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Signifying Spain, Becoming Comanche, Making Mexicans: Indian Captivity and the History of Chicana/o Popular Performance

From: American Quarterly
Volume 53, Number 2, June 2001
pp. 267-306 | 10.1353/aq.2001.0018

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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 267-307

SINCE AT LEAST THE 1960S, MANY CHICANAS/OS HAVE ENGAGED IN A KIND OF ideological archeology, attempting to reconstruct genealogical relationships between their present and a distant pre-Columbian past. Just as certain African American nationalists turned toward Egypt for cultural cues, in recent decades Chicana/o intellectuals and cultural producers have looked to ancient Indian civilizations for inspiration. One of the most famous examples is the work of Luis Valdez, for both the plays he helped to produce with El Teatro Campesino and his subsequent films such as Zoot Suit and La Bamba are filled with Mayan and Aztec themes and images. More recently Gloria Anzaldúa has employed a related image repertoire in her influential articulation of a "new mestiza consciousness." Despite their important differences, both Valdez and Anzaldúa participate in a larger project I would call an indigenismo of the antique. Such discourses generally focus on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, singling out in particular the fall of the Aztec empire as the primal scene of Chicana/o identity and as a paradigm for the subsequent conquest of the territory now known as the U.S. Southwest. By claiming descent from aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas, Chicanas/os counter the claims of manifest destiny and white nativism. A famous lithograph by Yolanda M. López elegantly makes this case. Self-consciously recalling U.S. military recruitment posters featuring Uncle Sam, the lithograph depicts an Aztec warrior who points at the viewer and rhetorically asks, "Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?"

As the preceding example suggests, an indigenismo of the antique has made possible some vital critical work. By constructing ancient ancestors, for instance, this kind of indigenismo counters ideologies that belittle or discount contemporary Chicana/o cultures. A number of Chicana critics, moreover, have reappropriated and critically interrogated indigenist discourses in order to attack misogyny and homophobia in forms of Chicano nationalism clothed in an Aztec warrior ethos. Despite their strategic value, however, discussions of Chicana/o culture, history, identity, and community that begin by focusing on ancient Indian civilizations potentially obscure forms of indigenismo whose field of reference includes North American Indians. While representations of Aztec pyramids, warriors, and maidens commonly appear in literature, music, murals, films, and even on T-shirts, so do images of Apaches, Navajos, Sioux, and Comanches. Why, we might wonder, do Chicanas/os produce representations of North American Indians, and what do such representations mean?

In order to address these questions I propose a provisional shift in focus, taking as my unit of analysis not the Aztec empire and its conquest but rather the Comanchería "contact zone" named for the Indian bands who unevenly controlled it from the early part of the eighteenth century to around 1875. Although the Comanchería was concentrated in the Southern Plains region of the U.S., including significant portions of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma, Comanche influence extended deep into Northern Mexico as well. For almost a hundred and fifty years the Comanches were a major economic and political force in western North America. And the Comanches certainly left their mark on Chicana/o cultural production and critical discourses in Texas and especially New Mexico.

One aspect of Comanche power with profound impact on Chicanas/os was the practice of taking captives. Comanches kidnapped perhaps thousands of mostly women and children from Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In what follows I analyze a host of nineteenth-century texts and images concerning Mexicans who were "kidnapped" by and "rescued" from Comanches, arguing that they are particularly revealing regarding the discourses of race, nation, citizenship, gender, and sexuality that have shaped the formation of Mexican and ultimately Chicana/o cultural politics in the U.S. The captive trade helped to construct new composite subjects, often referred to as "Mexicans," who were neither white nor Indian. Captivity, in other words, was an important but often overlooked source of mestizaje in the borderlands. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Comanche captivity produced what I would call proto-Chicanos: Indian-aligned mestizos. Comanches influenced the emergence of Chicana/o cultural politics not...



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