Contemporary Chicano/a Literature Criticism: Overviews - Essay

José F. Aranda, Jr. (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aranda, Jr., José F. “Making the Case for New Chicano/a Studies: Recovering Our Alienated Selves.” Arizona Quarterly 58, no. 1 (spring 2002): 127-58.

[In the following essay, Aranda discusses the changing focus of the Chicano/a movement since the 1980s, emphasizing pivotal works by Gloria Anzaldúa, Richard Rodriguez, and Cherríe Moraga, among others.]

Chicano/a studies is, and has been, moving in directions that are decidedly at odds from its origins in the Chicano/a Movement. While much of Chicano/a studies' ethical, political, and philosophical base remains the same—attention to the historic consequences of Mexican Americans' minority status within the United States—recent scholarship in history and literature has nevertheless opened the field to questions that challenge its institutional foundations. Today, the field is dominated by the trope and cultural politics made famous by Gloria Anzaldúa's “borderlands.” Though many of the ideas discussed in this essay share basic premises with Borderland studies, it will also become clear that I apply and extend the Borderlands concept without reservations about where the research may lead and what political conclusions it may suggest. If Chicano/a studies since the late 1960s has unmasked the questions that kept a historic ethnic community marginal, New Chicano/a Studies advocates revealing the history of this community on its own complicated internal terms, not simply terms which suggest an oppositional relationship to Anglo America.

New Chicano/a Studies imagines a dialogue between scholars about how we might historicize and theorize what is difficult to accept about Chicano/a culture and history: namely, that Chicanos/as are the descendants of colonizers as well as the colonized; that historically mestizos experienced a more preferable legal status than Native Americans both in Mexico and the United States; that the nineteenth century is replete with Mexicanos who initially welcomed the Anglo invasion; that Nuevo Mexicanos rode alongside Theodore Roosevelt up San Juan Hill; that “whiteness” matters in Mexican and Chicano/a societies; that patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia are all daily facts of life in Chicano/a communities, past and present; that NAFTA enjoys considerable political support among Mexicanos/as and Chicanos/as all along the United States-Mexico border; and finally that for many Mexican Americans coming of age since the mid-1980s being identified as Chicano or Chicana has lost its magic.

By making the case for New Chicano/a Studies, I do not mean to suggest “new” as of today, now, with me as the primary spokesperson. But rather “new” as of the last ten years and based on the critical work of people like Norma Alarcón, Angie Chabram, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Chela Sandoval, Rosaura Sánchez, José Limón, Ramón Gutiérrez, David Gutiérrez, Antonia Castañeda, Ramón Saldívar, José David Saldívar, Renato Rosaldo, Carl Gutiérrez-Jones, Martha Menchaca, Patricia Zavella, David Montejano, Emma Pérez, Genaro Padilla, Nicolás Kanellos, and many more. Indeed, my argument—to rename ourselves institutionally—takes its intellectual and philosophical lead from the many Chicana feminists who have renovated and continue to renovate the field. The collection of essays entitled Building With Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies (1993) is only one of many instances where the leadership of Chicana scholars has translated into a virtual bonanza for the field as a whole.1 This essay fully recognizes the meaning and significance of their efforts to my own.

While I am opposed to fetishizing generational differences, ideological splits, or disciplinary divides as a way to make my case, I do want to claim that a historic change has occurred within the material culture of people of Mexican descent in the United States. But, I would hope to avoid the kind of misunderstanding that followed Donald Pease's invocation of New American Studies, or Patricia Limerick's naming of a New Western History. My goal is not to unleash an unhealthy and self-destructive intensification of the divisions within our field. And yet, every field, mainstream or otherwise, has divisions. Why should Chicano/a studies be any different? The point of this essay is to offer instead a meaningful narration of the divisions that have occurred within Chicano/a studies since the 1970s, divisions that have now come to a critical head, and significantly so since the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I make the case for New Chicano/a studies not as a way to mend fences and say to the world “all is fine” with Chicano/a studies, nor as a way “to hang out our dirty laundry” for others to see, but rather to persuade us all to take full advantage of our differences in order to narrate more effectively the world that greets us every morning.

“Making the case for New Chicano/a studies” is thus a recognition of how far the field has traveled by its ventures into gender studies, queer theory, and analyses of the new global economy. It is also a call for a new lexicon better equipped to deal with a postmodern Mexican American culture, one that exports pop stars, like Selena, to Mexico, commands the attention of Madison Avenue advertising executives, and celebrates the national status of politicians like Henry Cisneros. Despite this mainstreaming of Mexican American culture, ours is a community that suffers from a widening gap between the rich and the poor, between the long settled and the recently arrived, and between an increasingly visible intellectual elite and a growing underclass of poorly educated Chicano/a youth. A change in nomenclature is also required in order to make sense of why significant numbers of Mexican Americans are increasingly voting in favor of conservative measures like California's Propositions 187 and 209. All these aspects signal Mexican Americans' political departure from the ideals guiding the Chicano/a Movement.

I do not mean to give an extraordinary sense of unity to either the Chicano/a Movement or Chicano/a studies. I agree with Juan Bruce-Novoa and the late Lora Romero that it is erroneous to think of the Chicano/a Movement as homogenous, harmonious, free of internal dissent and debate. There is nothing to be gained by reifying some reductive unified representation of the Chicano/a Movement only to then deconstruct it. Nevertheless, what seems historically clear is that the activists within the various parts of the movement succeeded, through gestures toward unified community, in constructing a potent symbolic and rhetorical narrative that argued for the civil rights of Mexican Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. No amount of conservative backlash during the 1980s and 1990s can undermine the history of the Viva Kennedy Clubs, the Delano grape strikes, La Raza Unida Party, or even more everyday issues, like protesting the harmful effects of advertisements like the “Frito Bandito” on children of Mexican descent. Without a doubt, the Chicano/a Movement made historic gains. Chicano/a studies exists today precisely because activists produced a narrative of unified ethnic community, a narrative forged amidst a great diversity of opinion, immigration history, class status, regional loyalties, linguistic traits, educational backgrounds, ethnic ties, and local struggles.

Nevertheless, Homi Bhabha's insight into how “the claim to be representative provokes a crisis within the process of signification and discursive address” (297) aptly describes the dilemma that 1960s Chicano/a leaders encountered in their attempts to forge a counterhegemonic, nationalist movement. From iconography, like images of the Virgen de Guadalupe to contest the hypocrisy of the Statue of Liberty, to manifestos, like “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” to shame believers of the United States Constitution, to scholarship, like Rudolfo Acuña's classic, Occupied America, that made visible the lie that Mexican Americans had no history, Chicano/a activists, scholars, mothers, fathers, teenagers, Vietnam veterans, and los mas abajo—the pachucos, cholos, and inmates of the judicial system—all had to concede, mask, disguise, and erase the differences that existed historically among Mexican American populations from Houston to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Brownsville, and even more importantly differences con el otro lado, Mexico. Thus, la raza—people who were not a previously extant racially politicized community—came into being to facilitate and lay claim to that larger historical event known as the Civil Rights Movement.


If early Chicano/a activists confronted a dilemma in forming an alternative, counterhegemonic movement, why did the early days of Chicano/a Studies remain so committed to its origins in the Chicano/a Movement? Part of the answer must be the compelling myth of origins that was constructed with Aztlán at its center. The myth of Aztlán, legendary homeland of the Azteca people, gave poetry to the cause. It identified a territory, a series of landscapes located in the Southwest, that coincidentally matched up perfectly with the territories lost to the United States in the Mexican American War. Furthermore, it created a set of dialectical relationships that on the surface united all Mexican Americans in the name of past glories, past injustices, but more importantly the future reclamation of a lost patrimony. The final paragraph of “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” makes all these claims clear:

Brotherhood unites us and love for our brothers makes a people whose time has come and who struggle against the foreigner “Gabacho,” who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. With our heart in hands and our hands in the soil, We Declare the Independence of our Mestizo Nation. We are a Bronze People with a Bronze Culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the Bronze Continent, We are a Nation, We are a Union of free pueblos, We are a Union of free pueblos, We are Aztlán.


However compromised this language might seem to us now, we must admit to the power of its romanticism. The deeply moving and challenging response is: Why not us? Why can't we determine our own lives? Why can't we stand and be recognized? The myth of Aztlán responds compassionately with “you can.” What we hear in this manifesto is the unexpurgated desires of a newly imagined community that posits its political and national future in nostalgic and edenic terms, terms that locate Chicanismo before the arrival of Columbus, terms that nevertheless operate with, rather than against, the set of narratives that wrote the New World as paradise long before Cortés set foot in Montezuma's court.

Homi Bhabha writes that “the people” inscribed in narratives of the nation are constructed in “double time.” By this, Bhabha argues, the people are both “the historical ‘objects’ of a nationalist pedagogy” and “the ‘subjects’ of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence of the people” (297). In light of Aztlán, what might Bhabha say to a scenario where the “originary presence” is not erased but rather reconstructed in the name of the people? He would probably say that the Chicano/a Movement is one of dozens of post-1945 anti-colonial movements that must invoke a nationalizing mythology of origins in order to steer away from the burden of colonizing narratives of occupation. It is a necessary fiction of nation-building that nonetheless takes its cue from Western culture in that it, too, looks for a wellspring of identity by which, as Bhabha notes, “the national life is redeemed and signified as a repeating and reproductive process” (297). Similarly, Rosa Linda Fregoso and Angie Chabram argue:

Whereas the basis of Chicano identity as formulated by Chicano cultural nationalism postulated that collective identity was simultaneity and continuity between the object and its representation, the critical points of difference were often overlooked. These critical points of difference and experience of rupture and discontinuity also shape[d] our identities in decisive ways, for instance, the heterogeneous experiences of migration, conquest, and regional variation.


The unanticipated consequence of the narrative of counternationalism supported by the Chicano/a Movement was thus the suppression of some people's history and culture from within, a suppression deployed as an attack on the colonizers. If this is “double time” with a colonial twist, then we must consider what this doubleness erases. If what the Chicano/a Movement produced was a celebratory counternationalist narrative, it also suppressed those less than celebratory narratives that were still part of a Mexican American past.

It would be misleading to suggest these troublesome narratives were unknown to members of the Chicano/a Movement. They were known, but they occupied so contradictory a role in the formation of Chicano/a culture that they subsequently acquired an apocryphal identity as activist gains became academically institutionalized. What Chicano/a studies needed was a usable past that included revolutionary figures like Emiliano Zapata—not elitist aristocrats like Miguel Antonio Otero Jr., the first territorial governor of New Mexico. Yet, the apocryphal would surface from time to time. For instance, if one were to conduct a detailed study of the institutionalization of Chicano/a studies in its early phase, one would note immediately that there was a profound tension between cultural nationalists on the one hand and neo-Marxists on the other. These tensions are very well documented, for example, in the early volumes of Aztlán: Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and the Arts, and especially among the editorial staff who were themselves proponents of a politically unified Chicano/a community but consciously wary of the pitfalls of cultural nationalism as a paradigm guiding scholarly study. It was the Marxist scholars, committed to historical praxis, who kept the apocryphal from disappearing completely.2

While not the only journal to articulate the aims of Chicano/a studies in this period, Aztlán was undoubtedly the most visible and influential of the set. Headed by Marxist historian Juan Gomez-Quiñones, the journal took its name and social identity directly from the 1969 “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.” As proof of its allegiance to this manifesto, the journal reproduced the text in both English and Spanish in its very first issue, spring 1970. It prominently cited “Corky” Gonzalez's Denver conference as the origin of this cultural text. By reproducing “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” as an authenticating text of Chicano/a culture, the journal rhetorically joined its academic scholarship with activism in the streets which communicated, at a symbolic level, that the goal of the Denver conference could continue in the pages of the journal. Yet, almost instantly, the allegiance to cultural nationalism inscribed in “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” was met by an enduring ambivalence that would characterize, thereafter, the role of scholars in this journal and their continuing interface with Chicano/a studies.

One way to understand this ambivalence is to see the participants of the journal as engaged in a highly conscious effort to create and sustain at least two different cultures of activism within the evolving domain of Chicano/a studies. Despite inevitable conflicts, the end result was a compromise among neo-Marxists to accept a strategic form of nationalism necessary for political organization and activism. The other culture, largely academic, needed to struggle from within humanist structures of cultural authority. That culture selectively employed the humanist model of autonomous selfhood to force academia to admit to its implication in exclusionary practices based on race, ethnicity, language, class, and culture. To a large degree, both cultures of activism recorded early historic successes because they were able to claim an identified constituency and therefore deploy effectively a unified group identity. In retrospect, the journal undertook the supreme task of hailing and consolidating these two activist cultures whenever possible.3

One can see directly this process of hailing and consolidating in a study of group identity formation by sociologist Deluvina Hernández. In the second article of the first issue of Aztlán, Hernández tackles head-on the cultural nationalist dimensions of this identity issue vis-à-vis the organizing role of “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” in activist politics:

The Plan of Aztlán is a design for Mexican American unification and organization; its symbol is La Raza; among its objectives are unity and economic control of Chicano communities; it calls for action from everyone in all spheres of Chicano or Mexican American existence. The prime objective is the liberation of the Chicano or Mexican American people from social bondage: “EL PLAN DE AZTLAN—IS THE PLAN OF LIBERATION.”


With La Raza, the people, as its primary symbolic point of identification, Hernández's objective is to understand how the myth of Aztlán stimulates group identification from diverse Mexican American populations and yet encourages differentiation among individuals based on their own unique regional and social grasp of Aztlán. This internalized diversity, in an otherwise unified political community, is a curious balance to strike, since by spring 1970 the Chicano/a Movement had yet to reach its peak. What we see here is Hernández's efforts to consolidate a larger nonacademic political identity while also promoting university leadership of that constituency, a blueprint for future organizing and for the movement vanguard. Because Marxism was notoriously obtuse to the racial dimensions of class oppression, Hernández perceives the need to skillfully depart from classic Marxist principles:

The Mexican American, although included in the proletariat, is not an oppressed class, per se, it is instead an oppressed ethnic group. Thus identified, the Mexican American ethnic group will not readily seek to abolish itself in order to abolish the oppressive conditions, as Marx would have the oppressed classes do. The reverse is in fact the case: Mexican Americans seek to maintain their identity while abolishing the oppressive conditions, utilizing the concept of nationalism as the ideological framework for community organizing. …


While not saying it outright, Hernández would have one understand that working-class Mexican Americans in this period would not or could not oppose oppressive class conditions effectively unless under an ethnic-nationalist framework, though this had not been true of labor strikes earlier in the century where Mexicans and Mexican Americans joined with other ethnic groups to combat abusive United States labor practices.4 It might be true in 1970, however, if one took seriously the spectrum of classes within contemporary Mexican American communities. The middle and upper classes of any ethnic group have been historically adverse to collective action in the United States, except where ethnicity is the primary of mode of political action; the Mexican American community proved no different. Therefore, Hernández's analysis is in some respects an admission that while overtly conscious of its working-class dimensions and objectives, the Chicano/a Movement could not have succeeded without an appeal to and involvement of the middle classes. For the middle class to be involved, ethnicity and upward mobility had to be foregrounded and stressed. In this way, all classes could claim a united ethnic ethos even if everyone did not suffer the same material and social deprivations.

While the journal advocated strategic nationalism as prudent and essential, there was also a subtle but significant countervailing voice in the figure of Juan Gomez-Quiñones. As the chief editorial architect of the journal, Gomez-Quiñones demonstrated over and over again his counternationalist allegiances, but he also theorized a long-term approach to the issue of Chicano/a identity and politics. In the journal's first special issue, which was devoted to history, Gomez-Quiñones doubles as special issue editor and contributor. His essay, “Toward a Perspective on Chicano History,” appears first and sets the mark by which the other accompanying essays are to be judged. Significantly, Gomez-Quiñones strikes an academic, disciplinary stance with regard to the future of writing Chicano/a history. Instead of a militant, cultural nationalist voice, Gomez-Quiñones opens with a humanist vision:

Clearly Chicano history is an exciting field for the historian. Research in this field will provide insight into the nineteenth and twentieth-century América, particularly the West, from a vantage point often overlooked. Similarly, it will contribute to the comparative understanding of ethnic-minority history, within an international as well as national framework. … The most important aspect however, for those who are Chicano, is that in writing the history, they will contribute modestly to the heritage and self-knowledge of the community, and perhaps contribute a structural analysis for positive action on behalf of the community.


“Structural analysis for positive action” is Gomez-Quiñones's only overt rhetorical indication that writing an unwritten history might be deployable in a political arena. Otherwise, Gomez-Quiñones's vision for Chicano/a history evidences little of the myth of Aztlán, or the rhetorical vehemence of a cultural nationalist. The production of Chicano/a knowledge for Gomez-Quiñones will follow well-known disciplinary habits of writing history, including inventing new narratives and methods, but not overt political organization. Furthermore, and this is a key element in his vision, Chicano/a history will be produced in a comparative framework with other ethnic minorities globally. In such a framework, cultural nationalism becomes a feature of study rather than an outright goal of cultural production. In other words, producing histories of a specific community is not the same as myth-making on behalf of a community.

Gomez-Quiñones influenced the evolution of Chicano/a history in the early 1970s by balancing the need to organize within a unified narrative of resistance on the one hand but invoking with the other a historical analysis that went beyond presentist strategies of activism. Writing to the converted, as much as trying to win over new converts, Gomez-Quiñones concludes his essay with the following exhortation:

Chicano history is, and must continue to be, innovative. It is innovative because it calls for a reconceptualization of history and the role of history in society. This means the use of new methods of inquiry and a reconstruction and reinterpretation of available sources. Thus, it would chronicle a union of history as discipline and history as action on behalf of a community in its struggle for survival. It must be viewed critically because Chicano history is not an adjunct to U. S. Anglo history. It is not the listing of “important” names and contributions of “Mexican Americans” to the development of “this great country.” Chicano history is not exclusively the relationship of the Anglo as oppressor and the Chicano as oppressed, but must realistically reflect the historical context of the Chicano community vis-à-vis other oppressed groups in U. S. society.


Chicano/a history, according to Gomez-Quiñones, should provide a critique of the imperialist history of the United States. It should not lend itself to an effacement of class struggle, racial discrimination, and cultural harassment of minority communities. It should not lend itself to a pluralist model of ethnicity that toothlessly celebrates the political and cultural institutions of the United States. And yet, “Chicano history is not exclusively the relationship of the Anglo as oppressor and the Chicano as oppressed, but must realistically reflect the historical context of the Chicano community vis-à-vis other oppressed groups in U. S. society.” In other words, Gomez-Quiñones tactfully reminds Chicano/a historians to be careful not to create in their own paradigms the same exceptional theses of a “unique and special” people which has driven most United States historiography since the mid-nineteenth century.

As the activist cultures that sustained counternationalist identities begin to wane in influence in the later 1970s and early 1980s, the topic of “Chicano/a culture” becomes an increasingly contentious site for discussions about the successes and failures of the Chicano/a Movement. Scores of assessments of the movement's goals begin to appear in sundry journals. Gomez-Quiñones himself takes on a leadership role on the question of culture, especially how expansive it should it be and what relation it should have to activism. In the aptly entitled essay “On Culture,” Gomez-Quiñones alludes to theoretical debates ongoing within Chicano/a studies circles by the mid-1970s when he writes:

This essay deals with culture among people of Mexican descent of the United States. The problem of culture consists of understanding its makeup and its process historically and in contemporary times and understanding the relation of culture to conflict both conceptually and politically.


Reinvented for the Chicano/a Movement, the myth of Aztlán had little or no room for alternative cultures of activism that did not prioritize heterosexual, masculine notions of race and nationality as the most salient and expeditious features of political engagement. When alternative narratives of activism would appear, debate was sure to follow. But rather than contain debate, Gómez-Quiñones regarded the early post-movement period as an opportunity for reconsolidation of activist cultures. He writes: “In sum, this essay explores the ‘problemática de ser Mexicanos y trabajadores’ [the problem of being working-class Mexicans]. The task is to work to bring about cultural unity on a given basis to a given end” (29). In the rest of the essay, Gómez-Quiñones attempts, in broad strokes, a re-theorization of Chicano/a culture that is “historically derived, fluid, composed of both positive and negative aspects and is malleable to conscious action” (29). In short, he aims for a new theoretical understanding of culture that could serve as a basis for replicating the community-building feat of “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” but with a lot less nationalism and with a lot more flexibility about courting new cultures of activism.

Despite contemporaneous critiques by leftist Chicano/a scholars who worried over rhetorical devices like that of the myth of Aztlán, it was the cultural nationalists who won the political stage during the Chicano/a Movement. Though contested by scholars like Juan Gomez-Quiñones and Deluvina Hernández in the pages of Aztlán, cultural nationalism, combined with burgeoning identity politic coalitions, succeeded in winning university and college concessions for Chicano/a studies programs throughout the Southwest and California. Over a short period of time, these successes gave the impression that cultural nationalism was just another name for political activism. Although round after round of negative critiques were to be found from the mid-1970s on, and mostly from Chicano/a historians and feminists, cultural nationalism would survive in the various arts of the Chicano Renaissance that critics and activist alike invested so much energy and hope.

Long after the demise of the myth of Aztlán as an effective organizing tool for political activism, the myth surfaced and resurfaced as the operating metaphor of many a Chicano/a literary project. When even that waned, Aztlán was transformed into a generalized, if vague, resistant cultural politic, somewhat like that imagined by Gómez-Quiñones, except that that method of community building had the unsalutary effect of replicating many of the initial exclusionary habits of cultural nationalism. Even Chicana feminist texts would fall into similar traps of essentializing paradigms. What was missing from this literature-as-activism was the kind of Marxist historical perspective and comparative framework called for by Gómez-Quiñones and others. Ironically, the success of Chicano/a literature in the 1980s, both among Chicano/a and mainstream readers, distanced literary producers and consumers from the need to assess anew the Chicano/a community. As a result, cultural nationalism that once led to political activism now became literary nationalism, with activism reduced to the role of identity politics in universities, programs, majors, syllabi, and academic presses. If there was a collective sense of national Chicano/a politics, it came from literature and not grassroots political actions. By the mid-1980s, the activists that remained visible, in a national sense, were mainly writers, and a handful of critics associated with these writers. Neo-Marxist scholars and activists lost the rhetorical and symbolic ground of community formation to literary critics, who succeeded in arguing that activism and cultural nationalism could be found in a unique form of resistance literature.

The political utility of contemporary Chicano/a literature, with its working-class protagonists and race conscious plots, was self-evident and easily distinguishable from the more ambivalent legacies of historic figures such as Lorenzo de Zavala, Juan Seguin, Pió Pico, M. G. Vallejo, and others. Early community building required narratives that mirrored the contemporaneous efforts of activists such as Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, “Corky” Gonzalez. In the final analysis, leftist Chicano/a historians, even if producing prize-winning labor histories like Rodolfo Acuña's, could not compete with the metaphoric content of literature by Chicanos such as José Montoya, Alurista, Tomás Rivera, Rudolfo Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and then followed by Chicanas such as Gloria Velasquez and Lorna Dee Cervantes. Thus, the literary critics of the Movement surpassed their counterparts in history, or for that matter most social scientists, by becoming the gatekeepers of Chicano/a culture and identity. Even today, though highly respected and awarded countless prestigious forms of scholarly recognition, Chicano/a historians, unlike their Anglo American counterparts, have yet to assume a position like that of literary critics in shaping the material culture of a Mexican America. For better and worse, Chicano/a literary criticism has dominated the direction of Chicano/a studies since the mid-1970s.

I believe the time has come for Chicano/a studies, especially Chicano/a literary studies, to enact a model of ethnic scholarship that seeks historically sensitive methodologies for understanding culture as fluid with regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, and political affiliations. In essence, I call for a return to the internationalist, comparative arguments of the early Chicano/a Marxists that understood the role of cultural nationalism in a community building as a finite, strategic organizational moment, and not as the pretext for establishing a romanticized, idealized notion of la raza. The myth of Aztlán, in this context, would have been better understood, argues Wilson Neate, “as a question of localized practices of self-empowerment and self-determination which would, in turn, evolve into a platform for broader, unified political action” (16), rather than the more rhetorical basis of a militant reclamation of the Southwest.5 I agree.


If the genesis of Chicano/a studies owes its formation to the hard work of historians and socials scientists, like those found in the early pages of the journal Aztlán, then its growth was prophesied and actualized in the writings of Movement authors and literary scholars. The ten-year period from 1977-1987 that culminated in the publication of Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera witnessed tremendous changes in the foundations of Chicano/a studies. Nowhere was this change more evident than in Chicano/a identity politics. From its reliance on Aztlán in the early 1980s, Chicano/a studies evolved to incorporate new notions of mestizaje by the end of the decade. In the wake of Anzaldúa's Borderlands, the invocation of mestizaje has produced a whole new language of signification, which includes borders, differences, multiple racial and ethnic histories, varying sexual and political orientations, and alternative geographies of labor and gender formation. By being both a historical description of violent collision between Old and New World boundaries, as well as a postmodern signifier of power through multiplicity, mestizaje has emerged as the compelling critical framework for the new century. Yet, Borderlands did not arise from a vacuum, nor will it evolve as a singular voice. For this reason, it is worthwhile to review how Chicano/a studies has come to identify itself with Borderlands studies.

Viewed in the context of their readerly reception, one politically conservative, and the other progressive, it should strike us as ironic that the two major Chicano/a autobiographies of the early 1980s, Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) and Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983), are probably more responsible than anything else for the eventual displacement of the myth of Aztlán in Chicano/a studies.6 How can this be when “resistance theory” is itself gaining ground and vitality in Chicano/a studies all during the 1980s, peaking in Ramón Saldívar's Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (1990)? The short answer is that both autobiographies speak to and construct a cultural imaginary willing to confront the exclusionary practices of the Chicano/a Movement even as they broadly identify with la raza. All the same, the la raza each identifies with differs one from the other and differs, even more, from that of activists likely to look to Aztlán for solutions in a postmodern world. In a very concrete way, both Rodriguez's and Moraga's tales begin a larger introspective examination within the Mexican American community. Although many other Chicano/a authors are writing toward similar ends in this period, none, save Anzaldúa, had the cultural impact of these two writers. Ultimately, the real cultural work of these texts lies in their respective re-imagining of a Mexican American community where Aztlán is not a centering idea, nor a political ideal.7

Think about this: Is there a way that Chicano/a studies can claim a positive legacy in Richard Rodriguez?8 This question explicitly asks that we not rehearse why Rodriguez has been a foe to progressive Chicano/a politics, but rather ask how his politics have constructively challenged Chicano/a scholars and activists to retool their positions in an increasingly conservative environment. Rodriguez remains a pariah in most Chicano/a studies circles primarily because he renounced any Mexican American ethnic identity as central to his formation as a United States individual. For most of his critics, his infuriating non-ethnic ethnic identity is at the heart of his politics. Indeed, it helps to explain his opposition to two key tenets of Chicano/a activism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, namely affirmative action and bilingual education. Because he sees arguments for legal intervention in ethnic oppression as faulty, Rodriguez maintains steadfastly that the key to social justice lies in individuals' efforts to become competent citizens. For Rodriguez, to identify one group for special treatment based on a history of racial and ethnic discrimination treads too dangerously close to validating another racialized history that figures Mexican Americans as stereotypically incapable and unworthy of citizenship. In public life, by contrast, Rodriguez has consistently shown readers, television and radio audiences, and critics, his overwhelming credentials as citizen. In short, Rodriguez, as an individual of Mexican descent, has made a writerly and journalistic career of dispelling cultural and racist stereotypes without ever having to claim a history of oppression.

Because, as writer and journalist, he acts as social commentator, Rodriguez has been an appropriate target of criticism. But his celebrity status protects him; unlike activists and scholars, Rodriguez can more easily walk away from criticism. Chicana critic Rosaura Sánchez sums up the collective view of Richard Rodriguez held by many Chicano/a scholars: “Why devote so much attention and so much paper to a writer who has clearly been groomed and strategically deployed by the political right?” (171). While I agree with Sánchez that Rodriguez's texts should be subject to critique—on this ground he receives the same treatment any other writer would from me as a teacher—I nevertheless disagree that he is a self-serving puppet of the conservative Right. While true that Rodriguez is often deployed by servants of the Right, he himself is not the Right. Not a cultural nationalist of Aztlán, neither is he, I argue, a cultural nationalist of Anglo America. It is critical to acknowledge how Rodriguez has inadvertently encouraged Chicanos/as to come up with more sophisticated answers to questions of citizenship, immigration, justice, and history. His penchant for viewing the United States as always hybridized, and increasingly so in a postmodern economy, underscores his heretofore unrecognized positive legacy to Chicano/a studies. However problematic to Chicano/a progressives, his current role as a New World St. Augustine of social commentary—both as editor at the Pacific News Service and as commentator on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer—dramatizes his complex cultural power to shape public opinion, to be visible as a gay journalist of color. He is thus equally comfortable talking about the rise of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America (“New Reformation”) as he is meditating on the Sotheby's auction of Jackie Onassis's belongings (“Objects”). Having broken ethnic ranks, in recent years his cultural power has only increased.

Surely, there is a lesson to be learned from Rodriguez's brand of hybridization. Despite the celebration of his autobiography by conservatives, we can see retrospectively that Rodriguez had a radicalizing effect on readers who did not identify with the Chicano/a Movement, but who still wanted to claim their civil rights. His notoriety among conservatives, whether or not ultimately deserved, is not what helped to erode the myth of Aztlán, as much as it was his eloquent, anguished portrayal of a second-generation immigrant, male child. In his recollection of grade school, this child of immigrant parents desperately wants to fit into American society. If one is able to put aside disagreements with Rodriguez's views on bilingual education and affirmation action, and especially with his narcissistic division of the public and private realms of experience, then one has to admit that Rodriguez got the story of the male immigrant child right. This memory anchors Rodriguez's biography and explains why he identifies so little with Chicano/a activist mythology.

With Rodriguez's ability to occupy multiple cultural sites in mind (even if mestizaje is under-appreciated among them), it is fascinating that Cherríe Moraga's popularity in Women's Studies circles works from opposite attractions: it is largely predicated on her acceptance of her routine estrangement from society. This is not to say that her marginality as a woman, Chicana, and lesbian was ultimately a happy coincidence because it led to her rise as a sought-after author. No one can draw this conclusion given the painful and soulful revelations of Loving in the War Years. But rather, that if on the one hand Richard Rodriguez represented the Chicano gone public American, Cherríe Moraga represented, on the other, the public American gone private Chicana.9 Hers is an “ethnic” story that nonetheless made it possible for a mainly white Women's Studies audience to see her as telling their stories—those of daughters of white fathers who must retrieve their mothers' stories in order to forge a different female identity in United States society. It is from having found a home in Women's Studies that Moraga has had her most profound effect on American criticism and Chicana feminism. In many ways, Moraga's text can be credited with opening up white audiences to other mestiza and Chicana writers. I would even say that Sandra Cisneros and others owe their mainstream popularity to no less than this California community activist who went to New York City to learn Spanish and write her story.

Moraga's role in undermining the myth of Aztlán lies squarely in her desires to confront within, as well as without, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Like Rodriguez, Moraga's story is a studied examination of how the public arenas of society call out for the ethnic other to fit in and be absorbed. Unlike Rodriguez, Moraga's güera looks, courtesy of her Anglo father, made entry into public America a given. It was seeking a return to her mother's raza that proved to be more difficult. For Moraga, as woman and lesbian, it required that she critique her Mexican American family and then come to terms with that critique. In effect, she had to create a social text that would allow her to claim her racialized identities as a mestiza, Chicana, and Latina. In this regard, Moraga is an interesting link between Richard Rodriguez, whose critique of his family at the end of Hunger of Memory denies him the family connection he purportedly mourns, and Gloria Anzaldúa, whose critique of the “borderlands” moves her to a new configuration of family and community altogether. In Loving in the War Years, Moraga places a premium on the benefit of dialogue to weather difficult differences, whether in the family, the barrio, or society at large. For Moraga, it is not enough to claim hybridity as the ground of agency; it must also be balanced with a sense of responsibility and respect for each culture occupied, wherein even ethnic celebrations are open-ended and non-exclusionary.

Moraga's conclusions pose a conundrum for Chicano/a studies in the 1980s:

I am the daughter of a Chicana and anglo. I think most days I am an embarrassment to both groups. I sometimes hate the white in me so viciously that I long to forget the commitment my skin has imposed upon my life. To speak two tongues. I must. But I will not double-talk and I refuse to let anybody's movement determine for me what is safe and fair to say.


Moraga's sense of obligation as a writer, that she make all of herself understood, is an explicit rejection of separatist politics. Though ardently Chicana, she writes for all readers. Further, she rejects that brand of identity politics that would privilege one set of essentializing cultural traits over another. Why? Her life story is the unfolding of experiences that originate in the policing mechanisms inherent to both Anglo and Mexican American cultures. Continually negotiating her release from all systems of social policing, how could she then self-impose her own prison house of “acceptable” experience? She cannot. This is why she rejects the orthodoxy of any movement, however well intended. This is why she must accept her Anglo father and her Chicana mother, because any less is a denial of the complexity of her life, her past, her future. If the choice is between the grayness of complexity and the fantasy of uniqueness, Moraga chooses complexity.

Moraga's example of writing and thinking as a feminist Chicana lesbian challenged Chicano/a studies in the 1980s to unlink separatist ideology from progressive activism in United States politics. In response to Moraga's uninvolvement in the Chicano/a Movement, critic Lora Romero observes: “By the end of Loving in the War Years, it is clear that Moraga will never again stand on the sidelines when her brothers and sisters take the streets” (122). In making this ethnic identification, in choosing ethnic solidarity in political struggles. Moraga seems by the end of her tale to concede that some form of strategic separatism is inevitable. But lest we read brothers and sisters too reductively (and Moraga is rarely simplistically reductive), she offers the following: “Any movement built on the fear and loathing of anyone is a failed movement. The Chicano movement is no different” (140). Moraga's political position in Loving in the War Years is not only to sharpen the divides between man and woman, Chicana and Anglo, straight and gay, but also to commit herself to straddle these divides productively, humanely. Moraga's lasting contribution to Chicano/a studies may well be that in accepting the “whiteness” of her father, she reminds all mestizas and mestizos of their “white” fathers, past and present.

By the late 1980s, the centrality and relevance of Aztlán to Chicano/a studies slowly fades. In its place, the current ruling metaphor of “borderlands” emerges. In its embrace of divisions, splits, ruptures, gaps, silences, wounds, and absences, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) captures the critical imagination. In telling contrast, the rhetorical power of Aztlán had lain in its ability to confirm wholeness, coherence, continuity on behalf of a marginalized people. But remember, Anzaldúa is not opposed to Aztlán. Her first essay is entitled, “The Homeland, Aztlán/El Otro Mexico.” Yet Aztlán as utopia cannot adequately describe the social conditions of Anzaldúa's life. She narrates early on:

I am a border woman. I grew up between two cultures, the Mexican (with a heavy Indian influence) and the Anglo (as a member of a colonized people in our own territory). I have been straddling that tejas-Mexican border, and others, all my life. It's not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.


Anzaldúa's willingness to explore “this place of contradictions” without apologies, without regrets, was the text that Chicano/a literary critics were longing to find in the 1980s. Furthermore, Borderlands answered the question, Can there be a meeting place between an authentic Chicano/a critical discourse and Anglo-European theory? By the late 1980s, Chicana critics like Tey Diana Rebolledo, were openly alarmed by the increasing adoption of Eurocentric theory by Chicano/a scholars: “This priority of placing our literature in a theoretical framework to ‘legitimize’ it, if the theory overshadows it, in effect undermines our literature or even places it, once again, in a state of oblivion. Privileging the theoretical discourse de-privileges ourselves” (131). In other words, Rebolledo voiced the concern among many ethnic scholars that poststructural theory in the 1980s threatened to reobscure the ethnic historical subject.10 In this light, Borderlands's curious mixture of history, theory, analysis, poetry, essay, and manifesto was the perfect tonic for allaying fears that the ethnic subject would be lost in the world without a story.

Still, one could, and should, claim the same for Ramón Saldívar's Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (1990), published only three years after Borderlands; it impressively weaves Fredric Jameson's “political unconscious” with the material condition and literary production of Chicano/a writers. By complicating the deconstructionist tendency to view all texts as fictional, especially historical narrative, Saldívar's “dialectics of difference” manages to combine poststructural theory with the material and political history of the racialized other. Saldívar clarifies why Mexican Americans do not have the luxury of jettisoning history. For the racial other, to reduce history to the status of fiction is to over-privilege claims of difference by those who can socially and politically stand outside of history. By contrast, the racial other, who may or may not desire the empowerment of official history, is always already implicated as the disfranchised other. He or she can only appear in official history as subjugated. To achieve a critique that actively opposes the static position of Mexican as other, Chicano Narrative invokes “difference” and material culture as the twin engines of analysis; anything less reifies the broader status quo of the Mexican American in society, hence Saldívar's “dialectics of difference.” In this regard, Saldívar's critical assessments are very similar to Anzaldúa's border meditations.

Yet, the dissimilarities between the two texts are also clear. Hector A. Torres writes: “As a reduction to history, [Saldívar's] dialectics of difference are suspicious of the transcendentalizing tendencies of metaphysical thinking” (269). This is especially true in light of the historical framework Saldívar adopts. Torres observes that Saldívar rehearses the historical evolution of Mexican Americans quite deliberately. He begins with the Mexican American War and the consequences of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and then proceeds to the contemporary labor/economic evolution of the Mexican American as working class. Saldívar's history is, by 1990, the foundational history that founded Chicano studies in 1969. When Torres implies that Saldívar finds fault with Richard Rodriguez's ahistoricism, or is wary but respectful of Chicana writers, like Cherríe Moraga, who prioritize spirituality, it calls attention to the specific “structures of feelings” contained, I argue, within standard Chicano/a historiography. Saldívar's “dialectics of difference” might be indeed suspicious of the metaphysical, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that his use of Chicano history has more in common with or validates the metaphysical thinking of someone like Luis Valdez than it does writers like Rodriguez or Moraga.

In contrast to a reliance on Chicano history as a primary, organizing principle and ideological center, Anzaldúa's text offers a series of metaphors, each revolving around the “border,” that draw out the importance of the “borderlands” to some of society's most vexing questions. There is of course “history” in Anzaldúa's text, but not a historian's notion of history. Wilson Neate writes: “For Anzaldúa, the pre-Columbian period does not comprise a recuperable chronotrope but rather, she draws on that tradition to find new metaphors for a revision of the terms of Chicano/a identity and community” (24). If the personal is political, Anzaldúa stretches the personal to be historical, and vice versa. This is the story of a people resurrected from the margins of official history. As outsiders, they become realized as “Los atravesados” (who live on the borderland): the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal” (3). Here “normal” also includes what counts as the status quo in Chicano studies. As much as Saldívar's scholarly work opened Chicano/a studies to new horizons, his adherence to a canonical historical narrative necessarily limited Chicano Narrative even as it achieved authority to speak on behalf of Chicano/a literary criticism. The cultural work of Anzaldúa's text has gone further precisely because her metaphysical world has yet to find itself fossilized in any kind of official history.

More than ten years later, from public policy to histories of sexualities, the metaphor of “borderlands” has energized not only Chicano/a studies, but fields as distinct as postcolonial and medieval studies. While Gloria Anzaldúa's autobiographical quest for the “New Mestiza” might get lost in its adaptations by non-Chicano/a scholars, what is not lost, I'm sure, is how her text helped to redefine Chicano/a studies. Since 1987, newer critical studies show quite obviously either the direct influence of Anzaldúa, or her conditioning of the general reader response to books such as, Criticism in the Borderlands; The Dialectics of Our America; Dancing with the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas; Telling Identities, Rethinking the Borderlands; Movements in Chicano Poetry; Home Girls, and many more. This influence suggests the dominant discourse of Chicano/a studies today owes its rhetorical origins to Borderlands/La Frontera, and in its wake, Chicano/a Studies has come into a new maturity.

Why is that? And how can it be? Especially when Anzaldúa's tendency to essentialize her “New Mestiza” sends up so many red flags? When in fact she constructs la raza of the border in exclusive terms? And lastly, but most importantly, when her text is also clearly implicated in nationalist discourses?

But first I should grant Anzaldúa's nationalist statements are never stable. They disappear as quickly as they appear. In Anzaldúa's mind, the “borderland” is certainly home, but not necessarily homeland. To read la frontera as homeland is to reduce the field imaginary and direct attention to narrow political ends. Anzaldúa herself often intertwines the moral and the “national” with the universal and cosmic. For example: “On that day (December 2nd), I search for essential dignity as a people, a people with a sense of purpose—to belong and contribute to something greater than our pueblo. On that day I seek to recover and reshape my spiritual identity. ¡Animate! Raza, a celebrar el día de la Chicana” (88). Anzaldúa's talk of the pueblo and spirituality is appropriately reminiscent of “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” with one exception. Anzaldúa's vision does not begin or end with some realized new national community. She certainly hails la raza on behalf of the Chicana, but her ultimate vision is of a personal spiritual rebirth, a process available to all if it's available to only one person. Anzaldúa defines her society by its ability “to belong and contribute to something greater than” itself. What this is or means Anzaldúa leaves purposely vague and mystical, but I think it effectively brackets any kind of romantic illusion that the New Mestiza is the forerunner for a new nation. Instead, the New Mestiza, a state of mind, is the manifestation of a universalist agenda, a mission that goes well beyond traditional borders of time, space, nation, and experience, even while simultaneously Anzaldúa means to hold up people of Mexican descent for special attention.11

I think the short answer to the question, how has Gloria Anzaldúa changed Chicano/a studies, lies in the symbolic synthesis the idea of “borderlands” has generated for the field. In moving away from the myth of Aztlán as a nationalist project, Chicano/a studies has nevertheless claimed a geopolitical imaginary that is both related to but separate from the everyday policed border between the United States and Mexico. While the idea of “borderlands” is always caught in the web of narratives about the nation (both the United States and Mexico), “border” subjects never take up residence unambivalently in either country. Even ambivalence is so culturally charged that it precludes overarching, stable concepts of “nation.” This symbolic realm is thus at once a field of knowledge, experience, peoples, histories, conflicts, futures, as well as a conduit for ideas, discourses, images, economies, languages, immigrants. It is also a place of negotiations between nations, commerce, narratives, families, and individuals. And because the concept of the “borderland” opens up to two different nations, the idea of a bicultural society becomes instantly quantifiable and readable in ways unavailable before 1987.

“Borderlands” as a concept has resolidified the institutional mission of Chicano/a studies. The fractious, indeterminate nature of the borderlands has given the interdisciplinary nature of Chicano/a studies new life, new authority. Given the effects of the last fifteen years of conservative and centrist control of the presidency and Congress, from issues such as immigration policy to affirmative action, from the demonization of higher education to support of the Persian Gulf War, NAFTA, the WTO, and the current war against terrorism, Chicano/a studies has been ably qualified to interrogate and examine these issues as they affect the local and the global. The end result has been a high degree of relative exposure over the years.12 “Borderlands” has enabled Chicano/a studies to adopt a discursive identity that is neither keyed to one singular nationalist vision, nor invested in reifying patriarchal traditions in the name of cultural preservation, but yet, still be in a position to imagine la raza, to recover repressed histories, especially as it changes over time. Philosophically then, Chicano/a studies, since Anzaldúa's Borderlands, is open to the “queering” of its identity, whether that means in the study of sexuality, gender, history, literature, or even ethnic solidarity. For Neate, “… mestiza consciousness endows Chicano/a identity and community with ‘a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity’” (24). Ironically, Chicano/a studies' embrace of multiplicity, non-linearity, discontinuous narrative, transnationalism, and colonial history have put it more at the center of academic discourses than ever before. This is a tantalizing phenomenon given the historical displacement of mestizos and mestizos from hegemonic narratives of the nation state.


In his historical review and cultural analysis of Aztlán, Rafael Pérez-Torres offers a reading of the Chicano/a Movement and Chicano/a studies that is sympathetic to what I have laid out. He writes:

One image central to Chicano/Chicana intellectual and social thought has been the figure of Aztlán. Too often, the name of this mythic homeland is either dismissed as part of an exclusionary nationalist agenda or uncritically affirmed as an element essential to Chicanismo. In refiguring Aztlán, we move toward a conceptual framework with which to explore the connections between land, identity, and experience. Significantly, these connections become centrally relevant as the political, social, and economic relationships between people and place grow ever more complicated and fluid.


Instead of arguing for an overall paradigm shift in Chicano/a studies though, Pérez-Torres article focuses on the recuperation of Aztlán as an empty signifer that has played a historic role “in shifting the horizon of signification as regards Chicano/a resistance, unity, and liberation” (16). In other words, for Pérez Torres, Aztlán marks the historical changes that have occurred in Mexican American culture and Chicano/a studies since the early 1970s. As an idea that encapsulated countercultural activism, Aztlán was meaningful to activists and intellectuals during its reinvention; as the basis of a conceptual framework for scholarship, Aztlán continues its cultural work under new identities such as borderland studies. In the course of his article, Pérez-Torres persuasively and passionately argues for a retention of a renovated Aztlán that is fluid, non-nationalist, and non-exclusionary. Otherwise, “any fixed significance ascribed to Aztlán erases the vast differences that inform the terms ‘Chicana’ and ‘Chicano’” (33).13

While I find Pérez-Torres's analysis encouraging about the possibilities the term might have in the future, what strikes me as more significant is his observation that the term Aztlán, like the term Chicano or Chicana I would add, resides increasingly within academic circles:

But, to be fair, for many in the Chicano “community,” Aztlán signifies little; it is the political, social, and cultural Chicano/a elite of a particular stripe for whom Aztlán resonates as an icon imbued with some historical meaning. Five hundred years of European presence in the Americas is contested by an assertion of the indigenous, by an affirmation of native civilizations, by the recollection of Aztlán.


The difficulty of joining the minority object of study with some kind of “real” politic in the streets or Washington, D.C., is not exclusive to Chicano/a studies; unfortunately, this notorious problem is shared throughout ethnic and women's studies programs in the country today. Ironically, as Pérez-Torres notes, by declaring independence, or as he says “union of free pueblos,” and declaring it on the site of New World difference, the declaration of rebellion over time cannot help but remind us of the same rhetorical strategies used by Puritans or Revolutionaries of 1776. In this case, it seems to me, Chicano/a studies, as an archive and cultural center for Mexican American intellectual production within Western academia, becomes at best a conservatory, as opposed to being a fundamental catalyst for all that is truly vital or different in the Mexican American community. So the challenge for the Chicano/a scholar who resides within humanist structures of knowledge and authority is to cultivate a quixotic ability to resist the lure of stability, canonicity, and elitist, not populist, measures of value, and to reject the mainstream role of cultural gatekeeper, in favor of that of the eyewitness, chronicler, story-teller, community elder.

So long as the desire for activist scholarship remains alive, Chicano/a studies can never wholly become a vehicle for cultural elitism. Nor can it accrue to itself some cultural existence outside of nationalist or counternationalist contexts. Like other postnational critical studies of the United States, Chicano/a studies will always have to assume a highly conscious but fluid sociohistorical relationship to its objects of study. As Cherríe Moraga has taught that the personal is political, Chicano/a studies must endeavor to keep up with a Mexican America that itself is forever changing.

For Pérez-Torres, Aztlán is a fiction that was given context and political content for historical reasons. It remains in our lexicon, because intellectuals cannot survive outside of history, or the history of ideas. Whether or not Aztlán exists now in something called the “community,” however, is an important question. If it does not, the cultural history of the Chicano/a Movement has nevertheless forever enshrined its significance, because Aztlán has been transformed, as Pérez-Torres observes, into a process of liberation (37). It is upon this process that I posit New Chicano/a Studies as a new critical paradigm necessary to understand our current social text. By “this process,” I include our evolving consensus that if Aztlán contains a history of contradictory meanings, then only a new critical paradigm can effectively embrace those meanings embody. This paradigm is especially needed to anticipate the day when concepts like Aztlán, or for that matter Chicano/a, will become obsolete and replaceable by terms more suitable to a future political moment, thus ensuring that even the notion of “fluidity” remains fluid. Nevertheless, as Daniel Cooper Alarcón argues: “it is important to realize that even a fluid, shifting model of cultural identity is potentially exclusionary—and it is this exclusionary power that must be acknowledged and examined if we are to move toward a sophisticated understanding of how and why identities change” (35).

In these troubled political times, understanding the interplay between ethnic identity and representation has never seemed more vital to grasp. This interplay is especially crucial to the long-term survival of Chicano/a studies and the further development of fluid ethnic studies paradigms. However, if the field's principle preoccupation is either the decline of the Chicano/a Movement, or the inability of Chicano/a studies to be the staging ground for mass community activism, the reasons for the increased importance of issues of representation remain difficult to appreciate. Instead of this “either/or” approach, we might view the cultural politics of representation as illustrative of an evolving social context—a look at the “I's” and “we's” of Chicano/a identity—by which to evaluate the goals and strategies of activist scholarship at the local and global level.

Consider the following positions on representation from Norma Alarcón and Angie Chabram-Dernersesian:

Thus, the feminist Chicana, activist, writer, scholar, and intellectual on the one hand has to locate the point of theoretical, and political consensus with other feminists (and “feminist” men), and on the other continue with projects that position her in paradoxical binds: for example, breaking out of ideological boundaries that subject her in culturally specific ways, and not crossing over to cultural and political arenas that subject her as “individual/autonomous/neutralized” laborer. Moreover, to reconstruct differently the raced and gendered “I's” and “We's” also calls for rearticulation of the “You's” and “They's.” Traversing the processes may well enable us to locate points of differences and identities in the present to forge the needed solidarities against repression and oppression. Or, as Lorde (1984) and Spivak (1988) would have it, locate the “identity-in-difference” of cultural and political struggle.

(Alarcón 71)

It is ironic that, although we live in a period that prizes the multiplicity of identities and charters border crossings with borderless critics, there should be such a marked silence around the kinds of divergent ethnic pluralities that cross gender and classed subjects within the semantic orbit of Chicana/o. So powerful is the hegemonic reach of dominant culture that fixed categories of race and ethnicity continue to shape the production of social identities within the alternative sector. Few are those who have cut through the nationalist or pluralist registers that promote an all-or-nothing approach to writing the intresections between underrepresented transnational ethnic groups and their heterogeneous social movement toward one another.

(Chabram-Dernersesian 269)

If we can imagine Norma Alarcón's call to seek solidarities across multiple feminist lines, despite global structures of power that limit radicalism, as one side of a coin, the other side is Angie Chabram-Dernersesian's argument that Chicano/a studies is now in a position to link transnational studies of ethnicity with studies of “divergent ethnic pluralities” within the Chicano/a community. For me, the ability to imagine this coin is the ability to reimagine the status and currency of Chicano/a studies today, to move away from the either/or trajectory noted above toward a sense of possibility. Together, Alarcón's and Chabram-Dernersesian's visions challenge us to reformulate activist, interventionist scholarship as well as rekindle large-scale community-activist formation, through non-essentializing, non-nationalist new narratives of community building. While one may be possible without the other, there hasn't been an effective, all encompassing narrative of activism since the Chicano/a Movement, and even my own assessment, as I have suggested, depends entirely on what one means by effective and for whom. The politics of representation are thus key to any reconfiguration that would have Chicano/a studies be a site where scholarship and activism are joined, compromises and all.

In this essay, I have been interested in what lies between the two sides of the Alarcón/Chabram-Dernersesian coin. I have argued that Chicano/a studies is, and has been, moving in directions that do not disavow the Chicano/a Movement even if they show increasing affinity for the positions marked above by Alarcón and Chabram-Dernersesian. All these changes suggest that in this present moment an opportunity exists to mint a new currency to be passed among us equally, as well as between us and our allies. While the political imaginary embodied in Aztlán enabled past leaders to lobby for the civil rights of Mexican Americans by holding down the ground of our most recent troubled past, the trope of “borderlands” and the political identity of mestizaje have opened the future to new leadership.

And that's good. Because the Southwest is no longer home to all people of Mexican descent. New field imaginaries are being assembled outside and beyond Aztlán. Non-traditional places like Seattle, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Madison, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and even New York increasingly are home to Mexican American communities. What will happen to our collective imaginations when we start educating Chicano/a students from points further north, New Haven, Providence, Boston, and dare I say, Canada, is beyond comprehension at this point. Aztlán and the activists of the Chicano/a Movement perhaps succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Yet, we must grant also that the lure of jobs and the willingness of corporate capitalists to take advantage of cheap labor are equally behind these new demographics. Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse. Chicano/a studies is the same and yet different from its origins in the Chicano/a Movement. I hope it's clear that the original mission of Chicano/a studies to recover our alienated selves is far from over, far from done. While a difficult task lies ahead, New Chicano/a studies has never been in a better position to advocate for the powerless, the uneducated, and los olvidados, the forgotten, of this country.


  1. See Chabram and Juan Flores.

  2. See Estevan T. Flores.

  3. In his analysis, Contreras comes to a similar conclusion about the origins of Chicano/a studies: “On the one hand, it is a new Social Science that emerges in opposition to the academic role of dominant (“Enlightenment”) Social Science. On the other hand, it is also a Chicano Movement ideology, a worldview, that counters and opposes the ideological role of dominant Social Science” (32).

  4. For pre-1960 examples of labor strikes, see Acuña.

  5. For a concise and splendidly executed summary of the Chicano Movement as it relates to Chicano/a Literature, see Neate 5-25.

  6. Márquez ponders a similar thought when he writes: “… that Chicana writers, lesbian and male homosexual writers (Richard Rodriguez, for example) are at the forefront of the new wave of Chicano/a literature” (244).

  7. Kaup charts a similar trajectory when she argues that writers like Sandra Cisneros and Richard Rodriguez “employ the architectural metaphor of the new and temporary dwellings to question the organic view of Chicano/a culture embodied in old houses and ancient landscapes—i.e., the myth of Aztlán as central to Chicano/a identity” (366).

  8. An exception to the dominant negative response is Márquez's view: “Hunger of Memory is an important work because it raises a problematic issue: What is ethnic literature?” (239).

  9. Romero draws a similar observation: “One way to differentiate between Rodriguez's and Moraga's autobiographies would be to say that whereas Hunger of Memory reiterates the familiar trajectory of the ethnic intellectual (away from family and community), Loving in the War Years reverses the paradigm by narrating instead the ethnic intellectual's return to her community of origin” (123).

  10. For an extended discussion of this dilemma, see Erkkila.

  11. Saldívar-Hull makes a similar argument when she writes: “Though the text often has been dismissed as indulging in a quest for lost origins or criticized for appropriating an indigenous heritage that does not belong to Chicanas, I propose that even in its most mystical, spiritual moments, the text circles back to a political consciousness with a specific political agenda that identifies not with the patriarchal nation-state of Aztlán but with the feminist state, Coatlicue” (64).

  12. See Gutiérrez-Jones.

  13. Cooper Alarcón makes a very similar argument for the retention of the myth of Aztlán, see 4-35.

Only space and time limit the depth of my gratitude to my many readers and supporters for this essay: Amelia María de la Luz Montes, Jesse Alemán, John-Michael Rivera, Andrea Tinnemeyer, José Limón, José David Saldívar, María Herrera-Sobek, María González, Juan Bruce-Novoa, and Nicolás Kanellos. From my corazón to Krista Comer, whose editing, scholarship, and commitment to Chicanos and Chicanas can be found throughout this essay.

Works Cited

Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988.

Alarcón, Norma. “Chicana Feminism: In the Tracks of ‘The’ Native Woman.” Between Woman and Nation: Nationalism, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Ed. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, and Minoo Moallem. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 63-71.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhabha. New York: Routledge, 1990. 291-321.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Dialogical Strategies, Monological Goals: Chicano Literature.” An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. Ed. Alfred Artega. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. 225-45.

Chabram, Angie. “Conceptualizing Chicano Critical Discourse.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991. 127-48.

Chabram-Dernersesian, Angie. “‘Chicana! Rican? No, Chicana Riqueña!’: Refashioning the Transnational Connection.” Between Woman and Nation: Nationalism, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Ed. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, and Minoo Moallem. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 264-95.

Contreras, Raoul. “What is Latino Studies?: The Ideological Dimension of Program ‘Construction’ and Program Location.” Latino Studies Journal 11.1 (2000): 25-49.

Cooper Alarcón, Daniel. The Aztec Palimpsest: Mexico in the Modern Imagination. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

“El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.” Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Ed. Rudolfo A. Anaya and Francisco A Lomelí. Albuquerque: El Norte Publications/Academia, 1989. 1.

Erkkila, Betsy. “Ethnicity, Literary Theory, and the Grounds of Resistance.” American Quarterly 47 (1995): 563-94.

Flores, Estevan T. “The Mexican-Origin People in the United States and Marxist Thought in Chicano Studies.” The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses. Vol. 3. Ed. Bertell Ollman and Edward Vernoff. New York: Praeger, 1986. 103-63.

Flores, Juan. “Latino Studies: New Contexts, New Concepts.” Harvard Educational Review 67.2 (1997): 208-21.

Fregoso, Rosa Linda, and Angie Chabram. “Chicana/o Cultural Representations: Reframing Alternative Critical Discourses.” Cultural Studies 4.3 (1990): 203-12.

Gómez-Quiñones, Juan. “On Culture.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 5.2 (1977): 29-47.

———. “Toward a Perspective on Chicano History.” Aztlán 2.2 (1971): 1-49.

Gutiérrez-Jones, Carl. “Desiring B/orders.” diacritics 25.1 (1995):99-112.

Hernández, Deluvina. “La Raza Satellite System.” Aztlán 1.1 (1970): 13-36.

Kaup, Monika. “The Architecture of Ethnicity in Chicano Literature.” American Literature 69 (1997): 361-97.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin. Trails: Toward a New Western Literary History. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991.

Márquez, Antonio C. “Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory and New Perspectives on Ethnic Autobiography.” Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays. Ed. John R. Maitino and David R. Peck. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. 237-54.

Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Boston: South End Press, 1983.

Neate, Wilson. Tolerating Ambiguity: Ethnicity and Community in Chicano/a Writing. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Pease, Donald E. “New Americanist: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon.” boundary 2 17.1 (1990): 1-37.

Pérez-Torres. Rafael. “Refiguring Aztlán.” Aztlán 22.2 (1997): 15-41.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1982.

——— “New Reformation.” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. 29 Mar. 1996. Online. News Hour 2 Jul. 1997.

———. “Objects of Desire.” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. 22 Apr. 1996. Online. News Hour 2 Jul. 1997.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana. “The Politics of Poetics: Or, What Am I, A Critic, Doing in This Text Anyhow?” Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1988. 129-38.

Romero, Lora. “‘When Something Goes Queer’: Familiarity, Formalism, and Minority Intellectuals in the 1980s.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 6.1 (1993): 121-41.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Sánchez, Rosaura. “Calculated Musings: Richard Rodriguez's Metaphysics of Difference.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. 153-73.

Smith, Robert C. “Mexicans in New York: Memberships and Incorporation in a New Immigrant Community.” Latinos in New York: Communities in Transition. Ed. Gabriel Haslip-Viera and Sherrie L. Baver. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. 57-103.

Torre, Adela dela, and Beatriz M. Pesquera, eds. Building With Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Torres, Hector A. “Review of Ramón Saldívar's Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference.College Literature, Double Issue, 19.3/20.1 (1992/1993): 265-69.

Francisco A. Lomelí (essay date 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lomelí, Francisco A. “An Interpretive Assessment of Chicano Literature and Criticism.” In Literature and Ethnicity in the Cultural Borderlands, edited by Jesús Benito and Ana María Manzanas, pp. 63-79. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.

[In the following essay, Lomelí examines the social, cultural, and literary aspects of Chicano/a literature as it has evolved from self-discovery in the 1960s through acceptance of greater diversity at the end of the twentieth century.]

There is little doubt that Chicano literature and the accompanying criticism are currently at productive stages of development. Their expansion and rate of growth have become a phenomena difficult...

(The entire section is 7027 words.)

Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez (essay date 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martín-Rodríguez, Manuel M. “Reading (in) the Past: Textual Recovery and the History of (Reading) Chicano/a Literature.” In Life in Search of Readers: Reading (in) Chicano/a Literature, pp. 139-70. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Martín-Rodríguez explores the trend, which began in the mid-1980s among Chicano/a scholars, of rediscovering earlier works of Chicano/a literature that had been disregarded for ideological reasons, but have nevertheless influenced contemporary Chicano/a literature.]

Upon dusty shelves, frayed and forgotten, the books of this history may still be hidden. By word...

(The entire section is 16026 words.)