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We Must Act But How? A Conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera (Part 2 of 3)


Continued from Part 1.

[Transcribed and edited by David Lau.]

Part II: The Multiplicity of Chicanismo

When I steered our conversation toward Chicano literature and questions of Chicano identity, as well as contemporary politics, Juan Felipe started by discussing the late work of Raúl Salinas (raulrsalinas). I’ve picked up our conversation there.

JFH:Indio Trails. It’s an amazing book. It’s very sincere. He’s actually the only one who goes on this trek–who accomplished what we all talked about in the first wave of Latino poetics after José Antonio Villareal’s novel, Pocho, came out in the late fifties–this cultural empowered poetic topography of Chicano, Indian, indigenous movement, AIM movement in this case, living in reservations, doing sweats, demonstrating with our American Indian peoples, doing the actualized Chicano thing at the same time. It’s just a lovely journal/journey last book. Why don’t we just get into the physicality of it, like Salinas, writing-being, so that’s what we were doing. I like to do that a lot, just make it physical.

Identity, wow, you know you’re right. Late 60s, 70s… Let’s just play with a parenthesis, 1964-1974. Let’s put that as the years of the creation of a wild identity called Chicano and Chicana. And making meaning. You talk about making meaning out of broken pieces, out of hyphens, taking away the hyphens and forging a new meaning. Taking the dash out of Mexican dash American and forging Chicano and Chicana. So they were very exciting years, as you know. Very exciting for all of us: Asian-American Community, Black Power, Red Power, very exciting, because we were the makers of that new word in a sense, of that new moment. And you could see it in the blood, in your nerves, in the streets. You could see each other and it was kind of a wild group, chanting, moving around, and eating burnt tortillas, and driving around in busted VW vans. So that’s what made it really exciting. But now you know, in all its repercussions, you like you said, performance, theatre, Teatro Campesino, plays, and books, and journals, magazines, and readings, dialogues, and audience building, community building, new tradition building heroes, and how they were all interconnected as a community, and in diverse forms of creative expression: cultural, historical, political. They were a set of stories that were open-ended. So that was just a lot of fun. It was drenched in meaning, which was its virtue and its vice. Because it can turn into a thing where this symbol here means progress and this one means our Indio past. It can become cardboard, one-dimensional, a set of props—but it was fabulous. And you can see all the outcomes today. That’s one current. Part of that is still going on, though it’s developed.

The Aztlán story and its various associated motifs, the story, the symbols, the poetry—that’s turned into a million things, Coyolxauhqui, the story of the Aztec moon and the sun—has kept on. It’s kind of a Chicana-feminist narrative now too, at least it was 10 or so years ago. And then Gloria Anzaldúa. She revamped the Mesoamerican pantheon and treasure chest with her book Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. So then we had a Chicana-Tejana-lesbian-feminist-mythical women’s Aztlán being developed again, being told and written and performed and on and on. So that current is also very strong.

And I think at the M.E.Ch.A. level, the kind of student organization level, the volunteer association and organization level—you say I’m going to be part of this group and I’m going to join it, and with a political cultural theme or message and charter, like M.E.Ch.A. and other groups—they also use the Aztlán themes and the Anzaldúa themes. And that kind of continues and some journals are still working with that: Huizache from El Paso, edited by Dagoberto Gilb, a recent magazine, for example. It’s a roots word, which means desert plant, and the designs in that journal are very red and green. They have all the chromatics of the Aztlán murals. That kind of thick color chromatics and design, that continues, tattoos, and moon, and Aztec gods and goddesses, and Mesoamerica, the southwest, the reinterpretations of Chicano and Chicana, of Latina and Latino history, that’s still going. But you go out on the street, you go to the store, Costco. You see a Latino family or Latino students and you say, “By the way, what are you writing on Coyolxauhqui today?” It’s not going to connect.

So there’s still kind of an insular thing going on. We’re still kind of talking to ourselves, which is not necessarily good. But it’s productive and it’s creative and it has many beautiful and great conversations and productions. And the return to Chiapas, the return to Mesoamerica physically and politically. To be part of the Zapatista world, that’s very interesting. That’s the on-the-ground, indigenous, Chicano-Chicana, participatory wave that’s new. That wasn’t there before 1993. I took on a group to Chiapas in 1970, but in terms of a large number of people, I think that’s post-Zapatista. And that’s kind of a new wave of a large number of Chicanas and Chicanos going to Chiapas and being part of villages and the peaceful movement in Chiapas, coming back to start Zapatista committees and groups and networks with Chiapas. That’s been an interesting new current.

And then of course we have, and this is not necessarily what you call it, but the AWP-world of Latinas and Latinos in creative writing—poetry, fiction, and all its genres. Latinas and Latinos are being admitted in larger numbers the last ten years to MFA programs. And that’s new for AWP. I would say in the last ten years that AWP has seen a large, big, pronounced wave of Latinas and Latinos in their annual conferences, and in the actual MFA programs. And if you go all the way back to Alurista or further back—who would that be, José Antonio Villareal, 1959—and further back, we sure weren’t getting no MFAs [laughs]. Even though MFAs existed. “Hey. I got my MFA!” No. “Let’s workshop your story.” “What do you got there, Cesar Chavez? What do you got there?" “Oh, I got a poem, a corrido on the strike we just did.” “Oh, that’s very good. We like that metaphor.” So you know the last ten years we have a big old wave of peoples of color at AWP and in MFAs, which is kind of interesting too.

And then we have with Francisco Aragón’s The Wind Shifts anthology an echo back to Gary Soto’s 1977, The Elements of San Joaquin, where Gary comes out with a different kind of “formal” Chicano poetry, which was very different from the 1971 Festival de Flor y Canto, by Alurista, which was very different from José Montoya’s late sixties work.

And I’m skipping over many others, but just last month Renato Rosaldo put out The Day of Shelley’s Death, published by Duke University. And this is an amazing book. It’s about his work in the Philippines, the northern Philippines, some ethnographic and ethnological fieldwork he started in the late 60s on the Ilongot peoples, headhunting peoples. He wanted to talk about the fact that they’re a people with a history. He said, “Those people have a history, they’re not just wild savages, as many want to portray them.” So he wanted to address that. The same thing that all of us at the root have been addressing since day one when we started out, Asian-American writers, African-American writers, everybody. Everyone says come on now, we have histories and we want to write about them. So he goes back to his field study, to his wife's death in 1981, while on a field study trek. And so he was thinking about it and reflecting on it and thinking about writing and reflecting on it and becoming a poet, which he did. He refashioned himself into a poet, which in a way he always was. His writing has always been and his interests have always been literature and poetry and anthropology. Here he uses this term antropoesíaand he says that this is a poetry that is fully engaged with the human condition. And he contrasts [antropoesía] in some ways with language-centered poetry, and he drives away the notion of confessional poetry. He drives it out of the room; he exorcises that ghost. No, no, it’s not confessional poetry, this is anthropoetry, poetry directly concerned with the human condition.

So he kind of does the same thing as The Wind Shifts, edited by Francisco Aragón. Aragón is talking more about a new kind of formal, introspective, personal poetry, and Renato is kind of reworking the social-political-mythical poetry that we started with, and dropping the myth and getting closer to the human beings on the ground. And he calls it anthropoetry, antropoesía. So I think it’s a very exciting time. Because we have this notion that Renato calls antropoesía, we have this shift that Aragon senses.

So in flux, flux, out flux, multi-currents, multi-style. Spoken word has just exploded, as you know. Spoken word has just exploded. And danza, Aztec dance, here’s one of those things… out of the Aztlán movement, the Aztlán literary movement, has been the explosion of Aztec dancing. Danza de la Conquista, which is part of the Aztlan crucible. And it’s the dance that everybody relates to. You go to every high school they have a folklórico and they have an Aztec dance group. And you go to every community, there’s a lot of folklórico groups, which exploded also. They were popular in the early 70s, but they weren’t in every high school. And now the Aztec dance groups are in every high school too, and every community. Wow. Jeez. They burn incense and they have the feathers and they’re wearing sacred outfits, and they’re bowing in the four directions. And they know all the songs and they have the carved out Aztec drums. I said Jeez, when’s the sweat lodge? [Laughs.]

And yet all these things are part of the same thing. They’re part of the same thing. You go to a community event and there’s your folklórico, and there’s your slam poet or spoken word poet, and there’s your mariachi, and there’s your Aztec dance team. And I’m sure there’s going to be some tuxedo formalists in the audience too. But we don’t see all that, you know, because I’m in a classroom, and only people with MFAs are going to AWP. But if we follow the coil back to its source, we’re going to see a community event in a city in California or the Southwest, and there’s going to be that Aztec dance group and there’s going to be that Chicano Aztec monster poet, there’s going to be the spoken word person, and there’s going to be the Aztlán tuxedo poet, and some good guacamole, and diverse communities taking part.

DL: So the community has been transformed then by the Chicano movement, both the literary and the cultural movement. And the political transformation has taken place.

JFH: You’re right. You’re right. You’re right. Now that we’re talking about it, you’re right. You’re helping me get at something that’s hard to express. I wouldn’t have said that at the beginning, but you’re right. And the folklórico is the lead—and the Aztec dance groups are the leads. Because all you got to do is just join. Learn the dance, you don’t have to read a book. Everybody reads books, but you don’t have to read Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán to feel you’re part of this. You just join the Aztec dance group, you join the folklórico and you learn the dances and that’s how you enter into the world of Chicano and Latino literature, strangely enough. That’s the workshop, the community MFA.

[Part 1 of the interview can be found here. Continue on to part 3 here.]

Originally Published: May 2nd, 2014

Poet David Lau grew up in Long Beach, California. He has described his family as a “Chicano-Chinese and Anglo household.” He earned degrees from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The poems in his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat (2009), were described by the Believer’s Dominic Luxford as...