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Migrant Song

Migrant Song
Politics and Process in Contemporary Chicano Literature

In this pathfinding study of Chicano literature, Teresa McKenna specifically explores how these works arise out of social, political, and psychological conflict and how the development of Chicano literature is inextricably embedded in this fact.

January 1996
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170 pages | 6 x 9 |

Migration and continuity have shaped both the Chicano people and their oral and written literature. In this pathfinding study of Chicano literature, Teresa McKenna specifically explores how these works arise out of social, political, and psychological conflict and how the development of Chicano literature is inextricably embedded in this fact.

McKenna begins by appraising the evolution of Chicano literature from oral forms—including the important role of the corrido in the development of Chicano poetry. In subsequent chapters she examines the works of Richard Rodriguez and Rolando Hinojosa. She also devotes a chapter to the development of the Chicana voice in Chicano literature. Her epilogue considers the parallel development of Chicano literary theory and discusses some possible directions for research.

In McKenna's own words, "I believe that the future of this literature, as that of all literatures by people of color in the United States, rests largely on its being effectively introduced into the curricula at all levels, as well as its entrance into the critical consciousness of literary theory." This book will be an important step in that process.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue. Parto de palabra: The Many Births of the Migrant Song
  • Chapter 1. "In Our Own Land": Politics and Cultural Process in Contemporary Chicano Literature
  • Chapter 2. Chicano Poetry and the Political Age: The Canales/Córdova Corridos as Social Drama
  • Chapter 3. "On Lies, Secrets, and Silence": Hunger of Memory as Autobiography--A Comparative Perspective
  • Chapter 4. Power Reversals and the Comic: Rolando Hinojosa as a Political Writer
  • Chapter 5. Engendering the Border: Toward a Chicana Literary Aesthetic
  • Epilogue. Borderness and Pedagogy: Exposing Culture in the Classroom Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Teresa McKenna is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California.


formando orígenes
entre apocalipsis

In Spanish, parto means birth, in the poem that forms the epigram to this book, it refers to the birth of the word, the aesthetic communicative gesture of a people. I chose this metaphor to represent the development of Chicano literature because parto connotes the process of birthing: the dialectical interplay of openings and closings that produces life. The metaphor underscores a process, or diachronic profile, that must be separated from a simply chronological perspective: a process refers to discrete periods of cause and effect in which diachronic and synchronic elements meet to produce qualitative change, while a chronology refers to a linear progression. Anthropologists have used the term "processual" to describe processes that mark movement or change in society. It includes dramatistic analysis: the isolation of units of human activity into analogs of stage or performance. Most importantly, processual studies emphasize the complex, dynamic nature of human interaction. The processes under analysis might take the form of discrete moments or progressive duration. Through case studies of the various genres, this volume examines the processual quality of Chicano literature as it is informed by political activity.

These essays represent more than ten years of critical study. They correspond to my own reflection on diverse subjects at various political and critical moments and thus present discrete and at times competing approaches and perspectives. Yet each examination proceeds from the central critical assumption that Chicano literature arises out of social, political, and psychological conflict and that the processes of development of the literature are inextricably embedded in this fact. I have chosen to let my own processual world as critic parallel the process I am endeavoring to explore in these essays. The literature and the ways in which we talk about it are governed by similar configurations of history and event.

This perspective is grounded in the assumption that the social world, of which literature and literary theory are a part, is a world in becoming, not a world in being. This is not a new idea, to be sure. Others as diverse as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson, and Victor Turner, to name only a few in modern times, have elaborated complex theories based on this observation. They share a common understanding that the process is advanced through a conflictual social interrelatedness, which can be labeled political, and that human social life is the producer and the product of time, to use Victor Turner's terms.

The complex interpretive structures that arise from these ideas have fueled much modern social and political thought and have sparked reconsideration of concepts such as nation, history, and literature. Victor Turner (1974, p. 32), who began to reconsider his view of primitive societies from this perspective, described his findings as follows: "With my conviction as to the dynamic character of social relations I saw movement as much as structure, persistence as much as change, indeed, persistence as a striking aspect of change."

Migrant Song, the title of this volume, embraces the movement and persistence that accompany the processual events affecting indigenous and Mexican peoples in the geographical area now called Mexico and the United States. The reference to migrants captures the constantly changing political structures and social and geopolitical spaces that accompany migration, while the peoples' cultural response in song attests to their persistence and permanence even in the midst of change. In this book I show that Chicano literary activity develops in a dialectical fashion and examine the historical and political nature of the processes of the literature as they are tied to conflict, that fundamental element of social intercourse.

In Chapter 1, I critically appraise the evolution of Chicano literature from oral forms and argue that migration is an appropriate root metaphor for Chicano writers, assessing where it was spawned and why it has continued to remain so dominant. Most importantly, I develop the notion that Chicano literature has developed out of social conflict and a reaction to political events. The ramifications of these facts are explored in detail in the following chapters.

In Chapter 2, I analyze the importance of the corrido, a form of narrative song, in the development of Chicano poetry. I look specifically at a series of corridos published in El Grito del Norte, a community newspaper from Española, New Mexico, which were written after two community activists were murdered in the early 1970s. Analysis of how the structural aspects of the corrido changed from oral to print forms gives way to a look at these new forms as aspects of a larger processual unit, the social drama. This perspective brings the analysis of the Canales/Córdova corridos within a larger rhetorical presentation in which the conflict within the community is shown to be causally linked to the total configuration of reportage, corrido, poem, and testimonio, in the newspaper presentation. This analysis is key to understanding the significant shift of Chicano poetry from its oral origins to the fundamentally print form we have today.

In Chapter 3, 1 focus on Richard Rodriguez's controversial autobiography as a means to address the problematics of presenting the self in Chicano literature. This discussion advances through a comparative analysis with other ethnic American autobiographers: N. Scott Momaday, Maya Angelou, and Maxine Hong Kingston. I borrowed the title of this chapter—"On Lies, Secrets, and Silence"—from Adrienne Rich because it brings to mind the attributes that account for the uniqueness and problems of this genre (Rich 1979). For a genre that pretends to personal historical veracity, the conflictual interrelatedness of the social world becomes acute and extremely problematic. Moreover, Rich's title succinctly captures the choices involved in the exposition or withholding of the self, and her book of essays amounts to a reconsideration of her self within a personal, political, and academic milieu. This analysis reveals the ideological and aesthetic problems inherent in the process of producing a selfconscious self and, most importantly, the implications of the multiple autobiographical forms that these writers elect as their analogs of self.

In Chapter 4, I turn to the analysis of narrative and examine the work of one of Chicano literature's most prestigious and prolific writers: Rolando Hinojosa. In his Klail City Death Trip Series, he sets forth the life and times of the inhabitants of the fictional Belken County of South Texas. Through the creation of a mythic space, a device somewhat similar to that used by William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Hinojosa creates a counterworld in which the conflictual social interrelatedness between Mexicans and Anglos can operate in significantly different ways than they do in the real world. He produces a fictional situation of unique empowerment in which the comic plays a major role. By examining revelry, buffo, and the creative dynamics of festival in Hinojosa's writing, I argue that his novels go far beyond the regional picturesque, as some critics have labeled his work, and present a uniquely political point of view. The larger processual dynamics of political activity such as organized protests or acts of heroism give way to small units of social interplay in which language and dialogue dominate. The result is usually a role reversal in which those in power are diminished and those without power are enhanced.

Although Chapter 5 exclusively analyzes poetry, the main emphasis is on the development of a Chicana voice in Chicano literature. I consider the suggestive insights of Julia Kristeva, whose notions about women's time have become influential, and somewhat controversial, in feminist theoretical circles. Taking from her that which might be applicable to Chicana writing, I cross her Eurocentric notions located in psychoanalysis with Chicana theories of borderness. This chapter thus examines the unique processual activity operating in Chicana literature. I address the problematic issues of political struggle that historically have characterized Chicana feminist dialogues (that is, the expectation that Chicanas subordinate their demands for liberation to the struggle for justice for the Chicano people, a position that was advanced by many in the predominantly maledominated Chicano Movement. Most importantly, I analyze the development of women's time, a movement in which Chicanas become perhaps the most persuasive political component of contemporary Chicano politics. That process of conflict is most clearly akin to Turner's description of persistence and change noted earlier. I further argue that assessing the process of Chicano literary activity in the future clearly reveals that women's time exerts definitive power over the historical moment. Women's time becomes Chicano time—a melding together that promises unique strategies for social and political change.

In the Epilogue I consider the parallel development of Chicano literary theory and discuss some of the possible directions for research. As an aspect of this theoretical consideration, I comment on the pedagogical challenges posed by this literature, not only on its own but also in crosscultural terms; that is, its place in the development of multicultural theoretical practice. It is in this type of interrogation that we approximate what Edward Said (1983, p. 2G) refers to as critical consciousness:

Criticism in short is always situated; it is skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings. This is by no means to say that it is value-free. Quite the contrary, for the inevitable trajectory of critical consciousness is to arrive at some acute sense of what political, social, and human values are entailed in the reading, production, and transmission of every text. To stand between culture and system is therefore to stand close to ... a concrete reality about which political, moral, and social judgements have to be made and, if not only made, then exposed and demystified.

Similarly, I believe that the future of this literature, as does that of all literatures by people of color in the United States, rests largely on its being effectively introduced into the curricula at all levels, as well as its entrance into the critical consciousness of literary theory. For literature to survive it must be read, and read it we must, for it speaks to the diversity of our constantly shifting constructions of national identity.

Because the story of Chicano literature has no denouement, using prologues and epilogues in a volume of this type seems to belie my purpose. Yet the Epilogue to this collection of essays could also serve as Prologue. These essays reflect the evolution of my own theoretical process and can be seen as the development of a multidimensioned critical perspective affirming that Chicano literature is becoming, that it is processual, and that it is political. I agree with Said's (1983, p. 26) argument that the essay form is particularly appropriate to the type of project undertaken here: "all of what I mean by criticism and critical consciousness is directly reflected not only in the subjects of these essays but in the essay form itself. For if I am to be taken seriously as saying that secular criticism deals with local and worldly situations, and that it is constitutively opposed to the production of massive, hermetic systems, then it must follow that the essay—a comparatively short, investigative, radically skeptical form—is the principal way in which to write criticism." As Said describes his own work, this book's unity is one of "attitude and concern." Subject and form coalesce to expose the praxis of critical consciousness. In this sense, then, these essays are analogs to the literature's continuance.