In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - edited by Carlos Kevin Blan­ton, Univer­sity of Texas Press, 224 pages

A Promis­ing Prob­lem: The New Chi­cano/a His­tory edited by Carlos Blan­ton; Shaler’s Fish y Helen Mac­don­ald

If the 50-year-old field of Chi­cano stud­ies is known for any­thing out­side the univer­sity, it would be for the idea of Aztlán — a name for the His­pano home­land in the U.S. South­west de­rived from the Aztecs’ myth­i­cal ori­gin in what is now the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der­lands. Like the African di­as­pora or the Jewish di­as­pora, it’s a term used to de­scribe dis­placed peo­ple’s cul­tural bonds and eth­nic unity. It’s why the UCLA Chi­cano Stud­ies Re­search Cen­ter uses Aztlán as the name for its long­stand­ing re­search jour­nal.

Yet out­side Chi­cano stud­ies, many anti-im­mi­grant na­tivists have be­come er­ro­neously con­vinced that Aztlán is a code word for anti-Amer­i­can and an­tiAn­glo plans for Chi­cano cul­tural dom­i­na­tion. Deeply in­flu­enced by the po­lit­i­cal power of these pres­sure groups, in 2010 the state of Ari­zona ef­fec­tively out­lawed the teach­ing of Chi­cano stud­ies in pub­lic schools at the K-12 level through the cre­ation of new laws out­law­ing eth­nic stud­ies pro­grams and tar­geted to­ward Chi­cano stu­dents.

But even inside the dis­ci­pline, many aca­demics be­lieve Chi­cano stud­ies must look be­yond its past as­so­ci­a­tion with cul­tural na­tion­al­ism and iso­lated ethno­gra­phies of His­panos in the U.S. South­west to take up re­search projects that look at how glob­al­iza­tion, gen­der, and in­ter­ra­cial and in­ter-eth­nic con­flicts and co­op­er­a­tion af­fect the devel­op­ment of Chi­cano com­mu­ni­ties, which are in­creas­ingly lo­cated in the Amer­i­can Deep South. It’s time “to move be­yond Aztlán,” in the words of one Chi­cano stud­ies scholar in­cluded in the new an­thol­ogy A Promis­ing Prob­lem: The New Chi­cano/a His­tory.

By 2011, seven of the 10 U.S. coun­ties with the fastest Latino growth rate — over 75 per­cent an­nu­ally — were in the South. In a fas­ci­nat­ing es­say, “Chi­cano/a His­tory as South­ern His­tory: Race, Place and the U.S. South,” Perla Guer­rero ex­am­ines how Mex­i­can im­mi­grants in Arkansas nav­i­gate eth­nic­ity, lan­guage, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the politics of poul­try pro­cess­ing la­bor. In­ter­est­ingly, most of these newly ar­rived Lati­nos in the South did not come di­rectly from Mex­ico, but came to Arkansas for work op­por­tu­ni­ties af­ter years of liv­ing in re­ces­sion-prone Cal­i­for­nia.

Guer­rero’s field­work, to be spelled out in a forth­com­ing book project, ten­ta­tively ti­tled Nuevo South: Lati­nas/os, Asians and the Re­mak­ing of Place, ex­am­ines, “What hap­pens when Lati­nas/os make lives in a re­gion where African Amer­i­cans toiled for cen­turies, where sys­tems of op­pres­sion were con­structed to deal with and ex­ploit them, and where black peo­ple fought back through re­bel­lions, marches and cul­tural pro­duc­tion?”

In “Mov­ing Be­yond Aztlán,” Lilia Fernán­dez ar­gues that it’s not just our present moment but a whole cen­tury of Chi­cano and Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can life in the Mid­west that has been side­lined by a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of Chi­cano stud­ies re­searchers. As early as the 1970s, Chicago had nearly as many Span­ish-speak­ing im­mi­grant fam­i­lies as Los An­ge­les. But Fernán­dez dryly notes that save for the lone work of one PhD can­di­date in 1970, there were no aca­demic his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of the city’s vast and po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial Mex­i­can com­mu­nity un­til 2000.

Fernán­dez also cites the need for re­searchers to ex­am­ine how Chi­canos re­late to other Lati­nos, African-Amer­i­cans, and An­g­los in their com­mu­nity, in­stead of the eth­nic mono­lith in which they are of­ten framed by aca­demics. De­mo­graph­ics change quickly, she ad­vises, not­ing the 2000 cre­ation of a Cen­tral Amer­i­can Stud­ies pro­gram at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity cam­pus in Los An­ge­les.

If this new di­rec­tion in Chi­cano stud­ies has a fig­ure­head, it would be Carlos Kevin Blan­ton, this an­thol­ogy’s edi­tor. A his­to­rian at Texas A&M Univer­sity, Blan­ton has won sev­eral awards and ac­co­lades for his books’ deep re­search, look­ing through archival ac­counts in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies to re­con­struct the lives of early Mex­i­canAmer­i­can lead­ers who led the fight for vot­ing rights and bilin­gual ed­u­ca­tion at a time of open hos­til­ity and wide­spread vi­o­lence against Chi­canos. Last year, he re­leased Ge­orge I. Sánchez: The Long Fight for Mex­i­can Amer­i­can In­te­gra­tion (Yale Univer­sity Press), a bi­og­ra­phy of the lawyer, pro­fes­sor, and civil-rights ac­tivist who over­came an op­pressed child­hood in the min­ing camps and bar­rios in Ari­zona and New Mex­ico to be­come pres­i­dent of the League of United Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens, where he over­saw sev­eral key civil rights law­suits.

Like so many oth­ers in this an­thol­ogy, Blan­ton is proud of the cur­rent crop of Chi­cano his­to­ri­ans who have in­te­grated their pro­fes­sion suf­fi­ciently to serve as pres­i­dents of ma­jor his­tor­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tions and edi­tors of in­flu­en­tial his­tory jour­nals. But un­like other dis­ci­plines, Chi­cano stud­ies schol­ars will, for the fore­see­able fu­ture, be linked to ac­tivism due to the anti-im­mi­grant prej­u­dice against their work. Be­tween mass de­por­ta­tions, vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal rhetoric, and the de­ploy­ment of U.S. troops along the bor­der, Chi­cano stud­ies has a po­lit­i­cal rel­e­vance in the larger cul­ture, even where it’s not wel­come. “This prob­lem­atic rise in hos­til­ity to­ward Latina/o im­mi­grant and Chi­cana/os in the United States tran­scends class sta­tus and ide­ol­ogy,” Blan­ton writes. “It forms the so­cial con­text for the new Chi­cana/o his­tory of this cen­tury.” — Casey Sanchez

Shaler’s Fish by Helen Mac­don­ald, At­lantic Monthly Press/Grove At­lantic, 82 pages When I read Helen Mac­don­ald’s best­selling 2015 mem­oir, H Is for Hawk, what struck me right away was the po­etic den­sity of her prose. In the re­cently pub­lished Amer­i­can edi­tion of her po­ems, Shaler’s Fish (orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2001), we see her shoring up the po­etic power that would later flow into her mem­oir’s ar­rest­ing lan­guage.

Mac­don­ald’s in­ter­est in nat­u­ral his­tory is ev­i­dent from the start. In the ded­i­ca­tion page of this book, Nathaniel South­gate Shaler is quoted from his book Louis Agas­siz as a Teacher (1917): “When I sat me down be­fore my tin pan, Agas­siz brought me a small fish, plac­ing it be­fore me with the rather stern re­quire­ment that I should study it, but should on no ac­count talk to any­one con­cern­ing it, nor read any­thing re­lated to fishes, un­til I had his per­mis­sion so to do.” Mac­don­ald pre­sum­ably al­ludes to the im­por­tance of orig­i­nal ob­ser­va­tion, which she ad­heres to in her po­ems, but the quote is also an ap­pro­pri­ate pref­ace to the el­lip­ti­cal na­ture of her po­etry.

These lyric po­ems have an al­most-stac­cato feel: You feel the smack of the words and you want to hear the sen­tences read aloud, if only to dis­cover how the poet would ar­tic­u­late them. The lan­guage abounds with rich­ness and tex­ture, but what mean­ing it might con­tain is slug­gish about re­veal­ing it­self. When a poem works, as does “On ap­proach­ing nat­u­ral col­ors,” the words crackle against each other and spark an im­age: “Crick­ets scratch and burn be­neath bracken & forms wither/and soak into waves through the op­tics of sunken light in sum­mer.”

When the po­ems don’t work as well — in the ab­struse poem “Ré­sis­tant à route press ion sans casser,” she writes, “re­vi­sion­ary hear­ing arc. Delta put a siege in here for ex­huma­tion” — they feel like a mouth­ful. Mac­don­ald is feel­ing her way through lan­guage and voice, and some of her ex­per­i­ments mis­fire. In a re­cent in­ter­view with The New

York Times, Mac­don­ald was asked to name the best mem­oir she’s ever read. “Pack My Bag, by Henry Green, writ­ten in idio­syn­cratic prose that is un­nerv­ingly close to per­fec­tion,” Mac­don­ald told the Times. “I wouldn’t dare to com­pare my work to his, but it was this mem­oir that spurred me to take stylis­tic risks and to write with the great­est pos­si­ble hon­esty about things that hap­pened and how they felt.” The late Henry Green is the au­thor of such doc­u­men­tary-like nov­els as Party Go­ing (1939) and Lov­ing (1945), which mar­velously fuse mys­tery and clar­ity. In these po­ems, Mac­don­ald, too, is mired in mys­tery — she hasn’t yet taken the leap into clar­ity that won her ac­claim for H Is for Hawk.

In “Poem,” she may well be writ­ing about her process: “My pen crum­ples into a swan, it is singing/in­au­then­ti­cate myth, and not of fu­ture splen­dor.” The poem ends, “I have never been to the desert.” The ob­ser­va­tion is strik­ing for its truth­ful­ness. And yet, we sense that there may come a time when she will go to the desert and find her voice. These in­trigu­ing po­ems ac­quaint us with Mac­don­ald’s stilted, but thor­oughly se­ri­ous, be­gin­nings as a writer.

The last poem in the book is “let­ter to amer­ica,” and in the midst of its wordiness, two lines shine: “I am a con­ver­sa­tion ar­tic­u­lated qui­etly across oceans/re­garded as a mea­sure of un­cer­tainly or sur­prise.” It is a moment when a sun­beam parts the cloudy fog of ex­per­i­ment, and we know that Mac­don­ald will even­tu­ally find her way. — Priyanka Ku­mar

Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226) presents Helen Mac­don­ald, au­thor of “H Is for Hawk” and “Shaler’s Fish,” at 6 p.m. on Satur­day, April 9.

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