Chicago Chicano Writing: Its Social Base, and Differential Characteristics

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2014-07-23 11:56:18


Chicago Chicano Literature versus national Chicano Norms

What is similar and different about Chicago Chicano literature with respect to trends in the Southwest, and for that matter other parts of the U.S., including the Midwest itself? Elsewhere (Zimmerman 1990) I have noted that unlike Chicano writers from the Southwest, and most writers from even the Midwest, Chicago mexicanos came to write in a broad overall Latino context, with a strong Puerto Rican presence—with considerable interaction with Puerto Rican writers and awareness of Latino (and also minority and working-class) as opposed to strictly Chicano concerns.[1]

With respect to other differentiations from the Southwest, we may note also that a greater percentage of Midwest and Chicago Chicanos early became part of the industrial workforce (in the railroads, packinghouses and steel mills), and a lower percentage stemmed from fieldwork, even in its increasingly agro-business form. The lack of proximity to the border and Mexican campo and the fact of a relative entrenchment in the work structure lent a certain structural security to Mexican immigrants even as a discriminated and often culturally alienated minority in the Midwestern/Chicago context. While Chicano gangs have long been on the scene and while the lumpenized dimension of Chicago Chicano life has grown and become entrenched in recent years, it is significant that there is less a vato/pachuco/cholo/lumpen version to Chicago Chicano literature. Even Ana Castillo’s gangbanger father had a factory job (cf. Castillo 1988), as do many Chicano gang members even into the Reagan years (cf. Horowitz 1983). Although the picture may be now changing for the “less successful” Mexican immigrants, at least until recently Chicanos have been more rooted than the Puerto Ricans who came late after the good industrial jobs were taken and more readily had the option of welfare, which only eroded their initially difficult situation.

This perspective was confirmed by Luis Rodríguez, the Los Angeles Chicano poet who moved to Chicago in 1985 and stayed several years, in answer to a questionnaire I sent him on 3/25/91:

The Latino writers in Chicago don’t seem to have the urban, barrio realities as much [as the LA writers]. They have this industrial experience, the steel mills and stockyards, this dynamic of living in a town with large numbers of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. We have to relate. This is not true for LA or NYC, where for a long time there was really one major Latino community to deal with. This dynamic has helped to shape the writings of Chicago/Latino writers. It’s different from the folklore-influenced in New Mexico, mainly rural, and Texas—mainly on border or migrant work and undocumented experience. In LA the Latinos write esoteric political tracts or urban vato loco material. Generally it seems to turn inward, to the barrio, away from the mainstream; little caring if it goes over. In Chicago there’s more of a sense of what will go over—without losing the original impulses, language or roots.

The fact of their diverse regional origins and overall Latino diversity has meant that Chicago mexicanos have had a broader sense of alternative goals, which are seen internal to the culture as it has become more broadly defined. This means, for example, that the primary modes of Chicago Mexican culture and above all sexual identity (rooted perhaps most decisively in Guanajuato and Michoacán) have been greatly transformed by mexicano acculturation on the streets in function of Irish, Italian, Polish and Afro American patterns as well as (and perhaps more dramatically) by other Latino and Latin American patterns. An upward mobility dream may correspond to seeking “white” European identifications—this in spite but also because of deep enmity toward the Latinos they don’t want to be identified with. But lateral/Latino-Latin American acculturation is still very important and deep-structured by frequent intermarriage.

This last point suggests that there are alternative male/female identifications which remain nevertheless within a Latino norm system. For example, although critic after critic saw Esperanza living in a Mexican barrio, her Mango Street (cf. Cisneros 1986) is multi-Latino. The alternative Puerto Rican albiet negative role models are important in generating Esperanza’s differentiation; and a similar pattern of Puerto Rican and other Latin American dimensions (as well as Italian differentials) are represented in Ana Castillo, as well as the male writers (cf. Cumpián 1990). La llorona and la mujer sufrida are displaced in the articulation of the new Latina persona who may be part Adelita/ Lucha Villa/ Lolita Lebrón—and even Evita Peron. But this ability to project assertive female roles probably has its roots in the core experience of the Mexicano/Chicano community itself—a matter influenced again by regional and class factors existing in Mexican points of origin but also by the relative weight sometimes given to, and more often fought for and achieved by, women in settings where they are the wives of industrial workers or often industrial workers themselves.

Here, however, in this study we will look at the early roots of Chicago Chicano identifications, beginning at a time when indeed the small but growing Mexican population was almost the only Latino population of any size in the city and when, it might well be supposed, the emergent cultural patterns, tensions and modes of transculturation (as well as their literary expressions) might be most similar to other patterns in the U.S. Of course, the Mexicanos, tejanos and others who came to Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s would be different from or similar to their cousins throughout the U.S. on the basis of a range of factors, central to which would be their home base geographical and temporal situations and their insertions therein, and of course the situation of the host society—in this case that railroad/steel mill/ meatpacking world which was the Chicago at the time in question.

In sum, we might well assume the obvious—that Chicago Chicano literature would be representative of and different from national and regional trends to the degree that Chicago Mexicans were typical or atypical of those settling elsewhere in the U.S. and to the degree that Chicago as a great industrial urb of immigration experiences and syncretisms was typical or atypical of other places.

Questions of the class composition and home origin of Chicago Mexicans at different stages of the Chicago immigration/settlement have not been given adequate attention even in the early works dedicated to studying the history and anthropological patternings of the city’s initial Mexican communities (cf. Año Kerr and Horowitz as examples—more recently, see Arredondo and Innis-Jimenez). Without a scientifically constituted demographic study, however, it seems fairly sure that most of the early mexicanos to come to Chicago were primarily just that—mexicanos, and not, as in the case of much of the rest of the Midwest, tejanos, even if some of them had passed through Texas or California, etc., on their way to the city Rolando Hinojosa Smith refers to as the great industrial garra.

Furthermore, it seems that while the vast majority was of course of working class background and destination, there was some “middle sector” immigration of people who might join the Chicago workforce temporarily or even for a lifetime, but whose orientations and education might have prepared them with a different perspective on their experience and also for a different fate. Among those few mexicanos who rose within the working class to supervisory or union organizing positions, or who left the working class to open businesses (restaurants, barbershops, panaderías, etc.) serving the expanding Mexican and then more broadly Latino population or (at least some of their children) to join the service sector (teaching, nursing, social work, police, etc.), how many had had some entrepreneurial or other “middle sector” experiences prior to coming to the city? How many had had some kind of background factor that would help to set them apart in their new environment?

Finally, to push the home base issue, it seems that while many mexicanos began finding their way to Chicago before and during the Mexican Revolution, even more began coming during the 1920s, most particularly from Jalisco, Michoacán and Guanajuato and most directly from those areas most intensely involved in the cristero rebellion of the 1920s.[2] Reacting to the statism and anticlericalism of the Revolution and its effect on education, religious traditions, etc., many people in the states specified revolted; and as the army exerted its power over them, some of them took the opportunity to flee. More, in effect, chose to leave after the collapse of the rebellion, now facing difficult economic realities and the institutionalization of a revolutionary program that they believed alien to their needs and their belief structures.

Is this a significant fact with respect to early Chicago Mexican immigration? Does it separate out or tend to bring together Chicago and national Chicano developments? To put the question in other terms (and assuming that we may be right in our assumptions about the home base for much of the early immigration), did the cristero experience and the relatively conservative political patterns of the areas in question (including a strong Catholic allegiance, a sense of hierarchical authority and at least some dimensions of “corporatist” community culture in Eric Wolffs sense) have a significant impact on the way the emerging “Chicanos” related to their working class jobs and environments? Where did the early community leaders stand in relation to the norms of those impacted by or party to the cristero experience? Where they conformist or oppositional in respect to those norms? And what influence did those norms have the early leaders and the organizations they founded? What influence, in turn, did those early leaders and their organizations and norms have on the political and cultural life of the overall Mexican population? To what degree has the legacy embodied in these matters had an influence on present day patterns? On attitudes toward home, family, community? On sex roles, social mobility, etc.? On attitudes toward dominant groups, other minorities (Italians, Irish, African Americans) and then toward other Mexicans and Latinos as they arrived in the city. To movements for and against the structures established by industry, by Daley politics and a conservative, if not reactionary (but sometimes paternalistic) Irish-dominated Catholic Church and the liberal and more radical forces that sought to fight against these modes of domination, from Jane Addams to Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, and, to mention a few recent Chicano leaders, Rudy Lozano and Chuy García? Were the first settlers more conservative than later waves? Were there also radicalized opponents to the Revolution or radicalized revolutionary supporters who were part of the same stream and gave it a political diversity that could be tapped one way or another at later times?

To put these matters more concretely: In spite of Mexican participation in Chicago labor struggles of the 1930s (cf. Año Kerr: 44) and the entry of left labor organizers from Mexico and elsewhere, it seems clear that there was also a strong conservative contingent which established the first mutual associations and organizations (many of them Church-related) and gave some initial structure to Chicago “Mexican American” community life. What were the social attitudes and values of these people? What was their attitude toward industry, the other social groups they worked and lived with, questions of assimilation, national identity, church, school, family, social mobility, etc.? To what degree do some of the current problems mexicanos face (including a predatory and exploitative labor market, a disarticulation of social services, a dysfunctional school and overall support system leading to dropouts, gangs, narco-traffic and the emergence of drug-trading enclaves) stem from the characteristics of the early settlement patterns and the values of the early settlers or from different characteristics pertinent to later waves of Mexican immigration in later city circumstances—or perhaps from the class, cultural and other difference between pre- and post-sixties migrations? Or to what degree do the problems stem from the fact that the post-sixties migrants were unable to build on and were in many ways cut off from, the ideological and organizational patterns generated by the earlier settlers?


Questions of Literature and Historical Development

Without being able to give definitive answers to these historical questions, but nevertheless affected by them in our thinking, we must turn to our own specific task, an effort to understand the early Chicago Mexican experience as it is expressed in literary works. But here too, we face great difficulties, because there has been a scarcity of such early literature; and the only oral testimonies we have knowledge of are the raw materials used by Taylor, Redfield, Jones and other University of Chicago researchers who did their field work on the community in the 1920s and 1930s, and finally the oral history tapes (as yet untranscribed and only partially analyzed) generated by a few researchers during the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, Mexican literature existed in the Midwest and in Chicago since the first Mexicans came to the area. Adaptations and transformations of corridos and poems from the declamatory school of Mexican poetry could be heard in bars, at civic events and community celebrations and parties; some were occasionally published in one or another of the early Latino newspapers and journals. As early as the 1920s, according to Año Kerr (1976: 49), Chicago Mexicans had formed “artistic societies” which “gave musicians, actors, dancers, and artists a chance to perform for, and sponsored literary and ‘artistic’ occasions intended to strengthen national pride.”

Further research will be required to recover any early examples of Chicago Mexican literature. Año Kerr and more recent historians list many newspapers and other publications, as well as archives, where much of the “pre-history” of contemporary Chicago Chicano writing may most readily be found. Kanellos (1987) pointed to dimensions of Chicago-area theater history that suggest that beyond theater; there was most probably a body of mainly unpublished poetry. In the 1990s, with funding from a grant proposal I wrote for Kanellos’ Recovery project, Carlos Cumpián examined the collection of Chicago Mexican materials belonging to Antonio Delgado and uncovered some of the work from the 1950s and early 60s, which appeared in a popular magazine of the period, entitled Vida Latina. Appearing with poems by Colombians, Puerto Ricans and others, these early efforts, all in Spanish, were mainly direct imports from Latin America; but it was impossible to identify the few poems that might have been written in Chicago.

What is clear is that in spite of many recent books on Chicago Latino and Mexican experience, we still require greater attention to political and cultural developments in especially with respect to the 1940s and 1950s so we can better understand why there seems to have been so little literary and artistic production. We also need a closer study of community-based resistance patterns to better understand the political conjunctures to which, however obliquely, the emergent cultural and literary production might seem to correspond.

When we uncover the materials going back to the initial immigrations to Chicago, we will then be able to debate at which point we are dealing with things that are Mexican, Chicano, Mexicano-Chicano, etc. But it is already clear that it would not be until the early 1970s that Chicago Latino and specifically Chicano writing would take off and undergo a more or less sustained and organic development leading to the turning point years of 1976-1979.

Of course, some early manuscripts may be uncovered, perhaps even one like Las Memorias de Bernardo Vega in relation to the Nuyorican experience. There may be a steel mill or packinghouse novel or an autobiographical narrative from the 1920s or 1930s in somebody’s attic or basement, in some church archive. But in effect, the very few works that have been published by Chicago mexicanos about the period in question emerge after and are undoubtedly mediated by the emergence of a full-blown Chicano literature in the years since the 1960s.

It is the life and literary experience of mexicanos and Chicanos nationally and in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, which mediates, heightens, modifies and yes sometimes distorts published recollections of earlier years. To “read” Chicago Chicano literature about the historical span prior to the sixties in effect requires reading through Chicano and U.S. developments from the sixties to the present. This will undoubtedly be true about the stories about the 1930s that Chicago native Felipe de Ortego, so long associated with the Chicano movement and its literature in the Southwest, is said to be writing; it is somewhat true about the reminiscences of Mexican Chicago in the fifties as etched by Jorge Prieto in his autobiography, Harvest of Hope (1988); and it is certainly true with respect to the work which will be the focus of our first contributions to a history of Chicago Chicano writing: a look at the earliest Chicano and Chicana poets of Chicago (ones pre-dating or contemporary with the early work of Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros Carlos Cumpián, etc.) and then, finally, Hugo Martínez-Serros and his collection, The Last Laugh and Other Stories.


A Key Theoretical Perspective

Here, as a preliminary means to measure the city’s Chicano writing in relation to national norms and trends, we make a critical adaptation of the structuralist paradigm for Chicano poetic discourse as elaborated by critic Juan Bruce-Novoa. For Novoa, the surface structures of Chicano literature point to a “deep structure” based on the loss of a world, or axis mundi and an effort to recuperate the lost world through some kind of creative recreation of space. This paradigm is played out in function of the polarities of life and death. Its deeper, anthropological roots may be found in a tribal sense of communal, sacred space. One is only alive in relation to a community that occupies and defines that space. Exiled, one enters the land of death, a world of chaos in which the “center will not hold,” the spiritual disorder which is the modern experience, or the world of time as opposed to spatial values, chronometric/labor time as opposed to sun/space time: the world not of maize, but machines.

For Bruce-Novoa, Chicano literature is the space of symbolic action between the forces of “life and death” in relation to the disappearance, survival and transformation of the Mexican axis mundi. Each progressive historical transformation of the axis mundi implies what Novoa describes as the “erasure” (or conservation even in negation) of what is formally cancelled. It is the Conquest that marks a major rupture in the violation of the axis mundi the Independence and future Mexican struggles represent efforts by varying groups to “erase the erasure” and retake the Mexican space. The threat of group obliteration intensifies in the modern world of displacement from the countryside, of migration, migrant labor and cross border immigration. Mexico is cancelled by migration and displacement. A whole value world and cosmology is lost. The people try to reconstruct the sacred in their new space, the colonia, barrio or street, only to find this space and the people attacked from without and threatened by disintegration from within, with only certain possibilities for survival and re-consecration, to be found in those who, while valuing change, take on older roles of in the incantation and enactment of the wise and magic words and the proper rituals.

The new turf becomes the new Chicano axis mundi to be held and defended, as the U.S. experience cuts the people off from Mexico and as Mexico cuts them off from the U.S. window onto the world. But the barrio is a fallen Mexican world, one in which there seem to be few creative avenues, in which what is left of cultural roots may hem one in and hold one down, more than provide modes of liberation. Indeed, defense of the sacred turf may lose all significant cultural reference as it synchronizes with or rather becomes reduced to generalized “underclass” or even gang orientations. The question then becomes how to find creative resolution, how to protect oneself from the identity chaos of the external world, but how on the other hand not be trapped by what from that internalized external worlds point of view is the prison of a traditional culture which no longer holds even the illusions of rewards and possibilities that it formerly offered.

The artist is seen as a kind of shaman, recreating the communal space or its surrogates and winning a war against invading forces of chaos. Of course one frequently must take on the enemys tactics and weapons, one cannot strictly bring back the old. You cannot restore old Mexico or bring back Aztlán, but you can win creative space ritualistically, artistically, through creative reconstruction and projection. The space of the printed page becomes the communal writer’s space of victory.

Clearly, this kind of cosmology has ties to the evocations of structural transformations specified in the writings of Octavio Paz, and is a reformulation of the central theme of early Chicano cultural and literary mythology, as characterized in the construct of Aztlán.

Chicago Chicano writing is inevitably more urban, more closely woven with other Latino and non-Latino cultural strains, more distanced from a pre-technological, pre-capitalist world of blood bonds and sacrifices, sacramental, ritualistic and ceremonial relations with the earth and other humans.[3] Yet, as our study reveals, in one way or another, at least early Chicago Chicano writing directly and indirectly attempts to project this Chicano vision into Chicago’s diverse and urbanized Latino world. More recent, college-educated and feminist Chicana writers may seem to drift from this paradigm, in reaction against the repression and the inscribed role of woman which they ascribe to it and to the Chicano movement it seems to represent. If Chicago writers like Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros can be shown to partake of this structural view, however critically they may do so, then we have gone a long way to establishing their core ties to a vision which is very specifically rooted in a syncretic Chicano “imaginary” in which Mexican and U.S. polarities find their resolution.


[1]On the question of the construction of a “Latino” as opposed to a “Chicano” or “Puerto Rican” identification in Chicago, see Padilla 1985. Clearly, this paper will often refer to “Latino” dimensions. More specifically, we will use Mexicano,”when dealing with more traditionally inflected writings, and then Chicano-Mexicano (a term much used in Chicago) and Chicano, as, according to my judgement, we move along the implicit identification continuum. For the question of “Mexican American” dimensions, see García 1989. For Chicago’s Chicano-mexicano composite, see Leonard Ramírez, “Introduction,” Las chicanas de Eighteenth Street (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2014).

[2]I owe this perspective to the suggestions of my Mexicanist colleague, Professor Mary Kay Vaughan of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Obviously only further research on Chicago mexicano church and organizational life can confirm or deny, or otherwise develop this question.

[3]Cf. Ruth Horowitz, Honor and the American Dream: Culture and Identity in a Chicano Community. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.

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