Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Review: Aztlán

Review: Rudolfo Anaya, Francisco A. Lomelí, Enrique R. Lamadrid, eds. Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Revised and Expanded Edition.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017.
isbn 978-0-8263-5675-8

Michael Sedano

What if we wanted to climb
To the mountains
And seek lakes of serpents
And eagles hunting
In the carrizales

Alurista, “Dawn Eye Cosmos” 1968

You can’t run and try to hide away
Here it comes, here comes another day
You can’t run to try to hide away
Here it comes, here comes another day
Where you are, never really far away
Good morning Aztlán

David hidalgo and Louie Perez performed by Los Lobos, 2002

Aztlán is in the hearts of our Chicanos

Disremembered 60s poet

From the emergent stirrings of movimiento consciousness in the late 1960s continuing into the 21st century, raza art has found rich resources in an edenic vision of our separate genesis in a place named Aztlán. Like the primordial land Alurista describes, Aztlán stands for a vision of purity free even from Original Sin. We’re still in Aztlán, Los Lobos observe, only today living the rat race bedevils our lost and ruined homeland.

Through poetry and song, Aztlán gained rhetorical potency as a source of identification and inclusion. A separate Eden supported the movement’s underlying sense of Peoplehood. The place expressed counterstatement to exclusionary attitudes infecting la raza’s historical context. Few things are as useful as a powerful idea. Aztlán quickly escaped the chapbooks and found its way into scholarly considerations.

The first anthology of these academic speculations titled Aztlán appeared in 1989. © renewed in 1991, the landmark title signalled the apex of Aztláncentric scholarship in its time. Now the University of New Mexico Press has published a 2017 update to the original anthology. Edited by Rudolfo Anaya, Francisco A. Lomelí, and Enrique R. Lamadrid, the volume includes new essays as well as dusting off the old standards of Aztlánian scholarship.

This is an important book, equivalent, I think, to the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, though of course, focused on that single seminal idea. The contents divide into four themes: Aztlán as Myth and Historical Conscience; Historicizing the Dialectics of Aztlán; Redefining Aztlán as a Discursive Concept; and closes with Comparative Applications of Aztlán.

As a reformed scholar, I couldn’t prevent myself from first reading Francisco Lomelí’s Introducton. An accomplished scholar, Lomelí’s essay reads easily and is packed with details every scholar or grad student will eagerly note. For less intense readers, I’d begin with Rudolfo Anaya’s elegant—what else would one expect?—discursive analysis in Chapter 1. Ever the writer of fiction, Anaya’s opening paragraphs visualize the 1960s naming ceremony raza conducted when we took Aztlán as the name of our homeland.  I was in the Army and missed it.

The author of Bless Me, Ultima, where boundaries between myth and actuality propel the story, argues for the value of blurring the lines in social science, writing “Aztlán is real because myth is real, we argued. Aztlán was potential because it was a place of prophecy. Migrating groups of Asians, in the process of becoming indigenous Americans, had settled in Aztlán. There they evolved new levels of spiritual orientation to cosmos, earth, and community. . . . so it happened to these tribes of Native Americans…they created a covenant with their gods, and from there they moved south to Mexico to complete the prophecy.”

Anaya sees a magical conecta between story and subject, how belonging and place are the same, posits an arguable genetic historicity, and illustrates a literary continuity between this recent expression and Alurista’s image of “Eagles, hunting in the carrizales” of some primordial Eden.

People like me who do not spend a lot of time in nonfiction will want to parcel out their reading, leaf through and read paragraphs at random. Select one of any provocative title in the ToC and read that essay. There’s a rhythm and often self-constricted style to scholarly scribbling that eventually releases its hold on a reader’s comfort. After that sets in, essays are more readily digested.

“On the other hand, the terms Chicana and Chicano identify a subjectivity marked by a heritage and culture distinct from and devalued by Euro-American society. The interplay between these two meanings of the terms Chicana and Chicano is complex and not at all resolved. Although the claims for Chicano cultural agency have been to a greater or lesser degree effective, their translation into social empowerment has been largely unsuccessful.”

That’s all true, and perspicacious. But dang, that’s a lot of syntax! When the going gets tough, I imagine one of these scholars standing at a lectern reading the piece verbatim.

This is not to single out Rafael Pérez-Torres, he’s a fine academic writer, along with his colleagues filling the 424 pages of 10-point type. Thankfully, the designer allows merciful line spacing so my weak eyes can read without too much squinting. There's a lot of information on the page that only a practiced academic skimmer will capture. Thankfully, the subject compels interest and one attends carefully to the sentences.

One of the book’s most useful voices comes with the closing theme that examines critical and racist responses to the advocacy for a separate origin in Aztlán. I find the antepenultimate chapter by Lee Bebout particularly useful. These final essays offer a sobering perspective on the place of Aztlán when it’s not “in the hearts of our Chicanos” as a misremembered poet sings. Bebout collects evidence of wingnut reactionaries pushing back against the joyousness of something of our own.

Bebout draws some material from pop culture, pendejos like Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, and the entire state of Arizona legislature. The Arizona State professor of English did his homework,  assembling disparate materials from novels to scholarly sources to craft a strong analysis in reasonable and clear language.

“Buchanan simultaneously narrates and delegitimizes Mexico’s historical grievances. He does this in several ways. First, he recognizes that the United States did take half of Mexico’s territory, but he also repeatedly notes Mexico’s ineffective rule and the “unsettled” nature of those lands. This notion of a vast, empty frontier may of course be surprising to the Mexican and Native peoples whose ancestors lived for centuries in those territories.”

I can see movimiento organizers outlining that and other chapters as notes for a teach-in preparing supporters with effective talking points. Informed argument rarely fails to claim a rhetorical advantage in our increasingly confrontative market-place of ideas.

Fittingly, the editors allow the final two words to Alurista and Sergio Elizondo. Inspiring as Elizondo’s closing words are, I might have given the ultimate pages to Alurista, who one evening told me he “invented” Aztlán. I had just told him that Adán y Eva’s last name was Sedano, and people’s last names showed how distant they’d traveled from the purity of Original Sin, but he was OK being an Urista. While he may have invented Aztlán, my familia owned it. I’m not sure he fully dug the broma.

The book’s 20 chapters would serve effectively as the textbook for an introductory course in Chicana Chicano Studies, at any level. This is challenging stuff for lower division kids, or a gift for departing frosh. Welcome to college kids, here are some ideas to hash around.

Aztlán makes an ideal starting point for graduate students launching a career in ideas. In the collection readers have a model of what scholarly books want to be, accessible to general readers, but more importantly, interesting.

The title, one of UNM Press’ Querencia Series, will be available through a local bookseller who will order it from the publisher. You can go publisher-direct via the publisher’s website (link),

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