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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Richard Rodriguez
(b. 1944)

Richard Rodriguez is probably the best-known Mexican American writer today, his fame propelling him to regular appearances on radio and television talk shows and even to the pages of People magazine. His essays have appeared in prestigious journals and newspapers such as the American Scholar and the Los Angeles Times. Rodriguez is also perhaps the most controversial of contemporary Latino authors, having been applauded by the political right, especially in his early career, for stands against affirmative action and bilingual education, and vilified by the left for precisely the same positions. In any event, Rodriguez commands attention for the thoughtfulness and craftsmanship of his prose and his willingness to take on provocative issues. Over the years, Rodriguez has become less susceptible to easy political categorization as his arguments have become more nuanced.

Rodriguez was born in San Francisco, the child of Mexican immigrants ambitious for their four children and eager for admission into the American middle class. The Rodriguezes soon moved to Sacramento and brought a “gaudy yellow” house among white bungalows “many blocks from the Mexican south side of town.” Sensitive and introspective, Richard began Catholic school armed with only a few words of English. As Rodriguez recalls in his autobiographical narrative, The Hunger of Memory, his movement through the American educational system to affluence and a certain celebrity was wrenching both to himself and to his parents. Quickly noticing Richard’s academic gifts, the nuns insisted that he speak English at home to accelerate his intellectual development, thereby opening a cultural chasm between boy and parents that only widens. Rodriguez observes that he had to choose between the “public identity” of the American mainstream and the “private identity” of his parents’ Mexican home, finally concluding that assimilation is a “necessity.” In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez seems willfully ignorant that large immigration movements—like the one that brought his parents to the United States—typically create bi-directional acculturation, immigrants and native-born residents transforming and revitalizing one other. Furthermore, Rodriguez ignores the well-established fact that many—perhaps most—of us have rich and varied identities that allow us to function in a number of cultural settings.

In Days of Obligation, Rodriguez blends autobiographical explorations with musings on such topics as Mexican history and character, the California missions, and the AIDS epidemic. Sprawling and sometimes opaque, Days of Obligation nonetheless reveals a more mature Rodriguez, uncomfortable with some of the facile conclusions of Hunger of Memory. Here, very much aware of his mortality, Rodriguez wishes to understand his parents’ cultural heritage, which earlier he had been all-too-willing to jettison. Hunger of Memory ends with a family Christmas dinner at which Rodriguez and his father have almost nothing to say to each other; in Days of Obligation, we seen Rodriguez throughout beseeching his parents for more information about Mexico and their lives there.

The selection reproduced in the book comes from the chapter “Complexion” in Hunger of Memory. Rodriguez treats the complex of attitudes he encountered because of his dark skin: from his family, from Anglo outsiders, from himself. One of Rodriguez’s virtues as a writer of autobiography is to reveal honestly his insecurities, even in connection with such difficult issues as his adolescent sexuality.

Raymund A. Paredes
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
from The Hunger of Memory (1982)

Other Works

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A View from the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez
Transcripts of a radio interview with Scott London for Insight and Outlook.

PBS Online Newshour: Off Camera
Texts of Rodriguez's award-winning essays on American life.

Remarks of Richard Rodriguez
A speech given by Rodriguez for the Convocation on Providing Public Library Service to California’s 21st Century Population.
An archive of Rodriguez's many essays for

The New, New World
An interview conducted by Virginia I. Postrel and Nick Gillespie, primarily about culture and assimilation.

Secondary Sources

Antonio C. Marques, "Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory and the Poetics of Experience," Arizona Quarterly, 40 (Summer 1948): 130-141

Raymund A. Paredes, "Autobiography and Ethnic Politics: Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory" in James Payne, ed., Multicultural Autobiography, 1992

Tomas Rivera, Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis," MELUS, 11 (Winter 1984): 5-12