Lively, thought-provoking interviews with twenty-one "second wave" Chicano/a poets, fiction writers, dramatists, documentary filmmakers, and playwrights.
Since the 1980s, a prolific "second wave" of Chicano/a writers and artists has tremendously expanded the range of genres and subject matter in Chicano/a literature and art. Building on the pioneering work of their predecessors, whose artistic creations were often tied to political activism and the civil rights struggle, today's Chicano/a writers and artists feel free to focus as much on the aesthetic quality of their work as on its social content. They use novels, short stories, poetry, drama, documentary films, and comic books to shape the raw materials of life into art objects that cause us to participate empathetically in an increasingly complex Chicano/a identity and experience.
This book presents far-ranging interviews with twenty-one "second wave" Chicano/a poets, fiction writers, dramatists, documentary filmmakers, and playwrights. Some are mainstream, widely recognized creators, while others work from the margins because of their sexual orientations or their controversial positions. Frederick Luis Aldama draws out the artists and authors on both the aesthetic and the sociopolitical concerns that animate their work. Their conversations delve into such areas as how the artists' or writers' life experiences have molded their work, why they choose to work in certain genres and how they have transformed them, what it means to be Chicano/a in today's pluralistic society, and how Chicano/a identity influences and is influenced by contact with ethnic and racial identities from around the world.
- Introducing a Second Wave of Chicano/a Visual/Verbal Artists
- Writers/Artists, Alphabetical Listing
- Francisco X. Alarcón
- Alfred Arteaga
- Ricardo Bracho
- Denise Chávez
- Lucha Corpi
- Dagoberto Gilb
- Jaime Hernandez (of Los Bros Hernandez)
- Juan Felipe Herrera
- Richard Montoya (of Culture Clash)
- Pat Mora
- Cherríe Moraga
- Alejandro Morales
- Michael Nava
- Daniel Olivas
- Cecile Pineda
- Lourdes Portillo
- Luis J. Rodríguez
- Benjamin Alire Sáenz
- Luis Alberto Urrea
- Alfredo Véa Jr.
- Alma Luz Villanueva
- Writers/Artists by Main Genre
- Francisco X. Alarcón
- Alfred Arteaga
- Juan Felipe Herrera
- Pat Mora
- Benjamin Alire Sáenz
- Denise Chávez
- Lucha Corpi
- Alejandro Morales
- Michael Nava
- Cecile Pineda
- Alfredo Véa Jr.
- Alma Luz Villanueva
- Short Stories
- Dagoberto Gilb
- Daniel Olivas
- Luis J. Rodríguez
- Dramatic and Performance Arts
- Ricardo Bracho
- Cherríe Moraga
- Richard Montoya (of Culture Clash)
- Jaime Hernandez (of Los Bros Hernandez) (comic books)
- Lourdes Portillo (documentary film)
- Luis Alberto Urrea (nonfiction nature / travel writing)
Juan Bruce-Novoa's Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview, which identified a first wave of post-1960s/1970s writers, was followed by a deluge of new Chicano/a voices. Today, Chicano/a visual and verbal artists—novelists, short story and children's book writers, comic-book storytellers, poets, and playwrights, as well as performance and film artists—dazzle mainstream and multiethnic readers and audiences alike; their creatively crafted worlds, born out of a complex Chicano/a point of view, open their readers' and audiences' eyes to new and different ways of experiencing and understanding the world we inhabit. This "second wave" of Chicano/a sculptors of themes and forms has provided us with fresh new visions while fundamentally reshaping the contours of today's American cultural landscapes.
Many of the writers who make up the second wave of Chicano/a crafters of verbal/visual narratives are included here. They represent an array of artists who work in a variety of genres, including novel, short story, poetry, drama, documentary film, and comic book. They have succeeded in creatively reframing reality using strict and compelling means. They have developed an artistic ethos through a creative dialogue with the courageous artists of the first wave, who forged the instruments needed to make starkly visible a Chicano/a experience and imaginary: Alurista, Rudolfo Anaya, Ron Arias, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Harry Gamboa Jr., Miguel Méndez, José Montoya, Estella Portillo, Bernice Zamora, Patssi Valdez, and José Antonio Villarreal, among many others.
From this perspective, Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia could be considered a follow-up to Bruce-Novoa's collection of interviews with the first wave of Chicano/a artists (mainly writers). As Bruce-Novoa said, those writers represented "what we can call, perhaps, the first generation or, as Tino Villanueva suggests, the generation of Chicano renaissance writing" (30). Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia also exemplifies the way a later generation of verbal/visual artists deals formally and conceptually with the aesthetic and sociopolitical dilemmas of our society and with the rich landscapes that make up the great canvas of past and present cultural arts worldwide.
Of late, several important interview collections that texture such emergent second-wave writers have been published and should be acknowledged. Bruce Allen Dick's A Poet's Truth: Conversations with Latino/Latina Poets (2003) frames its questions around the role of poetry in a range of emerging and established Chicano/a, Puerto Rican, and Cuban poets. Two other collections of interviews that shed new light on the formation of Latino/a writers are Karin Rosa Ikas's Chicana Ways: Conversations with Ten Chicana Writers (2001) and Bridget Kevane and Juanita Heredia's Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers (2000). These two collections make visible the significant contributions of Latina writers, an especially poignant task given the traditional exclusion of Latina writers from the mainstream publishing marketplace and from traditional American literary scholarship. Although these collections focus on fiction writers and poets, they provide great insight into how Latinos/as generally continue to encounter a racist and sexist society.
Indeed, Latino/a artists face many obstacles when trying to clear the space for creating, producing, and publishing their work. While the representational map has changed significantly since the 1960s, Chicano/a writers, artists, directors, and pensadores continue to encounter a deep-seated bigotry in the cultural marketplace. Historically, such bigotry has often worn the garb of "aesthetics" to exclude Chicano/a artists and pensadores. In the name of aesthetics—a sense of art containing an inherent beauty—non-Anglo and non-European art has been excluded from the canons of literature, drama, film, and fine art. Not surprisingly, when the first wave of Chicano/a artists and intellectual scholars began to come into their own during the surge of late 1960s civil rights activism, they protested not only social and material inequality but also exclusionary cultural practices: the Eurocentric identification of a lowbrow (bad/street/impure/political) vs. highbrow (good/museum/pure/apolitical) aesthetics. Because this formulation of aesthetics had been deployed by media pundits, editors, and academic scholars to exclude Chicano/a, African American, Asian American, and Native American artists, the new generation linked aesthetics with an Anglo dominance at home and an imperialist stance abroad as well as with a more expanded view of European colonial violence and genocide: its identification of European "culture" as a tool to "civilize" the "savage" New World Other. (Many commentators have also discussed how ideals of "reason"—codified as European—worked to justify the enslavement of indigenous Americans of the Americas as well as Africans.)
Identified as an ingredient in a EuroAnglo-American culture linked to acts of exploitation and genocide, "aesthetics" also came to identify a Western privileging of the individual over the collective. For Chicano/a artist-activists like Alurista, José Montoya, Patssi Valdez, and Harry Gamboa Jr., to disrupt an individualist and highbrow Western aesthetics through collective-based and/or community-focused art was to enact a political activism.
Largely as a result of the gains achieved by the struggles of the pioneer Chicano/a artist-activists, the new wave of Chicano/a authors and artists who came into their own in the mid-1980s was able to explore more freely all available genres and storytelling techniques in their aesthetic reframing of reality. Moreover, the weaving of political concerns into their textual worlds could be lighter and much more nuanced. In the interviews in this book, aesthetics becomes the way a given artist reframes life (personal or other) with a reader/audience in mind rather than an old-school, highbrow vs. lowbrow, exclusionary cultural paradigm. This is not to say that this second wave of artists is not political or that the struggle to clear representational space is over—the literary marketplace is rife with prejudice—but rather that the aesthetic reorganizing of reality does not need to be understood as a form of political activism. As the artists themselves inform us, we need to pay attention to the specific conditions in which society and culture shape a certain artist, writer, or film director and her or his art. Given the present social context, it is necessary to address issues of racism and heterosexism that both Chicano and Chicana verbal/visual artists encounter and that continue to be among their central impulses, the springboards that often propel them into their work.
The many voices represented in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia shed a different light on verbal/visual art and aesthetics, viewing aesthetics less as an evaluative schema that measures good and bad art and more as it functions to reframe objects (real subjects and real experiences that make up everyday reality), to engage us cognitively and emotionally in ways that will produce pleasure and pain and that might potentially reorient our perspective on those objects—and therefore on reality. As each of the artists discusses, such a reframing of reality does distinguish art-objects from the real world that exists independently. Yet such a reframing, because it offers the opportunity for us to imagine other ways of seeing and empathetically participating, can ultimately connect us to the material facts that make up our reality as lived outside the art-object.
Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia accounts for these "second-wave" artists, who can now fully partake of the full range of aesthetic devices available to convey an increasingly complex Chicano/a identity and experience. As each artist reveals in this book, the representation of Chicano/a culture had already begun to explode when they began working, offering them the freedom to disrupt representations of Chicano/a identity and experience and unfix it as a static entity. Chicano/a identity is continually morphing, incorporating and rejecting other cultural artifacts and forms. Novelists like Alfredo Véa, Alejandro Morales, and Cecile Pineda, for example, invent storyworlds that depict how cultures have more in common than not when different characters of different racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identification encounter one another. All of these issues and many more are addressed by the artists figured in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia.
To put it simply, along with a concern with social issues—usually expressed at the level of theme and characterization—there should be a concern for how a given artist (from novelist to comic-book storyteller) organizes his or her work to give shape to the issues and dilemmas he/she is addressing and to engage the reader's and audience's imagination most effectively. Addressing these issues of aesthetics in the interviews offers readers the opportunity to get a better grasp of the artist and his or her work: the way he or she reshapes and hybridizes genre, manipulates time and space, and textures point of view. The artist does not exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum, cut off from the world; the artist breathes the same air we breathe, suffers the indignities we all suffer, and looks ahead as we all do. However, as an artist, the novelist, poet, short story writer, comic-book writer, or filmmaker is committed to transforming the details of the world into a highly organized and beautifully crafted art to engage an audience.
As a response to and engagement with a new wave of verbal/visual artists, Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia aims to give all readers interested in Chicano/a novels, short stories, poetry, comics, poetry, drama, and visual docu-journalism insight into this variegated palette. As such, this collection has a formal pedagogical value. For those of us teaching courses on contemporary Chicano/a literature and film in high school and college classrooms, the collected interviews—including the introduction, which contextualizes the artist and his or her contributions, and the bibliographic information on each artist—could be a valuable ancillary tool for enriching interpretation of primary texts.
There are other publications that have this same pedagogical impulse. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several introductions to Chicano/a literature appeared, including Francisco Jiménez's The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature (1979), Charles Tatum's Chicano Literature (1982), Luis Leal et al.'s A Decade of Chicano Literature: 1970-1979 (1982), Vernon E. Lattin's Contemporary Chicano Fiction (1986), and Carl and Paula Shirley's Understanding Chicano Literature (1988). Since then, there has been a marked absence of comprehensive books on Chicano/a literature; instead, there have been books that take the field for granted to some degree, either focusing on specific genres like poetry or drama or engaging it with other literary traditions, such as Native American literature. Harold Bloom's edited volume of critical essays, Hispanic-American Writers (1998), comes readily to mind. So, too, does U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers (2000). However, Bloom's selection of essays not only covers mostly the first-wave writers—Ron Arias, José Antonio Villarreal, Tomás Rivera, and some Puerto Rican authors—but is too overly invested in his patrilineal-biased "anxiety of influence" agenda. Rather than enriching and complicating our understanding of the Latino/a literary landscape, he reduces it to original (father) versus new (son) binary oppositions. U.S. Latino Literature does provide a useful pedagogical handbook that is extremely comprehensive, mapping the grand territory of Chicano/a literature from the late nineteenth century (María Amparo Ruiz de Burton) right up to the late 1980s (Sandra Cisneros). Its long sweep is crucial for understanding the extensive genealogy that predates post-1960s Chicano literary renaissance, but it often misses out on the important details that make up a post-1980s Chicano/a literary landscape.
Students need—and usually demand—to know the big picture. Hence, it is important to present them with a more complete sense of literary genealogy, which is daily filling in newly discovered writers long forgotten. It is significant for them to know, for example, that the first Chicano novel was not born with Villarreal's 1959 publication of Pocho but nearly a century earlier with novels such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's Squatter and the Don (1885). It uncovers retrospective affiliations that shed new light on more recent literary creations, making for a contemporary Chicano/a letters that is growing, as Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez states, "almost as much toward its past as it is expanding toward its future" (Life in Search of Readers 5). It gives a sense of depth and breadth to a tradition of Chicano/a letters. Students and engaged readers of Chicano/a literature need to view this ever-expanding picture. Arte Público's work at recovering a "Hispanic literary heritage" has proved crucial for this effort; its recent anthology Herencia (2002), edited by Nicolás Kanellos, traces a genealogy through recovered texts that is as important as the work that has been achieved in recovering an African American literary tradition. (See Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez's critical overview of the "Hispanic Recovery Project" in his 2003 book, Life in Search of Readers.) And José F. Aranda's analysis that places recovered Chicano/a work from the nineteenth century alongside writers like Cotton Mather, has pedagogical value in the way it complicates the picture we have of early American letters (When We Arrive: A New Literary History of Mexican America, 2003). As we are confirming daily, Chicano letters began to form long before el movimiento of the 1960s.
As the interviews collected in this book unfold, each verbal/visual artist gives a sense of his or her place within this long line of Chicano/a arts and letters. Each is acutely aware of how earlier forms and themes influenced his or her creations. However, each is also aware that while such a genealogy of Chicano/a arts and letters is extending deeper into the past and is more complicated and varied in genre and storytelling shape than was once thought, much of the influence has not come directly from this legacy—at least in terms of form—but from engaging with all literature, art, film, music, and other genres, regardless of their origin. Yes, these verbal/visual artists are aware that their work is now being read retrospectively within a growing genealogy of Chicano/a arts and letters. Yes, each responds to and develops the work of the first generation of contemporary artists. Yes, all are also equally aware that their apprenticeship as verbal/visual artists has been bound to the work done by many generations of European, American, Latin American, Russian, Japanese, and other writers.
Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia helps direct us to reading—really reading—Chicano/a novels, poetry, short story, comic books, drama, and docudrama film. Reading well is not synonymous with sleuthing out details that would allow the establishment of a supposed one-to-one correspondence between a character or narrator and the author/director. For this reason, the questions posed to the verbal/visual artists represented here shy away from purely biographical inquiries. There is biography—either in the introductory comments to the artist or in the interview itself—but only to the extent that it serves to flesh out our sense of the artist's circumstances and the particulars of his or her work. The way this information is presented disqualifies any attempt to reduce the aesthetic object created to direct expressions of an author's experience.
The mini-introduction to each verbal/visual artist works in two ways: first, as biographical sketch, and second, to fill in the blanks (thematic concerns, trials and tribulations of publishing or producing, interpretations, etc.) not covered during the course of an interview. The goal is to give as complete a picture of the artist and his or her work as possible by custom tailoring the introduction to the interview and the interview to the questions generated from the artist's corpus. The trick was to relay those insights gleaned from my conversations with writers to shed light on our reading, but not to encourage the author-intention paradigm that ultimately leads to interpretive dead ends. To proceed the other way around—to try to establish a direct link between the author/director and a character or a narrator in a given work—is to run the risk of ultimately ghettoizing Chicano/a creativity and imaginative potential. There are millions of ways of being Chicano/a; millions of representations of such experiences are possible. To write is to create possible worlds, and there are no known limits to those worlds. Luis Rodriguez is a straight Chicano biographically shaped by his experiences in East L.A. in the 1960s, experiences that led him to gangbanging and jail time. However, he is first and foremost a writer: the Luis Rodriguez who could author, for example, a powerful short story told from the point of view of lesbian and straight Chicanas in "Las Chicas Chuecas" (in The Republic of East L.A., 2002). Dagoberto Gilb worked as a journeyman carpenter for sixteen years, an immensely rich experience in the world of labor that nowadays is more and more foreign to fiction writers, and one that has contributed powerfully to Gilb's worldview and his art. Gilb, however, is also the creator of narrative fictions that explore the lives of many in all walks of life. The interviews aim to open readers' eyes to the huge and ever-expanding terrain available to these writers, one that is unrestricted by gender, sexual, racial, or ethnic stereotypes.
The artist, of course, is always at center stage. Without him or her, there is no textual corpus, no literature, no artistic representation, and no creation of possible worlds. However, it is pedagogically important to lead students toward asking questions that extend beyond the author. This is not to propose a poststructuralist "death of the author" paradigm that gives license to read any meaning into a given text. Rather, it is important to help guide students to the way a given story is organized as a composite of elements—point of view, tempo, mood, language, emotions, thoughts, worldviews—by a visual or verbal artist who may or may not have had the same experiences as those represented in what he or she has written. While poems, novels, short stories, comic books, dramatic performances, and docudrama films are saturated with many-layered meanings and thus offer themselves to a variety of interpretations, such artistic works are nonetheless, as the interviewed artists attest, highly organized and deeply thought out constructions; they are not unshaped, endless mounds of mud. And such artistic works impose limits to readers' interpretations. Each of the artists in this collection—in one way or another—addresses the issue of how students can understand how a story engages their imagination at the same time that it disengages them from the inclination to conflate fiction with biography or attested reality, or to give sole credence to an author-intention model of interpretation. So while texts are open to an a priori indeterminable number of interpretations, the literary work of art, as the artists themselves suggest, determines to a certain extent which are legitimate and which are not. With this assumption in mind, each artist speaks to how he or she organizes the elements that make up his or her fictions and poetics (those rhythms, metaphors, and lyrical lines that make up Alfred Arteaga's dislocasia and Francisco X. Alarcón's speakerly codex, for example) in order to strike a balance between the reader's engagement and disengagement while he or she is immersed in a fictional world.
The understanding of how contemporary Chicano/a artists balance the social with the aesthetic dimensions that inform their work also leads to more general questions about the social and personal value of imaginatively entering the reframed worlds of Chicano/a novels, short stories, comics, poetry, drama, and film. Why do such Chicano/a artists choose these modes of expression rather than, say, that of a political pamphlet, newspaper or magazine article, philosophical treatise, or ethnographic monograph? As each of these visual/verbal artists attests, innovative narratives such as the novel, comic book, or dramatic production play with showing and telling, time and space, and therefore carry a certain plasticity of form, language, and meaning that is uniquely able to grasp the unlimited variety and richness of the human experience and condition. The novelists, poets, short story writers, and other artists represented here demonstrate how invented narrators and characters, situated in time and place, make choices that are filled with moral dilemmas and that ultimately lead to specific consequences. Through vicarious experience, the reader/audience can enter into those creatively crafted worlds and judge the circumstances and choices, leading to a greater self-understanding and compassion. Each artist, then, in his or her own way, celebrates the reader/audience (White or Brown, straight or queer, male or female) who has the imaginative ability to enter such crafted spaces and acquire impressions, images, emotions, thoughts, knowledge, and experiences that enhance his or her capacity for empathy and appreciation.
Each of the interviews collected here celebrates the craft of writing and visually creating not as a "prison house of language" (in Fredric Jameson's famous and infamous phrase), but as the space of creative emancipation for their people (real and imagined characters and narrators) and also for the reader/audience. It is not that these visual and verbal scribes tell us how to live our lives or even how society should be organized, but their work offers the opportunity for us to broaden our imaginative scope and social purview. Of course, as these artists also comment, not all readers and audiences will be moved by their worlds; many good readers and educated audiences might not be touched by exposure to an artist's work. Nonetheless, the artists continue to create in the hope that, while their work might not make a reader a better union organizer, it can offer a reader the opportunity to learn more about the world and its vast array of human experience and behavior.
Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia departs significantly in method from other recent collections, such as Ikas's Chicana Ways and Kevane and Heredia's Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, and their predecessor, Bruce-Novoa's Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. First, as already mentioned, the questions posed here to the writers explore both the aesthetic and the sociopolitical, the form and the context. Second, the questions are posed to both Chicano and Chicana, to self-identified straight and queer, and to creators of written, oral performance, and visual works—with no sense of privileging one gender or genre over another. Third, unlike Chicano Authors in particular, these interviews took place face-to-face. Bruce-Novoa's fourteen interviews were not interviews in the strict sense of the word. Interview (a word dating from the early sixteenth century and borrowed from the French language, derived from the Latin inter "between" and Latin videre "see") means in essence to meet in person for a conversation in which facts or statements are elicited from both interviewer and interviewee. Bruce-Novoa—and he discuses this candidly—did not have the money to travel and meet with his authors, so he devised a list of survey questions that he then mailed to a mostly straight male cadre of writers. They responded dutifully with eloquent written responses to the same set of twenty-four questions. His questions ranged from "Where were you born?" and "Describe your family background" to "When did you first begin to write?" and "What books did you read in your formative years?" His questions were also designed to elicit information from interviewees about their politics, the way they identified as writers, and their assessment of Chicano literature (including "Who are the leaders among Chicano writers, and why?"). Bruce-Novoa apologizes for the rigid format, asking his reader to keep in mind that "time and finances made it the only recourse." Unfortunately, this lack of means resulted in an artificial uniformity that makes the interviews somewhat staid and, because they all respond to the same set of questions, sometimes redundant.
A direct, person-to-person interview, of course, is the ideal. For this to happen, one must have time and money or be situated well geographically. The more fortunate authors who publish with presses with deep pockets tour major metropolitan centers to sell recently published books. During the making of this book, I was living in both Berkeley and Denver, where I was variously researching, writing, and teaching during the year, so it was simply a matter of keeping a finger on the book-tour pulse and then throwing the net out. The interview with Denise Chávez, for example, took place in San Francisco during her nationwide book tour to promote Loving Pedro Infante (2001). Of course, there are many writers and artists who lack such support. However, writers such as Alfred Arteaga, Michael Nava, Lucha Corpi, Francisco X. Alarcón, Cherríe Moraga, Lourdes Portillo, and Cecile Pineda are all Bay Area denizens, making the meetings with these authors fairly easy to arrange. But not all writers tour their work or live within arm's reach. Many of the interviews did require travel. For example, to interview Juan Felipe Herrera, I made a day trip to Fresno, a 400-mile round-trip car journey; to meet with many of the others I took airplanes, often scheduling interviews during vacations with family and visits with friends.
For the personal meeting to go well, all homework must be done. One has to study each writer carefully and all the material that will make up the interview questions: memorize works and dates, determine major thematic components, define formal characteristics, obtain a sense of the worldviews expressed, and take note of writerly trends. This means a huge time commitment that precedes the interview itself. Ideally, one must read all work by a given author; write up notes on style, theme, characterization, and major trends; and then memorize this outline. With a template of the author's work and life set in one's mind, as the interview unfolds, one can plug in elements taken from the outline to direct the flow of the conversation. The interview then becomes both an improvised conversation between the interviewer and the author and a constant process of scripting and rescripting questions as one moves around the information contained in this memorized template. This process allows one to probe deeply into the author's work, learn of his or her points of view about it, and learn the circumstances in which he or she has written and produced it.
This way of customizing questions that are uniquely suitable for a certain author has another important advantage. Because visual/verbal artists do not always respond in ways that we anticipate, this procedure gives the interviewer the freedom to move away from scripted questions as the situation dictates. So, for example, after an author clearly avoids responding to interpretive questions about his or her work, it is best to move to that part of the interview-template that deals with, say, experiences with publishing. The template also helps the interviewer to be able to move around the author's work—and not always in chronological sequence. Sometimes it is more effective to ask an author about his or her most recent work, in order to grease and move the cogs, than to ask questions about earlier work that may have been written long ago. On other occasions, asking questions about a particularly powerful poem, iconoclastic short story, or even biographical experience works well to jump-start the conversation. On a couple of occasions, I even asked questions about the book cover and insert art—something out of the ordinary line of questioning—as a way to position the authors outside their work so as to gently push them to reflect on their work with critical distance. Finally, the ultimate challenge was to have an informed conversation with the author that best revealed his or her deep wisdom and varied experiences as an artist.
The face-to-face interview usually reveals much more about visual/verbal artists than the words they speak; it gives the interviewer a sense of the artist's worldview and experiences of life, perceived in gestures (the twinkle of an eye, a mischievous smile, quick or slow hand or arm movements, the rubbing of hands, a frown or other indication of seriousness), body markings (tattoos and scars), and poise. Many interviews took place in homes that revealed much about the author's aesthetic taste, travels, indifference or attachment to material possessions, and the environment in which the creating process occurs. Studies and work places ranged from those with several desks used variously to write by hand and to type, to those with one writing surface and a large window. Other interviews took place in cafés, restaurants, and bars that also revealed much about the individual author/artist. When I met with Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, it was in a bustling Latino bar in East Los Angeles; the animated background together with a couple of Dos XX revealed less a parodic performance artist and more an individual moved by a complex—and self-reflexively contradictory—range of human emotions and experiences.
Of the twenty-one fiction writers, dramatists/performers, and poets whose interviews are collected in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia, some are better known in the mainstream than others, and some are more marginalized within Chicano/a letters than others. However, they fully represent the wide spectrum of verbal and visual art that makes up Chicano/a arts and letters today. There are some obvious omissions. For example, better-known writers such as Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, and Richard Rodriguez were not included. This is in part because they already receive more than their due attention in the academy and mainstream: interviews, scholarly essays, and biographical information abound. While some authors interviewed in this book have become more recognized in the mainstream, others do not get as much play. Often this is the result of their refusal to write according to formula or to fan controversy. The artists in this collection often explore hands-off themes as well as constantly confronting and reforming genre, style, and characterization. Some choose to craft forms in the already marginalized domains of poetry, drama, and documentary film. In a marketplace where hackneyed formulas ensure monetary support and where best-seller lists are almost without exception enumerations of easily digestible narratives—not to mention where overwhelming prejudice rules decisions about publication—the artists collected here have had to surmount huge obstacles to make their work known. It is to be hoped that this collection will assist their efforts.
A few of the interviews collected here have appeared previously in various magazines and newspapers, either as much shortened questions and answers or as interview-essays. For Chicano/a artists especially, it is important that their work become visible. Publishing interviews and reviews in media with large circulation and teaching their works help to achieve this visibility. Whether it is to sell books or to get audiences out to see drama and film productions, artists need recognition. To create, as these artists remind us, one must have the time to create. This means selling enough novels, short stories, or comic books or producing enough drama and film performances to make a living, or finding a career that pays the bills and allows one the time to write. Some artists take teaching jobs in universities that grant time off during the summer and winter. Others, such as Pat Mora, Cherríe Moraga, and Ricardo Bracho, heavily work the national lecture circuit. Jaime Hernandez of Los Bros Hernandez picks up extra work inking panels for mainstream comic-book publishers. Practicing lawyers Alfredo Véa, Daniel Olivas, and Michael Nava must make time while working jobs far removed from thinking about the crafting of fiction.
To be a novelist, dramatist, or other verbal artist is not only about being dedicated to the craft. It is to choose a difficult and fragile path in life. Of course, the payoff can be great, as these authors attest, for in creating fiction, poetry, comics, drama, and documentary film, they transform the most banal and sublime details that make up everyday life into worlds we can share in and vividly experience. By detailing and inventing new landscapes, they think about our world deeply, offering important insights and treasure troves of experience to those of us ready to listen. Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia provides a forum for such writers.
Thumbnail Sketch of Contemporary Chicano/a Letters
The authors/artists collected in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia work within a wealth of genres, such as poetry, autobiography, drama, novel, comics, short story, and documentary film. Their careers as artists began as early as the 1980s, and they all continue to publish, produce, and perform today. To understand better the work of those interviewed in this collection, I offer below a brief overview of contemporary Chicano/a letters.
Juan Bruce-Novoa anticipated that, with the arrival of new generations of writers, the concerns of Chicano/a authors would change. This has certainly proven to be the case. He also pointed out that while "the dimensions of that space will alter" (30), such literary new arrivals "will not cancel the significance of the pioneering efforts of these first writers, even though their works may be superseded" (30). It is true that many of the authors who made up the first wave no longer write, and it is also arguable that their works have been superseded. However, while the sociopolitical issues that were central to the likes of José Montoya and Bernice Zamora—who sought to make visible the plight of the Chicano in their embracing of a raza poetics—might not appeal to readers nowadays, their works certainly continue to provide a reflective surface for authors and artists working today to mirror, with a difference, their own concerns.
Such post-1960s pioneers include, but are not limited to, José Antonio Villarreal, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Estella Portillo Trambley, Bernice Zamora, Ernesto Galarza, Rudolfo A. Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Aristeo Brito, Isabella Ríos, Alurista, and Luis Valdez. Their work covers the full range of literary genres, but mostly gravitates around the artistic representation of la causa: to texture the migrant worker experience, to depict the alienation and estrangement of urban Chicanos, and to celebrate the symbolic reclamation of the Southwest (Aztlán) by positively evoking a Náhuatl spiritual tradition and an Amerindian heritage. Aztlán functioned as a mythical space that, as Rafael Pérez-Torres sums up in his essay "Refiguring Aztlán" (2000), "served as a metaphor for connection and unity [and also] served to contest notions of national identity and place defined by hegemonic discourses at the social—and most particularly—cultural levels" (103). (As often happens, there are exceptions. Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, John Rechy, and Floyd Salas all wrote narrative fictions that turned away from subjects or themes that towed a raza sociopolitical agenda.) And as I summarize elsewhere concerning this first wave of critique and resistance, "Chicano/a activist intellectuals sought to intervene primarily at the political and cultural levels" ("Chicano/a Studies," 94). For example, in 1967, Corky Gonzalez published his raza-epic poem, "I am Joaquín"; in 1970, Abelardo Delgado published the Chicano Manifesto; and in 1971, the Chicano poet known as Alurista published Floricanto en Aztlán (with Quinto Sol, the first Chicano press), in which he proposed that a bond be created between aesthetic acts and political activism in order to reclaim territorial rights and thus establish in the Southwest a Chicano nation informed by mestizo (Amerindian Aztec/Mayan and Spanish) culture. In 1971, Rudolfo A. Anaya published Bless Me, Última, organizing his narrative around dream sequences that work not just as a literary device, but as a way to conjure up the powerful, sociopolitically infused Aztlán iconography of his day (four rivers connecting and the myth of the golden carp).
However, by the end of the 1970s, Chicano critics such as Arturo Islas and Luis Leal were already growing weary of Aztlán as the sanctioned model for Chicano/a artistic expression. In 1974, Islas expostulated in the journal Miquiztli: A Journal of Arte, Poesía, Cuento, y Canto (published at Stanford University): "More often than not, much of the fiction we do have is document, and sometimes not very well written document. Much of what is passed off as literature is a compendium of folklore, religious superstition, and recipes for tortillas. All well and good, but it is not literature." Similarly, in 1979, in his essay "The Problem of Identifying Chicano Literature," Luis Leal asked, "Why should the Chicano experience be limited to the campesino struggle, the description of life in the barrio, or the social confrontation with the majority culture? Why can it not go beyond to include the universal nature of man?" (3). Though both Islas and Leal reaffirmed the bilingual technique of creating new, bicultural images and forms, both had begun to advocate the need for a truly boundless creative space, where writers and artists could explore all facets of Chicano/a identity and experience, especially within the U.S./Mexican borderland area where culture, history, and racial identification (Mexican, Amerindian, and Anglo) intersected. Both Islas and Leal pleaded in favor of a Chicano-informed literary landscape that would lift "the regional to a universal level" so that it could take its "place alongside the literatures of the world" (Leal 5).
Along with Islas and Leal, Tomás Rivera also wanted to see more literature that explored the multifarious wealth of Chicano/a circumstances, emotions, identities, and experiences, while not neglecting the larger sociopolitical and cultural space in which they were inscribed. In his 1979 essay "Chicano Literature: Fiesta of Living," he wrote, "I should like to focus on Chicano writing as a ritual of immortality, of awe in the face of the 'other'—a ritual of the living, in a sense, a fiesta of the living" (19). While Rivera believed that Chicano/a literature should draw upon cultural origins, he thought it should also reach beyond itself to provide "a perception of the world, of people, of oneself in awe of one's own life and its perplexities, its complexities, and its beauty" (35).
By the early 1980s, the Chicano literary landscape was no longer only of the social protest and/or romanticized Aztlán variety, and it was also less male-centric. One might even go so far as to call the 1980s the decade of the boom in Chicana literature. Of course, the lineage of Chicana writers was illustrious and almost a hundred years old. Thus, María Ruiz de Burton had been active in the late nineteenth century, María Christina García in the early twentieth, and Estella Portillo Trambley, Bernice Zamora, and Isabella Ríos in the 1970s; however, Chicana writers were few and far between and mostly marginalized—if not entirely effaced—within a (male-dominated) Chicano and mainstream literary marketplace.
The appearance in 1981 of the lesbian feminist-charged, woman-of-color-voiced poems, short stories, and essays collected in This Bridge Called My Back was a notable refiguring of the literary landscape. Its editors included out lesbian Chicanas Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, who looked less romantically at the Chicano community and responded more complexly to earlier raza-identified binaries such as White versus Brown, male versus female, and queer versus straight. This Bridge Called My Back introduced "a powerful new wave of Chicana feminist critique of these essentializing paradigms: in Aztlán one would not heroize men and relegate women to the kitchen" (Aldama, "Chicana/o Studies," 95). All forms of experience and identity were to be embraced. As Anzaldúa would write later in her poetic essay "El día de la chicana" (1993), "To rage and look upon you with contempt is to rage and be contemptuous of ourselves. We can no longer blame you, nor disown the white parts, the male parts, the pathological parts, the queer parts, the vulnerable parts. Here we are weaponless with open arms, with only our magic. Let's try it our way, the mestiza way, the Chicana way, the woman way" (82-83). Many others, such as Cherríe Moraga, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Ana Castillo, Denise Chávez, and Lucha Corpi, experimented with storytelling and poetic form to give flesh to "the mestiza way."
Anzaldúa's 1987 publication of Borderlands / La Frontera—a hybrid mix of poetry, prose, and metaphysical inquiry—became the apotheosis of this move away from fixed notions of Chicano/a identity and experience. While Borderlands / La Frontera experimented with genre, it was not to be confused with a contemporary, Anglo-identified, postmodernist disaffection. For Anzaldúa, playing with language and form was ultimately to un-fix heterosexist histories and metaphysics, and then to anchor once again Chicano/a being within a more radically inclusive, hybrid ontology. For Anzaldúa, then, to deform language and destabilize generic expectation was to intervene into and radically transform heterosexist and racist master narratives. Her textualizing of a borderland ontology (straight/queer, male/female, Brown/White, Spanish/Amerindian) emphasized inclusivity, fluidity, transformation, and transfiguration, radically sidestepping the earlier biological and cultural essentialism of the raza nationalist socio-aesthetics.
The decade of the 1990s saw further moves to decolonize and denaturalize the hierarchies between Brown and White, man and woman, straight and queer as well as a more general move to identify a "borderland" Chicano/a letters that would not only reform Western epistemology but also engage with other postcolonial experiences and subject formations. Those borderland writers and intellectuals who began to be active in the 1990s are characterized as border crossers who, as Pérez-Torres describes, function much like the coyote smuggler who moves "people and goods back and forth across aesthetic and cultural as well as geopolitical borders" (246).
“This is a most absorbing book, for the authors interviewed here perform as live and also quite lively voices, inviting the reader to sample their art.... The book succeeds in defining the achievement of a significant literary generation.”
Herbert S. Lindenberger, Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities in Comparative Literature and English, Emeritus, Stanford University
“Aldama has effectively rewritten the standard for conducting interviews. While all his authors are deeply interesting, what's wonderful is how each interview develops in its own unique way. It's quite clear that Aldama is asking the questions, but he's also responding to the answers. As a result, all the interviews make for great reading.”
José F. Aranda Jr., Associate Professor of English, Rice University