Posted: July 8, 2014
A review of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, by Richard Rodriguez
hy should a large readership find fascinating the autobiography of an assimilated, middle-class, ex-academic in his mid-thirties? This pleasant evening's reading is an "American story," describing a Mexican-American's coming to know himself as an American. Although "ethnic Americans" can enjoy this tale in a special way, it can edify all Americans, all those who wish to understand America, and hence all those who seek a purpose in human life. Rodriguez's account combines the universal significance of so-called ethnic literature such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, John Okada's No-no Boy, and Saul Bellow's novels with the reflectiveness of autobiographies such as The Americanization of Edward Bole and The Education of Henry Adams. Yet Rodriguez, writing with the reserve of Jane Austen, pretends to be neither a model Mexican-American nor a model human being simply. And if he is scarcely heroic, he is nonetheless admirable.
Rodriguez's six essays of "sad fuguelike repetition" focus on the significance of learning the English language for becoming, as he puts it, "a public man." After wrestling with the problem of language his entire conscious life, he halted his academic career just short of completing his doctoral dissertation in Renaissance English literature. He is now a writer living in San Francisco. Rodriquez's "movement away from the company of family and into the city" meant a life-long education involving questioning not only his family but also school, Catholicism, color, and university.
Rodriguez grew up in unusual circumstances: The family lived a comfortable, middle-class life, but as cultural and linguistic aliens in an otherwise all-gringo Sacramento neighborhood. The distinction children come to know between private, family life and public life became dramatized in Ricardo's need to learn English and his desire to play with his friends, tellingly known as los americanos. Once in school Ricardo became forever Richard, and home was never the same again. His caring parents insisted the children speak English as much as possible in the home. Unable to keep up, his father lapsed into long silences. When the son soon became a better speaker of English than his parents, Richard acquired a kind of contempt for them and, then, a shame of his contempt. He saw his manly father a helpless stammerer before a young gringo gas station attendant. Even his extraordinarily resourceful mother-all-ambitious for her son-fell in his estimation.
Despite the loss and the pain Rodriguez now declares "I celebrate the day I acquired my new name." And still the sounds of Spanish (as for others, Yiddish, Italian, or Japanese) produce a hunger for warm childhood memories-which quickly vanishes. Contrary, still, to those "middle-class ethnics" Rodriguez would deride as "filled with self-pity," his acquisition of a new language "discloses instead an essential myth of childhood-inevitable pain." If I rehearse here the changes in my private life after my Americanization, it is finally to emphasize the public gain." Of course Rodriguez is deadset against bilingual education and the naive wish of some contemporary intellectuals to inject the warmth of what is by nature private into public life. He concludes that "intimate utterance" cannot be preserved in American public life, which is to a great extent a "mass society," and that to try to preserve such intimacy is to deny oneself the benefits of public life.
Finally, Rodriguez's very writing of this book-a public act disclosing private feelings-denotes the distance he has put between himself and his family. "Why do you need to tell the gringos . . .?" his mother once wrote to him. But without rejecting his family the favored son left its joy and limitations to become part of a world that once seemed totally alien.
When the ties to his family weakened, young Richard became a "scholarship boy," one who makes the primary focus of his life his classroom achievements. In grade school 'The docile, obedient student came home a shrill and precocious son who insisted on correcting and teaching his parents with the remark: 'My teacher told us. . . .'" All of us scholarship boys (and girls) can recognize ourselves in this and other obnoxious behavior Rodriguez reports, but for Richard the ethnic difference between himself and his teachers made him want all the more to idolize them; they could replace the past he had lost. One day he proudly informed his surprised parents that his teacher praised him for completely losing his Spanish accent. Early on, his parents could no longer help him with his homework: "I tightened my grip on pencil and books." "I wanted tobe like my teachers, to possess their knowledge, to assume their authority, their confidence, even to assume a teacher's persona." Now it is true that in striving for recognition (All those extra-credit book reports!) the scholarship boy becomes an imitator, "a collector of thoughts, not a thinker. . . ." Yet even as such imitation takes place he realizes "that education requires radical self-reformation." Thus Rodriguez is no advocate of "creativity" and "originality"; schools today-especially those largely black or Hispanic-do not change students enough. After all, "education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process-a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom." In similar fashion did Socrates describe the journey out of the cave.
Rodriguez's education in religion recapitulates the four hundred year rise of Protestantism and secularization, though he remains Catholic to this day. "If God is dead I will cry into the void." Certainly his Catholic upbringing brought him closer to Protestant, mainstream America than does, for instance, Judaism or Buddhism for American believers in those religions. Distinctive even among Catholics was Rodriguez's communal, ceremonial Church with its extraordinarily sensuous, even sensual depictions of divinity: its Bach, Mozart, and incense, along with its Latin liturgy, confessions, and altar boy service. With formal education his Catholic practices became ideas about religion; he became "Protestantized," intellectualized, a liberal Catholic who follows conscience and mores rather than his priest. But Rodriguez has contempt for the new Church, with its pitiful attempts to create community through such quaint practices as rock masses, "Kumbaya" liturgy, and mechanical handshakes before communion, which merely betray its lack of faith. Yet, at the same time, he can never again be a part of his "grandparents' Church," a member of a community of believers. In "confessing" all of this Rodriguez acts quite self-consciously like a Protestant, a man alone in his faith, who realizes most of his readers are not religious. A major part of Rodriguez's education involved thinking through his status as a person of color in a predominantly white public realm. He calmly describes his frustrations without being maudlin or bitter. The boy Richard locked his bathroom door and attempted to scrape away the dark skin from his arms with his father's straight razor but merely managed to shave the hair off. His fair-skinned mother warned him not to be like them, los braceros, dark and physically imposing laborers. So she constantly chided him for allowing himself to tan: "Negrito!" A gentle scolding "Clean the grazaoff of your face!" detonated the taunt "Greaser!" in his mind. The scholarship boy sought to escape the stigma of color and his conviction that he was ugly by developing his mind against his body. After he won a scholastic award in sixth grade, his mother whispered to him words all ethnic minorities will warm to-he had "'shown' the gringos." The adolescent's shame of his body and his success with words led him to scorn athletics and dating: "I wanted to forget that I had a body because I had a brown body." (Now, having outgrown his shame, he has taken up, quite appropriately, the middle-class sport of long-distance running.) As an adult, he realizes how his dark skin makes him "Exotic in a tuxedo." Has he not just returned from a Caribbean vacation? When Rodriguez does travel he stays in the best hotels; "My complexion becomes a mark of my leisure. Yet no one would regard my complexion the same way if I entered such hotels through the service entrance." It is his character, his confidence arising from his education, not so much any financial success, that prevents him from being reduced to his skin color.
With his higher education at Stanford Rodriguez was stigmatized for the first time by the appellation "minority student." Though perplexed, Rodriguez permitted this onerous classification to reap for him a variety of benefits. The academy's protestations of guilt over its alleged past exclusion of Mexican-Americans and other "minorities" spawned affirmative action programs. Graduate school admissions, fellowships (including a prized Fulbright to England), and teaching assistantships all came easier to him by checking the right race box on the application form. But Rodriguez knew all along that he "was no longer a minority . . . because (he) had become a student." He realized that he benefited unfairly from a policy which would have been directed instead, he maintains, at helping Mexican-Americans and others who lived in a world as far from his as the gardeners on the Stanford campus.
As a teaching assistant and professor at Berkeley, Rodriguez saw affirmative action's destructive effects on minority undergraduate and graduate students. Admitted to programs in which they could not successfully participate, many had breakdowns or dropped out. Some professors who enthusiastically endorsed minority admissions were indifferent to the admitees' problems once they arrived, and other professors patronized them. Meanwhile, serape-draped Hispanics regarded him as "some comic Queequeg, holding close to (his) breast a reliquary containing the white powder of a dead European civilization. . . ." By his own account successful at teaching white middle class students, Rodriguez could not make minority students (or his white academic colleagues, who wanted him to be their special counselor) understand the fundamental distinction between the scholarship he wished to pursue and the ethnic studies courses "Third World" students thought would benefit them. (Incidentally, those who use Chicane indicate their own distance from Mexican-Americans in general, for it "was a term lower-class Mexican-Americans had long used to name themselves. It was a private word, slavish, even affectionately vulgar, and, when spoken by a stranger, insulting. . . .")
Moreover, Rodriguez came to a painful awareness of the corruption affirmative action had worked on his own character. Having acquired national prominence for his attacks on affirmative action, Berkeley graduate student Rodriguez had "a scholarship boy's dream come true. I enjoyed being-not being-a minority student, the featured speaker. I was invited to lecture at schools that only a few years before would have rejected my application for graduate study." Even with his doctoral dissertation incomplete, Rodriguez was deluged with generous offers of scarce teaching positions in English literature.
In some cases recruited like a star athlete, he was offered a position at Yale. A similarly qualified job-seeker, a colleague obliged to accept a much inferior position exploded: "Once there were quotas to keep my [Jewish] parents out of schools like Yale. Now there are quotas to get you in." Despite his short but glorious career denouncing affirmative action, Rodriguez now found himself blurting out a defense of his appointment. "It was all a lie." Realizing he could not in honesty continue his academic career, he declined the Yale offer along with all the others and left academia.
Rodriguez's revealing commentary on his education does not mitigate its fundamental deficiency, the failure of the universities to cultivate what family, church, and schools had planted. Consider his damnation of his uncompleted dissertation: "I felt drawn by professionalism to the edge of sterility, capable of no more than pedantic, lifeless, unassailable prose. . . . I grew to hate the growing pages of my dissertation on genre and Renaissance literature." So what became of the eager boy who asked his junior high school teachers "Give me the names of important books"?
The ultimate failure in Rodriguez's formal education and hence in his overall education, lay in not only the typical scholarship boy error of confusing recognition with true achievement, and the inability of his college professors to foster that achievement (he says virtually nothing about the content of his university education, and he invariably portrays his professors as fools). Rodriguez's critical error is his facile and false equation of American with public, modern man. For Rodriguez, becoming a public man means separation from family, secularization, achievement-orientation, absorption into mass society, or becoming "a citizen in a crowded city of words." But is not Rodriguez's city of words another version of that Thanatopsis Society, the republic of letters? And is not the republic of letters as promiscuous, as unprincipled in its composition, as a list of "the important books" a teacher today might name? For Rodriguez the various strands of his education lead him to modernity, that rootless condition in which men find themselves atomistic individuals. What he should have seen is that becoming American-as opposed to becoming modern-has at its basis a tradition of western civilization based in the cities of Jerusalem and Athens-not the modern, ungrounded "city of words" or republic of letters. Rodriguez does not consciously appreciate the ordering principle which creates public life from chaos, the American natural right principle of human equality, acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence. Only natural right-the objective measure of right and wrong-can enable him to make sense of his experiences. By holding "these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . .," any human being-Mexicans, non-English speakers, people of color, or non-Christians-becomes American. A common human nature points men beyond their ethnic origins to their natural duties. This, in any case, is the promise of American public or political life.
Because Rodriguez failed to see the connection between his public or political being and the moral and political principle of equality he did not fully understand what was at stake in affirmative action, probably not even after that fellow graduate student (an equally uprooted Jew?) confronted him. He did not realize how affirmative action would eviscerate his character. He should have seen, however, that the relationship between equality of rights and human dignity, and his public identity of American citizen, established by the founding principle of equality, is intimately related to that notion of human dignity. He would then have concluded that affirmative action and equality of rights (or opportunity) are contradictions in terms, for the former denies objective merit, as the latter promotes it. Rodriguez's dignity as a public being would then require his criticism of affirmative action, for it undermines his claim to be part of the public by denying equality of rights.*
With the knowledge that human equality is at the basis of American public life, Rodriguez could also have better understood how far from becoming and being American are college students who label themselves as "Third World." How could any sensible American wish to identify himself with lands ruled by dictators and thugs? But this is precisely what the label "Third World" connotes-the subordination of the notion of human equality to primitive tribalism, if not savagery. Hence, Americans of color must turn not to skin color or dubious sociological categories but to human equality and the western tradition underlying it if they are to come to terms with America and discover the meaning of being American.
Thus would I presume to further Rodriguez's education by informing him of the philosophic basis of his public life, which can in turn provide a focus for his private life. A superior student of the language of Shakespeare and Lincoln, he has yet to learn the core of their greatness, the idea of natural right. Yet, despite this shortcoming, Rodriguez's education has qualified him to be a marvelous teacher who arouses wonder (in its old sense) in his readers, and thus encourages them to know themselves better, both as private and public (that is, American) men.
*Of course the affront of affirmative action continues. When faced with forms requesting identification of race, I usually write in across the boxes: "Human." I was foiled when a University of California employment form stated that the applicant could decline supplying this information, but that one's supervisor would be asked to supply it "through visual observation or other factors"!