BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez By Richard Rodriguez Godine, Inc. By Ed Garcia Dallas In the prologue to his autobiography, Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez reports that his New York editor wanted him to write a book of stories, not a series of essays: “Let’s have more Grandma,” the editor told him. Rodriguez resisted and rightly so. His life is best told in essays because ideas are among the most important events that happen to him. He has ideas about language and education, the Church, affirmative action, social justice, complexion, family. And in the telling of them marshaling his arguments and evidence he tells us more than he is entirely comfortable with about his parents and about growing up in Sacramento, going to graduate school, writing in the British Museum. Nothing is very surprising about an educated, literate, sensitive observer of the world making ideas central to the story of his education, but this man is Mexican, Hispanic, a minority. Funny, he doesn’t sound Chicano. The central problem of Rodriguez’s life and of his autobiography seems to be to find out, define, and announce who and what he is to a world that doesn’t know what to make of him. It has long been known that certain Anglos don’t recognize the middle-class Mexican American: one of my father’s favorite stories funny and bitter like so many of the stories I grew up with has as its punchline, “All you greaseballs look alike to me.” \(Another story pops to mind: My father insists things are better in the Valley than they used to be. “In the old days when an Anglo’s dog bit a Mexican, they cut his head off and sent it to Austin. Now they just tie the Mexican What is less well known is that sympathetic, liberal Anglos and Mexican Americans have their own stereotypes which some of us have trouble living with. A friend says to me “You don’t seem Mexican to me,” and means it as a compliment. “You don’t have an accent.” “You don’t look Mexican.” \(I know what they mean, but I reject the implication. I look Mexican Rodriguez announces, “Here is the life of a middle-class man.” His problem is that in so many ways he is expected not to be one. And he is faced with either rejecting his education, his life, in effect his self, or of being accused of rejecting his heritage. No one could think like that, talk like that, write like that \(that is Chicano. No real Mexican could have doubts about affirmative action. He must be a “coconut” brown on the outside, white on the inside. But of course he is both middle-class and Mexican. And he sets out in “six chapters of sad, fuguelike repetition,” just what that means. Richard Rodriguez is the third of four children of working-class parents, both Mexican immigrants. He grew up in Sacramento among gringos but in a world of Spanish, until the day he first went to school taking with him a vocabulary of “some fifty stray English words.” He chronicles and exemplifies what he gained from his education after high school, at Stanford, and finally at Berkeley for a doctorate in English in Renaissance literature. And he examines what he thinks is the inevitable loss education entails his alienation from his parents’ world symbolized by their loss of a common language. As he grew fluent in English, he could no longer speak Spanish with confidence: “I’d know the words to say, but I couldn’t manage to say them. I would try to speak, but everything I said seemed to me horribly anglicized. My mouth would not form the words right. My jaw would tremble. After a phrase or two, I’d cough up a warm, silvery sound. And stop.” The language of his childhood intimacy was Spanish. His parents both spoke and read English, but it was not their language. Because it came to be his as it does for most middle-class Mexican Americans he at first assumed the change in language caused the loss of intimacy. He came later to realize that the great change was not linguistic but social. What separates him from his parents from the world of his parents is his education, the education which they made possible, are proud of, are puzzled by. It leads to troubling silences between them. In the British Museum working on his dissertation he was seized by -a longing, a nostalgia for the less thoughtful days of his early life. Returning home he was more comfortable, bothered less by the silences. And then his insight: “If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separate from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.” But that realization did not offer much comfort. Intimacy exists, not trapped within a particular language, but for him with his parents it does not come as often. That is a fair sample of Rodriguez’s method he tells his story, recreating in poetic detail his youth and growing up, and then steps back, reflecting and abstracting, always attempting to understand the meaning of his life so far. It is a life acutely sensitive to class, a phenomenon often ignored by both left and right in the wrangling over Hispanic opportunity. Rodriguez says, “All Mexican Americans are not equally Mexican Americans” a fact Mexican Americans have always known. And yet we have been treated by the majority as if being Mexican American automatically conferred disadvantage. Rodriguez’ well-known objections to affirmative acthat those first helped \(the only ones of us who don’t need the help. A white colleague would complain to me that in his Tennessee youth, “We didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” and yet I, the son of an attorney and a teacher, was to be the beneficiary of affirmative action. Rodriguez reports turning down all job offers, including one from Yale, after a fellow student said: “Oh, it’s all very simple this year. You’re a Chicano. And I am a Jew. That’s really the only difference between us.” Today Richard Rodriguez is a “writer and lecturer” living in San Francisco. His parents don’t understand why he doesn’t have a steady job. They worry about him. And his mother wonders why he has to tell so much about family “Why do you need to tell the gringos?” He finds it hard to answer. And yet it is a truth that causes him to go against his reticent grain: there is a need to tell the gringos, for them to know about people like him. My middle-class Mexican experiences are not the same as those of Richard Rodriguez I come from a different Valley, my parents are both educated in English, the intimacy of our home is shared in English and in Spanish. In South Texas one is not a stranger in the THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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