Rodriguez writes, “Language has been the great subject of my life.” This is true on several levels: Rodriguez is a scholar of English literature, a writer who understands and communicates his experiences through the written word, and a philosopher of the role of language in public and private life. One of Rodriguez’s most important assertions in Hunger of Memory is that the best use of language is not to create intimacy or community (which Rodriguez believes exist outside of language), but rather to authoritatively participate in public life and assert a public identity. Despite arguing this point, Rodriguez still seems to think of language as the medium most apt for communicating his most personal thoughts and experiences (writing his memoir), bonding with his community (language is important to his relationship with his English-speaking peers), and even forging spirituality (he discusses his Catholic faith in the context of the language of the Church). Therefore, in a complex way, Rodriguez seems to simultaneously overvalue and undervalue the power of language to shape a person’s sense of self.
Rodriguez values public education—and monolingual, Anglophone public education, in particular—because he believes it gives children the ability to confidently participate in public life. Indeed, learning English opens possibilities for Rodriguez that he otherwise would not have had: it gives him access to further academic opportunity, for example, and it leads him to great literary works of the Western canon (a subject upon which he builds a successful career). Learning English, however, means that Rodriguez stops speaking Spanish. Initially he interprets this shift as a loss of intimacy and closeness with his family members; after his parents switch to speaking English at home in order to make Rodriguez learn faster, he notices a new silence among them. As he grows up, however, Rodriguez adopts the opinion that intimacy is something that cannot be contained in language itself: it stems from interpersonal relationships between people. To explain this, he describes realizing that he is unable to translate a phrase that his grandmother shouts to him from an open window, since a literal translation would fail to convey the intimacy contained not in her words themselves, but in the fact that she has addressed him and only him. Thus, Rodriguez ultimately comes to the conclusion that, while language can powerfully shape personal identity, it cannot dictate interpersonal relationships.
While Rodriguez downplays the power of language to affect one’s relationships, he emphasizes the effect of language on thought and consciousness. For example, he explores the effects of the language of Catholic Mass on the meaning of his faith. Rodriguez recalls that as a boy, his priest always began prayer with the word “credo,” which is Latin for “I believe.” Today, Rodriguez’s priest starts Mass with the English phrase, “we believe.” He laments the use of the first-person plural, claiming that it highlights only the communal aspect of religion, rather than reminding listeners through the first-person singular that they are alone before God. Rodriguez’s analysis underscores that small differences in language can have a large impact on something as fundamental as a person’s relationship to God. Similarly, Rodriguez asserts that learning English not only created a cultural gap between him and his parents, but it also gave him, through education, the ability to understand and articulate the separation he feels. In other words, while his academic work separated him from his family, it also gave him the gift of being able to think and write critically about his upbringing. This is a complicated statement; while Rodriguez’s academic training does give him the clarity to interpret his childhood in sophisticated and illuminating ways, he also suggests quite clearly that educated, middle-class people are better able to understand class than lower-class people. Here, it seems that Rodriguez is overestimating the power of language to shape consciousness and identity; certainly, lower-class people are not incapable of class-consciousness merely because they do not speak about it in the same language an academic might use.
Rodriguez thus has a complicated relationship to language. He loves the way it allows him and others to express themselves, but he nevertheless consistently emphasizes the sadness and discomfort he feels at no longer speaking “good” Spanish—he even refers to having learned English as his “original sin” against his family. Thus, language occupies a fraught position in his life, and trying to reconcile opposed realities—that language has given him his passion and livelihood, and taken aspects of his family life—sometimes leads him to contradictory or condescending ideas. Nonetheless, the beauty and clarity of his prose, as well as his keen philosophical interest in language, reveal that language is the great subject of Rodriguez’s life, even if he can’t always fully account for it.
Language, Intimacy, and Authority ThemeTracker
Language, Intimacy, and Authority 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?
Language has been the great subject of my life. In college and graduate school, I was registered as an “English major.” But well before then, from my first day of school, I was a student of language. Obsessed by the way it determined my public identity. The way it permits me here to describe myself, writing…
The odd truth is that my first-grade classmates could have become bilingual, in the conventional sense of that word, more easily than I. Had they been taught (as upper-middle-class children are often taught early) a second language like Spanish or French, they could have regarded it simply as that: another public language. In my case such bilingualism could not have been so quickly achieved. What I did not believe was that I could speak a single public language.
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.
He wanted to know what she had said. I started to tell him, to say—to translate her Spanish words into English. The problem was, however, that though I knew how to translate exactly what she had told me, I realized that any translation would distort the deepest meaning of her message: It had been directed only to me. This message of intimacy could never be translated because it was not in the words she had used but passed through them. So any translation would have seemed wrong; her words would have been stripped of an essential meaning.
Behind this screen there gleams an astonishing promise: One can become a public person while still remaining a private person. At the very same time one can be both! There need be no tension between the self in the crowd and the self apart from the crowd! Who would not want to believe such an idea? Who can be surprised that the scheme has won the support of many middle-class Americans?
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.
When all else was different for me (as a scholarship boy) between the two worlds of my life, the Church provided an essential link. During my first months in school, I remember being struck by the fact that—although they worshipped in English—the nuns and my classmates shared my family’s religion. The gringos were, in some way, like me, católicos.
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 my bedroom were books by poets and novelists—books that I loved—in which male writers published feelings the men in my family never revealed or acknowledged in words. And it seemed to me that there was something unmanly about my attachment to literature. Even today, when so much about the myth of the macho no longer concerns me, I cannot altogether evade such notions.
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.
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.
I have come to think of myself as engaged in writing graffiti. Encouraged by physical isolation to reveal what is most personal; determined at the same time to have my words seen by strangers. I have come to understand better why works of literature—while never intimate, never individually addressed to the reader—are so often among the most personal statements we hear in our lives.
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.)