UCLA Professor Says Academia Overlooks Importance of Chicano Literature

A UCLA professor wants to see universities overhaul the way they teach the literature of the West's fastest growing ethnic group: Latinos. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports she's presenting her ideas at an academic conference this week.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Latino, Mexican-American, and Chicano cultures are products of cultural mixing. You can hear the results in the L.A. band Domingo Siete. It blends American roots styles with Spanish-language lyrics and Mexican cultural imagery. UCLA English Professor Marissa Lopez also teaches Chicano studies.

Marissa Lopez: We put together our identities from bits of history, and bits of ourselves that we collect along the way. And we don't belong to the United States, we don't belong to Mexico, we're our own thing.

Guzman-Lopez: This is the way Chicano studies scholars have explained Latino culture for more than 20 years. But Lopez says this framework downplays nationality and the role of national governments to explain the presence and cultural activity of Latinos in the United States. She wants...

Lopez: To think about how the United States has created the conditions in Mexico and Latin America that force people to move north in search of work.

Guzman-Lopez: Literature, Lopez says, is the ideal discipline to study these forces at work.

Lopez: Because when we learn how to read, and analyze literary texts, we're learning how to read the world, how to analyze, how to question, how to problem solve, how to really engage as thinking human beings in the issues of our times.

Guzman-Lopez: She says Chicano literature did not begin in the 1960s, when Mexican-American activists claimed a culture that straddled the U.S. and Mexico.

Lopez has studied the memoirs of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a 16th century explorer Spain dispatched to the new world. After a shipwreck stranded him and his countrymen, Cabeza de Vaca trekked for eight years from present-day Florida to Arizona. He wrote about the lands he saw and the natives he lived with some 80 years before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.

Professor Lopez asks her students why most American literature surveys ignore these memoirs.

Lopez: To not teach Cabeza de Vaca, is evidence of a desire to make the Mexican presence in the United States seem relatively recent.

Guzman-Lopez: Most English departments focus on English literature, she says, and they regard Chicano and other ethnic literatures in the United States as side notes to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens.

At this week's Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, Lopez plans to talk about Cabeza de Vaca and other founding texts of Chicano literature. Such as the 19th century memoirs of Mexican landowners living in Texas and California, and the journals a Mexican vaudevillian living in Los Angeles published during the 1920s.

These belong in mainstream curricula, Lopez believes, because they speak to issues of language, immigration, border control, and U.S.-Mexico relations. She asks, isn't that part of the territory a university's supposed to explore?

Lopez: We certainly generate ideas and disseminate those ideas to our students who then go off and become the policymakers and the health care practitioners of Los Angeles, and of the world really, so the kinds of debates that we have and that we expose our students to really shape the way they think about issues of race and nations.

Guzman-Lopez: These are contentious issues, Lopez says, but she doesn't expect any knock-down, drag-out fights at the language association conference. She's pretty sure these subjects will migrate from the academic world to the public sphere.

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