Chicano/a Studies

Ethnic and indigenous studies is grounded in the genealogy of dispossession, colonialism, and oppression. On these grounds, Chicano/a studies is particularly close in its concerns to what animates native and indigenous writers, for in both the concern for nationalism, cultural as well as political, is tied to the ideal of sovereignty over native land, and much theoretical and creative activity is directed toward reappropriating that sovereignty in political, aesthetic, and personal ways. In this context, then, Chicano/a studies fosters an indigenous national identity, one that is not defined by ethnic purity but rather by linguistic and cultural continuities that survive the experiences of disruption, disconnection, and deprivation. This strand of nationalism should be distinguished from what is common in the Anglo- European traditions (see, e.g., Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm), for here we find a holistic environmentalism that supports a spiritual humanism extending from the family to the clan, from the tribe to the nation. There is no dialectical totality (e.g., the Hegelian nation-state), but rather the transmission of an attitude that encompasses the people, the land, and the spirits that inhabit it. This attitude, or rather its transmissibility, takes on the social and discursive force of a national imaginary.

1920x760-splash-chicano-studiesLike African American studies, Chicano/a studies grew largely out of political activism and began to cohere into a discipline by the mid-1980s. As Alurista points out, Chicano/a (or, as he prefers, Xicano) literature grew out of and affirmed “a nationalist fervor founded on the most ancient and precolonial cultural origins available” (22). To traverse the centuries between the time of the “modern Xicano writer” and these origins in pre-Columbian societies would require a hermeneutic method and a willingness to critique what is transmitted in the chain of tradition. Following Fanon’s call to reaffirm the “precolonial springs of life” (Fanon 170), Alurista declares the need “for the redefinition of Xicano identity [which] was clearly at the fore of the search for the historical self” that predated colonial dispossession (23). This is precisely Fanon’s theoretical task in The Wretched of the Earth – to reinsert the subject into history. In his reading of Xicano literature in the period 1965–75, Alurista identifies a historical dialectic that weaves cultural heritage into national consciousness, the Fanonian goal of a nation whose people are conscious of themselves as a people. Literature had a role to play in this dialectical passage, and not a passive one of merely “reflecting” the social world. “Xicano literary production in the poetic mode, like Xicano theatre, brought out its message to the people rather than wait for the people to pick up a manuscript and legitimize the birth of a new consciousness” (29). This gives the power of agency to the people who receive the message and respond spontaneously to its theoretical program. The fact that national consciousness as Alurista defines it can exist only as an idea does not diminish its capacity to bind people into a community and justify resistance against neocolonial oppression. However, Américo Paredes believes that the narrative of the Chicano/a struggle, which is typified by Alurista’s essay, lacks historical perspective. “Mexican-American dependence on the Mexican government in the matter of civil rights in the United States has not been given due notice in the history of the present Chicano movement, which too often is seen as a sudden awakening of the Mexican minority in the United States to a consciousness of themselves and of their rights as human beings” (27). He sees the Chicano/a struggle as stretching back to the nineteenth-century battles between the United States and Spain, then between the United States and Mexico.

The focus on language, race, and ideology defines much of the work in Chicano/a studies and native American studies, particularly in the 1990s, when both fields began to develop a strong institutional presence. Unlike African American studies, however, slavery was not part of this focus. Instead, theorists turned to the special problems of foreign conquest and the question of native identity and native rights. As Ramón Saldívar has pointed out, however, the Mexican American experience is not unlike what African Americans and Native Americans have gone through, for their experiences are defined by the interrelationship of two cultures, a “minority” and a “dominant” (13f). This is why it is necessary for Chicano narratives to mediate “truth about a culturally determinate people in a historically determinate context” and to find their ground “in the concrete social interests of historical and contemporary events” (24). Not content with mirroring a problematic real world of social hardship and economic deprivation, “Chicano narratives seek systematically to uncover the underlying structures by which real men and women may either perpetuate or reformulate that reality” (5–6). Unlike Gates, who sees African American literary traditions as involved in a kind of mimicry based in linguistic difference, Saldívar sees a “dialectical relationship” between Mexican American culture and “both of its original contexts,” Mexico and the United States (17).

In the analysis of identity in Chicano/a contexts, the dialectical production of the subject involves multiple terms and multiple points of synthesis. To be sure, this is the case in African American contexts, as Du Bois pointed out in his discussion of “the phenomena of race-contact” (120). What differs is the Chicano/a experience of geographic borderlands, spaces of difference that complicate binary structures of knowledge and monolingual conceptions of human communication. Recent research in the literature and culture of the borderland – a term coined by the historian Herbert Eugene Bolton to describe the combination of conflict and belonging that defines many border communities (see Sadowski-Smith 1–2) – reveals a concrete social context for political action and cultural production and a subject position characterized by ethnic, linguistic, and sexual hybridity. It is in such contexts that we discover the conditions for what Manuel Rafael Mancillas calls “collaborative empowerment” and a “globalized grassroots consciousness … manifested in transborder alliances, partnerships, and collaborations, which transform rasquachi bands of disenfranchised community artists and political activists from the lunatic fringe into major players in the struggle for survival and the production of power” (209, 213). The border is a space of pain and merger, of struggle and communication. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), “The US–Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture” (3). Anzaldúa, like so many other Chicano/a writers, opposes a manichaean “counterstance” that “locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed.” It is not enough, she writes, “to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions” (78). Anzaldúa’s focus on the conflicts between and within dominant, immigrant, and mestizo cultures implicitly takes Western feminism to task. “Life as feminists on the border,” Sonia Saldívar-Hull explains, “means recognizing the urgency of dealing with the sexism and homophobia within our culture; our political reality demands that we confront institutionalized racism while we simultaneously struggle against economic exploitation” (34).

As Claudia Sadowski-Smith shows, twenty-first-century conditions of globalization have changed how we think about borders and focused our attention on the transnational spaces they constitute. Amid a “triadic regionalization of the world” (Europe, Asia, the US), free-trade pacts, and “border militarization,” the coherence of border communities, which are not contingent on the nation-states whose limits constitute the borderland, suffers profound destabilization. In fact, Sadowski-Smith notes, integration between the United States and Mexico “is not primarily achieved in border locations,” which are dominated by no-go zones controlled by drug cartels or free-trade industrial parks, known as maquiladoras (6–7). In this transnational framework, the border is not simply a fluid geographic space but a mode of temporal and spatial disjunction that avoids cultural disintegration through hybrid modes of self-identification. The authors she discusses cannot be considered “in terms of their regional or spatial affiliation because they have led lives that cross ethnic and national frontiers” and “engage in fascinating and complex strategies of selfidentification that draw selectively on aspects of their own identities and experiences to articulate affinities with a particular group or sometimes with multiple communities” (13). The term “transborder,” which has evolved in American studies to account for these “contact zones,” can also be used to discuss the new issues arising in Europe in the wake of the abolition of internal borders, in the new nations of the former Soviet Union and Africa, where the newest nation (South Sudan) has arisen by drawing a new border. In this context, indigenous territories, for example the Navajo Nation and the Aboriginal reserves, institute an internal border insofar as they demarcate a line that can be crossed but cannot be moved or removed, a line that separates incommensurate societies. Mancillas describes this situation with a grimly comic analogy: “As a native of the Tijuana/San Isidro border region, I have become a master of transborder crossings, a zopilote [buzzard] who has wagged the tales of la linea [the border] and lived to tell you about it, perched unvacillating high on the fence” (203).

Works Cited

Alurista. “Cultural Nationalism and Xicano Literature During the Decade of 1965–1975.” MELUS 8.2 (Summer 1981): 22–34.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 1987. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.
Appiah, Anthony. The Ethics of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Bruyneel, Kevin. The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.–Indigenous Relations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Vintage Books/Library of America, 1990.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963.
Krupat, Arnold. Red Matters: Native American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
Mancillas, Manuel Rafael. “Transborder Collaboration: The Dynamics of Grassroots Globalization.” In Globalization on the Line: Culture, Capital, and Citizenship at US Borders. Ed. Claudia Sadowski-Smith. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 201–20.
Nagel, Joane. American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ortiz, Simon. “Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism.” MELUS 8.2 (Summer 1981): 7–12.
Palumbo-Liu, David. Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Paredes, Américo. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border. 1976. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Ramirez, Brill de and Susan Berry. Native American Life-History Narratives: Colonial and Postcolonial Navajo Ethnography. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.
Razack, Sherene. “What Is to Be Gained by Looking White People in the Eye? Culture, Race and Gender in Cases of Sexual Violence.” Signs 19.4 (1994): 894–923.
Sadowski-Smith, Claudia. Border Fictions: Globalization, Empire and Writing at the Boundaries of the United States. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Teuton, Sean Kircummah. Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Source: Castle, Gregory. The Literary Theory Handbook. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013.


Categories: Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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