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Alurista and Aztln

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Aztln and a Counter-Nationalist Poetics: Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales and Alurista


[From George Hartley, Chapter 7 of The Abyss of Representation: Marxism and the Postmodern Sublime, forthcoming from Duke University Press.]

One response to this exclusionary gesture which founds American identity is to oppose to it an alternative nationa construct. This was, in fact, the motivation behind the early poet-activists of the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. Early in 1967 Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales published his epic poem I Am Joaqun. By March the poem had already been adapted to film by the traveling activist troupe Teatro Campesino. The poem was mimeographed and widely circulated order to be read during public demonstrations and organizing campaigns of what would come to be known as El Movimiento or the Chicano Movement. Beyond its immediate public activist function, however, I Am Joaqun also functioned as the inaugural work of what is now seen as the Chicano Literary Renaissance, lasting from the late '60s to the mid 70s. I Am Joaqun provided the groundwork, then, for all Chicano poetry to come. Yet what is perhaps more interesting is its role in serving as the founding literary work for all previous Chicano literature. What I am saying is that before 1967 Chicano literature did not exist, but after 1967 the whole history of Chicano literature from the 1600s to the 1960s suddenly, retroactively came into being. Moreover, I contend that prior to 1967 and the publication of I Am Joaqun, Chicanos did not exist, and yet after that moment we can see that they had been around for centuries. I Am Joaqun was able to perform this magic because through this poem the various elements that would make up Chicano identity came together for the first time under the name "Chicano." Prior to this, all of the work for justice, civil rights, farm lab laws, and cultural recognition for Mexican Americans had been carried out by Mexican Americans. But it wasn't until I Am Joaqunwhich embodied all of these elements under the blanket concept of Chicanismothat these elements co come into concert in the revolutionary subjectivity of the Chicano as the founding gesture of Chicano identity itself. Th term "Chicano" as it functions in I Am Joaqun brought the Chicano as such into being. This is not to say that the term "Chicano" became an effective label already-existing entity; it is to say, rather, that the entity itself only came into being with the use of the word in the particular context of the poem. The term "Chicano," which many scholars suggest derives from a shortened version of the Indian pronunciation "Mexicanos," was initially used as an insult, signifying a person of lower status and culture. This is in fact the way Mexican Americans were viewed by both Americans and Mexicans. Prior to the late '60s, even within the Mexica American community the term "Chicano" was reserved for recently-arrived immigrants. New arrivals from Mexico--of poor and more visibly "Other" than the more assimilated earlier Mexicans in America--threatened the status of thos Mexican Americans who often fought hard to prove their American identity by distancing themselves from their Mexica and Indian roots. Later, however, the term was appropriated by Mexican-American activists during the 1960s in much same way as the terms "Black" and then later "nigger" were by African Americans, as a way of transforming an insult into a signifier of ethnic strength and pride and as a refusal to assimilate into mainstream White culture (the difference being that "Chicano" was an insult internal to the Mexican-American community whereas "nigger" was an insult from outside of the African American community). Now "Chicano" came to serve as a badge of militant identity within and aga mainstream Anglo-America. After 1967, then, the term "Chicano" served a consciously ideological function among young radicals as a desig oppositional identity. The beauty of the poem I Am Joaqun lay in the way Gonzales wove together a wide variety o cultural and historical tropes into one emergent identity. Gonzales recounts the roots of Chicano identity in the long history of Mexican miscegenation through Spanish and Indian contact on up through the U. S. occupation and annexation of northern Mexico. The poem also displays the mytho-cultural icons of Chicano identity growing out of pre-Co Amerindian cultures. Then the poem surveys the history of Mexican American oppression and ends by imagining the future liberation of the Chicanos and their homeland. Through this poem, which was staged (and even filmed) as part of the public presentations of the Chicano civil rights movement, Mexican Americans were transformed into Chicanos. The poet Alurista also played a key role in constructing a national allegory to compete with that of the "Gringo." In "El Plan Espiritual de Aztln," the founding manifesto of the Chicano Movement, Alurista, working with Rodolfo "Co Gonzales, writes, "Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and w struggles against the foreigner gabacho who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our mestizo nation." "The Spiritual Plan of Aztln," written in 19

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Alurista and Aztln

http://www.groovdigit.com/poetry/chicano/chicpoetics.html

made explicit the connection between national and cultural politics: CULTURAL values of our people strengthen our identity and the moral background of movement. Our culture unites and educates the family of La Raza towards liberation with one heart and one mind. We must insure that our writers, poets, musicians, and artists produce literature and art that is appealing to our people and relates to our revolutionary culture. Ou cultural values of life, family, and home will serve as a powerful weapon to defeat the gringo dollar value system and encourage the process of love and brotherhood. (3) Chicano poetry, in other words, must help in the construction of a united and revolutionary Chicano identity in opposition to the capitalist values of the "foreigner gabachos," the Anglo-Americans who, with the Treaty of Guadalupe of 1848, took possession of almost half of Mexicos territory, the current day American Southwest. Key to this counternation politics and poetics is the image of Aztln, the original ancestral homeland of the Aztecs (and presumably of most of current day Native Americans of the Southwest), an area comprising much of the four-corners states. What the image Aztln affords is a claim to territorial priority and a reversal of the logic of American national identity: it is not the Chicano who is a stranger on this land but the Anglo-American. The Chicano can now claim an ancestral heritage Southwest dating back over a thousand years. The key elements characteristic of Aluristas Chicano nationalism are displayed in the poem "A Child to Be Born" :

a child to be born pregnant is the continente el barro y la raza to bear Aztln on our forehead el nio como pjaro en su vuelo de colores cantos gui a Tenoch hacia el guila el nio dentro del vientre semilla una madretierraroja le acaricia Aztln, Aztln of the continent that bears the child tu madre es el continentetierraroja where the crickets call the birth and the ranas arrullan al nacido y las vboras del mar siguen a la campanita por donde pueden pasar los de adelante and the ones in the back se quedarn Aztln, Aztln the semilla que plant nuestro padre Quetzalcoatl ya germina

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Alurista and Aztln

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en el vientre de nuestra madrecontinentetierra, amerindia nationchild de su padrecarnalismo Kukulcn [a child to be born/ pregnant is the continent/ the clay and the race/ to bear Aztln on our forehead/ the child like a bird/ in its flight of colors chants/ guided to Tenoch toward the eagle/ the child within the womb seed/ a redmotherearth caresses him/ Aztln, Aztln of the continent that bears the child/ your mother is t redearthcontinent/ where the crickets call the birth/ and the frogs coo to the newborn/ and the vipers of the sea follow to the little bell/ where they can pass ahead of them/ and the ones in the back will stay behind/ Aztln, Aztln/ the seed which our father Quetzalcoatl planted/ now germinates/ in the womb of our/ motherearthcontinent, amerindia/ nationchild of his fatherbrotherhood Kukulcn]

As Alfred Arteaga has pointed out, Alurista "emphasizes the form of the form, that is, he focuses on hybridization itself And while this hybrid form certainly functions in opposition to the naturalized universality of the Anglo-Americ conception of National space, it cannot be reduced to this oppositional stand. Aluristas poetics is as positive as oppositional. His emphasis on Chicano nationalism signals an attempt to construct a positive and authoritative Chica identity based on the revival of an Amerindian ethos in which poetry functions as a social and spiritual foundatio communal, ethnic identity. In other words, Aluristas poetics is a form of social and cultural articulation. It should be kept in mind that the "oppressive" sense of hegemony determines the "positive" in that any positive construction of an alternative identity takes place within the field of the dominant force. In this case, any construction of Chicano nationalism takes place within the determining context of the American Nation as defined by Anglo-American ideology. The hegemonic process which Alurista sets in motion involves the deliberate hybridization of form. For example, in "A Child to be Born" and much of his other poetry he develops a counter-syncretism. The Spanish invaders translated religious beliefs, practices, and iconography into a Christian context, but the result was a hybrid or syncretistic form i which Tonantzin, the sacred mother goddess of the Aztecs, still shows through the Virgin of Guadalupe. Alurista reverse this syncretism by translating Christian motives back into Aztec, Toltec, and Mayan ones. In the poem Tonantzin appears as "redmotherearth," a critical conceptual as well as linguistic fusion for Alurista since his whole symbology depe reclaiming a territorial priority denied by the Anglo-American construct of the Nation. This priority gets its force, in through the identification of the Chicano Raza with its Amerindian roots in the red-earth ancestors of Mexican Southwestern American Indians, who presumably resided in Atzln. The Southwest, as we have seen, is thus the homeland of the indigenous peoples of the countries on both sides of the border, and the Chicanos are the ones who continue to occupy that homeland. While Alurista has been criticized for constructing a romantic-Utopian figure dependent on a nostalgia for past origins, the title of the poem contradicts that claim. This childs birth is a future event and condition, not a past one. Just as Alu reverses the syncretism of the Spanish-Amerindian hybrid, he also reverses the time scheme. This hybrid "red" race promise of the future, one which depends on the hegemonic struggles of the Chicano people themselves. In this sen Alurista reverses the temporality of Aztln as well, now to be seen as a political goal realized through the poeticizat Chicano culture. And Aluristas fusion of Spanish, English, and Amerindian languagesotherwise known code-switchingis a part of this process. While he works his way in and out of both Spanish and English rather flui without designating either language as representative of any particular realm of content, he nevertheless continually refers to the father of this child in either Nhuatl (Quetzalcatl) or Mayan (Kukulcn) (Kukulcn is the Mayan render Quetzalcatl); the mother is always referred to in Spanish (continentetierraroja); and the nio is most often in E "nationchild" of the books title). While the substance of its rendering is both spiritual and earthly, the child itself is political conceptthe nation itself. Ironically, then, this new Chicano national space appropriates the domi Anglo-American language in order to appropriate the discursive space of the Nation. The substitution of one nationalism for another, of course, does not in itself challenge the political dangers inhere nationalism, such as the various forms of racist, ethnic chauvinisms that mark the resurgence of nationalisms in the Balkans. And a counter-nationalism will always be defined, in part, in terms of the nationalism it opposes and, to that extent, depend on the logic and definitions of that former nationalism. Such a Chicano counter-nationalism could, in function as part of a broader conservative populism, as Ignacio M. Garca has pointed out. This particular form, wit emphasis on preserving the familia and the barrio against the decadent effects of Gringo capitalism, "sought to turn bac

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Alurista and Aztln

http://www.groovdigit.com/poetry/chicano/chicpoetics.html

time and to slow down the urbanization of the Chicano family, which [Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales] saw as leading to broken homes, parents who could not control their children, and rebellious youth who found camaraderie and family gangs" (Chicanismo 97). For Prez-Torres, Aluristas nationalism, at least as it is defined in "El Plan Espiritual de Atzln," suggests "through the call of our blood an essentialized and biologically determined nationalism" (62). It seems curious, nevertheless, th such a hybridized conception of "blood" could be seen as essentialist when from the start it was posed consciously-constructed cultural and political reaction to the "essentialist" claims of Anglo-American nationalism. The "call of our blood" could never have been anything but a foregrounding of the specious claim to authority o Anglo-American blood when the latter is itself a hybrid and artificial formation. Nothing underscored this non-essent nature of Chicano identity more than code-switching, and Alurista was the pioneer in this poetic form. Rightful ownership of Atzln, Alurista will later claim, "is not established . . . on the basis of lineage, but rather on the basis of those who work it." At any rate, in this post-nationalist age of multinational capitalism, such arguments may now be beside the point. The problem can no longer be one of essentialism since the logic of capital itself has long ago eroded the autho behind such claims. While Prez-Torres is critical of the nationalist gesture behind the earlier uses of the concept of Aztln, he nevertheless does find a critical use for that trope if it is conceived not as homeland but as borderland: The transformation of "Aztln" from homeland to borderland signifies an opening within Chicano cultural discourse. It marks a significant transformation away from the dream of or toward an engagement with the construction of cultural identity. As the U.S.-Mexican bo represents a construction tied to histories of power and dispossession, the construction of personal and cultural identity entailed in any multicultural project comes to the fore in Chic cultural production. The move represents at this point a liberating one that allows for th assumption of various subject positions. The refusal to be delimited, while simultaneously claiming numerous heritages and influences, allows for a rearticulation of the relationship between self and society, self and history, self and land. The geographic Aztln as a site of origins and nation has been rejected. But Aztln as a realm of historical convergence discontinuous positionalities becomes another configuration embraced and employed in borderlands that is Chicano culture. (96) The degree to which these discontinuous positionalities are the result of a conscious and politically determined "refusal to be delimited" is up for questioning. It could be argued that borderlands culture is delimited by Anglo culture precisely as discontinuous. The borderlands by definition are the space of externalized discontinuity necessary for the internal continuity Anglo-American Nation. Zizek: A nation exists only as long as its specific enjoyment continues to be materialized in a set o material practices and transmitted through national myths that structure these practices. T emphasize in a "deconstructionist" mode that Nation is not a biological or transhistorical fact but a contingent discursive construction, an overdetermined result of textual practices, is th misleading: such an emphasis overlooks the remainder of some real, nondiscursive kerne enjoyment which must be present for the Nation qua discursive entity-effect to achieve ontological consistency. (TWN 202) The acceptance and repetitious display of this discontinuous identity, however, can function as a subversive response to that delimitation by looming up as the radical excess of enjoyment threatening to initiate a reverse colonization of th Nation. Read also El Plan de Aztln.

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