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Felipe de Ortego y Gasca l Shaping the Canon l 12 2 13

Felipe de Ortego y Gasca l Shaping the Canon l 12 2 13

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 1
HISTORIA CHICANA
7 April 2014
 
National Hispanic Forum 
December 2, 2013
CHICANO LITERATURE: SHAPING THE CANON
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University
ne of the difficulties in building a Chicano literary canon is that, unfortunately, Chicano texts are often assessed for inclusion or exclusion in that canon by many who cannot really give an accurate measure of their worth. Most often what is offered (or proffered) is a highly idiocritical judgment that tells us more about the judge than the work being judged. Still, someone must make a decision about which texts ought to be in the canon.
It is true that some of the early builders of Chicano literary canon established suffocating strictures for canonization that made few "saints" possible. In the main, those strictures required that works dubbed as ''Chicano literature" identify the enemy, promote the revolution and praise the people. In the beginning of the Chicano literary movement these strictures posed two considerations that dealt ambivalently with ideological needs and literary merit. In the Fall of 1969, however, these strictures and considerations posed no dilemma whatsoever for me as I set about to teach the first course in Chicano literature in the country at the University of New Mexico as part of an assortment of course offerings in the fledgling Chicano Studies Program headed  by Louis Bransford. What was needed for the course were texts I naively presumed would be easy to find. It was that naiveté that led to my study of
 Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature
University of New Mexico, 1971), the first literary inquiry in the field of Chicano literature, which I undertook from 1969 to 1970 and out of which grew my concept of "The Chicano Renaissance." Many of the Mexican American literary works I found and surveyed for that course (and later for the study) were in various libraries whose nooks and crannies I scoured, but many were in private collections difficult to get to. The wonder, though, is why no one before had looked at Mexican American writing collectively as a literary tradition, studied it and given it a taxonomical structure from which to discuss it critically and historically as an integral part of the Mexican American experience and of American
O
 
 2
literature. The course was successful beyond my expectations despite the obvious lack of Chicano literary canon and the paucity of works readily available for instruction. I winged it not knowing I was winging it, for I approach-ed the course from my traditional preparation as a teacher of English and years of experience in the field developing new courses. But this course was different. Many of the historical texts I thought suitable for the course were woefully out of print. Contemporary works were difficult to secure in quantities sufficient for the enrollment of the course since many of them were published ephemerally by "small" presses or in garage presses like Raymond Barrios'
The Plum, Plum Pickers
. One of those small  presses was Caravel Press. Despite these shortcomings
 — 
or perhaps because of them
 — 
I began to frame a taxonomy for Chicano literature in 1969 that has held up surprisingly well in the last four decades. Following my lead, some years later Luis Leal chose different milestones for the taxonomy but, by and large, the original scheme I offered continues to be a guide to the roots and traditions of Chicano literature. Taxonomically I conceptualized Chicano literature as a continuum of two pasts, welded together by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. The first part (pre-1848) included the "literary roots" of Chicanos (Indian, Spanish and Mexican); the second part (post-1848) included the "literary traditions" of Chicanos (Mexican American and American). The literary precursors of the Chicano Renaissance emerged during the period from 1848 to 1966, the first year of "The Chicano Renaissance." We have grandfathered those precursor Mexican American writers and made them Chicanos since their contributions to the Chicano renaissance are of enormous importance and value. What strikes me now as most peculiar about assumptions a propos Chicano literature was the naiveté that attended their genesis. In 1966 Chicano writers like Tomas Rivera, Estela Portillo, Rolando Hinojosa, Rudy Anaya, Dorinda Moreno, Richard Vasquez (to name but a few) were still years away.  Nevertheless, out of that proffered taxonomy came my quest for Chicano literary roots and traditions and the growing consciousness that literary production by Chicanos since 1966 manifested something akin to a "renaissance" much like the literary ferment of the Southern renaissance of the 1930's or the Harlem renaissance of the 1920's or the Irish renaissance of the 1890's. For it seemed to me, what I observed was an efflorescence in every sense of the word
 — 
a "reaffirmation" of Mexican American identity
via cultural arts. Unfortunately, the term “renaissance" was freighted with ideological
difficulties which I will not rehearse here, suffice to say it lent heat (if not light) to the semantic
difficulties a number of Chicanos had with the word “renaissance”— 
a term they equated with having  been asleep. It's difficult to say just when a literary phenomenon like the Chicano renaissance began and equally difficult to say just when it ended
 — 
if it has ended at all as some Chicano critics contend, for there has  been substantial production of literary works of high merit by Chicanos since 1975, the year I've used as the terminus for the Chicano Renaissance. The starting point, 1966, is not an arbitrary date, for it was in that year that a group of Chicano intellectuals (mostly from colleges and universities) met at Occidental College in California to examine and to discuss the conspectus of Chicano intellectual thought against the background of the emerging Chicano Movement. Out of that meeting came the kernel for the creation of Quinto Sol Publications and the literary review
 El Grito: Journal of Contemporary Mexican  American Thought 
 which appeared in 1967. Giving closure to such a period of literary efflorescence is
 
 3
difficult, I know, but it seems to me that 1975 marks a turning point in the impetus which gave rise to
that literary “boom.” The chronological boundary markers I've chosen to demarcate the Chicano
Renaissance have nothing to do with quality or the caliber of Chicano literary works. The boundaries simply mark a time-frame during which the fervor of literary creation focused on Chicano nationalism and the idealization of "Aztlan" (nation-state of Chicanos, a name appropriated from the mythic homeland of the Aztecs and which Chicanos located in the American Southwest in the states annexed by the U.S. after its war with Mexico) as a motive theme for Chicanismo--a brotherhood that would create Chicano unity. Ironically, California proved to be the fuse of the Chicano Renaissance that Aurora Lucero hoped New Mexico would produce. In 1953 she wrote optimistically: "There now remains but one renaissance to be effected--the literary. With the happy accident that New Mexico possesses more traditional literary materials than any other Hispanic region it should be possible to bring about such a rebirth in the reenactment of the lovely old plays, in the keeping alive the lovely old folk dances and in the singing of the old traditional songs.'' But the Chicano Renaissance came into being not in relation to the quaint and traditional Hispanic past of the Mexican American Southwest but in the wake of growing awareness by Mexican Americans of their Mestizo past and their sociopolitical status. The Chicano Renaissance was a  people's coming of age, long overdue, which, like Milton's unsightly root which, in another country,  bore a bright and golden flower. By 1970, when I moved from New Mexico State University [where I spent most of the 60's] to the University of Texas at El Paso as professor of English and founding director of Chicano Studies [first such program in the state of Texas and 3rd in the nation], the Chicano literary vistas of Chicanos in American literature [the handful of us] focused on Jose Antonio Villarreal, John Rechy, Floyd Salas, Mario Suarez, and Daniel Garza. The list included also Aurelio Espinosa, Jovita Gonzalez, Arturo Campa, Nina Otero, Fray Angelico Chavez, Aurora Lucero and America Paredes. From the locus of those days the peaks of Chicano literature were barely apprehended. The literary landscape of the United States was devoid (and barren) of Chicano writers (except for the few just cited). Even those writers, however, were not to be found in the standard (canonical) texts of American literature, certainly not in the
Cambridge History of American Literature
 nor the
 Literary History of the United States
. A few were found in special anthologies like
Our Southwestern Writers
 edited by Mabel Majors, Rebecca Smith and Thomas Pearce. Works like
 Life and Literature of the Southwest 
 by J. Frank Dobie made passing referen-ces to Chicano writers (identified primarily as Spanish Americans). In every respect, though, the lineup of American literature did not include Chicanos
 — 
still doesn't! This was, then, in 1969, the state of affairs in Mexican American literature [the word "Chicano" was still eschewed by most Mexican Americans]. I prefaced
 Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature
 by  pointing out that the study represented but a skeletal view of Mexican American literature, that it was an explora-tion in literary archaeology, and that what was proffered was much like the representations we see of dinosaurs in museums, made life-like from deductions, inductions, abductions and subductions of bits and pieces of the animals found here and there. We don't really know what woolly mammoths or mastodons looked like. Or saber-toothed tigers. Or pterodactyls. Or early man. The taxidermic models we see in museums are what we think they could have looked like from the way we've pieced together the scant evidence (bones) we've found. In literary history, as in archaeology, there is always a lacuna

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