A Writer's Education: From Spanish to English, From Private to Public Life

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San Francisco - Richard Rodriguez began first grade in Sacramento, Calif., able to speak only a few dozen, scattered words of English. Afraid of the language of los gringos, the classroom's only Spanish-speaking child resisted his teacher's persistent demands to stand up and speak out.

It was the 1950's, more than a decade before bilingual education would become a popular cause of liberal educators, and the nuns of Sacred Heart school would not allow such resistance for long. An unwilling Richard was tutored daily in his new language by a nun who did not speak Spanish. And his parents, working-class Mexican immigrants, insisted that their children begin to speak English at home.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Rodriguez recalls, "it happened":

"One day in school I raised my hand to volunteer an answer. I spoke out in a loud voice. And I did not think it remarkable when the entire class understood.

"That day, I moved very far from the disadvantaged child I had been only days earlier. The belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public, had at last taken hold."

With this story, Richard Rodriguez begins his autobiography, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez--a series of essays that the author describes as "the history of my schooling."

In it, the Mexican-American writer records a journey made up of transitions--from childhood to early adulthood, from alienated Hispanic to assimilated, middle-class American, from intimate, Spanish-speaking family life to English-speaking public society. Such a journey, Mr. Rodriguez believes, is the purpose of schooling.

Education, he writes, has altered his life, carried him far. Now a writer living here in San Francisco, Mr. Rodriguez believes that having to learn English was a prerequisite to that education.

By writing about his education, however, Mr. Rodriguez has generated remarkable public interest and controversy. Although his essays are personal, they are also social and political, and they take exception to two educational programs--bilingual education and affirmative action--that came about in the wake of the sweeping social reforms of the 1960's.

It comes as some surprise to Mr. Rodriguez that much of the interest in his book focuses on what it has to say about these programs, and especially about bilingual education, because his discussion of them is relatively brief. Moreover, he had published the material before.

He had already said that he opposes bilingual education and that he believes those who promote it do not understand the purpose of schooling and the meaning of language. An earlier version of his main chapter on the subject was published more than a year and a half ago in The American Scholar, and it was widely reprinted in the Sunday editions of such newspapers as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsday.

Including those ideas in the book, Mr. Rodriguez had worried, would reduce its chances of receiving much attention.

Instead, Hunger of Memory attracted what both Mr. Rodriguez and his publisher (David R. Godine) characterize as "extraordinary" attention.

Beginning with a favorable front-page review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Hunger of Memory has been discussed, praised, and attacked in the book review, feature, and editorial pages of dozens of major newspapers and magazines.

Since the the book's publication last February, Mr. Rodriguez has been interviewed 54 times--by Bryant Gumbel, Merv Griffin, and Studs Terkel, among others. This summer, CBS traveled to Sacramento to film him at Sacred Heart school. And last month, Mr. Rodriguez, author of a book "about a boy learning to read and write," as he puts it, found himself the subject of a feature story in People magazine.

Hunger of Memory has been acclaimed for its literary style and sensitive portrayal of the conflict between private and public life--especially in its depiction of the pain and guilt involved in relinquishing Spanish and family intimacy for English and a place in the middle class. And it has been harshly criticized--and contemptuously dismissed by some educators--as a betrayal of Mexican-Americans and as an unfeeling attack on bilingual education.

In retrospect, he said in an interview, his worry over whether the book would receive attention--on such local talk shows as "Good Morning Phoenix," for example--"was completely nave."

"In fact, Phoenix was hot for this book. They were really, really interested in this issue of bilingual education, especially."

That surprises him. "I didn't expect this much fervor about it--the hostility on the one hand, or on the other, the extraordinary kind of interest."

What it means, Mr. Rodriguez says, is that "we're not talking about pedagogy. Whatever else bilingual education is, it is not simply an educational issue."

"What we talk about when we raise this issue is the kind of person we choose to become, the kind of person we feel ourselves to have become. It's not an abstract issue about how to learn English, it's really a question of what do we mean when we say, 'We are Americans."'

Sitting in the one-room apartment that is his home and place of work, Mr. Rodriguez concedes that to write about bilingual education when he has had no experience with it "is in some ways an impertinence."

"I wrote the chapter on bilingual education primarily because of a certain kind of impatience I have with the American political left. This feeling that somehow public achievement, public mobility doesn't imply any costs, that somehow you can have it both ways--that you can be a public person and a private person at the same time."

Mr. Rodriguez believes that the purpose of education is to enable children to move beyond the refuge of the family, to be independent, to have choices, and to claim a place in public society. Bilingual-education programs, he thinks, do not serve the children who most need to move beyond their private lives.

To some degree, all children begin school alien to the public world, he points out, poor children more so than those of the middle class. And the children who do not speak English face extreme alienation--they are cultural outsiders dependent upon translators to negotiate public acts.

That education changes children is inevitable, he believes. And the process may be wrenchingly painful for children whose family lives are markedly different from the culture that schools represent.

He objects to what he terms "this new nostalgia we have about not hurting people through education--that by teaching them English we're tampering with them."

The argument that bilingual education permits children to join the society without relinquishing their cultural past is one with which he strongly disagrees, although it is one that he hears advanced far less often now than in the late 70's.

It is "ethnic romanticism," he suggests, "to argue that somehow if you had the child speaking Spanish or Vietnamese he would not suffer that radical loss as he moved into public society, that in some way he would remain Mexican or Vietnamese, attached to his cultural past."

We would all like to believe that we can be public and private at the same time, he admits. "We don't want to believe that we have lost all ties with private life by becoming public persons. But I'm more optimistic than these people who worry too much about this issue of assimilation. I think in some ways we will never be assimiliated, [each person] is separate.

"I'm related to my grandmother, and I respond to the colors that light provokes in ways that have something to do with my grandmother or my great-grandfather. I will always be related to my grandmother, but I don't know what it means for me to carry around a Mexican flag and to observe the Cinco de Mayo every year.

"America is not simply a place where you lose your culture, it is its own real culture."

To explain, he tells of an encounter with one of his Mexican-American critics: "This man said to me, 'I don't mind that you consider yourself an American, but what I really resent when I hear Mexican-Americans talk about themselves as Americans is when they start talking about Abraham Lincoln as their spiritual forefather.'

"Well, you know," Mr. Rodriguez says, "I really think that in some important way, Jefferson is my cultural forefather. I'm indebted to him in a way I'm not indebted to Zapata. At that level, I really do want to claim a separation from the past."

But his real concern, Mr. Rodriguez says, has more to do with how unassimilated people live in the culture than with how they think about it. For example, he says, "What do you do with a society like the Mexican-American society of Los Angeles, which is now a city within a city with something like two or three million people, and which has almost no elected citywide representation by Mexican-Americans?"

"My father has a wonderful thing to say about this: 'The trouble with the bilingual voting ballot,' he says, 'is that you end up voting for the translator.' That's precisely what I worry about in thinking of people who really don't live out a kind of public life. They always use the Mexican newspaper, the Mexican food store, they use all kinds of cues for telling them what is, in fact, the world beyond their immediate horizon.

"Now if you are going to argue with me that it is better for them to know at least that than not to know anything, I suppose I would agree.

"But if we are talking about ideal situations, I would argue that the obligation of the schoolroom is precisely to meet that mandate of public education to teach these children that they are public people--not Mexicans, not Vietnamese, not Polish children. They are public people, and they have to live in a world of Chinese-Americans; they have to come to terms with living in a world of Polish-Americans, of people who look very different from them and who speak a very different kind of English. That's the implication of the schoolroom in every way, to teach the children how to form a public voice, how to speak to a gathering of strangers."

Mr. Rodriguez has more sympathy for the argument that the value of bilingual education lies in helping non-English-speaking children maintain their level of academic instruction while they learn to speak English.

But a strong linguistic argument, he says, is that students can learn a new language most easily when they are young. And more important, he suspects that it is not helpful for socially disadvantaged children "to hold onto their family language for too long." For him, anything less than being compelled to learn English "was an evasion, which I would willingly and happily have had."

"It wasn't that my little brain couldn't comprehend; I simply didn't want to form the words. It's a question really: How do we deal with children who are tender, soft, and frightened and alienated from this strange new world."

"The reason I spoke English was that the nun conveyed her compassion for me. It's not going to be easy [for any child] and it's going to come with radical pain. I know about this pain and I know it comes inevitably."

In this sense, Mr. Rodriguez says, it is not language alone that is at issue, but separation from the culture--a separation that could be the result of language, race, or class.

He finally came to understand, he writes, that intimacy was not contained in the language he spoke, but in intimates. His journey was not linguistic, but social.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rodriguez says that he can imagine a child helped by Spanish language instruction, say, in arithmetic for a year or two. But on a practical level, he wonders about the length and quality of programs that keep non-English-speaking children separate from their peers.

For example, he asks, are teachers hired for competence in the language or for competence in a particular field? Do they carry out both aspects of their job as well as teachers in the regular programs? And he has been told by some bilingual educators that the texts used in bilingual classes are inferior to those in main curriculum. The result of this, he says, is that the children are "in a separate educational system."

That many of the book's critics have taken Hunger of Memory to be about the "Mexican-American experience" annoys Mr. Rodriguez. It is the story of "one life," as he puts it, and he intended the book to be seen as "a parable about language."

"I believe that if I do my job as a writer well that you will understand it, in the most mysterious ways, not because it was your experience, not because it's the typical experience--whatever the typical experience is--but because it is true somehow to the experience of what we all know about language."

In the book, he describes his place in educational institutions as that of "the scholarship boy." His was not an ethnic experience, but the experience of being poor, of being a newcomer to the world of books and finding education a "passport" to another world.

From his Catholic-school education, Mr. Rodriguez went to Stanford University. There, he says, people often thought he was from abroad. "Here were those Mexican gardeners, who looked just like me, right outside their windows, but it was India I was from!"

But by the time he was in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. Rodriguez had become a "minority"--much sought after by universities hurriedly looking for black and brown faces to demonstrate higher education's commitment to the new wave of social consciousness.

The trouble with affirmative action programs, he says, is that they benefited those who no longer were socially disadvantaged. "Minority means, as a cultural designation, people alienated from majority society, or, as a numerical designation, people underrepresented in positions of power or employment, and so forth."

Universities, he says, used the second meaning to signify the first. It allowed those "who were not cultural minorities suddenly to become beneficiaries. They could use us because, in fact, we were not culturally of our race."

Increasingly unhappy with such practices in higher education, Mr. Rodriguez decided to leave university life.

He believes the money spent to recruit blacks and Mexican-Americans into higher education should be used in other ways.

Educational institutions should take responsibility for more than "their own little turf," he says. "If someplace like Stanford University is getting only a handful of qualified black students, then it should become more involved in the education of black high-school students. Lately I've begun to see that happening."

At that level, he says, he is bothered by what he calls the "sentimentality of the left. I worry about this talk about inheritance, this mumbo jumbo about roots. Let's worry about that when we become middle class, then we can all worry about our roots."

It is a mistake, he believes, to emphasize an education that fosters cultural or ethnic identity, instead of one that makes children literate, able to have a voice in public society. "Do we congratulate ourselves because [young blacks] retained fidelity to their slave ancestors and are now equally all unemployable?" he asks.

"The way you get a child to feel pride is by making him the master of his own skills. ... I doubt that George Washington Carver has gotten many people out of the ghetto, or Willie Mays for that matter."

"The real patronization is when you take no responsibility at all for these people's lives and you just glibly assume that somehow they'll make it on their own in this society."

In Hunger of Memory, he writes that the nuns of Sacred Heart were "unsentimental about their responsibility," that they made his success "their ambition."

There were 52 children in his first grade class, he recalls, and no teachers' aides. "And these were nuns who managed the bureaucratic business of the school after hours. These women were not nave. They were tough, extraordinary, and there just weren't any failures in their classes."

"Their stress on basic education was precisely what I needed. I didn't need to learn about my Mexican roots, I needed to learn how to read and to write. The pride that I got came out of my own achievements, not out of the achievements of my race."

"I don't make that demand on all educators--to be as good as those nuns. The only standards I hold American public education accountable for are the standards it has set for itself, three or four generations ago. The fact is that American schools did assimilate huge numbers of immigrants."

But the conditions in urban school systems today, particularly those with large numbers of non-English-speaking students, are far different from those at Sacred Heart School, Mr. Rodriguez will readily agree.

"We have to start talking about the real issue in all of this, and that is money. Real educational reform in this country is going to be very expensive. At that level, I become more liberal than the liberals, because I really think that the challenge should have been made against the Lyndon Johnson Administration, against the Nixon, Ford, Carter Administrations, and now the Reagan [Administration] that we really need a national literacy campaign."

"The challenge to us as a free society is how do we match the achievement of something like Castro's Cuba, which managed in the space of three to five years this massive literacy campaign. I'm not arguing for a totalitarian educational system, but I am arguing that if we're going to be serious we're going to have to talk about reproducing in some way the kind of situation I had in that classroom. And that's very expensive."

"My suspicion is that teachers have to have some latitude to work individually with students, and that means more freedom for them in terms of time, but also quieter spaces."

But, he says, "if I'm persuasive about this issue, I suspect it's at a different level [from specific proposals]. I am suggesting what it is that education does, not how it is that education can do that."

That so much of the book's contents have been glossed over by critics disappoints Mr. Rodriguez. His chapter on the Roman Catholic church is the one he says he cares most about. "It is really about the institution that balances a man's public and private life, which is what a church is--one of the few places where you can be both."

He has been told that the book will be used in a variety of university courses--from Mexican-American literature to social work and education, but he is most pleased that it seems to interest linguists.

Hollywood producers have approached him about making a movie of Hunger of Memory--a proposal that does not interest him. How they would dramatize a boy learning to read and write, he doesn't know.

But interest in Hunger of Memory, now in its fourth printing, is expected to continue. Next March, Bantam Books will publish the paperback edition with a first printing of about 75,000 copies.

"There is something very curious about a book, I think, as opposed to a newspaper," he notes, "and it's impact is rather startling, even in this age when we diminish the importance of books."

Yet, there is an irony in his unexpectedly large audience, he points out: "People who vote in Spanish will not read this book."

Vol. 02, Issue 01

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