Rodriguez, Richard 1944–
Rodriguez, Richard 1944–
PERSONAL: Born July 31, 1944, in San Francisco, CA; son of Leopoldo (a dental technician) and Victoria (a clerk-typist; maiden name, Moran) Rodriguez. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1967; Columbia University, M.A., 1969; graduate study at University of California, Berkeley, 1969–72, 1974–75, and Warburg Institute, London, 1972–73. Religion: Roman Catholic.
CAREER: Journalist. Held a variety of jobs, including janitorial work and freelance writing, 1977–81; writer, 1981–; University of Chicago, Perlman lecturer, 1984; journalist and essayist for PBS series MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour; Pacific News Service, editor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellowship, 1972–73; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1976–77, and Frankel Medal; Commonwealth Club gold medal, 1982; Christopher Award, 1982, for Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez; Anisfield-Wolf Award for Race Relations, 1982; George Foster Peabody Award, 1997, for work on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour; International Journalism Award from World Affairs Council of California.
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (autobiography), David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1982.
Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (autobiography), Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.
(Author of foreword) Franz Schurmann, American Soul, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
(Contributor) King's Highway, 1999.
Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: In the opinion of New York Times critic Le Anne Schreiber, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriquez is an "honest and intelligent account of how education can alter a life." Richard Rodriguez's autobiographical account also offers a negative view of bilingual education and affirmative action policies that some readers have applauded and others have decried.
Hunger of Memory details Rodriguez's journey through the U.S. public education system and his resultant loss of ethnicity. The son of Mexican-American immigrants, unable to speak English when he entered a Sacramento, California, elementary school, Rodriguez went on to earn a master's degree and was a Fulbright scholar studying English renaissance literature in London when he abruptly decided to leave academic life. The choice was prompted by the feeling that he was "the beneficiary of truly disadvantaged Mexican-Americans." "I benefited on their backs," he told Publishers Weekly interviewer Patricia Holt.
The alienation from his culture began early in Rodriguez's life; as soon, in fact, as he learned the "public" language that would separate him from his family. Catholic nuns who taught Rodriguez asked that his parents speak English to him at home. When they complied, related the author in a Newsweek article by Jean Strouse, the sound of his "private" language, Spanish, and its "pleasing, soothing, consoling reminder of being at home" were gone. Paul Zweig observed in the New York Times Book Review that "son and parents alike knew that an unnamable distance had come between them." Rodriguez's parents were eventually "intimidated by what they had worked so diligently to bring about: the integration of their son into the larger world of gringo life so that he, unlike they themselves, could go far, become, one day, powerful, educated," noted the reviewer.
While Rodriguez reached the goals his parents had sought for him, he eventually began to fight the very policies that helped him to attain those goals. In ten years of college and postgraduate education, Rodriguez received assistance grounded in merit but based in part on his minority status. He left London and tried to reestablish the long-since-severed connection with his parents. He failed to recover his lost ethnicity, remaining "an academic … a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen." Rodriguez's revolt against affirmative action began when he turned down several university-level teaching jobs. As Schreiber explained, "He wrote letters to all the chairmen of English departments who thought they had found the perfect answer to affirmative action in Richard Rodriguez. He declined their offers of jobs, because he could not withstand the irony of being counted a 'minority' when in fact the irreversibly successful effort of his life had been to become a fully assimilated member of the majority." Rodriguez spent the next six years writing Hunger of Memory, parts of which appeared in magazines before being brought together in book form.
Rodriguez's arguments against affirmative action stem from his belief, as he told Detroit Free Press reporter Suzanne Dolezal, that "the program has primarily benefited people who are no longer disadvantaged,… as I no longer was when I was at Stanford, [by] ignoring the educational problems of people who are genuinely disadvantaged, people who cannot read or write." His opposition to bilingual education is just as vocal. "To me," he told the Publishers Weekly interviewer, "public educators in a public schoolroom have an obligation to teach a public language. Public language isn't just English or Spanish or any other formal language. It is the language of public society, the language that people outside that public sector resist. For Mexican-Americans it is the language of los gringos. For Appalachian children who speak a fractured English or Black children in a ghetto, the problem is the same it seems to me…. My argument has always been that the imperative is to get children away from those languages that increase their sense of alienation from the public society."
Hunger of Memory was praised by several critics, especially for its discussion of the impact of language on life. Le Anne Schreiber found that "what matters most about this intensely thoughtful book is that Richard Rodriguez has given us the fruit of his long meditation upon language—his intimate understanding of how we use language to create private and public selves, his painful awareness of what we gain and lose when we gain and lose languages." Paul Zweig judged that "the chapters Mr. Rodriguez devotes to his early experiences of language are uncannily sensitive to the nuances of language learning, the childhood drama of voices, intonations." A New Yorker review commended Rodriguez as "a writer of unusual grace and clarity,… eloquent in all his reflections."
Rodgriquez's 1992 book, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, is a collection of previously published autobiographical essays. In this collection, Rodriguez returns to many of the issues he probed in Hunger of Memory: language, history, and the immigrant history. He also explores in detail his feelings about his Mexican and Amerindian heritages as well as his personal experiences in AIDS-ravaged San Francisco. Reviewing the book in Chicago's Tribune Books, Rockwell Gray commented, "In these revisionary essays, Rodriguez ranges widely over issues of personal allegiance, homeland, ethnic identity, the future of Roman Catholicism and the shibboleth of 'diversity' invoked to gloss over the rifts in an increasingly fragmented American society."
Several critics remarked that Days of Obligation lacks the intuitive, coherent structure of Hunger of Memory but averred that the book once again displays the author's skill in producing powerful autobiographical writing. For instance, Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley noted, "though the earnestness of Rodriguez's self-examination remains affecting and convincing, Days of Obligation … never states in sufficiently clear terms either the nature of the argument or the author's own line of reasoning." Though admitting that the book can be "maddeningly presumptuous and determinedly obscure," New York Times Book Review contributor David L. Kirp exclaimed that "In its most powerful passages, 'Days of Obligation' reveals the writer as a tightrope walker who balances pessimism and the defeat of predictable expectations against the discovery of the profoundly unanticipated." Concluded Gray, "The wrestling with his elusive and insistent past makes these sinuous ruminations worthy of inclusion in the long American tradition of spiritual autobiography." With his 2002 volume Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Rodriguez "completes his trilogy, published in 10-year installments, that attempts to redescribe the American predicament through his own carefully examined experience," according to Anthony Walton in the New York Times Book Review. The color denoted in the book's title represents not only Rodriguez's own racial makeup but what he feels the nation is becoming as it grows more openly accepting of its mix of many cultures. As Bill Ott explained in a Booklist review, as Rodriguez "sets out to contemplate the meaning of brown in America, and his own brownness, he once again confronts the split between his different selves. But this time," Ott concluded, "instead of bouncing from one self to another, he seeks and finds reconciliation in the very impurity of being brown, the 'ability of bodies to experience two or several things at once.'" Ott summed up Brown as a "challenging, eloquent, witty, searingly beautiful book."
Rodriguez once noted: "I see myself straddling two worlds of writing: journalism and literature. There is Richard Rodriguez, the journalist—every day I spend more time reading newspapers and magazines than I do reading novels and poetry. I wander away from my desk for hours, for weeks. I want to ask questions of the stranger on the bus. I want to consider the political and social issues of the day. Then there is Richard Rodriguez, the writer. It takes me a very long time to write. What I try to do when I write is break down the line separating the prosaic world from the poetic word. I try to write about everyday concerns—an educational issue, say, or the problems of the unemployed—but to write about them as powerfully, as richly, as well as I can."
"My model in this marriage of journalism and literature is, of course, George Orwell. Orwell is the great modern example. He embarrasses other journalists by being more. He never let the urgency of the moment overwhelm his concern for literary art. But, in like measure, he embarrasses other writers because he had the courage to attend to voices outside the window, he was not afraid to look up from his papers. I hope I can be as brave in my life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, May 22, 1982, pp. 403-404; September 23, 1995, p. 8.
American Review, fall-winter, 1988, pp. 75-90.
American Scholar, spring, 1983, pp. 278-285, winter, 1994, p. 145.
Booklist, March 1, 2002, Bill Ott, review of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, p. 1184, January 1, 2003, review of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, p. 791.
Christian Science Monitor Monthly, March 12, 1982, pp. B1, B3.
Commentary, July, 1982, pp. 82-84, July-August, 2002, Dan Seligman, review of Hispanics All, p. 76.
Diacritics, fall, 1985, pp. 25-34.
Melus, spring, 1987, pp. 3-15; summer, 2003, Hector A. Tores, p. 164.
Nation, June 17, 2002, Ilan Stavans, review of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, p. 30.
New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1992, p. 42; April 7, 2002, Anthony Walton, "Greater than All the Parts," p. 7.
Reason, August-September, 1994, p. 35.
Time, January 25, 1993, p. 70.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 13, 1992, p. 1.
Washington Post Book World, November 15, 1992, p. 3.