Though memory features prominently in the title of this book, its role within the text is complex. From the outset Rodriguez claims that his book tells the story of “one life only.” This is an emphatic statement: that his memories are not representative of the Mexican American experience. Yet he simultaneously presents his memoir as a “parable” for the life of a middle class man, implying that he can speak for others of his class, if not his race. The ways in which Rodriguez uses his own memories to speak (or not) for the broad experiences of others calls into question the ability of memory to be neatly used and understood.
Rodriguez opens his memoir with a refusal to enact for a white audience a “drama of ancestral reconciliation” with his Mexican roots. He suggests that continuity with such a deep past is impossible because memory is personal, rather than cultural. However, though he doesn’t believe his personal memories can make him an ambassador for his Mexican cultural heritage, Rodriguez confidently asserts that his personal narrative can act as a “parable” for the life of a middle-class man. While this could be due to Rodriguez’s openly-asserted belief that social mobility affects everyone regardless of race, it seems strange that Rodriguez would be comfortable with his memories standing in for those of other middle-class Americans, given his long-standing interest in “the connection between dark skin and poverty.” The book thus presents a murky picture of how and when personal memories can be legitimately mobilized to generalize about group experiences.
Though Rodriguez is skeptical of the notion of cultural or group memory, his memoir inherently places value on the role of personal memory. Rodriguez writes, “I turn to consider the boy I once was in order, finally, to describe the man I am now.” This speaks to the fact that Rodriguez’s adult sense of selfhood is built on his memories of who he was as a child. Yet, he allows that his memories likely differ from those of others. He wonders of his parents, for example, “What would be their version of the past we once shared?” Rodriguez thus acknowledges that, while his memories have fundamentally shaped him, these memories should not be considered objectively true. For Rodriguez, then, memory is less useful for reconstructing the past than it is for understanding the present. In a way, this sheds light on his title: Rodriguez is not hungering for memories of the past—his memories, as they exist in the present, have a hunger all their own. Thus, the act of writing and remembering memories is a way to subjectively reconcile the past with the present, a process that people have a profound need to undertake.
Memory’s role in this book, while central, is thus difficult to grasp. Rodriguez comes down clearly on some aspects of how memory works—he is precise about which group experiences his memories can be counted on to represent—yet his reasoning for these beliefs remains obscure. At the same time, he also does not claim that his personal memories are perfect, acknowledging that his family members likely have different memories of the same events, some of which they could never bring themselves to express to others. Ultimately, it seems that Rodriguez wants to suggest that the most valuable use for memory is not representation of another’s experience, but rather the exploration and construction of a person’s sense of self.
Memory Quotes in Hunger of Memory
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.
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.)
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.)