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A Spanish Novelist's Perspective on Chicano/a Literature

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 25, Number 1, Fall 2001
pp. 17-34 | 10.1353/jml.2001.0022

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Journal of Modern Literature 25.1 (2001) 17-34

When I was a student at New York University, at the beginning of the 1960s, few people were interested in the literature of ethnic and/or racial minorities. There was some slight interest in black literature, thanks to Ralph Ellison, one of my professors, but not much was known about Chicano/Latino literature. The Puerto Ricans living along the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Cubans living in Florida and on the East Coast were marginalized groups, as were the Chicanos in the Southwest and other parts of the nation. At the end of the decade, coinciding with the massive French May demonstrations, Europeans began to hear about an upstart minority called Chicanos, and, in particular, they heard of Luis Valdez' Teatro Campesino.

I remember how different the situation was vis-à-vis Hispanics in the 1960s. During my first trip to San Diego at that time, I recall a conversation in Spanish with a Chicana waitress who, before answering my questions, looked nervously at her Anglo boss standing by the cash register, obviously afraid to speak Spanish at the workplace. I had seen Chicanos degraded by their Anglo employers in the movies but had no idea of the racial problems existing in real life. I also remember that during the long bus trip to San Diego, the history of California which was offered by the tour guide emphasized Bartolomé de las Casas' perspective of Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century (notably the massacres committed by the missionaries and conquistadores). If at that moment someone had asked me where I was from, I would have been so embarrassed to say that I was from Spain that I would not have known where to hide. Much later, in the mid 1980s, I made the same trip to San Diego. This time a Chicano waiter did not know how to address me. Finally, the waiter asked me where I was from, and when I answered "From Spain," the waiter replied: "Andele! And why do you speak to me in English?" My tour around the San Diego area was also different from that first tour. This time the guide explained proudly the European origins of the city; he informed the passengers that it was the second oldest city in the United States after Saint Augustine, Florida, thanks to the Spaniards who had founded it long before the Mayflower anchored on the coast of New England. The presence of a population of Spanish descent before the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848, followed by the arrival of millions of Mexican immigrants, braceros (guest workers), and undocumented workers who felt at home in California, has created the miracle of hispanizing that state and, its reverse, of Anglocizing the Hispanics. In the meanwhile, the vision of a barbarous Spain, of conquistadores, bullfighters, and flamenco dancers, has drastically changed.

But the change has deeper roots. While travelling from the Altar desert to Yuma, I heard a professor from Arizona State University comment that he was in Aztlán, the mythic region which the Aztecs had inhabited before settling in Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire near present-day Mexico City. The mythic land of Aztlán is supposed to be a vast region that includes the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Later, at a university bookstore in Tucson, I came upon the novel Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974; Pilgrims of Aztlán), by Miguel Méndez, and was very impressed after reading it. I also read his El sueño de Santa María de las Piedras (1997; The Dream of Santa María de las Piedras) and was immediately caught by the culture of this silent minority, in which the language of Cervantes knocked at the door of Shakespeare, demanding to share with him the status of official language. From Méndez, I explored the writings of Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, author of a Faulknerian saga about the Río Grande region, called Belken County. After that, I discovered Tomás Rivera, who wrote in a style approximating at times the real maravilloso of Carpentier, Rulfo, and Garc&iacute...

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