Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Bad Title - Interesting Book on Mexican-Americans
Rodriguezs' book sounds interesting, but why in the world did he give it such a horrific title? Yes, I know that a number of writers have described people of Mexican descent in this manner, but does he have to do it too? I'm sure he is using these terms "for effect" - in an ironic mode. However, these days are not for irony. Too much is going on. Plus there are so many thousands of people (who are not Mexican-American) who will take the title for face value.
Its almost like using the "N-word" when describing African Americans.
From the Los Angeles Times
'Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds,' by Gregory Rodriguez
'Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America'
By Yxta Maya Murray
Special to The Times
November 13, 2007
GREGORY Rodriguez's brilliant book on Mexican and Mexican American identity, "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America," threatens my secret dream that I am a direct descendant of some feather-clad Aztec warrior princess who ruled over a Mexica queendom circa 1500. Perhaps because I am named after a fabled Aztec royal, Lady Ixtacihuattl, I have forever suspected that my DNA positively sparkles with glorious Xicana genes that were born in ancient Aztlan: the land of Mexican milk and honey, where lived the bards, mathematicians, philosophers, acrobats, architects and knights who were put to the sword and burned by the alien germs of the infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés.
Rodriguez, with whom I have crossed paths on occasion, has written a history which tells a far different tale of Mexican and Mexican American heritage. In "Mongrels," Mexican identity is no natural-born monolith, but rather a kaleidoscope crafted through creative strategies Mexicans used to resist and adapt to the rigors of white supremacy. Starting from the 1519 Spanish conquest of Mexico, his energetic saga recounts the ways in which Mexicans ingeniously absorbed the conventions of our conquerors by marrying with whites, sampling Anglo culture and even purchasing our way out of racial segregation up until the modern era. In these practices, Rodriguez, an opinion columnist for The Times, writes, Mexican Americans "have always confounded the Anglo American racial system, [and] will ultimately destroy it, too."
Since the first years of Cortes' appearance in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (present day Mexico City), the Mexica have crossed color lines through cohabitation or marriage with whites. Rodriguez's initial chapters read like a novel when he tells how Cortes' lover and translator la Malinche, who was "as beautiful as a goddess," not only helped him annihilate the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but also "gave birth to [his] son, Martín . . . [who] was later made a Knight of the Order of Santiago, one of the most prestigious military orders of Spain." Such intermarriages were common in colonial Mexico, the 19th century Southwest, and 20th century California. ("By 1963, 25 percent of married Mexican Americans in Los Angeles County had wed non-Mexicans.")
The resulting children challenged racial lines, and the colonists of 18th century New Spain worked to preserve the fantasy of white racial purity by creating no fewer than 16 racial classes, including "moriscos," "albinos," "lobos" and "coyotes." Later, states enacted anti-miscegenation laws that applied to African and African/mestizo/Anglo unions, but usually not "Mexican-Anglo" marriages, as Mexicans were (often, but not always) classified as "white."
When intermarriage didn't fully integrate Mexicans into Spanish, then U.S. society, Mexicans adapted to (and altered) Anglo culture. For example, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a syncretic Mexican-Anglo phenomenon that personalized the Spaniards' Mary for many Latinos. But because she was brown-skinned and was sometimes called Tonatzin, after the Aztec mother of the gods, she was condemned by a leading Franciscan "as idolatrous." Facing off with racist colonials whose vigor and inventiveness matched their own, sometimes Mexicans didn't use nuanced approaches to integration, but simply bought themselves into prestigious racial categories: "In 1779, sculptor Pedro Huizar was listed as a mulatto in the census. But after amassing some money, he was labeled Spanish in 1793."
Impediments to "upward mobility," however, were violence (there were vast killings of Mexicans throughout colonial history) and repatriation back to Mexico. For example, Rodriguez writes compellingly of the INS' infamous 1950s "Operation Wetback" roundup of illegal immigrants in the Southwest, and the beefing up of the border that began in the 1980s (though not much time is spent on the recent heated debates over immigration reform.)
In the bulk of "Mongrels," Rodriguez describes Mexicans as a pragmatic people who have assembled racial categories that are "vague" and "situational," in part because of this history of racism. But he regards with trepidation the 1970s Chicano "brown power" movement, or movimiento, which represents a "fundamental break" from Mexicans' long-standing flexible attitude: "Inspired by an Aztec legend . . . the Spiritual Plan of Aztlán, was a call for ethnic unity and nationalism."
Rodriguez sees the movimiento as a perilous, but temporary, daydream of a uniform Chicano brand that has given way in the new century to the more traditional, fluid constructions of a pan-"Latino" identity: "The Chicano portrayal of Mexican Americans as a unified, downtrodden people preternaturally loyal to their ancestral culture was astonishingly similar to the way Anglo racists had been characterizing Mexican Americans for more than a hundred years."
Yet, was it really? How about an alternative way to frame the movimiento: We can see the Chicano movement's celebration of La Raza not necessarily as a backward, newfangled fiction, but rather as an extension of Mexicans' venerable race-innovations, and also as a corrective to some of the problems caused by some of the assimilationist practices that Rodriguez so skillfully describes.
Through intermarriage, culture sampling, and color- or class-jumping, Mexicans have recut race to fit our own imaginations. Chicanos' excavations of Aztec heritage may not rebut Mexicans' supple racial vision but simply provide another example of that creativity in action: We continue to dream ourselves into existence.
Moreover, the practices that Mexicans used to blur racial boundaries had their shadow sides. Rodriguez writes that many of the "marriages" that disrupted racial categories were really rapes: "While some women were 'given' to the Spaniards, others were taken by force." Also, the color and class jumps often exacerbated other social divides -- those between the wealthy and the poor, dark vs. light, and black vs. white. The movimiento used the imagination to rename race once again in a way that acknowledged the rape of our people by distancing ourselves from colonials, built bridges with African Americans by recognizing our debt to black leaders who laid the foundations for "Brown Power" and also worked to upend the color and class divides through unification.
Of course, Chicano fundamentalism would create dangers like any other sort of extremism. But the recent nationwide immigration rallies, in which some protesters invoked La Raza in the midst of pan-Latino (as well as Chinese American, Polish American, Irish American, African American and Native American) protests, may prove that persistent chicanismo can coexist with other practices that undermine a monolithic Mexica identity. The dream of Aztlan doesn't necessarily have to die for the Mexican American people to develop in a healthy way. I believe I can refresh myself with the dream that I hail from a concrete, transcendent past even as I enjoy a post-modern skepticism about the reality of any pure Mexicanidad (particularly as I am half-Anglo!).
Modern Mexican American identity is nourished by a belief in an ancestral heritage and an understanding that romantic genealogy has never been entirely possible or desirable. That is, in my dream-mind, my Aztec ancestor's gold shield continues to glitter in the sun and the quetzal feathers shimmer in her onyx hair. Simultaneously, my inner critic wryly observes that Mexican Americans are ethnic centaurs born of the marriages, rapes, lost and created language, genocide, litigation, heresies, sell-outs and pure acts of willpower that are detailed in Rodriguez's politically savvy and enchanting book.
Yxta Maya Murray is a professor at Loyola Law School and a novelist whose latest work is "The Queen Jade."