In 1950 Richard Rodriguez, a son of Mexican immigrants, entered first grade at Sacred Heart School in Sacramento, Calif. His English vocabulary amounted to barely 50 words. When it showed little sign of expanding, three nuns called on his family and asked the Rodriguezes to speak more English at home. That effort to bring the boy into the linguistic mainstream had profound ramifications. Richard went on to earn degrees in English at Stanford and philosophy at Columbia. He then pursued a Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature at Berkeley, including work in London on a Fulbright. Yet in 1976, though a bright future in academia was within reach—Hispanic-surnamed scholars being in great demand—Rodriguez abruptly went his own way. Supporting himself by writing (essays, reviews, even advertising copy) and manual labor (as a janitor), he sought to puzzle out just how education had irrevocably altered his life. The vehicle: Hunger of Memory (Godine, $13.95), a moving autobiography in which he examines such sensitive subjects as bilingual education and affirmative action in the classroom—and sorrowfully concludes that he opposes them. Rodriguez, 38, lives alone in a tiny studio apartment in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. There, he recently discussed his controversial views with PEOPLE’S Tony Chiu.
At current immigration rates, in 2050 one-sixth of America’s population may be the foreign-born and their children. Why shouldn’t they be taught in their native language?
We must be very careful about language, because it’s an issue that concerns national stability. Ours is not a bilingual society—we’re not Canada or Belgium. Instead, we’re a multilingual society. And unless we accept the imperative of moving all children toward the mastery of English, we risk becoming another Babel.
Are there other pitfalls?
Bilingual education is a complex subject because there are several different types of programs. But what’s wrong with Spanish and black English is not anything in the languages but rather in the attitude of the students who will use them. I clearly remember that when I was young, Spanish was a language spoken against the gringo in order not to be overheard. My basic concern is that the language of the ghettos, of the barrios, is one way of evading majority society. Anything that deepens and solidifies that feeling of public alienation is not appropriate to use in the classroom.
But what about those who feel this is a way to retain an ethnic identity?
I refuse to accept my generation’s romanticism about rediscovering “roots.” The trouble with that is it somehow holds children accountable for maintaining their culture, and freezes them into thinking of themselves as Mexicans or as Chinese or as blacks. But culture is an extraordinary progression of ancestral memories and individual experience. People have accused me of losing my heritage. That assumes heritage is this little suitcase I carry with me, with tortillas and a little Mexican cowboy suit inside, and that one day I lost it at a Greyhound depot. The fact is, culture survives whether you want it to or not.
When did your education start?
I walked into the kitchen and heard my parents change from Spanish to English. They were reminding me I had to speak English, too.
As your schooling progressed, did you feel removed from your parents?
In certain ways, yes. Education, after all, separates us from immediate reality. I read by myself, I wrote diaries that I never opened to other persons. I knew that there were things I couldn’t tell my parents, things they wouldn’t understand, so I just avoided the embarrassment altogether.
Isn’t that problem faced by all students more educated than their parents?
Of course. One reader told me, “I grew up in Iowa, my mother was fifth-generation German and my father second-generation Irish, yet I lived something of your life.” There’s a special poignancy to a life like mine, in that it highlights a universal dilemma: Every child comes back from the classroom slightly different, slightly changed.
Was your college career advanced by affirmative action programs?
I did not hear the term “minority student” until I was a senior at Stanford University, but I did know that I was getting money along the way because I was a member of a minority. And I took a lot. It’s hard to say “No.”
Did you deserve it?
I think that any program that gave so much money to someone like me has to be reappraised. In my case, I was the least disadvantaged, but I was being helped first. True, at the time I was “minority” in the sense that I felt alien from majority society. I think I was socially disadvantaged for reasons of family economics rather than race. But I was not culturally deprived—my father used to enjoy opera, my mother became a typist who worked her way into [California Governor Edmund] Pat Brown’s office, and I went to a church where you could hear Mozart masses. In a real sense, then, I gained academically as a result of the far more disadvantaged Mexican-Americans who remained totally outside the university system. Their large numbers made my presence within the system something to be celebrated. That’s the source of the guilt that began to weigh on me.
Why do you refer to affirmative action enrollment programs as “callous”?
It’s easy for an institution to proclaim itself open to minority students. But once they get into school, they need more support than others. I’ve tutored graduate minority students. Many of them had graduated, with honors, from prestigious colleges, yet some still didn’t know how to write a term paper, couldn’t imagine the mechanism of a paragraph. They knew they lacked elementary writing skills, and were pulverized by embarrassment over that lack. It’s shocking that there are students who go through 16 years of school, including four years of college, and who still need to apply to, say, medical school as “disadvantaged students.” That is an indictment against the colleges that graduate them.
When did you stop feeling any connection with that little boy who knew only 50 words of English?
In 1973, while I was in London on a Fulbright, researching my dissertation. I realized I would never be able to go back home again in the sense of being able to resume old family intimacies with the same intensity. Education was taking me farther from my past. Yet it also gave me the language to write about that past.
Why did you finally leave academia?
While I was working on my doctorate at Berkeley, I wrote perhaps 10 letters inquiring about faculty openings—and began hearing from schools I hadn’t contacted. The departmental secretary kept getting these phone calls: “Would Richard Rodriguez be interested in coming here?” It was an extraordinary experience. There seemed to be nothing that I couldn’t have. Yet I knew that I was not the most talented in the department. I knew that white colleagues, as talented as I, were not getting jobs. So I wrote all the schools and asked to be removed from consideration. At that point, I planned to do a book about writers in a society that really doesn’t read. But the project kept growing more personal. I ended up with Hunger of Memory.
What was the reaction to your leaving?
Interestingly, no one in my department said a word about it. But a Mexican-American woman who was one of my students came into my office. She claimed I had no right to decide not to teach, that I couldn’t misuse my advantage that way. I felt she was invading my privacy—she wanted to dictate what/should do. Her attitude was both tyrannical and outrageous.
Do you regret your decision?
Initially I did. I missed teaching. I went through a deep self-pitying phase, which coincided with a time when I had no money. Also, it’s very tough in America to lead an intellectual life outside the universities. But it’s been six years, and I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
How have your parents reacted to your book?
I gave it to them to read, and they did, my mother staying up all night to do so immediately. I’ll never really be sure of how much of it they understood. I do think that my mother came to recognize that the “Richard Rodriguez” who wrote it is someone she’ll never know.