Sunday, February 23, 2014

Do Chicanos Have an Inferiority Complex?

I credit the late Octavio Paz for initiating a high-profile conversation about Chicano/a identity, but there's a lot to this article and his analysis that really needs to get unpacked in terms of why Chicano/as hate Paz so much.  For starters, blanket characterizations of any kind about a people are harmful and disparaging and ultimately, untenable as a claim.
He "others" Mexican Americans and in so doing, not only creates a distance between Mexicans and Mexican Americans/Chianos, but his positionality as a member of Mexico's elite situates him and members of his class as “above” Mexican Americans upon whom they look down.
I also learned today from Dr. Gilbert Gonzalez that the word, “Chicano” is used in print as far back as 1926 appearing, for example, in Las Aventuras De Don Chipote and Cuando Los Pericos Mamen.

Another problem is his characterizing us as "hijos de la chingada,"  as progeny of the great rape—of Doña Marina/La Malinche by Hernán Cortés.  He can be an hijo de la chingada if he likes.  Us Chicanas love, adore, and respect our mother without whom we would not exist.  

A final point.  What I do not like about either Stavans or Amy Chua and Jeb Rubenfeld’s hypotheses about immigrant achievement is not only again, the very broad strokes they take for, in effect, negatively categorizing large categories of humanity in disparaging ways which is neither scientific nor uplifting, but they also place so much of the onus for underachievement on our communities rather than on the culturally chauvinistic and oppressive system of schooling that is more the norm than the exception.

Never mind Mexican Americans’ deep and very conflicted history with their struggles related to bilingual education, immigration, high-stakes testing, tracking, (hyper)segregation, school finance, and poverty, against a broader panorama of historical marginalization in politics, society, and the economy.  

 To psychologize Chicanos/as and Latinos/as, generally in a reductive manner commits the same symbolic violence that all of these systems and institutions mete out in a casual, normative manner that is unfortunately, the air that we so regularly breathe that it, too, becomes invisible—not only to those in power, but also to ourselves.


Do Chicanos Have an Inferiority Complex?



The etymology of Chicano is surrounded in mystery. I’ve seen its roots traced to Nahuatl, specifically to the term Mexica, as the people encountered by Hernán Cortéz and his soldiers conquering Tenochtitlán in the early quarter of the 16th century where known. In Spanish, the word is pronounced Meshika: the x functions as sh. Mexico, as a nation, opts to look at the Mexicas as their defining ancestors. Curiously, when first registering the name, the missionaries spelled it Méjico, with a j. It transitioned to an x when the country ceded from Spain, becoming independent in 1810.

In any case, Chicano might be an abbreviation of Mexicano, although Chicanos prefer to see themselves not as Mexico’s children but as its ancestors. According to legend, Aztlán, their Xanadu, located in either present-day northern Mexico or somewhere in the American Southwest, or maybe as far as Oregon, was the place where the Mexicans originated in their journey for a promised land, which they ultimately found in a region of five lakes where Mexico City was built. In their mythology, an eagle sitting on a rock in a lake, devouring a serpent—the symbol at the center of the Mexican flag—was a divine sign for them to settle there.

My research suggests that the original appearance of Chicano in print is traced to 1947, in a story by Mario Suárez published in Arizona Quarterly. I have also seen other etymologies for Chicano. The word acquired fresh currency in the sixties, during the civil-rights era. Some people spell it Xicano. (Curiously, I’ve never come across a Chicano calling himself Aztleño, meaning “dweller of Aztlán.”) On several occasions, I’ve seen the word connected with chicanery: according to Merriam-Webster, “deception by artful subterfuge or sophistry.” In this regard, the word suggests a double conscience, an idea—linked to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—that characterizes, broadly understood, the identity of minority people. Daniel Chacón has a collection of stories titled Chicano Chicanery (2000).

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Octavio Paz’s birth. Mexico’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Paz was an extraordinary hombre de letras: a poet, an essayist, a publisher, a diplomat, as well as “a philanthropic ogre,” a phrase he used in one of his numerous books to talk about the role of the state in modern society but which some of us, his admirers, prefer as a description of him. Paz’s ego was inflammatory: a true cosmopolitan, he was ready to devour you if you displayed any criticism of his oeuvre. In any case, arguably Paz’s most famous book is The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), a monograph about the Mexican psyche. Influence by Alfred Adler and other late psychoanalysts, Paz used his considerable intellectual talents to offer incisive opinions on his own country’s ethos.

The initial chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude is called “The Pachuco and Other Extremes.” Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, Paz lived in Los Angeles in the forties, where he was exposed to Mexican-American culture. Put succinctly, he found it appalling. Pachuco was a social type of youth: defiant, dressed up in a zoot suit with a hat, and embracing a distinct jargon. The ubiquitous comedian Tin Tan still personifies the pachuco. The best portrait I know of the era is Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit (1979), about the zoot-suit riots of 1943.

Anyway, Chicanos hate Paz. Thus it seems unlikely, to me at least, that they will celebrate his centennial. For they believe Paz misrepresented them. In Paz’s view, pachucos—e.g., a particular type of Chicano—suffered from an overabundance of culture. And, even more scandalously, they were overwhelmed by an inferiority complex.

Is Paz right? In other chapters, he describes Mexicans as also suffering from that complex. Bizarrely, among Mexicans he is an icon, whereas among Chicanos he is Satan.

A student of mine from Los Angeles asked me that question. She wondered if the etymology of Chicano, a word the younger generation hesitates to adopt (they call themselves Mexican-American), might come from chico, not taken as child but as small. My student called my attention to Presumed Incompetent (2012), a collection of academic essays edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., about the plight of working-class women of color in academe. My student identified with the sections on Chicanas.

The question she raised, I said, comes at a time when the baggage behind “the inferiority complex” is being reconceptualized. It used to be that an inferiority complex was a defect. Nowadays, things are different—especially in the context of the debate surrounding “the triple package.” The thesis, made by the wife and husband writers Amy Chua and Jeb Rubenfeld, is that certain immigrant minorities (Asians, Jews, Hindus, etc.), on the road to success, exhibit three characteristics: a superiority as well as an inferiority complex, plus traction to make it to the top. The issue, of course, is why some minority groups display this traction and not others.

I will leave the answer to psychologists. In any case, since ancestral times Mexicans—and I am one—have nurtured an inferiority complex. Chicanos do  too. Is the name Chicano pushing them down, making them small? Can it be turned into an engine of success?

It all boils down, my student said, to “the colonial mentality”: Chicanos feel inferior because they have been taught to feel that way. But Hindus were also subalterns of empire and, depending on the region, so were Asians. Not to mention Jews, whose plight as slaves in Egypt is recalled every year during the Passover Seder.

My response: Etymology isn’t fate. Actually, unless one consents, fate isn’t fate either. After all, having a double consciousness is better than having only one.

1 comment:

  1. Things are different because of the introduction of the "Triple Package?" How so? So we're suppose to have enough of an inferiority, but see this as a tool or means to strive to be feel superior in order to achieve? Is this the solution for us, as Mexican-Americans? There is something greater here than simply the overcoming of our inferiority complex so that we be part of the successful groups mentioned. How about a kind of outlook that can lead toward a larger level of human freedom and liberation? Head down the road where a sense of inferiority is but a trick and gimmick towards being driven and determined to succeed and you'll end up in front of endless therapy sessions and anti-depressants. There are other alternatives. Examine them.