The Other Latin@, Writing Against a Singular Identity
Edited by Blas Falconer and Lorraine M. López
University of Arizona Press, 2011
$22.00; 184 pp.; ISBN-13 978-0816528677
Jose Israel Lopez, phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4
FOR THE LAST DECADES, a narrative of Latino identity in the U.S. went something like this: Migration from Latin nations created the conditions for enclaves of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, South Americans (Colombians and Ecuadorians) and Central Americans (Nicaraguans and Salvadorians), in different regions of the U.S. Their mere presence and increased numbers pressed the need for a supra-national Latin@ identity.
This narrative frames itself in the exquisite modernist Gran Combo song “El Caballo Pelotero” (Author Bobby Capó). In the song, an outstanding horse is a baseball player recruited by the New York Yankees because of his batting prowess. Lo and behold, he comes to bat with three men on base and hits a home run. Everybody comes to the plate (three runs) but the Yankees need him to score the fourth run to win, and he stays still. He is asked to run the bases and he responds, “Si yo corriera estaría en el hipódromo” loosely translated “If I could run I would be in the racetrack.” A (male?) Puerto Rican horse that cannot run, that plays for the “imperialist,” most recognizable sport franchise, the New York Yankees, that actually fulfills the promise of “making it” by hitting a home run in the clutch and — oh so close! — cannot become a full Yankee because “his” identity is split between a horse and a baseball player. The Latino narrative skirts the trap, identity / assimilation, essence / contingency, colony / metropolis, nation / exile, culture / bi-culture, Spanish/English, barely. The first part of the dyad is always more progressive and authoritative than the second. Tradition (racetrack horses or baseball), Community (Puerto Rican from the Island or the New York Yankees), Language (Spanish or Yankee) sitting comfortably side-by-side waiting for effacement by dislocation, by exile, by otherness or the Lacanian big O.
The series of, mostly, autobiographical essays compiled in The Other Latin@, Writing Against a Singular Identity responds and expands this narrative with a plurality of experiences and writings. Tradition, community and language do not sit well as foundation for authorship or writing. The authors defy monolithic discourses of Latin@ traditions, communities and languages, by embracing and answering multicultural families, sexual identities, dislocated places and Americana meta-narratives. Form structures their writings: poetry, crime stories, testimonies, short stories, philosophical essays; content fills up their vessels: prejudice from the larger community, prejudice from their own families, prejudice from their own culture, gay love, gang violence, female detectives, and Western or Latin@ metaphysics.
In their introductory essay, editors Blas Falconer and Lorraine M. López propose that Latin@s are not a homogeneous group. They argue that even Latin@s are complicit in this push for homogeneity creating illusory solidarity for the sake of future political power.
The place of a Latin@ writer is problematic too. Carla Trujillo states: “being a Chicana and a woman has its perks. As most writers are prone to do, I observe everything around me. When I am rendered invisible or insignificant, I am privy to information that wouldn’t be uttered in other company.” The locus of the writer is problematized. Where is the author? Who is the audience? May I use Spanish or indigenous languages? Tradition, Community and Language is questioned, fractured.
Alex Espinosa wants to be a Coyote, not the ones that smuggle paisanos but someone resembling Huehuecoyotl, the Aztec God of music and song; a shape-shifter, a singer, a storyteller, not a Chicano writer, but an American writer and an educator writing for immortality. The privilege of being educated is to be able to educate, to write, to endure.
Teresa Dovalpage questions the use of Spanglish, not the code switching but the English forced into Spanish: la troca (for truck), parquear (for parking). She fears losing skills with language — Spanish or English. There is an advantage of writing in English and Spanish. To whom am I speaking/writing to? What are the politics of publishing?
Helena Mesa, not writing about Cuba, finds her connection with Cuba through her father. She talks about Cuban poetry as “political poetry draped in an elegiac tone. I think of lyrics exploring place through memory and the imagination. I think about narratives that capture a sense of displacement and exile that often rock the speaker between the two shores of loss or longing.” She quotes Sandra Castillo:
Trapped by geography
You lean against a Ford Fairline,
An odd, left-over ‘50s we never knew,
Out of time, out of sequence.
The poet is detached from this elusive reality, detached in space and in time. To be sure, the exile poet is not so much at loss. She borrows from its immediacy (family, friends, books and other writers). She borrows from those who came before her (ancestors, cultural traditions of herself, her surroundings, and other writing traditions). Sometimes, she borrows from the ones that are pregnant with stories, metaphors and legends, creating abstractions that bridge descriptions and narratives.
Judith Ortiz Cofer ruminates about living in English or not living in Spanish. She calls it “My Word Hunger.” She becomes aware when she speaks fluent “Southern English” at her house in Georgia or when she visits her mother in Puerto Rico. She states:
“I usually spend the time at her (mother’s) house reading books by contemporary Puerto Rican writers such as Rosario Ferré, Ana Lydia Vega, Carmen Lugo Filippi, and many others, and marveling at the beauty of my native tongue, especially when it sings at the hands of a talented wordsmith. I fall in love with its cadences, its music. Spanish is a delicious language, miel en la boca, and I often feel like an onlooker at a banquet, kept out of the festivities mainly because of a speech impediment. Pero en mi vida, I had to choose a tongue to serve me, and it had to be English. But I can dream in Spanish. ¿No creen?
Ortiz Cofer has access to Spanish; she is ‘hungry” for an unbroken connection to her mother, to her father, to her dreams and to her corazón.
Steven Cordova writes about HIV and about his teacher Rachel Hadas in a poetry workshop at GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). He writes about acronyms: PWA (Person with AIDS), HIV, AIDS, GMHC. He writes about shouting and grief. He writes about activism: Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). He writes about life and death. The noble and combative Act Up’s logo: Silence equals Death becomes more metaphysical in Hadas’ hands:
The danger’s hardly tyranny by silence.
It’s hard to shut us up while we draw breath.
If anything can guarantee our silence
Death can. But silence doesn’t equal death.
Silence does not equal death. Writing immortalizes (a la Kundera). The desperate, and very real, balancing act of people with AIDS in the 80s and 90s transforms itself into poetry.
By way of metaphysics, Gina Franco in The Child in the House takes us to Latino poetry and a deconstruction of Western narratives. Christianity, language, culture and logocentrism (the idea that we have access to truth by way of reason and written language) are difficult to contest. One contests them by identifying and dismantling the oppressor in American culture, and she acknowledges this by “wielding her sword at abstractions” at history, government and patriarchy. Poetry is a point of dissension. What is to dissent? To live in dualities, at a distance, in opposition and to sustain the differences instead of accepting the hierarchical nature of the first term: right/left, north/south, soul/body, you/me.
This essay bisects Latin@ identity. On the one hand, every identity is a construct. It always leaves out the particularities of the concept. Biography enters the stage, not as a correction but as the only moral solution. On the other hand, Christianity and metaphysics are the pervasive and omnipresent traditions in bracketing off Latina identity. It is the universal. Every biography has been here before.
The child lives in a stucco house in Stargo, Arizona but thinks about the terror of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. Franco does not care about the angel’s intervention. She imagines the child’s mind wondering about the father’s offering. Is Franco intimating a similar offering for Latino poetry? We do not know.
The Other Latin@ is a pleasant amalgam of biographies of self-proclaimed Latin@ writers. The writers capture not only their biographies but also their crossing paths with “schools of thought,” immediate masters, Latin@ traditions and their dislocated experiences. It takes us to a series of bifurcations of otherness. The reader is left with the impression that one can pluralize Latin@ experiences ad infinitum. And of course, one can!
To be sure, some of the essays, Lucha Corpi’s “Chicano/a Crime Fiction,” and Urayoán Noel’s and Blas Falconer’s “New York Puerto Rican tradition,” allude to some literary tradition. These traditions embed the authors’ writings in the shoulders of ancestors. There is something very encouraging about these narratives: It is recognition of Latino literary traditions.
The strength and the weaknesses of these essays are given by their pluralizing aspirations. This plurality differentiates until everybody has an original Latin@ story to tell; that is their strength. However, this plurality also questions the allegiance to any tradition, which is their weakness, because it neither questions the homogenizing force of tradition, nor expand its limits.
I had a wonderful experience reading these essays, although I would have hoped for them to delineate further readings. There is always an imagined community!
BLAS FALCONER is the author of The Foundling Wheel (forthcoming, Four Way Books, 2012). He is an associate professor at Austin Peay State University, and a poetry mentor for the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University.
LORRAINE M. LÓPEZ’s recent books are the novel, The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters (Grand Central Pr., 2008), and the short story collection, Homicide Survivors Picnic (BkMk Pr., 2009. She teaches in the Master of Fine Arts Program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and she is an associate editor of the Afro-Hispanic Review.