On This Thin Edge of Barbwire:
Searching for the Wound in Chican@ Literature
A Capstone Project submitted to the Faculty of The Graduate Program in Liberal Studies and of The College of Arts and Sciences in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Liberal Studies
By Jenna Kotarides
Loyola University Maryland
May 1, 2016
The emerging canon of Chican@ literature is saturated with violent collisions of culture. Such conflict reflects a persistent and aching duality of being that characterizes the Chican@. While American by birth, Chican@s suffer from feeling being misplaced and yet are unable to return to their rightful place. This inability is the result of the actions of both Mexican and American power structures, which stripped many citizens of their Mexican identity and reclassified them as Americans with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
While the former Mexican citizens were given the option of choosing their citizenship, the majority, especially those living along the pre-treaty border, chose to claim the United States as their new homeland. Certainly citizenship claims in either country would have been accompanied by challenges; however, the resultant outcomes in claiming U.S. citizenship could not have been fully anticipated by those former Mexican citizens. Chican@ historian Juan Gómez Quiñones explains that when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed the U.S “was a society of endemic violence, exuberantly obsessed with expansion, power and profit…[had] a set of self-righteous myths concerning its origins, destiny, ethos, governance and economy, and providing ideological rationalization for the way it was. It was also a deeply racist, discriminatory society” (27). More than simply creating a new border along the Rio Grande River, the treaty “created a Mexican-American minority in the United States” (Paredes 25). For these citizens, their minority status violently pushed them into the margins of North American society. Nowhere was this more apparent than in those states that bordered Mexico.
In his book Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Bordercultural historian Américo Paredes dives into the consequences of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He states, “A very well-defined geographic feature—the Rio Grande itself—became the international line. And it was a line that cut right through Nuevo Santander. The river once a focus of regional life became a symbol of separation” (25). While the treaty was certainly intended to have geographic consequences, the outcome of its implementation extended beyond the bounds of place and into the souls of the newly minted Americans. The fact that “When the Rio Grande became a border, friends and relatives who had been near neighbors…now were legally in different countries” (Paredes 26) was difficult enough; however, the separation became compounded by the fact that “the Spanish language was perceived by Anglos as the tongue of a barbaric empire (Stavans 359). Though these formerly Mexican citizens were technically at home in the United States, they could not have felt more like strangers if they were dropped into a country half-way across the world.
As history moved further away from the treaty’s implementation, the wounds suffered from being uprooted and placed into a hostile environment did not. In fact, the wounds festered, and even as a new generation was born on U.S. soil and the treaty ceased to be part of their physical history, these individuals, these Chican@s, again, suffered wounds. It is this ceaseless hurt that Chicana theorist and poet, Gloria Anzaldúa, explores in her pivotal work Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.Anzaldúa, a sixth-generation Chicana, outlines the constant state of unrest that comes from living on the border. Joan Pinkvoss explains the nature of physical geographic boundaries in her note on Anzaldúa’s work, “Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (19). Anzaldúa certainly acknowledges the physical nature of boundaries; however, she is most concerned with the somewhat-hard-to-define socio-emotional components of living on the border. She writes, “The borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants” (25). For Anzaldúa, despite over one-hundred years having passed since the implementation of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the pain still resides on the physical border and beyond.
Anzaldúa opens her work defining the border, specifically the emotional border. She writes “The U.S.-Mexican border una herida abiertawhere the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of the two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture” (25). The continual hemorrhaging is a crucial component to her theory of border culture--a culture without a home. Paredes reflects on this feeling of dislocation that occurred when the treaty was recent history writing that “the Mexican immigrant’s sense of continuing to ‘pass through’ after twenty years or more of residence in the United States contributed to his problems, since he remained a perennial visitor in a foreign country, without exercising the rights and duties of citizenship” (11). The Chican@’s marginalization at the hand of the dominant Anglo culture did not allow for complete assimilation and thus Chican@s struggled to feel connected to their homeland. This disconnected feeling persisted, and, as time progressed and successive generations were born into this culture astride two worlds, the feeling endured. Cultural commentator, Ilan Stavans reflects on how younger generations, several times removed from the treaty, dealt with their dislocation. He writes, “pachucodelineated the parameter of their minority culture by stressing their ambivalence—neither Mexican nor American, they belonged to an imagined community that straddled two cultural and linguistic worlds” (366). The consistent and continual hostility experienced by these damaged people results, as Anzaldua explains, in the formation of a new ethos—the Chican@ culture.
Language is fundamental to any culture and the identity of the people that comprise that culture. One of the first and most traumatic experiences that the first Mexicans morphing into Americans would undergo is being stripped of their language. The United States saw itself as a country defined by its English-tongue and was unwilling to reconfigure its way of thinking. Children were prohibited from speaking Spanish in schools only to return home to parents who did not speak English. Beyond putting these children at a distinct academic disadvantage, prohibiting their familial tongue layered shame upon their already complicated lives. Anzaldúa addresses the nature of language with respect to the Chican@s in Borderlands quoting Ray Gwin Smith, “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war” (75). One impact of imposing the English language on the Chican@ people, while robbing them of their Spanish language, a form of ethnicide, was that “they drew Border communities ever closer together than they had been, though at that time they were beginning to disintegrate under the impact of new conditions (Paredes 32). Consequently, as the communities became closer and the younger generations introduced what English they knew into a primarily Spanish-speaking community, a new border speech formed. Made up of words in both languages and words newly minted, Chican@s experienced both empowerment and shame. Anzaldúa explains, “Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally…Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language….a language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English. It is a secret language” (77-8). Criticized for a lack of Spanish proficiency by their Mexican ancestors and a lack of English proficiency from the Anglo community, this new border tongue, while something of value to the border community, resulted in feelings of inadequacy.
Anzaldúa relates her own personal experience with language, one that is familiar to many people living on the border. She reflects, “mortified that I spoke English like a Mexican. At Pan American University, I, and all Chicano students were required to take two speech classes. The purpose: to get rid of our accents” (76). Such experiences compound the struggle of having to live between two cultures. One is constantly under attack from the self. In this instance, the Chican@’s Mexican self is under attack for the traces of the Spanish tongue present in its speech. The American self is under attack because its English is not English enough. Some variation of this situation defines much of the Chican@’s life.
Anzaldúa claims that “This dichotomy is the root of all violence” (59). Much of the violence in Chican@ culture is directed at the self and it is in this violence toward the self that the wound continues to fester. Because the Chican@s are so marginalized, they are unable to exact the violence that comes from frustration and shame onto anyone but themselves. Anzaldúa acknowledges this phenomenon noting that “The infusion of the values of the white culture, coupled with the exploitation by that culture, is changing the Mexican way of life” (32). It is important to note that Anzaldúa uses the term Mexican to represent one of Mexican heritage not one’s country of citizenship. She writes, “Being Mexican is a state of the soul” (84). But the Mexican soul is one that is in peril. The violence, both direct and indirect, sustains the conditions for continual wounding. Evidence for una herida abiertais abundant in the Chican@ literature of the past 130 years. The resulting wounds of this violence as communicated by Chican@ writers manifest themselves into a lack of power marked by frustration and restlessness, an unending quest that leads to self-loathing and shame, as well as a spiritual famine.
Lack of Power: Frustration and Restlessness
Despite being entitled to access to power by nature of their humanity and of being American, Chican@s are denied said power by both the tangible and intangible forces enacted by the Anglo world. By the nature of the forces of marginalization, Chican@s become a distinct being separate from the hegemonic society in which they live. Cultural historian Quiñones explains that these hybrid people “are a separate economic sector, a community that receives disparate treatment….They are socialized both internally, or within the group, and by the dominant society” (1). It is through the Chican@s continued observation, from the outside, of the Anglo society that their desire to engage with multiple components of power grows. Desire to change personally as well as to produce change on a grander scale characterizes much of Chican@ identity. What, as well, shapes that identity is the failure to achieve whatever is needed to create that desired change. Uncharacteristic of this group is the tendency to relinquish their desire, so when change is not established, the predisposition of the Chican@ is to try harder. The repeated action to gain access to power results in a palpable sense of frustration and restlessness that comes to define this community.
The characters that inhabit the worlds created by Chican@ writers are clearly marked by the overwhelmingly disappointing factors that shape their lives. While some maintain a level of optimism about their future, others, degraded by their position within the society, are marked by the bleakness of their outlook on the future. In Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Pilgrims in Aztlánby Miguel Méndez, andPocho by José Antonio Villarreal characters are tarnished as a result of having their power, of which they had very little to begin, stripped from them. Anzaldúa’s description of what one experiences when living on the border is mirrored in the lives of these novelists’ characters. She writes that living on the border comes with “a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. Or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where [they] kick [their] heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen” (94). These characters living with the desire for power that they cannot seem to obtain are akin to living with an itch that cannot be scratched. Their lives are marked by a maddening hunt for a thing that cannot be found.
Bless Me, Ultima—Rudolfo Anaya
Born and raised in Pastura, New Mexico, Rudolfo Anaya lived a life straddling two cultures. His father, speaking only minimal English, and his mother speaking none, raised Anaya and his siblings in a Spanish-speaking household. It was not until he entered primary school that he was introduced to the English language. As he navigated the transition between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking spheres, so did he navigate the tension between the ways of being that defined his parents’ early life experiences. Anaya’s mother, Raphaelita Mares, had been raised in a farming family whereas his father, Martin Anaya, lived, in his younger days, as a vaquero. The tension between stationary and mobile backgrounds undoubtedly created some pressure on the young Anaya as to his own future. A diving accident in high school left Anaya bedridden for quite a while and gave him long stretches of time to observe not only the pain that existed in his own family but the hurt experienced by members of his community. Seeing so many of his peers caught between the changing world and their parents’ world rooted in the past compelled Anaya to write about their experiences. Enrolling at the University of New Mexico in 1958, Anaya diligently studied Anglo-American literature written in English when very few Chican@ students were dedicating themselves to the subject and there were no Chican@ professors teaching the subject. This dearth of Chican@ authors both young and old drove Anaya to dedicate himself to creating the stories of his people.
Anaya’s first published work, Bless Me, Ultimawas issued in 1972 and has been lauded as a pivotal work of Chican@ literature. Admittedly Anaya’s protagonist, Antonio Marez y Luna, is shaped by Anaya’s experiences growing up in spaces dominated by conflict. In a 2007 interview with Dan Stone from the National Endowment for the Arts, Anaya explains that “Antonio has that big internal conflict that has to do with family roots.” Coming of age at the end of World War II, Antonio’s older brothers return from the war broken by what they have experienced, while Mr. Marez, Gabriel, is broken by the fact that he cannot protect nor heal his children. A former vaquero, Gabriel Marez, settles on the llanowith his wife, Maria, and their six children. Trapped in a relatively mundane world working on a highway crew, Gabriel is defined by his anger and his emasculation at the hands of a changing world. His desire for freedom is displaced onto Antonio. Gabriel would like to see Antonio leave the llano in search of adventure, while Maria, from a farming legacy, would like to see him become a priest. This conflicting vision for his future shapes Antonio into the man that he will become.
Gabriel Marez is marked by his frustration and his restlessness. Having lived the early part of his life as a vaquero, he desires nothing more than to return to a life of freedom and adventure on the plains. His overwhelming longing for liberty is his most defining characteristic. Changing methods of food production and privatization of cattle ranches forces Gabriel and men like him to settle in one place and adopt professions based on what is available to them. Thus Gabriel’s freedom is stripped from him. Gabriel explains his transition from vaquero to highway worker to Antonio. He explains:
Then the railroad came. The barbed wire came. The songs, the corridos became sad, and the meeting of the people from Texas with my forefathers was full of blood, murder, and tragedy. The people were uprooted. They looked around one day and found themselves closed in. The freedom of land and sky they had known was gone. Those people could not lie without freedom, and so they packed up and moved west. They became migrants (125).
Gabriel has, in essence, become a historical figure not fit for the modern world. Gabriel comes to be understood by his longing.
While Gabriel chooses a home in Guadalupe over becoming a migrant, he does become an emotional migrant in that he searches for inner peace while simultaneously craving the outer adventure that shaped his early years. A condition such as Gabriel’s condition has been defined by cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa as “living in a state of psychic unrest, a Borderland” (95). Gabriel, in this borderland, cannot bring his inner world and outer world together. The eldest Marez is bitter that his freedom has been taken from him and cannot find a way to fulfill that desire for adventure. There is simply a lack of options for him and the multitudes of Chican@s like him. Because of this frustration and the restlessness that a lack of desirable options creates, Gabriel takes to profuse consumption of alcohol. In fact, Antonio, in his narration, mentions his father’s drinking many times. Anzaldúa again helps to understand this. She discusses the preponderance of addictive behaviors, particularly drinking among Chican@s. She writes, “An addiction (a repetitious act) is a ritual to help one through a trying time; its repetition safeguards the passage, it becomes one’s talisman, one’s touchstone. If it sticks around after having outlived its usefulness, we become ‘stuck’ in it and it takes possession of us….Some past experience or condition has created this need” (68). Gabriel drinks because there is no other method of escape available to him.
Gabriel’s psychic unrest does not just simply live within him; it is passed down to his children both through his own interactions with them and through their conflicted existence living on the llano. Antonio relates his father’s behavior:
The war had taken his three sons and it had made him bitter. He often got drunk on Saturday afternoons and then he would rave against old age. He would rage against the town on the opposite side of the river which drained a man of his freedom, and he would cry because the war had ruined his dream. It was very sad to see my father cry, but I understood it, because sometimes a man has to cry. Even if he is a man. (14-5)
This same feeling is experienced by Antonio’s older brothers, Eugene and León, who return from the war feeling lost and depressed. Their return to the llano has these two young men feeling trapped and they leave shortly after their return without their father. Andrew, Antonio’s other brother, stays on the llano; however, he quickly self-destructs. Andrew frequently drinks and makes daily sojourns to visit Guadalupe’s brothel. More than his brothers, Andrew is trapped. Antonio tells readers, “Father says that the town steals our freedom….his forefathers were men of the sea, the Márez people, they were conquistadors, men whose freedom was unbounded” (25). Life on the llano acts as a cage.
Like his brothers, Antonio, too, experiences this psychic unrest as he is pulled in different directions by his parents’ conflicting desires for him. Antonio explains his struggle:
it is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting—They are quiet like the moon—And it is the blood of the Marez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name and the spaces of the llano that have become their home…Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose (41).
This clash Antonio experiences is not uncharacteristic for the Chican@; they are familiar with being torn between poles. Anzaldúa explains this phenomena as it pertains to la mestiza, a woman of Spanish and Native American origins; however, this condition is not exclusive to the female gender. Antonio, as well, experiences being “a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another” (100). In choosing the path he will take, Antonio will demonstrate the preference of one parent’s values over the other’s. He explains, “I yearned for
knowledge and understanding….I wanted to be a good son, but the dreams of my mother were the opposite the wishes of my father. She wanted a priest to watch over the farmers of the valley; he wanted a son to travel with him to the vineyards of California” (74). Antonio’s life dictates that he cannot simultaneously live in both worlds.
Pilgrims in Aztlán—Miguel Méndez
While Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima provides some level of hope with regards to Antonio’s future, the novel, Pilgrims in Aztlán,by Miguel Méndez does not. Born in an Arizona border town in the 1930s, Méndez returned to Mexico with his parents as a young child when the U.S. government, despite their U.S. citizenship, urged people of Mexican descent to return to Mexico during the Great Depression. Leaving school after fifth grade to help his father farm, a lover of literature, Méndez continued to read under his mother’s tutelage despite ceasing his formal education. In the 1960s while working in construction and bricklaying, Méndez published his first writings in Spanish. While Méndez had gained a mastery of the English language, he chose to pen his narratives exclusively in Spanish. In the mid-1970s, he began teaching at the University of Arizona after a few years tenure at a local community college. Eventually he earned an honorary degree as a Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Arizona in 1984.
Pilgrims in Aztlánis told primarily through the eyes of one of the novel’s protagonists or ‘pilgrims’. This is one of the roles accomplished by Loreto Maldonado. In a winding narrative pattern, readers meet a plethora of demoralized individuals living on the Mexican-American border. Taking place during the Vietnam War, Pilgrims in Aztlán, features characters in a variety of life stages. What they share is their nearly impossible plight to carve out a space worthy of human existence in the border region of the United States. What collectively keeps this multitude of individuals from achieving what they seek is their Mexican selves. Darker than Bless Me, Ultima, Pilgrims in Aztlán is nearly devoid of the type of optimism for the future that features prominently in Anaya’s novel.
Loreto Maldonado is an 80-year-old YaquiIndian and former revolutionary who fought years earlier against the regime of Porfirio Diaz. Loreto’s life has been reduced to finding a way to wash enough cars to earn what is needed in order not to starve. His intense frustration comes in trying to maintain his dignity in nearly impossible conditions. Méndez writes, “The old man refused to give up his concept of honor which was in direct conflict with his chronic hunger, and his subsistence became more problematical each day” (22). Despite his knowing that he has in effect done nothing wrong, Loreto and many of the other characters in this novel are plagued by the queries that ask what they did to get to such a degraded place in their lives. Loreto “was reviewing his experiences insistently, as though looking for the error that by some accident had altered things, transforming what could have been sublime into something ridiculous and absurd” (24). This search for answers leaves Loreto dejected and with “the complicated need to arrange his memories in a chronological order [which are] of no use to him. He live[s] with his soul turned like a telescope toward the living things of the past” (8). Loreto’s frustration and the frustration of people like him comes from the inability to find a reason for their degradation.
Likewise, frustration is a resultant sentiment that comes from feeling that one has been tricked. Believing that the U.S. will offer them opportunity, these characters learn through a series of repeated humiliations that opportunity abounds for others but not for them. Loreto comments that “our fucking illusions were what had us there, good and tight” (53). These illusions are created by the illusionist, a nebulous figure, representing the United States. From these unrealized, failed promises comes frustration that turns into anger. When finding someone or something to blame for their fury, the Chican@s find that there is resentment not only against what the United States has promised, but what Mexico has pushed them into. Here the tension
between being both Mexican and American is compounded. Méndez writes, “Mexican to shove you down in the dirt, in the mines, to fuck you over more. American just so they can sign you up to fight in their dirty wars” (20-1). Loreto is without a home, without a refuge of safety. He is, in Anzaldúa’s words, one of many “refugees in a homeland that does not want them many find a welcome hand holding out only suffering, pain, and ignoble death” (Anzaldúa 34). There is no opportunity; there is no future.
This experience extends beyond the experience of the Yaqui Loreto’s experience. Other pilgrims in the United States suffer the same trickery and have the same questions as he. One pilgrim is forced to respond to an inquiry from his son:
“Like the slaves, Papá”
“That is what we are, my son.”
“For how long, daddy?”
“Until life no longer means anything to us” (170).
Likewise, this debased philosophy is shared by Malquerida, literally, The Detested One, another one of the crestfallen pilgrims. Brought to the U.S. by the promise of a better future, she is sold into prostitution. Sadly, she is one of many who meet a similar fate. She tells Loreto:
how many fallen women there are….All of us were deceived as young girls….we were all brought here by deceit, just to exploit us like animals. All that business about the long suffering andself-sacrificing woman, the soldier’s trusty helpmate, Mother’s Day. Forget it, it’s all a bunch of baloney. Millions of dollars, and all we get is syphilis and gonorrhea” (46).
These individuals find that despite sacrificing their values and their safety that is all for naught. What they believed would be their reward was never available to them in the first place.
Pilgrims in Aztlánhighlights the frustration that Chican@s endure at the very real and very disparate treatment they receive when compared to the Anglos in the novel. Their aggravation at this glaring difference is best illustrated when one pilgrim exclaims, “The wetbacks break the law by working in the U.S., but those who give jobs to the wetbacks do not. They have the freedom to employ them and pay them whatever they want” (40). Chican@s find that nearly everything is stacked against them. Cultural theorist Américo Parades confirms this feeling on behalf of the Chican@. He writes, “the Mexican [is] attacked on every level of his existence by a people more powerful and more numerous than his own” (14). Anzaldúa fills in the details as she explains the reasons for near impossibility of the Chican@ to get ahead in the United States. She writes, “Gringosin the U.S. Southwest consider the inhabitants of the borderlands transgressors, aliens—whether they possess documents or not….The only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites” (25-6). By the nature of skin color and the relationship with one’s heritage, the Chican@ is relegated to outsider status. The Chican@ does not belong.
Pocho—José Antonio Villarreal
Likewise dark in his narrative in addressing the disparate treatment of those who occupy the border, with Pocho,José Antonio Villarreal explores the world of Depression-era pochos, Americans whose parents came to the United States from Mexico and who grew up in the United States oftentimes as monolingual English-speaking ‘Americans’. Growing up on the border in California, Villarreal’s early experiences were defined by his and his family’s work as migrant workers. Like the Yaqui, Loreto, in Méndez’ novel, Villarreal’s father fought in the Mexican Revolution for Pancho Villaand thus the novel is colored by a sense of anger and frustration for a dream not realized. Pocho, as well as his other novels, feature the lives of ethnically Mexican families living on the U.S./Mexico border. What makes Villarreal’s writing different than the previous two authors’ work discussed thus far is that he chooses to position his protagonist, Richard Rubio, in a multi-cultural environment, a barrio of families with Portuguese, Spanish, Anglo-American, Japanese, and Italian ethnicities ensuring that his protagonist is influenced, at least to some extent, by several ethnicities and their perceptions of what it means to be Mexican (Cantú).
Like the Anaya’s protagonist, Antonio Marez, Richard is caught in a cultural storm of his parent’s conflicting views of what is means to be a Chican@. Richard’s father, Juan Manuel, is a first generation American striving hard to preserve his honor and the traditions of the place from where he hails. Contrarily, Richard’s mother and sisters take a more modern, Americanized view of their role in the family, and from this, comes significant conflict. When Juan Manuel decides to leave the family, Richard is left to become the man of the house and struggles to define his role and manage his anger at having to support his mother and siblings at the expense of going to college to become a writer. Upon his father’s departure, Richard loses any perception he has of being in control of his own destiny, and, as a result, becomes increasingly frustrated at not being able to decide his future for himself.
Richard’s experience in recognizing his own powerlessness mirrors Juan Manuel’s experience years earlier. Villarreal poignantly outlines the elder Rubio’s experience:
Juan Rubio became a part of the great exodus that came of the Mexican Revolution. By the hundreds, they crossed the Rio Grande, and then by the thousands. They came first to Juárez, where the price of the three-minute tram ride would take them into El Paso del Norte—or a short walk through the open door would deposit them in Utopia. The ever-increasing army of people swarmed across while the border remained open, fleeing from squalor and oppression. But they could not flee reality, and the Texans, who welcomed them as a blessing because there were miles of cotton to be harvested, had never really forgotten the Alamo. The certain degree of dignity the Mexicans yet retained made some of them turn around and walk back into the hell they had left (16)
What Villarreal highlights here is the lack of viable options that the characters he portrays have available to them. Despite their desires for a betterment of their situation, an improvement in the status of their lives is unlikely. This denial of the possibility of a better lot in life is repeated in the works of Chican@ writers. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz acknowledges that this process of becoming American differed for the Mexican as opposed to other groups, particularly Europeans, in becoming American. He explains, “The difference between colonial Mexico and the English colonies was immense. New Spain committed many horrors, but at least it did not commit the gravest of all: that of denying a place, even at the foot of the social scale, to the people who composed it” (102). While readers initially see characters such as Juan Manuel and his wife have dreams for their children, those dreams quickly vanish as the reality of their lives becomes more crystallized.
Juan Manuel’s frustration at not being able to provide the requisite tools for Richard to rise above his circumstances of being a poorly-paid farm laborer undoes him. He attempts to apologize for the situation in which his son is born, and, yet, knows he can make no worthy amends for what his son’s life will become. Mr. Rubio explains to Richard, “We cannot teach you the things that you want us to teach you. And I am deeply ashamed that we are going to fail in a great responsibility—we cannot guide you, we cannot select your reading for you, we cannot even talk to you in your own language….and soon we will not be able to encourage you, because you will be obliged to work” (61). This feeling of hopelessness and frustration is not solely the work of Richard’s father. His mother’s feelings mirror his and she communicates this to her son telling him, “Your father talks about you being a lawyer or doctor when we return to Mexico, but he knows that you will be neither and that we will never leave this place” (62). The question as to the level of success Richard will have in his future is not a matter of desire; it is a matter of circumstance. The hegemonic culture will dislocate both the parents’ and the child’s desire for an elevated status in the social hierarchy.
In that Richard and his compatriots occupy a similar position in the social hierarchy, there are a number of forces that seek to preserve their position in the social pyramid. A significant force in keeping Richard and those like him from climbing the socio-cultural ladder is the education system in which Richard, at least until a certain age, is required to participate. In one scene, he relates an experience, one that is often played out in his school, with a guidance counselor. He explains:
the adviser in the high school had insisted he take automechanics or welding or some shop course, so that he could have a trade and be in a position to be a good citizen, because he was Mexican, and when he had insisted on preparing himself for college, she had smiled knowingly and said he could try those courses for a week or so, and she would make an exception and let him change his program to what she knew was better for him….Always worried about his being Mexican (108).
Being a good citizen is defined by Richard as knowing his place. He must be useful, a tradesman. To be an academic, a college student, Richard would run the risk of knowing too much and thus step outside the pre-determined boundaries for those of his ethnicity. Juan Gómez Quiñones explains Richard’s situation in more detail. He writes:
People of Mexican descent comprise a distinct native group not solely because of ethnicity. They are a separate economic sector, a community that receives disparate treatment, and they have been concentrated for generations in a particular geographic area, what is today the United States Southwest. They have shared in governance and been denied participation in it. They are socialized both internally, or within the group, and by the dominant society (1).
This incessant denial of full participation in the dominant society, for Richard, turns dissatisfaction into anger. Being deprived of access to those spaces where Richard believes he can thrive leads him to accept membership elsewhere. Anzaldúa again explains the restlessness one experiences when seeking the place where they belong. She writes that there is, “a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. Or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where I kick my heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen” (94). When Richard realizes that nothing he wants to happen will happen, he decides to seek membership within the social group, while often criticized, whose experiences most mirror his own. Richard, finally, comes to recognize his position within society. In his analysis of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, Octavio Paz explains, “This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone” (9). Once Richard uncovers the reality of who he is, he becomes a pachuco.
Richard can align himself with this group of young men because like its members, he, “has lost his whole inheritance: language, religion, customs, beliefs (Paz 15). Villarreal explains the world of the pachuco:
They had a burning contempt for people of different ancestry, whom they called Americans, and a marked hauteur toward México and toward their parents for their old country ways. The former feeling came from a sense of inferiority that is a prominent characteristic in any Mexican reared in Southern California; and the latter was an inexplicable compensation for that feeling. They needed to feel superior to something….The result was that they attempted to segregate themselves from both their cultures, and became truly a lost race. In their frantic desire to become different, they adopted a new mode of dress, a new manner and even a new language. The used a polyglot speech made up of English and Spanish syllables….phrases and words unintelligible to anyone but themselves (149-50).
In being denied space in American society and resisting the place reserved for him in his parents’ culture, Richard, and those analogous to him, carve out a space for themselves. They are forced to create a new culture.
Anzaldúa explains the dangers that can accompany this culture creating, which is what the Pachuco attempts to do. She explains that “A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed…both are reduced to a common denominator of violence” (100). Paz, too, expresses concern about the state in which the Pachucos find themselves. He writes, “What distinguishes them, I think, is their furtive, restless air: they act like persons who are wearing disguises, who are afraid of a stranger’s look because it could strip them and leave them stark naked” (13). This frustration and restlessness, this desire to belong by not belonging puts the pachuco in a vulnerable position although he may not realize it. He runs the risk in defining a new culture of exacting the violence on others which has been exacted on him. In the end, however, Richard’s attempt to redefine himself falters. Unable and unwilling to give up on the desire for a future, Richard enlists in the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In enlisting, he relents and gives up the opportunity to rebel against the society that has shunned him.
This lack of access to power is a multi-layered problem for the Chican@. Certainly occupying the margins of society is a result of the abuse and disregard at the hands of Anglos who are in a position to uplift rather than degrade this faction of the community. Cultural theorist Américo Paredes suggests that the Chican@’s “sense of continuing to ‘pass through’ after twenty years or more of residence in the United States contributed to his problems, since he remained a perennial visitor in a foreign country” (11). This power conflict is destined to persist until the dominant social forces within the United States grant these hybridized figures increased access to the structures that will allow them to gain both personal and political power in a meaningful way.
An Unending Quest
The Chican@ experience is marked by a deep desire to achieve a level of contentment. While a seemingly minor task for many, this is a monumental enterprise for Chican@s. Their world, their life in the United States, works against them in ways completely unknown to the Anglo. Octavio Paz in his pivotal work The Labyrinth of Solitudeexplains that “In the United States man does not feel that he has been torn from the center of creation and suspended between hostile forces. He has built his own world and it is built in his own image: it is his mirror” (20-1). The man described by Paz is not Chican@ for they are always mired in hostility—they are the Other. Aware of their condition, Chican@s embark on a quest. The quest is not well-defined but hinges on the ability to find a level of fulfillment that has consistently eluded them and those who have come before them. While the outcome of the quest can be somewhat nebulous, there are some defining characteristics of the Chican@s’ journey for contentment. The primary marker of the Chican@s’ quest is that it is unending. Regardless of the actions, or lack thereof, on the part of the Chicano, the goal of the quest is never achieved and so these degraded people keep pressing on in a search for the final stop on their journey. Despite, the relentlessness of the quest, it is marked by hope—a hope that the quest will cease. Much like that king in Greek mythology, Sisyphus, this marginalized group endures an insurmountable task. The progress made always results in Chican@s returning to where they started—progress is an illusion, yet these hybrid people begin again always achieving the same result.
Another significant marker of the Chican@’s merciless quest is defined by what it does to their psyche. In undertaking the overwhelming task of obtaining fulfillment and a level of ease within the United States, the Chican@ experiences repeated episodes of failure. The consequence of these recurring failures is that they perceive their lack of agency. Paz agrees, and he writes, “the most extraordinary fact of our situation is that we are enigmatic not only to strangers but to ourselves. The Mexican is always a problem, both for other[s]…and for himself” (70). The resultant feelings of the repeated failure in achieving the end goal of what is being sought are consistent feelings of self-loathing and shame. Chican@s, aware of the road blocks placed before them, cannot help but to question themselves and wonder why they are not capable of achieving something that, to them, seems relatively attainable. Despite awareness that the society in which they live actively prevents them from ending the quest, the Chican@ blames him or herself.
Pilgrims on Aztlán—Miguel Méndez
In Miguel Méndez’ Pilgrims in Aztlán, each of the many characters that readers encounter are engaged in a ceaseless quest. While some pilgrims have been on the quest for many years and thus are exhausted and now barely living, others are just beginning their journeys. Those who are not yet seasoned in failure embark on their quests with hope, yet they, on some level, acknowledge the impossibility of fulfilling their desires. The end-goal of the pilgrims’ pursuits are similar and have many threads that overlap one another, but there are five distinct goals that each of the pilgrims desires to achieve. They desire acceptance, relief, the ability to alter their destiny, justice, and a voice.
The Chican@’s quest is dominated by a need for acceptance on behalf of the Anglo world. The Chican@ does not want to be perceived as neither different nor as inferior. They want to be fully recognized as an equal human beings. They desire agency. These desires of the Chican@ are mirrored in Méndez’ pilgrims. In his exploration of Chicano culture, Folklore and Culture, Américo Paredes writes:
it is obvious that the Negro is the most visible minority in the United States. In the Southwest, the Mexican may claim honors for high visibility, but he is just one of many minorities that affect the WASP majority with feelings of tension and unease. For the Mexican, however, the Anglo fills the horizon, almost to the total exclusion of other ethnic groups—capable of excreting visibility and high irritant power (39).
For Méndez’ pilgrims, their lives are dominated by what the Anglo thinks about them and how the Anglo chooses to treat them. The Anglo does not consider the novel’s Chican@s unless abusing them. The result is that the pilgrims perplex themselves; they are consistently questioning their own being. They ask whether they can ever truly escape the Anglo’s scorn. Anzaldúa explores feelings identical to those of the pilgrims in Borderlands. She writes, “As a person, I, as a people, we, Chicanos, blame ourselves, hate ourselves. Most of this goes on unconsciously; we only know that we are hurting, we suspect that there is something ‘wrong’ with us, something fundamentally ‘wrong’” (67). This treatment on the part of the Anglo and the resultant feelings of self-hatred on the part of the Chican@ is mostly manifested in a feeling of invisibility on the part of the pilgrims. The Yaqui, Loreto, reflects upon this feeling. He reveals, “Slaves in an alien land, forgotten and banned in their own….Some drivers have seen them out of the corner of their eyes, but they have gone by indifferently because they know that, in the end, they are nothing other than shadows, phantoms, non-existent beings” (40). Rather than acknowledge and subsequently help the Chican@, the Anglo makes a conscious decision to ignore them. They pretend the Chican@ is not there, and this fact does not escape any of the pilgrims.
The pilgrims attempt to make sense of their treatment on behalf of the Anglos and find that they are not able to come up with any suitable evidence for their marginalization. Paz discusses experiencing similar feelings as a Mexican visitor to Los Angeles. He writes, “I remember that whenever I attempted to examine North American life, anxious to discover its meaning, I encountered my own questioning image” (12). This questioning of one’s image coupled with feelings of invisibility result in feelings of complete isolation on the part of the pilgrims. One of Méndez’ characters explains, “I walk through these streets filled with people and I feel the same way I would feel if I were in an abandoned cave” (130). Paz expands on this feeling of being remote and of forced seclusion experienced by these individuals. He explains, “suffering persecution, he becomes his true self, his supremely naked self, as a pariah, a man who belongs nowhere” (17). The feeling of invisibility and loneliness is almost too much for the pilgrims to endure, and as a result, readers experience these characters going to extreme lengths to simply be worthy of the Anglo’s consideration.
In an effort to achieve acceptance, Chican@s will take significant action. Their desire is strong enough that they will sacrifice what little of themselves they have in order to gain even minor amounts of the Anglo’s recognition. Readers observe the pilgrims undertake the quest for acceptance by signing up to fight in the Anglo’s wars. It is the hope on the part of the Chican@ that in defending U.S. land and ideology that they will finally be invited to fully participate in life in the United States. Méndez relates the story of one such pilgrim. He writes:
Frankie Pérez marched off to war when his life was a flower full of pollen. He reddened with emotion with a thought that illuminated him like a burst of fire: When I return I’ll get married or take a lover. But the rapid and ravenous jaws of a cruel god of war demanded their tribute of blood and tears, no longer the traditional holocaust of a few victims, but raging rivers that would inundate the world with suffering and spread seeds of hate throughout the land….Thus it was that Frankie Pérez, a Chicano, became acquainted directly with what war means (146).
Like Frankie Pérez, Chican@s learn that their service, their sacrifice, and their toil means nothing more than it did before they left for battle. This devastates the Chican@. This damage can manifest itself in an inner sadness or an outer rage, but regardless of the form that this continued marginalization takes, the Chican@ is broken. Méndez relates how this persistent loneliness and isolation impacts yet another pilgrim. He writes:
How Pánfilo cried for all he saw from the sky: his Chicano people reduced to the worst of humiliations, enslaved in the fields, the mines, the cities, denied their rights and dignity because they were dark and weak. Thousands of children segregated in schools with the label of mental retards because they didn’t speak English. His Chicano people massacred in the war with a greater number of causalities in relation to their number in the population. His copper people begging for justice at the top of their voices in demonstrations of suffering by the thousands, only to hear the tragic response of the bullets with which the authorities answer in the form of a police force that acts with brutality against the orphans of social justice (173).
By the novel’s end, each of the pilgrims is acutely aware of the futility of their quest for Anglo acceptance. Because of the depths of their degradation, it is their quest, their unending hope for acceptance, that keeps them trudging through this life. Once they are at the point where they have no other choice than to accept the senselessness of their pursuit, the motivation to live significantly decreases.
Beyond the quest for acceptance, Chican@s are on a search for relief from the struggle that defines their life. From the earliest points in Pilgrims from Aztlán, readers recognize that what the Yaqui, Loreto Maldonado, needs is a reprieve from the treachery that is his life, a life reduced to only his suffering. About him, the novelist writes, “For old Loreto Maldonado, living meant struggling onto death, as if the fluidity of his temporal condition were a black colt, the wildest of the wild, determined to whip him off his slippery back against the outcroppings of rocks” (8). While the novel’s characters seem to possess some level of recognition that their plight for relief is useless, there must be the slightest bit of hope that brings them to the border and compels them to cross it and thereby abandon what is familiar to them. One such pilgrim in deciding to leave Mexico and head for the United States exclaims, “I’m on my way to the border to exchange my life for a bastard’s” (53). What is revealed here is that, in many ways, coming to the border and crossing it is not a choice but a necessity. There is an acknowledging, on the part of those who cross over the border and come to the United States, that this does not mean that their life will get any better. One pilgrim expounds on the necessity of crossing the border as he discusses a late nineteenth-century president who was immersed in racist positivist philosophy. He explains, “Porfirio Diaz, a mestizo from Puebla who rolled in the ashes in order to look like a white man but who in reality was a jackal with the pretentions of being a patrician, also tried to finish the Yaquis off. He drove them toward Yucatán, selling them like slaves. The Indians fled for their safety to the United States” (150). Once the pilgrims arrive in the United States, the uselessness of their flight is verified. The disappointment and frustration they feel in their failure to find relief is compounded in ways that they never imagined.
The first pilgrim readers meet in the novel and come to know most intimately experiences the inability to secure relief from his suffering in very immediate ways. Suffering, in fact, becomes a way of life for Loreto. Méndez writes:
Loreto, with his bitter old man’s vision of someone who knows the mechanisms of life, looked at everything without any sign of surprise….All of the poor unfortunates who were dying of hunger constituted a precise framework for the enjoyment of human mercilessness, fittingly contrasted with the enormous privileges of wealth. While they, dirt poor, cried out from the depths of their oblivion, others, bursting with health, amused themselves with sports and the bounties of art. Because they, the weak, were always half-naked and dirty, others, elegant, wallowed in luxury (47).
When relief cannot be found, the pilgrims find that the disparity is too much to bear. They must seek relief through other avenues. This problem of relief is reflected in not just Méndez’ pilgrims, but in the lives of Chican@s as well. Anzaldúa addresses the issue of alternate forms of relief for the Chican@. She writes, “In order to escape the threat of shame or fear; one takes on a compulsive, repetitious activity as though to busy oneself, to distract oneself, to keep awareness at bay. One fixates on drinking, smoking, popping pills, acquiring friend after friend who betrays repeating, repeating to prevent oneself from seeing” (67). This is observed in the novel as well. Readers watch various characters engage in these repetitive activities as a means of escape or relief from their respective realities as Méndez writes that “the drunk drinks to find himself than for any other reason” (16). In this quest for relief, the pilgrims experience the same isolation and loss of self as they do when they seek acceptance. Certain behaviors help the Chican@ to become grounded. Anzaldúa explains this further. She writes about addiction that, “If it sticks around after having outlived its usefulness, we become ‘stuck’ in it and it takes possession of us….Some past experience or condition has created this need” (68). Because pilgrims are unendingly hindered in their quests, they are unable to unhinge themselves from this repetitious means of escape. They are cursed to remain in these recurring cycles that cause them harm.
Another such goal of the Chican@s’ quest is to alter their destiny. The Chican@ more than anything desires not to fall into the pattern of those that have come before. This group does not wish to relive their past as their past is defined by intense degradation. In his introduction to collected works of César Chavez, Ilan Stavans explains that “the poor know violence more intimately than most people because it has been a part of their lives, whether the violence of the gun or the violence of want and need” (xx). This is certainly the case in the experience of Méndez’ pilgrims. They experience substantial amounts of shame from not being able to meet their most basic needs. This humiliation becomes intensified when pilgrims are tasked with providing not only for themselves but for others as well. Loreto experiences it in his own hunger. Méndez explains, “There were moments when the old Yaqui cocked his ears with intense curiosity, thinking that he was hearing his guts speaking in imploring voices that begged for food with a piteous tone. He was very upset with himself because he had violated his own code of honor” (11). Like Loreto, all of the pilgrims have the most basic wish. That is that they wish to alter their destiny of living in hunger and the subsequent threat of starvation that comes with it. Méndez goes on to explain what compels his pilgrims to move through the eternal quest. He writes, “They are borne along by the vital demand of proteins. Hundreds of thousands cross the border with the U.S., and along the way their voices sow a sort of creeping vine of lamentation, like rosary of blasphemy, like a ladder of questions without answers, voices born of the bowels of the earth” (39). Although the pilgrims are aware that will yield little fruit in terms of altering their destiny, they are coerced into engaging in this futile enterprise out necessity for the most fundamental human needs.
The pilgrim Loreto functions in the novel as a sort of warning or a model for which the other pilgrims’ lives will be molded. He is the first character readers meet as well as the oldest of the pilgrims. He has suffered the longest and the most intensely. Loreto’s function in the novel is best summarized when the narrator states, “There he is, for those to see who do not believe that destiny is often like a puppeteer, like those guys who make dolls dance any which way and, in the process, make fools of them” (144). Despite the warning that the character Loreto provides the other pilgrims, they still have hope that the quest will somehow be different for them—that they will be the one for whom the odds are defied. This hope is best illustrated in one pilgrim’s words to another, younger, pilgrim. He says, “You, like me, a real dark, and over there that’s worse than a crime….maybe God will help you and you will do just fine” (61). While a sense of optimism is present in these characters, they are not idealists. Life has been too cruel to them for not to be firmly grounded in reality. There is no doubt that each of the pilgrims acknowledges that they are simply a cog in a machine that repeats the same cycle over and over again. Another pilgrim remarks that “His kids, without schooling, would end up in the same vicious circle, part of the same herd. But some day…” (142). Méndez’ character hang their lives upon the possibility that the machine that drives their lives will somehow misfire giving them a chance to escape their destiny.
For most of the Chican@’s existence, they have accepted that degradation defines their life. While they hold out hope that destiny can be altered, the Chican@ humbly accepts the tragedy that has been their life. This is no different for Méndez’ pilgrims; he tells readers, “Despite the terrible drama of their lives, they possessed the noble attitude of those who have caressed the earth like a mother. They had won the Revolution, only to be paid with hunger and fraud” (39). What Méndez also acknowledges is that Chican@s are aware that they have also been a victim of trickery and deceit. They have been sold the idea of the American Dream only to learn that they are exempt from participating in it. Chican@s have acted out the requite functions with the understanding that they can reverse their destiny. They believe, even slightly, that they can finally be on the winning side of life.
In writing primarily about the Mexican experience, Octavio Paz reflects upon the Chican@’s belief that they can obtain justice from a life marked by toil and lack of relief. Paz believes that in order to understand themselves, Chican@s must come to realize that “history helps [them] to understand certain traits of [their] character” (73). One such trait is that Chican@s, in their soul, believe that they will be proven righteous up until the point where it becomes abundantly clear that they will not. Although never obtaining the justice they so rightly deserve is something that the Chican@ has always understood to be a distinct possibility, they push that knowledge back into the depths of their mind. They must temporarily suspend what they know to be true in order to sustain the will to continue on the quest.
One questions why given the knowledge that the Chican@ has why they engage in a quest at all given the substantial probability of failure. Paz provides some insight when he writes that “one of the most notable traits of the Mexican’s character is his willingness to contemplate horror: he is even familiar and complacent in his dealings with it” (23). Like the Mexican, the Chican@ is intimately acquainted with feelings of dread and terror. Because of this, they are much better equipped to take on the quest than would be the Anglo. Their entire self is molded out of the ability to undertake such dismay. This scenario is played out time and time again in Pilgrims in Aztlánas is illustrated in yet another pilgrim. The narrator tells his audience:
Ramagacha, with all his years on his back, was on his way to the United States to earn dollars so he could support his two grandchildren, the only ones left of an entire genealogy swallowed up by poverty. He trudged along obsessed with saving their lives with protein, as though the continuity of his entire history were at stake in the matter. He had joined the group when they met by chance joining forces to shave their poverty. They came from the South, in the opposite direction from their forebearers, in a pilgrimage without priests or prophets, dragging along a history without any merit for the one telling it, ordinary and repetitive in its tragedy (50).
Like in the other quests for relief or a change in destiny, the quest for justice results in self-loathing and shame. Despite the nobility of his efforts in trying to reverse the hunger in his grandchildren, to give them existence different from his own and his knowledge of the extreme difficulty he will face in meeting his goal, Ramagacha is ashamed. He explains to readers, “I know that in the storybooks, the poor young man goes out to seek adventures, and he comes back rich and marries the daughter of the king. But now I also know that to be a Chicano or a wetback is to be a slave and lived scorned” (55). Ramagacha knows he is reviled and as a result is repulsed by his own self.
The stories of Ramagacha and other Chican@s are narratives that Anzaldúa believes need to be reversed. She explains the deep-seated desire for justice that lives inside these hybrid people. The Chican@ “need[s the Anglo] to own the fact that [he] looked upon us as less than human, that [he] stole our lands, our personhood, our self-respect. We need [the Anglo] to make public restitution….[the Anglo erases] our history and our experience because it make [them] feel guilty” (108). While there is a desire for this kind of justice, it is not a justice that is yet fully realized. Justice is something that can only be doled out by the Anglos who uphold the power structures that impact their lives. The Yaqui, Loreto, acknowledges that “the only ones who’ll help you kill your hunger are the poor themselves” (61). If the only source of respite the pilgrims have is others who have nothing, justice cannot be realized.
As the quests for acceptance, relief, a change of destiny and justice bear little fruit so too does the quest for a voice. The Chican@’s voice is muffled by nature of what Anzaldúa calls the forked tongue. The Chican@ is of two languages—Spanish and English. By nature of a border existence, neither language is completely owned and he nor she is completely comfortable with them. Removed from their indigenous roots and knowledge of the Spanish, their language is fractured. He or she may hear it spoken in the home, but in school the language of his indigenous self is forbidden. Chican@s are forced to speak English—a language they are not comfortable with either. The family cannot help this hybrid child become a better speaker because their knowledge is limited as well. Because the Chican@ lacks total fluency in either tongue, they are silenced.
Anzaldúa addresses the issue of silencing in Borderlandsexplaining that “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself….as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate” (81). The Chican@ in order to deal with this double lack of fluency creates a new language that is a hybrid of both Spanish and English. While this may, on the surface, seem to be a good strategy, this strategy, in fact, further marginalizes the Chican@. His new hybrid language is determined to be illegitimate by both his Spanish-speaking brethren and the dominant forces which value the English language.
Méndez’ readers are witness to the shame that this conundrum of language causes. His pilgrims are pulled apart by the forces of fluency or the lack of fluency. One pilgrim explains, “Us Chicanos were born without words, and people have forgotten their language. In whitey’s schools they put us apart like we were morons for not speaking English. If we do talk, it’s because we invent words, and, then only when we’re drunk, because if we don’t drink pal, we’d be better off to just shut up for being so ashamed of not being able to speak” (68-9). The inability to fully calibrate their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with words serves to further isolate the pilgrims from the society in which they live as well as from each other as the hybrid language is dually disregarded. Anzaldúa explains this phenomenon in regards to her own experience. She writes that “I have been accused by various Latinos and Latinas [of ruining the Spanish language]. Chicano Spanish is considered by the purist and by most Latinos deficient, a mutilation of Spanish” (77). The further removed Chican@s become from the language of their ancestors, the more they are silenced. Increased familiarity with both Chicano Spanish and English will assure that they are further removed from Spanish in its purest form. The result is that Chican@s will only sustain fellowship with those Chican@s who are just like them further cementing themselves in the marginalized position. Their marginalization is akin to their isolation, which compounds their shame and self-hatred.
The Valley—Rolando Hinojosa
Méndez is not the only one author who dives into this concept of the quest; another author who explores this notion is Rolando Hinojosa. Currently a creative writing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Hinojosa has composed poetry and novels as well as essays throughout his career. First published in 1973, Hinojosa primarily writes his works in Spanish although he has translated many of his pieces into English. His most prolific work to date is his Klail City Death Trip Series which is currently published in 15 volumes. Hinojosa was the first Chicano author to receive the prestigious Casa de las Américas literary prize in Havana, Cuba as well as the Premio Quinto Prize in 1972 at University of California Berkeley. The honor of winning the Premio Quinto Prize is also shared by Tómas Rivera forThis Migrant Earthand by Rudolfo Anaya for Bless Me, Ultima. Hinojosa relates that his writing is deeply influenced by his bi-cultural background as is the case with many other Chicano writers, which is evidenced in the creation of his fictional Belken County along the Texas-Mexico border where the Klail City Death Trip works take place. Hinojosa’s family was comprised of parents that had strong ties to both their Mexican and American roots and the tension between these two cultures was intimately known to Hinojosa. Characteristic of his writing is the use of multiple perspectives to create a narrative that is representative of the multilayered experience of Chican@ people.
The most well-known or celebrated of Hinojosa’s works is his 1972 novel Estampas del Valle, which he translated into English in 1983 under the title of The Valley.This four-part presents in narrative sketches a picture of the lives lived by Chican@s along the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. As Nicolás Kanellos points out in his preface to the 2014 bilingual edition of the novels The Valley/Emtampas del Valle“focus[es] on the lives of two characters and a narrator—Rafe Buenrostro, Jehú Malacara, and P. Galindo—all of whom may be partial alter egos of Hinojosa himself” (x). Experimental in nature, the novel explores the occupational, financial, familial, and social implications that come from living in a place that straddles two worlds. Both satirical and sarcastic, Hinojosa presents in this work a realistic picture of the plight faced by Chican@s in their efforts to secure an acceptable life in the United States.
As in Méndez’ novel, Hinojosa’s Belken County residents are on a quest seemingly without an end. While Méndez’ pilgrims’ quests differ while continuing to overlap one another, the search in which Hinojosa’s characters engage is simplified. The characters’ lives mirror one another, and there is little variation in how they experience the world. There is a similar acknowledgement by the characters in both novels that death is consistently present. The possibility of oblivion seems to always be right around the corner. These characters understand that their demise is the most likely outcome of most all of their efforts. The crusade then is defined as an effort to avoid it. Seeking to avoid death, most specifically a premature demise, is present from the earliest moments in the novel. Tere Malacara, an early character in the novel, relates that she is exhausted, she claims that she is “bushed, beat and dead to the world; know what I mean? I’m a dollar short and three days behind….It’s this life, that’s all” (4). She provides for readers an interesting perspective on the Chican@ plight as many of the perspectives readers get in this canon are provided through the lens of male identity. In this particular sketch, readers understand that Tere Malacara is responsible for taking care of herself.
The quest to simply live is present and solidified by the acknowledgement of some characters’ downfall at a young age. One such character, Jehú Malacara, is left in the hands of manipulative and cruel relatives after his being orphaned at the age of seven. The nine-year-old child relates to readers that “The age of seven may be a mite early to meet Death head on, but that’s when I first met her” (6). The personification of death and the repeated reference to her in the near pages, “Death came calling again” (20) and “Death again, orphaned again” (27), suggest an unusual, and unfortunate, intimacy. This familiarity with death is mirrored in another young, and yet again, orphaned young man by the name of Beto Castañeda. The narrator explains, “His parents died—were killed—in that often talked about train/truck accident in Flora years ago; a Mo-Pac freight bowled over the truck and its cab, killing thirty-three of the thirty-six field hands who were on their way to the Schunior lettuce fields” (97). Interesting about the repeated retellings of death present in The Valleyis the casualness of which they are told. Readers may be tempted to question if the characters care about annihilation or not. This attitude may be, however, one that is defensive in nature. Anzaldúa explains, “When we’re up against the wall, when we have all sorts of oppressions coming at us, we are forced to develop this faculty so that we’ll know when the next person is going to slap us or lock us away….Pain makes us acutely anxious to avoid more it….It’s a kind of survival tactic that people, caught between the worlds, unknowingly cultivate” (60-1). In order to preserve themselves, to continue on their quest to maintain life, both Jehú and Beto adopt a trivial attitude toward death.
Quite similar to the pilgrims in Pilgrims in Aztlán, Hinojosa’s characters display a sense of hope in the quest which, they are aware, may not yield the results for which they yearn. This too, like the nonchalance in which they address death, may be an effort at self-preservation. With regard to a character by the name of Melitón Burnias, The Valley’snarrator explains to readers, “he was worse off than penniless: he was constantly, endlessly, irreversibly poor. He had high hopes, but he also had bad luck” (32). This acknowledgement of a damned life marked by traces of optimism are littered throughout the lives Hinojosa’s Belken County residents.
What is most fascinating about the presence of optimism in these characters’ hearts and minds however is the way in which that hope manifests itself. Hope, here, is marked by a sort of accommodation on the part of the downtrodden. There is evidence that these characters want nothing more than to simply get by. They do not express the desire for recognition as is the case with Méndez’ pilgrims in their quest. Perhaps their desires, like the nature of their quest, is more or less marked by its simplicity. Hinojosa’s Chican@s seek to go by unnoticed in order to avoid conflict, and more specifically, death. A character, P. Galindo, relates that “In Bascom, people walk softly and carry no stick at all; they go about saying things on the order of: 1. Behave yourself; 2. Keep it down; 3. Don’t do anything that’ll draw the Anglo Texans’ attention; 4. Etc” (49). Like the acknowledgement and detached attitude regarding death, this means of accommodating to achieve one’s desired end begins at a relatively young age. The narrator explains, “One day, she decided to ask Lucy Ramírez what it was she had for breakfast that morning; and Lucy, trying to please, lied” (41). Rather than reveal the true nature of her dejected condition, Lucy cautiously chooses to accommodate the teacher’s, Miss Bunn, lesson to teach the children about “What Every Young Child Should Eat for Breakfast” (41). Lucy has learned, like so many of Belken County’s residents, that securing her teacher’s comfort will go much further than revealing the reality of her situation.
The nature of accommodation extends into the lives of the older and more seasoned members of the population. They have become complacent in their silence. One of Belken County’s older residents paints a portrait for readers about what life is like in this place for the Chican@. He explains working for the “Arab” who owns the fruit stand—“he’d pick a few of us to move some 200 bushels of fresh fruit away from the sidewalk and into his store. And you know how he paid us? With rotten fruit, that’s how. The man was a son-of-a-bitch, of course, but what made it worse was that damfools that we were, we never complained” (43). Hinojosa’s readers must wonder why his characters do not express their frustration and perhaps the reason that they do not is because they do not believe that they are any better than they are treated. They, conceivably, have been so beaten down by their endless seeking that they are convinced that they do not deserve better. Anzaldúa explains the spirit of occupying the downtrodden position, “The struggle is inner…Our psyches resemble the border towns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains” (109). If the minds of the Chican@ residents resemble these border towns then all their of thinking must be in some respects dangerous as their complacency determines that they do not really ever get to ‘live’ while to fight may certainly result in death, which renders the quest fruitless.
While the variety of crusades differ for the characters in both Méndez’ and Hinojosa’s novels, they share a fundamental similarity that is quite telling of the Chican@s’ plight. Both authors communicate the futility of the quest. While Chican@s seek some elevation of their current status, they understand, on some level, the senselessness of such an endeavor. The slightest glimmer of vanity causes these characters to undertake the quest knowing full well they will not likely realize what they hope to achieve. Hanging on to the expectation that they will defy the circumstances that have been built to keep them in the marginalized position, Chican@s undertake the quest only to be disappointed. Instead of correctly placing blame on the circumstances that force them into inferior positions, the Chican@ internalizes the resultant anger and engages in self-loathing.
To be a Chican@ is to be immersed in inconsistency. Conflict is a marker of the Chican@’s existence. Américo Paredes in his book Folklore and Culturewrites this about conflict:
Conflict—cultural, economic, and physical—has been a way of life along the border between Mexico and the United States, and it is in the so-called Nueces- Rio Grande strip where its patterns were first established. Problems of identity also are common to border dwellers…first confronted by people of Mexican culture as a result of the Texas Revolution…the Lower Rio Grande area also can claim to be the source of the more typical elements of what we call the culture of the Border (19).
While readers experience the cultural, economic, and physical conflict along with characters in the works of Chican@ literature, they also come to understand that these conflicts can enter the realm of characters’ spiritual existence as it does in several cases. The questions surrounding religious belief and practice are plentiful and characters often feel pulled in opposite directions between two poles of spirituality—one pole representing the indigenous, and somewhat mystical, faith of their Mexican ancestryand the other pole representing Anglo conceptions of faith primarily in the context of North American Catholicism. What reoccurs among these figures upon evaluating the tug that each pole has upon them is that they are forced to evaluate, and sometimes reevaluate, their spiritual selves often leading to the discovery that hegemonic conceptions that the Anglo’s faith and practice have failed them. In exercising their Mexican spiritual selves, Chican@s are more at peace with themselves as a spiritual beings. Octavio Paz has an opinion on these poles of spirituality. He writes:
pre-Cortesian myth underlines the difference between the Christian and indigenous conceptions. Christ saved the world because He redeemed us and washed away the stain of Original Sin, but Quetzalcóatl was not so much a redeemer as a re-creator….Nothing has been able to destroy our filial relationship of our people with the divine….at the same time, nothing has succeeded in making this relationship more active and fecund, not even Mexicanization of Catholicism, not even the Virgin of Guadalupe herself (107-8).
Paz describes the contrast between the Christian and indigenous deities quite well, he states that “Nothing has been able to destroy the filial relationship of our people [the Mexicans] with the divine” (108); however, something happens when Mexicans cross the border and become Chican@s that devastates the fortitude of their relationship with the divine. In fact, the destruction is well-documented in the works of both Tomás Rivera and José Antonio Villarreal. Chican@s will suffer the loss of a relationship to the divine when the only form of spirituality available to them is the Anglo conception of Catholicism. They will find that the Christ Anglos have created is not for them. The only way for Chican@s to develop or maintain spiritual selves is to have indigenous forms of spirituality available to them.
Bless Me, Ultima—Rudolfo Anaya
Rudolfo Anaya’s protagonist, Antonio, in Bless Me, Ultimaexperiences a spiritual conundrum that mirrors, or that acts as a companion to, the conflict that he already feels as to each of his parent’s desires for him. In fact, the question that is central to the novel is—will
Antonio become a priest as his mother’s family, the Lunas, want? Antonio, however, is very much pulled in the direction of the folk practice of becoming a curanderoas modeled by Ultima and as is very much a part of his father’s history. Anaya outlines Antonio’s challenge in his introduction to the novel. He writes, “Antonio enters a new reality. His dreams begin to reflect this magical, sometimes frightening world….how can he reconcile the teachings of the church with the indigenous beliefs of Ultima?” (x). So much of what Antonio wants is to help the suffering people around him and help to make them happy. His objective is to discover which pole of spiritual existence will allow him to do that. From the earliest points in the novel, Anaya communicates that the individuals in the narrative have been let down by God. Leading in disappointment is Antonio’s father, Gabriel Marez. Devastated by the absence, and eventually the return, of his three elder sons, Gabriel tells Antonio, “The war is terrible, the wars have always been terrible. They take the boys away from the fields and orchards where they should be, they give them guns and tell them to kill each other. It is against the will of God” (49). In fact, much of the Marez’ existence in their border town, Guadalupe, is, at least seemingly, partially devoid of the presence of God. Three of the four Marez boys are off fighting in World War II and upon their return they are overwhelmingly disillusioned. Guadalupe’s residents are without work or enough food; they are suffering.
The frustration that Gabriel feels is magnified in Antonio’s friend, Florence. Reflecting on the disappointment that his young life has been, Florence feels that he has been failed by God and has completely given up on him. Engaged in conversation with Antonio regarding spirituality, Florence tells him, “how can God let this happen to a kid. I never asked to be born. But he gives me birth, a soul, and puts me here to punish me. Why? What did I ever do to deserve this, huh?” (196). These feelings that Florence communicates to Antonio mirror those of many Chican@ subjects—they have done nothing wrong, they have not transgressed against God, so why the continual punishment? Florence outlines the ways in which he has been wronged by God telling Antonio, “I say God has sinned against me because he took my father and mother from me when I most needed them, and he made my sisters whores—He has punished all of us without just cause, Tony” (213). In this case, God is not simply a figure who has forgotten about Antonio and his people; God has become the enemy. He works directly against those whom he should help. This point is further compounded when the already deeply wounded Florence, while swimming with Antonio, gets caught up in a wire and drowns. The question becomes—was there any one in this family worth saving?
While not yet disappointed or disillusioned, Antonio does begin to actively question God’s power and the choices he makes. After Narciso, a man deeply tied to the earth, is killed by the rage-filled Tenorio after attempting to save the curandera Ultima’s life, Tony is deeply disheartened. He reflects, “I could not understand why Narciso, who did good in trying to help Ultima, had lost his life; and why Tenorio, who was evil and had taken a life, was free and unpunished. It didn’t seem fair. I thought a great deal about God and why he let such things happen” (186). This reflection on Narciso’s demise becomes a summary for Antonio’s conflict about his spiritual self. How can he exercise the faith necessary to become a priest when God fails to act as a savior for good men like Narciso and for young people like Florence?
While Antonio is not ready to express outright disappointment in God, Antonio is not yet ready to do that, he does express some skepticism in the institution of the Catholic Church. This feeling of being torn is reflected in the larger Mexican-American experience. Latin@ studies scholar, Ilan Stavans, in his introduction to a volume of Cesar Chavez’ works, discusses Chavez’ thoughts about the Catholic Church, which mirror Antonio’s concerns. He writes, “Chavez was wary of the Catholic Church as an institution. It is common knowledge that the Catholic Church is a block of power in society and that the property and purchase of the Church rate second only to the government” (xxii). Tony, too, seems to come to this conclusion in some degree. He is somewhat repelled by the actions of the priests he knows. Antonio explains, “The priest at El Puerto did not want the people to place much faith in the powers of la curandera. He wanted the mercy and faith of the church to be the villagers’ only guiding light” (97). Antonio finds this desire of the priest troublesome given the nature of the problems they are facing on the llano which result from the existence of brujas. If Guadalupe’s people are finding health and security in Ultima’s work, especially given the circumstances of the havoc caused by Tenorio’s bruja daughters, Antonio believes that the priest should support that. Furthermore, Antonio questions why the priest does not fight against their destruction. Angered, he questions, “Why doesn’t the priest fight against the evil of the brujas. He has the power of God, the Virgin, and all the saints of the Holy Mother Church behind him” (85). This frustration and lack of understanding pushes Antonio further away from this hegemonic Anglo conception of faith practice and pulls him closer to the indigenous pole.
From Antonio’s earliest meeting with Ultima, the curandera representing his father’s indigenous roots, Antonio feels a deep connection to her. Having helped Antonio’s mother deliver him into the world, Ultima is the only figure to know what the boy’s future holds. Initially, what seems to be an inexplicable connection to Ultima makes Antonio feel uneasy; however, as he spends more time with her and is witness to the positive powers of her work, Antonio feels his connection to and comfort with Ultima grow. Anzaldúa explains the roots of Antonio’s unease, “Institutionalized religion fears trafficking with the spirit world and stigmatizes it as witchcraft. It has strict taboos against this kind of inner knowledge….The Catholic and Protestant religions encourage fear and distrust of life and of the body; they encourage a split between the body and the spirit and totally ignore the soul” (59). It is only upon witnessing Ultima excise an evil spirit residing inside his Uncle Lucas that Antonio begins to understand that this experience is not something that the Catholic Church can offer him. He is very much changed by the qualities of Ultima’s powers. Antonio wonders, “Was it possible that there was more power in Ultima’s magic than in the priest?” (99). As Antonio spends an increasing amount of time with the curandera, he is better able to rectify his thinking about good and evil and these more contrasting poles of spiritual belief and practice in a more manageable way. Antonio narrates, “the power of God had failed where Ultima’s had worked; and then a sudden illumination of beauty and understanding flashed through my mind” (114). What Antonio gains through his experience with Ultima is a sense of hope that he can resolve this inner conflict regarding his faith.
Antonio’s experience in obtaining spiritual hope is somewhat at odds with many of the characters in the works of Chican@ authors. Bless Me, Ultima’s protagonist sees a bridge between the spiritual poles that perhaps many other characters do not. Antonio, in discussion with his father, wonders if he might start a new religion. He ponders, “If the old religion could no longer answer the questions of the children then perhaps it was time to change it” (248). Antonio becomes well-versed in having to create bridges between the desires of his mother and his father. Bridge building is therefore likely to continue with Antonio forging connections between indigenous spirituality and Anglo-Catholic practice. His experiences with Ultima are in the end what gives Antonio this vision to remedy the split he feels between these contrasting spiritual systems.
So Far From God—Ana Castillo
Ana Castillo, a Mexican-American, and much lauded poet, novelist, essayist, and critic, was raised in Chicago, Illinois far from the border. Raised by an indigenous Mexican mother and a father who, too, was born and raised in Mexico gave her direct insight into what it means to feel the pull between two cultures. She is currently hailed as pivotal figure in relating the Chicana experience in writing. Acknowledging that place is a fundamental element of her writing, Castillo has relocated a number of times when composing her works in order to maintain a level of honesty that she feels is elemental to the craft of fiction . Likewise honest about the Chicana experience, Castillo is recognized for her exploration on the themes of power, sexuality and community. Castillo’s work explores the multiple power structures that shape the lives of Latina women. Prolific in her writing, the 1986 novel—The Mixquiahuala Letters is the most critically lauded; however, it is her 1993 novel, So Far From Godthat has earned her the most public recognition.
So Far From God is a relatively fractured story about a family matriarch, Sofia, and her four daughters. Set in Tome, New Mexico, Sofia, abandoned by her husband, Domingo, raises her daughters—Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca—in the complete, or relatively positive, absence of men. Sofia’s youngest daughter, La Loca, suffers from an epileptic fit and is considered dead. When La Loca is ‘resurrected’ Sofia is further isolated from her community—one that is fearful of what they do not understand. This isolation gives Sofia the ability to raise her daughters in the absence of what she sees as undesirable aspects of the society. Scattered throughout the novel are elements of magical realismwhich is an appropriate accompaniment to the tribute that Castillo puts on indigenous spirituality. This attention to ‘old world’ practice however does not mean that Castillo, through her characters, does not touch upon modern issues like worker safety, AIDS, and conflict in the Middle East. What Castillo does not obviously comment upon, yet it is present, is the impact of indigenous versus contemporary spiritual practice. Living on the border, certainly Sofia and her children will have the opportunity to engage in both spiritual forms. What form they choose is inextricably entwined with their fate.
The world of Tome is clearly male-dominated. This gender hierarchy forces Sofia to stand apart from most of the community. Critic Amaia Ibarran Bigalondo summarizes Sofia. She writes:
Sofia is depicted as an independent-from-men woman…disclaims the stereotypes and roles have imposed upon women. On being abandoned by her husband, she becomes a strong woman, who adopts the male role of provider of the economical stability of the family unit, and, concomitantly, continues to be the transmitter of cultural heritage and values for her daughters” (28).
Outside of being economically stable and being the transmitter of culture, Sofia functions as the spiritual guide for her daughters. Part of what is imposed upon these five women are dominant systems of spirituality, mainly an Anglo-brand of Catholicism. This is observed very early in the novel when Sofia’s youngest daughter, La Loca, ‘dies’. Castillo writes, “Why? Why? That’s exactly what Sofia wanted to know at that moment—when all she had ever done was accept God’s will” (22). As with the disillusionment that Sofia experiences when she is abandoned by her husband, losing her child will pull her further from the Church. The dominant elements of her society will continue to fail her and will thus fail her children. This disappointment is outlined by Sofia in indigenous terms:
the legend of La Llorona. The Weeping Woman astral-traveled all throughout old Mexico, into the United States, and really anywhere her people lives, wailing, in search of her children whom she drowned so as to run off with her lover. For that God punished her forever on earth….The idea of a wailing woman suffering throughout eternity because of God’s punishment never appealed to Sofia, so she would not have repeated it to her daughters. Furthermore, the Church taught that when people die every soul must wait for the Final Day of Judgment, so why did the Llorona get her punishment meted out soon? (160-1).
This is only one of the hypocrisies that Sofia will experience with her sex and within the Anglo-Catholic Church. This duplicity is almost innately recognized by La Loca, who never subscribes to the dominant form of faith practice and belief. Sofia and Caridad, too, will quickly recognize that the Church is not made for them while Esperanza and Fe never quite eschew the hegemonic religious forms in their life like they should.
Caridad, the third of Sofia’s daughters, has organized her life around men. Subscribing to the societal norm of settling into matrimony with a man and beginning a family, Caridad is happy by all accounts. When the man whom she is intending to marry leaves her, Caridad undergoes a crisis of self. She abandons her conformity to societal and religious rules and adopts a sexually promiscuous self. Her new way of being is so reviled by the community and leads to Caridad being violently physically and sexually attacked by a group of men outside one of the bars she frequents. This assault leaves Caridad severely mutilated and forever changed.
Once Caridad is physically recuperated, she seeks to recuperate her soul as well. Under the tutelage of a wise older woman, Doña Felicia, Caridad embarks on becoming a curandera, and similar to Ultima in Anaya’s novel, she finds a deep sense of fulfillment in her work. Mirroring her physical rebirth, Caridad’s spiritual rebirth is difficult. Castillo writes, “the work of the curandera was anything but simple, But, one thing was sure, Caridad saw for herself, as long as the faith of the curandera was unwavering, successful results were almost certainly guaranteed—the only thing that could prevent them was the will of God” (63). Disappointed in her experience with God both prior to her attack and after, Caridad, similar to her mother, abandons the Anglo-Catholic forms of faith practice. She adopts new methods of exercising her spiritual self, “Caridad never went to Mass; instead, a new student of yoga, she rose with a salute to the sun” (65). Caridad is then willing to reach outside of her cultures to borrow spiritual practices of other cultures. She does this in order to develop, in herself, what is missing and not provided for her by dominant forms of, not only the society in which she lives, but in the religious systems as well. The new power that Caridad displays is noticed by the people of Tome as well as her own family. In Caridad many are able to find in her what they have been missing. Castillo explains:
It was during that Holy Week, instead of going to Mass at their local parishes, hundreds of people made their way up to the mountain to la Caridad’s cave in hopes of obtaining her blessing and just as many with the hopes of being cured of some ailment or another. Not only the Nuevo mejicano-style Spanish Catholics went to see her but also Natives from the pueblos, some who were Christian and some who were not” (87).
Through the practices of indigenous faith, Caridad, whose name means charity in Spanish, finds herself useful to others in a way that is not damaging to her.
As mentioned previously, La Loca is the only of Sofia’s daughters to have never subscribed to the dominant system of faith. From the moment of her resurrection, it is understood that she is special and, therefore, exempt from full participation in the life of Tome. In many ways, La Loca is portrayed as being blessed for her exemption. Bigalondo explains, “Rejected by the community after she was born for having suffered an epileptic attack, which was interpreted as an anomalous, supernatural baby, she shuts herself off from those around her, cultivating her spirituality, and learning from the town curandera, Dona Felicia” ( 31). In many ways, despite her isolation, La Loca is better situated than any of her other sisters, her mother, or Doña Felicia because she has never been expected to conform. In her world of communicating with animals, La Loca is protected. Bigalondo reflects, “Isolation and a rich inner world are presented by the writer as the only ways of surviving in a male community” (31). Because La Loca has never pledged allegiance to mainstream Anglo-Catholic forms of worship, she has never experienced the dissatisfaction of God’s inaction or the disillusionment that comes from feeling that God has forgotten her or her people.
Doña Felicia, Tome’s curandera, is one that has experienced that dissatisfaction and disillusionment. She, in her formerly Anglo-centered life, subscribed to the dominant systems including the faith system and found that she was wholly unfulfilled. Challenged to conform, “Felicia was a non-believer of sorts and remained that way, suspicious of the religion that did not help the destitute at all around her despite their devotion” (60). This realization that so many have forgotten the Anglo way, Doña Felicia, with a moniker that suggests happiness, decides to become an asset to her community by becoming a curandera. This is no small undertaking on her part given her age but mainly in part given to the possible rejection she might experience from the people in her society. In her essay, “Brujas and Curanderas: A Lived Spirituality” from her book Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma,Castillo explains what weight Doña Felicia may carry in adopting the curandera identity:
The bruja and curandera might associate the fundamental betrayal of the Church with her womanhood, with her devout Catholic mother. She, therefore, may be inclined toward her grandmother’s beliefs, or the teachings of a community elder. Creating some distance from the last generation, from who she is unlearning man of the lessons that have felt harmful to her well-being, allows her to recapture some of her spiritual orientation, and to adapt it to her own needs while still operating within her own culture (152).
It is unfortunate that Doña Felicia is not able to impress her wisdom and experience upon Sofia’s other two daughters—Esperanza and Fe, whose name means faith in Spanish, who chose to conform to dominant practices. Their conformity, in the end, only fails to protect them.
This Migrant Earth—Tomás Rivera
Likewise a major contributor to the Chicano Literary Movement, Tomás Rivera with his writing dives into issues centered in inequality, community, and disillusionment. Growing up on the Texas border as the child of migrant farm workers and as a child migrant farm worker himself, Rivera wrote into the lives of his characters that which he understood. Despite the hurdles that come with trying to obtain an education while working long hours in often degrading conditions, Rivera managed to become the first person in his family to go to college. Driven by the desire to obtain his own education, and the desire that others like him might do so too, defined much of Rivera’s career. While he composed many short stories, poetry and academic writing, Rivera’s best known work is his novella written in stream-of-consciousness style. Written in Spanish y no se lo tragó la tierra [and the Earth did not suck it up]struggled to get published as there was a limited audience for literature written in Spanish. Finally published in 1971, an English language version translated by Rolando Hinojosa was published in 1987 under the name This Migrant Earthor And the Earth Did Not Part.
The novella, This Migrant Earth,consists of 14 vignettes written in stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of the style of American literary giant William Faulkner. Each vignette is narrated by different individuals in varying forms to paint a picture in the life of a migrant child over the course of a year. One is a male child who remains unnamed and remains an otherwise distant figure. One can speculate that Rivera’s intention in making such an ambiguous figure into the narrative’s protagonist is that this child is meant to represent all migrant children. Just as they are nameless and faceless to the many who pass by them each day, this child is unidentifiable to the audience as well. Certainly this child and those who are associated with him face the crisis of uncertainty each day, and a faith crisis is not exempt from his existence.
Whereas the characters in Bless Me, Ultima and So Far From Godface conflicts in their faith, there is a sense of hope in their tales. While both sets of protagonists struggle with and find fault in the dominant forms of faith practice, they exercise a more fulfilling spiritual existence when engaging with indigenous forms of faith. In This Migrant Earththis is not the case. The protagonist here does not find hope in spiritual practice and he does not engage in any sort of revisionist thinking when it comes to religious belief. Rivera’s characters, specifically the young boy on which the novel is centered has a wholly contentious attitude toward God. There are several ways he expresses his disappointment in this dominant deity.
The protagonist from very early in the novella recognizes that God fails to intervene on his or his people’s behalf. A complete lack of recognition on the part of God is more of the norm rather than an anomaly. In one instance in the vignette “Burnt Offerings” the narrator relates information about the García family, who, as their luck would have it, live in a chicken coop. Employed by a grower who forbids the youngsters to come to work with their father, Don Efrain and Doña Chona, are overwhelmed with worry when they are forced to leave their three children alone in the chicken coop each day. Despite their worry, they have no choice but to leave their children unattended. One of the many days when they are alone, a fire breaks out in the coop and two of the three children are burned to death. Reflecting on the children’s death, the unnamed narrator of this vignette takes notice that the boxing gloves that Don Efrain allowed his young children to use does not parish in the fire. They ponder, “Well, did you notice how the gloves didn’t burn up at all? What’s the little girl’s name? María? Well, she was all burned up, but the gloves sure weren’t. Well, that’s the manufacturers, the people who make ‘em. They know what they’re doing” (1083). The attitude of the vignette’s narrator is such that if manufacturers are looking out for their interests, meaning the children’s interests, should not God be looking out for theirs as well? And if the young García children are not in God’s interest—why not?
Another way the characters of Rivera’s work conveys this contentious relationship with God is in the characters expressing that what they ask from God is not much. Their needs and wants are so minor that meeting them should not tax God so much as to warrant his choice to ignore them altogether. The vignette titled “And When We Get There” relates a group of migrant farm workers’ evening of sleeping in a broken-down truck on their way to their next job. The migrants dream and declare that this will be the last season they will be forced to exist on the move,each one relating his or her plan to escape this uneasy existence for a sedentary life on a piece of land that they can call their own. As their conversation progresses, the extent of their disenfranchisement becomes increasingly clear. While virtually everyone is reluctant to speak the truth that they may, in fact, be consigned to this existence for life, a lone voice speaks up and verbalizes their plight. The voice says “it’s always chancy with us, isn’t it? I mean, we hopeeverything turns out for us, but if it don’t, we’re up against it again. And so what’s new, right? About the only thing I want from God is place for us to work in” (1102). The frustration is clear—God is supposed to care for them, but he does not. They have been told, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), yet the question is when and will I survive long enough to reap the rewards of such degrading toil?
God’s failure to intervene on their behalf or to provide them with some form of escape from life’s degradation works to build an extreme resentment toward and anger at God. This frustration is expressed in both the words and actions of the elder migrants and their children. In a vignette sharing the same title as the novella, a child of migrant farmers listens to his mother cry as family members—an uncle, an aunt, and even his father—are taken to a tuberculosis sanatorium. In hearing his mother pray to God, the young man’s resentment is clear.
Alone and hearing his mother cry, he says, “God doesn’t care. He doesn’t even know we’re here” (1106). That frustration manifests itself into an anger aimed at those people, namely his mother, who continues to trust in God. Rivera writes, “He thought his dad would get better the next day. And when he didn’t, the boy became angry. Angrier. And angrier still when his mother—not angry at her, no—but angrier when he’d hear both of them begging for God’s help. Begging God to help them? What had theyever done to anybody? (1106). Because he has never had the opportunity to witness the power of the divine intervene in their poverty or their degraded condition, this narrator is completely devoid of any sort of spirituality unlike the characters in the previous novels. While God fails many Chican@s, they are at least temporarily saved by the power of the curandera and the faith in indigenous practice. Rivera’s characters, sadly, do not have any practitioners of indigenous spirituality to arbitrate in their lives and they remain alone in the Cosmos.
Pocho—José Antonio Villarreal
As with many characters penned by Chican@ authors, those who cross the U.S./Mexico border incur an extreme sense of loss. Even if what is left behind is less than favorable, there is an intense feeling of sadness and, at least nominally, a loss of oneself. The family patriarch, Juan Rubio, in José Antonio Villarreal’sPochois not exempt from this feeling. In crossing the border into the U.S., Juan Rubio leaves behind a considerable piece of his existence or self-concept. Much of his life will have to be redefined in the United States. He will have to fill in those missing elements of his former life with fragments gained from his new reality.
Upon leaving Mexico, what Juan Rubio mourns quite deeply is the loss of his traditions. What was important in Mexico is of little consequence once he crosses the arbitrary line that
serves as the border between his homeland and the United States. One such tradition that Juan Rubio laments is the loss of his faith practice. Without the faculty to maintain the traditions of his faith, Juan Rubio is lost. Villarreal writes, “In Los Angeles, he mourned deeply the loss of his god, but he was an active man and could not remain idle. Now he helped build tall buildings” (28). The energy that Juan Rubio would have put into practice as a faithful man, now has to be spent on sustaining his physical self. There does not seem to be room for this man to have a spiritual self as well.
Unlike Tomás Rivera, Villarreal does infuse a level of hope in the novel’s patriarch. There is a sense that perhaps Juan Rubio will be able to find his faith again. That hope is hinged, however, on his ability to return to his life in Mexico. While a return to his country of origin is not immediately feasible, it is important Juan Rubio maintain a hopeful attitude. There is an apprehension on his part to completely let go of God despite limited evidence of his existence in life within the United States. He makes an attempt to pass down his spiritual knowledge to his son, Richard, the novel’s protagonist. The father explains to his son, “It is God’s will that we live as we do. That we raise our children and they, in turn, raise their children. Families will follow families until the end. That is how God wants it” (131). Richard’s response, however, defines the feelings of a generation born and raised on the margins of the United States regarding the presence of God. Richard replies to his father, “Then there is something wrong with God” (131). It becomes Richard’s job, and the job of the younger generation, to point out to the older, and more hopeful, generation the hypocrisies of their faith.
Unlike his father, Richard understands from a very young age, at least on some level, that his relationship with the holy Father is problematic. He feels a considerable strain in his ability to trust God. Although Richard is too young for analysis, he is old enough to at least be peripherally aware that his people are suffering. A young Richard takes notice of the world around him. Villarreal writes, “He thought the robin and the rabbit were God’s favorites, because they were endowed with the ability to make play out of life” (32). Richard observes his father and those like his father endlessly toil without making much progress, and he is somewhat cognizant that things are different for him than they are for others. Because Richard is young, he believes what he is told; however, he does begin to develop a certain level of skepticism that may not be indicative of a child his age. He reflects, “I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, but I do not believe everything I am told about him” (65). Richard, by nature of his life as a Chicano, will never really have the level of faith as does his father who retains much of his Mexican identity.
As Richard grows older and begins to recognize the difficulties, and near impossibility, of escaping the fate that has been handed down to him from his mother and father, he expresses considerable anger at God. He is eventually unable to place any amount of faith in the Christian deity that he will exact good works upon himself, his family, or the others he sees suffering. He exclaims, “I am through believing….I no longer believe in God” (172). Like the main character in Rivera’s This Migrant Earth, Richard’s Mexican heritage has been so conditioned out of him that he cannot find solace in those indigenous practices of faith as did Antonio in Bless Me, Ultimaor did Caridad and La Loca in So Far From God. Richard is faithless.
Richard is never able to rectify his two cultures in terms of faith as Anzaldúa explains many Chican@s have done. His experiences with suffering have stripped him of his ability to find a spiritual self on either pole of faith practice. Anzaldúa explains what someone like Richard misses when he is without faith. She writes, “Today, la Virgen de Guadalupe is the single most potent religious, political and cultural image of the Chicano/Mexicano. She, like my race is a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races in our psyche, the conquerors and the conquered. She is the symbol of the mestizo true to his or her Indian values (52). Richard’s indigenous self has been metaphorically beaten out of him and thus is of no use to him. This is one such danger of border life—in the quest to assimilate, the spiritual self evaporates. Paz, too, reflects on individual spirituality writing, “Religion and tradition have always been offered to us as dead and useless forms that mutilate and stifle our individuality….The Mexican is a religious being and his experience of the divine is completely genuine” (Paz, 106). Given the conditions of Richard’s life he is unable to genuinely connect with his Mexican self and thus he is unable to engage with indigenous forms of faith practice, which, for the Chican@, leads to a kind of peace within one’s self that Richard and other young men like him so desperately need.
To be of two worlds is to endure suffering. This is so for Chican@s. These dual citizens, these hybrid peoples’ history as well as their present are stained by their wounds. The wounding of the present is discernible in their frustration and restlessness resulting from their lack of power, a relentless and useless questing that leads only to self-loathing and shame as well as their cementing in a spiritual abyss.
What is unique about their wounds is that they are wounded not only at the hands of hegemonic sources, but at the hands of likewise marginalized people as well as themselves. Living between two worlds exacts a triple wounding at the hands of Anglo-English language hegemony, Mexican-Spanish language hegemony, and Mexican-American hybridized Pachuco-language internal cultural hegemony. Anzaldúa explains the sources of the wounding as well as their motivation for doing so. She writes:
The Anglo, feeling inadequate and inferior and powerless, displaces or transfers these feelings to the Chicano by shaming him. In the Gringoworld, the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprecation. Around Latinos he suffers from a sense of language inadequacy…with Native Americans he suffers from a racial amnesia which ignores our common blood, and from guilt because the Spanish part of him took their land and oppressed them. He has an excessive compensatory hubris when around Mexicans from the other side. It overlays a deep sense of racial shame (105).
In failing to protect and defend themselves from the sources of wounding, the Chican@ suffers from a profound humiliation. This group views themselves as wholly incapable and ineffective. These people, a mosaic of cultures, are relegated to the victim position and it is a degraded place.
A serious consequence of the weighty disgrace that the Chican@s, represented in these novels, feel manifests itself in violence against oneself. Chican@s internalize what they have been told about themselves and in turn use it against themselves—a form of self-punishment. Chican@s punish themselves in a variety of ways; however, the most cruel way they punish themselves is to convince themselves that they are, in fact, inferior. Octavio Paz discusses this byproduct of the Chican@s’ marginalization at the hands of Anglos. He writes, “an inferiority complex influenced out preference for analysis, and that the meagerness of our creative output was due not so much to the growth of our critical faculties at the expense of our creativity as it was to our instinctive doubts about our abilities (10-11). This tendency to analyze leads Chican@s to scrutinize their position in society and develop the multitude of ways they have failed to measure up to standards. Sadly, these marginalized beings do not recognize the standards that exist in their communities were designed so they could never reach them. They have been designed to keep them out. Quiñones recognizes the challenge of meeting standards for the Chican@. He writes:
The implication for United States class and minority relations are clear. Appropriately relative equality becomes the optimum reward based on conformity to the dominant set of values and behaviors within the system. Containment is achieved through socialization to dominant values created to maintain a class system; and the transition from segregation to integration occurs within the generally sanctioned class system. Minor differences are allowed only within the accepted framework of consensus (24).
The hegemonic forces that define the dominant framework for values and behaviors have failed to make room for the unique characteristics that comprise the Chican@. Until there is a framework that allows for the inclusion of values and behaviors that are integral to the Chican@s character, this group will continue to be relegated to living on the margins of society.
Academics and educators have a responsibility to impart onto younger generations the plight of this specific group of marginalized Americans as they do all groups that have been relegated to the Other position by dominant societal forces at work in their respective places. Until these marginalized, hybridized people’s challenges are heard, processed and understood, compassion for this group, the Chican@s, will continue to elude them. The stories penned by the novelists discussed in this paper as well as others not discussed here are important sources for learning about the unique perspectives and experiences of a significant group that comprise the American population. In learning about the Chican@ experience through literature and its respective criticism, readers learn not only about their own history but of a history that, may be, completely unfamiliar to them.
In the quest to understand the American experience and to form a truly comprehensive American literary cannon, scholars must immerse themselves in the cultural products, writing included, of the many minority groups that comprise the United States. While programs dedicated to Mexican-American and Chican@ studies have grown in the past 25 years, there are many spaces, university and secondary school level, in which this type of study does not exist. One of the biggest reasons for this dearth of programming is the question of carving out a discipline in which to study the Chican@ experience as this area of scholarship, like many other areas of scholarship, bleed into and out of multiple disciplines. Despite the question of discipline, to ignore or to be unfamiliar with the experiences of the Chican@ people is to have an incomplete picture of life in the United States. This research will bring attention to the work of Chican@ writers and as well call attention to the lasting consequences, whether intended or unintended, of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Because Spanish is a gendered language, some have taken to using @ to include both the masculine ‘o’ and the feminine ‘a’ as a way to describe individuals with Latin American heritage.
The area that comprises the northeast territory of present-day Mexico as well as the southeast territory of present-day Texas.
An open wound
A young Mexican-American having a taste for flashy clothes and a special jargon and usually belonging to a neighborhood gang (www.merriam-websters.com)
the deliberate destruction of an ethnic culture (www.merriam-websters.com). Ethnocide differs from genocide in that genocide means to physically eradicate a culture, while ethnocide means to suppress elements that define that culture.
The working cowhand of Mexico, who began his career on frontier missions during the colonial period….became excellent riders and ropers who skillfully made much of their own equipment. Indigenous and mestizo vaqueros modified Spanish equipment and riding techniques according to the needs imposed by their local conditions….During the nineteenth century, the expansion of the United States into the Southwest led to the Mexican War of 1846, after which some vaqueros went to work on Anglo-American ranches. They taught Anglo cowboys how to handle wild cattle and braid lariats, and imparted much of their folklore and ranching savvy (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture 2nded. vol 6 (2008): 279-80).
An open grassy plain in Spanish America or the southwestern United States (www.merriam-websters.com)
The Yaquis (also called Yoemem) are a "cross-border" indigenous nation of northwestern Mexico (Sonora) and the southwestern United States (Arizona) that has stood out for its long and successful resistance to acculturation and assimilation into Mexican society….the Yaquis have insisted on retaining their own distinctive identity as a separate people and culture, and they have waged numerous wars to prevent the loss of their communities, land, water, and way of life in the Yaqui River Valley.An indigenous people with identity rooted in a land base, the Yaquis were primarily agricultural. During long periods of resistance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, they were prevented from deriving much of their subsistence from the soil in their contested homeland; thus, many became temporary wage laborers in the haciendas, mines, and railroads of Sonora and Arizona. Nevertheless, unlike other frontier Indian communities, Yaqui participation in the larger economy did not result in their permanent assimilation into the larger society. For, even as they worked for wages, they struggled to preserve their autonomous communities—physically, politically, and culturally (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture2nded. vol 6 (2008): 481-2).
president of Mexico (1876–1880 and 1884–1911)….resigned the presidency in May 1911 in response to pressure from his constituents who perceived his selling out to the United States and in response from U.S. pressure who believed he was increasingly anti-American after rejecting economic nationalism as U.S intervention was rejected in response to Mexico’s financial depression and social repression (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture2nded. vol 2(2008): 807-10).
Gringo, a slang, usually derogatory term used in Mexico for Anglo-Americans or English speakers (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture2nded. vol 3 (2008): 513).
Pocho, a culturally Americanized Mexican residing in the United States. The Mexican term (literally, "discolored" or "faded") refers to a Mexican who has adopted North American values, traditions, and language at the expense of his Mexican heritage. The term was widely used in Mexico from the 1920s on; the extent of its use was directly related to the immigration to the United States of thousands of Mexicans in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and the resentment that this immigration generated. "Pocho" can also refer to a process or a condition of assimilation. The word became institutionalized as a pejorative denomination for Mexicans residing in the United States until the term Chicano began to replace it in the late 1960s. As of 2005, 26.8 million Mexican-Americans resided in the United States (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture2nded. vol 5 (2008): 276).
) One of Mexico's infamous and enigmatic revolutionary military leaders. From his base of operations in the northern state of Chihuahua, [he] commanded a large fighting force originating in the northern ranching region of the country…represented the largest and best organized fighting contingents in the early years of the Revolution….[he] encapsulated the image of the Mexican revolutionary as a tough, mustachioed cowboy …. angry and disappointed with the United States for siding with his rival, Venustiano Carranza, [he] ordered an attack on the U.S. city Columbus, New Mexico….a number of U.S. soldiers and resident citizens of Columbus were killed. As a consequence, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson authorized General John Pershing to invade Mexico in search of [him]…and bring him to justice for his attack….For almost a year Pershing unsuccessfully hunted Villa….attack on the United States did not help his cause within the context of Mexico's internal political dynamic….[he] was eventually marginalized in the revolutionary struggle, went into a negotiated semiretirement from his revolutionary and military activities in 1920, and was himself eventually assassinated in northern Mexico in 1923 (Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture2nded. vol 6 (2008): 371-3).
It is important to note the complexity of this dichotomy. Mexicans, before they even cross the border, have a history with spiritual contradictions in that a dichotomy is present between European Catholic and indigenous forms of faith practice.
A Curandero/Curandeiro is a folk healer….traditions of folk healing were effective both psychologically and physiologically and have continued into the present…civilizations of the Andes and Mexico developed healing arts based on magic and medicinal knowledge….despite the long-standing popularity of folk remedies…curanderos faced great scrutiny and even prohibition. Curanderas in Mexico City during the colonial era were denounced as witches in Inquisition trials(Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture2nded. vol 2 (2008): 729-32).
Title taken from a remark made by Porfiro Diaz, president of Mexico during the 19thcentury regarding Mexico being “Poor Mexico, so far from God so close to the United States.”
A literary genre or style associated especially with Latin American that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction (www.merriam-websters.com)