Contemporary Chicano/a Literature Critical Essays


Contemporary Chicano/a Literature

The following entry presents criticism on late-twentieth-century literary works by Americans of Mexican descent through 2003.

Contemporary Chicano/a literature came into prominence in the United States during the civil rights era of the 1960s, when Chicano/as fought alongside other minorities for fair and equal treatment in society. The early literature of the movement was characterized by indigenismo, or looking to the ancient past for the roots that would inform modern Chicano/a identity. La Raza, as the central Chicano/a activist group was called, sought to shape and solidify a national and cultural identity based on the history of the Azteca people and their legendary homeland, Aztlán. The surge of creative literary activity among Chicano/a authors in the 1960s and 1970s became known as the Florecimiento, or Renaissance.

The 1980s and beyond have been characterized by a new generation of Chicano/a writers and a different ideology associated with the movement. Besides this generational difference, contemporary Chicano/a literature is marked by political, economic, and gender diversity. Whereas the earlier literature focused on traits that Chicano/as hold in common, writers have more recently chosen to accentuate diversity among Chicano/as. For example, while scholars point out the role of Anglo colonialism in repressing Chicano/a culture and literature, contemporary writers insist on acknowledging that Chicano/as were and are part of that same Anglo culture. Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez, for instance, has written about earlier Chicano/a works that had been excluded as—for various cultural and political reasons—unacceptable during the Florecimiento, but that are now receiving critical attention for their influence. In general, there has been an effort among contemporary Chicano/a writers to broaden the borders of Chicano/a literature through greater self-consciousness about the formation of their identity and through the examination of what had been excluded in the earlier literary/cultural Chicano/a paradigm, or even lost as a result of the drive to present a consistent Chicano/a identity. Such contemporary writers as Richard Rodriguez, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa have played key roles by problematizing themes that have long been considered staples in Chicano/a literature and by emphasizing individualism and the notion of Chicano/a life as shaped by multiple cultures that coexist alongside each other.

Literature by and about Chicanas has particularly grown since the 1990s. Ideologically trapped between white feminism and the nationalism of La Raza, as Kristin Carter-Sanborn points out, Chicana writers have pursued such new themes as physical and sexual abuse, marginalization of women, lesbianism, and the creation of complex Chicana identity. Many Chicana writers have incorporated feminist and postmodern critical theories—especially those of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous—into their works, while others have sought to study traditional female mythological figures (for example, Malinche, La Llorona, and the Virgen de Guadalupe) in the context of patriarchal Chicano culture and then to transform them in their works. Such authors as Denise Chávez, Ana Castillo, and Moraga, for example, focus specifically on women's sexual and social marginalization and its effects in their writings. Along with greater thematic diversity in contemporary Chicano/a literature has come a greater variety of genres, with autobiographies, anthologies, short stories, poetry, drama, and detective fiction becoming more popular and widespread.