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Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference.

Ramon Saldivar's Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference is a monumental work on the scene of Chicano/a literary criticism. Part of the Wisconsin Project on American Writers, a series edited by Frank Lentricchia, Saldivar's work represents a major theoretical treatment of Chicano narrative and thus contributes to scholarship in American literary and cultural criticism.

As part of its text, Chicano Narrative displays a photographic essay of South Texas life spanning from c. 1915 to c. 1949. These series of photographs, taken from the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas, serve to inaugurate Saldivar's major thesis. The front cover of the book, for instance, "splices" two photographs together, the one of Mexican American laborers along the northern bank of the Rio Grande, and the other of Midwest investors looking for cheap land and labor in South Texas. Chicano narrative records a history of resistance to Anglo-American norms and ways, Saldivar argues, and the photographic essay complements that argument. The photographs, in one way or another, thematically support the chapter titles and critical readings. It is important to keep in mind when looking at the pictures that they are about South Texas life only and thus the scope of this photographic essay is limited -- but not, to be sure, limiting. The pictorial representation of South Texas life lends Saldivar's text considerable authority, pointing as it does to the material conditions of life that form a part of the Chicano/a experience and history.

The text is divided into eight chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. In the introduction, Saldivar outlines the theoretical aims of his work, striking a merger between Chicano/a history and the dialectical notion of difference. What Saldivar has accomplished in this merger is "to nativize" the European notion of difference, making this dialectical form carry the weight of Chicano/a history. Although this issue is outside the scope of this review, a few words about it might be appropriate.

Jacques Derrida's notion and spelling of differance fuels a meta-dialectic that keeps close watch over Western dialectic's (sometimes exorbitant) claims to knowledge. Above all, to merit this global perspective, differance must keep itself from being reduced to the history that fosters the West's human sciences. To be reduced to history is to bear the imprint of the history and metaphysics this mode of dialectic seeks to critique by deconstruction. Consequently, differance for Derrida is an unknown category, though its effects may be catalogued in terms of its role as a purely formal operation in a purely formal dialectic. Saldivar's Chicano Narrative will not allow difference to play the formal role defined by Derrida when its object of study is the literary productions of Chicano men and women. This emphasis on history is no doubt what leads Saldivar to insist that Chicano narrative "is a corpus of texts that explicitly demands the interpretive framework I have fashioned because of its foregrounding of sociopolitical themes" (5).

Chapters 1 and 2 of Chicano Narrative comprise the foundations of Saldivar's interpretive model. In chapter 1, for instance, Saldivar synthesizes a number of historical accounts of the United States Southwest using the categories of race, class, and gender. The result is a concise and informative overview of how Texas Mexicans came under the domination of the United States. A key date in this concise history is 1848, the year of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty had the simultaneous effects of turning the vast territories of Arizona, California, parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah into United States property and the Mexican population therein into citizens of the same. These effects, Saldivar explains, both sum up that uneasy history and project it into the future of Chicano/a "narrativizing":

The racial and class differences between the two groups plus the inability or unwillingness on the part of the former Mexican nationals to give up their traditional ways explain both the stance of resistance that Mexican American culture develops and its dialectical relationship to both of its original contexts, Mexico on the one hand and the United States on the other. (17)

In terms of the question of gender, Saldivar's history records the increasing role of Mexican Americans in the labor market and the ensuing changes that this brought to the traditional structure of the Mexican American family: "The relationship of women to men" insists Saldivar, "must be understood in both the labor market and families with the result that the family becomes the primary site of political struggle" (21). For Chicana narrative, these changes will be important for the demystification of ideologies that, within the Chicano community, would keep Chicanas subjugated to Chicanos. In the chapter dealing with Chicana literary texts, Saldivar, employing a figure from mathematics, illustrates this point, stating: "If Chicano narrative is . . . a perfect case study of the work of ideologies that are not simply counterhegemonic but truly oppositional and revolutionary, then the literature produced by Chicana authors is counterhegemonic to the second power, serving as a critique of critiques that fail to take into account the full range of domination" (173).

Chapter 2 takes as its point of departure the anthropological work of Americo Paredes, a pioneer in the field of Chicano folklore and ethnography. Paredes' pioneering studies of Chicano border ballads -- corridos, or folksongs of the Chicano Southwest and Mexico -- constitute for Saldivar the very historical fabric from which Chicano narrativizing will weave, from its inception to the present, its patterns of resistance to Anglo ideology and domination. The recourse to the corrido as a site of origins for Chicano narrative represents the most specific aspect of Saldivar's model and thesis in Chicano Narrative, and for this reason, the most interesting and controversial. Saldivar maintains that "The course of this border story of racial and economic conflict was recorded on the Mexican American side in the folk art form of corridos and later becomes one of the subtexts for much of contemporary Chicano narrative" (18). The thesis that the thematics of contemporary Chicano narrative have their roots in the thematics of the corrido will no doubt provoke some controversy among students of Chicano/a literature. In many ways, this is what makes Chicano Narrative such a monumental work in the field of Chicano/a literary and cultural studies. The work advances a thesis about Chicano narrative that is specific enough that it can be shown wrong, if it is wrong. Nothing to date in the field of Chicano/a literary and cultural studies approaches the specificity of this thesis. Further, Saldivar's argument is not tautological, being supplied by the contingencies of history and those who write it.

Working under the heading "the dialectics of history," chapter 3 deals with Americo Paredes' short stories "The Hammon and the Beans" and "Over the Waves Is Out" and Jose Antonio Villareal's novel Pocho. Their importance to Chicano narrative, Saldivar maintains, lies in the way they mark a transitional period between the heroic epic past of the corrido and the gradual emergence of a postmodern American society. With the decline of the corrido, an oral medium, comes the emergence of the Chicano novel, a written medium. Saldivar describes in the following way how these texts project, as products of a historical brisure, the future concerns of Chicano narrative: "Like the folk base text, the Border corrido, Chicano narrative after Paredes' work and after Pocho will continue to emphasize in no uncertain terms the importance of cultural conflict in its formation . . ." (73).

Chapter 4 takes up the theme of utopian dialectics in Tomas Rivera's And the Earth Did Not Part and Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People. Following the time line controlling Saldivar's presentation, these texts represent a significant attempt in Chicano narrative "to fashion out of the instability and fragmentation of social life a utopian vision of collective action" (74). Of particular interest here is the excellent account that Saldivar gives of the narrative strategies at work in Rivera's novel. Readers coming to this work without prior knowledge of the reasons for the narrative strategies that Rivera adopts will readily appreciate the historical frame of reference Saldivar supplies as well as his explication of the text. In this analysis, the dialectics of difference come into full view as Saldivar carefully shows how Rivera's text works to deconstruct binary oppositions that have their being not in abstract realms but in the economic, day-to-day life of Chicano/a migrant farmworkers. Saldivar's analysis of Acosta's two novels is equally intense, if not as technically precise, showing as he does how Acosta's protagonist moves to the very edge of chaos without losing his link to sociohistorical reality. In an elegant phrase, Saldivar calls this move towards chaos a "play of stylistics" (97).

Chapters 5 and 7 are unique in Chicano Narrative to the extent that Saldivar applies his dialectics of difference in a more polemical way with respect to a couple of authors. Chapter 5, for instance, offers as a contrastive pair Rudolfo A. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima with Ron Arias's The Road to Tamazunchale, coupling them under the rubric of "Romance, the Fantastic, and the Representation of History." Here, employing a structuralist model in the tradition of A.J. Greimas and Fredric Jameson, Saldivar is critically harsh with Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, which he reads not only as ahistorical but also as a nostalgic desire for mythic structures. However, not all readers of Chicano literature will agree that the work is ahistorical, and as for the impulse towards myth, the wide readership of this novel attests to the fact that not all readers take that as a fault. For critics of Chicano narrative, it will surely be controversial when, with respect to the question of myth in these works, Saldivar states: "While fantasy works to disguise history in Bless Me, Ultima, in The Road to Tamazunchale fantasy works to subvert the closure of history" (129).

Chapter 6 selects from Rolando Hinojosa's voluminous corpus of texts Korean Love Songs and Klail City Death Trip, and within the dialectics of difference, studies them as, in a sense, indirect speech acts with an illocutionary force equal to that of the corrido. In this chapter, Saldivar is interested in showing how the thematic concerns of the corrido surface in Hinojosa's texts. Thus, if the corrido transformed a single individual into a locus of a priori value for the Chicano community, Hinojosa's texts, while they do not elevate a single personality to such a status, function in like fashion to preserve the cohesive nature of Chicano culture and community.

Chapter 7, as we have said, is one of those chapters in which Saldivar strikes a polemical note, this time with Richard Rodriguez's autobiography Hunger of Memory. This work he pairs with Ernesto Galarza's Barrio Boy and treats both under the title, "Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography." Saldivar's disenchantment with Rodriguez's autobiography is not unlike his disenchantment with Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, since in his view both are open to a charge of ahistoricism: "His life story is thus not set in a biographical time that chronicles personal history in social history" (160). Relying on Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope -- a concentration of historical time and space in textual form -- Saldivar critiques Rodriguez for his facile acceptance of the private/public dichotomy. It is precisely the chronotope, by the same token, which lends Galarza's Barrio Boy its historical credibility and thematic charm. Saldivar contrasts these two life stories further by also pointing out how it is only Rodriguez's text that now receives wide circulation through Freshman English anthologies.

Chapter 8 furnishes dialectical readings of the literary texts of three Chicanas: Isabella Rios' Victuum, Sandra Cisnero's The House on Mango Street, and Cherrie Moraga's Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca paso por sus labios. Saldivar is at pains to make Rio's Victuum fit within the pattern of his dialectics of difference because the ending of this enigmatic work introduces, in Saldivar's words, "a prototypical Ur-patriarch" and thus the main character "finds herself at home in the narcissistic transindividuality of science fiction" (180). Only a reading in which the text is an anticipation of "the coming positive critiques of the dominant society and of the traditional Chicano patriarchy" (181) can make this work an expression of the ideology of difference.

Saldivar's discussion of Cisneros and Moraga's work is much more extensive and for that reason more persuasive. With respect to The House on Mango Street, Saldivar uses the opposition oikonomia/polis in order to articulate how Cisnero's protagonist, Esperanza, and Cisneros herself both harness "individual artistry" and "collective responsibility" (184) so as to create "an alternate space for the Chicana subject" (186). Because Moraga's text is an autobiography, Saldivar begins discussion of it by explaining why he does not treat it in chapter 7. His rationale for not following the law of genre in this matter, it seems to me, is persuasive: "I have thus felt that placing Loving in the War Years too readily in dialogue with male discourse before allowing it to voice its different concerns could belie its singularly refractive spirit" (187). As with Rivera's novel, the dialectics of difference prove exceptionally useful for understanding the political vision Moraga's text projects. This is particularly interesting because Loving in the War Years is, in some sense, operating at the limits of the dialectics of difference. As a reduction to history, the dialectics of difference are suspicious of the transcendentalizing tendencies of metaphysical thinking. And yet, face-to-face with the metacritical function of Chicana narrative the dialectics of difference acknowledge the importance of spirituality for the Chicana movement. Saldivar acknowledges this when he states: "Moraga's 'Third World Feminism' attempts to ground its critique in a dialectical interplay of a material historical consciousness that has not abandoned the 'spiritual imperative' of a more privatized feminist consciousness that takes into account the simultaneity of oppression" (195). If this account is accurate, then from this perspective Loving in the War Years critiques even Saldivar's dialectics of difference.

The conclusion to Chicano Narrative, subtitled "The Reconstruction of American Literary History," attempts to outline the major presuppositions that inform this work. In this process, Saldivar gives useful expositions of the major terms of his study: narrative, dialectics, and ideology. The subsection dealing with the relationship between ideology and narrative gives an especially useful and handy definition of ideology. The final section is a call for the rewriting of American literary histories taking into account previously marginalized literatures that have every right to be called American. It challenges the rhetoric of Anglo-American liberal democracy and in effect summons the American academy to live up to its utmost potential: "The resistance literature of twentieth-century Chicano men and women challenges American literature to live up to its potentialities and provide a culture commensurate with its political opportunity" (217).

Because Saldivar wants to situate the study of Chicano/a literature within a broad spectrum of resistance literatures, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference will prove useful in a variety of classroom settings. It can serve quite well in courses of Chicano/a or American literature that supplement the literary readings with critical readings. Its theoretical breadth leads it to serve equally well in contemporary critical theory courses that include the critical voices of minority discourses as part of their survey. Women's Studies courses can also find it of interest because of its readings of Chicana literary texts. In short, its emphasis on the work of ideology in narrative makes this work an asset to any course in which history and theory are thrown into dialectic.
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Author:Torres, Hector A.
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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