MEXICAN AMERICAN/CHICANO LITERATURE
IS AMERICAN LITERATURE
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Ph.D. (Renaissance Studies/Chicano Studies)
Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy)
|1848 Mexican Cession|
This paper stresses that Mexican American/Chicano Literature is American Literature by discussing the exigencies that turned Mexicans into Mexican Americans per conquest and fiat as settlers in the territory of the Mexican Cession—525,000 square miles—the largest acquisition of land by the United States.
Mexican Americans are not Mexicans and Mexican American literature is not just simply an extension of Mexican literature. This is not to say there are no com-monalities or isotopic relation-ships between the two. For there are, just as there are commonalities between Ameri-cans and Britons and their literatures. The literature of Mexican Americans today is a literature of the United States, not of Mexico; just as the literature of Americans today is a literature of the United States, not of England—it is American literature. Like the roots of American literature, some of which lie in England, some of the roots of Mexican American literature lie in Mexico stretching back to pre-Columbian Mexico through the Mexican period (1821-1848) and the Spanish colonial period (1521-1821). After 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexican American cultural produc-tion became politically American just as the cultural production of Anglo Americans became politi-cally American after 1776.
Literature is not the product of a vacuum, nor is a literary text a divine inspiration as John Milton rhapsodized. Literature is work. It’s a strand in a bundle of strands that comprise human activity. As such it is engendered by factors in a complex matrix of cultural production. And equally complex factors determine a reader’s response to a text, depending on cultural affiliation or association. No one reader is privy to the reading of a text.
To understand a literature, a text, one must consider the backgrounds out of which a literature emerges. Writing is a cultural act surrounded and impacted by historical forces. What is written depends on the motivations of the writer. As readers and critics, we cannot accurately discern those motivations, we can only approximate them.
More to the point, however, is the question: What is Mexican American Literature? Simply, it’s literary production by Mexican Americans, literary production which before the Chicano era had been marginalized by the hegemonic forces of the American literary establishment and its minions.
Ortego, “Mexican American Literature: Reflections and a criticall Guide,”
Mexican American/Chicano literature is as American as apple pie. It draws its parentage from the homeland of Chicanos which now constitutes the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma, states that once were part of northern New Spain and identified as “the Mexican Cession”—that part of Mexican territory sundered by the United States as a booty of the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848) and ratified by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. All this by way of establishing the bona fides of Mexican Americans many of them now identifying themselves ideologically as Chicanos—a self- designation of protest, resistance, and opposition (see Ortego, “Forging a Literature of Opposition”). Terms of identity have become significant (see “Masks of Identity: The Space of Liminal Possibilities,” latinoopia.com/Bravo Road with Don Felipe, July 2017)
But they are Mexicans ethnically and Americans (U.S. citizens) politically and geographically. The conquest generation of Mexican Americans did not cross a border to abide in the territory they lived in; the border crossed them. Many of their families settled in that territory from the time of Spanish exploration and subsequent settlement with the growth of population spanning almost three centu-ries before the U.S.-Mexico War. To think of them as immigrants is historically erroneous. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo clearly bestows American citizenship upon those inhabitants of the Mexican Cession who chose to stay with the territory of the Mexican Cession. Those who chose not to stay moved into the newly designated though restricted space of Mexico as Mexican citizens.
Unfortunately there is no accurate count of the Mexicans who remained within the territory of the Mexican Cession. Jingoist American historians claim the territory was wild and inhabited only by renegade and uncontrollable Indians. This was the message of Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 Frontier Thesis arguing that the growth of the United States was its “westering tradition” that tamed the wild and uninhabited west. This vision lost track of the theretofore population centers of San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterrey, San Francisco, the San Luis Valley of Colorado and the hundreds of smaller settlements that dotted the landscape between these larger population centers. Fantasy histories of the Mexican Cession rise to the risible. More likely estimates by Chicano historians and demographers suggest a population of 3 million including indigenous populations.
It would be an egregious error to conclude that Mexican Americans were passive in defending themselves against Anglo American aggression and discrimination. In New Mexico they struck for better wages and working conditions, they formed private and parochial schools to overcome the deplorable education offered them, to protect themselves from violent oppression they organized Las Gorras Blancas for vigilance regarded by whites as marauders.
Admittedly the population growth of Mexican America had to include a migration stream of minimal density from Mexico to the United States much like the migration stream of “return” by Palestinians to their biblical homeland. The population growth of Mexican Americans to the current 40 million is not due solely to the fertility and motility of the conquest generation. Three factors have spurred that growth: (1) the migration stream of minimal density, (2) the million and a half Mexicans who fled north from Mexico to the United States during the destabilization of Mexico and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1921, (3) the million Braceros who harvested American crops during World War II from 1942 to 1962 form the basis for the 40 million Mexican Americans in the current census count. In that 60 million total count of Hispanics and Latinos in the 2010 Census two-thirds (40 million) are Mexican Americans. That is not a trifling figure. Yet they are the least publicly visible in the media, politics, and education. In the public schools of the states of the Mexican Cession they are the largest demographic group being taught by the standards of the colonial curriculum, denied information and knowledge about their history, culture and language (see Ortego “Montezuma’s Children”). In this regard, laws in states like Arizona and Texas have been unduly harsh and apodictic comparable to what I have called “the Mexican Dixon Line.” Recently, however, there has been a break in the hardline stance of the Texas State Board of Education in not approving a Mexican American Studies course for Texas schools. The course was finally approved to the cheers of Texas Mexican Ameri-cans. The course has been too long in the offing, especially in Texas. In Arizona a federal judge ruled that banning Mexican American Studies in the state was unconstitutional and that, moreover it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. This victory was the result of concerted efforts by Mexican Americans everywhere but certainly in Arizona and texas with Librostraficantes—a book-smuggling operation to take banned books into Arizona where they have been forbidden by a state imprimatur.
Vis-à-vis harsh and apodictic laws, in 2010 I wrote:
There’s a nativist streak in the American psyche that emerges periodically to unravel the constitutional gains of American society, moving the nation more to the right—in a sort of dance macabre of the American national zeitgeist; in other words: something akin to an American Nazi Party (with the word “Nazi” being short for “National”). What has kept this Nazi zeitgeist at bay has been the vigilance of Americans working to create “a more perfect union,” committed to the preservation and process of democracy as articulated in the American Constitution. What is little cogitated is that democracy is a process.
Ortego, “Arizona Goes Bonkers.”
This brouhaha erupted over the context of the instructional materials in the Mexican American Studies courses in the Tucson Independent School District. Both the Superintendent of the Tucson School District and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction proclaimed that the material was inflammatory and harkened sedition and insurrection. In toto it was thoroughly un-American.
Nonsense! The aim of Mexican American Studies was and is to acquaint students (principally Mexican American students) with the history of Mexican America as detailed in the preceding section. In the summer of 1969 at the request of Louis Bransford, Director of the fledgling Chicano Studies Program I developed a course on Mexican American/Chicano Literature at the University of New Mexico (Ortego, 2007). I was a Teaching Fellow in the Department of English finishing up the Ph.D, in English. It was the first such course in the country.
Research for the course led to my dissertation on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (1971) first study in the field and to the essay on “The Chicano Renaissance” published in Social Casework, May 1971. The article attracted considerable attention immediately, and is considered a seminal essay in the field—it has been included in a number of readers and anthologies, though surprisingly the piece was ahead of the curve of the Chicano Renaissance though no journal of English accepted it for publication.
Recently, as a guest panelist for the Western New Mexico University MEChA (Chicano Student Organization) Forum on the Status of Education for Chicanos, I mentioned in my commentary that my PhD dissertation was on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature at the University of New Mexico in 1971, first study in the field. It occurred to me to explain why I chose that topic. Easy! Because no one else had and I wanted to quaff my ignorance.
I was 40 years old when that revelation hit me. There I was a Mexican American knowledgeable about British and American literature with a respectable bibliography in the field but totally bereft about Mexican American literature--I had studied Mexican literature.
Ahem! Mexican literature is not Mexican American literature (Ortego, “Mexicans and Mexican Americans: Prolegomenon to a Literary Perspective”). Therein lies the rub! During 123 years since the U.S. War against Mexico (1848-1971) why had no history of Mexican American Literature been undertaken? Bits and pieces had been penned by various Mexican American scholars but no “grand sweep” had appeared. That lacunae was and still remains a mystery.
As a population, the assimilation rate for New Mexico Mexican Americans grew apace, the traditional ways held sway, The English language and American mores inched along depending on the strength of the Anglo-Hispanic contact. In the main the two cultures did not coalesce—no assimilation though acculturation had established a toe-hold. Anglos saw Mexican Americans as a mongrel race; Mexican Americans saw Anglos as uncouth and boisterous. Anglos called them Greasers. Mexican Americans called themselves Hispanos. By mid-20th century the American Census referred to them as Hispanics.
Despite the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo Mexican Americans were not welcomed nor wanted. They were outrightly caricatured and demonized.
In 1856, W.W. H. Davis, United States Attorney for the state of New Mexico wrote a propos of his expe-riences with Mexican Americans that “they possess the cunning and deceit of the Indian, the politeness and the spirit of revenge of the Spaniard, and the imaginative temperament and fiery impulses of the Moor.” He describes them as smart and quick but lacking the “stability and character and soundness of intellect that give such vast superiority to the Anglo-Saxon race over every other people.” He ascribed to them the “cruelty, bigotry, and superstition” of t he Spaniard, a marked characteristic from earliest times. Moreover, he saw these traits as “constitutional and innate in the race.” In a moment of kindness, though, Davis suggested that the fault lay no doubt on their “spiritual teachers,” the Spaniards, who never taught them that beautiful doctrine which teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Ortego, Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, pp 68-69.
This was the opening salvo for Mexicans now Americans confronting a new language, a new politi-cal system, and a new modus of education. What they faced would turn Odysseus pallid. But it was what it was—obstacles to be surmounted—a sort of Navy Seal crash course for Demi Moore as G.I. Jane. Through thick and thin Mexican Americans have shown their mettle and survived. And like Joaquin in Corky Gonzalez’s poem: W shall survive! No! We will survive!
Crux of the Struggle
More to the point, during my Ph.D. studies I was developing a field-theory of literature by which I could compare literary production by genre across the globe. That’s when periodization of Mexican American literature dawned on me (see Periodizaton Chart) and enabled me to see the historical sweep and development of Mexican American literature.
What became apparent was that the literary tradition of the Conquest Generation changed little during the period from 1848 to 1912, the year New Mexico acquired status as a state (64 yeas). Just as it had before the U.S.-Mexico War, Mexican American poetry abounded in the newly reshaped Mexican American homeland—identified later by Chicanos as “Aztlan” (mythical homeland of the Aztecs). Hispanos kept diaries; maintained assiduous correspondence with geographically distant friends and family, established community newspapers, wrote tracts, memoirs, and plays with regular performances. All the while they maintained and preserved the historic texts. There was no lull of intellection. They were becoming bilingual, holding on tenaciously to their culture and language. In the process, the inevitable cross-fertilization of English and Spanish gained ground to the consternation of linguistic purists who dubbed that emerging patois as Spanglish, little realizing the historical linguistic phenomenon taking place, unaware that many languages are the product of linguistic blending—English, Spanish, French, Italian. Unaware of these auguries, Mexican Ameri-cans had no prescience that their lexo-cultural experiences would become foundational features of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.
The Chicano Movement began long before 1960. It started the day Father Martinez of Taos, New Mexico, railed against the American invasion of northern New Spain (Mexico) which came to be known as the Mexican American War—in reality the American War against Mexico—President Polk caterwauling about aggressive Mexican trespass onto American soil at Brownsville, Texas—a trumped up ploy disguised to cloak the long simmering ambitions of the United States to secure by fair or foul the Mexican land mass that became known as the Mexican Cession—more than half of Mexico territory seized as a prize of war.
Treachery, treason, and temor on both sides carried the day for American victory in the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848). The American villain of the piece was President Polk. The Mexican villain of the piece was Santa Anna who headed the Mexican government on 11 occasions as Mexico's president, four times before becoming a military-backed dictator. Santa Anna accepted $15 million dollars and agreed to settle all claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico. In 1853 the United States negotiated the Gadsden Purchas for $10 million extending the U.S.-Mexico boundary line to its present southern site. This extension included the people living on the Gadsen Purchase. Again, as in the Mexican Cession there are no real figures as to the size of the population. All the statistics are guesstimates.
If “Spain in America is a more substantial subject than England in America as the historian Charles Gibson commented, then it stands to reason that the “substantial” population of the Mexican Cession plus the population of the Gadsen Treaty would include more than weavers, hunters, and gatherers. The fruits of the golden Age of Spain reached every corner of Spanish settle-ments. All knew who Juana Inez de la Cruz was.
In terms of literary output, Spain in America is indeed a substantial subject. That substantialization was everywhere present in New Spain and its northern frontier and was everywhere present in those frontier settlements when Spain in America became the Independent Republic of Mexico.
Most of the literature of this period consists of memorials, reports, and correspondence. Old folk plays like Los Pastores were produced regularly in town squares. Poets read their works and the works of established Spanish poets in selected areas of marketplaces. Cuentos (stories) were popular but not novels or tales of wizardry banned by Spanish imprimatur as outrageous and salacious. Here and there literary bent gave rise to newspaper publishing. Father Jose Antonio Martinez, Curate of Taos, for example, published the newspaper El Crepusculo (the Dawn), the first newspaper in New Mexico as a forum for dissent (North From Mexico, 118).
More contemporary plays by the Mexican playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcon reflected the conscious-ness of new-worldness, according to Anderson Imbert (130) 22, infused with a colonial Mexican character reflecting the new society. Though Mexican Americans strove to become part of the Ameri-can mainstream in their own way they were nevertheless regarded with disdain by a sizeable segment of the Anglo American population crowding the territory of the Mexican Cession. Inevitably Mexican Americans were becoming strangers in their own land. Statehood did not buoy their aspirations. Mounting racial antagonism led to the creation of the Alianza Hispano-Americana in 1895 some 10 years before the creation of the NAACP—so much for the proposition of Hispanics riding the coattails of African Americans.
Major public figures of the time included the New Mexican folklorist Aurelio Espinosa, Napolean Vallejo and his father Mariano Vallejo, last Mexican Governor of California. Miguel Antonio Otero was the 16th Governor of New Mexico Territory from 1897 to 1906 appointed by President McKinley and in later life the author of several books on Western lore, among them The Real Billy the Kid. In 1916 a collection of Vicente Bernal’s poetry, Las Primicias (First Fruits) was published to rave reviews about Bernal’s command of the English language dubbing him a man of “double portions” as a bilingual Hispano.
But all was not serene in El Dorado. By 1912 Mexican American communities along the U.S.-Mexico border had trebled—shades of future portents. El Paso, Texas became the gateway to the American Midwest—especially Chicago which today has a Mexican American population of some 400,000 pressed in the Pilson Area once a predominant Middle-European neighborhood.
Creating a literature of Opposition
Invariably social and political dissatisfaction leads to a rupture prompting some physical action intended to remedy the aggravation. Most often that remedy engenders political results that may or may not resolve the aggravation but allays momentarily the inconsequential results of the unsatis-factory remedy.
This was the ponderable situation of Mexican Americans in post-World War II America. Of the 16 million American men and women in the armed forces during the war (1941-1946) Between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans (mostly Mexican Americans) served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, out of a total of 12,000,000, constituting 2.3% to 4.7% of the U.S. Armed Forces. The exact number is unknown since, at the time, Hispanics were not tabulated separately, but were generally included in the white population census count. They fought in every major American battle of the war as marines, airmen, soldiers (including WAACS) and sailors (including WAVES) earning more medals of honor than any other ethnic group. Mexican Americans served in the American armed forces during World War II despite their progenic status as a conquered people in an internal colony of the United States (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hispanic_Americans_ in_World_ War_II).
Essentially, Marvin Lewis is correct when he explains that Chicano literature “did not evolve in a vacuum.” It does represent, as he points out, “the culmination of cultural dynamics that have been in force on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for many decades”—a clear progression from Mexican (1848-1912) to Mexican American (1912-1966) to Chicano literature (1966 to the future).
The emergence of Chicano literature in the 1960’s was a response to the domination of Chicanos by the centers of political powers in the states. Chicano literature was excluded from the American literary canon. A homologous fracture between exclusion and selection in the American literary canon depreciated the value of certain texts because they were produced by outcast groups like African Americans, women, Chicanos, and other minorities.
In 1966 a group of Mexican Americans from the periphery (the Quinto Sol Writers) chose to define themselves as Chicanos in the presence of an already established image of them from the center. By that act, Chicano literature sprang into being as a literature of opposition, determining its stance in terms of its distance from the center, staying clear of the center’s destructive gravity and its ontology of domination. Such an affirmation was, in fact, a statement of renewal—thus, “the Chicano renaissance.”
Ortego, “Forging a Literature of Opposition”
I agree now as I did then with Walter Ong that most Americans “share a highly standardized culture” (3). Indeed as Americans we all share a common base of culture under-pinned by shared technologies. In my youth there were differences, of course, between the various ethnic groups. While tortillas were a staple in our house during the period I was growing up in the United States, tortillas were not staples in non-Mexican American households. My mother made them at home; today I buy them at the supermarket and “everybody” eats tortillas. Although now I also eat bagels and various kinds of breads that in my youth we regarded as Gringo food. The remains of traditional Mexican culture in the lives of many Mexican Americans are now only memories as technology and shared space homogenize all of us. To be sure, there are still differences. I continue to speak Spanish though my children don’t. Today the things that make me “Mexican” and American are more subtle than they once were. Only physiognomy identifies me as a child of blended Indian and Spanish genes. Many Mexican Americans look like the rest of dominant America and are not perceived as Mexican Americans.
The most prickly consideration anent American literature raised by Walter Ong’s essay is that “one cannot teach everything” (6). Why not? We just need to make space for the literatures of the others. Who says that in teaching American literature we need to read ad infinitum the words of Sarah Kemble Knight’s journey to New York?There is much in the presentation of American literature that we can whittle down to make room for other American literatures, including Chicano literature as part and parcel of American literature rather than as something foreign. Per the dictum of the Latin dramatist Terence: “homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am human; nothing human is foreign to me”).
The 1970 edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature included no Chicanos. It was to be another 20 years before a Chicano writer made it into the Norton. As concluded in Searching for America in 1973 and as is still the case today, the absence of Chicano writers in such widely used anthologies of American literature perpetuates the distortions that have rendered Chicano and minority writers invisible. The one anthology that has made progress with inclusivity is the Heath Anthology of American Literature edited by Paul Lauter and which includes Hispanics on its editorial board.
There is, unfortunately, condescension in Walter Ong’s Introduction. His imploration for inclusion of Chicano writers in American literature is prompted with expressions of validation based on improving the well-being of the body Americana rather than calling attention to the agency of literary value in minority and Chicano literatures. He does say, however: A minority literature often negotiates for its own identity with the majority culture and constantly redefines itself, ultimately bringing the majority culture to define itself more adequately, too. (3).
As it was in the beginning, this is the stance of Chicano writers today.
Works Cited and Consulted
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Ong, Walter, “Introduction to Three American Literatures,“ Edited by Houston Baker, Modern Language Association, 1982.
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Posted on Educational Equity, Politics, and Policy in Texas, March 2, 2012.
Posted on TLAKATE KATL, March 7, 2012.
Posted on Somos Primos, April 2012
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Ph.D. (Renaissance Studies/Chicano Studies)
Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy)
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English (Retired), Texas State University System—Sul Ross
Western New Mexico University, Miller Library, 1000 College Ave, PO Box 680
Silver City, New Mexico 88062, Branches: Gallup, Deming, Lordsburg & Web
O: 575-538-6410, F: 575-538-6178, C: 575-956-5541, e-mail: Philip.Ortego@wnmu.edu
Recipient: 2009 NACCS-Tejas Foco, Letras de Aztlan Award
Recipient: 2018 NACCS-Tejas Foco, Estrella de Aztlan Lifetime Achievement Award
Recipient: 1997 Distinguished Faculty Award, Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education
Recipient, Presidio La Bahia Award for Best Book on Spanish Colonial Period of Texas
Lilly Fellow, Community Leadership. National Association for Community Leadership
Senior Fulbright Scholar in American Studies, Universiry of Rosario, Argentina
Post-Doctoral Study, Management, Graduate School of Business, Columbia University
Chairman Emeritus, The Hispanic Foundation, Washington, DC
Member Emeriti, Texas and New Mexico Humanities Councils
Consultant, U.S. Trade Representative, Executive Office of the President of the United States
Chairman, Image/White House Commission on Ststus of Hispanics in the Department of Defense
Lead writer and Director, Title III HSI $1.7 Million program, Texas Sate University-Sul Ross
Alum: University of Pittsburgh (1952), University of Texas (1966), University of New Mexico (1971)Veteran: Sgt. USMC, WW II (Pacific/China) / Maj. (Res) USAF (Europe/Korean Conflict Early Vietnam Era