Chicano as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary , is a Mexican-American. Nationalism, as defined by the same publication, is devotion to the interests or particular culture of a particular nation. So by definition, we can infer that Chicano Nationalism is an interest in either the Mexican or American culture by a Mexican American, which is not a very concise definition. Before we can begin to define Chicano Nationalism, we must first define what is it to be a Chicano. In its simplest form, the American Heritage Dictionarys definition of a Chicano is correct, but there is much more to it than being a Mexican-American. It is a realization of ones past, present and future; realizing how far the culture has come, and how far it has yet to go. It is not only living the duality of both being a Mexican and an American, but also the multiplicity of being a descendant from any number of tribes and nationalities of people that have peppered the landscape of North and Central America over hundreds of years. There is no one distinct definition of being a Chicano, but an ever-evolving sense of being that at once combines heritage, personal beliefs, culture, politics and nationality.
Defining nationalism, although not as simple as American Heritage Dictionarys definition, is an easier definition to ascertain. As it refers to the Chicano, nationalism has to do with a strong belief in ones heritage, their homeland, the oppression felt be their people, the belief in the self as a nation, the sense of community, equal rights, and the right to exist and follow ones roots. The concept of Chicano nationalism is one that Chicano writers have expressed their views upon in many ways. With analysis of Lorna Dee Cervantes Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe In The War Between The Races and Corky Gonzales I Am Joaquin the reader will be exposed to two examples from each poem of the key elements of Chicano nationalism. These key elements will provide the reader with a greater understanding of how writers in this period exemplified Chicano nationalism.
Cervantes begins her poem with the lines, In my land, there are no distinctions. The barbed wire politics of oppression have been torn down long ago. The only reminder of past battles, lost or won, is a slight rutting in the fertile lands. This first stanza sets the tone for the poem as Cervantes chooses to take a stand by trumpeting the virtues of her own homeland, rather than downplay the misgivings present in our society. The line In my land, there are no distinctions is an obvious reference to the class structure that is prevalent in our (United States) society. It is this class structure, or modernized caste system, that divides people and puts them in a position to oppress or be oppressed. Hence we have an example of Chicano nationalism in that invariably the Anglos have always risen to power and oppressed those that are on the lower rungs of the caste system, with Chicanos being a prominent member of that group.
To further exemplify this inference of exclusion, we look to Hector Calderon in his essay Chicano Literary Studies Past, Present and Future , where he states, the disparity between the privileged and underprivileged in this countryincluding Chicanos, Mexican-Americans (the term is resurfacing) and millions of other Mexicans and other Latino groupshas never been greater. He further states that There exists, however, the real possibility that some regions of this country, especially in the case of California.will be composed of a ruling minority and an underprivileged majority. Calderon is stating that Anglo oppression, though not nearly as blatant as it was in the mid to late 1900s is just as prevalent, if not more prevalent today. As the Chicano population increases in California, by all rights, so too should the political clout of the Chicano, and that is just not the case.
The question then arises as to whether Cervantes is writing this poem merely from the stand point of a person of Chicano decent, or are we to take this poem as not only a comment on the oppression of the Chicano, but also of the women in the Chicano culture. If we analyze the fifth stanza of the poem, we begin to see that Cervantes speaks of being marginalized not only because of her Chicano heritage, but also because of her gender. Im marked by the color of my skin. The bullets are designed to kill slowly. They are aiming at my children. These are facts. Let me show you my wounds, my stumbling mind, my excuse me tongue and this nagging preoccupation with the feeling of not being good enough. The stanza starts out as an obvious statement about the oppression of the Chicano people, but each progressive line has the undertone of gender oppression as well. Cervantes stumbling mind and excuse me tongue may very well be the product of living within a culture where the womens plight takes a back seat to the tribulations of the men. The nagging preoccupation with the feeling of not being good enough may stem from years of being told that she was not good enough to be the bread-winner in the family, or that a college education is not the type of thing that a Chicano woman should pursue. It is no secret that the Chicano woman has had to make greater strides towards equality than the Chicano male, yet as late as the 1970s it was unheard of for Chicano woman to speak out about their concerns. By placing her Chicano feminist perspective within a poem about the inequities suffered by the Chicano people at large, Cervantes may have felt that her message was being played to a much larger audience. As Tey Diana Rebolledo states in the Introduction to Infinite Divisions In the main, the Chicanas concerns for and about political and social oppression arising from long years of communal experience, are, according to Herrera-Sobek primary vectors structuring many of their works. So we can infer from Rebolledos quote that Cervantes view was not only shaped by her experiences as a Chicano, but also from time spent watching her mothers generation and her grandmothers generation lead their lives in what may be called a sub-serviant fashion, to the men of their society.
As a final reference point to the view that Cervantes poem reflects the key elements of Chicano nationalism, I quote the last line in the eighth stanza, Every day I am deluged with reminders that this is not my land and this is my land. This one line from the poem exemplifies almost all tenants of our previously defined term, Chicano nationalism. With this line, Cervantes is claiming her heritage that, like her ancestors land, has been stolen. It can also allude to the fact that the political concerns of the Chicano (the right to their land) have been marginalized, or set aside by the United States government, which can also be viewed as oppression by the Anglo community. Cervantes desire to reclaim her ancestors land can also allude to a desire for a sense of community. And of course, Cervantes is also staking her claim to her natural right to follow her roots, roots that long ago were set beneath the earth that our nation resides on.
The search for ones roots is a common theme among Chicano nationalist poems, but perhaps no other poem embodies that idea better than Corky Gonzales I am Joaquin. In this poem, Gonzales sets out to find the true meaning of being a Chicano in modern day society, and in the process, realizes that modern day society has no place for the Chicano. It presents only a space for those that are willing to assimilate and disregard their heritage; I must choose between the paradox of victory in the spirit, despite physical hunger, or to exist in the grasp of American social neurosis, sterilization of the soul and a full stomach. Gonzales is claiming here, that the society that has been developed in the United States, was set forth by a small group of upper class Anglo men over two hundred years ago with principles and rules that protected their best interest. Their laws (as well as their riches) have been passed down from generation to generation, all the while alienating an increasingly growing population of foreigners, who did not fit the description of what a United States citizen should be. The social neurosis that Gonzales speaks of is what we live in day to day; its that woman holding her purse a little closer when the African American man gets on the elevator, its the businessmen gawking at the businesswomen as if they were pieces of meat, its the man on the subway pretending to read the newspaper so he does not have to make eye contact with the Chicano directly across from him. This social neurosis is not only a loss of ones culture, but also a loss of basic human morals. Gonzales is pointing out that to succeed in the United States is to forget everything that you have been taught as it pertains to culture and heritage, and to adopt the persona of that man on the subway, or the woman on the elevator. Sterilization of the soul and a full stomach, meaning assimilate into a society whose credo is All men are created equal (but some more equal than others) and you will succeed, but at what price? How can the Chicano men and women revel in their own culture while at the same time downplay the oppression and political marginalization prevalent in our society? Gloria Anzaldua answers this question in her essay Towards a New Consciousness from Boderlands/La Frontera , We need to say to white society: we need you to accept the fact that Chicanos are different, to acknowledge your rejection and negation of us. We need you to own to the fact that you looked upon us as less than human, that you stole our lands, our personhood, our self-respect. She is saying that Chicanos need to make known to their Anglo oppressors, that they have had enough and will not take it anymore. That is the only way for Chicanos to overcome the social neurosis of our society.
Gonzales further exemplifies the sense of Anglo oppression throughout the poem, and at times mixes it with a strong sense of heritage and community. The following stanza is from the last two pages of the poem, The part of blood that is mine has labored endlessly five hundred years under the heel of lustful Europeans. I am still here! I have endured in the rugged mountains of our country. I have survived the toils and slavery of the fields. I have existed in the barrios of the city, in the suburbs of bigotry, in the mines of social snobbery, in the prisons of dejection, in the muck of exploitation and in the fierce heat of racial hatred. This stanza brings to light every aspect of Chicano nationalism that Gonzales echoed throughout the poem. All at once we have the heritage of the Chicano people who labored endlessly through Europeans ravishing their cities and people in search of gold and other treasures, all the while contaminating the blood of all future generation. We also have the sense of community that comes from living in a barrio of the city and experiencing the prisons of dejection that is forced upon the Chicano by the Anglo oppressors. We also have the belief in the self as a nation, the self-surviving the toils and slavery of the fields. Gonzales is stating implicitly that the Chicano is a culmination of experiences, both good and bad, that determines the make-up of a people. In the face of all of the turmoil that prevents Joaquin from truly knowing which culture he belongs to, he is presented with the simple concept that he is all cultures and all people. By adopting those cultures and taking pride in his heritage, Joaquin begins to understand that he is simply, Joaquin.
In summation, Lorna Dee Cervantes Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe In The War Between The Races and Corky Gonzales I Am Joaquin are two perfect examples of Chicano nationalist poems in that they tie in the major aspects of Chicano nationalism (heritage, political marginalization, Anglo oppression, self as nation, community, equal rights and the right to follow your roots) with the central focus of the poem. As Susan Bassnett states in her essay Bilingual Poetry: A Chicano Phenomenon , there is a Latin American tradition of the poet who occupies a prominent place in the struggle for freedom and national unity, and as Cervantes and Gonzales demonstrated, the poets role in Latin America has not been diminished.
Berube, Margery S., et all; The American Heritage Dictionary Second Edition; Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, Mass, 1985
Fernandez, Maria Elena; Chicana/o Studies 380 Reader; CSUN Press, Northridge, Ca; 2001
Calderon, Hector; Chicano Literary Studies Past, Present and Future; Left Politics and the Literary Profession; Columbia Press; New York, NY; 1990
Rebolledo, Tey Dianna; Infinite Divisions; University of Arizona Press; AZ 1991