Transnationalizing Aztlan: Rudolfo Anaya's Heart of Aztlan and US Proletarian Literature

By Khader, Jamil | MELUS, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Transnationalizing Aztlan: Rudolfo Anaya's Heart of Aztlan and US Proletarian Literature


Khader, Jamil, MELUS


Despite the recent interest in the intertextual dimension of Rudolfo Anaya's Heart of Aztlan in relation to US literary traditions (Gish) and classical European literature (Taylor), Anaya's intricate referencing of US proletarian fiction remains surprisingly unexamined. Indeed, the discursive strategies of proletarian literary production abound in this text: work hazards, unemployment, the indictment of capitalism and other power structures, sadistic bosses, corrupt union leaders, mentor characters, strikes, and conversion narratives. But above all, Anaya's second novel satisfies the major criteria in the definition of proletarian literature: social realism and the expectation that literature must prefigure "revolutionary optimism" (Murphy; Aaron; Foley).

Contrary to the critics who contend that Anaya's rewriting of pre-Cortesian millennial prophecy is incompatible with his vision of radical politics, (1) I maintain that the tension between "form, content, and overallmeaning" (2) in Heart can be productively analyzed and its radical politics be discerned only when examined in the context of the thematic and structural strategies that typify US proletarian discourse and its global links to leftist, socialist, and Marxist literary movements. (3) In his novel, Anaya de-couples Aztlan from its nationalist and racial subtext in the Chicano Movement, proposing instead to interpret cultural memory through a class analysis. I argue here that by embedding Aztlan within the contemporary structures of global capitalism, not the history of ethnic oppression in the US, by intertwining myth and the international division of labor, Jung and Marx so to speak, Anaya manages to turn the mythic homeland into a transnational topos that decenters ethnocentric narratives of identity and envisions a politics of love and solidarity which will lead towards a radical affirmation of the human will.

US proletarian literary production, however, constitutes an immense body of texts. I have chosen, therefore, to juxtapose Anaya's Heart (1976) with Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1974) for three main reasons. First, both texts were completed and published in the same historical context of the social and intellectual struggles for civil fights in the US among Chicanos (the Chicano Movement) and women (the second wave of feminism). This period in US history witnessed the rise of radical politics; the affirmation of identities, be they racial, sexual, or ethnic; the struggle for civil fights, equality, and justice among diverse marginalized constituencies; as well as the student, anti-American and anti-war global protest movements. Second, these novels utilize the cultural memory of the First Nations of the Americas to represent the voices of the dispossessed proletariat. And finally, Heart and Yonnondio share astonishing similarities in form and content because of their grounding in proletarian realism. (4)

In their introduction to the influential anthology, Aztlan: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, Anaya and Francisco Lomeli posit that "Through Aztlan we come to better understand psychological time (identity), regional make-up (place), and evolution (historical time)," without which Chicano/as would be "contemporary displaced nomads, suffering the diaspora in our homeland" (iv). Heart, however, further shows that through Aztlan, Chicano/as come also to appreciate an ideology (international socialist and Marxist politics and aesthetics) that connects the Chicano struggle for civil rights with other revolutionary movements at home and abroad. Heart was conceived in the context of the popular spread of Chicano/a cultural nationalism and the Chicano/a struggle for civil rights in the late 1960s, which is usually referred to as E1 Movimiento, or the Chicano Movement (Meier and Ribera; Fox). This national social movement protested and fought against Anglo-American racism, oppression, and exploitation of la raza. …

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