Rodriguez first describes how, in his current life as a respected author, he meets many people who react to his dark complexion by asking whether he’s recently been on vacation in the Caribbean. (Rodriguez writes that he always answers with a soft but firm negative.) In direct contrast stand Rodriguez’s memories from childhood summers, when his mother would react angrily to his sun-darkened skin. She scolded him for being careless, warning, “You know how important looks are in this country. With los gringos looks are all that they judge on.” She insisted that if Rodriguez stayed in the sun he would look like one of los pobres or los braceros. Rodriguez remembers how these men used to strike him as both powerless and powerful, “their fascinating darkness—like [his]—to be feared.”
Rodriguez’s mother uses los pobres and los braceros to refer to working class Mexican Americans, and her concern that Rodriguez’s dark skin will make him look like a bracero shows her commitment to upward mobility and to leaving the hardships of her own childhood in Mexico behind. However, her efforts to distance herself and her family from poor manual laborers by trying to appear lighter skinned seem to equate poverty with being Latino, and her comments mirror Rodriguez’s occasional condescension towards the poor. Though a young Rodriguez felt a sense of fear about his complexion, he was also able to view it as a source of potential power.
Rodriguez reflects on the fact that he and his older sister are the only members of their nuclear family with dark complexions. Despite the fact that, according to Rodriguez, the siblings look like they could all be from different continents, Rodriguez’s mother and father insist that their children never deny their Mexican ancestry. As a child, Rodriguez mechanically obeyed this lesson, but he never spoke openly to his sister about their shared dark complexions until she had children of her own and “quietly admitted relief [to Rodriguez] that they were all light.”
Even though Rodriguez has, up until this point in the memoir, overtly been inclined to minimize (if not dismiss) the importance of race in identity formation, the high degree of detail with which he describes the differing complexions in his own family suggests that he cannot fully articulate his sense of selfhood without, to some degree, addressing the question of race.
Rodriguez elaborates that his extended family members shared his mother’s (and sister’s) preference for light skin. He claims that, even though he was the target of racial slurs as a child, no statements about race were as formative to his self-image as were his family’s statements about their preference for light skin. He does note, however, that the handful of “name-calling” incidents he experienced caused him to be sensitive to the “connection between dark skin and poverty” from a very early age.
Though it probably causes Rodriguez dismay, Hunger of Memory has become part of the canon of Chicano literature. Part of the reason for this is that, as this passage shows, Rodriguez is able to piercingly examine issues that are integral to the Mexican-American experience, such as how colorism and internalized racism affect self-image. It is important to note that in this discussion he is careful to return to two points he considers crucial: the power of language itself to affect self-identity, and the intersectional nature of race and class.
Expanding his discussion further, Rodriguez explains how important symbols and appearances were to his parents. He recalls that when his older sister wanted to take a job cleaning houses in high school, his mother allowed it only on the condition that she not wear a uniform—she was not a maid. Rodriguez shifts to describing photographs of his parents from when they were young, dressed in the fine clothes they used to wear when Rodriguez’s father took his new wife to opera performances and polo matches. He struggles to recognize the people depicted in these photos, whose poses contain “an aristocratic formality, an elegant Latin hauteur.” By the time they had children, Rodriguez writes, his parents no longer dressed in this way: “Those symbols of great wealth and the reality of their lives too noisily clashed.” However, they continued to respect the symbols of upper-class life and imparted this sensibility to their children. Rodriguez remembers himself as a watchful child; on visits to wealthy friends’ houses, he would correctly observe the formalities—but also notice his “dark self, lit by chandelier light, in a tall hallway mirror.”
For the first time, Rodriguez explicitly addresses the topic of memory, attempting to reconcile his memories of the people who raised him with the young people they used to be. In this passage, he is mainly focused on examining old photographs—photographs whose context he clearly has some knowledge of, despite that he doesn’t claim to have learned this information directly from his parents. This raises the question of how memory gets transmitted within a family. Another important aspect of this passage is Rodriguez’s observation that he was able to “pass” as upper-class as a child—but he was still deeply aware of how his race marked him as out-of-place. In this regard, this passage represents another moment of contradiction in terms of how Rodriguez depicts the role of race in his life.
Rodriguez writes that his first memory of “sexual excitement” is linked to his sense of his complexion. The moment occurred at a pool in the summer; Rodriguez noticed his mother watching his father dive into the water. His awareness of the sensuality of this moment was immediately followed by his mother turning and telling him to cover his shoulders with a towel. Rodriguez claims that this memory encapsulates the “shame and sexual inferiority” he came to feel because of his complexion. He considered himself ugly, and he even recalls trying to remove the darkness of his skin by shaving his arms with a razor. Because he was so ashamed of his body, he began to deny himself “a sensational life”—not participating in physical education class or riding his bike in the sun. He writes of the envy he felt of los braceros and the desire for a physical life that they inspired in him. His sense of longing was compounded by his fear that his education had made him effeminate. Even as an adult, Rodriguez writes, aspects of “the myth of the macho” still haunt him.
Rodriguez is engaging with questions of gender and sexuality in important ways. He notes how Mexican masculinity is linked to silence, rather than to language, and how his love of literature makes him feel disconnected not only from his cultural heritage but from his gender. Rodriguez’s discussion of sexuality is also of note (as is his discussion of the braceros) because, though he discusses his experience of desire, he makes no mention of the fact that he is gay. (Rodriguez came out ten years after writing Hunger of Memory in his 1992 book Days of Obligation.) Rather than specifying his sexual orientation, Rodriguez emphasizes how his first inkling of sexuality was revealed to him through watching his parents, suggesting that family ties have played a more integral role in his life than his discussion has previously allowed. Finally, though he does not go into great depth in his discussion of machismo, his sensitive rendering of some of the key values of Mexican masculinity is another reason that Rodriguez has come to be seen as a canonical Chicano writer.
In one of the most extended vignettes of the memoir, Rodriguez describes the summer construction job he worked while an undergraduate at Stanford. The job was offered to him by a friend and, though Rodriguez surprised himself by accepting it, he ended up finding the physical labor pleasurable. However, when his fellow workers pointed out that he was overexerting himself and in danger of hurting his back, he had the profound realization that he had been fooling himself. “I would not learn in three months,” writes Rodriguez, “what my father meant by ‘real work.’” His sense of his own naïveté was underscored when he met a group of Mexican seasonal workers later in the summer. Though he felt a strange yearning to be “assured of their familiarity,” he writes that he was ultimately “depressed” by the Mexicans, saddened by (what he perceived as) their vulnerability. “I would not shorten the distance I felt from los pobres with a few weeks of physical labor,” Rodriguez writes. “I would not become like them. They were different from me.” This realization—and the fact that “the curse of physical shame was broken by the sun”—are the most important takeaways from Rodriguez’s construction job.
Rodriguez marks the profound differences between himself and the Mexican workers, implicitly arguing that these differences are rooted in class (since they are the same race). He thus shakes the foundation of his mother’s worry that a darkened complexion would make him like these men by pointing out that his vastly different upbringing means he could never be like them. Significantly, Rodriguez ignores the fact that some of the difference he felt from these men may have arisen from the fact that they were Mexican and he is Mexican American.
Rodriguez draws the essay to a close by arguing that interpretations of his complexion are based on context. Though people in his current life assume his dark brown skin means he has been on vacation, Rodriguez points out that no one would guess this if he entered hotels through the service entrance rather than the front door. He returns, finally, to los pobres from his summer job, concluding that, even more so than class differences, he is separated from them by his education, which has given him a life of the mind that these men do not share. He writes that the men’s silence is what continues to haunt him, because it represents not only their vulnerability but also their lack of a public identity.
In some regards, it seems unfair that Rodriguez pities these men for their lack of public identity, because this pity is based on his assumption that the men should speak English. However, the men are Mexican—not Mexican American—so perhaps Rodriguez’s lament of their lack of public identity is misplaced, as America is neither their country of origin nor their adopted country. Here, then, is one of the potential flaws in Rodriguez’s interpretation of this memory; he holds these men to the same standards he holds himself as a Mexican American man, without considering that these standards might not apply to Mexican men.