A diversity that mystifies and delights

Fall Books

New Latina/o authors are creating intimacy with the reader in the context of a complex diversity that has required two neologisms, Latin@ and Chican@. That requirement emphasizes how incomprehensible diversity can be in Latina/Chicana literature. It confuses yet mystifies readers.

See also: "Seven different words for 'cookie' Latina/o identity in the United States" by Susana L. Gallardo

For example, a Muslim student in the Chicana literature class I teach was angry after reading a novel by Denise Chávez, Loving Pedro Infante. He said the book’s contents only made Latinas despicable. He didn’t like the way the characters spoke about sex or religion, even though the author intended it to be tongue in cheek. It was too crass for him. Why was there a comparison of the main character’s moral and physical attributes to those of Santa Teresa de Avila merely because they had the same name? He would never compare a prophet to a common human being.

Diversity baffled another conservative student. She called Mother Tongue, by Demetria Martinez, a Chicana author with Jewish ancestry, offensive. The student was upset because Martinez’s main character, Mary/María, objectifies and makes exotic her Salvadoran refugee lover: “Tibetan eyelids, Spanish hazel irises, Mayan cheekbones dovetailing delicately as matchsticks. I don’t know why I had expected Olmec African features and a warrior’s helmet as in those sculpted basalt heads, big as boulders, strewn on their cheeks in Mesoamerican jungles.” Yet many publishers didn’t see the book that way. They told Martinez her novel was “too middle class.”

Books reviewed
By Denise Chávez
Published by Washington Square Press, $22.95

By Demetria Martinez
Published by One World, $12.95

By Marjorie Agosín
Published by University of Georgia Press, $15.95

By Sandra Cisneros
Published by Vintage, $14.95

By Helena María Viramontes
Published by Washington Square Press, $15

By Rudolfo Anaya
Published by Grand Central Publishing, $13.95

By Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published by Harper Perennial, $12.95

By Stella Pope Duarte
Published by University of Arizona Press, $16.95

By Norma Elia Cantú
Published by University of New Mexico Press, $17.95

By Rosario Ferré
Published by University of Nebraska Press, $15.95

The point about Latina diversity is this: When we talk about Latina writers we are crushing more than half a continent into one mouthful. Latinas’ ancestors come from 19 countries and the United States.

Consequently, the complexity of Jewish Latina Marjorie Agosín’s Cartographies: Meditations on Travel, cannot be compared to Sandra Cisneros’ major work, Caramelo. Cartographies is about the individual maps of our lives, the maps each of our families designs for us from the moment we are born. Caramelo, by contrast, is a labyrinthine spiritual walk through the life of a young Latina (Lala/Celaya). She is figuring out her family’s migration and immigration by deconstructing the strands of her family history.

Helena María Viramontes, in her recent and sophisticated novel Their Dogs Came With Them, deals with the complexity of the Latino communities by not saying who these people she is describing are biologically, ethnically or otherwise. The story takes place in Los Angeles and the title of the book alludes to the initial encounter between indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadores. The Indians thought the Spaniard’s horses were magnificent dogs, thus the psychological conquest, but she does not state this in the novel. Instead, we must extract it from our reading.

Nonetheless, issues of race, class, sexuality, gender and especially religion (in her description of the new Christian churches emerging in the inner cities), abound. Protestantism has never been addressed quite so openly in Chicana literature before. We have seen Protestant Latinos brought to us by other authors (including Rigoberto González and Ben Sáenz), but characters have not been keenly developed in the past, or placed at the center of the discourse, as they are in Their Dogs Came With Them. Traditionally we have drawn on works such as Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, a beautiful but dated picture of Latinos and spirituality in the landscape of Latina literature.

There are reading possibilities listed in this article, but also, unfortunately, amazing books that are published once and then become unavailable.

This is particularly troubling with novels like Carry Me Like Water by Ben Sáenz. It deals with physical and mental challenges in its characters as well as homelessness and identity on the border. Sáenz is a prolific novelist and former Catholic priest who engages Christianity in a “hands-on” voice.

When Latina and Chicana authors make us cry, then laugh, the relationship is intimate. In her 2008 If I Die in Juárez, Stella Pope Duarte cannot tell us about the murders of young girls in the Juárez desert unless she first recreates the characters for us, and makes us laugh with them and know their daily life and struggles, and the people they loved, before they were killed.

It was Norma Elia Cantú who set a precedent for mestiza spirituality long ago -- in her lovely and complicated autobio-ethnography, Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera. The child protagonist, Azucena, speaks to us about cultural religious practices as well as Catholic celebrations in the Latino community, and describes for us images that have us hold hands with indigenous practices, right there in Laredo, Texas.

So, it is only by knowing that familiarity brings humor and closeness that we can understand the surrealistic descriptions Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré brings to us in her short story collection, The Youngest Doll, or even understand Denise Chavez’s characters’ intimate comparison with Santa Teresa in Loving Pedro Infante. Extreme familial relationship with religion from a heavily Catholic group can often be misinterpreted as disrespect, instead of familiarity and a deep form of communication within their spirituality.

In Mother Tongue, Demetria Martinez described the nature of the search. “North American to the core, a consumer, I saw religion as a bazaar from which I could pick and choose. At the same time I envied the women I watched leave morning and evening Mass, their faces wrinkled as ancient decrees. I wanted their faith, a massive doorway to stand under during life’s earthquakes.”

That doorway leads easily back into the diversity that is sometimes incomprehensible, but delights, informs and mystifies readers -- along with their crying and laughing.

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs is associate professor of modern languages and women studies and the director of both the Latin American studies program and the diversity, citizenship and social justice core track at Seattle University.

Inventing the right words

The diversity that is Latina/Chicana and Latino/Chicano literature requires, and therefore has spawned, two neologisms: Latin@ and Chican@. These are not typographical errors. Simply said, and this is a quite recent development, in Spain and some parts of Latin America, the @ is being used to refer both to feminine and masculine nouns, in order to avoid writing “Latino/Latina” or “Chicano/Chicana.” By introducing them now can we delve into the diversity of the literature and presence of religion in current Chican@ and Latin@ literature. Bear with me.

Latin@ is used for any person whose ancestors come from Latin America. It does not include Spanish immigrants. Latin@ could be indigenous, or from any other ethnicity -- immigrated into the United States from Latin America.

Hispanic -- a term U.S. social services and government agencies coined in the 1970s to make it easier for them to cluster all supposed Spanish-speaking people into one category -- is becoming less and less acceptable to educated Latinos. That is because it names people solely on the basis of speaking the Spanish language, or having ancestors from Spain. The term does not work because most Latin Americans are mestizos/as, or many are indigenous who do not speak Spanish.

Chican@ is specific to people whose ancestors come from Mexico, or whose families have lived in the Southwest since it became the United States in 1848. Chican@ represents the largest number of Latinos in American society.

-- Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs

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