The Origins of Identity.
Teresa McKenna. Migrant Song: Politics and Process in Contemporary Chicano Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. 158 pages.
Demographics, thematic diversification, and interest in gender issues have changed the critical study of U.S. Hispanic literatures. While the steady publication of Chicano literature during the last forty years continues to warrant single ethnic studies, the recent category known as Latina/Latino literature demands broader critical paradigms. For some, this new classification casts a wider net that obfuscates the distinct qualities and problems of the individual groups; for others, its extended borders offer more opportunities for inclusion. These two opposing points of view come into play in the works of the two critics under scrutiny, even though the focus of their studies is determined by their particular theoretical concerns. While they are both interested in questions of identity; origin, and authorial legitimacy; McKenna concentrates on Chicano literature and Christian on Latina/Latino and Latin American literature.
Perhaps because of the current preoccupation with the question of who has license to speak about and on behalf of the Other, both authors use the acknowledgments section to authenticate their relation to their respective areas of study. From the outset McKenna remarks on her place in a Hispanic tradition by recalling her grandmother's songs, games, and tales. Within the context of the study, her personal narrative becomes an oral history that is dramatized by two characters, the author as child and listener (inheritor of a cultural legacy) and the grandmother as storyteller (holder of traditions).
Unlike McKenna, who finds legitimacy by tracing her Hispanic roots through her bloodline, Karen Christian must claim, if not naturalized citizenship, at least ownership of a cultural green card. She begins by apologizing for daring to enter a world so remote from her own experience, one that constantly reminds her of her "outsider status." Yet, she indirectly commands legitimacy by alluding to her Latino husband, whose last name she deliberately does not take realizing that it would not make her any more authentic. Thus she forfeits the opportunity to become a nominal Latina. These tribulations, however, allow her to understand that ultimately "all identity is to some extent a drag show" (xi); hence she finds the passport that gives her consent to write her book.
With the personal out of the way, the critics don their academic robes and adopt a more objective scholarly tone. McKenna sees literature as an issue of "process" and for Christian, it is a mater of "practices." McKenna adopts the anthropological term processual because it describes "processes that mark movement or change in society" and, because unlike linear progression, "a process refers to discrete periods of cause and effect in which diachronic and synchronic elements meet to produce qualitative change" (3). However, the concept of process as something that marks nonlinear movement dismisses the importance McKenna places on "birth" (beginning) and "cultural inheritance" (tradition) as well as her chronological presentation of Chicano/a literature. Thus, the term seems more an excuse to explain away the disconnection of the chapters.
Christian reads eight major novels concerned with homosexuality; gender, ethnicity; and magical realism within the framework of the "performativity of identity." In both cases, the authors are interested in the creation of identity, the role of the ethnic Other in North American society, and the "inclusionary" and exclusionary practices of history.
McKenna's study centers on the trajectory of Chicana/Chicano literature from the oral legacy of the male corrido to the present contributions made by women. To underpin her historical paradigm, McKenna develops in the prologue a metaphor of birthing (parto) asserting that "Chicano literature arises out of social, political, and psychological conflict" (3). She concludes her "processual" study with a futuristic plan (in the epilogue) that calls for a new identity based on Gloria Anzaldua's theories of meseizaje and nepantilism and Guillermo Gomez Pena's concept of "syncretism of cultures" (129-32). The vessel that will transport these ideas and create a balance between theory and practice is the classroom, even though it may be "a limited space of transformation" (131).
The first chapter--the weakest one of the book--functions more like an introduction; while it is useful bibliographically; it fails for lack of a cogent argument. Basically; it suggests the evolution of Chicano literature by designating the corrido--"a male dominated form" (13)--as the root. The citation of the origin is followed by brief descriptions of the contributions of early authors, the mention of contemporary poets and narrativists, and a final list of women writers. To her literary family tree, she attaches the role that Arte Publico Press played in the dissemination of Chicano literature in the 1980s and 1990s as well as a list of critical studies and journals that surfaced in the same period.
The chapter reveals McKenna's valorization of a certain genealogy of Chicano literature: she contends that much of it derives from the social and political experience of Mexicans in the United States, and agrees with Arturo Islas that it is a "migrant" rather than an "immigrant" experience. Furthermore, she attributes the persistence in maintaining a Mexican cultural identity, as well as demanding ethnically correct political representation, to having inhabited the Southwestern region centuries before Anglo Americans. These three criteria effectively eliminate from Chicano literary history anyone (Cecile Pineda and John Rechy; for example) who does not contemplate social and political issues, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant, and who did not grow up in the Southwest.
Chapter two is confusing because, while in chapter one McKenna states that "the corrido form was precursor to much contemporary Chicano poetry in formal technique as well as in content" (14, emphasis mine), here she seems to want to question this "widely held corollary" (29). However, as she professes a concern over "these notions" she fails to state her point clearly. Instead, she discusses poems by Jose Montoya and Gary Soto to show that they "bridge the gap between" an oral legacy and poetry that is influenced by the written tradition. She also attempts to debunk the masculinist corrido via the feminist reaction to its misogynistic qualities, except that she dedicates only the last three pages of the chapter to the women writers who represent the opposing camp. After sorting through the various parts of the chapter, one finally discerns that the oral influence applies to writers such as Americo Paredes and that the inspiration for later poetry is the "rhetorical presentation" of the event in the corrido ra ther than the event itself (40). (1) Thus, part of the confusion stems from the lack of distinction between "contemporary Chicano poetry" in chapter one and "Chicano poetry emerging from this tradition" in chapter two.
Chapters three and four are more carefully delineated, but they are not directly connected to the previous two, except if one takes into account McKenna's adoption of the anthropological term processual. Chapter three looks at the "author-function" in Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory in order to expose the complex relationship between the author, the reader, and the text. Contrary to the commonly held notion that autobiographies are true renditions of a person's life, McKenna indicates that autobiography is a mediated text through which the author presents a fabricated character who is--and at the same time is not--a reflection of him/herself (51).
McKenna argues that because some critics have not distinguished between Richard Rodriguez the author and Richard Rodriguez the character, and have read the novel as a true, unmediated text, they have produced reductive analyses of the author/text relation. In order to make her point, she sifts through issues such as the difference between life-as-lived and life-as-remembered, the author's own inner contradictions, the withholding of information, as well as the narrator's self-conscious, ironic pose, and his unreliability. McKenna resolves that ultimately we do not know who Richard Rodriguez is and that autobiographies are nothing more than mythologies of the self. She specifies that in the case of Hunger of Memory "the myth is self-selectively destructive" (69). The only way to relate the chapter to the rest of the study is to focus on the temporary migrant status of the character's father and link it to the title of the book. This task, however, is left up to the reader, because it does not happen in the tex t.
Using Victor Turner's theories of liminality, McKenna illustrates in chapter four how Rolando Hinojosa creates a liminal space in Belken County (his own Yoknapatawpha), that contests social and political power. The characters and events outlined in Belken County represent the process of social time for Mexicans in South Texas, as well as social and political change. Specifically, she studies the comic elements in Hinojosa's works, then analyzes the structural use of contradiction, and finally surveys "carnival" in the narrative.
To talk about comic rhythm and the "transformative power" of comedy, McKenna refers to Suzanne Langer's philosophical ideas on humor. In commenting on a specific comic situation in Hinojosa's Estampas del valley otras obras (1973), McKenna observes that laughter derives from a folk or vulgate base, whereas parody and irony are the product of the self-conscious relationship to one's environment. The mention of laughter and its folk base brings to mind Americo Paredes and establishes an indirect connection to the rest of the study at the same time that it highlights the influence that Paredes has had on the author.
With regard to the structural use of contradiction, McKenna notes that one of its sites is language, particularly the use of Spanish by Anglos. She exemplifies her claim by showing how a character's incorporation of Spanish epithets into his speech reveals both his awareness of the power of language as well as "the hold that the Mexican population subtly exerts over those who hold traditional power" (84).
McKenna finds Bakhtin's study of "carnival" particularly effective in demarcating the space that frames social and political power. Of interest to her are Bakhtin's analysis of the process of historical and political change as well as his idea that laughter is essential to freedom and that carnival is always identified with moments of crisis. She links these various points to Hinojosa's narrative and depicts a historic crisis of death and rejuvenation in the Valley, a moment regarded as "a classic comedic module of historic and festive time" (96). For her, the essence of Hinojosa's contribution lies within the regenerative power of laughter and the ways in which it allows Chicanos to construct a cultural sense of self.
McKenna reserves the fifth chapter for the Chicana, whether to save the best for last or simply because chronologically Chicanas began publishing after men is not clear. In this chapter, language, tradition, and theory appear to betray McKenna. On the one hand, she embraces Kristeva's theory of male and female time, claiming that the former is linear and the latter is subjective and cosmic; while on the other hand she bemoans the absence of Chicana voices in the "narrative of traditional Chicano history." If she wants to celebrate fluidity, contradiction, ambiguity, and subjectivity in women, why does she at the same time place them in the strait jacket of linear time, within a story that is his and not hers, and burden them with the weight of tradition?
To trace the presence of Chicanas in history, McKenna returns to the years prior to the Mexican Revolution and finds poet and political activist Sara Estela Ramirez. (2) Her belief in the power of women to change society is evident in both her political and poetic activities, which have been documented by Emillo Zamora and Ines Hernandez. Without explaining the gap between Ramirez and contemporary poets (unless the reader has in mind the earlier definition of "a process"), McKenna moves to the late twentieth century and discusses the literary and political contributions of cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, and Pat Mora. Moraga is primarily interested in giving women a voice and in releasing them from the clutches of racism, sexism, and indifference. Anzaldua rewrites the history of Chicanos by using the body as the repository of ambiguity, creative energies, and her own discourse. Mora returns to "seemingly" traditional symbolic spaces, such as the notion of earth as mother, in order to address issues of ethni city, gender, and class.
McKenna concludes her book with an epilogue that situates both the theoretical and the practical debates on gender, race, class, and ethnicity in the classroom. She acknowledges the important contributions of Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Gloria Anzaldua, and Guillermo Gormez-Pena to these debates. Convinced that the illusion of a common culture is no longer possible, both Anzaldua and gomez-Pena propose a new mestizaje that for Gomez-Pena derives from the fusion of Amerindian and European races. Their position against the ideal of a common culture stems from the recognition that it never reflected the "hybrid cultural profile that has been shown to be historically resilient and permanent" (130). Therefore, in its place, they advance a culture based on difference, which, as McKenna points out, is not a comfortable or highly prized objective in most educational institutions. Anzaldua locates the difference in a particular mental state she refers to as nepantilism (a derivative from an Aztec word that means " torn between ways" or "being in a state of perpetual transition"). Thus, for her, mestizaje is about accepting the multiplicity of difference' and developing a tolerance for ambiguity (132).
Finally, in talking about putting theory to practice, McKenna adopts a more militant and didactic tone. She argues that to combat silence, we must create a space for the voices that speak the multiplicity of cultures, and we must be prepared to live in contradiction, ambiguity, and nonclosure (135). Despite her skepticims, she acknowledges that the classroom is and always has been a politicized space where we have repeated models of authority and patriarchy as well as affirmed or denied cultural and political hierarchies. Thus, in order to become agents of transformation, we must take center stage and make our voices heard. The decision to take on this task will place us in the "web of the border," a place of creative learning and survival.
Appearance and performance are the two main metaphors Karen Christian uses to assemble her analysis of Latina/Latino fiction (and, perhaps, self-identity). Convinced that "all identity is to some extent a drag show" (x-xi) and temporarily relieved her heavy white cloak; Christian sets out to examine ethnic, sexual, and national identity in Latina/Latino literature under the umbrella heading of identity as performance.
The first part of chapter one outlines the historical unfolding of Latina/Latino literature, focusing on key events and political movements associated with the three initial groups: Chicanos, Nuyoricans, and U.S. Cubans. It also exposes some of the ideological shortcomings of earlier critical studies, especially the thematic limits they imposed on writers. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, those who dealt with nonethnic themes and forms were excluded from the club. Christian invites current critics of Latina/Latino literature to recognize that ethnic groups are not homogeneous, that they have different beliefs and modes of artistic expression. Thus, she surveys differences between and within the groups through the lens of postmodernism, especially via questions of essentialism and the social construction of identity. She refers to Diana Fuss's study Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (1989) to state the importance of fostering a deessentialized view of identity at the same time that she recognizes the impossibility of totally eliminating essentialist categories.
In the second part of the chapter, Christian describes her project as an examination of both the "performative" features of identity that transform culture and the ways in which performances marked as Latina/o reinforce the notion of an essentialized identity. She anchors her ideas to Judith Butler's expositions of gender, performance, and identity, and agrees that "identity must be understood as a process, an ongoing discursive practice that produces the appearance of substance and the illusion of origins." She adds that because gender and cultural identities require a certain degree of cross-dressing, they end up resembling "drag shows that parody the notion of essentialized identity categories" (16). Thus, according to Christian, parody challenges the concept of cultural essence.
Even though Christian seems to side with these postmodern notions of identity, she also recognizes that postmodernism fails to account for the historical and social foundations of ethnicity. Therefore, she incorporates the work of critics such as Coco Fusco, and restates the purpose of her study. She acknowledges that ethnic difference is alive and well, but that "it must be articulated in terms that allow for heterogeneity and for multiple and shifting subject positions" (17). Ethnic "performances," such as references to Aztlan, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Cuba's Varadero Beach, traditional foods, etc., are easy to classify because they form part of familiar Latina/Latino collective fictions and cultural mythologies. What disturbs Christian about ethnic markers of identity is that in spite of making the members of the ethnic group excessively visible, they simultaneously eliminate their individuality and exclude them from history.
The third section of chapter one summarizes the ensuing chapters and explains that the texts surveyed call into question the collective fictions and cultural mythologies that have created the homogenized demarcations of ethnicity and ethnic literature. To present her position, she examines characters' transgressions of social norms, manifestations of gender and cultural identity, the role of assimilation, and the relationship between Latina/Latino essence and magical realism.
In closing the first chapter, she reiterates the importance of showing both the similarities in the works she reads as well as their unique contributions. She also emphasizes that one must recognize and question the cultural identity constructs that have been read as chicana/o, Cuban American, or Puerto Rican essence in order to avoid ghettoizing Latina/Latino culture. Recognizing and questioning these constructs will also confirm that cultural identity is not static, but a continuum transformed through repeated performances.
Christian's interest in literary discourses that challenge essentialist positions is evidenced in chapter two where she examines homosexual identities in works by Sheila Ortiz Taylor and John Rechy. Before proceeding to analyze their respective works, she provides a brief synopsis of the effects of the Chicano Movement. She remarks how its move to provide a unified collective identity created hierarchies of oppression within the groups themselves. Although the Movement did achieve a unified voice and brought attention to Chicano culture and experience, women and gays were frequently banned from the decision-making processes. In part, patriarchal family structures, traditional gender roles, and Catholicism contributed to the sexual repression as well as the ostracizing of these two major groups from the literary, political, and economic scenes.
Writers who have emerged with theories regarding Chicana/o gay and lesbian identities include Gloria Anzaldua, Tomas Almaguer, Ana Castillo, and Cherrie Moraga. Their main concern revolves around the traditional denial of a homosexual existence, which has prevented them from developing an "autonomous sense of self" (27). The continuous effacing of gays and lesbians in Latino communities inspired Christian to examine the novels of Sheila Ortiz Taylor and John Rechy in order to show how they challenge the heterosexism of Chicana/o identity and destabilize Anglo-centric gay/lesbian identity. By representing homosexuality, both Ortiz Taylor and Rechy question static and monolithic views of cultural identity and threaten gender constructs.
According to Christian, critics have been reticent about Ortiz Taylor's novels because her characters defy identity categorization and instead promote constant mediation and movement among various subject positions. One performative act the protagonist in Fault/me (1982) carries out involves cross-dressing: in order to secure a job, she must erase any hint of lesbianism in her persona. in addition to sexual issues, Ortiz Taylor's work raises questions about racial identity and assimilationist ideology.
Rechy's City of Night (1963) is considered a trailblazer for alluding to a Chicano problematic long before anyone focused on Chicana/o identity, and for its exposition of gay Latino subjectivity. For Christian, the explicit homosexual encounters, the cross-dressing, and the sadomasochism in his novels allow her to read identity as performance. Rechy's characters (especially the drag queens) call into question the meaning of heterosexual and homosexual via cross-dressing. His works destabilize gender identity categories, challenge the binaries of gender and sexuality, and demonstrate that the boundary between gay and straight is indeterminate. The drag queens' "femininity," which parodies a characteristic that is also a social construction, evidences and exemplifies the performative nature of the characters. Because identity is continuously altered through repeated performances, Rechy's characters come to accept that they will never know who they really are and that life will forever remain chaotic. Christian concludes that viewing identity as performance allows for the destruction of monolithic models that do not reflect social and political changes.
In chapter three, Christian continues to explore sexual identity as drag, but this time through Cuban-American literature. She restates three fundamental identity issues that interest her: "negotiation between communities, the powerful influence of cultural heritage, and the tension that these generate for the ethnic subject" (55). She finds that an increasing number of U.S. Cuban writers are engaged in producing a literature that is neither nostalgic nor assimilationist. To illustrate how U.S. Cuban identity is constructed, she examines Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) and Elias Miguel Munoz's The Greatest Performance (1991). Via its characters--a womanizing macho musician in the former and a lesbian teacher and a gay artist in the latter--one of the novels stimulates essentialized notions of masculinity and femininity, while the other presents a critique of restrictive gender roles. Even though both novels ultimately expose identity prototypes--such as the macho, the hyperfeminine woman, and the nationalistic "authentic" Cuban--as illusions, they also recognize that, in order to guard against the intruding dominant culture, it was necessary for Cuban expatriates to affirm their identity and unity within the immigrant community during the 1960s and 1970s.
Nevertheless, each novel is committed to the notion of identity as a process rather than a product. The Greatest Performance de-essentializes cultural and gender identities by daring to portray gay and lesbian Cuban subjectivities; Mambo Kings illustrates the tenuous nature of masculine identity via a protagonist who needs to prove his maleness through the repetition of sexual performances. Mambo Kings, then, ends up supporting the view of self as a collection of performances dependent on constant reinterpretation, while The Greatest Performance reveals the fabricated nature of masculinity, femininity, and Cuban cultural identity.
Christian returns to her initial concern about appearances and ethnic difference in her discussion of two "immigrant" novels: Judith Ortiz Cofer's The Line of the Sun and (1989) and Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991). Of particular import to her is the attention the novels pay to "passing" as Anglo and its influence on performances of identity. After presenting the distinction between the concepts of assimilation and the "melting pot," Christian cites Yanis Gordils to point out the recurring themes in urban immigrant literature: "adjustment to a hostile metropolitan setting, the transformation of roles and family structures and the effects of racist oppression and alienation" (90). Christian finds that earlier immigrant writings contemplate cultural tradition and the economic pressure to assimilate, while later ones adopt an ambivalent position toward the culture of origin. Contemporary Latina/o immigrant writers, however, defy the assimilationist view that one must abandon one's i nherited identity and assume a new American role.
At the end of her study, Christian crosses the southern U.S. border to refute the notion that the imitation of Latin American aesthetic codes marks a Latina/Latino essence. Even though Christian concurs with other critics that the works of Latinas and Latinos are often unjustly measured up against great Spanish American masters-Barges, Cortazar, Fuentes, and Garcia Marquez--she also concedes that in some cases the comparisons are warranted. To prove her point she cites several allusions to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in Ortiz Cofer's The Line of the Sun and Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican (1993). In Hijuelos's The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993), She detects Garcia Marquez's narrative style, and explains that whether the intent is "parodic ridicule or reverent imitation" a dialogic relation between U.S. Latina/Latino and Latin American fiction is nevertheless established (128). This, however, does not mean that Latina/Latino writing can be pinned down as magica l realism; instead, the repeated "performances" of this stylistic technique appear to parody Latina/Latino cultural essence.
Christian describes Cecile Pineda's The Love Queen of the Amazon (1992) as a condensed encyclopedia of Boom fiction because it incorporates many of the Boom stylistic codes, themes, and character types. Its plot recalls Vargas Llosa's La casa verde (1965) and Rivera's La vordgine (1924); its temporal construction, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and its dictator figure alludes to the several dictator novels written during the Boom period. The novel, then, maintains that Latin American identity and culture consists of an interplay between varied discourses and at the same time challenges the view of Boom writing as its official advocate.
Ana Castillo's So Far from God (1993) also incorporates Garcia Marquez's narrative style, although Castillo's is more chatty, accessible, and humorous. Some of the fantastic events that occur in Tome, a northern New Mexican town, include an individual bleating like a sheep and another reviving during her funeral and flying up to the church roof. The community's reaction to these and other incidents reveals a common belief in miracles and the spiritual world. However, what governs the novel above and beyond its magical realism is its political tone; it comments on racism, economic exploitation, and the volatile issue of assimilation. So Far from God also attempts to recover New Mexico Chicana/Chicano identity by collecting a compendium of local folklore and oral traditions that refer to religious, historical, political, and feminist concerns.
Christian's close reading of the aforementioned novels shows that both works dismantle the concept of cultural essence and provide a view of Latina/Latino culture and identity that encompasses the power of tradition and of everyday performative acts. Thus, she reiterates her clearly delineated point that Latina/Latino identity is not static, but rather it encompasses the dynamic, multisided ebb and flow "between history and the continuous, everyday rewriting of Latina/Latino culture" (148).
In her concluding remarks, Christian confesses that the motivating force behind her work was the need to show the diversity of Latina/Latino literature and thus invalidate Ilan Stavans suggestion that it is "the product of a lone 'supreme creator'" (149). She hopes to have demonstrated that the texts' collective views on identity as theme and subtext, and on performance and drag as metaphors for identity, fundamentally underscore the continuous transformation of culture. She proposes that one way to avoid judging specific manifestations of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality as "culturally inauthentic" is by envisioning all identity as one continuous drag show, as a parodic imitation of a nonexistent original (150). What many of the novels suggest is that writing provides a space to explore ethnicity, to resist static portrayals of cultural identity, to discover and recover "lost" traditions, to reinvent oneself, and perhaps to understand life. And most importantly for Karen Christian, Latina/o literature resides in a limitless space in which identity is forever being constructed "through performances that challenge the artificial boundaries separating cultures, genders, and races" (151).
Thus, whether one decides to examine U.S. Hispanic literature through the historical paradigm of each individual ethnic group or to explore specific issues such as immigration, identity, origin, etc., the provocative readings provided by each of the critics are worth pondering. Therefore, despite any shortcomings, both critical works make engaging contributions to the flourishing studies of ethnic and migrant/immigrant literature.
(1.) The specific corrido McKenna refers to is by Maria C6rdova, which was published in 1972 in the community newspaper El Grito del Norte and in which she recounts the slaying of her son Antonio C6rdova and his friend Rito Canales.
(2.) Ramirez was born in the state of Coahuila in Mexico and moved to Laredo, Texas, in 1898.
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|Title Annotation:||two books on Latino identity|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2000|
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