Rodriguez recalls how, following the publication of his first autobiographical essay, he received a letter from his mother saying: “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” Specifically, Rodriguez’s mother did not want gringos to know about her family life. Rodriguez reveals that he considered this question while writing Hunger of Memory. He also reflected on the isolation and silence required to live a writer’s life, as well as his fear that his “absorption with events in [his] past amounted to an immature refusal to live in the present.” He concludes that he will never be able to explain his motives for writing to his mother; instead, he will only be able to reveal them “to public readers [he] expect[s] never to meet.”
This passage seems to support the argument that what differentiates Rodriguez from his family is not his education but his identity as a writer. Though Rodriguez has, throughout the memoir, expressed ambivalent feelings toward silence, it is evident that silence is what is required for him to be a writer. This necessarily cuts him off from a family life, and could also explain the lack of other defined characters (such as friends or colleagues) in the book.
Rodriguez continues, arguing that his mother’s use of the phrase los gringos indicates that his mother and father “have not followed their children all the way down the path to full Americanization.” His parents “never forget when they are in public.” He provides further details of his mother’s letter, where she pleaded: “Writing is one thing, the family is another. I don’t want tus hermanos hurt by your writings.” Rodriguez writes that his mother never had to give him these kinds of warnings as a child. As a boy, he was very protective of what he considered his family’s secrets. Though he recalls being sometimes embarrassed at how his mother would use “her ‘visitor’s voice’” when one of his school friends came to dinner, he also remembers how he refused to write about personal topics in school. (When a high school teacher suggested he write about “something closer to home,” he wrote a story about an old man who lived down the block from him.) Not until he began typing papers in college did he gain “a new appreciation for how [his] reader” would see his words. He writes that he is now “struck by the opportunity” that writing presents to engage with an unknown reader. He writes that his imaginary reader is “of no particular race or sex,” but that this reader “has had a long education and that his society, like mine is often public (un gringo).”
This passage reflects Rodriguez’s development into the writer he is today. It is important to note that Rodriguez does not explicitly link this transformation to his education; when it comes to his maturation as writer, it seems that time and life experience, rather than formal education, was required. Another key aspect of this passage is that, while Rodriguez claims he does not picture a reader of a certain race or sex, he ascribes both to the imaginary reader he discusses: he uses a male pronoun to refer to this reader, and he defines his reader as un gringo (a white person). It seems possible that Rodriguez is attempting a redefinition of gringo, using it to designate an educated person with a public identity, rather than explicitly a white person. However, it is more likely that Rodriguez is admitting that most of the people who read his work will be white—contradicting his statement that he does not write for a reader “with a face erased.” Rodriguez’s complicated awareness of his audience might itself provide a clue to the occasionally contradictory nature of Rodriguez’s prose.
Rodriguez describes struggling to explain to his parents his impulse to write. Once, when his mother asked him what a psychiatrist did, he realized that his mother could never imagine talking about her personal life with a physiatrist. He writes that his parents “remain aloof from the modern temptation that captivates many in America’s middle class: the temptation to relieve the anonymity of public life by trying to make it intimate.” Rodriguez realizes that his parents “will be as puzzled by [his] act of self-revelation as they are by the movie star’s revelations on the talk show.” However, he says he continues to write because he still believes that “there are things so deeply personal that they can be revealed only to strangers.”
Rodriguez’s conclusion that some things are so personal they can only be revealed to strangers (in other words, the reason that he writes) blatantly contradicts many of his previous claims. Earlier in the book, Rodriguez firmly argued that trying to force public life to resemble private life is both vulgar (a sentiment he seems to share with his parents) and dangerous. Yet, here, he admits that his writing is an act of self-revelation—and that he believes in its value. Passages like these, which seem to lend themselves to charges of hypocrisy, make Rodriguez a difficult writer to pin down.
Rodriguez begins to reflect on what is contained in his parents’ silence. He wonders about his parents’ memories of his childhood, about how different his mother’s version of Hunger of Memory might be. He writes that many people have congratulated him on being the first in his family to write a book. “I stand on the edge of a long silence,” he writes. “But I do not give voice to my parents by writing about their lives.” He argues that his parents are not accurately represented in his writing. Even though he “may force their words to stand between quotation marks,” his parents’ words, spoken only to him, were never meant to be revealed to the public. (Rodriguez also explains the essay’s title: his mother has begun calling him Mr. Secrets because he refuses to tell her about his writing.) Rodriguez finally reveals that the reason he writes is because “by finding public words to describe one’s feelings, one can describe oneself to oneself.” He broadens this argument by claiming: “It is not enough to say that my mother and father do not want to write their autobiographies. It needs also to be said that they are unable to write to a public reader. They lack the skill.”
Rodriguez expresses complicated, even contradictory, feelings toward his parents. He wonders what memories they harbor and cannot share with him, what kind of books they would write about their lives, and how their memories of shared experiences might be substantially different than his own. However, he comes to the conclusion that his parents lack the skill to write about their lives because they don’t know how to write for a public reader. This makes Rodriguez’s interest in what his mother’s version of Hunger of Memory would be like seem rather disingenuous, since he actually believes such a book could never exist. This passage is a good example of the way that Rodriguez’s philosophizing tone has a tendency to slip into condescension.
Rodriguez writes that he responded to his mother’s letter, trying to explain to her that he had not meant to hurt her by publishing the autobiographical essay. The first time he saw his mother after sending his reply letter, she did not bring it up. Instead, he writes, she “sensed that afternoon that the person whose essay she saw in a national magazine was a person unfamiliar to her, some Other,” and she gave him the gift—“the freedom so crucial to adulthood”—to be a different person in public than who he was at home. Rodriguez elaborates that the Rodriguez in Hunger of Memory is not the person his siblings know, but that he hopes they will also understand that, sometimes, one must “escape to the company of strangers, to the liberation of the city, in order to form new versions of oneself.”
It is important to note that Rodriguez and his mother communicate via letter rather than in person. This detail, perhaps, underscores the power of the written (versus the spoken) word. Additionally, this is one of the few instances in which Rodriguez expresses a sense of explicit gratitude for something his parents did: he is thankful for their sacrifice and struggle to give him a middle-class life, and for his mother’s decision to allow him a public identity. This not only indicates how important public identity is to Rodriguez’s understanding of himself, but it also demonstrates how Rodriguez subtly riffs on typical themes of American immigrant stories.
Rodriguez writes that he sees his brother and sisters a couple of times a year, but that the whole family only gathers on holidays, at the behest of his mother. He reflects that, at these holiday dinners, she often seems lonely and unable to participate in conversation, speaking only in her “visitor’s voice.” Rodriguez recounts a Christmastime conversation with his older sister, whose questions about his writing he evades. His sister says excitedly says of her son, “Tommy reads and reads, just like you used to.” Rodriguez wrestles with the question of whether he could see himself in this child, whose father is a fourth-generation American of German descent who has spoken English all his life. He continues to narrate the rest of the evening, describing his father—whose hearing and English are both bad—sitting in silence, “a witness to the evening.” When his mother stands in the doorway to see her children off, Rodriguez writes that she looks, to him, small and worried. “I am tempted to ask her quietly,” he writes, “if there is anything wrong.” His father asks if Rodriguez is going home too, and Rodriguez realizes this is the only thing his father has said to him all evening.
On a formal level this passage is noteworthy because Rodriguez narrates it in the present, rather than the past, tense. This gives the passage a strange, almost dreamlike quality—as if these events and conversations have been played over many times. Rodriguez’s contemplation of his nephew demonstrates how difficult he finds it to connect with people in person, even if they share interests. This passage also emphasizes the link between Mexican masculinity and silence, highlighting the vast difference between Rodriguez’s brand of silence and his father’s.