intricately textured background of shadowy folk religion, Rodriguez fashions a feast day liturgy, both darkly solemn and warmly celebratory—a processional in essay form.

In celebrating the weight and corruptibility of human bodies, Rodriguez traces a line of descent—a narrative trajectory that evokes the central Catholic mystery of Incarnation, the Word taking on flesh.9 He sets this pattern (downward, moving north to south) against the American frontier myth of optimistic progress (lateral, east to west) in which, still today, hopeful “teenagers arrive” in San Francisco “aboard Greyhound buses” looking for paradise at “Land's End.”10 He sets it, too, against another narrative paradigm in his American background: the arduous mountain of Protestant spiritual autobiography.11 Countering the upward trajectory of the traditional “Pilgrim's progress,” Rodriguez plots a descent into the carnal. There he discovers a new communion of saints—not the virgins and martyrs who have transcended the desires of the body, but the motley company of AIDS workers who have, as he puts it, been “recalled to nature.” These saints have learned to caress Death in the flesh of the dying. “I have seen people kiss Death on his lips, where once there were lips.” These saints, he says, have come to know “the weight of bodies.”

In its structuring, and especially in the downward trajectory of its narrative line, Rodriguez's nativity story is recognizably Catholic, transposed out of the cultural Catholicism of his Mexican American home. In Hunger of Memory Rodriguez draws a clear distinction between the “gringo Catholic Church” (86) of his Irish Catholic schooling and the Mexican Catholicism of his family. School religion, he recalls, was dogmatic and systematized, a religion of the Baltimore Catechism where questions were formulated only to provide the occasion for answers (88) and liturgy was registered on a calendar printed by morticians (92). Religious instruction “stressed that man was a sinner” and God was a judge (83). Architectural form followed devotional function. The gringo church building was a cool, marble affair of “elegant simplicity,” free of the devotional confusion of pictures, candles, and trumpets that Rodriguez associates with the “warm yellow” Mexican church where his family worshipped on certain feast days (86). Against the astringent Catholicism of school, he sets the ethnic Catholicism of his Mexican American home, which he describes as a religion of “devotional clutter,” a “nighttime religion,” and, most significantly, “a religion of bedtime.” “Prayers before sleeping” he remembers, “spoke of death coming during the night. It was then a religion of shadows” (86–87). The shadows were crowded with presences: “A child whose parents could not introduce him to books like Grimm's Fairy Tales, I was introduced to the spheres of enchantment by the nighttime Catholicism of demons and angels” (87). In a recent essay on the Latin American novel in Days of Obligation, Rodriguez constructs a sustained meditation on the haunting persistence of the cultural Catholic narrative, and here he directly states what he performatively reiterates in “Late Victorians”: the posture of abjection at the heart of his ethnic-Catholic temper. He recalls an incident where he stands with tourists before a statue of “Christ humiliated” in a Mexican church, a crown of thorns piercing the head of the icon: “‘Yes, yes, yes,’ chimes the Mexican priest. ‘Christ was a loser. Catholicism is a religion for losers’” (183).12

In contrast to the dogmatic Catholicism of school, the Mexican Catholicism of home was most concerned “with man the supplicant.” “My family,” Rodriguez reflects in Hunger of Memory, “turned to God not in guilt so much as in need” (85). Here at home dogma was submerged in liturgy. He remembers his first Communion as the occasion where “the idea of God assumed a shape and a scent and a taste” (92). Through the reciprocity of the sacramental exchange, God became sensory, the object of hunger; Word became flesh. Conversely, flesh become Word; ordinary life, when channeled through ritual, could be sacramentalized. Indeed, Rodriguez asserts that it is the Catholic Church—and only the Church—that has provided his parents with a vision of quotidian existence as sacramental:

It has been the liturgical Church that has excited my parents. In ceremonies of public worship, they have been moved, assured that their lives—all aspects of their lives, from waking to eating, from birth until death, all moments—possess great significance. Only the liturgy has encouraged them to dwell on the meaning of their lives. To think.


And in a line that provides a clue to the processional patterning of “Late Victorians,” he reflects that for Mexican Catholics, the sacred dramas of Catholic liturgy “redeemed the routine” (93). Just so, the sensory details of daily life in San Francisco move Rodriguez's prose processional into the realm of spectacle.

Liturgy, of course, provides a script for performance, and here we discover another key to the structuring of Rodriguez's prose. In “Late Victorians” Rodriguez scripts what performance artist Laurie Anderson calls “a field situation,” in which stories, images, theories, facts, and sounds resonate against each other.13 Rodriguez's field encompasses seemingly disconnected aspects of his daily life—the city of San Francisco; its postmodern architecture; the renovated Victorian house where he lives (a house “converted to four apartments; four single men”); the stereotype of the queer decorator and the stylistic aesthetic of “the small effect”; the life and agonizing death of Cesar, a friend suffering from AIDS. All these elements come together in a narrative performance that aspires to the significance of liturgy. And like the liturgies that Rodriguez recalls from High Mass feast days in the wooden Mexican church, this liturgy is “cluttered” with sensational effects and shadowy presences.

The performance begins in a spirit of high camp. In the first of the essay's thirteen sections, Rodriguez plays with the “epigraph” of the traditional essay form. Parodically, he brings together two “authorities”—St. Augustine and Elizabeth Taylor—to establish the opening motif. First he paraphrases Augustine, telling a kind of sacred immigration story: “We are restless hearts, for earth is not our true home. Human happiness is evidence of our immortality. Intuition tells us we are meant for some other city.” Augustine's restlessness is echoed by Taylor, speaking of “cerulean Richard Burton days on her yacht” and reflecting darkly: “This must end.” By invoking these two authorities, representing spiritual and corporeal extremes, Rodriguez sets the tone for the contrasts that define the essay's opening scene. Like most feast day liturgies, this one begins with a procession. Rodriguez reconstructs the spectacle of San Francisco's Gay Freedom Day Parade as he first witnessed it, some ten years earlier, on his way home from Sunday mass.14 Rituals converge: the “Latin Mass” he had just attended and the ritual march of San Francisco's gay community, complete with marching bands, banners, floats, and what he describes as “consortiums” of saints. Rodriguez makes the connection explicit: “Banners blocked single lives thematically into a processional mass, not unlike the consortiums of the blessed in Renaissance paintings, each saint cherishing the apparatus of his martyrdom: GAY DENTISTS. BLACK AND WHITE LOVERS. GAYS FROM BAKERSFIELD. LATINA LESBIANS.”

Immediately, religious ceremony intersects with American myth. “From the foot of Market Street they marched, east to west,” he observes, “following the mythic American path toward optimism,” a national narrative that still exerts a powerful pull in the present, despite AIDS, ARC, “the acronyms of death.” His next observation draws on both parades: “Lonely teenagers still arrive in San Francisco aboard Greyhound buses. The city can still seem, I imagine … paradise.” On that word the procession halts, having reached the sacred ground where the liturgy will be performed.

The “paradise” which is San Francisco is, however, a “heaven on earth” and as such is governed by material forces of weight and gravity. In the next section of “Late Victorians,” Rodriguez meditates on “expulsion,” and here he shifts from the lateral, east/west processional of the opening scene to the vertical story line which will ultimately control the essay. The spatial pattern is cruciform—a Sign of the Cross. To introduce the intersecting narrative of descent, Rodriguez recounts an event he witnessed four years earlier while jogging in spring. He watches a young woman climb over the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge: “Holding down her skirt with one hand, with the other she waved to a startled spectator … before she stepped onto the sky.” Then he writes to a fragmentary paragraph of nine words: “To land like a spilled purse at my feet.” Weight and gravity enter the essay's performative field: we are not meant to walk the sky. “San Francisco,” he tells us, “toys with the tragic conclusion,” and so does he:

My compass takes its cardinal point from tragedy. If I respond to the metaphor of spring, I nevertheless learned, years ago, from my Mexican parents, from my Irish nuns, to count on winter. The point of Eden for me, for us, is not approach but expulsion.

Throughout the rest of this section, Rodriguez retraces the Sign of the Cross over the city, alternating between the lateral, comic reading of San Francisco as a paradise on earth and the downward pull of “tragic conclusions.” To close the section he directs the spectator's gaze sharply downward into the particular “dreamscape” which, over the course of the essay, comes to define the center of Rodriguez's earthly city:

It was the view from a hill, through a mesh of electrical tram wires, of an urban neighborhood in a valley. The vision took its name from the protruding wedge of a theater marquee. Here Cesar raised his glass without discretion: To the Castro.15

Then follows another sharp torque as the narrative shifts to architectural history in a long section describing the restoration of the city's “Late Victorian” clapboard houses by gay men. Pointedly, Rodriguez uses his own house as an example: “By California standards I live in an old house. But not haunted.” The house may not be haunted, but the story of its restoration is charged with deeply personal revelation. In recounting the history of the rooms where he lives, Rodriguez expands upon the metaphor of “coming out of the closet,” quietly merging the history of the Victorian house with the gay movement of the 1970s and ultimately with his own personal story. Abruptly, he conflates the three histories with a line that seems to come out of nowhere: “To grow up homosexual is to live with secrets and within secrets. In no other place are those secrets more closely guarded than within the family home.” Four lines later, Rodriguez presents us with a richly evocative paragraph consisting of one shadowy sentence: “I live in a tall Victorian house that has been converted to four apartments; four single men.” At this point, architectural history opens into memoir. Speaking of the house, Rodriguez himself supplies metaphors for the ways in which private lives become public: his rooms, he says, have been “gutted, unrattled, in various ways unlocked” by skylights, windows, new doors. So, too, with this one matter-of-fact sentence, the public essay has been “excavated,” “gutted,” opening into private revelation on the pages of a national magazine.

In the next section Rodriguez extends the intersecting narratives—Victorian houses, sexual identity, the gay aesthetic—into a bold, frontal construction of what he calls in the title the “homosexual stereotype.”16 He opens the discussion with a flat statement on the “sin” of homosexuality, then moves into a crude moralistic interpretation of it: “The age-old description of homosexuality is of a sin against nature. … The homosexual was sinful because he had no kosher place to stick it.” Expanding upon the against-nature theme, Rodriguez rehearses the old argument that society's condemnation of the homosexual as unnatural allowed him to appropriate a mythical province of artifice, to “drape the architecture of sodomy with art”: “The impulse is not to create but to re-create, to sham, to convert, to sauce, to rouge, to fragrance, to prettify.” In effect, the homosexual seeks to transcend nature through the aesthetic ordering of the mundane.

By foregrounding the homosexual stereotype, Rodriguez introduces into the performative field of the essay a new kind of stylistic pattern: a series of inversions.17 Here again, Rodriguez's own domestic space serves as the site of a queer performance. He plays at being the decorator, wittily inverting the spheres of his private and public spaces:

I live away from the street, in a back apartment, in two rooms. I use my bedroom as a visitor's room—the sleigh bed tricked up with shams into a sofa—whereas I rarely invite anyone into my library, the public room, where I write, the public gesture.18

This revelation is a tease, an extended and perverse conceit based on sounds and verbal repetitions. Having asserted that the homosexual impulse is “to sham, to convert,” he shows us his own bed, designed to look like a sleigh (“sleigh” bed, the sounds conjuring an erotic death scene) now “converted” to a sofa and “tricked up with shams.” By such verbal trickery, Rodriguez establishes a nervy rhythm of inversion which eventually takes hold, allowing him to extend the private/public inversion of the house to his urban narrative. In San Francisco, neighborhoods, too, have been inverted—gutted, turned inside out. He contrasts the daylight sexuality of the Castro district, where homosexuality is recognized as an ordinary way of life, with the outlaw sexuality of Folsom street—“an eroticism of the dark” posed against an eroticism of the ordinary. Ironically, ordinary sexuality proves the more dangerous. In yet another inversion of the expected, Rodriguez reconstructs the perverse morality drama in which the allegorically named Dan White, “ex-cop, ex-boxer, ex-fireman, ex-altar boy” who had grown up straight in the Castro, murdered the mayor and a homosexual bureaucrat.

The pattern of inversion continues in the next section as well, as Rodriguez's processional weaves its ragged way through his earthly city. In San Francisco even the architecture of the “straight” downtown can be read as inverted and gay. “Shadows were legislated away. …” Rodriguez points to the city's postmodern buildings as emblems of its playful spirit: skyscrapers in “party hats, buttons, comic mustaches.” These images work as visual caricatures of postmodern design, but they also relate the city's center to the clowns and clones in the Gay Freedom Day Parade of the essay's opening scene. This section moves playfully to a closing image of postmodernist toys epitomized by some pointless angels that Philip Johnson has perched on one of the city's skyscrapers.

With another sharp turn, Rodriguez pulls the essay down and close in, moving to the center of his nativity narrative. He begins to talk about his body. “In the 1970s,” he says casually, “I joined a gym.” With this announcement, the essay moves from city building into bodybuilding. Here, too, the idiom is playfully perverse: “Bodybuilding is a parody of labor, a useless accumulation of the laborer's bulk and strength. No useful task is accomplished.” The now well-established pattern of public/private inversion peaks at the gym, “at once,” he confesses, “a closet of privacy and an exhibition gallery. All four walls are mirrored. I study my body in the mirror.” At this point, Rodriguez reaches the sacramental focus of his narrative. As he begins to reflect upon bodies, the barely submerged language of Catholicism reenters the performative field. Studying his reflection in the mirrors, he sees an image both Christic and graphically carnal: his own body “shrouded in meat.” He watches himself lifting weights, baring his teeth “like an animal.” At that moment, in a thoroughgoing inversion of the term “bodybuilding,” he achieves a paradoxical vision of angels:

Lats become wings. For the gym is nothing if not the occasion for transcendence. From homosexual to autosexual … to nonsexual. The effect of the over-developed body is the miniaturization of the sexual organs—of no function beyond wit. Behold the ape become Blakean angel, revolving in an empyrean of mirrors.

In effect, immersion in the body has banished the body. He sees himself reduced to an angelic ornament—a toy.

Mirrors and angels lead back once more to Rodriguez's own rooms, where he points to a nineteenth-century mirror that was “purchased by a decorator from the estate of a man who died last year of AIDS.” The description proceeds casually—he mentions a frieze of Graces and Angels—but suddenly the tone darkens. The mirror has a “cataract”; distortedly, it “draws upon the room” and perhaps holds to itself some ghostly “memory not mine.” Regarding the mirror with its frolicking angels in their painted landscape, Rodriguez is reminded of “figures disappearing from our landscape,” as did the former owner of the mirror.19 He reflects that, ironically, mirrors are “less fragile than we are.” AIDS and death have entered the performative field, drawn in through the image of the cataract in the mirror. At this point, Rodriguez returns darkly and dramatically to St. Augustine of his opening invocation: “I imagine St. Augustine's meditation slowly hardening into syllogism, passing down through centuries to confound us: Evil is the absence of good.” The word “absence” rings—tolls—through the prose of this section and the next. As Rodriguez meditates on absences, the word gathers up all the losses he has catalogued: the genitals lost to bodybuilding, the jogger in a red baseball cap, the painter who left his sponges and rags and never returned to finish the job. Through the cataract in the mirror, Rodriguez brings absence home: “AIDS, it has been discovered, is a plague of absence. Absence opened in the blood. Absence condensed into the fluid of passing emotion. Absence shot through opalescent tugs of semen to deflower the city.”

With that description Rodriguez pulls the essay heavily back to earth. There will be no more talk of angels perched on skyscrapers or the perfect artifice of faux masonry and shams. AIDS, Rodriguez admits, “is a non-metaphorical disease, a disease like any other. … fever, blisters, a death sentence.” Like the spilled purse of its opening lines, so “Late Victorians” takes on the weight and gravity of all fleshly things. The essay is recalled to nature.

In the prose of the final two sections, where he directly considers this “non-metaphorical” disease, Rodriguez pulls back from the verbal wit and flashy artifice of the essay's earlier parts. Here he reconstructs a death scene—sexually charged, graphically corporeal, and, in its shadowy backdrop, deeply Catholic. Rodriguez recalls moving back to the “earthly paradise” of San Francisco in 1979, already “a wintry man,” “a firm believer in Original Sin and in the limits of possibility.” He finds himself quickly charmed by the city's playfulness and particularly by one friend, Cesar, a teacher. Rodriguez portrays Cesar as one who fully embraces the sensual delights of this earthly Eden. Cesar was “ruled by pulp” and “loved everything that ripened in time. Freshmen. Bordeaux.” “Cesar,” he tells us in a line that recalls the ability of Mexican Catholicism to sanctify the ordinary, “could fashion liturgy from an artichoke.”20

In the essay's closing passage, Rodriguez describes Cesar's death from AIDS in a three-word paragraph: “Cesar experienced agony.” As happens frequently in “Late Victorians,” the final word of a short phrase serves to reassert a controlling motif. So “agony” introduces a shadowy reference to the corporeal Christ in the garden of Gethsemane: “Four of his high school students sawed through a Vivaldi quartet in the corridor outside his hospital room, prolonging the hideous garden.” Throughout the scene describing Cesar's death, the language of Catholicism is particularly dense: the prolonged Agony in the Garden, Cesar “unconvincingly resurrected” at his memorial service, and finally a paragraph in which Rodriguez himself seems to “fashion liturgy from an artichoke.” While speaking of ordinary, daylight things—restaurants, new books—Rodriguez evokes an allusive, Christic death scene: “Sunlight remains. Traffic remains. … And the mirror rasps on its hook. The mirror is lifted down.” The sounds carry subtle references to the redemptive Passion of Christ: “remains,” suggesting the body after death; “rasps on its hook,” suggesting the suffering of crucifixion; and finally, “lifted down.” To be “lifted down”—the phrase, an oxymoron, recalls the deposition of Christ from the cross and provides an emblem for the descending movement of the essay's final section where Rodriguez stares down the spectacle of death by AIDS.

The close of “Late Victorians” is graphically physical and earthbound. Rodriguez smashes at the “mock-angelic” stereotype that would find “spectacle” in the death of a beautiful young man: “This doll is Death. I have seen people caressing it, staring Death down. I have seen people wipe its tears, wipe its ass; I have seen people kiss Death on his lips, where once there were lips.” In the final inversion, Rodriguez describes the descent into nature which serves as a “lifting down” of the gay community into the “company of the Blessed.” “Men who sought the aesthetic ordering of existence were recalled to nature. Men who aspired to the mock-angelic settled for the shirt of hair.” In this paradisal company he finds no angels, no images of physical transcendence; on the contrary, “the saints of this city have names listed in the phone book.”

The essay closes as it opened, with a parade—a recessional. Rodriguez describes a ceremony for AIDS workers that he witnessed one Sunday in Advent in a Catholic Church “at a time in the history of the world when the Roman Catholic Church still pronounced the homosexual a sinner.” The consortium gathers, an unlikely and ragged band, in the sanctuary, “facing the congregation, grinning self-consciously at one another.” Rodriguez represents this saintly company as a motley band of the sort that medieval Catholicism loved to portray—what Piers Plowman called a “fair field full of folk.”21 For Rodriguez, the “fair field” reemerges as “a lady with a plastic candy cane,” “a Castro clone with a red bandanna,” “an old pouf,” “a pink-haired punkess,” a “black man in a checkered sports coat,” the “gay couple in middle age.” He gathers them up in a rough summary that captures the banality of the scene: “Blood and shit and Mr. Happy Face.” And then immediately, with another of those rapid swerves that propel the essay, comes the beautiful line: “These know the weight of bodies.” And then, even more pointedly, “These learned to love what is corruptible.”

The performance is not quite over. Rodriguez constructs one more inversion, a litany of titles, except that in Catholic tradition the litany is a rite of supplication, and these titles are all reflexive, self-accusatory, and confessional: “These learned to love what is corruptible, while I, barren skeptic, reader of St. Augustine, curator of the earthly paradise, inheritor of the empty mirror, I shift my tailbone upon the cold, hard pew.” And yet, despite Rodriguez's confiteor, isn't this pew exactly where the devout Catholic belongs during the ritual performance? The liturgy draws to a close, as it always does, with the Catholic seated on the “cold, hard” pew, at once spectator and supplicant.

Ultimately, “Late Victorians” is a reiterative performance, enacted from the posture of all rituals: abjection suffused with hope. Once again, as in the “Achievement of Desire” chapter of Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez shapes a transformation of indefinite, unfocused longing into articulated desire—into a liturgy that celebrates the sacramentality of bodies.22 Rodriguez's ritual performance, an echo of the Catholic Mass, enacts a discursive ingesting of flesh and blood through which spiritual longing becomes physical—and thereby perceptible, uncloseted, and, most importantly, redemptive. Exploring his own relation to the gay community of San Francisco, Rodriguez plots a nativity story that replicates the Catholic view of the Nativity as a “feast” celebrating God's descent to human flesh and, in this case, human words. In the culture of Latin Catholicism, as Rodriguez affirms, a feast is also an obligation.


  1. On memorial performance as ritual, see Sayre (101) and Rothenberg (10). On the AIDS quilt as an unorthodox, “nontranscendental” form of elegy that evokes “the absent bodies of the dead through clothing they once wore” (363), see Ramazani (361–65).

  2. For a 1995 interview in which Rodriguez discusses Catholicism, see Crowley. In a direct reference to “Late Victorians,” Rodriguez describes the transformation wrought by AIDS on the gay movement in San Francisco as the movement from a “circus of egoism” to a “circle of compassion around the deathbed. … Very Catholic” (10). Although no one has focused critical attention on the cultural poetics of Rodriguez's Catholicism, general treatments of religion and immigration have been helpful, particularly Giles on the clash of the American Puritan and the Catholic tempers (35–53; 120–21); DeLeón on Catholicism as contributing to anti-Mexican bigotry in Texas history (3–4); Liptak on the history of the Mexican migrant church in the early twentieth century. The best treatment of the ways in which religion manifests itself as a “cultural system” remains Geertz: “A synopsis of cosmic order, a set of religious beliefs, is also a gloss upon the mundane world … more than gloss, such beliefs are also a template” (124). See Fischer for ways that components of “disseminated” ethnic identity are “recollected” in autobiography (195–98).

  3. See Nunokawa on “the venerable tradition of sacred drag” (317–30).

  4. The term was coined by Rothenberg, “circa 1967” (5) for intercultural verbal performance.

  5. Born in 1944. Rodriguez would have participated in the identical Latin-rite liturgy which continued into the late 1950s. In Hunger he waxes nostalgic for the place of Latin in the “ceremonial” church and acknowledges that he still stands for the Creed (98–102). “Late Victorians” opens with the scene of Rodriguez “walking home from the Latin Mass at St. Patrick's” (57). Speaking of Hunger, Paredes sees Rodriguez's “preference for the traditional Latin liturgy” as evidence of his “rigid conventionalism” (282).

  6. On the materialist legacy of Catholicism, see Giles on Aquinas (36) and Scarry (“Donne”) on the “volitional materialism” of God as manifest in certain verbal artifacts of John Donne. Scarry (The Body in Pain, 281–326) provides the best theoretical discussion of ways that the artifact can represent a projection of the physical body.

  7. In Rodriguez's discussion of his brown body, Danahay finds evidence of repressed sexual desire (299) and Paredes discovers ethnic self-hatred (291).

  8. The word draws its double-edged meaning from its origins in medieval Latin; carnaval, denoting the day of festivity that precedes Ash Wednesday, derives from carnem levare, the putting away of flesh.

  9. Following Sollors, who identifies “consent and descent” as the defining dramatic tension in American culture (6), Ferraro consistently uses the image of “descent lines” (196) to describe forms of ethnic persistence. This coinage intersects in interesting ways with my use of “descent” to describe a spatial trajectory. In “Late Victorians” Rodriguez alludes to the self-“excavation” of Freudian analysis as a “descending architecture” (59), and this image describes one of the essay's controlling patterns as well.

  10. All references to “Late Victorians” are taken from the Harper's text.

  11. For a detailed discussion of this tradition, see Hammond, chapter 1. To distinguish this optimistic pattern from the “un-American pessimism” (44) of American Catholicism, see Giles (35–53).

    Many critics have discovered in Rodriguez's autobiographical essays the patterning of the conversion narrative; for example, Paredes (281). R. Saldivar describes Hunger as structured “in the archetypal pattern of redemption, albeit in Rodriguez's case a secular redemption” (“Ideologies of the Self,” 28; Chicano Narrative, 160); Saldivar's description of redemption is recognizably Protestant in its reference to the conversion experience. He claims that Rodriguez dramatizes two images of the self: “that of the sinner before rebirth and that of the saint after crisis and rebirth” (“Ideologies of the Self,” 28; Chicano Narrative, 160); J. Saldivar concurs (“The School of Caliban,” 308).

    What Rodriguez's critics identify as a “redemptive” paradigm closely corresponds to the ascent pattern of the traditional immigrant assimilation narrative. (See Ferraro for the “up-from-the-immigrant colony” [15–16] pattern in ethnic fiction.) This coincidence may help to explain why Rodriguez has become known as, in the words of Ruben Martinez, “the Mexican-American Chicanos Love to Hate” (“My Argument with Richard Rodriguez: Or, a Defense of the Mexican-American Chicanos Love to Hate,” LA Weekly, 2 October 1992, 18). Eakin counters the criticism that Rodriguez is a “coconut,” faithless to his culture, by asserting that although Rodriguez follows the “rise spells success” formula, his “sense of the costs of acculturation” distinguishes him (119). Sollors concurs, citing Rodriguez's Hunger as a “sophisticated thwarting” of the new exodus typology (46). Fine argues that, in both Hunger and Days, Rodriguez “dons competing identities” (135) to resist what she terms “other-imposed identities.”

  12. This spirit of abjection at the center of Rodriguez's ethnic Catholic temper directly correlates with the mystery of the Incarnation. This connection is carefully established in Steinberg's study of Renaissance visual representations of the sexuality of Christ: “If the godhead incarnates itself … it takes on the condition of being both deathbound and sexed” (13). For a critique of Days of Obligation's “binary opposition of Catholic Mexico versus Protestant America as an essential difference distinguishing the two nation-states,” see Sánchez (165–67).

  13. As quoted and discussed in Sayre (99). The word “field” directs attention to the way that “Late Victorians” also fulfills Tyler's notion of a postmodern ethnography as “a text of the physical, the spoken, and the performed, an evocation of quotidian experience … that uses everyday speech to suggest what is ineffable, not through abstraction, but by means of the concrete” (136). Compare, also, Judith Butler on the performative structures of impersonation by which gender is assumed (“Imitation,” 18–24; “Performative Acts,” 282; Bodies).

  14. Interestingly, from the first scene of the essay, Rodriguez places himself in what J. Saldívar has termed the “participant-observer” position that most often characterizes the narrator in Chicano border narratives (Dialectics, 62–84). Speaking of Rolando Hinojosa, Saldívar cites “strategies of ellipsis, concealment, and partial disclosures” as ethnographic techniques that define the cultural poetics of the genre (73–74). Fine, too, directly addresses Rodriguez's role as participant-narrator, “distinguishing himself from the gays he analyzes” while he “hints at his membership in the group he takes pains to distinguish himself from” (129). Alarcón and Sánchez follow Fine in describing this spectator role as “chosen” (Alarcón, 146); Sánchez draws a parallel between Rodriguez's spectator stance and his “self-satisfaction with … his chaste gay existence (in consonance with the Catholic church's encyclical censure of active homosexuals as sinners) …” (156). Perera compares Rodriguez to Octavio Paz in his “aphoristic, pyramidal” structures (63) and his distancing masks, but “his alienation is very much a Catholic alienation, in a way that Paz's is not” (65).

  15. Fine links Rodriguez's convoluted style to his “autobiographical self divided,” arguing that in “Late Victorians,” he “disassembles his self by distributing it across the landscape he inhabits. … Like the City's discrete identities which meld into no whole, Days of Obligation witnesses the autobiographical self divided” (131). In contrast, Kaup convincingly demonstrates that Rodriguez “reconfigure(s) the agonistic duality of descent and consent into a triangular shape” through the architectural metaphors of pre-modern family houses in the Castro: “Homosexuality, Rodriguez is saying, is like migration. It is constituted (as is feminism) as a journey from the house of one's birth to a substitute home” (390; see 378–91).

  16. David L. Kirp, “The Many Masks of Richard Rodriguez,” San Francisco Examiner, 15 November 1992, “Image” section, pp. 10–16. Kirp complains that in “Late Victorians” Rodriguez parades all the outdated stereotypes at the same time that he flaunts the new homophobia that would see AIDS as punishment for irresponsible behavior (16).

  17. In an essay on “Sexual Inversions” (1992), Judith Butler traces the trope of the homosexual as “invert” through a long-standing discursive tradition. Rodriguez's pattern of inversions becomes, then, part of his construction of the “homosexual stereotype.”

  18. In his playful inversion of “public” and “private” gestures, Rodriguez almost seems to be teasing critics who have complained of the “dichotomy between the public and private self” (J. Saldívar, “The School of Caliban,” 315) in their discussions of Hunger. R. Saldívar finds in Rodriguez's separation of the “individual private inner self over the social public outer self” a “rhetorically highlighted, publicly apologetic voice” with no consistent dialectical interplay (“Ideologies,” 27). In the best discussion of public/private voices, Eakin characterizes the voices as “one expository and one narrative … with distinctly lyric overtones,” observing that their interplay “reenacts the split that is their common theme” (120).

  19. Rodriguez's shadowy representation of the homosexual as “angel” and “disappearing” figure foregrounds another negative stereotype: that of the homosexual as “specter and phantom, as spirit and revenant, as abject and undead” (Fuss, 3). See also Nunokawa (320) and Butler (“Sexual Inversions,” 345–46).

  20. In the version of “Late Victorians” published in Days, this section is followed by a brief scene in which Rodriguez recalls Cesar's description of finding “paradise” at the “baths” (43). In its resistance to the representation of the homosexual as specter, this section anticipates the sensory and sacramental vision of the essay's final lines. Both sections recall the image of paradise which Mark Doty constructs in the beautiful AIDS elegy “Tiara”: “I think heaven is perfect stasis / poised over the realms of desire.”

  21. The essay thus begins and ends with two explicit references to Catholicism—two Catholic liturgies.

  22. Medieval Catholicism, for all its aspirations to towers of truth and Dantesque visions, had its roots in a folk religion similar to the ethnic spirituality which underlies Rodriguez's essay. There is a passage in Piers Plowman which describes the Incarnation through a wonderful inversion of the Scholastic idiom. It, too, plots a nativity story, one that anticipates Rodriguez's narrative line in “Late Victorians”: a “lifting down,” full of weight and gravity. And, like “Late Victorians,” it celebrates both a nativity feast and an immigration story.

    For heaven could not hold love. It was so heavy of itself.

    But when it had eaten its fill of earth

    And taken flesh and blood

    Then was it lighter than leaf upon linden-tree

    More subtle and piercing than the point of a needle


I wish to thank Jeffrey Hammond, John S. McCann, Rebecca Pope, and Amy Robinson for valuable assistance with this essay.

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———. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination. In Inside/Out. Edited by Diana Fuss, 13–31. New York: Routledge, 1991.

———. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitutions: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” In Acting Out: Feminist Performances. Edited by Linda Hart and Peggy Phelan, 270–82. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

———. “Sexual Inversions.” In Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS. Edited by Domna Stanton, 344–61. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

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———. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: David R. Godine, 1982.

———. “Late Victorians: San Francisco, AIDS, and the Homosexual Stereotype.” Harper's Magazine, October 1990, 57–66.

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Henry Staten (essay date January 1998)

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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,” Rodriguez declares himself a fully assimilated “middle-class American man” (3) and cautions against the “pastoral” impulse of the middle class (by which he apparently means the Mexican American middle class) to “deny its difference from the lower class” (6). The first essay, “Aria,” recounts how Rodriguez struggled to learn English as a child from a Spanish-speaking household, an experience from which he concludes that all children must abandon the language of origin in order to enter “public society” (27) and that bilingual education is therefore misguided. “The Achievement of Desire,” the second essay, describes how his education, which culminated in a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley in 1976, gradually alienated him from his uneducated, Mexican-born parents. The third essay, “Credo,” contrasts the communal Catholicism of his childhood with the “Protestant” isolation of his present relation to God. In “Complexion,” the fourth essay, Rodriguez broods on his dark skin and “Indian” physiognomy, different from the “European” looks of his parents and during his childhood an object of intense concern to his mother, who tried to whiten his skin with lemon juice. The fifth essay, “Profession,” is an account of his decision at the end of his graduate studies to turn down an academic post (at Yale) as a protest against affirmative action, from which he had benefited throughout his higher education. The book ends with “Mr. Secrets,” which describes his and his equally assimilated siblings' alienation from their parents at the time of the book's writing.

Published to widespread acclaim from the mainstream press, which praised the book for proclaiming truths about the “universal labor of growing up,”1Hunger of Memory drew fire from defenders of bilingual education and affirmative action and most heatedly from advocates of Chicano-Chicana identity, who charged and continue to charge that he had abandoned his ethnicity and aligned himself with the conservative political forces in the United States seeking to stifle the self-empowerment of the Chicano-Chicana people.2 These critics routinely contrast Rodriguez's stance with that of other authors of Mexican descent, such as Tomás Rivera and Ernesto Galarza, among whom there is, as Rivera himself writes, “little hunger of memory, and much hunger for community” when they write about their ethnic group (“Antithesis” 412).3

Not that Chicano and Chicana authors cannot criticize aspects of what they conceive as their culture. Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, strongly criticizes its patriarchal and homophobic character, but she does not conclude that the culture must be abandoned. Rather, she digs deeper into its historical resources (Aztec mythology, in particular), retrieving archaic elements that can counter its prevailing patriarchalism. Rodriguez, by contrast, derives from his experience of what he uncritically calls “assimilation”—as painful as it was and despite the nostalgia with which it left him—the conclusion that Mexican Americans must either “assimilate” completely or remain “alien,” powerless and silent on the fringes of United States society (Hunger 27). This argument, provocative enough for those who desire to affirm Chicano-Chicana culture, is made incendiary by Rodriguez's contempt for self-identified Chicanos and Chicanas (for example, he refers to the “clownish display” of Chicano college students who wore serapes on the Berkeley campus in the 1970s as a mark of their ethnicity [159]). Furthermore, he flaunts the wealth and jet-set lifestyle he has attained through his writings (“I wear double-breasted Italian suits and custom-made English shoes” [136])—a success based in part on the appeal that his opposition to multiculturalism has for a conservative white audience. Like the protagonist of James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Rodriguez seems to have sold his inheritance for a mess of pottage and, in return for a life of luxury, to have given up the chance to play a role in his people's world-historical struggle for dignity.4

I believe, however, that Rodriguez's critics have not sufficiently noted the irony in his view of himself when he describes his remade mode of being. He is a detached, isolated individual, severed from the world of his family and of Mexican Catholicism, who remains anomalous in the new social contexts on which he has been grafted. But he has not forgotten his origins, and his dark skin is inescapable. Hence his self-perspective perpetually makes a circuit through an alien gaze:

The registration clerk in London wonders if I have just been to Switzerland. And the man who carries my luggage in New York guesses the Caribbean. My complexion becomes a mark of my leisure. Yet no one would regard my complexion the same way if I entered such hotels through the service entrance.


Similarly, he sees himself through the eyes of non-Catholic friends who wonder why he is late to Sunday brunch (110), of Mexican laborers on a construction site who quietly watch him while he laughs with his Anglo coworkers (134), and of Chicanos who see him as “some comic Queequeg, holding close to my breast a reliquary containing the white powder of a dead European civilization” (162). Observing himself in this way, he accentuates the situational irony that defines his being.

This irony belies the absoluteness of the cultural either-or (either Chicano or American) that he proclaims; his cultural situation lies, rather, at the complex intersection of a both-and and a neither-nor. He does not map this intersection accurately, but neither do those who would define the authenticity of his selfhood strictly in relation to an “organic human collective” called “la raza” (Saldívar 169). For who in fact are Rodriguez's people? What does it mean to claim him for Chicano identity, to assert that this ethnicity is “his”?5 To say someone is a Chicano or Chicana is minimally to say that his or her forebears were Mexican. Since Mexico is a duly constituted political entity and has been so (under various forms) for centuries, the question of who was or is a Mexican is easily answered (“a subject or citizen of Mexico”), and it seems to follow that Chicano-Chicana identity is secure in its historical derivation. Because Rodriguez is the child of parents who were Mexican-born and -raised, he must be a Chicano (see Rivera, “Antithesis” 410). Yet there is a tangled relation between Chicano-Chicana identity and Mexico, a relation sedimented with contradictions at the intersection of race, nationality, and class in Mexican history. Because the same contradictions have been carried over to the United States, the population of Mexican descent in this country is and always has been riven by deeper differences than theorists of Chicano-Chicana identity have allowed.6 Instead of merely betraying a presumed Chicano identity, Rodriguez's life narrative mirrors the tensions and contradictions of the Mexican and Mexican American societies.

The term Chicano or Chicana has always been ambiguous. On the one hand, it was deployed in the 1960s primarily as a performative, of a type I propose to call an identitive. To declare oneself a Chicano or Chicana then was to participate in the creation of a new group identity tied to the oppressed working class of Mexican descent and differentiated from the assimilationism and ameliorationism of the middle-class group that called itself Mexican American or even dropped the reference to Mexican descent altogether.7 But on the other hand, behind this performative use was a constative dimension with blurry edges according to which the term reflected a preexisting identity that included all United States residents of Mexican descent, no matter how wealthy or assimilated. Such persons could then be denounced as vendidos ‘sellouts’ if they failed or refused to cooperate in the creation of the new identity. As Chicano-Chicana nationalism waned in the 1970s and 1980s, the vague constative sense of Chicano or Chicana gained ascendancy, and the term replaced Mexican American as the label of choice for United States residents of Mexican descent, a change that aggravated the confusion in the 1960s use of Chicano and Chicana.

In what follows I sketch the origins of the ideology of la raza in the immediate postrevolutionary period of the 1920s and 1930s in Mexico and discuss the transposition of this ideology onto United States soil in the Chicano movement of the 1960s. I then turn to Hunger of Memory to show that Rodriguez's parents sharply distinguished themselves from the group at the center of the most influential definitions of Chicano-Chicana identity—the laboring underclass of Mexican descent—and that his identification with his Mexican parents is crucial to his refusal to consider himself Chicano. I then suggest that Rodriguez's intense sense of class distinctions results in his arguably valid left critique of affirmative action but that Rodriguez links this critique in an obviously invalid way to his rejection of bilingual education. To justify this rejection, he articulates a “phonologocentric” metaphysics of language of the type Derrida analyzes in Rousseau, by means of which Rodriguez both affirms his attachment to the familial language of his childhood and denies any connection with the ethnic group whose language his family spoke. Despite this denial, however, his family reveals the same splits of class and race as does their ethnic group, and his identification with his father in particular entangles Rodriguez in the contradictions of the group in a way that will not allow him cleanly to dissociate himself from it. There is, in fact, in a complex and ambiguous sense, a Chicano Richard Rodriguez, but because of Rodriguez's familial and personal history, this identification exists for him only as an object of mourning memory. I conclude that Rodriguez is not as detached as he thinks he is from the Chicano identity he rejects; but neither can it simply be declared “his.”


The fundamental contradiction of Mexican history is of course that the Mexican “race” is constituted by a mixture of blood between the Spanish invaders and the native population they enslaved. Today almost all Mexicans are mestizo, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood.8 After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexicans began attempting to validate their mestizaje, but it was not until following the “democratic” revolution of 1910–20, which established the modern Mexican state, that the Indian inheritance was accepted at the highest official levels as the root of the distinctive racial character and cultural greatness of Mexico. This ideology, indigenismo, established the principle that Mexicans are not only a nation but also a race, “la raza cosmica” in the phrase coined by José Vasconcelos.9 This principle, adopted by the Chicano movement, or chicanismo, defined the Mexican as someone whose descent is tied to the political entity called Mexico but who is also a mestizo or mestiza, and in the more aggressively nativist forms of indigenismo, pride of place is given to the Indian element. To assert the Indian essence of the mestizo or mestiza is to raise one's fist against the oppression of the European invader: originally the Spaniard and later the Anglo.

The activists who developed chicanismo in the 1960s transposed Mexican indigenismo to the United States by appealing to the ancient Aztec belief in a northern homeland called Aztlán, the location of which was disputed by scholars but assumed by Aztlanists to be in the area of New Mexico.10 Generalizing the notion of Aztlán to include the entire American Southwest, which the United States had taken from Mexico under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and stressing the notion that Chicanos and Chicanas are mostly Indian (Lux and Vigil 100; Chávez 4), the Aztlanists could argue that this region was their people's ancestral “lost homeland,” stolen by the Anglo not only from Mexico but more profoundly from the indigenous race that had immemorially inhabited it. This claim was militantly and influentially declared in El plan espiritual de Aztlán (“The Spiritual Plan of Aztlán”), a manifesto issued by the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, organized by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez and held in Denver in 1969. By virtue of this claim, chicanismo could, while affirming Mexican descent and borrowing the Mexican ideology of indigenismo, assert a Chicano-Chicana nationalism distinct from Mexican nationalism.

Other theorists of Chicano-Chicana identity, from Tomás Rivera to Ramón Saldívar, have attempted to define the group without privileging Indian blood, yet there is no politically significant difference between their definition and that of the Chicano or Chicana indigenistas. In both views, the population is bound together by its shared history of suffering and struggle as an oppressed, racially mixed group of Mexican descent (Rivera, “Chicano Literature” 382; Saldívar 10–14), a conception that privileges the laboring underclass, especially the migrant farm-workers whose political struggle in the early 1960s sparked the Chicano movement.11 But since the members of this class are generally the darkest-skinned Chicanos and Chicanas, the ones most marked by Indian blood (hence, as Rodriguez is uncomfortably aware, the socioeconomic group whose racial traits he visibly bears), even a nonessentialist, sociohistorical definition of their people needs to take into account the distinctive racial marking, within the mestizo-mestiza population as a whole, of the most oppressed group.

The attempt to define the Chicano and Chicana negatively by contrast with the Anglo and positively in terms of Mexican, mestizo-mestiza descent poses a problem for chicanismo, since the lowest “ethclass” of Mexicans is the same—and is racially marked in the same way—in Mexico as in the United States, and it is even more brutally oppressed there than here (as the Chiapas uprising has recently made the United States public aware).12 According to the Marxist historian Arnaldo Córdova, although the Mexican revolution reconfigured the state along more-democratic lines, it not only perpetuated the fundamental capitalist dynamic that had inspired the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz but also preserved “entire sectors of the old ruling class” (“old industrialists, bankers, businessmen, and even landholders”) while opening the way for the middle-class leaders of the revolution to become capitalists themselves (30; my trans.).13 Since the mestizos and mestizas of the ruling class were more Spanish than Indian, the more Indian mixed-race members of the lower classes remained at the bottom. In the words of the sociologist Raúl Béjar Navarro:

The majority of the population, which made possible the shift from the Porfirian regime to that of the revolutionaries, hardly drew any benefit from the armed struggle. On the contrary, the incipient bourgeoisie that had consolidated itself in the regime of Porfirio Díaz took advantage of the occasion … to direct to its own benefit the nascent process of urbanization and industrialization. The result of this was that the groups of Indians and the great masses of mestizos and mestizas remained marginalized from these socio-economic processes.

(215–16; my trans.)

To the present day, the ruling-class orientation toward whiteness is reflected in the images purveyed by Mexican magazines, movies (e.g., Like Water for Chocolate), television programs, and beauty contests (Béjar Navarro 218–21; Friedlander 77–78; Knight, “Racism” 100–01). Meanwhile, the downtrodden, predominantly Indian mestizos and mestizas of the lower classes, who constitute the vast majority of the population, use the term indio as a mark of contempt for the least-urbanized and -Hispanicized stratum—the members of which are for the most part racially indiscernible from them.14

Official indigenismo glorified the Indian as a symbol while on a practical political level recognizing that the chiefly Indian mestizo-mestiza peasantry's backwardness and lack of nationalism were impediments to the formation of a modern industrial state (Gamio 93–96). As George Sánchez explains, Mexican leaders such as Vasconcelos “focused on changing peasant values and behavior to lead Mexico to greater capitalist productivity and nationalist integration” (119). Manuel Gamio, the leading proponent of official indigenismo (and first director of the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City), advocated racial, linguistic, and cultural homogenization of the population, which he believed would make Mexico more like successful nation-states such as Germany, France, and Japan (8–9). For Gamio, indigenismo aimed at the absorption of the Indian racial element into the cultural framework established by the “portion of the population of European tendencies and origins,” so that “the national race” (“la raza nacional”) could become “coherent” and “homogeneous” (10; my trans.; on Gamio generally, see Brading). The disciplining of the Mexican masses into a unified force suited to the goals of the government and ruling class was furthered, he believed, by the sojourn of Mexican peasant emigrants in the United States (G. Sánchez 119–21), where they came to identify for the first time with Mexico as their nation: “We have seen frequently that natives or mestizos in rural districts in Mexico have not much notion of their nationality or their country. … People of this type, as immigrants in the United States, learn immediately what their mother country means, and they think and speak with love of it.” At the same time, these peasants learned “discipline and steady habits of work” in the United States (qtd. in G. Sánchez 122). They therefore became ripe for repatriation as citizens of a modern Mexican nation.

Having created the concept of La Raza, the Mexican bourgeoisie championed it in the United States. According to Richard A. García, it was conservative upper-class Mexican émigrés, opponents of the revolution, who upheld the concept of La Raza in south Texas in the postrevolutionary era of Mexican national reconciliation. These émigrés tried to establish cultural hegemony over the working-class Mexican Americans of south Texas in the 1930s; the newspaper La prensa, propaganda organ of the upper-class émigrés, encouraged Mexican Americans to remain loyal to the Mexican state, to continue Mexican cultural traditions, and to attend opera and the theater (García 77–78). The hegemony of the émigrés was contested by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a homegrown middle-class organization comprising small businessmen and professionals (79) that pressed for a new “Mexican-American” identity, “Mexican in culture and American in ideas and ideology” (84).15 Although treated as “anti-Mexican” by the émigrés (83) and dismissed as “assimilationist” by some proponents of Chicano-Chicana identity (Lux and Vigil 94), LULAC was closer to the everyday concerns of most Mexican Americans, “fighting for the poorer Mexican community, fighting against discrimination” (García 88), than were the émigrés who carried the banner of La Raza. The chicanistas who deride LULAC thus inherit their stance on La Raza from a reactionary bourgeois group, even though they champion the most oppressed segments of the Mexican American working class.

If the relation to the dominant Anglo fuses Mexican Americans in a Chicano-Chicana identity that can lead to politically effective organization, this sense of collectivity, based on a reference to Mexican descent, nevertheless mystifies the sociopolitical bond that has historically been an instrument of hegemony for the Mexican ruling class over the very ethclass held to be at the core of Chicano-Chicana identity. It could be argued that for the Anglo, Mexicans are simply Mexicans and that this perception unites them in the United States in a way that they are not united in Mexico. There is considerable truth in this claim. But it should not obscure the racial and class divisions within the Mexican American community, which are palpable and have at times been extreme—for example, as Rodolfo Acuña notes, the rich Mexican American families of San Antonio in the late nineteenth century

displayed attitudes and interests attendant to their class and even emphasized racial differences between themselves and the lower classes, stating that the poor did not belong to the white race. Many old families openly sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan. … They seemed oblivious to persecution of their fellow Mexicans.



Although the word mestizo seems to refer to a biological reality that would be the solid substratum of the political reality called Mexico, the term subsumes a spectrum of genotypes, and within this spectrum are internalized the same conflicts and unresolved contradictions that before Mexico nominally “accepted the mestizo” (Rivera, “Antithesis” 410) were seen in terms of the dichotomy between the European and the indigene. With the increasing mestization of the Mexican population, the presence of Indian blood became a family matter. The members of Rodriguez's family mirror this situation: most of them, in particular his parents, are European in phenotype, but the phenotypes of Richard and one of his sisters manifest Indian blood (Hunger 114–15). The Rodriguez family genotype alone implies that their Mexican cultural background would probably not be that of the poorest ethclass, which includes the vast majority of Mexicans. And indeed Rodriguez's later book, Days of Obligation, indicates that his father, though a poor orphan, had rich relatives for whom he worked from age eight. “The family was prominent, conservative, Catholic in the Days of Wrath—years of anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico” (215–16). Rodriguez's mother's appearance (“she looks as though she could be from southern Europe” [Hunger 114]) and social orientation (“Do not judge Mexico by the poor people you see coming up to this country,” Richard remembers her saying [Days 214]) suggest that her family also did not come from the ethclass that she taught Richard to pity as “los pobres,” the poor (Hunger 114).

Rodriguez describes his family as “working class,” which is true in the United States economic context (his father did menial work, and his mother was a typist). But his parents never identified with the laboring underclass of Mexico. Richard's mother taught him to fear any loss of his distinction from that class, urging him to stay out of the sun so that his skin would not become as dark as that of the Mexican field workers (Hunger 113). In the pictures of his parents on their honeymoon, Richard nostalgically remembers, “there is to their pose an aristocratic formality, an elegant Latin hauteur.” “The man in those pictures … was fascinated by Italian grand opera. … On Sundays he'd don Italian silk scarves and a camel's hair coat to take his new wife to the polo matches in Golden Gate Park” (121).16

Rodriguez's love affair with the wealthy thus follows the cultural trajectory on which his parents had been set by their Mexican background. In the United States, they proudly identified themselves as Mexican, but it is consistent with their identification that they aspired and taught Richard to aspire to the lifestyle of the rich.

In their manner, both my parents continued to respect the symbols of what they considered to be upper-class life. Very early, they taught me the propio [“proper”] way of eating como los ricos [“like the rich”]. And I was carefully taught elaborate formulas of polite greeting and parting. … From those early days began my association with rich people, my fascination with their secret.


At his “rich anglo friends'” houses, Rodriguez says, “I'd skate the icy cut of crystal with my eye; my gaze would follow the golden threads etched into the rim of china. With my mother's eyes I'd see my hostess's manicured nails and judge them to be marks of her leisure” (123). Rodriguez carries the desires, conservative attitudes, and feeling of distinction (in Pierre Bourdieu's sense) instilled in him by his Mexican parents and for this reason does not identify with the Chicano-Chicana activists of La Raza.


Yet Rodriguez's sense of class distinctions also manifests itself in an intense compassion for the plight of the dark-skinned subalterns he sees all around him. At his rich friends' houses he notices the “vast polished dining room table” and the “small silver bell” the mother rings to call a servant, but he also observes that the servant is a black woman, and on his way out notices his own “dark self” in a hallway mirror (123). He is fascinated by the “darkness … like mine” of the Mexican laborers and intrigued by “the connection between dark skin and poverty” of which he often hears his mother speak. “I was the student at Stanford who remembered to notice the Mexican-American janitors and gardeners working on campus” (114, 117, 130).

Rodriguez gradually comes to understand, however, that although he carries the visible markers of race that nominally group him with the oppressed ethclass, he is “unrepresentative of lower-class Hispanics” (147). He has been prepared for upward mobility from an early age (“I was not—in a cultural sense—a minority” [147]). Rodriguez's awareness of the class articulation of society leads him in Hunger of Memory to a left critique of affirmative action that adumbrates John Guillory's critique of the notion of the “representation” of minorities in the “pedagogic imaginary” of the university (37–38) and that critics of Rodriguez like Saldívar, Rosaura Sánchez, and Alarcón do not even mention:

The policy of affirmative action … was never able to distinguish someone like me (a graduate student of English, ambitious for a college teaching career) from a slightly educated Mexican-American who lived in a barrio and worked as a menial laborer, never expecting a future improved. Worse, affirmative action made me the beneficiary of his condition. Such was the foolish logic of this program of social reform. …

Remarkably, affirmative action passed as a program of the Left. In fact, its supporters ignored the most fundamental assumptions of the classical Left by disregarding the importance of class and by assuming that the disadvantages of the lower class would necessarily be ameliorated by the creation of an elite society. … Those least disadvantaged were helped first, advanced because many others of their race were more disadvantaged.


On Rodriguez's analysis, affirmative action in the university was a liberal palliative that allowed “the guardians of institutional America in Washington … to ignore the need for fundamental social changes” (152) that would have aided “America's underclass,” regardless of race (164–65). “The revolutionary demand would have called for a reform of primary and secondary schools,” ensuring enough “good teachers … with sufficient time to devote to individual students,” as well as for “jobs and good housing” for parents and “three meals a day, in safe neighborhoods,” for children (151–52).


Rodriguez's critics could have given him credit for this correct, if unoriginal, analysis, but they have ignored it, their attention magnetized by his opposition to bilingual education, a position both they and Rodriguez believe stabs at the heart of Chicano-Chicana identity. As Anzaldúa writes, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity” (59). For Rodriguez, who is not interested in investigating the benefits of bilingual education empirically, it is self evident that “full public individuality” requires “assimilation” and that assimilation requires the abandonment of one's “ethnic heritage,” because (and here Rodriguez makes an astonishing logical leap) the self within the ethnic group is “private” and therefore incompatible with an empowered public self (26–27, 34–35). This conclusion is motivated not by social analysis but by Rodriguez's religious metaphysics. As his essay on his Christian faith reveals, privacy is for him an unplumbable metaphysical depth. At its limit is the privacy of the Puritan, who stands alone before God (110). Only the Catholic Church of his childhood, before its liberalization drove Rodriguez toward Puritan solitude, could mediate between the individual's absolute privacy and the community of believers (105–06). “Secular institutions lack the key; they have no basis for claiming access to the realm of the private” (109). Since there exists no secular mediation between the private and public realms, it follows that moving from the ethnic working-class family to the life of an educated person must involve an absolute severance of the new, public self from the old, private self and thus from the parents' culture.

Rodriguez's logic turns on a simple equivocation: his equation of the ethnic group with privacy, individuality, separateness (34)—as though it were merely the home writ large rather than another public sphere, less vast and anonymous than the official one Rodriguez has come to inhabit but for that reason perhaps capable of serving as an intermediate circle of sociality between the home and the crowd. Rodriguez's argument against the possibility of intermediate social formations is self-refuting. Those who attempt to form such intermediate groups, he argues, whether on an ethnic or some other basis, are trying to generalize the intimacy of family language:

Working-class men attempting political power took to calling one another “brother.” … But they paid a price for this union. It was a public union they forged. The word they coined to address one another could never be the sound … exchanged by two in intimate greeting. In the union hall the word “brother” became a vague metaphor, with repetition a weak echo of the intimate sound.

Rodriguez admits that a public union has indeed been forged here, seemingly refuting his claim that such formations do not exist, but then he shifts ground and takes the public nature of the union as evidence of the failure of the enterprise. From the argument that the private world of social subgroups must give way to publicness he shifts to the charge that such groups violate familial privacy and thus “sin against intimacy” (35). He requires that the public word brother mean the same as its familial homonym if the work of mediation is to be accomplished. But how could a familial word mediate between public and private if its meaning remained strictly familial?

Rodriguez's critique of cultural particularism is in fact an artifact of his fetishization of familial intimacy, the intimacy that is the object of his hunger of memory. Eliding all social mediation between his early childhood self and the self that he became, Rodriguez views his life as a dialectical movement from intimacy to alienation and then to the sublation of this antithesis within pure individual interiority:

It would require many … years of schooling (an inevitable miseducation) in which I came to trust the silence of reading and the habit of abstracting from immediate experience—moving away from a life of closeness and immediacy I remembered with my parents, growing older—before I turned unafraid to desire the past. …


When the process of alienation is completed, it overcomes itself, and the alienated subject rediscovers lost immediacy in a new, reflective, articulate inwardness. In the sanctuary of mourning memory, lost intimacy is sealed off from the possibility of defilement, familial language saved from “public misuse” by labor unionists or chicanistas (35–36).


Overhearing Spanish voices while in solitude at the British Museum brings an end to Rodriguez's “miseducation,” calling him home to his parents to look for “those elastic sturdy strands that bind generations together in a web of inheritance” and initiating the mature phase of his intellectual life (Hunger 72). This and other references to Spanish (“I envied them their fluent Spanish,” he says of the campus Chicanos and Chicanas [159]) suggest that the language, as the possession of a culture and not of a family alone, is one of the “sturdy strands” binding him in some measure and fashion (neither simple unity nor simple separation) to previous generations. But Rodriguez is armed against such an interpretation. While elegizing Spanish as the language of familial intimacy, he detaches it from any wider sociocultural reference. Like Rousseau in Derrida's analysis, Rodriguez nostalgically dreams Spanish as absence of articulation; not as speech, strictly speaking, but as spoken sound that conveys emotion rather than meaning (Derrida 225–29).17 Commemorating his pleasure in the familial Spanish of his early childhood, before the transition to English, Rodriguez writes:

A word like would become, in several notes, able to convey added measures of feeling. Tongues explored the edges of words, especially the fat vowels. And we happily sounded that military drum roll, the twirling roar of the Spanish r. Family language: my family's sounds.

(Hunger 18)

I have noticed the way children create private languages to keep away the adult; I have heard their chanting riddles that go nowhere in logic but harken back to some kingdom of sound; I have watched them listen to intricate nonsense rhymes, and I have noted their wonder. I was never such a child. Until I was six years old, I remained in a magical realm of sound. I didn't need to remember that realm because it was present to me.


Rodriguez's phonocentrisim, like Rousseau's, culminates in melocentrism: in song (including lyric poetry) “words are subsumed into sounds” perfectly; “imitating” the sound of intimacy, song recalls to Rodriguez the intimate moments of his life (37–38). He values the Spanish of nostalgic remembrance to the degree that it, like song, approaches “pure sound” (38). Spanish stands for speech that has not yet fallen into grammar, syntax, the différance and “spacing” of empirical language, and Rodriguez mourns it as an interiorized, idealized object of memory and transcendent desire, not as a worldly phenomenon linked to the history of a people or peoples.

Because his experience of familial intimacy is essentially inarticulate, hence not bound to a specific language, the intimacy that disappears when the Rodriguez family switches to English reappears on the other side of that transition:

Making more and more friends outside my house, I began to distinguish intimate voices speaking through English. … After such moments of intimacy outside the house, I began to trust hearing intimacy conveyed through my family's English. … Intimacy thus continued at home; intimacy was not stilled by English.


The discovery that intimacy transcends language comes to Rodriguez one day when his mother calls to him in Spanish while he is playing with an Anglo friend. The friend asks him what she said, and Richard cannot reply:

The problem was … that though I knew how to translate exactly what she had told me, I realized that any translation would distort the deepest meaning of her message: It had been directed only to me. This message of intimacy could never be translated because it was not in the words she had used but passed through them.


The conclusion Rodriguez draws from this incident reflects the purest Romantic theory of language, criticized by V. N. Vološinov (83–85): the deepest, most authentic meaning pertains not to the material embodiment of language but to the spirit, the inwardness of the individual, and authentic communication is the immediate contact of two subjectivities through the disposable vehicle of a determinate language. This conception of meaning is the key to the political ideology of “separate spheres” purveyed in Hunger of Memory. It produces the most effective lyricism of the book, in Rodriguez's paean to the familial intimacy of his childhood, but also licenses the most simplistic turns of his discourse, which have magnetized the attention of his readers of the left and the right: the turns on the absolute split between ethnic and public identity and on the consequent necessity of a clean break with the language of the ethnic group.


And yet, as I noted earlier, despite his family ideology of distinction from los pobres, despite his transcendental metaphysics, Richard feels an intense connection with the most abjected Mexicans and longs to make contact with them (Hunger 126, 134–35). In part, these feelings constitute the very “middle-class pastoral” against which he warns (Hunger 6): a cross-cultural class romance in which the bourgeois longs for the physicality and immediacy of the laborer. But in Richard's case it is much more than that, for at least two reasons:18 first, because he shares the phenotype of the laborers and, second, because his father, though “white” and bourgeois-identified, speaks English poorly, has hands worn by labor, and has been humbled by the life of the subaltern (Hunger 119–20)—like the dark-skinned Mexicans that Richard resembles. Richard's identity splits in relation to this father, who on the one hand represents the self that makes Richard different from los pobres and on the other hand represents those pobres from which Richard is different. There is a Chicano Richard identified (immediately through his dark skin and mediately through his father's subalternity) with the abjection of the poor Mexican, and there is a Mexican American Richard who is the heir of his father's sense of distinction and focus on upward mobility.

Rodriguez's identification with the laborer father and with los pobres is, however, played out purely at the level of the imaginary, in the Lacanian sense—as a relation to a libidinally invested image (the mirror image of his own indio form) that is never translated into the web of the symbolic order. According to Rodriguez's personal ideology, indeed, it is impossible for such an identification to persist into the symbolic order (the “public language,” in his terms)—in his own case or anyone else's. He is thus doomed to carry it about with him as the ghost of a past that he feels with the greatest immediacy but can never touch.

But neither is the father as dandy the model for Richard's assumption of power in the symbolic order (though this imago appears to be the model for his enjoyment of the fruits of that power); Richard's identification with this image of the father, constructed from photographs, is even more wispily imaginary than his identification with the laborer father. Neither of these father imagos possesses the symbolic power that in a patriarchal society properly belongs to the father, the power of what Lacan calls the symbolic phallus. According to Lacan, the father is able to play the role of symbolic father because of the authority of his speech (218). The sound of language, to which Richard is extraordinarily sensitive, gives him a peculiarly vivid, shattering intuition concerning Mr. Rodriguez's lack of this authority. Early in Hunger of Memory Rodriguez recounts a scene of a type that he says was repeated “many times,” a scene in which Mr. Rodriguez's voice becomes that of a woman or a castrato during a conversation in English. The grown man is talking to the attendant at a service station, an Anglo teenager, while Richard stands “uneasily” by:

I do not recall what they were saying, but I cannot forget the sounds my father made as he spoke. At one point his words slid together to form one word. … His voice rushed through what he had left to say. And, toward the end, reached falsetto notes, appealing to his listener's understanding. … I tried not to hear anymore. But I heard only too well the calm, easy tones in the attendant's reply. Shortly afterward, walking toward home with my father, I shivered when he put his hand on my shoulder.


This stunning scene hints at the psychoanalytic depths beneath the surface of Richard Rodriguez's narrative. Must not the hysteria his father shows when supplicating this Anglo adolescent manifest something about the psychodynamics within the Rodriguez family that led to Richard's flight from Spanish?

In his flight from the mother tongue and from the imago of his father, Richard “idolized” and identified instead with the Irish nuns who were his teachers, and it was by means of this identification that he strapped on the cultural phallus. “I began by imitating their accents, using their diction, trusting their every direction”; “[t]heir every casual opinion I came to adopt” (49). “The docile, obedient student came home a shrill and precocious son who insisted on correcting and teaching his parents with the remark: ‘My teacher told us. …’” (50; ellipsis in orig.). On a Lacanian reading of Rodriguez, then, his severance from the cultural tradition of his parents seems to be motivated by the failure of authority of his father's speech in the language of the symbolic order, which results in the scrambling of this order within the Rodriguez household (Lacan 218–19).19

But is this not just a sophisticated way of saying that Richard became ashamed of his father and thus of being Mexican? Is Hunger of Memory a painfully honest self-revelation, which we should respect, or a shameless, self-serving display, which his critics are right to blame? The art or artfulness of confessional autobiography is to weave a continual self-inculpation into the text and thus forestall or at least make more difficult the inculpation from outside. It is above all by revealing the humiliating intimate detail, which need not have been revealed, that the autobiographer steals a march on the reader's accusation. Autobiography is apologia, and autobiographical self-inculpation is the ultimate gambit of self-justification; Rousseau, indeed, proposed to sustain the Last Judgment with his Confessions in his hand. But the anticipatory self-inculpation can never be complete, can never map out in advance the entire manifold of possible criticisms and condemnations, in part because history and the psyche are illimitably complex but also because the text casts new shadows wherever it moves to clear up old ones. Thus autobiography will always, by a structural necessity, be in bad faith. But whereas Rousseau's self-inculpation is merely moral, Rodriguez tries to articulate his selfhood and its “original sin” in ethicopolitical terms (Hunger 30). The limits of his self-understanding are thus exemplary as the limits not of self-reflexive consciousness but of what we have learned to call the historically situated subject. Whatever the ambiguities of Hunger of Memory and in part because of them, the book presents truthful witness to the complexities facing persons of Mexican descent in the United States and provides a needed corrective to the more edifying and equally necessary truths partially brought into being by those who have invoked the Chicano-Chicana identitive.


Chicanismo was conceived as a radical movement of the oppressed ethclass. Its roots in political and socioeconomic realities are blurred when Chicano and Chicana become simply synonyms for Mexican American, as in Susan Keefe and Amado Padilla's sociological study Chicano Ethnicity (5). Tony Reyes, for instance, an informant in this study, is the child of Mexican immigrants, but he is college-educated, holds a “well-paying administrative job,” is married to an Anglo, lives in an “attractive, primarily Anglo residential area,” and does not speak Spanish well (86–90). “Nevertheless,” Keefe and Padilla aver, “Tony has a strong ethnic identity as a ‘Chicano’ and he prefers to associate with Chicanos.” Since, however, the Chicanos with whom Reyes associates are “Americanized” (91), presumably similar to him in educational status and social class and with as limited a competence in Spanish, there is little apart from his self-identification to distinguish Reyes's cultural position from that of Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez's acute awareness of the ironies of such a cultural location (both-and, neither-nor) motivates his refusal to count himself a Chicano. He generalizes these ironies to the Mexican American population as a whole in a passage in Days of Obligation:

I saw Cesar Chavez … at a black-tie benefit in a hotel in San Jose. … How fragile the great can seem. How much more substantial we of the ballroom seemed, the Mexican-American haute bourgeoisie, as we stood to pay our homage. … Chavez reminded us that night of who our grandparents used to be.

Then Mexican waiters served champagne.

Success is a terrible dilemma for Mexican Americans, like being denied some soul-sustaining sacrament. Without the myth of victimization—who are we? We are no longer Mexicans. … [W]e might as well be Italians.


As usual, Rodriguez directs his irony at himself as much as at anyone else. Mexican waiters serve champagne—to rich Mexican Americans like him. Rodriguez is not saying that victimization is a myth (as Rosaura Sánchez claims he does [171]) but that it functions as a myth for Mexican Americans who claim it as part of their cultural identity but do not experience victimization (and may indeed inflict it, as do the ruling classes of the old country). Sánchez's misreading manifests the disavowal of class stratification within the Mexican American population that, I argue, Rodriguez helps to overcome and that the synonymization of Chicano or Chicana and Mexican American helps to maintain. The term Chicano or Chicana points, however confusedly, to a real oppressed ethclass. Since the historical-political link between term and referent has been mystified by appeals to Indianness and Mexicanness, the analysis of the social formations involved should remove these mystifications, first by recognizing the ways in which class distinctions (cultural or economic), in all their complex imbrication with race, cut across ethnic connections.

Rodriguez is thus right to call attention to the necessary tie between Chicano-Chicana identity and the oppression of the most abjected ethclass of Mexican descent. Even a Mexican American who grows up in a middle-class home might suffer from racial or ethnic discrimination in large or small ways, and this suffering might forge some identification with the most abjected group. But the scale of diminishing suffering needs to be taken into account because, as Rodriguez trenchantly observes, once the claim to identity with the oppressed racial substance has been laid, it becomes hard to say, “when a person ever stops being disadvantaged” (Hunger 150). Rodriguez is wrong to think that someone who grows up in a migrant worker family or a working-class barrio family and then goes to college has no grounds for identification with the culture of origin. On the contrary, it is precisely among this group that the Chicano-Chicana identity grew and flourished (Limón 200–01; Klor de Alva 150–52). While pointing toward the plight of the most oppressed ethclass, Chicano or Chicana is primarily available as a self-description to those who have begun to emerge from that condition and who are capable of articulating the potentially Chicano-Chicana population as a community for itself; this stage is not where one stops being a Chicano or Chicana but in some sense where one starts. Yet I believe that at some point the identification ceases to be valid, that one cannot stretch the threads of affiliation indefinitely thin. One can be a Chicano who goes to Harvard, but can one be a Chicano whose parents went to Harvard? (Even empathizing with and working for the oppressed ethclass would not make such a person a Chicano, since anyone of any race can do the same.)

For all of us who exist or will exist in the penumbra of Chicano-Chicana identity, some other language than that of simple identity is called for. I always knew that I was not a paradigmatic Chicano: born on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and raised on the Texas side, I had the language, the dark skin, and the lower-caste status of the Mexican, but I also spoke fluent English and had the strange power of an Anglo name—though my Anglo grandfather was the only white person I knew as a child—and I quickly moved away from my “roots” into the world of the university. Yet the Chicano identitive has had its effect on me, an effect I do not know how to name, short of writing an autobiography, as Rodriguez has done. My “identity,” if I can call it that, has existed in relation to the (per)formative power of the names Mexican and then Chicano yet is not named by them. This is the case with Rodriguez as well, but because he accepts the to-be-or-not-to-be of identity talk, he misformulates his relation to the name Chicano as an absolute non-relation. Yet all Hunger of Memory is a denegation by which Rodriguez acknowledges in intimate detail his essential relation to this name that does not name him.20 In my view, such an acknowledgment is all that anyone can legitimately claim of him.


  1. The phrase cited is from Zweig's notice in the New York Times Book Review. Donohue's review uses almost the same words (403). The book was respectfully reviewed in such periodicals as Newsweek (Strouse), the Atlantic Monthly, and the Christian Science Monitor, in addition to numerous city newspapers. Praise in the mainstream journals was not quite unanimous; in Commentary Adlen called the book “unconvincing” and Rodriguez a “snob” (82).

  2. For a representative sampling of such critiques of Hunger of Memory from 1982 to the present, see Madrid, Rivera (“Antithesis”), Flores, Romero, Saldívar (155–63, 169–70), Alarcón, R. Sánchez, Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco (71–77). (For an early defense of the book as “a valuable contribution to Chicano literature,” see Márquez [141].) The discussions by Rivera and Saldívar are of special interest: Rivera is revered as one of the founders of contemporary Chicano-Chicana literature (his experimental novel about migrant workers, … y no se la tragó la tierra, won the first Quinto Sol Prize for Mexican American literature), and Saldívar's book Chicano Narrative is the most sophisticated and ambitious attempt to date to present a theoretical overview of the entire span of Chicano-Chicana literature.

  3. One important theorist of Chicano-Chicana identity to oppose the chorus condemning Rodriguez is Juan Bruce-Novoa, who has consistently objected to what he calls “truncating definitions” of the ethnicity that treat it as a “monological absolute” (94, 139). For Bruce-Novoa, voices such as Rodriguez's are “representative of the conflicting plurality” within the Chicano-Chicana community (130).

  4. The most theoretically informed articulation of this charge against Rodriguez is made by Saldívar in a direct comparison between Hunger of Memory and Galarza's Barrio Boy: “The basic plot of Galarza's autobiography is not the epiphanic revelation of an idiosyncratic destiny, as it is for Rodriguez. … The motifs of transformation and identity … are transferred instead to the entire community within which individuals exist, by which they are created, and which they in turn dialectically transform” (164). “The interior self Galarza describes does not exist in an empty space but in an organic human collective, in what he calls la raza” (169).

  5. My sense of the urgency of the question of what it means to possess or lose an ethnic identity has been sharpened by some recent work of Michaels (“Rule” and “Race”), who, however, seems to me to press individualism and voluntarism too far. For a critique of Michaels, see Gordon and Newfield.

  6. Rivera (“Antithesis” 406), Saldívar (12–13), and Keefe and Padilla (191–92) all note the heterogeneity of the Chicano-Chicana population but do not pursue this observation to any radical consequence. Bruce-Novoa is the only critic I know who comes close to recognizing the depth of what he calls the “interior division” (139) of Chicano-Chicana identity (see n3, above).

  7. Žižek has influentially expounded the concept of the performative function of political signifiers. For a critique of Žižek and further exploration of this type of performativity, see Butler 187–222.

  8. Paz describes the Mexican as “the fruit of a violation” (80), an “hijo de la chingada,” where the chingada is the Indian woman violated by a Spaniard (86).

  9. On the complex history of indigenismo in Mexico, see the compendious account in Knight, “Racism.”

  10. The collection by Anaya and Lomelí is an essential source-book for the study of the Aztlán debate.

  11. On the history of chicanismo as a political movement, see Chávez 134–55. Its roots can be traced to the strike against grape farmers by César Chávez's farmworkers in 1965. As John Chávez points out, however, César Chávez was never enthusiastic about Chicano-Chicana nationalism, since his concern was with “the poor as a whole” (136–37).

  12. The concept of an ethclass is derived from Gordon, who defines it as the “social space created by the intersection of the ethnic group with the social class” (51). Mapping such intersections is immensely complex; see the discussion and extension of Gordon's concept by Ransford, who applies it to the study of Mexican and African Americans (esp. 56–62, 101–20). Whereas Ransford treats the Mexican American group as though it were racially homogeneous, I use the term ethclass to point toward a racial element in the class stratification of both Mexicans and Mexican Americans. There are ethnic distinctions within Chicano-Chicana ethnicity, and the most oppressed ethclass is doubly abjected: in its relation to United States society and anteriorly in its relation to Mexican society. The abjection in Mexico determines the starting point—at the bottom of the cultural as well as economic ladder—of members of this group when they move to the United States. The ethclass concept is an important contribution to the contemporary exploration of class as “a differential field: a field unevenly structured, with varying relays between the economic and the social, and therefore also with multiple points of action, and multiple registers of experiential effect” (Dimock and Gilmore 8).

  13. For a detailed account of the class makeup and political motivations of the Maderistas who made the revolution, see Knight, Revolution 63–71.

  14. There is broad agreement among scholars that what passes for Indian ethnicity and culture in modern Mexico is in reality a product of the colonial period, during which the Spanish penetrated the deepest recesses of native blood and culture. See Brading 88; Borah 7–8; Friedlander xviii, 71–79; Knight, “Racism” 72–76.

  15. According to G. Sánchez, there existed a similar political situation among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles in the same period: a bourgeois Mexican nationalist group competing with a rising homegrown middle class for leadership of the Mexican American population (115–16, 123–24).

  16. The Mexican ruling class seems to have had a long-standing ideological investment in Italian opera, dating back to independence from Spain (see Vogeley).

  17. Romero has sketched the elements of a Derridean reading of Hunger of Memory, but he does not distinguish between speech as articulated language and speech as pure sound.

  18. In Hunger of Memory Rodriguez never mentions his homosexuality (which he discusses in Days of Obligation, but not in relation to his ethnicity); it is obviously a factor that would complicate the analysis of this work. For an attempt to incorporate gender identity into the interpretation of Rodriguez's writing, see Alarcón.

  19. In the passage cited, Lacan says that the father “who really has the function of a legislator or, at least has the upper hand” is the type most often in the “posture of undeserving, inadequacy, even of fraud” that results in the exclusion of the “Name-of-the-Father” “from its position in the signifier” (218–19). Does it follow from the logic of these remarks that the subaltern father, who is the opposite of a legislator, would be less frequently in this posture—paradoxically more adequate and less fraudulent because authentically one with his powerlessness? Such a conclusion seems paradoxical; it certainly does not apply in the case of Mr. Rodriguez. So far as I know, Lacan did not address the question of the subaltern father.

  20. Hence Rivera's sense that Rodriguez's book remains “paradoxically” a “part” of “Chicano literature” (“Antithesis” 412).

Works Cited

Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New York: Harper, 1981.

Adler, S. S. “Ricardo/Richard.” Rev. of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez. Commentary July 1982: 82–84.

Alarcón, Norma. “Tropology of Hunger: The ‘Miseducation’ of Richard Rodriguez.” Palumbo-Liu 140–52.

Anaya, Rodolfo A., and Francisco Lomelí, eds. Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Albuquerque: Academia/El Norte, 1989.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Béjar Navarro, Raúl. El mexicano: Aspectos culturales y psicosociales. Mexico City: U Nacional Autónoma de México, 1988.

Borah, Woodrow. “Race and Class in Mexico.” Race and Ethnicity in Latin America. Ed. Jorge J. Dominguez. New York: Garland, 1994. 1–12.

Brading, David A. “Manuel Gamio and Official Indigenismo in Mexico.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 7.1 (1988): 75–89.

Bruce-Novoa. Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature. Houston: Arte Público, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Chávez, John R. The Lost Land: The Chicano Image of the Southwest. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1984.

Córdova, Arnaldo. La ideología de la Revolución Mexicana: La formación del nuevo régimen. Mexico City: Era, 1974.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.

Dimock, Wai Chee, and Michael T. Gilmore. Introduction. Rethinking Class: Literary Studies and Social Formations. Ed. Dimock and Gilmore. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 1–11.

Donohue, John W. “Between Two Worlds.” Rev. of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez. America 22 May 1982: 403–04.

Flores, Lauro. “Chicano Autobiography: Culture, Ideology, and the Self.” Americas Review 18.2 (1980): 80–91.

Friedlander, Judith. Being Indian in Hueyapan: A Study of Forced Identity in Contemporary Mexico. New York: St. Martin's, 1975.

Gamio, Manuel. Forjando patria. 1916. Mexico City: Porrua, 1960.

García, Richard A. “The Mexican American Mind: A Product of the 1930s.” History, Culture, and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s. Ed. Mario T. García et al. Ypsilanti: Bilingual, 1983. 67–93.

Gordon, Avery, and Christopher Newfiled. “White Philosophy.” Critical Inquiry 20 (1994): 737–57.

Gordon, Milton M. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Keefe, Susan F., and Amado A. Padilla. Chicano Ethnicity. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1987.

Klor de Alva, J. Jorge. “Aztlán, Borinquen, and Hispanic Nationalism in the United States.” Anaya and Lomelí 135–71.

Knight, Alan. The Mexican Revolution: Porfirians, Liberals, and Peasants, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

———. “Racism, Revolution, and Indigenismo: Mexico, 1910–1940.” The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940. Ed. Richard Graham. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990. 71–113.

Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Limón, José. “The Folk Performance of ‘Chicano’ and the Cultural Limits of Political Ideology.” “And Other Neighborly Names”; Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore. Ed. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 197–225.

Lux, Guillermo, and Maurilio E. Vigil. “Return to Aztlán: The Chicano Rediscovers His Indian Past.” Anaya and Lomelí 93–110.

Madrid, Arturo. Rev. of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez. La red/The Net 53 (1982): 6–9.

Márquez, Antonio C. “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory and the Poetics of Experience.” Arizona Quarterly 40.2 (1984): 130–41.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “The No-Drop Rule.” Critical Inquiry 20 (1994): 758–69.

———. “Race into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity.” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 655–85.

Olivares, Juán, ed. The Complete Works of Tomás Rivera. Houston: Arte Público, 1991.

Palumbo-Liu, David, ed. The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995.

Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude New York: Grove, 1985.

El plan espiritual de Aztlán. Anaya and Lomelí 1–5.

Ransford, H. Edward. Race and Class in American Society: Black, Chicano, Anglo. Cambridge: Schenkman, 1977.

Rivera, Tomás. “Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis.” MELUS 11.4 (1981): 5–13. Rpt. in Olivares 406–14.

———. “On Chicano Literature.” Olivares 378–83.

Rodriguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking, 1992.

———. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: Godine, 1982.

Romero, Rolando J. “Spanish and English: the Question of Literacy in Hunger of Memory.Confluencia 6.2 (1991): 89–100.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Sánchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Sánchez, Rosaura. “Calculated Musings: Richard Rodriguez's Metaphysics of Difference.” Palumbo-Liu 153–74.

Strouse, Jean. “A Victim of Two Cultures.” Review of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez. Newsweek 15 Mar. 1982: 76.

Suárez-Orozco, Carola, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco. Transformations: Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement among Latino Adolescents. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Vogeley, Nancy. “Turks and Indians: Orientalist Discourse in Postcolonial Mexico.” Diacritics 25 (1995): 3–20.

Vološinov, V. N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1986.

Zweig, Paul. Rev. of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez. New York Times Books Review 28 Feb. 1982: 1.

Jesse Alemán (essay date spring 1998)

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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 Novel” is nothing new to Chicano literary production, especially considering the “interlingualism” that distinguishes it from North American literature in English and Mexican literature in Spanish.1 Numerous critics have already pointed out how Chicano literature straddles the borderlines of two national languages as it incorporates and combines each to create a hybrid discourse that registers the liminal cultural position Chicanos occupy between both linguistic world views. Examining Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry, for instance, Alfred Arteaga explains, “Two nations are imagined in English and in Spanish and differentiate themselves at a common border, yet Chicano border space is a heteroglot interzone, a hybrid overlapping of the two” (277–78), and most critics agree that the interlingual peculiarity of Chicano literature arises from this “heteroglot interzone.” So, as with Bakhtin's notion of language in general, Chicano literary discourse in particular is said to originate from a border space.

Nowhere is this argument for literary origins more apparent than in the corrido critical paradigm. This form of Chicano criticism views the corrido as the Ur-narrative of contemporary Chicano literary production. That is, following Américo Paredes's 1958 study, “With His Pistol in his Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, critics such as Raymund A. Paredes, José Limón, Ramón Saldívar, José David Saldívar, and María Herrera-Sobek each construct in their own way a Chicano literary history as well as a mode of critical analysis that evaluates and defines Chicano poetry and narrative through the lens of “the corrido of border conflict,” as Américo Paredes terms it (147). As a type of social and historical folk balladry, “[t]he corrido of border conflict assumes its most characteristic form when its subject deals with the conflict between Border Mexican and Anglo-Texan, with the Mexican-outnumbered and pistol in hand—defending his ‘right’ against the rinches” (147). For Paredes, El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez exemplifies the corrido of border conflict insofar as its form is distinguished from other types of balladry, such as romances, decimas, and coplas, each with their own specific socio-literary contexts, while its content portrays Cortez as a prototypical corrido hero fleeing in vain from certain injustice, and perhaps death, after killing in self-defense the Texas sheriff who falsely accused Cortez and his brother of stealing horses. Eventually, Cortez is captured, incarcerated, and later pardoned, but “[w]hatever his fate,” Paredes concludes, “he has stood up for his right” (150).2

Although Chicano critics undoubtedly point out the ways contemporary Chicano literature modifies the “original” border corrido, “[a] study of Chicano literature,” José David Saldívar contends, “must … begin with an attempt to define at least one of the cultural paradigms which emerge from the historical experience of the Chicano Border frontier life. … [T]he corrido is the central sociopoetic Chicano paradigm” (13).3 Because most critics build their paradigm from Paredes's study, they argue that the main concern of contemporary Chicano literature should be the description of social antagonism between Chicano and Anglo culture, making the underlying politics of the corrido critical paradigm a method of literary analysis that views social resistance as the defining characteristic of Chicano literary production. Not surprisingly, such analysis produces a prescribed master narrative that reinforces the social and literary construction of Chicano national and cultural identity: as with the corrido hero, the Chicano protagonist must stand up for his rights “with his pistol in his hand,” or the Chicano author must replace one phallocentric symbol with another and write with his pen in his hand, so to speak.4

But given the heteroglot nature of Chicano discourse, the corrido critical paradigm is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, the paradigm insists that the content of Chicano literature registers a unified narrative of social resistance; on the other hand, besides national languages, there are a variety of social discourses stratifying the ideological unity of Chicano literary production, making it “interlingual” in more than one sense. Monologic readings of political content are thus at odds with the dialogics of Chicano literature's “ideology of form,” as Frederic Jameson puts it (76). Juan Bruce-Novoa echoes this point in his “Dialogical Strategies, Monological Goals: Chicano Literature”: “The tendency is to support the ideal of unity and stress the value of resistance. But, as the literature and its criticism matures, the plurality of voices makes it more difficult to ignore both the dialogical character of Chicana cultural production and the monological desires with their illusory claims” (239).

Dialogism and social resistance, however, are not necessarily separate events. In fact, narrativized dialogization, which Bakhtin explains as the ability to “regard one language … through the eyes of another” in a process of “critical interanimation” (298), can be viewed as a socio-literary subversive act that finds its most salient expression in novelistic discourse. What is characteristic of this discourse is not its heteroglossia; indeed, a variety of voices usually co-exist in a single language. Rather, novelistic discourse registers the interaction of multiple voices as they cross each other's social boundaries in a process of “interanimation” that highlights the ideological assumptions behind each discourse. In other words, novelistic discourse dialogizes heteroglossia, making social voices intersect to produce multiple ideological meanings, so as with Chicano interlingualism, the dialogic process in general creates a hybrid narrative form that, unlike poetic discourse, does not allow one ideological voice, including the author's, to control completely the narrative's social significance. “The internal social dialogism of novelistic discourse,” Bakhtin explains, “requires the concrete social context of discourse to be exposed, to be revealed as the force that determines its entire stylistic structure, its ‘form’ and its ‘content,’ determining it not only from without, but from within” (300).

The complete dialogization of both form and content points to an important distinction between discourse and genre, particularly in the case of Chicano literature. For Bakhtin, novelistic discourse is not necessarily limited to the novel as a genre. Of course, it finds its fullest expression in the novel, but as Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson explain, Bakhtin “is interested in two distinct views of language and the world, two form-shaping ideologies that have found expression in a large number of novels and a large number of lyric poems. … His concern, in other words, is with novelness and lyricness” (319–20). In this sense, poetic discourse seeks to maintain a unified world view stylistically by silencing the other discourses always already informing the representation of its object; novelistic discourse, however, encourages the interaction of social heteroglossia, creating what Bakhtin terms in “Discourse in the Novel” “a sociological stylistics” (300). So along with Chicano literature's hybrid narratives, Chicano poetry, for instance, can also be considered novelistic, since it often collapses the traditional boundaries between social discourses, as Alfred Arteaga, Ada Savin, and Rafael Pérez-Torres have already pointed out in their analyses of Chicano poetry's interlingualism.

Registering a type of socio-discursive resistance to ideological closure, then, Chicano novelistic discourse offers a “layered discursive space constituted by discourses which intersect and allow for a deconstruction of either contradiction (at a class level), or difference (at the level of gender, ethnicity, family or generation),” as Rosaura Sánchez puts it (78). In the process of deconstructing the discourses of the dominant culture, however, the “sociological stylistics” of Chicano literature's novelistic discourse also resists the ideological unity of Chicano critical discourses such as the corrido paradigm, which constructs its own monologic narrative based on the socio-historical content of the corrido of border conflict. Useful as it might be for emphasizing social and literary oppositional strategies, the corrido critical paradigm limits how we understand the layers of discursive resistance informing Chicano narratives. So instead of silencing the dialogics of Chicano literature to construct, examine, and define its content according to a prescribed master narrative of Chicano/Anglo antagonism, Chicano critics must dialogize the corrido critical paradigm to emphasize the unfinalizable hybrid form of Chicano literary production. After all, as Pérez-Torres points out, Chicano literature “incorporates and includes” multiple discourses, “signal[ing] a movement toward mestizaje, toward a hybridization and crossbreeding on a cultural level that reflects the racial mestizaje which has produced the Chicano people” (8).

Granted, social antagonism seems to be the main theme of the border corrido, but the variety of discourses that structure the corrido likewise compete for authority over the corrido's content, creating a novelistic event that is less the progenitor of Chicano literary production and more an example of how Chicano literature always registers the socio-discursive conflicts that inform Chicano cultural identity. These conflicts are apparent in the short version of El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez with which Paredes opens his study of the border ballad:5

In the county of El Carmen
A great misfortune befell;
The Major Sheriff is dead;
Who killed him no one can tell.
At two in the afternoon,
In half an hour or less,
They knew that the man who
                    killed him
Had been Gregorio Cortez.
They let loose the bloodhound
They followed him from afar.
But trying to catch Cortez
Was like following a star.
All the rangers of the county
Were flying, they rode so hard;
What they wanted was to get
The thousand-dollar reward.
And in the county of Kiansis
They cornered him after all;
Though they were more than three
He leaped out of their corral.
Then the Major Sheriff said,
As if he was going to cry,
“Cortez, hand over your weapons;
We want to take you alive.”
Then said Gregorio Cortez,
And his voice was like a bell,
“You will never get my weapons
Till you put me in a cell.”
Then said Gregorio Cortez,
With his pistol in his hand,
“Ah, so many mounted Rangers
Just to take one Mexican!”

The social dichotomy of Mexican versus Anglo culture is almost immediately complicated discursively in this version with the phrase “great misfortune,” since it is unclear to what misfortune the corrido is referring: the death of the Major Sheriff, which the next line implies, the fact that Gregorio Cortez killed the sheriff, which the second stanza reveals, or the entire event narrated in the corrido. Each of these levels belongs to a different social group. The Anglo community would see the death of the Sheriff as a “great misfortune,” Cortez himself would see his position as a fugitive as a “great misfortune,” and the Mexican community would see the entire event, indicative of Mexican/Anglo relations, as a “great misfortune.” Registering three different discourses competing for narrative authority, the discursive conflict becomes more concrete with the double-voiced line, “Who killed him no one can tell.” As it highlights the Anglo community's ignorance of Gregorio Cortez's actions, the line also acts as an injunction to the Mexican community to remain silent about the killing and keep the Anglo community in ignorance; the second stanza continues to emphasize this discursive conflict through yet another socially double-voiced phrase: “They knew that the man who / killed him / Had been Gregorio Cortez” (emphasis added). Because “they” implies a distinction between what the Anglo community found out after “half an hour” and what the Mexican community perhaps already knew but would not tell, the word distinguishes the two social groups laying claim to Cortez's story. Ironically enough, in this version, Cortez himself loses the authority to admit to his own actions, even through reported speech.6 So instead of offering a unified narrative of Mexican/Anglo conflict, the corrido gives us multiple readings of the same event, turning the narration of the event itself into a site of verbal contestation.

The similes incorporated into the corrido further highlight the competing forms of social discourses in the narrative. “But trying to catch Cortez / Was like following a star,” not only emphasizes Cortez's elusiveness but also registers the Mexican community's idolization of Cortez; at the same time, though, “All the rangers of the county / Were flying, they rode so hard” (emphasis added). In effect, the two similes set up counter discourses: one implies that the Mexican community sees Cortez as untouchable, yet the other, as if from the perspective of the Rangers themselves, expresses their ability to reach Cortez eventually. And when the Rangers do reach Cortez, the corrido uses two additional similes to register another set of competing discourses: the sheriff speaks “as if he was going to cry,” while Cortez's “voice was like a bell.” Because the two similes signal a shift in cultural power, they invoke the normative discourses of gender, turning the racial conflict along the border into a conflict between Mexican masculinity and the Anglo feminized Other. In this sense, the corrido is not simply about the social conflict between Mexicans and Anglos—it is about the interaction of multiple social discourses competing for authority in the corrido's narrative.7

Ultimately, the corrido's “sociological stylistics” undermines any attempt by the narrative, the corridista, the Mexican community, the Anglo community, or Chicano critics to present a unified image of Gregorio Cortez. As Rosaura Sánchez explains in “Subjectivity in Chicano Literature,” “there are thus multiple ideological discourses which allow a large number of subjectivities to be acted out, to overlap, coexist, compete, clash and contaminate one another” (136). Consequently, the corrido resists becoming a monologic social allegory as its discourses slip through a variety of social functions. Its oral appropriation of historical discourse, for instance, dialogizes the forms of written history in Anglo and Mexican newspapers, but the corrido's folkloric discourse turns this emplotment of historical “facts” into a tool of socialization that teaches ordinary men “a pattern of behavior as well” (Paredes 118). Undercutting the fiction of history and folklore's intent to socialize, however, is the corrido's discourse of myth, which subverts historical chronology—mythic discourse after all recounts a prelapsarian time—while turning the communal folklore into a one-man mythic show. In effect, the image of the epic hero, whose actions alone distinguish him from the corridista and his audience, competes with the “everyday” man of folklore, whose actions other men must emulate, and both of these discourses clash with the image of the historical man written by Anglo and Mexican news accounts, which may themselves contradict each other. Finally, in the background still lingers Gregorio Cortez himself, who had very little to do with the dialogization of his own life.8

In the Bakhtinian sense, the corrido is much like the novel, an open-ended form of multiple voices interacting with each other in a dialogic process, so the appropriation and application of the corrido as a paradigmatic master narrative of contemporary Chicano literature strategically silences the corrido's multi-voicedness to emphasize the monologic script of social opposition between Anglo and Chicano culture. In Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems, José Limón clearly indicates this paradox: “We may say that even as the genre expands, it also contracts, with the best-known corridos fixed, as Paredes says, on ‘one theme … conflict; [on] one concept of the hero, the man fighting for his right with his pistol in his hand’” (19). Instead of focusing on how multiple discourses “expand” the corrido genre, though, Limón's analysis follows the “fixed” theme of social conflict, which allows him to construct a unified genealogy of Chicano literature in which the corrido functions as “a master poem that, as a key symbolic action, powerfully dominates and conditions the later written poetry” (2). Of course, by “fixing” the discourse of the corrido, Limón intends to politicize Harold Bloom's psychoanalytic theory of influence; in the process of applying it to Chicano aesthetics, however, Limón's analysis likewise “fixes” the novelistic discourse of Chicano literary production.

Thus, although he quite convincingly points out the ways the corrido's ideology of form “influences” Paredes's own study of the border ballad, proving that indeed, as with the corrido, Paredes's text is “a multiple-voiced performance … [of] polyphonic ethnography, a dialectical juxtaposition of identities, traditions, and cultures” (75), Limón's analysis nevertheless insists on a monologic image of Paredes himself, representing him as a mythic, pre-Chicano Movement academic hero, who, with his pen in his hand, single-handedly took on the Anglo academic community. “While [Gregorio] Cortez had aroused the consciousness of his community by riding and shooting his way toward them and soliciting their help,” Limón writes, “Paredes's ideological and cultural community began to come to him in the mid-sixties. … Together, then, this author and his book provided one model for the development of the Chicano movement, and that model was itself wholly indebted to the precursory master poem—the corrido” (89–90). Historicizing Paredes's study is one project, and in this sense, Limón's analysis would be in agreement with the work of José David Saldívar.9 But Limón's critical paradigm silences the corrido's multiple discourses and instead centralizes its mythic discourse, along with its concept of the hero, to construct a reified image of Américo Paredes “more fit for veneration,” as Renato Rosaldo puts it, “than dialogue and debate” (151).

In Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference, Ramón Saldívar similarly unifies the corrido's dialogic form to emphasize its dialectical content as “self-consciously created acts of social resistance” (42). As he makes clear, Saldívar is not “attempt[ing] to establish a single, originary source for all Chicano literature,” yet by focusing on the corrido's political content, he constructs a teleological paradigm to “show how the corrido has served as much to incite narratives differing from its ideological base as it has informed narratives conforming to its world view” (47–8). Following Lukács's distinction between the epic and the novel, then, Saldívar places a totalized image of the corrido hero in opposition to the more problematic protagonist of contemporary Chicano narrative. Given its multiple discourses, however, the corrido and its hero are always already problematic, suggesting that Saldívar's theory of dialectical opposition may in fact accurately describe the content of Chicano narrative, but it also displaces the dialogics of Chicano literature in general.10 The result is a corrido paradigm of dialectical difference that overlooks Chicano narrative's complex discursive strategies of resistance.

Saldívar's reading of Américo Paredes's short story “The Hammon and the Beans” is instructive in this sense. Situating it in the “post corrido period,” Saldívar argues that the story can be read as an “originary” point of contemporary Chicano literature because it, among other things, marks an “ironic revision” of the world of the corrido (49). In dialectical terms, the story describes the socio-historical conflict between Anglo soldiers and Chicanos living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, but according to Saldívar, unlike the corrido of border conflict, there are no heroes in this story to stand up and resist the Anglo forces of domination at Fort Jones. In dialogic terms, however, the story's title itself registers the social resistance already inscribed in the narrative: “‘Give me the hammon and the beans!’” is Chonita's parody of the soldiers who, with “stuffed mouths,” call out for more food in stark contrast to the young girl's hunger (276). As Saldívar notes, “[Chonita's] mimicry and her daring are the instruments of her poetry” (53). But “mimicry” in the sense of parody is not an ideologically innocent act: Chonita appropriates and dialogizes the soldiers's voices in a socially symbolic act directly related to her literary production, and in a related footnote, Saldívar hints at the subversive nature of this act when he explains that “gringo jamonero,” according to Paredes, is a pejorative phrase describing Anglo-Americans (53). In effect, Chonita claims ownership over Anglo discourse as she creates a hybrid voice that turns Anglo discourse against itself to expose it as an ideology of conspicuous (over)consumption. Her dialogized word thus mirrors on a microlevel the corrido's own “sociological stylistics,” suggesting that despite Saldívar's corrido paradigm, there is no difference between the discourse of social resistance in the corrido and the socio-discursive strategies of resistance registered by contemporary Chicano literature's novelistic discourse.11

By focusing on the theme of historical conflict, Saldívar can thus conclude that Chicano narrative indeed marks a teleological fall from corrido grace, but Chonita's voice in “The Hammon and the Beans” reminds us that Chicano novelistic discourse already registers the socio-discursive conflicts symptomatic of the various cultural positions Chicanos negotiate. Unfortunately, in the process of centralizing the content of Chicano literature under one banner of Chicano social politics, the corrido critical paradigm in general silences the complex discursive strategies that arise from the “hybrid interzone” of Chicano positionality. For instance, Limón does not offer an analysis of the work of Alurista and Ricardo Sánchez, both of whom are “engaged with a collage of influences, none really master precursors, from pre-Hispanic, indigenous poetics to the ‘beat’ poetry of the fifties, to African American culture” (91), because their novelistic discourse resists a monologic paradigm that places the “original” border corrido as a master narrative. Indeed, shaped by an interlingualism that includes national languages as well as multiple forms of social discourses, their novelistic poetry threatens to undermine Limón's construction of Chicano socio-literary identity as a unified development from the corrido of border conflict and its hero, since Alurista's and Sánchez's “mestizaje of linguistic form,” as Pérez-Torres puts it, “reveals some of the dichotomous conditions through and against which the Chicano poetic speaker voices the discontinuity of Chicano subjectivity and agency” (213).

In the context of Chicano literary history and the formation of a Chicano canon, the corrido critical paradigm continues this process of exclusion by examining and defining Chicano literature based on whether or not its content describes social conflict between Chicano and Anglo culture. In “The Evolution of Chicano Literature,” for instance, which argues that “corridos have provided the Chicano writer not only with themes and stories but also with a narrative and cultural stance” (45), Raymund A. Paredes develops a definition of Chicano literature that emphasizes the unified portrayal of the “ethnic experience” at the expense of rejecting a variety of material written by U.S. citizens of Mexican descent (74). Moreover, because the corrido of border conflict is generally a performance of masculinity—its hero stands up for his rights “with his pistol in his hand”—Paredes expresses much of his evaluation of Chicano literature in normative gendered terms. He describes early Mexican-American writers whose “tone was not proud and defiant” as “tentative and subdued, even submissive” (45). Paredes likewise dismisses the mid-nineteenth-century poetry of José Elías González as “precious and effete” because it does not recount the social conditions of Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles (46). Not surprisingly, then, it is the writing of women that cannot meet the male-centered standards of Paredes's corrido paradigm: he faults María Cristina Mena's work as “obsequious,” blaming the author herself for not being “a braver, more perceptive writer [who] would have confronted the life of her culture more forcefully” (50), and Nina Otera Warren's work is “pathetically unreal,” presumably because the author “suffered from a hacienda syndrome” (52).

Even if, as Bruce-Novoa puts it in “Canonical and Non-Canonical Texts,” the “incestual focus” on social conflict or ethnic content in Chicano literature ultimately excludes those writers who do not meet the ideologically prescribed conditions of a monologic critical paradigm (144), Tey Diana Rebolledo convincingly points out that the most seemingly “obsequious” narratives in Paredes's literary history nevertheless employ “narrative strategies of resistance” to “‘official’ text” (136). In other words, despite authorial intention as well as the intentions of Chicano critics, a level of socio-discursive resistance always already inscribes Chicano literary production. These “counter discourses” not only contest dominant constructions of class, gender, and ethnicity (Sánchez 87), but because Chicano discourse, as with Chicano culture, is dialogic through and through, it also challenges monologic constructions of Chicano identity and literature, inscribing instead on a stylistic level a socio-literary resistance to any unified world view, such as the one presented in corrido critical paradigms. This novelistic inscription of conflict informs all of Chicano literature, including those works usually excluded from the Chicano canon for political reasons.

For instance, according to the corrido paradigm, the political content of Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory is nothing short of conciliatory, making it perhaps the most (in)famous example of a text excluded from the Chicano literary canon. As Ramón Saldívar writes, “Hunger of Memory is a perfect example of our tendency to disguise the force of ideology behind the mask of aesthetics” (170). However, if we dialogize the corrido critical paradigm in order to look for the ways multiple discourses compete with each other in Chicano narratives, then we might find that “aesthetics” itself is filled with a variety of disguises/discourses constantly registering resistance to one verbal-ideological “mask.” In this sense, the discourse of Rodriguez's text cannot be easily dismissed, since it resonates with unfinalized voices of social conflict.

Note the dialogics of the word “gringo” in the text. For his part, the narrator seeks to control this word to construct an ideologically innocent relationship between himself and his audience. Thus, he initially uses the term to register a general difference between his family and their neighbors: “They were the others, los gringos” (12). Then, the word begins to indicate a cultural, linguistic, and gendered difference between his parents and Anglos as the narrator equates “gringo” with English and both with public discourse: “I'd notice, moreover, that my parents' voices were softer than those of gringos we'd meet” (15). Finally, the narrator's subtle control of the word attempts to bridge the cultural and political gap between himself and his audience when he explains that “It is to those whom my mother refers to as the gringos that I write” (177). But the narrator's neutralized image of the gringo as “Someone with a face erased; someone of no particular race or sex or age or weather. A gray presence. Unknown, unfamiliar” is quite different from the image of the gringo the narrator's parents present (182).

As the voice of the narrator's father suggests, a history of social antagonism informs the word “gringo” and cannot be fully “stripped” from its use, making it a double-voiced word that reveals a counter discourse despite the narrator's rhetorical strategies.12 “My father,” the narrator explains, “continued to use the word gringo. But it was no longer charged with the old bitterness or distrust. … Hearing him, sometimes, I wasn't sure if he was pronouncing the Spanish word gringo or saying gringo in English” (23). If the father's use of the word is ambiguous, however, the voice of the narrator's mother clearly (re)charges the word with its “old bitterness and distrust.” She congratulates the narrator after he wins a grammar school award, for instance, by telling him that “[he] had ‘shown’ the gringos” (53). Throughout the narrative, in fact, his mother's reported speech, which resonates with socio-political antagonism, continues to dialogize the narrator's use of the term “gringo,” (re)connecting it to its racial politics—“With los gringos looks are all that they judge on,” she says (113)—as well as class conflict—“The gringos kept him digging all day, doing the dirtiest jobs. And they would pay him next to nothing,” she recalls of her brother (118). The mother's dialogization of “gringo” thus challenges the narrator's rhetorical attempt to contain and neutralize the word in order to collapse his socio-political difference from his gringo audience; in the end, her private voice undercuts the rhetorical closure of the narrator's public discourse, since her use of “gringo” in the letter she writes to her son implies that the private is already public: “Why do you need to tell the gringos?” she asks (178).

And Chicano critics of Hunger of Memory often repeat the same question, suggesting that despite his own rhetorical strategies, the narrator cannot finalize completely the verbal-ideological representation of the narrative's content. The same holds true for critics who construct corrido critical paradigms. Inevitably, the search for literary origins has led Chicano critics to the monologic construction and application of the corrido as an Ur-narrative, but such a genealogical paradigm strategically silences the variety of social discourses from which Chicano literature emerges. By dialogizing the corrido paradigm, as well as any other critical project, we would instead be looking for the ways multiple discourses intersect in a socio-discursive process of resistance that makes the content of Chicano literature unfinalizable. After all, besides national languages, Chicano literature is interlingual insofar as it incorporates, among others, oral, mythic, academic, legal, literary, historical, and political discourses. “Rather than discard,” Pérez-Torres reminds us, Chicano literature “recasts. Rather than reject, it affirms the reality that things do not coalesce in neat packages of personal identity, national identity, cultural identity” (270). This type of hybridized narrative, then, perhaps best indicates the subtle relationship between the cultural positions Chicanos occupy and the novelistic discourse of Chicano literary production in general.


  1. As Bruce-Novoa explains it in “Spanish-Language Loyalty and Literature,” interlingualism is not bilingualism. Instead, “Chicanos blend Spanish and English, at times in obvious ways, such as juxtaposing words from both languages, but more often in such subtle fusions of grammar, syntax or cross-cultural allusions that monolingual readers will hardly notice. … This practice rejects the supposed need to maintain English and Spanish separate in exclusive codes, but rather sees them as reservoirs of primary material to be molded together as needed” (50). Interlingualism is perhaps Chicano literature's most consistent and obvious process of dialogization in the Bakhtinian sense.

  2. In The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis, María Herrera-Sobek quite clearly points out the variety of female archetypes inscribed in the corrido. Her text in many ways works as a corrective to Paredes's study, which silences the female and elevates the male to heroic status. Limón's study Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry seeks to problematize this issue by arguing Chicano poets reclaim the silenced maternal voice, but his study does not seem to take into account the way the corrido and Paredes's analysis of it construct masculinity vis-á-vis the feminized Other. See, for instance, his response to Herrera-Sobek's analysis (36).

  3. Saldívar's point implies that there are multiple “cultural paradigms” from which we can read Chicano literature. Some critics, for instance, understand Chicano cultural production through what I would call a “mythic paradigm,” which emphasizes Chicano indigenous history and uses the myth of Aztlán as a unifying cultural metaphor for Chicano nationalism. So for Saldívar to say “the corrido is the central sociopoetic Chicano paradigm” is itself a critical gesture that places more importance on one set of historical experiences over another (13). While I understand the rhetorical need for such a gesture, I also think it is important to examine its implications in the context of Chicano literary production.

  4. Along with Paredes himself, José Limón and Ramón Saldívar have noted the male-centeredness of the corrido of border conflict. In short, it is a performance of masculinity and an affirmation of the normative gender roles involved with constructing masculine social identity. As I see it, the corrido critical paradigm continues this androcentric production, which explains why I have not included the writing of Chicanas in my study. My goal is to deconstruct the corrido paradigm and suggest instead a critical project that foregrounds the multiple discourses of Chicano literature; perhaps because women were never included in the corrido critical paradigm in the first place, Chicana literary production freely foregrounds the socio-discursive resistance of novelistic discourse, as Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987), Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (Binghamton: Bilingual/Bilingue, 1986), Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (New York: Vintage, 1989), and Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years (Boston: South End, 1983) aptly prove. In this sense, the narrative strategies of Chicanas already make explicit what I am arguing is always implicit in Chicano narratives: social and literary resistance on a discursive level.

  5. I cite the corrido exactly as it appears as the frontispiece of Paredes's study. In the body of his text, Paredes offers eleven variants of El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez in Spanish, which he translates into English. Given that the corrido is an oral form of discourse, the variety of corridos Paredes cites is not surprising. In fact, this variety only highlights my point that the corrido is an unfinalized form of multiple voices. For Paredes, however, Variant X “gives a fairly accurate idea of El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez before singers began to develop their own variants” (181). Unfortunately, Paredes does not clarify where the shorter corrido, which I cite, fits into his study of corrido variants, nor does he offer the Spanish version of it.

  6. In four of the 16 variants, it is Cortez himself who informs the Rangers of his act, as in Variant C, for example: “It is not known who killed him. / He went out toward Laredo, Without showing any fear, / ‘Follow me, cowardly rangers, / I am Gregorio Cortez’” (Paredes 164).

  7. On yet another level, the similes offer a literary discourse that collapses the distance between the socially symbolic oral tradition of “predominantly rural folk” (Paredes 182) and the written literary traditions of “high-brow” culture.

  8. Arturo Ramírez echoes this point in “Views of the Corrido Hero: Paradigm and Development,” Américas Review 18.2 (1990): 71–79. Ramírez writes, “The corrido hero perpetuates as he adapts, old forms combined with a new context, traditional values meeting specific demands of a contemporary American context. Thus, with resilience and resourcefulness, the Chicano corrido and its hero continue to give voice to the Chicano people” (78). Ramírez cogently discusses the contemporary development of the corrido, but by placing “emphasis on the hero at the center of this folkloric vision,” Ramírez overlooks how the corrido's novelistic discourse constantly de-centers the hero by giving us multiple representations of him (71).

  9. See Saldívar's “Chicano Border Narratives as Critique” in Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, ed. Hector Calderon and José David Saldívar (Durham: Duke UP, 1991).

  10. I am following Bakhtin's distinction between dialogic and dialectic, as Morson and Emerson explain it in Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Dialectical opposition refers to two finalized monads, two monologic opposites, that produce a differential synthesis; dialogics implies that the “monad” itself is a synthesis of multiple discourses, which means that it can never be “finalized” into a binary structure of oppositions without first silencing its heteroglossia (49–50). “Dialogue and dialectics,” Bakhtin explains in “From Notes Made in 1970–71,” “Take a dialogue and remove the voices (the partitioning of voices), remove the intonations (emotional and individualizing ones), carve out abstract concepts and judgments from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness—and that's how you get dialectics” (147).

  11. In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon explains that parody “contests our humanists assumptions about artistic originality and uniqueness and our capitalist notions of ownership and property. … In other words, parody works to foreground the politics of representation” (93–4). Following this definition, Chonita's parodic word aptly calls into question Anglo ownership of discourse as well as any teleological argument for the origins of Chicano literary production.

  12. As Bakhtin explains it in “Discourse in the Novel,” double-voiced discourse “serves two speakers at the same time and expresses simultaneously two different intentions: the direct intention of the character who is speaking, and the refracted intention of the author. In such discourse there are two voices, two meanings and two expressions” (324).

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Arteaga, Alfred. “Beasts and Jagged Strokes of Color: The Poetics of Hybridization on the US-Mexican Border.” Critical Studies: Bakhtin, Carnival and Other Subjects. Ed. David Shepherd. Atlanta: Rudopi, 1993. 277–93.

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———. “Spanish-language Loyalty and Literature.” Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature. Houston: Arte Público, 1990. 41–51.

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Petra Fachinger (essay date summer 2001)

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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 concludes,

Ethnic autobiography gives “new meanings” and new possibilities to the term autobiography. Using “retrospection to gain a vision for the future,” … ethnic autobiographers create a hybridized, double-voiced form of autobiography in which collective ethnic memory and individual memory are linked in a dialogue.


Although Browdy de Hernandez's argument is convincing with respect to the three writers she discusses, I will demonstrate that some “ethnic” American autobiographies resist hybridization and double-voicedness. Hybridization, as Mikhail Bakhtin defines it, is “the mixing, within a single concrete utterance, of two or more different linguistic consciousnesses, often widely separated in time and social space” (429). Furthermore, Bakhtin's definition of double-voiced discourse is “another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (324) so that double-voiced discourse is always “internally dialogized” (324). The examples of double-voiced discourse that Bakhtin cites are “comic, ironic or parodic discourse, the refracting discourse of a narrator, refracting discourse in the language of a character and finally the discourse of a whole incorporated genre” (324).

I would like to suggest that “ethnic” discourse could consequently be read as the discourse of an “ethnic” writer who dialogizes the dominant language by self-consciously resorting to “ethnic” form and language to express his or her intentions in a “refracted” way through the dominant language. Since autobiography is traditionally both a “western” and an “androcentric” genre, “double-voicedness” in “ethnic” autobiography would be apparent in the “refraction” of conventional discourse, that is, in its rewriting, or, at least, in its self-reflexive questioning of autobiographical conventions.

A comparison of texts by writers of different ethnic/racial background also raises certain methodological questions. After a brief overview of the current debates over methodological concerns regarding critical writing about “ethnic” literature, I will compare and contrast the autobiographies of Eva Hoffman, a Jewish Polish immigrant to the United States, and of Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American, to demonstrate that neither is hybridized and double-voiced. In doing so, I will not neglect the differences between the respective diasporic locations of the two writers. Other autobiographies by so-called visible minority writers born in the United Stated lend themselves to comparison with Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, such as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, not least because, like Rodriguez's autobiography, their texts have been criticized for misrepresentation by members of their “own ethnic” groups. However, I choose to compare a text by a non-Anglo-Celtic immigrant and that of an American-born writer whose ethnic group has experienced colonization in a way not shared by any other group in the United States. The similarities and differences between these autobiographies are instructive, and a comparison of the two can provide significant insight into the intricacies involved in comparing two texts that are both consent oriented1 and that share a number of narrative strategies, even though their authors and the autobiographical selves represented in the texts belong to different “ethnic” groups.

The main question one needs to consider when comparing the texts of writers with different “ethnic” backgrounds is how one can read these texts as sharing ways of conceptualizing the pull of two or more cultural loyalties without losing sight of the fact that their “ethnic” communities have experienced different degrees of dislocation, colonization, and racism. Two approaches to ethnic literature have been prevalent in recent American criticism: the cultural pluralist approach, which claims that each ethnic group's experience within mainstream American society is different and that this difference is reflected in their texts, and the approach that assumes that all ethnic writing shares a collective experience. Proponents of the latter have been criticized for “relegating ‘race’ to a mere feature of some ethnic groups” (Wald 22) and for disregarding the fact that European Americans are usually no longer exposed to racism.

The endeavor to look for similarities while discounting differences also obscures the distinction between first and second generation as is obvious, for example, in William Boelhower's Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian American Self. Furthermore, Boelhower attempts to prove that all immigrant American autobiographies deal with the protagonist's “transformation” or Americanization. As he sees it, the immigrant anticipates America as a country of hope and renewal, a fact that is reflected in the biblical language with which America is usually described in these autobiographies. Claiming general validity for this model, Boelhower maintains that the range of cultural strategies exemplified in the four Italian-American texts that he discusses could just as easily be illustrated by the texts of any other ethnic group. By testing Boelhower's typology with Chinese-American and other Asian American immigrant autobiographies, however, Sau-ling Cynthia Wong has found that many of these autobiographies deviate from the pattern Boelhower suggests in that they display “a pragmatic, matter-of-fact attitude towards the idea of going to America on the part of Chinese immigrant autobiographers” (Wong 155). She concludes that while his typology may apply to European immigrant experience, it does not apply to that of non-European groups.

Like William Boelhower, Werner Sollors assumes that all ethnic groups share a collective experience. He claims that to understand American literature as “a poly-ethnic literature, it is essential to use comparative methods. Comparing Afro-American, Jewish-American, and Irish-American novels of the 1930s thus becomes as essential as comparing writings by immigrants and writings by their descendants” (“Nine Suggestions” 96). In Beyond Ethnicity, he explores the similarities between “black” and Jewish writing. He points out that Charles W. Chesnutt's “The Wife of His Youth” and Abraham Cahan's Yekl: A Tale of the Ghetto resort to the same symbolism to depict the tension between the hereditary and the contractual (156) while James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky use similar literary strategies in doing so (168). Interestingly enough, Sollors foregrounds Jewishness in this latter comparison rather than Cahan's Lithuanian and Levinsky's Polish descent. By doing so, he fails to do justice to the complexity of “descent” and the relevance of potentially conflicting “loyalties.”

Although I agree with Werner Sollors that criticism of “ethnic” writing requires comparative methods, it needs to be more observant of cultural differences. Mary E. Young, for example, in Mules and Dragons: Popular Culture Images in the Selected Writings of African-American and Chinese-American Women Writers, bases her comparison of these two groups of writers not only on their histories, “but also [on] each group's response to the stereotyped images that have become part of American cultural history” (ix). Thus Young claims that Native American women, Hispanic women, and Jewish women have also been stereotyped, but that none of these stereotypes has been as persistent as the stereotypes of African American and Chinese-American women. Likewise, Inderpal Grewal, in her comparison of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, observes that although both texts “share a concern with the breakdown of ethnocentric dualities, which they both see as sources of oppression” (251), the different diasporic locations of the two writers make it impossible to analyze Anzaldúa's “‘borderland’ through theories of Asian diasporas” (248). Finally, Shirley Lim in her study of the difference between Anglo American and Asian American poetry also takes an “ethnocentered” approach. She justifies her focus on stylistic and textual features that differentiate Asian American from Anglo American poetry by arguing that an emphasis on the differences is necessary to “correct” (51) “the inherent bias of the Anglo-American mainstream” (51). In her opinion, ethnopoetics asks for “an informed socio-cultural approach which counteracts the privileging of the dominant culture” (59).

Following Shirley Lim's call for an “informed socio-cultural approach,” I suggest combining the methodologies of the two theoretical camps and to consider several questions before setting out to compare and contrast “ethnic” texts. First of all, do the authors of these texts have any antecedents in their “own ethnic” group, and do they choose to acknowledge them? Eva Hoffman, for example, can look back to a long tradition of Polish-American autobiography, Jewish and non-Jewish, as Magdalena Zaborowska has shown, and she does refer to some of these texts. Since intertextuality plays an important role in most “ethnic” writing, it would be worth asking if a text by a writer from one “ethnic” group serves as a model for a writer with a different “ethnic” background, as Richard Wright's Black Boy provided a model for Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart. On the other hand, does an “ethnic” text rewrite a more established text, as, for example, John Courno's Autobiography rewrites The Education of Henry Adams and Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City writes back to “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”? (See Boelhower “Making.”) If a minority writer chooses to rework the text of a writer who belongs to a different minority, he or she, in doing so, might want to draw attention to the fact that the discrimination to which both groups are subjected is comparable. Consideration of whether the ethnic groups to which the two writers belong share a common experience of racism or a similar experience of discrimination and stereotyping is therefore important. If minority writers, on the other hand, write back to a text of the canon, they usually intend to “rupture” and destabilize this text to uncover its underlying ideologies.

Over the last few years, interest in literary predecessors has justifiably fallen into disfavor among comparatists for being Eurocentric and essentialist. The discussion of predecessors, however, is not reductive as long as it is not preoccupied with verifying sources and influences rather than being concerned with exploring intertextual dynamics and diasporic locations. For, as Shirley Lim points out, “the differences in cultural contexts create significant differences between readers' expectations and authors' intentions, between the untrained readers' conventional, culture-bound responses and the trained readers' ethno-sensitive interpretations” (56). Therefore, if two texts such as Abraham Cahan's and James Weldon Johnson's exhibit “striking similarities,” as Werner Sollors puts it, one needs to ask whether these two texts can be read as representative of their “ethnic” groups. This question leads to what is probably the most important question: Who is the intended audience, and how have the texts been received both by readers of the same “ethnic group” and by readers of the mainstream? As Gayatri Spivak has pointed out in a discussion of multiculturalism with Sneja Gunew, “the question ‘Who should speak?’ is less crucial than ‘Who will listen?’” (194). Both critics agree that when a writer from the margin confronts the dominant culture, this audience will affect the construction of that writer's identity by virtue of the choices it makes in reading the writer's work.

Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language relates the experience of a Jewish Polish girl emigrating first to Canada with her parents and younger sister and eventually to the United States. The chapters that are concerned with the preadolescent and adolescent autobiographer's bios focus on her happy life in Cracow, her unhappy life in Vancouver—for the young Hoffman the word “Canada” had “ominous echoes of the ‘Sahara’” (4)—and her Americanization, that is, assimilation into middle-class America through institutional education.2 Hoffman interrupts biographical chapters with essayistic meditations on the difficulty of living “between” two languages and her struggle to achieve fluency in English.

Although the three chapter headings, “Paradise,” “Exile,” and “The New World,” seem to suggest that Hoffman is inverting the conventional immigrant model in which the “Old World” figures as a place of hardship or even persecution, and the “New World” is anticipated in utopian terms, a close reading of the text shows that the place where Hoffman finds her true fulfillment is New York and not Cracow. Cracow appears as a paradise only in comparison with her “exile” in Canada/Vancouver, not with her life in the United States. Cracow stands for all that Canada/Vancouver is not: her childhood Cracow offered stability because of its long history, it was a place in which “the signifier” was not “severed from the signified” (106), and in which the self was one with its surroundings. Paradoxically, in Hoffman's retrospective description, the aura of Cracow is not significantly tainted by Polish anti-Semitism and the fact that her grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, a fate which her parents only narrowly escaped.

In Vancouver, the place of “exile,” the adolescent autobiographer undergoes an unsettling Anglicization of her name, an experience described in many immigrant novels and autobiographies. Her family also moves considerably down the social scale, and her parents have even greater difficulty adjusting to the new life than their daughters. Their feelings of disorientation and displacement anticipate what has become another commonplace in immigrant literature, the role reversal in the parent-child relationship. The teenaged Eva explains: “I'm a little ashamed to reveal how hard things are for my family—how bitterly my parents quarrel, how much my mother cries, how frightened I am by our helplessness, and by the burden of feeling that it is my duty to take charge, to get us out of this quagmire” (112). Richard Rodriguez describes a similar role reversal in his own family once he and his siblings achieve fluency in the dominant language while their parents communicate in heavily accented and not always grammatically correct English.

The chapter entitled “Exile” concludes with a reference to Mary Antin's autobiography, The Promised Land. Hoffman points out that in certain details Antin's story so closely resembles her own that “its author seems to be some amusing poltergeist” (162) come to show her that her life is not unique. The parallels between the two writers' lives are uncanny indeed. The Promised Land is usually read as a narrative of success, a story of a model assimilation. Antin was born into a Jewish family in Polotzk, a town within the Russian Pale. Faced with czarist anti-Semitism, the Antins decided to emigrate to the United States, settling in Boston when Mary was thirteen—Hoffman's age when her family emigrated. Hoffman claims that the similarities between Antin's biography and her own end when it comes to the interpretation of their respective lives, especially Antin's reading of her new life as an untarnished success story: “For, despite the hardships that leap out from the pages, Mary insists on seeing her life as a fable of pure success: success for herself, for the idea of assimilation, for the great American experiment” (163).

However, contrary to what Hoffman seems to suggest, Mary Antin is quite aware of these hardships, of her older sister's less privileged life, and of the “sad process of disintegration of home life” (271). Furthermore, the similarities between Hoffman's text and her predecessor's are less tenuous than Hoffman is willing to admit. Like Antin, Hoffman gives credit to the American education system as the main assimilating force and she praises American education just as enthusiastically as does Antin: “For one thing, I've learned that in a democratic educational system, in a democratic ideology of reading, I am never made to feel that I'm an outsider poaching on others' property. In this country of learning, I'm welcomed on equal terms, and it's through the democratizing power of literature that I begin to feel at home in America” (183–84). Thus for Hoffman, the Ph.D. in English Literature, which she received from Harvard, becomes the “certificate of full Americanization” (226).

This ode to education is also reminiscent of the glorification of American education by eighteenth-century male American autobiographers like Benjamin Franklin. And like Franklin, “whose name [she has] never heard” (137), the teenaged Hoffman devises programs of “physical, intellectual, spiritual and creative” (137) self-improvement, efforts similar to those that turned Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby. Franklin's description of his achievements, raising himself “from the poverty and obscurity in which [he] was born … to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world” (3), anticipates Hoffman's account of her own success. In both texts, conversion, the objective of spiritual autobiography, is transformed into wealth and social prestige. Hoffman fails to acknowledge the inadequacy of an eighteenth-century male vision which, among other things, assumes the absence of racial and sexual prejudice and discrimination in a classless society in the contemporary context. On the contrary, she discounts issues of race, class, and gender in her own description of school and university. Being also relatively unconcerned with her Jewishness, as I have mentioned before, she blames her struggles for Americanization on the fact that English was not her first language, discounting the possibility that her Jewish-Polish descent might have been an obstacle.

While similar life stories have been told by other European immigrants to the United States, especially Eastern European immigrants, the innovative technique of Hoffman's autobiography is its essayistic investigation of the role of language in the process of assimilation. It describes the tension between the “ethnic” language, which for Hoffman remains the language of privacy and intimacy, and the “New World” public language which Eva “learns from the top” (217) and which will ultimately separate her from Cracow and estrange her from her parents. Hoffman's privileging of the “public” over the “private,” her refusal to reflect on the androcentric tradition of autobiography, her adoption of the male model of self-representation, and her endorsement of the American story of successful assimilation, have motivated me to discount issues of gender in theorizing Hoffman's and Rodriguez's respective diasporic locations. According to Sidonie Smith,

If [the woman autobiographer] inscribes a ‘masculine’ story of cultural significance she approaches the center of ‘autobiography’ from her position of cultural marginality; but she simultaneously becomes implicated in a complex posture of transvestism, becoming a ‘man’ and thereby promoting the ideology of the ‘same.’ In telling her life as a ‘man,’ she collaborates in the marginalization of woman and her story.


The extent to which Hoffman values public over private is apparent in her comparison of her own position with that of her mother's:

I've gained some control, and control is something I need more than my mother did. I have more of a public life, in which it's important to appear strong. … My mother stays close to herself, as she stays close to home. She pays a price for her lack of self-alienation—the price of extremity, of being in extremis, of suffering. She can only be herself; she can't help that either. She doesn't see herself as a personage; she's not someone who tells herself her own biography.


By claiming in a rather patronizing manner that her mother lacks the skill to address the public in English and therefore has no autobiographical self, Hoffman marginalizes and silences her. She also firmly believes in keeping private and public self separate: “I've developed a certain kind of worldly knowledge, and a public self to go with it. That self is the most American thing about me; after all, I acquired it here” (251).

This statement uncannily echoes Richard Rodriguez's Prologue to his autobiography where he claims, “my book is necessarily political … for public issues … have bisected my life and changed its course. And, in some broad sense, my writing is political because it concerns my movement away from the company of family and into the city. This was my coming of age: I became a man by becoming a public man” (7). Both authors imply that the only identity worth having is a “public” identity, steeped in middle-class “public” discourse. Why would the identity of an immigrant woman in Vancouver and the identity of a Mexican worker be less authentic, “public,” or political than that of an urban writer? And how can Polish, and particularly Spanish, be conceived as languages that are less “public” than English in North America?

Like Hoffman, Rodriguez argues that literacy in the dominant language has social transformational power. Thus, he does not blame his Mexican descent for his struggle as a boy to fit into mainstream society, but his parents' lack of education and the fact that they spoke Spanish at home. In the Prologue, entitled “Middle-Class Pastoral,” Rodriguez assumes a representative voice by claiming that his experience is a typically American one: “This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story” (5). Rodriguez describes the scholarship boy, a term he borrows from Richard Hoggart, as a student who imitates his teachers in an attempt to become like them, tries as hard as he can to lose his accent, distances himself as much as possible from his ethnic heritage, and is not able to form an original thought.

By this definition, the scholarship boy seems to be a close relative of the “mimic man.” For Frantz Fanon, mimicry is the result of colonial indoctrination through which Caribbeans have been coerced into seeking cultural identity through the imitation of Western models. Derek Walcott considers the politics of imitation and the dilemma of the mimic man as endemic to all of America, not just the Caribbean: “The Old World, whether it is represented by the light of Europe or of Asia or of Africa, is the rhythm by which we remember” (7). Indeed, “melting pot” ideology is based on the idea of repetition and imitation, and as Robert F. Sayre has shown, the instinct of emulation, “which is imitation and something more” (154), has been identified as the main impulse in the making of self as described in many American autobiographies. Public figures like Benjamin Franklin, in addition to imitating classical and European models, also see their mission as providing role models through their autobiographies, “looking to the West and other directions to the new American who will one day imitate [them]” (Sayre 167). For consent-oriented immigrants from Eastern Europe and members of so-called visible minorities, American models of identity seem to be equally alluring. The attempts of Eva Hoffman's autobiographic self to lose her accent and join the mainstream by imitating role models are just as desperate as those described by Rodriguez.

What seems to legitimate a comparison between Rodriguez's and Hoffman's texts is that in many ways the former asks to be read as immigrant autobiography. As William Boelhower points out, “immigrant autobiography is a schooling text,” describing the “transformation of [the] protagonist from an alien to a sovereign American self” (“The Necessary Ruse” 303). Although Rodriguez, unlike European immigrants, is not able to relive the journey on the Mayflower, his move out of the family enclave, like Zora Neale Hurston's out of the black community of Eatonville, has a symbolic function similar to the trans-Atlantic voyage. What usually separates immigrant experience from that of the second generation is the fact that the American born do not have direct memories of the “Old World”; their understanding of the “Old-World” culture is mediated by their parents. Chicanas/Chicanos of the Southwest, however, live so close to the Mexican border, and Hispanic culture pervades American culture to such a degree, that it could be argued that Mexican-Americans' access to the “Old World” is at once synchronic and diachronic. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that Mexican-Americans are mestizas and mestizos, victims of various colonization processes.

The parts of Rodriguez's text which discuss his life could easily be divided into the three sections that Eva Hoffman uses to describe her own assimilation. Although the paradise of Rodriguez's childhood was not in rural Mexico, but in a house on Thirty-ninth Street in 1950s Sacramento. Spanish, the language of family and intimacy, isolated him from the world. His fluency in English, the language of the classroom, finally made it possible for him, so he claims, to integrate fully into mainstream American society at the cost of estrangement from his parents and the loss of fluency in Spanish. He points out that what he needed to learn in school was that he had the right to speak the public language of the “gringos.” His childhood “exile” then, similar to that of Hoffman, was created by his feelings of inferiority and alienation from the mainstream because of the lack of language fluency.

The comparability of Rodriguez's autobiography to immigrant autobiography is also partly sustained by his ambiguous, sometimes even obsequious, discourse on race, his disavowal of Chicano heritage, and his refusal to engage in, and more importantly, to politicize ancestral memory. While Hoffman identifies to a certain extent with the autobiographical experiences of Antin, Nabokov, Kazin, and Podhoretz, all fellow Eastern European immigrants to the United States, Rodriguez does not acknowledge any of his predecessors in the long and rich tradition of Mexican American autobiography,3 giving the impression that he sees himself as separated from the Mexican-American community and its political struggles, outside socio-historical reality and colonial history. At the beginning of his autobiography, Rodriguez claims: “Aztec ruins hold no special interest for me. I do not search Mexican graveyards for ties to unnameable ancestors” (5). Working on his Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature, Rodriguez, when asked by “a group of … Hispanic students [who] wanted [him] to teach a ‘minority literature’ course” (161), replies that he “didn't think that there was such a thing as minority literature” (161). He confesses that after this encounter he “became a ‘coconut’—someone brown on the outside, white on the inside. … some comic Quequeg, holding close to [his] breast a reliquary containing the white powder of a dead European civilization” (162). He eventually refuses to accept a job offer from Yale because he suspects that his race had given him an advantage over other applicants. This conclusion has led him to become a fervent opponent of bilingual education and of affirmative action.

Paradoxically, in his autobiography, Rodriguez is very concerned with a skin color that reveals his “Indian” descent and describes himself as the least European looking in his family: “I am the only one in the family whose face is severely cut to the line of ancient Indian ancestors” (115). In “Complexion,” he discusses the prejudice against dark skin within Mexican culture. He explains, for example, that some Mexican women risk abortion by taking “large doses of castor oil during the last weeks of pregnancy” (116) to lighten their unborn children's skin color and how “children born dark grew up to have their faces treated regularly with a mixture of egg white and lemon juice concentrate” (116), yet he discounts his experience of racism. Admitting that “in public [he] occasionally heard racial slurs,” he minimizes their significance by pointing out that “in all, there could not have been more than a dozen incidents of name-calling” and by concluding that because of the paucity of racist evidence, he “was not a primary victim of racial abuse” (117). Consequently, he claims that he “didn't really consider [his] dark skin to be a racial characteristic” (125), but that he felt his “dark skin made [him] unattractive to women” (125) since the women in his family were so worried about giving birth to “dark-skinned” children. Rodriguez suggests that the panacea for his dilemma and that of fellow Mexican-Americans is monolingual education.

Apparently unaware of the interest postcolonial critics4 have taken in the figure of Caliban to demonstrate the complexities of relationships between colonizer and colonized, Rodriguez opens his book with the words: “I have taken Caliban's advice. I have stolen their books. I will have some run of this isle” and “in Beverly Hills will this monster make a man” (3). Although he seems to be alluding to Caliban's subversive potential with these words, Rodriguez puts his education to the service of the status quo. Like Hoffman, who, as mentioned above, refers to her Ph.D. as the “certificate of full Americanization,” Rodriguez argues that education dismantles social and therefore “racial” and “ethnic” boundaries. For a consideration of Rodriguez's diasporic position, it is significant that he fails to problematize and, more important, to politicize his sacrifice, that is, his decision not to complete his Ph.D. and to turn his back on the academic world although he was a promising scholar and enjoyed teaching.

However, the important difference between Hoffman's and Rodriguez's diasporic locations comes to bear when one considers how their texts are being read and by whom. As far as I know, no one has criticized Hoffman for discounting her Polish and her Jewish selves in favor of her public American self in the way Rodriguez has been attacked for selling out to “white America.” Neither does she feel the need to define her audience in her text. Rodriguez, on the other hand, considers it important to draw attention to the fact that his reader is European American, well-educated, male, and “white”: “All that I know about him is that he has had a long education and that his society, like mine, is often public (un gringo)” (182). Despite their similar educational backgrounds and academic and professional achievements, Hoffman will hardly ever find herself in a position where she is addressed by the mainstream as a member of a minority, while Rodriguez will always be constructed as insider informant of a culture that “grates against” (3) that of the United States, to use Gloria Anzaldúa's words.

What Hoffman and Rodriguez do have in common is their nostalgia for a pastoral past. This nostalgia prevents them from linking collective ethnic memory and individual memory in a dialogue, a narrative strategy that, according to Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, is characteristic of “ethnic autobiography.” Nostalgia, as bell hooks points out, is “that longing for something to be as once it was, a kind of useless act,” which is different from “a politicization of memory,” “that remembering that serves to illuminate and transform the present” (147). Hoffman's and Rodriguez's texts are problematic because they avoid the “politicization of memory.” Gloria Anzaldúa, by contrast, acknowledging the multiplicity of conflicting languages that people who live “between cultures” speak, lists eight languages to which she can resort, ranging from standard English to Tex-Mex and Chicano Spanish. Although Anzaldúa criticizes Mexican-American culture, above all its patriarchal and homophobic tendencies, she does not believe in abandoning Mexican culture altogether, a measure Rodriguez promotes. Instead, she revives Aztec history and mythology in her writing to counter prevailing cultural hegemonies.

Hoffman's and Rodriguez's autobiographic selves, on the other hand, by making mainstream culture the center of their perception, view reality in terms of dichotomies: failure versus success, chaos versus order, private versus public, family versus city, past versus future, insider versus outsider, communal versus individualistic, Old World versus New World, loyalty versus betrayal, masculine versus feminine, macho versus effeminate, and language of the past versus language of the present. They essentialize “English” as a monolithic structure that opens the door to privilege once the novice has “made some run of” it. Since Hoffman and Rodriguez believe in the separation of the private and the public, there is no discussion of homosexuality within the Mexican-American community—in other contexts Rodriguez identifies himself as a gay man—and failed marriage between immigrant and non-immigrant Americans respectively—Hoffman only briefly mentions her divorce from her American-born husband. Neither of the autobiographical selves thinks that it is possible “to go home again,” neither personally nor culturally speaking. Interestingly enough, both Hoffman and Rodriguez do go “home” physically in their subsequent autobiographical ethnographies Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, published in 1993, and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, published in 1992, in which they assume the position of the American confronting the Eastern European and the Mexican Other respectively. By creating this alterity, Hoffman and Rodriguez prevent the dialogue between “collective ethnic memory and individual memory” (Browdy de Hernandez) from taking place.


  1. In Beyond Ethnicity, Sollors regards the conflict between descent, Americans' position as “heirs, [their] hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements,” and consent, their “abilities as mature free agents and ‘architects of [their] fate,’” as “the central drama in American culture” (6).

  2. The theme that Jewish emigrants ended up in the wrong place in Canada pervades Jewish Canadian autobiography and fiction as Gerson has shown.

  3. See, for example, Padilla who discusses the nineteenth and early twentieth-century predecessors of contemporary Mexican-American autobiography.

  4. I am thinking here of critics like Brydon, Dorsinville, Walcott, and Zabus.

Works Cited

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1987.

Boelhower, William. “The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States.” American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 123–41.

———. “The Necessary Ruse: Immigrant Autobiography and the Sovereign American Self.” Amerikastudien 35.3 (1990): 297–319.

———. Immigrant Autobiography in the United States: Four Versions of the Italian American Self. Verona: Essedue Edizioni, 1982.

Browdy de Hernandez, Jennifer. “The Plural Self: The Politicization of Memory and Form in Three American Ethnic Autobiographies.” Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures. Ed. Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1996. 41–59.

Brydon, Diana. “Re-Writing the Tempest.” World Literature Written in English. 23.1 (1984): 75–88.

Dorsinville, Max. Caliban without Prospero: Essay on Quebec and Black Literature. Erin, Ontario: Press Procepic, 1974.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Pluto, 1986.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Berkeley: U of California P, 1949.

Gerson, Carole. “Some Patterns of Exile in Jewish Writing of the Commonwealth” Ariel 13.4 (1982): 103–14.

Grewal, Inderpal. “Autobiographic Subjects and Diasporic Locations: Meatless Days and Borderlands.” Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994. 231–54.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990.

Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin. “Reconstructing Asian-American Poetry: A Case for Ethnopoetics.” MELUS 14.2 (1987): 51–63.

Padilla, Genaro M. My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1993.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Sayre, Robert F. “Autobiography and the Making of America.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 146–68.

Smith, Sidonie. “The Impact of Critical Theory on the Study of Autobiography: Marginality, Gender, and Autobiographical Practice.” Auto-Biography Studies 3.3 (1987): 1–12.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

———. “Nine Suggestions for Historians of American Ethnic Literature.” MELUS 11 (1984): 95–96.

Spivak, Gayatri C. and Sneja Gunew. “Questions of Multiculturalism.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. London: Routledge, 1994. 193–202.

Walcott, Derek. “The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 16.1 (1974): 3–13.

Wald, Alan. “Theorizing Cultural Difference: A Critique of the ‘Ethnicity School.’” MELUS 14.2 (1987): 21–33.

Wong, Cynthia Sau-ling. “Immigrant Autobiography: Some Questions of Definition and Approach.” American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 142–70.

Young, Mary E. Mules and Dragons: Popular Culture Images in the Selected Writings of African-American and Chinese-American Women Writers. Westport: Greenwood, 1993.

Zaborowska, Magdalena. How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1995.

Zabus, Chantal. “A Calibanic Tempest in Anglophone & Francophone New World Writing.” Canadian Literature 104 (1985): 35–50.


Principal Works


Further Reading