"A Distinct Place in America Where All Mestizos Reside": Landscape and Identity in Ana Castillo's Sapogonia and Diana Chang's the Frontiers of Love

By Lynch, Joy M. | MELUS, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

"A Distinct Place in America Where All Mestizos Reside": Landscape and Identity in Ana Castillo's Sapogonia and Diana Chang's the Frontiers of Love


Lynch, Joy M., MELUS


At the very root of the concept of an American nationality lies the myth of a limitless frontier that unites with unconstrained mobility as an essence of freedom, both physical and spiritual. Early American literature recreated that sense of ceaseless movement into new frontiers that carried with it endless opportunity for adventure, escape, exploration, and quest. But by 1900, unexplored land was no longer limitless and our ethos about the land was reversed: instead of "penetrating" the landscape, the United States (1) was newly threatened with "penetration" by advancing numbers of immigrants landing on the shores. With the closing of the frontier by the end of the 1800s, "the very boundlessness of this racial and ethnic diversity generated a need to reinforce interior borders" (Takaki 83). This desire for protection from encroachment by minority groups led, among other things, to the relocation of Native Americans from their homelands to reservations and to the segregation laws of the 1890s that restricted the African American from mainstream American social or political arenas.

Likewise, in the 1800s, Mexican settlers and Chinese immigrants faced loss of land rights. For the Mexicans in frontier territory, the "discovery" of America entailed the loss of their land. For centuries, natives of Latin American countries and Mexico had crossed the Rio Grande in search of work, political asylum from oppressive regimes, and opportunity. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States government remapped western territory by annexing an entire territory, its possessions and its people, creating borders where there had been none. To end the conflict, Mexico accepted the Rio Grande as the Texas border and ceded the southwest territories to the United States for $15 million, a territory that includes present day California, New Mexico, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The treaty moved borders and ushered in a perpetual struggle over land and its inhabitants' "place" on that land. The very meaning of land and ownership became unstable, subject to shifting borders and constant redefinition: those who had been Mexican suddenly found themselves inside the United States, "foreigners" on their own land, politically vulnerable, powerless, and economically dispossessed.

With the intrusion of Anglos, the land itself became a site for the clash of political and cultural ideologies which, according to Americo Paredes, has contributed to the sense of an "in-between existence" (qtd. in Saldivar 17) that characterizes the Mexican-American border culture. At that historical moment in 1848 when all Mexican nationals in the conquered borderlands overnight "became" United States citizens, "the Mexican American people were created as a people: Mexican by birth, language, and culture; United States citizens by the might of arms" (Rodolfo Alvarez qtd. in Saldivar 17). So how does that subject survive in exile? Divested of nationhood and reinvested with new loyalties, the wanderer claims or feels claimed by no nation and bears the emotional costs for losing placement in history and in time.

For Chinese immigrants, the perceptions of an open continent and limitless opportunity were attractive, but harsh exclusionary laws enacted in the 1890s and reinforced in the early twentieth century constrained their ability to "move" within the American landscape. The Exclusion Laws of 1924 prohibited entry of "aliens ineligible for citizenship," further restraining the Chinese-American population. Chinese were systematically denied the more lucrative forms of livelihood and were concentrated in low-wage jobs. In the early years of immigration, the Chinese who had joined the Gold Rush in California were soon taxed out of their mining claims; they sought work in other areas, mainly in laying the new railroads. In urban areas, they were relegated to low paying jobs as cigar workers, tailors, and seamsters. …

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