Alurista Critical Essays

Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

Alurista 1947-

(Full name Alberto Baltazar Urista Heredia) American poet and educator.

A seminal poet, theorist, and teacher of Chicano cultural nationalism, Alurista is important for his contribution to the development of an “interlingual” poetry fashioned from a blend of Spanish, English, and pre-Columbian languages, and for his incorporation of pre-Columbian religion and mythology into his poetry. He has also played a vital role in introducing Chicano studies into universities in the United States. Over the course of his career he has evolved from a politically militant opponent of Anglo domination of Mexican and Chicano people to a proponent of spiritual transformation of vision and consciousness as essential to effecting social change for all people. Throughout his poetry he reiterates that corporate commercial values and practices lie at the root of political, social, and economic exploitation and have imposed denatured lives on people. To this alienated condition he opposes the myth of a lost paradise called Aztlán, and of a pre-Columbian golden age, when cosmic forces and daily routines were in tune. Through the force of his poetry, founded on his faith that language creates reality, Alurista attempts to stimulate a return to a spiritual connection he believes people must have with each other and with cosmic processes in order for there to be just and harmonious societies.

Biographical Information

The eldest of six children, Aurista was born in Mexico City and lived in the Mexican states of Morelos and Guerrero until he was thirteen, when the family moved to San Diego, California. His parents spoke English as well as Spanish, although they thought English a cold language, useful only for business transactions. Alurista grew up fluent in both, as well as in various dialects of each language; his poetry reflects his polyglot origins. His poetry also reflects his spirituality, and his attachment to ritual. Raised Roman Catholic, in his youth he considered being a priest, but a crisis of faith, engendered by his view that “the Church was big business,” set him to investigate other varieties of Christian religion, secular philosophy, non-Christian faiths, and, especially, pre-Columbian history and religion. His college career, too, was made up of a series of explorations; he changed his course of study from business administration to the study of religion, then to sociology, then to social welfare. From 1965 to 1968 he worked as a counselor and psychiatric child-care worker, and in 1970 he graduated from San Diego State College with a B.A. in psychology. In 1978 he earned an M.A. and in 1983 a Ph.D. in Chicano literature. Perhaps more formative for Alurista than his schooling was the Chicano movement of the 1960s, especially the farm workers movement led by César Chávez, whose combination of spirituality, cultural nationalism, and non-violent political engagement were formative influences on Alurista. In 1968 and 1969 Alurista participated in founding the Chicano Studies Department and the Chicano Studies Center at San Diego State College, where he lectured from 1968 through 1974, and again from 1976 until 1979. In the 1970s he also founded Maize, a Chicano journal of literature and criticism, and he organized the annual Festival Floricanto, which draws Chicano poets and critics together for several days of performance and discussion. He was also a cofounder of MECHA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán).

Major Works

Alurista is best known for Floricanto en Aztlán (1971), his first book of poetry, in which he introduced the blended use of English, Spanish, and pre-Columbian languages. The volume incorporates images drawn from pre-Columbian culture as well as scenes of the barrio and treats the themes of alienation, exploitation, and the challenge of regaining the lost paradise of the indigenous people of the American Southwest and Mexico. His second book, Nationchild Plumaroja, 1969-1972 (1972) continues his exhortation to his people to embrace their Chicano cultural identity as a strategy of opposition to Anglo corporate oppression, characterized as “mr. jones” or “the man.” His subsequent poetry shows more sharply Alurista's involvement with pure language, especially evident in Spik in Glyph?(1981), a book full of broken syllables and complex puns which cross linguistic barriers. In Dawn's Eye: 1979-1981 (1982) and As the Barrio Turns Who the Yoke B On (2000) Alurista returns to a more accessible style, and to poems of personal experience.

Critical Reception

Alurista's early volumes, Floricanto en Aztlán and Nationchild Plumaroja, are regarded highly for their accessibility, for their blending of languages and dialects, for their concern with immediate experience, and for taking a cultural/political stand. His subsequent volumes, A'nque/Alurista: Acuarelas hechas por Delilah Merriman-Montoya (1979) and Spik in Glyph?, have met with much less critical acclaim, however, and are generally seen as a weakening of Alurista's poetic powers. Experiments with form and linguistic dexterity, the poems in these volumes are considered less accessible and less immediately concerned with experience than his early poems. Cordelia Candelaria expresses the general critical relation to these two periods in Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction, when she writes that “[t]he fact that the poet has remained a respected figure among Chicano writers despite the dropping off in quality of … [his] later volumes reconfirms the greatness of his earlier work.” Alurista seems to have returned in his poetry to a sensibility more to critics' liking. Judith Ginsberg argues that although “verbal pyrotechnics … threatened to diminish the power of his expression,” she finds that the new poems in Return: Poems Collected and New, (1982) “suggest a reengagement with more accessible language and human themes and a movement away from the often brittle and obscure wordplay of A'nque/Alurista and Spik in Glyph?.” Gary Keller focuses on another aspect of Alurista's poetry which has generated critical concern when he writes that Alurista represents the past with a carelessly uncritical eye, and thus romanticizes and falsifies it. These various objections, however, do not detract from Alurista's importance as a poet. Not only is he, as Luis Leal and Pepe Baron argue, “the best known and most prolific Chicano poet,” he has been a significant model for many emerging Chicano poets and has played a leading role in shaping a literary context for their writings.