Luis J. Rodríguez is a Chicano memoirist, novelist, poet, children’s author, and activist. Born in 1954 in Mexico, his family migrated to the United States when he was young. As a youth, he spent many years immersed in the street gangs of Los Angeles while concurrently partaking in community protests and mobilizations that became known as the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It took Rodríguez several years to extract himself from a life of crime and addiction to drugs, though all the while he was writing, painting, and being inspired by revolutionary figures. His first book of poetry was published in 1989, but it was his memoir of gang life, Always Running—La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, released in 1993 in the aftermath of the LA riots, that garnered him mainstream literary attention. Always Running and its sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing, eighteen years later, can be labeled testimonio for detailing a Latina/o “lived” experience and fighting social injustices. In many ways Rodríguez can be deemed a “classic” Chicana/o author: he addresses the experience of migration and writes in both English and Spanish; he explores themes of prejudice and identity for Mexican Americans in the United States; and he considers the role of heteropatriarchal aspects of Mexican culture in defining his relationships (with women and children). His steadfast dedication to Native American/indigenous spirituality is a more recent focus in his life and writings, situating him among a long list of Chicana/os who have embarked on the “Red Road,” that is, life as indigenous-identified subjects. But what most arguably sets Rodríguez apart from fellow Chicana/o writers is his allegiance—throughout all his works in all genres—to proletarian politics and concerns for the working classes. His critiques of deindustrialization and its subsequent effects, particularly poverty, are reflected, for example, in his depictions of the Bethlehem Steel Mill of LA, where Rodríguez worked.
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.
Frederick Luis Aldama
Discussions and debates in and around the formation of Mexican American letters, including its periodization and formulations of its unique ontology, are reviewed, and discussions and analysis of key literary phenomena that have shaped in time (history) and space (region) Mexican American and Chicana/o letters are presented. Foundational scholars such as María Herrera-Sobek, Luis Leal, José Limón, and Juan Bruce-Novoa are considered along with scholar-creators such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. A wide variety of Mexican American and Chicana/o authors of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are reviewed, including Alurista, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Marío Suárez, Arturo Islas, Richard Rodriguez, and Ana Castillo, among many others.
Jayson Gonzales Sae-Saue
Daniel Cano is a Mexican American author of three novels, Pepe Rios (1991), Shifting Loyalties (1995), and Death and the American Dream (2009). Among literary critics, Cano is recognized mainly for his second novel. This work loosely reproduces his experiences as a Mexican American who comes from a proud military family, becomes a soldier who comes of political age while fighting in the Vietnam War and must deal with the trauma of his combat experiences afterward. Thematically and politically aligned with other Chicana/o narratives about the conflict, Shifting Loyalties articulates a staunch anti-war political ethos. It does so, in part, by assessing historical and social grievances of minorities in the United States and then linking those complaints to the historical condition of the Vietnamese against whom they must fight. It further articulates its political protests by narrating the protracted trauma of the war for ethnic Americans and working-class soldiers and their families, including the ordeals these communities faced in fighting for democratic rights abroad while lacking full rights at home. In this way, Shifting Loyalties imagines political protests according to the cross-racial contradictions of class difference across the nation and across the Pacific. Cano’s first novel, Pepe Rios, similarly engages the author’s personal history. It draws largely from his uncles’ oral stories about his grandfather Maximiano Cano’s life in Mexico during the national revolution (1910–1920) and his subsequent migration to the United States. As such, Pepe Rios narrates the experiences of the Cano patriarch, refigured in the image of the novel’s eponymous hero, during his search for justice when the Mexican nation became a battlefield of conflicted and corrupted national ideologies. Yet his figurative identity as a soldier-turned-immigrant also narrates a potential shared point of origin for much of the Los Angeles community. Indeed, the novel locates in the violent and complex politics of the Mexican Revolution a starting point for conceptualizing and imaging modern Mexican American life, including the transnational and politically messy genealogies that generated a large-scale exodus of Mexican immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century. The sequel to Pepe Rios, Death and the American Dream, follows its protagonist’s integration into lower-middle-class life in the United States after his escape from Mexico, including his involvement in early labor movements in California. The narrative begins with Pepe’s arrival in Los Angeles and his investigative work regarding exploitation of Mexican and Mexican American labor in the region. In the course of this narrative action, the novel articulates corporate, state, and union fraud and misconduct on an international scale in the 1920s. Collectively, this criminality and corruption ensured a steady flow of cheap workers from the south to satiate starving US labor markets in the north. As such, the novel provides a rare historical account of the West Side of Los Angeles in relation to labor history in the hemisphere. The novel relates how this area in particular experienced a construction boom in the 1920s, during an era of immigration restrictions for Asian workers, and how the history of Mexican labor immigration and Mexican American labor exploitation made this economic explosion possible.
Louis G. Mendoza
The poetry, memoirs, essays, letters, prison journalism, and other forms of writing by Raúl Salinas (1934–2008) were grounded in his commitments to social justice and human rights. He was an early pioneer of contemporary Chicano pinto (prisoner) poetry whose work was characterized by a vernacular, bilingual, free verse aesthetics. Alongside other notables like Ricardo Sánchez, Luis Talamentez, Judy Lucero, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, Salinas helped make Chicana and Chicano prisoner rights an integral part of the agenda of the Chicana/o Movement through his writing and activism while incarcerated (1959–1972) and following his release. He was also a prolific prose writer in prison, and much of his journalism, reflective life writing, essays, and letters from his archives were published following his release. As important as his literary and political production in prisons was for establishing his literary recognition, it is important to note that the scope of his writing expands well beyond his prison experience. Though his literary and political interventions were important to a still emergent Chicana and Chicano literary, cultural, and political aesthetic, he was influenced by, but was not limited to, American and Latin American literary traditions. Given the scope of his life’s work, his indigenous and internationalist commitments, Salinas’ literary output make him a Xicanindio (indigenous identified Chicano) poet, a Latino internationalist, as well as a spoken word jazz and hip-hop artist whose work engaged, adapted and transformed elements of the American literary canon.
Liliana C. González
To think about queerness in Latina/o/x literature necessarily entails a consideration of how queerness is regarded within Latina/o/x cultural expressions. But within popular Latino/a/x queer expressions, it would be difficult not to invoke the image of Mexican singer/ and composer Juan Gabriel and his unabashed gestures and sensuality. Juan Gabriel became a symbol of Latino/a queer subjectivity by “being” and “being seen” as “queer” but never explicitly “coming out” in the US mainstream sense. His unwillingness to conform to masculine gendered expectations within Mexican ranchera music and his reluctance to accept globalized gay modalities in many respects continues to embody the Latina/o racialized sexual experience in the United States. “Queerness” herein refers to a position of being queer in defiance of social norms within a given sociopolitical context rather than articulating a fixed state with a single understanding of what it means to be queer. As an expression with political impetus, queer has the capacity to mobilize resistance against sexual and gender norms, and is as much a political identity as it is a way to read society. The “ness” in “queerness” enables queer’s ability to modify conventional analysis and enhance readings of social relations as difference but, more important, as relations of power. That is, queerness as a relational mode of analysis unfolds the disruption of hierarchical binaries such as man/woman, masculine/feminine, and homosexual/heterosexual. The emergence of Chicana lesbian theory in the 1980s and queer of color critique in literary and cultural studies signaled a significant shift in thinking queer within Latina/o/x culture and thinking race, ethnicity, and class as integral to queer analysis, which had been previously overlooked by queer scholarship. As such, queerness has come to be understood as a critical lens that is capable of reading antagonizing associations not only against what is deemed as the sexual norm but precisely the way in which sexuality interacts with racialized, gendered, and class-based discourses. As a corpus, Latina/o literature reflects a range of topics that grapple with what it means to be a US Latina/o and to hold an ambiguous place in American racial and cultural politics and an often nostalgic yet contentious relationship with Latin America. Queerness, specifically in relation to Latina/o literature, is to imagine and create between and beyond these rigid delineations of gay and lesbian identity but at the same time breaking with assumptions of US Latina/o/x experience as exclusively heteronormative. In this sense, queerness within Latina/o/x literature imparts an unequivocal motion of being, thinking, and feeling against the grain of both Latina/o patriarchal literary traditions and the white US literary canon.
Daniel Y. Kim
Since the late 1990s, a growing number of US authors has been drawn to the Korean War, hoping to undo its status as “The Forgotten War.” The fact that it has served as the focus of novels by eminent Korean American authors like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi is not entirely surprising, given that they are the children of immigrants whose early lives had been shaped by the conflict. Given the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war and the many families that were fractured, the war is clearly a defining event that helped create a Korean diaspora. It has also become the focus, however, of novels by non-Korean American authors, including Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ha Jin, which testifies to the fact that it was an event in which a number of domestic histories of race and transnational histories of empire converged. The body of literary works that have emerged around this event can be thought of as constituting an archive of what Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory,” one that suggests the intimacies of multiple histories involving not only Koreans and Korean Americans, but also other US racialized groups including African, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese Americans as well as their connections to the complicated formations of empire that have shaped the relationships between Asian nations. Contending with the complexity and range of literary works that have centered on this event enables a reconsideration and expansion of what the proper subjects and objects of Asian American literary criticism are. If the field has outgrown its origins, in which the projection of a cultural nationalist vision of Asian American identity was a paramount goal, the vibrancy of these works stems from their soundings of a subject that is not univocal but multivocal. The political desires they seek to animate in their readers are not reducible to an agenda of combating domestic racism or consolidating a nativist notion of Asian American cultural identity, though they may contribute to such endeavors. More expansively, however, they articulate a multivalent range of progressive political aspirations and proliferate an array of identificatory possibilities.
Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita
Latina/o cultural production has long dealt in different ways with the impact of transnational capital, globalization, and imperialism not only on immigration from Latin America, especially since the 1970s, but also on Latina/o residents (whether citizens or immigrants) in the United States, particularly with respect to social location, positionality, and labor conditions. Of particular importance to contemporary Latina/o writers is noting that transnational capital has led not only to the restructuring of the U.S. economy but also to the creation of free trade zones in the Global South, especially on the Mexican border, where workers, especially female workers, are extremely exploited and subject to feminicide. In view of the continued participation of a number of Chicana/o workers in the agricultural fields of the Southwest and Northwest, Chicana/o writers have also been especially concerned with ecological issues and the health of all workers subject to pollution and contamination of the air, soil, and water. These are all issues reconstructed in Chicana/o—Latina/o literature, past and present.