The Muse

(An International Journal of Poetry)

Volume-1                                              december-2011                                                    Number-2

 

 

 

ASSENTING, CONSENTING AND  DISSENTING VOICES IN CHICANA POETRY

                                                               

                                                                                            by Dr. Feryal Cubukcu (Dept. of English, Dokuz Eylul University, Izmir, Turkey.)

 

 

(Abstract: Chicano Movement was the Chicano Student Movement which formed as a result of the educational inequality that Mexican-Americans faced during the 1960s and 70s. Many schools in America were segregated, and as a result, Mexican American students were not receiving quality education in their schools. The Chicano Student Movement began as an organized collection of high school and college age students. They fought for educational equality in their communities by asking for better textbooks, more Chicano teachers in their schools, better educational services, and classes that related to their own Chicana history and culture. All of these events that took place in the Chicano Movement impacted the Chicanas within it, and eventually propelled them to speak out against the inequalities that they faced not only outside their culture, but also within it. This study aims at highlighting four Chicana poets – Sandra Cisneros, Ana  Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Angela de Hoyos- by focusing upon their resistance to the main Chicano elements in the society and how they assent, consent  and dissent from the  society they live in, making their rebel as feminist, trans-racist and  trans-nationalist.)

 

The word “Chicano” started to be used after 1940s. There are two particular theories regarding the origin of Chicano. One theory ascribes the word to Nahuatl origin, suggesting that the Indians pronounced Mexicano as” Me-shi-ca-noh”. In time, the first syllable  was dropped and  the soft “shi” was replaced  by “ch”. Another theory asserts the word was conventionally formed by suffixing  “ano” to “chico” (a  young boy) as in the word Mexic-ano. Thus the word was used in barrio, a spanish speaking community,  for emphasis to place in a  special category of Mexican American of lower class. Today the noun “chicano” is defined as “ a dissatisfied American of Mexican descent whose ideas regarding his position in the social and economic order are, in general, considered  to be liberal or radical and whose statements and actions are often extreme and sometimes violent (Simmen xii-xiii).

 

The Chicano Movement, also known as “El Movimiento,” was a continuation of the 1940’s Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.  It challenged the ethnic stereotypes that existed in America about the Mexican culture and heritage.  The Chicano Movement was comprised of many separate protests, which included ones that sought educational, social, and political equality in the United States. One of the first organizations that gave strength to the movement was the United Farm Workers organization, formed in 1962.  This labor union  fought for equality of Mexican-American workers in the agriculture business. By using non-violent tactics such as boycotts, marches, and strikes, the union attempted to better the working conditions of farm workers. Insurance benefits, workers rights, and safer work environments were just a few of many demands of the UFW. This union continues to be successful in protecting the rights of its members.

 

Another highlight of the 1960's-1970's Chicano Movement was the Chicano Student Movement which formed as a result of the educational inequality that Mexican-Americans faced during this time period. Many schools in America were segregated, and as a result, Mexican American students were not receiving quality education in their schools. The Chicano Student Movement began as an organized collection of high school and college age students. They fought for educational equality in their communities by asking for better textbooks, more Chicano teachers in their schools, better educational services, and classes that related to their own Chicana history and culture. All of these events that took place in the Chicano Movement impacted the Chicanas within it, and eventually propelled them to speak out against the inequalities that they faced not only outside their culture, but also within it. This study aims at highlighting four Chicana  poets and novelists – Sandra Cisneros, Ana  Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Angela de Hoyos- by focusing upon their resistance to the main Chicano  and Anglo elements.  Traditionally in Mexican society, Mexican women were under the authority of Mexican men. Men derived their macho maleness from both the jobs they worked and their dominion over their wife. Mexican women had status chiefly due to, at a young age, their virginal purity, and later as a capable wife and mother. This virginal purity was extremely important because in Mexican society young women were considered sexually erratic, capable of sin against their society and their religion at a moments notice. Therefore men’s control of their women’s sexuality was at the heart of their duties as Mexican men and their reputations were tied to it. This is important Mexican men were uneager to allow Mexicanas to change their role as male identity was dependent primarily on control and upholding of traditional female identity. Because of this, Mexicanas felt trapped in this role that gave them few other options for expressing themselves.

 

Mass culture narrative guides women through the social labyrinth. There are various plots which may be differentiated according to what it is that women are being asked to sacrifice. In case of romantic vision, women ar asked to sacrifice  their intelligence wheras in the comic strip they often sacrifice romance (Jean Franco 123).

The first poet to be studied is Sandra Cisneros who grew up in poverty and was surrounded by six brothers.  This situation compelled Cisneros to books and poetry.  She received her M.A. from the writing program at the University of Iowa.  Her first book, The House on Mango Street, is considered  an elegant literary piece, somewhere between fiction and poetry.  She analyses the role of tradition in the Chicano culture,  a tradition  that hegemony imposes on Chicanas that they cannot transgress class and gender constraints. However, she  focuses on implementing and being proud of her Chicana identity.  She paints the picture of a proud and unique individual; even hoping to stand out in her racist environment.

I who arrived as deliberate as Tuesday

without my hat and shoes

with one rude black tatoo

and purpose as thick as pumpkin. . .

One day I’ll write my name on everything

as certain as a trail of bread. . .

You’ll see.  You’ll see.

I will not out so easily

I was here.  As loud as trumpet.

As real as pebble in the shoe.

A tiger tooth.  A definite voodoo.

Do not erase me.        __

S.  Cisneros

This poem, “Tho So-and-So’s”, begins with a proud tone.  Readers  picture a young, rebellious girl on her first day at a new school.  In the second stanza, however, Cisneros changes her tone a bit.  She begins to identify herself as a burden to those around her; “. . .As real as pebble in the shoe, . . .A definite voodoo”.  It’s almost as if the author is jabbing at the dominant behavior of society; she is demanding attention that she and other Chicanas deserve.  Her self-identification gives her and Chicanas everywhere some identity to celebrate.  Uniqueness and strength characterize this ideal woman.

The poem “Old Maids” show how conditioned Chicanas are to marry at a certain age and when that certain age passes, they have no hope but Cisneros is so happy to be  single and she celebrates her single status by giving examples  from the unhappy married relatives. This old fashioned housewifery was even rejected by the Anglo women society in 1903 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her book” The Home:Its Work and Influence. In the institutionalization of domesticity, Gilman presents a rhetorically charged analysis of how women of her race and class were restricted to housewifery. On first reading Gilman’s text would seem to offer an early model that Chicanas might use to examine their own experiences as women. “To the girl who marries all too hastily as a means of escape...and to the woman, the thousands  upon thousands of women, who work while life lasts to serve that sanctuary by night and day...to all these it may not be unwelcome to suggest that the home need neither be  a prison or a  workhouse nor a consuming power”( cited  by Saldivar Hull, 2000, p.93). What Cisneros offers is the possibility of social change through communal female solidarity.

 

Old Maids

My cousins and I,                                                                 
we don't marry.  
We're too old  
by Mexican standards.  

And the relatives   
have long suspected  
we can't anymore  
in white.  

My cousins and I,  
we're all old  
maids at thirty.  

......  

The aunts,  
they've given up on us.  
No longer nudge--You're next.  

Instead--  
What happened in your childhood?    
What left you all mean teens?    
Who hurt you, honey?  

But we've studied  
marriages too long--  

Aunt Ariadne,  
Tia Vashti,  
Comadre Penelope,  
querida Malintzin,  
Senora Pumpkin Shell--  

lessons that served us well.   (Cisneros)

Just like “Old Maids”, “Las Girlfriends” is the perpetuation of sisterhood , which seems to validate the Chicano culture’s idea that women without males are doomed to turn out bad.  The waitress in the bar has seen tough days and has been treated badly  but Cisneros shows sympathy for her saying that she has undergone the same ordeal too. Cisneros expands her feminist concerns to the lines where the resisting waitress endures all the abuse even the physical but the last line by naming the waitress as the male name ”Terry”, she tries to show the strength and perseverance of the breadwinner.

Las Girlfriends

Tip the barmaid in tight jeans. 
She's my friend. 
Been to hell and back again. 
I've been there too. 

Girlfriend, I believe in Gandhi. 
But some nights nothing says it 
quite precise like a Lone Star 
cracked on someone's head. 

Last week in this same bar, 
kicked a cowboy in the butt 
who made a grab for Terry's ass. 
How do I explain, it was all 
of Texas I was kicking, 
and all our asses on the line. 

.....

And Terry here has her own history, 
A bar down the street she cannot (Cisneros 1994)
http://chicanas.com/omaids.html

The second poet is Ana Castillo who was born and raised in an inner city barrio of Chicago, Illinois, 1953. After completing undergraduate studies, she immediately began teaching college courses. She earned her Master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies from the University of Chicago with a thesis entitled "The Idealization and Reality of the Mexican Indian Woman". She received her doctorate from the University of Bremen, Germany, in American studies in 1991. In lieu of a traditional dissertation, she submitted the essays later collected in her highly acclaimed work Massacre of the Dreamers. Castillo writes about Chicana feminism, which she dubs "Xicanisma", and her work centers on issues of identity, racism, and classism. Many of her protagonists are fiercely independent, sometimes lesbian, women.

El Chicle

Mi'jo and I were laughing
ha,ha,ha--
when the gum he chewed
fell out of his mouth
and into my hair
which, after I clipped it,
flew into the air,
on the back
of a dragonfly
that dipped in the creek
and was snapped
fast by a turtle
that reached high
and swam deep.
Mi'jo wondered
what happened to that gum
worried that it stuck
to the back of my seat
and Mami will be mad
when she can't get it out.
Meanwhile, the turtle in the pond
that ate the dragonfly
that carried the hair
with the gum
swam South on Saturday
and hasn't been seen
once since.

http://www.anacastillo.com/ac/works/poetry.htm

The third poet Lorna Dee Cervantes is a well-known Chicana poet.  She grew up in San Jose, California and now teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Cervantes uses emotion and imagery in her writings to effectively report the experience of the Chicana women.  Cervantes informs her readers that self-definition and self-invention are consistent in much of the Chicana poetry that exists today.  “Thus what has developed was a poetry of performance whose strength and vivacity lay in its oral qualities rather than its power on the printed page.” The only true understanding of the women in  America during the pre-colombian era is through verbal stories and poetry; much of which has been lost.  Who is better to account for these women than those who actually lived through it or their close descendants?

 

Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe In The War Between Races

 

In my land there are no distinctions. 
The barbed wire politics of oppression 
have been torn down long ago. The only reminder 
of past battles, lost or won, is a slight 
rutting in the fertile fields. 

In my land 
people write poems about love, 
full of nothing but contented childlike syllables. 
Everyone reads Russian short stories and weeps. 
There are no boundaries. 
There is no hunger, no 
complicated famine or greed. 

I am not a revolutionary. 
I don't even like political poems. 
Do you think I can believe in a war between races? 
I can deny it. I can forget about it 
when I'm safe, 
living on my own continent of harmony 
and home, but I am not 
there. 

......

These bullets bury deeper than logic. 
Racism is not intellectual. 
I can not reason these scars away. 

Outside my door 
there is a real enemy 
who hates me. 

I am a poet 
who yearns to dance on rooftops, 
to whisper delicate lines about joy 
and the blessings of human understanding. 
I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and 
bolt the door, but the typewriter doesn't fade out 
the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage. 
My own days bring me slaps on the face. 
Every day I am deluged with reminders 
that this is not 
my land 

and this is my land. 

I do not believe in the war between races 

but in this country 
there is war.
  (Lorna Dee Cervantes 1981)  http://chicanas.com/lornabridge.html#lorna

 

This particular poem moves away from the imagery she normally uses and allows her personal feelings to dominate a very powerful poem.  It seems that Cervantes is writing to whites, maybe one in particular.  The reasoning behind this opinion is her wording, “ you don’t believe this, but they’re not shooting at you”.  Pressure against Chicanas is everywhere, yet to those who come from different historical backgrounds wouldn’t understand or acknowledge this pressure. Another powerful moment in this poem is the last three lines.  Just as the land of the Aztecs was controlled by European conquerors, it was originally their land.  This confusion is one that Cervantes wants her readers to consider.  She understands what if feels like to have something significant, (land), rules for her by some opposing party.  It is in her writing that Lorna attempts to convey this feeling to readers.  This parallels a class discussion on how women’s bodies have been controlled throughout history.  “. . . that this is not my land and this is my land. . .”.  This clearly voices a confusion about who has control over ones’ personal property; personal property including body, mind, land and other such things.

                                                             
women living cheek to cheek,

still tasting the dog’s

breath of boys. . .

Their wordless tongues we stole

and tasted the power. . .

. . .We could take

something of life and not

give it back.         __

                                   

In this poem, “ For Virginia Chavez”, Cervantes utilizes the imagery of a home filled with women, (or just women filling a home), and a dog as the presence of man.  Though the dog’s, with no voice, “their wordless tongues” could practice no power over the residing females.  The last few lines are saddening.  The mere use of dominance is something not often available to these  Chicana women.  This is what Cervantes can finally “take . . . and not give back”.  Much like the Aztec women who served the Spaniards, control is that which is desired and rarely attained.
 

The fourth Chicana poet of the study  Angela de Hoyos, considered the “grande dame of Chicano poetry,” was born in Coahuila, Mexico, on January 23, 1940 and died Thursday, September 25,2009 in San Antonio. In the 1970s, her poetry fueled the Chicano Movement and her work continued to inspire generations of poets.  When she was a child her family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she resided till she passed away. At the age of three she suffered a long convalescence. She spent many months in bed, and by means of entertaining herself, she began an interior monologue of rhymes and verses.

Since she wanted to have her own course of study but had to follow a degree plan, she decided to take a course at the University of Texas at San Antonio College, the Witt Museum, and the San Antonio Art Institute, where she pursed her interest in fine arts and writing. Angela was deeply affected by the Chicano farm workers' struggle. Her early poems were highly political. Her work is often cited as one of the first fruits of the Chicano literary movements. Angela's poetry has been honored with awards in Argentina, India, Italy, Germany, and the United States. Her many art and literary awards include second prize for poetry in the CSSI International Competition, Italy. Her works have been the subject of over one hundred reviews in a dozen different countries. In Europe, Angela is one of the best known among all of the U.S. Latina writers. Her work has also been translated into fifteen different languages. At the 1994 San Antonio Festival, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award and recognition by the Texas Commission on the Arts. De Hoyos is the publisher and editor of M and A Editions and Huehuetitlan, a journal of Chicano culture and poetry.

Angela de Hoyos takes on the tasks of bearing witness, and denouncing the imperative social demands that are inescapable. In the poems she writes, she comes face to face with herself and the world that surrounds her. Arise, Chicano! is Angela's first published collection of poems. Arise, Chicano! contains a testimonial poetry that denounces that social injustices done to the Chicanos and reflects on their exploited circumstances: "What do the entrails know about the necessity of being white. . . -the advisability of male-order parents?" This quotation from Arise, Chicano! offers the theme of being born with or without color. In Arise, Chicano! another theme that surfaces is the circumstances that have produced the mental, physical, and spiritual suffering inherited in the loss of Chicano heritage and economic dignity.

In her first book of poetry, Angela condemns the dominant culture and prods Chicanos to recognize the circumstances and do something about it: "or-who knows?-Perhaps tomorrow I shall burst these shackles and rising to my natural full height fling the final parting laugh O gluttonous omnipotent alien white world. . . " The poet's main purpose in Arise, Chicano! is to teach and inform. She tends to have a pessimistic overtone but her attitude is not negative; instead, she exhorts Chicanos to be their own saviors. She stresses ethnic differences rather than cultural dominance. Racial discrimination is seen as a primary cause of the marginalization of Chicanos. De Hoyos's language in her poetry contains several linguistic devices that are used to create foregrounding. The variations of linguistic dimensions are seen in English and Spanish (or in a mixture). De Hoyos's most important linguistic devices are the Hispanicization of English and the creation of a slanted vernacular in both languages. One of the most notable characteristics in her poetry is the use of English clichés to criticize the dominant culture. http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/dehoyosAngela.php

It's the symphony in the kitchen:
la cuchara canta
el molcajete baila
to the concert of hands at work
mixing el guisado: it's the hum of life
unhurried; the ballet of
fingers, spreading
-- with patience of the saints --
ý ý ý ý ý ý each tiny blanket,
ý ý ý ý ý ý colchita de masa
upon the water-softened husk of corn;
then comes the filling, now the folding,
and into the pot of steaming broth . . .

For minority women, the problems of selfhood and isolation have been compounded by cultural as well as gender barriers. The women’s movement has been largely a white middle class movement. However, Chicana as well as black and Chinese-American women have commonly lacked the advantages of race and class that would make such identification possible. That is why minority women focus on autobiographies  in order to try to find a  voice with which to communicate. For some critics, such as Cixous, female writing is necessary for women’s emancipation. Women have been driven away from language just as they have been forced to deny their bodies and she encourages full expression of the female experience as a powerful subversive force (Walker 41)Women’s writing of the period from 1960s to the mid 1980s demonstrates a central concern with language; the ability  to use language, tell stories, describe experience and revise mythologies; this movement  has encouraged women to communicate with each other, to understand their commonalities, to overcome isolation and silence as is seen in the poems above (43).

References

Franco, Jean “The Incorporation of women” In Studies in Entertainment ed. Tania Modleski.   Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1986.

Saldivar Hull, Sonia  Feminism on the Border. Los Angeles: University of California Press.2000

Simmen, Edward The Chicano. NY: Mentor Books,1971

Walker, Nancy Feminist Alternatives. Jackson: University Press of Mississipi, 1990

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