Mexicans and Mexican Americans: Prolegomenon to a Literary Perspective

Prepared for the 2002 Transculturation Program, Texas A&M University—Kingsville;
Published in The Journal of South Texas, Spring 2005.

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Professor of English, Texas State University System–Sul Ross; Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in English, Texas A&M University –Kingsville.


Mexican  Americans are not Mexicans and Mexican American literature is not just simply an extension of Mexican literature. This is not to say there are no commonalities or iso­topic relationships between the two. For there are, just as there are commonalities between Americans and Britons and their literatures. The literature of Mexican Americans today is a literature of the United States, not of Mexico; just as the literature of Americans today is a literature of the Uni­ted States, not of England. Like the roots of American literature, some of which lie in England, some of the roots of Mexican American literature lie in Mexico stretching back to pre-Columbian Mexico through the Mexican period (1821-1848) and the Spanish colonial period (1521-1821). After 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexican American cultural production became politically American just as the cultural production of Anglo Americans became politically American after 1776.

Literature means many things to many people. In literature as in other human endeavors there are problems with definitions. A piece of literature is not just a speech act—it’s a social act; it has cultural connotations that reveal a writer’s relation to his or her group and to the entire fabric of society. As a cultural manifestation, a literary work inheres a sense of audience; its language (whether English, Spanish or a combination of both) is part of a welt­anschauung shared by a community of readers. The significance of a literary work lies not only in the social reality in which the writer participates but grows out of the culture, which nourishes him or her.

In 1848 with dismemberment of more than half of Mexico’s territory, Mexicans in the United States (now Mexican Americans) began politically altered traditions though throughout the first years of the “conquest generation” the literary traditions of Mexican Americans were essentially the same pre-1848 traditions of Mexico. But the English language ambi­ence of Mexican Americans began, imperceptibly at first, to change the cultural and linguistic character of Mexican American life, changes that would result ultimately, more than a hundred years later, in the Chicano Renaissance, a literary movement unique to the Mexican American experience. 1848 marks, therefore, a forking path, one tread by Mexicans into their future and one tread by Mexican Americans into their future. There would be synaptic and isotopic contacts between both groups but each would pursue its own destiny, each watchful of the other. But Mexicans of the diasporic group would subsist as strangers in their own land, anathematized by the stigma of a war motivated politically by manifest destiny on the part of the victors, much like the entradas of the Spaniards into the New World.


Today the literature of Mexico is as unique as the literature of the United States, with one particular exception however. Before the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico there existed a rich autochthonous literature whose “texts” were burned because they were thought to be heretical products of the devil with their iconographic figures and symbols. Though the Spanish friars, principally Fray Juan de Zumárraga and Diego de Landa, sought to extinguish those texts in the fire, some of them survived—notably the Mayan books of Chilam Balam (the Jaguar Priest), the Popol Vuh (the Quiché Book of Being) and the Annals of the Xahil. In all, fourteen codices survived, but ironically they are reposited today elsewhere than in Mexico. Only copies exist there. A codex is a “screen­folded” (accordion pleated) book of animal skin or amate (paper) made smooth in a solution of lime, and painted, often on both sides. Post-conquest codices were constructed of cloth. A codex could be opened and read in a num­ber of ways. Surprisingly, “paper was used in Aztec rituals and was an important item of trade and tribute in pre-Columbian Mexico. Instruments for making paper have been found that date back to the first century BC” (O’Connell, 10). Aztec codices dealt with a variety of subjects: agriculture, law, medicine, sports, songs, magic, etc. The most minute events of Mexican life were re­corded in codices. But inscribing this part of Mexico’s intellectual past into Mexico’s literary history is a complex skein of “official history” that during the do­minant Spanish colonial period sought at every turn to sup­press or obfuscate the intellectual productivity of the indigenous people—the Other. Only after Mexican independence from Spain was there a national effort to incorporate the indigenous intellectual productivity of Mexico into the national intellectual matrix. Even today, Me­xico is still struggling with this as­pect of its na­tional identity. Are its roots in Spanish metropolitan culture? The colonial criollo intellectual tradition with its ties to the indigenous past? The pre-European tradition? Or an amalgam of all these considerations?

With some exceptions, from 1519 to 1821—a bit more than 300 years—the literature of New Spain (in this case, Mexico) mirrored in little the literature of Spain much the way—with some exceptions—the literature of New England from 1607 to 1776 mirrored in little the literature of England. And while one may say that the literature of the United States today contains a strand of English literature overlain from its days as part of the British empire, so too the literature  of  Mexico  contains a strand of Spanish literature overlain from its days as part of the Spanish empire.

The early literature of Spanish colonial Mexico was the literature of Spain transported in its entirety to New Spain. The medium was Spanish, of course. But in 1528 Father Pedro de Gante, one of the Franciscan priests in charge of the evangelization of the Indians, produced a catechism in Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec world,  soon followed by cate­chisms in the languages of the Tarascans, Huastecans, Zapotecans, Mixtecas, Otomi, and others. The philological acuity of the Franciscans quickly recog­nized that their task of evangeliza­tion would be hastened if they could communicate the Christian doc­trine to their char­ges in their own languages. New Spain was indeed a babel of languages (Gonzalez Peña, 19).Moreover, to help in the conversion of the “natives” Father Juan de Zumárraga, the first Bishop of Mexico, founded the College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536 to educate the sons of native nobility in the European subjects of rhetoric, grammar, logic, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, and theology. That same year the first printing press in the Americas was established in Mexico City. The following year the first book in the Americas was printed, Stairway to Heaven, a work in Latin by San Juan Clímaco translated by Father Juan de la Madalena. Not long thereafter, to accommodate the emerging class of mestizos (Indian mother/Spanish father), the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza found­ed the College of San Juan de Letrán. And in 1551, Emperor Juan Carlos V ordered foundation of the University of Mexico. The 16th century in Mexico was marked by a profusion of intellectual and literary activities. The Spaniards had come to stay and their chronicles attested to that commitment. Their search for gold became a fixation of the Black Legend, circulated by the English, in which Spaniards were depicted as cruel, indolent, and rapacious. Spaniards justified their presence and actions in Mexico and elsewhere in New Spain on providentialist interpretations of “holy writ”—they had been chosen by God, as prophesied, for the evangelization of the New World. Never mind, for example, the harsh Span­ish policies toward the Indians in the form of  repartamiento (feudal cession of humans).

The most celebrated writers of the conquest of Mexico were Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1495-1583) who marched with Cortez into Mexico city in 1519 and left us his Historia verdadera de los sucesos de la conquista de la Nueva España ( True History of the Conquest of Mexico,1551), and Francisco López de Gómara (1511-1566), professor of rhetoric at the University of Alcalá in Spain, who never set foot in the New World. Unlike del Castillo, he wrote about the Conquest of Mexico, Historia general de las Indias (General History of the Indies, 1552), from his service to Cortez years after the explorer had “retired” to Spain. The work is considered an idolatrous exaltation of Cortez at the expense of all others who participated in the “conquest” of Mex­ico. No matter, Cortez is still considered the most controversial figure in the history of Mexico. Sixteenth century literature of Mexico is best characterized by its vast output of chronicles about the conquest and for its religious histories, the most notable Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brevísima rela­ción de la destrucción de las Indias (Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1552) sent to King Carlos V deploring the exploitation of the Indians by the Spaniards in Mexico. The next most celebrated religious historian of 16th century Mexico was Bernardino de Sahagún whose literary output was prodigious. But the most popular of the 16th  century chronicles is the Relación of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1479-1559). Considered a hastily written and inele­gant account by a man of little or no literary talent, the relacióndescribes his seven year trek across Texas, New Mexico, Sonora, and Chi­huahua with two companions (one of them a moor) after a ship­wreck near Galveston Island, Texas, in 1527.

Most of Mexico’s 16th century writers were born in Spain and came later to Mexico, although by the end of the century there were a fair number of Mexican writers who were born in Mexico of Spanish parents and were called criollos. Ulti­mately, the quest for Mexican independence would result from the clash between criollos and peninsulares, those born in Mexico versus those born in Spain. Mestizos and Indians were just numbers in the political equation. However, some Span­iards who made their way to “the Indias” and to Mexico, like Fray Diego Durán (1537-1588), were so smitten with the people and the land that they served as the intellectual bridge be­tween the indigenous people and the usurpers. Because of his sensitive work with the Mexican Indians, Durán has been regarded “as one of the first Mexicans, seeing him as neither Aztec nor Spaniard but rather ‘that being who presents the transition from one to the other’” (Dowling, 40).

Poetry and prose were conspicuously spare in 16th century New Spain, mainly because their genres were curtailed in the colonies by the Spanish crown and their importation restricted on grounds that their content might unduly influence the Indi­ans. “The sixteenth century saw little significant interpretation of indigenous and Spanish poetic traditions” (Dow­ling, 41). Surprisingly, while religious works were encouraged, little non-religious prose and poetry prevailed in New Spain. What was engendered was produced in Latin, owing to the rigorous Latin education of the priests and their wards. There were poets and playwrights like Bernardo de Balbuena who achieved acclaim with his poem La grandeza mexicana (Mexican Greatness) and Juan Ruiz de Alarcon whose plays rivaled his contemporaries’ in Spain. Significantly, the works of  naturalists like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo like Sumario de la natural histo­ria de las Indias  (Summary of the Natural His­tory of the Indies, 1526) spurred considerable interest in Europe about the flora and fauna of New Spain in the Americas.

One work of the late 16th century that attracted little attention in its time, published in Spain in 1609, was Historia de la Nueva México (History of New Mexico) by the classical scholar Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, quartermaster in Juan de Oñate’s expe­dition to New Mexico in 1598. In 34 epic cantos rem­iniscent of Virgil, he recounts the story of that expedition and its degüello with the Indians at Acoma pue­blo, a formidable high-rising mesa near present-day Albuquerque. The historian F. W. Hodge touts that work as the first American epic.

Despite the relative paucity of Mexican belle lettres during the 16th century, the 1500s have nevertheless been dubbed the heroic period of Mexican literature because of its vast production of chronicles. But the real significance of 16th century Mexico may lie in the Spanish philological efforts to get a handle on the various languages of its indigenous peoples.

Seventeenth century Mexico, becoming more and more Hispanic every day—not entirely Spanish and not entirely Indian—was an efflorescent society spawning homegrown literati whose works were promi­nent not only in Mexico but in Spain and other developing Hispanic areas of the New World. This efflorescence became more evident in the 17th and 18th centuries with nota­ble writers like the poet and essayist Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700) and the patristic poet Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz (1651-1695), oftentimes re­ferred to as The Tenth Muse of Mexico.

As in Spain, theater marks the literary high­point of 17th century Mexico, spawned from its missionary roots as autos de feand allegorical spectacle to boisterous comedias del arte and philo­sophical intro­spection by such dramatists as Juan Ruiz de Alarcon (1581-1638) who, though he spent his later life in Spain, grew up in colonial Mexico. Though classified as a Spanish dramatist, Alarcon’s plays are peopled with characters identified as “outsiders” much the way he was considered an outside in Spain because of his Mexican criollo roots. Mexico today claims him as its own.

Poetry written in Latin characterizes 18th century Mexican literature. “The eighteenth century in Mexico has been aptly described as projecting ideological ambivalence. On the one hand, a tired persistence of now institutionalized baroque precepts produced, unsurprisingly, no new major works in Spanish (Dowling, 70). Eighteenth century Mexico produced an abundance of historical writing, some of it dedi­cated to the disquisition of a national literature uniquely Mexican and distinctively different from Spanish literature. The seeds of Mexican nationalism were taking root. In the following century Manuel Altamirano (1834-1893) prompted that “our letters, arts, and sciences need to nourish themselves from our own themes and temperament and from our own reality in order to become a true expression of the people and an active element of national integration” (Martinez, “Mexico,” 1054).  More than a century later, Mexican Americans as Chicanos would raise the same issue about their literary production.

The 19th century was a century of turmoil in Mexico: the War for Independence (1810-1821), the Texas Rebellion(1836-1846), the War with the United States (1846-1848), the Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910). All of these events curtailed production of belles lettres in the country. The boom in Mexican literature would come after the Civil War (1910-1921).


In 1848, barely more than a quarter century after Mexican independence, more than half of Mexico was severed and annexed by the Unit­ed States per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the U.S. War against Mexico (1846-1848). Mexicans who stayed with the wrested territory became Americans by fiat, holding on tenaciously to its cultural and literary roots and traditions, though its political roots were sundered.

There is no accurate count of the number of mejicanos (including Indians) in the Mexican cession. Estimates range from a low of 300,000 to a high of 3 million. However, Anglo descriptions of the territory portray it as a desolated wasteland, there for the taking, failing to mention the thriving population centers of San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco, not counting myriad communities along the Rio Gran­de from Brownsville to Laredo and from El Paso to Santa Fe and northward along the San Luis valley towards present-day Denver as well as countless ranch sites in South and West Texas and New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Like their Mexican kinsmen, Mexican Americans of the conquest generation had been nurtured by a literary tradition that stretched back hundreds of years immediately through Mexico and, before that, New Spain. Taxonomically, Mexican American literature is a continuum of two pasts welded together by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the new Mexico, post-1848 life evolved for Mexicans as part of an ongoing process that engendered its own literary strictures and esthetics uniquely Mexican in character. In the United States, post 1848-life evolved for Mexican Americans as part of an ongoing process that was both Mexican and American but which did not engender its own literary strictures and esthetics until the Chicano literary movement of the 1960’s.

This is not to say, however, that between 1848 and 1960 Mexican Americans did not write nor had any literary production. On the contrary, during the period of transition from 1848 to 1912, Mexican Ame­ricans wrote profusely, in Spanish at first then English as succeeding generations of Mexican Americans acquired English and internalized the American literary mode of cultural production. The period from 1848 to 1912 is characterized as the period of Early Mexican American Literature, resembling in large part the literature of Mexico, except that Mexican Americans were manifesting in their literary works the influence of English, not in their syntactical structures but in the growing use of English in their literary mode of production. Much of the oral traditions of this period persist into our time. Many of the print manifestations of this period have been lost but many have survived, being recovered by the Hispanic literary recovery project at the University of Houston.

Mexican Americans were unprepared for the holocaust that was to befall them. The brutality of that holocaust caused them to cleave all the more to the motherland. And to remember, and pass on to their heirs, that the land they lived on had been their homeland before the conquest. The force of that me­mory surged to consciousness a hundred years later during the Chicano Period when the sins of the conquerors would be called to account.

During the Period of Transition Mexican American notables like Andrew Garcia, Donaciano Vigil, Miguel Antonio Otero, Juan Bautista Alvarado, Maria­no Guadalupe Vallejo, Camilo Padilla, and Eusebio Chacón wrote extensively, detailing the vi­cissitudes of Mexican Americans in prose, poetry, and fiction, much of it in Spanish with growing pub­lications in English. Mexican American writers were becoming bilingual. This was not the case with their Mexican kin. The transition from writing in Spanish to writing in English was a process encompassing the latter half of the 19th century. How many works in English by Mexican American writers appeared in the last half of the 19th century is difficult to ascertain only because comprehensive efforts like the University of Houston project have, thus far, yet to make that determination.

In the meantime, American writers mischievously stereotyped Mexican Americans in their writ­ings, casting them as indolent and afraid of hard work, adjudging a Mexican American’s wealth as the product of connivance rather than of fortitude and application. Contumely follows stereotype in describing the values and mores of Mexicans and Mexicans Americans, with no distinction between the two. In Two Years Before the Mast, for example, Richard Henry Dana described Mexicans as “an idle, thriftless people” who could “make nothing for them­selves” (60). And Mexican and Mexican American females were invariably described as women of questionable repute, de­picted by Dana as having “little virtue,” adding that given the opportunity Mex­ican women were prone to infidelity but that “the extreme jealousy and deadly revenge of their husbands” were inhibiting factors. In the words of Noah Smithwick who settled in Texas in 1827, Mexicans were “scarce more than apes” (Weber, 339). Stephen Austin characterized the enmity between the Texians and the Tejanos as a “war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race[s] against civilization and the Anglo-American race” (Ibid.). And Texas historian Henry Stuart Foote suggested that the “ex­termination [of Mexicans] may yet become necessary for the repose of this continent” (Browne, 172).

All in all, Mexican Americans were re­garded poor­ly by the vast majority of Anglo Americans who came in contact with them during this period of transition, and many of the eiconic (stereotypic) portraits of Mexican Americans by Anglo American writers were to unduly influence generations of Americans down to our time. As recently as 1964, the sociologist William Madsen wrote: “The Mexican American does not suffer undue anxiety because of his propensity to sin Instead of blaming himself for his error, he frequently attributes it to adverse circum­stances” (16).

The stereotypes of Mexican Americans have been engendered by pernicious Anglo characteriza­tions of Mexican American men, as untrustworthy, villainous, ruthless, tequila-drinking , philandering machos, indolent and afraid of hard work or else as courteous, devout and fatalistic peasants who were to be treated more as pets than as people. More often than not, Mexicans were cast as either bandits or loveable rogues; as hot-blooded, sexually animated creatures or passive humble servants. Jose Limón defines stereotyping as “one of the mechanisms through which colonizers achieve a racial-cultural domination of colonized populations—a process that parallels and reinforces the political and economic forms of domination” (259).

In literary terms, the period from 1912 to 1960 is described as the Period of Later Mexican American Literature. It is often referred to as the Pe­riod of Ame­ricanization. While the period of Americanization starts taxonomically in 1912, the process of Americanization had been steady since 1848, becoming particularly noticeable during the first decade of the 20th century. The period of Americaniza­tion begins with the closing years of the presidency of William Howard Taft, a one-term president who left the turmoil of the Civil War in Mexico (1910-1921) to his successor Woodrow Wilson. Political conditions in Mexico during its Civil War forced the flight of a million and a half Mexicans to the Untied States aug­menting the population of the conquest generation of Mexican Americans.

The Americanization process was making Mexican Americans more American, dysphorically diminishing their Mexicanness. While Mexican Americans of the conquest generation had made signifi­cant strid­es towards becoming Americans, giving in to the Anglo mode of literary production, the influx of such a great tide of Mexicans into the United States during this period only hardened the stereotypes of Mexicans held by so many of the general American public. This tension produced in 1929 for­mation of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Corpus Chris­ti with particular objectives of inculcating Mexican American youth with the ideol­ogy of English-only at the expense of Spanish as the home language.

During this time, Mexican American literature was coming of age. Mexican  American scholars and writers like Aurelio M. Espinosa were seri­ously engaged in preserving the literary roots of their heritage. Mexican American creative writers were attempting poetry in both English and Spanish, noth­ing at all like the experimentally vibrant poetry of the Chicano Renaissance in the late 60’s and early 70’s where Spanish and English were used in binary syntactic structures. Still, this poetry was a harbinger of literary creativity to come. In 1916 a collection of Vicente Bernal’s poetry was published under the title Las Primicias (First Fruits).

Perhaps the most important work by a Mexican American writer in the decade prior to the Second World War was George I. Sanchez’ Forgotten Peo­ple: A Study of New Mexicans (1939). In that work, Sanchez admonished the United States that “good intentions cannot substitute for good deeds (vii). This was also Carlos Castañeda’s admonition to the nation. His monumental work Our Catholic Heritage in Texas 1519-1936 in seven volumes (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936-58) is unequaled in scholarship. Another gifted Mexican American writer of this period is Josephina Niggli whose plays from the 1930’s have transcended time and space. Prose works like Mexican Immigration to the United States (1930) by Manual Gamio and Old Spain in Our southwest (1936) by Nina Otero reflected the kinds of sociocultural perspectives held by some Mexican American writers during the 30’s.

The 1930’s also saw the emergence of such Mexican American writers as Arturo Campa, Juan Rael, Cleofas Jaramillo and Jovita Gonzalez, all of whom contributed significantly to the corpus of Mex­ican American literature as well as American literature. Other Mexican American writers of the period were Bert Baca and Ely Leyba. While Mexican American writers like Ernesto Galarza and George I. Sanchez were tying to break down the pernicious structures of stereotypes, other Mexican American writers like Nina Otero and Emilie Baca only reinforced those structures, producing innocuous and inoffensive works about Mexican Americans that pandered to Anglo American interests in the queer, the curious, and the quaint.

World War II was a turning point for Mexican Americans as it was for Americans in general. On far-flung battlefields Mexican Americans were dying in their search for America. The tragedy for Mexican  Americans was that even though they responded to the colors during the war, they were still considered as “foreigners” by so many of the Anglo American population, many of whom had themselves “recently” arrived from elsewhere, particularly Europe. In 1943 Alianza Magazinespoke out forcefully against what it called “the Mayflower Complex” of Anglo Americans, “a strange malady which may be contracted in the Northeastern section of the United States if one is not well inoculated against it by travel and study.”

In the post-war years from 1946 to 1960, Mexican Americans discovered there were two Americas. The America of  the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s had become a land of contradiction for them. Were they Mexicans or Americans? In 1946 Arturo Campa offered this explanation: Mexican Americans are not Mexicans, and they have not been since 1848” (15). The dilemma would not be resolved until the efflores­cence of the Chicano Renaissance. That event helped them understand they were both and need not be ashamed of either.

In the meantime, Mexican American literature changed hardly at all in character from what it had been prior to World War II. With some exceptions, the emphasis was still on reflective pastoral themes highlighting “the hacienda syndrome” as Raymund Paredes called it (52). Pastoral themes in Mexican American literature were coming to an end. How­ever, not all works by Mexican American writers during this period dealt with the “Spanish Templar Tradition” as Carey McWilliams called the “hacienda syndrome.” Writers like Fray Angelico Chavez and Mario Suarez were harbingers of what was yet to come.

Chicano literature began, more or less, in tan­dem with the Chicano (Civil Rights) Movement of the 1960’s as a reaction to exclusion by the American mainstream and the entrenched American literary establishment. Before 1960 few Mexican American writers were published by main­stream literary outlets. Con­cerned by that exclusion, in 1966 Octavio Romano at Berkeley organized El Grito: Journal of Mexican American Thought with a manifesto that Mexican American writers would no longer look to the American literary mainstream for intellectual validation. El Gritomagazine was a line in the sand. Before El Grito, the literature of Mexican Americans was what the American literary mainstream said it was. After El Grito, Mexican Americans would say what Mexican American liter­ature was. El Gritowould be dedicated solely to the Mexican American experience. Chicano readers would be judges of Chicano literature which would create its own critical strictures and its own critical aesthetic. Discourse-specific, Chicano texts would generate their own dynamics from which a critical criteria would emerge. That was a radical departure. And yet, necessary. For El Grito was the manifesto of Chicano liberation from Anglo American intellectual traditions that marginaliz­ed non-privileged perspectives. Publication of El Grito in the Spring of 1967 ushered in “The Chicano Renaissance”—a period of literary ferment that forever changed the intellectual relationship between Mexican Americans and the American literati. The promise of El Grito was that it would be the forum for Mexican Americans to articulate their own sense of identity. Prior to the Chicano Renaissance, the American literary mainstream perceived Mexican American literary production as little more than folklore (like the folktale of La Llorona) and ballads of banditry (like the Corrido of Gregorio Cor­tez). The main significance of the Chicano Renaissance lay in the identification of Chicanos with their Indian past. Chicanos cast off the meretricious externally imposed identification with the Spanish Templar tradition foisted on them by Anglos because of their preference for things European.

A literature draws from the history and myths of its people’s past, and unlike their Mexican kinsmen Chicanos turned to their Indian past for their most meaningful symbols and metaphors. For example, one of the key symbols of the Chicano Move­ment was the icon of the 5th Sun celebrated by the Aztecs in the form of the great calendar stone. The Aztecs considered themselves people of the Fifth Sun (Quinto Sol). According to their mythology, there had been four previous epochs, each governed by a sun. The first epoch ended with the inhabitants of earth devoured by ocelots; the second world and sun were destroyed by wind; the third by a rain of fire; and the fourth, by water. According to Aztecs, the sun and world in which they lived—the fifth sun—was destined to perish as a result of earthquakes, famine, and terror.

The publishing enterprise that produced  El Grito was named Quinto Sol Publications. At the same time, the name of the publication, El Grito, celebrated the essence of the Mexican War for Independence, the start of which was initiated by the literal cry  (grito)of Dolores by Father Hidalgo, spiritual leader of Mexican resistance against the Spaniards. Cuahtemoc, not his brother Moctezuma, was apotheosized by Chicanos as the champion of indigenous resistance to Cortez and the Spaniards who vanquished Mexico City in 1521. That was not the conquest of Mexico as is popularly accepted, only the conquest of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). Indigenous resistance to Spa­nish hegemony persisted into the 19th century ushering in the Mexican war for independence. Contemporary agrarian unrest in Chiapas, Mexico, is part of that enduring resistance.

In  the 1960’s Chicano literature emerged as a means by which Chicanos could find their own voice, their own sense of being Chicano, not Spa­nish, not Mexican, not American, but Chicano. As it emer­ged from the cauldron of cultural national­ism, the role of Chicano literature was to reflect Chicano life and Chicano values, drawing from an imag­ination distinctively Chicano while drawing its symbols from its indigenous roots. That during this incunabula many of the early works of Chicano literature were inspired by ideological needs did not lessen the expectations that the responsibilities of Chicano writers were ultimately to create a literature so essentially Chicano that it stood on its own merits apart from other literatures. Chicano literature was to free Chicanos from the burden of American history and its libelous account of Chicanos and their ancestors. Like the disciples of Senchan Torpeist, the fabled Irish poet of  myth, who were sent out to recover the whole of the Tain—the great Irish saga—which none of them could remember entirely, Chicano writers were the “disciples” through whom the lost inheritance of Chicanos would be recovered.

What most characterized Chicano literature, early on, were its countertexts—the texts of Chicano realities confronting fraudulent Anglo texts by which Chicanos were judged socially. Countertexts  showed how Chicanos were contained hegemonically within  the value framework of mainstream culture and how they were subjected cruelly and brutally to it. Through countertexts, Chicano writers showed the insidious ways by which mainstream culture exercised hegemony over the Chicano community. Chicano countertexts pointed out how having been subjected to coercive Anglo texts and having internal­ized the values inherent in them, Chicanos had  inad­vertently been instruments in their own oppression. Chicano literature became ultimately a process, not an outcome, but a process of imagining and figuring out the world. The responsibilities of the Chicano writer loomed large.

As products of process, Chicano texts were not finalities of truth but limns by which Chicano liberation could be achieved. Chicano literature was thus envisioned in the service of the cause, the people. It was not an end in itself. This meant Chicano texts were not self-sufficient but required the help of Chicano readers to actualize their meanings. Or as Ramón Saldívar puts it: “the function of Chicano [literature] is . . . to produce creative structures of knowledge to allow its readers to see, feel, and understand their social reality” (6). In this sense, the Chicano Renaissance functioned for Chicano writers much the way the Irish Renaissance functioned for Irish writers who cut their ties to British literature and turned to the roots and traditions of Irish literature for sustenance. Chicanos cast adrift the privi­leged norm of Anglo American literature. At that moment, Chicano literature embodies what Georg Simmel identifies as that process in life by which it generates forms demanding “a validity which transcends the moment” (346).

What we can say about Chicano literature is that it’s a literature in process, drawing from different literary traditions (American, Mexican, global), sometimes from one or the other, and sometimes in a unique synthesis of Mexican and American that is both startling and innovative. The permutations are mani­fold. Nowhere are those permutations more visible than in the language of Chicano texts in which Spanish and English are mixed in binary utterances using the syntactic structures of both languages to create binary metaphors.


The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 2, 1848 forever altered Mexicans and Mexican Americans. It created two peoples. Not two sides of the same coin, but two separate coins. Mexicans have pursued their destiny in a continuum of language and culture relatively intact though assaulted traumatically a time or two. Mexican Americans, on the other hand, forged their destiny in a continuum of language and culture they were not part of but thrown brutally into. Out of existential necessity Mexican Americans developed and honed bilingual and bicultural responses to the oftentimes harsh realities of their altered political situation. Mexcans have not had their language suppressed in their schools. They have not been punished for speak­ing their language extramurally. Their language and culture have not been derided in public nor have they been stereotyped in their country the way Mexican Americans have been stereotyped in the United States. Except for the brief period of French occupation, Mexicans have not been second-class citizens in their own land. This is not to say there are not economically second-class citi­zens in Mexico. The Indians of Mexico may be the Chicanos of Mexico.

Most assuredly, Mexican Americans are not Mexicans. Despite their hues and patrimonies, they differ ideologically (for the most part). They also differ in their outlook. One is not better than the other, just different. Not by choice necessarily but by circumstance and necessity. The most striking difference is in the literary mode of production. While some Mexican Americans write in Spanish, most Mexican Americans write in English. Once, a plethora of Spanish-language publications thrived in the United States. Now there are only a handful. (Melendez, passim). Despite affirmation of Chicano literature’s international voice, Mexican American literary production is not congruent with Mexican literary production. In this regard, Mexicans have access to the production mode of litera­ture while Mexican Americans do not, except for a few Mexican American presses.

Chicano literature codes a historical experi­ence in the United States just as Mexican literature codes a historical experience in Mexico. This distinction is significant yet eludes many who think a reading list, say, that includes Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz satisfies the literary requirements of Mexican Americans. While Mexican American writers are much more knowledgeable about Mexico and its literary tradition, Mexican writers are less knowledgeable about  Mexican  Americans  and  their literary traditions. The narratives of Fuentes and Paz, for example, see Mexican Americans as bracerosor wetbacks or pachucos (de Jesus Hernandez-Gutierrez, 402). Their narratives do not elevate Chicano existence or the Chicano expe­rience to the heroic. While the general  mode of literary production in Mexico has made room for some Chicano writers and their works, the output is bounded by the presumption of Spanish language readers. In other words, Mexican publishers are not publishing Chi­cano works in English for U.S. readers. And if the Mexican GMP (General Mode of [Literary] Production) is targeting the Southwest of the United States, then the presumption posits a Spanish language readership. Mexican Americans are essentially English-language readers.

While Mexican American readers may manifest  a continued interest in Mexico, there is not necessarily a reciprocal interest by Mexicans about Aztlan (the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, a symbol appropriated by Chicanos to sign or designate the dismembered Mexican territory that is now the American Southwest).

This work includes commentary from “The Labyrinth and the Minotaur” by the author published in Aztlan, Spring 2001. And also from “Mexican American Literature: Reflections and a Critical Guide” prepared for the Transculturation program, Texas A&M University— Kingsville, March 28, 2001.  Dr. Ortego, a philologist in cultural linguistics and literary ethnography, now retired, lives and carries out literary and linguistic research in Kingsville, Texas, where he lives with his wife in a house in the country.

Copyright © 2002 by the author. All rights reserved.


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