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Contemporary Chicano Literature
Four days left to write my final paper. I do procrastinate. I had all semester and I waited till the final four days. I was in the library at the STCC Pecan Campus reading Walt Whitman’s classic poem “Oh Captain, My Captain,” taking a brake from the decision I was confronted with: what subject should I write my final paper on. Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain” happens to be my favorite Whitman poem. I cried the first time I read it. I’ve read works by some of the world’s finest authors: Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Hunter S. Thompson, Upton Sinclair, Alex Haley, etc. I suddenly realized that I have never read a work of fiction, or a play by a Chicano or a Chicana. The only two plays I have ever read in Spanish were not written by a Chicanos: Boda de Sangre by Federico Garcia Lorca (in which I had the honor of playing the part of el novio)and El Caballero de Olmedo by Lope de Vega (in which I had the honor of playing the part of Alonzo). I put away the Whitman poem and became lost in my own critical thought. Was there not a single Chicano or Chicana that had ever written a work of fiction? I went to the library’s computerized card catalogue system to investigate this matter. Of course I found Chicano fictional writers; however, not as many as I wish I would’ve found. And so I decided to base my paper on a topic that I don t recall we ever discussed in class: Chicano literature. Myself being an actor and a writer this subject fascinates me. In preparation for my paper, my research consisted of reading several short stories by Chicano authors whom I found to be exceptionally successful. I will attempt to inform the reader of this paper about the Chicano authors’ successes and give an analytical review of the stories which I read. These readings which I tackled upon myself were quite entertaining. I remember reading Octavio Paz’s chapter, “The Pachuco and Other Extremes,” from his book, The Labyrinth of Solitude Life and Thought in Mexico, in which he mentions that a work of art (i.e. literature or paintings) would help to “recreate” the Mexican and “express him” (Paz 10). Paz made this statement in the 1940s when a Mexican author was a rare thing to see. Authors are storytellers, and storytellers are essential in the up-liftment of a culture. Mexican American history was changed by “American scholars who take refuge in patriotism” (Acuna ix). We, Chicanos, need our own storytellers to write our own literature; our own history. We cannot expect white America to write our history and interpret it correctly.
The first book I read was Growing Up Chicana/o. On the cover the purpose of the book is stated: “Stories of the joys, pains, frustrations and triumphs of a Mexican American childhood – twenty Chicana/o writers explore their search for identity in America.” The first short story that I read from this book was by Sandra Cisneros and its title is “Eleven.” Sandra Cisneros’ “Eleven” first appeared in her book Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, which was originally printed in 1991 and was the recipient of such awards: PEN center USA Was Literary Award (1991), Lannen Literary Award (1991), QPB New Voices Award in Fiction (1992), and the Anisfield Wolf Award (1992). Cisneros also wrote My Wicked Ways in 1980 and The House on Mango Street in 1984, which in 1985 was a recipient of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award (Lopez 155).
After reading “Eleven,” which takes up no more that five pages, I realized why Woman Hollering Creek won so many literary awards. It’s a unique, little “growing-up” story unlike any other that I have ever read. Rachel, the main character in the story, turns eleven years of age on the day that the story is set. I will not summarize the story because this paper is not a book report; however, I will let the theme of the story be known in the author’s own words:
“when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. Like some days you might say something stupid and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling like she’s three (Lopez 156)
The next story I read from Growing Up Chicana/o was a chapter, “Solomon s Story”, out of the novel Tortuga. The author, Rudolfo Anaya, is a professor at the University of New Mexico in the Department of Languages and Literature. His most prized work is titled Albuquerque, published in 1992, won the PEN Center USA West Literary Award. Anaya has been a novelist since the days of the Chicano movement; his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, was published in 1972. Although Albuquerque is his most prized work, in the in the book Barrios and Borderlands, Anaya s novel Bless Me, Ultima is identified as his most popular piece of work ever (Heyck 382). His other novels include: Heart of Aztlan (published in 1976), Tortuga (published in 1979), and The Silence of the Llano (published in 1982). Anaya also has written a number of nonfiction books: A Chicano in China (published in 1976), and Aztlan: Essays on the Chicano Homeland (published in 1989). The selection I read, Solomon s Story, from the novel Tortuga is most definitely humorous. Anaya s use of description paints a funny picture in the reader s mind. Because of the fact that Solomon s Story is a short segment from a novel, the theme of the story is better understood if I first summarize this short story:
The main character wants to become a member of an Indian tribe, but, before he is to be initiated, he must first kill an animal on a hunting expedition with tribe members. The comical element are the tribe members because they are superstitious about curses and spirits. While on the hunting expedition with members of the tribe, the main character chops the head off a giant tortoise. The headless body of the turtle attempts to escape into the body of water which it came from and succeeds. And then the main character was not able to be initiated into the Indian tribe because he proved to lack the hunting abilities that every Indian tribesman was required to obtain. The leader of the tribe believed that the turtle was still alive and would come back to hunt the main character.
The underlying theme in this short story is rejection. I get rejected by girls all the time because I don’t have a car. The main character in this story was rejected by the Indian tribe because he didn’t have any hunting skills. Rejection is a part of life that is hard to accept.
The next excerpt I read from a book titled Hispanic American Literature and was written by Denise Chavez who currently teaches at New Mexico State University (Lopez 251). In 1970, Chavez won the Best Play Award from New Mexico State University for her play The Wait. Chavez has been blessed with every playwright s dream, having seventeen of her plays performed in the United States and other countries. Chavez has a master s degree in theatre arts and a master s degree in creative writing. The former she obtained from Trinity University in San Antonio and the latter she obtained from the University of New Mexico. Chavez has also had the honor of getting two novels published: The Last of the Menu Girls (published in 1986) and Face on an Angel (published in 1994). The excerpt which I read is entitled the The Closet and was taken from The Last of the Menu Girls.
In the The Closet, Chavez is not referring to anyone particular closet. Instead, the main character , Rocio, snoops around the closets in her house and happens to find various artifacts that tell stories. Metaphorically speaking. In the mother s closet Rocio finds pictures of her Mother s two ex-husbands. In Rocio s older sister s closet Rocio finds a prom dress, a wedding dress, lover letters, and vibrators. Just kidding about the last item. In Rocio s closet the reader is informed that Rocio had her first sexual experience in her closet. I m not kidding about that one. The theme of the story is that one s closet is full of artifacts that can tell a lot about one. I must admit that I almost fell asleep reading Chavez story. I found her style to be extremely boring. I found it to be somewhat a little too feminine, like as if it were meant to be read by women. I didn’t like the style that she used, but, because I haven’t read any of her other works I cannot judge her completely.
Born on June 26, 1940, Luis Valdez has thus far proven to be the most successful of all Chicano playwrights and film and stage directors. At the age of six, after his father was dispossessed of the family farm, Luis Valdez was a fruit picker out in the fields of Corcoran, California. During picking season at Corcoran his family resided in a “tent city,” as he described it in his videorecorded interview with Bettina Gray. The “tent city” consisted of 10,000 tents in which the fruit pickers were housed during picking season. At age six he auditioned for a role in a school play and was awarded a role as a monkey. A week before the play was to be performed, picking season was over, Valdez’ family left town and he was not able to participate in what would’ve been his first play. After the occurrence of this incident, still at age six, Valdez knew that he was destined to be a playwright (videorecording).
Valdez entered college with intentions of learning about math and physics (videorecording). The first play he ever wrote, The Theft, “written in 1959, satarized contemporary [values] and underscored the lack of Christian charity” (Hernandez 47). Valdez was blessed as a student at San Jose State College, where in 1964 his first play was produced, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa (Valdez 7). In 1965, after graduating as a drama student from San Jose State College, he returned to the fields of California to become the founding father of El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworkers’ Theatre). The Teatro was Valdez’ “emotional response” to the strike led by the United Farmworkers Organization Committee (UFWOC), whose leader was Ceasar Chavez. The Teatro was somewhat of a subdivision of the UFWOC. Luis Valdez was a product of his time and place for three reasons: 1.) He was well aware of the farmworker struggle because he himself had been a farmworker. 2.) He gained experience in acting as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. 3.) He received formal training at acting and directing as a drama student (Hernandez 31).
El Teatro Campesino was a source of revenue for the UFWOC (Valdez 8). During this time Valdez engaged in writing plays that dealt with the farmworkers’ struggle in the field. The plays Valdez presented were labeled as actos because of the audience participation and lack of formality; actos were mostly improvised, and they could’ve been called skits. Most of Valdez’ work under the UFWOC consisted of “farcical and presentational political theatre based on improvisations of socio-political issues” (Valdez 8). Since his time was mostly consumed directing actors who had little or no theatre experience at all, he had little time for his own personal writing. Through my research I was only able to find one play that he wrote under the UFWOC, Las dos caras del Patroncito. He was hungry for writing.
In 1967 he separated form the UFWOC and El Teatro Campesino became an independent company (Hernandez 36). The playwright within Valdez emerged. He wrote the Root of a Scream, in 1967, which condemned the Vietnam War. Also in 1967 he wrote Los Vendidos. He wrote No saco nada de le escuela (year written I did not find). He wrote Bernabe, in 1970, a love story that takes place during the Mexican Revolution. Also in 1970 he wrote Soldado Razo, and then wrote La Carpa de los Rasquachis in 1971. July 30, 1978, (I wasn’t even born yet) was opening night for Zoot Suit in Los Angeles which “played to sold-out houses for eleven months – breaking all previous records for Los Angeles theatre. While the Los Angeles production continued to run, another production [of Zoot Suit] opened in New York on March 25, 1979, the first (and only) Chicano play to open on Broadway and a motion picture contract was signed” (Valdez 11). In 1982 he wrote and directed the stage production of Bandido! After Bandido! he wrote Corridos which played for sold out audiences for six months (Valdez 12). Valdez wrote and directed the major motion picture La Bamba in 1987 (videorecording). Most recently Valdez had the honor of directing the major motion picture Selena, a biographical account of the Selena’s life, accomplishments, and death.
Although I was not able to read any of Valdez’ works for analytical purposes, I did rent the movie Zoot Suit, which I was not fortunate to see in class because I didn’t attend those two class days.
Zoot Suit is based on the actual true story of the Sleepy Lagoon case which occurred in 1942 (Acuna 254). I love this movie because I can relate to it. I lived in Chicago the last eleven years of my life. I’ve been in court rooms, I’ve had lawyers defend me. The most serious charge I’ve ever been confronted with was assault with a deadly weapon (a combination lock). I split a gabacho’s head open and the doctors had to sow him back up with ten stitches and four staples. I know what it’s like to be Mexican and be presented in court and the bialiff doesn’t know how to pronounce your name. Judge Chickenwing mispronounced my name also. I remember Judge Chickenwing telling me that I don’t belong with the rest of society and that if I happened to fuck up once again he was going to make sure to make my life a living hell. I was given two years of supervised probation and I did fuck up again. Luckily, my lawyer, Paul Fuentes, made sure I didn’t end up in Judge Chickenwing’s courtroom.
The theme in Zoot Suit is that as Chicanos, in the past, we have often been dealt an unfair hand. In the past, Chicanos have been “born with two strikes.” Henry Reyna, the main character, lives inside every Chicano; I believe is the point that Valdez is trying to make when he gives the story different endings. He’s the smart Chicano who wants to do something with his life just like Henry wanted to go to the Navy. He’s the Chicano who ends up drinking and taking drugs. He’s the Chicano who gets married and lives happily ever after.
I wish I had been able to give a complete biographical sketch of every author whose stories I read in the process of putting this paper together. With the exception of Luis Valdez, I was able to find minimal information on the lives of Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, and Denise Chavez. I’m sure that every one of these authors has a unique life story. I did not want to make the mistake that Acuna did in his book of leaving women out for the most part. That is why I picked two women and two men. I do not want the reader of this paper to perceive that the authors which I presented are the most important in Chicano literature. Each and every single Chicano/a writer, author, and playwright is important. Even the Chicano/a who only writes in a diary is important because he or she is helping to mold our identity. A hundred years from now a Chicano’s or a Chicana’s diary might be crucial to historians and scholars determining how Chicano’s and Chicana’s lived. Just like Anne Frank’s diary. I was surprised to find out that currently there are significantly more Chicanas getting work published than that of Chicanos. The women are leading the way, brother, and I don’t mind at all. I think that’s great that more Chicanas write than Chicanos. We need as many storytellers as we can get. These Chicanos/as getting their work published are telling our side of the story, and are writing our history.
Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History Of Chicano. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Bettina Gray Speaks With Luis Valdez. [videorecording] KQED, San Francisco, 1991.
Hernandez, Guillermo E. Chicano Satire: A Study in Literary Culture. Austin: Texas UP, 1991.
Heyck, Denis L.D. ed. Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Kanellos, Nicolas, comp. Hispanic American Literature. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Lopez, Tiffany A, ed. Growing Up Chicana/o. New York: Avon, 1993.
Paz, Octavio. Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. (Taken as a reading from the library required for class discussion).
Valdez, Luis. Zoot Suit and Other Plays. Houston: Arte Publico P, 1992.
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