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A Question of Origins and Presence in Chicano Literature

Authors(s): Sergio D. Elizondo


Source: Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 11, No. 21 (Fall - Winter, 1982), pp. 39-43
Published by: Latin American Literary Review
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A QUESTION OF ORIGINS AND PRESENCE IN

CHICANO LITERATURE

SERGIO D. ELIZONDO
This paper is written as an attempt to give the reader some ideas regard

ing the cultural foundations of the literature of the Chicano people.

Chronologically, it will treat only the works that have been written since
1959, this being the period of greatest production and creative diversity
after 1848. I will refer mostly to the origins, roots, and primary values of
belles lettres as an eminent expression of the culture of the Chicano people.
After having been involved in Chicano literature for more than fifteen
years and participating as one of its writers, I feel like an old man who has
seen a lot of life. I cannot speak of fhe literature of the Chicano people as an
artistic aberration, or as an object of idle curiosity. I don't have doubts
about its ontological dialectic, the nature of its reality, because I know that
Chicano literature is that which in some ways demonstrates roots, cultural
roots. For me, the nature of its being is orderly, and of course, real and

clear.

The dialectic of existence of Chicano culture is unreal only to the unin


formed. We can no longer assume the decadent thesis that we are some sort

of a part-Mexican and part-American cultural bastard. Our cultural


heterogeneity, and the plethora of Mexican Spanish language forms are

among our most visible assets in the dialectic of primary values. An

thropological purity cannot be distilled from the proposition that human


condition and behavioral choices are made physically or chemically. The
Chicano ethical order is formed principally from the collective unconscious
of our Mexican cultural continuity, and its transcendence is found scien
tifically in the Chicano literary metaphor that has now, more than ever, its
own construction of values. It was only two to three decades ago that we as

Ch?canos entered, rather quietly, the greater American cultural

mainstream. In spite of our greater social urbanism and share of economic


wealth, our unconscious roots still nurture our Mexican background and it
is so revealed in literature as art, even that written in English.
Ours is a borderland literature. Paralleling the concept of authenticity
of our culture, its territorial space and ethnographic make-up is distinctively

not Mexican nor American, but Chicano or whatever semantic denominator


one would choose?it doesn't really matter. Here we have the proposition
of cultural autochthony. Topographically, the politics of the borderlands
are too vague an area to define by looking at Mexican or American national
borders, just as radio and TV signals are physically determined only in their
disappearance in the distance. The borderlands is a state of mind, but the

39

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Latin American Literary Review

concept of Chicano literature is an objective melange of variable dialects,


social types and writers' diversity of tools, manners and modes of viewing
the world.

A tacit consciousness of self-determinism in our public image of


ourselves has been made through literature more than in any form of
transcendental deportment. If until two or three decades ago our private
cultural identity was very strong and real, the longer and more risky step in

to the world of public presence of our cultural identity has settled in the
minds of the Chicano people through literature; in spite of its numerical
minority within American society, the rise of Chicanismo appeared through
carnalismo and other popular statements during the Chicano movement.
We feel our roots, we sense our mythical values more and more with our
whole being and with less fear of rejection or embarrassment. We are not
now in the position to tell, but only to guess, what will happen to us and our
literature as we continue to grow into the so-called mainstream of American
society. However, the ever-present demographic growth through constant
immigration from Mexico, the greater availability of the Spanish media and

the continuous income of Mexican influence are constant sources of

strength and reminders of our cultural heritage. Our archetypical figures,


images and metaphors are no longer silent; unlike the proverbial candle

under the basket, the light is not out. The Pachuco, la llorona, the

curandera, the tata and nana as well as the wonder-possessed adolescent are
center-stage and active. In other words, the dialectics of Chicano culture as
encompassing the entire corpus of our values must be viewed horizontally

and vertically. In its horizontal aspect such factors as geography,

demography, and territorial limits are considered. The vertical aspect is sub
jective, for it consists of social stratification together with its vital and at
tendant aspects of sociolinguistics and daily language use in every social
context. The same can be adduced for psycholinguistics and the construc

tion of any socio-economic typology according to scientific, objective

criteria for the measuring of self-definitions and many other components

such as generation, education, income and language choice. The entire

grouping of structural factors mentioned, and others unknown to me, must

be taken into account in the definition and dialectic concept of Chicano


literature.

For a fair appreciation of the literature of the Chicano people one must
accept its culture without bias, scientifically and objectively, in order to also
understand current values as clearly as possible. It seems that without the
formal understanding of knowledge it is not correct to attempt to com
prehend the entire historical process from its beginnings, let us say, from
the premise of the pre-Columbian societies to the explication of our present,
total cultural reality. Our cultural consciousness reveals all that remains of
our primary, ancient, collective cultural unconsciousness to the new world
view from the point of Chicano of today.
I believe that most of the writers, with very few exceptions, were aware

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Origins and Presence in Chicano Literature

41

of the changes in attitude that possessed the Chicano during the Chicano

movement after 1959. And with this understanding, the creation of


literature showed the many aspects of its heroic time; that is, before 1974,
when the heroic period gave way to the ?other? period which lasts until to
day, during which the people have witnessed a larger number of less strident

and more mature types of literature. I don't know what this period should
be called, perhaps ?the formal,? ?the disciplined,? or ?the mature? period
of Chicano literature, following the heroic decade of the sixties into the ear
ly seventies.
Since 1974, the people have seized the greater opportunities to publish
works, to try new forms, designs; the metaphor of Chicano life has become
more refined, perhaps more complex and has more depth.
Most of the ambitious works have been the product of professors of
English or Spanish on the one hand, and on the other, there are what I
could call ?the people,? whose works are no less valid. The professors, with
formal training in the aesthetics of forms of literature, and therefore, a
greater view of the art, are well endowed to transform fact into fiction; the
metaphor of life is sensitively managed, polish follows and we begin to see

the universalization of the familiar?the provincial?which becomes less

personal and more technically calculated at the same time as ancient and
contemporary values continue to be treated with admirable presumption as
the writer is rewarded for good results.
While our reading public still is small, there is no shortage of types of
literature nor of international variations on the part of the author:
?Alurista becomes a most serious cultural nationalist proposing
a return to ancient pre-Columbian symbols and values.

?Miguel M. M?ndez reveals to us an Amerindian cultural


border centered between the geographical area of Arizona and

California.

?Rolando Hinojosa reveals a vast tejano world with a delicate,


disciplined, polished style, and sympathetic attitude.

?Rudolfo Anaya views the panorama of a mythical New Mex

ico with a plethora of poetic images.


?And Ron Arias takes a step into magic realism, and succeeds
with ease.

The heroic period now seems to have been a transitional decade which
established our literary archetypes and found modes of expression in every
genre; but the new decade since 1974 reaches a plateau of more carefully
selected themes under more strict disciplines devoid of the doctrinaire at
titude of the writer during the heroic period. Alejandro Morales presents
the urban Chicano with vigorous impressionism. Women mature in poetry
and the short story, adding a new concern to literary expression, the plain

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Latin American Literary Review

tive queja, a complaint of freedom from chauvinism.


Literature now reflects the complex personality of the Chicano as the

search for aesthetic ends with a new period of open discovery. The
metaphor has matured and we seem to be less apologetic for our produc
tion.
We finally assumed control over literature as an imperative when we
felt that we needed to make a statement at all costs, to the transcendental
view of literature as a necessity in our system of values. There are many
writers who produced one or very few works in the decade of the heroic
period; there have since emerged a number of voices, male and female, who
appear to show a continuity that formerly was lacking and many of the ear

ly authors continue to produce, namely, Anaya, Hinojosa, M?ndez,


Alurista, Arias and Villanueva.
We are more visibly thankful to those who passionately continue to
publish and who try new forms or improve on the old. It looks like Hino

josa's work is going the way of Balzac's Comedie Humaine, and Galdos'

concatenation of themes and of heroes under an ever clearer, more polished


style; his values and development of character are the same as when Estam

pas first appeared in 1971. There is a P?re Goriot somewhere, and a

Marguerite Du val, together with a Lazarillo in their cocoons awaiting the


magic touch of the pen to come out as full personalities.
The ancient themes of the search, pilgrimage and the labyrinth of life
with all its vicissitudes already appear in M?ndez and Rivera as well as on
the road to Tamazunchale. While alienation as a time-tested theme makes

its appearance, the second part of Richard Vazquez's Chicano and A.


Morales' Caras nuevas treat it with excellence.

CONCLUSION
I guess the big questions concerning the literature of the Chicano peo
ple, for some, are the matters of authenticity, legitimacy, autochthony,
quality, and cultural verisimilitude. It would be needless at this time to
discuss at length the eternal rejection of a new literature as a part of the
established order. Let it be said that most Chicano writers couldn't care less
what the Establishment thinks of our work. We understand the situation
and have become quite philosophical about it.
As for the lack of recognition from the national publishing houses, I
see it as a minor problem which I believe only time and the continuing effort

to produce quality literature will solve. I see no problems for Ch?canos with
respect to the legitimacy or acceptance of our literature. We do not read
much, so why fret. I would rather assume that the problem of acceptability
is not ours, but of those who have not accepted us as human beings. This
brings us back precisely to the question of the relativity of values. I hear that

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Origins and Presence in Chicano Literature

43

Latin American literature still isn't accepted by some peninsularists in some


quarters. A brief look at literary journals and review periodicals will tell us

that Hispanic literature is not loved in our home; again, why fret? An

understanding of our history, even going beyond the pre-Columbian period


but more seriously yet, a full knowledge and understanding of our culture at

present is very necessary for any reader in order to see in our literature the
values and qualities found in any other national literature. It is with the
understanding of these principles here adduced that I believe that we must
see the origins of Chicano literature as closely tied to the historical process
of culture, and as presented by the artist in all forms. As we study our

literature more and more we have acquired new perspectives of it, and

things are falling into place more frequently, giving us newer and probably
better criteria to see our own art in a new light. The question of language
choice, while still debatable, has become less cloudy than before. Literature
in Spanish has the advantage over that written in English inasmuch as the
former is a true revelation of all that is Hispanic through one of its most
lasting and important factors: language. And the latter, while its validity is
unquestioned, leaves many of us who are literate in both languages wanting
just a little more, as we might expect the colors of a tapestry to appear on its

reverse side?it's not quite the same. This is a criterion that is often

neglected by monolinguals, but it certainly is not by those who have not lost
the mother tongue, the tongue of the oldest roots in our cultural personali
ty. Let us remember, however, that Rudy Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima has
now sold more than 100,000 copies. This area of interpretation and evalua
tion of Chicano literature in Spanish or English needs more scientific and
well-designed research. But it is my hope that such research will not be con
ducted by anyone whose narrow and monolithic academic discipline might
prevent a fuller, deeper and richer interpretation of a very exciting aspect of

American art.

New Mexico State University

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