Essays on Teaching the American Literatures
(from the Heath Anthology Newsletter)

Teaching Chicano Literature: An Historical Approach

by Raymund Paredes
University of California at
Los Angeles

I'll begin with a definition of Chicano literature. I use the term Chicano to refer to people of Mexican ancestry who have resided permanently in the United States for an extended period. Chicanos can be native-born citizens or Mexican-born immigrants who have adapted to life in the United States. For me, Chicano and Mexican American are interchangeable, although some scholars would argue, not without justification, that the terms are distinct, the former connoting a certain degree of cultural awareness and political activism about which the latter is relatively neutral. In any event, to my mind Chicano or Mexican American writing includes those works in which a writer's sense of ethnic identity (chicanismo) animates his or her work manifestly and fundamentally, often through the presentation of Chicano characters, cultural situations, and patterns of speech.

As a distinctive body of writing, Chicano literature is relatively young, having taken shape in the generation or so after the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848. But the cultural forces that gave rise to Chicano literature date from the late sixteenth century when the Spanish conquistadores began their exploration and colonization of what is now the southwestern United States. The Spaniards were remarkably courageous, audacious, and, inevitably, brutal, as the narratives of Cabeza de Vaca, de Niza and Castañeda excerpted in The Heath Anthology amply demonstrate; and they planted their institutions, particularly language and religion, throughout this vast region. Coming to America during Spain's Golden Age, the era of Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Góngora, the conquistadores were avid story tellers and makers, depositing legends, tales, and songs along the paths of conquest. In 1598, Juan de Oñate and a group of 500 colonists celebrated their settlement of New Mexico with a dramatic presentation composed for the occasion. In 1610, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a classical scholar from Salamanca and a companion of Oñate, published his Historia de la Nueva México in 34 Vírgilian cantos (see Heath 1: 162-172). The historia is one of the first examples of an emergent literary tradition, rendered in Spanish and evincing a Catholic sensibility, but American nonetheless.

The literary culture of the Spanish-speaking Southwest developed spasmodically in a harsh frontier environment marked by episodes of intense cultural conflict, first largely with native Americans and later with Anglo-Americans. Literary forms commonly produced in frontier cultures predominate: personal and historical narratives which sought to capture the epic experiences of conquest and settlement; and, of course, poetry of various types, frequently religious and occasional. The authors of such works, especially in the early days of Spanish dominance, were government officials and priests who possessed the tool of literacy and who typically regarded their mission in the Southwest on a grand scale. (See, for example, the selections by Otermín, 1: 475-483; de Vargas, 1: 440-445; Delgado, 1:1211-1217; and Palou, 1: 1217-1226.) Belletristic fictional works, particularly novels, were rarely produced until the cultural infrastructure necessary to support such writing a stable, relatively well-educated middle-class population, the introduction of sophisticated printing technology, and efficient means of distribution, for example came into existence in several southwestern towns and cities.

In a setting where education and literacy were often luxuries, oral expressive forms figured prominently. Folk dramas were performed from California to Texas. Traditional Spanish plays were sometimes adapted to the particular circumstances of the Southwest. In New Mexico, The Moors and the Christians, which featured an abduction of the Christ Child by the Spaniards' mortal enemies, metamorphosed into Los Comanches, in which the kidnappers were pagan Indians. Folktales and legends became widely dispersed, many of which made their way north from the Mexican interior. La Llorona (the weeping woman), one of Mexico's best-known legends, circulated in many versions in the Southwest (1: 1282-1283) and later became the inspiration for any number of Chicano works of fiction.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, some thirty years after Mexican independence, the literature, both oral and written, of the Spanish-speaking Southwest was not remarkably different from that created in the Mexican heartland. Although key cultural centers such as Santa Fe and Los Angeles were located great distances from Mexico City, they were visited regularly by Mexican traders, entertainers, and government officials who brought with them news and all manner of cultural information. Southwest Mexicans knew about cultural events and styles not only in central Mexico but in Spain and other parts of Europe. Indeed, the Spanish-speaking Southwest was never as culturally isolated or impoverished as American historians have traditionally claimed.

All this is not to say that the region was not already developing its cultural particularities. For if the Mexican Southwest, despite great obstacles, managed to maintain cultural ties with the Mexican interior, it also was developing ever-stronger connections with the United States. By 1836, for example, Mexicans in Texas not only found themselves outnumbered by Anglos but citizens of an independent country. In California, the residents were visited frequently by American trading ships; a good number of American traders and sailors stayed and married into californio families. By the 1840s, the Santa Fe Trail linked New Mexico with St. Louis and experienced a steady stream of traffic.

The turning point in the history of the Mexican Southwest came in 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended two years of warfare between Mexico and the United States and ratified the relinquishment of nearly half of Mexico's land. The vast majority of Mexican residents in the vanquished territories stayed in place, transformed into Mexican Americans with a stroke of the pen. Inevitably, gradually, the trajectory of Mexican culture in the southwest shifted.

A good deal of literary energy was expended in chronicling the American takeover of the Southwest, a considerable portion of it by prominent southwestern Mexicans who had supported American annexation only to feel betrayed and discarded. In Texas, Juan Seguín had been a steadfast supporter of Texas independence and even served as mayor of San Antonio. Driven out of office by the growing Anglo population, Seguín retreated to Mexico where he was arrested as a traitor. The rest of his life he alternated between Texas and Mexico, never quite at home or accepted in either place. His Personal Memories (1: 1992-2000) vividly chronicle his cultural ambivalence and symbolize a culture very much in transition. Mariano Vallejo of California also had high hopes for the process of Americanization but saw them dashed by yanqui avarice and dishonesty. In the 1870s, Vallejo determined to relate the tragic history of California, his project running eventually to five bitter volumes (See 1: 2001-2012).

As in an earlier period, the output of historical and personal narratives was complemented by a barrage of poetry, much of it ephemeral and political verse that appeared in the dozens of Spanish-language newspapers in the the Southwest. Again, the versifiers were largely concerned with describing a culture in transition: they wrote about the threat to Catholicism posed by Anglo Protestantism, the decline of the Spanish language, and the indifference of government officials in Washington. A good deal of early Mexican American poetry was lyrical, romantic, and meditative, but a greater portion was created out of the conviction that verse was an instrument of dissent and political activism.

Despite the steady production of personal and historical narratives and verse in the several generations after Guadalupe Hidalgo, oral expression still figured more prominently in Mexican American culture, especially the corrido. A Mexican ballad form related to the Spanish romance, the corrido (from the Spanish verb to run ) served a function similar to that of the blues in African American culture. Together, the hundreds of Mexican American corridos constitute an informal social and cultural history of the community, related largely from the point of view of working people. In a tactic similar to the linguistic coding of the blues which protected their singers from the censure and retaliation of whites, corridos were composed in Spanish, away from most Anglos' comprehension. Corridos, as the examples gathered in The Heath Anthology demonstrate (2: 828-845), often focused on epic or symbolic events. Some of the great traditional corridos such as "Gregorio Cortez" are still well known in Mexican American communities. And despite a relative decline, corridos are still composed and circulated. For example, a number of corridos are already circulating to commemorate the death of Cesar Chavez this past spring.

By 1900, Mexican American literature had emerged as a distinctive part of the literary culture of the United States. Its origins were Spanish and Mexican, its primary language Spanish and its religious sensibility Catholic; in other words, despite its growing particularity, it remained within the orbit of Latin American letters and oral tradition. Given their proximity to Mexico in border cities like El Paso, a matter of nothing more than the width of the Rio Grande Mexican Americans could maintain ties to the homeland with relative ease and frequently traveled back and forth across the border, invigorating both cultures. Around the turn of the century, several major developments occurred. Eusebio Chacon published two novels in Santa Fe and a few writers, Maria Crístina Mena for example, began to publish stories in English.

For the most part, Mexican American writing proceeded along established lines of development until 1945 when Mexican Village, a remarkable novel by Josephina Niggli, appeared. Mexican Village was the first literary work by a Mexican American to reach a general American audience. Even more important, Mexican Village was clearly intended to convey to American readers the distinctiveness of Mexican American experience and expression. The protagonist of the work is Bob Webster, a Mexican American who settles in northern Mexico to satisfy a nostalgia of the blood. Replete with references to Mexican legends, folktales and proverbs, Mexican Village is composed in English that nevertheless feels like Spanish; Niggli uses Spanish locutions in English the family Garcia, for example and other times translates Spanish phrases literally into English. The overall result is a work of great originality that pointed the way to the hallmarks of the Chicano literary sensibility.

World War II greatly accelerated the process of Mexican American acculturation. For one thing, the War stimulated the movement of Mexican Americans into large cities where military industries were badly in need of labor. And the high levels of Mexican American participation in the military significantly reduced cultural isolation. Not surprisingly, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, perhaps the best-known of Chicano novels, focuses on the impact of World War II on a small community in New Mexico. Not only is Las Pasturas rendered less isolated by the participation of its young men in the war itself, but the testing of the atomic bomb at nearby White Sands symbolizes how modern technology itself shrinks distances and makes cultural isolation, willful or not, all but impossible.

Like other forms of ethnic expression, Mexican American literature received a boost from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Several Chicano publishing houses were created around this time, most notably Quinto Sol of Berkeley. Among the major writers nurtured by Quinto Sol were Rudolfo Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Tomás Rivera. In some ways Hinojosa-Smith and Rivera had much in common: they were both from South Texas; they had solid academic training in Spanish and Latin American literatures; they wrote primarily in Spanish; and they frequently wrote in estampas, sketches sometimes only several paragraphs in length.

Beyond these similarities, there are significant differences. Hinojosa-Smith's work seems connected to the costumbrismo movement of Latin America with its emphasis on the manners and oral traditions of a particular region. Rivera, on the other hand, seems more closely linked to the compact, harshly ironic narrative stance of the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. Although both writers deemphasize the presence of the author and both avoid moral pronouncements, Hinojosa-Smith is playful and tolerant of even amused by human frailty (See 2: 2573-2582). Tomás Rivera, in an extraordinary matching of style and technique to subject matter, starkly depicts the meager existence of Chicano migrant workers, forcing his readers to confront the inequalities of the American economic system. Hinojosa-Smith's characters are often boisterous, even larger than life; Rivera's are all but invisible, toiling in sun-baked fields, far removed from public attention and compassion. (See 2: 2752-2760).

Since the advent of Quinto Sol and, more recently, the Bilingual Press and Arte Público, Chicano literature has expanded impressively in all directions. Luís Valdez, the founder of the Teatro Campesino, has had major national successes as a playwright and a filmmaker. The controversial Richard Rodriguez has attracted major reviews in the mainstream press still a rare experience for a Chicano writer for his two works of autobiography.

No area of recent Chicano writing has yielded more satisfying works than poetry. José Montoya has been a major influence, notable for his imaginative bilingualism, his evocation of Chicano cultural values and urban experience. Two of his poems, La Jefita and El Louie are among the most admired examples of recent Chicano verse.

Gary Soto is probably the best known of contemporary Chicano poets. Soto carries his ethnic consciousness visibly but lightly, and he moves easily across national boundaries, tracing lines of continuity between Mexicans and Chicanos. Like many of the finest Chicano writers, Soto shapes his art out of ordinary materials and experiences. His work is highly autobiographical, and it is a feature of some importance that even as Soto delineates his ethnic pride, he also writes in English and tells of growing up in Fresno playing baseball. (See 2: 3043-3049)

Among the more gratifying developments in Chicano writing recently has been the emergence of a strong group of women authors. By and large, these writers have been concerned to liberate the voices of women in cultures Mexican, Mexican American, and American that have not been traditionally supportive. They have sought to identify and root out practices of misogyny in the surrounding cultures especially violence toward women and they have sought to expand the feminist agenda to include women of color and working class women. Among Chicana poets, Bernice Zamora and Lorna Dee Cervantes have been particularly powerful voices. In her collection, Restless Serpents, Zamora inveighs against boundaries, created largely by men, that restrict not only action but emotion and sexuality. (See 2: 2948-2951). In her major collection, Emplumada, Lorna Dee Cervantes celebrates the Chicana's poetic voice even as she laments the continuing circumstances of male oppression and complacency. (See 2: 3096-3103).

I would argue that the major task now before Chicana and Chicano writers and for all American authors whose ethnic identities are central to their work is how to maintain their cultural distinctiveness while reaching out to other communities both to forge coalitions capable of addressing common problems and to reinvigorate their own traditions. Old varieties of cultural nationalism seem all but exhausted. Recently, Chicano intellectuals and artists have been discussing the concepts of borders and mestizaje, the phenomenon, so fundamental to Mexico and Latin America, of mixing races and cultures. It may be that the reformulation of these concepts, esthetically and thematically, is the key to the future of Chicano expression and its place in American culture.

(All page references are to The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Second Edition.)