Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art.
Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art, by Debra J. Blake. Latin America Otherwise series. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2008. xiii, 296 pp. $84.95 US (cloth), $23.95 US (paper).
Latinos and the U.S. South, by Jose Maria Mantero. London, Praeger, 2008. xxvi, 283 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).
Rooted in Chicano/a studies and feminist studies, Debra J. Blake's Chicana Sexuality and Gender can best be understood as a history of ideas concentrating on 1965 to the present. Blake primarily examines work by Chicana writers and artists, but seeks to make connections to the ideas and lives of ordinary Mexican women living in the US. Her book offers a long consideration of writers such as Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, and Sandra Cisneros; only later chapters offer substantial evidence from nine historias (or oral histories) that the author gathered from less well-known women. The resulting analysis is mostly strained as Blake "pursues the relevancy of the revised Mexican female cultural symbols" (p. 220).
This is an overtly ideological work that assumes that the Chicano movement and the Catholic Church have subjugated women. Blake is much taken by the centrality of traditional and historic figures in Chicana arts and letters, including Mexica goddesses, such as Malintzin/La Malinche and La Llorona, who are "refigured" as symbols of feminine power. These iconic figures, she finds, are seldom familiar to her working-class and semiprofessional interviewees, though related themes emerge in the stories they tell. Instead, the oral histories, unsurprisingly, reference the Virgin of Guadalupe/Virgin Mary. Across this disparate source base, Blake looks for Chicanas' efforts toward self-definition and self-empowerment, individually or as a community. Eventually what emerges is that the Chicana intellectuals stand at a significant remove from their communities of origin.
The book offers little novel analysis for scholars. Historians will find the book lacking for its loose sense of chronological change and its free-wheeling methodology. Blake's book suffers from an odd organizational scheme. For example, she delves into the methodology of her oral histories only in the final chapter. While the study is transnational in substance, Blake often seems unaware of the changes that have unfolded in Mexican gender and social history in recent decades. For example, the rapid decline in birthrates, the rise in women's education, and the changing religious landscape in Mexico certainly affect the world of Mexican women in the US. The book may offer a reasonable overview of Chicano/a themes for undergraduates, yet students may find the book hard going if unfamiliar with the texts under discussion. Duke University Press should be commended for including ample illustrations, which bring many images and art works to the fore.
Historians may have similarly mixed feelings about Jose Maria Mantero's Latinos and the U.S. South, which appears to be motivated by a desire to document and explain the tremendous growth of a Latino population in the United States South, a relatively insular region until recently. Yet the author is compelled to offer something more; he devotes much of the book to "a panoramic perspective of parallels between the US South and the Latino cultures, including the past and present Latin American nations" (p. xxvi). The multiple goals result in a frustrating study that often defies logical analysis.
Mantero, a professor of literature, takes Flannery O'Connor's story, "The Displaced Person," as a central trope in the book. He offers a solid analysis of this 1950s tale, which foreshadows many of the labour, power, and cultural issues that Southerners face today with the newest waves of immigrants. The book overall is eclectic in its method, relying heavily on analysis of press pieces, secondary scholarship, and personal observations.
Certainly, the story of the movement of Latin American immigrants into the US South, urban and rural, is an important and telling one. Research on this phenomena of the past twenty years from the perspective of native southerners, both black and white, and Latinos will be crucial. Mantero, however, does not provide much new in this area. Much of the book rehashes national polemics (for example, voices such as the late Samuel P. Huntington and Univision anchorperson Jorge Ramos), but fails to document how debates on language, law, and labour have evolved in the crucible of the South. When Mantero does offer evidence from his travels in southern locales, his observations tend to be superficial. He relies heavily on educated Latino middle-class intermediaries and hesitates to engage with the working-poor majority.
The book, seemingly about Latin American immigrants, may be more interesting as a reflection upon the US South, past and present. Mantero, for example, offers a review of the literature on the colonial South and an extended discussion of W.J. Cash's seminal history of ideas, The Mind of the South (1940). He often stresses that the US South and Latin America share a history of oppression and marginalization. His conclusions are often questionable. Mantero, for example, concludes on a sunny note that "the 'commonalities' between the immense variety of Latino cultures and southern populations ... will not only draw the communities closer together; they will speak to the future of the United States as a vibrant, polychromatic land" (pp. 238-39). The 2009 report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre suggests a less promising situation, namely a tense and disturbing set of encounters between Southemers and the new arrivals. For a focused and methodologically grounded analysis of the Latino experience in the South, readers would do well to consult Leon Fink's The Maya of Morganton (2003), or journalist Paul Cuadros's At Home on the Field (2006).
Deborah E. Kanter