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Searching for Form: Mexican American Literature and American Literary History,1959-1990 explores how Mexican American writers advanced notions of literary art to explore the conditions of their self-determination. Rather than stipulating a relatively continuous story of Mexican American “culture,” however, I show how the very terms “self-determination” and “literary art” changed radically from 1959 to 1999—a change that responded to shifts in the American political and economic scene. ,I start in 1959, with the publication of what was then considered to be the first novel published by a Mexican American, José Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho. I show how Pocho is situated at the intersection between two competing accounts of “traditional culture” that started to clash at the end of the 1950’s: on the one hand, the liberal and sociological critiques of the supposed pathology and anti-individualism of traditional culture, and on the other hand a celebration of longstanding communal resilience found only within tradition. I argue that midcentury American novelists including Villarreal posited the novel as the genre uniquely equipped to explore the possibility of individual freedom in relation to both accounts via a self-determination seemingly made possible through the achievement of the novel as art. Pocho simultaneously dramatizes the tragic conclusion of the type of callow idealism that animates facile understandings of freedom (as freedom from social expectations) while also enacting what a more enduring ground of freedom could be: a disposition toward social engagement— one of aesthetic distance— that allows for recognition without distortion, and social participation without loss of individuality, an aesthetic sensibility that enables the exploration of the limits of freedom while imagining, by enacting, its possibility. ,After the Chicano intervention of the mid-1960s, however, such an exploration would have to be understood in communal terms (the “I” seeking freedom becomes the “we” of Chicano liberation) and be seen as operating within a Mexican American cultural tradition. Ethnicity was not something to be “transcended” in art but the very ground of communal self-determination as such. This intervention was in part meant to register the reality of an economy whose treatment of Mexican American laborers amounted to their complete objectification, rendering human life into fodder for agrarian commerce. Villarreal, like his liberal contemporaries, seemed to take for granted the luxury of a relatively stable economy in which one was free to explore his or her “individualism.” Works including Tomás Rivera’s …y no se lo trago la tierra (1971), instead dramatize the historical emergence of a group consciousness that called itself “Chicano,” a self-awareness that entailed the recognition of one’s place in history as part of a people struggling to survive. Instead of advancing the novel as the primary genre, Rivera defines “the Chicano” as a “life in search of form,” by which he meant a growing communal self-consciousness that sought to understand itself through art. As Rivera puts it, “the Chicano” sought to “externalize his will through form,” which I argue his work performs by being explicitly intertextually related. No longer positing the novel as the central genre, as it was for Villarreal, Rivera instead uses poems, short stories, essays, and a novella in concert—his oeuvre itself producing (by demanding) the type of reader who does not see the world as composed of discrete, alien objects. Instead, Rivera’s reader becomes the type of person who can, as he puts it, seek to understand totality: “To relate this entity with that entity, and that entity with still another, and finally relating everything with everything else.”,But if the recognition of oneself as a Chicano was in part the result of a growing working-class consciousness, the sought for permanence of this identity came to be perceived as sclerotic. The response to reification itself had a reifying effect. The explicitly Chicano representational strategies developed throughout the 1970s reached a point of exhaustion during the 1980s. “Chicano literature” could no longer be presented as “representative” of “a people” coming to know itself as such without significant qualification. Work by feminist writers took the question of representation as the very problem to be resolved in their work. Writers including Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Ana Castillo, and Alma Luz Villanueva experiment with genres (producing a blend of poems, journal entries, and letters) to create representational strategies that imagine the possibility of transcending representation as such. These strategies (which include “spectral haunting,” “blood memory,” and photographic indexicality) allowed writers to imagine a literature that did not speak for or represent a community so much as index that community’s presence via its textual personification. ,These strategies did not resolve the question of representation so much as reaffirm its centrality, which is why a separate kind of critique of Chicano representation appeared in the early 1980s. This critique, available in the controversial writing of Richard Rodriguez and “Danny Santiago,” Daniel James, highlights the political shortcomings of advancing “a literature” as such. By representing the “culture” of “a people”—a group that included the working class and the poor— instead of foregrounding this people’s exploitation, writers risked converting a condition of exploitation into one demanding respect. Poverty becomes a stigma to be neutralized through empathy instead of a condition to be addressed with political and economic reform. Poverty and the harsh working conditions (of, say, migrant workers) are treated as a culture, aestheticized by literature. I show how this critique did not obtain because it did not correspond with the most common diagnoses of the problems affecting American life. ,I conclude the project with a coda that studies what I call the Mexican American middle-class narrative. This narrative—as made available in the later work of Rolando Hinojosa, Arturo Islas, Manuel Ramos, and Daniel Chácon— highlights the disappointment that ensues with the integration of Mexican Americans into the (upper) middle class. These works depict an ambivalent class’s nostalgia for the working-class consciousness that had produced the conditions for Chicano solidarity. There is the lurking recognition that the middle-class life is not, in fact, the good life it was thought to be. In Chácon’s short story collection Chicano Chicanery (2000) Hinojosa’s episodic novella We Happy Few (2006) and Ramos’s King of the Chicanos (2010), literature is allegorized as the ironic corrective to disillusion insofar as literary art and its curators provide the sense of cohesion missing in middle-class Mexican Americans. The “middle-class narrative,” then, tells the story of wanting to enter into a class that enables material comfort, only to discover that the very self-interest that brought the middle class into being fractures it into competing, self-interested desires. The pointed irony of this story centers on the writer’s realization (allegorized in the works I mention) that he needs a Chicano community more than the working-class community needs the writer who claims to speak on its behalf. ,However much these later works depict nostalgia for the solidarity of the term “Chicano,” they also show its waning relevance in regards to the more hemispheric sense of belonging captured by the term “Latino.” This new term variously appears as hopeful and ambivalent: a more inclusive term, but one that erases the specific histories of racialization, political struggle, and economic inequality. In King of the Chicanos, the term appears as the label comfortable middle-class academics use, those whose interests do not coincide with a struggling community, the potential referents for the terms “struggling” and “community” abounding. ,My work shows the interpretive utility of thinking of the label “Chicano” as a historical term marking a period in a longer “search for form” identified by Tomás Rivera. Whether this search is thought of as part of a long history that goes back to 1848 (as some critics maintain), or whether it is understood as historically emergent and shifting, different from itself and only retroactively identifiable as part of a narrative (as I contend), the search seems to be about “self-determination.” Being clear about what self-determination has meant in the past and how these definitions relate to what we might want to understand it to mean for us today—including the very question of who we take this “we” to include—is a conversation my project helps enable. ,My coda thus suggests how a broader albeit more philosophically specific account of “recognition” can yet motivate a collective sense of literary ambition, one that is not hobbled by social protest. This ambition could acknowledge one’s personal identity as personal, which is not to say solipsistic. This ambition could strive for a collective sense of recognition based on the notion of differently defined “liberationist” (albeit perhaps naïve and self-deceiving) account of autonomous art instead of the more restrictive (and ultimately coercive) understanding of the art of authenticity. My coda suggests that the literature that strives to be art presents a way that Rivera’s account of a “life in search of form” can remain vital today, one in which the “I” that becomes a “we” in its search for recognition is no longer understood as “Chicano.” Whatever form this literature takes, the terms Chicano and Latino would probably be the wrong words to describe it.


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