Sunday, March 31, 2013

Discovering Chicano/a Literature

For some reason I've had Chicano/a literature on my mind lately. I keep thinking back to my first experience coming across an author that had a "Mexican-sounding" name. This was back in my junior year of high school. Our English teacher, Mr. Weir, did this pretty cool thing during the spring semester, where instead of just having us read books by old dead white guys, he had us read books with authors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. There was a list and with the names of the authors and titles of the books, and we got to pick and choose each week who we'd be reading. We had to be responsible for actually reading the books, because by the following week, Mr. Weir would have a one-on-one conference with each student to discuss the book. Really it was his clever way of testing us individually without having to write out an exam for each book. Of course there were students who didn't keep up with the reading and would end up sounding like they were choking as they conversed with Mr. Weir who was asking pointed questions about the book(s); mainly about specific characters in specific scenes, or the general plot which you couldn't possibly remember unless you took the time to actually read the book in its entirety.

Anyhow, I'm getting off track. On this list, I caught a few names that sounded Mexican. I thought to myself, "What the fuck? En la madre! It couldn't be! Mexicans don't publish shit! Mexicans work their asses off in a caneria or picking strawberries, in jobs like my parents work. But they're not writers!" Yes I thought like this, because I had spent my life growing up with anglo teachers, along with reading books by white authors, at least until high school. Needless to say, I was blown the fuck away by all the authors with "Mexican-sounding" names. By all, I mean four. Being that I hadn't come across any Mexican-American authors previously, at the time four was a lot for me. Their names stood out: Rudolfo Anaya and a book titled Bless Me, Ultima, Sandra Cisneros and The House on Mango Street, Jose Antonio Villarreal Pocho, and Gary Soto's Living Up the Street. It awed me, and I remember having a "wow"-look on my face.

Needless to say I began my track through the books with Bless Mi, Ultima. Upon finishing it I found myself further awed or "wow-ed," because I could relate to the characters based partially on the experiences, but more so due to some of the cultural aspects, such as the use of Catholicism and curanderismo, along with the friction created by sons who don't want what their fathers want for them, and cultural expectations. But even the most minute things had captured my attention like all the "Mexican-sounding" names and the code switching between English and Spanish. I know trivial things for anyone else, but for me at the time having understood that there were white authors and even black authors, and having only read their work, and having only understood history based on their relations, I couldn't believe I was reading something written by someone like me.

My experience upon reading the other novels was similar. What The House on Mango Street was interesting as a matter of fact, because something that had caught my attention was a the focus on the female protagonist and other female characters in the book, something that the other novels had not done. So the issues of Mexican-American women was very much a major theme that stood out even before Mr. Weir pointed out such issues. Mr. Weir did take the time to address some of the gender issues occurring in the novel, which in a sense was one of my first exposures to feminism, since he tried to get me to think about women as an underprivileged group.

Living Up the Street similarly had grabbed me up to a certain point, but of all the books it didn't really leave me too happy with my experience reading it. I enjoyed it, because again, this was someone like me writing about their experiences, and some of the craziness we can get into as children. In fact one of the scenes I remember the most involves children placing cats and bottles in sacks so the one group of children can use said sacks as weapons against a rival group of children. I'm shaking my head at the scene, and us as children.

However, Pocho did stay with me for quite some time after having read it. I think I mainly related to that novel because of the conflict of the main character, Richard, stuck between being Mexican according to the standards of his father and mother. And there is of course the very apparent conflict of the Mexican and American cultures clashing, along with their impact on the gender roles. Aside from the issues and themes I could relate to, this was the first time that I had ever read my hometown mentioned in a work of fiction. I saw "Watsonville," written there, and I was thinking to myself, again "What the fuck?!" I was very much about pride in my hometown and where I came from, I still am, but to see your hometown actually mentioned, even just in passing in a work of fiction written by an author with a "Mexican-sounding" name, I was just, "wow-ed," again.

Mr. Weir didn't really push us to think too critically about the novels, so I spent my time just thinking about how great it was to read these novels about people with similar class and cultural backgrounds to my own. A common theme amongst all four of them was of course that it was about growing up Mexican-American in the United States. And I just kept thinking how great it was that I could relate, that was the most important thing for me, brown folk like myself writing about their experience and I felt like I couldn't relate on a different level than if it were a Anglo or African-American author writing about similar class and cultural struggles. Class struggles are easy to relate to, but the cultural and social aspect is missing, and it was a void that was filled for me thanks to these Mexican-American authors. Not long after, I would come to refer to them as Chicano/a authors, and their work as Chicano/a literature.

For a very long time I believed that those were the only Chicano/a authors around, and that those books I read were their only works, well besides Victor Villaseñor's Rain of Gold and Luis Rodriguez's Always Running, which I read on my personal time, after borrowing them from friends. As an undergrad when I took a Chicano/a and Latino/a literature course, 3 of those novels I just mentioned were covered, considered to be part of the canon; The House On Mango Street, Bless Me Ultima, and Pocho. Plays by Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino were also taught, and we had an Latino/a literature anthology, but aside from these works I was probably too lazy to hunt down anything else by the other authors we read. I was content knowing that there were more Chicano/a or Latino/a authors aside from the five I had been exposed to in high school.

A few years later, my thesis would be based on Chicano/a literature. It was also while writing my thesis that I discovered that not all of the authors accepted the label Chicano/a. For example Jose Antonio Villarreal didn't care for the label, nor did he care for the rabble rousing of Chicanos/as. I have the exact quote in my thesis, which I'll have to go back and look up, but needless to say it was disappointing that an author whose novel I admired didn't care for the politics of Chicanos/as.

It's funny, because as I think back to my time as an undergrad. I had a friend call me and ask for any good Chicano/a books. Off the top of my head were the five books I had read in high school and maybe an anthology from the Chicano/a lit class I had taken. He said he'd read all of those. I was disappointed with myself for not knowing other works by those authors, or a variety of Chicano/a authors. My friend however was able to hunt down other books, some of which he in turn mentioned to me. Then of course not long after I was exposed to many more authors and their works, finding out there were whole sections dedicated to Chicano/a authors and their works, such as UC Santa Barbara's Colección Tloque Nahuaque. Exhibiting not just the work of creative writers, but scholars as well. Recently there's been Chicano/a bloggers mentioned to me, who write and post their poetry and other works, and the discovery of them similarly has me "wow-ed" along with the work by indie authors, who have taken the reins themselves to get their work out there. A great source for a diverse selection of Chicano content is Aztlán ReadsWhich has exposed me to something else, and that is, that the Chicano/a experience varies.

I'm not sure when or how Mr. Weir had gotten the idea to allow his students to read a from a selection that included authors from a variety of ethnicities, it could have been mandated by the school for all I know, but technically it's thanks to him that I discovered authors who not only had experiences like my own, but they were also from the same cultural and ethnic background as my own. In his class I also read Richard Wright's Black Boy and Alice Walker's The Color Purple, but it was Villarreal, Cisneros, Soto and Anaya that placed a smile on my face, and made me look forward to reading, because I felt I could understand them on a different level.

I didn't intend for this to be about Arizona and the Chicano/a literature book ban, but it kept coming to mind throughout, as I wrote this post. That feeling of being excited, awed or "wow-ed" by the discovery of Chicano/a authors, writers like yourself from similar backgrounds-this feeling is just one the things they've taken away from future generations of young Chicanos/as who have yet to come across authors like themselves.


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