Authors: Richard Rodriguez

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American journalist and essayist.

July 31, 1944

San Francisco, California

Biography

With the publication of his autobiography Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez in 1982, Richard Rodriguez rose to immediate national attention as a fine, if controversial, essayist. Born Ricardo Rodriguez in San Francisco, California, in 1944, to a Mexican immigrants Victoria Moran and Leopoldo Rodriguez, he was raised in Sacramento with his three siblings, two older and one younger. Ricardo spoke only Spanish at home with his parents and siblings until he began school at age six. In Hunger of Memory he describes his first experience of English-language society, encountered in the Catholic elementary classroom that transformed him from Ricardo to Richard. When his parents began to speak only the “public” language of English at home, at the recommendation of his Irish nun teachers, Richard suffered a loss of intimacy with his family. He later decided that the educational process itself accounted for his separation from his parents, rather than simply “public” (English) versus “private” (Spanish) language.

Rodriguez was raised Catholic and attended Catholic primary and secondary schools. He earned a BA from Stanford University in 1967 and an MS from Columbia University in 1969. He did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Warburg Institute in London. He received a Fulbright Fellowship (1972–73) and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (1976–77). Though he was offered several university teaching positions, he declined the offers because he suspected that he was benefiting from misplaced affirmative action—specifically, that he was being offered such positions because, as a Mexican American, he was viewed primarily a member of an underrepresented ethnic group, while he believed that his entire education and preparation had resulted in his complete assimilation into the majority. Instead, Rodriguez became an editor at Pacific News Service, where he served for more than two decades, and a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, US News & World Report, and the Sunday “Opinion” section of the Los Angeles Times. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the American Scholar, Time, Mother Jones, the New Republic, and other publications.

Rodriguez spent six years writing Hunger of Memory, sections of which first appeared as essays in magazines. Hunger of Memory is autobiographical, but rather than presenting a chronological view of Rodriguez’s growth and development, it presents his life in essays focused on his development as related to broader issues. Having learned the public language of English and entered successfully into the linguistic and cultural discourse of the dominant culture, Rodriguez reflects on the relationship between language, family, and intimacy. Having been raised Mexican American and Catholic, he examines his Catholic faith and comments on liturgical changes to Catholic rites. Though Rodriguez was awarded funding for college and postgraduate study based on merit, assistance was also based partly on his minority status.

Having thus benefited from affirmative action, he critiques it as a misguided approach that, because it helps people based on ethnicity or race, often helps those who are no longer disadvantaged. Affirmative action, argues Rodriguez, should focus on class rather than race. Rodriguez also criticizes bilingual education as a program that prevents more rapid assimilation of non-English speakers, consequently maintaining or even aggravating their disadvantaged status in relation to the majority culture. He sees education as a transformative process that gives the individual an identity as a member of a group, an identity denied the student of a bilingual program. Hunger of Memory exploded on the literary scene when first published, receiving more attention from mainstream critics than any other single work by a Chicano author. Advocates of affirmative action and bilingual education immediately responded to the polemical nature of the text, and some Mexican American critics viewed it as a betrayal by one of their own.

Like Hunger of Memory, much of Rodriguez's next book, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992), appeared as separate essays prior to being collected. Though many of the essays take Rodriguez’s life as a point of departure, Days of Obligation is a more distanced, less polemical narrative than his first book. Rodriguez recalls, in “Asians,” the Sacramento neighborhood of his childhood and his Chinese dentist. He examines the apparent decline of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism among Hispanics in the United States and Latin America, referencing his own Catholicism. He details the consequences of the AIDS epidemic on the gay population of San Francisco, making no effort to avoid revealing his own homosexuality. As in Hunger of Memory, he focuses predominantly on Mexican and Mexican American culture and history, particularly in relation or contrast to the United States. In the closing essay, “Nothing Lasts a Hundred Years,” he recalls the argument he had with his father when he was fourteen and his father was fifty. His father told him that life is harder than he thinks. Nearly his father’s age, Rodriguez now agrees with him, and honors him, fulfilling the obligation of the book’s title. Broader in its investigation, less personal and less specifically autobiographical than Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation nonetheless continues the discourse Rodriguez initiated in his first book and proves him to be an outstanding essayist and a major figure in Chicano literature.

Brown: The Last Discovery of America, published in 2002, is a collection of essays on a broad variety of topics, from the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel to Broadway musicals, in which Rodriguez works to subvert the notion of race in the United States as a distinction between black and white and suggests the color brown as a means of understanding both the nation’s future and its past. The book was nominated for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, published in 2013, is technically a memoir, although it uses that framework as a jumping-off point to explore the three Abrahamic religions, which Rodriguez calls the “desert religions.” Written in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and heavily informed by such, Darling is, as reviewer Leslie Jamison wrote for the New York Times, “less the biography of any single idea—or an account of any single spiritual journey—and more the biography of many intersecting ideas: the relationship between gay rights and women’s rights; the relationship between unforgiving landscapes and enduring faith, between cities and their scribes; between a homosexual man and his church.”

During the 1990s and 2000s, Rodriguez was often seen on the Public Broadcasting System’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in his capacity as an essayist. His abiding theme was the reexamination of race, and of identity in general, in American society. His awards include the 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction, the 1990 International Journalism Award from the World Affairs Council of California, and a 1992 Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities (now the National Humanities Medal) from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1997 he received the coveted George Foster Peabody Award for his work on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Author Works Nonfiction: Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, 1982 Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, 1992 Brown: The Last Discovery of America, 2002 Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, 2013 Bibliography Christopher, Renny. “Rags to Riches to Suicide: Unhappy Narratives of Upward Mobility; Martin Eden, Bread Givers, Delia’s Song, and Hunger of Memory.” College Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, 2002, pp. 79–108. Academic Search Complete, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=7530606&site=ehost-live. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017. Discusses upward social and class mobility and the accompanying sense of loss, and includes an excerpt from Hunger of Memory. Collado, Alfredo Villanueva. “Growing Up Hispanic: Discourse and Ideology in Hunger of Memory and Family Installments.” The Americas Review, vol. 16, no. 3–4, 1988, pp. 75–90. Compares Rodriguez’s book to Family Installments, by Eduardo Rivera. Danahay, Martin A. “Richard Rodriguez’s Poetics of Manhood.” Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, New York UP, 1994, pp. 290–308. Part of a collection of essays that look at the “gendered” works of male authors and how they address masculinity and sexuality. De Castro, Juan E. “Richard Rodriguez in ‘Borderland’: The Ambiguity of Hybridity.” Aztlan, vol. 26, no. 1, 2001, pp. 101–26. Addresses Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, theories of the border and borderlands and their connections with the idea of a “cosmic race,” hybridity, and multiculturalism. Guajardo, Paul. Chicano Controversy: Oscar Acosta and Richard Rodriguez. Peter Lang, 2002. Argues for looking anew at Rodriguez’s work and including him in the canon of Chicano literature. Jamison, Leslie. “Twists of Faith.” Review of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Richard Rodriguez. The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/books/review/darling-by-richard-rodriguez.html. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017. A review of Rodriguez's fourth book. Rodriguez, Richard. “A View from the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez.” Interview by Scott London. 1997. Scott London, www.scottlondon.com/interviews/rodriguez.html. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017. An interview with Rodriguez that touches on race, ethnic and cultural identity, academia, affirmative action, bilingual education, class, and other subjects. Rodriguez, Richard. “Violating the Boundaries: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez.” Interview by Timothy S. Sedore. Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 38, no. 3, 1999, pp. 425–46, hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0038.308. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017. An interview in which Rodriguez discusses his sense of community and Chicano literature. Romero, Rolando J. “Spanish and English: The Question of Literacy in Hunger of Memory.” Confluencia, vol. 6, no. 2, 1991, pp. 89–100. Deconstructs the use of the terms “Spanish” and “English” in the contexts of oral and written language, classical discourse, the pastoral, and race, discussing the contradictions in Hunger of Memory that led to its favorable reception by the dominant Anglo culture and its unfavorable reception by Chicano culture.

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