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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12158

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.

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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Francisco A. Lomelí (essay date 2002)

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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 to document, strictly due to the sheer quantitative proliferation. Greatly fueled by the impulsive fervor of the Chicano social movement of the 1960s and 1970s, known as a Renaissance or a “Florecimiento,” the literature garnered a messianic bent during that era. At the peak of the social movement, and shortly thereafter, it was common to stress the literary production that addressed the immediacy, and urgency, of a historical situation. Without fully realizing it then, a historical posture was being promoted: we underscored how our people had not emerged out of a vacuum; yet, we seemed to speak from and to that contemporary vacuum. Little was intimately known about our collective background, so we mercilessly clung to our Mexicanness as if it were our last possession. We intimated and even intuited a rich tradition but our knowledge of actual works or artists was at best minimal. Most of us in 1970 were unable to cite a single noteworthy Chicano figure or text—Cesar Chavez being perhaps the lone exception. Our incessant search inevitably resulted in enouncing famous Mexican heroes who ruled the pages of Mexican textbooks or the dynamic realm of oral tradition. Somehow our historical memory had been either scarred or amnesiac in that we had drifted away, or nudged, from our previous cultural matrix. There was a dire need—spiritual as well as physical—to identify a homeland. It is not coincidental, for example, that most of the works during the height of the movement dealt, in one way or another, with providing historical/cultural renditions of Chicanos' search for what they were either in the present or in the past. Two works serve to illustrate this approach: Yo soy Joaquin (1967) by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and Floricanto en Aztlán (1971) by Alurista. We had become disconnected from our steps to relive that vague ephemeral past. Hence, a Neo-Indigenist trend emerged to try to fill that void. The Chicano Movement, then, represented a concerted effort to regain an ethos, a history and a social context.

But, the general impression of our culture today as well as our literature has been that we are recent immigrants trying to penetrate the mainstream. We have not been altogether convincing, not even to ourselves, that our presence in “el vasto norte,” or what in 1848 became known as the American Southwest had deep roots and antecedents. Once landgrant holdings were parceled out, and owners were converted into labor force wage earners, much of our impoverished and powerless people were forced to accept the official Anglo American version of our conquest. What we called Aztlán offered much cognitive evidence as to our background in mythological and historical terms. As an attempt to salvage part of that loss, a quantum leap into a Nahuatl framework was tried, partially minimizing the centuries of Spanish colonial influence and the effects of territorialization under Anglo American rule. These were downplayed to instead highlight the ‘brown’/‘white’ dichotomy that seemed to spell our downfall through the post-industrial chambers of exploitation and second-class citizenry. The two pivotal points of convenient references usually targeted the Aztecs and the Mexican Revolution: the first represented a preferred crib of desired origins while the second marked a niche of redemption. Anything in between resembled a blur or a factor of lesser importance. Our essence rested on the nostalgic consumption of a simplification of ourselves, thus canonizing such important personalities as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Somehow, both distance and time had lessened our sense of diverse complexities to the degree that a civil war did not necessarily seem like a civil war, but rather, an extended clash between caudillos. In the meantime, we had been generally reduced to a landless and unskilled mass of people groping for a rightful place in a country that emerged strong as a result of our labor. Likewise, Chicano literature in the 1960s either concentrated, limitedly, on well-known Mexican symbols or identified situational experiences as couched in the barrio or the farm fields. The literary themes revolved around identity and affirmation more than psychological or spatial discovery. This was a necessary and vital stage to undergo, the process of self-discovery, in order to first come to the full realization of how we had been efficaciously compartmentalized, and dehumanized, in American society. In part a purging effect, the politically motivated agenda to establish identity and pride had the function of redefining a new starting point for our people. Most significantly, it altered the focus from serving as work objects for majority society in order to concentrate on our own desires, delights and destiny. At that point we crossed a key juncture: from mechanically living out our external existence to intrinsically exploring our internal makeup. A work that best exemplifies this direction is “… y no se lo trago la tierra” (1971) by Tomas Rivera. We began to recognize and tap into our potential as promoters of our creative and imaginative forces.

We did not fully anticipate where this recharged energy adequately fit in the larger scope of our historical gestation. Having regained a sense of awareness and presence, we initially did not know how to contextualize it within our past to measure it as just a one-time event or another symptomatic manifestation of our discontent. Most of our literature at the time centered around more urgent contemporary happenings in barrios, educational institutions, and the farm fields, while some critics opted toward indulging in literary history. The current events sometimes made it a requirement to devote the literary fancy to pressing social matters as they unfolded, but it became equally clear that a literary history was awaiting to be rediscovered. In hindsight, we can now pose the contrast between a sleeping giant about to be awakened (the common metaphor to characterize our people then) and the clever, survival-obsessed coyote (not to be confused with the smuggler of people, although he also depends much on an evasive character) that out-foxed its pursuers. The media promoted the metaphor of the sleeping giant in order to associate it with a social threat, possibly predisposed toward exercising an avenging wrath. However, the coyote, which best suits our oral tradition, more accurately reflects the attributes of perseverance and ingenuity to sidestep danger or locate sustenance. Our people, and consequently our literature, endured famine, turmoil and hardships. Many lows can be pinpointed throughout our development, but, most importantly, numerous significant highs can be highlighted. In other words, we in fact possessed a real past, not one invented out of rhetoric or political idealism, rather, one that had its own pulse and rhythm of existence.

In the area of literature, a massive corpus of uncatalogued Chicano works remained either lost, ignored or simply undisturbed by the watchful eye of a critical readership. These works tended to readily enter the realm of immediate oblivion but the reconstructive approach of the 1970s permitted, perhaps for the first time, to indulge in systematically combing lists or shelves for works from a generally forgotten past. Works prior to 1965 appeared to comprise an amorphous and vague notion of prehistory. Chicano social evolution had been measured according to its association with Mexico and how we related or ceased to relate to our cherished country of origin. This framework is represented novelistically in the polemical work titled Pocho (1959) by Jose Antonio Villarreal. Even that latter work serves to illustrate a pre-Renaissance Chicano mindset through its unfolding of conflictive topics, such as assimilation and acculturation, the epic exodus from Mexico, a patriarchal system versus a transitional model concepts of authority, an iconoclastic optic of testing icons and hierarchies, etc. It is also worth noting that Pocho was not “rediscovered” until 1971 when an insatiable curiosity set in to systematically identify works by Chicanos prior to the critical year of 1965. Each uncovered text from a dusty shelf—and a foggy past—reinforced a sense of recuperating a part of our cultural expression. That object filled a void and broke new ground for uncovering others. Literary history suddenly assumed the role of an archaeological dig that provided greater and more expansive meaning to our ancestors and, most importantly, to our literary tradition. Each finding marked a coming to face with an empirical artifact from our past by piecing together disjointed fragments that miraculously survived. Together, these fragments provided a larger scope of the unknown by giving depth and breadth as well as concrete samples of writings that spoke of and in preterite modes. Thus, literary history did not have to depend on an in-group intuition of assumptions; clear and substantiating evidence was before us to uncover new ground of critical discourse. Literary history was no longer a hegemonic activity pertaining to Anglo American literary circles. For once, the argument could be supported that Chicano literature had a past, an evolution, stages of development and its own characteristics, oftentimes regionally bound to localized problematics and not totally dependent upon either Mexico or Anglo America. It can be argued that early Chicano literature established a particular discourse with other literatures, although that contact was not necessarily reciprocal. Its predicament was largely due to the stigmatization of being the creation of a conquered people: both American and Mexican literary circles ignored it, perhaps marginalizing it from a stand point of class and social status. In the United States, giving credence to a body of works written in Spanish did not suit well with the homogenizing trends of the nineteenth century. Chicanos basically clung to proven models of literary construct in relatively isolated cases of published works, but oral tradition continued strong despite the onslaught of new foreign influences or the social disintegration caused by the conquest and hardened by the institutionalization of territorial governance.

In other words, a diverse but extensive quantity of literary expression prior to 1965 deserves a rightful place in the annals of what we currently call Chicano literature. Too often, teachers of this literature strictly devote their attention to works after the explosion of the contemporary Chicano Renaissance. Too frequently, professors fail to outline its historical development, thus giving the impression of literary hydroponics as if it does not have a legitimate past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Early works and authors before 1965 merit closer scrutiny and analysis because their situation repeatedly parallel or help explain the backdrop of more modern views. Besides, many of these early works challenge the conventional precepts of traditional genres—a most healthy exercise in order to assess a work's contribution by its intrinsic work and not according to boxed-in categories. Contemporary writers have not come onto the scene out of a vacuum; in other words, there is a history of literary antecedents. There exists a rich but at times modest background in what could be termed a written culture. Chicanos have a tradition of literary creativity and publishing since 1848, and before that the Spanish colony of New Spain evinces numerous samples of writings that are a direct product of what came to be the American Southwest or Aztlán. Therefore, Chicanos have not continued as illiterate or as unpublished as we are made to believe. Many myths set in to perpetuate that very notion because our place in American society oscillated between being low-class, unskilled workers and/or undesirable foreigners. Chicanos have not remained silent; their voice of pure imagination or discontent has generally been ignored or relegated to pockets of localities where the major society did not take notice or repressed acknowledging it. Works abound if we wish to find them: early monographic texts are perhaps scarce but an infinite amount of writings from all genres remain stored in microfilmed newspaper collections that require patience and time to extract. Without trying to sound dramatic, many texts are just waiting to be discovered as significant pieces of a larger puzzle. Only recently since the 1980s has a growing number of scholars proposed regional case studies in order to provide us with the larger picture of Chicano literary history throughout the Southwest and beyond. There is no doubt that the tip of the iceberg is now unveiling a larger mass of creative writings that uncover fascinating and revealing facets of our collective intrahistory.

Although we lack a practical text of literary history, no longer can we find refuge in the argument that no viable samples exist to sufficiently represent early writings. Specific works are readily available—at least in libraries. Chuck M. Tatum's Chicano Literature (1982) and Mexican American Literature (1990) offer a reasonable starting point with multiple examples and summaries. In two seminal articles titled “Mexican American Literature: A Historical Perspective” (1973) and “Cuatro siglos de la prosa aztlanense” (1980), Luis Leal delineates the trajectory of a myriad of texts that, previous to his accomplishing it, had not been incorporated into a single literary historical tradition. Luis Leal, possibly the father of modern approaches to Chicano literary history, has contributed a number of valuable parameters to the field while providing an impetus to recording a legacy dating back to at least 1542. The following list offers some likely selections from before 1900:

  1. Relaciones (1542) by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: the first prose treatment that describes the peoples, flora and fauna of “el vasto norte.”
  2. Historia de la Nueva Mexico (1610) by Gaspar Perez de Villagra: the first epic poem of the region—which includes the entire U.S.—, comparable to Ercilla's La araucana.
  3. Los comanches (1779?) by an anonymous author: one of the first dramatic pieces to indulge in localized politics in the conflictive frontier involving Hispanics and Comanche Indians.
  4. Writings of Junipero Serra (1784?) by Junipero Serra: rich anecdotal prose about the early wanderings of the famous priest credited for the founding of many California missions.
  5. Los pobladores nuevomexicanos y su poesia, 1889-1950 (1976) by Anselmo Arellano: consists of the first representative compilation of early poetry from New Mexico that was transcribed from an assortment of newspapers (themes vary; “El idioma español” by J. M. Alarid is highly recommended).
  6. “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (1895?) in “With His Pistol in His Hand,” compiled and edited by Americo Paredes: one of the first well-known Chicano ballads from Texas.
  7. Hijo de la tempestad (1892) by Eusebio Chacon: one of the first political allegories in novel form that closely captures the social turmoil of the 1890s.
  8. The Squatter and the Don, originally from 1885 by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, recreates an important era of California history.
  9. A variety of individual corridos, decimas, or cuentos can also serve the purpose of highlighting other desired aspects.

To amply characterize the period from 1900 to 1965 with early works prior to the Renaissance period, the following select works offer potential candidates for discussion:

  1. Cuentos californianos (1910?) by Adolfo Carrillo: a collection of variegated topics from local color to urban depictions.
  2. Las primicias (1916) by Vicente Bernal: a young man's poetic repertoire consisting of nostalgia for his native land, New Mexico, and experimentations with both style and technique.
  3. Again, Anselmo Arellano's Los pobladores nuevomexicanos y su poesia, 1889-1950 provides evidence of unknown writings from a large segment of writers who originally appeared in newspapers.
  4. Cronicas diabolicas (1916-1926) de ‘Jorge Ulica’ (alias for Julio G. Arce) and edited by Juan Rodriguez in 1982: contains a wide variety of humorous anecdotes, costumbrista narrations, plus biting and specious journalistic essays.
  5. New Mexico Triptych (1940) by Fray Angelico Chavez: a series of well crafted stories about cultural life.
  6. Mexican Village (1945) by Josephina Niggli: provides a scintillating portrayal of a gallery of small town characters.
  7. We Fed Them Cactus (1954) by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca: a nostalgic view of pastoral existence in the llanos lamenting the drastic social changes.
  8. Mario Suarez's short stories, beginning in the 1940s, particularly “Señor Garza” and “El Hoyo:” present some of the first excellent depictions of flesh-and-blood characters from the barrios.
  9. Pocho (1959) by Jose Antonio Villarreal: represents one of the most comprehensive and detailed views of a Mexican family's adjustments to American life while depicting a first-generation's dilemmas and an individual's awareness of self.
  10. City of Night (1963) by John Rechy: offers a disturbing account of a young homosexual's urban picaresque journey through the sameness of alienating urban settings.

As one can see, there exists during the aforementioned periods an abundant quantity of diverse and challenging books to sufficiently engage in animated discussions about content, thematic preference, varied perspectives, relative significance, and uniqueness in characterization. Besides, each work cited is quite distinct from texts that later appear during the Chicano literary movement after the 1960s. There is no longer a justifiable reason why earlier writings are excluded from the core of literary presentations.

The year 1965 witnessed a unique bend of factors that combined to generate a new ethos and reverberated to create a totally distinct concept of Chicano literary imagination. For example, the stage was set through the emergence of two crucial events: as Cesar Chavez's farmworker labor movement solidified, El Teatro Campesino, principally organized by Luis Valdez, revived and developed an artistic form of theater that revolutionized Chicanos' self-portrayal in popular or at times funky, grass-roots skits called actos. These garnished the two necessary sparks to incite the social explosion known as the Chicano Movement. The first provided the concrete framework for political commitment while the second prepared an artistic medium with which to hone concientización about our social plight, thus initiating the purging effects of a conquered mind. Commitment and accountability helped unleash a renewed activity among Chicanos in many arenas simultaneously and the poets and other artists joined this communal attempt to act out its self-determination. A cultural and political rebirth emerged by inducing our creative talents, thereby tapping into an integral part of our psyche and heart. Our repressed self emerged to assert our inner makeup with the objective of being active participants in determining modern history. The year 1965 has come to be known as the starting point for contemporary actualization.

Events accelerated to form new avenues of action and artistic experimentation. In 1967 a clear manifestation of a boom was in order: (1) the funding of El Grito at Berkeley established an alternative outlet to adequately apply the social sciences to Chicano concerns, plus their inclusion of literary works created what would later be termed the Quinto Sol Generation; (2) Reies Lopez Tijerina, through his Alianza Federal de Mercedes, called attention to the latent landgrant problem of New Mexico when they raided a courthouse; (3) Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales published his Yo soy Joaquin, a nationalistic poetic manifesto that embodied a rallying cry for renewal while rendering a historical outline of the Mexican; (4) the Brown Berets, a militant faction of the Chicano Movement, were formed to support proactive community functions; (5) in the meantime, the movement was crossing over from the farm fields into urban settings and particularly the educational institutions. As a consequence, this movement became one to be reckoned with as a multifaceted social upheaval demanding changes and offering solutions to achieve them.

The years 1968 and 1969 represent the prelude to a full blow-out, that is, the most visible mobilization of Chicanos across the spectrum of socio-economic and political fields of battle. Again, literature played a central role in developing key concepts, such as Aztlán, in modifying symbols, and in legitimizing a Chicano mode of expression called code-switching, Spanglish or bilingual. Alurista was the main promoter of Aztlán. His poetic enterprise became a national Chicano concern at the Youth Conference at Denver in 1969 when El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán was adopted into the final platform. That document, along with El Plan de Santa Barbara, became the two better-known manifestos of the time: the former to propel a national Chicano social agenda and the latter to address the need for institutions of higher learning to become accountable in creating Chicano Studies departments. By then, Chicanos could allude to their origins, a homeland, a language, and the foundations were being set for greater participation in the political process—which became more defined in 1970 through the founding of La Raza Unida Party. Some works reflected this Zeitgeist, namely Los cuatro (1969), a collection of militant movement poetry by Abelardo Delgado, Ricardo Sanchez, Raymond “Tigre” Perez and Juan Valdez. The articulation of craft was not of the utmost importance; what mattered, above all, was the emotive, almost visceral plea for identifying and denouncing injustices. Art was definitely at the service of a social movement because Chicano artists recognized that art could only improve concomitantly with the progress of its procreators. So, art was a direct reflection of a group's efforts to break barriers, undermine obstacles, dispel myths, and reconceptualize a fairer social order.

The year 1970 now stands out as a focal epicenter of literary consciousness. It denotes the changing guard from an emerging echo of disenchantment to a bona fide contemporary voice of unbridled imagination. Numerous events coincided that confirm the view: (1) although Chicano (1970) by Richard Vasquez fell short of propagating a new thematic agenda, its title became emblematic of referring to a Mexican American story a secas as “Chicano;” (2) perhaps more significant was the initiating of the Quinto Sol Literary Award sponsored by the publishing house of the same name from Berkeley which subsequently served as the standard bearer of canon in the novel and short fiction genres—Tomas Rivera being the first recipient of that award for his now classic “… y no se lo trago la tierra”; (3) the magazine La Luz from Denver Colorado, dedicated a section to the analysis of individual Chicano works; (4) also, the Centro de Estudios Chicanos Publications from San Diego State College embarked on an ambitious project of organizing the first annotated bibliography, which presented a skeletal compilation and whose value rested not so much in the quality of reviews but more in the format used to document such vital inquiries; (5) the founding of the journal Aztlán crystallized a sense of homeland through its title at the same time that it advanced ‘cientificismo’ in all disciplines in order to undergird sophisticated techniques of analyses; (6) the latter two examples further strengthen the area of literary criticism and it received an additional boost from the Ford Foundation when it earmarked funds for graduate studies; (7) a series of Chicano Studies departments were created in that year to address the recent trends of scholarship and cultural studies; and (8) La Raza Unida Party was founded by Jose Angel Gutierrez in Texas in searching for other viable means to represent Chicanos politically. As one can see, a united front of various factors converged to produce a macroscope of collaborative initiatives with direct repercussions in literature and criticism. These two fields not only found themselves in a spiral of productivity but also they were never to be the same again.

The early 1970s constitutes a most dynamic period of development in Chicano literature. The number of works produced exceeded previous projections and, qualitatively, the innovations were dramatic. The openly militant and unobscured expression, although still somewhat prevalent, gave way to more subtle forms of sophisticated techniques and transcendental thematics. Much of the literature had been viewed with smirks and silent assaults by a traditional readership, usually composed of academic departments. Some considered it too contrived with only ulterior motives while others regarded it a mock imitation of ‘high-brow’ literature which at times it was. The perception persisted to categorize it as being adultered political pamphleteerism and/or folksy popular expression that seemed subpar and unclassifiable. However, landmark works broke new ground: Floricanto en Aztlán (1971) by Alurista fuses two languages—while blending Nahuatl aesthetics with a contemporary barrio concerns; “… y no se lo trago la tierra” (1971) by Tomas Rivera presents the migrant worker as the collective protagonist in a neo-realist mode by fragmenting time, space and structure; Bless Me, Ultima (1972) by Rudolfo A. Anaya establishes a captivating story of apprenticeship, thus signaling a struggle for survival in a changing epoch that ignores spirituality, myth and tradition; Estampas del Valle y otras cosas (1973) by Rolando Hinojosa-Smith creates a postmodern novel about a fictionalized Chicano space—much in the tradition of Faulkner and Garcia Marquez, except devoid of magical realism—which is decentered but held together by a gallery of loosely connected characters; Actos (1971) by El Teatro Campesino embodies the first modern collection of Chicano skits molded with an unforgettable rascuachi flair and wit, creating a style-shattering theatrical form that became internationally known; The Day of the Swallows (1971) by Estela Portillo-Trambley offers an ambiguous archetypal play that operates at various allegorical levels while hinting at a burgeoning feminism of either altering the world order or sacrificing oneself for those changes; and Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974) by Miguel Mendez contributes a highly poetic frontera novel about a people's tragic journeys of suffering, at the same time that variants of language occupy the central focus.

Criticism, however, did not enjoy a popularity parallel to its literary counterpart. Early examples essentially appeared unnoticed. Perhaps the first attempt that remained unacknowledged until 1976 was Breve reseña de la literatura hispana de Nuevo México y Colorado (1959) by Jose Timoteo Lopez, Edgardo Nuñez, and Roberto Lara Vialpando, whose modest account traces the literature's longstanding tradition as a natural and well-known phenomenon. They do not indulge in the polemics of definition; they simply discuss its evolution in a matter of fact fashion, citing specific works. They comment on the exclusion of this literature: “tanto en libros históricos como en poesía popular. Nada (se) dice de los tradicionales romances españoles que todavia se cantan en los valles del Rio Grande y de San Luis. Tampoco (se) menciona el teatro popular y tradicional de los campesinos de Nuevo Mexico y Colorado.” (8) Already in 1917, Miguel Romera-Navarro, in El hispanismo en Norte-América: exposición y crítica de su aspecto literario, prophetically observes: “La historia y exposición del hispanismo literario en Norte-América estan por escribir(se). Ni un solo estudio, comprensivo o superficial, popular o erudito, se le ha dedicado.” (1) Critical discourses basically remained undeveloped and rudimentary in nature until the early 1970s. Possibly the best exposé of literary criticism prior to 1970 is Francisco Armando Ríos's “The Mexican in Fact, Fiction and Folklore” (El Grito, 1969) in his dealing with three distinct but related areas. Felipe Ortego y Gasca, in his dissertation “Backgrounds to Mexican American Literature” (1971), exemplifies the first comprehensive and encyclopedic treatment of Chicano literature. A non-orthodoxical approach, mixing scholarly analysis with bato loco jargon, is carried out by Jesús “El Flaco” Maldonado in Poesía chicana: Alurista, el mero chingón (1971). It was in the early 1970s that the publishing apparatus increased dramatically, including both criticism and creative works, in such journals as Revista Chicano-Riqueña, De Colores, Caracol, Tejidos, La Palabra, Maize, and Mango. Other journals that later dedicated special issues were: Latin American Literary Review, Mester, Bilingual Review, Denver Quarterly and The New Scholar. One of the most significant highlights of criticism between 1970 and 1975 was Juan Bruce-Novoa's theoretical precept of “literary space,” as modified from Mircea Eliade, George Bataille, Juan Ponce and Octavio Paz. For once, serious theoretical considerations were thought proposed in analyzing and judging this literature, instead of solely depending on thematic approaches.

To best illustrate the meteoric proliferation of Chicano literature and criticism, a quick review of bibliographies is telling. For example, in 1971 Bibliografía de Aztlán contains a mere 6 items of Chicano works, the remaining 12 items being of either Mexican origin, Chicanesco works, or other indirectly related summaries. In contrast, by 1976 Chicano Perspectives in Literature: A Critical and Annotated Bibliography by Lomelí and Urioste lists a total of 127 annotations, including some early works before 1965. In the same year, Juan Rodriguez began to circulate his Carta abierta, an on-and-off-again enterprise, that injected critical dialogue, promoted polemics and satire, and tendered witty and succinct judgements from the editor, plus, most importantly, he inserted didactic materials as well as brief reviews on recent works and trends. Rodriguez served multiple purposes: as a database, he was our Chicano books in print, the first reviewer, the first to provide critical annotations, a general informant about happenings, plus our literary counselor about leads and things to avoid. Ernestina N. Eger, in A Bibliography of Criticism of Contemporary Literature (1982), meticulously documents the “explosion of critical activity” in Chicano journals, mainstream sources and international outlets. By 1985 Roberto G. Trujillo and Andres Rodriguez, in Literatura Chicana: Creative and Critical Writings Through 1984, compiled a spectacular biography of 783 items, ranging from typical entries to dissertations, video and sound recordings. This incredible rate of growth seems imposing, especially when we consider that less than 20 years ago the anachronistic debate revolved mainly around the existence of such a body of literature.

After 1975, the advantage held by creative writings over criticism waned. Fundamental changes began to occur in both camps. Most of the established Quinto Sol Generation writers (Rivera, Anaya, and Hinojosa as novelists, and Alurista as a poet, with Portillo-Trambley being the exception) grounded their narratives in culturalist terms while receiving sanctions and backing from a Chicano publisher in depicting certain cultural values and social types. Their objectives coincided in destereotyping the Mexican while making concerted efforts to put the Chicano on the literary map of American letters. In essence, their view of the subject conveyed an epic framework that presented a people in a horizontal perspective. The concentration on spatial portrayals (i.e. New Mexico, the migrant worker, Texas) serves to support this contention. Part of their goal was to give a global scope while providing historical depth, sociological heterogeneity and a complexity of characters. They desired to break away from the straightjacket of unidimensionality and stereotypes. Despite becoming classics, they were initially limited to covering much space without grounding their stories on specificity. The next ensuing group of writers, whom I call the Isolated Generation of 1975, answered the call but from totally diverse points of origin. Instead of reporting (in the novel: Alejandro Morales, Ron Arias, Isabella Rios, and Miguel Mendez to a degree; Bernice Zamora in poetry), they advance a vertical conceptualization of marginalized social sectors. The latter group opts toward probing Chicano characters and circumstances with a magnifying glass in order to unearth the internal dynamics of a single place, even if it means exposing the contradictions and the harsh realities beyond an illusory optimism. The Isolated Generation joined the Chicano literary ranks, not through Chicano support, but roundabout by experimenting with other models: from Mexican Literature of the Onda to American science-fiction, from other contemporary Latin American writers to James Joyce. Oftentimes, they went abroad to publish their works (i.e. Alejandro Morales in Caras viejas y vino nuevo, 1975, and Miguel Mendez in Peregrinos de Aztlán, 1974, or as in the case of Isabella Rios, she produced her work Victuum, 1975, out of her garage). This generation offered works that at first impression did not prescribe to predictable means or ends. At the center of their creativity was the issue of language—not as an Aluristian preoccupation but a linguistically universal one. Thus, their works are wrought with ambiguity: they express more than what we first imagine. Besides, their optic is microcosmic in order to explore the paradox and they resort to the allegory to inject greater meaning and echoes of intertextuality.

Another salient group to emerge with impetus in 1975 was the women writers. They, in a sense, embrace a similar orientation as the Isolated Generation by underscoring female characters and issues. They introduce a focus that had been previously underrepresented as men were usually limited in their perspective of female roles and dimensions. As has become poignantly clear, these roles and dimensions revealed external male impositions that either bordered on stereotypes or a narrow range of characterizations. Similar to previous Chicano literati, they set out to rectify the situation of a recognizable gap. Unanimity in their approaches should not be sought because their differences are as heterogeneous as any other group. However, certain trends can be traced. For example, the first wave of Chicana writers couched their writings in a cultural setting, obviously influenced by the nationalist vogue. This continues to a degree but changes as they hone their subject matter and explore personalized circumstances. Some of these first authors, that is, Bernice Zamora in Restless Serpents (1976), Dorinda Moreno in La mujer es la tierra: La tierra de vida (1975), Sylvia Gonzales in La Chicana piensa (1974), and Angela de Hoyos in Arise, Chicano and other poems (1975), engage their writings in a critical dialogue found in the Chicano movement. Their vantage point tried to balance a culturalist with a feminist view. Soon thereafter, the intensity of Chicana feminist became heightened with such works as Bloodroot (1977) by Alma Villanueva and The Invitation (1979) by Ana Castillo. The double message of culture and gender becomes further fused, but the emphasis now leads towards a feminist vein. Consequently, the 1980s, instead of being designated as the decade of the Hispanic should receive the acclaim as the decade of the Chicana writer since they made the greatest strides and that included criticism.

The late 1970s experiences a relative shortage in groundbreaking works in the overall Chicano scene with the exception of Chicanas. Criticism made significant advancements through a series of rhetorical experimentations and paradigms. Joseph Sommers, in “From the Critical Premise to the Product: Critical Modes and the Applications to a Chicano Literary Text” (1977), designs a controversial comparison of three critical approaches (the formalist, culturalist and socio-historical), while dismissing the first two and opting for the last. This spurred defenses and rebuttals, but most of all it generated interest and critical dialogue to deal with Chicano texts. It was no longer safe to hide behind the mechanical process of achieving objective analysis. Thus criticism at this time gains an important ideological element to properly place literature in the context of production vis-à-vis the hierarchical notions of what literature has been for the dominant classes. The new concept of criticism, beyond thematics, style or characterization, was further strengthened by Ramon Saldivar's pivotal article, “The Dialectic of Difference: Toward a Theory of a Chicano Novel,” in which he related intrinsic textual dynamics with social and literary history. No longer would Chicano literature be situated as isolated from any other literature, especially American; it became increasingly vivid that it had inherent interconnections with the rest of the world.

The 1980s encompasses a greater acceptance in some mainstreaming. Again, Chicanas appear to spearhead the most noteworthy creative writings. To account for this burgeoning, criticism also has expanded in scope by forming new theoretical foci, ranging from applications of Bakhtin to Walter Ong, or in simply originated theories relevant to minority literatures. One sample of this trend is the upcoming issue of Discurso Literario (1990) that offers a diversity of approaches. In addition, other developments have enhanced a wider readership: (1) major conferences zero in on questions related to reconstructing the canon in similar topics to reconceptualize literary sclerosis; (2) internationalization through conferences in Germany, France, Spain and Mexico augment the sphere of acceptability beyond the U.S. borders; (3) ambitious reference books are organized to accommodate the geometric growth of demand such as Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide (1985) and Dictionary of Literary Biography: Chicano Writers (1989); (4) Chicana authors lead the forefront through a keen feminist mode of innovations and insight, thus leaving an undeniable imprint in both Chicano and feminist letters (i.e. Lorna Dee Cervantes' Emplumada (1981); Pat Mora's Chants (1984); Lucha Corpi's Palabras de Mediodia/Noonwords (1980); Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986); Sandra Cisneros The House on Mango Street (1985); Helena Maria Viramontes's The Moths and Other Stories (1985); Cherrie Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost (1986); and Denise Chavez's The Last of the Menu Girls (1986)); a diverse crop of anthologies appear, such as A Decade of Hispanic Literature: An Anniversary Anthology (1982), Hispanics in the United States: An Anthology of Creative Literature 1980), Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983); Antologia de la literatura chicana (1986); Contemporary Chicano Poetry: An Anthology (1986); the Palabra Nueva series of poetry and prose; and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's Mexican American Literature (1989), Sandra Cisneros' American Book Award for the House on Mango Street, Nash Candelaria's Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Inheritance of Strangers, Gary Soto's American Book Award for Living Up the Street, and Lionel Garcia's PEN Southwest Discovery Prize for Leaving Home.

The 1990s have continued to produce fruitful results in the field of Chicano/a literature for the variety, breadth and range of such expression. If the 1980s served as a strong notice of Chicano/a's presence in literary circles, the 1990s clearly have left an indelible imprint of their impact. Questioning the literature's place in American letters now seems an anachronistic gesture. In other words, it is no longer necessary to state that it has come of age but to reaffirm that it is in fact enriching the general American literary landscape with new voices, groundbreaking thematics and renewed vistas. Experimentation has been taken to new heights while challenging conventions within the literature and outside of it. A proliferation of perspectives has become a stamp of originality in the recent writings, thus exploring every possible social and individualized experience. The variety of trans-generic writings is particularly noteworthy, thereby underscoring hybridities, cross-fertilizations and remapping of literary impulses. It is now more common than not that works transcend a single generic construction, as is well evinced by the proliferation of memoirs, (auto)biographies, quasi-diaries or journals, testimonios, ethnographies, mystery novels, detective narratives and many others. Conventional literary forms have become the central issue of numerous works in which their respective category becomes questioned, defied or altered. Examples of such writings are Norma Cantu's Canicula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (1995), Luis J. Rodriguez's Always Running: La Vida Loca; Gang Days in L.A. (1993), Ruben Martinez's The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond (1992), Marisela Norte's poetry recordings, Louie Garcia-Robinson's The Devil, Delfina Varela, and the Used Chevy (1993), Luis Urrea's Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (1993), Yxta Maya Murray's Locas (1997), Michele Serros's Chicana falsa (1995), Sandra Cisernos's Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), Estevan Arellano's Inocencia ni pica ni escarda pero siempre se come el mejor elote (1992), and Graciela Limon's The Memory of Ana Calderon (1994) and Song of the Hummingbird (1996).

Another recent trend is the development of the detective and mystery novels, becoming an important sub-group of Chicano/a writings. Among some of the more outstanding works are Rolando Hinojosa's Partners in Crime (1985), Rudolfo Anaya's Rio Grande Fall (1996), Michael Nava's Golden Boy (1988), Lucha Corpi's Cactus Blood (1995), and Manuel Ramos's The Ballad of Gato Guerrero (1994).

As can be ascertained, Chicano literature has come a long way from its humble beginnings of epic poems, popular verses of El Viejo Vilmas of the 19th century, corridos, hidden writing in a lost newspaper, manifesto, rasuachi publications or garage ventures. It is currently gaining much acclaim at an international level and, finally, penetrating the exclusive clubs of American literature circles. Whereas omissions used to be the rule, Chicanos and Chicanas are now highly solicited creative voices and theoretical technicians who can fill the literary shadows of American experience. Chicano literature has garnered a special niche because it has maintained close ties with its sources of inspiration. It continues relatively free of commercialism although this fact is becoming more of a dilemma to avoid. The pressures are mounting to join the mainstream, but it appears that Chicanos and Chicanas are proceeding cautiously to retain authenticity while fine tuning the unpredictable spheres of the imagination. It is precisely for that reason that the literature finds itself in a mushrooming moment of popularity and high regard.

Select Bibliography

Anaya, Rudolfo and Francisco A. Lomelí. Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Albuquerque: Academia/El Norte Publications, 1989.

Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Corti, Erminio. Da Aztlan all'Amerindia: Multicuturalismo e difesa dell'identita chicana nella Poesia di Alurista. Viareggio: Mauro Baroni Editore, 1999.

Gonzales-Berry. Paso Por Aqui: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542-1988. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria and Helena Maria Viramontes, editors. Reconstructing a Chicano/a Literary Heritage: Hispanic Colonial Literature of the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.

Horno-Delgado, Asuncion, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott and Nancy Saporta Sternbach. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Joysmith, Claire, editor. Las Formas de Nuestras Voces: Chicana y Mexicana Writers in Mexico. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte, 1995.

Kanellos, Nicolas. Short Fiction by Hispanic Writers of the United States. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993.

Keller, Gary D., Rafael J. Magallan, Alma M. Garcia. Curriculum Resources in Studies: Graduate and Undergraduate. Tempe: Bilingual Review/Press, 1989.

Lomelí, Francisco A., editor. Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States: Literature and Art. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993.

Lomelí, Francisco and Carl S. Shirley, editors. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Chicano Writers. Detroit: Gale Research, First Series 1989; Second Series 1993; Third Series 1999.

Melendez, A. Gabriel. So All is Not Lost: The Poetics of Print in Nuevomexicano Communities, 1834-1958. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Maffi, Mario. Voci di Frontiera: Scritture dei Latinos negli Stati Uniti. Milan: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1997.

Norwood, Vera and Janice Monk. The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Writing and Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Padilla, Genaro M. My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana, Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Teresa Marquez. Las Mujeres Hablan: An Anthology of Nuevo Mexican Writers. Albuquerque: El Norte Publications/Academia, 1988.

Saldivar, Jose David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Saldivar, Ramon. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Tatum, Charles, ed. Mexican American Literature. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1989.

Tessarolo Bondolfi. Dal Mito al Mito: La Cultura Di Espressione Chicana; Dal Mito Originario al Mito Rigeneratore. Milano, Italia: Ediziono Universitarie Jaca, 1987.

Zimmerman, Marc. U.S. Latino Literature: The Creative Expression of a People; An Essay And Annotated Bibliography. Chicago: Chicago Public Library, 1990.

Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez (essay date 2003)

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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 of mouth, from time to time, there is word of a lost literature, in reminiscences and folk memories.

—Stan Steiner (1970)1

It is our belief that an effort should be made to trace the historical development of Mexican American literature now that it has been recognized as a subject worthy of serious study.

—Luis Leal (1973)2

¿Y cómo es posible … que tan ricas prosas hayan permanecido ignoradas durante tantos años? … ¿cuántos más Ulicas no habrá por allí enterrados en los empolvados anaqueles de las bibliotecas o las amarillas páginas de los periódicos? Hasta que no sean descubiertos, como lo ha sido Ulica, no podremos hablar de una historia definitiva de la literatura chicana.

—Luis Leal (1982)3

In this final chapter, I intend to address one of the most recent yet dramatic shifts in the history of (reading) Chicano/a literature: the recovery and reprint of forgotten and formerly lost literary works by Chicanos/as, to which my three epigraphs refer. Since the mid-1980s, approximately, numerous scholars have devoted themselves to unearthing those texts, as well as to reclaiming their place in the history of Chicano/a literature, thus belatedly heeding don Luis Leal's recommendation quoted in my second epigraph. What were, at first, isolated efforts by individual critics such as Juan Rodríguez (who in 1982 edited Jorge Ulica's Crónicas diabólicas), Nicolás Kanellos (editor in 1984 of Daniel Venegas's Las aventuras de don Chipote), and Genaro M. Padilla (who compiled and edited Fray Angélico Chávez's Short Stories in 1987) later crystallized into a series of organized collective projects to (re)construct the early history of Chicano/a letters. Salient among these ventures are the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project at its Arte Público Press/University of Houston base (henceforth referred to as the Recovery Project), as well as the Pasó por aquí series of the University of New Mexico Press, which concentrates on reprinting texts from the New Mexican past. Through these and similar efforts, a reader of Chicano/a literature today can access an exponentially greater number of works written prior to the 1950s than was possible thirty years ago. In a sense, it could be argued that in the past two decades Chicano/a literature has expanded as much toward its past as it has toward its future.

In addition to the three titles mentioned above, for instance, a partial listing of works recovered and reprinted in recent years includes Jovita González's Dew on the Thorn (edited by José Limón), Caballero: A Historical Novel (written with Eve Raleigh [pseudonym of Margaret Eimer] and edited by José Limón and María Cotera), and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul and Other Stories (edited by Sergio Reyna); Adina de Zavala's History and Legends of the Alamo and Other Missions in and Around San Antonio (edited by Richard Flores); The Collected Stories of María Cristina Mena (edited by Amy Doherty); Miguel A. Otero's The Real Billy the Kid (introduction by John-Michael Rivera); Luis Pérez's El Coyote the Rebel (introduction by Lauro Flores); Women's Tales from the New Mexico WPA: La Diabla a Pie (edited by Tey D. Rebolledo and Teresa Márquez); María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don and Who Would Have Thought It? (both edited by Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita); Leonor Villegas de Magnón's The Rebel (edited by Clara Lomas); Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva México (edited by Miguel Encinias et al.); Cleofas M. Jaramillo's Romance of a Little Village Girl (introduction by Tey D. Rebolledo); and Américo Paredes's George Washington Gómez (with an introduction by Rolando Hinojosa), The Hammon and the Beans and Other Stories (introduction by Ramón Saldívar), The Shadow (with a prologue by the author), and Between Two Worlds (also with a prologue by the author). In addition, bibliographical enterprises outside the field of Chicano/a publishing, such as The Friends of the Bancroft Library (in consortium with the University of California, Berkeley), have contributed to the recovery trend with volumes such as Three Memoirs of Mexican California (a collection of testimonials from Carlos N. Híjar, Eulalia Pérez, and Agustín Escobar, as told to H. H. Bancroft's assistant Thomas Savage); The Diary of Captain Luis Antonio Argüello, October 17-November 17, 1821 (with an introduction by Arthur Quinn); and José Bandini's translated A Description of California in 1828. Finally, previously unpublished or unavailable works are now in print in such anthologies as The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature: A Reader of Original Texts with English Translations (edited by Marc Shell and Werner Sollors), Nochebuena: Hispanic American Christmas Stories (edited by Nicolás Kanellos), and Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States (also edited by N. Kanellos with a group of co-editors).4

Significant as these reprints or newly printed texts are, they seem to represent only the tip of the iceberg of what is now a massive database of original works recovered from the more than 1,700 extant periodicals published by Hispanics (many of them by Chicanos/as) in the United States, as well as from libraries and archives throughout the country and in Mexico. Arte Público Press's Recovery Project, for example, is currently working on indexing and cataloging a database of over 100,000 literary items.5

This felicitous circumstance does not come without its difficulties, however, as the task of rewriting the history of Chicano/a literature has become more complex—paradoxically—than it was when fewer works from the past were known to us. The complexity of this enterprise stems from the fact that, as I have suggested elsewhere and as I will explore in detail below,6 the task of reconstructing the history of Chicano/a letters cannot be understood as the simple process of filling in the gaps in the sequence of known works and then tracing alleged lines of evolution from the past to the present. Rather, historiographic reconstruction involves a delicate process of interpretation that in effect results in a discursive construction of the Chicano/a past. Thus, the next pages will be devoted to analyzing the main tenets that have built that critical edifice to date. Toward the end, I will propose an alternative model for rewriting Chicano/a literary history as the textual recovery progresses.


Despite my and other similar cautionary calls for a more complex understanding of the Chicano/a past (which I will address in the penultimate section of this chapter), the predominant trend among Chicano/a literary historians so far has favored a chronological approach. This is not entirely surprising. Such a sequential ordering of known (or, at least, relevant) works has been the most common technique employed throughout the world by traditional literary historians, who would catalog books and authors by generations, groups, movements, or any other similar categories around the idea of literary evolution and sequential continuity.7 I contend that this model's long dominance in the field of literary history has resulted in a sort of methodological inertia that has outlived its usefulness and that, in turn, demands the experimentation with newer approaches. In particular, in the case of transnational (or postnational) literatures and in the context of diasporic and globalized movements of cultural capital and human labor characterizing our times, clinging to the notion of the diachronic evolution of national literatures seems of limited use.

In fact, the chronological listing model had some very early critics, as the following quote from Hans Robert Jauss conveys:

[A] description of literature that follows an already sanctioned canon and simply sets the life and work of the writers one after the other in a chronological series is, as Gervinus already remarked, “no history; it is scarcely the skeleton of a history.”

(Toward an Aesthetic, 4-5)

Other recent social and cultural changes in our understanding of history complement Jauss's (and Gervinus's!) reservations by opening up for questioning assumptions on which the chronological model rested. For one, Michael Foucault's thoughts on historical analysis in general, as expressed in The Archeology of Knowledge and other works, opened up a critical space for discussing the possibility of a historiographic discourse that would depart from the idea of history as a search for origins and as the permanent interconnection between eras. Foucault's warning, in this regard, was clear and straightforward, assuming the urgency of a mandate:

We must renounce all those themes whose function is to ensure the infinite continuity of discourse and its secret presence to itself in the interplay of a constantly recurring absence. We must be ready to receive every moment of discourse in its sudden irruption; in that punctuality in which it appears, and in that temporal dispersion that enables it to be repeated, known, forgotten, transformed, utterly erased, and hidden, far from all view, in the dust of books. Discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs.


The Foucauldian understanding of the historiographic task enables the writer to emphasize precisely “the question of discontinuities, systems and transformations, series and thresholds” (13) that would likely result in a debunking of the hidden tenets supporting the edifice of traditional history. Rather than embarking on the search for a definite origin (a manifestation of which I explored in chapter 1), Foucault forcefully advocates suspending “all [the] syntheses that are accepted without question” (25), including methodological and disciplinary assumptions that serve to legitimize a false “synthetic purity” (26) based on the notion of uninterrupted evolution.

Likewise, the authority by which the historian could order the past from a position of seeming detachment and impartiality has been reexamined in such works as Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse and some of his other works, in which the tropological construction of history and the notion of metahistory are employed to account for the way a history (of any kind) always speaks of itself as much as it does of its subject. History is understood by White as a discursive construct rather than as an unquestionable collection of documented events. In thus shifting the emphasis from the chronicled past to the chronicling present, this newer conception of the historiographic undertaking also suggests that the history of a nation (or a literature) is always as much the chronicle of its present as it is that of its earlier periods, as the New Historicists have claimed repeatedly as well.

In the realm of literary history proper, a similar understanding of the tensions between past and present, the narrated and the narrator was also implicit in Jauss's concept of the shifting horizon of expectations, as was explored in earlier chapters. More importantly, at least for the present discussion, Jauss also called attention to those moments in which the past is consciously revisited (and rewritten) by a new generation of scholars or readers. In examining the reasons behind such instances of cultural revisionism, the German theoretician claimed that

a literary past can return only when a new reception draws it back into the present, whether an altered aesthetic attitude willfully reaches back to reappropriate the past, or an unexpected light falls back on forgotten literature from the new moment of literary evolution, allowing something to be found that one previously could not have sought in it.

(Toward an Aesthetic, 35)

To illustrate this Jaussian concept of the altered return of the past and its importance for Chicano/a literature, one need only look at the way the 1970s indigenismo sought to adopt and adapt a pre-Hispanic aesthetics for the benefit of a contemporary Chicano/a audience.8 From the Nahuatl-based identification of poetry as “floricanto” (flower and song) that later gave name to numerous literary festivals and publications, to the inclusion of other philosophical, ethic, aesthetic, and linguistic elements, Chicano/a literature in the 1970s was marked by its reinterpretation of its ancient past in Tenochtitlan (and, to a lesser extent, in the worlds of the Maya and other indigenous cultures). A poem such as Alurista's “las tripas y los condes,” for instance, from his 1971 collection Floricanto en Aztlán, translates into contemporary imagery Aztec rituals and practices so as to poetically dignify life in the Chicano/a neighborhoods:

“las tripas” y “los condes”
“los tequilas” y “los coloraos”
today in the barrio
los clanes de mi gente
incarnate gangs of caciques
con plumas y navajas
caballeros águilas y tigres.

—(Floricanto, poem 50)9

The anachronistic poetical appropriation of the Aztec military orders in the last line quoted serves to instill a sense of pride and defiance in the barrio gangs, a rhetorical move further reinforced by the peculiar use of the terms “clanes” and “gangs” in lines 4 and 5: in Alurista's historical reconstruction, the indigenous chiefs are said to form gangs while the barrio dwellers are related as clans. By thus altering the reader's expectations (of a more normal association between “caciques” and “clanes”), the poet manages to deprive the word “gang” of some of its negative connotations (as pervasive at the time as they are now in media and sociological analysis) while suggesting that they are in fact—by virtue of this newly recovered genealogy—military orders of sorts for cultural and physical self-defense. This last aspect is further reinforced by conjoining the images of “plumas” (“feathers,” but also “pens” in Spanish) and “navajas” (“knives”) in the sixth line of the poem: in that way, Alurista symbolizes how these present-day street fighters with their knives (a metaphoric allusion to the tiger's claws) and the poets that sing about them with their pens (an allusion through the polysemic meaning of “plumas” to the eagle's feathers) are working together toward the survival of La Raza.10

Similarly, there are many instances of revisionist readings of the past at times when a changed cultural context has allowed Chicano/a literature critics and readers to go back to certain texts and to read them differently, thus changing their relative importance for the history of Chicano/a letters. In chapter 2, I examined the case of the shifting reception of José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho, perhaps the ultimate example of how diachronic cultural transformations allow readers to find some things that one previously could not have sought in a particular text (to paraphrase Jauss). But many other examples could be taken into account here, including how a more receptive cultural context to sexual and gender differences since the mid-1980s permitted the reclamation and reinterpretation of formerly shunned or overlooked works, such as the novels published by John Rechy more than two decades earlier.11

These and similar examples further confirm the ways (literary) history is necessarily dependent on the interplay between past and present and between the chronicled and the chronicler, rather than being predicated upon the existence of a more or less immutable past that the historian can record (or recover) without any further mediating intervention. Rather, as Jauss also suggested as typical of the history of reception, “the reappropriation of past works occurs simultaneously with the perpetual mediation of past and present art and of traditional evaluation and current literary attempts” (Toward an Aesthetic, 20). Because reception is always a subsequent phenomenon with respect to production and because of the “perpetual mediation” that Jauss identifies, it could be argued (as the parenthesis in this chapter's subtitle implies) that the history of a particular literature should also be the history of how that literature has been read in the different “presents” of enunciation of its diverse historians and readers.

In fact, within the Hispanic literary world, the idea of such a literary history of reception was already proposed in 1925 by the prolific José Martínez Ruiz (who published his works under the pseudonym “Azorín”). In a note on Lope de Vega, later collected in his Lope en silueta (Profile of Lope), Azorín first proposed his idea under the following terms as he devised a plan for such a history:

No se ha escrito en España—sobre intentos y trabajos parciales—una historia de la evolución de los grandes autores en el concepto del público y de la crítica. La Historia de las ideas estéticas de Menéndez y Pelayo es otra cosa. Lo que pedimos aquí es un estudio en que se fuera viendo, época por época, siglo por siglo, cómo la fama de un gran escritor ha ido formándose, modificándose, transformándose. … Y leyendo este libro—libro ejemplar—nos podríamos curar de muchos prejuicios y muchas vaguedades.


While Azorín's project was still marked by its reliance on the notion of the “great author,” a notion that our own present has questioned, his ideas on methodology sound nonetheless fresh to this day. In fact, some fifty-five years after Azorín wrote his note on Lope de Vega, Annette Kolodny suggested employing a very similar analytical process to achieve almost diametrically opposed results. Kolodny demonstrated how documenting the diachronic changes in reception might serve not (just) to trace the changing estimation of the “great authors” but as a tool for canonical revisionism as well, with its attendant benefits for the (re)construction of historically marginalized literatures. Kolodny's essay reads not unlike a (much more modern) echo of Azorín's earlier claim, as it stresses the need for an acknowledgment of the presents from which literary history is constructed or revised:

[O]ur sense of a “literary history” and, by extension, our confidence in a historical canon, is rooted not so much in any definitive understanding of the past, as it is in our need to call up and utilize the past on behalf of a better understanding of the present. … To quote [David Couzens] Hoy fully, “this continual reinterpretation of the past goes hand in hand with the continual reinterpretation by the present of itself.”


Unlike Azorín, however, by thus invoking the notion of canon in a revisionist context, Kolodny was forced to question the very same process by which a certain standard emerges and is handed down through generations. In that sense, she was more interested in what literary histories have routinely qualified as “lesser authors” than in Azorín's “grandes autores.” Kolodny's recollection of how she reread with her students forgotten texts by women writers is eloquent in this respect and her questions are largely applicable to the Chicano/a situation as well:

In reading with our students these previously lost works [by early women writers], we inevitably raised perplexing questions as to the reasons for their disappearance from the canons of “major works,” and we worried over the aesthetic and critical criteria by which they had been accorded diminished status.


While I will come back to the notion of “disappearance” immediately below, what interests me right now from Kolodny's second quote is her emphasis on the act of reading (rather than on that of writing) as characteristic of and responsible for canonical evolution. An opposite valuation of these two parameters has constituted the most blatant—yet concealed—contradiction in traditional histories of literature by making the historian's voice and tastes almost invisible under the veil of an alleged objective documentation of the writings of the “great authors” (with an occasional minor author thrown in for the sake of documenting the “decadence” of certain movements and/or periods). Likewise, I would like to stress in Kolodny's last quote the explicit displacement from the idea of the “great author” or the “major work” as an undisputable tenet, still prevalent in Azorín's mind, to an understanding of literary relevance (Jauss's horizon of expectations) as a critical construct: relevant to whom is the question with which our current literary histories rather need to deal.

An equally important challenge to the traditional dominance of chronology as the basis for literary historiography results from a complication of the notion of “disappearance” to which Kolodny alluded in her second quote; that is, the fact that unknown texts from earlier periods may be “discovered” at a much later date than that of their production, as in the Chicano/a case, with little or no record of their original reception left. In such situations, traditional historians have resorted to placing those texts in their chronological sequence and then to rewriting their histories to accommodate the newly discovered works in a thus restructured order. A telling example is found in the history of Spanish literature, in which the “discovery” of the jarchas in 1948 resulted in a rewriting of its literary history with the addition of an entirely new beginning for its lyric poetry, a literary prehistory of sorts that was then integrated into the otherwise unchanged teleological model of literary evolution.13 But even if the dates of composition would reserve such a foundational role for the jarchas and other similarly unearthed works, literary historians cannot dismiss the temporality of their “discoveries” nor the present from which their new historiographical discourses emerge to thus rewrite the literary past. Jauss synthesized this idea eloquently when he signaled that “prehistories are always discovered ex eventu as prehistory of a post-history.14 In that sense, it should be apparent that the particular posthistory from which the prehistory is written into the literary annals would be determinant in whatever role is accorded to the newly found texts.

To give but a simplified illustration of how significantly this process operates in the case of the Chicano/a literary past, consider how different the interpretation of currently recovered works would have been if that process had taken place in the cultural context of the 1960s and 1970s instead of starting during the 1980s and 1990s. While the partially recovered memoirs of Mariano Vallejo and texts by other early Californios/as have been celebrated in the 1990s as the legitimate antecedents of twentieth-century Chicano/a protest literature, critics in the 1960s and 1970s were clearly dismissive of those very same figures (even if most of their works were not known at the time) as representative of an assimilationist stance at odds with Chicano/a militancy. While our interpretive present can benefit from the use of such theoretical concepts as the notions of positionality and articulation, strategic essentialism, or differential consciousness15 critics in the 1970s were less inclined to consider in a positive light the notion of shifting or fluid identities, which then deserved the quick accusation of being un vendido, a sellout. A comparison between the following quotes, all of them centered around Vallejo in one way or another, would suffice to prove my point. The first quote is from Genaro M. Padilla's 1993 landmark study on Mexican American autobiography, My History, Not Yours (whose title is, in fact, a direct quote from Vallejo's memoirs):

Vallejo, moreover, may help us to understand the competing social forces that have made a virtue of contradictory responses; a virtue, I say, because such necessary contradictions between public and private sentiments, between intra- and intercultural experience, may be seen as establishing a negotiatory consciousness for Mexican Americans like Vallejo—with Juan Seguín before him and Cleofas Jaramillo after him—which has enabled their (our) survival in North America during the last century and a half.


Padilla's rhetorical strategy, including his careful choice of words (“virtue,” “survival”), casts Vallejo's figure in the heroic terms intended to (re)situate this pioneer memoirist (as well as the other individuals he mentions) as the foundation stone of later Chicano/a literature, as his parenthesis further emphasizes. In this, Padilla's narrative is not unlike those of other recent readers of the Chicano/a past, such as Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita, who claimed (also in 1993) that Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don (the latter character in the title being modeled after Vallejo)16 contains “an interpellation of today's readers, as citizens, or as descendants of Californios/as, to resist oppression” (51), while concluding that “such are the contestation and defiant discourse with which the literature of the population of Mexican origin in the United States emerges” (51).

The enthusiasm with which these highly respectable critics embraced the works of Vallejo and his contemporary Californios in the early 1990s sharply contrasts with the dismissive condemnation found two decades earlier, in 1972, in Raymond V. Padilla's critique of Leonard M. Pitt's The Decline of the Californios:

[F]ew conquests can be maintained without the continuous collaboration of some native faction. California and the Southwest were no exception. In California men like Mariano Vallejo and Pablo de la Guerra … played important roles in bringing California and the Southwest under Gabacho [Anglo] control. These political opportunists had much to gain by way of land speculation, increased commerce, and the hopes of political aggrandizement. They were men of influence and power who hoped to continue in privileged positions and even increase their power through a Gabacho hegemony.


The radical disparity between these quotes is indicative of how different a history of Chicano/a literature written in the early 1970s would have been from that being written in the 1990s and early 2000s, even if the newly recovered texts (by Vallejo, Ruiz de Burton, and others) had been known at the time.18 Indeed, literary critics and historians in the 1970s had not paid much attention to similarly “heteredoxical” known figures from their recent past such as Fray Angélico Chávez (later “rediscovered” in part by Genaro M. Padilla), John Rechy, and Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca.19 Taking the case of José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho as our yardstick once more, it is very doubtful that a novel like The Squatter and the Don would have made many reading lists in Chicano/a literature courses back in the 1970s (if it had been known to critics then) unless accompanied by a significant commentary clarifying its “ambiguities and ideological confusions” (to quote—albeit slightly out of context—Ramón E. Ruiz's preface to the 1970 edition of Pocho).20 By contrast, Ruiz de Burton's novel has generated a significant body of criticism since the 1990s (most of it overwhelmingly celebratory), and it has become required reading in many university courses, which has resulted in several reprints to date. All this in spite of the novel's marked elitism, which, as I signaled in 1996, contrasts with the more common working-class bent in twentieth-century Chicano/a literature, an aspect that has been often overlooked or avoided in the existing studies of this novel.21

As such, the reception of The Squatter and the Don provides us with a fine example of why a posthistory (in Jauss's sense) undertakes the task of (re)writing its own prehistory. In particular, the Nietzschean overtones of Jauss's ideas are of relevance here. For Nietzsche, especially in what he calls the critical historiographic model, history can become a fabrication of the past, “an attempt to give ourselves a posteriori, as it were, a new past from which we would prefer to be descended, as opposed to the past from which we actually descended” (107).22 Even though I am not suggesting that available Chicano/a literary histories are such a blatant fabrication of the Chicano/a past, it is nonetheless undeniable that—as is also the case with the recovery of many other marginalized literatures—the Chicano/a reconstruction of its literary past is not done without a combination of empirical restoration (involving physically locating and [re]printing texts from the past) and interpretive assumptions, which may very well be altered in future readings of the past but that allow the historian to construct a narrative of filiation between the recovered texts and the historian's present. This, in turn, determines which texts are selected as the main antecedents of present-day Chicano/a literature, as well as what parameters are selected as relevant for the historical narrative under construction. Because the main drive behind the different Chicano/a recovery efforts so far has been firmly directed toward restoring an uninterrupted chronological sequence, those features that would signal heterodoxy or even heterogeneity amid the Chicanos/as have been deemphasized so as to present a more cohesive picture of literary continuity.23

Yet as I have suggested elsewhere (“Textual and Land Reclamations,” 54) and as I will explore in more detail below, the history of Chicano/a literature cannot be written without taking into account those differences;24 stressing them, rather than attempting to overlook them for the sake of constructing a teleological picture of continuous cultural evolution, must be the historian's ambition if s/he is to succeed in chronicling a collective experience that reaches back several centuries and cuts, at one time or another, across the political borders of at least four countries.25 Otherwise, the homogenizing effort would prove in the field of Chicano/a letters as limited in use as similar attempts in the case of other minority and marginalized literatures. The ambiguities and the silences with which many critics have treated certain aspects of Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don, in that sense, are not unlike those that Andrew Lakritz finds in the reception and rereading accorded to Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. According to Lakritz,

Hurston's novel is an allegory of what happens when we try to return to origins and what we find there—not something upon which to build a stable, unifying sense of identity. We have taken this novel into the canon as a lost masterpiece. … Now that it is central to many American literature survey courses, American Studies courses, not to mention African American studies, women's studies, and others, it is harder to see that in fact the book was written from the point of view of an elite returning to find a home for herself and having to face the difficulty of seeing it.


Implicit in Lakritz's criticism is the idea that a certain critical consensus can be reached at particular times (such as in instances of canonical revisions) that would overlook specific aspects of a text or texts, thus resulting in an un/intentional manipulation or distortion of the past. While acknowledging that many readers may not see in Hurston's novel those aspects that Lakritz identifies (or those I signaled in relation to Ruiz de Burton's novel), it is clear nonetheless that the literary past cannot be perceived without the mediation of an interpreting present and that, consequently, the motivating force behind a particular reading of the past (e.g., finding one's origins, restoring a broken sequence, building a sense of identity, or creating a past from which one would like to be descended) would play a major role in defining the actual outcome of such reconstruction. It may be an exaggerated popular truism that one only finds what one is looking for, but after examining most contemporary rereadings of the past, one cannot deny that revisiting history is seldom (if ever) an ideological- and methodological-free enterprise. Rather, as discussed at some length by David Perkins,

[T]he classification is prior, in a sense, to the literature it classifies, for it organizes perceptions of literature. The validity of the classification confirms itself every time the texts are read, for the classification signals what to look for and therefore predetermines, to some degree, what will be observed.


The ensuing tension between a heterogeneous past and the attempt to homogenize it through historiographic discourses (the classifications to which Perkins alludes) is felt with particular force in postcolonial cultures or in the case of historically marginalized and suppressed literatures, suggesting that many Chicano/a literary historians are following in this sense a well-established, albeit questionable, path. Among the most articulate detractors of the reductionist classification as an intellectual enterprise is Mohammed Arkoun, a professor at the Institute d'Études Islamiques of the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris III, who focuses his criticism on the prevalent histories of postcolonial North Africa:

La historia del Magreb tiene lagunas y dispersiones, discontinuidad, rupturas culturales de las fuentes y de las fases romana, bizantina, árabe, turca, francesa y nacionalista. Lo que urge ahora es pensar en estas discontinuidades, sobre todo las que afectan al pensamiento árabe e islámico, en lugar de seguir construyendo una continuidad ilusoria, deseada por las élites nacionalistas.


The connection between elite, nationalism, and the homogenizing historiographic discourse is far from accidental, as Arkoun suggests, and in the Chicano/a—as in the North African case—it seems to be at the root of most current interpretations of its literary past.

Indeed, many of the documented efforts to reconstruct the Chicano/a literary history seem to have favored a search for links between the recovered texts and our own cultural present so as to construct a sense of unsuspended continuity despite the changes that time has brought to language, urbanization patterns, population trends, religious and folk practices, aesthetics, tastes, etc. This resulted in a series of “conceptual” historiographic accounts, in Perkins's sense,27 that characterized the initial phase of the recovery enterprise, as critics attempted to present the newly recovered texts in a familiar light for the modern reader. Nicolás Kanellos, for example, made this the focus of his 1984 introduction to Daniel Venegas's Las aventuras de don Chipote, which he qualified as the first Chicano/a novel (an assertion repeated in the 1999 Spanish-language edition by Arte Público Press),28 while pointing out how the novel “ofrece un nuevo indicio de la continuidad de producción cultural del mexicano al norte de la frontera” (4).29

Kanellos's statement about the landmark status of Don Chipote, which in 1999 would otherwise sound even more inaccurate than it might have been in 1985, is not as much a chronological datation as an ideological interpretation, as the fact that he acknowledges the existence of earlier novels by conservative authors indicates (5).30 In this, of course, we see yet another example of how the mediation of the literary historian works to mold and shape the reconstructed canon of Chicano/a literature. For the purpose of the literary history that Kanellos and others were starting to reconstruct in the mid-1980s, a proletarian novel was, no doubt, the ultimate text on which to found the edifice of Chicano/a letters. Literary history became, at that point, a genealogical enterprise, confounding into a discourse of filiation what was more than anything a case of heuristic affiliation for, as Perkins has signaled, “[a]ny conceptual scheme highlights only those texts that fit its concepts, sees in texts only what its concepts reflect, and inevitably falls short of the multiplicity, diversity, and ambiguity of the past” (51). The fact that Venegas's work was not known to Chicano/a Movement and post-Movement writers becomes irrelevant for Kanellos's historical reconstruction; in his analysis, Venegas becomes a sort of absent father who returns, almost six decades later, to reclaim his place at the head of the Chicano/a literary table.

The idea that Chicano/a literature has been marked since “the beginning” by one or several particular characteristics (e.g., its working-class status or its position as a site of direct or covert resistance) became—after Kanellos's edition—a major topos for the initial stages of the recovery of the Chicano/a literary past, and it dictated the shape that the reconstructed history would take. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, this strategy works only when individual texts from the past (or some of their aspects) are compared with a select corpus of works from the present; by contrast, when the recovered texts are compared among themselves or when one expands the corpus of our own contemporary works, the differences are as telling as the similarities, and the critic would be at pains to ignore them (“Textual and Land Reclamations,” 53). This is not to say that there has been no continuity. On the contrary, a cultural continuity that encompasses folklore and the oral tradition, everyday practices, religion, and even to a certain extent printed literature is undeniable, and it has been documented extensively.31 However, as is the case with other peoples who have been historically subjected to a pattern of conquest, marginalization, and exclusion from power positions, there have also been in the Chicano/a past many factors that resulted in disruptions and ruptures in the continuity of cultural evolution, including alphabetization patterns, lack of free time for reading and writing, limited printing and distribution opportunities, class and gender differences, and regional versus (inter)national awareness. For the task of (re)constructing the Chicano/a literary history, therefore, continuity may not necessarily be the leading indicator to pursue. Rather, the historian may gain more in registering the interplay between the connections and the interruptions reflected in the literary activity throughout the years, as I will explore toward the end of this chapter.


A second dominant impulse in the recent rewriting of Chicano/a literary history has resulted in an attempt to compensate for the general lack of knowledge of the literary past that characterized the Chicano/a Movement era by filling in as many “empty boxes” in the literary chronological sequence as possible. If we look at those chronologies accompanying modern reference works on Chicano/a literature, even as late as 1985,32 it is obvious that the gaps in the sequence of known works used to span in certain cases well over a century. The pedagogical utility of attempting to cover those “holes” by listing as many of the recovered texts as possible is therefore undeniable.33 But aside from its didactic role as a visual aid, such an ex eventu reconstructed listing would be misleading, since it would include many of these works as if they had been always known to us, thus erasing precisely the history of displacement and marginalization that resulted in the temporary “disappearance” of those texts in the first place and that is, in itself, meaningful.

Therefore, I contend that instead of glossing it over with the help of the newly recovered texts, Chicano/a (literary) history needs to record the sense of loss and disjuncture that characterized its immediate past until recently and that Luis Valdez, one of the foremost cultural leaders of the 1960s and 1970s, conjured up in the following testimonial (as recorded in 1970 by Stan Steiner):

“We have to rediscover ourselves,” says Luis Valdez, the director of the Teatro Campesino. “There are years and years of discoveries we have to make of our people. People ask me: What is Mexican American history in the United States? There is no textbook of the history of La Raza. Yet the history of the Mexican in this country is four hundred years old. We know we pre-date the landing of the Pilgrims and the American Revolution. But beyond that? What really happened? No one can tell you. Our history has been lost. Lost!”


As Steiner astutely reflected immediately after Valdez's statement, “[u]pon dusty shelves, frayed and forgotten, the books of this history may still be hidden. By word of mouth, from time to time, there is word of a lost literature, in reminiscences and folk memories” (218).34 What I am claiming in this chapter (and, in effect, throughout this book) is that dusting those shelves and bringing to the fore those lost and forgotten books can only account for half of Chicano/a literary history: that half which concerns literary production; the other half, literary reception and literary tradition, will always be marked by the tensions between permanence and disappearance. By “dusting off the shelves,” Chicano/a literary historians are uncovering a massive number of works whose existence was not recorded in previous annals, but Chicano/a literary history cannot be rewritten as if those texts had played then (i.e., in the periods when they were written) the significance that the historian can attribute to them now.

Rather, as I have advocated before, in rewriting Chicano/a literary history it is imperative to focus on both what I called the “gaps” and the “knots” in that “net full of holes” that the Chicano/a literary past has proven to be. Taking my title from a beautiful metaphor from the 1528 Manuscript of Tlatelolco,35 I proposed that historians (and, in particular, those interested in the process of literary recovery) should approach the task of reconstructing the Chicano/a literary past not only with the sole intention of restoring a lost or forgotten sequence but also with the kind of cultural analysis that would account for a disrupted and marginal(ized) history; that is, with attention to what James Clifford has called “discrepant temporalities.”36 I propose, therefore, that we analyze both the connectors that have kept Chicano/a literature alive through the years and the discontinuities that have marked its existence and that are likewise charged with significance, since, as I suggested before, they are the result of geographic, social, linguistic, cultural, technological, and educational history. They are the parameters which serve to discuss questions of hegemony and marginalization; of nationalism versus regionalism, transnationalism, and the borderlands; they help to analyze printing and distribution conditions; they also serve to look at alphabetization patterns among Chicanos/as. They lead to the analysis of school segregation, linguistic marginalization, social constraints for women writers, gender patterns of historical audiences, and so on and so forth (17).

Ignoring those fissures by adopting an encyclopedical literary history model could only result in a distorted construction of the Chicano/a literary past. At the same time, however, Chicano/a literary history can and needs to trace the lines of continuity in the transmission of cultural capital, whether that transmission occurred physically—through the inheritance of private libraries, for instance—or intellectually—in the way Chicano/a writers received and reacted to the works of earlier writers that may have been known to them even if their works never reached a larger audience.37 The documented continuities reveal creative strategies for cultural survival and intervention, and they are indicative of the transformative resilience of Chicano/a printed culture, an element that was habitually overlooked by earlier scholars of the Chicano/a past, who preferred to privilege in their studies oral forms of resistance and cultural transmission.

If it is to continue to play a role in Chicano/a literary historiography, the encyclopedic effort cannot be supported upon an acritical or non-self-reflexive chronological listing model. The recovered works belong as much to the time of their recovery as they do to the era in which they were first published or conceived. Subsuming their multiple temporalities into the date of production or publication constitutes a double reductionism: first, it diminishes the social and aesthetic significance of literary works by stressing their status as documents or artifacts; second, it erases the history of their marginalization and/or disappearance, a literary category of particular relevance for nonhegemonic literatures, as discussed earlier in relation to Annette Kolodny's thoughts on canonical revisionism.


Because of the intense nationalism that has dominated Chicano/a critical discourses since the late 1960s until very recently, a third element that has characterized the reading and reconstruction of the Chicano/a literary past has been the emphasis on the idea of Chicano/a literature as a national literature. During the Chicano/a Movement, the rallying cry “we are a nation” strove to instill a sense of national unity and distinctiveness among Chicanos/as.38 Aztlán, the term preferred by most to symbolize that nationality, is found in the title and in the spirit of many of the publications dealing with the Chicano/a literary past.39 Chicano/a literary history is not alone in this respect, as we saw in the beginning of this chapter, since the combination of chronology and nationality has been the base for literary historiography at least since the German romantics. Literary history, in that context, was conceived as the process by which to chronicle the continuous progress in the realm of letters from the nation's origin to the chronicling present. Such process entailed the notion of constant evolution toward an ever more refined and developed stage that would correspond with the consolidation of the national state. In the Chicano/a case, however, two objections need to be raised as a cautionary note against the nationalistic approach to literary history. First, the Chicano/a culture(s) and experiences transcend geographical borders. This is the result not only of shifting geopolitical boundaries but also of the cultural permeability of the historically rearranged limits between countries. Chicano/a literature, like the cultures from which it springs, is transnational, multicultural, and multilingual, and therefore the reliance on a nationalistic model to construct its history seems, at the very least, constrained.

In addition, and because of its transnational, borderlands nature, Chicano/a literary history presents a second challenge to the traditional reliance on the concept of nation. As the frequent debates on “who is Chicano/a?” have proven, biological and even experiential factors have never been entirely effective in writing the history of Chicano/a letters.40 In fact, if we were to apply those criteria rigidly, one could even question Mexican-born Daniel Venegas's membership in the group as much as others question the status of figures such as Mexican-born Rubén Medina, despite the fact that he has resided in the United States for most of his life and that other Mexican-born writers (such as Alurista, Sergio D. Elizondo, and Abelardo Delgado) have been unquestionably accepted as Chicanos by critics.41 I do not intend to enter into nor resuscitate those debates here.42 Rather, my interest is in considering the actual existence of those debates so as to show their conceptual and historiographical limitations. Their existence, as far as literary history is concerned, is predicated on a rather fixed idea of cultural identity and nationality as well as on literary production or textuality as the sole parameters for the conceptualization of the body of works that has come to be known as Chicano/a letters. In successive (and, to a certain extent, overlapping) moments during these debates, the Chicano/a-ness, or what I would rather call Chicano/a-nicity, of a particular text has been determined by either its author's identity or by its contents.

The first preference (and its attendant problems) was well summarized by Luis Leal in his introduction to Trujillo and Rodríguez's Literatura Chicana when he noted that during the 1970s “[i]t was the consensus of opinion among critics that Chicano literature was that literature written by authors of Mexican background born or residing permanently in the United States” (1), but as Leal also acknowledged immediately, in many cases it was very difficult to determine the background of a particular writer, which resulted in the questionable inclusion or exclusion of certain writers. Thus, Leal's introduction discusses the well-known cases of Danny Santiago (pseudonym of Daniel James) and Amado Muro (Chester Seltzer in real life), but he forewarns that many other authors may be improperly classified in the existing bibliographies. As if to confirm Leal's suspicions, and to pinpoint the shortcomings of using the author's background as the main criteria for inclusion and exclusion, Trujillo and Rodríguez's bibliography lists Andrés Ramón Rodríguez (a Spaniard) as a Chicano poet while relegating Justo S. Alarcón (another Spaniard) to the category of “literatura chicanesca.” Likewise, Mexican-born Luis Arturo Ramos is included among Chicano/a short-story writers, a classification that may not be universally shared by other critics or even by the author himself.

The second position would be to look in the text itself for a Chicano/a content. This is, then a much more narrowly defined categorization, since it allows for the fact that “[j]ust as there are biological and cultural aspects to being a Mexican American, it must be understood that not all Mexican Americans call themselves Chicano” (Huerta, “Looking for the Magic,” 37). For proponents of this classification, such as Jorge Huerta,

[N]either the ancestry of its author, nor the fact that it is written in a particular language, determines whether or not a play is Chicano. If the theme explores the nature of being Chicano, I would call it Chicano and more particularly, ethno-specific theatre.

(“Looking for the Magic,” 39)

While biological and thematic issues cannot simply be dismissed, I suggest that the exclusive emphasis on the authorial and/or textual elements of the Chicano/a literary work results in a narrower literary history than is needed. On the one hand, these approaches would have to set more or less artificial borders where experience reveals a much more flexible reality. Because of that restrictive, normative stance, the resulting histories would always be plagued by questions that have proved irresoluble: why should a certain author born in Mexico be considered a Chicano/a while another should not? When can we say that a text has “enough” Chicano/a content, and how do we measure the degree of Chicanism in a particular book?

If, on the other hand, we were to seriously conceive Chicano/a identity and literature as transnational phenomena and if we were willing to analyze the entire literary experience rather than limiting ourselves to production and textuality, then it would be possible to circumvent these and similar dilemmas by acknowledging what are truly porous borders in the Chicano/a literary space. Furthermore, this transnational, multilingual aspect of Chicano/a literature would be better served by incorporating into its literary history parameters of reading patterns and empirical reception alongside textual and authorial considerations. Indeed, in order to (re)write Chicano/a literary history in its fuller dimension, one would need to look not only at what Chicanos/as wrote at different times but also at what they read. Traditional literary histories have all but ignored reading patterns and other reception-related aspects, but it is hard to deny that what authors and readers of a particular society consume becomes part of their cultural heritage as much as what they produce.

As I have proposed before, by way of example, late-nineteenth-century Mexican American poetry cannot be separated from the fact that its authors and their audience were knowledgeable and appreciative of romantic poetry from Mexico (“‘A Net Made of Holes,’” 18), not to mention the fact that many felt themselves to be part of the same cultural continuum. Even clearer evidence of how tenuous these national literary borders have been historically is found in Breve reseña de la literatura hispana de Nuevo México y Colorado, a rather peculiar book published in 1959 by José T. López, Edgardo Núñez, and Roberto Lara Vialpando (respectively a native of Colorado, a Peruvian, and a New Mexican). This short tome combines literary criticism with bibliographical listings and, more importantly for my purposes, an anthology of poetry. In this latter section, poems by two of the volume editors are printed alongside others by fellow New Mexicans and Coloradoans as well as several poems by Juan de Dios Peza, one of Mexico's most popular and revered romantic poets. No indication is made in the book of the fact that Peza is not from the New Mexico-Colorado area, which strongly suggests that despite the regional focus indicated in this book's title, literary boundaries were not particularly relevant or exclusive in the authors' minds. And the same is true of most literary genres, including drama and other performative genres, as suggested by the research of Elizabeth C. Ramírez, who has studied theatrical touring companies in the Southwest, and has concluded:

Above all, these [touring] dramatic companies were able to establish a reconnection between Mexican Americans and México. Rather than isolating themselves in the United States, the Spanish-speaking communities were able to continue cultural relations with México.


What this evidence confirms is that the nationalistic paradigm that brought much political strength to the Chicano/a Movement is inadequate for writing the literary history of Chicanos/as. Thus, when writing the history of this literature, it would be of limited use to differentiate categorically between north and south of the border and to ignore the transnational scope of literary trends, experiences, and tastes. Chicano/a literary history needs to keep itself open to such phenomena by engaging in a transnational analysis of the entire literary process rather than by restricting itself with self-imposed parameters of nation and literary production.44 To a certain extent, some of the most recent publishing efforts seem to be leaning already in that direction, as reflected in Nicolás Kanellos's introduction to the anthology Herencia (2002):

[I]n its variety and multiple perspectives, what we will call “U.S. Hispanic” literature is far more complex than the mere sampling of the last forty years would lead us to believe. This literature incorporates the voices of the conqueror and the conquered, the revolutionary and the reactionary, the native and the uprooted or landless. It is a literature that proclaims a sense of place in the United States while it also erases borders; it is transnational in the most postmodern sense possible.


Moreover, as the above quote indicates, newer bridges are being built between Chicano/a and present-day Latino/a literatures, which is resulting in yet newer parameters of expansion of and interaction across traditional literary borders. This trend, which started to be noticeable in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s and is only now gaining national attention, cannot simply be dismissed as a marketing fad or as political maneuvering (even if marketing forces are at play, as I explored in the previous chapter).45 Rather, it works to confirm that insisting upon nationality as the central parameter around which to describe Chicano/a literature may not only be historically inaccurate (given the constant border crossings involved in the Chicano/a social and cultural experiences) but outdated as well (in the context of the diasporic movement of workers and other immigrants in the new globalized economy, in which newer alliances between immigrants and former immigrant groups are constantly refashioned).


In the preceding sections of this chapter, I have alluded to some of the best-known interpretations of the Chicano/a literary past. I have also discussed some of the assumptions underlying those analyses, as well as the critical parameters within which those interpreters have worked. In this section, I will concentrate on more recent metahistorical and metaliterary discourses that have emerged since the textual recovery projects started to take a more cohesive shape.

After the pioneering efforts noted at the beginning of this chapter, Chicano/a literary historiography received a major impulse through the biannual conferences of the Recovery Project at the University of Houston. In particular, the edited volumes with selected critical contributions from those conferences stand out as the most extensive and concerted body of thoughts on how to read the Chicano/a literary past. In them, one can detect the beginnings of a serious questioning of how Chicano/a literary history had been written to that point, as well as a series of proposals for nuancing future studies of the past. None of the critics and historians participating in those edited volumes has offered a comprehensive rethinking of the historiographical task, though, and therefore their influence is better felt in partial rereadings of specific works and periods than in a general or systematic approach.

Many of the contributions included in the first volume of Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage (by far the richest of the three published volumes so far in metahistorical discourses and reflections) were authored by critics interested in discussing the overall implications of the recovery task ahead.46 In the words of Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, the process of recovering and reinterpreting lost works needed to be seen as a delicate one with significant consequences for future interpretations of Chicano/a letters:

This long over-due project, Recovering the U.S. Hispanic literary heritage, by its very nature places us in the rather uncomfortable position of creating a literary canon, that is to say, in the position not only of codifying an ethnic literary identity, but also of assigning a standard of value to a corpus of texts.

(“Two Texts,” 129)

Very much aware of the possible consequences of canonizing formerly marginalized works, Gonzales-Berry strongly urged literary historians not to ignore parameters of difference when assessing the Chicano/a past (“Two Texts,” 129), a position also echoed by Charles Tatum, who, quoting an earlier essay by Rosaura Sánchez, suggests that

[a]ny consideration of nineteenth-century literary works must take into account the fact that while the writers may be of Mexican origin, “this population is as diverse as any other living group of people. There can be no simple labeling which can encompass the diversity represented by this population despite the fact that there are certain general social changes which have affected the entire population.”


But by far the most radical criticism of previous literary historiography (and, in that capacity, a warning as well for future similar endeavors) was launched by one of the volume editors, Ramón A. Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez compared recent historiographic discourses to those of 1920s Hispanophiles, and he found fascinating and, at the same time, disturbing similarities:

Like those histories of Hispanic literature written several decades earlier by the hispanidad advocates, Chicano, Puerto Rican and American Indian scholars created a past that relied heavily on identifying key writers and key texts. In many ways there was very little difference between these scholars who sought the first Chicano novelist, the first Chicano poet, the first Chicano short story, and hispanidad scholars who sought the purest and earliest Spanish literary forms in the United States. Both groups were intent in creating a canon of sacred texts. The histories of Chicano literature that were produced were premised on a monolithic concept of community and on the idea of political progress.

(“Nationalism,” 246)

To a certain extent, the similarities between the hispanidad trend and the recent Chicano/a literary historiography to which Gutiérrez alluded have grown even deeper since he wrote those words, inasmuch as colonial texts by Spanish explorers, friars, and soldiers have been incorporated into the new canon of Chicano/a literature through recovery and publication efforts. In that sense, the publication by Arte Público Press (in 1993) of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación and that of Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva México in the Pasó por aquí series of the University of New Mexico (in the emblematic year of 1992) is very much in line with Gutiérrez's findings, as well as with the hispanidad historiographic impulse itself, as a consideration of works such as Juan Francisco de Cárdenas's Hispanic Culture and Language in the United States would prove.48 In that 1933 book, de Cárdenas postulated the notion that Spanish-American nations were a continuation of Spain—“each after its own fashion,” he conceded (19)—which he followed with a list of reasons why the United States should make Spanish its second language. In point of fact, de Cárdenas's reasons were not entirely unlike those adopted by Chicano/a literary historians some sixty years later, namely the presence in what is today the United States of Spanish writers since shortly after 1492 (Cabeza de Vaca, of course, among them) and their treatment of an autochthonous reality. While few would probably agree with de Cárdenas today in his restrictive view of the role of the indigenous American cultures, inevitably (and perhaps somewhat ironically) the attempts to (re)write a chronological, encyclopedical history of Chicano/a literature have led many Chicano/a literary historians to very similar positions.

Furthermore, as R. A. Gutiérrez's quote implies, the temptation to rely on the idea of “key writers and texts” (e.g., María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Jovita González, Américo Paredes) would bring Chicano/a literary historiography back to utilizing the very same questionable methodology by which the recovered texts were marginalized in the first place, and it would of necessity result in the marginalization of other “less key” writers and texts, a danger against which Erlinda Gonzales-Berry cautioned future critics as well, as we saw. If—as Audre Lorde has suggested—the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, then Chicano/a literary history would do well in exploring alternative routes and mappings for its product, rather than relying on obsolete historiographic formulas.49

An innovative approach to thinking about history, methodology, and identity is already visible in the works of Chela Sandoval and Emma Pérez. Benefiting from the insights of feminist and postcolonial cultural criticism (as well as from Foucauldian and Deleuzian thought), the works of Sandoval and Pérez have opened up alternative lines of approaching the study of the past that may be beneficial for literary historiography as well. First, by developing the idea of differential consciousness in a Chicano/a studies context, Sandoval has translated and adapted Homi Bhabha's notions on positionality to the culturally specific context in which it could benefit historians of this group's literature. The mobility of identities that the differential consciousness model presupposes serves as a potential corrective to the essentializing implicit in nationalistic ideology. Moreover, as studies like Genaro M. Padilla's My History, Not Yours and my own “‘A Net Made of Holes’” have made clear, at most historical junctures Chicano/a literary identities have proven to be extraordinarily fluid.50 Consequently, newer Chicano/a literary histories could benefit from a concept such as Sandoval's differential consciousness to rethink parameters of identity and allegiance.

Likewise, in The Decolonial Imaginary, Emma Pérez has advocated for historians of the Chicano/a experiences to challenge the current status of the discipline, in which “traditionalist historiography produces a fictive past, and that fiction becomes the knowledge manipulated to negate the ‘other’ culture's differences” (Decolonial, xviii). Instead, Pérez proposes a Foucauldian archaeology based on the notion of the “decolonial imaginary” “as a rupturing space, the alternative to that which is written into history” (Decolonial, 6), in which the rupture rather than the causal becomes the organizing trope for her transnational, nonlinear historical account. In doing so, Pérez refuses to construct another master narrative in which localities and differences are subsumed into the main argument of community and progress.

Pérez's understanding of history finds a recent echo in Louis G. Mendoza's Historia, a monograph that attempts to read literature and history side by side. Mendoza's claim that literary works should be read as valid historical evidence (19) may recall earlier reductionist positions that relegated works of art to the status of documents, but his counterbalancing affirmation (following Hayden White) that history should be read as a literary genre produces enough of an equilibrium to bring the two disciplines into a much more complex dialectical relationship. This leads Mendoza to problematize the relationship between Chicano/a literature, on the one hand, and historical narratives on the other. For Mendoza, “Chicano/a literary production … exists independent of the formation of Chicano historical narratives and often contests the representation of a historical generation by shifting the focus of concern away from narrow definitions of power and identity” (61-62). While I disagree with Mendoza on the alleged discursive independence of literary production, his emphasis on addressing the assumptions that inform historical narratives remains essential. In this sense, analyzing Mendoza's own stated guiding principles is quite instructive, as his narrative reveals the mark of a certain intentionality that (like Pérez) favors the selective over the comprehensive approach but (unlike her) adopts a chronological model along a generational axis. The former, in a rather original interpretive move, allows him to renounce the kind of encyclopedic history I analyzed above and to denounce it as a masculinist project (36), but the latter threatens his narrative with the kind of selective comparative approach I criticized in “Textual and Land Reclamations” and again in this chapter. In acknowledging that he “selected authors and texts that lent themselves to a comparative analysis with the historical master narratives” he calls into question (36) and in clearly privileging Texas and California over the rest of the Hispanic United States, Mendoza fails to open his text up to the kind of counternarrative he attempts to construct, while walking an extremely tight rope over the problem of selective reductionism that Perkins exposed (see p. 153 above).


Given the limitations of chronology, nationalism, and encyclopedism as the possible bases for organizing Chicano/a literary history, alternative models need to be explored in future readings of the Chicano/a past. While the task is yet to be performed, I have advocated elsewhere for a decentered, rhizomatic type of history to undertake this most pressing need (“‘A Net Made of Holes,’” 18), and I will briefly expand on my model here. I am taking the term “rhizomatic” from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus without necessarily subscribing to other concepts put forth by these critics nor entering on the polemics of the scientific/botanical accuracy of their ideas. What interests me about their theory on the rhizome is the possibility it affords to conceive literary history as a decentered assemblage with multiple lines of entry, rather than as a monumental, unidirectional entity. Conceived in such a rhizomatic sense, Chicano/a literary history opens itself up to a more flexible approach that need not rest on a traditional notion of order (the chronological) and boundaries (the national) to aim for a sense of encyclopedic (the entire body of literature) or exemplary (the great authors and books) completeness. Rather, the literary historian can now enter this body of literature at any given point of significance, have certain texts (re)appear at different times (according to the respective literary appreciation accorded to them at those times), cross and transgress national or linguistic borders, and, most important of all, consciously acknowledge her/his role as interpreter/reader of this literature. Traditional literary history would have its narrative start at the “beginning” (e.g., the Spanish jarchas, Beowulf, Fray Marcos de Niza's Relación) and then follow through the centuries all the way up to the present. A rhizomatic literary history, by contrast, would allow the historian to start, if s/he so desired, with the Chicano/a Movement (or with any other point in time) and then move backward (to situate the newly recovered texts in their original time, for instance), forward (toward post-Movement literature), sideways (toward Mexican or other relevant literatures—like the Latino/a, the feminist, or the gay and lesbian in the United States), or even to proceed by a combination of these and other possibilities, as I have done in a minimal exemplary attempt in my “‘A Net Made of Holes.’” As suggested above, a rhizomatic literary history would also be flexible enough to allow its writer to account for the appearance and/or disappearance of texts beyond their date of production.

The advantages of such an approach for writing Chicano/a literary history are many, since the historian could insert the recovered texts (for example) in at least two different temporal junctures: that of their production and early reception and that of their reappearance in our present Chicano/a literary world. This would ensure that the texts are accorded a multiplicity of meanings and artistic status so that we may read them now as they relate to our own aesthetics and politics without doing violence to what they could have meant then for their contemporary readerships. In the case of unpublished texts or of those works that failed to reach their audience, we can certainly reconstruct the horizon of expectations of its intended readers then while studying the actual reception of the published book now.

A rhizomatic literary history, furthermore, would allow its creator to account for more recent “disappearances” of authors and books that were at some point vastly read and quoted but that have now all but faded away from critical and even popular discourses. Movimiento poets as diverse as Sergio D. Elizondo and Reymundo “Tigre” Pérez and narrators such as Saúl Sánchez and J. L. Navarro, among others, are seldom mentioned or read these days, but there is no reason to predict that their works could not be reclaimed or “recovered” at some point in the future (as Cecilio García-Camarillo's poetry has been).51

Last but not least, multiple lines of entry into the rhizomatic literary history of Chicano/a literature will guarantee that novels such as José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho are not read solely as what they signified at any one particular time in the history of their reception, but rather that they are allowed to be approached as evolving entities that transform and are transformed by its readers.

The model I am proposing would also problematize the very notion of readership. If, as I have proposed in this book, Chicano/a literature is “life in search of readers,” then it becomes imperative not to impose on the reader the same kind of restrictive definitions that have been used in the past to determine whether an author was Chicano/a or not. As should be clear from my analysis, Chicano/a literature's audiences have been diverse and multifarious. From the double audience of Ruiz de Burton and other Californias/os to the transcultural readerships of Rolando Hinojosa and even more recent writers, the role played by intended, potential, and actual readers has been determinant in ensuring not only the survival but also the shape Chicano/a literature has taken.

A Chicano/a literary history, therefore, would need to examine readerships with as much care as is used to investigate its authors, for these audiences are also transnational, multilingual, and multicultural. Furthermore, the audience's physical (as well as cultural) mobility would need to be taken into account to analyze certain periods in Chicano/a literary history. To give but a brief example, much has been written about how the Mexican Revolution displaced a cadre of intellectuals and writers to the United States, where they resumed their literary activity in community periodicals and in other media. It has also been noticed how these writers (Jorge Ulica, for example) observed Chicanos/as “from the outside” in their costumbrista chronicles and other satirical pieces, yet very little attention has been given to their audiences, among which we can presuppose a great number of equally displaced readers whose enjoyment of these pieces would be possible precisely because of their status as cultural “outsiders” as well. As we recover texts originally printed in periodicals across the United States, much would be gained from researching who subscribed to those periodicals, what their implied audiences were like, and how they were shaped and influenced by those they needed to reach in order to survive.

In closing, then, a new type of literary history needs to be devised to account for as complex a case as that of Chicano/a literature. This history must be prepared to address both historical continuities and ruptures. Because the history of Chicano/a literature has been marked by social and material conditions resulting from war, colonialism, and economic and political subordination, any account of this literature would need to address both the links that have kept literary activity alive among Chicanos/as and the gaps that have resulted from those experiences of marginalization and disenfranchisement. Chicano/a literary historians should resist the temptation to write master narratives that portray this literature's history as a heroic succession of congruent steps from “the beginning” to the present. Rather, internal contradictions and differences (resulting from gender, class, ethnic, sexual, and linguistic factors, among others) should be given as much weight as commonalities. Likewise, the recovered texts' former erasure from the history of Chicano/a letters should not be ignored when restoring them to new historical accounts: their previous disappearance needs to be accounted for inasmuch as it has value for understanding those forces that have shaped literary production and reception.

In consequence, Chicano/a literary historians must be careful not to do violence to a text's multiple temporalities and historical contexts by ascribing it solely to its period of composition or publication. Since the history of Chicano/a letters should address issues of reception as well as those related to literary production and textuality, it should be open to the changing significance of literary works for successive generations of readers as well. In that sense, any Chicano/a work of literature belongs to all of those periods in which it has had relevance for its readers. Furthermore, because many of the texts to be included in this history are now being recovered after a long period of oblivion, historians should not reduce them to historical documents by inserting them only in the time in which they were composed or published. At the very least, Chicano/a literary historians should aspire to analyze these works both in their original time of production and in the time in which they were recovered and made available to readers once again.

A third element of importance in the kind of literary history that I am proposing is the need to address both the regional-case scenarios and the transnational experience of Chicanos/as. The history of Chicanos/as has been marked by the long-standing presence in more or less self-contained areas (e.g., New Mexico, the Valley in South Texas) as much as by migration, immigration, and other forms of diasporic movements (including exile and deportation). Any account of the Chicano/a literary past should be flexible enough to account for those local particularities while keeping in sight transnational developments. Chicano/a literary history, therefore, should not be approached as a national enterprise but rather as a regional, national-driven, or transnational phenomenon depending on the areas, periods, readerships, authors, and movements studied.

Other internal differences need to be observed when chronicling Chicano/a literary developments. Salient among them is the fact that Chicano/a literature has been written in Spanish, in English, and in varied combinations of both languages. In addition, other linguistic forms (Caló, pre-Hispanic tongues, foreign words) have played a role in shaping Chicano/a texts and their target audiences. Chicano/a literary histories, on the other hand, tend to be written in English and published in largely monolingual outlets where the original linguistic richness of Chicano/a texts may not appear at all or be relegated to translations in the endnotes. If they are not to be accomplices to historical processes of marginalization, Chicano/a literary historians must strive for respecting the original language(s) in which the different works are written and consumed by linguistically proficient readerships. If translations into any other languages are needed, they should not take preference over the original; Chicano/a literary histories should not suppress Chicano/a multilingualism for the sake of an academic community of readers that is mostly monolingual.

Because of the peculiarities noted above, Chicano/a literary history can ill afford to depend on a master narrative constructed from any one particular vantage point. A rhizomatic approach, on the other hand, would minimize the risk of constructing a history that exerts rhetorical violence over its subject in order to mold it into a particular shape or to prove a particular theory. This innovative, flexible structure would also allow the historian to explore the connections between Chicano/a and other literatures as they become of relevance for particular works or audiences. Finally, it will ensure that literary works are studied as organic structures with a life beyond their dates and places of publication and, in so doing, that they are not treated as documents but acknowledged as artistic objects permanently open to new aesthetic consumptions (or, in other words, life in search of readers). Chicano literary history, in effect, should not restrict itself to the analysis of literary production only but should be open to exploring readers' response and reception as well.

As explored throughout this book, Chicano/a literature has been formed historically by the continuous interplay of authors and readerships, from the early colonial writers who wrote both for the metropolis powers and for the local communities to present-day transcultural writers who need to address Chicano/a and non-Chicano/a readers alike. Readers have had a determinant effect on the generic shape of literary works (by providing authors with admissible familiar genres from which to depart, for instance), on their thematics (by providing a social base of relevance), and on the linguistic choices available to Chicano/a authors. A history of Chicano/a literature would be ill served by neglecting to study one of the two poles on which literary activity hinges. Rather, the history of Chicano/a letters must account for the evolving significance of texts and genres as their interaction with successive generations of readers alters their aesthetic status. Only then can we aspire to truly chronicle the changing evolution of what has proven to be life in a constant search of readers.


  1. La Raza: The Mexican Americans, 218.

  2. “Mexican American Literature: A Historical Perspective,” 32.

  3. [And how is it possible … that such rich writings have been ignored for so many years? … How many Ulicas might there be buried on the dusty shelves of libraries or on the yellowish pages of newspapers? Until they are discovered, as Ulica has been, we would not be able to speak of a definitive history of Chicano literature] (my translation from the back cover of Jorge Ulica's Crónicas diabólicas).

  4. All this is in addition and unrelated to earlier reprints of colonial and precolonial texts by publishing enterprises such as the Quivira Society in the United States, along with presses in Spain and Mexico that have printed from early on texts by Spanish soldiers and friars as well as from Mexican (American) politicians and writers such as Lorenzo de Zavala.

  5. Source:

  6. “‘A Net Made of Holes.’” An even earlier, slightly more limited formulation of these ideas is found in my “Textual and Land Reclamations.”

  7. Among the most recent manifestations of the chronological model, see Jesús Rosales, “A Sojourn of Desire” (2001), and the reprint in Dennis J. Bixler-Márquez et al., eds., Chicano Studies (second edition in 2001), of Francisco A. Lomelí's 1984 essay “An Overview of Chicano Letters: From Origins to Resurgence.” Chronological histories have a (largely pedagogical) role to play, and I myself have participated in the past in such reconstructions of the Chicano/a literary past (see Leal and Martín-Rodríguez, “Chicano Literature”). However, there are certain limitations to this approach that make it not as suitable beyond an immediate introductory or didactic role, as we will see.

  8. On Chicano/a indigenismo, see Gary D. Keller's “Alurista, Poeta Antropólogo” and my “Aesthetic Concepts.”

  9. [“the tripes” and “the counts” / “the tequilas” and “the reds” / today in the barrio / my people's clans / incarnate gangs of caciques / with feathers and knifes / eagle and tiger knights] (my translation). Floricanto en Aztlán is unpaginated, but the poems (at times two per page) are numbered.

  10. The idealization of marginal figures in contemporary Chicano/a literature has generated debate among critics. A representative critique of this poetical license is found in Richard García's critique of Luis Valdez's reappropriation of the figure of the pachuco. See García's “Chicano Intellectual History.”

  11. For an assessment of the parameters of inclusion and exclusion in early Chicano/a literary historiography, see Juan Bruce-Novoa's “Canonical and NonCanonical Texts.”

  12. [Other than limited attempts and fractional essays, a history of the evolving estimation of the great authors in the popular and the critical mind is yet to be written in Spain. Menéndez y Pelayo's Historia de las ideas estéticas is something else altogether. What we ask for is a study in which we could follow—century after century, period after period—the formation and transformation of a particular author's reputation. … In reading that (exemplary) book, we could get rid of many prejudices and ambiguities] (my translation).

  13. The jarchas were first brought to public attention by S. M. Stern in “Les vers finaux en espagnol dans les muwassahs hispano-hébraïques.”

  14. My translation from the Spanish “las prehistorias siempre se descubren ex eventu como prehistoria de una post-historia” (H. R. Jauss, “El lector como instancia de una nueva historia de la literatura,” in José Antonio Mayoral, ed., Estética de la recepción, 61 (original emphasis). The Spanish text is, in turn, a translation by Adelino Alvarez from the German original: “Der Leser als Instanz einer neuen Geschichte der Literatur” (Poetica 7, 1975: 325-44).

  15. On positionality, see Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture; on strategic essentialism, see Gayatri C. Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic; on differential consciousness, see Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed.

  16. See Sánchez and Pita, 376, note 27.

  17. Even such less confrontational critics as Lomelí and Urioste were hardly appreciative of the Chicano/a literary past in the 1970s. Although their Chicano Perspectives discussed Eusebio Chacón's work, their introduction dubbed Chicano/a literature “basically a contemporary phenomena” (10, sic) while decrying how prior to the Chicano/a Movement “literary expression remained an amorphous body written by a few” (10). Their concluding evaluation of the Chicano/a literary past is an eloquent testimony to the horizon of expectations of the 1970s: “These circumstances, then, tended to produce lyrical-escapist, unpublished protest, nostalgia-filled prose and poetry which too often disintegrated in old family chests. In accordance with the spirit of the times, literature was viewed as part of a social ritual and not as an instrument for understanding society” (10). Subsequently, Lomelí has made substantial contributions to the recovery effort, thus reflecting the general shift in the critical understanding of the Chicano/a literary past that I have illustrated with quotes from G. Padilla and from Sánchez and Pita.

  18. In this sense, and back to the idea of how the mediation between present and past conditions our ability to read the past, it is impossible not to note that already in 1973 Luis Leal was calling for the reconstruction of the Chicano/a literary past in his seminal essay “Mexican-American Literature: A Historical Perspective,” a true landmark in Chicano/a erudition from which I take my second epigraph for this chapter. While individual efforts of historical recovery took place between Leal's article and the current movements, as noted, it is clear that historians during the 1970s, the context in which Leal wrote, were not ready to look for and reclaim figures such as Ruiz de Burton and others who are now unquestionably part of the Chicano/a literary past.

  19. See Bruce-Novoa's “Canonical and NonCanonical Texts” for further discussion of these authors' reception.

  20. For the complete quote, see p. 43.

  21. I am giving 1996 as the date on which my analysis was published under the title “Textual and Land Reclamations.” In fact, I had presented variations of this analysis in several earlier forums, first within a paper titled “Reclaiming California: Land and Labor in Early Chicano Literature,” at the 1992 annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America, then in a lecture at the University of Washington (February 2, 1994), and finally during the plenary session of the third annual conference of the Recovery Project, at the University of Houston (December 2-3, 1994), under the title “Textual Reclamation and the Critical Reception of Early Chicano/a Literature.”

  22. Incidentally, such a fabrication of the past may lie at the very mythical origins of Chicanos/as. As Daniel Cooper Alarcón has summarized, “Many Mesoamerican scholars, for example, believe that the Aztecs rewrote their ancestral records in order to erase their nomadic past and to legitimize their presence in the Valley of Mexico by claiming direct descent from the Toltecs” (58). Alarcón then goes on to analyze the fabricated aspects of the Aztecs' historical records (first purposefully burned and then rewritten) and of the myth of Aztlán (58-59).

  23. As suggested by David Perkins, and as I will analyze in more detail below, this is also characteristic of most histories of literature by minorities (137).

  24. Commenting on the reconstruction of the New Mexican literary past, Erlinda Gonzales-Berry has also cautioned against the problems in overlooking differences when creating a new literary canon from recovered texts (“Two Texts,” 129-30).

  25. Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States of America, not to mention the pre-Hispanic and pre-British peoples.

  26. [Mahgrebian history is characterized by breaks and lacunae, discontinuity, cultural ruptures of the sources and of the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Turkish, French, and nationalist phases. The most urgent task now is to consider these discontinuities, in particular those that affect Islamic and Arabic thought, rather than to continue constructing the illusory continuity that the nationalist elites desire] (my translation).

  27. Perkins defines a “conceptual history as a discursive construction that “exhibits the interrelation of events as the logical relation of ideas” (49).

  28. A first “recovered” edition was printed in 1984 by Mexico's Secretaría de Educación Pública with an introduction by Kanellos. The introduction to the 1984 edition was reprinted without significant changes in the 1999 Arte Público Press Spanish-language edition (as part of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage series). Interestingly, the English-language translation of Don Chipote, also published by Arte Público in 2000 as The Adventures of Don Chipote, includes a new introduction by Kanellos. In it, Kanellos qualifies his assertion as follows, indicating a more nuanced approach to internal differences and (dis)continuities: “[Don Chipote] may be considered the first ‘Chicano’ novel—or, at least, a precursor to the Chicano novel of the 1960s and 1970s, which also identifies with the working class, albeit the Mexican American working class” (9, original emphasis). On the issue of the “first” Chicano/a novel, see chapter 2, pp. 42.

  29. [offers a new indication of the continuity of cultural production by Mexicans north of the border] (my translation).

  30. Kanellos mentions Ladrona (1925), by Miguel Arce, and El sol de Texas (1927), by Conrado Espino[s]a, in his introduction (5).

  31. The tension between continuity and cultural transformation is also observable outside the field of literature. As suggested by Mario T. García, for instance, “[c]ultural continuity as well as cultural change, the two in time developing in a Mexican border culture, can be detected in the family, recreational activities, religion, and voluntary associations” (72).

  32. See, for example, the multicolumned, genre-based chronological sequence accompanying Julio A. Martínez and Francisco Lomelí's Chicano Literature.

  33. For further discussion of this type of encyclopedic history, see Perkins, 53-60. Perkins explores encyclopedism as a manifestation of the postmodern, at odds with narrative models of literary history; Chicano/a literary “encyclopedism,” though, does not read as incompatible with the conceptual type of history I analyzed at the end of the previous section. On the contrary, it has served as an argument for reinforcing a totalizing sense of continuity, based on the permanence of cultural traditions and societal practices.

  34. Recall, in this respect, the ending of Miguel Méndez's Peregrinos de Aztlán, in which the narrator concludes: “Así la historia, de pronto, como en un mal sueño nos dejó varados en la isla del olvido, presos. No sólo eso, han quedado encadenados los genes que guardan la cultura, esencia de nuestra historia, vedando las arterias que como ríos traen el ímpetu de la sangre que anima la voz y el alma de nuestro pueblo. Ni dignidad ni letras para los esclavos, dijeron los dominadores, solamente la ignominia, la burla y la muerte; si acaso, la trágica baba de la demagogia, falsa moneda de los perversos” (183-84). For an English translation of this quote, see note 52 in chapter 2.

  35. The metaphor, taken from a poem in the 1528 Manuscript of Tlatelolco, gives title to my essay “‘A Net Made of Holes,’” which I am referencing here. These are the relevant lines from the poem: “On the roads lie broken arrows, / our hair is in disarray. / Without roofs are the houses, / and red are their walls with blood. … / We have struggled against the walls of adobe, / but our heritage was a net made of holes” (Miguel León Portilla, PreColumbian Literatures of Mexico, 150-51).

  36. Following Homi Bhabha, Clifford speaks of how “[e]xperiences of unsettlement, loss, and recurring terror produce discrepant temporalities—broken histories that trouble the linear, progressive narratives of nation-states and global modernization” (317).

  37. See my essay “‘A Net Made of Holes,’” 17. These cultural continuities are also manifested in how contemporary authors engage in a figuration of the past in order to establish a cultural economy of linkages. The Manuscript of Tlatelolco, for instance, echoes in the mind of the informed reader when approaching Raúl R. Salinas's poem “About Invasion and Conquest,” in which the poetic voices of the embattled indigenous (a Taino and a Mexica, in separate stanzas) ask, “Who will be left / to tell of what happened to us … ?” (East, 90); the response in both cases is similar, and it points toward the role of the poets as connectors in the “net made of holes”: “Among those who survive, / there will be poets to recount / that which happened to us” (East, 90).

  38. One of the earliest manifestos of the Chicano/a Movement, El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, repeatedly stated the idea that Chicanos/as are a nation as it stressed the political usefulness of nationalism: “Nationalism is the common denominator that all members of La Raza can agree upon” (2).

  39. Cf. Luis Leal, “Cuatro siglos de prosa aztlanense.”

  40. In an attempt to tackle this issue, Lomelí and Urioste first coined the term “literatura chicanesca” (“Chicanesque Literature”) in 1976 to account for that literature that “only appears to be Chicano” [Chicano Perspectives, 12] to differentiate it from “Chicano literature [which] is written by Chicanos” (12). While those authors Lomelí and Urioste listed under their Chicanesca label were clearly extraneous to the Chicano/a cultural experiences, other writers (e.g., Jim Sagel, Amado Muro) presented a different challenge when it came to their classification. By the time that Roberto C. Trujillo and Andrés Rodríguez adopted the term for their 1985 Literatura chicana, the label had become much more suspicious, to the point that Trujillo refers to it in the volume's introduction as those works written by “non-Chicanos” (original quotation marks, ii).

  41. By the same token, others could question the status of Caballero, a novel written by Jovita González and Eve Raleigh (pseudonym of Margaret Eimer), particularly since the extent of their collaboration remains unclear. In fact, as discussed by L. G. Mendoza, such cross-cultural collaborations have been common in the history of Chicano/a political and literary activities (171). My contention is that Chicano/a literary history needs to open itself up to such instances of transnational and transcultural communication, not only by looking at authorial issues but by including matters of readership as well.

  42. For more on these debates see J. Bruce-Novoa, “Canonical and NonCanonical,” and R. Gutiérrez, “Nationalism,” 247-48.

  43. See also L. G. Mendoza, pp. 102 ff, for the blurring of national borders in turn-of-the-century newspapers in Texas.

  44. This is not to be confused with José David Saldívar's effort to construct a pan-American literary history in The Dialectics of Our America. Rather than Saldívar's internationalism, which connects different cultures across borders, I am proposing a culturally specific (i.e., Chicano/a) literary history that, for historical reasons, has been produced in territories belonging to more than one present-day nation.

  45. During the 1980s, Chicano/a-Latino/a presses such as San Francisco's El Pocho Che published books by authors residing in the Bay Area, including both Chicanos/as and Central Americans (and some South Americans as well). El Pocho Che's books often consisted of two different works bound together, as if to reinforce solidarity among Latino/a writers from different (or similar, depending on the volumes) backgrounds.

  46. The volume was edited by R. A. Gutiérrez and G. M. Padilla.

  47. Tatum is quoting from Rosaura Sánchez's “The History of Chicanas.”

  48. Juan Francisco de Cárdenas was the Spanish ambassador to the United States when the book was published in 1933. The full title of Arte Público Press's reprint of Cabeza de Vaca's Relación is The Account: Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación.

  49. Lorde's idea is expressed verbatim in the title of one of her two contributions to C. Moraga and G. Anzaldúa's anthology This Bridge Called My Back.

  50. Padilla studies the period after the Mexican-American war, while I briefly study Chicano reactions to the Spanish-American War.

  51. In 2000, Arte Público published the volume Selected Poetry by García-Camarillo, with an introduction by Enrique Lamadrid. Most of the author's poems were scattered in numerous chapbooks and journals prior to this edition.

Works Cited

Alarcón, Daniel Cooper. “The Aztec Palimpsest: Toward a New Understanding of Aztlán.” Aztlán 19.2 (1988-90):33-68.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Bixler-Márquez, Dennis J., et al., eds. Chicano Studies: Survey and Analysis. 1997. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2001. 2nd ed.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Canonical and NonCanonical Texts.” The Americas Review 14.3-4 (fall-winter 1986):119-35.

Cárdenas, Juan Francisco de. Hispanic Culture and Language in the United States. New York: Instituto de las Españas en los Estados Unidos, 1933.

Clifford, James. “Diasporas.” Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (1994): 302-38.

García, Mario T. “Border Culture.” In From Different Shores: Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, ed. Ronald Takaki, 72-81. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

García, Richard A. “Chicano Intellectual History: Myths and Reality.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 7.2 (1979): 58-62.

García-Camarillo, Cecilio. Selected Poetry. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2000.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “Two Texts for a New Canon: Vicente Bernal's Las Primicias and Felipe Maximiliano Chacón's Poesía y prosa. In Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, ed. R. A. Gutiérrez and G. M. Padilla, 129-51.

González, Jovita. and Eve Raleigh. Caballero: A Historical Novel. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. “Nationalism and Literary Production: The Hispanic and Chicano Experiences.” In Recovering the U. S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, ed. R. A. Gutiérrez and G. M. Padilla, 241-50.

———and Genaro M. Padilla, eds. Recovering the U. S. Hispanic Literary Heritage. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1993.

Keller, Gary D. “Alurista, Poeta-Antropólogo, and the Recuperation of the Chicano Identity.” In Return: Poems Collected and New, xi-xlix. Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual Press, 1982.

Leal, Luis. “Cuatro siglos de prosa aztlanense.” La palabra 2.1 (1980): 2-12.

———“Mexican-American Literature: A Historical Perspective.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 1.1 (1973): 32-44.

Lomeli, Francisco A. and Donaldo W. Urioste. Chicano Perspectives in Literature: A Critical and Annotated Bibliography. Albuquerque: Pajarito Publications, 1976.

Martínez, Julio A., and Francisco A. Lomelí. Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

Mayoral, José Antonio, comp. Estetica de la recepción. Madrid: Arco/Libros, 1987.

Méndez, Miguel M. Los criaderos humanos (épica de los desamparados) y Sahuaros. Tucson, AZ: Peregrinos, 1975.

Mendoza, Louis Gerard. Historia: The Literary Making of Chicana and Chicano History. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

Moraga, Cherríe and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. 1981. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, 1983.

Padilla, Genaro M. My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Perkins, David. Is Literary History Possible? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Rosales, Jesús. “A Sojourn of Desire, Cuando lleguemos: Chicano/a Literature, A Historical Reflection.” Aztlán 26.2 (2001): 125-51.

Saldívar, José David. The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

Sánchez, Rosaura. “The History of Chicanas: Proposal for a Materialist Perspective.” In Between Borders: Essays on Mexicana/Chicana History, ed. Adelaida del Castillo, 1-29. Encino, CA: Floricanto Press, 1989.

Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Spivak, Gayatri C. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Stern, S. M. “Les vers finaux en espagnol dans les muwassahs hispano-hébraïques. Une contribution à l'histoire du muwassah et à l'étude du vieux dialecte espagnol mozarabe.” Al-Andalus XIII (1948): 299-346.

Trujillo, Roberto C., and Andrés Rodríguez. Literatura Chicana: Creative and Critical Writings Through 1984. Oakland, CA: Floricanto Press, 1985.

Ulica, Jorge. Crónicas diabólicas. Ed. Juan Rodríguez. San Diego: Maize, 1982.

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Representative Works


Criticism: Chicana Studies

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