Learning by the Postcolonial Book: A Tribute to the Godfather of Chicano Literature
LEARNING BY THE POSTCOLONIAL BOOK: A TRIBUTE TO THE GODFATHER OF CHICANO LITERATURE
The most profound lesson I have learned reading literature is that words are powerful: relating your narrative can change the world. My love for reading stories was inspired by my grandfather’s, which was passed down to my mother and her brother, and then on to me. Reading served as our escape but also as a way to navigate our identities and to understand the world around us.
I am a fifth-generation Mexican American. Our deep roots in the United States have meant a certain amount of privilege, but assimilation has also had its cost: the loss of language, culture, and tradition. My initial decision to major in English came rather naturally, because it meant that I could finally specialize in my favorite activity: reading. I immediately found myself drawn to postcolonial narratives, as I had often heard my mother and uncle talk about these books. This literature helped them understand themselves. These narratives spoke to me as well, revealing that there were many families like mine who had experienced the same sense of cultural loss.
I also came to understand that most of what I had previously read was written by the victors and consisted of what they wanted remembered. It made me realize how imperative it is to hear the voices of the marginalized, of those erased from the dominant narrative. While some narratives are oppressive, counter-narratives emerge as a form of resistance. As Richard Kearney writes, counter-narratives are “alternative stories to the official story, emergent stories of marginal or truncated histories, indirect stories of irony and subversion. Such unofficial narratives brush history against the grain. They put dominant powers in question.” In resisting, writers of counter-narratives accrue the power of words for themselves and those who identify with them. In resisting, writers of counter-narratives encourage oppressors to see the power their words hold over others. In resisting, writers of counter-narratives force both the oppressor and the oppressed to contemplate their own positions with respect to one another.
In resisting, writers of counter-narratives accrue the power of words for themselves and those who identify with them.
A counter-narrative that had a profound impact on me is Rudolfo A. Anaya’s coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima. Written in 1972, the novel follows the life of Antonio Márez y Luna as he comes to understand his Mexican American identity. Under the guidance of his curandera and mentor, Ultima, Antonio animates the 1940s New Mexico landscape through his personal struggles regarding morality, spirituality, and culture. Anaya’s novel taught me to see the ways in which Spanish colonization has impacted the ability of Mexican Americans to make sense of our mixed identities; Antonio must look within himself and acknowledge the repressed aspects of his identity that come together to form his mestizo body. Bless Me, Ultima was seen as a culminating text of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and Anaya was deemed the “Godfather of Chicano Literature.” He died earlier this summer, on June 28, 2020, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My mother and uncle used their inherited passion for reading, both to better understand themselves, and to commit to educating others. It led my mother to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies and a master’s degree in education, while my uncle got his degree in English and later on an EdD in community college leadership. Antonio’s story has helped us reconcile our indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican American histories and to make sense of our Chicano identities. When discussing the impact of Anaya’s novel on our family, we found that Ultima showed us how to see curanderismo in a forgiving and feminine light. The vast llanos of New Mexico in Anaya’s work helped us connect to the landscape that my grandparents grew up in. Bless Me, Ultima gave us a sense of belonging and acceptance. An obituary for Anaya in The Washington Post quotes the author as having once told Publishers Weekly, “What I’ve wanted to do is compose the Chicano worldview — the synthesis that shows our true mestizo identity — and clarify it for my community and for myself.”
The only way to counter subjugation is by adding one’s voice to that of the victors by relaying a narrative that counters the earlier ones.
Reading Anaya’s counter-narrative has given me the ability to understand and begin to accept the process of assimilation that took place within my family as we moved from Mexico to New Mexico, and then settled in California. Anaya paved the way for Chicanos like me to articulate our existence in the United States and to comprehend the legacy of colonization. Postcolonial narratives such as Bless Me, Ultima serve as a means to understand the importance of writing about oppressed communities. The only way to counter subjugation is by adding one’s voice to that of the victors by relaying a narrative that counters the earlier ones. Like my mother, my uncle, and Anaya, I want to continue to add my voice to the unofficial narratives that push against the grain of history. I will continue the legacy of educating the people in my community and beyond, knowing that narratives have the power to inspire and liberate.
Illianna Gonzalez-Soto is a recent graduate from Earlham College where she served as an editor for The Crucible. She obtained a BA in English and a minor in creative writing. She currently lives in San Diego and hopes to pursue a career in publishing. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.