"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Felipe Ortego: Remarks on accepting the Critica Nueva Awards

The Critica Nueva Award Lecture, 2005
The University of New Mexico, October 18, 2005

Remarks on accepting the Critica Nueva Award from the University of New Mexico

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Professor Emeritus of English, Texas State University System–Sul Ross
Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in English, Texas A&M University–Kingsville


To start, I want to thank those who selected me for the 2005 Critica Nueva Award. I was absolutely surprised when I received the notifica­tion. In all candor, however, I must say how gratifying it is as I approach 80 to receive recognition for so much of my life’s work. At the same time I am hum­bled by the honor, for there are many over the years who have contributed signifi­cantly to Chicano literature and its critical canon and are equally if not more deserving of this honor. I accept this award, then, on behalf of all of us in the field of Chicano literature and literary criticism. In these preliminary acknowl­edgments I dedicate this lecture to Dr. Gilda Baeza-Singh, my wife, who has been a constant source of support and inspiration for my work of these later years.

For me it all began here at the Univer-sity of New Mexico in 1966 when I was admitted to the doctoral program in Eng­lish. I was 40 that year and had been a full-time member of the English Depart­ment at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces since 1964, so I only came to the UNM campus during the summers of 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969. In the sum­mer of 1969 I passed the comprehensive doctoral examination in English and set­tled into writing the dissertation. Fortu­nately, during the Academic year 1969-1970, I was offered a teaching fellowship in the Department of English during which, I surmised, I could complete the dissertation while satisfying the residency requirement for the Ph.D. I had settled on a Chaucer topic spurred in that direction by Hal­deen Braddy, the Chaucerian at the University of Texas at El Paso where I had completed the M.A. in English with a Master’s thesis on Shakes­peare’s Ham­let, The Stamp of One Defect: A Study of Hamlet, which has been identified as one of the most provocative in a century of Hamlet studies. At the Uni­versity of New Mexico, Dr. Edith Buchanan was my pro­gram advisor.

In one of those unexpected interces­sions of fate, in the summer of 1969 Louis Bransford, newly appointed head of the fledgling Chicano Studies program on cam­pus, asked me to organize a Chicano literature course which I did with David Rem­ley as faculty advisor. Though limited in extant material, the course was a re­sounding success. And it changed my life. The outcome of that experience chal­lenged me as a Mex­ican American en route to becoming a full-fledged Chicano. The difficulties I had in finding texts for the course spurred me all the more to find the neglected trove of Mexican American literature which I intuitively surmised had to exist. It did. Why, I wondered, had no one previously considered the rich literary history of Mexican Americans and given it some taxonomic shape? It was that ques­tion que me puso necio. Here was a puzzle to piece together. And that’s what it has turned out to be: a chal­lenging puzzle. Each day more piec­es of the puzzle are added to the big picture by succeeding generations of Chicano scholars.

With that burr in my saddle, I went to Joe Zavadil, chair of the English Depart­ment, with a plan to write a dissertation on Mexican American Literature. And what of Chaucer, he asked? I had already completed three chapters (all published since then). He was persuaded by my enthusiasm, pointing out, however, that I would need a dissertation committee. He doubted that any member of the de­partment knew much about the topic. He was right. But I was lucky to find David Rem­ley, David Johnson, and Robert Flem­ing, three of the newer faculty in the department, interested enou-gh in the project to sign on as my dissertation com­mittee with David Rem­ley as Chair. They helped me more than they realized. The outcome was Back­grounds of Mexi­can American Literature, first study in the history of Mexican American litera­ture. I did not know that at the time.

Since then, I’ve explained that Back­grounds of Mexican American Literature was not a comprehensive study, that it was among the first efforts in the field, that I felt more like a literary archaeolo­gists, trying to ascertain the design of Mex­ican American literature in much the same way that archaeologists have piec­ed together the shapes of long since extinct creatures. In this case, how­ever, the trove of texts were to be found in attic trunks, refer­enced in news­papers, and mentioned in the multitudinous correspondence of bygone days. I quickly realized there was much extant material, not enough how­ever in print for a classroom of students. Thanks to Myra Ellen Jenkins, at the New Mexico state ar­chives in Santa Fe, I had access to the New Mexico records from which I glean­ed considerable infor­mation about nuevo-mejicano literary activities in New Mexico as part of the Spanish empire and the Republic of Mex­ico and then after 1848 as part of the Unit­ed State­s. My research for Back­grounds of Mexican American Literature carried me to various California and Texas archives as well as to ar­chives in Mexico City. I found enough material with which to build an initial scaf­fold for the struc­ture of Mexican Amer­ican litera­ture and to proffer a work­ing taxonomy. The ultimate shape of that literature is still emerg­ing as Mex­ican Amer­ican schol­ars explore the labyrinth of history, discovering its literary niches as evi­denced by Recovering the Hispanic Liter­ary Heritage of the Unit­ed States pro­ject at the University of Houston led by Nico­las Kanellos.

El Espejo y El Imagen

I have entitled this presentation “El Espejo y El Imagen” because both the mirror and the image in the mir­ror are key literary elements in Mexican and Mexican American literature. In his inquiry into the Mexican psyche, Car­los Fuen­tes made much of the buried mirror in unearthing the character of the Mexi­can. In renaissance European literature the mirror was regarded as holding up na­ture’s light to reality, as it were. One could feign much but there was little one could do to thwart the true reflections of the mirror. Could one really see “truth” in what the mirror captured? In Cinderel­la, for example, the mirror hedges when asked by the stepmother: who is the fair­est of them all? The notion per­sisted– that the mirror reflected truth.

As a youngster, I went with my Un­cle Jose, my mother’s brother, to one of those circus halls of mirrors in Chicago. Of all the shows, I was most impressed by the hall-of-mirrors. Unaware of the geometry of the illusion, I remember how awed I was by what seemed to me to be an infinity of mirrors. For as I look­ed into the mirrors, I could see my image, increasingly reduced, reflected in still more mirrors in seemingly unending re­flections in the already reflected mirrors. In another part of the hall-of-mirrors were a number of “fun­ny” mirrors which distorted one’s image even more, de­pending upon how far or near one stood to the reflecting surface. I was both amus­ed by and suspi­cious of the comical and grotesque reflections of myself in those mirrors. And no matter how secure I may have been in the know­ledge that the mirrors were just optical pranks meant to engender only good- humored laughter by others or oneself, I could not shake that uneasy feeling about the reality of the images reflected in those mirrors.

The mirrors distorted everything. I knew they were meant as a joke. I laugh­ed at my reflections in those mirrors. Was it possible, I wondered, that I actu­ally look­ed like the images in those mir­rors, that some people actually saw me as I ap­peared in those ludicrous mirrors? The thought choked off my laughter a medio grito, in mid-stride, as it were. I was no longer amused. Instead I walked out angrily, confused and bewildered. Many years were to pass before I under­stood fully that moment in my life, before I came to fondle it as a great grain of truth revealing to me profundities I’m still grap­pling with. Time and again my thoughts have wandered back to that ex­perience, and each time I’ve garnered additional truths–either about myself or the world about me–from that brief and singular moment in that hall of mirrors.

I wonder how many Anglos saw and continue to see Mexican Americans as the distortions produced by those mis­chievous mirrors? In fact, how many Mex­ican Amer­icans have regarded and still regard themselves dysphorically as those dis­torted images? In “The Gorkase Mirror,” Eliu Carranza, the Chicano phi­losopher, has marveled at the hall-of-mir­rors phenomenon as the mind seeks “to come to a realization of itself in terms of one distortion after another reflected in such mirrors.” This is the enig­ma wrap­ped in a riddle that Chicanos have been deciphering in their efforts to establish their place in the Amer­ican mosaic.

In 1969, Mexican Americans­ (becom­ing Chicanos) were fighting a two-front literary war. The first was, over­coming the images Anglo America had of them, images institutionalized in hegemonic texts of instruction, and the images Mexican Americans cum Chica­nos were giving light to in developing their own sense of self and which they sought to promulgate in their own re­placement texts (countertexts). It was a life and death strug­gle between the forces of the distorting mirrors and the realities of self so well-understood by Mexican American Chicanos.
Interestingly, one of the first texts issued by Quinto Sol Publications in 1969 at the apex of the Chicano renais­sance was titled El Espejo / The Mirror: Se­lected Mexican American Literature with the prefatory explanation: “[L]et this book speak for itself, and for the people that it represents . . . {t}o know them­selves and who they are, there are those who need no reflection other than their own. Thus . . . EL ESPEJO–THE MIRROR.”

In the Fall of 1967, Quinto Sol Publi­cations began publishing El Grito: A Jour­nal of Mexican American Thought which carried in its first issue an edito­rial that was, in fact, a manifesto excori­ating “intellectual mercenaries” of the age who spread “intellectually spurious and vi­cious” characterizations of Mexi­can Amer­icans to further their own hege­monic ends. The editorial ends with a challenge to Mexican Americans:

Only Mexican-Americans themselves can accomplish the collapse of this and other such rhetorical structures by the exposure of their fallacious nature and the development of intellectu­al alterna­tives. El Grito has been found­ed for just this purpose–to provide a forum for Mexican-American self definition and expression on this and other issues of relevance to Mexican-Amer­icans in Amer­ican society today.

This was a clarion call for Chicano inde­pendence from the American literary main­stream which never paid us much attention anyway. This was the objective of “the Chicano Renaissance” and its well-spring–the Chicano Movement: to create a literature so essentially Chicano that is stood on its own, creating an es­thetic uni­que to the Chicano experience. No longer would Chicano writers have to go hat in hand to mainstream literary out­lets for literary largesse. Chicanos would establish their own literary outlets, their own publishing houses and presses. We can see, thus, that the term “the Chicano Renaissance” was an organic term of growth for those voices in the Mexican American community, growth over a be­nighted past. Chicanos were not to be just literary epigo­ni creating stamped works that reflected the vision Aurora ­Lucero White Lea had of the literary renaissance of the Hispanic South­west festooned, unfortunately, with racial instability. In 1953 she wrote nostalgically for the wan­ing origins of the Hispanic literature of New Mexico:

There now remains but one renaissance to be effected–the literary. With the happy accident that New Mexico pos­sesses more traditional literary materials than any other Hispanic region it should be possible to bring about such a rebirth in the reenactment of the love­ly old plays, in the keep­ing alive the love­ly old folk dances and in the singing of the old traditional songs.

Ironically, the Chicano Renaissance came into being not in relation to the traditional Hispanic past but rather in the wake of growing awareness by Mexican Americans of their Indian, not Span­ish, identity. The Chicano Renaissance was but a manifestation of a people’s long over­due coming of age. Like Milton’s unsightly root, in another coun­try it bore a bright and golden flow­er. The Chicano Renaissance was an augury of transcen­dence, not repetition. Mexican American Chicanos opted to transcend the past in­stead of replicating it. In this regard, the Chicano Renaissance was a period of critical consciousness evidenced by the moiling throngs of Mexican American Chicanos who took to the streets in pro­test of the ascriptive caste structures and pieties of racial superiority which Ameri­can hegemony had imposed on the Mexi­can Amer­ican Southwest. In this respect, for Chicanos, literature was regarded as a teleological process, spatially and tem­porally a quest for purpose, ends, not a palimpsest for the traditional Templar literature for which Aurora Lucero pined.
Important to bear in mind is that the early period of the Chicano Movement was essentially one during which Mexi­can Americans, having grown weary of “search­ing for America,” cast aside the expectations that the United States would “do right” by them. Instead they pro­claimed themselves agents in their own change. Chicano literature was per­colating in the cauldron of Chicano na­tionalism, steaming out its agenda to iden­tify the enemy, promote the revolu­tion, and praise the people.
That in its incunabula many of the early works of Chicano writers were in­spired by ideology did not lessen the ex­pectations among many Chicanos that the responsibilities of Chicano writers were ultimately to fashion a literature so essen­tially Chicano that it stood on its own mer­its apart from other literatures. We see those expectations manifest in the works of Tomás Rivera, Rudolfo Ana­ya, Ro­lando Hinojosa, Estela Porti­llo, Carlos Morton, Arturo Islas, Gloria Anzaldúa, Denise Chavez, Maria Helena Viramon­tes, Sandra Cisneros, and a host of other Chicano and Chicana writers.

Significantly, a literature draws from the history and myths of its peo­ple’s past; and Chicanos turn­ed to their Indian past for their most mean­ing­ful symbols and metaphors. Literature means many things to many people. A piece of literature is not just a speech act–it’s a social act as well; it has cultural connotations that reveal a writer’s rela­tion to his or her group and to the entire fabric of society. As a cultural mani­festa­tion, a literary work inheres a sense of audience, its language (whether English, Spanish or a combination of both) is part of a weltanschauung shared by a commu­nity of readers. The significance of a liter­ary work lies not only in the social reality in which the writer participated but grows out of the culture which nourishes him or her.

As it emerged from the cauldron of Chicano nationalism, some Chicanos saw the role of Chicano literature as one re­flecting Chicano life and Chicano val­ues–drawing from a distinctively Chi­cano imagination. Like the disciples of Sench­an Torpeist, the fabled Irish poet of myth, who were sent out to recover the whole of the Tain–the great Irish saga–which none of them could remem­ber entirely, Chicano writers were the “disciples” through whom the lost liter­ary inheritance of Chicanos would be recovered and their emerg­ing exploits recorded. They would be stewards of the Chicano legacy that had to be written down, explained
and defended as one would defend a beloved daughter.

There are many Chicanos who argue that Chicano literature is so much of a piece that is has a distinctive center of gra­vity as well as its own ground of be­ing and, therefore, its own esthetic. There are norms and patterns in Chicano writing that are common to mainstream American literature and to world litera­ture while at the same time different. Not because of innate Chicano characteristics but be­cause Chicano writers, by and large, have emerged from a distinctive group experience in the United States.
This is not to say that that experience is uniquely different. Most writers, I dare­say, have emerged from comparable group experiences: Jewish writers, Black writers, and others. While each group experience may be comparable (and thus not unique), the experiences of each group are different. For in­stance, Jews have not been slaves in the United States nor did their ancestors lose a war to the United States. Blacks have not suffered religious po­groms in the United States nor have they been prohibited from speak­ing their home language in the schools. Yet Jews, Blacks,. And Chica­nos have suffered outrageous bigotry and discrimination in the United States. But that is not enough to say that their group experiences have been the same.

Discourse-specific, Chicano texts would generate their own dynamics from which a critical criteria would emerge. That was a radical departure. And yet, nec­essary. Prior to the Chicano Renais­sance, the American literary main­stream perceived Mexican American literary­ pro­duction as little more than folklore (like the folktale of La Lloro­na) and bal­lads of banditry (like the Corrido of Grego­rio Cor­tez).

In 1967, I was asked to submit a short story for an anthology of Texas fiction, only to have it returned with the explana­tion that it wasn’t the kind of story they were expecting from me. Along with the explanation they sent me a copy of J. Frank Dobie’s “The Straw Man” as an example of the kind of story they wanted. They wanted a quaint story about the ste­reotypical culture of Mexican Americans. I had sent them “Chicago Blues,” a story about a contemporary Mexican American jazz musician in Chicago. In 1957, the story had won an international story com­petition judged by Richard Wright.

What most characterized Chicano literature, early on, were its counter-texts–the textual background against which Chicano literature was superim­posed, the texts of Chicano reality. Chi­cano writers were expositing not just Chi­cano views but counter-texts of Anglo views by which Chicanos were judged socially; countertexts which ­show­ed how Chicanos were contained ­within the value frame­work of main­stream culture and subjected cruelly and brutally to the apo­dictic values of American society.

Through countertexts, Chicano writ­ers showed the insidious ways by which mainstream culture exercised hegemony over the Chicano community. Chicano counter­texts pointed out how having been subjected to coercive Anglo texts and hav­ing internalized the values inher­ent in them, Chicano had inadvertently been instru­ments in their own oppres­sion. It was this ploy of text and counter­text that provided Chicano literature with its most enduring qua­lity–process. Chi­cano literature was a process, not an out­come; it was a process of imagining and figuring out the world as Henry Louis Gates would have put it (Black Litera­ture and Literary Theory, 1984: 71).

As products of process, Chicano texts were not finalities of truth but limns by which Chicano liberation could be achiev­ed. Chicano literature was thus envisioned in the service of the cause, the people. It was not an end in itself. This meant Chicano texts were not self-sufficient but required the help of Chica-no readers to actualize their mean­ings.

In 1971 when Tomas Rivera, Jose Rey­na, and I took part in the first national symposium on Chicano Lit­erature and Literary Theory at Pan American University in Edin­burg, Texas, our presentations were not as dicta in the development of Chicano literature. Chi­cano literature was a barely emerging field then. My essay on “The Chicano Renais­sance,” had just appeared in the May 1971 issue of Social Casework. Our presentations sought to show how Chi­cano writers were looking for forms dis­crete to the Chicano experience by which to articulate that experience ; that Chi­cano writers wee searching for textual structures of meaning unique to the Chi­cano experience through which the mean­ing of the Chicano experience would be­ vali­dated–by Chicanos, not Anglos. Or as Ramon Saldivar has put it:

the function of Chicano narrative is . . . to produce creative structures of know­ledge to allow its readers to see, feel, and understand their social reality (Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference, 1960: 6).

In this sense, the Chicano Renaissance functioned for Chicano writers much the way the Irish Renaissance functioned for Irish writers who cut their ties to Bri­tish literature and turned to the roots and tra­ditions of Irish literature for sustenance. Chi­canos cast adrift th privileged norm of Anglo American literature. At that mo­ment, Chicano literature embodied what Georg Simmel identifies as that process in life by which it generates forms de­manding “a validity which transcends the moment” (On Individuality and Social Forms, 1971: 346).

In 1965, Joyce Carol Oates published an unusual and provocative short story entitled ”Where are you going? Where have you been?” The story sug­gests that to ascertain where one going one needs to know where one has been. How did Chicanos get to where they are today from where they began? The an­swer to that question lies in Chicano liter­ature and its antecedents. The thousands of documents that have been recovered by Chicano scholars and the pro­ject at the University of Houston Recovering the Hispanic Literary Heritage of the­ Unit­ed States have enabled us to see more clear­ly the Chicano literary mosaic of the past. The images of that past are helping to mitigate the distorted images of Chica­nos in those mischievous halls of mir­rors. We are able today to see the histori­cal trajectory of Chicanos over the last 157 years and ascertain therefrom a bet­ter sense of where Chicanos are head­ed.

The question I am most asked today is about the demise of Chicano literature and its genesis partner the Chicano Move­ment. Many pundits say that as a social force the Chicano Movement seems to have all but disappeared from the public arena. But the Chicano Move­ment has not disappeared. It was not a fly-by-night phe­nomenon. It has morph­ed into more sophisticated manifesta­tions with suc­ceeding generations just as the American Revolution of 1776 has morphed into more sophisticated mani­festations with succeeding generations of Americans. Chicano literature has like­wise morphed into more sophisticated mani­festations from its early forms of Move­ment texts.

What we can say about Chicano liter­ature is that it’s a literature in process, draw­ing from different literary traditions (American, Mexican, global) sometimes from one of the other, and sometimes in a unique synthesis of Mexican American that is truly startling and innovative. The permutations are manifold.


Thirty five years ago my hope for Chicano literature was its integra­tion into American literature. That’s still an important objective, though it’s no longer as press­ing as it once was. Chicano literature has trans­cended the bounds of American literature. It’s stud­ied in Paris, Munich, Moscow. It’s part of a new world order in which the Eurocentric view of literary canon is being scrutinized for its relevance to non-European-based litera­tures.

This is a critical juncture for Chicano literature. No longer necessary now is the need to juxtapose Chicano text and counte­rtext, no need to identify the en­emy, praise the people, and promote the revolution. Chicano texts must mani­festly stand on their own–not for the ben­efit of Anglo mainstream readers but for the be­nefit of Chicano readers with whom Chi­cano literature has a pact of long-stand­ing. For it is Chicano literature, after all, whose responsibility it is to proffer the verities of Chicano life to Chicano read­ers and, ulti­mately, to a universal audi­ence.
Chicano readers have come to under­stand intellectually what they knew all along intuitively: that Chicano literature is not value-free; that language and cul­ture–what Taine called moment, race, and milieu–are key factors in literary (cul­tural) production. The Anglo American mainstream lost sight of that, believing that its providential mission was to pass on to gen­eration after generation of Amer­icans of all colors the “truths” em­bedded in the literary works of the Wes­-
tern Tradition: what is fitting for us is fitting for them. Thomas Macaulay’s words about the literature of India and Arabia reverberate in our consciousness as words about black and Chicano litera­ture spoken by or subscribed to by white heirs of Macau­lay’s literary imperialism:

I have no knowledge of either San­skrit or Arabic, but I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed both here and at home, with men distinguished by their profi­ciency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education . . . . It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected in the­ Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltry abridge­ments used ap preparatory schools in England, In every branch of­ phy­sical or moral philosophy, the relative posi­tion of the two nations is nearly the same (Selected Writings, 1972, 241).

The distinguished men identified by Macau­lay as proficient in the Eastern ton­gues were non-Easterners. The Orien­talists were non-Oriental. They were all Eng­lish, expounding on the Eastern and Oriental from the perspective of British imperialism.
The import of this perspective is that, with exception of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, information about the literary accomplishments of Mexican Americans in the Unit­ed States has been nil in literary texts. Like Macau­lay’s non-Easterners and non-Orien­tals, editors and writers of American literary texts have excluded and marginaliz­ed the literary achievements of Mexican Ameri­cans, first, and Chicanos, later, for rea­sons rang­ing from jingoism and racism to igno­rance, disdain, and imperialism.

Copyright © 2005 by the author. All rights reserved.

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