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Chicana/o Gang Narratives  

José Navarro

The Chicana/o gang story begins with the literary appearance of the pachuco/a figure in newspapers, rumors, gossip, and the vernacular and folkloric imaginations of Mexicans, Chicanas/os and Anglos from El Paso, Tejas, to East Los Angeles and even Fowler, California, in such works as Beatrice Griffith’s American Me (1948) and José Montoya’s “El Louie” (1972). It evolves to include tell-all stories by former Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia members, who detail their disenchantments with these pinto organizations and the very real dangers they represent. Complementing these literary representations of the pachuco and the cholo figure is Hollywood’s cinematic rendering of them in early Chicana/o gang stories, such as Kurt Neuman’s The Ring (1952), and in later films, such as Taylor Hackford’s Blood In, Blood Out (1993). Despite the different narrative forms, all these gang stories, with few exceptions, operate as cautionary tales of lives wasted away in gang membership. Some stories moralize; others simply seek to render a realist representation of gang life without judgment; still others seek to contextualize gang membership in complex ways to subtextually call for addressing the root causes of these “social problems.” Most of these narratives fall into one of two primary ideological camps. The first is the dominant camp; it seeks to represent gang life as deviant and destructive and functions to socialize Chicanos/as through these cautionary tales. The second is the insurgent camp, in which gang members represent themselves as products of the socioeconomic conditions of the barrio; it therefore relies heavily on understanding gang life as part of a barriocentric vernacular capitalism that renders those stories inherently valuable. The result of the first camp’s lens is that Chicana/o gang fiction (that which is represented by outsiders and non-gang members) and other fictionalized gang narratives often rely on oversimplified snippets or sketches of life in the barrio. They thus create inauthentic, one-dimensional, or stereotypical representations of Chicana/o gang members and the barrio itself. This leads to the continued barrioization (Villa) of Chicana/o life and Chicanas/os themselves. Most mainstream Hollywood Chicana/o gang films reproduce these logics. In fact, the majority of Hollywood Chicano gang films are set in East Los Angeles or the “greater Eastside”—an area that includes Northeast Los Angeles, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, and the unincorporated area of Los Angeles east of the Los Angeles River. What this means is that East Los Angeles remains Hollywood’s localized “heart of darkness.” By contrast, the second ideological camp relies on lived experience or what I term a “barrio-biographics” that privileges the barrio as the site of and cultural foundation for the gang member’s narrative and her or his epistemological and ontological formation, creating a “barriological” framework (Villa). These barrio-biographics are the core literary forces that drive authentic Chicana/o gang stories. It should also be noted, however, that pinta/o narratives differ from Chicana/o street gang narratives in that pinta/o narratives foreground the experience of imprisonment and the author’s or main character’s interactions with the carceral state as an added layer of their own epistemological and ontological formations in the barrio. Chicana/o gang narratives, broadly defined to include pinta/o stories and gang films, operate as cautionary tales but also as tales of coming into a “complete literacy,” as Luis J. Rodríguez would describe it. This complete literacy, in turn, allows Chicana/o gang members to articulate their own lives and choices, and complicates any impulse to moralize or render Chicana/o gang figures simply as “deviants.” Thus these Chicana/o gang figures and their narratives remain part of a history of real, realist, and fictive representations of themselves in the American imagination that provides them the space to contest their own cultural significations. Overall, some narratives celebrate and glamorize the Chicana/o gang figure as a revolutionary in the fight against white supremacy, while others that see this figure as regressive, violent, and, arguably, equally oppressive.

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Plants and Literature  

Susan McHugh

In countless ways, plants have been in literature from the start. They literally provide surfaces and tools of inscription, as well as figuratively inspire a diverse body of writing that ranges from documenting changing social and ecological conditions to probing the limits of the human imagination. The dependence of human along with all other life on vegetal bodies assures their omnipresence in literatures across all periods and cultures, positioning them as ready reference points for metaphors, similes, and other creative devices. As comestibles, landscape features, home décor, and of course paper, plants appear in the pages of virtually every literary text. But depictions of botanical life in action often prove portentous, particularly when they remind readers that plants move in mysterious ways. At the frontiers of ancient and medieval European settlements, the plant communities of forests served as vital sources of material and imaginative sustenance. Consequently, early modern literature registers widespread deforestation of these alluring and dangerous borderlands as threats to economic and social along with ecological flourishing, a pattern repeated through the literatures of settler colonialism. Although appearing in the earliest of literatures, appreciation for the ways in which plants inscribe stories of their own lives remains a minor theme, although with accelerating climate change an increasingly urgent one. Myths and legends of hybrid plant-men, trees of life, and man-eating plants are among the many sources informing key challenges to representing plants in modern and contemporary literature, most obviously in popular genre fictions like mystery, horror, and science fiction (sf). Further enlightening these developments are studies that reveal how botanical writing emerges as a site of struggle from the early modern period, deeply entrenched in attempts to systematize and regulate species in tandem with other differences. The scientific triumph of the Linnaean “sexual system” bears a mixed legacy in feminist plant writing, complicated further by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) writers’ creative engagements with the unevenly felt consequences of professionalized plant science. Empowered by critical plant studies, an interdisciplinary formation that rises to the ethical challenges of emergent scientific affirmations of vegetal sentience, literature and literary criticism are reexamining these histories and modeling alternatives. In the early 21st century with less than a fraction of 1 percent of the remaining old growth under conservation protection worldwide, plants appear as never before in fragile and contested communal terrains, overshadowed by people and other animals, all of whose existence depends on ongoing botanical adaptation.

Article

The Vietnam War and Asian American Literature  

Josephine Nock-Hee Park

The first wave of the now-canonical literature of the Vietnam War featured the GI grunt, the wary officer, and the rock-and-roll journalist—all embattled and disillusioned white men. These fictions, memoirs, and reportage came to define the expressive labor shaped by the ethical morass of the war, and these differing genres melded in the cinematic renaissance occasioned by the Vietnam War, which installed a generation of American auteurs. Asian American writers contended with this potent cultural formation, not only to critique the popular imagination of white innocence lost, but to claim the force and even intoxication of this cultural juggernaut. Asian American literary texts from the 1970s onward were shaped by the war and its aftermath—notably including the resistance movements it sparked—and the 21st-century rise of Vietnamese American reckonings with the war’s legacy has instigated significant reappraisals of the aims and effects of the war. The foundational Asian American literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin weighed the service of the Asian American soldier in Vietnam in the context of the Third World movements that drove the formation of Asian American studies. A decade later, the publication of bestselling memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, popularly heralded as the emergence of a Vietnamese American voice, marked the origins of a burgeoning field of writing, wide-ranging in form and genre but arrayed alongside and against the mainstream imagination of Vietnam. The major fiction of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015) has come to stand as a culminating literary riposte to the canonized first wave of Vietnam War literature: Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel exposes long-standing fictions of U.S. conduct and foregrounds a complex Asian American and refugee perspective. Asian American literature of the Vietnam War expresses a dynamic range of felt responses to the cultural history of the war to produce imaginative work that interrogates the war’s iconic images and reveals its unseen subjects.