Automitografias: The Border Paradigm and Chicana/o Autobiography

By Velasco, Juan | Biography, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Automitografias: The Border Paradigm and Chicana/o Autobiography


Velasco, Juan, Biography


FOR GLORIA ANZALDUA, 1942-2004

Since the Mexican-American War in 1848, in which Mexico lost half of its territory to what is today the Southwestern United States, the concepts of territory, space, and nation have suffered a series of changes. For Chicana/o cultural critics, the border paradigm has defined the boundaries of writing and experience, and to a certain degree has signaled a major contribution to American Studies. In locating history and power in the liminality of the border, and in showing the latter as part of an important American paradigm, Chicana/o cultural critics have tried to challenge negative representations of the Chicana/o liminal aesthetics forged after the conflict. The emphasis on evil and war that we see in mainstream American representations of the border contrasts with the ones presented by Chicana/o autobiography. In fact, the unique voices coming from Chicana/o autobiography are expressed through a network of cultural codes involving liminality and hybridity, the rewriting of borders, and the challenging of the boundaries created by mainstream cultures and official truth.

The historical trajectory of the autobiographical tradition of Hispanic cultures in the United States goes back to Spanish letters and chronicles from the end of the sixteenth century, but it is not until the mid-nineteenth century that life narratives become a space of resistance for Mexican culture. As Lauro Flores states, the

   actividad 'autobiografica' chicana debe situarse diacronicamente
   hacia la mitad del siglo XIX, cuando, como ya se ha dicho, los EEUU
   de Norteamerica, por medio de una verdadera guerra de agresion, se
   apropio de los territorios que en aquella epoca constituian
   aproximadamente la mitad norte del territorio nacional de la entonces
   recien nacida Republica Mexicana. (152)

   [Chicana/o autobiographical activity should be situated historically
   towards the mid-nineteenth century, when, as it has been said, the
   United States of America, through a war of aggression, took over the
   territories that during that period were half of the recently born
   Mexican Republic.]

In this context, it is important to attend to the cultural and literary "self" born after 1848, the literary models used to express the unique Mexican-American reality, and the way in which Chicana/o autobiography has evolved since the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement. As I will show later, the autobiographical text articulates the space of social demands, underlines the experiential knowledge of its individuals, and recreates the imaginary "Chicana/o community" and its myths.

Three works seem to have had a great influence in the staging of a canonical Chicana/o autobiographical discourse into the 1980s: Jose A. Villarreal's Pocho (1959), Ernesto Galarza's Barrio Boy (1971), and Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory (1981). But this conceptualization of autobiography and literary discourse has changed. As Maria Henriquez Betancor states, "since the 1980's new approaches to the construction of Chicanas' autobiographical texts have been created by the assertion of women's self in Chicana's literary works in the U.S.A., not only in narrative and poetry but also in new creative ways" (173). Since the 1980s, Chicana autobiographical production has openly introduced gender and sexuality into the racial discourse born during the cultural nationalist movement of the 1970s, and has radically and innovatively reworked Chicano identity politics. Some of the most significant works include Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Cherrie Moraga's Loving in the War Years (1983), and Essays on Xicanisma by Ana Castillo (1994). The projects offered by these feminist and lesbian writers question the aesthetics of the previous two decades, create new forms of representation, and bring a new emphasis to the configuration of a liminal subject within the border sociopolitical context. …

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