Chicano Identity in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The 1970’s witnessed an explosion of literary production which firmly established the foundation of Chicano identity in literature. It began in 1970, with Ricardo Sánchez’s book of poetry Canto y grito mi liberación, Luis Omar Salinas’ Crazy Gypsy, and a new edition of Villarreal’s Pocho. Then, in 1971, Alurista published Floricanto en Aztlán, a book of poetry that became a classic. It speaks about the American Southwest as Aztlán, the mythical place of origin of the Aztecs. The book affirmed the Southwest as a geographical home and a literary space for the Chicano. Also in 1971, Tomás Rivera published And the Earth Did Not Part, a landmark novel about migrant workers from Southern Texas who harvest the crops for the rest of the world. Rivera’s work brought the farmworker, an important part of Chicano society, into the literary landscape. Finally, Luis Miguel Valdez published a collection of plays, Actos, which had been written and performed for César Chávez’s farmworkers’ movement in California. The plays were used as teaching tools that graphically explain the plight of the Chicano underclass and the social, historical, and economic reasons for that plight.

In 1972, Rudolfo A. Anaya published his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima. Bless Me, Ultima brings a powerful message about the land and how those who work it and live on it are affected by its unchanging...

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Chicana Writers

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Among the many women who came forward in the 1980’s were Ana Castillo, Denise Elia Chávez, Sandra Cisneros, and Mary Helen Ponce. Castillo published her first book of poetry in 1976, but her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), defined her to the public. The novel is structured as a series of letters from one woman to another. The letters delve into the love and gender conflicts between Chicanos and Chicanas. It is an indictment of Chicano men’s inability to treat women fairly. Chávez is a playwright who also writes poetry and prose. She first published a play in 1973. Her first novel, The Last of the Menu Girls (1986), however, attracted special attention because of its delicate prose and the portrayal of a woman’s developing identity outside the traditional order.

Cisneros is a poet who turned to narrative to describe the life of an adolescent girl in The House on Mango Street (1983), a novel that received excellent critical reviews. Mary Helen Ponce published her first book of short stories in 1983; her first major work is another collection of short stories, Taking Control (1987), which features women as victims, then survivors, then people who, at the end of their stories, are able to take control. This message is confirmed in her first novel, The Wedding (1989), which sees life in a Chicano neighborhood through the eyes of a pregnant bride-to-be. The novel is an amusing rendition of traditional customs and mores that hinder women’s development.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The 1990’s have witnessed an expansion on the themes that have shaped Chicano identity. These themes include Aztlán as a Chicano homeland and its connection to the pre-Columbian past, the past and present relationship of the Chicano with the Mexican, and the relationship of the Chicano to the American mainstream, to the land, and to the Catholic church. Chicano literature of the 1990’s also continues to explore the relationship between the Chicano and the Chicana. The last theme sometimes involves a painful reevaluation of cultural values.

Anaya’s contribution to this expansion has come, among other things, in the form of three novels, Alburquerque (1992), which explores the Indo-Hispanic genealogy of the city (beginning with the correction in the spelling of its name), Zia Summer (1995), a novel that looks for clues in Chicano culture to unravel its mystery plot, and Jalamanta (1996), a novel that conveys a message about the apocalyptic destruction of a mythical world that desperately needs to return to the path of the sun. The implication is that the mythical world could very well be this one.

Castillo returned with two novels, Sapogonia (1990) and So Far from God (1993), which reverse the patriarchal structure of valuing men over women and create a new universe. Castillo’s collection of feminist-oriented poetry, My Father Was a Toltec (1995), and a collection of essays, Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994), delineates her feminist philosophy and helps explain the themes in her literary production.

Chávez’s long novel Face of an Angel (1990) depicts the life of a waitress who makes the best of a bad situation and redefines the concept of service, eliminating its demeaning context. Cisneros published, in 1991, a book of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, which deal with how love is idealized by women, who are subsequently disappointed. Mary Helen Ponce reveals life in her neighborhood with her family in Hoyte Street (1994), an autobiography that reads like a novel.

Chicano writers have built an awareness of identity for Chicanos that begins in the pre-Columbian past and continues in a present that is filled with male and female voices. In the process they have built a body of Chicano literature.

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The history of Chicano literature reveals an expanding search for identity that goes hand in hand with the Chicano’s increasing sense of self-awareness. Villarreal’s Pocho provides a beginning by delineating the new context of what it is to be Chicano. Gonzales’ I Am Joaquín connects the Indo-Mestizo world to contemporary Chicano reality. Anaya and his contemporaries orchestrate history, land, and people into a worldview and a new literary landscape. Finally, women writers such as Castillo, Chávez, Cisneros, and Ponce bring the feminine point of view, the plight of Chicanas, and their insistence on change into focus. The Chicana issues represent the latest in the expansion of Chicano awareness and identity.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. Includes interviews of major Chicano authors.

Eger, Ernestina N., ed. A Bibliography of Criticism of Contemporary Chicano Literature. Berkeley: Chicano Studies Library Publication Series, University of California, 1980. Includes names and addresses of Chicano literary presses. Most useful in the search for information.

Esquibel, Catriona Rueda. With Her Machete in Her Hand: Reading Chicana Lesbians. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. This exhaustive study of the development of Chicana literature traces its origins and progression from the 1980s to today. Esquibel looks at a range of genres, including long fiction, short fiction, and drama, written by Chicana and Chicano authors about lesbian culture. Some themes she examines are childhood friendships, activism, lesbian relationships, and cultural history. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in lesbian studies and Chicana writing.

Jiménez, Francisco, ed. The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1979. Puts Chicano literature into perspective.

Martínez, Julio, and Francisco A. Lomelí, eds. Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A good starting point for selecting Chicano authors to read. It includes biographical essays on Chicano writers.

Tatum, Charles M. Chicano Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Includes summaries of literary works.