A major theme in the book is that of identity and namely how a person builds his or her identity.
Hunger of Memory
“Hunger of Memory” is an interesting memoir detailing the educational journey of Richard Rodriguez and the challenges he encounters along the journey. Rodriguez is a minority student of a Mexican descent who starts school in Sacramento, California. His poor mastery of the English language makes it difficult for him to socialize with other learners. He develops a shy personality at school due to his inability to communicate and interact with other learners. Six months down the line, nuns from his school visit his parents and manage to convince them to speak English with Rodriguez and the other children in order to boost his understanding. While this improves his mastery of the language, it brings a sense of alienation from his roots, his family, as well as from his culture.
Rodriguez is the main character in the book. He gives a firsthand experience of his educational journey and assimilation into a new culture. Although Rodriguez mentions his parents countless times, he does not reveal their identity in the memoir. His mother is eager to see him succeed in his educational journey. Nonetheless, she feels sad that Rodriguez must go away for further studies. She could not speak fluent English as she had little formal education. Just like his mother, Rodriguez’s father had little formal education. His mastery of English was poor and did menial jobs all his life due to his poor educational background. Rodriguez understands that his parents are pushing him to study hard so that he does not lead a similar life to theirs. Another character is his grandmother, who could only speak Spanish. The setting is in Sacramento, California, a white-dominated neighborhood. The major change presented in the memoir is Rodriguez’ alienation from his culture.
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The author’s main point is about forging an own identity. At the end of Chapter Two, he says, “It would require many more years of schooling … before I turned unafraid to desire the past” (Rodriguez, 73). This indicates a person who is in search of his identity. In the memoir, Rodriguez presents his identity in two distinct ways: the first is as an author in his present self and the second way as a character in the earlier self. While he is now an adult writer, his work indicates an effort to retrace his old roots. This is also an effort to establish where he fits within the two cultures.
Rodriguez attempts to discover his identity by prying into his past and developing connections with the past. This he compares with how the American language and culture transformed him in profound ways, forming much of his larger personality and character. In the first chapter of the memoir, Rodriguez says, “Once upon a time there was a socially disadvantaged child.” He continues to say the story is now “an American story.” This indicates two things: his reflections about the past and the current self as an assimilated man.
The author highlights various factors as playing a critical role in the development of a person’s identity. One of the critical factors is language, which significantly affects the way individuals see themselves and how they interact with others. While Rodriguez feels free conversing with his parents in Spanish, a sense of alienation develops when they start speaking to him using the English language. Another important factor in shaping identity is family. Rodriguez feels attached to his family before joining the school. He drifts away from his family as he learns a new language and immerses himself deeper into studies. Racial background is also fundamental in developing an individual’s identity.
Rodriguez’s memoir was reviewed favorably by Anglo scholars but received huge criticism from Chicano scholars. One of the major criticism by Chicano scholars is that Rodriguez advocates for assimilation in his book, hence viewed as “selling out to Americans” (Duran 95). Chicano scholars largely view Rodriguez as being ‘traitor’ for assimilating into a different culture and forgetting his roots. Rodriguez’s controversial view on affirmative action and bilingual education (he opposes both) is another point of contention by Chicano scholars. In line with this, Chicano scholars argue that his opposition of these policies reduce his autobiography to look like vague political statements rather than a literal work that it ought to be (95). Critics argue that his memoir promotes an individualistic tendency (Garcia 65). In particular, Ramon Saldivar, a Chicano scholar, argues that Rodriguez focuses more on separatism between men and women by prioritizing an “individual private inner self” and hence promoting individualism (65).
His supporters argue that much of what Rodriguez puts across in his memoir has been widely misinterpreted. While Rodriguez arguments center on individualism, some scholars have emphasized that this merely suggests that he is fighting for the “recognition as an individual” (Garcia 67). This is not to mean that he is encouraging an individualistic culture. Duran (96) reviews Rodriguez’s memoir in a positive way, arguing that its ideas are structured in an original way – a departure from the traditional “life-as-a-journey structure.” It is worth noting that Rodriguez’s memoir shifts readers back and forth, enabling them to catch a glimpse of his past as well as his present. Despite the huge criticism, his memoir won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Christopher Award in 1983.
The most important point I have learned from this book is the risk of experiencing an identity crisis due to a mix of cultures. This is likely to happen to immigrants who move and settle in the U.S. as opposed to those born in the U.S. Such individuals are likely to find themselves in predicaments where they are not sure whether they should retain their ethnic culture or adopt the country’s culture. While one may adopt a new culture, questions about own cultural identity continue to linger and influence one’s life or decisions they make. Alienation from one’s culture has significant consequences, the most visible being a weakening of family ties just like in Rodriguez’s case.
Durán, Isabel. “Latino Autobiography, the Aesthetic, and Political Criticism: The Case of Hunger of Memory.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015.
Garcia, Michael N. “THE COMMUNALLY DERIVED ETHNIC SELF in Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory.” A/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2013, pp. 64-85.
“Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez.” Nonfiction Classics for Students. Encyclopedia.com. 14 Nov. 2018<https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez: an Autobiography. Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 2005.