Thursday, April 28, 2022

Where are the Chicano Intellectuals?

                                                                                   

The Intelligentsia
             

     I was listening to Cornel West talk on Public Television last week. A respected professor, scholar, and African American intellectual, West is the author of several books, his most influential Race Matters. In his talks, West is as comfortable referencing Frederick Douglas, Phyllis Wheatley, W. E. B. Dubois, Mark Twain, St. Augustine, Dostoyevsky, and Martin Buber as he is Toni Morrison, Bob Dylan, Alice Walker, John Coltrane, and Jay-Z, in the same vein as African American intellectuals today, like Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joy Degrue, the late Bell Hooks, and Ta-nehisi Coates.

     As I listened, I began to think, where are the Chicano, Latino, Mexican American, Latin X, hell, I'll even take "Hispanic" intellectuals, especially these days when issues like Latino identity, ethnicity, immigration, nationalization, education, and art are at the forefront? Some might say we should look to Latin America, Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, Octavio Paz, and Diego Rivera for our intellectual precursors. I'm just saying.

     American intellectualism grew out of the tradition of the 1920s, post WWI, scholarship of thinkers like John Dewey, and Jewish literary scholars, like Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazan, and Norman Podhoretz, powerful with both the mind and the pen. Their work opened the literary canon, from the staid formalist, “Art for Art’s Sake” theory, to the more progressive social literary theories of today, as well as commenting on all aspects of American culture. They got us looking inward, toward a more American identity, and away from Europe.

      The Harlem Renaissance lifted the voices of the early Black intellectuals, writers like Claude McKay, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Alain Locke, and later Lorraine Hansberry. They not only created art, but they wrote reviews and essays, critiquing high and low brow “Negro” culture, paving the way to today’s African American intellectual tradition.

                                                                                     

Mexican Anarchists and Intellectuals in Los Angeles

      One could argue New York was the bastion of “literate” cultures, where the Southwest was mostly agrarian and blue collar, still looking for culture. Yet, 1920s Los Angeles, for example, was home to 20-25 Spanish-language newspapers and periodicals, monthlies, weeklies, and dailies, a topic I explored in my third novel Death and the American Dream. Why? Because I wanted to know who was writing and reading these newspapers? Who were the Mexican, Californio, and Mexican American thinkers of the day?

     By 1930, Anglo migration to California from the Midwest and East surged, the population of Los Angeles County close to one-million people, 170,000-200,000 of them Mexican, some fleeing the 1910 Revolution and the 1925 Cristero War, others native Californios. They not only worked the fields, mines, and railroads, but many moved into real estate, law, and agriculture. Many of them gave voice, in both literature and art, to social injustices and helped create the early labor movements in the Southwest.

     As I attempted to show, in my novel, there were many important Mexican “literate” voices in the 1920s, one of the most influential Ricardo Flores Magon, along with his brother Enrique, and members of the Mexican Liberal Party, who published Regeneracion, a political newspaper widespread in Spanish-speaking America, Mexico, and Latin America. With its English translation by William C. Owen, Regeneracion reached readers across the United States and into Europe. 

     Since Magon and the Magonistas resided and operated on both sides of the border, they often saw themselves as bicultural. Magon was even tried in Los Angeles, unjustly, and died in an American prison. Magon was also the voice of the Mexican Revolution. Historians say it was he who wrote the lines for Zapata, "It is better to die on one's feet than live on one's knees," and "Land and Liberty."

      The concept of a border wasn’t as definite at the turn of the 20th century as it is today. For a few cents, and a signature on a piece of paper, people moved freely across the border, taking and bringing their property and ideas with them. Indo-Hispanic cultural tradition wasn’t only captured on paper but in music, especially the nortena and corridos, well into the 1940s by such radio hosts as Pedro J. Gonzalez, up before dawn each morning, with his group Los Madrugadores, to entertain and educate Mexican workers on their way to their jobs.

     However, can we discount the early journals, diaries, letters, and interviews of those Hispano-Indo-Mexicans who originated and settled, not only California but other cities throughout the Southwest, even into Michigan, Kansas City, and St. Louis where they migrated to work the dairies, stockyards, and railroads?

     As a teacher for nearly thirty years, I saw future generations of Chicano-Latino-Indo-Hispanic students and friends earn doctorates, and excel in many intellectual fields, including those who wrote novels, poetry, and essays. To me, their excellence has earned them the right to call themselves doctors, scholar-writers, novelists and poets, but with that right comes a certain responsibility and obligation -- to publish and speak out, vociferously, in the tradition of the early intelligentsia.

     So, I’m mystified as to why I don’t hear more Mexican-Latino intellectual voices as I do other voices in the media. Where are they? On cable’s MSNBC, anchor Alicia Menendez, daughter of long-time Cuban American congressman Robert Menendez, has done her best to bring on more female, Latina voices, but they are mostly political. For a time, there were quite a few raza scholars, journalists, novelists, poets, and essayists in the public square, but today it seems they’re relegated to the classroom.

     Who decides what or who is a “hot” intellectual commodity, worthy for publication and a place at the lectern, the scholars themselves? It is true, scholars often dismiss any form of popular writing, poetry, novels, and essays, as intellectually relevant. As one noted scholar said when he was asked why popular writers weren’t respected in academia, “You don’t turn the zoo over to the hippopotamus.”

     Maybe a problem is that our "Latino" identity is fluid. We can't even agree on what to call ourselves. Not all Mexican Americans identify as “Chicano,” a term many Chicano Study scholars refuse to abandon, which I understand since Mexico's children are still the largest ethnic group in the U.S. For sure, Central Americans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans don’t see themselves as Chicano, but many do see themselves as “Latino.”

     Are we all so radically different that we don’t have a common culture? Personally, I think when a people share the same language, religion, and hemisphere, they also share many of the same values and cultural traits. Being from California, I experienced times in the military when I had more in common with a Puerto Rican from New York than a Mejicano from a tiny town in Texas. If there were no Mexicans in a platoon or company, Puerto Ricans and Cubans immediately took me into the fold.

     After all, American Jews come from every country in the world, but they seem to agree on their Jewishness, as a religion and a culture. African Americans didn’t all migrate from the deep South, yet they have created something of a common culture, even in their acceptance of their brethren who hail from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. African Americans have no qualms integrating Afro-Latinos into their culture.  There's power in numbers. Today, it seems Chicano scholars are fighting over who is more indigenous than Hispanic, when part of the clave of being Chicano was mestizaje, the whole point of Corky Gonzalez’s, Yo Soy Joaquin.

     Or, maybe, I'm "off" here, and it’s that the entire tradition of Intellectualism is a thing of the past? Since it is reported that less than 90 percent of the American public has read an entire book in the past year, is literature, in all its forms and genres, for that matter, are the arts, generally, on life support, and the plug dangling from the wall, or are the arts transforming into something unrecognizable, like techno music and computer-generated art?

     It seems that the acquisition of wealth and possessions, today, more than ever, governs the American ethos. The most popular forms of music are like infomercials for violence, Gucci, gold chains, cocaine, guns, sex, pickup trucks, booze, and honky-tonks. Will Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram soon make the NY Times Bestseller List? The blockbuster movies feature superheroes and zombies. The Fast and Furious franchise is number one with young Mexican-Chicano-Latinos. Excited about a movie called El Chicano, I could hardly sit through the cinematic disaster. What a waste of excellent acting talent, but if violence and demons sell, the results are understandable.

     Lord knows, I’m not one to look to the past or “Make America Great Again” propaganda. I’m in the camp of those who say, “It never was great,” whatever great means. We pretend to detest China but nearly everything in our closets and medicine cabinets is produced there. China and Saudi Arabia own more U.S. real estate than the average working American. Russia is destroying its neighbor as the world watches, the conclusion: buy a nuclear weapon, or, what Putin is showing the rest of non-nuclear Europe, “Watch what I’m doing to them because I can do it to you, and nobody will help.”

                                                                                          

Barrio Philosopher

     So, I’ll to listen to what remains of the American intelligentsia, African Americans, who focus insightfully on ethnic cultural issues, coming out of the Southern Black church tradition; and the Anglo intellectuals, who are becoming more political than social or cultural, except maybe for Neil Postman, Noemi Klein (though Canadian), Thomas Freidman, and a few others. For Chicano/Latino intelligentsia, I guess, until they show up, there's Danny Trejo and Gustavo Arellano to set us on the right path.  

24 comments:

ERNEST HOGAN said...

Sadly, in the year 2022 "Chicano intellectual" is still seem as an oxymoron.

Daniel Cano said...

Ernest, Whoa! Not sure what to say about that one. You might be on to something.

Anonymous said...

I’m from Detroit. My grandparents came here in 1920 from Aguas Calientes. They were “repatriated” from 1930-32. My grandfather wrote a weekly newsletter in Esperanto. Detroit Mexicans are descended from ( except a few of us) very conservative. ( Cristeros?) very few resisted the massive deportations, while Chicago Mexicans seemed to have pushed back. I am very curious about our intellectual heritage.

Scott said...

I'm part of Mexicanos 2070, where we have these discussions on our exclusion and invisibility often. We started Colegio Chicano del Pueblo, that offers free online Chicano Studies classes that have a pathway to college credit at a reduced cost. We also run a webinar series on issues that brings our scholars and artists together to talk about Chicano issues.

https://www.mexicanos2070.com

The webinars are viewable on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/MeXicanos2070

jmu said...

Uh, Gustavo Arellano clowns too much to be called an intellectual. He does have an M.A. (I think, but I could be wrong), so he is almost there because, of course, an intellectual needs the heft of a Ph.D. (cuando menos honoris causa) to be taken "seriously." Trejo comes from the University of Hard Knox so if he comes across as a thinker, more power to him.

I do believe, though, that you are asking for Chicano intellectuals to be like Cornel West and that is too high a bar. I don't think that there are that many Chicanos out there who have the credentials that West has. He has a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Princeton. He has been faculty at the Union Theological Seminary of New York, Yale Divinitiy School, University of Paris, Princeton and Harvard. Yes, all those are plum jobs but more important than that, it is the visibility and experience he gained. Is there any Chicano out there who has gone out and done what he has done?

Just sayin'...

Anonymous said...

Look to the activist.

Anonymous said...

Our intelligentsia is lost in identity politics. Not only cant we agree on a term, we can't even agree on how to spell them( e.g. Xicano/ Latinx). We need serious committed organic intellectuals rooted in the Mexican working class, if we were truly rooted in the working class we would not get lost in such discursive games.

Anonymous said...

Yes, where are Chicano Think Tanks?

Carlos said...

Most of these great minds are still very much alive and still writing and hosting PUBLIC discussions on Pod Casts, You Tube, and in their own books and lectures. Consider the following list: Dr. Rudy Acuna, Dr. Jose Angel Guiterrez, Armando Rendon, Dr. Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, Ana Castillo, Dr. Juan Gomez-Quiones, Dr. Ernesto Todd Mireles, Richard Rodriguez, Kurly Tlapoyawa, Dr. Luis Leal, and many more. Have you read Insurgent Aztlan: The Liberating Power of Cultural Resistance by Dr. Mireles? I recently had a cable repairman who is Chicano noticed by copy I had on my table, and he said he too had read it and now are eager to LEARN Chicano history. If we started asking bookstores and libraries to carry more of our authors--maybe our literary minds would be better known.

Anonymous said...

Great essay!

Juan Alvarado said...

I fear that there are many "Chicano Intellectuals" out there, unspoken and unpublished.To be of import, the intellectual must bear her heart open for every one to poke at it and cause it pain. In the best Info/Hispanic tradition, disimule usted, most Chicanos/Mexicanos greatly fear such exposures. Alas.

Emmanuel Gutierrez said...

If you could nominate a list of names who you would consider bringing to the table for dinner and an intellectual conversation about this topic who would you invite ? I would want Justice Sotomayor there for sure.

Carlos said...

where's my comments?

Anonymous said...

I think its part of the overall invisibility to the power structure. It will see us when we demand to be seen. Victor Padilla, Ph.D. Del Burque

Dr. Cynthia E. Orozco said...

Short response. Most write/speak/however in locale/state in past and present. Some national entities limit access. Some still thinking/operating in Black and White. Check out my two recent books on Mexican American public intellectuals Alonso Perales and Adela Sloss Vento.

Thelma T. Reyna said...

Daniel, I heartily agree with you. The closest I've seen recently on cable news was the Washington Post book reviewer, Carlos Lozada, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism. (His latest book, a collection of critical reviews of books about The Tyrant, won a Gold Medal in the 2022 Intl. Latino Book Awards for "What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.") It's a superb book, and Lozada should be featured more: he's brilliant, articulate, youngish, a good role model for new generations. BTW, he's an immigrant from Peru, and we cherish our immigrants. But we're back to the question of where are the American-born Latino intellectuals?

Thelma T. Reyna said...

Daniel, I heartily agree with you. The closest I've seen recently on cable news was the Washington Post book reviewer, Carlos Lozada, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism. (His latest book, a collection of critical reviews of books about The Tyrant, won a Gold Medal in the 2022 Intl. Latino Book Awards for "What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.") It's a superb book, and Lozada should be featured more: he's brilliant, articulate, youngish, a good role model for new generations. BTW, he's an immigrant from Peru, and we cherish our immigrants. But we're back to the question of where are the American-born Latino intellectuals?

Anonymous said...

Arellano is a clever, articulate food critic, with a sense of journalistic comedic timing. He is not an intellectual philosopher of our Gente by any stretch. Let us not confuse professors, cultural critics, or celebrities with bona fide intellectuals. We need a Chican@ Christopher Hitchens or Carlos Fuentes, not a Trejo actor or an Alcaraz cartoonist.

Anonymous said...

You may have misunderstood the tongue in cheek comment re: Arellano and Trejo, as intellectuals. I am not sure who makes the call regarding if one is a philosopher or not. Given the right situation, we may all be philosophers. Intellectuals, in my opinion, which you can take with a grain of salt, can come from any career, from blue collar to white collar. It has to do with "thinking" and ability to articulate complex ideas. I remember sitting in a plaza in San Cristobal, Chiapas. I was philosophizing with a highly intelligent retired PEMEX engineer, a philosopher, in my book. He mentioned an American professor, a linguist, activist, and writer but had forgotten the name. I took a guess. "You mean Noam Chomsky?" I asked. "Yes, that's him." I answered, "Oh, he's liberal, some say a socialist." The man grew indignant and said something simple but profound, I thought. "No!" He said, "He's a 'thinker." To me, that's what an intellectual is, a "thinker." To get on the grand stage, though, thinkers must publish.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, thanks for your article. I suggest you pick up and read Chicano/a/x books published by the following presses: UT Press, Univ of Arizona Press, Univ of New Mexico Press, Floricanto Press, Aztlán Publications, and others. I also suggest you view this podcast: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1467841266580541/permalink/5424242527607042/

Anonymous said...

Come to t he de Chicano Research center in Stockton, Calif and I will show you shelves of Chicano intellectuals, they started coming out seriously about 20 years ago. Remember that we only started getting AA’s in large numbers after Vietnam.

Anonymous said...

A Great Chicano Intellectual, Dr. Carlos Maldonado, original of Independence, Oregon and published several books out of Eastern Washongton University

Aurelio Manuel Montemayor said...

I'm happy for this conversation but concerned about quick judgements and limited definitions. I guess 'thinker' is a good umbrella term in this search.
Teaching since 1964, advocating since '68, my bookcase is overflowing with Chicano/a books...and a few by authors with Spanish surnames who aren't connected to Mexican or Chicano/a roots. As more of us get into published print (and online virtual publication) our varied voices are heard. Our visibility and acknowledgement in public media is limited but that might be overcome as the camera focuses in on some of us who have written, have read, and have something to say. We aren't short of 'thinkers'...it's just the publishing and media attention still to be gotten. Si se puede. Cada cabeza es un mundo. Cada chango con su mecate. Y a cada santo se le llega su dia. ( with me in my 79th year , it might be said 'yerba mala nunca muere'.
Provecho.

Anonymous said...

I think without a doubt language matters and there’s a level of demand that Chicanos speak and at times not speak Spanish. There are 2 worlds in different languages that are not easily navigated in the U.S. by Chicanos because of how language is a structure of privilege manipulated by English speakers in the U.S. Those who we may collect into a “Latino” category share a language and who can deny the thunderous rise of Bad Bunny and all other reggaetoneros, sorry, artist of the urbano latino genre. And what of Romeo Santos, King of Bachata and Bronx-born? Such Spanish-language phenomena are easily ignored by so many because it’s that language over there and not our language over here. The American English-speaking world views Spanish speakers in specific stereotypical ways. It is demanded that Chicanos both speak and not speak Spanish. African-American intellectuals do not have this problem.