In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez discusses his upbringing and identity in the context of both his race and his class, arguing that class is a much more useful frame through which to understand a person’s identity than race. Though Rodriguez’s understanding of the centrality of class to a person’s experience and identity informs the way he writes about topics such as academia and cultural heritage, he also—despite his opposition to centering race as a determinant of identity—writes at length about his Mexican heritage, his bicultural upbringing, and his brown skin. The tension between Rodriguez’s preference for class-based analysis and his devotion of a significant portion of the book to writing about his race suggests that race and class might have a more complex relationship than Rodriguez overtly acknowledges.
Part of Rodriguez’s resistance to viewing race as a central part of a person’s identity is that, to him, race is a category so broad and nondescript that it flattens a person’s individuality. Since Rodriguez does not identify strongly as Mexican American, he feels that people who focus on his race cannot truly see who he is. For example, when Rodriguez is a professor, a group of minority students asks him to teach an ethnic literature class. Rodriguez knows that he has been asked only because of his race; his specialty is English Renaissance literature. Furthermore, Rodriguez believes that focusing on race overshadows the importance of class differences, which often have a more direct effect on people’s lived experiences. Policies such as affirmative action conflate the experiences of middle-class Mexican Americans with those of working-class Mexican Americans (los pobres). Because such policies disregard class in favor of race, middle-class members of minority racial groups are uplifted by social programs while their lower-class counterparts remain entrapped in poverty. Rodriguez thus opposes a focus on race over class for both personal and structural reasons.
While class, like race, is a vast category, Rodriguez identifies much more strongly as middle class than as Mexican American. His middle-class background allows him to attend prestigious schools and become a cosmopolitan intellectual; to him, that says much more about who he is than does his race. For example, Rodriguez spends one summer working a construction job where he encounters Mexican seasonal laborers. Rodriguez realizes that, despite their shared race, they have almost nothing in common. To Rodriguez, this shows that class is a greater determinant of identity than race: the other men’s lives are working-class, while Rodriguez’s life is middle-class. However, this becomes complicated when Rodriguez—who sought out the job after feeling alienated from his academic peers—speaks Spanish to the workers and feels a strong yearning for evidence of their “familiarity” with him. This desire for a connection with his Mexican upbringing suggests that Rodriguez’s cultural heritage does, in some way, make him stand apart from his middle-class peers in academia.
Though Rodriguez despairingly imagines a future bookseller who will blindly shelve Hunger of Memory “alongside specimens of that exotic new genre, ‘ethnic literature,’” Rodriguez’s considerable attention to issues of race (such as his insecurity about his dark skin) has ironically made Hunger of Memory part of the canon of Chicano literature. Rodriguez’s exploration of race could be simply a concession to the expectations of his readers (who are, according to Rodriguez, likely to assume that race is the most important aspect of his identity), but it does seem that Rodriguez is unable to tell the story of his middle-class upbringing (and of his development as an enthusiastic English speaker and social conservative) without considering his race. This seems to undercut his argument for the unimportance of race in identity formation.
Rodriguez claims that his writing is political only “in a broad sense,” largely for the way it describes his coming-of-age into a public person. However, his deliberate decision to highlight class over race—even as his own writing seems to pull him into a discussion of race—represents the most political aspect of this memoir. Rodriguez is deliberately refusing to center the issue that readers expect to be most important. Yet, the irrepressible presence of race in Rodriguez’s memoir clearly suggests that race and class in America are interlocked in ways that make it difficult to isolate the effects each one has on a person’s identity and development.
Race, Class, and Identity ThemeTracker
Race, Class, and Identity 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?
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.
The normal, extraordinary, animal excitement of feeling my body alive—riding shirtless on a bicycle in the warm wind created by furious self-propelled motion—the sensations that first had excited in me a sense of my maleness, I denied. I was too ashamed of my body. I wanted to forget that I had a body because I had a brown body.
At such times I suspected that education was making me effeminate. The odd thing, however, was that I did not judge my classmates so harshly. Nor did I consider my male teachers in high school effeminate. It was only myself I judged against some shadowy, mythical Mexican laborer—dark like me, yet very different.
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.
That is only to say that my complexion assumes its significance from the context of my life. My skin, in itself, means nothing. I stress the point because I know there are people who would label me “disadvantaged” because of my color. They make the same mistake I made as a boy, when I thought a disadvantaged life was circumscribed by particular occupations. … But I was not one of los pobres. What made me different from them was an attitude of mind, my imagination of myself.
Academics would have violated their generation’s ideal of openness if they had said that their schools couldn’t accommodate disadvantaged Americans. To have acknowledged the truth about their schools, moreover, academics would have had to acknowledge their own position of privilege. And that would have been difficult. The middle-class academy does not deeply impress on students or teachers a sense of social advantage. The campus has become a place for “making it” rather than a place for those who, relatively speaking, “have it made.”