By D. R. Gayton
Sharing a contiguous 2,000 mile border across the Rio Grande, the relationship between the United States of America and the United Mexican States predates the formation of either Republic. Already as Colonies, much of the future relationship between the two burgeoning Nations was to be shaped by the relationship between England and Spain. Tracing perhaps as far back as the Counter Reformation, historically, anti-Spanish sentiment in English Anglo-Saxon culture has often been deep and widely spread. It was this same anti-Spanish sentiment, often associated with the Black Legend, that the American Colonies, and then the United States, formally inherited and later broaden to include the entirety of Spanish territories. Later with the expansion of the United States and the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican American War, that self same anti-Spanish sentiment would, when blended with the highly racialized atmosphere of the New Nation, become outright animosity towards anything Mexican. Examples of this can be drawn from as far back as the disenfranchisement of the early Mexican Americans following the signing to the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, to the banning of the Spanish language from official use, to the public segregation and marginalization of Mexicans and their American descendents.
Already by 1856, less than a decade after the United States’ annexation of the South West Territory, Francisco P. Ramirez, a native of Los Angeles and founder of “El Clamor Publico” (1855-1859) would describe in English the injustices committed against the native Californios as “atrocious injuries of which they [the Californios] have been victims to in this country where they were born and in which they have to live in a state inferior to the poorest of their persecutors”. Later, during the 1870’s, under the same recognition of the injustices committed against an entire group of people, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton would write out in her fiction acerbic criticisms against Yankee bigotry and hypocrisy. Out if this dialogue and long and complicated history between these two Nations, between these two cultures the Chicano was born and consequently what we have come to term as Chicano Literature. As a genre Chicano literature it is a literature that strives and succeeds to annex two discordant points in history and in doing so redefines and amplifies the very meaning of the American Experience.
It is this awareness and sense of shared but divergent experiences that link all of the literary works such as Cisnero’s House on Mango Street, Anaya’s Bless Me—Ultima, Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood, and Rodriguez’s Always Running. Because the topic of legitimacy has always reign supreme in the consciousness of all Americans, the Chicano singularity of belonging to two Nations, to two cultures, to two languages and even to two ways of thinking passes from one book to another. In Cisnero’s House on Mango Street, and Anaya’s Bless Me—Ultima, personal experiences mirror each other as much as at times they oppose each other. It is here however, within this wavering and matching of experiences that the true and shifting identity of the Chicano truly comes into focus as both a uniquely singular and shared experience.
The linguistic style shared by all these Chicano writers is easy to identify. Blending Spanish with English, the bilingualism shared within these texts connote a Hispanicism and a way of thinking that is singular to Spanish speakers. Over and over again the texts are dotted with Spanish phrases or words that carry cultural connotations in their own right. But the texts are in English and the context is always American; cultural loyalties are hence always ambiguous. In Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street this struggle between two cultures and languages can be clearly recognized by the main character’s marked obsession with her name. Then on the other side of the same token there is Irene in Desert Blood who gets excluded from Mexican society because she lacks Spanish fluency and is an American citizen. In Anaya’s Bless Me—Ultima language is again used to differentiate between the traditionalism of the Hispanic home and the encroachment of the Anglo-industrialized world. Later, Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood, and Rodriguez’s Always Running, the authors present language almost as a veritable banner of Chicano resistance.
Beyond language there is of course religion. Perhaps none of these writers speaks so strongly about religion as Anaya does in Bless Me—Ultima. Going back to his indigenous roots as embodied in the very character of Ultima, Anaya seeks to create a veritable mestizaje, a synthesis between his Amerindian pagan forefathers, his Spanish Catholicism and the liberalism and industrialism of the United States. For Garcia de Alba, religion and religious ethics would take a much darker role in Dessert Blood as old Mexican mores, ethics and religion become warped. Under the face of encroaching Americanization, Greed and globalization, Mexican patriarchy and machismo become violence against women while the sexual repressions of Catholicism become Satanism. However, it is the sense of belonging and not belonging, of believing and not believing, of wanting to hold on to tradition as well as breaking away from it that distinguishes all these writers.
“Ni de aqui, ni de alla”, Neither from here or there, was the saying that I often heard in my childhood when people spoke of the Chicano, the Mexican-American. Even before I knew the meaning of either words or their political and cultural connotations I was keenly aware of the contradictory nature of my own identity as a Chicano. Out of these seemingly insurmountable contradictions I became determined to break away from all social and cultural traditions, and had long ago ceased to give any serious thought the subject of race or ethnicity. Accepting fully my own multiculturalism I had instead sought to disengage myself from all cultural expectations and social constructs in order to find my true identity through personal merit and experience; rather than collectively through a long search into an ancient ancestry as foreign to me as the Olmecs who vanished more than millennia ago. Confronted with the undeniably long history of racism in America, however, time and time again I was forced to revert back to my awareness in the contradictions that underlie being Chicano. As such this texts were an immense help to me in helping me see clearly the importance not just of the word Chicano or Hispanic, but the importance of the Chicano to be able to define him or herself in their own terms.