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

Octavio Romano

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Icon and the Image: The Chicano Struggle for Literary Representation





Guest post by Cristina Kirklighter

The Icon and the Image: 
The Chicano Struggle for Literary Representation
Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English). Posted on Somos Primos, May 2009.

By Cristina Kirklighter
Associate Professor of English, Texas A and M University — Corpus Christi

The year is 1967. I am in 2nd grade at an all white, but not really all white, elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia, a school named after the confederate soldier, Stonewall Jackson, whose photograph hung in the school’s front entranceway. 

Alexandria is too close to D.C., so its rich Southern heritage needed to remain steadfast in the face of elementary school children with the last names of Schwartz, Martino, Martinez, or the growing number of biracial and bicultural children such as myself. Like many children in the 2nd grade, I was reading Scott Foresman’s Dick and Jane’s friends’ workbook entitled “More Friends Old and New,” a workbook that I have kept to this day. Dick and Jane were white and so were their friends and relatives. 

I was a confused student who saw plenty of children and parents that resembled my Southern white father and his relatives, but none that resembled my brown-skinned immigrant mother and her relatives from Honduras. 

Even in my class, many of my friends didn’t look like Dick and Jane and the ones that did sometimes made disparaging remarks to the immigrant and ethnic children. I also remember an immigrant child crying because she couldn’t understand English, and the teacher angrily telling us that she didn’t know what to do with this student.

In the mid to late 60’s, while I was reading and answering questions about Dick and Jane’s white friends in my workbooks, NCTE African American, Chicano, Native American, and Asian American members understood that what I was reading did not speak to the experiences of many children like me. A year after Dr. Nancy Larrick published her famous article in 1965 entitled, “The All-White World of Children’s Books” in the Saturday Review of Literature, a small group of Chicano NCTE members formed the Chicano Teachers of English headed up by Felipe (Philip) de Ortego y Gasca with Carlota Cárdenas Dwyer and Jose Carrasco joining him shortly afterwards in the late 60s. 

If we go to the NCTE Centennial Celebration website which I would encourage all of you to visit and provide historical input on your own caucuses, you will see letters from Ernece Kelly to Nancy Pritchard (NCTE Asst. Executive Secretary) stating that she would be forming a group of members to do the following:

  • Assess the nature and breadth of the phenomenon of the continuing development of texts and tests which discriminate against cultural and racial groups
  • Chart short- and long- range plans for acting on this two pronged problem of bias
  • Involve themselves actively in the implementation of these plans on their local levels; this does not rule out members forming satellite groups to operate on a national level
The NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English and Textbook Review Committee subsequently published in November 1972 a report entitled Searching for America which includes “Chicanos and American Literature” by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca and Jose Carrasco (later reprinted in The Wiley Reader: Designs for Writing, 1976). By the way, this important document is not on the NCTE Centennial Celebration website and should be, especially since it is closely aligned with the 1978 Guideline on Non-White Minorities in English and Language Arts Materials. 

Let me just read you some of the co-authors of this document to demonstrate how NCTE members of all races were working together back then for “Change”: Ernece Kelly, Jose Carrasco, Carlota Cárdenas Dwyer, James Lee Hill, Adolfo McGovert, Felipe Ortego, Montana Rickards, Alexander Boyd, Jeffery Chan, Frank Chin, Charles Evans, Sophia Nelson, and Antonio Valcarcel. 

In November 1970, I was in an integrated DoD school in Germany. These NCTE members made up of many races and cultures wanted me to open up new books. They wanted me to see photographs and illustrations that represented my classmates and learn through these readings about their backgrounds. They wanted to make me whole by bringing in the other half of my family. They wanted inclusion and fairness at many levels for children, young adults, and non-white academics.

Today, I’m going to share with you my version of an NCTE Centennial Celebration that celebrates three early NCTE/CCCC Chicano and Chicana leaders who were and still are bravely committed to Latino/a education: Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Carlotta Cárdenas Dwyer, and Roseann Dueña Gonzalez. Certainly, there were others, such as Jose Carrasco, Kris Gutierrez, Tino Villanueva, Donald Castro, and Ralph Castillo. 

Unfortunately, I was unable to interview these other individuals for this paper.

Felipe Ortego, now 83 and still actively involved with his research and teaching at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, is originally from San Antonio, but traveled extensively in his early years since his father was a railroader. His father was a Mexican immigrant, but his mother’s family had deep roots in San Antonio starting as early as 1731. He remembers some good natured ribbing from his Mexican relatives who claimed he wasn’t really Mexican when he visited them in the summers. 

At the University of New Mexico during the late 60’s, where he was writing his dissertation on Chicano literature, none of his dissertation advisors knew anything about his topic. His dissertation, Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971) was the first study in the field. Felipe recalled the 1968 CCCCs when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and the way Ernece Kelly rallied the Black Caucus and others to make some serious changes at CCCCs and NCTE. 

Shortly thereafter, he along with Ernece Kelly and others, founded The Task Force of Racism and Bias. In the April 1970 issue of College English, Richard Ohmann, the editor at that time, published a Mexican American literature piece by a non-Chicano author named Gerald Haslam. Ortego’s article was rejected, and he wrote an eloquent letter to Ohmann in May 1970 that he later published entitled “Huevos con Chorizos: A Letter to Richard Ohmann.” This was right around the time the Task Force was working on “Searching for America.” 

Here are some quotes from his letter: “However, what really rankles is your comment that my piece on Chicano poetry is more than you want to publish on Chicano literature at this time since you’ve already accepted and plan to publish a piece on Mexican American Literature. That’s distressing since you wouldn’t obviously, turn away, say, a piece on teaching Shakespeare because you already published a piece on that topic.” 

Felipe says further down “Not to publish our expressions or to publish something about us by a non-Chicano is simply to perpetrate the worst features of racism and the colonial mentality that continues to permeate the country.” 

As Felipe pointed out in 1970, “there were only three Chicanos with Ph.D.’s in English teaching at the college level, and only a handful of M.A’s teaching at both junior colleges and four year universities.”

Carlota Cárdenas Dwyer, another contributor to “Searching for America,” joined NCTE in 1961 when she was a junior in college. 

She is now retired in San Antonio, and heavily involved in her community. She was recently asked to speak about the development of Chicano activism in literature and education (mainly textbooks) at San Antonio College. 

Carlota grew up as a first generation Mexican American in San Antonio, and her family immigrated from Northern Mexico. Her grandfather lived in Chicago, where he married his Mexican wife and started a family. Carlota received her M.A. and Ph.D. from SUNY Stonybrook, and she also pursued a dissertation on Chicano literature situating it in American literature regionalism. 

In the mid 70s, her dissertation committee knew nothing about Chicano literature, even Ruth Miller, one of her dissertation advisors and renown scholar in African American literature. While completing her dissertation, she also edited a collection with Tino Villanueva entitled Chicano Voices (Houghton Mifflin 1975). Carlota worked closely with Roseann Dueña Gonzalez during the 70s on several initiatives, so I’ll provide her biographical background as well and discuss some of their collaborations that included Felipe. 

Roseann was born in Phoenix, the last of four children, to Mexican immigrant parents. Roseann’s older siblings experienced the Americanization classes of the 1C program, where 60% of Latino/a children dropped out of school between 1919 and 1967. 

Her mother immersed Roseann in English from an early age, so she wouldn’t have to attend the 1C programs, and told Roseann she would be an English teacher one day. Roseann received her M.A. from Arizona State and was recruited to the University of Arizona in 1973, where she received her Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary linguistics program. 

During the time of her Ph.D. studies and the heyday of Civil Rights, Spanish speakers, Navahos, and Asians felt their due process was denied in courts because they could not understand the legal proceedings. She was called upon by a Tucson judge to study his courts, and, subsequently, her dissertation focused on assessing the oral/aural English proficiency of Spanish speakers in court settings. Her research played a significant role in the signing by President Jimmy Carter of the Court Interpreter’s Act, where individuals must have a certified court interpreter if language barriers are present.

The year is 1973. Felipe, Carlota, and Roseann are at the NCTE conference in Las Vegas experiencing an incredible renaissance of themselves right after “Searching for America” came out. They were smart, educated, articulate Chicanos/as fully prepared along with Kris Gutierrez and others to educate teachers about Chicano/a literature and students through workshops, seminars, and presentations. 

It was the conference, where the Task Force had created the “Criteria on Teaching Materials in Reading and Literature” and newspapers were covering it. It was the conference, where Paul B. Dietrick’s "Project Access: What Sort of Tests are We Looking For?" had come out and testing biases were becoming a part of the NCTE conversations. 

ETS was taking notice, and Carlota in subsequent years became heavily involved as a consultant for these tests. Felipe remembers toting hotel luggage carts full of hundreds of books with a young woman from Totinem Books. In the early days, as he recalls, Chicano/a books were coming out of garage presses. NCTE had given them book space, so they could display their books.

A short time later in San Francisco, members of the Task Force of Racism and Bias took top publishers to a closed room and “educated” them about the cultural deficiencies in their textbooks and anthologies. Publishers took that “education” to heart and began the process of inclusion. Roseann put together an NCTE regional conference in Arizona, and Carlota remembers feeling that her identity as a Chicana and English teacher were coming together. 

Not only did Felipe, Carlota, and Roseann feel a sense of validation through their work with NCTE, but they knew that Latino/a children, young adults, and college students would find a sense of validation in the literature, textbooks, and tests that represented them. They wanted them to succeed in education, form a positive sense of identity, and empower others through the sharing of such knowledge. As we convene in this room, let us not forget the rich histories of those who have preceded us. They have made us who we are today. 

Gracias Felipe, Carlotta, and Roseann.


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Huevos con Chorizo: A Letter to Richard Ohman
From Nosotros: Newsletter of the Chicano Caucus of NCTE, June 1970.
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From Philip D. Ortego (Felipe de Ortego y Gasca)
Instructor of English, Associate Director Freshman Writing Program, New Mexico State University; Director Designate, Chicano Studies Program, University of Texas at El Paso

May 12, 1970

Richard Ohman
Editor, College English

Dear Professor Ohman:

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to respond to your letter of April 14 and to your comments about my piece on “Chicano Poetry: Roots and Writers.” I do not agree, of course, with your comments about my essay, for it seems to me in this case that the root of the problem vis-s-vis our individual perspectives of Chicano poetry is that as an Anglo you are asking me (as a Chicano) to rationalize my position and perspective of Chicano poetry in terms of assumptions you hold about critical theory and Chicano literature (poetry, etc.) rather than in terms of assumptions I hold as a Chicano scholar about Chicano literature (poetry, etc.). What happens then is that not only are you dictating the terms of my scholarship in Chicano literature — an area about which I wonder how much you know — but you are also stressing the primacy and superiority of your assumptions about Chicano poetry over mine. In short: Anglo assumptions over Chicano assumptions.
Moreover, I don’t understand your expectation that I should “analyze” Chicano culture in my article when the article really deals with Chicano poetry and not Chicano culture. To what extent would you expect me to analyze the culture of Elizabethan England in a critical piece, say, dealing with Elizabethan poetry? To the extent necessary for a proper discussion of the poetry, I am sure. I’ve done that in my piece. But you say I should analyze Chicano culture “more” than I did, which strikes me as a rather arbitrary expectation. But you see, I would have been happy to have worked the article out in some way or other to have had it appear in College English, for I think the readership of College English deserves to know something about Chicano literature — not as the Anglo sees it (or thinks he understands it) but from the point of view of the Chicano.
However, what really rankles is your comment that my piece on Chicano poetry is more than you want to publish on Chicano literature at this time since you’ve already accepted and plan to publish a piece on Mexican American Literature. It turns out, of course, that you were talking about Gerald Haslam’s piece on Mexican American Literature published in the April 1970 issue of College English. That’s distressing since you wouldn’t, obviously, turn away, say, a piece on teaching Shakespeare because you had already published a piece on the topic.

But you’ve done me/us a favor by rejecting my piece. For more than ever now we Chicano teachers of English realize that the only viable outlets for our expressions in this profession are those we make for ourselves. As you may or may not know, the Chicano Teachers of English Caucus was formed as an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) precisely because of the kinds of responses Chicano teachers of English have received from NCTE and its Anglo oriented publications. Not to publish our expressions or to publish something about us by a non-Chicano is simply to perpetuate the worst features of racism and the colonial mentality that continues to permeate the country. Why not give us a whole issue of College English for Chicano literature and let us put it together?


In any case, the Chicano Teachers of English Caucus plans to publish its own material, inspired by the numerous rejections our writers get from Anglo dominated journals like College English, English Journal, etc. We’ve tried working within established organizations like NCTE, etc., but our gains are so infinitesimal that we see our only advantage in creating our own organizations like blacks did with the College Language Association. Too bad things have to work out that way, but we’ve found the Anglo mentality in these matters unyielding and inflexible.

Let me inform you also that at the moment there are, unfortunately, only three Chicanos with Ph.D’s in English teaching at the college level, and only a handful with M.A.’s teaching at both junior colleges and four-year universities. Most of our people in English and related activities (such as reading, language arts, linguistics) are in public education from K to high school. Moreover, we’ve been trying to over-come the problems of educational institutions which have very rarely encouraged us to go on to college let alone get into the field of English. For as you should know about our problems in the Southwest, the English language is part (perhaps the most crucial part) of our problem. Little wonder Chicanos don’t go into English.

There is still one final and important point to raise, and that is the question of College English’s commitment to minority literature and minority teachers of that literature. I’m not at all sure what you mean when you say you are “eager to challenge the English establishment in fruitful ways.” It seems to me that one manifestation of earnest concern for what has not been happening in the English establishment would be to actively and purposely seek out minority critics for special articles in the journal. Despite your distance from the Southwest, College English should be a sursum corda for the enlightenment of all oppressive institutions of higher education. College English might do well to take a long hard look at itself.

I think Gerald Haslam’s article was misleading in the extreme, despite the fact that you say one Chicano read the article before being accepted. When I first read Gerald Haslam’s article on Mexican American Literature in the April 1970 issue of College English, I dismissed it with amusement as another of the countless pieces about Chicanos written by non-Chicanos for non-Chicano publications whose editors invariably lap up that sort of thing as bonafide and as if they’re really doing something for Chicanos by pub-lishing those kinds of articles, never once taking into account that maybe, just maybe, those articles are misleading and represent the most superficial acquaint-tance with the people about whom they write and purport to describe. And, perhaps, some English teachers may use Haslam’s article as part of their comprehension about Chicano literature and as a handout for that unit dealing with Mexican Americans, if the topic comes up at all.
I don’t deny professor Haslam’s right to compose such pieces, but I do question his scholarship since inevitably his article is bound to have some effect on readers anxious to learn something about Mexican American literature and who consequently will accept Haslam’s assertions as gospel. I am in the process of completing a Ph.D. dissertation on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature at the University of News Mexico, to my knowledge, the first such study in the field.

Getting back to Haslam’s assertion that “one essential fact in Chicanos’ experiences is their osmotic relationship with Mexico.” Indeed Mexico figures prominently in the background of the Chicano experience just as Ireland, say, figures prominently in the background of the Irish experience in the United States. But could we say, using Haslam’s contention about Chicanos, that “one essential fact in the Irish-Americans’ experiences is their osmotic relationship with Ireland”? I think not, despite the Irish American commemoration of Saint Patrick’s day. This is one of those hasty generalizations about a people based on insufficient information, observations, and/or samp-lings. The Haslam thesis would thus simply make the Southwest and elsewhere in the United States where there are Chicanos, an extension of Mexico. Besides, Haslam doesn’t explain what this osmotic relationship with Mexico is, how one discerns it, and how it is manifested in the life and literature of the Chicano.

That Octavio Romano (one of the founders of the Quinto Sol group and the Mexican American journal El Grito) used, according to Haslam, “selections written in English and Spanish and both, and written by authors residing both in the United States and in Mexico” in El Espejo, his anthology of Mexican American literature, is hardly proof of this osmotic relationship. It is simply an indication of professor Romano’s literary propensities.

Nevertheless, professor Romano was employing the word “Mexican American” in its largest sense. I can assure you that a Mexican writer writing in Mexico is not considered a Chicano writer anywhere in the Chicano literary movement. Nor is a Chicano writer producing in Spanish considered a Mexican writer in Mexico. It’s a different story when a Mexican comes to this country and becomes a citizen and enters the literary movement in this country, the way Octavio Romano has — he was born in Mexico but came to the United States as a youngster and has experienced the life of a Mexican American. We think of Nabokov, for example, as an American writer now because this is where he does his writing. And just because Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in Yiddish doesn’t mean we identify him as an Israeli writer. So the question is not how we identify a national literature but rather how we identify a writer from a specific group with the national literature.

Haslam fails to take into account the political linguistic context Chicanos are part of when he says, “not only are the culture and language of Mexico largely retained by Chicanos, but the international border separating the two nations is itself osmotic” (that word again). Perhaps he meant to say porous. What about all those Chicanos whose forebears have been part and parcel of the Southwest since 1848 and who have become linguistically assimilated, as well as culturally, but who nevertheless still experience discrimination because of their color and surnames? Then there is that extraordinarily large body of Chicanos who are bilingual and bicultural, who can speak both Spanish and English, and who like hot dogs as well as tacos?

As for the language of Mexico among Chicanos, that has been profoundly influenced by English, producing a distinct brand of Chicano Spanish and Chicano English. I have just had a piece on “Some Cultural Implications of a Mexican American border dialect of American English” accepted by Studies in Linguistics for its October 1970 issue. Professor Haslam makes it sound as if Chicanos undertake constitutive pilgrimages to Mexico in order to upgrade their Mexicanness. The truth of the matter is that there are countless Chicanos who have never been to Mexico and who if they did would be no different than Anglo tourists visiting Mexico. These Chicanos think of themselves as mejicanos, part of “greater Mexico” in the United States, not as Mejicanos, citizens of Mexico (note the lower and upper cases in the words).

As for Chicanos merging “the themes and language of their two nations into memorable art” the same might also be said of such Jewish American writers as Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, et al. Although we would be fain to identify Israel as one of Roth’s nations. Chicanos are Americans, and as American writers their themes and languages reflect their American milieu and zeitgeist. One need only to read the novels of Jose Antonio Villarreal, Richard Vasquez, Raymond Barrio, John Rechy and Floyd Salas (to name only a few Chicano writers) to see that their themes are distinctively American. Of course the people in those novels are Chicanos, but their stories deal with their struggles in the United States, not Mexico, just as so many of the stories by Jewish American writers deal with the struggle and travails of Jews in America.

Mexican Americans are not a heterogeneous people but it is not their “uncertain position in America” that they have in common; it is discrimination and prejudice. For they have always known what their position in America is: that they belong here, that they were very much a part of the landscape before the Anglo came to the Hispanic Southwest. The identity problem was not theirs but the Anglo’s. They have always known who they were. It is the Anglo who doesn’t know who they are.

Thus, Octavio Paz was seriously mistaken in his assessment and identification of Mexican Americans in The Labyrinth of Solitude as creatures “wearing disguises . . . afraid of a stranger’s look because it could strip them and leave them stark naked.” As a member of the elitist Mexican intelligentsia Paz failed to see the real problems of Mexican Americans, problems stemming from poverty and economic and educational oppression.

Those Chicanos who were dysphorically ashamed of their origins were ashamed not because they were consciously trying to be something else but because American schools and American society had done their jobs well on them. In this country, the emphasis has always been on being “white”, for “white is right”. This is why there was a time when blacks were encouraged to buy a variety of cosmetics which would render them white, to buy hair straightening lotions, etc. Chicanos were victims of the same madness. And at the root of that madness was pure and simple racism. But Paz could not “believe that physical features are as important as is commonly thought.” Physical features are exactly what have kept “colored” Americans down and out. Consequently, for Haslam to say that “however harsh Paz’s judgment may seem it was essentially sound” is to affirm a mistaken judgment, to give the lie to the contention that the problem with Chicanos is that they were ashamed of what and who they were. That Chicanos are and have been responsible for their own oppression. This is a classic case of blaming the victim.

What bothers me most about Haslam’s exposition about Mexican American literature is that he betrays nominal understanding or knowledge about Mexican American literature. One would believe, inferring from Haslam’s essay, that there is no Mexican American literary tradition. To shore up his lack of knowledge about this literary tradition Haslam suggests that “the developing groundswell of literature by Chicanos is in the well-established Mexican tradition of proletarian art.” That is not what I have ascertained in my study of Mexican American literature. Some of those elements might, indeed, be present in some of the works of some Chicano writers, but essentially most Chicano writers are working out of their respective milieus which are unquestionably American in character.

There is much in Haslam’s essay to recommend it as a corollary piece in the critical exposition of Mexican American literature. My principal complaint, however, is that College English chose to publish a piece about Mexican American literature by a non-Chicano rather than a Chicano. In his closing paragraph, Haslam makes an important point, however:

"Scholars and critics must seek the values evidenced in Chicano art; they cannot impose values they think should apply. Perhaps there is analogical value in considering the question asked recently by an angry Chicano student: “Huevos con chorizo are as good as bacon and eggs,” he snapped. “I know because I’ve tried both. How many Anglos have?”

Copyright ©1970 by the author. All rights reserved.

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Author’s Note: The essay “Chicano Poets: Roots and Writers” was published in New Voices in American Literature, Edward Simmen, ed., Edinberg, Texas: Pan American University, 1971, and reprinted in the journal of Southwestern American Literature, Spring 1972.


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