Sunday, November 27, 2011

Against Singular Identities by Amelia M.L. Montes

The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity begins in Alaska. In the first chapter, “The Long Road Home,” Lisa D. Chávez writes:

“Where I grew up there are glaciers wider than highways, and the aurora swoop and swirl in the winter sky, loops and ribbons of green, blue, and red. Where I grew up winter’s brief sun makes riches of snow—light refracting on ice crystals, making fields of sapphires and diamonds. That lazy sun barely rises in winter, and in summer it can’t stop shining—hours of light and summer frenzy. Where I grew up there are grizzly bears and moose, wolves and salmon . . . Where I grew up, in Alaska, there were not many people like me” (9).

Kudos to editors Blas Falconer and Lorraine M. López for placing Chávez’s piece as the opening to a wonderful collection of Latinas y Latinos writing about growing up in unexpected geographic spaces, or writing against expected and often stereotyped topics: romanticized narrations of ethnic heritage, gangs, the southwest, or cactus. Chávez writes eloquently of the Alaskan environment and of her own struggles to make sense of her heritage in a land and peoples who are literally white. Who would ever think that Chicanas and Chicanos were growing up in Alaska? Other writers in the collection also describe unexplored complicated situations regarding identity. Helena Mesa writes, “But I don’t write about Cuba. I was born in Pittsburgh to Cuban parents.” Blas Falconer explains his Virginia background like this: “I spent most of my childhood in Reston, Virginia, thirty minutes outside of Washington, D.C. My parents’ best friends were just like them—European American husbands with Puerto Rican wives: Terry and Eduvíjise, Tom and Emílse, John and Dominga.” How to make sense of such childhoods? And then there is Joy Castro who was adopted into a Cuban American family who thought they were adopting a Cuban baby. Not until adulthood does Castro find out that her [white] “birth mother had taken buses to Miami for the pregnancy and birth, so no one in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois would know. I wasn’t Latina at all. In one sudden yank of the rug, I felt my family and identity severed from me.” Castro describes a poignant moment that becomes a ten-year journey in coming to terms with identity.

A few years ago, I brought five of my Chicana and Chicano University of Nebraska students to the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) annual conference. I will always remember hearing one of my students tell one student from California that he was from Nebraska.



“No. Really? But you look like a Chicano.”

“I am a Chicano—a Chicano from Nebraska.”

In a few minutes, my students from Nebraska were surrounded by the University of California students asking them how they ever got to Nebraska in the first place. “I was born there,” two of them said repeatedly. “And what is it like?” “Is there Mexican food there?” The Nebraska Chicanos were exceedingly patient and forthcoming with information. I would not have been so patient and yet I was very much like those California students not too many years ago.

Years ago when I told my California friends and family I was leaving California to accept a position at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was met with, “There are no Chicanos there” or “You will be so far away from your culture” or (my favorite) “Nothing lives there—you fly over that section of the U.S., you don’t land there.” Sometimes when I’m riding my bicycle (in Nebraska) past fields of maize, hearing the sounds of roosters or watching a hawk swoop low, or when I go to the small curandera shop just outside of Lincoln, I am reminded of my childhood summers spent in various areas of Coahuila or Guanajuato or Jalisco, Mexico: roosters, hawks, fields of corn. My first year in Nebraska, I would repeatedly tell my students, “so much of this place [emphasis on place] reminds me of Mexico.”

This anthology, then, helps to more fully illustrate the many diverse backgrounds and experiences of Latinas y Latinos. Had this book been available that memorable week at the NACCS conference, I would have made sure those students had a copy of this book. Now they have the chance.

As important in this anthology is the inclusion of our sexual identities. This too is who we are. Erasmo Guerra beautifully and with touching humor turns the telenovela on its head with “Jotonovela” while illustrating the struggles of one Texas raised gay Chicano living in Nueva York. Steve Cordova, also in New York writes: “My gay identification . . . is not a betrayal of one part of myself—my Latino-ness, if you will. It is rather an acceptance of another part of myself—my sexuality, my gayness, my HIV status . . . when it comes to the different parts of my identity, I am not one or the other. I am one and the other” (74).

Falconer and López explain that “[T]his book not only investigates reactions against cultural essentialism. It also seeks to dismantle an absurdly narrow definition of this wide and sprawling collective of individuals by honoring the diversity within this diversity . . .” (6).

My only criticism is that the book is much too slim. When I ordered the book, I really expected it to be a thick anthology replete with so many voices that it would make a definitive point: none of us are a singular identity! However—because of the economy, I am assuming that the decision to keep it a thin volume is due to publishing houses shying away from the more hefty, expensive books and choosing slimmer, more affordable book projects these days. Even so, this book still packs a lot into a slim volume. The writers in this anthology bring home the point that the national narrative which is disseminated via the media, via political agendas, via our corporate markets have consistently packaged and repackaged our brown bodies to create what they think we must consume: one singular Latin@ identity. We are far from any simplistic notion of Latinidad in the United States and this book is a major “first” in shattering stereotypes. I hope this is the first of many more writings “against a singular identity.” Orale Blas Falconer y Lorraine López and all the writers in this anthology. Felicidades! Now, queridas y queridos bloga readers, go get yourself a copy!


Belinda Acosta said...

Orale, Amelia! Thanks for talking about this book. I, too, was dismayed at how slim the book is. Still, I'm glad it's out there. Thanks for the recap.

Belinda Acosta
Austin, Tejas by way of
Nebraska—the Breadbasket of Aztlan c/s

Francisco Aragón said...

Letras Latinas will be inviting Blas and Lorraine to present this ground breaking book at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. in late April of next year. Stay tuned.

jenlo8192 said...

Very exciting! I can't wait to get a copy of this book!