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Rodriguez, Richard (b. 1944)  
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Essayist and memoirist Richard Rodriguez is a thoughtful, and often controversial, commentator on issues related to the experience of American Latinos in particular and to American life generally. Perhaps the most widely read of Latino American authors, he positions himself as an outsider in America, not only because of his ethnicity, but also because of his sexuality.

Rodriguez's first book, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) brought him fame as an articulate and insightful memoirist, concerned with the tensions in American society between individuality and community, particularly as reflected in his experience as a Mexican-American. In the book's five autobiographical essays, Rodriguez describes his educational journey from a son of Mexican immigrant working-class parents who spoke only a few words of English to what he calls a "scholarship boy."

Hunger of Memory also established Rodriguez as an iconoclast with little respect for political correctness. Although he considers himself left of center in his politics, his strong critiques of bilingual education and affirmative action made him unpopular in liberal circles and a favorite among conservatives. But his positions are actually more nuanced than political labels can accurately convey.

As a contributing editor and regular essayist on PBS's NewsHour, and through his publications in such mainstream organs as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, Time, Mother Jones, and The New Republic, Rodriguez has become one of the most familiar public intellectuals in the United States.

Early Life and Education

Born on July 31, 1944, in San Francisco, California, to Leopoldo Rodriguez, a dental technician, and his wife Victoria, a clerk-typist, Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the 1920s, Rodriguez spoke Spanish exclusively in his home for the first six years of his life.

The family moved to Sacramento when Rodriguez's older brother developed asthma, and the family was advised to move to a dryer climate. Rodriguez was sent to Sacred Heart Grammar School, a Catholic school in "the white neighborhood" where they settled. The youngest of four children, Rodriguez struggled with not knowing how to speak English in the classroom. He viewed Spanish as his "private" language, the language spoken in his home with his parents and loved ones. For him, English was a "public" language associated with the public identity of mainstream America.

As Rodriguez struggled with the English language at Sacred Heart, three nuns visited his parents and asked that the family speak only English at home so that the boy could better learn the language. When they agreed, Rodriguez mourned the loss of his "private" language and its "pleasing, soothing, consoling reminder of being at home." As his parents struggled with English, Rodriguez immediately noticed a distance developing between him and them.

"The Irish nuns taught me the queen's English," Rodriguez says. They instilled in him a love of reading and helped him assimilate into mainstream American society. He credits their concern and encouragement with his decision to pursue higher education and to become a writer. But such success was not without its cost, particularly in terms of his relationship with his parents and his extended family.

As Rodriguez mastered English and excelled in school, his parents, while happy at his success, also lamented his loss of interest in Hispanic language and culture. Their son did not become bilingual: for him English replaced Spanish.

Rodriguez grew up increasingly alienated from his ethnic culture. He was frequently called "pocho" by relatives and family friends, and he was accused of betraying his people. "The Mexican American who forgets his true mother is a pocho, a person of no address, a child of no proper idiom," Rodriguez explains.

But, as the essayist has observed, his experience of alienation from his family and ethnic culture is itself thoroughly American. "Americans like to talk about the importance of family values," he notes. "But America isn't a country of family values; Mexico is a country of family values. This is a country of people who leave home."

Rodriguez's education continued at Christian Brothers High School, during which time his mother was hired as a secretary to Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. She became known to legislators from all over the state, and the Rodriguez family entered the American middle class. Indeed, Rodriguez has accused his parents of having "aristocratic tendencies."

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