restricted access Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture and Legal Discourse (review)
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Reviewed by
Carl Gutiérrez-Jones. Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture and Legal Discourse. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. 219 pp.

In this book, Gutiérrez-Jones addresses a significant and puzzling absence in American studies as a whole, and specifically in the study of Chicano/a literature. He argues forcefully that Chicano cultural critiques are derived from and based on entirely different premises, as well as entirely different selections and readings of crucial historical moments from those chosen by dominant Anglo representations, such that “even ‘sympathetic’ treatments of Latino criminality have generally avoided larger historical factors, a fact which may well reveal a constitutive denial of racial mechanics built into law.” He proposes that a careful analysis of such moments—both those chosen by Anglos as well as the alternative and revisionist readings of Chicanos and Chicanas—will require of all of us a serious rethinking of the basic premises structuring much of U.S. literary (as well as legal and historical) studies today.

In this book, while Gutiérrez-Jones explores the mechanisms by which Latinos have come to be institutionally encoded as criminals by the dominant class, he also asks us to consider how such institutional practices “are premised on a strategy of deferral of racism as a central focus in U.S. history; hence the importance of ‘forgetting’ how Mexicans and Chicanos have been made into a malleable working class . . . even as they have been effectively targeted as a class.” In order to explore these tense and often-ignored imbrications of class and race prejudice, Gutiérrez-Jones offers a systematic study of a body of literature that until very recently has not been studied systematically, focusing on films and narrative fictions in which the legal system plays [End Page 854] a critical role, and especially emphasizing those works in which Chicanos/as present their own revisionary image of the U.S. legal system. In the first chapters he offers carefully nuanced close readings of Helen Hunt Jackson’s best-selling weepy romance, Ramona, George Stevens’s epic movie, Giant, and Alejandro Morales’s complexly utopian The Brick People; in the second half of the book he introduces analyses of Ana Castillo’s problematic feminist novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, Oscar Zeta Acosta’s co-optive masculinist celebration of Chicano empowerment in The Revolt of the Cockroach People, and Edward James Olmos’s disturbing film, American Me.

Until a few years ago, isolated studies of particular Chicano/a authors and cultural phenomena were the only secondary sources available on the works of fiction that he addresses here. Gutiérrez-Jones’s book will stand alongside those of José Saldívar, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, and Ramón Saldívar as seminal works in this newly emerging body of serious and rigorous studies of Latino realities in América (with an accent to indicate its Latinocentric continental reach). In fact, Gutiérrez-Jones makes thoughtful use of writers like the Saldívars, Norma Alarcón, Cherríe Moraga, and Bruce-Novoa to frame the discussion, while simultaneously deploying at key moments in his work insights from poststructuralist thinkers. The “high theory” references are used sparingly and to good effect, without overloading his style with complex or inappropriate jargon. For instance, Gutiérrez-Jones introduces his work with explicit reference to Foucault and to the models of Critical Race Studies and Critical Legal Studies. Likewise, he frames his argument in the crucial final section of the book with reference to Bakhtin, but in each case he does so without distracting the reader from the main object of the work. Thus, he enriches his reading of the issues of linguistic and cultural translation and interpretation both in the legal and literary contexts without either oversimplifying notoriously difficult deconstruction-influenced thinkers or falling into a degree of abstraction inappropriate to his topic. At the same time, each of the individual analyses of works by and about Chicanos/as are written with care, precision, and seriousness, and he leaves his reader with a thoughtful and judicious conclusion.

This is a thorough and informed book. It is also alert and well-anchored with respect to both the Mexican...