Rodriguez started school knowing only fifty words of English. He lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and his classmates were mostly white. School was the first setting in which Rodriguez heard himself named in English rather than Spanish. Rodriguez started school before the push for bilingual education in American schools, and he is glad of this fact. He claims that supporting bilingual education both misunderstands the purpose of public education and trivializes the nature of “intimate life.” No child, he says, is capable of using his family’s language in school.
Rodriguez is beginning to draw a distinction that will be hugely important to his memoir. His disapproval of bilingual education is based on the fact that he believes school should be a place to build a child’s public identity, not to cultivate the private identity she has already formed at home. Here, he is giving a special status to a family’s private language; the rest of his essay will begin to trouble this idea of the sanctity of private language.
Rodriguez describes his childhood growing up in a Spanish-speaking home. The sounds of Spanish were soft and comforting to him as a child, making him feel “specially recognized.” These sounds stood in contrast to the harsh English sounds uttered by los gringos. Rodriguez argues that being so aware of the difference between private and public sounds was not healthy because it made him shy in public, too dependent on the private voices of his family. Though his childhood home was joyous and full of laughter, looking back Rodriguez scornfully realizes what his family was doing: “Like others who know the pain of public alienation, we transformed the knowledge of our public separateness and made it consoling—the reminder of intimacy.”
The happy portrait of Rodriguez’s childhood conflicts with the harsh tone he uses to condemn his family’s embrace of Spanish as a private language. This tension between Rodriguez’s nostalgia for his boyhood and his firm conviction that many of the ideas he held then were misguided will persist throughout the memoir. Here the reader is also introduced to Rodriguez’s complicated relationship with his parents: though he has dedicated his memoir to them as a gesture of honor, he also seems to blame them for creating the conditions that he felt made his transition to public life more difficult.
Rodriguez elaborates on his disapproval of bilingual education. He points out that supporters of this policy believe “children like him” miss out by not being taught in their family’s language. He then counters this argument by claiming that the purpose of education is to convince children that they can and should speak a public language (in his case, English). This is a crucial step in children developing a public identity. Allowing children to speak a private language at school would defeat this purpose—it would disempower them from participating in public life.
Many supporters of bilingual education were themselves Hispanic. Rodriguez is marking himself as unique by adopting what many readers might consider a “nontraditional” opinion for a person of his racial background. The publication of passages like this one contributed to some people’s perception of Rodriguez as a “brown Uncle Tom”—someone who had bought into the political agenda of assimilation upheld by white America.
Rodriguez recalls a defining moment in his life: a trio of nuns from his Catholic school visited his home and asked his parents to begin speaking English at home, because they had noticed that Rodriguez was very shy when speaking English at school. Initially, Rodriguez was annoyed by his parents’ insistence that he speak English but eventually a shift occurred and he became determined to master the language. From then on he stopped being attentive to the pleasures of sound, focusing instead on the meaning of what people were saying. He spoke confident English at school but was struck by the awkward silence that came to dominate his home, as he and his parents began to share fewer and fewer words. However, Rodriguez writes that the more profound silence was the one that came from his new “inattention to sounds.”
Rodriguez is making important distinctions about the way language works. He longs for the days when he was able to savor the sounds of language, rather than being focused solely on the meaning or “sense” of words. Though he depicts his mastery of English as a sort of triumph, his writing is filled with anguish not only at the distance that bloomed between his parents and him, but also at the profound change in his relationship with spoken language. This change represents one of the great losses that came with Rodriguez’s education, for in his loss of attentiveness to sound is contained both the roots of his new, confident public identity and the lost richness and warmth of his childhood.
Rodriguez returns to the question of bilingual education. “Bilingualists,” he writes, are convinced that schools should remind children of how their heritage makes them different from mass society. Rodriguez claims that scorning assimilation in this manner dangerously romanticizes public separateness. People who hold these views, he says, are infatuated with self-pity. Rodriguez, on the other hand, “celebrate[s]” the day he received his new, English name.
This passage demonstrates the vast range of Rodriguez’s writing. At times, he may focus on specific moments from his life, but he is also capable of making intricate arguments about broader topics. Making a scholarly argument against bilingual education gives Rodriguez’s message more power than if he were merely sharing his personal experiences.
Because he was caught between Spanish and English, Rodriguez’s childhood was one of “disabling confusion.” He recalls family members who would tease him about being a pocho, a Mexican American who has forgotten his Mexican roots. He writes that his mother and father felt pressure to explain why their children did not speak fluent, easy Spanish. All of these memories carry with them Rodriguez’s boyhood sense of guilt; he felt he had betrayed his family by learning English. Now, however, Rodriguez claims to have realized an important truth he did not recognize as a child: intimacy is not created by speaking a particular language, but rather by personal connections. If his home life felt less intimate after he learned English, it was because, Rodriguez says, he had finally become a public citizen. This was a social rather than a linguistic change, he writes.
This is a classic example of Rodriguez’s prose: he is confronting several high-level topics in a confident but sometimes contradictory way. The fact is that Rodriguez clearly felt less close with his family after he learned English, and this diminished closeness holds deep sadness for him. His broader argument (that intimacy comes not from language but from intimates) attempts to dismiss the profound sense of loss that came with his transformation into a public, English-speaking person. However, despite Rodriguez’s academic conclusions about the relationship between language and intimacy, a nagging sense of pain persists in his writing.
Again, Rodriguez returns to the question of bilingual education. He argues that languages like Spanish or black English are dangerous for use in schools, not because of any inherent quality they possess, but because they reinforce a feeling of public separateness amongst lower-class people. He claims that, fundamentally, supporters of bilingual education are trying to convince themselves that a person can live a public life with no cost to his private life. While Rodriguez admits this is a consoling thought, he maintains that “schemes” like the goal of public bilingualism are “foolish and certainly doomed.”
Though Rodriguez’s critics claim that he has “sold out” by adopting conservative views (such as opposing bilingual education), passages like this one suggest Rodriguez’s genuine concern for the lower-class. Ultimately, he opposes bilingual education because he feels it puts lower-class students at a greater disadvantage.
Rodriguez fondly recalls his childhood as a “magical realm of sound.” He confesses that he still enjoys listening to music and reading lyrical poetry because both of these artistic forms blur the line between sense and sound. However, he maintains that growing up necessarily means losing the pleasurable feeling of intimacy. He writes: “Intimacy is not trapped within words. It passes through words. It passes.”
This passage pushes Rodriguez’s claims about intimacy even further by revealing Rodriguez’s conviction that intimacy is fleeting, a feature of life that diminishes as one ages. He treats the subject lyrically, but the fact that he doesn’t articulate such a strong statement until the very end of this essay—leaving him little time to build a case for it—might make the reader wonder whether Rodriguez truly holds such a depressing view of life.
“Aria” closes with Rodriguez’s poetic remembrance of the last time he saw his grandmother before she died. He can remember what she said to him, but he doesn’t communicate these words to the reader, since he wouldn’t be able to capture their intimacy on the page.
Rodriguez is using a personal memory to make a broader point, blurring the distinction between memoir and didactic essay.