From its very first essay, Hunger of Memory is a text obsessed with silence. Silence appears in three iterations in this memoir: the silence of not having a public identity, the silence of reading and writing, and silence as a result of cut-off intimacy. Rodriguez often talks about silent or reserved people as having a less developed public identity than characters who are more vocal. This can be seen in the way that Rodriguez’s father talks loudly and confidently in Spanish but is painfully quiet in English, or in the haunting silence of the Mexican workers Rodriguez encounters during his summer construction job. In this way, silence represents disempowerment and an inability to participate in public life. The second way that silence is manifested in the book is as the silence of reading and writing. Rodriguez recalls that he used to dislike reading on his own as a child, even speaking the words out loud to make himself feel less lonely. This uncomfortable silence recurs in Rodriguez’s adulthood as something he both fears and requires in order to write. In this sense, silence takes on a kind of power because it becomes a means of getting in touch with a deeper sense of self. The final form that silence takes is much more philosophical. Rodriguez is fascinated by the distinction between sound and sense—that is, the boundary between when words hit the ear as mere sound and when they begin to take on meaning. Rodriguez suggests that somewhere beyond this transition from sound to sense lies a profound silence. It is this form of silence that he suffers through after learning English and feeling cut off from the previously comforting Spanish sounds of home, but this silence also enables Rodriguez to access the abstract meanings that have defined his interests and career. In this way, silence becomes both reward and a consequence of education.
Silence Quotes in Hunger of Memory
One Saturday morning I entered the kitchen where my parents were talking in Spanish. I did not realize that they were talking in Spanish however until, at the moment they saw me, I heard their voices change to speak English. Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me. Pushed me away. In that moment of trivial misunderstanding and profound insight, I felt my throat twisted by unsounded grief. I turned quickly and left the room. But I had no place to escape to with Spanish. (The spell was broken.) My brother and sisters were speaking English in another part of the house.
Months later, two weeks of Christmas vacation: The first hours home were the hardest. (“What’s new?”) My parents and I sat in the kitchen for a conversation. (But, lacking the same words to develop our sentences and to shape our interests, what was there to say? What could I tell them of the term paper I had just finished on the “universality of Shakespeare’s appeal”?)
Playfully she ran through complex sentences, calling the words alive with her voice, making it seem that the author somehow was speaking directly to me. I smiled just to listen to her. I sat there and sensed for the very first time some possibility of fellowship between a reader and a writer, a communication, never intimate like that I heard spoken words at home convey, but one nonetheless personal.
I stood there. I wanted to say something more. But what could I say in Spanish, even if I could have pronounced the words right? Perhaps I just wanted to engage them in small talk, to be assured of their confidence, our familiarity. I thought for a moment to ask them where in Mexico they were from. Something like that. And maybe I wanted to tell them (a lie, if need be) that my parents were from the same part of Mexico.
Adulthood seemed consumed by memory. I would tell myself otherwise. I would tell myself that the act of remembering is an act of the present. (In writing this autobiography, I am actually describing the man I have become—the man in the present.)
All those faraway childhood mornings in Sacramento, walking together to school, [my siblings and I] talked but never mentioned a thing about what concerned us so much: the great event of our schooling, the change it forced on our lives. Years passed. Silence grew thicker, less penetrable. We grew older without ever speaking to each other about any of it. Intimacy grooved our voices in familiar notes; familiarity defined the limits of what could be said. Until we became adults. And now we see each other most years at noisy family gatherings where there is no place to stop the conversation, no right moment to turn the heads of listeners, no way to essay this, my voice.
My mother stands waving toward no one in particular. She seems sad to me. How sad? Why? (Sad that we all are going home? Sad that it was not quite, can never be, the Christmas one remembers having had once?) I am tempted to ask her quietly if there is anything wrong. (But these are questions of paradise, Mama.)