Critiques of Nationalism and Contemporary Chicano Literature

Marcial Gonzalez

Stanford University 

(Originally  presented at the (DIS)PLACING NATIONALISM CONFERENCE, UC Irvine, 18 May 1996) 

Much has been written about what was wrong with Chicano nationalism of the 1960s and how it became a self-defeating strategy that actually helped undermine the Chicano Movement. The literature produced during this period expressed opposition to the dominant culture, but the desire to establish a cultural nationalist identity was problematic. In constructing this identity, many writers glossed over issues of social class, gender or sexual preference. Ultimately, this singlesightedness led to an affirmation of dominant cultural values and thus weakened the Movement strategically.

While this critique for the most part seems accurate, the problem of Chicano nationalism to my mind has yet to be fully resolved. This is true for the study of literature and theory, as much as for political practice. On one hand, nationalist ideology continues to influence Chicano literature in problematic ways, even in the work of authors who claim to go beyond nationalism. On the other, theoretical critiques of nationalism by both Chicanos and non-Chicanos have not always addressed the issue of what to do about the very conditions that the Movement opposed in the first place--poverty, racism, class exploitation, and other forms of social inequality. One need not be a genius to recognize that these depressing conditions continue to plague Chicano communities today, as exemplified by Proposition 187, by the continued use of pesticides and other deadly chemicals in the fields, by the dismally low numbers of Chicano students and faculty in both public and private colleges, by the attacks on affirmative action, and by the multitudes of Chicanos who are unemployed, underemployed, hooked on drugs, or who fill our jails and prisons. We could only assume that if another Vietnam War were being fought today, Chicanos would again represent the highest proportion of casualties. The purpose of this paper, then, is to sketch in broad terms what I hope could develop into a larger analysis of the legacy of nationalist ideology in contemporary Chicano literature, on one hand, and the misguidedess of certain critiques of nationalism on the other.

Contemporary Chicano literature no longer expresses the kind of narrow nationalism that emerged during the Chicano Movement. On the contrary, one might say that this literature offers a critique of cultural nationalism and its tendency to uphold patriarchal, homophobic and other separatist views. In The Last Generation, for example, Cherríe Moraga states that "What was right about Chicano nationalism was its commitment to preserving the integrity of the Chicano people," and what was wrong about it "was its institutionalized heterosexism, its inbred machismo, and its lack of a cohesive national political strategy" (148). Moraga admits that nationalism's "tendency toward separatism can run dangerously close to biological determinism and a kind of fascism" (149). Despite the caution, Moraga and others articulate revisionist models of nationalism in which the "imagined community" is not determined by borders, nor does it seek statehood, but crystalizes as the result of a shared political consciousness among its subjects. In fact, the reliance on consciousness as the basis for unity replicates the manner in which nationalism was understood and promoted during the Chicano Movement.

Although there was no central strategy that unified the Chicano Movement, one of its general underlying concepts was the construction of an imagined Chicano nation called Aztlán. Some of the rhetoric of this time argued passionately for the need to build an independent nation-state. The following excerpt from El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán clearly exemplifies this argument.

We Declare the Independence of our Mestizo Nation. We are a Bronze People with a Bronze Culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the Bronze Continent, We are a Nation, We are a Union of free pueblos, We are Aztlán. (401)

Today, however, it seems safe to state that Aztlán was not primarily a call to form an independent nation-state, but functioned mainly as a strategy to unite Chicanos in the fight for social justice--it was a strategy to build political/cultural consciousness.

Similarly, some contemporary Chicano authors articulate a modified form of nationalism that I refer to as "the new mestizaje" by constructing an imagined mestizo community with close ties to the indigenous cultures of America. Since the imagined community does not recognize borders, its members reside in a transnational geographic space. This is different from the idea of a diaspora because mestizos have not been forced to flee their homeland, but continue to live in their place of origin. From this perspective, one might argue that the concept of mestizaje is potentially revolutionary, given that it does not pursue some romantic quest for nationhood in the traditional sense, but opts instead for the construction of a transnational community united around common political and spiritual ideals. I agrue, however, that the new mestizaje retains aspects of Chicano nationalism, most obviously by privileging cultural essence over other historical determinants of identity, not least of all social class and global capitalism. It is not my aim, however, to provide one more critique of essentialism. Instead, I want to examine how nationalist ideology as articulated in contemporary Chicano literature promotes a view of historical time that tends to collapse the distinction between past and present, and how this conflation relies on a conception of history as static or cyclical, as opposed to developmental or progressive.

The view of static historical time is most obviously exposed in representations of Chicanos as living embodiments of Aztecs. At a recent speech at Stanford University, for example, Luis Valdez, very likely the best Chicano orator of our time, made bold claims that Cesar Chavez was the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl. And in an essay on Chicano theatre, Valdez argues that Chicanos need to find "ultimate liberation in the Cosmic Vision of our Indio ancestors" (7). Similarly, Alurista, calls for an understanding of myth as a space in which time stands still, stating that Aztlán is the product of "several generations who share a particular space over a significant period of time," and that myth "differs from fantasy in that [it] connects a people more solidly with their timespace" (220). And Rudolfo Anaya, in a book that he co-edits titled Aztlan: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, claims that the myth of Aztlán "is our umbilical connection to the past, to the shared collective memory" (236) of all Chicanos. Echoing Jung, he asserts that Chicano collective memory is an "archetypal memory residing in the blood" (236). With Anaya, nationalist rhetoric has reached the point where biological determinism replaces historical experience as the catalyst of human consciousness.

Not surprisingly, an ideological discourse that allows for the eradication of historical time and the view that consciousness originates "in the blood" also allows for the mystification of borders and other concrete markers that separate and distinguish political entities. For example, in a poem titled "Mestizo," Francisco Alarcón describes a subject who is part Arab, Roman, Phoenician, Olmec, Toltec and Chichimec, and whose feet "recognize/no border//no rule/no code/no lord" (15). In this poem, the recognition of mestizaje accompanies a romantic desire to disrespect the realities of border life. In response to Alarcón, literary critic Rafael Pérez-Torres states that the "vision of absolute freedom implied by the poem should certainly be viewed with suspicion. The speaker's feet may recognize no border, but just let them actually try to cross one without proper documentation" (211). Similarly, in her call for a "Queer Aztlán," Moraga makes an admirable plea for a kind of nationalism that does not exclude Chicano gays and lesbians, but she does not describe clearly the concrete markers that define this nation. The people are "bound together by spirit" (168) and by the fact of their mestizaje.

Alarcón's depiction of mestizo who disrespects borders and Moraga's description of a people "bound together by spirit" bear a strong resemblance to Gloria Anzaldúa's comments on what it means to be a borderlands Mexican. Anzaldúa states that "deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul--not one of mind, not one of citizenship" (62). Identity for Anzaldúa is determined by association with a borderless political spiritualism--"a state of soul." Rudolfo Anaya, too, calls for a "homeland without borders." He reasons that when the Aztecs left Aztlán for Tenochtitlán hundreds of years before the arrival of Spanish colonizers, they did so because they had reached a "new plane of consciousness" and had begun a "new age of spiritual illumination"(238). He draws a correlation between Aztecs and Chicanos, arguing that when the latter reinvented the myth of Aztlán during the sixties, they too had reached a "new awareness of self" and "new realms of consciousness" (238). For Anaya, Chicanos should not demand a nation-state, but seek instead a "homeland without boundaries," where a "New World person" can develop heightened levels of awareness. What the new mestizaje may have gotten rid of, at least symbolically, are physical borders and time, but ultimately what gets erased is history.

For example, in a book of poetry titled Snake Poems, Francisco Alarcón provides a good example of the new mestizaje and the tendency to collapse historical time into simultaneous time. Snake Poems is a response to a historical treatise written in 1629 at Atenango, Mexico by a colonial parish priest, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (ironically a namesake of the poet). The priest compiled and translated Nahuatl spells and incantations not from a concern to preserve Aztec culture, but to repress and censor the Aztec's "heathen customs." Consistent with practices of the Spanish Inquisition, the priest admittedly tortured and incarcerated Indians in order to gather the information he needed for his project. Through Snake Poems, Alarcón attempts to exhume an Aztec culture that was entombed by Spanish colonizers and, for centuries since, has continued to be buried beneath the dominance of Euroamerican culture. Alarcón rejects methods of historical interpretation based on Western thought--the same methods used by the parish priest to produce his infamous treatise. Rather, he seeks to revive a timeless mestizo culture by showing the connection between the cultural practices of an Aztec past with those of a Chicano present, employing methods of inquiry rooted in Aztec mythology.

In order to link the past with the present, Alarcón combines voices from different historical periods--a sort of temporal pastiche. For example, in "Canto a las Tortillas," eating tortillas becomes a timeless Aztec tradition: "I go on/calling/nana to/the Earth//feeding on/the subversive/canto sown/by los antiguos//inside/the humblest/tortillas/of life" (77), and the deer hunters in "Hello" call out four times to their prey, "tahui/tahui/tahui/tahui," (5) a word that "nobody understands today" (4). Here an extinct language continues to function in the present, in the same way that, for Alarcón, Aztec culture continues to be practiced in the daily lives of mestizos, even through activities as mundane as eating tortillas.

Alarcón's attempt to break down the temporal demarcation that separates historical time into past and present reflects a holistic conception of time. This view is best represented by the poem, "Snake Wheel," formed in a circular shape: "...all that once was is will be I you we are this future turned past..." (69) "All" is not the first word of the poem. Given its cyclical shape, the poem has no beginning or end, but is continually progressing forward and returning to its origin at the same time. Holism and cyclicity form the center of a world view that elsewhere Alarcón refers to as "mesticismo," a combination of mestizo and mysticism. Based on this view, we cannot progress toward the future without simultaneously returning to the past. Supposedly, what is necessary is the recovery of Mesoamerican beliefs that have been repressed, ignored and distorted, but somehow not destroyed. However, if we are to read Snake Poems as the ideological construction of an essential mestizo culture from the past, then Snake Poems runs the risk of establishing what Bakhtin refers to as "historical inversion," a transposition on to the past of what could only possibly exist in the future: social equality and ecological balance (146-51). That is to say, there has never been a Golden Age or an edenic past; there have been instead idealizations of the past, such as that of the Aztec agricultural-based empire that had a military machine sophisticated enough to slaughter huge numbers of non-Aztec peoples and enslave many more to work on their farms. Certainly we would not want to recreate this colonizing aspect of "our" Aztec heritage.

Mythical idealizations can serve temporarily to inspire cultural nationalist movements against domination (which could be one way to read Snake Poems), but as Genaro Padilla has explained, "Myths do kill time," (127) which is precisely Bakhtin's point in his reference to "historical inversion." Myths imply an imagined historical time, a fusion of past and present, history as a frozen temporal moment in which subjects are locked into a space of non-development. By "killing time," the concept of historical development is also "killed," making it impossible to understand how social formations and subjects within those formations undergo qualitative changes over time, retaining only residues of their previous state. "Killing time" leads to a view of the world in which things never really change or change only superficially, but remain essentially the same.

In an essay on "the native woman" and Chicana feminism, Norma Alarcón (yet another namesake) correctly points out that not all writers who allude to Nahuatl mythology are attempting to "recover a lost 'utopia'" (251) or transcend time. She makes a clear distinction between writers who attempt to live in the past by unearthing their "lost origins" and those who have established a spiritual closeness with the past: "a spirituality whose resistant political implications must not be underestimated" (251). While on one hand Snake Poems could be read as falling into this category of "resistant spirituality," on the other it does not escape the problems associated with unearthing "lost origins." This is so partly because the genealogical link established in Snake Poems between the Aztec and the Chicano cannot easily be separated from the Chicano Movement's construction of a mythical Aztlán during the 1960s and 70s--a construct which ultimately resulted in the affirmation of dominant cultural values, especially with regard to gender and class. Rosa Linda Fregoso and Angie Chabram argue convincingly that, while many aspects of the Chicano Movement were positive, "the notion of a Chicano cultural identity itself was very problematic" (205). They explain how, in extreme cases, "Aztlán was said to be located in the deepest layers of consciousness of every Chicano, an identification which thereby posited an essential Chicano subject" (205). The problematic of the Chicano Movement, as articulated by Fregoso and Chabram, is similar to that of Snake Poems. This would be true even if we set aside the fact that not all Mexicans and Chicanos are direct descendants of the Aztecs, biologically or culturally.

To be fair, Snake Poems is a valuable literary text for its recovery of historical memory and for bringing to the forefront crucial questions of strategy for any group concerned with developing alternatives to the dominant culture. Moreover, Alarcón's concern with a timeless history offers Chicano cultural critics an invaluable opportunity to take the debate a step higher. On one hand, we might agree that in the construction of an imaginary Chicano nation and idenity, there is no pot of gold to be discovered at the end of the rainbow--no permanent cultural essence. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to conclude that the interpellation of multiple subject positions equals total fragmentation and the absolute lack of centrality for the Chicano subject. That is to say, anti-essentialism does not mean that Chicanos have no essence. It means rather that essence is not an absolute or static quality, but one that undergoes constant transformation. Put in the words of Chabram and Fregoso, "far from being etched in the past, cultural identities are constantly being constructed" (206). Chicano identity, therefore, is in a constant process of becoming and cannot be separated from the political and economic structures that surround our lives.

In the conclusion to Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, he states that "it is increasingly clear in today's world (if it had ever been in doubt) that a Left which cannot grasp the immense Utopian appeal of nationalism. . . . . can scarcely hope to 'reappropriate' such collective energies and must effectively doom itself to political impotence" (298). This is not to say that Jameson upholds all the values associated with nationalism, but neither does he close his eyes to the positive qualities of this ultracontradictory doctrine. Throughout his book, Jameson argues for a method of interpretation that illuminates both the utopian and ideological aspects of a cultural text--or one might use the terms, progressive and reactionary, or hegemonic and oppositional. Jameson's view of the cultural text as a place where contradictory discourses converge is not unique to his own work.

Mary Louise Pratt also discusses what she refers to as the "contact zone," or the place where subjects, both colonizer and colonized, are "constituted in and by their relation to each other" (7). Pratt's concept of the contact zone helps explain, among other things, the contradictoriness within texts written by "subordinated others" who contest the fact of their subordination (as in the case of the Chicano literary texts I have been referring to). She describes how the written texts of colonized subjects inevitably must involve "partial collaboration with and appropriation of the idioms of the conqueror" (7). I find Pratt's analysis of autoethnography and the contact zone, together with Jameson's views on nationalism, the Utopic, and the Ideological particularly useful for this discussion of nationalism and the new mestizaje. If we take into account that a text written by a "subordinated other" always makes heard the ideological voice of the writer's class or cultural enemies, then it becomes possible to critique the colonizing aspects of a particular text without destorying the liberating intentions of the colonized subject.

Within this light, Moraga is absolutely correct in stating that "What was right about Chicano nationalism was its commitment to preserving the integrity of the Chicano people" and what was wrong about it "was its lack of a cohesive national political strategy" (148). We would only need to add that what was also right about nationalism was its militancy and the manner in which larger numbers of people were mobilized to action. What was right about nationalism was its energy of opposition, its spirit of collectivity, and its insistence on radical change. What has been wrong about certain critiques of nationalism is that they have failed to provide an alternative strategy that retains the militant attitude toward fighting back, the optimism for a better future, and the desire to participate in a kind of political practice aimed at building that future.

Curiously, Moraga's statement about what was right and wrong with Chicano nationalism bears a resemblance to Jameson's method of cultural interpretation. Moraga claims that in spite of its weaknesses, nationalism possesses what Jameson calls a "Utopian appeal." And this leads us to conclude that Chicano nationalism expresses much more than the desire to revolt against the repression and alienation of bourgeois society by way of escape into a mythical and mystical past. It speaks also of a desire for collectivity and utopia, which must not be considered entirely nostalgic, but in many respects futuristic, if only in a metaphorical sense, or if only by way of the unconscious, looking beyond the present stage of late capitalism to a form of social organization unemcumbered by the various forms of oppression that currently inundate culture and society. 

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