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literature

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Rodriguez, Richard (b. 1944)  
 
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Throughout high school, Rodriguez associated with middle- and upper-class white classmates, and he easily absorbed their manners and tastes. "An accident in geography sent me to school where all my classmates were white, many the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives," and "both my parents continued to respect the symbols of what they considered to be upper-class life," he observed.

Rodriguez attended Stanford University and spent two years in a religious studies program at Columbia University. He later spent time at London's Warburg Institute and at Oxford University before earning a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. When he left London, he moved back in with his parents for a year, but he says he could not recover his "lost ethnicity, remaining an academic . . . a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen."

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Critiques of Affirmative Action and Bilingual Education

Rodriguez's objections to affirmative action began when he sought university teaching jobs in the early 1970s and received offers based primarily on his minority status. He declined the offers because he could not endure the irony of being counted as a "minority" when, in fact, he was now a fully assimilated member of the majority.

Rodriguez came to oppose affirmative action on the grounds that "the program has primarily benefited people who are no longer disadvantaged, . . . as I no longer was when I was at Stanford." The focus on affirmative action, he charges, has contributed to society's "ignoring the educational problems of people who are genuinely disadvantaged, people who cannot read or write."

Rodriguez's objections to bilingual education are equally controversial and similarly rooted in his own experience: "To me, public educators in a public schoolroom have an obligation to teach a public language [i.e., English]. It is the language of public society, the language that people outside that public sector resist."

Rodriguez contends that mastering English allows immigrants to develop a public identity. He believes that children have an obligation to learn that they belong to a pluralistic society, and in order to assimilate into that society they must learn the language of mainstream America. "You can't use family language in the classroom--the classroom requires that you use language publicly."

Hunger of Memory

Although he received several offers of tenure-track positions teaching Renaissance literature at leading universities, Rodriguez decided to abandon his dream of an academic career after receiving his Ph.D. in 1976. He spent the next six years writing Hunger of Memory, parts of which were published in various magazines before being brought together in book form. Hunger of Memory was well-received and praised by many critics, especially for its discussion of the impact of language on life and for its own distinguished prose style. As Rodriguez acknowledges, "Language has been the great subject of my life."

The book won several awards, including the Gold Medal for non-fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California, the Christopher Prize for Autobiography, and the Ansfeld-Wolf Prize for Civil Rights from the Cleveland Foundation.

The book also received negative reviews because of Rodriguez's critiques of bilingual education and affirmative action. Some reviewers charged him with hypocrisy because he benefited from the affirmative action programs that he excoriated. He became a lightning rod in the debates over affirmative action and bilingual education that swirled in the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes falsely accused of holding beliefs that he rejects.

Days of Obligation

Rodriguez' second book, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (1992), is another collection of previously published essays that examines many of the themes from Hunger of Memory: barbarism and civilization among Hispanics, religion, and language. It also includes a moving account of the death of a close friend from AIDS. In the chapter "Late Victorians," Rodriguez explicitly acknowledges his homosexuality, which was only implicit in Hunger of Memory.

While not as well-received as Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation nevertheless established Rodriguez as one of America's best autobiographical writers. The book was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1993.

Marginalization

Rodriguez sees himself as marginalized in many ways. He is frequently attacked by Hispanics for his views on affirmative action and bilingual education, and for not being "Mexican enough." He is also sometimes criticized by gay activists for "not being gay enough."

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