The Rogue's Progress: Journeys of the Picaro from Oral Tradition to Contemporary Chicano Literature of New Mexico

By Lamadrid, Enrique R. | MELUS, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Rogue's Progress: Journeys of the Picaro from Oral Tradition to Contemporary Chicano Literature of New Mexico


Lamadrid, Enrique R., MELUS


The Indo-Hispanic oral tradition of New Mexico is richly populated with tricksters, from old Coyote, whose presence dates to the dawn of human consciousness in North America, to the picaros, those human-faced rogues who arrived with Iberian immigrants in the valley of the Rio Grande. With the eclipse and modification of oral narrative traditions in the latter twentieth century, these quintessential characters have refused to disappear, making their way into the recent Chicano literature of the region and fulfilling their ancient roles as culture heroes and critics.

The ranks of the picaros include Old World rascals like Pedro de Ordimalas (also spelled Urdemales) and his folkloric and sociological descendants from the distant Iberian peninsula. The popular consciousness distinguishes between the novelesque, obviously fictitious characters like Pedro, and the sociological picaros, who are actual individuals (or characters closely drawn on them) that manifest or reflect the social prototype of the trickster pariah. There is no evidence of the arrival of literary picaros, such as Lazarillo de Tormes and Periquillo Sarniento, until the late nineteenth century, when books finally came into the hands of New Mexicans in significant quantities.

Until the most recent generations, picaros have inhabited the novelesque narratives of the oral tradition. In recent years the folk tale or marchen, as it has existed for centuries, has been obliterated practically overnight after the advent of electronic mass media. Now other oral genres such as belief narratives and jokes dominate the scene. The two-edged sword of humor, forever in the hands of the picaro, is now wielded almost exclusively in jokes, the last refuge of characters like Mano Fashico [Bro' Francis], Don Cacahuate [Sir Peanut], and Pelon [Baldy] (Cordova 9-14, 68-75, Reyna, 65-66, 73).

There need be no concern for the survival of the sociological picaros, those maladapted types who have always lurked around the fringes of Hispanic civilization. They have a permanent refuge in mitote y chisme, or gossip and anecdotal narrative. But what has been the fate of those novelesque rogues like Pedro de Ordimalas, whose scurrilous adventures filled the folk tale? Their epistemological role in the culture prevents their definitive departure. Without them and their literary brethren, Hispanic society has too difficult a time in criticizing itself. To function with full power in the collective conscience, picaros have to move beyond jokes and anecdotes. They need a wider, more mythic domain. They are so necessary for the health of the popular imagination that they were certain to reappear at some point in the cultural landscape. In New Mexican letters in recent years, they are surfacing everywhere, now as literary creations. The long career of the picaro in New Mexican traditional culture and his most recent literary masks are the focus of this study.

From the emergence of cultures and civilization in Europe and the Americas, the trickster has had the double role of first inventing culture and later revitalizing it, making use of humor and symbolic inversion to illuminate the inevitable contradictions of societies and their institutions. The coyote as trickster and culture hero is a primordial character on the North American scene, where he plays the epic role of bringing fire and technology to humankind. Simultaneously, through his outrageous personal behavior, he has taught Native Americans how to relieve the pressures of an intense social life which values conformity as a basic survival mechanism (Levi-Strauss 224-25, Lopez 84-85).

In the beginning, European tricksters were also animals, examples of ingenuity and intelligence like the fox and the crow. But after the Greeks, ethical and moral lessons were taught by mentors who were increasingly anthropomorphic. By Roman times, these tricksters already had human faces (Kerenyi 173-91). These roguish boys and young men emerged in the folklore and literature of romance cultures, most notably in Spain. …

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