The Art and Practice of Mexican American and Chicano Fiction
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
The English Dictionary defines “fiction” as “the act of feigning, inventing or imagining; that which is feigned, i.e., a fictitious story, fable, fabrication, falsehood.” In The Language of Fiction, Margaret MacDonald informs us that “fiction is often used ambiguously both for what is fictitious and for that by which the fictitious is expressed” (in Perspectives in Fiction, Edited by James L. Calderwood and Harold E. Toliver, New York: Oxford University, 1968, 55). Indeed, “fiction” is opposed to “fact” as what is imaginary to what is real. But this is not an absolute boundary. How is one to know where fiction begins and reality leaves off? Fiction is a contrivance “but the content of very little fiction is wholly fictitious” (67). Perhaps the expression “truth is stranger than fiction” says much about fiction. That fiction often reflects reality; and reality often reflects fiction. Odd as that may sound, fiction is meant to reflect the imaginary, the “not real.” But the touchstone of fiction lies in the real world and ergo actuates the fiction. The worlds of fiction in the short story and the novel (and other forms of fiction) are created by the storyteller with details and personages that may or may not correspond to the real world. In the Star Wars stories, for example, the world of those stories has some general correspondence with the world as we know it. There, fact and fancy are mixed in a blend that covers a canvas we seem to recognize–almost. That which we don’t recognize on the canvas is “invention”–perhaps the key ingredient of fiction. Fiction is thus never 100 percent invention. It’s a blend of the real and the made up. The story. To work, fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, as T.S. Eliot called that process of getting into a story. MacDonald adds: “one must be able to enter imaginatively into its (fiction) emotional situation though its emotions need not be felt” (63), adding: “To create a story is to use language to create the contents of that story,” closing with “characters play a role; human beings live a life” (65). Texts tell us about stories; sometimes they tell us about people. Always they reveal more about the writer than he or she imagines. Subtexts and intertexts are like scalpels in the hands of literary critics in their efforts to anatomize fiction. Fiction is a verbal construction; life is not–except when we seek to explain or describe it to someone else. Despite fiction being life-like on occasions, it is not life in vivo. Fiction is not life but an image of life as created through the filters of the storyteller. Many times those filters give us a fiction of perplexity, leaving us wondering what the point of the fiction is/was/can be. In large part, social realism has dominated much of fiction since the 19th century. But for some time since World War II, fiction has undergone a transmogrification–a breaking out of or breaking away from the traditional bounds of the genre. One such effort has been “magical realism,” a technique merging fantasy and realism. Another emerging technique in fiction is “minimalism”–spare prose with a minimum of details. There are still writers of fiction who use the technique of density–giving readers a plethora of information. Gustave Flaubert believed in giving readers the maximum amount of details in order for the reader to really “see” the scene. He believed that in fiction the writer had to be both objective and unobtrusive. Guy de Maupassant, on the other hand, believed there was no such thing as objectivity. Subjectivity was everywhere in the fiction, in the selection of words, the architecture of the story. The hand of the author was everywhere visible. What seems to characterize much contemporary fiction is its search for new forms, new boundaries, and new ways to engage the reader in the story. Aristotle first laid down the dictum of fiction in his theory of drama: unity of action, place, and time. Any response to a literary work presupposes a relationship between the reader and the text. By and large, any response is predicated on what the reader brings to the reading. For example, a 12th century text in Old English requires of a reader some facility with Old English and some understanding of the times that engendered the work. A response to a literary work must be more than “I didn’t like it.” That’s certainly a legitimate response. But such a response should be shored up by concrete considerations. Perhaps the plot was weak or too contrived, the characters too wooden or stereo-typed, the point of view too disjointed. There is no right or wrong in a response to a literary work. Important to bear in mind, however, is that a literary work is the way it is and not the way it is not. The strongest part of the literary equation lies between teller and tale, both of which must link up successfully with a reader or auditor. As story, fiction is always colored by the teller just as a joke succeeds or fails depending on the teller and the details of the story. In the main, writers of fiction work with material they know. A good story is one in which the writer knows his or her stuff. Some writers focus more on description, others on narration, while others prefer to have the story develop through dialog. Short fiction is a craft of its own. Practitioners of the longer form find the short form restrictive, characterization being difficult within the bounds of the short form. Fiction doesn’t always start at the beginning–it may start in medias res, the middle, which William Saroyan, the Armenian American writer from California, described as jumping in the middle of the river and starting to swim. In addition to plot, setting, point of view, and characterization, fiction also includes style, theme, mood, atmosphere, and tone. While verisimilitude was once an important feature of fiction–is the work believable–it has become less and less a consideration of contemporary fiction. More important now in fiction is novelty and the brilliance of the writer in terms of his or her style. In literature, style is usually defined as the habitual manner of expression of an author, choices made consciously or unconsciously about such things as vocabulary, organization, diction, imagery, pace, and even certain recurring themes or subjects. Most often style is identified in terms of an author’s language and its intellectual use. The French define style as l’homme–the man, recognizing that style is by and large a personal characteristic unique to the individual. Which is why we can recognize the style of particular writers like Hemingway, for example, or Steinbeck, or Thomas Wolfe. Mexican American Short Story
Thomas M. Leitch contends that “everyone knows what stories are–fortunately; for it is excessively difficult to say just what they are” [emphasis mine]. Brander M. Matthews, the best known philosopher of the short story as a genre, articulated some of the key features in what constitutes a short story. But Edgar Allan Poe’s definition of the short story has become the more popular. According to Poe two things were essential to the genre: (1) that it shall be short and (2) that it shall possess coherence sufficient to hold the reader’s or listener’s unflagging interest from beginning to end. Immediately the length of a story becomes a problematic, such that the genre has been subdivided into (1) the short-short story, (2) the short story, and (3) the long short story–sometimes: the long story, of novelette length. Story may be as old as humankind–from the earliest times of language which enabled one human being to transmit some piece of information to another human being. Story is the tale, the telling and the teller. It is also audience, ready for the story, able to understand the story, and able to appreciate it at once as information and as invention. In antiquity, story tellers wielded considerable power, not just because of their ability to tell stories dramatically but because a repertoire of stories was a reflection of learning and of more than passing knowledge and facility with language. He who knew language was thought to have some special relationship with the gods. In Africa, the Griot, the storyteller, is a revered person. In the main, the short story is actuated by the dicta of Aristotle’s theory of drama: unity of action, place and time. But much has changed in short fiction as it has in long fiction. No longer just the mode by which to tell a short tale to raise a moral point nor the format through which history was kept alive at the tribal fires or clan gatherings, the short story has acquired literary dimensions that have transcended its historical functions. Writers of the short story do not engage in the genre because it is short and less difficult to write than the longer form, say, the novel. Indeed, not. The short story is a craft of its own. Many practitioners of the longer form find the tight form of the short story restrictive, complaining that characterization is difficult within the bounds of the form. But Raymond Chandler qvels with the short story. For Chicanos, the short story lies rooted in the cuentos (stories/tales) of Hispanic culture, told and retold orally as part of the “folk” lore, the memories of times past. Hispanic tale tellers were always welcome at the table, the hearth or festivities. Legends, myths, and stories of the macabre were told countless times to audiences that seemed never to tire of the tales.Cuentos were the stock-in-trade of every family’s repertoire. From infancy, Hispanic children learned about brujas (witches), calaveras (skeletons), and la Llorona, the weeping woman looking for her children. Hispanic cuentos tell of lost gold and silver mines, of saints, and of things that go bump in the night. Essentially, the cuento is designed to be instructive, to teach a moral lesson. By and large, though, Mexican American writers made the transition from Spanish to English during the period from 1848 to 1912, and in the period from 1912 to 1960 were busy producing literary works in English. But the allure of the cuento, focusing on the mythic past, was strong in Mexican American literary production as evidenced by the creative works of Mexican American writers like Arturo Campa, Fray Angelico Chavez, Juan Rael, Jovita Gonzalez, and Aurora Lucero during the period between World Wars–1920 to 1940. The stories of this time were characterized by themes and motifs of the past in which Mexicans or Mexican Americans were cast as gentle, peace-loving, and wise with the knowledge of God and things of the earth. Breaking free of the “pastoral” bonds of the cuento does not occur until after World War II with short stories like those of Mario Suarez. But the real break with the cuento tradition in Mexican American literary production comes after 1960 with the Chicano Movement and the Chicano Renaissance. It’s not a clean break, however, for threads of the cuento are still visible in early modern Chicano fiction from 1960 to 1970 and still visible in some Chicano literary production since then. Like Chicano poetry of the Chicano Renaissance, Chicano fiction of that period is equally strident and shrill in its fictive posture and ideological thrusts. It wasn’t mainstream American fiction to which Chicano writers gravitated but to Third World models. Like black writers of the Civil Rights Movement, Chicano writers wielded the pen as a sword to thrust the Chicano agenda and to parry what they perceived to be mainstream threats aimed at Chicanos. In Chicano Movement fiction Anglos became bad guys and Chicanos donned white hats. More importantly, though, in Chicano fiction of the Movement the focus of the story was on Chicano life as it was lived both within the parameters of Chicano existence and within the parameters of existence in the United States. Chicano fiction after 1960 was full of sound and fury signifying everything. The full range of Chicano particulars sought expostulation in public and in the media, particularly in print. Waves of Chicano publications emerged to press for “demands” or “redress” and then faded. Literary publications like El Grito, Con Safos, and De Colores came into existence for Chicano writers as alternative for mainstream publications which had long excluded them. Here and there, Chicano writers like Daniel Garza found their way into mainstream magazines but, by and large, Chicano writers were absent from those pages. Chicano publications like La Luz(first national Hispanic public affairs magazine in English) published scores of works by emerging Chicano writers as well as works by already established Chicano writers. Chicano short story writers whose works appeared in El Grito were thought of as theQuinto Sol Writers, while Chicano writers whose works appeared in Con Safos and Caracol were considered Chicano Wave Writers. Chicano writers whose works appeared in publications like De Colores, La Luz and Revista Chicano-Riqueña in the 70's to mid 80's were thought of as New Wave Writers. And Chicano writers of the later 80's to the present whose works have appeared in publications like ViAztlan are talked about as Third Wave Writers. The distinctions are nominal but the distance between the Quinto Sol Writers and theThird Wave Writers is a matter of function versus form. One was a literature of liberation, the other a literature of consciousness looking for the best artistic form for Chicano expression.
Mexican American Novel
The word “novel” is a term difficult to define, but in the main it refers to an “extended” work of prose that employs the techniques of fiction: plot, setting, point of view and characterization. As fiction it also employs various approaches associated with fiction–psychological approach, sociological approach, archetypal approach, etc. Just as the short story is short, so too the novel is long–longer, that is. One could say the novel is an extended short story, but that isn’t quite accurate because the short story is bounded by particular elements of unity that do not inhibit the novel. Analogously, the short story is like a backyard; the novel is a ranch. There’s considerably more room in the novel to tell the story, elaborate more pieces of the story, space to develop character(s), plumb their being(s), exposit relationships, span generations. The novel is a canvas; the short story, a snapshot. Like people, novels come in all sizes, shapes and forms. While Bocaccio’s Decameron is a series of stories told by narrators hiding out from the plague, the work has been variously identified as a novel. In many ways, the word “novel” is a catch-all term for a variety of prose manifestations. The origin of “the novel” is hard to place, but in English the novel had its beginnings in the early 18th century. It takes 100 years for the novel to migrate to the United States. And given the character of America, the American novel grows self-consciously from the genteel traditions of New England, giving way to novels of social commentary. Emulating first “the romance,” the American novel evolved through naturalism to realism. After the Civil War, the American novel was regarded as an instrument for social commentary. Richard Chase explains that “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience.” (The American Novel and its Tradition, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1957, 1) Generally, our assessment of American novels has focused on those contradictions and extreme ranges of experience. Henry James defined that range of experience as “what happens to us as social creatures.” (Ibid, 21) That has been the general canvas of the American novel– what happens to us as social creatures. For this reason American novelists have tended to create in their novels a verisimilitude of the society in which their characters move, patterned in terms of human relationships and the human predicament. Since 1945 the American novel has tended to reflect the uncertainty and ambiguities of modern life. Some critics of the novel suggest that as a consequence the American novel has become too stylized, too personal. The large vistas of traditional American novels have given way to narrow perspectives and a banality of language, say many critics of the genre. The upshot is that the American novel provides a range of critical assessment, depending on what we think the function of the novel ought to be. Lionel Trilling thought the novel was “a kind of summary and paradigm of our cultural life.” (“Art and Fortune” in The Liberal Imagination, 1950) While there is some controversy about some forms of short fiction–whether a short work is a piece of folklore, a tale or a short story (something more fictive than the novel)—the novel as a genre has raised more questions as a literary form than any other of the literary genres. Discussion of “cataloging” the novel is much like the story that the only thing one can be sure of when the person driving a car in front of you puts his or her hand out the driver’s window to signal a turn in the old-fashioned way is that the window is down. There is, of course, the meaning of the word “fiction.” What exactly does it mean? Is a “novel” still a “fiction” when it is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable? In The Four Forms of Fiction, Northrop Frye points out the distinction between fiction as a genus and the novel as a species. Of course, none of this sheds light on what the novel is, except to say that as a species, it is not short, otherwise it would be a short story. Few critics would call a short story a short novel. Origins of the novel as a genre are obsolete. And trying to date the novel historically leads us back to the chicken-and-the-egg question about fiction. Though as Frye argues, the novel should not be constrained by the strictures of fiction. In loose terms we can say that The Decameron is a novel–an episodic novel–much the same as Tomas Rivera’s work, And the Earth Did Not Part is a fragmentary novel. The structures of the two novels are pretty much the same. But if we allow that The Decameron is a novel, what do we make of The Canterbury Tales? Is it an episodic novel as well? Do purpose and intent help us ascertain when a particular work is a novel? Henry Fielding conceived the novel as a “comic epic in prose,” a definition that cuts out most “novels.” To work around the constraints of definitions some works have been called “romances,” a term older than the term “novel.” The distinction between the two is that we do not find “real people” in the “romance.” However the novel may have come into being, we know a lot about its evolution after the Renaissance. Generally, though not conclusively, we can place the novel first in Italy, then in Spain, and identify the Spanish influences in the early English novel. In the 19th century, the strongholds of the novel were in France and Russia, giving way to its ascendancy in the United States toward the end of the 19th century and continuing until well into the third quarter of the 20th century. Since World War Two, however, the stronghold of the novel seems to be in Latin America. It’s a genre that migrates with ideas and with the imagination. The current trend of “magical realism” in the novel is of Latin American origin, though that origin springs from the tradition of the fabula (fable). The Chicano novel dates from 1959 with publication of Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal. There were Mexican American novelists before 1959, however, unfortunately, we do not have a record of all the novels written (or published) by Mexican American writers between 1848 and 1959, although the University of Houston project, “Recovering the Hispanic Literary History of the United States” is uncovering that trove. By 1969, ten years after publication ofPocho, there were only eight novels published by Chicano writers. Later scholarship would reveal five novels by Mexican Americans produced between 1892 and 1928, all in Spanish. Research into those forgotten pages of American literature continues, and other novels by Mexican Americans produced between 1848 and 1959 will surface. From the perspective of the 21st century and four decades of Chicano fiction, it’s easier to make historical and critical judgments about Chicano writers and the art of the novel. To begin with, one of the major obstacles in Chicano critical theory about the novel has been one of nomenclature: namely, how does one define “the Chicano novel?” Is Famous All Over Townby Daniel James, for example, a Chicano novel since the work deals with the Chicanos of East Los Angeles and all its characters are Chicanos? Some Chicano critics dismiss as Chicano novels works by Chicano writers because they are not “movement” novels or don’t address themselves to the social or political issues affecting Chicano communities or barrios. For example, in her commentary on the Chicano novel, Carlota Cardenas Dwyer excludes as Chicano novels the works by Villarreal, Rechy, Salas, Barrio, and Vasquez on grounds that their novels do not promote a specific social or political issue unequivocally Chicano. Rafael Grajeda excludes the works of Villarreal and Vasquez in his selection of Chicano novels on grounds that “the works do not confront clearly and honestly the implications of their premises,” namely, that the central characters arrive at an understanding and acceptance of themselves as Chicanos. In 1970 with publication of Y no se lo trago la tierra by Tomás Rivera, Chicano literature bifurcated along language lines–Chicano works in English and Chicano works in Spanish. These forking paths did not (and do not) signal a philosophical rift between two camps of Chicano writers. It means, rather, that there are some Chicano writers who prefer to write in Spanish or English or are more comfortable in one or the other language. However, many Chicano writers work in both languages, like Rolando Hinojosa or Alejandro Morales, to name but two. This raises again the question of linguistic realities for Chicanos who may be monolingual or bilingual and/or may participate to varying degrees in Chicano English and/or Chicano Spanish. Manifestations of these linguistic realities crop up in all the genres of Chicano literature. The question is: are these linguistic manifestations congruent with the realities of Chicano existence? Or does the language of choice predicate a particular perspective or point of view? In his essay on “Contemporary Chicano Prose Fiction: Its Ties to Mexican Literature,” Charles Tatum raises an important point in getting at the wellspring of Chicano literature, particularly Chicano prose fiction. While Chicano fiction–in this case, the novel– has obvious connections to Mexican literature, it also has obvious connections to American literature. Chicano literature is not simply an extension of Mexican literature in the United States, anymore than it is simply an outcrop of American literature in a distinct region of the country. One cannot talk about Chicano writers in the same way one talks about “Southern writers,” say. While both are geographically bound, more or less, the latter is part and parcel of American culture, the former still shares a culture with Mexico. Ultimately, the assessment of the Chicano novel will be in terms it brings to the discussion, much the way Louis Gates talks about Black literature.
The Imaginative Engagement of Latina/o Writing with the History and Practice of Science
By María DeGuzmán
Still nascent and relatively unexplored by critics is the imaginative engagement of Latina/o writing with the history and practice of science. What exploration exists focuses more on how Latina/o writers, visual artists (filmmakers in particular), and performance artists have employed science fiction or aspects of it to advance critiques of colonialism and unmask the dangers of a new colonialism spawned by the “progress” of globalization.
Latina/o science fiction is largely dystopian–given the imbrication with militarization and war, ethno-racial genocide, social control, and technologies for the extraction of human and natural resources–of what is often viewed as Euro-American colonizer science. Lysa Rivera (“Future Histories and Cyborg Labor: Reading Borderlands Science Fiction after NAFTA”), José David Saldívar (see the edited volume Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination), Ben Olguín (“Contrapuntal Cyborgs?: The Ideological Limits and Revolutionary Potential of Latin@ Science Fiction”), and many others have published excellent articles and/or book chapters about Latina/o science fiction as cultural critique and incisive, creative confrontations with colonialism and neocolonialism, exile, migration, etc.
Those interested in Latina/o literature and science fiction will find a plethora of articles on Dominican American writer Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz himself has talked extensively in published interviews (see BOMB magazine, no. 101, Fall 2007) and elsewhere about his interest in science fiction and its uses as a form of cultural critique.
However, Latina/o science fiction and speculative fiction has a history much older than Díaz’s relatively recent 2007 novel. Consider, for example, Ana Castillo’s 1990 novel Sapogonia as well as her 1993 novel So Far From God, or Alejandro Morales’s 1991 novel The Rag Doll Plagues. In fact, Latina/o writers have been writing in the vein of science fiction for decades. One could easily go back as far as (if not further than) Chicano activist Oscar “Zeta” Acosta’s doomsday undated text-flick “To Whom It May Concern: A Solicitation” (written sometime between 1961 and his mysterious disappearance and likely death in Mexico in 1974) about the horrors of radioactivity emanating from the Trinity test conducted July 16, 1945 and others subsequent to it. This “Solicitation” is certainly one of my favorites, perhaps because it seems less like science fiction and more like a critique of actual ongoing science practice.
Despite this long history of science fiction and speculative fiction by Latina/o writers, it has taken until January 2017 for the supposedly “first anthology of Latina/o science fiction [my italics]” to appear. For anyone interested in a critical mass of Latina/o science fiction and speculative fiction, I recommend the anthology Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Matthew David Goodwin (Assistant Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, central Puerto Rico) and published by San Antonio’s small but groundbreaking Wings Press.
The anthology, with an introduction by Latina/o Studies scholar Frederick Luis Aldama (Professor of English at the Ohio State University), features writers such as Kathleen Alcalá, Ana Castillo, Diana Chaviano, Junot Díaz, Daniel José Older, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Carmen María Machado, Giannina Braschi, Marcos S. Gonsalez, Steve Castro, Alex Hernández, Alejandra Sánchez, Richie Nerváez, and others, all quite contemporary.
But, what about Latina/o writers in relation to the history and practice of science, with more of an emphasis on the history of science and the actual practice of science rather than on an imminent or more remote future extension of yesterday’s or today’s science? I may seem to be splitting hairs here and, indeed, these hairs are not so easily or even desirably split since, obviously, the past informs the present and future.
What is “futuristic” is usually a reiteration of past practices with a new twist. And, of course, science fiction sometimes engages with the history of science, if not overtly, then implicitly. Nevertheless, I would argue that there are many literary ways of imaginatively engaging with science other than science fiction and speculative fiction (granted these two categories are not synonymous either) as modes and genres.
One of these other ways of dealing with science that intrigues me is through the writing of poetry. After all, both poetry and science spring from keen observational skills and wonder, rely on precise detail, and, ironically, also depend upon the transports of form and metaphor. Form and metaphor help us to cross the abyss between the conceived and the inconceivable, the known and the unknown, even the unknowable. In fact, many writers and critics, particularly those who favor poetry, have stated in one way or another that perception is form-dependent and that no new perception can truly happen without the discovery and/or invention of new forms.
And, yet, while “science” and “fiction” are so recognizably allied that their conjunction is considered “genre fiction,” like romance and detective fiction, and this conjunction is categorically and spatially accommodated in libraries, bookstores, and print and electronic catalogues, no such alliance is assumed, especially in US culture, between science and poetry. However, the assumptions of US culture can be notoriously ahistorical.
In fact, historically, poetry, oral and/or written, was the form/ the medium through which ancient civilizations (Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Mayan, Incan, Arab, Persian, Native American, etc.) addressed and debated questions about the nature of reality and the cosmos and people’s relationship to “nature” and the “cosmos” philosophically, politically, practically.
Furthermore, there is a long tradition of “science poetry” proceeding from the “ancients” (I mean this term in a global, not merely Western sense) through the age of exploration, discovery, and colonization, through “modernity” to postmodernity and the Anthropocene (the age defined by massive human interference on planet Earth) right up to and inclusive of the first couple of decades of the 21st century.
Therefore, I ask, what about Latina/o writers and “science poetry” rather than “science fiction”? And, what about “science poetry” in relation to the history of science and its actual practice rather than or in addition to the imminent or remote future of scientific practices? Are Latina/o writers engaged with physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, ecology, biology, botany, agronomy, oceanography, and so forth, as scientific and social practices, both historical and contemporary?
And, more importantly, are critics paying attention to these efforts? I would say that right now the critics are paying more attention to Latina/o science fiction (both as mode and genre), but that will change, is already changing even though, in US culture (unlike in most Latin American countries including Mexico, technically part of North America), fiction tends to get far more attention, in the popular media and in the academy, than poetry. Are Latina/o writers writing “science poetry” or poetry that incorporates “science poetry”? If so, who are they?
Though certainly not true of all Latina/o writers, they tend to be postmodern and somewhat avant-garde or quite avant-garde like the Argentine poet who lives in New York City, Lila Zemborain, with her 2007 Mauve Sea-Orchids (Belladonna Press) who, according to Forrest Gander, “brings into relationship the viscera of the body and the spill of the universe.” Or, like the late Chicago-born queer poet of Puerto Rican heritage, Rane Ramón Arroyo (1954–2010), whose last book of poetry before his death, The Sky’s Weight, was published in 2009 with Turning Point Press (Cincinnati, Ohio).
During his lifetime, Arroyo published at least eleven books of poems, one book of short stories, and had a number of staged plays, some of whose texts can be found in Dancing at Funerals: New & Selected Plays (Ahadada Books, 2010). He taught creative writing at the University of Toledo, Ohio and served as a board member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
Speaking of science fiction, the book of poems he published in 2008, titled The Roswell Poems (WordFarm Press), was based on mysterious crash debris found July 1947 in the New Mexico desert. The debris in this desert became “ground zero for theories of government conspiracies, space alien sightings, and science vs. religion debates” (Intro., 17). So, we should keep in mind that there is also “science fiction” poetry or, more precisely, poetry that takes up many of the themes typical of science fiction.
Arroyo’s 2009 The Sky’s Weight is divided into two parts: I. Each Place is a Mystery and II. Solar Constant. The first section is focused on earthly experiences. Via the medium of an extended poetic séance summoning “dead scientists” who actually lived and practiced their science (solar scientists, in particular), the second section concentrates on investigations of heavenly, astronomical phenomena, culminating in the study of our solar system’s sun. Arroyo’s “Solar Constant” poems alchemically combine the following elements: bird augury; astronomical observation; Platonic and Aristotelian debates about the nature of the cosmos in relation to constancy and change, eternity and temporality; geocentric versus heliocentric models of our solar system; Kepler’s celestial physics of the birth and death of stars that undermined the doctrine of the immutability of the heavens accepted since the Greeks; Galileo’s study of sunspots that earned him the wrath of the Inquisition; Isaac Newton’s experiments with optics that split white light into its constituent colors; Einstein’s theory of general relativity; and clever representations, not only of our aging and, presumably, dying sun, but also of Edwin Hubble’s telescope that has provided evidence of an expanding, accelerating universe, fleeing from itself, of both visible and invisible matter and energy. “Solar Constant” traverses an impressively wide yet ultimately tightly intertwined set of historical debates, events, and phenomena, earthly and cosmological, lying at the foundations of a very contemporary sense of precarity and uncertainty.
In their pithy, playful way, the twenty “Solar Constant” poems might even be said to rival English scholar Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy that challenged Platonic Ptolemaic cosmology, theology, and epistemology. Informing the movement from certainty to uncertainty in Arroyo’s collection of poems is an emphasis on eccentricity over uniformity and normativity, decentering over any centralizing power (God’s, natural law’s, empire’s, the poet’s own ego), and an embrace of darkness, the obsidian-black period the sun will become when it dies, the universality that awaits us: “… Nothing and / no one is deprived of becoming darkness” (84).
At the same time, the poems do not let us forget the colonial and neocolonial history of empire that has shaped Arroyo’s earthly experience of light and darkness, death and life. Through links established in the poems of “Solar Constant” between the poet’s queerness and a larger cosmological queerness (causing us endless questions), Arroyo advances a new materialist critique of narrow notions of “Nature” and “natural law” as well as of what it means to belong “here”—on earth and in the so-called “New World,” in the Americas, in the United States—as a queer poet of Puerto Rican descent.
Why does this kind of science poetry matter? It matters for many reasons, not least of which that it teaches us both science and history and illustrates the historical fact that science is as much a question of epistemology (ways of knowing), power relations, and perspective as it is of big data and robotics. This kind of poetry helps readers to become more informed and thoughtful assimilators of science and consumers of the products of science, seeing science (scientia or knowledge) as a human endeavor with complex, fraught histories involving fallible human observers with seemingly god-like yet very precarious technology for observation and measurement (first and foremost our own eyes), for creation and total destruction, “Adam and his twin, Atom” (85).
This science poetry makes an implicit argument for the central importance of the arts and the humanities in querying facile narratives of scientific progress or progress through science while also stoking a commitment to learn how the history of science has shaped and continues to shape our everyday lives on planet Earth. For Latina/os, one of the fastest growing populations in the United States and now (in 2017) more than 18% of the nation’s people, learning about the history of science and Latina/o writers’ engagement with it is key to the creation of a wiser society.
María DeGuzmán is Director of Latina/o Studies- www.lsp.unc.edu -and Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has authored two scholarly books, Spain’s Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) and Buenas Noches, American Culture: Latina/o Aesthetics of Night (Indiana University Press, 2012). She has published many articles on Latina/o cultural production as well as some of her own short stories and poems. She is also a conceptual photographer and a music composer/sound designer.
Felicitas Peña Morales, Tlaxcatecan, the author’s paternal grandmother
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
When Elena Garro wrote her short story, “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecans,” she was drawing from the popular Mexican myths about the fall of Mexico-Tenochititlán, in which the innocent Aztecs were destroyed by the evil Spaniards with the help of Cortés’s treacherous Indian allies. Foremost was Malintzín, the Nahua noblewoman who was sold into slavery by her own mother and step-father and who later became Cortes’s lover-translator and mother of one of the first mestizos, Martín Cortés. Second on the list of villains were the Tlaxcaltecans. A popular Mexican saying goes: How could Cortés with 500 men and 15 horses conquer La Gran Tenochtitlán? Blame the Tlaxcaltecans.
However, history is more complicated than myths, especially those predicated on grievance and victimhood. I bring this up because my paternal grandmother, Felicitas Peña, was a Tlaxcatecan. She was actually a mestiza, descendant also from some of the prominent founding Spanish families of Northern Mexico, but she identified with her indigenous ancestors who made up most of her DNA, the Tlaxcaltecans.
Once, when my father was in grade school, he told Felicitas about what he had learned in school about the conquest of Mexico. Mexico in the 1930s was in its heady days of nationalism and a long-overdue embrace of its indigenous origins. When people thought of Jose Vasconcelos’ “LaRaza Cósmica,” they imagined themselves as Aztecs.
My grandmother listened intently and waited for my father to finish. Then she told him, “The Aztecs were defeated because they were assassins.” Their victims were my grandmother’s people, the Tlaxcaltecans, whom the Aztecs not only wanted to conquer but whose captured warriors were premiere sacrificial victims for their blood-thirsty national god, Huitzilopochtli.
Although all of the Mesoamerican societies, including the Tlaxcaltecans, practiced human sacrifice, none matched the Aztecs in scale. The level of human sacrifice increased during periods of crisis. There was no bigger crisis than the foretold doom of the world in the year of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, 1519 C.E.
Cortés offered the Tlaxcaltecans the opportunity to rid themselves of their nemesis once and for all, which they did with brutal efficiency.
For the last 25 years or so, Mexican historians have begun to re-examine the history of the conquest through the lens of post-nationalism. As with other contemporary historical revisions, different narratives are taken into perspective. For example, the role of Malintzín. Historians now question the traitor label, instead focusing on her as an individual woman.
What could she have done differently given the circumstances? What would anyone of us do if confronted with her situation while disempowered? The name “Malinche,” which means “Malinalli’s captain” in Nahuatl, referred to Cortés. “Here comes Malinche,” the Indian noblemen would say whenever they saw Cortés. Because he always kept his translator at his side, the name incorrectly stuck to her.
But I digress. My grandmother remembered her heritage and history so vividly that she spoke about the enmity between her people and the Aztecs as if she had lived in the times of the conquest, a living memory confirmed in the written records of the learned (surviving) Indian wise men of the era, Catholic Frays, and even in the letters, official decrees, and the church records which at times offer the commentary of the parish priests. These records were ignored, marginalized, or dismissed in favor of the big picture narrative, the binary mythology that was emotionally satisfying but only a partial truth.
Tlaxcatecans in the Parish Records of the Villa de San Esteban de Tlaxcala, 1693 (Saltillo, Coahuila)
When Cortés landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, he conquered one Indian nation after the other. His arrival coincided with the prophecies of the end times for the native peoples. (It was either a coincidence or else some skillful manipulation of space-time and consciousness by the magicians and wise men.) The ambivalence of the people first enabled Cortés essentially to run over the native towns, since they feared he was a god.
All went as planned until he tried to conquer Tlaxcala, a confederation of Nahua-speaking chiefdoms. Tlaxcala was one of many civilizations in Mesoamerica. It had a capital city, located at the archeological ruins of Cacaxtla, replete with its pyramids and ceremonial centers. They practiced the same religion and customs as the Aztecs. (Tlaxcala today has some of the best-preserved Mesoamerican murals.)
However, the Tlaxcaltecans were not an imperial nation like the Aztecs. The latter set out and conquered all of the surrounding civilizations and subjugated the Mixtec, the Olmec, the Tarascan, the Maya, among others. Tlaxcala, nestled high in the mountains east of Tenochtitlán, was another story. The Tlaxcaltecans maintained their independence and freedom from Aztec hegemony through the use of defensive fortifications and an excellent cadre of warriors, among them the legendary warrior, Tlahuicole.
When he was ultimately captured by the Aztecs, he was offered amnesty by Moctezuma II if he helped conquer the Tarascans, which he did. When the emperor asked him to take his sword against his homeland, he instead chose a ceremonial death for his honor and his country. Chained to a stone, he battled one Aztec warrior after another, killing many until exhaustion made him an easy kill. Tlaxcala never forgot. Today, it is Tlahuicole, not Cuauhtémoc, whom the Tlaxcaltecans revere.
When Cortés approached the borders of Tlaxcala, the council of chiefs, headed by Xicotenga the Elder, debated whether to confront the invaders or surrender. Many were fearful because of the horses. The giant “deer,” they said, became a single creature with the man. But Xicotenga’s son, Xicotenga the Younger, was unconvinced. These were mere men, he argued, and the deer were just animals unknown to them. The warrior argued that if a horse could be killed, then it was not some supernatural creature. Although the Tlaxcaltecans suffered large losses in the battle, Xicotenga killed a horse and turned the tide. Cortés sued for peace. His god charade was over.
The Tlaxcaltecans agreed to ally themselves with Spain on certain conditions, mainly retention of their territory and freedom from servitude and tribute. Spain for the most part honored their end of the contract. They did infringe on some territory, but Tlaxcala basically remained intact. The Tlaxcaltecans, unlike other indigenous peoples, were addressed as Don/Doña; they rode horses, wore boots, and given privileges reserved for Spaniards.
In 1591, the Spanish Crown asked the Tlaxcaltecans to colonize the hostile north and help subdue the local nomadic peoples. On July 9th, 1591, four hundred families, my grandmother’s forebears among them, departed northward. Every year, the people of Tlaxcala commemorated this event in the Festival of the Parting of 400 Families.
My grandmother’s people settled in the vicinity of Saltillo, Nueva Extremadura (Coahuila) and founded the town of San Esteban de Tlaxcala, and later she’d say that her family still had ancestral lands there. In 1800, a group of Tlaxcaltecans moved north, to the Villa of San Andres (Nava, Coahuila). The Villa de San Andres was first founded in 1753 but failed to take root and was essentially abandoned. In the waning days of Colonial Mexico, the Spanish crown determined to re-establish the town, most likely as a defensive settlement against the war-like, horse-riding Chichimecas (Apaches and Comanches, et al.).
The Tlaxcatecan forces served as auxiliaries in the War of Conquest. Source: Lienzo de Tlaxcala via Wikipedia
While investigating my family’s genealogy, I’ve recovered some of the names of Felicitas Peña’s Tlaxcatecan ancestors among them Don Ygnacio Ramos and Doña Juana Balbina. (One of Felicita’s Spanish ancestors, Juan Peña was also an early settler of Nava.) Spanish and Tlaxcaltecans settlers, besides land, were given a starter kit of sorts, consisting of a wagon, beast of burden, hardware, seed, and cattle. They were to provide their own weapons and horses and serve in the king’s militias.
Many of the men were killed by Chichimecas in ambushes and pitched battles. I’ve come across pages listing the dead of these battles. Some of the descriptions of the corpses are graphic accounts of mutilations and desecration of the dead. The nomadic Indians were fierce, brutal, and determined warriors, far from helpless victims of contemporary myths. Needless, to say, there was no love lost between the settlers and the Chichimecas. But, unlike others who, remembering the stories of their ancestors’ Indian wars as if they themselves had lived them, Felicitas never hated other Indians.
I always remember her being kind and generous to the Kickapoo whenever they---the Kickapoo--migrated back and forth from their land, Nacimiento, in Múzquiz and their lands in Texas. She was never openly affectionate or given to weeping like my grandfather who would cry if he sang a sad song. She had the taciturn manner of her native ancestors and retreated into her silences.
Sometimes, when she’d hear of another’s suffering, she’d murmur, “Pobre,” and seemed to drift back into the solitude of the forgone centuries of life in the harsh and unforgiving Extremadura, a land where time lost its significance, and all of the past seemed as if it were yesterday. Her own mother died at 28, and shortly thereafter her father was murdered. Shaped by sorrow, she is one of my heroes. From her I learned that despite hardship and violence, our hearts are still capable of love.
This all brings back the popular Mexican narratives. The fallacy of the Mexican (and, by extension, the Chicano) narrative is that it posits that our mestizaje is Aztec based, when it is diverse: Tarascan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Kickapoo, Maya, Otomi, Olmec, Toltec, and so on. The fallacy of all “race” based nationalistic narratives is, in fact, that they ignore the marginalized narratives, histories, and archeological evidence, which confirm that ethnic admixture was the norm.
The Tlaxcaltecans, for example, were a mixture of ancient Tlaxcaltecans, Otomis, and Olmecs. The Spanish were Celtic-Iberians, Phoenicians, Jews, Visigoths, Vandals, Moroccans, Arabs, Basques, Vikings, and Romans. It is fascinating to know our origins and take pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. However, other peoples, too, are equally enthused and proud of their ancestors.
This factor of the human condition being equal regardless of our origins, we (I hope) are entering into a new era, one that moves away from identity politics. Myself, I identify with classic critical thinkers of all backgrounds who love exploring new ideas and are inclined to deconstruction of conventional constructs. These are my people of choice. As for our biological identity, the empirical data reveals that there’s only one raza cósmica: Homo sapiens. Felicitas Peña understood this from the collective memory and wisdom of her people.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a retired Adjunct Professor at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, California, is author of several novels important to American literature, including Doctor Magdalena, The Stillness of Love and Exile, and Chronicles of Air and Dreams, and a children's book, The Adventures of Wyglaf the Wyrm. Copyright Rosa Martha Villarreal, 2017.