- Why Border Matters to American Studies
José David Saldívar’s latest book builds upon The Dialectics of Our America (1991) by adding cultural studies to a project which already includes a sustained argument for the revision of the American canon. 1 In his sophisticated examination of the impact of the U.S.-Mexico border culture on American studies, Saldívar goes beyond a critical approach to literature of the Americas to examine other forms of cultural expression such as corridos, video performance art, and paintings (which he views as modern codices). Once again, heteroglossia, which in this case I understand to mean the various positional identities found within a multiplicity of generic forms, serves as a theoretical backbone upon which Saldívar fleshes out his book. Saldívar’s purpose is to “challenge [the] stable, naturalized and hegemonic status of the national by looking at the assumed equivalence we make between the national and the cultural” (14). To dislodge this theoretical equation from American studies, Saldívar critically engages the roles which race, sexuality, and, most importantly, geography play in cultural and national identities. He performs in his book the very theoretical practice he advocates.
Following definitions of culture outlined in Renato Rosaldo’s Culture and Truth, Saldívar incorporates the “everyday” into his analysis of the U.S.-Mexico border culture. If culture includes but is not limited to the [End Page 472] everyday, then oral history and other cultural expressions become appropriate subject matter in a remapped American studies. By drawing from Rosaldo, Saldívar’s claim opens the field of study to autoethnographies and other forms of social science which he brings into dialogue with one another.
One of the strategies Saldívar advocates for a remapping of American studies is a more engaged use of postcolonial theory, specifically a critique against U.S. imperialism. Saldívar positions the impressive body of work produced by Américo Paredes in the context of postcolonial discourse. He argues for a reading of George Washington Gomez, With His Pistol in His Hand, and Paredes’s early poetry in terms of U.S. imperialism, namely Texas’s War of Independence and the Mexican-American War. Noting the use of spatial geographical violence in Paredes’s early poems, Saldívar believes Paredes indicates an awareness and critique of U.S. imperialism along the U.S.-Mexico border. Bringing Paredes’s canonical and recovered work to bear on a tradition of texts critiquing U.S. imperialism is very productive and useful, but this clever positioning should be expanded beyond Paredes to include female writers such as Cleofas Jaramillo, author of Romance of a Little Village Girl, who openly situates herself in opposition to representations of the Southwest by J. Frank Dobie and others. 2
In expanding his investigation of genres like the corrido that are expressly born out of and in contestation to U.S. imperialism, Saldívar situates Paredes within the larger body of Chicano poetics. To explore the connections between corridos and Chicano/a poetry, Saldívar lists the structural elements of the corrido:
a hero or protagonist, with whom the Chicano or Mexican audience is presumed to identify in some way; a world in which the hero acts and is acted on by antagonistic, often Anglocentric forces, which is presumably a reflection of the audience’s conception of the world; and an oral narrative, in which the interaction of the protagonist and the world is described.(61)
What seems to be the central function of both corrido and the early poetry of José Montoya is the reconciliation of individual experience with collective identity. 3 Yet the dilemma behind a statement like, “the corrido is one of the central sociopoetic Chicano folk and mass culture paradigms” is the perpetuation of a male-dominated tradition within Chicano/a studies (63). Admittedly, the corrido does function to reconcile individual experience and a collective identity, yet this identity is predominately male. [End Page 473]
Saldívar seems cognizant of the gendered dynamic inherent to this...