Tuesday, November 11, 2020 marks one of the saddest days of my life. On this day, we—the Mexican people on both sides of la frontera and our allies—lost a legend: the one and only, Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (JGQ).
We lost one of the greatest intellectuals not only in the Americas, but also the world. The fact that JGQ was born a Mexican in el sur (Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico) and died a proud Mexican/Chicano in el norte (Los Angeles, California) in a time when the Mexican continues to be otherized, marginalized and pejoratized serves as a grim reminder of this great loss for la raza.
For over 50 years, JGQ dedicated his life to uplift the people of the sun through his superior scholarship, dedicated mentorship, political actions and eloquent words. While his contributions are many, for the sake of space, here go a few: wrote classic books and articles on Chicana/o history, labor, politics and culture; helped establish the theoretical foundations of Chicana and Chicano studies, along with the living legend, Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña, whom JGQ fondly admired; taught and mentored thousands of students who became leaders in their own right; supported and participated in countless political actions for social, economic and racial justice; lead co-author of El Plan de Santa Bárbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education; co-founded UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC); co-founded CSRC’s Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; NACCS (National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies) Scholar Recipient, 1990; and wrote eloquent prose—something that escapes most academics.
Did I mention that he also wrote beautiful poetry?
“My father’s land / is crossed / ribbon like / by stone fences / the wither in the sun / White stones that glisten in the sun, / Stones that ballast a sea of brown hills. / My father whip laid them, / My mother’s tribe fed them.”
—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, 5th and GRANDE VISTA (Poems, 1960-1973), Colección Mensaje, New York, 1973, p. 61.
One word: brilliant!
Like in the case of another brilliant Mexican in el norte, Gloria Anzaldúa, JGQ provided us with a powerful voice against a racist American system that has attempted (and failed!) to erase our history. JGQ took the ashes of our once burnt history by the European colonists (and their inheritors) and created scholarly books, peer-reviewed articles, essays and eloquent poems in elite spaces limited to the best and the brightest Western Civilization has to offer. He has done so—and continues to do so—through his publications, speeches and memories without succumbing to fear or forgetting where he came from.
Dr. Álvaro Huerta and Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (circa 2015).
As I reflect on JGQ, there are no words that I can conjure to heal the immense pain that I’m feeling. I cried when I first heard the terrible news on Tuesday morning and have been struggling to maintain my East Los Angeles composure ever since. I think I lost my street cred! I’m sad because I won’t be getting random calls from JGQ at odd hours when he has something on his mind. I’m sad because I won’t be receiving mail packets of his latest manuscripts for me to review or help get published.
“No worries, Juan, I’ll make sure that the last two manuscripts you sent me will see the light of day!”
Given all that he has done for me, I’ve always heeded his friendly and warm requests. That’s what familia is all about.
I first met JGQ in 1985, when I started UCLA as a freshman, majoring in mathematics, from East Los Angeles—a place where JGQ also hails from. I must say that I was originally shocked to see a Chicano professor at an elite university. Since most of my K-12 teachers were White, I never knew that Chicana/o professors even existed. I was equally shocked when JGQ assigned us books written by brown scholars. Many moons later, I’m following the example of the great Chicana and Chicano authors that I read in JGQ’s classes, especially his fine works.
Speaking of historians, I’ve always wondered why history professors assign at least 5-6 books—300+ pages per book without pictures!—to read in a quarter or semester? I only read one book—John Steinbeck’s The Pearl—throughout my dysfunctional K-12 education! While JGQ practiced this norm, he made it clear to us that the study of history represents a serious subject. When he walked around North Campus at UCLA, he was always carrying several books on one hand and numerous student papers to grade on his other hand.
Constantly thinking, reading and writing, he was oblivious and impervious of his surroundings. One day, for instance, while taking a small seminar on historiography with JGQ, I, along with my classmates, waited for him to teach and lead us in discussion/dialogue for about 30 minutes after class started. We then formed a posse to rescue him from his office, where we found him in a deep state of writing.
As I’ve said before, while JGQ was stoic, like my late Mexican father, once you scratched beneath the surface, he was a sweet and caring teddy bear. That said, during my initial encounters with JGQ, I was intimidated. Over 30 years later, I can still recall knocking on his office door on the 6th floor of Bunche Hall, where he would gruffly say, “Yes!” My response? “Hello, Mr. Quiñones…I mean, Professor Quiñones, I want to talk to you about my paper. I’ve never written a 10-page paper and don’t know how to start. Heck, I’ve only written one 2-page paper, triple spaced, in my entire life!”
Once I got to know him, I learned to announce myself. “Hello, Quiñones, this is Álvaro. I need to ask you some questions about the readings.” Often, I would go with my fellow student activists or MEChistas, where we minored in “JGQ Studies,” just to hang out and talk about politics or sports. He wasn’t fond of small talk or chisme. Also, he rarely talked about himself or how he grew up, especially as one of the first Chicanas/os to pursue higher education when he first entered the university. He never took credit for all of his accomplishments. Instead, he would always credit the collective efforts of the committed educators, youth, activists and other agents of social change throughout the Chicana/o movement and beyond.
In terms of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) at UCLA during the mid-1980s, whenever we organized a protest on campus or in the community, we could always count on JGQ for his unconditional support. For example, when we organized a hunger strike at UCLA—one of the first, if not the first at UCLA and at any UC campus—in defense of undocumented immigrants (November 11-19, 1987), we knew that JGQ had our back. When we didn’t show up to class, he didn’t scold or hector us. He encouraged us, teaching us a key lesson that I pass on to my students and colleagues: knowledge comes from practice!
Later, when several of us, as former UCLA students, became community activists and organized Latino gardeners against the City of Los Angeles’s draconian leaf blower ban during the mid-1990s. (City penalties for Latino gardeners caught using a leaf blower? Misdemeanor charge, $1,000 fine and up to 6 months in jail). To challenge this racist law, we sought help from JGQ to lobby Council Members—like Mark Ridley Thomas, Jackie Goldberg and others—who voted for the ban on December 3, 1996.
On a more personal level, when I got married to Antonia Montes—fellow MEChista, educator, activist—in 1992, I invited JGQ. To my surprise, he showed up. Since then, we became homeboys (and later colleagues), where he counseled me throughout my graduate studies at UCLA (M.A.) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D.). He supported me without reservations when I was on the academic job market. Whenever I experienced racial micro-aggressions or academic hazing or pinche bullying by senior faculty, I never flinched since I knew that I could count on my academic homeboy, JGQ, like in the case of the late Dr. Leo Estrada.
In short, JGQ was/is my professor, mentor, homeboy, fellow activist and colleague. He taught me/us that we, as Chicanas and Chicanos, also have history—a proud history that must be taught in K-12, higher education and our communities.
“The point of learning about Indigenous past is not to relive past practices, or to propose one essentialization over another, or to be immobilized by history. The first stone to demolish the old presidio is our own consciousness.”
—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Indigenous Quotient/Stalking Words: American Indian History as Future, Aztlan Libre Press, San Antonio, Texas, 2012, p. 39.
Left to Right: Adrián Álvarez, Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Antonia Montes, Álvaro Huerta, Ruben Lizardo and Leonor Lizardo; wedding of Antonia and Álvaro (March 28, 1992)
Despite our generational divide, we shared many similarities: Mexican roots; native sons of East Los Angeles; doctorates from the University of California; veteran activists; practitioners of respect and confianza (something absent in the academy); lovers of music (e.g., oldies), art (e.g., Mexican/Chicana/o art), food (anything Mexican), drink (e.g., mezcal), culture (our own) and sports (e.g., boxing); readers of poetry; educators and mentors; and, our defense of los de abajo, where he paved the road for me and countless others to emulate…
“Human issues can be resolved with humanistic solutions. Immigrants are not strangers; they are family.” --Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate Towards a Humanistic Paradigm 2013, foreword, p. 14)
Moving forward, while I’ll humbly do my part to maintain and expand his shining legacy through my lectures, writings and musings, I only wish that I was able to tell him in person four magic words before his passing: “I love you, Juan!”
By Sonny Boy Arias (2018) Recently, someone turned to me and said, “You’ve got a lot going on in your life right now, don’t you?” and in a micro-second of reflection I thought, “Not any more than normal,” and then the reality of my situatedness of daily life sunk in. “Yes,” I thought, “I guess I do have a lot going on.” By this coming June, I will have 8 grandchildren (including a set of twins), as everyone is pregnant (we currently have 4 male grandchildren). I am currently searching for solutions to place my father in long-term rehab care in San Diego and my mother’s dementia is progressing so rapidly that I can hand her something and she will place it immediately in the proverbial Black Hole. I am leading a major policy shift at my university, while acting as lead academic planner for our University’s 25th anniversary, and I have made arrangements to take our entire family to Maui for the greater part of the summer, oy vey! I’ve even reached a point where I conducted the preliminary math demonstrating that I may be retiring as early as this summer. These events were for the most part not unexpected as I am an old scuba diver and I always “plan my dive and dive my plan,” but I have to confess: no matter how prepared one is, Father Time has a way of sneaking up on you and tapping you on the shoulder. It seems that time, numbers and my personal philosophy make up the mainstay of how I construct my reality in daily life at least for the onset of this coming year. I didn’t think my goings-on were observable, nobody ever really does, that is, until somebody does make the observation, “You really have a lot going on right now, don’t you?” We all believe that most people don’t really care about who we are or what we stand for, not really, for emotional and practical purposes. Daily life is way too complex for one to keep up with the energy it takes to truly care for others. I mean, doesn’t everybody always have a lot going on? It’s simply too much to keep track of what people are doing, thinking or facing. Why should my situatedness stand out, why now? Conversely, this is why I find most everyone quite interesting, everyone has a story, and every story is unique and in turn interesting. Said differently, everything may in fact be observable but what is interesting for the day or even for the moment is a topic of social inquiry all on its own; it is phenomenological in this way. It’s as though my Self (in a social psychological sense) is evolving with every social interaction; how can it be perceived any other way? While I am keenly aware of such evolution, I’ve never felt the evolution of Self the way I do now. What better way to measure one’s situatedness than to compare your time (like, your time left on this earth) against the backdrop of the endless situations that come up in everyday life? Everything is quantifiable such as the number of strokes of genius, impulses, how many grandchildren, even the number of heartbeats in one’s life, you can count them all. Again, the statement directed to me can be directed to you: “You’ve got a lot going on in your life right now, don’t you?” At first, it can only be examined existentially because it evokes feelings, often deep feelings depending on the situation at hand. I will say there are markers along the way, some outright signs along the way you might say that are not only directive, but, all at once full of symbolic meanings. Much like the radical empiricist William James, my tendencies are to ground what I say theoretically in observable examples, including those found in my own life. At the onset of this past summer, I observed two massive (I mean massive) chunks of glacier each the size of five football fields slip into Glacier Bay, and this occurred within 12 minutes of each other. I video-taped the second slide, but haven’t mustered up the courage to view it again as it really rocked my world. Having been taken by surprise, I was all at once mortified to the core of my being, my brute being that is, I honestly still can’t seem to shake the feeling. I wasn’t fearful of a tidal wave effect or anything of that sort, frankly I didn’t know what it was I was feeling. It wasn’t until weeks later that I came to the realization that I was in shock and this triggered my sensibilities beyond my control all at once, changing my human condition, forever. Likened to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “white sheet flashes” to massive sheets of sliding ice were simply too much to handle all at once. How else can I say it except that “It scared the hell out of me!” I wasn’t aware of the full impact it had on my psyche until much later. It was as though I was completely caught off guard by a sensation so overwhelming my sensibilities were shut down by natural defense mechanisms and as a result, I switched to autopilot, not allowing myself to feel the sensations that were so overwhelming. It was one of the greatest contradictions of my life. While I have always enjoyed living and dwelling in contradictions, suspended existentially so, enjoying being at the helm of a sailboat with a broken rudder in a full gale storm, this was a test of the tempest, “nor'easter” you might say. I imagined the sky ripped open by a giant Russian god-like philosopher, yelling down to all of humanity: “You all have ruined the earth; look at her now look, at Gaia (Mother Earth). The massive sheets of ice slipping into Glacier Bay are her tears crying to let her loose, to let her heal herself the way only she can do. You (humanity) need to step aside and let nature (Mother Earth) take over and heal herself, she has taken care of herself for billions of years, well before humans arrived, for Christ’s sake step aside!” This was it! This was the penultimate contradiction of my life and it caught me off guard, I’ve been sensing this ever since witnessing Gaia cry; it was like Mary, Mother of God, crying for her son and for our sins. Last month, in my capacity as the keynote speaker and a Distinguished Alum at UC San Diego’s 50th year celebration of its graduate division, I presented myself as a well-trained scientist that had tried on various rationales that might help me mask the realities we are facing in American society today – one is global warming. I argued that during current times it is quite difficult to perform critical objective scientific analysis because the average person on the street does not understand science and their thoughts are based on what they gather from quip-like political remarks they hear on television, on the radio or read in pop-ups that are not scientifically based. The physical condition of Mother Earth is in the back of my mind, even more so than is the fate of humanity, she needs real help beyond what I have to offer and I have offered more valiant efforts than most as evidenced by my work in convening world-class scientists in Big Sur. At the core of my being, I’m keenly aware that everyone tacitly knows but doesn’t want to say out loud the unspeakable truth: “We [humanity] have systematically ruined the earth due to greed and to self-preservation beyond the type designed for us by nature. We somehow got off track and at the cost of forsaking others or even contributing to the social good have designed distractions into our realities so great that we consume much more than we can play out in useful ways in one lifetime. This behavior has driven humanity far beyond the tipping point for any possibility of ecological reconstruction. There is no going back; the massive chunks of ice falling by the minute in Glacier Bay don’t suddenly re-attach themselves, they don’t grow anew like frozen crystals, they simply melt away like islands of meaning that only few can understand, because people don’t take the time or have the time to save them or Mother Earth.” People remain distracted seeking refuge in the Google-god thinking they have an understanding of every situation, every problem and every subject matter. From a scientific perspective, it’s simply annoying to constantly hear interpretations of a Google sort from those who have little understanding of deep levels of predication. “Just Google it,” they say, with no understanding that the rhythm of their personal algorithm shines only a subjective light that cannot (will not) allow for objective truths.
An existential driftwood shelter. Photo by Armando Arias
We live in a world where perception is everything and scientific truths no longer ring of truth. We are experiencing the advent of new curious concepts like “fake news” or “fake truths” and so what we find is small children questioning thousands of years of scientific truths the scientific method, models and paradigms based on knowledges that were built on each other, not that we suddenly postulated as a tweet or felt sense and nothing more. The philosopher Aristotle believed that “seeing is believing” although he didn’t live in a world of social media in the same manner as we do today. He did not take into account that for political reasons people would begin purposefully altering video and pictures for political reasons. This was not part of his awareness. Said differently, whether you believe in global warming or not, whether you practice science or fake science or fake news, I know what I saw and experienced in watching Gaia cry sheets of ice. This truth cannot be denied, I heard it, I saw it, I even smelt it. It’s like listening to your aged mother who is hard of hearing trying to order her prescriptions over the phone: “Can you please speak up,” she says. “I can’t hear you, please speak up.” It’s a truth you can’t deny, it’s not “fake,” just as in the gym, the barbells don’t lie—they are in fact heavy. Sir Issac Newton observed a basic truth “What goes up must come down.” Watch video replays of when you were young as they capture a picturesque younger Self about the way things once were and sometimes these are difficult to watch because they capture a truism: “You are [today] what you once were [yesteryear]. The unforgettable sound of cracking ice is so memorable; it is in fact plaguing to my senses, I will never forget the sound and yet this phenomenon becomes the mainstay marker for the rest of my life, placing me on a hermeneutic spiral to enjoy in a rather disturbing way. For me the sound or old reflections are evocative, poignant even melancholy; they linger and contribute to the way I construct my reality in daily life – how else can I say it, except to say it the way it feels, this becomes my situatedness, this becomes the foundational springboard for the evolution of my Self (in a social psychological sense). So in this way, yes, I am just like you, I do have a lot going on in my life, for many it appears I am preoccupied with the end of the end of things: objects, relationships, even perspectives or paradigms for looking at scientific discoveries. Things change, science changes the way we view realities through scientific discovery not through “fake news” or “fake truths.” It’s the eve of yet another year to come and a year gone by even at a more precipitous pace than the previous one. Yes, I sound like my parents and uncles who constantly remind me, “Life is short.” Yet I remain baffled at what is inevitably to come, this year, unknown yet seemingly felt in my soul. What new vulgar circumstances (even rollicking vulgarity or playful exuberance) will give birth to my story writing for example? As I grow older, words, it seems, sit on ideas with uncanny ease and make more stories seem inevitable, I never know what is coming out of my imagination next. I do however remain convinced that as Einstein puts it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” which, by the way, is the trick for scoring at the highest levels of IQ tests and college entrance exams. “Teach your children well.” Now headed for quasi-retirement, the fictional stories I started writing in the form of “science friction” afford me a separate life, a “separate reality” as my old friend Carlos Castaneda used to put it, and new relations. I’m aware of my lack of formal training in creative writing, yet it actually becomes the very reason whenever I go to contemplate a “creative” work for pleasure. I’m fine with the fact that my stories will surely not be on the Best Seller’s List nor a Pulitzer Prize winner for these authors always lack soul and only write for the prize. They are in fact creatively boring, what one might typify as “tragicomic solipsism.” Frankly, I’m always fascinated at how boring prize-winning authors can be in real-life. Even so, there is almost no one I can call for honest advice, “Your stories are great” they say, with no proof or affirmation. It’s not difficult to realize how I cause a new deviance disavowal because I know they didn’t read my writings, yet feel the need to tell me they did, hey, no problem. I firmly believe people trained in creative writing practice linguistic calisthenics; a lot of words, without soul. I understand how the book writing world works, people simply prefer living the illusion, and again, perception becomes everything; therein lies the organic disconnect. In this spirit, I have even come to believe in the “fish stories” I have to some extent imagined and I see this as a good thing inasmuch as I have continued mindful activities and exercises that contribute to the evolution of my prodigious memory that allows me to recite my finished stories verbatim. I became aware of this ability many years ago when seated in a hot-tub next to a distant relative at a family reunion held at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. I told her the story of how I was once attacked by a wild-boar on Catalina Island and she did not believe me until the next day when we were joined by her husband whom I shared the story with as well and she observed, “Sonny Boy (my nickname), I didn’t believe you yesterday but I do believe you today because you told the story in the same way word-for-word.” It is the case that I practice the art and science of writing like I talk and talking like I write, plus I want to defer atrophy of my brain as long as possible. Most people don’t see the insight my stories can bring as they say, “his silly little stories;” they are all psychoanalytic and often viewed as “irritatingly clever.” I think more about the future and the future I am already starting to miss. I remain eager to see how my personal buoyancy plays out in a hopefully different economic and emotional climate as I reach my later years. The way I see it, psychologically I should be happy, financially I should be set. Don’t forget, a scuba diver “plans his dive and dives his plan,” so I have a plan. But will an unexpected “four-alarm fire” surprise me, will I find it exhilarating (like being shot at), will I have the capacity to turn a nightmare into an insidious experience, at the very least a cheap thrill. If anything, my trained anticipation of the unexpected has always turned to a mission of good times. I expect to look back at any “urgency” and think “courage, after all, wants to laugh.” You can’t take life too seriously as it wasn’t meant to be that way, yet so many of us cannot see it any other way as evidenced by people who take themselves too seriously. It is for this reason I continue to amuse myself to death. I’m having a hell of a good time, by design. Life is for me an intellectual game. The allusion and/or insinuation endorses my serious refusal to be serious. I see every idea as inescapable from the link to the evolution of SELF, not vain, not self-defeating, not even a linguistic construct, but artistic. It is through this paradigm for looking at storytelling that I simply want to show those who indulge in my stories how to live a fulfilled and meaningful life and to become less alone inside in a world with inescapable ways of contributing to alienation, Karl Marx’s greatest fear. Said differently, through my stories I want to help people feel life, and remain more than arm’s distance from being-bored-of-being-bored. Hence, if you are going to mistake your wife for something mistake her for a hat, a nice black hat (a la Oliver Sacks) and enjoy it, don’t get freaked out by the experience. It’s like taking LSD. Timothy Leary use to say, “Never have a bad trip, learn from it, enjoy it as you will never forget what you learned.” What I believe is that there can be optimism within one’s personal despair, elation of a curious sort in its anomie. More than ever I feel like a paradoxical character with an outsized passion, repression and expression: twin causes of complication, harmony and disharmony with significant others who think: “He is such a nice person, a good father and great grandfather, yet there is something in him that keeps him from being completely decent.” I have to ask, “Do people not understand my aesthetic?” Years ago I wrote a book on fear and it wasn’t until now that I came to the realization that I write stories because I am afraid that the last thing I will write will be the last thing that I write. This is not paranoia as that would be fear of the unreal; my fear is based not only on real fear as evidenced by the stories I keep producing, but also by the body of original scientific knowledge I have contributed over time. I find in life amusing peculiarities that trigger epiphanies, continually! Maybe deep down inside there is the possibility that telling a story could lead to redemption of a sort, for what reason, I am searching, but perhaps it may be found in spirituality and values. So, this is what is on my mind on the eve of a new year.
Painting representing St. Augustine, author of Confessions
Actor Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in 1935 film based on Crime and Punishment
We hope to learn more of Roberto deVillar's worlds in future columns. --The Editor
Welcome to my worlds
By Roberto deVillar
First of all, let me introduce myself. By birth, I am a sinner, as are all Catholics, and a perennial outsider from the moment I burst forth from the internally secure universe of my mother’s womb. Transgressions and marginality; redemption and wholeness; wanting and sharing; hiding and seeking; standing firm and finding. These and other key elements constantly are in simultaneous play with one another throughout one’s life. And as we try constantly to wrestle with the elements to find ourselves, define ourselves, make sense of ourselves, justify ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and the like, there are many times that we find ourselves pinned down by the elements. I want to share aspects of my meandering journey toward working in the fields of social justice, and include the rocks and potholes that caused me to stumble, and the forks in the road that led to unexpected detours or dead-ends. At the same time, obstacles in my path never caused me to stop wandering in the direction that I thought was a forward one, fueled by the light of my passions, guided by the whispers, howling, and silences of my mind-soul’s inner voice. So I begin, claiming my birthright, to write as an outsider and confess.
I have always found my baptismal certificate from the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, interesting. Along its left side, all the language is English. And all the names and even the month in which I was born are inserted to the right, handwritten in Spanish. My name is listed as Roberto Alejandro DeVillar, which is the same name as on my original birth certificate; then Alfonso Arturo (my father), Cecilia (my mother—known as Nina), José Alejandro (my mother’s brother and my godparent, known as Nine), Guadalupe (my father’s sister and my godparent, known as Lupe), Rev. J. Frias (officiating priest), and my birth month is written as Junio. This integral blend of language and culture, literally from day one, was a birthmark, stamped on my soul, my character, my very being, and not only accompanied me to every geographical location, every cultural setting, and every social context in which I set foot, but influenced me, as well. In my earliest days, although my parents and their siblings were what would be termed fully bilingual in Spanish and English, it was Spanish that was always spoken in the presence of my two remaining grandparents, who were Papá Bocho (Ambrosio Samudio Rodríguez), my grandfather on my mother’s side, who died when I was 7 years old; and, Mamá (Basilisa Riva Pellón), my grandmother on my father’s side, who lived for many years, passing away in 1976, at 94 years old.
The author at 1 year, nine months in San Antonio, Texas
I never got to interact with my grandfather on my father’s side, Julián M. de Villar, as he died in January, five months before I was born, or my grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamá Celia (Celia Valdez Arizpe), who died when I was a little more than a year old. Nevertheless, their names floated in the family air we breathed daily, and, in the case of my paternal grandfather, influenced my character development and sense of culture and accomplishment throughout my life. From a strict chronological perspective, I, and my brothers, associated having grandparents with the sole experience of interacting with my father’s mother, our grandmother Basilisa, our Mamá.
My Upbringing in Diverse Socialization and Cultural Contexts
The formal socialization contexts in San Antonio that I entered outside the home from pre-school to 3rd grade were Catholic. Here, nuns ruled with rulers in hand and—although this will be almost impossible to believe--strait-jackets, which both my older brother and I, on different occasions, were strapped into. I can still remember, not even being old enough to attend first grade yet, sitting down, crossed-legged, silent, as the strange, rough, canvas-like material was wrapped around my torso, locking me in by straps looped through shiny metal rings. I have neverforgotten that image or experience. It was far worse than when I was made to kneel to have my mouth washed out with soap by a nun for having uttered, I imagine, a swear word. Then there was the snarling, wild-eyed anger projecting from my brother’s face as he sat, body pulsating, imprisoned in the strait-jacket, somehow still emoting strength and pride, even in that shocking, depressing condition. I was perhaps 4 years old, but that tortuous image of seeing my brother in the strait-jacket lives still within my memory and continues to haunt me. And later, at Saint Ann’s, I vividly remember wearing with pride my khaki uniform with patches, tie and brass-buckled belt, raising my hand and waiting, without being acknowledged by the nun, until I finally summed up the courage to go up to her and asked her permission to go the bathroom. She responded: “No, it’s almost time for the bell.” I returned to my desk, and despite all the attempts a child does to stop his bladder from emptying, while sitting at my desk, I uncontrollably urinated, staining the front of my khaki pants down to the knee. I waited for everyone to leave when the bell rang, but a girl stayed behind to wait for me, and I finally got up, saying in an utterly unconvincing tone that was supposed to be lightheartedly amusing: “Oh, Paul and I were playing at recess and he threw water on me!” She didn’t say anything, her look said it all. I went outside to one of the side doors leading to the steps where the playground began, and wedged myself in a space between one of the recessed door frames and a low wall to become invisible. I then opened my tin lunchbox in such a way that its top extended across my waist, so that in case someone did see me, they could not see my urine-stained khaki pants. A nun came by, saw me, and asked why I was there, eating alone instead of being with the others on the playground. That was all it took for me to begin to wail and angrily tell her what happened. Rather than comfort me, the nun began to defend the offending nun, and I, even at 6 or 7 years old, knew that was unjust. So, I hollered, still shedding tears of anger, that the offending nun was a Jackass! And, each time the nun would open her mouth to say something, I would repeat, again and again, “No, she is a jackass!” Until the nun finally realized that I was in a fit of rage, came to me, put her arm around me and guided me up the stairs. The next thing I remember is that my mother was driving me home, saying that I would not have to return to school that day. And it was her calm, gentle, loving presence, even while driving, that enveloped me and made me feel warm and safe. That same summer, I asked my parents if I could change schools, and, even though my older brother stayed at St. Ann’s, I enrolled at St. Mary Magdalen’s.
Aside from being strapped in strait-jackets, having my mouth washed out with soap, and suffering the consequences of restricted bathroom use, it was also quickly transmitted within these various Catholic settings that we are all sinners and need to repent. Thus, Catholic school is also where I learned to confess.
The Why of Confession: Many Paths, One Goal
Confessions are, of course, two-sided. On the one hand, the confessor wishes to relieve the self of the weighty burden of guilt, of pain, of suffering, of mental torment, and so on, brought on by the internally conscious judgement that one’s action or actions have violated egregiously the moral rules, guidelines or expectations of a community in which membership is claimed. On the other hand, the confessor takes this humiliating step, in which at least one other person is present, for the explicit sake of redemption, of being forgiven for one’s transgressions, however severe, and being reborn, so to speak, to go out and sin no more—which, as we all know, is an impossibility and the paradoxical bane of Catholics and other Christians. As sinners, we all inhabit two spaces simultaneously; that of the sinner—either actual or inevitably prospective—and the searcher who seeks forgiveness through confession for the sins committed and confession’s product, redemption. It is the same if one reads the eponymously titled autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine (circa 400 AD), or the tortured, tormented fictional tale of the murderous Raskolnikov, the young, feverish killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866; spellings include Dostoyevsky/Dostoevsky). The opportunity for redemption can be personally experienced (St. Augustine) or societally imposed, as in the case of Raskolnikov, whose mental anguish ultimately leads to his confession and redemption, albeit in the literal purgatory of Siberia. Thus, the path leading to redemption is rarely smooth and may not even be successful, as in the case of Eugène Marais, the Afrikaner polymath who, alone in his hovel, observed, documented and wrote about apes for three years in their native context—resulting in his The Soul of the Ape (1969, English edition, but actually written in the 1920s)—while musing about his ingestion of morphine to which he was addicted and led him to clearly understand that ever-greater amounts of morphine were required to achieve the same level of momentary mental elation. I read Soul of the Ape in Heidelberg, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army, at some point during the time I was stationed there (1970-1971). Marais clearly understood that there would come a time when the amount of morphine required would surpass the body’s ability to withstand it, but he did not live to witness and attest to that principle. At 65, he took a shotgun and shot himself first in the chest and then the head. Marais’ anguish and insights did not lead to confession and, therefore, there was no redemption, only despair and the emptiness of a tragic death. Drug addiction, nevertheless, is not an insurmountable barrier to the quest and realization of redemption. Thomas De Quincy’s autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), was immensely popular with the public for decades in England and abroad, describing as it did the vast pleasures and marginal pains of addiction. The necessity of redemption was presented as an almost reluctant conclusion by the author-eater. De Quincy considered redemption justified for the sake of, if nothing else, being able to continue to meet one’s professional responsibility and the demands of productivity. He also found it essential to remain in an appropriate physical and mental condition sufficient to appear coherent to others and to engage in sustained social interactions. In a manner that gives the impression of deception or hypocrisy, or both, De Quincy used confession, forgiveness and redemption as a means to continue to ingest opium as a controlled substance, while eloquently claiming or charmingly suggesting that his use was in the past. His was a cycle of perpetual sinning and seeking forgiveness and redemption in order to sin once more, allowing him literary success, moderated opium use, and selective redemption. When I first read Carlos Castaneda’s (I am spelling his last name without the tilde-ñ, as that convention has been used in his books; others may prefer to spell it Castañeda) The Teachings of Don Juan, I completely missed the point of its subject matter. Yes, I know that there was a subtitle, but I overlooked it because I was in the library at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, after Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and now involved in learning Morse code. Since May 1969, I had been experiencing life in the Army as a draftee during the heavily contentious Vietnam War.
The author with his mother and older brother, Art, in San Antonio, while his father was serving in WWII
Why did I miss the point of the title? Well, stay with me now, having spent my late elementary through high school years in Seville, Spain, and five years in Mexico, City, earning my B.A. and working, I naively thought that I was checking out a book on the character Don Juan Tenorio! You know, Zorilla’s (1844) work, or that of Tirso de Molina (1630), or perhaps George Gordon Lord Byron’s (1819-1824) “Don Juan” poem–pronounced for purposes of rhyme, “Don Joo-un.” All of them were essentially, to greater or lesser degrees, about the perennial triad of sin, forgiveness and redemption, and in Seville, no less! I share all the above thoughts that came to my mind to say that I was desperate for a Spanish-related cultural injection—a cultural fix—so I confess my error and beg forgiveness. Nevertheless, as we are prone to sense or know, coincidences are merely unforeseen experiences that were meant to take place. Thus, not at all coincidentally, reading The Teachings of Don Juan was a major cultural fix for me, for it altered my mind in ways I had not experienced previously. Moreover, it was a transformative experience for me, for I internalized immediately two life-long lessons:
First, to respect and honor as a legitimate cultural value and behavior the ingestion of mind-altering natural elements by groups, within their native context, for purposes integral to the group’s codified well-being; and,
Second, to avoid ingesting those types of drugs outside a legitimate cultural context and without a competent guide a la Don Juan.
I didn’t see the United States—the dominant cultural model or any of its less-dominant groups—as having a legitimate cultural context or knowledge-base for drug ingestion and never felt the need for drug use for recreational or “psychology-of-insight” purposes. I had made a marked distinction between cultural values and behaviors associated with the belief system of a group, as opposed to individuals who belonged to a group culture but whose practices did not emanate from or reflect the core values of that culture. This is, of course, the time for full disclosure: I do drink red wine moderately, beer occasionally, tequila reposado—or at times, añejo/añejado—if either is in front of me, and, albeit rarely, I enjoy a straight—no ice, no water—bourbon/whiskey, never the Jim Beam taste, if the occasion arises, which it very rarely does. As this statement regarding alcohol consumption is not a confession, I do not seek or care about redemption or forgiveness, or consider my way of being, in this case, a sin. My sin, as will become clear, was one of massive professional blindness and ignorance toward the very group that I had returned to the United States to work for and with, in pursuit of a deeply-rooted and life-long sense of social justice. I had a modicum of, but not directly relevant, academic preparation in the study and intellectual pursuit social justice, having graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, Social Sciences, from the Universidad de las Américas. My cultural context, both in Seville, Spain, and Mexico City, Mexico, was far from the context in which I desired to participate in and contribute to. I just didn’t realize it at the time—that is, all my life up to then. In the 1960s, the university was located a short distance from the exit of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, the massive, mega-élite, mansion-dense neighborhood—specifically at kilómetro 16 de la Carretera México-Toluca. Ambassadors, Cantiflas, politicians, bankers, and others considered the crème-de-la-crème resided in this élite colonia, and so did I, but as a student, in a beautiful residence where they took in student and professional boarders. At that time, mid-1960s, our university campus was, as I remember, characterized mainly by deep ravines and panoramic views of tree-dense, rolling hills—especially visible from the massive terrace of our small campus, itself, a converted country club. Its student body was a mixture of high-wealth, native-born students, in the main from Mexico City, with groups of foreign students, from the United States, Canada and Europe. The campus was, in part, an extension of the relaxed life-style of the rich and famous, where high-end cars were visible, driven by students in tailor-made suits or casually fashioned outfits. At the same time, there were the American students who would come for their “quarter abroad” programs, wearing chinos, sockless loafers and madras shirts—who never really fitted in and whose presence appeared more decorative than substantive. They were like silent, colorful, moving units amidst a socio-cultural context that at times saw them but did not engage with them. There were more serious foreign students, who either could not or preferred not to adapt to the Mexico City culture and left soon after arriving; or native students, who decided to transfer to the internationally prestigious Colegio de México, a highly regarded research university that specialized in the social sciences. There were also those who came looking like the perfectly groomed upper-middle class students they were back home and soon after experimenting with easily accessible pharmaceutical and other mind-altering substances, abandoned their grooming, previous dress codes, and normative behavioral façades, preferring to, as Timothy Leary so famously declared: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” It shocked me, literally, to have embraced friends, socialized and laughed with them, only to see them fade into themselves and ultimately disappear from campus. I knew it was due to their drug use, but I did not probe deeper than that and it did not touch me or my particular group of friends—at least not during the time we were completing our undergraduate degrees. This early, indirect experience with the effects of drugs on a few of my friends and other students visible to me led me away from any intellectual arguments in their favor and, as I mentioned above, after reading The Teachings ofDon Juan, I confess that my personal attitude toward recreational use of mind-altering drugs or their use outside of an authentic context native to the culture solidified even more. Ultimately, regardless of where I had lived; what I had experienced; what I had read for pleasure or studied formally; the Spanish I had been exposed to from birth and developed in Spain and Mexico; the values, principles, thoughts, desires and dreams I had of working within the arena of class struggle, of social justice, and of societal change were not sufficient in preparing me for the setting in which I would soon enter: the Chicano context of San José, California.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, haswritten and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, and so far almost exclusively about his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the U.S. from Spain, he earned a B.A. degree in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San José State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-1974) and Economic & Social Opportunities, Inc. He has traveled widely, engaged in international corporate affairs, but returned to complete a doctorate at Stanford University (1987). From 1987 to 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.
Cover art, "Nopal and Colibre," by Sergio Hernandez
BEWARE! The “concerted act of forgetting”
Excerpt from Assault on Mexican American CollectiveMemory, 2010–2015
By Rodolfo Acuña
Certain members of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) at its January 2018 meeting ignored expert testimony on an agenda item proposing a standardized curriculum and statewide academic standards for the teaching of Mexican American Studies (MAS) in Texas’ public schools. Instead, those SBOE members suggested the Board consider “Latino Studies,” an entirely different basis for a vote at the board’s next meeting on April 11. MAS is taught across the state, but no statewide standards exist, thus guidance is vital for both the significant number of MAS courses and for publishers to write textbooks according to these standards. In other words, the Texas SBOE could be voting on a measure that would effectively undercut MAS as an expanding field of study dating back 50 years. This is prologue to the excerpt below by a preeminent Chicano scholar, which addresses this very idea of erasing memory by renaming existing knowledge and undermining the educational development of millions of Mexican American students. —Editor’s note
By Rodolfo Acuña
In her book Captive Women: Oblivion and Memory in Argentina, Susana Rotker writes that her lack of memory left her without a sense of history. Memory, according to Rotker, represents the identity of individuals, social groups, and nations and that to “forget and to remember are not opposites; they are the very weave of representation.”1 She continues, “I have no memory of my childhood because no story was ever told of it.” Her forgetting includes Argentina’s colonial past, when genocidal wars were waged against Indians and in which Africans were used as cannon fodder. The act of erasing history is not in the distant past. During the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976–1983, about thirty thousand people were detained or disappeared—thousands more were executed by so-called security forces.2 It is not surprising that many of the Argentine plutocrats want to forget; similarly Germans denied the horror of the Holocaust. The “concerted act of forgetting” is ongoing throughout the Americas. Americans, Chileans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans all want to forget their genocides. 3 Fortunately, there are those who want to remember and search for the truth, as in the case of Guatemala and Argentina. Native Americans today are resurrecting this collective memory at Standing Rock in North Dakota. 4 Every day the erased memory of African genocides are becoming part of our consciousness. 5 Assault on Mexican American Collective Memory, 2010–2015 is about ongoing efforts to erase the memory of Mexican Americans in Arizona and California and the endeavors of Mexicans to preserve their identity. It is a struggle that is intensifying with the growing Mexican/Latino population as they attempt to construct a counter-narrative. 6 The scapegoats are Mexican American programs in Arizona, Texas, and even liberal California. 7 It is no accident that these programs and the immigrants themselves are seen as threats. Representative of the dominant narrative is the documentary Waiting for Superman premiered in 2010. Pushed by the nation’s plutocrats, it is an example of propaganda posing as fact; the documentary is reminiscent of World War II movies that demonized the enemy.8 University of Wisconsin professors Katy Swalwell and Michael W. Apple posit that “[d]ominant groups listen carefully to the language and issues that come from below,” and they then “creatively appropriate the language and issues” to fit their interests. They define the problems and the solutions interpreting the social world and designate the solution of “our” problems and who can fix them.9
Superman are the charter schools and the plutocrats that are pushing them; the villains are the unions and the teachers. In Arizona the good guys are white politicos, the snowbirds, and the Tea Party; the bad guys are the Mexicans—the aliens, that is, body snatchers. This infantile reductionism is possible because of the absence of a free and critical press that does not report or search for the truth. The rise of Donald Trump was possible because of a lack of critical commentary and a counter-narrative. The failure of critical thinking thus prevents an intelligent discussion.10 [In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. He nominated Betsy DeVos, a Republican mega-donor to lead the Education Department. DeVos, fifty-eight, chaired the American Federation for Children that aggressively pushed charter schools and school voucher programs.11] I began posting on Facebook in 2012 at the age of eighty to find a counter-narrative to test neoliberal assumptions that spewed all levels of contemporary society. I wanted to distinguish fact from fantasy by finding and exposing counter points of views. A thin line exists between what is true and what is imagined. I wanted to expand my base of knowledge, and Facebook in most cases represents oppositional viewpoints. Admittedly I also wanted to push a political agenda as well as support the Tucson Unified School District Save Ethnic Studies movement. While I definitely found the other side, I also found a lot of fake news that had to be corrected.12 The book’s first three chapters concentrate on Arizona; they are a refresher course on racism. Coming from California, I had not heard the words spic or greaser for some time. This exploration led me to ask why people want to forget and why they don’t want others to remember. One of the threads is Arizona’s sun, which can only be appreciated if you’ve spent a snowy winter on the east coast, in the Midwest, or in Western Europe. Arizona is a favorite refuge for elderly white retirees, popularly known as snowbirds. It is estimated that as many as four hundred thousand snowbirds live or visit Arizona permanently or seasonally. Drawn to the sunshine, they compete for space with large and small convention facilities across the state. Low-cost airfares also contribute to the in-migration.13 The snowbirds spend on medical care; most have health insurance and/or Medicare. Being old means they have more money than the younger Mexican population, and politicos ferry them to the polls on election days. Snowbirds vote and have money—that gives them power.14 A 2003–2004 Arizona State University study reported that during the visitor season, the snowbird population spent $1 billion; for a small state, that is considerable.15 The report also states that from January through March 2008, the peak winter-visiting season, the refugees spent $6 billion. 16 According to ex-Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, “Over the next 15 years, the average age of Arizona’s population will steadily rise. In fact, by 2020, one in four Arizonans will be over the age of 60.”17 In 2015, the population of Arizona was estimated at 6,828,065 persons, which is less than the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Blacks or African Americans were 4.8 percent; American Indian and Alaska Native, 5.3 percent; Asian, 3.4 percent; and Hispanic or Latino, 30.7 percent. The rumbling was already noticeable among the snowbirds who feared that they were losing their state to the Mexicans.18 Its size and historical presence shone a spotlight on the Mexican population, and whites panicked that they were taking over. A March 2014 study reported that the median age for whites was forty-five compared with twenty-five for Latinos, and that increased numbers of Latino voters were altering the shape of state politics.19 Whites were growing older and by 2010 the xenophobia became irrational.20 America’s Voice wrote, “Hispanic voters in Arizona have absorbed the brunt of the harsh political environment state Republicans crafted around immigration and Latino identity issues (e.g., language policy, ethnic studies, and voting rights).21 White news commentators said the anti-Mexican climate was “perfectly reasonable.” There was very little criticism of the new Supermen like the despotic Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the gun-toting beer-bellied white males who strut through the streets. Just like vampire movies scared viewers, the Mexican threat was propagated to scare the snowbirds into voting and contributing to the Republican Party. They felt that the Supermen would protect the snowbirds, who felt safe seeing white men strutting around with holstered pistols. Meanwhile, the xenophobes exaggerated the impact of immigration, and they worked to erase the community’s historical memory. The first three chapters of the book are about the struggle to remember and to preserve the community’s collective historical memory. 22 With age, the importance of a collective historical memory becomes more pressing. Memory is very personal and you remember what others have told you about history and find yourself referencing the present with what you learned about the past.23 As a historian, for instance, I remember the 1921 and 1930s’ repatriations of Mexicans and the assaults on the foreign-born in the 1960s and 1980s and reference them to today. This memory is further enhanced by talking to friends and relatives. Walks through communities give a sense of place and bring back memories.24 Remembering is important, and the value of history is the creation of a collective historical memory. 25 The purpose of the culture wars is to erase memory: “Collective memory is a product of ideological construction that can be used as a key element in the elaboration of collective identity.”26 An interactive process gives political and social significance to events. It is linked to an awareness of a collective past. In the absence of a written history, memory is preserved by the members of the community through various methods.27 The struggles of the past five or six years show how the dominant society benefits from the control or erasure of minorities’ collective historical memory. National and local ruling elites use misconceptions and misunderstandings as part of the erasure process. The erasure keeps the dominant structure intact and allows the socialization of individuals within the minority community.28 Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity writes, “[T]he oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves; mystification is one of the forms of oppression.”29 Arizona and California are no different and are riddled with collaborators of all definitions. The disaffected seek legitimacy through an unconscious and even open collaboration. This book is not written for academics; it is for students and community folk. Meta-language is great, but you may not be connecting with your intended reader. A street dude may get a lot more from graffiti images than from an elaborately constructed word puzzle. Historical photos make memories vivid; they invite the reader to break down his or her thoughts. Language is a weapon; it is used to maintain social control thus it is essential to take back a narrative closer to the truth. White radicals during the 1960s were being beaten up by gang kids in the housing projects because they believed party members were talking down to them by using terms such as “historical materialism.” If people do not understand you, it is your fault. As Rotker put it, “The mode of representing reality is usually much more important than reality itself.”30 The first chapter deals with 2010. It had been formed by the aftershocks of the George W. Bush years and the widening income inequality that further marginalized Mexican Americans and Latinas/os. America changed and for many it became a nation of lost dreams. The only ones who seemed to believe in America and its fictional dream were the immigrants who wanted in on the seduction of the American Dream and the super patriots. 31 Two themes recur: the struggle to save ethnic studies and the privatization of Arizona and higher education. The year 2006 in terms immigration was historic; like California’s Proposition 187 (1994), it produced a generation of activists. By then it was clear that the immigrant community lost fear and like other oppressed people were fighting back by mounting massive protests in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, with smaller protests throughout the nation. 32 On April 10, 2006, millions of Latinos, many of whom were immigrants, took to the streets of 140 U.S. cities. It was one of a series of marches demonstrating that immigrants were tired of being afraid, tired of being intimidated by ICE and extralegal groups such as the Tea Party and minutemen. 33 After 2006, they could not, would not, be ignored. Immigrants had formed a collective memory or consciousness—they had no choice. The immigrant, like so many repressed minorities, came out of the closet. Within the immigrant community were the Dreamers who had been raised in the United States and found it natural to make human rights demands. Moreover, the Dreamers were a high tech generation using the Internet to communicate, and they were for the most part bilingual. 2008 was a presidential election year with U.S.-born Mexicans/Latinos making up 60 percent of the Latino population growth between 2000 and 2010.34 Assault on Mexican American Collective Memory, 2010–2015 is subtitled Swimming with Sharks to underscore the viciousness of the Republican and corporate establishment that infested the political waters with sharks, 35 which muffle and confuse calls for help. These sharks are a different breed from everyday street sharks. The sharks control memory to confuse the swimmers. In order to swim with the sharks, it is vital to preserve the collective memory of those trying to survive and not to let them forget how to swim, to keep the collective memory of others who have survived alive, and to expose the myth that they can individually swim with the sharks. The author has spent three-quarters of his life in the Chicana/o movement and Chicana/o studies. His footprints resuscitate the collective memory that a community needs to defend itself from the sharks. This survival is important to me because they are the memories of my parents and their parents. I do not believe in a hereafter, so I know that I will be part of this world for as long as I am remembered. Death is being forgotten. The rich and famous preserve their memories for as long as they can remain part of the community of sharks. They carve their names and their causes into buildings. The famous and the infamous write books to embellish their images, to make them appear to be Supermen. In order for them to be the protagonists, it is essential to wipe out the memories of the poor and the viciousness of the sharks. They destroy communities to control these memories, memories that warn people about the sharks, and the lives of the poor are blown away without a trace, like dust in the desert. Within a couple of generations, it is as if they never existed. Meanwhile, the rich appear as benefactors who give endowments, have buildings named after them, and have their portraits painted. The rich thus live forever. 36 In writing about Chicanas/os I benefited by coming from a stable home; life gives me the opportunity to chisel my footprints into stone. Publications mark my journey and record my memories. Admittedly these footprints meander. When was young and idealistic, I believed that Chicana/o studies would shift public discourse through the creation of Chicano thought. I believed that I could swim alone with the sharks. In 1969, however, I realized that few paid attention to or cared about U.S. Mexicans. Consider that Mesoamerican religions are among the few major world religions that have not been preserved. The history of the Mexican American is transnational. Just like people it has no borders. Thus Mexico is always with us. The events of 2014 shook our illusions of México Lindo and it awakened us from illusions that we had a foot on each side of the border. The reality was that Mexico is a graveyard. The disappearance of the forty-three Ayotzinapa normalistas (normal school students) killed any moral authority that the Mexican state had. It also exposed American complicity in the moral decay of the Mexican state and civil society, and it highlighted the reality that México Lindo exists only in Mexican Americans’ minds. The reality is that the political process is an illusion created by political parties that “excite people” and give them hope that they can win peacefully without a revolution. Mexican Americans are the oldest and most numerous of the Latino groups. This is partially because they have had more time to evolve within the system. Moreover, they share a two-thousand-mile border with the United States. Mexico is also the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in Latin America with a population of 127 million people. Democrats and Republicans delude them into thinking that they are political players and that their population will give them a share of economic and political bounties. 37 Our historical memory is being co-opted and warped by the media that sees history through the eyes of the so-called Hispanic leaders. Without any historical reflection, they erase the terms Mexican, Mexican American, and Chicana/o and substitute non-people words such as Hispanic and Latino. Meanwhile, many Chicana/o leaders have become cheerleaders for “Hispanic Power,” chanting, “We’re Number 1.” Communities are trenches and firewalls that shield minorities from the sharks’ attempts to erase their collective memories and recollections of past struggles.38 When Mexican Americans and Latinos talk about a community, they generally refer to their barrio, their colonia. It can also refer to their nationality—their people, their paisanos/as. “To be part of a community, you have to be bonded with it and care about it. Love begins and ends with responsibility. The people in a community remember common struggles, they share memories, they remember past losses and victories, and rejoice and anguish with what went right and wrong.”39 Devon Peña often quotes Jacques Derrida: “Memory is a moral obligation, all the time.”40 Historical memory, specifically collective memory, is the subject of much of this book.41 The canons of most disciplines are similar. They center on sincerity, truthfulness, and accuracy. The problem is that professionals are human beings and many often bring their biases and their ambitions to their work. They are not impartial, they do not always tell the truth, and they do not differentiate between fact and opinion.
Rodolfo F. Acuña, a janitor and then a teacher in the Los Angeles City Schools from 1956–1965, earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California in Latin American Studies. In 1969, Acuña was the founding chair of Chicano Studies at San Fernando Valley State (today California State University Northridge), where he is now Professor Emeritus of Chicano Studies. His seminal work on Chicano history,Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, is in its 8th edition (Longman, 2015). He has also written three children’s books and, a prolific historian, always has another book in the works. Lexington Books (2017) is publisher of Assaulton MexicanAmericanCollectiveMemory,2010–2015.
Felicitas Peña Morales, Tlaxcatecan, the author’s paternal grandmother
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
When Elena Garro wrote her short story, “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecans,” she was drawing from the popular Mexican myths about the fall of Mexico-Tenochititlán, in which the innocent Aztecs were destroyed by the evil Spaniards with the help of Cortés’s treacherous Indian allies. Foremost was Malintzín, the Nahua noblewoman who was sold into slavery by her own mother and step-father and who later became Cortes’s lover-translator and mother of one of the first mestizos, Martín Cortés. Second on the list of villains were the Tlaxcaltecans. A popular Mexican saying goes: How could Cortés with 500 men and 15 horses conquer La Gran Tenochtitlán? Blame the Tlaxcaltecans.
However, history is more complicated than myths, especially those predicated on grievance and victimhood. I bring this up because my paternal grandmother, Felicitas Peña, was a Tlaxcatecan. She was actually a mestiza, descendant also from some of the prominent founding Spanish families of Northern Mexico, but she identified with her indigenous ancestors who made up most of her DNA, the Tlaxcaltecans.
Once, when my father was in grade school, he told Felicitas about what he had learned in school about the conquest of Mexico. Mexico in the 1930s was in its heady days of nationalism and a long-overdue embrace of its indigenous origins. When people thought of Jose Vasconcelos’ “LaRaza Cósmica,” they imagined themselves as Aztecs.
My grandmother listened intently and waited for my father to finish. Then she told him, “The Aztecs were defeated because they were assassins.” Their victims were my grandmother’s people, the Tlaxcaltecans, whom the Aztecs not only wanted to conquer but whose captured warriors were premiere sacrificial victims for their blood-thirsty national god, Huitzilopochtli.
Although all of the Mesoamerican societies, including the Tlaxcaltecans, practiced human sacrifice, none matched the Aztecs in scale. The level of human sacrifice increased during periods of crisis. There was no bigger crisis than the foretold doom of the world in the year of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, 1519 C.E.
Cortés offered the Tlaxcaltecans the opportunity to rid themselves of their nemesis once and for all, which they did with brutal efficiency.
For the last 25 years or so, Mexican historians have begun to re-examine the history of the conquest through the lens of post-nationalism. As with other contemporary historical revisions, different narratives are taken into perspective. For example, the role of Malintzín. Historians now question the traitor label, instead focusing on her as an individual woman.
What could she have done differently given the circumstances? What would anyone of us do if confronted with her situation while disempowered? The name “Malinche,” which means “Malinalli’s captain” in Nahuatl, referred to Cortés. “Here comes Malinche,” the Indian noblemen would say whenever they saw Cortés. Because he always kept his translator at his side, the name incorrectly stuck to her.
But I digress. My grandmother remembered her heritage and history so vividly that she spoke about the enmity between her people and the Aztecs as if she had lived in the times of the conquest, a living memory confirmed in the written records of the learned (surviving) Indian wise men of the era, Catholic Frays, and even in the letters, official decrees, and the church records which at times offer the commentary of the parish priests. These records were ignored, marginalized, or dismissed in favor of the big picture narrative, the binary mythology that was emotionally satisfying but only a partial truth.
Tlaxcatecans in the Parish Records of the Villa de San Esteban de Tlaxcala, 1693 (Saltillo, Coahuila)
When Cortés landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, he conquered one Indian nation after the other. His arrival coincided with the prophecies of the end times for the native peoples. (It was either a coincidence or else some skillful manipulation of space-time and consciousness by the magicians and wise men.) The ambivalence of the people first enabled Cortés essentially to run over the native towns, since they feared he was a god.
All went as planned until he tried to conquer Tlaxcala, a confederation of Nahua-speaking chiefdoms. Tlaxcala was one of many civilizations in Mesoamerica. It had a capital city, located at the archeological ruins of Cacaxtla, replete with its pyramids and ceremonial centers. They practiced the same religion and customs as the Aztecs. (Tlaxcala today has some of the best-preserved Mesoamerican murals.)
However, the Tlaxcaltecans were not an imperial nation like the Aztecs. The latter set out and conquered all of the surrounding civilizations and subjugated the Mixtec, the Olmec, the Tarascan, the Maya, among others. Tlaxcala, nestled high in the mountains east of Tenochtitlán, was another story. The Tlaxcaltecans maintained their independence and freedom from Aztec hegemony through the use of defensive fortifications and an excellent cadre of warriors, among them the legendary warrior, Tlahuicole.
When he was ultimately captured by the Aztecs, he was offered amnesty by Moctezuma II if he helped conquer the Tarascans, which he did. When the emperor asked him to take his sword against his homeland, he instead chose a ceremonial death for his honor and his country. Chained to a stone, he battled one Aztec warrior after another, killing many until exhaustion made him an easy kill. Tlaxcala never forgot. Today, it is Tlahuicole, not Cuauhtémoc, whom the Tlaxcaltecans revere.
When Cortés approached the borders of Tlaxcala, the council of chiefs, headed by Xicotenga the Elder, debated whether to confront the invaders or surrender. Many were fearful because of the horses. The giant “deer,” they said, became a single creature with the man. But Xicotenga’s son, Xicotenga the Younger, was unconvinced. These were mere men, he argued, and the deer were just animals unknown to them. The warrior argued that if a horse could be killed, then it was not some supernatural creature. Although the Tlaxcaltecans suffered large losses in the battle, Xicotenga killed a horse and turned the tide. Cortés sued for peace. His god charade was over.
The Tlaxcaltecans agreed to ally themselves with Spain on certain conditions, mainly retention of their territory and freedom from servitude and tribute. Spain for the most part honored their end of the contract. They did infringe on some territory, but Tlaxcala basically remained intact. The Tlaxcaltecans, unlike other indigenous peoples, were addressed as Don/Doña; they rode horses, wore boots, and given privileges reserved for Spaniards.
In 1591, the Spanish Crown asked the Tlaxcaltecans to colonize the hostile north and help subdue the local nomadic peoples. On July 9th, 1591, four hundred families, my grandmother’s forebears among them, departed northward. Every year, the people of Tlaxcala commemorated this event in the Festival of the Parting of 400 Families.
My grandmother’s people settled in the vicinity of Saltillo, Nueva Extremadura (Coahuila) and founded the town of San Esteban de Tlaxcala, and later she’d say that her family still had ancestral lands there. In 1800, a group of Tlaxcaltecans moved north, to the Villa of San Andres (Nava, Coahuila). The Villa de San Andres was first founded in 1753 but failed to take root and was essentially abandoned. In the waning days of Colonial Mexico, the Spanish crown determined to re-establish the town, most likely as a defensive settlement against the war-like, horse-riding Chichimecas (Apaches and Comanches, et al.).
The Tlaxcatecan forces served as auxiliaries in the War of Conquest. Source: Lienzo de Tlaxcala via Wikipedia
While investigating my family’s genealogy, I’ve recovered some of the names of Felicitas Peña’s Tlaxcatecan ancestors among them Don Ygnacio Ramos and Doña Juana Balbina. (One of Felicita’s Spanish ancestors, Juan Peña was also an early settler of Nava.) Spanish and Tlaxcaltecans settlers, besides land, were given a starter kit of sorts, consisting of a wagon, beast of burden, hardware, seed, and cattle. They were to provide their own weapons and horses and serve in the king’s militias.
Many of the men were killed by Chichimecas in ambushes and pitched battles. I’ve come across pages listing the dead of these battles. Some of the descriptions of the corpses are graphic accounts of mutilations and desecration of the dead. The nomadic Indians were fierce, brutal, and determined warriors, far from helpless victims of contemporary myths. Needless, to say, there was no love lost between the settlers and the Chichimecas. But, unlike others who, remembering the stories of their ancestors’ Indian wars as if they themselves had lived them, Felicitas never hated other Indians.
I always remember her being kind and generous to the Kickapoo whenever they---the Kickapoo--migrated back and forth from their land, Nacimiento, in Múzquiz and their lands in Texas. She was never openly affectionate or given to weeping like my grandfather who would cry if he sang a sad song. She had the taciturn manner of her native ancestors and retreated into her silences.
Sometimes, when she’d hear of another’s suffering, she’d murmur, “Pobre,” and seemed to drift back into the solitude of the forgone centuries of life in the harsh and unforgiving Extremadura, a land where time lost its significance, and all of the past seemed as if it were yesterday. Her own mother died at 28, and shortly thereafter her father was murdered. Shaped by sorrow, she is one of my heroes. From her I learned that despite hardship and violence, our hearts are still capable of love.
This all brings back the popular Mexican narratives. The fallacy of the Mexican (and, by extension, the Chicano) narrative is that it posits that our mestizaje is Aztec based, when it is diverse: Tarascan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Kickapoo, Maya, Otomi, Olmec, Toltec, and so on. The fallacy of all “race” based nationalistic narratives is, in fact, that they ignore the marginalized narratives, histories, and archeological evidence, which confirm that ethnic admixture was the norm.
The Tlaxcaltecans, for example, were a mixture of ancient Tlaxcaltecans, Otomis, and Olmecs. The Spanish were Celtic-Iberians, Phoenicians, Jews, Visigoths, Vandals, Moroccans, Arabs, Basques, Vikings, and Romans. It is fascinating to know our origins and take pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. However, other peoples, too, are equally enthused and proud of their ancestors.
This factor of the human condition being equal regardless of our origins, we (I hope) are entering into a new era, one that moves away from identity politics. Myself, I identify with classic critical thinkers of all backgrounds who love exploring new ideas and are inclined to deconstruction of conventional constructs. These are my people of choice. As for our biological identity, the empirical data reveals that there’s only one raza cósmica: Homo sapiens. Felicitas Peña understood this from the collective memory and wisdom of her people.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a retired Adjunct Professor at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, California, is author of several novels important to American literature, including Doctor Magdalena, The Stillness of Love and Exile, and Chronicles of Air and Dreams, and a children's book, The Adventures of Wyglaf the Wyrm. Copyright Rosa Martha Villarreal, 2017.