LIBROS Y MÁS/ BOOKS & MORE.
Some years ago, my good friend and indomitable poet Ricardo Sanchez established in San Antonio a bookstore which he called Libros y Mas, a reasonably successful venture in promoting Chicano books during a time of difficult gestation for Chicano writers about whom the American reading public knew little or nothing. At the start of this new year I thought it appropriate to mull on the state of Chicano books, fifty-four years after the beginning of the Chicano Movement.
Just when that Movement really began is still debatable. But 1960 has become a year generally accepted as the year the Chicano Movement began. The next key date in the timeline is 1966, the beginning of the Chicano Renaissance—the efflorescence of Chicano literature. At that time there was no Chicano literary canon—only the American literary canon that did not include Chicanos.
One of the difficulties in building a Chicano literary canon is that, unfortunately, Chicano texts are often assessed for inclusion or exclusion in that canon by many who cannot really give an accurate measure of their worth. Most often what is offered (or proffered) is a highly idiocritical judgment that tells us more about the judge than the work being judged. Still, someone must make a decision about which texts ought to be in the canon.
It is true that some of the early builders of Chicano literary canon established suffocating strictures for canonization that made few “saints” possible. In the main, those strictures required that works dubbed as ”Chicano literature” identify the enemy, promote the revolution and praise the people. In the beginning of the Chicano literary movement these strictures posed two considerations that dealt ambivalently with ideological needs and literary merit.
In the Fall of 1969, however, these strictures and considerations posed no dilemma whatsoever for me as I set about to teach the first course in Chicano literature in the country at the University of New Mexico as part of an assortment of course offerings in the fledgling Chicano Studies Program headed by Louis Bransford. What was needed for the course were texts I naively presumed would be easy to find. It was that naiveté that led to my study of Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971), the first literary inquiry in the field of Chicano literature, which I undertook from 1969 to 1971 and out of which grew my concept of “The Chicano Renaissance.” Many of the Mexican American literary works I found and surveyed for that course (and later for the study) were in various libraries whose nooks and crannies I scoured, but many were in private collections difficult to get to. The wonder, though, is why no one before had looked at Mexican American writing collectively as a literary tradition, studied it and given it a taxonomical structure from which to discuss it critically and historically as an integral part of the Mexican American experience and of American literature. Out of that lacuna I developed a taxonomy for Chicano literature based on “roots and traditions.”
The course was successful beyond my expectations despite the obvious lack of a Chicano literary canon and the paucity of works readily available for instruction. I winged it not knowing I was winging it, for I approached the course from my traditional preparation as a teacher of English and years of experience in the field developing new courses. But this course was different. Many of the historical texts I thought suitable for the course were woefully out of print. Contemporary works were difficult to secure in quantities sufficient for the enrollment of the course since many of them were published ephemerally by “small” presses or in garage presses like Raymond Barrios’ The Plum, Plum Pickers.
Despite these shortcomings—or perhaps because of them—I began to frame a taxonomy for Chicano literature in 1969 that has held up surprisingly well in the last two decades. Following my lead, some years later Luis Leal chose different milestones for his taxonomy but, by and large, the original scheme I offered continues to be a guide to the roots and traditions of Chicano literature.
Taxonomically I conceptualized Chicano literature as a continuum of two pasts, welded together by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. The first part (pre-1848) included the “literary roots” of Chicanos (Indian, Spanish and Mexican); the second part (post-1848) included the “literary traditions” of Chicanos (Mexican American and American). The literary precursors of the Chicano Renaissance emerged during the period from 1848 to 1966, the first year of “The Chicano Renaissance.” We have grandfathered those precursor Mexican American writers and made them Chicanos since their contributions to the Chicano renaissance are of enormous importance and value.
What strikes me now as most peculiar about assumptions a propos Chicano literature was the naiveté that attended their genesis. In 1966 Chicano writers like Tomas Rivera, Estela Portillo, Rolando Hinojosa, Rudy Anaya, Dorinda Moreno, Richard Vasquez (to name but a few) were still years away. Nevertheless, out of that proffered taxonomy came my quest for Chicano literary roots and traditions and the growing consciousness that literary production by Chicanos since 1966 manifested something akin to a “renaissance” much like the literary ferment of the Southern renaissance of the 1930’s or the Harlem renaissance of the 1920’s or the Irish renaissance of the 1890’s. For it seemed to me, what I observed was an efflorescence in every sense of the word—a “reaffirmation” of Mexican American identity via cultural arts. Unfortunately, the term “renaissance” was freighted with ideological difficulties which I will not rehearse here, suffice to say it lent heat (if not light) to the semantic difficulties a number of Chicanos had with the word “renaissance”—a term they equated with having been asleep.
It’s difficult to say just when a literary phenomenon like the Chicano renaissance began and equally difficult to say just when it ended—if it has ended at all as some Chicano critics contend, for there has been substantial production of literary works of high merit by Chicanos since 1975, the year I’ve used as the terminus for the Chicano Renaissance. The starting point, 1966, is not an arbitrary date, for it was in that year that a group of Chicano intellectuals (mostly from colleges and universities) met at Occidental College in California to examine and to discuss the conspectus of Chicano intellectual thought against the background of the emerging Chicano Movement. Out of that meeting came the kernel for the creation of Quinto Sol Publications and the literary review El Grito: Journal of Contemporary Mexican American Thought which appeared in 1967.
Giving closure to such a period of literary efflorescence is difficult, I know, but it seems to me that 1975 marks a turning point in the impetus which gave rise to that literary “boom.” The chronological boundary markers I’ve chosen to demarcate the Chicano Renaissance have nothing to do with quality or the caliber of Chicano literary works. The boundaries simply mark a time-frame during which the fervor of literary creation focused on Chicano nationalism and the idealization of “Aztlan” (nation-state of Chicanos, a name appropriated from the mythic homeland of the Aztecs and which Chicanos located in the American Southwest in the states annexed by the U.S. after its war with Mexico) as a motive theme for Chicanismo–a brotherhood that would create Chicano unity.
Ironically, California proved to be the fuse of the Chicano Renaissance that Aurora Lucero hoped New Mexico would produce. In 1953 she wrote optimistically: “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.” But the Chicano Renaissance came into being not in relation to the quaint and traditional Hispanic past of the Mexican American Southwest but in the wake of growing awareness by Mexican Americans of their Mestizo past and their sociopolitical status. The Chicano Renaissance was a people’s coming of age, long overdue, which, like Milton’s unsightly root, bore a bright and golden flower.
That golden flower reflects hundreds of books written by Chicanos and Chicanas published by mainstream presses and small presses like Arte Publico Press at the University of Houston, Wings Press in San Antonio, Texas, and Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Texas. There are others, many others.
Copyright 2014 Dr. Felípe de Ortego y Gasca