Most current citizens of this "nation of immigrants" have no notion of the quintessential American experience--the experience of becoming an American. So this Fourth of July, instead of asphyxiating yourself while charcoaling chicken, or setting Aunt Min on fire by the rockets' red glare, read "Hunger of Memory," the autobiography of Richard Rodriguez.
He grew up in Sacramento in the '50s, the son of immigrants from Mexico. This "history of my schooling" is about the place of language in the transformation of a "socially disadvantaged" child into a middle- class man. It is an elegant echo of the experience of millions of Americans before 1920; it is a sensitive anticipation of themes certain to become more familiar as America assimilates Spanish-speaking newcomers.
Rodriguez was a child "cloistered by family sounds," but timid in public, where spoken English was an unscalable wall. "At the age of five, six, well past the time when most other children no longer easily notice the difference between sounds uttered at home and words spoken in public, I had a different experience. . . . I remained a child longer than most; I lingered too long, poised at the edge of language. . . ." The day he entered school, with a vocabulary of 50 English words, was the first day he heard his name pronounced in English.
"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."
Before elementary school, the screen door of his house divided starkly different public and private realms. And as he and his siblings learned more and more English, they shared fewer and fewer words with their parents. Education has divided many American families, generationally, but the experience is especially poignant when it touches language, the instrument of intimacy.
Rodriguez had in abundance the earnestness of a clear-sighted immigrant at the foot of the social ladder. Coming across someone's list of the "hundred most important books of Western civilization," he methodically read every one. Such a "scholarship boy," says Rodriguez, cannot afford to admire his parents: how can he and still summon the stamina needed for rising above their life?
This book about language and intimacy is a controlled confession of loss and regret; but it is controlled by a sense of net gain. The loss was necessary because without being at ease in the public's language, one cannot feel as though one belongs in public society.
Linguistically, America has long been (in Rodriguez's phrase) "a marinade of sounds." But the healthy trend has been away from the romance of diversity, toward uniformity. Today, Rodriguez says, the belief in bilingualism rests on the romantic hope that no private cost need be paid for public success. The bilingual voter's ballot "implies that a person can exercise that most public of rights--the right to vote--while still keeping apart, unassimilated from public life."
Advocates of bilingual schooling try to have it both ways, he says. They argue that such schooling will help in the classroom and hence will help with public success. But they also argue that it will preserve for the child a separate identity, distancing the child from the public culture. Rodriguez insists we are individualized twice, at home and in public. For any child, and for all parents, there must be pain in the pull between the two realms: growing up involves growing away before going away. But for the child of a non-English-speaking family in America, the lost intimacy can be especially bewildering. En route to postgraduate attainments in English literature, he came to be considered a "minority" student for "affirmative action" purposes. But by then he was in no meaningful sense a member of a cultural minority. And he was troubled that affirmative action in higher education helps the least- disadvantaged members of a minority group. He quietly stepped off a rising academic career path to assert a prosaic but hard-won identity: middle-class man.
His book is an affecting act of filial piety, a tribute to the special bravery of immigrant parents who point a child toward a cultural divide they cannot cross. But his book also is a profound compliment to the country: he praises what he has lost, but insists that the gain--Americanization: a place in our public--has been worth the pain..