Ana Castillo and Chicago: From her Early Poems to The Mixquiahuala Letters

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-05-02 04:12:29

Ana Castillo.


Multiple Spaces, Intertextualities and Mexico

Her first poems published in chapbooks and then in a fuller selection as Women are Roses, Ana Castillo, taking a route that Sandra Cisneros would replicate just a few years later, proceeded to write and publish her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters.[1]

However this text, unlike the first books of fiction produced by Cisneros and so many other young writers (Joyce, Lawrence and Thomas Wolfe, as well Louisa May Walcott and Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin [My Brilliant Career] just to recall a few famous examples by Anglo women) did not tell the story of her childhood and coming of age; it was no bildungsroman or portrait of the artist. That identity story would come later, though not in a narrative volume but in her second full-scale collection of poems, My Father was a Toltec. Rather than providing poetic vignettes by an adolescent girl whose way of seeing and saying could win the hearts of thousands throughout the U.S., The Mixquiahuala Letters presentsa series of letters written by one young Chicago Chicana woman, Teresa, to a New York-based woman friend, Alicia, describing their meeting and travels together as they seek to sort out their identity and come to terms with their lives. Teresa’s evocative, often lyrical if sometimes elusive letters constitute an epistolary novel, 18th Century-style, with the high modernist twist that the letters or chapters could be arranged in a variety of ways a la Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela supposedly leading to different readings or perspectives. The tone of the novel is of suppressed passion and understatement, with even the most melodramatic and poetic moments somehow distanced by a kind meditative irony — an impressive, rather sophisticated start for a young writer, but not likely to have the largest reception.

Furthermore, while Cisneros’s Mango Street was to refer, however obliquely to transnational perspectives, still the focus was very much on neighborhood/barrio life; meanwhile, the local in Mixquihuala Letters is quite muted, as the transnational, crossnational and cosmopolitan elements are central to Castillo’s story. That story will indeed be paralleled by that of the two young women portrayed in Cisneros’ first full book of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, in their travels in Paris and Greece. However, Castillo’s previously written novel tells of two young women whose search for identity and adventure, leads them on a path extending from their respective metropolitan urbs, New York and Chicago, into the heart of Mexico and then back to U.S. urban life — New York, Chicago but also San Francisco — a path involving their confrontation with their roots and their relation to male domination and violence in Teresa’s indigenous and mestizo Mexican terrain and, somewhat more obliquely, through Alicia’s Andaluzan and possible gypsy roots as well as those of her Arab lover, in Spain’s Ibero-Arabic world.

Castillos first novel marks her own movement away from Chicago and earlier Chicano thematics and emphasizes by its very form the emergent shift in Chicano literature from oral to print culture orientations and the growing awareness, perhaps most dramatically signaled in Ron Arias The Road to Tomazuchale, of Mexican and Latin American as opposed to Anglo American literary models and geographical contexts. The language used in the volume is conversational and in moments of womanly intimacy, highly colloquial — so that the echoes of oral discourse and older Spanish and Mexican discursive and cultural norms are still present in a predominantly English language text. But these echoes are checked first by innumerable indirect echoes of Cervantes’ Quixote and above all by the Cortazaresque play with literary form and above all of course by the centering on written discourse (and female, if not yet fully feminist, perspectives) which the epistolary novelistic tradition makes all but inescapable. The discourse itself, poetic and at times scatological, seems to owe most to such precursor exile feminists like Anais Nin (directly cited in the text), Jean Rhys (cited in one of Castillo’s poems), and Djuina Barnes — women writers from earlier decades whose attitudes toward love and sex seem to have had some affinity with or influence on Castillo’s narrative tactics and strategies.

The series of letters which make up the volume give us a fragmentary and often refracted presentation of the views and attitudes interchanged between Teresa and Alicia. The letters describe their relationship and their experiences, clearly from Teresa’s perspective. Above all they recount the women’s journey to Teresa’s Mexican mother country, in their search for identification, rebellion and hoped for cultural reconciliation. Particularly significant is Teresas refusal of the sexist role culturally ascribed to her, as a stage of "return" and transcendence necessary to her development. But the main identity quest, psychic even more than geographic, is the effort by Teresa in her life and letters to sort out her relation with her Anglo/Spanish artist “sister” (the two polar extremes distancing Alicia from the Indigenous dimensions of her friend-narrator’s syncretic identity).

The epistolary form employed enables us to enter into Teresa’s subjectivity but it sometimes blocks our view of Alicia; and we sometimes lose verisimilitude as Teresa recounts details the readers may wish to know but that Alicia would have no need to read. Sometimes, we can’t get close enough to the inner workings and motivations for different moments in the story, because the person writing can’t possibly provide the necessary information. Sometimes this creates intrigue, but sometimes it creates unnecessary confusion.

Still, the book stands as perhaps the first Chicana narrative which insists on global connections; and, in its exploration of Mexican roots, stands as the Chicana parallel and perhaps antidote to classic male explorations such as D.H. Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and, to mention a Chicago Jewish-American example, Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March. Indeed, The Mixquiahuala Letters counters Lawrence’s mystical and machistic romanticism and the overwrought exploration of the most lurid lower depths in Lowry; her partial rejection of the most male-centered aspects of Mexican culture constitutes less of an affirmation of Chicago and U.S. identity than does Bellow’s Jewish American assimilationist revelation; and in this sense her Mexico is more intimate but also more ambivalent than that presented in the Anglo-American pre-feminist Mexican musings of Katherine Anne Porter and Kay Boyle, to mention two significant examples. Even closer in time and influence, however, are the beat visions of Mexico and Mexicans offered in books by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, who moved to Mexico City in 1949 to avoid a drug charge in New Orleans, and “laid down in literature a charmingly simple notion of the country that has endured. Kerouac never took Mexico very seriously,” said Jorge García-Robles. … “It was a symbol more than something real.”[2] And so Mexico appears in so many male-centered Beat and post-Beat narratives. However, in her feminist deconstruction of a male centered genre, Castillo subverts the road novel genre as she seeks to portray Teresa’s confrontation and partial break with her Mexican roots. No one has grasped this dimension of Castillo’s novel better than Marina de Chiara, whose description deserves quoting at length: 

Two young women travelling from one Mexican village to the other, from Yucatán to Mexico City, to “find themselves,” as proclaimed by the ruling motto of the young American generation in the Seventies, Alicia and Teresa genuinely believe they are part and parcel of those values which unmistakably represent America: freedom, emancipation, pioneering spirit, and equal rights for men and women. In the course of their journey, they realize, to their great disappointment, that, while two travelling women can certainly wander about, they definitely cannot do so in the mode of the many travellers who are most congenial to narratives of the American spirit—the mythical narrative of the journey on the road, celebrated by Jack Kerouac at the end of the Fifties, which became … a sort of existential myth for generations of young Americans. Alicia and Teresa soon find out that their wandering on the road, with the required faded jeans, bandanas to hide their hair, and loose bags on shoulders, stigmatizes them as easy prey … the Mexican male. Mexican territory is a mythical point of arrival for many American travellers and writers on the road. … [Here,] two women travelling alone can only be looking for trouble; here, two women travelling alone are definitely “trash,” “whores” with no dignity. With no settled home, like the Biblical devil, here two young women are surely considered the devil himself, since all women, as Teresa’s uncle will insist in Letter One, are possessed by the devil (20). From lyrical evocations of marvelous landscapes, the special fragrances and colours of Mexican villages and the Ocean, to the evocation of moments when the two women seriously risk their lives, as eligible prey to male violence, the letters unveil the limit of the on the road myth as an intrinsically male myth, a myth which is impossible for women, though emancipated and grown up in a liberal state, to inhabit.[3]

The quixotic quest of the two women behind them, the narrative comes to a series of further reversals after they leave Mexico and confront their U.S. lives. First Teresa breaks up with her husband on her return to Chicago, only later to conceive a child with him on a visit to San Francisco, and then return to Chicago to have the child, Vittorio, only to travel again to Mexico City, Puerto Rico and New York. Here, she finds her “soulmate” has been caught up in a tense relationship with an Arab lover and comes to experience an extreme of gender conflict in which he (representing, one may surmise, the extreme female-repressing side of Spanish identity) kills himself, perhaps (though it’s not quite clear at least to me) because he can no longer find any other way to impress his power over her.


Chicago in the Narrative/ Conclusions and Anticipations

Where does Chicago fit in this overall pattern marked by innumerable literary echoes, geographic spaces and life crises? Here, Chicago is left pretty much in the background of this text. However, we might readily construct a reading in which it would be the implicit other to the Mexican, Iberian, New York and others worlds portrayed or mentioned. That Teresa may be a product of working class Mexican Chicago also remains in the background; in a parallel way, Alicia’s roots in southern Spain are only sometimes evoked or suggested, and especially so when she goes to the Iberian extreme in her relationship with her Arab lover. Thus the foundational Mexican and Ibero-Arabic as opposed to U.S. urban norms are explored from the outset, and tend to separate the two women who we first perceive as near sisters but who end by going in their own directions — as if to say that our Chicago Chicana heroine first enters into and then liberates herself from Mexican, Ibero-Arabic roots in her flight to a new identity which will only emerge in subsequent literary projections. That Teresa returns to Chicago to give birth to her son sets up an illusion of reconciliation with Castillo’s birth city which will never quite be fulfilled with any permanence.

From the windy city, Teresa describes how her mother “chased behind Pancho Villa’s troops to swoop up her son in Torreón and ended up in a bleak place called Chicago (p. 44).” Then she tells how she, her grandmother’s spiritual heir, left Chicago for California only to realize that she required a further “exile”:

There was a definite call to find a place to satisfy my yearning spirit, the Indian in me that had begun to cure the ails of humble folk distrustful of modern medicine; a need for the sapling woman for the fertile earth that had nurtured her growth. ... No aimless rambler, or total free spirit that could be blown in the winds preferred direction, i searched for my home, be it a cave alongside a barren cliff, a ranch of chickens and pigs, a city with a multitude of familiar faces confused as hungry as me. I chose Mexico (p. 46). 

Strangely enough, then, the journey out from the narrow working-class Latino space of Chicago, the search for life and love, all lead to a search “from ruin to ruin” (p. 46) in sacred lands, but then, ultimately, to a resolution involving the rejection of traditional modes of female submissive masochism and a plunge into a fantasy whereby the male’s vindictive struggle for power turns to self-destructive violence and leads to a new space or country that only subsequent writing will be able to define. In this sense, Castillo’s overall transnational fictional geography, while framed by Latin and Central America, Mexico, Al Andalous (southern Spain and Moslem Africa), New York and the Southwest, is centered in Chicago and extends from there to Mexico in this novel, to Central America and Madrid in Sapagonia and to the southwest in So far from God, only return to Chicago in Peel My Love like an Onion and oscillating between the southwest and Chicago, in Give it to Me. [4]

On this basis, one might have expected Castillo’s next work to deal with the new realm or country toward which her previous work projects. However her next volume, My Father Was a Toltec, depicts Castillos Chicago family life and school years life (with an ambivalent portrait of her womanizing gangbanging father) and in this sense seems to constitute a moment of regression in Castillo’s creative dialectic — a throwback once more into the Castillo’s roots and development, before moving on — her minimal equivalent of Cisneros’ Mango Street world. Castillo points to this trajectory when after specifying how in her introduction how she seeks to enter Chicago’s art world only to experience continual rejection until she projects her artistic drive into becoming a young performance poet who seeks to represent the collective identity of her community (therefore her use of a lowercase i in her early writing [xxiv]), and then to a poet who is more individuated, focusing on sexual liberation over barrio struggles, as she seeks “a long-desired trapdoor to the larger world.” (ibid.)

So, as we shall see, the collection’s culminating poem, “My Country,” projects from the value world which increasingly anchors the writer’s work, towards the anti-patriarchal (and perhaps bi-sexual) world where she now hopes to go. We shall explore this trajectory in subsequent essays on her work. But here I would simply like to return a final time to a consideration stemming from her first volume of poems and extending to the poetry which emerges after The Mixquiahuala Letters. So in her review of Women Are Not Roses, Carol Maier had attempted to understand the omission of certain poems and the analytical and “sad” tone of Castillos collection in function of the poet’s difficulties in carrying on her project of exploration in terms of aesthetic forms.[5] The conflict involved in Castillo’s quest, however, between breaking with and yet being ultimately true to goals that transcend cultural nationalism, was not to be easily resolved. The substance of success in modern society would dwell in the capacity to create forms out of sexual and gender interaction and combat.

The Chicago years of emergent consciousness and conflict behind her, the question for Ana Castillo might well be if she was going to be locked into the very path she took in the name of liberation, if she was going to be “our national Chicana Erika Jong,” or if she would be able to find new levels of exploration. There is a sense of danger in her poem “The Idyll” (and also in the conclusion of her first novel) of a possibly destructive dead end as she sets to face these matters in her more mature years. Indeed, with Women are not Roses, Castillo leaves us wondering where all her past life and work would lead, and where would Chicago stand in the process:

All Octobers become one
to form a faded string
of nostalgic blues around
an ancient moon/down
Chicago’s neon action strip:
when strangers replace
lovers who deserted the front
at Summer’s end
and everyone can pretend
It’s October
and if we listen for just
a moment we can hear
the dry leave break off
and fall from the trees.
with dignity fall
and let what must be
in October.

There is certainly something bleak and down in Castillo’s autumnal stoicism. However, our analysis here suggests that the rather regressive and depressive dimensions in her work are ones necessarily prior to projected transcendence — dimensions which, even as she prolifically hurls herself toward the future, seem rooted in her earlier Chicago work and developmental phases.

As would be true throughout her subsequent opus culminating thus far with Give it to Me, Castillo portrays a variety of spaces, above all in New Mexico as well as other southwestern and West Coast locales, but also in Paris, Madrid and Central America (or as she designates it, Sapagonia), all implicitly or more often explicitly contrasting, on the one hand with an idealized space, initially defined as “my country” and with the far from ideal nitty-gritty Chicago which we may readily see as the central world of her opus — a fallen world indeed, full of all kinds of negative and potentially destructive dimensions but ultimately the key battleground for her most of her protagonists’ struggles for gender, ethnic, and artistic identity.




[1] See “The Early Poetry of Ana Castillo,” in El Beisman.2014-03-01 03:33:26.

[2]Robles, cited in Damien Caveoct,“Kerouac’s Mexico” in

[3] “Letters from distant shores: Ana Castillo”, in Giovanna Covi, Lisa Marchi, eds., Democracy and Difference: the US in Multidisciplinary and Comparative PerspectivesPapers from the 2011 AISNA Conference, Editrice Università degli Studi di Trento, Serie Labirinti, Trento, 2012, pp. 107-112. See also Anne Lauer, “Deconstructing Patriarchy and Genre in Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters” in On the issue of the epistolary subject in recent literature, see Jonathan Singer, “Epistolary Exchange and the Modern Subject of Narrative.” Dissertation Abstracts International A65.11 (2005): 41-88 and Yvonne Yarbrio-Bejarano, “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo.” The Americas Review 20.1 (1992): 65-72.

[4] On the question of Castillo’s literary geography up to Peel My Love, and related to Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands and postmodernist critique, see Roland Walter, “The Cultural Politics of Dislocation and Relocation in the Novels of Ana Castillo” MELUS Vol. 23, No. 1, Latino/a Literature (Spring, 1998), pp. 81-97.

[5] See the review plus notes and correspondence between Maier and Castillo in The Ana Castillo Papers. Collection number: CEMA 2. California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives. Donald C. Davidson Library. Dept. of Special Collections. U. of California, Santa Barbara.

Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Latino Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S. cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.




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