By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
My works on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature and “The Chicano Renaissance” were still years in the future when I first met John Rechy in 1964 at an El Paso, Texas, soiree hosted by Molly Shapiro. Rechy’s novel City of Night had just been published the year before and he was riding a high wave of recognition. I was still two years from becoming a Chicano. And John Rechy would become an important Chicano novelist. That night, however, neither of us thought of ourselves as Chicanos. We were still Mexican Americans or mejicanos as we referred to ourselves then. But the Chicano Movement, percolating since 1960, would change our nomenclature.
Rechy was warm, buoyant, and obviously delighted by the adulation he was receiving from those whom Molly had assembled for that night’s treat. James Baldwin had praised City of Night highly. There was a certain reticence on Rechy’s part not because of those of us who had been invited to hear him speak about his novel, but because that was part of Rechy’s charm. His rugged good looks carried the evening. I admired him with a trace of envy for I fancied myself a writer also.
I had never met a Mexican American novelist. I had no idea of Mexican American writers or, for that matter, Mexican American Literature. But the trove of Mexican American literature was there. Not waiting for me to “discover” it. Just to organize it into a history. Later, in Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971) I created a scaffold for it. Subsequent scholars would bring it to life.
It turned out, John Rechy was among the first of the Chicano novelists in that first decade (1960-1969) of the Chicano era, publishing Numbers in 1967 and This Day’s Death in 1969. The other Chicano novelists of that decade included Fray Angélico Chavez and his novel The Lady from Toledo (1960), Antonio Serna Candelaria with Unscaled Fortress (1966), Floyd Salas with Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967) and What Now My Love? (1969), and Raymond Barrio with The Plum Plum Pickers (1969). That was it.
In 1969, it seemed to me, on the basis of what I was able to find in completing Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, that the novel Pocho was a clear marker in establishing the beginning of the “Chicano Novel” because it dealt explicitly with the origins of the Mexican American experience. That marker was not set in stone. It was just a convenient starting point given the data I had to work with.
I came across the novel Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal in the fall of 1969 when at the urging of Louis Bransford, founding director of Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico, I taught the first course in “Chicano” literature in the country at the University of New Mexico, so I have believed. Pocho had been published by Doubleday in 1959 and quickly went into remainders, not because of its literary merit but because the country was not ready for Chicano literature, even though Mexican Americans had been writing steadily since February 2, 1848, when they went from being Mexicans to being Americans (see “Mexicans and Mexican Americans: Prolegomenon to a Literary Perspective,” Journal of South Texas, Spring, 2005).
Insofar as current research indicates, about a dozen novels were written by Mexican Americans during the period from 1872 to 1959: several by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton and Eusebio Chacon. Included in this group are novels by Daniel Venegas, Aurelio Espinosa, Josefina Niggli, and Américo Paredes’ novel George Washington Gomez dating from 1930 but not published until 1990 by Arte Público Press. We still don’t have a full record of all the novels written (or published either in English or Spanish) by Mexican American writers between 1848 and 1959. Research into those forgotten pages of American literature continues. The University of Houston project on “Recovering the Hispanic Literary History of the United States” is uncovering that trove.
From the perspective of the 21st century and almost five decades of Chicano novels, it’s easier to make historical and critical judgments about Chicano writers and the art of the novel. To begin with, one of the major obstacles in Chicano literature has been one of nomenclature: how does one define “the Chicano Novel”? For example, is Famous All Over Town by Daniel James a Chicano novel since the work deals with the Chicanos of East Los Angeles–its characters are all Chicanos. James passed himself off as Danny Santiago in getting the novel published.
Some Chicano critics dismiss as Chicano novels certain works by Chicano writers because they are not “movement” novels or don’t address the social and/or political issues affecting Chica-nos. For example, in her commentary on the Chicano novel, Carlota Cardenas Dwyer excludes as Chicano novels the works by Villarreal, Rechy, Salas, Barrio and Vasquez on grounds that their novels do not promote a specific social or political issue unequivocally Chicano. Rafael Grajeda excludes the works of Villarreal and Vasquez in his selection of Chicano novels on grounds that “the works do not confront clearly and honestly the implication of their premises,” namely, that the central characters arrive at an understanding and acceptance of themselves as Chicanos.
As a genre, the novel has raised more questions about its literary form and function. There is also the meaning of the word fiction to take into account. What exactly does the word “fiction” mean? When a novel is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable, is that “fiction”?
Origins of the novel as a genre are obscure. And trying to date the novel historically leads us back to the chicken-and-the-egg question about fiction. Though as Northrop Frye argues, the novel should not be constrained by the strictures of fiction. In loose terms we can say that The Decameron is a novel–an episodic novel much the same as Tomas Rivera’s work And the Earth Did Not Part is a fragmentary novel. The structures of the two novels are pretty much the same. But if we allow that The Decameron is a novel, what do we make of The Canterbury Tales? Is it an episodic novel as well? Do purpose and intent help us to ascertain the character of a novel? Henry Fielding conceived the novel as a “comic epic in prose,” a definition that cuts out most novels. To work around the constraints of definition, some works have been called “romances,” a term older than the term “novel”—its shorter form “roman” used in France for the novel.
The word “novel” is a term difficult to define, but in the main it refers to an “extended” work of prose that employs the techniques of fiction: plot, setting, point of view and characterization. As fiction it also employs various approaches associated with fiction–psychological approach, sociological approach, archetypal approach, etc. At large, there are no strict rules for the form and content of the novel. That leaves us pretty much where we started. Let’s consider the following.
Just as the short story is short, so too the novel is long–longer, that is. One could say the novel is an extended short story, but that isn’t quite accurate because the short story is bounded by particular elements of unity that do not inhibit the novel. Analogously, the short story is like a backyard; the novel is a ranch. There’s considerable more room in the novel to tell the story, elaborate more pieces of the story, space to develop character(s), plumb their being(s), exposit relationships, span generations. The novel is a canvas; the short story, a snapshot.
Like people, novels come in all sizes, shapes and forms. While Bocaccio’s Decameron is a series of stories told by narrators hiding out from the plague, the work has been variously identified as a novel. In many ways, the word “novel” is a catch-all term for a variety of prose manifestations. The origin of “the novel” is hard to place, but in English the novel had its beginnings in the early 18th century. In Spain, the novel took root in the 16th century. It took 100 years for the novel to migrate to the United States from England. And given the character of America, the American novel grew self-consciously from the genteel traditions of New England, giving way to novels of social commentary and the amorphous novels of today enveloped in what is called “magical realism.”
Emulating first “the romance,” the American novel evolved through naturalism to realism. After the Civil War, the American novel was regarded as an instrument for social commentary. Richard Chase explains that “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience” (The American Novel and its Tradition, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1957, 1).
Generally, our assessment of American novels has focused on those contradictions and ex-treme ranges of experience. Henry James defined that range of experience as “what happens to us as social creatures” (Ibid. 21). That has been the general canvas of the American novel–what happens to us as social creatures. For this reason American novelists have tended to create in their novels a veri-similitude of the society in which their characters move, patterned in terms of human relationships and the human predicament.
Since 1945 the American novel has tended to reflect the uncertainty and ambiguities of modern life. Some critics of the novel suggest that as a consequence the American novel has become too stylized, too personal. The large vistas of traditional American novels have given way to narrow perspectives and a banality of language, say many critics of the genre. The upshot is that the American novel provides a range of critical assessment, depending on what we think the function of the novel ought to be. Lionel Trilling thought the novel was “a kind of summary and paradigm of our cultural life” (“Art and Fortune” in The Liberal Imagination, 1950).
While there is some controversy about some forms of short fiction–whether a short work is a piece of folklore, a tale or a short story (something more fictive than the novel)—the novel as a genre has raised more questions as a literary form than any other of the literary genres. Discussion of “cataloging” the novel is much like the story that the only thing one can be sure of when the person driving a car in front of you puts his or her hand out the driver’s window to signal a turn in the old-fashioned way is that the window is down. There is, of course, the meaning of the word “fiction.” What exactly does it mean?
In The Four Forms of Fiction, Northrop Frye points out the distinction between fiction as a genus and the novel as a species. Of course, none of this sheds light on what the novel is, except to say that as a species it is not short; otherwise it would be a short story. Few critics would call a short story a short novel.
Is a “novel” still a “fiction” when it is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable?
However the novel may have come into being, we know a lot about its evolution after the Western Renaissance. Generally, though not conclusively, we can place the novel first in Italy, then in Spain, and identify the Spanish influences in the early English novel. In the 19th century, the strongholds of the novel were in France and Russia, giving way to its ascendancy in the United States toward the end of the 19th century and continuing until well into the third quarter of the 20th century. Since World War Two, however, the stronghold of the novel seems to be in Latin America. It’s a genre that migrates with ideas and with the imagination. The current trend of “magical realism” in the novel is of Latin American origin, though that origin springs from the tradition of the fábula (fa-ble) and earlier folklore.
The Chicano novel dates from 1959 with publication of Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal. Already mentioned, there were Mexican American novelists before 1959. By 1969, ten years after publication of Pocho, there were only eight novels published by Chicano writers. In 1970 with publi-cation of Y no se lo trago la tierra by Tomás Rivera, Chicano literature bifurcated along language lines–Chicano works in English and Chicano works in Spanish. These forking paths did not (and do not) signal a philosophical rift between two camps of Chicano writers. It means, rather, that there are some Chicano writers who prefer to write in Spanish or English or are more comfortable in one or the other language. However, many Chicano writers work in both languages, like Rolando Hinojosa or Alejandro Morales, to name but two. This raises again the question of linguistic realities for Chicanos who may be monolingual or bilingual and/or may participate to varying degrees in Chicano English and/or Chicano Spanish. Manifestations of these linguistic realities crop up in all the genres of Chicano literature. The question is: are these linguistic manifestations congruent with the realities of Chicano existence? Or does the language of choice predicate a particular perspective or point of view?
In his essay on “Contemporary Chicano Prose Fiction: Its Ties to Mexican Literature,” Charles Tatum raises an important point in getting at the wellspring of Chicano literature, particu-larly Chicano prose fiction. While Chicano fiction–in this case, the novel– has obvious connections to Mexican literature, it also has obvious connections to American literature. Chicano literature is not simply an extension of Mexican literature in the United States, anymore than it is simply an outcrop of American literature in a distinct region of the country. One can not talk about Chicano writers in the same way one talks about “Southern writers,” say. While both are geographically bound, more or less, the latter is part and parcel of American culture; the former still shares a culture with Mexico. Ultimately, the assessment of the Chicano novel will be in terms it brings to the discussion, much the way Louis Gates talks about Black literature. Which is as it should be.
To avoid the pitfalls of Rolando heading straight toward the “dark tower,” in my commentaries about “the Chicano novel” I use the locution: “Mexican American/Chicano writers and the art of the novel.” In the Chronology that follows, I’m sure I’ve missed some novels. Mea culpa.
Mexican American/Chicano Writers
and the Art of the Novel
Mexican American Fiction and the Beginnings of the Novel
1872 Who Would Have Thought it? by Maria Amparo de Burton
1885 The Squatter and the Don by Maria Amparo de Burton
1892 El Hijo de la Tempestad by Eusebio Chacón (Boletín Popular)
Tras la Tormenta la Calma by Eusebio Chacón (Boletín Popular)
1896 Vicente Silva y sus 40 Bandidos by Manuel C. de Baca
1924 Eustacia y Carlota by Felipe M. Chacón
1928 Las Aventuras de Don Chipote by Daniel Venegas (Arte Público 1984)
1938 Conchita Arguello by Aurelio Espinosa (Macmillan)
1945 Mexican Village by Josephina Niggli (University of North Carolina Press)
1947 Step Down, Elder Brother by Josephina Niggli (Rinehart)
1959 Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal (Doubleday)
The First Chicano Decade: 1960-1969--Early Efforts I
1960 The Lady from Toledo by Fray Angélico Chavez (Academy Guild)
1963 City of Night by John Rechy (Grove Press)
1966 Unscaled Fortress by Antonio Serna Candelaria (Bennett)
1967 Numbers by John Rechy (Grove Press)
Tattoo the Wicked Cross by Floyd Salas (Grove Press)
1969 This Day’s Death by John Rechy (Grove Press)
What Now My Love by Floyd Salas (Grove Press)
The Plum Plum Pickers by Raymond Barrio (Ventura Press)
Afro 6 by Enrique Hank Lopez (Dell)
The Second Chicano Decade: 1970-1979—Early Efforts II
1970 Chicano by Richard Vasquez (Doubleday)
Return to Ramos by Leo Cardenas (Hill & Wang)
1971 Y no se lo Trago la Tierra by Thomas Rivera (Quinto Sol)
Blessing From Above by Arthur Tenorio (West Las Vegas, NM, School Press)
Vampires by John Rechy (Grove Press)
1972 The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Acosta (Straight Arrow Books)
The Fourth Angel by John Rechy (Viking Press)
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (Quinto Sol)
1973 The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Acosta (Straight Arrow Books)
Macho by Edmund Villaseñor (Bantam Books)
Estampas del Valle by Rolando Hinojosa (Quinto Sol)
1974 Peregrinos de Aztlan by Miguel Mendez (Editorial Peregrinos)
Two Ranges by Robert Medina (Bronson)
The Fifth Horseman by Jose Antonio Villarreal (Doubleday)
1975 The Road to Tamazunchale by Ron Aria (West Coast Poetry Review)
Caras Viejas y Vino Nuevo by Alejandro Morales (Joaquin Mortiz)
Come Down From the Mound by Berta Ornelas (Miter)
1976 Nambe--Year One by Orlando Romero (Tonatiuh)
Klail City y sus Alrededores by Rolando Hinojosa (Casa de las Américas)
Below the Summit by Joseph Torres-Metzger (Tonatiuh)
Victuum by Isabela Rios (Diana-Etna)
Heart of Aztlan by Rudolfo Anaya (Justa)
El Diablo en Tejas by Aristeo Brito (Editorial Peregrinos)
The Devil’s Apple Crops by Raymond Barrio (Ventura)
Chicano, Go Home by Tomas Lopez (Exposition Press)
Pachuco Mark by Rudolph Melendez (Grossmount)
1977 Generaciones y Semblanzas by Rolando Hinojosa (Justa)
Memories of the Alhambra by Nash Candelaria (Cíbola Press)
The Waxen Image by Rudy Apodaca (Titan)
Don-Phil-O-Meno si la Marcha by Phil Sanchez (Alamosa)
1978 Fabian no se Muere by Roberto Medina (Bilingual Publications)
The Giant Killer by Richard Vasquez (Manor Books)
Lay My Body on the Line by Floyd Salas (Yardbird Press)
From Common clay by Adalberto Acosta (Maryland Press)
1979 Rushes by John Rechy (Grove Press)
Pelón Drops Out by Celso de Casas (Tonatiuh)
La Verdad sin Voz by Alejandro Morales (Joaquin Mortíz)
Tortuga by Rudolfo Anaya (Justa)
Jambeaux by Laurence Gonzales (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
Letters to Louis by Abelardo Delgado (Tonatiuh)
The Third Chicano Decade: 1980-1989—Later Works
1980 The Aguila Family by Tomas Lopez (Mexican American Publications)
Pachuco by Dennis Rodriguez (Holloway)
1981 Mi Querido Rafa by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
Faultline by Sheila Ortiz Taylor
There are no Madmen Here by Gina Valdes (Maize)
The Last Deal by Laurence Gonzales (Atheneum)
1982 Another Land by Richard Vasquez (Avon)
Rites and Witnesses by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
Not by the Sword by Nash Candelaria (Bilingual Press)
The Healing Ritual by Ricardo Martinez (Tonatiuh)
Portrait of Doña Elena by Katherine Quintana Ranck (Tonatiuh)
1983 Reto en el Paraíso by Alejandro Morales (Bilingual Press)
The Valley by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
El Vago by Laurence Gonzales (Atheneum)
Bodies and Souls by John Rechy (Carroll & Graf)
Three Coffins for Nino Lencho by Armando Rico (Tonatiuh)
1984 Mi Querido Rafa by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
Muerte en una Estrella by Sergio Elizondo (Arte Público)
The Rain God by Arturo Islas (Alexandrian Press)
Clemente Chacón by Jose Antonio Villarreal (Bilingual Press)
Dudes or Duds by Charles Aranda (Carlo Press)
The Legend of La Llorona by Rudolfo Anaya (Tonatiuh)
Adventures of the Chicano Kid by Max Martinez
1985 Leaving Home by Lionel Garcia (Arte Público)
Dear Rafe by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
The Comeback by Ed Vega
Partners in Crime by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
Face by Cecile Piñeda (Penguin)
Inheritance of Strangers by Nash Candelaria (Bilingual Press)
Puppet, Margarita Cota-Cardenas
1986 The Mixquiahuala Letters by Ana Castillo (Bilingual Press)
Trini by Estela Portillo (Bilingual Press)
Claros Varones de Belken by Rolando Hinojosa (Bilingual Press)
El Sueño de Santa María de las Piedras by Miguel Mendez (Univ. Guadalajara)
1987 A Shroud in the Family by Lionel Garcia (Arte Público)
1988 Rainbow’s End by Genaro Gonzalez (Arte Público)
The Brick People by Alejandro Morales (Arte Público)
Death of an Anglo by Alejandro Morales (Bilingual Press)
Delia’s Song by Lucha Corpi (Arte Público)
Schoolland by Max Martinez (Arte Público)
Oddsplayer by Joe Rodriguez (Arte Público)
1989 Marilyn’s Daughter by John Rechy (Viking)
Across the Great River by Irene Hernandez (Arte Público)
The Wedding by Mary Helen Ponce (Arte Público)
Becky and Her Friends by Rolando Hinojosa (Arte Público)
Face of an Angel by Denise Chavez (Arte Público)
Kicking the Habit by Jeanne Cordova (Multiple Dimensions)
The Fourth Chicano Decade: 1990-1999—Fin de Siècle
1990 Hardscrub by Lionel Garcia (Arte Público)
Intaglio by Roberta Fernandez
George Washington Gomez by Américo Paredes (Arte Público)
1992 Eulogy for a Brown Angel by Lucha Corpi
Rain of Gold by Victor Villaseñor (Arte Público)
Albuquerque by Rudolfo Anaya
1993 So Far From God, Ana Castillo (Norton)
In Search of Bernabe by Graciela Limón (Arte Público)
The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz by Manuel Ramos (St. Martins Press)
1994 The Candy Vendor’s Boy by Beatriz de la Garza
The Memories of Ana Calderon by Graciela Limón
Mother Tongue by Demetria Martinez (Bilingual Review Press)
The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña by Dagoberto Gilb
The Ballad of Gato Guerrero by Manuel Ruiz (St. Martins Press)
La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea, Jr. (Dutton)
Dogs from Illusion by Charley Trujillo (Chusma)
1995 Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes
Zia Summer by Rudolfo Anaya
Dr. Magdalena by Rosa Martha Villarreal (TQS)
Carry Me Like Water by Benjamin Alire Saenz (HarperCollins)
1996 Rio Grande Falls by Rudolfo Anaya
Caballero by Jovita Gonzalez & Eve Raleigh
1997 Breaking Even by Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
A Message from the Desert by Rudolfo Anaya
The House of Forgetting by Benjamin Alire Saenz
1999 The Day of the Moon by Graciela Limón (Arte Público Press)
The 21st Century—Millennial Vistas
2001 Loving Pedro Infante by Denise Chavez (Washington Square Press)
2002 Let Their Spirits Dance by Stella Pope Duarte (Harper Collins)
2003 Drift by Manuel Luis Martinez (Picador Press)
2004 Dark Eclipse: Rise of an Era by Christopher M. Salas (One Level Higher)
Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (Macmillan)
2005 Color of Law by Mark Gimenez (Anchor Books)
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Urrea (Little Brown/Time Warner)
Erased Faces by Graciela Limón (Arte Público)
2006 In Perfect Light by Benjamin Alire Saenz (Harper Collins)
Our House on Hueco, Carlos Nicolás Flores (Texas Tech University)
Twist of Fate by Roberto de Haro (Vantage Press)
2007 Their Dogs Came With Them by Helena Maria Viramontes (Atria Books)
2008 The Flowers by Dagoberto Gilb (Grove Press)
If I Die in Juarez by Stella Pope Duarte (University of Arizona Press)
Nymphos of Rocky Flats by Mario Acevedo (Rayo)
The River Flows North by Graciela Limón (Arte Público Press)
Brotherhood of the Light by Ray Michael Baca, (Floricanto Press)
2009 Dead is so Last Year by Marlene Perez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Suzanna by Irene Blea (Floricanto Press)
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca is Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/o and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System-Sul. RossCopyright ©2009 by the author. All rights reserved.