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”.

0 thoughts on “Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

  1. an unusual subject; but apropos in many facets of modern life. in general he gives perceptive and accurate analyses of mass social behavior: giving things to people does not necessarily help them. the tendency of modern society is to eliminate the individual and foster groups and teamwork. Rodriguez understands that including some things may exclude others, which may be more important. sounds like a good and informative book. tx…

  2. This is an interesting biography. On the one hand he laments losing his culture, but surely he understands that migrating to another country is going to inevitably affect that culture. You can't create a bubble, encapsulating the one country and making it work in another. If your goal is to keep your original culture intact, then don't move. If not, then accept that you now have an enriched, more diverse culture and that has to make your life experience more colorful.

    It's funny how the original immigrants even as recent as fifty years ago didn't have such compunctions. They were just glad to escape poverty and war torn countries and receive the peace, security and job opportunities provided in North America.
    Thanks for bringing this biography to my attention.

  3. Sharon, this is SOOOO true. When I think of my immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who came from Italy to escape poverty in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they came gratefully. They insisted their children learn English and assimilate into the culture. Not one of my relatives spoke Italian, except to curse. My grandmother said she was so proud to be American. The only traditions they kept had to do with food.

    And as for my husband's family: they are Mexican, but my mother-in-law said that she raised her children to be American, and my husband's family is very patriotic. You should have heard them during the Iraq War; they were very mad at Mexico for not helping.

    But these next generations coming up or coming over are not connected to America. Many of them in our school system do not even know why we celebrate Independence Day. Imagine hat tomorrow's generation will be like. (It's not just about immigrants anymore.)

    OK, I've rambled on enough. Thanks, Cleo, for letting use your post for my opinionated platform.

  4. Great comments ….. I think his insight into people is quite accurate, but I felt that he was very much a type of person who felt he was on the outside, looking in. He understood the subtleties of our actions, and was quite wise in this case. Often we think we're doing such philanthropic deeds but we ignore the outcome, wanting only the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping. Rodriguez saw all benefits and problems very clearly. It's actually rather disturbing how much like sheep people can be, but that's a discussion for another book. 😉

  5. Sharon, it wasn't that he ADVOCATED for people to keep their culture, in fact, quite the reverse; they had already lost it (or collectively what it was) by immigrating, and to try to keep it was merely keeping them from embracing the ideals of the new culture and moving ahead. But he did come across as having a nostalgic longing for the old, not because he wanted to keep his culture, but simply because he believed it gave a richer experience. Just like his longing for the deep richness of his childhood Catholicism, compared to the more trendy Catholicism of his older years. I could certainly sympathize with his views. There are many valuable traditions which we have lost to make way for progress ….. we can tend to be mesmerized by progress and toss them away, not realizing what we are losing. Rodriquez's musing were a helpful reminder as to this tendency.

  6. Ruth: Aw, you know that I always appreciate your opinions! Yes, immigrants certainly used to insist that their children drop the culture they came from and assimilate. I tend to like a more balanced approach. My Mexican friend has made sure that her children know English well (they use it better than most Canadians!) and assimilate, but they speak Spanish at home and she has them journal in Spanish. They return home and are at least familiar with their culture. I really like this balance. I think it is important to understand both cultures, the problem comes when you try to bring one into another and isolate yourself from the culture in which you live.

    I think there is another culture that people don't even realize is there, but has a deeper impact that we have only felt small waves of repercussion yet: the culture of self. We don't just have isolated groups anymore, but isolated people who see things from only their own POV, and are engaged only if it affects them. I almost think this is more dangerous. And we have a society that is often unable to discern anymore and like to jump on bandwagons (much easier than independent thinking, right?). So when you mention the next generation, yes, it's rather disturbing.

    And there! I rambled too, so we're all in good company! 🙂

  7. Cleo, I was just thinking of this today: more people are motivated by self-love or their selfishly-centered desires. I was thinking of the current election climate and all of the greedy demands the American people are putting on their government. People will turn to violence and murder to get what they think they deserve. And many do not even care about the ramifications of their ideas – how they affect others. It's such a scary world.

  8. Mudpuddle, from reading these biographies in chronological order, the trend I'm seeing is people increasingly looking to themselves to for guidance in all of life's situations, instead of something higher than themselves. Instead of employing self-control (or at least having an awareness that they should be employing it), they react on emotion (or I guess you could say, instinct), very much like animals. They come across as much less inwardly content, and they seem less able to assess their situations and behaviour, even while showing some good insight. It's odd …..

  9. Ruth, that's another things I'm noticing ….. a disturbing lack of empathy. There is ambition and material striving in some of the earlier biographies, but there is a heightened awareness that your own success or contentment lies in how you treat others. I'm not close to finishing Malcolm X, but it's quite startling how he seems to think he has the right to abuse white people because they've abused him. While I can certainly understand feeling that way, to act on it makes you no better than them, and in fact, makes the situation much worse. I'm reminded of Margery Kempe and what I said about her in my review: "Her lack of anger and her tolerance towards her persecutors is truly heroic. ". There is not so much of this attitude in the later biographies.

  10. Hi Cleopatra: I guess I misunderstood him. Perhaps I was interpreting his words through the lens of my own experience as a public school teacher.

    Whatever he meant, I think that it is the better choice to embrace who you are and if you belong to more than one culture, know that your life is enriched by it.

    I will say I live in Texas (taught in public school nine years) and we have a large Hispanic population (my neighbors on both sides are Mexican, a quarter of my church congregation is Mexican-the pastor's wife is Mexican-we actually have a translator for the sermons). Our pastor's wife who is an ESL teacher explained to me that the purpose of bilingual education is to get children to read and write in their heart language because if they don't they will never become literate in another language. Bilingual schools (of which my school district has three) were created because supposedly the Spanish speaking kids weren't passing English reading and writing exams.

    Now whether that's true or not, I don't know. I do know my neighbor's kids and the church kids are fluent in English and read and write it well. Their mothers speak very little English. The dads can, maybe because they're in the work force and the mothers mostly stay home.

    Interestingly, many Mexican parents did not want their kids going to bilingual schools but wanted them to simply go to English speaking schools. Our education department was fighting this (we got to attend a lot of meetings about it), calling it ignorance on the parents' part, but I found their kids performed academically just as well as the white kids. Although it is true that they won't learn to read and write Spanish at our non-bilingual schools.

  11. I've already written so much and I'm yet going to write more but I'll be brief:

    You all are discussing the political climate today and how self-centered it is.

    I've been reading a great book about the Hudson River School artists and how they expressed their values in their art. They firmly believed that a nation must be rooted in Christian values or it won't stand.

    The chapter I'm reading now is how the current powers that control our art world have changed the definition or art. It's not about aesthetic response but political agenda. One has to show ethnic minorities and women as oppressed and anything European as evil, including "Western religion".

    Your talking of people demanding the government pander to their specific group made me think of that.

  12. Your examples are interesting, Sharon. Is there any evidence of a "heart" language inherently in people? Do certain schools in the U.S. not require any second language? Here, French is most popular, but I believe that everyone must study a second language for at least part of their schooling. It's not very effective in what they require (I think it's three years study), but at least the kids recognize that there are different languages!

  13. Hi Cleopatra: By "heart language" I meant the language a person first learns to speak and think in. Yolanda (our pastor's wife) said that if a child does not learn to read and write in their "first language" they will never become proficient in another language.

    Again, I'm not sure that's true. I grew up in Florida and my high school Spanish teacher was Cuban. She said she couldn't speak any English when she started school but learned it quickly enough and it wasn't a big deal. She had no sympathy for the current attitude of "easing" kids into the American culture while trying to preserve their family's culture. She had a "sink or swim" attitude.

    It is required to take a foreign language in middle and high school here (6th-12th grade). I don't think the classes are taught with the objective of making the students fluent in a second language. I became conversant in Spanish because I became friends with Spanish speaking people and made them speak to me.

    One cool foreign language option in my school district is to learn sign language. Many students have chosen that as their foreign language and have become successful interpreters.

    In the school where I used to teach we had several deaf people (yes they took my music class but that's another story) and each class had an interpreter that signed what the teacher was saying. I learned to sign with my deaf students on a limited level. It's a fun language.

    Man, I'm going on, but one more thing: I thought that you could choose, in Canada, to put your child in an English or French speaking school. I think that's a great option. If I lived there I would put my kids in a French school and teach them English at home.

  14. Thanks for the explanation, Sharon. I don't agree with the "heart" language theory in principle. I've seen too many children do well in their "transplanted" language without their "heart" language. But perhaps it could be true on an individual scale, here and there.

    It's always a challenge for immigrants. Sometimes the parents want to keep part of their culture for their children and the children want nothing to do with it. It's hard work to get the child to understand the value of something they're removed from, when all they want is to fit in.

    We have French speaking schools where you are not allowed to enroll your child unless at least one parent is French. Not French, too bad! Otherwise we have immersion schools, which are really English schools, but you can choose to take subjects in French (starting at grade 5). I find the kids who go the French route have weaker English grammar, but honestly, our elementary/high school education here is not good, so how much they're behind, is perhaps negligible.

  15. Wow, you had some interesting conversations here.

    Anyway, I finally finished Hunger of Memory and wrote up a review – of some sort. It was difficult to write about b/c while I liked the book and even agreed with a lot of his ideas, I was a bit confused about where he was going. Some of his feelings were back and forth, as you mention in your review.

    I didn't agree with everything, like the religious essays, but I still read it with an open mind and didn't get my feathers ruffled.

    I went on to watch his speaking engagements on Youtube, and he speaks like like writes – a little disorganized; but I think that is common for intellectuals. I would love to hear him speak today about books and literature.

    Anyway, it was an interesting read, I thought.

  16. Yes, I know what you mean about not knowing where he was going. I felt like he was a conflicted person and there was an unsettledness to his writing. He had some interesting ideas and expressed them well, but there wasn't anything tied up at the end, or at least nothing that you could really grasp onto.

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