American Style: ''Hunger of Memory''

LOS ANGELES—Richard Rodriguez remembers the moment in 1975 when he turned down Yale, rebuffed the many Ivy League universities which courted him as a professor and began his protest of educational programs which “rewarded me for having brown skin.”

On that day, Rodriguez, who had excelled as an English literature scholar, left academia and set out on an inward journey which would ultimately thrust him into the public spotlight.

Seven years later, his painfully personal autobiography, “Hunger of Memory, The Education of Richard Rodriguez,” has made him an instant hit in some circles and a pariah in others. Some Mexican-Americans have accused him of being “a brown Uncle Tom.”

“They will say that a man like me gave up too much, that I became an Anglophile, that I was cut off from my heritage,” Rodriguez says. “I’m a public man, an assimilated American. I know how to survive in this society.”

Rodriguez, 36, has produced in the autobiography of his youth a powerful tract condemning bilingual education, denouncing affirmative action and advocating the cultural assimilation of Hispanics into the American mainstream.

Bilingual education _ a method of providing Spanish-language teaching in American schools _ is repugnant to Rodriguez, a kind of “cultural apartheid,” which he says isolates the immigrant from the public world in which he or she must live.

“I’m talking about what language means to the heart of a child,” Rodriguez said in an interview, his unaccented English words spilling out in a torrent. His parents were born in Mexico.

“I know Mexican-American families that have been here for five generations and still speak Spanish and live in a Spanish society,” he said. “They go on in that isolation of the ghetto world.”

His vigorous opposition to affirmative action came later in his educational life _ years after he had won scholarships to Stanford University and Columbia University as a graduate student, and studied abroad on a Fulbright Fellowship.

“I was being given benefits because there were Mexican-Americans who were disadvantaged,” he said. “I became the lucky one. But my luck depended on their being absent from the university. It produced a sense of guilt that you could never ameliorate. Was I supposed to go back to the barrio and teach Milton and Shakespeare?

“I was moving away from what my life had been and yet I was benefitting from my skin being brown,” he says. “I was willing to get scholarships for my ability, but not because I had brown skin. I don’t want to be valued for the wrong reason.”

When the offers began pouring in from Yale and elsewhere, he agonized, because he realized that other non-minority students had no such offers.

“I will not teach as long as affirmative action policies are used in hiring ,” he says. “I don’t pretend to be in any sense a minority.”

Fearful of being dubbed a reactionary, he stresses that he favors affirmative action for those who truly need it _ the lower classes and the very young. If it is to work, he says, it must begin in grade school.

For Rodriguez, it was different. The nuns at his Catholic school in Sacramento, Calif., forced the 6-year-old, who spoke mostly Spanish, to speak only English. When he retreated to silence, they visited his parents and suggested the use of English at home.

“One day in school I raised my hand to volunteer an answer,” he writes. “I spoke out in a loud voice. And I did not think it remarkable when the entire class understood. That day, I moved very far from the disadvantaged child I had been only days earlier. The belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public, had at last taken hold.”

Comments are closed.