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Narratives of Greater Mexico

Narratives of Greater Mexico
Essays on Chicano Literary History, Genre, and Borders

In this pioneering study, Héctor Calderón looks at seven Chicana and Chicano writers whose narratives constitute what he terms an American Mexican literature.

January 2004
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304 pages | 6 x 9 |

Once relegated to the borders of literature—neither Mexican nor truly American—Chicana/o writers have always been in the vanguard of change, articulating the multicultural ethnicities, shifting identities, border realities, and even postmodern anxieties and hostilities that already characterize the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is Chicana/o writers' very in-between-ness that makes them authentic spokespersons for an America that is becoming increasingly Mexican/Latin American and for a Mexico that is ever more Americanized.

In this pioneering study, Héctor Calderón looks at seven Chicana and Chicano writers whose narratives constitute what he terms an American Mexican literature. Drawing on the concept of "Greater Mexican" culture first articulated by Américo Paredes, Calderón explores how the works of Paredes, Rudolfo Anaya, Tomás Rivera, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Cherríe Moraga, Rolando Hinojosa, and Sandra Cisneros derive from Mexican literary traditions and genres that reach all the way back to the colonial era. His readings cover a wide span of time (1892-2001), from the invention of the Spanish Southwest in the nineteenth century to the América Mexicana that is currently emerging on both sides of the border. In addition to his own readings of the works, Calderón also includes the writers' perspectives on their place in American/Mexican literature through excerpts from their personal papers and interviews, correspondence, and e-mail exchanges he conducted with most of them.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Redefining the Borderlands: From the Spanish Southwest to Greater Mexico, from Charles F. Lummis to Américo Paredes
  • Writing the Dreams of la Nueva México: Rudolfo A. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima and the Southwest Literary Tradition
  • The Emergence of the Chicano Novel: Tomás Rivera's ". . . y no se lo tragó la tierra" and the Community of Readers
  • "A Recorder of Events with a Sour Stomach": Oscar Zeta Acosta and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo
  • "Making Familia from Scratch": Cherríe L. Moraga's Self-Portraits
  • "Mexicanos al Grito de Guerra": Rolando Hinojosa's Cronicón del condado de Belken
  • "Como México No Hay Dos": Sandra Cisneros's Feminist Border Stories
  • Epilogue: América Mexicana 2001
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Permissions Acknowledgments
  • Index

Héctor Calderón is Professor of Spanish American, Mexican, and Chicano Literature at UCLA.


It was a dark and stormy night in New Haven, Connecticut, when I informed Ramón Saldívar in Austin, Texas, that I was thinking of writing a book on Chicano literature. "Great," he said. Little did I know what a difficult task that would be. The world has changed since that phone conversation of long ago. We no longer inhabit the twentieth century and the field of Chicana and Chicano literary studies is no longer an endeavor relegated solely to regional or marginal status. This literature and its criticism are in many ways links between dissimilar cultural traditions on both sides of the international divide. Scholars in comparative American (in the broadest sense of the term) literary and cultural studies are now following the lead of their Chicana and Chicano colleagues in seeing the necessity of linking American ethnic, American, and Latin American literatures. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are aware of our basic nepantilismo, that in-between state where cultures converge. Because of rapidly changing demographics, market penetration, an international media based largely in the United States, and the Internet, we will see more interaction in cultural and artistic spheres across the borders of the Américas.

My project is less ambitious than some of the recent studies of the literatures of the Américas; mine is more local and historical. This is a study of major Mexican American narrative forms from 1958 through 2001 through the works of Américo Paredes, Rudolfo A. Anaya, Tomás Rivera, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Cherríe L. Moraga, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Sandra Cisneros. I present this book knowing full well that I am crossing academic borders. Early on in the history of the field, the Modern Language Association bestowed on this new literature American status. Although I am a scholar of Chicano literature, an Americanist, I have always belonged to departments of Spanish and Portuguese because of my training, teaching, and research in Latin American literature. With this book, I hope to add to the growing body of work published recently by my colleagues in English, ethnic studies, and American studies. However, from the other side of the disciplinary divide, I would offer this book as a revisionary endeavor, altering traditional Mexican studies. We can no longer continue to think of Mexican people and culture in the United States as if they were completely dislocated from the nation of Mexico, its culture and artistic traditions. Indeed, the reader will find as the book progresses toward an ending, that the interrelatedness of Mexicans on both sides of the border is inescapable.

For the better part of my career, many of my readings of Chicana and Chicano writers have been filtered through the concept of genre. I have continued in that direction; however, genres are now more "thickly" described, set against their historical and cultural milieux. Genres, invoking Fredric Jameson as a guide, are useful insofar as they relate to the social worlds that give rise to them. Though this study is based on a limited number of writers, these writers have chosen a wide variety of narrative forms. Through autobiography, novel, chronicle, satire, romance, the narrative of the Mexican Revolution, telenovelas, folktales, and corridos, I explore the consequences derived from the choices that writers themselves have made regarding a specific narrative form.

In some chapters, I have made use of secondary sources—my own travel diaries, conversations, interviews, writers' personal papers, correspondence, and e-mail exchanges—as well as the more traditional critical studies. I hope that this personal and critical strategy will shed new light on the interrelations between writer and work. I see this strategy contributing not only to literary history but also to the wider text of history linking Mexico and the United States.

Readers of Chicano literary studies may be surprised at the title of this book. "Greater Mexico" is a term most associated with the work of Américo Paredes and José E. Limón. Though linked with cultural studies of Texas, and especially cultural conflict along the Lower Río Grande Valley, it is a term that is for me broadly embracive. Over the course of my years in teaching, I have gravitated to the term. Though Paredes coined the term in his 1958 landmark study, "With His Pistol in His Hand," what I consider its Spanish equivalent, América Mexicana, made its appearance centuries before. In a seventeenth-century map, Nicolás de Cardona, who sailed the interior of the Baja California peninsula in 1615, names the area from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to what is now Oregon across to the Mississippi América Mexicana. A smaller section of a misshapen North America is represented as Nova Francia; there is no Nova Inglaterra on the map. The cultural diaspora that began with the Spanish conquest of Mexico in Veracruz in 1519, that spread to northern Mexico in Zacatecas, Querétaro, and Nuevo León in the 1540s-1570s, to la Nueva México in the 1590s, to Texas and California in the 1740s-1780s, and is still spreading today across the southern and eastern United States offers the best understanding of Mexican American or Chicano literature at the juncture of two centuries.

I do not intend to displace the term "Chicano." It is part of a historical moment that many of my generation lived through. History will record the Chicano Movement as a brief period of Mexican American social and cultural history. And its brevity does not diminish its full impact in all spheres of public life. The Movement changed the way Mexican Americans viewed themselves, the way mexicanos viewed their brethren across the border. It is part of a larger process of history that goes back to the nineteenth century. The Chicanos of the 1960s and 1970s were not the first to be concerned with issues of identity and cultural conflict. Someone like Paredes writing in isolation as early as the 1930s was fully aware of this fact.

I was a Mexican before I became a Chicano. Mexican—culture, language, religion—was the way I viewed myself growing up on the Alta and Baja California border in Calexico-Mexicali. Mexican is the way that Anglo-American society of that time (and still today) viewed me. The Chicano Movement gave historical credence and cultural dignity to my basic Mexicanness—Spanish-speaking, working-class, and mestizo. I am not alone in reasserting cultural ties with Mexican culture. In recent works, older and younger Mexican American writers are affirming their diversity within their Mexicanness. This is one of the great lessons learned in writing this book—the diversity of political views, geographic settings, and cultural traditions of Mexican culture in the United States. In the past century, studies by U.S. Mexicanista scholars have stressed "lo mexicano" and "mexicanidad," relying essentially on cultural identities from south of the border and, indeed, defined and promoted by intellectuals from the center, Mexico City. In the year 2003, I think that we can no longer ignore the many manifestations of Mexican culture both within and outside the political borders of the Mexican nation-state. The writers in this study lived through important U.S. historical moments of the twentieth century—the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the civil rights movement, the Chicano Movement, the feminist movement, gay and lesbian liberation. The traditional notions of "lo mexicano," "mexicanidad," and the Mexican patria have been transformed, at times radically altered, by the writers in this study. We are in many ways, taking from a term coined by Sandra Cisneros, American Mexicans. There are more than twenty million American Mexicans traveling back and forth across political and cultural borders. The writers in this study have contributed to the history of these border crossings.

Américo Paredes was born in 1915 on the border in Brownsville, Texas, and learned to sing and play Mexican corridos at an early age in Tamaulipas, México. That early childhood education was transformed into scholarly studies of what Paredes termed "Greater Mexico," Mexico in a cultural sense. Paredes was drafted and served his country in World War II as a journalist in Asia. After covering the war crimes trials in Japan, the mature Paredes returned to Texas through Matamoros, México, to put on trial the history of Texas in his doctoral dissertation, which was published as "With His Pistol in His Hand." "Redefining the Borderlands" traces a century of Southwest studies from Charles F. Lummis, through Nina Otero de Warren, Cleofas M. Jaramillo, and Aurelio M. Espinosa to the emergence of Paredes as a public intellectual, as one of the founders of Mexican American studies.

In the sixteenth century, la Nueva México was the first mestizo settlement of what was to become the United States. Antonio de Espejo named this territory with the hope of finding another México, another fabled Tenochtitlán. As a result of U.S. cultural domination, New Mexicans have been caught since the late nineteenth century in a struggle for identity between Old Spain and Nueva España, Old Mexico and la Nueva México. Rudolfo A. Anaya was born in 1937 in the Spanish-speaking village of Pastura in Guadalupe County, New Mexico. He is the son of Martín Anaya and Rafaelita Mares who were born in the U.S.-controlled Territory of New Mexico. The Anaya surname appears on the list of colonists who arrived in la Nueva México in 1693. Anaya, however, was raised in the Mexican American barrio of Barelas in Alburquerque. After attending the University of New Mexico and traveling to Mexico, Anaya began writing what was to become his vast historical romance of New Mexico. "Writing the Dreams of la Nueva México," is a study of Rudolfo A. Anaya's seven novels from the 1972 classic Bless Me, Ultima through the 1999 Shaman Winter as he puts to rest the fantasy of the Spanish Southwest and affirms the Mexican-mestizo origins of la Nueva México.

Tomás Rivera's ". . . y no se lo tragó la tierra" was a milestone in the literatures of the Américas when it was awarded the first Premio Quinto Sol for a novel in 1970. It was an American novel by a Mexican American written in colloquial Mexican Spanish. Rivera's Tierra (1971) was also a Mexican novel that crossed the border. Tomás Rivera was born of Mexican immigrant parents in Crystal City, Texas, in 1935 during the Great Depression. Rivera was raised as a farmworker child in labor camps throughout the Midwest. As elders gathered round after the day's work to tell tales, the child Rivera saw and listened. Rivera graduated from Crystal City High School and earned a bachelor's degree in English at Southwest Texas State University in 1958. In 1962 Rivera traveled south to study Mexican literature in Guadalajara under the guidance of mexicanista scholar Luis Leal. Rivera also learned much from Mexican writer Juan Rulfo's concise but complex storytelling. Assuming the stance of the folk poet in Tierra, Rivera gathered around him a new community of readers. Like no other writer before him, Rivera had transformed the Mexican-mestizo cultural world of Greater Mexico into the beginning of the Chicano narrative tradition.

Oscar Thomas Acosta was born in 1935 in El Paso, Texas, and raised, in his own words, in the Mexican sector of Riverbank, California. Acosta, as is well known, became a legendary attorney-activist-writer of the Chicano Movement. The writer Oscar Zeta Acosta related in The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo his ill-fated journey to American selfhood within U.S. society of the forties and fifties. Through the Chicano Movement, all the racism that Acosta had internalized exploded in his unique brand of sixties counterculture fiction-journalism, an in-your-face, drug-induced, cranked-up, rock 'n' roll-like style. As is well known, Hunter S. Thompson and Acosta were road buddies: the fictional Raoul Duke and his Samoan (Chicano) attorney sidekick, Doctor Gonzo, of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). Thompson is credited, deservedly so, with the Gonzo style of writing. However, Acosta is also an original practitioner of Gonzo writing, with the crucial difference that his writing was meaningful with regard to his ethnicity: Acosta lived his life like his writing. The former Boy Scout transformed himself into the Zorro-like outlaw hero, the Chicano militant attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. Toward the end of his crazy life, México became a place of refuge for writing. He completed the 1972 Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo in Michoacán. Acosta had plans for "The Rise and Fall of General Zeta" when he disappeared somewhere near Mazatlán, México, in 1974.

In the last paragraphs of her 2000 edition of Loving in the War Years, Cherríe L. Moraga sees herself reflected in an eighteenth-century Mexican casta family portrait by Miguel Cabrera. Moraga describes the mestizo child sitting on the lap of his Spanish father as the child looks longingly at his Indian mother. Moraga's autobiographical writings are both self- and family portraits. Moraga, born in Los Angeles in 1952, is the daughter of a white father and a Mexican mother; she grew up white in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. In the tortuous journey to finding her identity, Moraga too has looked pa'trás—at la línea de las mujeres, at her mother, Elvira, with straight black and gray hair, at Malintzín/doña Marina, at Coyolxauhqui, at La Llorona, at Dolores the grandmother, Dolores the daughter, Dolores the daughter's daughter. Through her writings from 1981 to 2000, the lesbian-feminist-activist has maintained a critical dialogue with Mexican literature and culture on the secondary status of women. Moraga is, at the end of the twentieth century, the Mexican lesbian mother who has been "making familia from scratch."

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith was born in 1929 in Mercedes in the Río Grande Valley of Texas. At a formative age, Hinojosa spent summers in Arteaga, Coahuila, where he wrote his first story in Spanish. He also learned to sing two national anthems in escuelitas established by men and women exiled in the United States during one phase or another of the Mexican Revolution. "Mexicanos al Grito de Guerra," is both a song of cultural identity and a call to arms. Indeed, in Hinojosa's multivolume Cronicón del condado de Belken/Klail City Death Trip, his Korean War experience is crucial for the reconstruction of Texas as the Land of Our Fathers, the land defended by Mexican revolucionarios. In 1859 don Juan Nepomuceno Cortina was the first to rise up and defend his right against Anglo-Texan authority. At his family's Rancho del Carmen, Cortina fought the Brownsville Rifles and Tobin's Rangers. The fictional don Jesús Buenrostro, the axial figure of Hinojosa's vast cronicón, also defended his land at his own Rancho del Carmen. From Hinojosa's 1973 Estampas del valle to his 1998 Ask a Policeman, the site of Mexican resistance maintains its rich symbolism as the locus of identity for the Buenrostro lineage.

Sandra Cisneros is a second-generation American Mexican born in Chicago in 1954; however, she was also raised in Mexico City, in the colonia Tepeyac, on calle Fortuna 12, within walking distance of the Basílica to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Cisneros's American Mexican mother, Elvira Cordero Anguiano, handed down to her daughter the fierce language, the voice of an urban immigrant child, working-class, anti-Catholic, free-thinking, and smart-mouthed. Cisneros's Mexican-born father, Alfredo Cisneros del Moral, gave her the Spanish language, el lenguaje de la ternura. Cisneros has combined her two cultures in her feminist stories of the late-twentieth-century Méxicos that exist beyond borders. Through her strong, resilient female characters, Cisneros critically confronts a folkloric, legendary, romantic, and utopian Mexico to which working-class mexicanas and mexicanos on both sides of the border have turned for cultural identity—La Llorona, Tonantzín, the legend of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, la Virgen de Guadalupe, religious ex-votos and milagritos, Mexican movies, boleros and rancheras, telenovelas and fotonovelas, popular magazines, José de Helguera's Aztec Indian kitsch calendars, the Mexican Revolution, the legend of Emiliano Zapata, and el Grito de Independencia. However, the love and respeto that Cisneros has for her Mexican culture are also evident in her border tales from the 1991 Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.

These writers, like other Mexican American writers, give evidence to a cross-border solidarity that is finally being acknowledged by Mexican writers and artists. In his novel La frontera de cristal (1995), Carlos Fuentes gives Chicano literature (he cites el cuento de Cisneros) a role in shattering la frontera de cristal, the lack of communication that divides Mexicans on both sides of the border. In early studies by Mexican scholars of the Chicano Movement, Chicanos were labeled "los chicanos, la otra cara de México." At the current moment, as this book's epilogue, América Mexicana 2001, argues, we should begin to think of Mexico as "México, la otra cara de los chicanos." Mexico in the era of globalization is beginning to look very much like us. We, in fact, as the writers in this study teach us, underwent the changes of economic imperialism and cultural domination now transforming Mexico. Carlos Monsiváis, a frank Mexican cultural critic, has written that Mexico is witnessing the first generation of americanos born in Mexico. Redefined Mexican cultural symbols boldly taken up by the Chicano Movement of the sixties have returned to the center of Mexican identity. Mexico City's pioneering rock en español band, Maldita Vecindad, has written on cross-border artistic inspiration:

El movimiento chicano siempre nos llamó la atención.

En 1985, cuando comenzamos, muchos grupos en México tocaban en inglés o tenían nombres en ese idioma. Había una influencia musical muy fuerte del rock inglés o americano, se reproducían géneros como el blues, el punk o el heavy metal.

En la cultura chicana había una redefinición de idea de mexicanidad y eso se reflejaba en la música de fusión, la pintura callejera con el graffiti, los íconos populares: Zapata, la Virgen de Guadalupe, la bandera, el teatro campesino, los pachucos o la presencia popular de la cultura prehispánica, por ejemplo.

Nuestro trabajo en Maldita siempre ha tenido muchos puntos de contacto con esa búsqueda de la cultura chicana. (Maldita Vecindad, Gira pata de perro 93)

In the last decade of the twentieth century, this Mexican rock banda de pueblo, like Chicano writers before, seized upon the migration of people and culture in its politically engaged, working-class music. In its concerts throughout Mexican United States, Maldita Vecindad has become a borderless cultural institution influencing a generation of post-Chicano Movement young people on both sides of the border.

I hope that this book on the bilingual, bicultural U.S. mexicano writers will add to this already evolving history of la Nueva México, el México diverso as well as profundo, that is emerging on both sides of the border.


Unless otherwise noted, translations are mine. Spanish is not a foreign language to me or to millions of citizens of the United States; for that reason, I have not italicized Spanish in my text. I have, however, maintained the crucial distinction between the English term "romance" and the Spanish ballad form romance.



“Héctor Calderón's book will be a distinguished contribution to the growing discussion that involves reading América in continental terms, rather than limiting ourselves to monolingual U.S. studies.”
Debra Castillo, Professor of Romance Studies and Comparative Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, Cornell University