Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood by Richard Rodriguez

The intention of Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood is to make known and reflect on the struggles of bilingual children in an environment where English had become the primary language for communication. Rodriguez uses first person accounts of his life and family culture to describe what he lost and gained while transitioning from Spanish to English language and social contexts. The piece also addresses the controversial debate over whether bilingual public education is truly beneficial, or, as Rodriguez argues, can violate the intimacy and self identity of non-English speakers.

By using first person accounts to develop his intention, Rodriguez was able to build a stronger connection to his audience.The style of writing alternates between formal and informal tones as the author ties his past experience to the educational and societal issues faced by bilingual children today. This, as a result, helps the audience to focus on the topic at a personal level.Through his experience, Rodriguez is able to show both points of view, concerning bilingual education. Towards the end of his story, he discusses how radio and TV commercials propose two ways of understanding bilingual education-from their point of view. They argue that bilingual students will be able to better match the progress of English speaking students in the first month of school. On the other hand, they also argue that children who use their family language in school will “retain a sense of their ethnic heritage and their family ties.” (Rodriguez) He acknowledges these very different goals of bilingual education by applying his own experience to contradict them. He believes that you cannot become a public person while remaining a private person.

The debate over a bilingual public and education is discussed heavily in present day. However, many people lack the insight and information to create a firm opinion on the topic. Rodriguez’s personal experience gives him pathos and creates empathy from the audience because it is a full account of his life and the struggles he experienced as a bilingual child becoming assimilated into public society. He describes the gain of achieving a public identity, which allowed him to think of himself as a part of society; however it also caused a severe loss of intimacy between he and his family. He describes his loss saying, “I knew I had turned to English with angry reluctance. But once I spoke English with ease, I came to feel guilty. I sensed that I had broken the spell of intimacy which had once held the family so close together.” (Rodriguez)

When I first looked at the title of the piece, the word “Aria” immediately stood out to me- I had no idea what it had to do with the topic. It wasn’t until I read the full story that I fully understood why it was mentioned. Numerous times, Rodriguez talks about the importance of pronunciation and sound as he transitioned from English to Spanish. The word “aria” is never mentioned in the story, but the definition and meaning of the word to him play a large role in his story. The word “Aria” has Latin roots; it is a long, accompanied song for a solo voice, typically one in an opera or oratorio. Throughout his transition, he reflected on the changing of sounds, as well as the voices and language of Spanish compared to the English he was forced to use in public and at school. When Rodriguez began to identify himself with the public language, English, he reflected on situations he encountered in the city. He began to pick up on the sounds and languages of other people around him- African Americans, Spanish speakers, Japanese, English- all with unique sounds accompanying the way they spoke. He began to envy the intimacy they had, longing for his own. Through his assimilation, he created his own aria with the sounds he used when speaking. The journey of his childhood led to the creation of his own identity and voice, and in the process, became his Aria.

–Chloe Klusman

1. The tone of the author begins as blunt, insecure, and resentful  of growing up in a bilingual home.  Rodriguez discusses the challenges of being socially set apart in and outside of his home. The readers can easily perceive his emotions through this negative tone and embarrassment of his family and learning disadvantages.  As the essay continues, the author expresses his feelings of guilt from drifting further to American culture rather than his Spanish roots. The two part tone reflects the two part childhood from a bilingual influence.

2. The informal yet descriptive diction of the author helps the reader imagine the scenarios in the memoir and feel connected to the author. Since the author is also the speaker, his details are intimate and familiar with Spanish customs. Rodriguez switches from Spanish terms and phrases to English throughout the essay to contribute to expressing his childhood.

3. One of my favorite parts is when Rodriguez describes, ” One day in school, I raised my hand to volunteer an answer to a question. I spoke up in a loud voice and I did not think it remarkable when the entire class understood. That day I moved very far from being the disadvantaged child I had been only days earlier. Taken hold at last with the belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public.” This simple feat set a dominoe effect on the speaker’s confidence and was a turning point in the essay and his life.

–Sophie Needham

Throughout the piece, Rodriguez uses vivid imagery to describe his personal experiences with being bilingual. In doing so, the audience, who is generally not experienced with being bilingual, is better able to understand Rodriguez’s perspective. By conveying the images Rodriguez himself experienced, the reader is better able to feel what Rodriguez was feeling at the time because, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. The imagery serves as a form of description that says much more than words could without sounding repetitive and boring. The imagery captures the feeling and passion behind Rodriguez’s argument and thereby strengthens it.

Rodriguez often compares his thoughts in the present as an adult to his thoughts as a child throughout the piece. In most cases, he is writing off his childhood thoughts, such as when he writes, “In adulthood, I am embarrassed by childhood fears.” In doing this, Rodriguez shows his audience how he has grown and how his views have changed. Where as a child he may have wished for a bilingual education and felt it might ease his worry in school, as an adult he understands the repercussions: that by being able to speak Spanish, his private langue, in school he would’ve put off learning English and developing his public identity. By comparing his thoughts as a child to his thoughts as an adult, Rodriguez educates his audience, many of whom are advocates of bilingual education. These advocates claim that bilingual education would make the children more comfortable and more quickly able to learn, thoughts very similar to Rodriguez’s thoughts as a child. However, because Rodriguez contradicts those initial thoughts as an adult and gives his personal reasoning, he proves those childish thoughts to be of lesser importance to establishing one’s own public identity, which proves Rodriguez’s intention.

My favorite quote is, “All words are capable of becoming sounds as we fill them with the ‘music’ of our life.” Throughout most of the piece, Rodriguez stresses the sounds of English and Spanish and what those sounds make him feel. And part of what Rodriguez is trying to convey throughout the piece is that words are just sounds that are given meaning through context and pronunciation, which I think the quote perfectly encapsulates. Language can mean many different things depending on how you say it or hear it. And sounds are universal. Tone and animation in a voice can convey a message better than the words themselves.

— Olivia Hatch

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