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Sheila Cervantes on Chicanas and Indians

Updated on April 8, 2011

The Book: Contreras's Blood Lines

If I had only had this earlier!

I read…Many convesations with me start this way and continue in a play of intertextual references and allusions to a common store of knowledge shared among the over-literate yet not quite academic persons of a certain age.  Of course, being all too human and looking at my reading life in full consciousness of its limited duration, especially and cripplingly limited in view of all that has been written, and will be written before it is done, I have read an embarrassingly small sample of what there is to be explored, and I will not achieve much before this life is over and my explorations cut short.  With the knowledge that ‘life is short, art is long’, then, I began in my twenties to exercise some discernment in what I chose to read.  There is no time for bad books, and certainly there are sufficient good books clamoring for attention that I need feel no guilt for putting a bad one down. 

There are some categories of book that I simply will not read.  I do not read romance novels for women or for men: Harlequin may be taken as representative of the woman’s book I mean, and Max Bolan representative of the men’s.  I do not tend to read any series of books that runs in excess of 3-6 books.  (I made an exception for O’Brien’s boat books, but that was on the opinion of my father who is often an excellent judge of a writer’s quality and unusually able to confess his own prejudices and inexplicable affections as a reader.)  There was a time when anything parading under the banner Chicano Literature was also in my “Not to Read” bin, but that has changed.

Not that I will read everything marching under the banner, and certainly I disagree with much that I read and I retain a certain distrust of literature that marches under any banner whatsoever.  (Not that art can be free of politics, but literature that acts as an advocate is, by and large, bad literature.) However, I like engaged reading.  I like disagreeing with authors, questioning their motives, objecting to their structuring of an argument or to the conclusions they reach.  I like making connections beyond those the author makes for me.  For me, that is the very point of reading—to listen to another voice, another point of view, and to talk back, to remain the troublesome student with questions and opinions, better informed with more varied questions now that I am older.  I try not to go into a book with an argument ready.  These disputes do not work to the reader’s benefit if the reader does not listen to the author, if the reader does not respect the communication being made.  The reader, except when tempted into passion by an author’s outright villainy and disregard for the truth, even the truth of their own perception, should engage in a civilized discussion with the text.  Reading, after all, is a civilized activity; reading like a barbarian is just too hard on books and rarely results in a conversation of any kind beyond brief notes on the qualities of wood pulp.

As I said, for a long time I avoided Chicano Literature.  It was not as if it was a party to which I was invited, and, without an invitation, I had other avenues to explore.  Then, last fall, I took a class in Chicano Literature to fill a gap in my minor.  I was familiar with the professor, an intelligent woman who had a lot to offer her students, and the time was good for me, always a concern when your life includes more than classes, drinking, and attempting to ignore the trash that has accumulated in the hallway.  I showed up for the first day of class, determined to enjoy myself and learn what I could, the books already on my desk at home: Gaspar de Alba, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cherríe Moraga, Ana Castillo,  Anzaldúa, Viramontes, and a few others, not a man amongst them.  I was not surprised, therefore, when the professor announced we would be studying Chicana writers.  As I had no more idea of what Chicana writers had to say than I did of what Chicano men had to say, it was no loss to me.  I looked forward to being less bored than I might have been otherwise.

I wasn’t bored.  I was engaged.  Sometimes I was not engaged with the questions the professor would have us ask of the text; I had my own.  Sitting in a room of Mexican-Americans, some of whom identified as Chicana/os and some who did not, I was, the gringo, the critical outsider, representative of the rational in some of the binary representations Chicanos inherited from the European primitivists.  I had to work in that class, something I rarely had to do, filling in background information the authors assumed as part of their insider community, this history that belonged in a very possessive and intimate way to them, as apart from me and others like me.  I worked, I questioned, I tried to put things together.  And increasingly I became aware of the gap in knowledge my long categorical rejection of Chicano literature had created in me.

I would have had to work less hard, done less library time with journals and books on seventies political movements and indigenous art movements, had I possessed Sheila Marie Contreras’s Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism, and Chicana/o Literature.  Chicana/o poetics and political statements draw on pre-Columbian mythologies in order to conceptualize an identity related to both Mexico and the United States.  Unfortunately, I was not at all familiar with the Mesoamerican mythologies and icons in which the authors assigned used as signifiers, and, therefore, lacked a foundation upon which to view their affirmation of and deviations from the accepted, conventional content of those signifiers.  It is in excavating these signifiers and in tracing their evolution and deployment in Chicana/o discourse that Contreras’s book is invaluable. 

Through my reading, especially of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, I came to suspect this turn to mythology.  It appeared to me that myth was used primarily to avoid questions, forcing the reader into an acceptance of certain ideas of inheritance and blood-borne culture that I am opposed to as dangerous concepts in themselves, even if they temporarily appear to be positive constructions to a people viewing themselves as long degraded and denied the respect owed them.  Such ideas always creep towards Nazism, always end in hierarchies of more and less worthy humans: in the end there can be only a single ‘cosmic race’, and the rest of the world inferior to it in a hierarchy of failed humans.  However, when the race is mythologized and meaning assigned to a point of origin beyond the reach of history, in the realm of limited information and curious archaeological and anthropological constructions, one can only with difficulty question it.  Furthermore, in the construction of an Anglo and Indian binary, in which the Indian is spiritually gifted and the Anglo spiritually vacant, appeals to metaphysical truths, access to the spiritual sights and truths of the Chicana/o subject cannot be shared by the Anglo.  Anglos can be told about them, but they cannot see them, they do not feel them, and so their appeals to rationality can be ignored as further evidence of their truncated spiritual state.  They do not have to be answered, and their questions do not apply to the truth elucidated by the spiritually superior Chicana/o.

Over the course of semester, I encountered a variety of uses of the same iconic figures in different positionalities and, consequently, with divergent meanings.  Some were easy to relate to one another, as they wrote directly to or against a version of the Indian Woman or the god/dess figure we had also read.  At other times, however, the source of the meaning, and the precise nature of the meaning, the author wrote to or against were unknown to me, and could not be retrieved from the text itself.  Then, after the semester was over and my work done, I ordered Contreras’s book from Amazon.  I confess, I bought it for the title, and it turned out to be an excellent decision.

Contreras begins with a discussion of Chicana/os in relationship to indigenous peoples, with whom they have aligned themselves in their political and literary discourse, although this identification of Chicana/os is complicated by the definition of indigenous peoples prevalent in the United States (one of tribe based upon a “blood quantum”), the fact that our knowledge of pre-Columbian indigenous beliefs and history is gained through texts mediated by the concerns of imperialism and often in the Spanish language, not the indigenous forms of their origins, and the complex history of mestiza/os views of their own Indian ancestry.  Added to these very basic difficulties are the complications of the knowledge archive as the professional preserve of anthropologists, archaeologists, and intellectuals in the service of the state.  In order to access the pre-Columbian world, the artist and the politician rely on the work of archaeologists and anthropologists working in a discipline and in a terminology developed in imperialism, and they are forced to participate in that discourse, whether acting in agreement or opposition to the findings of these professional excavators.

Contreras’s work focuses on Chicana/o deployment of indigenism, but relates it to the deployment of Indian figures in Mexican and European contexts as well, contexts of which Chicana/o authors were aware and which, in varying degrees and in different ways, influenced the ways in which they chose to represent Indigenist figures.  Her key European text is D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent.  I have not read Lawrence, nor do I know any active readers of Lawrence, which may be a problem in relating to the literature of the Chicana/o Movement of the 1970s and 1980s.  The modernist employment of primitivism, through which Mexicans and Indians enter their texts, is not one that commands a wide audience today.  Europeans and Anglos have largely decided that their redemption does not lie in evocations of primitive vitality and are uncomfortable with the racialized primitives of this period of literature.  They no longer have much to tell us, but to Chicana/os of the 1970s and 1980s, actively searching for themselves in history and literature, criticizing the manner of their representation and developing new ways in which to represent themselves, such texts were important, and may remain so for some Chicana/os. 

After this introduction to the European primitivism and the indigenous of America, Contreras moves into the meat of her study, the various expressions of indigeneity in a chronological criticism of selected texts of Chicana literature, beginning with the early valorization of Indian ancestry in the spiritual-political argument of ‘El Plan de Aztlán” and Armando Rendon’s The Chicano Manifesto.  The indigenous as Chicano is a figure of resistance to Anglo-American dominance and the death-centered culture of Western capitalism, rising in pride and self-assertion as a masculine community. 

The Chicano Movement was aggressively masculine, and its attempts to control Chicanas and limit their social and political roles, was addressed through the same images used by the men (Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca), with the addition of female figures of divine power (Coatlicue) and a re-writing of the betrayer, La Malinche, as creatrix of the mestiza/o.  Contreras’s discussion of Gloria Anzaldúa is particularly interesting in pointing to the contradictions of Anzaldúa’s shifting positions through Borderlands/La Frontera, including her retention of the Anglo and Indian oppositional binary while transvaluing that binary, shifting superiority to the Indian, however, repeating the primitivist trope of Anglo salvation through the Indian.  This time, however, the Anglo must act, fulfilling his regeneration by taking up not the forms of native art but the practices of native life.  However, the Anglo in this trope is in the same work rendered incapable of a salvation, as he/she does not possess the spirituality necessary to fully participate in the native life, this spirituality being carried in the blood, inherited from one’s Indian ancestors.  Indeed, Anzaldúa’s text is modernist in its tensions, its use of Jungian concepts and figures, and its unresolved confrontations and justapositions of irreconciliable premises.

Finally, Contreras addresses the work of Chicana writers she terms ‘contra-mythic’: writers who point to the ways indigenism has naturalized the constructed ‘race’.  For these writers, among whom she includes Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Alma Luz Villanueva, identity is not guaranteed by ancestry, and may indeed be complicated by it, as mestizas/os have ancestors who conquered and ancestors who were conquered, and the power dynamics of the oppressor and the oppressed played out in their family histories, even if they do not have direct access to that history.  More important to one’s identity is one’s socialization: the language one uses, the mores of sexuality and the role in consumption one accepts.  Divided from Mexico, and denied full participation in Anglo-America, identity and history are more troubling for many of these women, and perhaps more honest.

Contreras exhibits a breadth of research in her subject that I appreciated, and her writing, while not snappy with one-liners and commandments to rise against our oppressors, is lucid.  She provides sufficient information to fully support her argument, while also indicating those documents which are important enough to merit further study and others that are interesting for their divergence from the stream of conventional representations and interpretations of mythological meanings and figures.  I found a few more writers I will be checking out soon, and I only ask from any book that it raise my interest, keep me attention, and leave me either more informed or more satisfied than I was before I picked it up.


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