Saturday, October 29, 2005

When Chicano Lit ≠ Latino Lit

by RudyG

La Bloga posts and comments this year have gotten me rethinking what's Chicano Lit and what's Latino Lit. Each author pushed me to revamp my perspective and raised more questions than I could answer. Maybe others could help me sort this out.

I limit this piece to the arena of Chicano Lit (and exclude the question of who or what is a Chicano writer). Bloguistas and others made we reexamine its relationship to what's called Latino Lit.

Chicano Lit is about Chicanos, somehow. I'll dare say that books written about non-Chicanos, even though written by a Chicano (e.g., Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series) are not Chicano Lit, in the sense they are not part of a body of works more or less directly expressing perspectives on the Chicano experience. (Nevertheless, I might enjoy an analysis like "Chicano themes and perspectives in Gabaldon's Scotland.")

I'd add that books about Chicanos, even though written by a non-Chicano, should be considered Chicano Lit, when they successfully, empathically portray that experience. It would seem that, on the other hand, books about Chicanos written by a Chicano and not successfully portraying that experience are still Chicano Lit; they're just badly written.

Chicano Lit has affinities with Latino Lit. For instance, in the case of Boriqua Lit, they share historical affinities due to the similar subjugation by the U.S. Our affinities to Cubano Lit are at least dualistic. Chicano (not Hispanic) Lit connects to works still done on the island when we acknowledge shared connections to Che Guevara, also a hero of the Chicano Movement. Expatriated Cubanos centered in Florida understandably don't necessarily share that experience with us, anymore than all literature from the island does.

Along both sides of La Frontera, shared experiences reflected in Chicano and Mexicano writing merge even more, but tend to blur the further one moves into interior Mexico, and literature more "Mexican" than "Border".

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who writes of Colombia and Latin America, makes his own mold for his work. Several Chicano works obviously or subconsciously owe something to the influence of his works. But one would expect a Nobel Prize winner's obras to have wider influence than most writing.

There is other Latino Lit--Dominican, etc.--that could be examined in the same light, but I don't need to go into that here.

By definition--that of mestizaje--Chicano Lit has its limits and indistinctiveness. A literature about a subjugated people denied their culture and language suffers from that loss of native language. Thus, much of Chicano Lit discussions are forced to discuss in the realm of the English language, since we may not speak, read, much less write in Spanish. Our inability to appreciate, for instance, writing composed in Spanish--no matter that it includes the Chicano border experience--leaves a significant weakness in such discussion. Likewise, lists of Greatest Chicano Lit often include few works in Spanish.

This language gap, and history itself, combine to argue against our including literature from Spain as Latino, no matter that one would think half our mestizaje heritage should work to encompass the conqueror-Hispano experience. However that's a gap we seem to welcome.

A list of Greatest Chicano Works seems a good thing. I understand why 100 Years of Solitude couldn't be on that list, no matter how great a "Latino" work it is. Seems a natural.

What wouldn't seem called for is widening such a list to include Latino, non-Chicano works. Why go along with the U.S. monopolist publishers' Latinization--the corporate, brown melting pot where the Chicano experience gets blender-ed into the experiences of all others subjugated by the criollos.

Good literature is good literature, . But La Bloga could make a distinctive contribution in reviews and discussions of non-Chicano Lit; particularly if such reviews explained how said non-Chicano work related to the Chicano experience, something I think few literati attempt. Perhaps, too, it is something corporate publishers would rather have us not do; for the sake of sales, they might prefer reviews that blurred a work's political and cultural, historical threads to Chicanismo.

Great literature does more than entertain: it explores the human psyche, builds on traditions, opens new paths, and redefines those around it. Its roots spread deeper and its branches reach higher than what is written on an author's birth certificate.

I think La Bloga could help deconstruct even the all-encompassing genre of "Latino", at least in how it relates to the Chicano experience--a guide to how/why it is that Bloguistas choose to discuss or review particular non-Chicano works. We don't often see that.

If I sound like I'm just rhetorically questioning, remember how Chicano Lit is sometimes dumped in university Romance Language depts. with Portuguese, how in bookstores it can be found alongside anti-Castro books, or next to Jennings' Aztec series. For these institutions, the reasons for the categorization vary, from academic paradigms to those of profit motive.

I'm not suggesting La Bloga or others need to hammer out a new literary consensus, but only that exploring whatever makes up our present Chicano-Latino Lit mindset might tell us things about ourselves we didn't know. It might give us literary perspectives we never noticed.

As I said, I throw these questions out because of recent blogger posts, here and elsewhere. My suggestions might help sharpen the direction of "Latino" critique, including of Chicano works. They are not intended to add to history's muddled legacy or corporate publishers' clouding of that great body of work that will always be called Chicano Lit.

Rudy Ch. Garcia


daniel olivas said...

rudy, now i'm totally confused.

just joking, compa. you raise provative questions and ideas. i know that i've covered both chicano and non-chicano/latino works. why? well, the latino/a writers i've covered touched my chicano soul and mind in a way that made me want to include them in my posts. that's a nice and mushy reason, no? but it's honest. some day we won't be talking about chicano lit. we'll just discuss lit. period. but that day ain't here, is it? it took a long time before women writers were finally just referred to as writers, and not a subclass of writers (i.e., "women writers" were a subset of "writers" -- that is, male writers.) i don't know if i've added anything of worth to your fine post. but there it is.

Anonymous said...

"Latino/a writers i've covered touched my chicano soul," says Dan. I'm asking for details, maybe that I shouldn't.

What did that mean in any particular case? How, what part of your Chicano soul was touched? How is that different from how it might not have struck a different Latino soul?


Anonymous said...

Blame it on the gloom that this post exudes: Thus, much of Chicano Lit discussions are forced to discuss in the realm of the English language, since we may not speak, read, much less write in Spanish. . I agree that Chicanos and Chicanas are not writing as much as they could in spanish. In La novela chicana escrita en español: Cinco autores comprometidos, Salvador Rodríguez del Pino names five autores chicanos: Tomás Rivera, Miguel Méndez, Alejandro Morales, Aristeo Brito, and Rolando Hinojosa. Of those it is generally agreed that is only Miguel Méndez who still writes in spanish. Though am optimistic for the future. More and more la raza are inculcating their children spanish because our parents have seen that it is good.

However am afraid that when you speak of english and spanish and then apply those terms to Chicanismo you are in essence putting on the straight jacket that those languages have been trying to put on us for quite a few decades now.

Our space, our liminal space, if you will, is the code-switching, the language that has managed to persevere through generations, our inheretance such as Caló, spanglish, a language that has a recorded history in dictionaries and other bona fide goodies that only a chicano mind can possibly understand.

What turns off many a monolingual is this linguistic mish mash that includes the references of two cultures. By the way, cultures that expands from Washington DC to Chiapas proper (because we hardly ever just referr to the Southwest with the sole exception of the few such as Denise Chávez in Face of an Angel).

So not only do I disagree with the notion that Spanish is not being used (spanish as in spanish that the Southwest knows and understands) but I also fear that english here is being used in a manner that is not necessarily true to its meaning.

Either way, I hope I am pardoned for this long comment and most of all I hope it adds to the conversation though I fear I went askew somewhere. I can't figure out where, was it at the beginning or the end? Bueno, saludos gélidos van desde los Swedish Highlands.

Manuel Ramos said...

These label discussions are tiring. I went through some of it yesterday at the Mystery Writers Day in Boulder - questions about defining the mystery genre and its relationship to "literary fiction." Something similar also frequently happens on a listserv where I lurk - there the point of argument is the difference between hard-boiled and noir. I have accepted that most literature labels are marketing tools created by publishers with no direct relationship to what an author may be trying to do when he or she is writing the book. This doesn't mean such labels aren't useful, especially when creating a college curriculum, but such labels have very little to do with the acutal creative process. Does anyone really think that a young author sits down in front of the computer and says, "OK, now I am going to write a Chicano Lit novel but not a Latino Lit novel"? No, the writer sits down and writes the novel that is in him or her (unless the writer is a hack, writing on demand for an editor, publisher, etc.)Good writers do not even write for their readers - they write for themselves. These writers are not bound by labels or definitions and if we on La Bloga get too hung up on such things then we will severely limit what we do. Even when an author does say "OK, I am going to write a mystery or sci-fi or Chicano novel", if that author is in the slightest bit of an artist he or she will not be hemmed in by the label or any definition. If he or she isn't trying to write something new, albeit in a particular category, then he or she shouldn't be writing. The Chicana/o writers that we feature on La Bloga don't appear to be fenced in by any label - they are redefining that label every time they publish a new book. In any event, I am too old for things that are more complicated than they need to be. So, for me, Chicano Literature is simply something written by a writer that self-identifies as a Chicano or Chicana. I am all for Daniel's sentiment that we need to move away from labels and just discuss lit, period. He's right, we're not there yet, but if we keep things simple, maybe we can move in that direction.

Ktrion said...

I like that you're bringing this up and how you're questioning your own decisions. Of course the same author can pull you in different ways with two different books. (I'm thinking of Achy Obejas here)

In my current project, there are some Chicana authors who I think are writing Latina lit, as opposed to Chicana/o lit. By that I mean they're publishing with a mainstream author, bringing the reader into a particular Chicano or Latino community, but appealing to a "wider" audience, not necessarily raising complex questions about politics, history, etc.

That sounds like a value judgment, doesn't it?: X\@ lit is political, LatLit is not. I'll have to think about that some more.

I guess I must respectfully disagree with Manuel Ramos, though, in his view of the Writer, sitting down to write.

I always think about what I'm going to write, and I always think of my audience. The other writers I know do the same. You need to think of your audience to keep your work from being totally self-indulgent. Sure the characters may take you off in a direction you hadn't planned. But it's not like The Writer sits awaiting inspiration, saying do with me O Muse what you will. Writing is work and a writer needs a plan. Maybe that just means that all writers have to have a bit of the hack in them.
CR Esquibel

YACWW said...

Manuel Ramos is right. We shouldn't label. The distinction is so rare. My name is confusing. No one associates me with being Latina, yet I write from a Latina perspective. I know many authors like myself who don't speak the language fluently, or read or write or even practice the culture or traditions, yet we embrace our Latina roots. They write across the board, from genre to Chicano/Lat Lit. It would be a great disservice to the reading public if these talented writers got shelved in the Spanish section. Labels are fine if a publisher wants to define but not if it confines.