Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

“I have taken Caliban’s advice.  I have stolen their books.  I will have run of this isle.”

With the first sentence, in his allusion to Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, Richard Rodriguez sets the tone for his memoir, depicting his life as the son of Mexican immigrants.  Is he a monster, an outcast who will use his adversaries’ own weapons to gain power, an identity, and a place in the kingdom?

An avid reader from a very early age, Rodriguez was what he called a “scholarship boy,” earning accolades for his intellect throughout his formative years.  He received his Bachelor of Arts, Master’s Degree and was pursing his Ph.D. when he dropped out of academia to pursue other avenues, finally working as a teacher, a journalist and a writer.  His biography, Hunger of Memory traces the paths of his journey, which took him from the life of an immigrant to his integration as an American citizen.

Each chapter is an essay, as Rodriguez first spoke of his childhood in Sacramento, California, and the beginnings of his education.  As child of Mexican immigrants, as soon as he left his parent’s home to attend school, the institution exerted expectations that slowly began to separate him from the culture from which he had grown, and therefore, his parents.  He recalls with clarity all the differences between the world he knew as a young child and his new American educational existence, from the competing sounds of English and Spanish, to the contrasting experiences between his home life and his life outside his family circle.  Yet Rodriguez’s observations of the transformation of the immigrant led him to criticize the tendency of schools to promote bilingual education so students were able to keep connected to their culture.  Instead, he states that the mere fact that the connection needed to be maintained, already implied that it was lost, and in Rodriguez’s eyes, it was irrevocably irretrievable.  Proponents of bilingual schooling wanted at the same time to help students to gain skills to ensure their public success, but they also wanted to give students an individual identity apart from the public success.  Rodriguez maintained that you cannot have it both ways.  By helping an immigrant maintain a bilingual immigrant status, one merely reinforced the feeling of public separateness, preventing the immigrant from accepting and conforming to his situation.  He is unable to find his public identity.

Downtown Sacramento
source Wikipedia

Rodriguez also explored the challenges of being a “scholarship boy”.  The praise that was earned through his admirable scholastic performances, became like a drug, although he made the ordinary classmates surrounding him uneasy.  He acquired the facts, but not the ability to use them.  However, he continued on, using education to re-shape his life.  It is yet another emphasis of the differences between his old culture and the new.

Raised as a practicing Catholic, church was a integral part of Rodriguez’s life, yet in this area too, he laments the shift in its cultural existence.  Rather than the ceremonial church that he was raised in, worshiping as one with other believes, the church shifted to a more Protestant model, “modernized … demythologized, deflated.”  In the church, too, he went from a private experience within a public group, to a more communal celebration that curiously left him feeling more isolated.

“I miss that high ceremony.  I am saddened by inappropriate music about which it is damning enough to say that it is not good enough, and not even the best of its authentic kind — folk, pop, quasi-religious Broadway show tunes.  I miss the old trappings — trappings that disclosed a different reality ……”

“In the abandoned Latin service it was the priest alone who spoke the affirmation of faith.  It was the priest who said, ‘Credo ….,” using the first person singular.  The differences between the old service and the new can be summarized in this change.  At the old mass, the priest’s Credo (I believe) complexly reminded the congregation of the fact that each person stands before God as an individual, implying at the same time — because the priest could join all voices in his —- the union of believers, the consolation of communal faith.  The listener was assured of his membership in the Church; he was not alone before God.  (The Church would assist him.)  By translating credo into the English first person plural, we believe, the Church no longer reminds the listener that he is alone …… We believe.  We believe.  This assurance is necessary because, in a sense, it no longer is true ….. 

……  I would protest this simplification of the liturgy if I could.  I would protest as well the diminished sense of the sacred in churches today.  I would protest the use of folk music and the hand-holding.  Finally, I cannot.  I suspect the reason I despise the new liturgy is because it is mine ….”

In spite of his dislike of the new practices, curiously, Rodriguez takes responsibility for his part in their development.  Once again, public obligation is emphasized in this philosophy.

source Amazon

The last couple of essays were on Rodriguez’s struggle with his colour, or “complexion”, and lastly his final years of schooling.  He vehemently protested again affirmative action, or the preferrential treatment he was given as a minority student.  The benefits he, and other minorities, received were not in keeping with the spirit of the assistance; he was not in need  —- the disadvantaged Americans where those who were poorly schooled in elementary and high school, many not even reaching the realms of higher education. While he spoke out against it at the time, he still partook in its benefits. Here, he asks for forgiveness from “those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed as a minority student.”

Finally, he revealed his struggles with his memoir, dreading the disapproval of his parents.  Rodriguez had learned to live a public life, but the private life of his upbringing, still conflicted with his reality.  On one hand, he appeared to have a yearning for what he had lost, and it wasn’t clear if the value of what he had gained overrode it. A feeling of collision and urgency were always within the pages, the dichotomy of living in the tension of what we call “life”.