I met Richard Rodriguez Monday afternoon at a party for Kerry Tremain, who's stepping down as editor California magazine. Kerry has done a fantastic job there. Among his many accomplishments was recruiting writers like Richard Rodriguez.
We read Hunger of Memory in my California Culture class at San Francisco State, so meeting Richard was a special pleasure. That course is organized around utopian and dystopian images of California, so Richard emerges as a key skeptic (along with Joan Didion) of 1960s-style social optimism. In Hunger of Memory, that skepticism seems to be rooted in Richard's Catholicism. Although he doesn't say so, the political projects of the 1960s and 1970s come off as modern forms of the Pelagian heresy.
But skepticism is only part of Richard's project. Language is even more important. As a boy, his two languages apply to radically different worlds--the public (English) and private (Spanish). That split is at the center of the book.
Hunger of Memory is also very concerned with education. As Richard embraces his identity as a model student, he becomes separated from his family, or at least his parents. But then he also renounces an academic career and becomes a solitary writer. Each round of renunciation and alienation is another step on his writerly journey.
That journey leads him to oppose both bilingual education and affirmative action. But the grounds of his opposition are deeply personal--as we would expect from a writer, who must find his individuality and voice not through big, blunt, unchosen categories of identity (race, class, gender), but in his relationship to language.
Hunger of Memory isn't a treatise on public policy. To read it that way is to misunderstand its value. I think it belongs to another literary tradition that stretches back to Augustine's Confessions. You heard it here first.
During our brief chat, Richard brought up Carey McWilliams, more or less out of the blue. You can believe that I walked through that door.