Richard Rodriguez was born on July 31, 1944, into a Mexican immigrant family in San Francisco, California. Rodriguez spoke Spanish until he went to a Catholic school at age six. As a youth in Sacramento, California, he delivered newspapers and worked as a gardener. He graduated from Sacramento's Christian Brothers High School.
Rodriguez received a B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. from Columbia University, was a Ph.D. candidate in English Renaissance literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and attended the Warburg Institute in London on a Fulbright fellowship. A noted prose stylist, Rodriguez has worked as a teacher, international journalist, and educational consultant and has appeared regularly on PBS's show, NewsHour. A television documentary about Rodriguez's works earned Jim Lehrer a Peabody Award in 1997. Rodriguez’s books include Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1981), a collection of autobiographical essays; Mexico’s Children (1990); Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father (1992), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and Brown: The Last Discovery of America. Rodriguez's works have also been published in Harper's Magazine, Mother Jones, and Time.
Instead of pursuing a career in academia, Rodriguez suddenly decided to write freelance and take other temporary jobs. His first book, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, was published in 1981. It was an account of his journey from being a "socially disadvantaged child" to becoming a fully assimilated American, from the Spanish-speaking world of his family to the wider, presumably freer, public world of English. But the journey was not without costs: his American identity was only achieved after a painful separation from his past, his family, and his culture. "Americans like to talk about the importance of family values," says Rodriguez. "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." While the book received widespread critical acclaim and won several literary awards, it also stirred resentment because of Rodriguez's strong stands against bilingual education and affirmative action. Some Mexican Americans called him pocho...traitor...accusing him of betraying himself and his people. Others called him a "coconut"...brown on the outside, white on the inside. He calls himself "a comic victim of two cultures."
Rodriguez's original ideas are further explored in his 2002 collection of essays entitled The Last Discovery of America, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award.
The "browning of America", a phrase that Rodriguez uses in Brown, may seem like a new coinage, but the term predated his book and has been used regularly to describe an increase in the mixing of cultural, racial, and ethnic identities in the United States in the past century. For Rodriguez the phrase has to do more with the color brown as a symbol of mélange in the United States or specifically an increase in its "bi- or even tri-racial" subgroups. The phrase is commonly applied to the current demographic shift towards a higher proportion of minorities in the total population in the United States. It can be used neutrally as a name for the current demographic shift in the United States, but has also been appropriated by organized groups on both the left and the right. The far right evokes the phrase generally as a minority-based usurping of customary or assumed White privilege, while the far left hails it as a welcomed rethinking and/or accountability of deep-seated notions of White "normativity."
At present, Rodriguez is writing a book on Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and the desert. Rodriguez reports that he is "interested in the fact that three great monotheistic religions were experienced within this ecology." A sample of this project appeared in Harper's Magazine (January 2008). In this essay, "The God of the Desert," Rodriguez portrays the desert as a paradoxical temple...its emptiness the requisite for God's elusive presence.