Reflections on Chicanos and the Teaching of American Literature

Reflections on Chicanos and the Teaching of American Literature

Prepared for the Conference on American Literature, Texas A&M University, October 21, 2001.

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.

By today’s standards 1982 is the dim past in the evolution of Chicano literature. In 1982 Houston Baker edited Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian American Literature for Teachers of American Literature published by the Modern Language Asso­ciation. That was a significant step in explicating the emergence of three important minority literatures. At the time I thought the parallelism in the subtitle was imbalanced since the terms Native American and Asian American are omnibus categories while the term Chicano is not–at least not in the same way as the first two. A better parallel term for Chicano would have been American Hispanic, a comparable omnibus category. That’s a minor point but it does scrim the literary view for comparisons. Additionally, I thought the overview on Chicano literature by Luis Leal and Pepe Barron in that volume provid­ed the right historical perspective on Chicano literature but the piece by Raymund Pare­des on “The Evolu­tion of Chicano Literature” overstated the roots of Chicano literature springing from the corrido. Otherwise, the piece contributes importantly to our under­standing of Chicano literature and its evolution.

More striking in the collection, however, is the Introduction by Walter J. Ong who argued persua­sively about the need for teachers and students of American literature to know more about minority literatures. This was essentially the point Jose Carrasco and I made a decade earlier in our essay “Chicanos and American Literature” which appeared in the 1973 edition of Search­ing for America pub­lished by the National Council of Teachers of English and re­printed in The Wiley Reader (John Wiley & Sons, 1976). Search­ing for America was the outcome of a five year survey and study by the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

Since 1968 (the year the Task Force was formed and the year I joined as a founding member)  the Task Force had focused on texts and traditions in the teach­ing of English and how minorities and minority writers fared in American literature manifest by cur­rent texts and anthologies. (The Task Force­ was chaired by Ernece Kelly and included, among others, Carlota Cardenas Dwyer, Montana Rick­ards, Jeffrey Chan and Frank Chin.) Needless to say, the Task Force found that American minorities and American minority writers fared badly in American literature. They were actually invisible, nowhere to be found.

To begin with, minorities were badly caricaturiz­ed in American literature. Moreover, teachers of American literature were unfamiliar with the various minority cultures of the Unit­ed States let alone know anything about the writers of those minority groups. Publishers of anthologies of American literature, knowing even less, continued to promote non-inclusive texts that privileged traditional white male American writers.

Key to teaching minority American literatures (including Chicano literature), besides obvious preparation,  is the objective to make American literature what it should be—the literature of the American people not just the literature of dominant white America. This may have the ring of stridency but inclusivity needs to be the watchword not just in the reformation and teaching of American literature but in all categories of American life.

Walter Ong raised some important considerations in his Introduction to Three American Literatures, particularly in regard to growing up in the United States “with a double identity, ethnic or cultural or linguistic” (5). It seems to me there are no “double identities”. Growing up in the United States as the child of Mexican immi­grants I never felt as if, dysphorically, I was growing up with double identi­ties even though in Span­ish I was Felipe and in English I was Philip.

I agree now as I did then with Wal­ter Ong that most Americans “share a high­ly standardized culture” (3). Indeed as Ameri­cans we all share a com­mon base of culture underpinned by shared technol­ogies. In my youth there were differences, of course, between the various ethnic groups. ­While tortillas were a staple in our house during the period I was grow­ing up in the Unit­ed States, tortillas were not staples in non-Mexican American households. My mother made them at home; today I buy them at the supermarket and “everybody” eats tortillas. Although now I also eat bagels and various kinds of breads that in my youth we regar­ded as Gringo food. The remains of traditional Mexican culture in the lives of many Mexican Americans are now only me­mories as tech­nology and shared space homogenize all of us. To be sure, there are still differences. I con­tinue to speak Spanish though my children don’t. Today the things that make me “Mexican” and American are more subtle than they once were. Only physiognomy­ identifies me as a child of blended Indian and Spanish genes.­ Many Mexican Ameri­cans look like the rest of dominant America and are not perceived as Mexican Americans.

The most prickly considera­tion anent American literature raised by Ong’s essay is that “one cannot teach every­thing”(6). Why not? We just need to make space for the literatures of the others. Who says that in teach­ing American literature we need to read ad infinitum the words of Sarah Kemble Knight’s journey to New York. There is much in the presentation of American lite­rature that we can whit­tle down to make room for other American litera­tures, including Chicano literature as part and parcel of American literature rather than as something foreign. Per the dictum of the Latin dramatist Terence: “homo sum; huma­ni nihil me alien­um puto” (“I am human; nothing human is foreign to me”).

The 1970 edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature included no Chicanos. It was to be another 20 years before a Chicano writer made it into the Norton. As concluded in Searching for America in 1973 and as is still the case today, the absence of Chicano writers in such wide­ly used an­thologies of American literature perpetuates the dis­tortions that have rendered Chicano and minority writers invisible. The one anthology that has made progress with inclu­sivity is the Heath Anthology of American Literature edited by Paul Lauter and which includes Hispanics on its editorial board.

There is, unfortunately, condescension in Walter Ong’s Introduction. His imploration for inclu­sion of Chicano writ­ers in American literature is prompted with expressions of validation based on improving the well-being of the body Americana rather than calling attention to the agency of literary value in minority and Chi­cano litera­tures. He does say, however:

A minority literature often negoti­ates for its own identity with the majority culture and constantly redefines itself, ultimately bringing the majority culture to define itself more adequately, too. (3).

In 1973 I advanced further the ideas of Searching for America in a piece entitled “English Teach­ing: Some Humanistic Goals and a Personal Credo” included in Goal Making for English Teaching edited by Henry B. Malone and published by the National Council of Teachers of English. In that essay I sought to show how American teachers of English were inadequately trained to fulfill their responsibili­ties as teach­ers of lan­guage and as teachers of literature. Not only were American teachers of English in high schools and colleges ill-prepared for linguistically differ­ent stu­dents they were also ill-prepared for the ethnic diversity of their classrooms.    Like me in 1952, my  first year of ­teaching, when teachers of English stepped into their first class­rooms all they knew about American literature were the works of what was then the American literary canon. Nurtured on the white Western Tradi­tion, this is what they taught and what they passed on to subsequent generations of American students. Sacro­sanct, the illumina­tion of the Western Tradition con­tinued unabated until the emergence of minority move­ments of the post-Brown v. Board of Educa­tion era.

The Chicano Movement of the 60’s ushered in the literary movement which I described in 1971 as “The Chicano Renaissance” (Social Casework, May). For African Americans, the era provided a literary second-breath for the Harlem Renaissance of three decades earlier. With the advent of these various minority movements, many of us became aware of just how anemic American literature had become and how much more robust it could be with an infusion of minority literary blood. That epiphany made me realize how much more fulfilling my studies in American literature could have been both as an undergraduate and as a Ph.D. student in English. Not to negate the Western Tradition in which I was steeped but to augment it. But my teachers had not been train­ed in the greater sense of audience and method that included minority writers. They taught me as they had been taught. Unfortunately that meant valuing English literature over American liter­ature. In that value scheme there was no room for minority American literature. Conse­quently, in Ame­rican literature classes only those American wri­ters whose works most closely paralleled English literary values were taught and studied. American culture seemed less worthy of study than English culture. Consider that the first course in American literature was not taught in an American univer­sity until 1929. The underlying assumption for this per­spective was (and continues to be) that there existed (exists) a special relation­ship be­tween the United States and England, the mother country.  From a post-colonial point of view the United States has many mother countries. Not all Americans are of English stock. Large numbers of them are from Indigenous, Irish, Scottish, African, Italian, German, Scan­dinavian, Middle European backgrounds. In­creasing num­bers of them are from Middle-East, Asian-Pacific and Indo-Hispanic origins. These de­mographics are not new. Even at the formation of the United States in 1776 in Letters From an American Farmer St. Jean de Creve­coeur, a colonial citizen of New York, des­cribes the multiethnic composition of the country as “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, German, [Pole,  Lithuanian] and Swedes” (American Literature Survey, 1968:317). According to Thomas Sowell,

Over the years a massive stream of humanity—45 million people— cross­ed every ocean and continent to reach the United States. They came speaking every language and representing every nationality, race, and religion. Today, there are more people of Irish ancestry in the United States than in Ireland, more Jews than in Israel, more blacks than in most African countries. There are more people of Polish ancestry in Detroit than in most of the leading cities of Poland and more than twice as many people of Italian ancestry in New York than in Venice (Ethnic America, 1991: 3).

Hispanics were part of the United States at its found­ing. In his travels throughout the United States from 1783 to 1785, seventy five years before de Tocque­ville, Francisco de Miranda, a Spanish military offi­cer from Cuba, later president of Vene­zuela, and a participant in the American Re­volution since Spain like France was an ally of the United States, met not only with the principals of the American Revolution but with Ame­rican Hispanics of the time, descendants of Spanish Sephardic Jews who became Americans via the first Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, later New York (Ortego, America Revisited, 1986).

In the beginning the strength of the new nation was considered resident in the differences of its people—differences which were prized and cele­brated. All tolled, the 13 states consisted of some 3 million people, half of them slaves. In the first history of the United States (1815), Salma Hale described Americans as “coming from every quarter of the world, speaking many different lan­guages, dis­persed over a vast extent of the territory” (12).

Generally, the roots of American literature have been identified as stemming from England, starting with the letters of John Smith from Jamestown, Vir­ginia, circa 1607. From then until 1776, British colonial letters are regarded as the Colonial Roots of Amer­ican literature. But there are other Colonial Roots of American literature.

When the United States acquired half of Mex­ico’s territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidal­go on February 2, 1848, it acquired a territory rich in Spanish colonial letters going back go the journal of Cabeza de Vaca and his seven year trek across what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. In 1590 Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá pen­ned an epic poem (the first American epic) about the battle at Aco­ma, New Mexico, between the Spaniards and the Pueblo Indi­ans. Despite the literary merit of Villagra’s poem, this was not Spain’s finest hour in North America.

When Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá wrote his memo­rial epic about the battle at Acoma, New Mexico, he was writing about an event that had occurred a scant decade earlier in December of 1598. The memorial was published in Alcalá, Spain, in 1609 and printed in 1610.

The Spanish expedition into northern New Mex­ico led by Don Juan de Oñate laid siege to the pueb­lo at Acoma, a formidable high-rising mesa near present-day Albuquerque, in December of 1598. By all accounts the battle was savage. For the Pueblo Indians the battle was a massacre. Historians since then have likened the battle at Acoma to the mas­sa­cre at Masada where in 72 AD the Romans wiped out the besieged Jews making a last stand in the Jewish-Roman resistance.

Records here and there attest to the ferocity of the battle at Acoma and its outcome, but nowhere more in detail than in Gaspar de Villagrá’s account of that foray which he titled Historia de la Nueva México. His role in the expedition was as Captain and­ procurador general (quartermaster) and his memorial—however reliable—places him at the battle of Acoma as a participant observer.

There is a 1933 English translation of Villagrá’s work for the Quivira Society by Gilberto Espi­nosa. The original work (in Spanish with thirty-four hen­decasyllabic cantos) has been much maligned and described as puerile, derivative and of little literary merit (F.W. Hodge, Preface to Gilberto Espinosa’s translation of Villagrá). Bandelier assessed the work as “clumsy poetry” by an “exe­crable poet” (Docu­mentary History of the Zuni Tribe, 1898: 82).

Villagrá’s epic may indeed be derivative, for he modeled his epic account of the battle at Acoma on Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic poem of Aeneas, which opens with the words Arma virum­que canto (Of arms and the man I sing). Villagrá’s poem begins with the words De armas canto y del hombre (Of arms and the man I sing). This was a pretty standard opening in the classical tradition of epic poetry. And mimicking Virgil was considered pretty good form in the 16th and 17th centuries during which one of the literary conventions was to record Span­ish ex­ploits in verse.

In my estimation Villagrá’s epic is contextually of extraordi­nary quality. My point is to add to the case for Villagrá’s work in the chronology of American literature as part of its beginning, the first epic in the literature of what is now the United States.

In 1887, John Gilmary Shea presented the case in an article entitled “The First Epic of our Country, by the Poet Conquistador of New Mexico, Captain Gaspar de Villagra (United States Histori­cal Magazine, April). In the 1933 preface to Gilberto Espinosa’s trans­lation of Villagrá, F. W. Hodge acknowledged that Villagrá’s work “may claim the distinction of being the first published history of any American common­wealth” (17). Jingoistic American history has negated that proposition, principally because Villagrá’s work was written in Spanish. To this Thomas M. Pearce did not mince words:

The English tradition, as it is car­ried on by the English language [in  the United States], has made few concessions to other elements in the literary history of this country (“American Tradition and Our Histories of Literature,” American Literature, November 1942: 16).

Villagrá’s work deserves consi­deration as the first epic in the lite­rary history of the United States, for the fabric of American literature is not one woven exclusively on the Atlantic frontier by New England Puritans and Southern Cavaliers, but one woven in the American Southwest by Spanish and Mexican settlers as well.

In his article of 1942, professor Pearce argued that:

If we must write history by chronology, let the  literature tell the story of the land. The English epic Beowulf found no mention in English literature until an anti­quary published a garbled summary in 1705; no English translation was made until 1837. Yet we do not introduce Beowulf into English histories as litera­ture of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It is discussed as the beginning, the source materials (18).

This point was emphasized by Genaro Padilla in “Discontinuous Continuities: Remapping the Terrain of Spanish Colonial Narra­tive” (Reconstructing a Ch­icano/a Literary History: His­panic Colo­nial Lit­erature of the Southwest” edited by Maria Herrera-Sobek, University of Arizona Press, 1993: 34).

Indeed the Spanish literature of exploration dealing with the Southern and Southwestern portions of the United States—the chronicles of American exploration—have been excluded as part of our na­tional literary heritage though they treat of the same themes of exploration as their British counterparts.

From 1527 to 1848, some 321 years, Spanish letters flourished in New Spain [subsequently called the Republic of Mexico after 1821]. There were thousands of other works over that span of time.

The parallel between New Eng­land and New Spain as pre-cursors of American letters is all too striking with the exception that in New Spain the language of letters was Spanish. But the point is that if the United States can claim the writings of colonial New England as the roots of Ame­rican lite­ra­ture, it can equally claim the writ­ings of colonial New Spain as roots of American literature also.

That the works of that part of New Spain which eventually became part of the United States were written in Spanish should not bar their inclusion as part of the colonial canon of American literature. In the November 1942 issue of American Literature professor Thomas M. Pearce sugges­ted that language should not be “a logical bar to recognition of non-English materials as literature of the United States” (“American Traditions and Our Histories of Litera­ture,” 279). Many works of American literature have been written in languages other then English. Ole Rol­vaag’s works, for example, were published first in Norwegian, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s works appeared first in Yiddish.

But the point is that New Spain is as relevant to the American experience as New England. The terri­tories that were New Spain—and only briefly the Repub­lic of Mexico (1821-1848)—were not waste­lands when annexed by the United Stat­es in 1848 though contemporary novels like Borderland by Edwin Shrake (Hyperion, 2000) portray it as a  wasteland. Santa Fe had been a city since well be­fore the arrival of John Smith at Jamestown and the Puritans at Plymouth. San Antonio had been a thriv­ing city of commerce and letters since 1731. By 1848 San Francisco had been a metropolis for almost 75 years. Other centers of Hispanic popula­tions in New Spain included El Paso, Tucson, San Di­ego, and Los Angeles, all busy producing a literature as rich as that of colonial New England.

When John Smith landed in Virginia in 1607, the Spaniards had been in America some 115 years, during which time they had coasted the waters of the Atlantic as far North as Newfoundland and the waters of the Pacific as far north as Alaska. Spanish forts dotted the landscape from Florida to the Poto­mac, and from Acapulco to San Francisco as part of Spain’s Manila trade. The Caribbean was a Spanish sea reflecting a resplendent Spanish empire in the Americas. Spanish forts held lands in what is now the American South and Southwest. This is not to say there was not trouble in paradise.

American accounts portray the Spanish enterprise in North America as malevolent, focused only  on  the discovery of gold. But the Hispanic enterprise in North America was no better or worse than the English enterprise in North America.  Both were colonial powers, ruthless in their pursuits for imperial wealth. While both powers were brutal with the in­digenous peoples, miscegenation was tolerated by the Spaniards but abomi­nated by the British.

This consideration manifests itself in today’s de­mographics of the United States and Hispanic Amer­ican countries like, say, Mexico. In Mexico about 12% of the population is still indigenous. The Aztecs are still in Mexico. So are other groups who survived Spanish colonialism. In the United States, less than 1% of the population is indigenous. Quite a  con­trast. In Mexico, some 80% of the population is blend­ed, to lesser or greater degree, with Spanish and Indian. In the United States, only 4% of the population is blended to lesser or greater degree, English and Indian. Which country waged genocide against the indigenous tribes of the Americas? The Spaniards have gotten a bad rap by the English. And the Aztecs got a bad rap from the Spaniards.

The foregoing has been pre­sented to show that by deliberately occ­luding and excluding Hispanic aspects of American literature, not only have American Hispanics of New Spain (the Spanish South­west) been deprived of their literary birthright but all other Americans have also been de­prived of an important part of a literary heritage that is theirs also. For just as American Hispanics of the Southwest learn about the literature of New England, so too should Ameri­cans of New England learn about the literature of New Spain since like New England it is now part of the United States.

In 1971, in “The Chicano Renaissance” (Social Case­work, May) I suggested that

the literary period from the founding of the first permanent British settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, to the for­mation of the American union represents only the British period of American literature. So, too, the literary period from the first permanent Spanish settlement at Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1565, to the dates of acquisition of these Spanish and Mexican lands by the United States should, in fact, represent the Hispanic period of American literature. More appropriately , the British and Spanish periods should both be listed under the rubric “Colonial American Literature.” The Mexican period of the Southwest should simply be labeled “The Mexican Period.”

I was pleased that Maria Herrera-Sobek’s interest in the colonial period brought her to my sugges­tion prof­fered above (Preface to Reconstructing a Chi­cano/a Literary Heritage: His­panic Colonial Litera­ture of the Southwest, xiv). And that in “A Francis­can Mission Manual: The Discourse of Power and Social Organization” Tino Villanueva referred to that suggestion as “a radically new thesis regarding the literary history of the United States” (Re­constructing a Chicano/a Literary Heri­tage: His­panic Colonial Lite­rature of the Southwest, Edited by Maria Herrera-Sobek, University of Arizona Press, 1993: 37). Almost forty  years have passed since I first suggested that “radically new thesis regarding the literary history of the United States.” My first impulse is to say that little  has  changed  in  American literary history in thirty years. Yet much has changed thanks to scholars like Maria Herrera-Sobek, and Recovering the Hispanic Literary Past project headed by Nick Kanellos at the University of Houston. There are now more contemporary Chi­cano and Chicana writ­ers producing in various genres for numerous main­stream publishers. However. what is  still needed is “a massive publishing agenda of the kind . . . under­taken by Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., for African-American . . . literary discourse” (Padilla, Op. cit., 35).

                               Copyright ©2001 by the author. All rights reserved