''You who read this act of contrition should know that by writing it I seek a kind of forgiveness - not yours. The forgiveness, rather, of those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed as a minority student. I wish that they would read this. I doubt that they ever will.''
''Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez'' is the autobiography of a Mexican-American whose dark skin is frequently mistaken for a suntan. He has outdistanced los pobros, the swarthy laborers of common ancestry whose muscularity belies their absolute powerlessness. He has surpassed his parents who, their own imaginations stunted, made possible his exit from their realm. He has relinquished ''cultural identity'' - that is, a single ethnic identity for both public and private purposes - for the anonymity of an educated middle-class man.
Though Rodriguez found his route through school during the 1960s and '70s alternately smoothed and mined by minority membership, he likens the fundamental change in him to that experienced by generations of American immigrants who leaped from the working class into the melting pot. Education necessarily alters the individual, he argues, thereby combining his moving personal memoir with a stunning attack on the bilingual education and affirmative-action policies on which today's underclass has staked its future.
Attending a Roman Catholic primary school, Rodriguez was forced to learn and use English. His resentment at being wrenched from the rich sounds of familial Spanish was eased by new confidence in his ablity to make himself understood in and to understand the dominant gringo society. He learned that he belonged in the mainstream, not lingering on its fringes.
The lesson cost. As ''the scholarship boy,'' he guiltily closeted himself in his room at home, aware that to better his circumstances he'd have to part from them. ''Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view when I read,'' Rodriguez remembers, comparing himself to ''a blinkered pony.'' ''Rather, I read in order to acquire a point of view.'' He discovered ''that education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process - a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom.''
So saying, he derides the trendy wisdom that teaching children in their mother tongue prepares them for success in an English-speaking country. He regrets that college students indulge in ''clownish display'' of their ethnic heritage, pretending they can lead the masses and remain of them at the same time. He notes that access to higher education is futile unless minority students can keep up and advocates a nationwide literacy campaign at the elementary level to replace tokenism at the top.
''Hunger of Memory'' weighs sorrowful loss against ultimate gain. ''If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents,'' Rodriguez writes, ''my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.'' Beautifully written, wrung from a sore heart, ''Hunger of Memory'' bears eloquent witness to this truth.