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Rodriguez is principally known for his poetical autobiography, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), which addresses the issue of minority alienation in American society. Arranged as a collection of related autobiographical essays, Hunger of Memory earned Rodriguez a prominent place in Chicano literature for its reflections on the role of language in determining one’s cultural identity. His combining of journalistic techniques with a conventional literary style have brought Rodriguez much acclaim as well, though his writings remain politically and socially controversial.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Alienated
Richard Rodriguez was born in San Francisco on July 31, 1944, the son of Leopoldo and Victoria Moran Rodriguez. His father worked at several jobs before becoming a successful dental technician and introducing his family to middle-class life in California. Both parents emigrated from Mexico at a young age and met and married in the United States.
They spoke Spanish in the home, and when Richard moved with his family to Sacramento and entered Sacred Heart, a Catholic private elementary school, he was unable to speak English. It is from this point that he dates his alienation from his culture; it began as soon as he learned the “public” language that would separate him from his family. Catholic nuns who taught Rodriguez asked that his parents speak English to him at home. When they complied, related the author in a Newsweek article by Jean Strouse, the sound of his “private” language, Spanish, and its ”pleasing, soothing, consoling reminder of being at home was gone. Rodriguez s parents eventually came to feel emotionally distanced from the son they had raised, the son who was part of a world that offered far greater opportunities than they could ever hope for.
Rodriguez reached the goals his parents had sought for him. He graduated with a B.A. degree in English from Stanford University in 1967 and received an MA degree in religious studies from Columbia University in 1969. Rodriguez did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley (1969-1972, 1974-1975), and at the Warburg Institute in London (1972-1973) as a Fulbright fellow studying English Renaissance literature. In London he abruptly decided to leave academic life. The choice was prompted by the feeling that he was ”the beneficiary of truly disadvantaged Mexican Americans. ”I benefited on their backs, he told Publishers Weekly interviewer Patricia Holt. In ten years of college and postgraduate education, Rodriguez received assistance grounded in merit but based in part on his minority status. (Affirmative action policies in the United States began in the 1960s. They were designed to give more opportunities in education and employment to members of racial minority groups that had in the past suffered from discrimination.) He left London and tried to reestablish the long-severed connection with his parents. He failed to recover his lost ethnicity, remaining ”an academic . . . a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen.
Rodriguez eventually began to fight the very policies that had helped him attain his academic credentials. His revolt against affirmative action began when he turned down several university-level teaching jobs. Writing to the chairmen of the many English departments who were courting him, Rodriguez declined the positions, explaining that he felt the only reason he was being selected was because of affirmative action. Furthermore, Rodriguez genuinely felt he was not a minority when, as Schreiber put it, ”in fact the irreversibly successful effort of his life had been to become a fully assimilated member of the majority. Rodriguez spent the next six years writing Hunger of Memory, parts of which appeared in magazines before being brought together in book form.
The publication of Hunger of Memory gave Rodriguez considerable literary as well as political cachet. It explores Rodriguez s formative years, focusing on the theme of alienation. Claiming that language is the key factor for assimilation into American society, Rodriguez argues that to be a success in America requires the suppression and denial of one’s cultural heritage and, in particular, one’s native language.
Rodriguez’s 1992 book, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, is a collection of previously published autobiographical essays. In this book, Rodriguez revises some of his earlier views about the place and value of one’s cultural roots. Also organized as a series of autobiographical essays, with his father’s voice as philosophical antagonist, the work treats Rodriguez’s continuing alienation, as well as the AIDS epidemic and his own homosexuality. Rodriguez concludes by “revaluating” his Mexican heritage, acknowledging its importance for him both as an individual and as a writer. Though Rodriguez pleads for the total assimilation of the Chicano community into American society, scholars note that Days of Obligation reveals a renewed sensitivity to his Hispanic heritage. In 2002 Rodriguez published Brown: The Last Discovery of America, which brings his ideas on race in America into the twenty-first century. In particular, Rodriguez addresses the growing multiculturalism of American society.
Acknowledged as an influential voice from the Chicano community, Rodriguez has received many honors, including a gold medal for Hunger of Memory from the Commonwealth Club of California, the Christopher Prize for Autobiography, and the Cleveland Foundation’s Anisfield-Wolf Award for civil rights. Today, Rodriguez lives in San Francisco, writing for periodicals and occasionally appearing as a guest journalist and commentator on PBS’s ”News Hour.”
Works in Literary Context
Alienation, Assimilation, and Language
Rodriguez’s positions on language and affirmative action have sparked most of the public discussions. In brief, he feels that all Americans must learn English, a public language, as opposed to Spanish, a private language used in the home. Condoning the brash Irish nuns who invaded his home to insist that the Spanish-speaking Rodriguezes use only English, he attributes his success to this wrenching move toward assimilation. He attacks affirmative action, feeling that government programs accelerate the success of middle-class Chicanos like himself to the detriment of the targeted group, barrio Chicanos. In his view, affirmative action should be based on class, not ethnic group. In an interview in People magazine given shortly after the publication of Hunger of Memory, he synthesized his feelings on ethnic identity:
I refuse to accept my generation’s romanticism about discovering ”roots.” The trouble with that is it somehow holds children accountable for maintaining their culture, and freezes them into thinking of themselves as Mexicans or as Chinese or as blacks. But culture is an extraordinary progression of ancestral memories and individual experience. People have accused me of losing my heritage. That assumes heritage is this little suitcase I carry with me, with tortillas and a little Mexican cowboy suit inside, and that one day I lost it at a Greyhound depot. The fact is, culture survives whether you want it to or not.
Rodriguez says that his autobiography ”is a book about language.” Rodriguez discusses his use of language as an author in the final chapter, ”Mr. Secrets,” in which he analyzes the act of writing and its motivation. A writer’s feelings, he says, ”are capable of public intelligibility. . . . By finding public words to describe one’s feelings, one can describe oneself to oneself. One names what was previously only darkly felt.”
As reviewer Paul Zweig observed, Hunger of Memory ”is not only about the language adventures of a Mexican American child . . . it is also about the coming into being of the remarkable language in which it is written.”
Through the concept of language Rodriguez explores the processes of alienation, assimilation, growing up, and, of course, education. Through growth in language Rodriguez increasingly alienates himself from his family, the comfortable childhood with warm Spanish sounds, as he enters an adult world of superficial communication. The wedge between him and his family was caused mainly by education, a linguistic process that he describes as radical self-reformation.”
Works in Critical Context
Reviewers have given Rodriguez more attention than any other Mexican American author. Even the New York Times Book Review, indifferent to the literary creation of the Chicano movement since its beginnings in the 1960s, gave front-page recognition to Hunger of Memory (February 28, 1982). Approximately fifty other periodicals, from professional newsletters to library journals to the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, reviewed Rodriguez’s autobiography. Commentators generally agree that Rodriguez’s literary style is clear, poetical, and engaging.
Other critics note his adept blending of journalistic and classical literary techniques. Hunger of Memory has been praised in particular for its exploration of the influence of language on life and its observations on the public” and ”private” domains of language in minority cultures. While praising Rodriguez’s literary expertise, however, Chicano scholars dispute his social and political conclusions, contending that his works fail to consider all of the facts surrounding the issues, and that Rodriguez’s conclusions subvert the value of minority cultures. Indeed, critics who support Rodriguez’s views as realistic and insightful are primarily mainstream American commentators who see him as a unique talent bridging Chicano and American cultures. As Ilan Stavans reflects: ”[Rodriguez] 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.”
Hunger of Memory
In the opinion of New York Times critic Le Anne Schreiber, Richard Rodriguez’s autobiography, Hunger of Memory, is an honest and intelligent account of how education can alter a life.” Hunger of Memory was praised by several critics, especially for its discussion of the impact of language on life. Le Anne Schreiber found that what matters most about this intensely thoughtful book is that Richard Rodriguez has given us the fruit of his long meditation upon language.” Paul Zweig judged that the chapters Mr. Rodriguez devotes to his early experiences of language are uncannily sensitive to the nuances of language learning, the childhood drama of voices, intonations.” A New Yorker review commended Rodriguez as a writer of unusual grace and clarity . . . eloquent in all his reflections.”
However, Some Mexican Americans, such as Arturo Madrid (La Red/The Net, April 23, 1982), saw in Rodriguez’s book a betrayal of the goals of the Chicano people as evidenced by the government programs he attacked. Sarcastically deriding Rodriguez’s angst, these detractors have been rarely moved by his style or convinced of the universality of his experience. They felt that he spoke only for himself to a white audience. Yet Antonio C. Marquez, a professor of Chicano literature, argued that
there is a level of artistry in Hunger of Memory that should not be shunned simply because Rodriguez does not meet the Procrustean bed of ”cultural awareness” of any other ideology. I contend that its ultimate value lies in its literary qualities and the uniqueness of the autobiographical form.
Days of Obligation
In this collection, Rodriguez returns to many of the issues he probed in Hunger of Memory: language, history, and the immigrant history. Critics remarked that Days of Obligation lacks the intuitive, coherent structure of Hunger of Memory but averred that the book once again displays the author’s skill in producing powerful autobiographical writing. For instance, Washing-ton Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley noted, ”though the earnestness of Rodriguez’s self-examination remains affecting and convincing, Days of Obligation … never states in sufficiently clear terms either the nature of the argument or the author’s own line of reasoning.” Though admitting that the book can be ”maddeningly presumptuous and determinedly obscure,” New York Times Book Review contributor David L. Kirp exclaimed that ”In its most powerful passages, Days of Obligation reveals the writer as a tightrope walker who balances pessimism and the defeat of predictable expectations against the discovery of the profoundly unanticipated.” Concluded Gray, ”The wrestling with his elusive and insistent past makes these sinuous ruminations worthy of inclusion in the long American tradition of spiritual autobiography.”
- Crowley, Paul. ”An Ancient Catholic: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez.” America (September 23,1995): 8.
- Danahay, Martin A. ”Breaking the Silence: Symbolic Violence and the Teaching of Contemporary ‘Ethnic’ Autobiography.” College Literature 18 (October 1991): 64-79.
- Madrid, Arturo. La Red/The Net (April 23, 1982).
- Marzan, Julio. ”Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and the Poetics of Experience.” Arizona Quarterly 40 (Summer 1984): 130-141.
- McNamara, Kevin R. ”A Finer Grain: Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation.” Arizona Quarterly 53 (Spring 1997): 103-122.
- Postrel, Virginia, and Nick Gillespie. ”The New, New World: Richard Rodriguez on Culture and Assimilation.” Reason 26 (August 1, 1994): 35(7).
- Shuter, Bill. ”The Confessions of Richard Rodriguez.” Cross-Currents 45 (Spring 1995): 95-105.
- Walton, Antony. ”Greater than All the Parts. ”New York Times Book Review (April 7, 2002): 7.
- Online News Hour. Richard Rodriguez Essays. Retrieved November 27, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/ newshour/essays/richard_rodriguez.html. Last updated on May 17, 2007.
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