Mary Louis Pratt introduced the idea of transculturation in her work Arts of the Contact Zone, which is used to describe the process whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant metropolitan culture (319-20). In other words, transculturation is mainly about the collision of two cultures, when one has to undergo the other’s’ perspectives of him with a stance of a mainstream culture. Richard Rodriguez’s struggle of the culture shock is well explained in Hunger of Memory (1982) as a son of Mexican immigrants who was born in America. In the book, Rodriguez talked about his childhood fears and difficulty of being the only Hispanic in his neighborhood and school, and language was one of the main barriers he had to overcome in order to grow in American public society as a mestizaje, a “mixed” child. However, Rodriguez had quite different views from Pratt on having two cultures mixed in life based on his experience.
Pratt’s idea of transculturation emphasized on the importance of merging two different cultures, instead of characterizing one minority culture as the conquest of the other. She focused on the coexisting power of two cultures and also applied her belief into supporting bilingual education. On the other hand, Rodriguez’s experience of adapting American culture was more like assimilation than transculturation. There were multiple anecdotes and confessions of him portrayed his identity transition from a fully Mexican immigrant to almost a fully American, that a coexisting of Mexican and American culture would not help him to live in confidence and have a successful life path.
At the beginning of Rodriguez’s identity transition, it was difficult for young Rodriguez to regard English as his primary language instead of his native language Spanish. He believed that English separated him and his own family away from the rest of the white culture. From his perspective, people who spoke English as their native language appeared to be confident. He got very self-conscious about the language barrier, that he believed he was a foreigner because he spoke Spanish. However, when he was called as “Richard” in class instead of what he was used to be called as “Ricardo” at home, Rodriguez’s reaction towards his name in English was somewhat sensitive and pessimistic, that he emphasized over and over again about how he felt strange about his English name and more delighted when he could speak Spanish at home. Rodriguez’s reaction here already expressed his identity struggle as a mestizaje. On one hand, he sensed that speaking Spanish created distance with him and his community, and he did not appreciate the distance; on the other hand, Rodriguez was unwilling to step out of his comfort zone right away and start accepting American culture, not even his American name. The struggle made Rodriguez’s childhood identity off-balance, and somehow he had to choose a culture to grow along with.
While young Rodriguez regarded speaking English as a symbol of power and thought it created distance from his own culture, other people in his community might have different perspective about it. Rodriguez’s teachers went to his house and spoke to his parents about the importance of him speaking English at home and school. This action put stress on Rodriguez, that he felt losing touch with Spanish and he could no longer be a happy child at home. However, the teachers simply tried to help Rodriguez to become more included and a better student at school. This different perspective could be seen as a conflict of transculturation. Rodriguez explained, “Without question, it would have please me to hear my teachers address me in Spanish when I entered the classroom. I would have felt much less afraid. I would have trusted them and responded with ease. But I would have delayed—for how long postponed? —having to learn the language of public society. I would have evaded—and for how long could I have afforded delay? —learning the great lesson of school, that I had a public identity.” (1580) As he himself addressed, there was an inevitable mind struggle about balancing what he had at home and what he should grow to be in American society.
Besides the inevitable pain for Rodriguez’s assimilation to American society, he also stressed about his loss of intimacy at home with his family. After the transition from keeping silent in public to speaking more and more English, Rodriguez felt that “The silence at home, however, was finally more than a literal silence. Fewer words passed between parent and child, but more profound was the silence that resulted from my inattention to sounds.” (1583) While Rodriguez compared his previous childhood delight at home with the gradually established silence among his families, it was unneglectable that there were some more factors other than language that created the silence. Rodriguez talked about how Americans address parents as Mother, Father, Ma, and Pop bothered him, yet in public conversations he would still refer to his parents as “father” and “mother”. Little by little, Rodriguez adapted American culture into his own life; not only for fitting into public society, but also to give himself an identity confirmation as an American citizen. In this case, the way Rodriguez addressed his parents in public was a strong evidence of him assimilating to American society. For him, it would be difficult to merge two languages and two cultures together as Pratt mentioned in her idea of transculturation.
As Rodriguez spoke less and less Spanish—the language of home to him, he gradually started to immerse himself into the English-speaking society. The loss of intimacy with his family seemed to be the difference of language that was being spoken; yet in reality, Rodriguez already leaned toward to American culture. As himself mentioned, when he was young, he was embarrassed of his father’s broken English in public. Because his father’s accent would emphasize the fact that they were Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez felt discomfort of feeling like an outsider again. Therefore, deep down he had always been wanting to be a part of the American society and be accepted by the mainstream culture, yet he needed time to replace his identity from an outsider to an American. From Rodriguez’s point of view, this transition process was expedited by his gradual fluency in English, that eventually language was not a barrier for him to mingle with Americans anymore. His view here is also against Pratt’s support for bilingual education. Rodriguez’s cultural transition experience proved that it would be challenging for one to become an active member of the new society if he doesn’t leave his tradition or old habits behind, and in this case, the old habit would be speaking Spanish.
Rodriguez eventually found the balance between individuality and public society. The feeling of separation at a young age, such as his family was not included into the neighborhood and himself felt disadvantaged at school because of his skin color, faded away over time. He concluded his awkward childhood experience as, “If I rehearse here the changes in my private life after my Americanization, it is finally to emphasize the public gain. The loss implies the gain”. (1584) In a way, Rodriguez enjoyed his assimilation experience and was delighted by his achievement to survive in American society as a Latino. However, just as he believed “The loss implies the gain”, and the loss of intimacy at home was a result of him trying to gain the public recognition as an American. In other words, he had to weigh one culture more than the other one in his mind. In contrast, Pratt’s idea of transculturation doesn’t appeal to him, since he couldn’t find much connections between his Latino and American cultures that would help two cultures to merge together.
?From Rodriguez’s story, the transition from being the only “brown” student in his school who didn’t speak English, to being recognized as a famous American writer, made him a strong individual in the American society. Rodriguez did not confirm his identity in America due to his bilingual skills, and in fact, his own experience proved that the process of assimilation was indeed difficult. He had to break out of his comfort zone with courage, to abandon many old habits of his Mexican immigration family, and meanwhile, the loss of intimacy with his family was definitely a part of his sacrifice as well. Even though Pratt’s view on transculturation was a strong conviction of possibly merging two cultures together for one’s better being, in reality, Rodriguez felt more comfortable with who he was by leaning toward one identity over the other.