Richard Rodriguez

Furthering the discussion of how the material informs the literate and providing an example of how this relationship works in multiple genres, I suggest looking at Richard Rodriguez's The Hunger of Memory (1982) as one example of a traditionally written, academic text that emphasizes personal understanding of literacy as well as a deviation from the tradition of community. The son of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez provides a marvelous example of literacy as a man who is conscious of and can reflect on how his literacy was formed and his part in it. In this work, he discusses his childhood and how he forsook the Spanish language and Mexican culture of his heritage to become an academic. Shirley K. Rose (1987) explains: “For Rodriguez, acquisition of literacy brings about not only autonomy, but another consequent change—it is a force for his alienation from his family and their Chicano culture. His autobiography is devoted to reconciling this regret over the loss of participation in family (Chicano) life with his desire to participate in the literacy culture of the mainstream” (p. 8). He feels that in a way he betrays his family for his own ability to live the life he chooses. Yet, while still choosing the academic life, he thinks nostalgically of his life before this choice.

He also insists that his story not be generalized. He says, “Mistaken, the gullible reader will—in sympathy or in anger—take it that I intend to model my life as the typical Hispanic-American life. But I write of one life only. My own. If my story is true, I trust it will resonate with significance for other lives” (1982, prologue). As he alludes, juxtaposing his narrative within the context of others should engage readers into a critical dialogue with themselves, enabling them to understand their own literacy in light of his, not as the same, but as an example of conscious reflection. In “Multicultural Classrooms, Monocultural Teachers,” Terry Dean (1989) tells us that “entering freshmen are often unaware of the erosion of their culture until they become seniors or even later. Like Richard Rodriguez, many students do not fully realize what they have lost until it is too late to regain it” (p. 24). Therefore, we should make them as fully aware of the choices they are making and how those choices will affect their lives as we can. A discussion of Rodriguez in the classroom may help to achieve such a goal.

A student does not need to read the entirety of Rodriguez's text, but could rather read only the prologue, entitled “Middle-Class Pastoral,” or the section entitled “Aria” to be introduced to Rodriguez's broad ideas. He begins this Prologue by saying: “Once upon a time, I was a 'socially disadvantaged' child. An enchantedly happy child. Mine was a childhood of intense family closeness. And extreme public alienation. Thirty years later I write this book as a middle-class American man. Assimilated.” Assimilation is Rodriguez's story, as it is for many other individuals. And he has an in-depth understanding of how his material surroundings made a direct impact on his own linguistic choices. At a very young age, he chooses English over Spanish in order to garner the proper social capital to pursue his education. He says, “I long ago came to assume my association with their [rich] world; came to assume that I could have money, if it was money I wanted. But money, big money, has never been the goal of my life . . . . I work to support my habit of writing. The great luxury of my life is the freedom to sit at this desk” (Prologue). Rodriguez's literacy is not only the result of his material surroundings but is the self-proclaimed reason for his personal acquisition of very specifically chosen material goods. He has a desk at which he sits to write—to communicate with others. And, he makes money for his writing. And the profit from those writings—his material reward, so to speak—goes back into his writing, his literacy. By exploring his work in this way, readers cannot help but see him as one of the “active, reflective, responsible composers” for which Wysocki calls. In this way, students can be called upon to see their own education as both a philosophical and a material goal: he “found in his literacy skills the means by which he could change his life. But for Rodriguez the awareness of himself as a literate person was easier to accept than the awareness that his use of those skills . . . could separate him from that life he once shared with his family” (Rose, 1987, p. 9). We can urge them to consider and communicate how material aspects may provide motivation for their literacy practices. With this deeper understanding, they will be equipped to make more conscious, reflective decisions concerning these issues in their lives.

“Multicultural Classrooms, Monocultural Teachers” by Terry Dean (1989) provides examples of student reactions to reading Rodriguez's text and encouragement about using this text in the composition classroom. These students express varying opinions and reactions to Rodriguez: some see it as a catalyst to explore their own cultural negotiations while others see Rodriguez at fault for his life choices. For example, one student says in an essay reacting to Rodriguez that conversation with his family may have helped: “Instead of feeling left out at home and in his society, Rodriguez could've been included in both” (cited in Dean, 1989, p. 29). The reader can ascertain from this statement that the student, then, might be inclined to include more conversation about cultural issues with his family in the future—an act that might also help him be included and literate in both environments. While every student may not be able to or want to maintain literacies in multiple communities, students can at least begin to negotiate their options.


About the Author