SEARCHING FOR AMERICA:
LIVING ON THE MARGIN OF AMERICAN LITERATURE
Before there was American literature in my life there was Mexica literature then a host of books from foreign countries in Spanish translation, most of them by Communist writers for my socialist father who fled north from Mexico to the United States in 1921 because he believed the wrong party had hijacked the principles of the Mexican Civil War (1910-1921)—often identified erroneously as “the Mexican Revolution.”
There were always books in our house. At first, there were always little books—little blue books—simple for beginning readers in Spanish. Assiduously my mother took me under her wing and taught me to read in Spanish. She also taught me to write in Spanish. My earliest efforts in writing in Spanish were stories about my dog Chata. Intrigued by the books my father read I began to read them also with my father’s help.
When I started public school, I was a Spanish speaker and was corralled into a class of Spanish-speaking students like myself. Our Anglo teachers knew no Spanish but believed in the “acoustic theory” of language instruction and learning. That is, they believed that once the sound of English language words left their mouths, wafted around the room and came upon the ears of the Spanish-speaking students their meaning would be made manifest.
My first encounter with American literature occurred when I was 10 when I could read English well enough. The book was Huckleberry Finn. Years later, Leslie Fielder’s notorious essay “When you Comin’ Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck, honey?” awoke in me a perspective of literature that came into maturity with my study of Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971). That perspective was about “the other” in American life and literature and the counter-culture to bring “the other” into the public field of vision.
An intervening book that awoke even further that perspective of literature was Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, a book I consider the worst novel in American literature. I first read the novel in 1948 during my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh where I had been admitted on the G.I. Bill despite the fact that I had only one year of high school behind me. I thought then that Tortilla Flat was an extraordinary book. Twenty years later in 1968 I realized how bad a book it really was. Why the difference? By 1968 I had be-come a Chicano and realized that the characterization of the Paisanos of Tortilla Flat by Steinbeck were stereotypic stick-figures of the Mexicans of the Monterrey Peninsula in California.
I was 40 years old in 1966 when I realized how brain-washed I had been by American education in the white colonial and hegemonic tradition. I mean “really brain-washed!” That “lavatory” process had really done a number on me. Like Richard Rodriguez, the New American Scholarship Boy, I was enroute to becoming a “brown Anglo-Saxon.” But Octavio Romano saved me from that fate.
In the mid-sixties, Octavio Romano was part of a cohort of Mexican Americans at UC Berkeley who had taken off their hegemonic blinders and surveying the American terrain saw the reality of Mexicans in the United States. For them “enough was enough!” In the clear clairvoyant light of day they vowed to take back their patrimony as Mexicans—albeit Mexican Americans—and to unlock the mind-forged manacles that bound them to a future not of their own making but assigned to them by the color of their skin and as progeny of a conquered people.
As a result of that epiphany, that cohort of Mexican Americans at Berkeley established Quinto Sol Publications for the production of El Grito: Journal of Mexican American Thought, first journal of its kind, proclaiming independence from the hegemonic grip of American society. Mexican Americans would say who they were, not Anglo sociologists, anthropologists, historians, social workers, et al. Mexican Americans would be judges of their creative and intellectual production. Mexican Americans would not go hat-in-hand shuffling on huaraches beseeching the Anglo uber-structure for permission to sashay in the Anglo corridors of creativity and intellection. Mexican Americans would create their own corridors, starting with El Grito.
This was not a foray built on the model of the Harlem Renaissance. This was a creative and literary renaissance surging on ignis stoked by more than a hundred years of servility and denigration as progeny of a Conquest Generation that suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune at the hands of a military force driven by Manifest Destiny dead-set come hell or high-water on expanding its territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
As a marginalized group, African Americans have fought inch by inch for a creative and literary terrain of their own. The list of African American creative and literary warriors is long with bright stars glistening in that literary galaxy. Of the 800 Nobel Prizes awarded thus far, 15 have been awarded to blacks. Toni Morrison is the first African American (woman) to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. No writer from other American marginalized groups has yet attained that pinnacle. There are expectations that Rudolfo Añaya, the Chicano writer from New Mexico may be a Nobel recipient for literature, though there are certainly U.S. Latino American writers in the offing.
It was the marginalization of Chicano writers that propelled me forty-six years ago in 1968 to organize the Chicano Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). There weren’t many Chicanos in NCTE in those days. In fact, there weren’t many Chicanos in English in those days. Nevertheless, Carlota Cardenas, Jose Carrasco, and I constituted the Chicano Caucus. There was already a Black Caucus in NCTE. In 1969, Montana Rickards organized the Native American Caucus, and in 1970 Jeffrey Chan and Frank Chin established the Asian American Caucus. These four caucuses were the foundation in 1970 for the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English with Ernece Kelly from the Black Caucus as Chair of the Task Force. We all knew very well how marginalized the writers of our groups were and what little representation our groups had in textbooks. We were literally invisible.
We also knew the dismal state of affairs in the teaching of English—particularly American literature—in high schools and universities. The question was how to document that dismal state of affairs—that is, the absence of marginalized writers in the high school and university curricula in the teaching of English. The Task Force plan was to survey text-books used in the teaching of English in high schools and universities, focusing principally on colleges and universities. To that end, the Task Force established a Textbook Review Committee composed essentially of Task Force members as a Committee of the Whole represented by four blacks, two Chinese Americans, one Native American, two Chicanos, and one Puerto Rican: Antonio Valcarcel from the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. The meetings of the Task Force and its committees were all held at NCTE headquarters in Ur-bana, Illinois. “No working body within NCTE enjoyed more support and less intervention” (Robert Hogan, Executive Secretary, NCATE, “Foreword” to Searching for America Edited by Ernece Kelly, published by the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the National Council of Teachers of English, 1972).
The Textbook Review Committee whittled down to twelve the list of textbooks widely used at the time as college-level American literature texts. The objective of the Textbook Review Committee was two-fold: (1) to assess the textbooks for inclusivity of the “other” and (2) to establish a Criteria for teaching materials in Reading Literature—a Criteria officially adopted by the Board of Directors of the National Council of Teachers of English. Searching for America was received with acclamation by the members of the National Council of Teachers of English when it was “unveiled” at the annual NCTE convention in 1972.
The report Searching for America was structured in two parts: the first part Critical Evaluations critiqued the twelve college-level textbooks of American literature; and the second part featured Background Essays providing information about the current state then of literary progress attained by the writers of the marginalized groups. This was certainly not a bias-free exposition. Nevertheless, it was our hope that in the hands of teachers and administrators Searching for America would be a catalyst for change. Additionally, our hope was that the Critiques and Essays would offer the reader a rudimentary familiarity with the names of marginalized writers and some of their works (see Appendix for list of texts and Background Essays).
The essay on “Chicanos and American Literature” which Jose Carrasco and I contributed to Searching for America still stands as a testament to the continuing search for America enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ sonnet about “the New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty. What has happened in the more than four decades since publication of Searching for America has been the proliferation of Chicano publications to showcase the works of Chicano writers, cutting loose, indeed, the historical umbilical cord that tied them to main-stream publishers.
Metaphorically, the Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English built with Searching for America a “ship” with which to cruise the waters of the Sargasso Sea of American Literature in search of the America idealized in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and in Song. While we did not find that America, we did catch glimpses of it here and there. Many currents have since passed under that bridge over troubled water and many of us are still searching for America. Perhaps it is the search that matters most and not the comfort of the shining city on the hill.
That search is manifest today by the current activity of Roberto Pachecano, a San Antonio writer and Sigma Tau Delta member, in his quest for “American Latinos in Contemporary American Literature.” Forty four years since the work of the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English and publication of Searching for America Latino Americans are still looking for themselves in the textbooks of American Literature. Pachecano’s objective is to modernize the syllabus of America Literature courses to attain literary diversity in the texts of American literature. This was essentially what the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English sought to accomplish.
Through Sigma Tau Delta (STD), 850 local chapters, the largest organization in the Association of College Honor Societies, Pachecano hopes to exert pressure on college and university departments of English to modify the syllabi of American Literature courses to reflect the inclusion of American Latino writers who are woefully absent from the textbooks of American literature. Pachecano points out that the absence is a noncompliance of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as amended, calling for “protecting people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance” and should be monitored federally just as noncompliance of Title IX is monitored by the Feds, particularly since the Civil Rights Act states that “No person in the United States shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity.”
This certainly applies to the absence of Latinos in courses of American literature and in the textbooks used therein. More importantly, though, Pachecano urges Sigma Tau Delta and its network to take the lead in this effort. That makes sense. I would add that given the initial effort in this matter by the National Council of Teachers of English it should be en-joined in this latest effort propounded by Pachecano.
One of the texts evaluated in Searching for America in 1971 was the Norton 3rd edition of The American Tradition in Literature In that edition Leroi Jones was the only non-white writer included. The text received a scorching evaluation from the Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. A more current anthology with the same title The American Tradition in Literature (McGraw Hill, 2002) is little better though it does include a wider representation of African American writers. In the 2281 pages there is no American Latino writer, though there is one Latina American writer—Isabel Allende. There is a distinction between American Latinos and Latino Americans—the former, U.S. Latinos; and the latter, Latinos who populate Latin America.
The foregoing attests to the fact that non-Latino Americans see all Latinos alike, failing to note the distinctions of historical priority for Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans who became Americans by conquest and fiat.
For Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans the struggle for literary representation continues apace. The new guard of Mexican American and Puerto Rican scholars and writers like Roberto Pachecano have their work cut out for them. The toughest obstacle facing them is the belief by white Americans that English is white.
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca