Bless Me, Ultima II

anaya_ultimaThe phrase that gives Rudolfo Anaya’s novel its title, “Bless me, Ultima,” does not arise until almost the very last page, when Ultima is on her deathbed. She is dying not so much because she herself is sick or has been injured, but because the owl that in some way represents her soul (is her soul?) has been shot and killed. Placing the bird, wrapped in a blanket, by the old woman’s bed, Antonio, who has been her acolyte and intimate, “drop[s] to [his] knees” and asks

“Bless me, Ultima–” Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you–“ (260-61)

And so the torch is handed on. Of course, Ultima has to die for Antonio to become what he will be, and to be in a position to chart his own path in the future. His childhood is now at an end, and so therefore is this narrative, which has described what its very first page described as a “magical time” (1) so evocatively. However much has happened in the twelve months or so that the book covers (from the beginning of one school year to another), it is understood that in many ways this was all an interlude, a respite from another form of reality, or perhaps another way of looking at the real, which will pick up again after the final page has been turned.

In fact, it is perhaps surprisingly Antonio’s father, otherwise portrayed as somewhat lost (all at sea in more than one sense of the term: both restless and left behind), who best captures this sense of impending transition. Talking of magic (and even beyond the mystical connection between owl and Ultima, there is plenty of magic in Anaya’s novel), he says: “To the child it is natural, but for the grown man it loses its naturalness–so as old men we see a different reality. And when we dream it is usually for a lost childhood, or trying to change someone, and that is not good. So, in the end, I accept reality” (248). Ultimately, Antonio will have to accept reality, to be fine with the fact that he will inevitably (like all of us) lose his childhood, and to learn that he cannot change anybody–not his mother, nor his father, or his brothers. (Again, the sisters get remarkably short shrift throughout the novel.) But if he cannot change anybody, he has to find some sympathy for them, perhaps precisely because of the recognition that they cannot be changed, that they are simply playing out their destiny. It is this sympathy, more than any hocus pocus with potions, that is Ultima’s true magic. Though, again, it is up to Antonio’s father to point this out, when he tells his son that “no greater magic can exist” (248).

As the novel heads towards this conclusion, it becomes ever less a specifically “Chicano” novel. These lessons, whatever one may think of them, surely purport to be universal rather than particular. Indeed, as Ultima exits the scene, urging Antonio to “gather my medicines and my herbs and [. . .] take them somewhere along the river and burn them” (260), her “magic” thus becomes transmuted from traditional, indigenous knowledge, located in place and time, to general human sympathy, applicable anywhere “the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills” (262). Of course, this raises the question of what a “Chicano” novel should be in the first place. Why shouldn’t it have aspirations to something like universality? Indeed, the fact that Anaya’s book so successfully and almost seamlessly (magically?) transmutes the particular into the universal is surely a large part of its remarkable success. And yet, I wonder what is lost in this procedure, which at times feels like dilution into rather banal uplift and cheer (“Always have the strength to live. Love life”). Especially given that the novel has in fact portrayed much that is far from lovely–not least the three deaths that Antonio has already witnessed at close quarters even before the book’s dénouement–I for one find its closing moral(ism) somewhat disappointing.

Bless Me, Ultima I

anaya_ultimaRudolfo Anaya’s best-selling Bless Me, Ultima centers on a young boy, Antonio, growing up in the 1940s in a Mexican-American family in semi-rural New Mexico. As the novel opens, he is about to start school but is already beginning to feel the burden of responsibility and a loss of innocence as he negotiates his parents’ contrasting expectations for him: his deeply religious mother hopes that he will become a priest; his father dreams of the open plains and wants to move the entire family to California but becomes distant and turns to drink when he sees this dream frustrated. Though the youngest of six, Antonio is unable to turn to his siblings for support to resolve these tensions or at least alleviate the weight of so much hope and disillusionment. His three much older brothers are off fighting in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and when they return at the war’s end soon make it clear that they are not going to hang around to live out their parents’ desires; his two sisters, though closer to his age, are little more than ciphers and barely feature in the first half of the book.

Of all those living in his house, Antonio is closest to the only one to whom he is not related, an older woman named Ultima (referred to with respect as “la Grande”) who has a reputation as a curandera, a healer or benign witch. Antonio turns to her with his questions about the magic-infused world around him that he is beginning to explore. She takes him along as she gathers herbs for her medicinal concoctions, and even recruits him when she goes to a nearby village to remove a curse that has been laid on Antonio’s uncle. Ultima tells him “the stories and legends of my ancestors” and it is from her that he learns “the glory and the tragedy of the history of my people” (123). But it is not (yet) clear who or what that people are: the disagreements between Antonio’s mother and father are merely the symptom of wider fractures that divide the community. Antonio’s uncertain search for his own identity and independence mirrors a broader struggle waged by the people as a whole.

So far at least, that sense of a coherent “people” rarely comes into focus. It is the often acrimonious divisions that are more evident: between young and old, between farmers and vaqueros, between the Church and indigenous folk beliefs, and ultimately between good and evil. Though there is plenty of talk of custom and ceremony, and despite his shock in starting school and coming into contact with the institutions of the Anglophone state, it is striking that at this stage young Antonio seems to have little sense of his identity as a Mexican-American or Chicano. This may well change, but for now this is a Chicano novel that hardly features “Chicanos” as such.

Indeed, if we imagine Mexican-American culture to be characterized by a tension or conflict between “Mexican” and (US) “American,” by a proximity to or incarnation of the US/Mexican Border, here this split is far from being the determining factor in young Antonio’s life. In many ways, the first half of the novel might as well be set south of the border, in Mexico itself. Instead, the first key cultural tension is that between a Hispanic Catholicism represented by Antonio’s mother and the loosely indigenous-derived folk beliefs associated with both Ultima and Antonio’s friends Samuel and Cico. Cico takes him to a local river to see carp whose presence is explained in terms of a legend in which the gods turn an unfaithful people into fish, which is why the carp cannot be eaten: “It is a sin to catch them,” Samuel has explained. “It is a worse offense to eat them. They are part of the people” (80). But this seems to be a pre-Hispanic people, whose story long precedes the coming of the Spanish Church. And when told that one of the gods was then in turn also transformed into a fish, the golden carp, Antonio is shaken: “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” (81). Destined by his mother to be a priest, and yet also picked out by Ultima as helper and confidant, Antonio feels torn between two sets of beliefs, but neither have much if any connection to the Anglo culture that remains at best at the very far horizon of his consciousness, like the semi-mythical notion of the California to which his father want to take them.

The second major tension that structures Antonio’s growing self-consciousness is that between his father’s restlessness as a man of open spaces, the llanos and oceans, and his mother’s attraction to domesticity and rootedness, as a daughter of farmers and denizen of the valleys. This split is encoded in his name, given as Antonio Márez y Luna: On the one hand the patronymic Márez, designating people of the seas (mares); on the other hand the matronymic Luna, signalling a people guided by the seasons and the phases of the moon. But this is a division that is internal to Hispanic colonization, between the conquistador spirit of “men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered” (6) and the desire for stability and permanence of “the first colonizers [. . .] who carried the charter from the Mexican government to settle the valley” (52). It may be that the external opposition between Hispanic and Anglo ultimately supersedes this conflict and hispanidad will come to signify a more consistent and united identity. But that encounter with the outside is still some way in the future, and for the time being this is the world Antonio lives in and, beyond distant rumors of World Wars and the like, it is more or less all he knows.

With His Pistol in His Hand II

paredes_coverThe second half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” consists of a painstaking analysis of the corrido “Gregorio Cortez.” After a discussion of the history of the corrido genre as a whole, and its relation to other genres of popular Mexican music such as the romance or the décima, Paredes gives us the text of the ballad itself, in multiple versions and variants. One is a printed broadside from Mexico City, published in 1925 but probably written very shortly after the incidents it describes, in August or September 1901; although the music for this version is lost, Paredes tells us that it is not in fact a border ballad, and offers it mostly for the sake of comparison with the versions that are. Eight variants are transcriptions of performances, in one case of a record from 1920 and in almost all the other cases of “field recordings” made by Paredes himself of singers, both young and old, male and female, in the mid-1950s. Finally, one of the versions of the ballad–which is also the longest of them all–is Paredes’s own reconstruction of what the song might have looked (or sounded) like in its original incarnation, or at least in its very early stages. Having presented us with this wealth of primary material, Paredes goes on to analyze it, in all its variations, stanza by stanza and practically line by line. He has a detailed discussion of such elements as metre, stress, and syllable count; of verb tenses and conjunctions, and the use of words such as “ya” and “y”; and of imagery and language, including the peculiarities of border Spanish that the corrido reproduces.

In short, for a song that in Ramón Ayala’s rendition, for instance, lasts all of three minutes and twenty-four seconds, Paredes really goes to town. Indeed, the ratio between the length of the text to be interpreted here and the number of words expended in its interpretation and commentary is quite extraordinary: a corrido that in its longest (reconstructed) version comprises 28 four-line stanzas covering four pages is subject to around 100 pages of interpretation. But all this makes the book’s key point: that we should take such texts seriously.

Paredes does not exactly claim that the corrido is literary, as indeed strictly it is not if we define “literature” as written or printed matter. Not that this is the definition that Paredes employs: the version of the ballad that is printed (the Mexico City broadside) he repeatedly describes as “pseudoliterary,” apparently because of its style, which abandons “the corrido stanza [. . .] in favor of the literary redondilla”; the result is “awkwardness and dullness. [. . .] The reader who knows no Spanish may not appreciate to the full the scantiness of inspiration of the broadside” (182, 183). By contrast, “The maker of the Border corrido makes no effort to be original or literary, and by staying within the ballad traditions of his people he succeeds in composing in a natural and often a forceful style” (183).

While Paredes is not explicit about the basis for his judgements of aesthetic success, more than once he praises the ballad for its “vigor” (207, 209, 224), for its “simplicity of diction and [. . .] dramatic style” that avoids “verbal adornments” (219). Where the “pseudoliterary broadside [. . . prefers] the highest sounding word,” Border ballads “are composed in the language that the rancheros use every day” (219). And yet at the same time Paredes is keen to locate the corrido within an extensive and quite distinguished transnational tradition that dates back as far as the Spanish Middle Ages. In other words, it is precisely in that it does not strive for literary value (as does the broadside) that the Border ballad becomes a legitimate object of study and can be treated with the care and attention usually reserved for canonical literary texts.

Hence the comparisons with, for instance, romances dedicated to El Cid: “In response to conditions similar to those which produced the romance in Spain, the dormant, half-forgotten romance tradition in America revived in the corrido” (245). Moreover, not only does the Border corrido revive and gain (perhaps unconscious) inspiration from this venerable lineage, Paredes is also keen to underscore that it is far from derivative; a ballad such as “Gregorio Cortez” also adds something new and distinctive to this tradition. It “created some conventions of its own, conventions related to the border conflict which was its environment.” It initiates, in other words, a new set of aesthetic and cultural developments, which are then later taken up by the “Greater Mexican corrido tradition, which does not begin until ten years after El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (240).

In sum, however much Paredes wishes to mark the Border ballad’s distance from a literary self-consciousness that he sees as forced and un-natural (“pseudoliterary”), he is also keen to demonstrate that it is far more than the simple reflection of social reality or documentation of events and attitudes that mattered to the subaltern peoples of the Border. It is a creative contribution to a long-standing cultural genre. As such, the justification for its study is as much aesthetic as it is political or sociological.

“With His Pistol in His Hand” I

paredes_coverThe first half of Américo Paredes’s ”With His Pistol in His Hand” is about the construction and reconstruction of truth on the US/Mexican border. Part One opens with a historical panorama of the Lower Río Grande Border, previously “the old Spanish province of Nuevo Santander, colonized in 1749 by José de Escandon” (7), and continues with a narrative that combines history, geography, and anthropology from the colonial era to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe and on to the early twentieth century. But right from the outset, Paredes manifests his discomfort with what he calls “those documented old men’s tales called histories” (xi). It is not simply that written history lies or is biased–though that is true, too, and Paredes quotes “the most distinguished historian Texas has produced” as claiming matter-of-factly that “The Mexican warrior . . . was on the whole inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan” (17). It is more that Paredes claims that by introducing a multiplicity of sources, ranging from contemporaneous newspaper accounts of specific events to folk memory, oral history, and cultural manifestations such as the border ballad, we gain access both to multiple points of view and also to the broader truths that the very fact of variation and deviation reveals.

Paredes’s case study here is the tale of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican American who, the bald facts tell us and all renditions of the story agree, in 1901 shot and killed a US Sheriff and was then pursued on horseback and foot hundreds of miles by various posses of Texas Rangers before being captured, tried, and convicted of murder. Finally, however, after many years in jail his sentence was overturned as he was judged to have shot in self-defence.

But Paredes begins not with the bald facts or with what he can ascertain about the truth of the tale (this comes later), but rather with an extended version of the “legend.” This legend, he notes, never comes complete: it is an “amorphous body of narrative” (108) that is told in parts that are often inconsistent or contradictory. There is “no standard version.” As such, the compilation Paredes gives us is necessarily his “own version,” which he has constructed by combining “those parts that seemed to [him] the furthest removed from fact” and that yet (he implies) are for that very reason “the most revealing of folk attitudes” (109). For it is the inconsistencies and changes that ultimately provide surest evidence of continuities and certainties. It is precisely the “extreme elasticity of reminiscence and oral report” that makes the tale of Gregorio Cortez a suitable vehicle for the articulation of long-standing and deeply-embedded attitudes, affects, and beliefs about conflict in the border region.

Take for instance the very basic question of Cortez’s physical appearance, on which there is little if any agreement among the many variations. And yet there is a certain consistency depending on who is telling the tale’s. In the first instance, “Those who knew him describe him as opposite to themselves. Short men describe him as tall; tall men say he was short. Fair men call him dark; dark men call him fair” (11). But second, and “more interesting still,” Paredes tells us, “those who did not know him describe him as like themselves. A short, very dark man told me that Cortez had been just a little dark man, chiquitito y prietito. [. . .] A fair, blue-eyed Anglo-American [. . .] remembers him as fair” (111). Likewise when it comes to Cortez’s occupation: “The laborer made of Cortez a laborer, the farmer a farmer, the vaquero a vaquero, the suspected smuggler a smuggling suspect–each applying his own situation, his own disagreeable contacts with the Anglo-American, as the reason for Cortez’s defending of his right” (113). As a result, therefore, the plasticity and malleability of the oral production and reproduction of the story, handed down in bits and pieces on diverse occasions, give us “a synthesis of the Border Mexican, who saw himself collectively in Cortez” (113). The figure of Cortez comes to combine the particular (a name, a place, an event, a date) with the general (the situation and position of an entire community) and even aspects of the universal as the Chicano border legend resonates with similar stories told for instance on the Celtic frontier where England meets Scotland.

In the complex amalgamation of “fact and fancy,” of both “exaggerations” and “purely folkloric elements” (114, 115), it would be wrong to try to eliminate the fantastic, to pare down the story to the bare bones of whatever historical “truth” might still be identified. Indeed, to do so would be also to eliminate and misunderstand history itself, in that the legend is not simply a (foggy, distorted) version of what “really” happened, but it also helped to determine the events that it represents. As Paredes concludes Part One of his book, in what at first sight is a strange inversion of temporality and causality: “It was as if the Border people had dreamed Gregorio Cortez before producing him, and had sung his life and deeds before he was born” (125). The issue is less whether the legend matches the facts, but that border culture was waiting for the arrival of facts that might, more or less or closely enough, match the legend already in gestation and looking for a form of expression.

American Dirt

american-dirtA place-holder for some of the many articles written as part of (or about) the controversy over American Dirt:

There’s a lot more, of course.

Latino/Chicano Literature

tijuana-border-signSome posts about US Latino/Chicano literature, to go with a course by that name:

The Squatter and the Don II

ruiz-de-burton_squatterIn the second half of Ruiz de Burton’s novel, almost all the characters find themselves, at one point or another, struck down by some debilitating illness or accident. Mercedes, for instance, collapses as she vainly tries to call back Clarence as he precipitously leaves the Alamar residence under what he feels is a cloud of disgrace: “’Oh my darling is gone,’ said she, and the ground swelled and moved under her feet, and the trees went round in mad circles, and she knew no more” (262). This fainting spell, what is more, leads to a fever and months of bed rest; “I think the parting with Clarence has nearly killed her,” observes family friend, George Mechlin (267). Clarence’s sister, Alice, succumbs at the same time, running up a “high fever” and becoming “delirious” while “calling for Clarence most piteously” (271). Then George is shot and injured by the squatter, Mathews. Don Mariano contracts pneumonia (“followed by a lung fever” [294]) after being caught in a snowstorm while herding his cattle, bought by Clarence, towards Clarence’s mines. The same snowstorm leaves Victoriano, Mariano’s son and so also Mercedes’s sister, with a “strange malady” (294) that apparently weakens his extremities and makes him unsteady on his feet. Both father and son continue to be affected for the next year or so: in Victoriano’s case, “every two or three months he had attacks more or less serious of the same lameness which deprived him of the use of his limbs” (300). At the same time, William Darrell (the squatter and Clarence’s father) is equally incapacitated, in the wake of the confrontation with the Alamars that provoked all this disruption in the first place: he has bruises that only get worse; he can “scarcely walk”; and he has “a fever to intensify his pains” (277). Not to be undone (though unaware of the sickness and incapacitation that he has left behind), Clarence himself soon succumbs to something or other, exacerbated by the heat of Arizona where he is inspecting his mines, and ends up “with a raging fever that seemed to be drying the very fountain of his young life” (278).

It is no wonder, then, that when Mercedes’s (and Victoriano’s) brother Gabriel is down on his luck in San Francisco, his wife, Lizzie, who is also George’s sister, hesitates before relaying the news to those back home in Southern California “for it was a noted fact, well recognized by the two families, that misfortunes made them all more or less physically ill” (339). But she can no longer keep quiet when, forced into the menial labor of a hod-carrier by financial desperation, George then slips and falls while working on the construction site of a Nob Hill mansion. As an entire social order once anchored by the Californios’ possession of land now disintegrates, the disaster is registered on the bodies of those affected. It is as though, if the plight of the Alamar family and by extension all other Hispanic Americans cannot find words (for, as Mariano observes early on, “the conquered have always but a weak voice, which nobody hears” [17]), it must still find expression, physically and affectively if necessary.

The problem is that not everyone is equally moved, not everyone’s bodies are sufficiently sensitive to register the affective impact of the Californios’ slow-motion dispossession. On the one hand, the families of squatter and Don alike show themselves attuned corporeally to their surroundings. This is demonstrated most often in blushes and tears; there is more blush in this book than in your average make-up store, and there are tears enough to fill a good-sized swimming pool. It is Mary, Clarence’s mother, who opens the blushing in Chapter I (11). Then Mercedes, when she first meets Clarence (“Her face was suffused with burning blushes” [54]), who is affected in turn (“her blushes being immediately reflected on Clarence’s forehead” [56]) and soon “blushe[s] redder yet” (56). Indeed, blushing tends to be contagious: Mercedes, for instance, “could never see any one blush without doing the very same thing herself” (135). And so when her would-be suitors from the East Coast blush–and they do, of course–so does she. But again, even if she is the most prodigious of blushers she is hardly alone: later it is “Doña Josefa’s turn to blush” (152); likewise, both Lizzie and Gabriel (340). Tears, on the other hand, are regularly and copiously drawn from Mercedes and Clarence (with Mercedes’s “lovely face often bathed in tears” [242] such that Clarence even fears “she would make herself ill with weeping” [359]), but also Mercedes’s sister, Elvira (90, 286, 343), Doña Josefa (341), Mrs Mechlin and her daughter (Lizzie’s sister), Caroline (343), Lizzie herself (354), and at one point the entire Alamar family (336). Even Mr Darrell both blushes (198, 283) and weeps (345, 358), a sign that he is not all bad. Indeed, the fact that both squatter and Don can be moved is what distinguishes them, and ultimately cancels out their antagonism, in the face of the pernicious lawyers (the worst of whom, Roper, is repeatedly described as “unblushing”) on the one hand, and monopoly capital on the other. For the “mighty monopoly” of the railroad represented by Leyland Stanford and others is by contrast a “soulless, heartless, shameless monster” that has “no heart for human pity, no face for manly blush” (314).

In the end (as Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita also note), the opposition between squatter and Don fades as they are both portrayed as suffering, sensitive victims of a corporate capitalism that shows neither qualms (at bribery and corruption, for instance) nor sympathy of any kind. What happened to the Californios, Ruiz de Burton is arguing, will also happen to the Californians as a whole unless they can make common cause and find some “Redeemer” (375). But we end the novel with no great hope that this will happen any time soon. The sickness can only spread.