In Other Words
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.