domingo, 8 de enero de 2012

Unproblematic and strategic identifications of Chicana/o cultural production with a mythicized Aztec past

Ignacio López-Calvo
University of California, Merced


Published in Tradition and Innovation in Mesoamerican CulturalHistory: A Homage to Tatiana A. Proskouriakoff. Ed. Roberto Cantú and Aaron Sonnenschein. Munich: Lincom Europa, 2011.193-202.

Chicana/o cultural production has traditionally resorted to an unproblematic identification with an oft-mythicized Aztec past. However, this strategic identification with indigeneity can be problematized by studying the role of Indians in autobiographical texts by Southwestern women writers such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca’s We Fed them Cactus, and Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s A Beautiful, Cruel Country.

Although these three narratives condemn the United States’ takeover of their ancestral land (or the way in which it was done, in the case of Ruiz de Burton), they never compare this land takeover to the Spaniards’ conquest and colonization of Indian lands. In their defense, the implicit authors in We Fed them Cactus and A Beautiful, Cruel Country show both respect for Native American traditions and sympathy for their plight. In the case of We Fed them Cactus, we can deconstruct the narrative slips where not even the Indians’ existence is acknowledged: “In the days of the buffalo and the Comanche, the Llano was uninhabited and dangerous” (1994: 3-4), she states. The land is considered “uninhabited” even though she has just mentioned the Comanches. By the same token, Cabeza de Baca, a New Mexican who still considers herself a Spaniard, narrates, from a costumbrista perspective and with no signs of criticism, the buffalo hunts as a sport, in spite of the fact that by this time she must have been aware that they represented the end of the Indian way of life and survival. In fact, the respect Indians felt for the buffalo, their main source of subsistence, is absent in Cabeza de Baca’s discourse: “As a rule, the buffalo was a very stupid animal”; “the bulls were the protectors of the herd, but it did not take much to frighten them,” states a character called Manuel (1994: 44).

Therefore, as a narrative and political strategy, these texts display a selective memory that manages to portray the utopian land of Ariel (“We were a happy family” [Cabeza de Baca 1994: 11]) in which everyone lives in harmony with the land and most Indians have more or less accepted the Hispanic presence in their ancestral territories. The arrival of Caliban, the American homesteaders, represents the beginning of the end of the arcadia. Curiously, in the relationship between the Indians and the Spanish landlords we can see social practices such as the patronazgo that would later be used by twentieth-century dictators, such as Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Cabeza de Baca, for instance, mentions the way in which her grandfather’s workers would become his compadres once he sponsored their children’s baptisms or marriages. By becoming their compadre, he secured their lifelong loyalty.

Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s A Beautiful, Cruel Country, her first book, is a beautifully nostalgic and poetic memoir of a woman who, at age five, was able to carry out the hardest jobs in an Arizona ranch at the beginning of the twentieth century. The selective memory of this octogenarian author retells the story of her life and her love for her native land, stopping—at times as briefly as possible—at controversial issues, such as the displacement of the Native American population who had lived in these paradisiac territories for centuries: “‘Now white man here, too.’ And they shrugged their shoulders as if they wondered whether things would be better or worse with the white man in their midst” (1987: 64). In the first chapters, she focuses mainly on her family’s charitable and tolerant attitude toward Indians as well as on her childhood friendship with Wahyanita and other Papago (Tohono O’odham) children who taught her about their beliefs (religious
syncretism), customs, and language. In the last chapter, however, we learn about the Indian exodus and their sad confinement into a reservation, the inevitable result of racial hatred.

Wilbur-Cruce emphasizes how much she learned from the Indian population “a self- sufficient people who knew how to survive” (1987: 27). In spite of her obvious sympathy for Native Americans, however, other passages denote the paternalistic attitude of the Wilbur-Cruce family, who often refer to Native Americans as the Indiada: “One of the Indians who came to our house almost every day was an old man we called our ‘simple savage’ because he was a truly primitive Indian and seemed happy to remain so” (1987: 25); “Everybody liked María Nieves. She was, they said, muy Castellana (very Castilian)” (1987: 45); “‘I hope,’ said Grandfather wistfully, ‘that everything goes well with those poor Indian boys’” (1987: 313). In the epilogue, there is a warning for a hostile future that seems to be foretold by the mass exile of Indians, conceived of as “the threshold of a new world” (1987: 309) for which the family is not ready: “the strangeness intensified, as we woke up
to a weird, lonely, white world” (1987: 312). The vacuum created by the Indians’ departure brings about a warning about the inevitable drastic changes in the family’s long-established way of life. Moreover, the grandfather, Don Francisco Vilducea, senses turmoil and “a premonition of tragedies ahead” (1987: 310).

Likewise, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s historical novel with some with testimonial and autobiographical traits, The Squatter and the Don, provides a telling definition of the term “Californio.” Ruiz de Burton depicts the Californio as a European/Europeanized and white individual, with the exquisite manners of a gentleman and the sophisticated culture of the Old Continent. Thus, the squatters comment: “‘They look like Englishmen,’ was Clarence’s next observation. ‘Yes, particularly Victoriano; he is so light he looks more like a German, I think,’ said Romeo” (1997: 85). Evidently, the Native Americans of California and the Mexican mestizo population are excluded from this nationalist perspective. As in Wilbur-Cruce’s text, the very use of the term “boy” is indicative of this attitude: “You can hire an Indian boy to do that part. They know how to handle la reata and echar el lazo” (1997: 89).

The aforementioned examples implicitly challenge the strategic identification of the Chicano Movement and Chicana/o novelists and theorists with indigeneity and an Aztec past. In this sense, Rafael Pérez-Torres has problematized the romanticization of the Indian carried out by the nationalist discourses of the 1960s and later, during the 1980s, in the writings of feminist Chicana critics such as Gloria Anzaldúa: “Many of the mestizos who, beginning in the seventeenth century, move north into what would become New Mexico, California, Texas, and other states were actively involved in genocidal campaigns against Native populations. The unproblematic claim by Chicanos to indigenous ancestry thus helps erase a troubling part of the Chicano past in relation to Native peoples” (2006: 14).

Moving on to Chicana/o literature, works by Chicano authors such as Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them or Luis J. Rodríguez’s The Republic of East L.A., as well as novels about Chicanos written by Euro-American authors such as Danny Santiago (Famous All Over Town) and Kate Braverman (Palm Latitudes) find a historical precedent of the disenfranchisement of Chicanos in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Using Aztec imagery to connect both historical periods, the comparisons evoke images of destruction as well as of survival in times of upheaval. These same images are also common in Chicana/o film or films that portray Chicanas/os. Thus, the first scenes of Taylor Hackford’s Blood In Blood Out (also released as Bound by Honor, 1993) re-create the environment of East Los Angeles with images of gang graffiti, images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and warfare, and murals with Aztec warriors. Later, while Cruz is painting the typical image of an Aztec warrior with a fainted or dead Aztec woman in his arms, he explains to his younger brother: “Pay attention, pelao, I’m gonna teach you all about Aztlan cause this vato [Quetzalcoatl] is coming back some day to reclaim the Raza’s kingdom” (1993). Therefore, we witness a double take on the ideas of nationhood and cultural difference: a lived or experienced reality goes hand in hand with a mythical one based on historical associations that prove the timeless nature and existence of such nation.

However, John Rechy’s novel, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez (1991), points out some contradictions while simultaneously exposing the male chauvinistic demeanor of Latino characters, both male and female. The plight of the protagonist suggests that the worst enemies of Mexican American women are actually the men in their own ethnic group, a message that is ironically juxtaposed to nationalistic claims for liberation. In this context, the following passage goes so far as to condemn the masculinism of the Chicano Movement through its iconography:

there was a wall painting that fascinated and puzzled her, and she went there often to look at it: A muscular Aztec prince, amber-gold faced, in lordly feathers, stood with others as proud as he. They gazed toward the distance.[….] an old Mexican man who had been sitting nearby on a bench came up to her and explained: “The conquistadores are about to subdue the Indians with weapons, as they did, but over there”—he pointed to the band of muslin-clad men—“are the revolucionarios, who will triumph and bring about Aztlán, our promised land of justice.”
Amalia thanked him for his explanation. She continued to study the
mural. There were no women. Where were they? Had they survived? (1991: 45)

Indeed, the rhetoric of the Chicano Movement, as seen in the “Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” (Spiritual Plan of Aztlán), a manifesto proposed in 1969 by the First National Chicano Liberation Youth Conference that advocated Chicano nationalism and self-determination, as well as in “Yo soy Joaquín,” a foundational poem read by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (1928-2005) at this conference, initially presented the Chicano militant as male, thus excluding women from the nationalist imagery. This approach, which coincides with the denunciation of masculinism in Gloria Anzaldúa’s study Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), is questioned again in the novel, this time through graffiti that reads: “AZTLÁN ES UNA FÁBULA” (Aztlan is a fable; 1991: 70). At the same time, however, it problematizes the fetishization of the Aztec world not only by the Chicano Movement but also by Mexican American feminist critics, including Anzaldúa.

Two novels by Graciela Limón, Erased Faces (2001) and The Day of the Moon (1999) continue this line of thought. Set against the historical background of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the fictional characters in Erased Faces interact not only with real-life Zapatistas such as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos and Comandanta Insurgente Ramona, but also with historical characters such as Cuauhtémoc, Hernán Cortés, Motolinía, Bartolomé de las Casas, and others. From the first page in the novel, where we read about Adriana’s nightmare, the Mexican army and the Spanish conquistadors are allegorically blended into one. Through this narrative device, the novel “others” both colonizers: the sixteenth-century colonial power and contemporary Mexican mestizos. The mystical Lacandón character Chan K’in also provides an indirect explanation for this narrative technique: “The people of this forest know that each one of us has lived not only once, but in other times. What is happening to us now is a repetition of what happened to us then” (2001: 21). Hence, perhaps in line with the Chicano Movement’s fetishization of Aztec heritage, Adriana Mora learns that she is actually the reincarnation of the heroic Mexica woman Hutizitzilín. Through these magical reincarnations as well as the repetition of colonial structures, these episodes emphasize the fact that the situation of the Maya of Chiapas today is very similar to their circumstances five centuries ago and the Mexican Army is the reincarnation of the Spanish conquistadors. Today’s plight, therefore, is a continuation of the same one that Fray Bartolomé de las Casas denounced before the Spanish crown.

This identification with the Aztec past is questioned in a previous novel by Graciela
Limón, The Day of the Moon (1999), which allows us to see other types of Mexicans living in Los Angeles: not so much the people of pre-Columbian descent who fled exploitation in their native country, but the ones who were oppressors and moved North with their pockets full of money. Characters such as Don Flavio Betancourt, who typifies racism and classism among Mexicans, represent the other side of the coin: that of wealthy Mexican immigrants. As is common in post-colonial societies, he is proud of sharing the same phenotype as the colonizers. Since he has inherited his father’s white skin, he chooses to forget the “embarrassing” fact that his mother was indigenous. In contrast, his daughter Isidora, who does not share his racist views, falls in love with an indigenous man. Although Don Flavio loves her, he is unable to overcome the racial prejudice he has brought to the United States and never approves of their relationship. In addition, the novel includes characters of Mexican descent who were born in the American Southwest before or after the U.S. conquest and who never identified themselves as indios. On the contrary, they were the North American Indians’ “Other,” their masters and exploiters or the descendents of the latter. In the end, however, racism vanishes in the novel when one of the last members of the Betancourt family, a mestiza youngster named Alondra who mixes Spanish and English to her family’s dismay, returns to the land of her ancestors and decides to look for her roots among the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Indians in Chihuahua.

We also find a different type of postnationalist deconstruction of the Chicano imagined community in Danny Santiago’s Famous All over Town, where characters’ perception of indigeneity responds to an apparent inferiority complex. The protagonist and several members of his family equate it with backwardness and ignorance, and call each other “Indian” every time they perceive an action as unintelligent or violent. Although early in the novel Rudy’s father, Rodolfo, calls his wife “india” as a term of endearment, during the family’s trip to Mexico this term acquires entirely different connotations: Rudy, his sister Lena, and their father deride the indigenous blood of the mother’s side of the family as well as that of the entire Mexican nation. The professed ethnic and nationalistic pride
that they exhibit in Los Angeles actually turns into internalized racism and self-hatred once they visit Mexico. Rodolfo Medina, in particular, drops his mask when he points out his in- laws’ dark skin color as an indelible sign of moral inferiority. Similarly, he and his son Rudy find another source of pride in commodity fetishism: they feel superior to their destitute Mexican relatives, who own no appliances, telephones, or Buick automobiles. Therefore, one of the achievements of Famous All over Town is the paradoxical contrast between their deceptive pride of being Mexican while in Shamrock Street and the mental dislocation that is made apparent during their trip to Mexico. In fact, as Laura Browder explains, Danny Santiago approaches the characters’ very serious identity crises from a humoristic perspective: “much of the comedy of this very funny novel is predicated on the trouble people get themselves into when they invest too many of their assumptions on what it means for others, or for themselves, to belong to a particular racial or ethnic group” (Slippery 2000: 238).

Likewise, Rodolfo Medina’s disenchantment with his once beloved (and idealized) Mexico increases gradually during the trip. Back in Shamrock, he had been a member of the Aztecs’ Club and had always taken pride in distancing himself from mainstream
American culture. While Rodolfo daydreams about inheriting his mother-in-law’s lands and moving back to Mexico, he tells his son Rudy that it is the country of his blood and, therefore, his real patria (fatherland). He also dismisses his wife’s concerns about the corruption of Mexican customs officers and tries to appease her by reminding her that they are their brothers. Soon thereafter, however, he is appalled to see that while customs officers treat blond Euro-American tourists in a friendly manner, they falsely accuse him of planning to sell all the clothing they have in the trunk. Furthermore, right after he imagines that the boy who is washing his car must have led a heroic life of work and sacrifice, the latter steals the gun he had hidden. As his wife has to bribe the inspector by giving him her gold earrings, Rodolfo sees his long-standing patriotism fade away: “And after that, on our long road south, my father never saluted the Mexican flag again, and he talked more
English than I ever heard him speak in L.A., and louder too” (1983: 215).

Finally, the last pages of the novel emphasize the implicit author’s skepticism about the traditional tactics of the Chicano Movement. Once everything has been lost and Shamrock Street has been eradicated, Rudy realizes that he needs alternative weapons. Moments later, he looks at his “Chicano Power” bumper sticker and tells it to shut up; slogans have been proven useless. Yet he also delivers the main moral of the story by explicitly asking for the reader’s empathy: “How would you feel, man, if they came onto your street and tore it down. What would you do?” (1983: 276). It is then implied that, despite his disappointment and occasional suicidal thoughts throughout the text, Rudy has not given up yet; his determination to keep the memory alive is the only weapon he has left to prevent history from repeating itself.

In all, by contrasting the autobiographical texts by Southwestern women writers such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, and Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce
with Chicana/o novel and film, we notice a pattern of contradictory identification/disconnection with indigeneity. This leads us to problematize the recurrent idealization with the Aztec past that is concomitant with a rejection of the Indian present.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.

Blood In Blood Out (also known as Bound by Honor). 1993. Dir.
Taylor Hackford. Perf. Jessie Borrego, Benjamin Bratt, Enrique Castillo, Damian
Chapa, Billy Bob Thornton. Hollywood Pictures.

Browder, Laura. 2000. Slippery Characters. Ethnic Impersonators and American
. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Cabeza de Baca, Fabiola. 1994. We Fed them Cactus. Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press.

Limón, Graciela. 1999. The Day of the Moon. Houston: Arte Público Press.

---. 2001. Erased Faces. Houston, Texas: Arte Público Press.

Pérez-Torres, Rafael. 2006. Mestizaje. Critical Issues of Race in Chicano
. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Rechy, John. 1991. The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. New York: Grove.

Rodríguez, Luis J. 2002. The Republic of East L.A. New York: Rayo.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. 1997. The Squatter and the Don. Houston,
Texas: Arte Público Press.

Santiago, Danny. 1983. Famous All Over Town. New York: New American
Library. Viramontes, Helena María. 2007. Their Dogs Came with Them. New York:
Atria Books.

Wilbur-Cruce, Eva Antonia. 1987. A Beautiful, Cruel Country. Tucson:
University of Arizona Press.

*U.S. copyright law prohibits reproduction of the articles on this site "for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research" (see Title 17, US Code for details). If you would like to copy or reprint these articles for other purposes, please contact the publisher to secure permission.