Under the American Dirt lies racism, white supremacy, stereotyping By Armando Rendón
After reading umpteen articles about the furor and protest over the publication of a truly eponymous book, American Dirt, which convey the critiques by Chicano and Latino writers who literally panned the Dirt, I said to myself, could this recurring nightmare get worse. Well, it has.
The critics and the media in their diatribes against and defenses of the Dirt miss some essential points. The critics rage at the publishing industry, Macmillan/Flatiron Press in particular, the dirty publishers. (Full disclosure: Macmillan Company published my book, Chicano Manifesto, in 1971; it took me 25 years to regain my rights because they wouldn’t reprint it.)
I admit I haven’t read the Dirt—I’ve been too busy reading submissions to Somos en escrito Magazine by established and aspiring writers, e.g., a Chilean-born refugee who had been part of the resistance against the Pinochet regime, a Dominicana whetting her writing chops in Brooklyn where she grew up and still resides, a Chicano muralist from Houston describing the driving energy of his art.
First question: Why would a publisher wish to put into print a novel about a woman fleeing Mexico with her son, hopping a train and traveling thousands of miles, I suppose, when she could have taken an airplane and flown into the U.S. as a visitor? The basic plot has been portrayed in print and film quite beautifully already. Why would anyone consider this tale, outlandish as it sounds, as a potential blockbuster novel, worth shelling out more than a million bucks to a writer of doubtful credentials—did anyone vet her ability to write other than telenovela drivel?
Because it reinforces the racist narrative that the publishing “industry” has persisted in foisting on the “reading public” going back, as a writer/friend of mine, Roberto Haro, points out in an accompanying essay, to Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the perennial best seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabaña, to depict the bucolic life of Southern slaves. The white-owned editorial houses, prompted by or prompters of white supremacism, are willing heirs apparent of the mythic trope, Manifest Destiny—remember the phrase was coined in 1845 by a journalist, John L. O’Sullivan,” in the July/August issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, in an article titled, “Annexation.” (Thanks to Wikipedia) A year later, the U.S. invaded Mexico, which was in the throes of political and constitutional upheaval, and hardly in a position to defend itself against a new imperialist force flexing its muscles against a weaker neighbor.
The book is wrongly characterized as a Mexican migrant story--the mother must be an asylum seeker, running from a sure death. Yet it apparently was intended to appeal to a white American reader, eager to find solace in the victorious valor of a simple Mexican mother who against all odds reaches the haven of America’s shore, at the northern side of the Rio Grande.
Someone whom I considered a smart self-promoter and shrewd business mogul, Oprah Winfrey, falls for the trap, hook, line and stinker. In spite of all her wealth, Winfrey couldn’t find some noted scholars among the many who have already written about, and LIVED the experience of being a Mexican American, or an immigrant from Mexico.
The basic issue is that such a book crams us, Mexican Americans, and for that matter, all brown people, into the pigeon hole marked, Migrants. As indigenous-hispanic-african origin people, we have a heritage that extends back 10, 15 thousand years. We are not migrants—that’s the whole point. I go as far as to say that the people who come across the border are not migrants either. They are simply doing what our ancestors did for thousands of years before settling down in Anahuac or Aztlán: moving north or south for a better life, for greener pastures, more abundant waters, safety from attack by marauders. What sensible people did from time immemorial to survive.
Yet, publishers, politicians, pundits and pliable pen pushers persist in keeping the lie alive. Should we chastise the author for accepting a seven figure advance? No. The writer has probably laughing up her sleeve at Macmillan since they made the offer. Get your money back, Macmillan!
Should we raise hell with the publishing industry, and with their coterie of enablers, racists, white supremacists, and the impotent moralists who condone them? Should we insist on retribution: jobs, contracts, 10 free copies of a book when it’s released, guaranteed book tours, and glossy bookmarks. Fact is, the white controlled publishing industry is not going to change.
Macmillan’s mistake was to think that it could buy relevant and evocative literature and make more millions off such a book by using as the common denominator the false narrative that publishers, film makers, television producers and networks have been peddling for decades.
My final point, for now, requires more full disclosure from me, as editor of Somos en escrito. We have established our own imprint, Somos en escrito Literary Foundation Press, as a venue where Chicanan and Latino writers can be assured to get an honest and empathetic review of their writings that they would like to see in print.
Two weeks ago, we published our first book, InsurgentAztlán, by Ernesto Mireles, which brings liberation literature up to the present from a Chicanan perspective. We have another in the queue and hopefully with more published works will continue to advance the cause of Latino literature.
The final missing point is that I firmly believe that more and more, our writers – Americans of Mexican and other indigenous-hispanic-african origin: novelists, poets, essayists, memoirists, historians, and philosophers will turn to their own resources and help build up raza publishing houses. That probably sounds self-serving but as long as I can I intend to publish the best and most relevant writings among the powerful writers that are among us. Ultimately, Chicanan Latino writers and publishers will achieve what the white-owned publishers have no intention of doing, that is, enable all Americans and the world to recognize our literature as American literature.
A publishing enterprise should be organic to any ethnic community, but in turn, every ethnicity should support, demand more and better obras literarias from its home-grown presses. We Mexican Americans, and I specify Mexican Americans because as a Chicano I can only speak from my roots, must rely on our own economic resources, our own educators, and our own principles to instill a hunger for knowledge and advancement of our culture. Thus, we have to see an issue such as the tierra book for what it is, as the big publishers doing us dirt, as a distraction, and a rabbit hole that leads nowhere. Armando Rendón is founder/editor of Somos en escrito Magazine and Chairman of the Somos en escrito Literary Foundation. He is author of Chicano Manifesto, 1971, 1996; of five young adult novels including the award-winning, The Adventures of Noldo and his Magical Scooter, 2013-2017; and The Wizard of the Blue Hole, 2018.
Thoughts on American Dirt When Others Say They Know Better! By Roberto Haro
I confess! I have not read Jeanine Cummins book, American Dirt (Flatiron Books: 2019). A good friend, a retired librarian, shared the book with me. Her reasons for doing so intrigued me. “Roberto, this book is so flawed it makes me want to cry,” she told me. “And the author should have read your book (Camino Doloroso AuthorHouse: 2008) to really understand the life experiences of migrants from Mexico.”
I read only the sections and passages she underscored, and it was enough at that time to convince me she was right. Now I think a more detailed reading is necessary. Why? Because there are so many controversial issues related to the author, the story, its publication and marketing.
Minority writers in American have long endured a process of benign neglect by scholars and the publishing industry. White authors were always favored to write stories, books and novels about the experiences of minority groups in our country. Blacks, Asians and Latino writers were seldom considered or selected by the major agents, editors and gatekeepers in the publishing and bookselling world to tell their stories. Instead, the publishing industry turned to whites like Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and Cid Rickett Sumner (Quality) to depict the black experience in America. To their credit, American librarians did know about minority writers and as far back as the late 1930s collected their works and tried to disseminate them, often at the expense of harsh criticisms and threats from intolerant groups and agents provocateurs.
The Civil Rights Movement changed some of the attitudes about minority writers and their writings. Some American scholars, minority writers and informed laypersons began to discuss James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and their writings on college campuses and at library sponsored book talks. And a few like the brilliant academic Ronald Takaki, then at the University of California at Berkeley, blended so eloquently academic and literary modalities to promote the role of minorities in American history. But the American book industry has been very slow to change. Book agents and especially gate keepers in the employ of major publishers have their favorites and seldom bother to look elsewhere for new ideas and stories about the experience of minority immigrants. Gatekeepers! Who are they? They are the editors and people responsible for selecting talent and stories for publication at the major presses. And most of these gatekeepers are out of step when it comes to identifying minority writers with important perspectives and stories about people of color in American history.
Consequently, self-publishing has become an important tool for many minority writers to share their stories and ideas. Two very talented and award winning Latinx writers, Maria Nieto and Michael Nava have used self-publishing to share their works. What a pity that the major book publishers have not selected them to express unique experiences and well-crafted writing for a very large audience of American readers. The same is true with most immigrant writers from Africa, Asia and the Americas. Instead, the publishing industry turns to “safe” and “established” writers who I will not name. But as the prize winning musical “West Side Story” reveals, we tacitly accept the ideas of creative artists like Leonard Bernstein about Puerto Ricans even if almost all the actors are not Latinx.
“I share your pain,” is a common expression used by people wanting to be, or appear to be, sympathetic to the experience of minorities in American. It is not, however, a substitute for experiencing the effects of discrimination and marginalization in this country, conditions that continue to this day.
Therefore, a talented writer like Sherman Alexi can express so candidly and engagingly his stories about Native Americans on and off the reservation. And it is why authors like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan have provided such important insights about the Asian experience in our country and become inspirational for other writers.
While the author of American Dirt may be sympathetic to the conditions faced by Mexican immigrants, there are parts in her book that fail to adequately express the challenges involved. Moreover, the research undertaken to prepare this book is suspect, and leaves the informed reader asking questions that demand more than just compassionate commentary.
An overlooked, but talented writer, Arturo Islas wrote The Rain God, an impressive story about the cultural duality involved in a Mexican American family in El Paso, Texas. Islas received his degrees from Stanford University and before his death inspired so many Latinx and others to consider what it was like to come from another country and live in two worlds at the same time. But unfortunately, these are lessons unlearned, especially when there is little appetite for the publishing industry to consider profit only. So, the ideas and perspectives of writers like Islas remain whispers on the wind. Cummins, more than anyone else, should be listening to the zephyrs that carry the voices of Latinx writers.
Among those that bear some responsibility for the criticisms that revolve around American Dirt are book critics. Even the august New York Times has been remiss when it comes to minority writers. Its critics and others continue to walk the safe path and “stick to the headliners” when it comes to minority writers, especially Latinx writers.
Most literary critics live safely in protected environments associated with bastions of the media that seldom take the time to learn the truths about existing in the environments populated by marginalized immigrants and minorities. It’s a harsh and gritty world in which so many of us, myself included, have endured, and not one easily understood let alone appreciated by people who say they care about us, but don’t really.
Along comes a writer with little or no experience about the challenges too many Latinx domestic born and immigrants suffer and shares a contrived account with a gullible publishing establishment. The story is one that has been told before, but never widely disseminated because the writer was from a marginalized group in our society therefore invisible. But there is profit in such a story. And so, the book industry plays it to a selective receptive group of influential people who want the story told but are unaware of or discount the distress signals.
Early supporters of American Dirt are reconsidering some of their favorable statements. The harsh criticisms by many of the book’s detractors ventilate a frustration that results from some of what I’ve mentioned above, and in many cases that important sources of human experience and information were not considered. Distinguished Latinx scholars at UCLA and other major universities have much to share about American Dirt and what the books should say. They need to be heard and their voices added to the winds that must change the attitudes and behavior of people in our country.
There are several exemplary groups doing highly commendable work to promote the literary expression of the Latinx experience in America. I will mention two, Latino 247 Media Group, and the online Latino literary magazine Somos en escrito. Kirk Whisler is the driving force behind the success of the Latino 247 Media Group. Its purpose is to promote Latino literary expression and draw attention to the rich body of writings prepared and being prepared by mainly Latinx authors. It has annual, rigorous competitions to recognize and reward Latinx writers for their stories.
The International Latino Book Awards is a critically important source of recognition for writings by and about Latinos. It serves to inform a wide audience about impressive and well-developed stories about Latinx experiences and lives in America and elsewhere. There is much to appreciate in what Kirk Whisler and others at Latino 247 Media Group are doing.
I encourage anyone interested in this laudable venture to visit their website at Latino 247 Media Group and learn about the variety of supportive efforts and activities they sponsor and promote to enhance the lives of Latinx folks. Somos en escrito is an impressive online Latino literary magazine. It is the brainchild of the indefatigable Armando Rendón, a noted scholar and writer in his own right. Armando has developed Somos en Escrito to be a significant source of Latinx writings, criticisms and perspectives.
The magazine identifies new and established Latinx talent and engages scholars, writers and informed laypersons to share their thoughts and experiences about the Latinx role in American history. The magazine provides its participants an important platform on which to discuss the many cultural and literary development that identify the different Latinx communities in this nation and the diverse interfaces that have resulted.
There are other groups in America that have been developed in different fields to examine and disseminate well-conceived, critical insights into the Latinx experience. But in the areas of Latino literary expression, the Latino 247 Media Group and Somos en escrito are innovative, impressive and highly significant standard bearers. I wish we had more like them.
While some may condemn the writer and her book, American Dirt, I think there are positive outcomes that should result. While not intended, but nevertheless a significant consequence, Jeanine Cummins has triggered an interest in learning about preparing a story about the immigrant experience in America. The limitations in the book serve to generate discussions about that experience and how to write it. Moreover, it has stimulated a call for influential media personalities like Oprah Winfrey to reconsider factors used in hyping a book like American Dirt. It will also beg important questions about the perspectives and decisions by American publishers, book critics and literary agents over books that profess to tell the stories of Latinx immigrants in America. I hope all these people, and so many more, heed the whispers of the wind.
Roberto Haro, after a remarkable career as a university professor and a senior university executive, in retirement has so far written 12 historical novels set in World War I, the Mexican Revolution, and early 20th century Los Angeles. Several of his works have received awards for literary excellence. Roberto, who writes under the pseudonym Roberto de Haro, shares an occasional essay on writing in Somos en escrito in his own persona.
WITHOUT RESERVATION OR PASSPORT, THE NEXT ROUND IS OURS.
"...Are not remarks such as 'the poet has few readers' or 'who understands poetry?' merely profane, let us say technical? There is nothing contemptible in them. But who could confuse book promotion with the communitarian duty of poetry?" Paul Chamberland, The Courage of Poetry
I volunteer with a small but dedicated non-profit group, MARCH, Inc. that has helped dozens of Latino, Chicana/o and Native Americans get their first poetry books published in the past 20 years. Most of our books are sold at readings or through "special order." Outside of Illinois, we have Small Press Distribution in California and the major book jobbers (Baker & Taylor, etc.) to handle our titles. I suspect most of the small press poets sell their work pretty much in the same manner.
As a novice editor in 1981, I worked with the late William Oandasan, Native American (Ukono'um /Yuki) poet on our first three poetry chapbooks: Beside theWichita for Comanche poet and artist Lonnie Poco, Akewa is a Woman for Argentinian immigrant Beatrice Badikian and Saturn Calling for second-generation Chicano Ken Serritos. Each chapbook had printed quantity runs of 1,000. Shortly after the books' completion, Oandasan moved to California. I knew if we were going to continue publishing poetry, I would have to start examining how others made a go at it.
None of our members had experience as part of an academic literary project, cultural arm of a political group or private commercial endeavor. We learned about publishing "by the seat of our pants." Fortunately, I kept in direct correspondence with a cadre of Chicano small press publisher/writers such as Maize editors Alurista and Xelina at el Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego; poets Mia and Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo of San Antonio, Texas, who published a monthly cultural tabloid Caracol; Denver-area Abelardo "Lalo" Delgado, a pioneer performance poet and self-publishing master who used a typewriter, photocopier and stapler to print his instant barrio collectibles; and San José, California-based poet/publisher Lorna Dee Cervantes with her Mango Press. Legend has it that Cervantes started publishing on July 4th, 1976 in a former farmworker's camp kitchen with help from her co-editors, Orlando Ramirez, Adrian Rocha and Chicano Chapbook Series' heavy-hitter Gary Soto.
The work those creative individuals had done inspired me to join MARCH, Inc. (el movimiento artistico chicano) as its poetry editor. In 1989, I organized our chapbook anthology Emergency Tacos: Seven Poets Con Picante which was released after group members Beatrice Badikian, Sandra Cisneros, Carlos Cortez, Cynthia Gallaher, Margarita Lopez-Castro, Raúl Niño and myself had performed five years' worth of live readings at our monthly venues around Chicago. In less than a year, most copies were sold and my desire to build a small press was vitalized.
Circumstances placed me in the role as the editor-in-chief, or, more realistically, the guy who sweated the manuscript details from proofreading, style and design, obtaining bar code registration, assigning ISBN & Library of Congress info, placing newspaper and magazine ads, sending out review copies, writing press releases, planning parties and, of course, dealing with boring but necessary details like finding cheap but good printers, mailing lists, paying bills, placing bulk orders for beverages, picking up weekly mail orders, filling them, and all other essential tasks tied to publishing and promotions.
All of this was done after daily work hours, at night after my kids were in bed, and all for no salary, no moolah, nada but the glory of saying that here, too, in Chicago, the poetry of indigenous people could be seen and heard.
Now a good decade later I feel I must "warn" the aspiring Chicana/o poet who wishes to publish a book of poetry. Realize, few of your fellow Chicano/Latinos might ever read your book, and with bookstores you could be disappointed. There's reason to believe that most of your readers would not be fellow Chicanos, Latinos, or Mexicans. While there's clearly a huge untapped domestic book market and an emerging middle-class Mexican readership, few poets are able to make contact. For starters, consider how rare it is to find chain or independent bookstores with a fair representation of Chicano literature. For the past nine years I've visited cities across Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico, Texas, Wisconsin, and the Republic of Mexico giving poetry readings to promote my books Coyote Sun, Latino Rainbow, and Armadillo Charm. Half of my presentations were staged at public libraries and universities, a quarter at art galleries, parks, street fairs, bars, coffee houses, and a quarter at book stores. As a bibliophile, I frequently seek out books at street fairs and shops. I almost always head first to their poetry offerings. From the look of it, Chicanos aren't in big demand and, even worse, the book store owners know next to nothing about our authors. Unless you're extremely fortunate to get with the right agent to land you a contract with a New York or East Coast publisher for your autobiography, essays, fiction, or other writings, your poetry will have a hard time receiving much attention.
Not to be dissuaded by those factors, some poets like former Jesuit priest Trinidad Sánchez, Jr., author of Why Am I So Brown?, has proven to the world that if you are determined you can make your poetry book a successful venture both financially and socially. But don't think success can happen unless you devote many waking hours per day on the phone, fax, internet, e-mail, writing old-fashioned letters, handing out fliers, business cards, cold-calling various venues, sending out review copies, making tape cassettes and video tapes, appearing on radio or television stations at odd hours of the morning and thanking the hosts and producers as if they had just featured you on prime time news, hand deliver book orders to speak directly with book store staff, you allow your books to be placed on consignment in the lobbies of hotels, art galleries, Texas ice houses, as well as the typical cultural spots, then you might reap some of the fame poets seek for their efforts. To be known, you'll be willing to organize a weekly reading series in out-of-the way dives or monthly gatherings in public libraries or at least poetry readings at some place poets can hear each other and smell one another's secondhand smoke. You should also be willing to do the leg work to publicize it to every single news outlet, from the Sunday church bulletin to paid ads in the "Book Section" of the Sunday newspaper. In addition, you'll be willing to fly, drive, or take the bus to tiny hamlets to read before intimate audiences of eleven, before going to sleep in a drafty room. Then, and only then, maybe you, too, can see your book go into five printings in less than seven years, with little paid advertising, no paid public relations staff, only urban guerilla flexibility of being able to pick up and move to a new town and do it all over again.
Could it be that most Chicana/o poets aren't really hungry for raza readers? Chicanos should be clear-eyed that their book(s) may never enter a book store unless it's a "special order." That means, better get your primos to call the joint and request copies. If there is anything resembling a book store, it's essential that you attempt to interest the owners in your book. There are numerous other places or organizations that might be interested in seeing your book. We all need to make direct visits and appeals to get cooperation. Remember, we are still in the early stages of general acceptance of our literature by the public in general, not to mention our raza.
Here's an example: in Denver, Colorado there's a magnificent multi-level book store called Tattered Cover. After checking its extensive poetry selections back in the Fall of 1990, I counted only four Chicano poets to choose from. Ray Gonzalez' work was available, due in a large part to his role as coordinator for an in-store poetry series and his Bloomsbury Review poetry editor role. The other three writers were literary giants Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and Alurista. That's four out of hundreds who collectively had two hundred titles that were in-print at the time. I thought it was poorly stocked and I let the poetry buyer know that local writers such as Abelardo "Lalo" Delgado, Manuel Ramos, Guillermo “Bill” Lazo, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzalez, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and others could be invited to have their books seen. The woman in charge of poetry took my list and thanked me. In fact, a few weeks later she ordered a couple of copies of my book. As far as other authors' titles published by other presses, I don’t know what else was ordered.
In nearby Boulder, home to both university and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, their book stores carried some Native American, African American, lots of Beat-generation and Bukowski poetry, 19th and 20th century immortals like Dickinson, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Eliot, but again, no Chicano poetry or fiction. I thought Denver and Boulder would have been better places to obtain Chicano literature than Milwaukee or Chicago, but they were not.
Having taught high school English for five years and creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago for nearly seven years, I have observed that not much, if any, Chicano literature is ever offered to Latino and non-Latino students. There's little exposure to the hundreds of titles Chicanos or U.S. Latinos have published since 1969, and that has to change.
Being part Native American Indian, I find it even rarer to read contemporary Indian poetry or fiction outside of a multicultural anthology for undergraduates. There are only a handful of publishing companies owned and operated by Mexican Americans or Latinos, and believe me, they struggle to reach an audience. How many independent publishing presses/companies are owned and operated by Latino or Chicanos, and are not appendages to white-run Boards of University Regents and/or progressive Euro-Americans? As the cliché goes, you could count them on one hand and have fingers left over that have the organizational skills and distribution to make their titles marketable that are truly independent. Among Chicano/Latino poetry publishers, regardless of being recipients of academic financial support, grants ,or maverick and private capitalists, my latest count includes: one in Miami, two in Houston, two in San Antonio, one in Albuquerque, and another in New Mexico; and, surprisingly, one in Detroit, three in Chicago, at least six in New York City, one in Arizona, one in Colorado, and maybe ten in California. In Massachusetts until the mid-nineties there was one great journal IMAGINE but not a small press run by poet Tino Villanueva.
What about the rest of the United States? I strongly doubt there's anything resembling a Chicano/Latino poetry press outside these numbers. If anyone reading this essay can offer me names to the numbers, I'd greatly appreciate it.
As far as attracting sales from middle class members of our urban and suburban Latino communities, our small presses have almost no sustained experience except through the occasional library book display, Hispanic Heritage month event or maybe a rare newspaper article or Internet mention. Since I mentioned Hispanic, the newsstand-distributed Hispanic magazine has at least a couple of book titles reviewed in each issue. That's better than what most magazines are doing for us. Then there's the National Public Radio (NPR) program "Latino USA," which occasionally interviews Chicano writers. Does any of this translate into book purchases by Latina/o, Chicana/o professionals who can well afford to purchase our books?
For the most part, if a Latino or non-Latino buys a poetry book it will likely be by a poet who has published a work of fiction in English with a mainstream publisher such as Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc. Even if the poor poet's books are on the remainder table after a few months, such a poet might fare better than those of us who get strictly consignment basis sales, occasional public readings and enjoy the rare library order.
In general, across the country poetry sells sluggishly for all but the "magic" 30 poets. Reading this, you might agree that apparently no one makes a living from writing poetry. Half of the "magic 30" are dead or nearing their chronological limits. The others are beneficiaries of major social/political events or are part of the Western Canon academic list.
According to researcher James D. Cockcroft, author of Latinos in the Making of the United States, California is home to a third of all U.S. Latinos, Texas has a fifth of all Latinos, and there's a tenth in New York. Florida is home to seven percent of all Latinos and there are also large concentrations in Illinois, New Jersey, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, in that order. Most Latinos, mainly Mexicano/Chicanos, number close to five million in the greater Los Angeles area. Three million Latinos, chiefly of Caribbean origin, live in New York City; one million in Miami (many Cuban, Central and South Americans); and San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston each have populations nearing the one million mark. Two and a half dozen smaller cities are home to more than 100,00 Latinos. The Latino population is growing and getting attention as collective consumers. Multinational corporations seek (particularly as the U.S.) ethnic a demographic shift from minority to majority in the foreseeable future. Recently, author Junot Diaz, boxer Oscar De La Hoya, and singer Shakira appeared on Newsweek's July 15, 1999 cover. That should be a clear signal to Chicano/Latino authors and publishers that it appears there's an audience somewhere among the current 35 million U.S. Latinos, 16 million of which are Chicanos/Mexicanos. I doubt if there's more than 250,000 bilingual souls who have ever been exposed to any part of our collective body of literature issued since the United States seized half of Mexico back in 1848.
If our own people don't start supporting our literature, could its fate be similar to what happened to jazz? "Cool or hip" white intellectuals have became the best jazz collectors, the true majority consumers of an essentially urban African American musical expression. This situation is beginning to happen with our literature, especially when you consider just how dependent most Chicano writers are on (Anglo) academic largess to keep them in print. The Anglos make up the majority of the book reviewers, English professors, book buyers for national chains, acquisition librarians, even the hosts at the venues where poetry can be enjoyed. Without active Anglo assistance, we Chicana/o "cultural workers" would have to be vastly better organized on our own behalf, Chicanos working with Chicanos, to gain an audience among nuestra gente. I ask Chicano readers, if we are ever to have self-determination, we must start investing in our own projects and less on "Book of the Month Club" deals.
Does it retard us or "hurt" us that non-Mexicans/Latinos are participating in the various stages of writing, publishing, distribution, archives, performing, or noting us with a business-card size book review? Have we been colonized by the Anglos for so long that only if they embrace our literature, acknowledge our writers, invite our poets to their institutions, seminars, poetry workshops and include us in their "national" newspapers, discussions, organizations, that finally we will admit we just might have something of value to offer?
At the same time, I just don't know what's on the reading tables of most Chicanos/Latinos. They probably have the same materials most Euro-Americans have access to; copies of TV Guide, Reader's Digest, a local newspaper, one of the weekly news magazines, then something by Stephen King, Anne Rice, Tom Clancy, maybe an old school book or Bible. I want to change that to include writers' books from A as in Anaya to Z as in Zamora.
The average number of copies that a small or university press will publish per printing is one thousand. Many presses have an average run of 500 as their base and one thousand copies tops. What sets the limit is concern about book sales. On the plus side, poetry has a "radioactive half-life" of many years which allows it to sell for a while longer than fiction which quickly ripens and rots as the flavor-of-the-month changes. See for yourself. Go to an average bookstore and you'll find the usual suspects: the same Chicano/Latino literature titles on the shelves that have been there for years. Who are the usual suspects?
Rodolfo Anaya, after publishing for 25 years, is finally getting much deserved national recognition in the past six years; Sandra Cisneros (the most popular Latina poet, canonized by high school teachers for her House on Mango Street); Ana Castillo (has slowly developed a cult following and mystery fan club; she's about to release a children's book, but for now she's Aztlan's theoretical Xicana), the ubiquitous Gary Soto, why, the man's a cottage industry for all ages and genres, just check his web site. Then maybe you'll find a one of three New Directions books by New Mexican Jimmy Santiago Baca, or one of the many thoughtful anthologies edited by meditative poet Ray Gonzalez. There's even a chance for a stray title from the pioneers in Latino mass marketing, the Houston-based Arte Publico Press. As far as Mexicano/Chicanos, that's it, unless there's a local (loco) figure who manages to persuade the store manager to stock a few copies of his or her work.
Not long ago, if you sought out "Latino" literature titles you would be immediately directed to the south-of-the-border literary heroes such as: Argentina's Borges, Colombia's Garcia-Marquez, Mexico's Paz, Chile's Neruda, possibly Peru's Vallejo, and occasionally to international border jumpers Isabel Allende of Chile and the versatile Mexican Carlos Fuentes. Of recent vintage there's Mexico's Laura Esquivel with her Like Water for Chocolate, and anything by the celebrated Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos. U.S. born and raised Latino authors remain invisible. It's been thirty years since the Chicano movement gathered in Denver to spread the vision of a self-determinate Aztlán to the nation's barrios, and forty years since Doubleday released José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho. Where are we in terms of literary visibility? This is what I've been asking. As we enter a new century, are we going to remain at the margins? Look for signs that we are coming into our own as we are flying deep in cyberspace on the www. Brown Pride. com site, in your face as one of the California Taco Shop poets, or with local state arts councils recognizing we can win grants. One thing is for certain, there are young raza readers and writers gathering across campuses and communities to make the 21st century vastly more raza-friendly for our elementary school children who will enjoy their first poems and stories from books published by Latinos.
To see just how far we have to go, pick up magazines like Poets & Writers, American Poetry Review, or Poetry magazine and you'll see, season after season, that Chicanos and most Latinos (as well as Native Americans) are not mentioned as workshop leaders, presenters at major readings, publishing new books, or winners of state, local, or national grants and awards. Display ads I've seen featuring books of poetry by Chicanos or Native Americans in any of the journals are rare.
How do we explain these omissions? Latinos and Chicanos don't read? They don't speak English? They're too poor? They lack the proper documentation to share their poetic insights on the web with the dominant population?
Add what's being said from experienced small press publishers about the rising production and mailing costs over the past few years and you have multi-faceted barriers for distributing poetry. One well-meaning barrier is when book stores will only take our books on consignment. Why? With a fiction-driven reading market, Chicano/Mexican poets are almost invisible and don't sell. Some non-Latinos feel there's too much Spanish in the works and therefore are turned off from reading a book with an untranslated Spanish word on every other page.
Is there a way to crack the code? Write a novel, get great reviews, tour the country, give special attention to doing the English and Spanish print and radio circuit. Once people know you as a fiction writer, break out your best poetry and watch it piggyback into the libraries-personal, municipal and academic.
Have I followed my own advice? How could I? Being a "successful poet" means being pleased that out of the annual $30 billion generated from books sales in the United States, that if you make one thousand dollars on your book, you've done a solid bit of outreach or marketing. My publisher and compañero Luis J. Rodriguez said as far as some members of the audience knows all he has ever written is Always Running and that his three poetry collections are completely unknown to these readers. Yet, his second poetry book The Concrete River has sold eight thousand copies, due in part to its connection to Always Running which is published with Curbstone Press.
On average the best known of the Chicana/o poets are highly localized voices heard by a select audience in certain parts of towns, or maybe a few cities. As far as Chicana/os are specifically concerned perhaps ten published poets are in the national "limelight."
Why so few? Just as most people on earth today have never made a phone call, there are millions of Chicanos or Latinos who have never read a book by someone of their own ethnic heritage. Is it really, as one cantankerous bookseller explained as to the reason why he carried only a half-dozen titles by Chicanos on his book shelves, "Mexicans and Latinos don't buy books because they just don't read!"
I was offended by the man's strong comment, and I questioned the rows of books set up for African Americans and American Indians, which were substantial. I asked if he could really tell the ethnicity of his patrons. Were all his book sales of Native American literature made exclusively to Native people? He said he couldn't verify the ethnic or racial backgrounds of his customers, but he was certain Mexicans didn't by books (what, with pesos?) from his centrally located, downtown Chicago bookstore.
Nearly ten years later, I don't want to come to the same "conclusion" concerning the Latino/Mexican appetite for books. After having an extraordinary relationship over the past 20 years in promoting Chicano/Latino and Native American poets, I have witnessed only mild interest by the growing numbers of Latino non-academic professionals towards the likes of award-winning poet/writers such as Alma Luz Villanueva, Bernice Zamora, Evangelina Vigil-Pinon, Nina Serrano, Carmen Tafolla, Angela de Hoyos, Rosemary Catacalos, Lucha Corpi, Helena Maria Viramontes, Teresa Palomo Acosta, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherríe Moraga, Naomi Quinonez, Demitria Martinez, Pat Mora, and many others. I lament the loss of raza writers that have died: Arturo Islas, José Montalvo, Ricardo Sánchez, José Antonio Burciaga, Jim Sagel, Reimundo "Tigre" Perez, Tomás Rivera, Heriberto Terán, Sabine R. Ulibarri, Ken Serritos, William Cortes Oandasan and others.
I hope that they may continue to receive homage in retrospect for their creative contributions in both sharing our literature and inventing it. I wonder if the dozens of poets and writers still living from the generation that began publishing books between 1959 to 1979, such as Tino Villanueva, José Montoya, Nephtali de León, Juan Felipe Herrera, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzalez, Alurista, Raul Salinas, Abelardo "Lalo" Delgado, Jesus "el flaco" Maldonado, Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Sergio Elizondo, Carlos A. Cortez, Carlos Morton, and Luis Omar Salinas to name but a few, will ever enjoy a wider acceptance of their books as seen in school reading curriculums to the daily reading selections poetry lovers make. The answers will be found in the collective response we as the poets or friends of Chicano/Latino poetry make in the next decade.
My 15-year editor's role in volunteered slavery has allowed me to see over a dozen books with initial runs of 1,000 copies get published. I've enjoyed helping an essentially "unknown" Indian or Chicano/Latino poet with primarily Chicago connections get a chance to demonstrate that along the "third coast" we do have some talent. From the responses in applause and sales, I would say it's been worth it. Yes, for the most part it has provided us many opportunities to get our poetry seen and heard.
While some MARCH Abrazo Press poets are selling copies from their first runs, others' books have gone into several printings. Some books have won awards, while others have remained "invisible" with few reviews, book sales or readings. But where's the rub, what should be considered "successful" in terms of poetry, isn't it more about community? A white academic poet may have an entirely different opinion as to what constitutes a successful book than a non-academic Chicano/Indigenous person might. Few poets, living or dead have enjoyed the sales that, let's say, the late Allen Ginsberg did. While Chicanos, Native Americans, or U.S. Latinos may not have any single poetry book as popular as Howl, maybe in the next century, a Chicana may excel and will do those of us from the late twentieth century proud. If she starts with a chapbook, she'll begin her path as other Chicanas before her did, such as former MARCH members Ana Castillo (Otro Canto, 1977) and Sandra Cisneros (Bad Boys, 1980) who marshalled their talents after they each issued chapbooks. Never underestimate the role a humble chapbook can have in launching a poet's presence in literary orbits. If you don't believe it, just get your tortillas together and try it.
Carlos Cumpián was born and raised in Texas and now lives in Chicago. He is the author of the poetry collections Coyote Sun (1990), Armadillo Charm (1996), and 14 Abriles (2010), as well as the children's book Latino Rainbow: Poems About Latino Americans (1995, illustrated by Richard Leonard). His poems have appeared in many anthologies, including Emergency Tacos: Seven Poets con Picante, With a Book in Their Hands: Chicano Readers and Readership Across the Centuries, Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature, Dream of a Word: The Tia Chucha Press Poetry Anthology, and El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry. Cumpián edits March Abrazo Press and teaches high school English in Chicago.