Traces of red: historiographic metafiction and Chicano identity in Guy Garcia's Obsidian Sky.
--Julio Cortazar, "La noche boca arriba"
Since the sixteenth century through the present day, the Western cultural and literary imagination has fallen in love with the contradictory image of the Aztecs--as a society of warriors who practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism but also as a highly evolved and complex social organization with sublime expressions of art and lyric poetry. This aspect of the representation of the Aztecs has been a powerful image in the Chicano movement since its initial moments in the 1960s, and has often been revisited by cultural activists, artists, and intellectuals who reappropiated Amerindian knowledge to construct a Chicano indigenismo. In more recent years, both in Latin America and the United States numerous novels have focused on the rewriting of history; in particular on key moments in the conquest and colonization of the Americas as a point of departure to explain the conditions of segregation that continue to vex marginalized sectors of contemporary society. While scholarly attention to Latin American historical novels has been extensive, (1) Chicano/a novels addressing the impact of' the Euro-American encounter and its legacies on cultural politics in similar terms have received scarce attention by literary and cultural critics. Through the rewriting of history, contemporary Chicano/a authors offer alternative interpretations of the past with the goal of playfully debunking myths that have contributed to the creation and maintenance the stigma of otherness. Chicano/a novels written during this time employ postmodern narrative techniques to for man ironic counterpoint to the official versions of history and anthropology.
Regarding literary postmodernism and its relation to historiography, scholar Linda Hutcheon defines the practice of what she terms "historiographic metafiction," as follows:
Historiographic metafiction refutes the natural or common-sense methods of distinguishing between historical fact and fiction. It refuses the view that only history has a truth claim, both by questioning the ground of that claim in historiography and by asserting that both history and fiction are discourses, human constructs, signifying systems, and both derive their major claim to truth from that identity. (93)
As does Hayden White in The Content of the Farm, Hutcheon calls attention to the construction of historical knowledge as a form of discourse similar to that of the writing of fiction. In order to challenge the conventional interpretations of the history of Amerindian cultures, contemporary Chicano/a writers resort to historiographic metafiction to underscore the subjective nature of official history.
Asa result of an interest in studying historical sources as means of inscribing self-Other relationships, Chicano/a authors problematize the production and dissemination of information regarding the past, with particular attention to the act of writing. Hence recent works such as Alejandro Morales's The Rag Dall Plagues (1992), Guy Garcia's Obsidian Sky (1994), Joseph Sanchez's The Aztec Chronicles (1995), Graciela Limon's Sang of the Hummingbird (1996), Rudolfo Anaya's Shaman Winter (1998), Yxta Maya Murray's The Conquest (2002), and Bonnie Hayman's The Cult of the Jaguar (2004) creatively engage the past to reexamine the period of conquest and colonization of the Americas and its implications for the present and future of Chicano/a identity politics.
Of these works, Guy Garcia's Obsidian Sky (2) in particular highlights the impact of the Euro-American encounter for Chicano/a identity through the critical incorporation of historiographic metafiction that unmasks the notion the image of the Aztec as the prototype of alterity that has remained one of the enduring images of colonial and postcolonial discourse. Regarding this rhetoric, cultural critic Homi Bhabha argues that "the objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction" (70). As Serge Gruzinski observes images are a powerful force in conquest. By pointing to this aspect of colonial discourse, Garcia examines the use of knowledge as power in the construction of the image of the Other. Obsidian Sky challenges the myth of barbarism associated with indigenous communities by underscoring both the subjective position of the social scientist and the difficulties introduced by the transmission and sedimentation of this early images of Amerindian cultural practices. (3)
Garcia's novel is structured as a story within a story, interweaving two plots that at first glance do not appear to have anything in common: the story narrated in a sixteenth-century codex written by Xotl, a priest of the cult of Quetzalcoatl; and a framing tale of protagonist Brian Mendoza's examination of his own cultural identity as the son of a deceased Chicano father and an Irish American mother. (4) Through the character of Brian Mendoza, an anthropology graduate student from California conducting dissertation research in Mexico, Guy Garcia proposes a non-traditional model of reading history not as an accomplished fact but as an ongoing and negotiable reality while highlighting the impact of anthropological knowledge in the construction of the indigenous lineage of contemporary Chicanos/as. Obsidian Sky examines the construction of historical and anthropological discourse as the protagonist unveils the secret of a recently discovered indigenous manuscript that provides an alternative explanation for the 1521 fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. As will be discussed below, what links the two narrative threads are the analogies among the god Quetzalcoatl, the priest Xotl, and Brian's father, all of whom sacrifice themselves for the sake of the next generation. In this, the writing of history will play a crucial role since only through understanding the message of the past will the Chicano protagonist decipher his own present and future.
As Obsidian Sky begins, U.C. Berkeley student Brian Mendoza travels to Mexico City to conduct field research for his dissertation at the Templo Mayor Museum where he meets Xavier Zapata, the director of this institution. (5) Through Zapata, Brian becomes acquainted with Alejandro Villalobos, a powerful political figure who is also interested in Aztec mythology and specifically in the cult of Quetzalcoatl. Paralleling Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca's fight for supremacy in ancient Mesoamerican, Zapata and Villalobos engage in a struggle to acquire a recently discovered Mexica manuscript and thereby to assert control over the knowledge of Mexico's past. (6) Despite the fact that museum employees lock up the document, Brian is able to find and read the decoded version of the beginning of the codex which has already been transcribed onto a computer. Later on, he learns that a second scroll may exist in a secret cave in the Yucatan peninsula, and following this lead, Brian departs along with his friends Greg Stone and the journalist Marina Soto in an endeavor to track down the elusive manuscript.
Once in Yucatan, Brian finds that a group named the "Talking Cross" (7) has allied the Mayan population with Guatemalan guerrillas to join forces against the Mexican army, in a story line that parallels the actual uprising of the Zapatistas in the state of Chiapas in 1994, the same year Obsidian Siy was published. (8) The three friends discover that, indeed, the second scroll does exist, but that two men serving Villalobos have already stolen the codex, taking it to the capital and delivering it to the powerful businessman. After realizing that the manuscript has been purloined, Brian returns to Mexico City where he finds the capital in chaos due to the assassination of President Francisco Nava of the "Patriotic Revolutionary Union" (URP). (9) In his last days in Mexico City, Brian witnesses the repression of a public demonstration in the Zocalo that reenacts both the battle of the Aztecs against the Spaniards for the Templo Mayor in the 1521 conquest of Tenochtitlan and also the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre where several hundred students died at the hands of the Mexican army. Following this violent episode, Brian returns home to Los Angeles with a mysterious gift from Villalobos containing a photocopy of the last part of the codex narrating the rail of Tenochtitlan and the beginning of modern Mexico with the birth of one of the first mestizos.
Within this narrative frame Garcia intercalates a story depicting the last days of the Aztec empire according to this newly found manuscript related from the perspective of two sixteenth-century Aztecs, the priest Xotl and his novice Tonatiuh, who recount their exodus from the destruction of Tenochtitlan, taking refuge in Yucatan. Xotl is a priest dedicated to the cult of Quetzalcoatl who unsuccessfully attempts to persuade emperor Moctezuma not to mistake the conquistador Hernan Cortes for the returning god. Escaping from enslavement or death, Xotl is accompanied by his apprentice Tonatiuh and by Loma, a woman who has been chosen by Quetzalcoatl to bring forth one of the first mestizo babies after having been raped by a faceless Spaniard. (10) After several weeks of travel our adventurers come upon a sacred cave in which Xotl offers his life in exchange for the survival of Lomas child who will be named Obsidian Sky.
The novel intertwines the two plots, alternating between Brian's research trip to Mexico with related by a third-person narrator in flashbacks that occur in Los Angeles and Berkeley, and the events narrated by Xotl in the first-person codex, thus giving to the novel a fragmentary sense of narration. Obsidian Sky also observes a parallel structure in which Brian's journey to Yucatan with Greg and Marina mirrors that of Xotl, Tonatiuh and Loma, which in turn parallels the mythic pilgrimage of their tutelary god Quetzalcoatl from Teotihuacan to the Paradise of the South located in Yucatan.
Obsidian Sky's framing tale represents Brian's personal history as a riddle to be solved in that he is the son of a father who has died under enigmatic conditions. Born in Los Angeles, the protagonist, like Obsidian Sky, is the product of miscegenation, in Brian's case between a Chicano, Miguel Mendoza, and Mary Sheahan, an Irish American woman. The novel's structure allows the reader to witness how Brian unravels the mystery of his own identity while deciphering the events related in Xotl's codex, emphasizing the interrelation between history and personal identity. To explore this further, the following pages will focus on Garcia's problematization of Mexican history through the deciphering of the indigenous codex as well as the investigation of Brian's identity as a Chicano scholar.
The Decolonization of History in Obsidian Sky
Protagonist Brian Mendoza affirms that it is precisely his resolve to come to terms with the debased image of the Aztecs that has led him to undertake anthropology as his profession: "The very thought [of Aztec sacrifice] conjured images as hideous as the most gruesome horror film. Yet Brian felt anything but disgust; he knew there was meaning as well as method behind the Aztec madness. His conviction that the Aztecs were inherently no more bloodthirsty than any other culture had driven him to study their ways and ultimately, had led him to this very spot" (23). (11) In order to evolve as a scholar, Brian needs to clarify what happened during the conquest, and with this purpose in mind he investigates the fate of the priest Xotl. Brian's field research serves a dual function in the novel in that his stay in Mexico helps him to retrace Xotl's footsteps and also his own personal history as another descendant of the Mesoamerican tribes who had gone to the North. (12) Attracted by the enigmatic image of the Aztecs Garcia's fictional anthropologist dismantles the image of the Mexicas as savages by pointing to the paucity of original documents; the conditions under which they were transcribed and transmitted; and the role of the colonizing mentality which leads to the imposition of dominant cultural values in the surviving texts. Beginning with the conquest of the territories of present-day Mexico and throughout the colonial period, ethnography functioned as a fundamental tool for accessing the culture of the colonized and using it to instruct the imperial authorities--both religious and civil--on ways to dominate the Amerindian culturally, spiritually, economically, and politically. Thus, sixteenth-century missionaries such as Bernardino de Sahagun, Andres de Olmos, and Diego Duran formulated extensive reports on native customs, in order to dismantle the religious and cultural apparatus of the indigenous societies by means of evangelization and acculturation. As J.H. Elliot observes: "[Ethnographic] inquiries were generally guided by considerations of utility. Crown officials needed precise information on Indian land tenure and inheritance patterns if they were to dispense justice according to custom [...]. Missionaries needed precise information on pagan superstitions if they were to cast down the idolaters" (44). Thus the victor's knowledge about the culture of the vanquished aided in the subjugation of conquered peoples; ironically, this same effort also succeeded in rescuing from oblivion the memory of the same customs that the missionaries were seeking to eradicate, ultimately resulting in the preservation of a record of pre-Columbian practices for posterity.
In Obsidian Sky, we see a rewriting of the European encounter with the Aztecs filtered through the lens of the Chicano anthropologist. Protagonist Brian Mendoza problematizes the image of the Aztecs as savage by calling attention to the subjectivity of colonial and contemporary ethnography and historiography. Brian engages the problem of cultural bias in reference to how historical knowledge was generated, conserved and disseminated in pre-Columbian societies and later in colonial New Spain. As his colleague Laura points out:
The Aztecs, like the Maya, recorded their history in stone artifacts and glyphs, which have symbolic and ritual meaning, and codices, which can contain numbers or pictograms, of some combination of both. Aztec historians also recorded their thoughts in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and after the Conquest, some were transposed phonetically into the European alphabet. Up until now, the analysis of these sources has tended to be literal and discreet. (27)
Laura's comments call into question the interpretation of Aztec history since most of the information available was gathered under conditions of coercion and duress. In the same conversation with Brian, Laura reveals the way in which historiography constitutes a creative process: "The codex provides the main thread. Then I take the glyphs, the Nahuatl commentaries, the Spanish glosses and anything else I can find and weave them together" (27-28). Hence, Garcia highlights how the contemporary anthropologist imposes an interpretation on past events through the selection and reconstruction of original documents. (13)
Through the representation of Brian's conversations with his colleagues at the museum, Garcia points to the broader issue of the difficulty of writing about history. As scholar Linda Hutcheon observes in relation to historiographic metafiction: "There is a view of the past, both recent and remote, that takes the present powers and limitations of the writing of the past into accountz" (90). By analyzing to the diverse problems involved in the process of writing the history of the conquest, Garcia examines the challenges facing the contemporary anthropologist who wishes to undertake the study of the Mesoamerican past. Hence, Obsidian Sky emphasizes both the subjectivity of the social scientist and the inadequacy of methods used in the transcription and translation of historiographic material, raising questions regarding what we as modern readers understand about the practices of the Aztecs.
In Stories in Red and Black, scholar Elizabeth Boone elaborates on the difficulties of recording pre-Columbian history. First, the Aztecs had a notion of history not as a completed fact but as a cyclical reenactment of events initiated by the gods. The Aztecs conceptualized the operation of writing history as a dual process involving both the creation of paintings called amates to serve as a mnemonic device to aid the memory of the official in charge of interpreting a historical event (tlacuilo), and the tlacuilo's oral performance of what was transcribed. (14) As Boone points our
European intellectuals and men of letters understood writing to have reached its evolutionary pinnacle in the alphabet, and they believed (alphabetic) writing to have been a major factor in what they saw as the political and social supremacy of the West: writing was a complement and agent of advanced civilization. Accompanying this was the understanding, rooted in the legacy of Greek and Roman historians who set down their narratives alphabetically, that alphabetic writing was the only means by which memory could be preserved accurately. (4)
These Eurocentric notions of what constitutes written history influenced the selection of records of indigenous societies that would be preserved for posterity, which in turn determines which documents are available for scholars today. Thus, both the written and oral components were essential to the Aztec conception of history. But as Boone writes, the use of a non-alphabetic writing made indigenous societies the target of Eurocentric notions of culture: "There have always been those--historians and anthropologists alike--who deny historicity to Pre-Columbian cultures, who have argued that the painted records are not history in the 'proper' or 'true' sense" (3). Indeed, since the early sixteenth century, the occidental concept of history has supported the allegations of Europeans who questioned "whether the Amerindians were rational and civilized" (4). Cultural differences in conceptualizing history thus constitute a central theme for the strategies of othering as Europeans regarded Amerindians as intellectually inferior because of their lack of a phonetic writing system. In both past and present plots, Obsidian Sky problematizes the documents that we have received regarding human sacrifice--the centerpiece of the Western interpretation of Mexica identity--by pointing to this difference in the construction of history.
In Obsidian Sky, Garcia revisits foundational myths such as the legend of the suns that helped to construe the ideology behind Aztec human sacrifice. (15) In his classic text, The Aztec Image, historian Benjamin Keen observes that the belief in the Fifth Sun was central for the widespread practice of human sacrifice among the peoples of Central Mexico at the time of the conquest: (16)
Only in the mid-fifteenth century was this legend revised to serve the ends of Aztec imperialism. The new theologians maintained that the death of the sun could be averted by the sacrifice of captives taken in war. Each day the sun waged a struggle against the powers of darkness, the moon and the stars, and vanquished them. The sun was sustained in its struggle by blood, the same precious nutriment that kept men alive. The Aztecs, the People of the Sun, could collaborate with the god in his cosmic function by providing him with the miraculous subsistence. (31)
Thus the Aztecs conducted battles known as xochiyayaotl (the war of the flowers) orchestrated for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners of war for human sacrifice. Blood sacrifices in honor of the sun--especially the offering of the human heart--formed an important ceremony to ritualize and legitimize Nahua authority. As scholar Miguel Leon Portilla observes in La filosofia nahuatl, "El sacrificio y la Guerra florida proveian de victimas para mantener la vida del sol eran las preocupaciones y el eje de la vida personal, social, military y nacional para el pueblo azteca" (126). The Aztecs conceptualized sacrifice to the gods as a fundamental aspect of their cultural tradition, since in their way of thinking, the gods and mankind shared a communion through the acts of sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. (17) The Aztecs perceived that a primary function of their society was to sustain continual wars against neighboring states to supply blood to various gods and in particular the tutelary Huitzilopochtli (Little Hummingbird), guardian of the sun.
The Toltec deity Quetzalcoatl (Plumed Serpent) is dramatically important in Aztec thought as he is considered one of the main forces in charge of reordering the universe. As Peggy Sanday-Reeves points out: "The mythical figure of Quetzalcoatl represents a transition from chaos to order [...]. According to most accounts of Quetzalcoatl's beginnings, he is born into a world of ferocious warfare in which it is his job to bring order. He is described as a lawgiver who was imitated by the priests" (187). (18) Hence Quetzalcoatl is associated with a principle in which order and law prevail over chaos and violence. According to the legend, sacrifices to this deity were composed of "hummingbirds, quail, butterflies, snakes, and large grasshoppers" (Sanday-Reeves 189), rather than human beings. (19) As a result, Garcia's fictional codex describes Quetzalcoatl as represented as "a serpent pierced by an arrow and bones, indicating self-sacrifice; maguey cactus spines for bloodletting; a serpent pierced by its own tail, the sign of the beginning and the end in perfect conjunction" (362). Instead of demanding human sacrifices in his honor, Quetzalcoatl distinguishes himself from the test of the Aztec pantheon due to his heroic self-sacrifice that was responsible for the salvation of humankind.
There are several legends narrating the reasons for Quetzalcoatl's departure from Tollan. According to one version, Quetzalcoatl's refusal to commit human sacrifices unleashes the fury of the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca expelling him along with his followers (Sanday-Reeves 189). In another commonly cited version, three sorcerers, including his dark twin Tezcatlipoca, make Quetzalcoatl drink pulque--an alcoholic beverage made of fermented agave--which leads him to commit incest with his sister. When the god awakes, he is ashamed and heartbroken, and chooses exile. As he leaves, Quetzalcoatl promises to return in the future and reestablish his kingdom. The rulers of Tenochtitlan were keenly aware of the prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl to reclaim his throne, and they awaited his reappearance with angst since they considered themselves impostors and usurpers of the vanquished Toltec culture. Significantly, the year prophesied for the god's return coincided with the year of the Spaniards' arrival to the coast of Mexico.
Obsidian Sky introduces an alternative interpretation of the conquest in which at the time of Cortes' arrival the Mexicas were moving away from the warlike cults of Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca toward a pacifistic philosophy embracing Quetzalcoatl's teachings. Through the findings in the discovered codex, Brian revaluates the explanation that the Aztecs abandoned the fight against the Spaniards because they believed that conquistador Hernan Cortes was the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl who had returned to reclaim his kingdom. In Xotl's manuscript the priest describes how Cortes refuses to eat human flesh, and how this refusal is interpreted by Moctezuma's priests as a sign that he is none other than the awaited Plumed Serpent. (20) Xotl, however, counters the official history by asserting that the conquistador is not in fact Quetzalcoatl but the reincarnation of his twin brother, the god of war and pestilence, Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, who has come to wreak havoc, deceiving the priests.
From the beginning of the priest's first-person narrative, the topic of human sacrifice is presented as an enigma that comes to define Brian's research. The third-person omniscient narrator of the framing tale describes the doctoral student's developing consciousness of how the Aztecs refined and systematized the practice of human sacrifice through their sacred rites. Notably, the repulsion of the Spaniards and the ensuing portrayal of the Aztecs as a sanguinary and barbarian culture serve as a justification for the colonization of the New World. (21)
Brian discerns how the sacrificial cult is at the center of what Western culture interprets as the fundamental paradox of the Mexica: "I couldn't believe that such an advanced society could at the same time be so barbaric. I still don't believe it. It's a question of cultural relativity" (59). But Brian goes on to emphasize the importance of a reexamination of western cultural bias: "There are some anthropologists who think that the Aztecs--morally at least--weren't any more bloodthirsty than the average investment banker" (59). Hence the Chicano anthropologist begins to question the violent image of his ancestors as represented by Western culture, affirming that Aztec human sacrifice is not unique in the history of humankind nor is it exclusively a sign of past times: "Mesoamerican societies hardly cornered the market on mass murder. Right now, as we speak, lives are being sacrificed all over the world. The only difference is that instead of Huitzilopochtli, they are being sacrificed to the modern gods of money and technology" (59). Brian stresses the importance of understanding Amerindian cultures on their own terms: "[f]or the Aztecs, [...] sacrifice was not an act of class of racial consciousness, it was a way of preserving the cosmic order. They killed not to glorify death, but to perpetuate life" (185-86). In spite of the archaeological and historical records that depict the Aztecs as sanguinary, Brian declares, "I don't think that we have even begun to understand what was really happening up on those pyramids" (59). Thus the first step toward Brian's self-awareness as a social scientist is his consciousness of his own subjectivity and the limitations of his ability to fully comprehend another culture, especially when temporal and cultural differences as well as issues related to the translation of original documents mediate between the anthropologist and past realities. Consequently, the revelations of the newly found manuscript become vital for his research since they will help to prove his hypothesis regarding the rationale for human sacrifice and its role in the conquest of Mexico.
Xotl's codex relates how human sacrifices are continually conducted in honor of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc while a new Templo Mayor (22) is built by Moctezuma as part of the imperial strategies of social control: "For centuries this tradition has ensured the respect of our enemies and the loyalty of our allies" (45). The codex's narrator calls attention to the ideological importance of social control through his description of the spectacular sacrifice of thousands of slaves at the dedication of the Templo Mayor. (23) As Sanday-Reeves asserts, the sacrificial cult allowed Mesoamerican communities to "create complex bonds that cut across kinship ties" and enabled the transformation of Aztec society from a social unit based primarily on kinship and nomadism "to a hierarchical, organized, urbanized society" (184).
As narrated in the codex, Xotl forms part of the retinue of priests sent by Moctezuma to greet the Spaniards when they arrive on the coast. The envoys perform human sacrifices in honor of the conquistadors because they believe that they are gods, but the Europeans refuse to eat the proffered flesh. The priests reach the conclusion that "Only Quetzalcoatl, who disdained human sacrifice, would dare to refuse human meat from our king" (90). While the majority of the religious leaders concur, Xotl at first remains silent even though he disagrees with the general consensus. Xotl's opinion is that Cortes is none other than the god of sorcery and deception, Tezcatlipoca: "And who else but Smoking Mirror would have the guile to steal an empire that did not belong to him, as he had already done once before in Tula?" (90). But when Xotl reveals that he intends to warn Moctezuma that Cortes is not Quetzalcoatl, the religious leaders accuse him of heresy.
Since Xotl is prevented from alerting Moctezuma, the ruler complies with the conquistadors, recognizing them as descendants of Quetzalcoatl and avowing that the Aztecs will serve Cortes and his king:
We have always held that those who descended from Quetzalcoatl would come and conquer this land and take us as their vassals. So because of the place from which you claim to come, namely from where the sun rises, and the things you tell us of the great Lord who sent you here, we believe and are certain that he is our natural Lord, especially as you say that he has known of us for some time. So be assured that we shall obey you and hold you as our Lord in place of the great sovereign of whom you speak. (93) (24)
With the recognition of the king of Spain as the true ruler of the Mexicas, we see how the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl's return serves a tragic purpose, as Moctezuma opens the doors of his kingdom for the colonization of the Aztec empire.
While he does not believe Cortes is the Plumed Serpent, Xotl remains a priest of the cult of that deity and as result he is at odds with the other priests due to his opposition to the practice of human sacrifice because he believes that Quetzalcoatl will see this as a sign of wickedness: "For I know that Quetzalcoatl once preached against sacrifice and yet the number of victims seems to increase by the day. How can the elders continue to kill and not expect Quetzalcoatl to be angry?" (44-45). The priests of the cult of Huitzilopochtli visit Xotl asking to pay homage to the pacifist Quetzalcoatl. In the words of the novice Tonatiuh: "We are sickened by the constant war and sacrifice that is weakening our empire and wish to pledge allegiance to the true and future god" (46). This statement demonstrates a rift among the sacerdotal classes of the Aztec world which has come to perceive their customs as decadent. Benjamin Keen writes that toward the end of the fifteenth century there occurred a struggle between two religious traditions: "One was associated with the worship of Tezcatlipoca, the Toltec tribal sky god who was pictured as an all-powerful and capricious deity who demanded human sacrifice; the other was identified with the cult of the ancient god Quetzalcoatl, a benevolent deity who had brought men maize and all learning arts and who demanded of them only the peaceful sacrifice of jade, snakes, and butterflies" (8). This struggle between a militaristic and a pacifistic tradition among the Mexica points to a crisis in the Aztec empire which resulted in the proliferation of wars--especially the "war of the flowers" against neighboring states--and the increase of human sacrifices to maintain its stronghold over vast portions of Mesoamerica.
Educated as a tlacuilo, in the technologies of preservation of the language and culture Xotl communicates the information about the past in concise manner. Like Xotl, Brian is also trained and devoted to the transmission of history of Mesoamerican cultures. The transmission of Aztec memory is problematic, however, since as mentioned above, the amates were not considered by the Europeans as a legitimate form of writing historical information. Garcia elaborates the issue of scholarly subjectivity as Brian begins to identify with the tlacuilo's thirst for knowledge: "He admired Xotl. For seeing the coming apocalypse and trying to understand it. For daring to question" (52). As Brian's reading of the codex progresses and the story develops, the Chicano scholar's identification with Xotl begins to compromise his objectivity:
Brian knew he was treading on dangerous ground. The annals of anthropology were rife with examples of researchers who had compromised the truth by looking at the evidence through the distorting lens of their own values, h had long been accepted that a certain degree of cultural bias was inevitable, but it was still the anthropologist's duty to try to remain alert to such prejudice and eliminate it from his analysis. Was his insight into Xotl valid, Brian asked himself, or was he merely projecting his own perceptions onto the words of the Aztec priest, like a narcissist transfixed by his own reflection? (52, emphasis mine)
Brian's identification with Xotl helps him to understand that the study of Mesoamerican history can teach him to question scientific authority and tradition, and this also leads him to come to terms with his own cultural heritage.
At the end of the manuscript, Xotl, following orders that Quetzalcoatl has given him in a dream, departs along with his companions to the south where he sacrifices himself for Loma's mestizo child as a means of supporting both the preservation and the transformation of indigenous peoples. In exchange for the child's life, Xotl offers himself as a sacrificial victim at the hands of Tonatiuh, thus opening a new cycle of life, "[t]o create a new race of man, to give birth to the seed of the Sixth Sun" (278). In the words of Tonatiuh, the Plumed Serpent has marked the baby Obsidian Sky to represent the future of Mexico: "Loma's child, half human, half god, will have powers beyond any common man, and the birth of the precious bundle will echo throughout the universe" (359). In this way, Garcia points to how both mestizaje and the writing of history will become crucial tools for the preservation of Mesoamerican cultural identity but also for Chicano identity in a multicultural and globalized world.
When Brian returns to Los Angeles he reads the last episode of the codex in which Tonatiuh describes the final days of Xotl's pilgrimage:
As I write this, I know that Loma's offspring will be named Obsidian Sky and he will become a teacher who will preserve the memories of his ancestors. Because the wisdom of Xotl must never be forgotten. It must be repeated and copied down in every language, so that the gift of his sacrifice will live on in the heart of Obsidian Sky and his children, and the children of their children, for as long as the blood of the gods flows in our veins and the morning star rises in the newborn dawn. (363)
Through this representation, Garcia establishes a link between Quetzalcoatl as the god who sacrificed himself for humanity and Xotl who sacrifices himself for the mestizo child. Garcia also establishes a connection between the transmission of knowledge from Xotl to Tonatiuh to Obsidian Sky and finally to Brian. At the end of the novel it is clear that the preservation of memory has become a centerpiece for the articulation of Chicano identity, as the following section will further elaborate.
Chicano Identity and Historiography
In addition to examining the problems of understanding the past, in Obsidian Sky Garcia maps out an agenda of contemporary identity politics. The enactment of both literary and metaphoric journeys contributes to the transformation of the protagonist Brian Mendoza from a cocky novice to a mature scholar while revisiting the major tenets of both Mexican and Chicano identity. The novel constitutes a critique of romanticized ideas of Mexico as a site of harmonious origins, problematizing any facile connection of Chicanos with Mexico. Upon his arrival in Mexico City, the capitalinos who focus on his linguistic skills treat Brian as a foreigner:
His Spanish was actually more than serviceable, but a totally convincing accent still eluded him. Yet the language barrier was really the least of it. In his interactions with the Mexicans at the airport, he had noticed a cool reserve, a subtle distance that ineluctably marked him an outsider, a half-breed pocho, a Chicano. (14, emphasis mine)
These indications of cultural distance as perceived by the protagonist are also present when he arrives to another site of origin, the Templo Mayor where he works. Brian is constantly reminded that he is a "gringo scholar" by his co-workers, especially those in charge of guarding the Xotl codex.
The Chicano scholar is not recognized by the Mexicans as one of their own, but nevertheless, he welcomes the position of outsider which affords him a certain perspective on both Mexican and Chicano identity: "Try as he might, Brian could not find his own image in the penetrating stares of dark-skinned strangers. Yet he knew a part of him had been born here, had died and lived here. [...] Mexico was an opaque surface that invited reflection even as it cloaked a deeper reality" (87, emphasis mine). As a mystery to be probed, Mexico City, the Templo Mayor, and Yucatan where he travels in search of Xotl's codex ultimately help Brian to define his own self in relation to the Mexicans. If at the beginning of the novel the protagonist identifies his strangeness in terms of a hostile force questioning his character, later on, this distance makes him feel more comfortable and in a sense unique, reinforcing his parallels with Xotl who was also facing the transformation of his culture.
Over time, this experience of solitude and otherness makes Brian feel more at home in Mexico City than in any other place, as his geographical and cultural displacement affords him a realm in which to find his own persona and put in order his scattered memories:
As the time inched by, the unfamiliarity of Mexico became less threatening and he began to recognize his own foreignness as a kind of freedom. Each new sight, smell and taste became a form of sensual liberation, a tiny triumph over the ordinary. [...]. It was almost as if there were now two Brian Mendozas. One continued to think like a typical American student; the other was a man without a face of a country. (51, emphasis mine)
The experience of living in a different country that is nevertheless familiar leads Brian to gain a new perception of his own cultural identity. Mexico serves in the novel as a site of origin for the Chicano anthropologist but rather than a static locus, it is one that is favorable for transformation, cultural renewal, and self-discovery.
Traveling through Mexico helps Brian come to terms with his Chicano identity which back home in Los Angeles was suppressed in his effort to appear as a typical American:
Yes my name is Mendoza and my father's parents came from Mexico. But that doesn't make me a Mexican. [...] Some people would say that it makes me a Chicano, or a Mexican-American. What does it mean? I don't know. If you want to know anything about me then you have to realize that there's a gap between who I am and where I came from. (98, emphasis mine)
The doctoral student's geographic journey through contemporary Mexico as well as his chronological journey to the period of the conquest through the reading of Xotl's codex both become part of a new identity. At the beginning of Obsidian Sky, Brian is interested in ancient Aztec history but not in recent history or even in examining his own position within American society. In fact, there is no mention of any experience of discrimination of concern for social justice or affiliation to any Chicano cause. But by the end of Brian's time in Mexico, he decides to return to Los Angeles to learn more about his father's last days and consequently his own identity.
It is only through recognizing the heterogeneity of Chicano identity that full self-awareness can be contemplated as we read in this reflection:
It was there, too--the simultaneous condition of triumph and defeat. The Spaniards had conquered the Indians, but the blood of the vanquished had taken refuge in the veins of the invaders, spawning a hybrid race of mestizos, the Mexicans, many of whom had emigrated north to mix again. Some, like Brian's father, had been born U.S. citizens and married Anglo women, their children media-savvy products of a mass culture that made them at home in any foreign city and strangers in their own ancestral land. (65, emphasis mine)
Brian realizes that his lineage is composed of different intersections throughout history.
The conquerors become conquered when through mestizaje and transculturation their racial and cultural makeup cedes to intermixing. The passage also refers to the intermarriage of Mexicans with other ethnicities in the United States, thus pointing to additional forces and influences that contributed to the creation of contemporary Chicanos/as. In this way, the process initiated with the birth of Loma's mestizo son Obsidian Sky becomes the emblem of the future.
Along with the reexamination of the multicultural origins of Chicanos, Garcia's novel deals with key figures in Mexican and Chicano culture. The most important personage represented is La Malinche, Marina, Malintzin, the indigenous princess who signifies the betrayal of Mesoamerica according to Octavio Paz's 1950 Laberinto de la soledad. In Obsidian Sky, Brian falls in love with Marina Soto, a journalist who covers politics in one of Mexico City's main newspapers, for which she writes articles that are critical of the Mexican government and society. The clear reference to the Christian name of Malintzin is only the beginning of a relationship that reinscribes the Malinche myth. Marina Soto recognizes this when she reflects upon her name:
There was a time when I thought my name was a curse. Naturally, I developed the urge to know more about La Malinche. I learned that she was beautiful and pretty smart. Being able to speak both Nahuatl and Maya, she eventually learned Spanish too and became Cortes's translator and most trusted advisor. Mi lengua, Cortes called her. My tongue. I also discovered that she eventually gave him a child, perhaps the first mestizo baby. In that sense one could argue that she was the mother of the modern Mexican nation. Does that sound like someone who should be despised? (61)
Garcia's portrayal of a modern-day Malintzin renders a figure of an intelligent, strong-willed and independent Mexican woman whose depiction contests the misogyny of patriarchal Mexican and Chicano culture.
In addition to being a contemporary interpretation of La Malinche, Marina is instrumental in forcing Brian to deal with his own underlying personal reasons behind his interest in ancient Mexican history. In a formal interview, the journalist asks about his family but Brian remains in his shell. The unease he expresses when talking about his father, however, causes him to contemplate his behavior toward his loved ones. On a trip back to Los Angeles, Brian decides to visit his mentor at U.C. Berkeley and during the visit he runs into an ex-lover, Linda Egan. As a result of their relationship, Linda had become pregnant but Brian had run away, leading Linda to have an abortion. Brian's reluctance to have children can be traced to his own painful memories of growing up without a father. It is thanks to his relationship with Marina that he is obliged to confront his own past.
In Obsidian Sky, then, the present and past plots evolve simultaneously. As we learn about Brian's efforts to preserve indigenous history we also read about his own personal history, which is portrayed as a series of failed relationships with family and lovers. This causes him to question his values and wonder how he is going to be remembered since his friend Greg Stone describes him as someone who "would rather study the mysteries of ancient cultures than deal with his own past" (194). By concentrating his energy on researching pre-Columbian history, Brian avoids facing the present and his own identity. While he can conduct research about the remote past, the protagonist has doubts regarding his own life experience: "I worry sometimes that my memories aren't real, that I am inventing things to compensate" (57).
The protagonist's memories of his father in particular are very dim. One day when Brian was young, Miguel Mendoza fell from a skyscraper where he was working as a welder. His death was ruled an accident and his family withdrew in various ways. For example, Brian's mother sought consolation in the Catholic church. Brian, however, as a manner of coping, preferred the "indifferent canons of science to the cruel compassion of the Holy Ghost" (137). While in Mexico City, he is summoned to his grandfather's funeral in Los Angeles where, after speaking with Miguel Mendoza's former coworker, he begins to suspect that his father's death was not really an accident. Puzzled by the idea, Brian begins to delve into the mysteries of his father's death.
The last time that Brian had seen his father alive was a week that the two of them spent together camping, during which his father had counseled him to be responsible for his own actions. Brian later realizes that this was Miguel Mendoza's way of saying goodbye. His mother ultimately confirms the reasons for his father's suicide in a telephone conversation: "Your father had cancer, Brian. He didn't have that long to live. He said he didn't want to give the insurance money to doctors and hospitals. He said he wanted his son to have it" (316). Thus, knowing that his end was near, Brian's father sacrificed himself for his son's future. This final revelation, then, forms the last link in a chain initiated by the legendary Quetzalcoatl, continued by the priest Xotl, and ending with Brian's father. Hence through the deciphering of Xotl's codex and through conversations with his mother and grandmother, Brian is able to understand his own life and come to terms with his family. The novel thus comes full circle when Brian begins to recover the hidden pieces of his past by unraveling the mysteries of his own story.
At the beginning of Obsidian Sky, Brian Mendoza is portrayed as endeavoring to study remote pre-Hispanic history while avoiding examining his own life as the son of a Chicano father who Brian feels has abandoned his family by dying. Through Brian's discovery of Xotl's codex, analyzes the subjectivity of the social sciences in the construction of ethnic identities. Obsidian Sky ultimately demonstrates the need for a hybrid and negotiable concept of history where the inscription of race, class and gender repositions discourses about identity politics in the new millennium.
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Miguel Lopez Lozano
University of New Mexico
(1) Since the early 1990s, the Latin American "new historical novel" has been examined in book-length studies such as those by Seymour Menton, Maria Cristina Pons, and Kimberle S. Lopez, and doctoral dissertations by Viviana Plomik, Manuel F. Medina, Mark A. Hernandez, Victoria E. Campos and Carrie Chorba, among others.
(2) Guy Garcia has published Skin Deep (1988) Obsidian Sky, Spirit of the Maya (1995) and more recently has published The New Main Stream (2004). To date, more than a decade after its publication, Garcia's 1994 novel has not been the object of significant scholarly attention.
(3) Anthropologists were the first to analyze the subjectivity of the social sciences as early as the 1970s and 1980s in works such as Clifford and Geertz's The Interpretation of Culture and James Clifford and George Marcus's Writing Culture, Ruth Behar's Translated Woman and Deborah A. Gordon's Women Writing Culture.
(4) Along similar lines, Crown of Columbus (1991) by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris is a novel narrating the story of an academic who finds a manuscript pertaining to Christopher Columbus and uses it as a springboard to discuss her own conflictive Native American origins.
(5) The discovery of the Templo Mayor in the center of Mexico City in 1978 caused a revolution in archaeological studies as it enabled researchers to reconstruct the main site of Aztec religious and political activity. The literary imagination immediately incorporated this historical event in works such as Gustavo Sainz's Fantasmas Aztecas (1979). For more information on the Templo Mayor excavation see Alfredo Lopez Austin, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, and Johanna Broda.
(6) The character of Alejandro Villalobos resembles D.H. Lawrence's character of Don Ramon, a Columbia educated revolutionary in The Plumed Serpent (1926). In Lawrence's novel, Don Ramon revives the faith in Quetzalcoatl as a means of transforming revolutionary Mexico by returning it to a primitive past. Homero Aridjis in La leyenda de los soles (1993) also portrays the fight for knowledge between the descendants of Quetzalcoatl such as the tlacuilo Cristobal Cuauhtli against his evil twin brother the General Carlos Tezcatlipoca who wants to control the future with the last lost page of the Sixth sun codex.
(7) The term "Talking Cross" refers to a form of cultural resistance during the "Caste War" (1821-1849 and 1853-1901) in which a group of Mayans staged an armed insurrection against the Mexican government in the states of Yucatan, Campeche and parts of Chiapas, alleging that supernatural powers had urged them to rebel in order to establish a Mayan order. After several decades of rebellion, the Mexican army under president Porfirio Diaz subdued the last rebels in 1901. The most important bibliographical resources on this insurrection are Moises Gonzalez Navarro's Raza y tierra, Victoria Bricker's The Indian Christ, and Nelson Reed's classic study The Caste War.
(8) The events narrated in Garcia's 1994 novel coincide with the real rebellion of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, EZLN) which began on January 1, 1994.
(9) The URP is a clear reference to Mexico's ruling party for the bulk of the twentieth century, the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). Obsidian Sky coincides with novels such as Carlos Fuentes's Cristobal Nonato (1987), Homero Aridjis's Leyenda de los soles (1993), and Guillermo Sheridan's El dedo de oro (1996) in parodying the ruling party and predicting it's ultimate electoral defeat of the ruling PRI, to the right-wing National Action Party (Partido de Accion Nacional, PAN). Obsidian Sky's assassination of fictitious president Nava is also reminiscent of the real assassination of the PRI's official candidate in 1993, Luis Donaldo Colosio.
(10) Both in the essays collected in Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la soledad and in Ignacio Solares's novel Nen la inutil, the mestizo is represented as a product of colonial rape.
(11) Guy Garcia holds is a native Angelino with a degree in anthropology from the U.C. Berkeley.
(12) The figure of a Chicano/a traveling to Mexico in search of history and identity has been explored in several masterpieces such as Ana Castillo's Mixquiahuala Letters (1988), Erlinda Gonzales-Berry's Paletitas de guayaba (1991), and Richard Rodriguez's Days of Obligation (1994).
(13) In The Content of the Form, Hayden White points to how the historian imposes an ideological perspective through the selection and ordering of historiographic material.
(14) For further information on the recording of history in Nahua culture see Leon-Portilla; Gruzinski; Lafaye; Mignolo; Boone.
(15) According to the surviving accounts, at the time when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs believed they were living in the fifth era of creation (the Fifth Sun) and that four previous suns had been destroyed. They believed that Omehtecuhtli, the original creative deity, unfolded in four forces representative of the four elements--earth, air, tire, and water--and that each in turn had created its own respective sun. The Fifth Sun differentiates itself from the other four in that it represents cosmic balance, due to the fact that no single element predominates. According to the Aztec cosmovision, for every sun destroyed, a new one, better equipped and stronger, emerged until the Fifth Sun. Nevertheless, the Aztecs held that the Fifth Sun was marked for destruction as well, and just as in the case of the previous four, after its destruction, a new, stronger sun would emerge. The oral tradition of the Fifth Sun had an important role in the Aztec calendar, since in order to avoid the end of the world, every fifty-two years throughout the Valley of Mexico all tires were extinguished and the people made a pilgrimage to Teotihuacan to take part in a ceremony to renew the tire. It was believed that if the fire were not re-ignited, the tzitzimirne (night demons) would come from above and devour men and women, marking the return of Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl's dark twin and god of the First Sun.
(16) The data that we have regarding human sacrifices has been questioned and scrutinized by David Carrasco, who employs a skeptic approach that he terms the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Carrasco believes that before we display "willingness to listen and try to make something meaningful out of the material available, we must ask penetrating questions about the nature, reliability, and intentions of the material itself" (11-12).
(17) In The Fifth Sun, historian Burr Cartwright Brundage affirms: "The sacrificial cult [...] was also a necessary function in the supernatural world. The Aztecs could not conceive of the gods and their welfare without supportive sacrifice" (209, emphasis mine).
(18) Arthur Demarest adds that: "The Quetzalcoatl legends, in all their varying forms, exemplify the Postclassic ambivalence toward both ethnic ancestry and the accelerating cults of human sacrifice. [....] The Post-classic ambivalence toward human sacrifice is allegorically presented in the versions of the Quetzalcoatl legend that portray him as an idealistic and priestly ruler, an advocate of peaceful policies and an opponent of human sacrifice. In the end of these tales the warlike faction prevails, and Quetzalcoatl's defeat and flight symbolize the irreversible direction of Post-classic militarism" (232).
(19) According to one myth, the gods Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl descended to Mictlan (the underworld) in search of the remains of humanity which were being held by the lord of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli. The two gods trick Mictlantecuhtli and steal the human bones, grinding them like corn and sprinkling them with blood from their own penises which they have incised. From this mixture a new breed of humanity is born (Miller and Taube 70).
(20) In Broken Spears (La vision de los vencidos), Leon-Portilla underscores the reaction of the conquistadors to the sacrifices of Moctezuma's emissaries:
Moctecuhzoma also sent captives to be sacrificed, because the strangers might wish to drink their blood. The envoys sacrificed these captives in the presence of the strangers, but when the white men saw this done, they were filled with a disgust and loathing. They spat on the ground, or wiped away their tears, or closed their eyes and shook their heads in abhorrence. They refused to eat the food that was sprinkled with blood, because it reeked of it; it sickened them, as if the blood had [been] rotten. (33)
(21) One of the first European testimonials of Mesoamerican human sacrifice and cannibalism is that of Cortes's soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who writes: "I have already described the manner of their sacrifices. They strike open the wretched Indian's chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols in whose name they have performed the sacrifice. Then they cut the arras, thighs, and head, eating the arms and thighs at their ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body of the sacrificed man is not eaten but given to the beasts of prey" (229).
(22) Tlaloc, the Aztec lord of rain, was one of the most important deities in the Mesoamerican pantheon and one of the dual temples in the Templo Mayor was dedicated to him (Taube and Miller 166).
(23) The number of captives sacrificed at the inauguration of the Templo Mayor has been a subject of debate. The earliest records that we have about this event date to the sixteenth-century writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo and the compilation of indigenous testimonials by Bernardino de Sahagun. Harris claims that: "In addition to daily sacrifices of small numbers of prisoners and slaves at major and minor shrines, then, mass sacrifices involving hundreds and thousands of victims could be carried out to commemorate special events. The Spanish chroniclers were told, for example, that at the dedication in 1487 of the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan four lines of prisoners stretching for two miles each were sacrificed by a team of executioners night and day for four days. Allotting two minutes per sacrifice, the demographer and historian Sherburne Cook estimated that the number of victims associated with that single event was 14,100" (106).
(24) Diaz del Castillo cites Moctezuma's speech: "'I wish you to know, my lord Malinche and my lords, captains and soldiers, that I am indebted to your great King and bear him good will, both for being such a great king, and for having sent from such distant lands to make inquiries about me. But what impresses me most is the thought that he must be the one who is destined to rule over us, as our ancestors have told us and even our gods have indicated in the answers they have given us'" (271).
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|Title Annotation:||Estudios y Confluencias|
|Author:||Lopez Lozano, Miguel|
|Publication:||Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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