Norma Alarcón (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5889

SOURCE: “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo,” in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 94–107.

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[In the following essay, Alarcón analyzes Castillo's writing in the context of male/female relationships and the politics of women's sexuality.]

Ana Castillo, a native of Chicago, first made an impact on the Chicano writers' community with the publication of her chapbook, Otro Canto (1977). Written mostly in English (as is almost all of Castillo's work), it ensured her reputation as a “social protest” poet at a time when it was difficult to be anything else. As a result, some of the ironic tones already present in the early work have been easily over-looked in favor of the protest message, which in fact is re-doubled by irony. It can be argued that irony is one of Castillo's trademarks. Irony often appears when experience is viewed after-the-fact or in opposition to another's subjectivity. In this essay, I would like to explore the ironically erotic dance that Castillo's speaking subjects often take up with men. Thus, my exploration will follow the trajectory of the traditional heterosexual, female speaking subjects in Castillo's published works: Otro Canto, The Invitation (1979), Women Are Not Roses (1984), and The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986).1

Otro Canto portrayed the burdens of the urban poor through the voice of a young woman who had learned the bitter lessons of disillusionment early in life. Thus, in the poem “1975,” we hear a sigh of relief when all those “proletarian talks”—the nemesis of many a left-wing activist—are finally translated into action. The speaker underscores the repetitiveness of mere talk by starting off every stanza with the line, “talking proletarian talks,” which subsequently opens the way for details that give rise to such talk. We are not relieved from this tactical monotony “until one long / awaited day— / we are tired / of talking” (pp. 49–51). Though in “1975” the speaker is not gender-marked but is revealed as being in a “we-us” speaking position within a Marxist revolutionary stance, that speaker is transformed into a “we-us” who makes “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition.” In this poem we are called upon to make love and “forget / that Everything matters” (Women Are Not Roses, p. 63). Given the litany of the things that matter in the stanza preceding the call, however, the poem urges me to ask if the speaker is wryly alluding to the well-known Anglo counterculture slogan of the sixties: “Make Love, Not War.” As the poem notes, what matters to the proletarian (i.e., Marxist) revolutionary speaker is the struggle to overcome class oppression, a struggle that is spoken through a supposedly non-gendered we. However, juxtaposing the poem's title, “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition,” with the implicit allusion to the slogan “Make Love, Not War,” may help us to unravel a story with a difference for the underclass female speaker who addresses her partner, “Let's forget …” (p. 63).

Notwithstanding the recent involvement of women in revolutionary struggles (i.e., Cuba and Nicaragua), it is still the case that in opposition to the erotic, a revolution or a war is especially marked with a traditional male subjectivity that awaits analysis. In order for a female speaker to recover the full meaningful impact of herself, she still must address how that self figures in the “heterosexual erotic contract,” revolutions not excepted. Within this contract, the female body continues to be the site of both reproduction and the erotic; despite class position, a speaker and her gendered social experience are imbricated in that age-old contract. Thus, “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition”...

(The entire section contains 111887 words.)

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