Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
In honor of Richard Rodriquez, though I did not know it, yet, I checked his autobiography out of the library.
Richard Rodriguez was born (1944) in San Francisco, California, to Mexican immigrant parents. As a six-year old child with limited use of the English language, he was disconnected from the American public. That changed when he attended Catholic school, and Irish nuns forced (and his parents encouraged) him to learn and speak English publicly, even privately at home; this altered his life drastically. He traded his private life for a public one. He ceased being a minority, in a cultural sense, when he decided to use his public voice and take advantage of his educational benefits.
Mr. Rodriguez covers quite a few major social topics in his book :
public v. private lives,
minority status (class v. race),
religion (Catholicism and Protestantism),
Affirmative Action programs,
and (my favorite)
Reading through his autobiography was like having a pleasant conversation with Mr. Rodriguez about these issues. As he presented his experiences and ideas and opinions, I thought about them and most of the time agreed with him. Yet, even if I did not agree, I still appreciated the conversation.
Mr. Rodriguez thought it was personally unfair for him to be considered a minority - and receive benefits through Affirmative Action programs - simply because of his Mexican heritage, when he had more opportunities than those who were living in poverty, including poor non-minorities. People, he said, are stuck in poverty because they are not taught to use their public voice; opportunities are not available to them because they remain immoveable in their private lives, kept apart (in order to preserve their identity) from the rest of the American culture. Instead, they must be encouraged to mix publicly, in language and culture, rather than being stuck in their own private worlds.
Speaking of mixing, he does not like racial labels either because he believes we are all a little bit like one another. If we study our histories deeply, we find that our stories are intertwined, not separate; maybe we are not all that diverse after all.
On a personal note, for example: when I read early American history (when American colonists were British), I cannot help but feel a kin to Britain, even though my Italian ancestors did not come to America until the late 1800s and early 1900s. British history is my history, too. And when I read Russian lit, I feel a little Russian. What connects us all together is the human story that we relate to. We are all connected - and I would add, we are all mixing. Today there are no names for these mixed races and cultures and histories, and yet some want to label people with words that do not even describe us anymore.
Mr. Rodriguez related his personal struggle with skin color, especially because his mother was most conscientious of his dark complexion. It reminded me of how my brother and I were teased for our dark complexion, where we grew up in a predominately Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. It did not really bother me, but today every one seems extremely sensitive at the mention of their skin color or race. To repeat: we are all mixing anyway, and soon there will be no names for us anymore.
One final point about Mr. Rodriguez that I like most is his love for literature. When he mastered the English language (at an early age), he read voraciously for information. Yet, when he matured, he developed a love and appreciation for literature, unlike reading for information.
In 1998, he gave a speech on University of California TV about books and learning. He said, "You are not alone when you are reading a library book. Think of all the people who have read that book. Library books are about connecting lives." And finally he said (in reference to his youthful quest for knowledge),
"Books are written, one on top of one another. Books are relational, intimate, personal, and are about the soul, . . . not about information."
If you want to delve more into these topics, pick up a copy of Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez, and join the conversation.