Reading Chicana Chicano Literature - Vietnam & Movimiento Novels

Michael Sedano


There's a unique affinity between military recruiters and teachers. The new school year brings fresh prospects and unlimited potential. In a few months, both will have their targets. The eager reader, the easy mark, the scholarship winner, Officer material. Some students will make the choice. "No." Other students will say, "Sign me up." Others will waver. Reading a novel-- who knows?-- could inform a student's decision-making process, a recruiter's drive for a promotion and a bonus.

Every good teacher reads widely, files away impressions of authors and titles, to be ready to recommend the right title for a particular student. Book groups, too, seek that little-known novelist, the quondam gem none of the reader's acquaintances had known. To be ready for just that occasion, or a book group's find of the year, add Stella Pope Duarte's Let Their Spirits Dance, to your "to-be-read" list . The novel introduces a new author whose entertaining style and intensely moving emotional experience offers a reward in itself. But here is an important novel for teachers with Chicana and Chicano students because Duarte's novel informs these kids' oft-neglected and mistold history through an historically accurate portrait of anti-war organizing in the Chicana Chicano movement. Readers with a personal commitment to peace and justice will find this a work to urge upon young people to read. The President-select's wanton urgency to make war brings youth into the administration's cross hairs. Youth--particularly the poor and non-white kids whom undeserving politicians look to in times of sacrifice--need to know about peace organizing, need to give humane consideration to the cost of war on themselves, their families, and the nation's values. Let Their Spirits Dance opens doors to these vitally important considerations.

Background on Chicana Chicano Literature and the Movement

Although la Chicanada has populated the United States since before there was a United States--we knew we were here--but until the late 1960s, a broader cross-section of a United States public had little appreciation for our history and culture. Then, as el movimiento Chicano splashed across the news, dramatic images of farm laborers, antiwar students, and hosts of community activists began to substitute in the public's mind for the little-regarded 'invisible minority' or 'sleeping Mexican-American giant.' On August 29, 1970, the movement climaxed when 50,000 Chicanas Chicanos and supporters massed in East Los Angeles as the Chicano Moratorium, to demand cessation of the war in Vietnam and its outrageously disproportionate killing of Chicano youth. Rioting Los Angeles police agencies gassed and bludgeoned the protestors, and in separate incidents, murdered three Chicanos.

Sadly, although many cast the movement in revolutionary terms, the results of the Chicano Movement did not produce revolutionary change, neither among Latinas and Latinos, nor among that broader cross-section of Unitedstatesians. For example, even today, there remains little agreement on what we call ourselves'Chicana Chicano, Latina Latino, mestiza mestizo, india indio, Mexican. And, although there appears a plurality who rejects "Hispanic" as inappropriate, that odious term has governmental sanction and is used here and there across the Chicano diaspora. A glaring example of this was the Chicano Moratorium 2002 panel of social science researchers. The public discussion quickly devolved into irate declarations of competing Peoplehood terms''Mexican' 'indio' 'American' 'I don't care.' The 'battle of the name' swept away any productive discussion of the history, sociology, and political science texts the experts had presented.

Despite persistent community division, a strong Chicano literary movement endures as one significant cultural change produced by the activism of the 1960s and 70s. The first anthology of poetry and short fiction bearing the title Chicano Literature saw print from Berkeley's Quinto Sol Press in 1969'its first edition in 1968 was titled "Mexican American" literature--signaling what some critics inappropriately termed a 'Chicano renaissance.' From that initial anthology, hundreds of titles, dozens of competing journals and small presses, and eventually major east coast publishers have created a rich, if still difficult to access, literature of the Chicana Chicano experience. An excellent body of Chicana and Chicano detective mysteries is available, but the finest work is belletrist novels and short fiction, essays, written by Chicanas. Ana Castillo, Graciela Limon, Sandra Cisneros, for instance, if better known, would readily become essential to the canon of the well read.

Putting Let Their Spirits Dance In Perspective

Oddly, until Duarte's Let Their Spirits Dance, Chicana and Chicano writers had produced no novels featuring the movement itself, and only Chicanos had published Vietnam War novels. Duarte's novel, thus, stands as a landmark in US fiction as the first novel of the Chicano Movement and the first Vietnam War novel written by a Chicana. Owing to its uniqueness, readers will profit from placing Let Their Spirits Dance into the rich literary context of Chicano fiction and war writing.

Chicano Literature hasn't ignored the movement. In several works, the movimiento features as significant background. Manuel Ramos' absorbingly exciting Luis Montez detective series set in the 1990s, for example, regularly weaves into his plots Montez' background as a 70s Denver movimiento activist. Guy Garcia's 1989 mystery, Skin Deep, is one of two novels to mention the August 29, 1970 events at Laguna Park. In a deeply moving scene that symbolizes the character's distance from his Chicano roots, Garcia draws a chilling picture of repressive violence by police angered at the antiwar protest. Lucha Corpi's 1992 Chicana detective novel, Eulogy for a Brown Angel, opens shortly after the police riot at Laguna Park. The character, fleeing bloodthirsty cops, turns a corner to safety only to discover the murder that launches the mystery. For many, Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta personifies the early Los Angeles movement, so Acosta's two biographical works, Revolt of the Cockroach People and Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, stand as landmarks of movement and Chicano writing. In tributes to Acosta, noted Mexican author Ilan Stavans has collected Zeta's unpublished work, and Ramos' Blues for the Buffalo takes off on the Zeta legend. Ironically, Acosta also exemplifies Chicano invisibility. Hunter S. Thompson's drug-swilling "Samoan lawyer" in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, in actuality, Oscar Acosta. (It was Acosta, by the way, who coined the term 'Gonzo Journalism,' Thompson's erstwhile claim to fame.)

Unfortunately, many of the noted works are now out of print, so a library search will prove well worthwhile. There may indeed, however, now be a 'renaissance' in store for readers of Chicano literature, as a number of titles are being reprinted today. For instance, Corpi's Eulogy was recently reprinted in paper, as was Blues for the Buffalo, and Ramos has a new novel and character, Moony's Road to Hell. See booklist at the bottom of page for details.

During the Vietnam War, Chicano casualties occurred far out of proportion to our numbers in the US population. According to social scientists, a diversity of factors influence the large numbers of Mexican kids who find themselves in uniform, medalled, and, inevitably, dead. Perhaps kids see the military as their only exit from endemic poverty, so they enlist. Perhaps the Selective Service found easy pickings among a large population of 18-year olds not in college and thus eligible for the draft. Whatever the causes, Chicano veterans give voice to their experience and in the process create a noteworthy body of work.

Charley Trujillo's oral history, Soldados, sparkles with authenticity while offering the author's personal tribute to these men, everyday kids from campos and urban barrios who keenly understand their role: stay alive. Trujillo's novel, Dogs From Illusion, paints a grim picture of small town boys caught helplessly in a terrible spiral of loss. We meet them as stoop labor picking melons and being ripped off by a greedy farmer. A few months later, they're surrounded by other hostile forces, friends dying all around them, heads literally rolling. Each man is badly wounded, but far worse is the moral loss they suffer, turning into murderous monsters. The novel closes as it opens, the guys back in the fields picking fruit, getting ripped off by their employer. Trujillo, in addition to character and story, adds linguistic and cultural interest capturing conversations of his Califas characters with Puertorrique'o and Indio soldiers, helpfully translating the warriors' cal' and Spanish phrases. I wonder how many young readers will miss subtle cultural data an older reader will enjoy, as when a vato greets his buddy with 'What's in the bag, goose''

In a superb book, Daniel Cano's Shifting Loyalties intertwines stories of members of a field artillery unit in Vietnam, black, brown, white. Cano keeps the reader on edge, wondering which of these guys will die. Structure highlights the senseless tragedy of these warriors' lives and deaths through contrasting stories of youthful innocence when, as children, the soldiers play Little League, struggle with family matters and other mundane details of' life not being soldiers. Cano then yanks the reader out of reverie, his characters acting out the silly bravado of young men at war, laughter turning without warning into tragedy. Two stories stand out. One tells of the expatriate who discovers his own anomie and self-destructiveness reflected in the person of a US tourist whose acts make even less sense than his own; perhaps this ex-artilleryman finds a cure in that. An especially poignant story recounts one soldier's attempt, as a way of healing his deep emotional wounds, to talk to the parents of his long-dead Anglo friend, to explain, apologize, confront that painful moment. But he so long delays that, when finally he confronts his past, the mother has died and the father's disassociation make the character's healing problematic and the story closes ambiguously, maybe hopeful.

The best written and stylistically most interesting of the Chicano Vietnam war novels is Alfredo Vea's Gods Go Begging. A polished writer of several novels, Vea's Vietnam novel mixes horror with humor and contemporary social commentary. His lawyer character, 30 years past Vietnam, suffers' bloody wartime nightmares relived in gruesome though excellently written war scenes. Nightmare emerges to actuality onto a bizarre present day San Francisco, turning the novel into an unconventional and thrilling mystery. Vea's closing scenes are at once hilarious and surreal, and one closes the cover smiling, hoping the character has found a cure for his war-borne disaffection.

Two Chicana Vietnam War Novels

War is the province of men, or so it would seem in any consideration of war literature. From Homer or Caesar through Crane or Remarque to Uris and Mailer, men tell war's stories, and the focus is on the men. A woman's role, the war at home, its impact on mothers, sisters, wives, is only lightly touched on by the warrior writer. Women cannot be content that such images as the Dear John letter, the tearful airport farewell, exotic bar girls have constituted a woman's war story. Thus a pair of 2002 publications, Stella Pope Duarte's Let Their Spirits Dance, and Patricia Santana's' Motorcycle Ride On the Sea of Tranquility, bring welcome perspectives to readers of Chicana Chicano Literature, and the Vietnam War novel.

Santana's Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility opens in April 1969. Fourteen-year-old Yolanda's revered older brother comes home from Vietnam to San Diego. Physically sound, Chuy is broken, badly. Chuy's a monster, but never loses the loving support of his hero-worshipping kid sister. As if Chuy's destruction isn't earth shattering enough, Yolanda comes of age all at once. Her own sexual awakening turns from innocence to confused mad passion in the aftermath of Chuy's escape into the arroyo behind the family home. Then Yolanda suffers a base' indoctrination to man-woman sexuality, hiding in a closet listening to a brother seduce an unwilling virgin, perhaps one of Yolanda's own friends. The scene is a feminist highlight that boys and girls alike should read, think about, and discuss in an open classroom.

Confronting the brother, Yolanda tells him, "Yeah, maybe you're right. Maybe I don't know shit, but I can't help asking myself, hermano, why shouldn't Tito and Tom, Dick and Harry think like you, try to get a piece of ass any chance they can' Pop someone's cherry and promise her she's gonna fly high with him. Why should the next guy be any different from you, Octavio'" Then older sister Ana Maria jumps in, "Leave her the fuck alone," she said to Octavio, staring at him hard and determined. "Leave all women the fuck alone unless you're going to treat them with respect‑‑the way you'd like to have your sisters be treated."' (235)

The August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium march marked the high point in the movimiento, the massed protestors validating the wrongfulness of the devastatingly disproportionate numbers of Chicano war dead. Duarte weaves the historical context of the police attack that day into her entertaining novel about a community devastated by that war, a novel of grieving mothers, peace organizers, broken veterans, sons who arrive home in aluminum cases, and the role of today's aging activists still seeking healing from those now long-ago wounds.

Duarte has a storyteller's sense of action, using a heroic journey structure to caravan her pilgrims from Arizona to The Wall, stopping along the way to collect Jesse's war buddies, themselves on lifelong downward spirals. Along the journey they meet other families with names on The Wall and promise to touch their Names, too. Let Their Spirits Dance has romance, fantasy, spiritualism, patriotism, and adventure wrapped around a challenging gender- and cultural nationalism sure to sponsor lively discussions. La Manda to The Wall to touch Jesse's name animates the spiritualism that drives the action. Duarte gives the mother a Guadalupana's faith but indigenous faith comes to the daughter. Some readers may find the author's spiritualism challenging; they should simply recognize the curandero hermit's vision of a Chicano Eden'Aztlan constitutes a cultural difference; they should reflect on the cultural origin and uses of faith such as motivates a Guadalupana.

A reader feels the writer's energy in a number of ways. The burlesque opening with Teresa jumping a rival in the middle of a dance floor puts an absurd overlay across the grimness of the quest. The author's humor, timing, and sense of surprise should delight most readers. I hope they enjoy the surprise ending as magical delight, understanding how its miracle of regeneration validates the curandero's insight and how this informs Teresa's understanding that cultural differences are valuable, and True.

Readers will appreciate the research that informs the novel's authenticity. The Gold of Asia chapter feels of a writer who walked in a Vietnamese rice paddy to pull off a handful of seeds. Duarte's fictive Laguna Park scene, like Guy Garcia's before her, makes an outstanding highlight of the work. Duarte's chillingly realistic scene speaks as someone standing on the podium overlooking the panorama of fleeing families pursued by club-swinging uniforms emerging from swirling clouds of gray-white tear gas. The book is worth reading almost for that chapter alone.

Duarte writes with a beautiful sentimental regard for mothers of dead sons, for long-suffering women. Male readers may have difficulty with the writer's low regard for and small trust in men. Despite the hero worship of a brother or a dad, according to Duarte's women, relationships fail because men generally are worthless louts. Women staunchly withstand philandering men, but tragically faithful in their love, dauntless in their strength, must find ways to ensure not merely survival but satisfaction. Still, threatened men will appreciate the youngest pilgrim, the neglected son, is himself a miracle worker whose efforts are instrumental in bringing about the novel's culture-bridging healing.

Jingoistic readers might resent Duarte's Chicana nationalism, the indigenism of Aztlan, or the roll call at The Wall of only the Spanish-surnames. But these emotions mask an important distinction. Let Their Spirits Dance is a patriotic Chicana novel. This at first might seem contradictory given the outspoken bitterness of movement protest, but where comprehension of patria includes Aztlan as much as the conventional homeland, Duarte's journey across the United States reaffirms the novel's conviction that Chicanas and Chicanos, like Jesse and all the other dead, are "Americans" too.

Like Moses nearing the promised land, it's a foregone conclusion the mother isn't going to make it. But the other pilgrims do:

"Priscilla is next, then Paul, Thom, Lam, and Joshua held in Lam's arms, reaching up to touch his grandfather's name. Then Chris, Gates, Willy, Manuel, Tennessee, and the kids touch Jesse's name. All around me everyone else is touching their man's name. The Wall is reflecting our faces like a mirror. We've journeyed through Aztlan to the place where our warriors are immortalized in stone, their names, their stories hidden in atoms of granite. We've crossed paths with them, exchanged orbits, let their spirits dance." (309)

The novel ends here in catharsis, in remembrance of 55,000 GIs and uncounted Vietnamese dead. At the end of the pilgrimage begins a healing of long festering wounds. But can readers here find psychic energy to power a new journey, a pilgrimage of prevention' I hope you will pursue wider reading to place Duarte's novel into perspective as the first movement novel, and as part of the fabric of Vietnam War writing. More than simply a pursuit of reading, like the journey in Let Their Spirits Dance, the reader will find it a rewarding quest.

 

Chronologically Sequenced Bibliography of Chicana Chicano Vietnam and movement novels. (back)

Duarte, Stella Pope. Let Their Spirits Dance. NY: Harper Collins, 2002.

ISBN 0-06-018637-2.

Santana, Patricia. Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility. Albuquerque, 2002.

ISBN0-8263-2435-5.

Corpi, Lucha. Eulogy for a Brown Angel: A Mystery Novel. Arte Publico. 2002.

ISBN: 1558853561

Ramos, Manuel. Moony's Road to Hell. University of New Mexico Press. 2002.

ISBN: 0826329497.

Ramos, Manuel. Blues for the Buffalo. iUniverse.com. 2001.

ISBN: 0595200664

Alfredo Vea. Gods Go Begging. E P Dutton. 1999.

ASIN: 052594513X.

Ramirez, Juan A. A Patriot After All: The Story of a Chicano in Vietnam. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

ISBN: 0826319599. ( You can read this as a free trial subscription at http://www.questia.com/aboutQuestia/eventsg.html)

Rodriguez, Michael W. Humidity Moon. Pecan Grove Press. 1998. ISBN: 1877603546 (Some list this as nonfiction.)

Vazquez, Diego, Jr. Growing Through the Ugly: A Novel. Henry Holt. 1998. (Narrator is voice of dead Chicano soldier. Not a war novel per se.) ISBN: 0805057447

Stavans, Ilan. Ed. Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta: The Uncollected Works. Arte Publico. 1996.

ISBN: 1558850996.

Cano, Daniel. Shifting Loyalties. Arte Publico.1995.

ISBN: 1558851445.

Trujillo, Charley. Dogs from Illusion. Chusma House. 1994.

ISBN: 096245365X.

Trujillo, Charley (ed). Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam. Chusma House.1993.

ISBN: 0962453609.

Garcia, Guy. Skin Deep. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 1989.

ASIN: 0374265739

Acosta, Oscar Zeta. Revolt of the Cockroach People. Vintage Books. 1989

Reprint edition ISBN: 0679722122

Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.Vintage Books. 1989

ISBN: 0679722130

Romano, Octavio and Herminio Rios (Eds). El Espejo: The Mirror, Selected Chicano Literature. Berkeley, Quinto Sol, 1969.