Rodriguez dedicates this memoir to his parents—“to honor them,” he writes. Aside from Rodriguez’s own narrative voice, his mother and his father are the central figures of the novel. However, the reader learns relatively little about Rodriguez’s parents and hears only a few snippets of their dialogue, while Rodriguez’s brother and two sisters are even less present. Though Rodriguez laments the fact that his education has isolated him from his family members, his family continues to demonstrate their love for him every time they appear in the text. This seems at odds with Rodriguez’s characterization of their relationship as distant and unconnected, raising the question of whether the isolation Rodriguez claims to feel is—at least partially—self-imposed.
Rodriguez maintains that his education has so drastically altered him that he can no longer relate to his family, particularly his parents. This began when his school demanded that the family speak English at home, continued with his first visit home from college (in which he found himself relating to his parents as an interviewer or anthropologist), and solidified once he realized that his academic training has led him to think only abstractly about his relationship to his family (a thought process that he presumes they cannot follow, since, he writes, “My father and mother did not pass their time thinking about the cultural meanings of their experience”). While Rodriguez convincingly argues that his education has inevitably created a cultural gulf between him and his parents, some of his claims about his parents open up the question of whether the distance Rodriguez feels from them is partially a result of his condescension. It is ironic, in light of his statement that his parents don’t think abstractly about their experience, that he later praises the Catholic Church for being the only institution to treat his parents as “thinkers—persons aware of the experience of their lives.” Rodriguez seems unaware that he does not always extend this dignity to them.
The fact that Rodriguez feels comfortable making assumptions about the way in which his parents have experienced their lives is further complicated by the fact that he acknowledges that there are parts of his parents’ experiences to which he will never have access, since they are not comfortable speaking about certain thoughts and experiences. Of his mother he wonders, “What would be her version of this book?” Rodriguez thus seems curious about his parents’ inaccessible interior lives, yet he simultaneously makes reductive assumptions about their thoughts. This brings into question Rodriguez’s certainty that his closeness to his family has been compromised solely because of his education—perhaps their distance is not due to the richer analytical abilities that Rodriguez enjoys as a result of his education, but rather due to his inability to suspend judgment about his parents’ thoughts and capabilities.
It could also be that the distance Rodriguez feels from his family is a result of him being, at the core of his identity, a writer. He admits that he has not always maintained a “conventional social life,” turning instead “to the silence [he] both need[s] and fear[s].” Perhaps the reason Rodriguez does not feel connected to his family—despite the nearly constant care and concern they demonstrate for him—is not because his family is less apt or able to think complexly about their lives, but rather because Rodriguez reflects on his life in a fundamentally different way from his family: through writing. Though he spends much of the book lamenting the various silences in his life and examining their origins, it seems probable that silence is ultimately a self-inflicted experience, one that is necessary to the way Rodriguez exists in the world. Though Rodriguez’s lament of his lack of closeness with his family seems genuine, the way he discusses his distance from his family thus opens up possibilities other than his education for why this distance exists.
Family Quotes in Hunger of Memory
Aztec ruins hold no special interest for me. I do not search Mexican graveyards for ties to unnamable ancestors. I assume I retain certain features of gesture and mood derived from buried lives. I also speak Spanish today. And read García Lorca and García Márquez at my leisure. But what consolation can that fact bring against the knowledge that my mother and father have never heard of García Lorca or García Márquez?
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.
My mother met the wrath of her brother, her only brother, when he came up from Mexico one summer with his family. He saw his nieces and nephews for the very first time. After listening to me, he looked away and said what a disgrace it was that I couldn’t speak Spanish, “su propio idioma.” He made that remark to my mother; I noticed, however, that he stared at my father.
Those times I remembered the loss of my past with regret, I quickly reminded myself of all the things my teachers could give me. (They could make me an educated man.) I tightened my grip on pencil and books. I evaded nostalgia. Tried hard to forget. But one does not forget by trying to forget. One only remembers. I remembered too well that education had changed my family’s life. I would not have become a scholarship boy had I not so often remembered.
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”?)
A child whose parents could not introduce him to books like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I was introduced to the spheres of enchantment by the nighttime Catholicism of demons and angels. The superstitious Catholicism of home provided a kind of proletarian fairy world.
In ceremonies of public worship, [my parents] have been moved, assured that their lives—all aspects of their lives, from waking to eating, from birth until death, all moments—possess great significance. Only the liturgy has encouraged them to dwell on the meaning of their lives. To think.
I would not learn in three months what my father had meant by “real work.” I was not bound to this job; I could imagine its rapid conclusion. For me the sensation of exertion and fatigue could be savored. For my father or uncle, working at comparable jobs when they were my age, such sensations were to be feared.
My mother must use a high-pitched tone of voice when she addresses people who are not relatives. It is a tone of voice I have all my life heard her use away from the house. Coming home from grammar school with new friends, I would hear it, its reminder: My new intimates were strangers to her. Like my sisters and brother, over the years, I’ve grown used to hearing that voice. Expected to hear it. Though I suspect that voice has played deep in my soul, sounding a lyre, to recall my “betrayal,” my movement away from our family’s intimate past.
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.)