Monday, September 5, 2016

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriquez by Richard Rodriquez

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
Richard Rodriguez
Published 1982

In honor of Richard Rodriquez, though I did not know it, yet, I checked his autobiography out of the library.  

Richard Rodriguez was born (1944) in San Francisco, California, to Mexican immigrant parents. As a six-year old child with limited use of the English language, he was disconnected from the American public.  That changed when he attended Catholic school, and Irish nuns forced (and his parents encouraged) him to learn and speak English publicly, even privately at home; this altered his life drastically.  He traded his private life for a public one.  He ceased being a minority, in a cultural sense, when he decided to use his public voice and take advantage of his educational benefits.  

Mr. Rodriguez covers quite a few major social topics in his book : 
public v. private lives, 
minority status (class v. race), 
religion (Catholicism and Protestantism), 
Affirmative Action programs, 
and (my favorite) 
Reading through his autobiography was like having a pleasant conversation with Mr. Rodriguez about these issues.  As he presented his experiences and ideas and opinions, I thought about them and most of the time agreed with him. Yet, even if I did not agree, I still appreciated the conversation.  

Mr. Rodriguez thought it was personally unfair for him to be considered a minority - and receive benefits through Affirmative Action programs - simply because of his Mexican heritage, when he had more opportunities than those who were living in poverty, including poor non-minorities.  People, he said, are stuck in poverty because they are not taught to use their public voice; opportunities are not available to them because they remain immoveable in their private lives, kept apart (in order to preserve their identity) from the rest of the American culture.  Instead, they must be encouraged to mix publicly, in language and culture, rather than being stuck in their own private worlds.

Speaking of mixing, he does not like racial labels either because he believes we are all a little bit like one another.  If we study our histories deeply, we find that our stories are intertwined, not separate; maybe we are not all that diverse after all.  

On a personal note, for example: when I read early American history (when American colonists were British), I cannot help but feel a kin to Britain, even though my Italian ancestors did not come to America until the late 1800s and early 1900s.  British history is my history, too. And when I read Russian lit, I feel a little Russian.  What connects us all together is the human story that we relate to.  We are all connected - and I would add, we are all mixing.  Today there are no names for these mixed races and cultures and histories, and yet some want to label people with words that do not even describe us anymore.

Mr. Rodriguez related his personal struggle with skin color, especially because his mother was most conscientious of his dark complexion.  It reminded me of how my brother and I were teased for our dark complexion, where we grew up in a predominately Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn.  It did not really bother me, but today every one seems extremely sensitive at the mention of their skin color or race.  To repeat: we are all mixing anyway, and soon there will be no names for us anymore.  

One final point about Mr. Rodriguez that I like most is his love for literature.  When he mastered the English language (at an early age), he read voraciously for information.  Yet, when he matured, he developed a love and appreciation for literature, unlike reading for information.  

In 1998, he gave a speech on University of California TV about books and learning.   He said, "You are not alone when you are reading a library book.  Think of all the people who have read that book. Library books are about connecting lives."  And finally he said (in reference to his youthful quest for knowledge), 
"Books are written, one on top of one another.  Books are relational, intimate, personal, and are about the soul, . . . not about information."
If you want to delve more into these topics, pick up a copy of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez, and join the conversation.    

Richard Rodriguez


  1. What a great review! You raise so many interesting points. First of all, I wholeheartedly agree with Rodriguez that we have to stop labeling people according to race, ethnicity or even gender. I hate being boxed in like that.

    In another blog I read, the blogger is a man who was raised in Britain but was chastised that he loved British literature even though his ancestry was from Bangladesh. He was told that he should promote Bangali literature and was betraying his race by acting British. What presumption! (a white woman told him this, btw).

    I think affirmative action has done a lot of damage to people of certain ethnicities by inculcating a mentality that they can't succeed unless they are helped along. I have been reading about the problems with some universities that, thanks to AA, allow minority students in with lower test scores and as a result, they end up failing. This is because they were trying to achieve "diversity" quotas rather than accepting qualified students. These students would have had greater success if they had just gone to community college to help them transition or better yet be allowed to go to superior grade schools (or dare I say, had parents who homeschooled them?)

    It is too bad that Rodriguez wasn't allowed to continue speaking Spanish. Bilingual is a great ability. I think everyone should be able to speak more than one language.

    That's interesting about your growing up in Brooklyn. I lived several years in New Jersey in a predominantly Italian town. I was one of the few non Italians who attended my church. I miss that phenomenal cooking!

    One good friend of mine there was raised in Newark. She is Italian and went to a Catholic school with Irish nuns. They gave her a hard time, which she thinks was due to racism. I was surprised to realize that sort of thing went on. I guess because I was raised on Military bases where neighbors were from everywhere and bi-racial marriages were normal to me.

  2. Thank you!

    Rodriguez was burdened by his family and the Mexican/American community for his choices to "go public" and reject AA programs. While he struggled with losing his private life by immersing himself into the American language and culture, he also gained from it. He was affected by his loss of the Spanish language; but again, he made a choice. He does believe kids should learn languages. Everyone should learn other languages, but they should know the language of the country they live, work, and attend school. It is a benefit for them to do so.

    I agree w/ your comments on AA, and Rodriguez details how and why he came to reject the AA programs. He's right. When I was younger, my father used to complain about it b/c he said it passed over poor white kids. It automatically assumed that kids of color or other heritages were in need, but still helped those who were well-off or at an advantage, like Rodriguez was. It did not care about economic status at all, and therefore it left other poor kids out.

    I went to Catholic school, too, and education then was rigorous; however, I don't know about it anymore.

    Sorry if this is incoherent. I wanted to reply to you, but I'm rushing to start our school day.

    Thanks for sharing your comments!

  3. I'd forgotten how interesting this autobiography was, so it was lovely to read your review and be reminded of some of his observations. His comments about the AA programs seem rather obvious though and it's quite startling why others can't come to the same sensible conclusions. I think that's what I liked about him: he thought deeply, and yet was very sensible.

    I'm interested to find out what you think of the tone of the more recent biographies compared to some of the earlier ones we've read. Do you see some same universal problems? Have people's way of seeing them changed? .... people's way of dealing with them? In what ways are the biographies the same, yet in what ways are they different?

    1. I haven't forgotten about you, Cleo. I've been swamped around here and unable to reply in depth; and you asked a GREAT questions that I want to think about. Give me a few days while I ponder your questions. I may like to review my older posts. I'll be back. : )