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

Octavio Romano

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Book #2: Always Running and a Visit with Don Luis and the Idenfication of Chicano Literature


Banned Chicano Book #2: 
Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.

Luis J. Rodriguez' 1993 classic, Always Running has received its share of controversy and scrutiny over the years.

Book Description:

By age twelve, Luis Rodriguez was a veteran of East L.A. gang warfare. Lured by a seemingly invincible gang culture, he witnessed countless shootings, beatings, and arrests, then watched with increasing fear as drugs, murder, suicide, and senseless acts of street crime claimed friends and family members.

Before long, Rodriguez saw a way out of the barrio through education and the power of words and successfully broke free from years of violence and desperation. Achieving success as an award-winning Chicano poet, he was sure the streets would haunt him no more -- until his son joined a gang.

Rodriguez fought for his child by telling his own story in Always Running, a vivid memoir that explores the motivations of gang life and cautions against the death and destruction that inevitably claim its participants. At times heartbreakingly sad and brutal, Always Running is ultimately an uplifting true story, filled with hope, insight, and a hard-learned lesson for the next generation.

Santa Rosa, Califas;Fremont, CA; San Diego; San Jose, CA; Rockford, IL; and more have tried to block the use of the book and some have been successful. Book banners have said that it glorifies gang life. "Mr. Rodriguez is long on graphic sex, drug abuse, and violence, but short on consequences," said a speaker to the Santa Rosa Board of Education. (Sonoma County Independent, 1999).

Nevertheless, Luis J. Rodriguez has responded to critics in his speaking engagements. Many times all of those speaking against the book at school board meetings are white. Some have never read the book. Despite, or because of, this censorship, Always Running has become a modern classic in Chicano Literature and is used in both high school and college campuses across the nation. 

Read the article Class War by Patrick Sullivan on the efforts to ban Always Running.

Championing the Critics:  
A Revisit with Don Luis Leal and the Identification of Chicano(a) Literature

I revisited Don Luis Leal's classic article "The Problem of Identifying Chicano Literature" (1979). I wanted to revisit this article as the growing Latino-ization of Chicano(a) Literature continues to flourish I've frequently thought of Leal's article, and furthermore, as a publisher and critic, I find it harder to identify who is a Chicano(a) writer and who is not.

Leal starts his article saying the "...simplest, but also the narrowest way of defining Chicano literature is to say that is it literature written by Chicanos" and really, I think more or less, that what most people go by today: If it's literature and its written by a Chicano(a) viola -- Chicana(o) Literature.

But Leal posed two problems with this definition: 1. "It is difficult to identify a particular author as being Chicano, and it focuses the attention of the critic upon the origin of the writer, rather than on the work itself." 2. "It may be equally difficult to identify as Chicanos those writers with Spanish names, as, for instance Amado Mura and Silvio Villavicencio," says Leal.

Leal even talks about how maybe the definition of Chicano Literature by its "intrinsic characteristics" is more "satisfying to the humanist, since he feels that defining the Chicano is a task for the social scientists, and not for the literary critic." Using the "intrinsic characteristics" Leal says is good in that it helps us focus the "critic's attention upon the work itself." However, Leal says the drawbacks to this is that it gives us an "extremely narrow concept" of Chicano(a) Literature. In addition, I think this leads to stereotyping.

Leal goes on to discuss other topics and theories in identification, but what hit me was his statement that if we accept that Chicano(a) Literature is literature written by Chicanos(a), this leaves the burden on the critic to find if each individual writer is Chicano or not. I think of this often, should it be the job of the critic to do this?

Leal, like Juan Bruce-Novoa, rallied for a broad definition of the literature, one that was encompassing.

In his article, Leal gives some examples of some broad definitions, though he does not give them his blessing. Thirty years later, I think Chicano(a) Literature is broad, consisting of many writers, styles, and much diversity. In 1979, Leal says that "criticism" had "kept up" with the literature, and so it has. The range of literary criticism into our literature has octopused into a hydra of sub-genres, topics, theories, and more. Chicano(a) Literary criticism now serves a 5-course meal of knowledge for us to devour.

Yet, has the identification of Chicano(a) Literature been left in the oven, and when we open the oven, will we find the parrot -- or something bien quemado and more sinister.

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