Hunger of Memory is introduced by a prologue titled “Middle-Class Pastoral,” in which Rodriguez firmly asserts his identity as a middle-class American. Though Rodriguez is comfortable identifying with the middle class, he passionately rejects the possibility that he might give readers access to Mexican or Mexican-American culture through his memoir. Rodriguez explicitly states that language will be an important topic in the book, and he characterizes his memoir as a parable for the life of a middle-class man.
The memoir formally begins with “Aria,” in which Rodriguez lays out his concept of private versus public language. He explains that he began his education in a school of predominantly white students, knowing only fifty words of English. At home, he spoke Spanish with his parents and siblings. He found English intimidating and relished the sounds of Spanish, a private language that he shared only with his family, which gave him a cherished since of intimacy with them. Gradually Rodriguez became more confident with English, especially after a trio of nuns arrived at his house and asked his parents to start speaking English at home. However this transition to English as the language of his household was a brutal one for Rodriguez, as it made him feel far less connected to his mother and father. He spends much of the essay evoking the profound silence that came to dominate his childhood after this transition. Though he ultimately comes to the conclusion that he was foolish to feel this change of language as a loss of intimacy (for intimacy is created not by language but by intimates, he writes), he continues to express sadness and even guilt over having learned English and having adopted a public identity that eclipsed the intimacy of his home. Rodriguez ends the essay by denouncing bilingual education, arguing that it encourages a sense of public separateness when the true goal of education should be to affirm for children that they have the right to speak a public language and express a public identity.
“The Achievement of Desire” is structured around concepts drawn from a life-changing book Rodriguez encountered while working on his dissertation: Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. In this essay, Rodriguez uses Hoggart’s formulation of “the scholarship boy” to describe his own experience of schooling. He describes his complicated love of reading (he enjoyed learning, but books often made him feel quite alone) and his evolving relationship with literature. He worries that, as a “scholarship boy,” he has always been an anxious student, a mimicker of other ideas rather than a generator of his own. Rodriguez also devotes much of this essay to describing his mother’s and father’s personal backgrounds, and to describing the increasing distance he began to feel from them as he gained more and more education. He writes, rather regretfully, that he has become a “cultural anthropologist,” studying his own parents.
In the memoir’s third essay, “Credo,” Rodriguez reflects on his Catholic upbringing. He writes that, as a scholarship boy, he inhabited two different worlds—yet the Catholic Church provided “an essential link” between them. In this essay Rodriguez compares his experience as a Mexican Catholic to the varying practices of white American Catholics. (One striking moment occurs when Rodriguez describes how, in Mexican paintings, the Virgin Mary was “dark just like me.”) He spends the final third of the essay considering how he has lost touch with his Catholic roots as he has grown into adulthood, instead embracing the values of secular city-life. He attributes much of his separation from Catholicism to liturgical changes within the Church, of which he disapproves.
The bulk of “Complexion” is composed of Rodriguez’s reflections on the different ways in which his brown skin has been interpreted (by himself and others). In his adulthood as a successful writer, many people see his skin as a mark of leisure, asking if he’s recently been on vacation. In contrast, when he was a child his mother constantly warned Rodriguez not to spend too much time in the sun because she worried that a darkened complexion would cause her son to resemble one of los pobres (poor workers). For his part, Rodriguez claims that his main worry was that his complexion made him ugly. (In one poignant passage he recalls shaving his arms as a boy, in an attempt to rid himself of his dark skin.) Rodriguez also dedicates a significant portion of this essay to describing his desire to prove to his father that he is capable of doing “real work,” rather than just the “unmanly” job of writing. The essay concludes with Rodriguez telling the story of a summer construction job he took during his undergraduate years at Stanford. Initially, he feels excited by the job, finding pleasure in the physical labor. However, when his fellow workers warn him that he is laboring too hard and is in danger of hurting his back, he realizes that he has been fooling himself: three weeks at a summer job will never teach him what his father meant by “real work.” His sense of his own naïveté is reinforced when a team of Mexican temp workers (some of los pobres) arrives at the site and he reaches the conclusion that he is separated from them by “an attitude of the mind,” a direct result of his education. The essay ends with Rodriguez remembering the profound silence of those Mexican workers, which he interprets as a symbol of their lack of public identity, their permanent status as “persons apart.”
Rodriguez’s infamous critique of affirmative action constitutes the majority of “Profession.” He describes how, upon his entrance into the world of academia, he was designated a “minority student,” and he writes that he was wrong to have accepted this designation. He argues that affirmative action causes students like him, who are already advantaged due to their middle-class status, to be advanced solely “because many others of their race were more disadvantaged” than they. Rodriguez goes on to discuss many identity-based social movements and demonstrates how these movements (in his opinion) failed because of their commitment to race issues at the expense of class issues. Rather than focusing on college education, Rodriguez argues, education reform should target primary and secondary schools and should consider class as a key factor. He also spends much of this essay reflecting on the growing distance he feels from his parents and on his increasing discomfort within the world of academia. The essay concludes with Rodriguez recounting the story of how he decided to leave college teaching as an act of protest against a system that had unfairly given him more breaks than he feels he deserved.
“Mr. Secrets” is the melancholy and meandering final essay of the memoir. Rodriguez meditates on the value his family has always placed on privacy, attempting to reconcile his profession as a writer with his mother’s urgent plea for him to “write about something else.” He wrestles with the impulse he feels to publicly share personal details of his life and family, ultimately concluding that his writing is a kind of graffiti and that writing for a reader he will never meet helps him to better understand himself. The essay—and the book—concludes with a description of a Rodriguez family Christmas, the only time of the year that Rodriguez is together with his parents and his three siblings. Rodriguez describes a lack of connection to his siblings and parents, even as they show interest in his life and writing, and the memoir ends on a sorrowful note with Rodriguez reflecting on his father’s silence.