Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez

by Richard Rodriguez

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Reissue)

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Hunger of Memory is the story of Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez, who begins his schooling in Sacramento, California, knowing just 50 words of English, and concludes his university studies in the stately quiet of the reading room of the British Museum.

Here is the poignant journey of a “minority student” who pays the cost of his social assimilation and academic success with a painful alienation — from his past, his parents, his culture — and so describes the high price of “making it” in middle-class America.

Provocative in its positions on affirmative action and bilingual education, Hunger of Memory is a powerful political statement, a profound study of the importance of language ... and the moving, intimate portrait of a boy struggling to become a man.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553272932
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/1983
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 44,636
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.50(d)
Lexile: 920L (what's this?)

About the Author

Richard Rodriguez has authored a “trilogy” on American public life and his private life—Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, and Brown—concerned, respectively, with class, ethnicity, and race in America. He has also worked as a journalist on television and in print. Most recently he wrote Darling, a meditation on the Abrahamic religions after 9/11.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I remember to start with that day in Sacramento-a California now nearly thirty years past-when I first entered a classroom, able to understand some fifty stray English words.

The third of four children, I had been preceded to a neighborhood Roman Catholic school by an older brother and sister. But neither of them had revealed very much about their classroom experiences. Each afternoon they returned, as they left in the morning, always together, speaking in Spanish as they climbed the five steps of the porch. And their mysterious books, wrapped in shopping-bag paper, remained on the table next to the door, closed firmly behind them.

An accident of geography sent me to a school where all my classmates were white, many the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives. All my classmates certainly must have been uneasy on that first day of school-as most children are uneasy-to find themselves apart from their families in the first institution of their lives. But I was astonished.

The nun said, in a friendly but oddly impersonal voice, 'Boys and girls, this is Richard Rodriguez.' (I heard her sound out: Rich-heard Road-ree-guess.) It was the first time I had heard anyone name me in English. 'Richard,' the nun repeated more slowly, writing my name down in her black leather book. Quickly I turned to see my mother's face dissolve in a watery blur behind the pebbled glass door.

Many years later there is something called bilingual education-a scheme proposed in the late 1960s by Hispanic-American social activists, later endorsed by a congressional vote. It is a program that seeks to permit non-English-speaking children, many from lower-class homes, to use their family language as the language of school. (Such is the goal its supporters announce.) I hear them and am forced to say no: It is not possible for a child-any child-ever to use his family's language in school. Not to understand this is to misunderstand the public uses of schooling and to trivialize the nature of intimate life-a family's 'language.'

Memory teaches me what I know of these matters; the boy reminds the adult. I was a bilingual child, a certain kind-socially disadvantaged-the son of working-class parents, both Mexican immigrants.

In the early years of my boyhood, my parents coped very well in America. My father had steady work. My mother managed at home. They were nobody's victims. Optimism and ambition led them to a house (our home) many blocks from the Mexican south side of town. We lived among gringos and only a block from the biggest, whitest houses. It never occurred to my parents that they couldn't live wherever they chose. Nor was the Sacramento of the fifties bent on teaching them a contrary lesson. My mother and father were more annoyed than intimidated by those two or three neighbors who tried initially to make us unwelcome. ('Keep your brats away from my sidewalk!') But despite all they achieved, perhaps because they had so much to achieve, any deep feeling of ease, the confidence of 'belonging' in public was withheld from them both. They regarded the people at work, the faces in crowds, as very distant from us. They were the others, los gringos. That term was interchangeable in their speech with another, even more telling, los americanos.

I grew up in a house where the only regular guests were my relations. For one day, enormous families of relatives would visit and there would be so many people that the noise and the bodies would spill out to the backyard and front porch. Then, for weeks, no one came by. (It was usually a salesman who rang the doorbell.) Our house stood apart. A gaudy yellow in a row of white bungalows. We were the people with the noisy dog. The people who raised pigeons and chickens. We were the foreigners on the block. A few neighbors smiled and waved. We waved back. But no one in the family knew the names of the old couple who lived next door; until I was seven years old, I did not know the names of the kids who lived across the street.

In public, my father and mother spoke a hesitant, accented, not always grammatical English. And they would have to strain-their bodies tense-to catch the sense of what was rapidly said by los gringos. At home they spoke Spanish. The language of their Mexican past sounded in counterpoint to the English of public society. The words would come quickly, with ease. Conveyed through those sounds was the pleasing, soothing, consoling reminder of being at home.

During those years when I was first conscious of hearing, my mother and father addressed me only in Spanish; in Spanish I learned to reply. By contrast, English (ingles), rarely heard in the house, was the language I came to associate with gringos. I learned my first words of English overhearing my parents speak to strangers. At five years of age, I knew just enough English for my mother to trust me on errands to stores one block away. No more.

I was a listening child, careful to hear the very different sounds of Spanish and English. Wide-eyed with hearing, I'd listen to sounds more than words. First, there were English (gringo) sounds. So many words were still unknown that when the butcher or the lady at the drugstore said something to me, exotic polysyllabic sounds would bloom in the midst of their sentences. Often, the speech of people in public seemed to me very loud, booming with confidence. The man behind the counter would literally ask, 'What can I do for you?' But by being so firm and so clear, the sound of his voice said that he was a gringo; he belonged in public society.

I would also hear then the high nasal notes of middle-class American speech. The air stirred with sound. Sometimes, even now, when I have been traveling abroad for several weeks, I will hear what I heard as a boy. In hotel lobbies or airports, in Turkey or Brazil, some Americans will pass, and suddenly I will hear it again-the high sound of American voices. For a few seconds I will hear it with pleasure, for it is now the sound of my society-a reminder of home. But inevitably-already on the flight headed for home-the sound fades with repetition. I will be unable to hear it anymore.

When I was a boy, things were different. The accent of los gringos was never pleasing nor was it hard to hear. Crowds at Safeway or at bus stops would be noisy with sound. And I would be forced to edge away from the chirping chatter above me.

I was unable to hear my own sounds, but I knew very well that I spoke English poorly. My words could not stretch far enough to form complete thoughts. And the words I did speak I didn't know well enough to make into distinct sounds. (Listeners would usually lower their heads, better to hear what I was trying to say.) But it was one thing for me to speak English with difficulty. It was more troubling for me to hear my parents speak in public: their high-whining vowels and guttural consonants; their sentences that got stuck with 'eh' and 'ah' sounds; the confused syntax; the hesitant rhythm of sounds so different from the way gringos spoke. I'd notice, moreover, that my parents' voices were softer than those of gringos we'd meet.

I am tempted now to say that none of this mattered. In adulthood I am embarrassed by childhood fears. And, in a way, it didn't matter very much that my parents could not speak English with ease. Their linguistic difficulties had no serious consequences. My mother and father made themselves understood at the county hospital clinic and at government offices. And yet, in another way, it mattered very much-it was unsettling to hear my parents struggle with English. Hearing them, I'd grow nervous, my clutching trust in their protection and power weakened.

There were many times like the night at a brightly lit gasoline station (a blaring white memory) when I stood uneasily, hearing my father. He was talking to a teenaged attendant. I do not recall what they were saying, but I cannot forget the sounds my father made as he spoke. At one point his words slid together to form one word-sounds as confused as the threads of blue and green oil in the puddle next to my shoes. His voice rushed through what he had left to say. And, toward the end, reached falsetto notes, appealing to his listener's understanding. I looked away to the lights of passing automobiles. I tried not to hear anymore. But I heard only too well the calm, easy tones in the attendant's reply. Shortly afterward, walking toward home with my father, I shivered when he put his hand on my shoulder. The very first chance that I got, I evaded his grasp and ran on ahead into the dark, skipping with feigned boyish exuberance.

But then there was Spanish. Espa–ol: my family's language. Espa–ol: the language that seemed to me a private language. I'd hear strangers on the radio and in the Mexican Catholic church across town speaking in Spanish, but I couldn't really believe that Spanish was a public language, like English. Spanish speakers, rather, seemed related to me, for I sensed that we shared-through our language-the experience of feeling apart from los gringos. It was thus a ghetto Spanish that I heard and I spoke. Like those whose lives are bound by a barrio, I was reminded by Spanish of my separateness from los otros, los gringos in power. But more intensely than for most barrio children-because I did not live in a barrio-Spanish seemed to me the language of home. (Most days it was only at home that I'd hear it.) It became the language of joyful return.

A family member would say something to me and I would feel myself specially recognized. My parents would say something to me and I would feel embraced by the sounds of their words. Those sounds said: I am speaking with ease in Spanish. I am addressing you in words I never use with los gringos. I recognize you as someone special, close, like no one outside. You belong with us. In the family.

At the age of five, six, well past the time when most other children no longer easily notice the difference between sounds uttered at home and words spoken in public, I had a different experience. I lived in a world magically compounded of sounds. I remained a child longer than most; I lingered too long, poised at the edge of language-often frightened by the sounds of los gringos, delighted by the sounds of Spanish at home. I shared with my family a language that was startlingly different from that used in the great city around us.

For me there were none of the gradations between public and private society so normal to a maturing child. Outside the house was public society; inside the house was private. Just opening or closing the screen door behind me was an important experience. I'd rarely leave home all alone or without reluctance. Walking down the sidewalk, under the canopy of tall trees, I'd warily notice the-suddenly-silent neighborhood kids who stood warily watching me. Nervously, I'd arrive at the grocery store to hear there the sounds of the gringo-foreign to me-reminding me that in this world so big, I was a foreigner. But then I'd return. Walking back toward our house, climbing the steps from the sidewalk, when the front door was open in summer, I'd hear voices beyond the screen door talking in Spanish. For a second or two, I'd stay, linger there, listening. Smiling, I'd hear my mother call out, saying in Spanish (words): 'Is that you, Richard?' All the while her sounds would assure me: You are home now; come closer; inside. With us.

'S’,' I'd reply.

Once more inside the house I would resume (assume) my place in the family. The sounds would dim, grow harder to hear. Once more at home, I would grow less aware of that fact. It required, however, no more than the blurt of the doorbell to alert me to listen to sounds all over again. The house would turn instantly still while my mother went to the door. I'd hear her hard English sounds. I'd wait to hear her voice return to soft-sounding Spanish, which assured me, as surely as did the clicking tongue of the lock on the door, that the stranger was gone.

Plainly, it is not healthy to hear such sounds so often. It is not healthy to distinguish public words from private sounds so easily. I remained cloistered by sounds, timid and shy in public, too dependent on voices at home. And yet it needs to be emphasized: I was an extremely happy child at home. I remember many nights when my father would come back from work, and I'd hear him call out to my mother in Spanish, sounding relieved. In Spanish, he'd sound light and free notes he never could manage in English. Some nights I'd jump up just at hearing his voice. With mis hermanos I would come running into the room where he was with my mother. Our laughing (so deep was the pleasure!) became screaming. Like others who know the pain of public alienation, we transformed the knowledge of our public separateness and made it consoling-the reminder of intimacy. Excited, we joined our voices in a celebration of sounds. We are speaking now the way we never speak out in public. We are alone-together, voices sounded, surrounded to tell me. Some nights, no one seemed willing to loosen the hold sounds had on us. At dinner, we invented new words. (Ours sounded Spanish, but made sense only to us.) We pieced together new words by taking, say, an English verb and giving it Spanish endings. My mother's instructions at bedtime would be lacquered with mock-urgent tones. Or a word like s’ would become, in several notes, able to convey added measures of feeling. Tongues explored the edges of words, especially the fat vowels. And we happily sounded that military drum roll, the twirling roar of the Spanish r. Family language: my family's sounds. The voices of my parents and sisters and brother. Their voices insisting: You belong here. We are family members. Related. Special to one another. Listen! Voices singing and sighing, rising, straining, then surging, teeming with pleasure that burst syllables into fragments of laughter. At times it seemed there was steady quiet only when, from another room, the rustling whispers of my parents faded and I moved closer to sleep.

Chapter Two

Supporters of bilingual education today imply that students like me miss a great deal by not being taught in their family's language. What they seem not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I considered Spanish to be a private language. What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right-and the obligation-to speak the public language of los gringos. The odd truth is that my first-grade classmates could have become bilingual, in the conventional sense of that word, more easily than I. Had they been taught (as upper-middle-class children are often taught early) a second language like Spanish or French, they could have regarded it simply as that: another public language. In my case such bilingualism could not have been so quickly achieved. What I did not believe was that I could speak a single public language.

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Hunger of Memory 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have no idea why 'Bill, a professor' or some of the other reveiwers think this book should have been imaginative. This is someone's life, an adult looking back at how his educational experiences changed him on the deepest levels, not a sci fi novel. Rodriguez honors me by sharing his private family life with me, as well as his beliefs and his fears. Most refreshing is the candid and honest way in which he discusses his own battle with the cruelty and foolish hypocrisy of affirmative action, and his own feelings of guilt for having taken advantage of being 'socially disadvantaged.' I found fascinating the recurring theme of paradox: once you are educated enough to write or speak about the uneducated lower-classes, you are no longer one of them. He is separate from his family because of his education and where it has taken him, because he has 'grown apart' from his parents, not because he hasn't tried hard enough to stay connected. It is a necessary growth, an unavoidable seaparation. The resentment and shame that first generation children feel toward their under-educated and unassimilated parents is perfectly described. Rodriguez uses many threads to weave with poignancy and relevance the tapestry of his life. The parenthetical asides made me feel as though I was inside his head during the writing of this book, making it even more open and intimate, if possible. An excellent insight into history as it affected one man...Berkley student rioting, affirmative action, bilingualism. Don't pass this one up!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading this book in high school and another time in college I know this story like the back of my hand. The story really doesn't go anywhere the author remembers how poor he was though his story. The average person has to really read over the story sometimes twice just to understand what the author meant in some sections. The overall story lacks creativity, and the excitement that a wonderful story contains. The book isn¿t an overall easy read that engages a reader¿s imagination. It honestly reads like a college freshman¿s autobiography who¿s trying to sound more intelligent by adding more jargon.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i have to read this for summer reading for school. and like others who have read it the only reason I did was because i was required to. That said, it wasn't a bad book. Many of his ideas were interesting and thought provoking and all, but the book was boring. I can't imagine someone reading this purely for enjoyment. So if you have to read it for school, don't complain too much. You could be forced to read something considerably worse, trust me. Try to read it with an open mind and if all else fails, at least its only a couple hundred pages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was captivating for me. As a teacher, I often struggle to understand my bilingual, lower-income students. This book has given me great insight into their minds, homes and lives. As a result, I know the types of encouragement to give these often struggling students. Any teacher who works with bilingual kids needs to read this.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I actually read this book for a college course and I have to admit as a hispanic it stired up a lot of different feelings in me .. but mostly anger! This is the type of book that demands a lot of understanding on the readers part. Even though I dont agree with the authors ideas I admire him for being so honest and putting his life in the open knowing that his "people" might not agree. I also feel this autobiography helped me identify my role and position as a hispanic in the United States. I cant wait to read more of his work.
the_leader_reader More than 1 year ago
The most inspirational man in the world This book, Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez is a novel written to inform the reader about the life of this man, Richard Rodriguez. The book discusses his failures, his triumphs, and everything in between. Hunger of Memory starts off by talking about Richard Rodriguez’s life as a boy just moving to America. He becomes number one in his class and graduates top of his class. In college, he gets a number of his papers published. After graduating college, Richard Rodriguez becomes a university teacher, as well as an author. Although this part of Richards’ life is great, some areas of his life take a turn for the worse, specifically in his family life. Some parts of the book I could not wait to see what happened next, but other parts of the book were so boring I couldn’t get myself to pick the book up. For example, Richard Rodriguez spends an entire chapter talking about his religion. Everyone should have an opinion on what they believe in, and can discuss it freely, but an entire chapter just to explain that he had converted from a Catholic to a Christian seemed a bit lengthy. Although that chapter was very long and boring, when he talks about his actual growing up and learning process it is quite intriguing. I found it very inspiring how this man came to America knowing no more than fifty words of English, and graduated number one in his class, attended a great college, become a college professor, and wrote a book entirely in English. In addition to having good and bad parts, this book also has sad and happy parts. When Richard Rodriguez finally builds up enough courage to answer his first question in English class, you can’t help but smile to yourself. The saddest part of the book, and my least favorite part is the ending. I don’t usually get affected by books, but this ending is heart wrenching. Overall I think this is a pretty decent book. I enjoyed how inspirational his book was at times. Although this was not the most interesting or exciting book I have ever read, I think it teaches a great lesson, and makes you want to strive to achieve more. I would not consider this book a must read, but if you like stories of people over coming obstacles, then this one is worth giving a shot
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book as a summer reading project and high school and did not find it captivating once. Rodriguez keeps complaining about his loss of culture and has nothing wonderful or interesting that would make me get pulled into the book. Overall, I found this book a failure and wish I could have read something else instead.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In reading Hunger of Memory, one learns about the different linguistic sensitivities that characterize the life of a bilingual child. Rodriguez highlights the difference between a public and a private identity, each of which has its own purpose in its own place. By setting up this contrast, Rodriguez is enabled to battle 'the bilingualists,' who say that by using Spanish (or, theoretically, any other home language) in the classroom, students will meet greater success. ........ Rodriguez, however, notes that as a child, the only thing that prevented him from staying in his monolingual cage, ignorant of English aside from 50 words, was the use of English in school. To remove that requirement would be a detriment to the thousands of youths that would be affected. Their public identities would remain undeveloped, and thus public success would remain impossible. They would be doomed like certain characters in Rodriguez's book--the Mexican construction workers, who are paid less than they deserve and are unable to question or challenge el patrón. These Mexicans reflect Rodriguez's own monolingual Mexican uncle: 'The gringos kept him digging all day, doing the dirtiest jobs. And they would pay him next to nothing. Sometimes they promised him one salary and paid him less when they finished.' ........ Rodriguez, then, has come a long way. His only time spent in construction work was out of curiosity. But nevertheless, his labourious family past is not so far off that he has forgotten the lessons learned. Never will Rodriguez agree to bilingual education, because by using only the language of the private family life, one is limiting one's choices in life. It would be very possible, in such a situation, to be forced to live a life like the Mexican construction workers, or his uncle--a hunchback in his twenties. ........ I recommend this book to someone who is extremely curious either about bilingual education or the details of a Mexican-American's life. Oh, and be prepared for a riveting, detailed account on his years as a Catholic schoolboy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I lived Richard Rodriguez¿ life--that's how I felt while reading his empathetic essays. This ¿scholarship boy¿ is truly a martyr for writing this novel. Even with anticipated criticism from everyone--including his family-- Rodriguez mans up and writes about ¿private life¿ to ¿un gringos¿. This is a must read for everyone (even those who differ in opinion) since it is an example of the ¿individuality¿ of people who are stereotyped about having only one way of thinking.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read this book for the project and personal reading but I can't get enough of it. I decided I will be re-reading it all the time because its really good.
MarthaL on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is book well worth reading again for a variety of reasons. The author shares his individuality yet speaks on universal themes . Richard Rodriguez reveals his inner life growing up hungry to learn but saddened by the loss of family intimacy when speaking in Spanish is replaced by English only at home at the suggestion of the Catholic sisters who are his elementary school teachers. Richard longs for the close feelings the familly had when they all shared the same language. With English as his his tool he becomes a scholarship boy and advances in his studies. Because of his academic ahievement he comes to speak out on education policies of affirmative actioon and bilingual education. This should be required reading for all involved in education.
ldarrow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Overall: I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves words, or who is an educator. Whether or not you agree with his positions on bilingual education or affirmative action, his account of his own experiences, struggles and successes is a strong argument on its own.
Brian242 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a poignant book about growing up as a first generation immigrant. it has many insights on the balance between culture and education. Many of the insights are dead on. I found myself underlining many lines in the "Credo" section.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was really boring at the beginning and I did not understand it. Not so fun to read. Don't recommend it to people who like to read about autobiographies. Doesn't stick to the topic. It highly deserves 1 star rating. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Charlie326 More than 1 year ago
This book has a very segmented style of writing that is consistent throughout the book, but the author continues to make himself the victim and towards the end not a very likeable character. As you add to your body of knowledge or your worldly experiences the things that you used to do may change, that is life. Richard seems to think that everything should stay the same and that is what makes the book stagnant and where I as the reader find myself yelling at him for wanting everything but having to give up a lot in the meantime. I come from a Hispanic family and while some of the book held truth, it was very hard to find this character sympathetic or likeable really. I am reading this for a class in Cross Cultural Communication and while I am glad that I read the book, seriously what did the author think was going to happen? Things change, things never stay the same unless you live in a buble.
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