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On Recent Chicano Literature

John Alba Cutler

Western American Literature, Volume 44, Number 2, Summer 2009, pp. 158-167 (Article) Published by The Western Literature Association DOI: 10.1353/wal.0.0027

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Margaret Garca. UN NUEVO MESTIZAJE SERIES. 19872001. Oil on canvas, oil on wood. 96"x 96" overall. Courtesy of the artist. These paintings are part of the exhibit organized by Cheech Marin titled Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge.


W orks R eviewed
Cisneros, Carlos. The Case Runner. Houston, TX: Arte Pblico, 2008. 359 pages, $24.95. Duarte, Stella Pope. If I Die in Jurez. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. 330 pages, $16.95. Hernandez, Lisa. Migrations and Other Stories. Houston, TX: Arte Pblico, 2007. 167 pages, $14.95. Ponce, Mary Helen. The Wedding. 1989. Reprint. Houston, TX: Arte Pblico, 2008. 195 pages, $16.95. Sanmiguel, Rosario. Under the Bridge: Stories from the Border/Bajo el puente: Relatos desde la frontera. Translated by John Pluecker. Houston, TX: Arte Pblico, 2008. 232 pages, $14.95. Viaa, Eduardo Gonzlez. Dantes Ballad. Translated by Susan Giersbach Rascn. Houston, TX: Arte Pblico, 2007. 300 pages, $23.95. Viramontes, Helena Mara. Their Dogs Came with Them. New York: Atria, 2007. 328 pages, $23.00.

On Recent Chicano Literature

John Alba Cutler For many years, it was standard practice in Chicano literary criticism to include a note on terminology, justifying the use of Chicano over other available terms such as Mexican American, Mexican, and Latino. For example, in the preface to his early and influential book Chicano Literature (1982), Charles Tatum justifies his use of the term Chicano based on its political charge and its acceptance in academic circles. He argues that the term most accurately identifies the preponderance of works whose theme is an outcry against the oppression of the rural farmworker and urban barriodweller but proceeds later to note that for practical purposes, it should be understood that Mexican-American is an interchangeable label and is also frequently used to identify this minority group and its literature (i, ii). There are thus two constitutive elements of Chicano-ness in Tatums study: first, oppositional politics; and second, Mexican ethnicity.
Western American Literature 44.2 (Summer 2009): 159-67

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Interestingly, in Tatums study, there is no analogous discussion of the term literature, despite that words long and contentious history and despite the fact that one of the crucial features of Chicano cultural production is its attempt to upset traditional notions of canonicity and the problematic bifurcation of high and low culture. I note this not to criticize Tatum, one of the foundational critics of Chicano literature, but rather to call attention to questions that are once again becoming central to the field. Who counts as Chicano? What counts as literature? And, more germane to this review, what counts as Chicano literature? In this essay, I briefly review seven recent works of fiction that pressure the definition of Chicano literature in different ways: the texts genre, the authors national identity, and the texts thematic content. Genre fiction has for some time pushed the boundaries of Chicano literature, beginning with a rich tradition of crime and detective fiction from Rolando Hinojosas Partners in Crime (1985) and Lucha Corpis Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992) to Mario Acevedos ongoing series of vampire detective novels that began with The Nymphos of Rocky Flats (2006). Carlos Cisneross novel The Case Runner works in a new genre, situating the legal thriller in the literal border spaces of Brownsville, Texas. The story revolves around the exploits of recent law graduate Alejandro Alex del Fuerte, who unwittingly stumbles into a civil litigation that could potentially implicate hundreds of lawyers, judges, and state legislators as complicit in the seedy system of case running (soliciting clients through extralegal means) that dominates the legal industry in the border region. When an undocumented worker named Pilo approaches Alex for help finding his wife and son, Alex discovers that the mans family has been dead for a year and a corporate law firm has already represented someone else claiming to be the father in a wrongful death lawsuit that netted millions of dollars. After Pilo is murdered, Alex decides to go after the law firm that perpetrated the fraud, despite the personal and professional risks involved. Although Cisneros displays a newcomers weaknessesthe pacing is uneven and the dialogue devolves all too often into expository dumpshe has a good feel for the genres potential to address important issues about the rule of law and the obligations of the state toward its most marginalized subjects, including non-citizens. If The Case Runner uses the legal thriller to interrogate the manipulation of Mexican subjects for profit, then Mary Helen Ponces novel The Wedding uses conventions of comedy, romance, and satire to sketch a portrait of an East Los Angeles barrio in the 1950s. Originally published in 1989, the revised edition features beautiful new cover art by Elizabeth Perez. Set in the fictional town of Taconos, the story follows the court-

John Alba Cutler


ship and wedding of a Chicana named Blanca Muoz to her pachuco boyfriend Sammy-the-Cricket Lpez. On one level, the novel is an exercise in nostalgia. The density of dialogue and the episodic structure move the narrative along at a brisk clip, displaying Ponces fine ear for the spoken word and recalling the 1950s romance with the car and the highway. But beyond nostalgia, the novel also works to critique the self-defeating, competitive marriage culture that divides the women of the barrio. Over the course of the narrative, we see Blanca transform from a naive, romantic young woman, thrilled to receive the Crickets amorous attentions, to an independent working woman who almost immediately regrets her decision to chain herself to Sammy, exhibiting the worst traits of pachuco masculinity. Although the de facto segregation of the Mexican community clearly determines the characters economic opportunities and worldviews, racism and discrimination are less an issue in the novel than the structural and individual sexism that haunt Blanca and her friends. In this way, Ponces novel uses the conventions of romance and satire to construct a prequel to the works of Chicana feminists such as Cherre Moraga and Ana Castillo that represent the sexism of the Chicano movement. Chicano writers working through conventions of genre fiction thus challenge the literariness of Chicano literature. But Arte Pblicos translated editions of texts by Eduardo Gonzlez Viaa and Rosario Sanmiguel pressure the boundaries of Chicano literature in another way. Both works deal wholly or in part with Mexican American characters, but neither Viaa nor Sanmiguel is Mexican American. Viaa is originally from Peru but has taught at Western Oregon University since 1993. He is an accomplished writer with a literary career that stretches back to 1969, the height of the Latin American Boom. Dantes Ballad suggests the extent to which Viaas literary practice continues to be influenced by the legacy of the Boom and magical realism. The novel is based loosely on the Divine Comedy, but rather than descending into hell, Dante Celestino, the eponymous protagonist, travels across the United States. Dante is a Mexican immigrant and widowed father living in Mount Angel, Oregon. When his fifteen-year-old daughter, Emmita, runs away with her biker boyfriend to Las Vegas, Dante loads his donkey, Virgilio, into his van and sets off to find her. Susan Giersbach Rascns fine translation of Viaas vibrant and surreal style immediately engages the reader. Dante experiences the breadth (and depths) of Latino life in the United States so that the novel reads like a juggernaut of frustrated dreams. Perhaps the most evocative part of the story comes when Dante, who plays the accordion, joins a conjunto headed by a corrido composer known only as el Peregrino. The group quickly becomes famous and tours

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the country, everywhere encountering poor Latinos who understand music and faith as their sanctuaries from a class system that keeps them at a daily grind. Although the people whom Dante meets feel empowered by his music, the limits of that empowerment are allegorized in Emmitas continued elusiveness: But no one, anywhere, was able to tell Dante anything about his daughter or the young man she was with. It was as if they had never even been born. It was as if she lived only in a dream or an illusion of Dantes. When people replied that they didnt know anything about them, the world was again the dark dream that it was before it was created (27172). Moments of such intense lyricism make Viaas novel a powerful meditation on the deferral of the American Dream for an entire class of disenfranchised subjects. Its magical realist aesthetic also recalls Ron Ariass The Road to Tamazunchale (1978) and that books attempt to connect Chicano aesthetics with a wider Latin American sensibility. Mexican writer Rosario Sanmiguels Under the Bridge: Stories from the Border eschews the sweeping narrative for compact realist stories that put the border zone of Ciudad JurezEl Paso under a microscope. Sanmiguels stories are beautifully understated affairs, and the fine bilingual edition from Arte Pblico allows the excellence of John Plueckers translations to speak for itself. One hopes that an edition of Sanmiguels more recent book Arboles o apuntes de viaje (2006) might be in the works. Sanmiguels work is intent on showing how the transnational economy structures the lives of Mexican and Mexican American women, disrupting their families and instrumentalizing their bodies. As cultural critic Alicia Schmidt Camacho puts it, these narratives, like the testimonials of obreras, depict the border traffic in Mexican women in terms that banish any fantasy of the borders dissolution or easy permeability (281). This is certainly true of the title story, in which a Mexican girl sees her coyote boyfriend murdered while attempting to cross the river. Or of The Spinners, in which a mother trains her young daughter to do domestic work in El Paso only to abandon her there. But the story that most powerfully touches on the Chicana experience of the borderlands is the final story, Moonlit in the Mirror, which chronicles in short episodes the troubled marriage of a young Chicana attorney named Nicole and her businessman husband, Arturo. Nicole is the daughter of farmworkers, raised by her grandmother, who has dedicated herself to representing undocumented immigrants, especially abused women. Arturo, on the other hand, is a son of privilege, a man who has always identified himself as Mexican, rather than Chicano, and who finds that Nicoles prosecution of an attempted sexual assault on an undocumented domestic worker will cause him business problems. Although Arturo is

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willing to sacrifice anything for Nicole, he finds that their class differences constitute an impermeable barrier in their relationship: He knew she was beyond touch and words. His only recourse in the battle was love, and so he looked for her so intensely. He penetrated her with rage, entered her deepest parts to pull her out of herself (115). The stunning conclusion of the story emphasizes Arturos mistake in thinking that he will find access to some essential mystery through his penetration of the female body. Sanmiguels attention to female border subjectivity is made all the more haunting by the timing of the book, which was published originally in 1994, just as the maquiladora murdersor the feminicidio (femicide) increased in frequency. Stella Pope Duartes latest novel, If I Die in Jurez, picks up where those stories leave off, weaving a wrenching, if finally redemptive, fictional account of three adolescent girls caught up in a shadowy Jurez underworld where womens bodies are treated as just so many disposable commodities. Duartes novel follows on the heels of other attempts to draw attention to the Jurez murders, including Alicia Gaspar de Albas novel Desert Blood: The Jurez Murders (2005), Gregory Navas film Bordertown (2006), and the late Roberto Bolaos sprawling masterpiece 2666 (2004). Although the novel plays on the edges of sentimentality at times, Duartes unflinching eye demands that readers confront the sexual violence of the murders in graphic detail, marking the book indelibly with a well-justified moral outrage. As with Duartes previous work, the earnestness of the novels social conscience makes it a timely contribution to Chicana literature. Along with the final two books under review here (as well as criticism such as Camachos excellent study cited above), Duartes novel also reflects a new transnational turn in Chicano literature. Of course, Chicano literature has always been transnational; novels such as Jos Antonio Villarreals Pocho (1959) thematized migration a half-century ago. But the characters of Lisa Hernandezs collection Migrations and Other Stories understand mobility and migration as the premises of contemporary American life rather than conditions of loss to be obsessed over. Thus, while characters are in constant movement between the United States and Mexico, and among cities within the United States, the true migrations of the title happen among relationships, life experiences, and emotional states. In the title story, for example, the narrators trip to Mexico with her neighbor Reynaldo is the occasion for the story, but the real migrations are the journeys of reconciliation both characters undertake: Reynaldo with his estranged daughter and the narrator with her troubled past. Such emotional journeys also lie at the heart of Count the Raindrops, about a young woman struggling to deal with having been sexually abused as a

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child; My Little Tyrant Heart (Corazoncito tirano), about a woman coming to grips with her husbands death from cancer; and The Catholic Girl, in which the protagonist, Susana, intentionally gets kicked out of a suburban Catholic school so that she can attend a public school where there are other Mexican girls like her. Hernandezs stories display an irrepressible humor that softens the edges of the often-brutal worlds they create. In The Cross, the narrators philandering unclea Chicano history professor at a junior collegegets his just desserts when he suffers a heart attack from taking double doses of Viagra to keep up with all the college girls he was bringing home (61). But the power of these stories lies in their willingness to accept migration as a fundamental condition and to interrogate the ways that migrant life is nevertheless still skewered by inequality and violence. In Ojitos, a father catches his oldest daughter having sex with her boyfriend and viciously assaults him. When the mother of the family defends the daughter, the father leaves, refusing to talk to them again. At the end of the story, the younger sister and narrator, called Ojitos because of her squinting, finds herself in a unit discussing the immigrant experience in her high school literature class, reading books such as Snow Falling on Cedars and Rain of Gold. When the students are assigned to write their own immigrant memoirs, the narrator reflects that often, contrary to the representations of classic literature, immigrant families are fragile and brittle (130). She writes, I am sure that daughters of immigrants should take refuge within themselves. They must guard their passion. Keep the fire deep within them, because their world is not ready for it. These secrets should remain caved within their hearts so that the fire will not die out completely. That way the next generation of daughters will have a flicker to clasp onto. (131) The primitivist imagery that runs subtly through the passagerefuge, fire, caved, flickersuggests the degree to which Ojitos finds herself trapped within a family only belatedly entering modernity. As in many of these first-rate stories, the conclusion is bittersweet, rejecting easy resolution for the narrator even as it generates its own form of empowerment. Hernandezs attention to the violence that continues to puncture the lives of Mexican women on both sides of the border links her work with Sanmiguels and also with that of Helena Mara Viramontes, whose most recent book, Their Dogs Came with Them, will surely endure for many years as a monument of Chicana literature. The novel tells the story of several young Chicanas living in Los Angeles at the close of the 1960s. Two events, one historical and one fictional, overshadow the action. First, Mexican

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neighborhoods are bulldozed and rearranged during the creation of Los Angeless extensive freeway system, rendering once-organic communities divided and isolated. Second, an outbreak of rabies among stray dogs has led the government to quarantine East Los Angeles, its neighborhoods constantly monitored by the ominous Quarantine Authority (representing, according to Viramontes, the brutal police repression following the Chicano Movement March of August 29, 1970). Against this backdrop play out the lives of Ermila, a high school student perched on the brink of political consciousness; Turtle, a chola living on the street and missing her brother Luis, who is fighting in Vietnam; Tranquilina, the daughter of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher; and Ben, a half-Mexican college student, abandoned by his mother as a child and desperately trying to resist the tide of mental illness threatening to drown him. Readers familiar with Viramontess short stories or her understated first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995), will appreciate her penchant for leitmotif and symbolism. The figure of Renata Valenzuela, a little girl who mysteriously disappeared from the neighborhood years ago, repeatedly appears, coming to represent the marginality of Chicano life for Ermila and Ben. The color green is everywhere present for Ermilas grandmother and for Turtle, paradoxically connoting death because of the jungles of Southeast Asia flashing on television screens and in their most private nightmares. And packs of dogs wander the streets scavenging for food, standing in for the animal existence to which the poor have been reduced. The true genius of the novel is the way that the disparate stories at first run parallel to each other, seeming to connect only tangentially, but converge steadilyTurtle is in the same gang as Ermilas boyfriend, and Tranquilina encounters Ben through her parents ministry and helps his sister care for him. While its breathtaking conclusion shows how irrevocably these lives have always been bound together, the novel also suggests the multiplicity of what may now count for Chicano identity, rejecting notions of authenticity founded on racial, national, or sexual terms. If Their Dogs Came with Them thus participates in pushing the boundaries of the Chicano-ness of Chicano literature, it also embeds within it an argument for the continued relevance of literary production to Chicano politics. As Ben struggles with a bout of depression and agoraphobia, he begins to write, to imagine where his mother might be. He speculates that she may be homeless, that he may have passed her any number of times on the street and not recognized her. He imagines a man driving home from work. The man sees a homeless woman standing on a pedestrian bridge over the freeway:

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Could the driver know what the woman thought? In order to envision her life, one would have to think of her with greater generosity. It would be too easy to simply imagine her existence as horrendous, and therefore think of suicide as the only option left for such a pitiful soul. Yet life is stratified layers of time, a complex gut of pulsating mystery. One would need much more than obvious assumptions in order for the driver to turn off the ignition key, set the parking brake right and ask after her. One would have to be close enough to look into her eyes, jump into the trunk of her heart, lift the stage curtains to see behind her props. It was one thing to assume, another to conjure, and yet another to feel for her. One would need metaphor to love her. (125) The passage advances the books most pervasive motif: the freeway, which in US popular culture is the symbol of mobility and freedom. But for poor Mexicans in Los Angeleswho saw their neighborhoods condemned and razed to make way for the roadsthe freeway has signified containment and oppression. Here the freeway becomes the site of an imaginative encounter, though literature functions neither to maintain cultural boundaries nor simply to facilitate intercultural understanding. In other words, the point for Ben is not for the driver of the car to understand what it means to feel what the woman feels, but rather for him to feel for herto feel in her direction. Literature here seeks to impel action. Whatever its form, it should take us out of our cars and bring us face to face with people whose lives we have previously ignored. Critic Marcial Gonzlezs recent, provocative analysis of reification in Chicano novels exemplifies the stakes of this issue. Chicano Novels and the Politics of Form (2009) includes chapters on two novelists not typically included in studies of Chicano literatureDanny Santiago and Cecile Pineda. As Gonzlez points out, the reason these writers are excluded from the critical literature is clear: Their novels call into question the politics of cultural authenticity and identity during the 1980s, a period marked by the culture wars and the waning of the Cold War; they also call into question the criteria traditionally employed in determining the Chicano-ness of Chicano novels (4). These novels pose distinct challenges to what Gonzlez describes as reified notions of Chicano authenticity. Danny Santiago, the writer of Famous All Over Town (1983), was revealed a year after that novels publication to be a white man, Daniel James. And while Cecile Pineda herself can claim ethnic authenticity, her novels do not center on the lives of Chicanos or Chicanas. Gonzlez concludes that the problem lies in the fetishism of literary objects, or in

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the reification of their formal properties and social categories, both of which have blinded critics to the important contributions these novels make to our understanding of Chicano experiences and aesthetics (150). Gonzlez thus identifies at least one way that Chicano-ness has been bound up with a particular conception of literature (especially the novel) as the domain for constructing and policing nationalist authenticity. The fiction reviewed here also pushes back against such policing, expanding the boundaries of Chicano literature in terms of genre, national origin, and thematic concerns. This is the project of new Chicano literature with Viramontes clearly at the vanguard.

W orks C ited
Camacho, Alicia Schmidt. Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. New York: New York University Press, 2008. Gonzlez, Marcial. Chicano Novels and the Politics of Form: Race, Class, and Reification. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Tatum, Charles M. Chicano Literature. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1982.