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The Poetics of Arteaga: An Example of Literary Hegelian Cross-Cultural Dialectics?

Updated on July 22, 2014

What Does THAT Mean?

Alfredo Arteaga grew up as a chicano in Los Angeles. A poet by vocation, he pursued higher education with a creative writing degree from Columbia and a doctorate from UC Santa Cruz. His work concentrated on the intersection of the personal and the social, namely the sense of duality inherent in being a Chicano. As a poet, language itself became the medium to demonstrate what he called, "the cross of truth," the intersection of two worlds, the homeland of Latin America and the Anglo-dominated culture of the United States, the indigenous tribes of the Americas and the European conquistadors, the struggle for meaning as person of dual identities. Arteaga emphasized the hybrid nature of language, in one sense Spanish and English, in another the ancient Nuahuatl technique of describing individual words as the offspring of two original words. Arteaga's work gained notoriety, and after teaching for three years at the University of Houston, he joined the University of California, Berkeley in 1990 and fought hard for tenure, eventually winning it in 2008. His life ended shortly after, though, in a tragic and premature end to life of extraordinary power. His legacy lives on, though, and his far-reaching understanding of the Chicano experience will undoubtedly inspire poets to come.

His work, Chicano Poetics, serves as the pivotal framework from which to view the rest of his writings. In it, he sets down the fundamental epistemologies through which meaning can be can be achieved in the Chicano experience. Although Arteaga does not gloss over the hard truths and pains of the Chicano legacy, his work is by no means pessimistic. From the first explorers who arrived in the Americas to the first migrant workers who journeyed from Mexico to California, there was been an unspeakable loss of cultural purity, but as a poet, Arteaga has also found beauty and depth in this multi-layered intersection of worlds. His poems are "set off outward to sing, to dance, to break bones..." (5). " He discerns his ideas linguistically, as literary devices, as anecdotes of personal experiences, and as historical landmarks in the history of the American continent. He mentions the ancient Nahuatl poetic technique of difrasismo, the cultural homeland of the Chicano, Atzlan, and the many other historical aspects of Chicanoism, to be discussed shortly. Yet whatever his example of dualities is, the shifting between two poles, the union of two components to create a third as a synthesis greater the than sum of its parts -- this theme remains the constant current of his work. As the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen writes, in his song Anthem, You can add up the parts/You won't have the sum/You can strike up a march/There is no drum/To every heart love will come/But like a refugee." Arteaga, then, creates a literary combination of different dualities in his work, specific contrasts that illustrate the dualities of meaning inherent in being a Chicano.

His poem Cantos opens Chicano poetics with the two lines, "First, the island./The cross of truth" (1). While the "cross" referred to is essentially the intersection of all dualities, historically the lines signify the Spanish discovery the Americas, of the mixing of Spaniards with the Aztecs. Gender plays into both history and poetry, as the most obvious human analogue for synthesis is the union of the man and woman. In this case, the union is of the Spanish men and the Aztec women, a union forged in violence. Arteaga writes,

For whle Chicano subjectivity comes about because of Anglo-American conquest of Northern Mexico, the Chicano body comes about because of mestizaje. And the original birth of that body comes about in the Spanish conquest of the Indians and the raping of Indian women.

Thus the Chicano is a product of Europe and indigenous America and also a product born in tragedy and loss. This initial loss leads to another future loss, the Chicano exile living in a strange and often hostile world of Anglo-America.

But the cross of truth can also refer to the obvious, the symbol of Christian imperialism used to control and convert the native tribes. Catholic Spain funded the voyages of Spanish explorers, and the explorers used Christianity as a weapon to conquer the natives. The rape of the Aztec woman was also accompanied by the spiritual rape of indigenous religions. Not just in Mexico, the cross penetrated every corner of indigenous America. In The Earth Shall Weep, a culturally sensitive history of Native Americans, James Wilson uses the Spanish treatment of Mexico as an example of Christian psychological judo,

[A]ccording to Spanish chroniclers...[i]n front of the Spaniards crosses [the natives] laid

'powders and feathers, some even the blankets they were wearing. They did it with such eagerness that some climbed on the backs of others in order to reach the arms of the crosses to put plumes and roses on them...' (191)

This rape, both literal and spiritual in the female Mexica and the female Chicano, seems to be faintly evident in the first five lines of Arteaga's poem, Driving in Fog,

She breaks silent, "Asina es perder el alma, "gives voice once. This is how it feels,driving in fog. What time is it after all lose one's soul may be what she felt but just asked....

The fog in this poem, the blurring, signifies the sense of loss and blind confusion that comes during the synthesis of two worlds, in this case the Chicano identity in the United States. Juggling cultures means that one is neither here nor there, neither Mexican nor American, so torn between two identities that middle ground obscures certainty, and the vision of culture is shrouded in fog. And yet, in his literary skill, Arteaga reveals this absence, this journey of the lost towards the known, as a beautiful experience, if not painful. His poem Blood, Sand, Blood, also captures this cultural drifting as "the little boats/becoming more so, shrink/in view then wait in memory" (3-5) The Chicano is lost at sea, the cultural legacy a thing of memory and not of immediate reality.

Disfrasismo is a literary device used to combine two words in order to describe another, it is the linguistic manifestation of the dual nature of Chicanoism. Likewise, Spanish and English are the two languages. Accordingly, Arteaga often combines both English and Spanish as in his poetry, the point being that it provides a sum with a meaning greater than the two languages put together. Spanglish is common denotation for this combining, but the combination in Arteaga's poetry serves to enchant and bewilder the reader. Just as the Chicano experience is lost in fog, the combination of Spanish and English loses the reader in an obscured reality. In his poem, "Camino Imginado," Arteaga ends with the lines, "caminamos caminos like these, such streets, what/city" (8-9). Conversely, the poem begins with "Blue leaves, hojas rotas in the shape of stars"(1). In a strange mixing of language, the poet leads the reader from blue leaves into an entire city. The singular becomes plural; the personal becomes social; the Chicano becomes a nation. Yet of course, this camino is imaginary. It is a mythical tour through the wilderness of language into a larger sense of place.

Every hero who leaves his homeland, in exile or at will, ultimately dreams of a return. Oddyseus goes back to Ithaca, though he is not the same and Ithaca is not the same. The Chicano, displaced in a foreign land, wants to return to his roots, if not in the physical world, in the mythical one. Likewise, the idea of Atzlan, the land formerly Mexico stretching from Texas to California, gives the Chicano this sense of return. Arteaga writes in Chicano Poetics, "

[b]ecause Aztlan is the original, northern homeland of the Aztecs, by virture of ancestral presence and racial composition, the chicano can envision "home" in territories now occupied by the U.S. nation state (13).

There is something transcendent about such a return, as captured in Arteaga's poem, Illumination Mine, "the word god shines/there for the taking/burns away any/possible night" (18-21). In this piece, Arteaga not only gives hope to a Chicano return, but claims to have actualized such a return himself, personally and profoundly. One thinks of Dr. King, speaking to his own exiled tribe the night before he was killed, "I've been to the mountaintop!"

The shining irony of Arteaga's dream is that it does not apply only to Chicanos. We are all creations of two parents, of races and continents, of history and psychology, of our personal myth unfolding into the myth of the world. Here in America we have the prototype of amalgams, the salad bowl of heritages bursting in the mouths of nation two often covered in fog. Arteaga did not seek to stop in the fog, but to push through, to find the light that clarifies the darkness. He accomplished his task, and in doing so, his return was greater than the sum of his homeland and his exile. Myth defeats materialism every time. The author Edward Hirsch, in his book, "the demon and the angel," describes the mythical return of the biblical character Jacob.

He is enacting a poetic crossing, dispossessing himself of his former character. He is now a solitary traveller left on the edge of a deep gorge (122).

Arteaga arrives at that point himself, paving the way for other Chicanos to find their own cultural ground. Arteaga's poetics avail themselves to every poet and every seeker of meaning, and his poems are gifts to us, signposts for the human destiny.


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