Reflections on Chicanos and the Teaching of American Literature
Prepared for the Conference on American Literature, Texas A&M University, October 21, 2001.
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