Hunger of Memory traces Rodriguez’s development from a “disadvantaged” youth—the son of Mexican immigrant parents, growing up in northern California—into a sought-after academic, lecturer, and author. At the core of Rodriguez’s development as an intellectual is the tension between his private self (who he is when he is with his family or when he is alone) and his public self (who he is when he is amongst strangers, particularly in school). While Rodriguez does not argue for the complete abolishment of private identity, he continually highlights the fact that the development of a public identity necessarily implies the shrinking of one’s private identity. Though he laments the loss of intimacy such a shrinking entails, Rodriguez argues that cultivating a public identity is synonymous with maturing into adulthood: he says, “I became a man by becoming a public man.”
Rodriguez depicts childhood as a journey toward realizing “the necessity of public life.” For him, the “great lesson” of growing up is learning how to assimilate into public society. This is something all children—not just the children of immigrants—must learn, and it is necessary if one wants access to the privileges that come with public life (such as the civic privilege of voting). However, Rodriguez also frames this journey as a process of claiming one’s rightful place in public society. Everyone, Rodriguez argues, deserves to speak in a public voice and feel a sense of belonging in public society—but in order to achieve this, one must make accommodations to the expectations of society. This requires losses to one’s private identity, for as a person spends more time speaking and acting in public, he or she necessarily begins to live a life of reduced intimacy. Superficially, Rodriguez seems to accept this fact—yet much of his memoir is devoted to mourning the family closeness he once felt as a child.
Despite the nostalgia he feels for the more private life of his childhood, Rodriguez views as vulgar those who would cling to a private identity rather than assimilate into public society. He uses the example of black teenagers speaking black English on a public bus, characterizing their use of black English as a defiant act of “brazen intimacy.” He sees these teenagers as deliberately living private lives publicly as an act of defiance against a public mainstream that will not accept them. While he admires and even envies the teenagers’ sense of intimacy with one another, he ultimately rejects their worldview as dangerous. For Rodriguez, trying to force public life to look and feel more like private life is an act of deliberate separateness which only further disadvantages already marginalized groups. Therefore, he refuses to “romanticize public separateness.”
However, despite his avowal that people have not only a right but also an obligation to live public lives, much of Rodriguez’s memoir is spent reflecting on ways to mitigate his own discomfort with his public life. Rodriguez is constantly seeking out experiences that allow him to feel “alone with others,” whether that experience is participating in a Catholic Mass (where people make private prayers in a communal setting), writing a book (expressing personal experiences to a public, unknown readership), or—in the simplified example he gives his mother—relating one’s problems to a psychiatrist. The reader thus begins to question why Rodriguez so strongly rebukes people who live their personal lives out loud, when he also clearly longs for the comfort that derives from such an act.
Private vs. Public Identity ThemeTracker
Private vs. Public Identity Quotes in Hunger of Memory
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.