Thursday, April 7, 2011

On "Hunger of Memory" by Richard Rodriguez ****

I've known about this book for years. I haven't heard much about it since I moved to the South, but back when I was an undergraduate in California, this text was mentioned frequently in various lectures. And Rodriguez's book Days of Obligation (or something like that) came out during those college years as well and was something of a popular seller. Whether it's that I live in the comparatively Hispanic-poor South (although Hispanics are now fast gaining ground in terms of percentage of population in the area) or that I've been out of school and thus out of the earshot of folks referencing Rodriguez, I haven't heard much about him or his writing since leaving California.

Rodriguez's book is on my language reading list chiefly because it is, in part, a book about learning language--learning a second language, as a child (it is the second of two autobiographies about language education on the list). Language is the subject of the first couple of chapters of the text, and it's interesting what Rodriguez has to say about it, given that he is one of those kids who assimilates by learning the language of his host country, while his parents don't quite. Sure, his parents speak English, but it is accented and stilted; Rodriguez and his siblings, by contrast, learn to speak the English that native-born Americans speak. But it was not always that way. Rodriguez, before going to school, chiefly spoke Spanish--because that is what his parents and the family spoke in the home. This meant trouble, however, in school, where Rodriguez struggled to communicate in English. To ensure that their kids did better in school, his parents began to speak English in the home.

For Rodriguez, this was a pivotal moment. Before, Spanish was his language--and his life. Spanish, for him, is the language of family, of private concerns. English, by contrast, is a language for the public. So moving to English meant moving into the public sphere, moving into the world. And it also meant splitting, in a way, from his family. This is the hunger--a desire for the nostalgic past, the private past, the private language, he once had (he is no longer, he claims, a good Spanish speaker).

But contrary to what one might expect, he embraces this hunger. It is natural. It is what comes with becoming an American, with moving into the public sphere, with becoming educated. It is the price one pays for opportunity and for assimilation.

Other chapters focus on Rodriguez's Catholic upbringing (the chapter I enjoyed most, I think), as he moved from Catholic schools to non-Catholic universities; on Rodriguez's skin color (his desires as a young person to be more white); and his relationship with affirmative action and the academy.

Regarding skin color, I thought a bit in relation to my own very white skin. Rodriguez hated to undress, when younger, lest he get too dark a tan; I have never liked to undress because of a lack of a tan (and no desire to spend hours trying to obtain one). For Rodriguez, dark meant poor--like Mexican day laborers; what does light mean to me? Unadventurous?

On affirmative action, Rodriguez's comments remind me a bit of an episode of What's Happening? when the waitress Shirley gets a job in an office--as the token black. She quits when she finds this out. Rodriguez admits that he's done well by the system but that he is uncomfortable with it. For him, the problem is that he does not consider himself disadvantaged. It is the poor who are disadvantaged, no matter the color of the skin; to promote people who are already comfortably off based on skin tone seems to him unfair--not just to whites (who often bemoan affirmative action, but mostly for reason pertaining only to their own selfish ends) but most importantly to those who most need it, the people at the bottom of the ladder economically. He has a good point, though given that, then really our focus as a society would have to be not on jobs or higher learning but on the very start of learning, the early years, on ensuring less-advantaged children have a chance.

Rodriguez ends with a chapter on writing, on how writing is a public act in which one reveals secrets. The private, intimate language of home can be put into the public sphere via writing--though in the process, it becomes not private at all but some kind of public rendition of it. I was left to think about his ideas of private family talk, given that they seem so tied up in this Spanish/English divide. My mom grew up speaking German, but like Rodriguez, switched over to English in school; now, she knows no German. This is at it should be, she says--as Rodriguez says, kids must put on the public language. I've tended to think that bilingual education is useful to those who have it, that it is not the danger some make it out to be.

As an English only speaker, I guess I don't quite know what Rodriguez is driving at with these languages used for different purposes. I too have a private language, but it is not based on which national tongue I speak. It is based on who I am talking with (I do not speak the same to everyone). And like Rodriguez, writing is a strange thing, where I put out in public sometimes things I would never say in public or in private, except in the privacy of my own head. Why writing makes certain people feel this way, I don't know.

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