The word pilgrim has several different connotations. From the Latin root, peregrinus, the word means “foreigner.” A more descriptive definition translates as “one who travels to a foreign or sacred place.” When the word is extended to pilgrimage, it encompasses the journey itself; and at its most philosophical extension can refer to the actual journey through life on earth. Underlying all these various interpretations of the word is the sense of movement. Someone is moving somewhere for some consciously or unconsciously determined reason.
This movement, or pilgrimage, is a theme that runs through all the many stories in Méndez’s Pilgrims in Aztlán. But because there are so many stories, so many voices, and so many journeys, the reading of the novel can be challenging. The fragmentation of time and form demands greater attention than an easy-reading novel. This fragmentation, says Juan Bruce-Novoa in his article “Miguel Méndez: Voices of Silence,” is done on purpose. Méndez wants to challenge the reader to take an active part in the stories, but he also wants the chaos to reflect the confusion that his characters are experiencing. This confusion also confronts the lives of Mexican-Americans, today, who, in Méndez’s point of view, are losing their sense of their culture. This loss is reflected in the loss of the oral tradition, the process by which the older generation passes down stories to their children. The power of the oral tradition is that it holds the culture together by making sense out of the chaos of all of life’s stories.
In the novel Pilgrims of Aztlán, the character who represents the oral tradition is the storyteller Loreto Maldonado; he is the one who holds things together. Bruce-Novoa says that
The oral histories, unacknowledged in society’s official records vibrate in the head of the protagonist Loreto . . . Loreto is the center for the loose voices of the novel. Believing that the history of the poor is found in the oral tradition, Méndez needs a human center to contain it, to be its focus.
By not only listening to Loreto’s stories but by also studying Loreto’s pilgrimage (his movement through this novel), the reader is given a tool to help understand all the other stories. If Loreto were real and sitting in front of the reader, his tone of voice and facial expression, his past history with the reader, as well as his creativity in altering the insinuation of the story as it relates to the present time would all give more food with which to fuel the reader’s imagination. It would fill in the gaps between all the stories. Because it is impossible to provide this set of circumstances, the reader must work to understand Loreto by studying the clues that Méndez provides in describing Loreto’s actions, his motives, his thoughts, and his pilgrimage. The reader needs to ask: What drives Loreto? What is he looking for? Where is he going? Where has he been?
One of the first interesting facts the reader learns about Loreto is that, although he represents the oral tradition as the storyteller, he is, for the most part, silent. The histories of the poor may vibrate in his head, but “the complicated need to arrange his memories in a chronological order was now of no use to him. He lived with his soul turned like a telescope toward the living things of the past.” This does not prevent him from seeing and hearing the stories of the present unfold in front of him, but they act only as catalysts to stir his memories. Another fact that the reader learns about Loreto in the opening pages of the novel is that he has, despite his current appearance and economic status, a “code of honor.” Keeping this in mind, the reader can see through his eyes as Loreto reflects on the moral disposition of all the forthcoming characters. Knowing that Loreto is a noble man also helps to better understand his journey.
As Loreto walks down the streets of Tijuana each morning, what is he looking for? The casual reader might suggest that the old Yaqui Indian is looking for money with which to buy food. But is that all that his life is worth? Is Loreto only looking for survival? Loreto is a proud man with a proud past, but sometimes, in his present state, he does not recognize his own image.
How many times had he seen his reflection in the panes of glass of those buildings, where so many things are for sale, without recognizing himself, until after a few seconds it would strike him that that blackened and wrinkled face was his own?
Loreto is a man who is suffering from a lack of self image. He knows his past very well, but his present is unrecognizable. With this information, the reader might assume that Méndez is reflecting on his fears that his people, because they are losing their oral tradition, are also losing their identity, losing their sense of culture and place. Méndez strengthens this assumption in another description of Loreto as a man who “goes on living, or better, dreaming that he’s on an unknown planet and confined to oblivion like a foreigner without a country.”
Loreto is also a little mischievous. “He was amused by the parade of gringos buying souvenirs,” Méndez writes. But then, a few paragraphs later when Méndez turns the point of view from the old man to the tourists,...
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