- Juan VelascoJuan VelascoDepartment of English and Modern Languages, Santa Clara University
The overwhelming critical attention received by Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) has eclipsed the complexity and diversity of his work as well as the discussion on his impact on Latina/o studies and autobiography studies. A great deal of bibliography dedicated to Rodriguez is the result of the ideological battles the book was engaged in during the 1980s. The political context in which the book was used (mostly to oppose affirmative action and bilingual education) defined the rest of Rodriguez’s work, as some critics considered his positions on education almost treasonous. Lee Bebout summarizes those reactions in “Postracial Mestizaje: Richard Rodriguez’s Racial Imagination in an America Where Everyone Is Beginning to Melt,” as he mentions how most critics saw Rodriguez’s work as the result of a colonized mind, a mannequin for white America. “Tomas Rivera, Ramon Saldívar, William Nericcio, and others critiqued Rodriguez’s thinking, and sometimes Rodriguez himself, as the result of a colonized mind, blind to history and structural inequalities, and playing the role of a “Mexican” mannequin in the mind of white America.”
In an interview with scholar José Antonio Gurpegui in Camino Real, Rodriguez admitted “I do see myself—in some more complicated way—as truly being a traitor to memory, if not exactly a traitor to Mexico or to Latin America. I do think I betrayed my family, betrayed my mother and father by becoming someone new—a ‘gringo.’” If we place his work in this context, Rodriguez’s work brings urgency and new significance to Latina/o studies in the 21st century by highlighting the unresolved contradictions that memory, culture, and identity posit as vehicles of agency. His approach to autobiography redefines traditional notions of identity, race, and language, and offers critical notions of subject formation beyond cultural nationalism, proposing queer paradigms that complicate and challenge writing as a clear vehicle for self-empowerment. His writing, queer to cultural nationalism, is deeply committed to the exploration of autobiography as discontinuous space—a space of disruptive transgression where words are barely a ghostly shell; a floating dream in search of an identity.