Questions for the
Dean of Chicano Literary Criticism
Felipe Ortego y Gasca
Raymundo Eli Rojas (RR): Dr. Ortego, with Octavio Solis turning John Stienbeck novel Pastures of Heaven into a play and premiering it this past summer, I decided to look at some of Steinbeck's short novels.
Steinbeck wrote Chicano(a) characters into his works including Pastures of Heaven . Do you have any thoughts or recollections on Pastures of Heaven?
Felipe Ortego y Gasca (FO): Thanks for the questions on Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck's oeuvre. I read Pastures of Heaven during World War II while on a ship in the Pacific. During that war, publishers printed "cheap" copies of works by numerous writers made available specifically for GI's.
Pastures of Heaven
I particularly liked the structure of the book – episodes (like short stories) strung out with the same characters in each of the episodes, like the structure of ...Y No Se lo Trago la Tierra by Tomas Rivera.
Carlota Cardenas called this structure "the episodic novel." Pastures of Heaven is not really about Chicanos in the way that Tortilla Flat is. However, in Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck grappled to get a handle on the lives of those who tilled the soil in the valley of Corral de Tierra along Highway 68 between Monterrey and Salinas in California. One could say this was the soil out of which Tortilla Flat emerged.
RR: If I remember correctly, you had some harsh critiques of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat. Can you share those critiques with our readers?
FO: I read Tortilla Flat for the first time in 1948 when I was a freshman student at the University of Pittsburgh, and was completely enamored by the work.
This was at the start of my intellectual odyssey. I re-read Tortilla Flat in 1968, by which time I was a Chicano. My impression of Tortilla Flat after the second reading some 20 years later is recorded in the piece entitled "Fables of Identity: Stereotype and Caricature of Chicanos in Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat" published in the Journal of Ethnic Studies, Spring 1973 (ERIC Report EJ 083031). That criticism of Tortilla Flat was cited by Thomas Fensch in his Penguin edition of Tortilla Flat in 1997.
Above, Salinas Valley
In crafting Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck was out of his element. What he may have learned about the people of the Salinas Valley in Pastures of Heaven he lost in Tortilla Flat. Once we've apotheosized these gold-standard authors we tend to forgo their literary faults or short-comings as observers of the human condition.
Those who laud Tortilla Flat as an insightfully inspired work on the Chicano condition expose their ignorance about Chicanos. Tortilla Flat offers us no revelations about the Chicano condition. Instead, it parades the Chicano as buffoon. This is not to diminish Octavio Solis' adaptation of Pastures of Heaven (las pasturas del cielo). Idyllic, California is not "slipping through our fingers"-- it exists only in the pastoral fantasy of impaired memory and dashed aspirations.
RR: I know Steinbeck had just died in 1968. I'm curious to know the reaction of your White colleagues to your criticism(s) of Steinbeck?
FO: My Anglo colleagues are, of course, abashed by my iconoclastic bashing of their canonical literary idol. I'm a revisionist they say driven by ideology rather than intellection. It seems to me that the real test of a literary work is how it speaks over time to generations. It's that voice "over time" that betrays Steinbeck's feeble attempt to grasp the realities of the paisanos of Tortilla Flat.
RR: Dr. Ortego, touching on what you said above, “I re-read Tortilla Flat in 1968 by which time I was a Chicano,” are you speaking of the topic you have written about in various articles regarding your transition from “American,” to “Mexican American,” and finally to “Chicano”? If I understand you correctly, are you saying your criticism evolved with you identity and consciousness?
FO: Yes, I’m reminded of lines from 1 Corinthians 13:11—“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I reasoned as a child; when I became a man, I had done with what belonged to the child.” That is, I evolved as an individual. Experience and education were part of my growth and development. I’m still a fan of Steinbeck, just not enamored of Tortilla Flat.
NEW IN CHICANO LITERATURE:
Hardcover - University of New Mexico Press (October 15, 2010)
E. A. "Tony" Mares
E. A. Mares never crossed paths with the great New Mexico sculptor Patricio Barela, but the conversations he imagines with this gifted Taos artist (c. 1900 1964) are uncannily vivid and persuasive. Readers of Mares's play about Padre Martinez, another historic Taoseno, know that Mares is able to channel spirits.
The poet and the ghost of the sculptor, conversing like two old men at the Geronimo Lounge, find much in common. For readers unfamiliar with Barela's art, photographer Miguel Gandert and artist Frank McCulloch have contributed illustrations to bring his magnificent expressionist carvings to life.
La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City
(Univ of Arizona Press (Oct 6, 2010 ISBN-10 0816528888)
Lydia R. Otero
On March 1, 1966, the voters of Tucson approved the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Project — Arizona's first major urban
renewal project — which targeted the most densely populated 80 acres in the state. For close to 100 years, tucsonenses had created their own spatial reality in the historical, predominantly Chicano heart of the city, an area most called "la calle." To make way for the Pueblo Center's new buildings, city officials proceeded to displace la calle's residents and to demolish their ethnically diverse neighborhoods, which, contends Otero, challenged the spatial and cultural assumptions of postwar modernity, suburbia, and urban planning.
Aztlan Libre Press ISBN-13: 978-0-9844415-0-1
Tunaluna is classic alurista: passionate, sensuous, and political. alurista’s tenth book of poetry is a collection of 52 poems that takes us on a time trip through the first decade of the 21st century where he bears witness to the “Dubya” wars, terrorism, oil and $4 gallons of gas, slavery, and ultimately spiritual transformation and salvation.
The “Word Wizard of Aztlan” is at his razor-sharp best, playing with his palabras as well as with our senses and sensibilities. alurista is a Xicano poet for the ages and a chronicler of la Nueva Raza Cózmica.
With Tunaluna he trumpets the return of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent of Aztec and Mayan prophecy, and helps to lead us out of war and into the dawn of a new consciousness and sun, el Sexto Sol, nahuicoatl, cuatro serpiente, the sun of justice.
“alurista experiments on the edge, thickly layers multiple meanings onto each cryptic line through language play, brilliant code-switching (‘tu mellow dia’) and love songs to la raza.
A statement of survival, he confronts the politics and the hypocrisy of ‘the estados undidos de angloamérica’ with an irrepressible rhythm, with the ‘slingshots in our hands’ of pre-Columbian truths, and with the ability to craft real words from our unreal world of avarice and oppression. alurista’s tenth book holds many spirit treasures calling out to us from between the lines. Con razón k he hears the haunting spirits beneath the surface — ‘ayer paré x tu casa/y me ladra/ron/los libros.’”
- Carmen Tafolla, Ph.D., oet and Visiting Faculty, University of Texas at San Antonio
“Tunaluna is a work of hope, humor, outrage, and beauty by one of our most notable Chicano bards. alurista reminds his readers of the political possibilities of the poetic; in his poems, we hear the song of a people.”
- Cristina Beltrán, Haverford College and author of The Trouble
with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity
with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity
Language: Spanish Titles
Published 30 Sept 2010 Paperback
Isabel Díaz Sánchez (Spanish Translator), Alejandro Morales (Author)
The first-ever Spanish translation of an acclaimed Chicano novel
Joseph and Walter Simons are ambitious entrepreneurs who, in the late nineteenth century, launch the Simons Brick Factory in Southern California. With the help of a Mexican who teaches them everything he knows about making bricks, the brothers build a life for themselves on the backs of the Mexicans who work the kilns.
In this sweeping historical novel, the Anglo brothers are pitted against their workers. Fearful of the unrest south of the border as the Mexican Revolution rages, the patrones strive to provide their Mexican workers with everything they need: homes for their families, a company store to shop in, a school for their children, and even a church to pray in. By the end of 1926, the brick factory is considered one of the most successful businesses of its kind. Simons, California, is a model company town and a perfect example of the benevolent exploitation and control of Mexican labor.
As the brothers expand their business and their families grow, Anglos and Mexicans alike live through the Great Depression, earthquakes that put their livelihood at risk, and World War II. They watch as their Japanese neighbors lose their land and homes and are placed in concentration camps. And they learn about the rise of unions to protect workers’ rights. It’s only a matter of time before even the Simons workers seek better wages and benefits.
With an attention to historical reality blended with myth and legend, Morales recounts the epic struggle of a people to forge their destiny in this first-ever Spanish translation of his acclaimed novel, The Brick People. The history of Southern California is intertwined with that of the Mexican workers who manufactured the bricks that laid the foundation of modern California.
Tomorrow: Interview with the formidable Dagoberto Gilb