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Journal, Day One
On Being a Chicano Poet
I am Chicano. Such a simple sentence, such a complex statement. The phrase is an act of empowerment, a recognition of cultural lineage, an affirmation of identity. I can make Chicano relevant to this blog and the Poetry Foundation’s invitation to speak to issues of poetry and poetics by declaring that I am a Chicano poet. That I write Chicano poetry. I can already feel people cringe at the language I’m using. But the truth is that I’m not interested in speaking to those who scoff at poetry that dares to call itself political or that dares to engage ethnicity, history, and the personal narrative. A much healthier and more constructive exercise is to address those who don’t know what Chicano poetry is (and who want to learn) and those who are uncertain about committing to a word that is more than a word—it is a declaration of activism.
Chicano is a collective of people who recognize that their antepasados come from Mexico, maybe one generation ago or maybe three. But we are not Mexican, not exactly. And many of us have never been to Mexico and many of us do not speak Spanish. What we do have in common is a sense of responsibility to remember and respect our specific immigrant history and that notable movement of the 1960s that placed Chicano on the intellectual, cultural, historical, and political map. Our lineage is specifically activist—antiwar, anti-oppression, pro-human rights—and our methods of communicating discontent, cultural pride, and the need for visibility and change are varied: protests, sit-ins, walk-outs, marches, education, story, art, theater, and yes, poetry, but always through alliances and coalitions with other socially-conscious groups. Chicanos are not moving across the timeline as separatists.
For a taste of our significant literary roots, seek out the poetry of Corky Gonzales, José Montoya, raúlrsalinas, Lalo Delgado, and other poets who cultivated their art in response to the politicized times. None of these poets attended writing programs or took poetry workshops though many of them went on to become educators. It disheartens me when young writers read these poets and dismiss them as “raw” or “didactic.” Such quick evaluations demonstrate an ignorance of the Chicano community’s history: in a time of urgency, indeed, in a time of war, our poets spoke to the Chicano people at rallies and community centers by employing the people’s language. It also shows an ignorance of these poets’ range—they also wrote love poems, elegies, pastorals, etc. And the work has endured without being canonized by the Norton Anthology. The poetry still speaks in accessible terms to the Chicano people, the audience it was initially intended for.
The next generation of poets did attend writing programs and/or did take poetry workshops. And they shaped their distinct voices inside and outside the mostly-white academy and claimed a space in the mostly-white Norton Anthology—Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, and Alberto Ríos. They called themselves Chicano, recognizing the complexity of their literary lineage, not only the previous generation of Chicano poets, but also the other American writers—white, Asian, Native American, African American—plus the European and the Latin American. The poetry of Chicano writers continued to be political and the territory of their subject matter continued to expand across the larger landscapes in response to a growing audience. A Chicano poet writes about concerns specific to the Chicano community or does not, a Chicano poet writes specifically to the Chicano community or does not, yet in the end it is all Chicano poetry because it is written by a Chicano poet. It is all Chicano poetry. Anyone who can be selective and say this poem is Chicano or that poem isn’t is demonstrating an ignorance of the Chicano poet’s dynamic and inclusive imagination.
Chicano Studies exists as a field because of the number of intellectuals, artists, and writers who identify as Chicano, who understand the sophistications of the culture and its many languages. Students can earn degrees in the discipline that recognizes that two-thirds of the entire Latino population in the United States is of Mexican descent. The other one-third includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Central Americans. Chicano art and literature is not obscure. But attempts at erasure abound as Chicano poets and writers are continually ignored and overlooked by presses, programming organizers, and anthologists. Hence why we must champion our own publications, literary events, and anthologies.
Which leads me to my next point: the need to keep that word, Chicano, viable and relevant. When a poet identifies as Latino it is a choice, but it is a choice of convenience, of not turning the label into a lesson in history or politics or specific ethnic identity. It is a safe choice. I make it all the time in order to establish an alliance with other Latino poets and writers. But usually I’m addressing a white audience. It saves me time from explaining to the college educated what they should know about their own country’s history: What is a Chicano? What is Chicano literature? But when I do want to demonstrate my commitment to activism, I announce that I am a Chicano because I don’t want others to forget that I have not forgotten my legacy and my pledge to a movement: to be an activist with ink. Those who claim that I am limiting myself are demonstrating their ignorance of Chicano literature.
I will not apologize for sounding dogmatic in this blog entry. I do not sound like this in my poetry. But sometimes a Chicano poet has to pause and give a speech instead of a poem. I am simply responding to the times. These times, I notice young poets express uncertainty at calling themselves Chicano. They prefer Latino, a nationless designation. Or they fool themselves into thinking they can move through the literary landscape as simply a poet. I pose this challenge: Walk into the streets and pretend you’re only a human being. Walk through the world with a name like Rigoberto González and pretend you’re only American.
Chicano is a choice and also a commitment to social consciousness. And a person can choose not to make that choice or accept that commitment. But those who scoff and protest those decisions a bit too loudly need to address those impulses first. Chicano continues to be a movement and continues to gain ground and momentum. Mine is an invitation to join the movement as an activist with ink, or as an ally, no matter what you call yourself. And to those who will walk the earth, wearing the safeword “Latino,” I ask that when you meet me you let me know, simply because I wish to understand the complexity of your history and where exactly your people come from, where on the map can I look to understand the geography and immigrant trajectory of your antepasados?