Introduction to Chicana/o Literature
The rise of Chicana/o literature took place in the late 1960s, as part of the Chicano movement and the upsurge in awareness of the presence and cultural contributions of people of Mexican descent in the U.S. The word “Chicano,” as Raymund Paredes explains, refers to “people of Mexican ancestry who have resided permanently in the United States for an extended period. Chicanos can be native-born citizens or Mexican-born immigrants who have adapted to life in the United States.” Although “Chicano” and “Mexican-American” are often used interchangeably, the former indicates an added political sensibility; an asserted self-awareness of a cultural identity that cannot be separated from social and material struggles for equality and inclusion. Originally a derogatory name for Mexican-Americans, “Chicano” was reappropriated by young civil rights advocates in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to reclaim both the power of self-definition and the pride in a rich, bilingual, cross-cultural heritage. Because of the implicated limitations of the Spanish masculine form, an emerging recognition of gender equality has insisted on modifying the term so that it includes the feminine form. Hence, art, literature, theater, film, and other cultural productions are currently referred to as Chicana/o.
When considering the origins of Chicana/o literature, many scholars believe it is impossible to ignore the long history of literary production in what is now the U.S. Southwest; a history that stretched long before the rise of the Chicano movement in the 1960s. The Southwest, which broadly includes the states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and California, had been populated by Spanish-speaking communities since the late 1600s, when the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico were expanding their territories north, establishing forts, missions, and villages along profitable routes of trade and mining. Spanish colonial rule in the Americas has produced a new ethnic identity called mestisaje in Spanish, meaning a mix of Indian and European blood. And it wasn’t just the blood that got blended; the colonized indigenous languages, religious beliefs, and traditions were absorbed into the colonizers’ increasingly dominant Spanish language, Catholic religion, and European customs.
This mixture, or hybridity, which was considered inferior in the eyes of the Spaniards and later on the Anglo-American settlers, would become a central feature of the Chicano movement’s pride in the fight for political recognition, and of Chicano literature’s creative articulations of a unique identity that traverses borders and cultures. The long legacy of colonization in the U.S. Southwest, first by the Spaniards and then by the Anglo-Americans, has generated a rich oral tradition of storytelling, plays, and narrative songs called corridos that told of physical and spiritual hardships in the face of ongoing oppression, marginalization, and dispossession. The power of imaginative resourcefulness and the lasting presence of regional indigenous oral traditions provided not only relief from the harsh reality of Hispanic communities, but also a way to express discontent with the injustices of racial discrimination and envision different, better conditions of existence in the future.
Although a substantial body of both written and oral creative production was growing steadily in the Southwest, it wasn’t until the the mid-20th century that these materials began to be recorded, archived, published, and distributed through mainstream channels, mostly academic research in anthropology, history, and literature. Yet once those avenues were opened, and with the growing efforts of activists and community organizers of the Chicano movement, there appeared to be a flood of creative work that included novels, short stories, essays, plays, autobiographies, poetry, children’s books, and screenplays. The many voices emerging out of a large segment of an American population that was silenced and practically ignored for a long time have given the Chicano community in the U.S. the recognition it deserves, and have made its distinctive experience accessible to large and diverse audiences.
“I had read absolutely no Chicano prose during all my school years,” says Rudolfo Anaya in an interview with Juan Bruce-Novoa, a prominent scholar of Chicana/o literature. “There were a few novels out there, and I suppose if you were into research you could have found diaries and newspapers, or in folklore you could have read the cuentos, but contemporary Chicano prose wasn’t born until the mid-sixties during the Chicano movement, and so I think in a sense what we did in the sixties was to create the model itself… we set about to build a house and in the sixties we built the foundation” (Dick and Sirias, 108). When Bless Me, Ultima was published in 1972, the time was ripe for modern-day novels to carve a place of honor for the Chicano experience in the U.S. Southwest. More than thirty years after its original publication, the book is still one of the best-known and best-selling work of Chicana/o literature.
The success of Bless Me, Ultima paved the way for other authors to follow Anaya’s lead and explore, in their own forms and styles, themes the novel raised and that have become the marks of Chicana/o literature’s contribution to North American literature in general. At the heart of Bless Me, Ultima is the search for identity in the border zone between A Spanish-speaking community and the larger world of an English-speaking society. Bless me, Ultima, like many other Chicana/o literary productions, is written with a bilingual awareness, intermingling Spanish and English, and utilizing colloquial “Spanglish.” Bilingualism, then, is arguably the most pronounced facet of Chicano identity, and of the struggle for recognition in an English-speaking society that looks down on any other languages, especially those that originate south of the border. The use of bilingual writing in published literature, then, was an effective way to legitimize and make room for a culture that straddles two worlds.
Another major theme that unites many Chicana/o literary works is the search for a sense of belonging that would be rooted in connection with the land, the history of the Southwest, and the mestisaje heritage. The concept of Aztlán, a mythical homeland based in ancient Aztec belief, has evolved first as part of the political consciousness of the Chicano movement. In this context, it served as a declaration of continued historical presence in a region where, since the Anglo-American takeover in 1848, the Hispanic community was treated as alien, as an inferior “other” in a place that has been its home for centuries. The importance of a homeland to the Chicano identity appears in Anaya’s second novel, Heart of Aztlán (1976), which explores a young Hispanic man’s quest to find his place in the big city, after his family leaves a rural village in New Mexico and settles in Albuquerque. Economic hardships, politics, and an evolving consciousness infused with indigenous spirituality mark the boy’s struggle for self-definition, a struggle that becomes symbolic of the larger Chicano community everywhere in the U.S. Southwest.
Many ideologies, including Marxism, civil rights, and cultural nationalism were informing the Chicano movement, and the myth of Aztlán was used to empower and unite the fundamentally diverse and dispersed Hispanic community. As the Chicano community was organizing and fighting for better work conditions, housing, representation, health care, and education, it was also discovering and rediscovering the power of literature to communicate philosophies and experiences and inspire change. A significant part of the Chicano political agenda, as Anaya emphasizes, was the cultural movement, which made room for Mexican music, Mexican art, Chicano films and theater, and the many rich and resonant expressions of Chicano literature. “The Chicanos found their voice,” says Anaya and began to publish in small presses, to create from the beginning of 1965 a few books” (Dick and Sirias, 144).
Along with Anaya, many important authors have utilized their talent to address the urgent issues raised by the Chicano movement, from farm workers and immigrant rights to celebrating cultural heritage. In the early 1970s, Tomas Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa, and Miguel Mendez were a few of the notable writers who have opened the doors to new voices and forms of expression previously unseen in U.S. literature. Bilingualism, the use of magical realism, and innovative integration of fiction and autobiography have made Chicano literature distinct not only in its subject matters but also in its form and style. Brutally honest accounts of exceptionally harsh lives from writers such as Luis J. Rodriguez and Jimmy Santiago Baca stand out as much as the imaginative, folkloric creations of Miguel Méndez, Luís Alberto Urrea and of course Rudolfo Anaya. Through works such as Legend of La Llorona, Farolitos of Christmas, Jalamanta, and Maya’s Children, Anaya continued to expand on topics related to deep bonds with the land, with ancestors, and with both indigenous and Mexican myth and cosmology.
These days, fifty years after the modest beginnings, new generations of writers are adding their points of view and contributions to the vibrant trajectory of what is now recognized as a major American literary movement. The themes that generated the initial flow of Chicano literary production—the search for identity, belonging, and place, bilingual and bicultural existence, hybridity, and life on the U.S.-Mexico border—persist in their contemporary urgency, informing an increasingly broadening scope of Chicano literature. Over time, other concerns have been added as well. The place of women, for example, and of gay, lesbian, or queer individuals within a traditionally masculinist, patriarchic society, has been at the forefront of innovative novels, stories, plays, and poems. Exploring problems related to gender roles, family structures, and nonconformist kinships, Chicana Authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Helena María Viramontes, and Denise Chávez have added a pertinent and poignant feminist critique to the unique cultural perspective offered by Chicano literature as a whole.
When asked to comment on the place of Chicano literature within the greater whole of U.S. literature, Anaya expressed his belief that the two cannot really be separated. “We can present our own perspective,” he claims “and in such a way present to the world the workings of our imagination, filtered through a very long and rich culture. But ultimately it will be incorporated into the literature of this country. The role of the next generation will be to assure that we are not given secondary status, or the back shelves of the libraries” (Dick and Sirias, 18). The aim of finding a voice and claim a place on the national literary stage, Anaya emphasizes, is not to stand out but to demonstrate belonging, participation, and integration, which are indeed the reality of the Chicano experience. “I know it’s fashionable for many Chicano writers to say they do not belong to this society that has oppressed minorities,” says Anaya. “Nonetheless, the fact exists that we are part of that society” (Dick and Sirias, 17).
Anaya continues to contribute to the growing volume of Chicana/o literature, which has been established as a formal scholarly field both within English and Chicana/o Studies departments in universities across the nation as well as abroad. Generous contributions to educational funds from the Anaya family continue to encourage young Chicano students and writers to pursue their passions and careers. At the University of New Mexico, Anaya’s alma mater, an annual lecture series honors and promotes the thriving legacy of Chicana/o and other literature of the Southwest. Hosting free talks and readings, the Rudolfo and Patricia Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest has featured renowned authors such as Rigoberto Gonzales, Ana Castillo, and N. Scott Momaday, bringing together the diverse cultures and audiences of the region in a celebration of multiple voices and traditions of poetics and storytelling.
“The Anaya Lecture on the Literature of the Southwest.” Department of English Language and Literature, University of New Mexico, https://english.unm.edu/dept-life/events/anaya-lecture/index.html. Accessed 6 October 2017.
Calderón, Héctor, and José David Saldívar. Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Dick, Bruce, and Silvio Sirias. Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Fernandez Olmos, Margarite. Rudolfo A. Anaya: A Critical companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Paredes, Raymund. “Teaching Chicano Literature: An Historical Approach.” Georgetown University. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/bassr/tamlit/essays/chicano.html, Accessed 6 October 2017.
Tatum, Charles M. Chicano and Chicana Literature. Tucson: The university of Arizona Press, 2006.