Hunger of Memory. By Richard Rodriguez. 195 pages. Godine. $13.95.
Richard Rodriguez has written an odd, provocative, disturbing autobiography. He calls it, at various points, a middle-class pastoral, “the history of my schooling,” an act of contrition and “essays impersonating an autobiography; six chapters of sad, fuguelike repetition.” It is all those things, and it will no doubt stir up considerable controversy, for Rodriguez is a well-educated Mexican-American who argues vociferously against affirmative action and bilingual education. He has been attacked by the “ethnic left” and praised by the conservative right; he has been called a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside), a dupe, a fool, a brown Uncle Tom. He calls himself a “comic victim of two cultures,” an assimilationist who “made it” by repudiating his past, a dandy whose Italian suits and English shoes “are reassuring reminders of public success. I tempt vulgarity to be reassured. I am filled with the gaudy delight, the monstrous grace of the nouveau riche.”
“Once upon a time,” he begins, “I was a “socially disadvantaged’ child.” Rodriguez grew up in Sacramento, the son of working-class Mexican immigrants who spoke little English and sent him to a Roman Catholic school. All his classmates were white. He kept quiet, listening to the high sounds of middle-class American speech, feeling alone, returning at the ends of the days to Spanish, with its “pleasing, soothing, consoling reminder of being at home.” Finally, the nuns urged the family to speak English at home. When his parents complied, he felt a terrible loss of family intimacy–they “pushed me away”–yet soon he raised his hand to volunteer an answer at school, in English.
Gringo: Now, in his 30s, he sees that profound change as essential and challenges bilingualists who “simplistically scorn the value and necessity of assimilation . . . Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality.” He still nostalgically mourns the loss of family intimacy and feels he betrayed his family by the long process of alienation that began with learning English. He eventually went to Stanford (partly because of its academic reputation and partly because rich people went there) and came home to face his parents in a “bewildering silence”: what could he tell them of Shakespeare?
He hated his dark skin and once tried to shave it off. The women at home wanted light children, exchanged remedies for skinbleaching, referred to a dark child as “mi feito”– little ugly one. He felt ugly and sexually unattractive. One summer during college he worked with a middle-class construction crew and realized how far education had carried him from the braceros who came to haul offdebris: “They lack a public identity. They remain profoundly alien. Persons apart.” He had reluctantly chosen alienation, from them and from his parents; they had never had a choice and were aliens in America.
At Stanford and in graduate school at Berkeley, Rodriguez was a “minority student”–“a nonwhite reader of Spenser and Milton and Austen.” The affirmative-action policies of the late ’60s made him “one of the lucky ones” who got acceptances, fellowships, job offers. He began, in the ’70s, to publish essays reflecting his unease over being the beneficiary of affirmative action: by virtue of his education, he was no longer “socially disadvantaged”; yet because public policy did not distinguish between a graduate student and a barrio laborer, Rodriguez benefited from that laborer’s condition. “Affirmative action” has to begin long before college, he writes, and he wonders whether it is possible to “make higher education accessible to the genuinely socially disadvantaged.”
Contradictions: When Hispanic students at Berkeley asked him to teach a “minority literature” course in the barrio, he declined; they scoffed. Yet at the end of graduate school, when he got plenty of plummy job offers while his white friends got none, he refused them all, telling his professors, “The contradictions of affirmative action have finally caught up with me.” He wanted to be accepted as an English teacher, not as a “chicano intellectual.” For five years he has been writing this book–for gringos and for the forgiveness of the “socially disadvantaged” who will never read it. It seems fittingly ironic that gringos will read it not because Richard Rodriguez can talk about Shakespeare and the pastoral, but because he is a Mexican-American.