Subculture, Parody, and the Carnivalesque: A Bakhtinian Reading of Mary Helen Ponce's "The Wedding"
McCracken, Ellen, MELUS
As part of the current fashion of multiculturalism, certain U.S. Latina writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Cristina Garcia, Julia Alvarez, and Ana Castillo have received the mainstream recognition and accompanying reification of what might be termed postmodern ethnic commodities.(1) In contrast, Mary Helen Ponce's 1989 novel The Wedding has been the subject of only a few very mixed reviews. Alejandro Morales, a novelist and critic himself, deems Ponce's characters stereotypical, unidimensional, and lacking in history. Another critic accuses the novel of insincerity, being laden with cliches and Chicano stereotypes and crippled by bad writing; in authoritarian fashion, he insists that the novel "doesn't belong in most bookstores" (Lazaroff 28). The Albuquerque Journal accuses Ponce of employing a condescending tone and of being embarrassed by her characters, and Kirkus Reviews argues that the speech of Ponce's characters is not only flat but of the wrong ethnicity.(2)
I would like to suggest another way of reading the novel, however, that both incorporates and goes beyond these criticisms. To a certain degree, these reviewers engage in monological appropriations of the book. In fact, throughout much of The Wedding, Ponce engages in a double-voiced quotation of the speech and gestures of Pachuco subculture and ends the book with a carnivalesque parody of the traditional mainstream wedding as it is reconfigured by this subcultural group. Bakhtinian theory, in conjunction with the Birmingham school's theories of subculture and feminist responses to subcultural studies enable a more dialogic understanding of Ponce's novel. Ponce reveals the modes in which Pachuco subcultural expression constititues a leak or rupture in the mainstream culture that it sometimes parodies. The contestatory figure of "la pachuca" in the novel parodies the social intertext of male Pachuco culture, as do the other gender issues and the bodily functions that surface in the final wedding scene.
I will not insist that this alternate reading of The Wedding informed by Bakhtinian and cultural studies theory is more "correct" than the others; rather, I wish to argue that the dominant reading formation that currently canonizes the narratives of Cisneros, Alvarez, Garcia, and Castillo often works to exoticize the culture of the Latina Other within such preconceived categories as "magical realism," "lush language, .... land of enchantment," or "a particularly spicy brand of text mex."(3) Such a reading formation, although ostensibly praiseworthy and supportive, at the same time functions to exclude other important elaborations of Latino culture in the U.S. Critics dismiss texts that do not fit the model that the new multiculturalist canon proposes of the ideal Latina narrativist, often after only a cursory reading. Reading publics are fashioned and tastes for a certain postmodernist style are encouraged, while important elements of Latino culture remain outside the contemporary national discussion.
Pachucos have long been stigmatized in the press, in academic studies of deviance, and in large sectors of the popular imagination. In interviews Laura Cummings conducted, however, older Mexican-Americans in the southwest remember the Pachuco culture of their day in different terms; pachuquismo for them involved clothing styles, music and dances, good times, occasional fights, work and jobs, police roundups and beatings, incarceration in prisons and reformatories, and punitive shaving of duck-tail hairstyles. Further, the negative media images of the Pachuco affected the family life of those interviewed; sons were forbidden to wear baggy pants, and sometimes parents cut up their zoot suits with scissors; one woman's uncle called her "pachuca" to belittle her to other family members.(4) Like the interviews Cummings conducted, Ponce's novel offers an alternative view of Pachuco subculture; in contrast to the academic models and popular images of deviance and stigmatized identity, Ponce humorously critiques from within the subculture she grew up with, presenting what might be termed a narrational "thick description" that reveals both the pleasures and internal contradictions of Pachuco subcultural practices. …