Hunger of [my own] Memory
Revisiting Richard Rodriguez's polarizing book almost 30 years later
I first read Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez almost 30 years ago as an undergraduate student in Denver, Colorado. This was a lifetime ago for me. Reading it wasn’t by choice; it was, in fact, assigned reading in one of my literature or writing courses, which is ironic considering the way the author ends the book.
The assignment was to read it, digest it and then give a critical opinion on it for an undergrad, upper level English course. I do not remember what my term paper said back then but I can tell you it was anything but praise; though I imagine my interpretation of it through an angry Chicano lens was lost on both my white peers and instructor.
Reading the book for the first time was life-changing for me as it introduced me to the so-called paradox of higher education that many Chicanos experience.
It also gave me a deeper understanding of my own education and identity, how the system is set up and ultimately, how all these years later, not much has changed.
I do believe now, with several decades of life experience under my belt, that it’s important to reexamine the book, and the author, and more importantly for me, my own experience, to see if I still feel the same way as I did years ago as a fiery Chicano college student.
Believe it or not, I still have my original copy of the book, which I purchased in June of 1995 from the campus book store; the sticker on the back of the book has the date!
The book is tattered, worn, frayed and yellowed. It’s a beat-up copy which has seen better days and amazingly, it has a few notes scribbled on its pages, which I took so many years ago, giving a glimpse into my opinion of the book and author in that time period.
Side note: real, bona fide, tangible books used to be great time capsules for this sort of thing; we would write in our books and mark them up and highlight passages, thus preserving how we felt at the time and leaving some kind of treasure (or nuisance) for a future reader to ponder. Alas, this is a lost art form as people have largely moved on to digital reading. No longer are books marked up like they used to be.
I cannot say exactly what prompted me to re-read Hunger of Memory - perhaps it was pondering my own educational path or my journey on the road to self-determination. I’ve written about my education before but not in great detail. Rodriguez always seems to come up however when discussing education, affirmative action or bilingual education.
The book has been sitting on my bookshelf for years untouched. In fact, I have two copies of the book because several years ago I purchased another copy (new), not remembering that I still had the original one sitting on my shelf collecting dust.
That said, I am a strong believer in what film critic, Roger Ebert, once said about movies; that a person should view films they like, and dislike, several times over the course of their lifetime because according to Ebert, you will often view a film completely differently at a later stage in life than you did previously. I feel the same about books.
One of the things I remember most about Hunger of Memory is my gut reaction to it: anger. Anger is probably too timid; rage is a better way to describe how I originally felt about this book and Rodriguez, followed by disgust and loathing.
Fear and Loathing on the college campus! A tale of self-hate and woe by Ree-chard Roh-dree-guezz…
Rodriguez, if you know anything about the book and or the author, is used to this kind of reaction by Chicanos - he writes about it very matter of factly in the book and has cashed in lecturing about it ever since. In fact, he shields himself from criticism in the book itself by declaring that he is not speaking for anyone but himself and that people should not take his experience to speak for anyone but him.
Rodriguez then spends the majority of the book doing the exact opposite - speaking in general terms about Chicanos and pursuing higher education, on Mexican immigrants and laborers, how familial language is a barrier to higher education and declaring himself an authority on these matters because he made it to the top of the ivory tower - and this is what causes a great deal of the anger and scorn he receives from Chicanos.
It’s also what gets him showered in praise by white liberal academics with both a white guilt and white savior complex, who use both to shape their view of Chicanos as inferior or in need of “saving” when it comes to academic success.
I read somewhere that Hunger of Memory is the most widely read book by a “Hispanic” author. If that’s true then that is pathetic and also ironic, considering the author is a darling of certain conservatives and liberal ivory tower elites.
It’s no wonder that we are as misunderstood as we are by mainstream America if this is who represents us in mainstream literature.
Case in point: I was not assigned to read this book in a Chicano Studies class or Mexican American Studies program. This book is often assigned in mainstream literature classes, which is where I happened upon it; Rodriguez knows this and he knew it would come to be when he wrote the book several decades ago. He knew his audience would be majority white students in college classes and so that is who he wrote the book for - that is his audience. He freely admits that fact and this is an important point when considering the criticism.
It’s a rite of passage for Chicanos in higher education to both read Hunger of Memory and then to shit all over the author and the book as a smiling coconut sellout. I know I did exactly that when I first read it and then quickly wrote the dude off as a kook and an ivory tower, boot licking pet on a short leash.
I remember, when the internet was in its infancy, finding other Chicanos online and reveling with them in talking shit about this book and Rodriguez. The guy has been and continues to be a living joke in the Chicano community for his unabashed whiteness that he paints himself with under the guise of “Americanness.”
Hilariously, if you look up “nopal en la frente” on Urban Dictionary, it describes Rodriguez to a tee. The only thing it’s lacking is his photo.
That said, Rodriguez anticipated all of this and, I suspect, gets a kick out of all the attention Chicanos over the years have given him. We who have done exactly what he thought we would do: dismiss him as Tom Brown.
And all these years later, I feel largely the same about Tom Brown as I did back in the day but I can honestly say now that Ree-chard Roh-dree-guez has a few good points in his book.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Brownlisted by Sarlos Cantana to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.