John Alba Cutler’s Ends of Assimilation: The Formation of Chicano Literature and John D. “Rio” Riofrio’s Continental Shifts: Migration, Representation, and the Struggle for Justice in Latin(o) America take nuanced approaches to the role assimilation plays in how Latina/os represent themselves and are represented by others. While Cutler’s book focuses on the asynchronous relationship between Chicana/o literature and assimilation theory, Riofrio examines how, after 9/11, Latina/os have been increasingly represented in dehumanizing ways that highlight their unassimilability into the United States. As these texts make clear, the unassimilability of Latina/os has several causes and effects. Cutler notes that assimilation theory historically has failed to account for groups outside the black/white binary, such as Mexican Americans, and the role of gender. To remedy these gaps, he turns to Chicana/o literature, thus using literary models to illuminate assimilation sociology as another form of representational discourse (6). Riofrio similarly looks to representational discourses in his wide-ranging archive, which includes novels, movies, YouTube videos, and so-called “reality” prison programming. By focusing on the War on Terror, Riofrio emphasizes how contemporary discourses frame Latina/os as an internal threat, with the “perceived cultural shift” (12) of an ascendant Latina/o population “rais[ing] the alarm that the linguistic ‘Reconquista’ of Spanish over English is underway” (13). Ends of Assimilation and Continental Shifts are capacious in their reach, ranging in their analyses from canonical literature to new media. Both works are vital texts for Latina/o and Hemispheric cultural studies, particularly in their consideration of the roles of institutions and media in framing Latina/o identity. Cutler considers the misalignment between Chicana/o literature and assimilation theory as a productive gap that captures the blind spots and failures of assimilation theory even as it preoccupies Chicana/o literature. As Cutler explains, assimilation theory stemmed from progressive impulses to combat nativist notions of racial essentialism; however, in so doing, assimilation theory failed to consider the processes of racialization that groups undergo in the United States (5). Cutler considers such processes of racialization in his innovative approach to Chicana/o literary history, which grapples with the central role that institutions play in staging the encounter between Chicana/o representations and their communities and the assimilationist tendencies that ostensibly inform such institutions. To that end, in chapter 1, “Becoming Mexican-American Literature,” Cutler considers three foundational texts of Chicano literature: José Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho (1959), Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez (1990), and Jovita González and Margaret Eimer’s Caballero: A Historical Novel (1996). Cutler’s reading of Caballero is particularly incisive as he complicates assimilation theory by demonstrating how the novel offers a model of mutual assimilation, albeit predicated on a sense of shared whiteness. Chapter 2, “Quinto Sol, Chicana/o Literature, and the Long March through Institutions,” discusses how the founders of Quinto Sol Publications, Octavio Romano and Nick C. Vaca, counteract negative representations of Chicana/os in the social sciences. Cutler brilliantly presents his argument about the founders alongside Rolando Hinojosa’s Estampas del Valle (1973), which won the Premio Quinto Sol, and Estela Portillo Trambley’s Rain of Scorpions (1975), which received an honorable mention. Chapter 3, “Cultural Capital and the Singularity of Literature in Hunger of Memory and The Rain God,” examines how Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory (1982) and Arturo Islas’s The Rain God (1984) contend with boundary-crossing assimilation, or the idea that “crossing over from a minority to the mainstream culture entails adopting the aesthetic tastes of that mainstream culture” (87). While Rodriguez more or less subscribes to the ethos of assimilation, Cutler astutely demonstrates that Islas’s book offers a more nuanced account. The Rain God is not simply an anti-assimilationist counterpoint to Rodriguez’s book. Rather, Cutler argues that Islas “suggests strategies for redistributing literary cultural capital” (116) instead of allowing himself to be subsumed by it. In the next two chapters, Cutler examines the influence and consequences of the “culture of poverty” hypothesis. In Chapter 4, “Lyric Subjects, Cultures of Poverty, and Sandra Cisneros’s Wicked Wicked Ways,” Cutler examines Sandra Cisneros’s 1987 poetry collection within the controversial hypothesis advanced by Oscar Lewis and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which asserts that “although structural conditions led to poverty, poor people develop a set of cultural responses to those conditions that perpetuate it” (121). Situating Cisneros’s poetry within her short-story collection The House on Mango Street (1984), Cutler contends that Cisneros simultaneously combats the culture of poverty hypothesis and Malinche discourses within the Chicana/o community (121). Chapter 5, “Segmented Assimilation in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Prison Counterpublics,” investigates how Baca’s Immigrants in Our Own Land (1979) and Martín & Meditations on the South Valley (1987) negotiate segmented and boundary-crossing assimilation. The former attempts to account for assimilation into groups other than those that are upwardly mobile into “other ‘segments’ of society, such as the working class or a racialized underclass” (154), while the latter describes “a choice to divest oneself of ethnicity in exchange for full participation in mainstream American life” (12). Cutler deftly demonstrates how Baca avoids subscribing to either of these modes by participating in the construction of counterpublics, which are “discursive spaces that maintain a critical relationship to power” (155) instead of assimilating into the institutions that exert such power, in this case the prison. In a fascinating departure from the previous chapters’ chronological focus, chapter 6, “Disappeared Men: Chicano/a Authenticity and the American War in Viet Nam,” reevaluates the importance of the Vietnam War and the Chicano Movement in Chicana/o literary history. Cutler brings together four novels—Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), Alfredo Véa’s Gods Go Begging (1999), Patricia Santana’s Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility (2002), and Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them (2007)—to consider the “imagined opposition between assimilation and authenticity from the Movement era to the present” (181-82). Cutler notes that the break with chronology “might seem backward looking” (181), a point that he ultimately extends in his conclusion, where he explains that his book is in part a response to Kirsten Silva Gruesz’s 2012 PMLA review of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010). Cutler quotes Gruesz’s evaluation of the anthology as “‘presenting an authoritative canon for a body of literature that doesn’t yet have a literary history’” (220). Cutler thus points to the importance of his book in establishing a literary history for Chicana/o literature. To do so, he suggests, we must look backward, a point further underscored by the recovery and critical projects underway that excavate longer histories of Latina/o literature. While Pocho, for example, was consigned to relative obscurity until Doubleday decided to capitalize on the Chicano Movement (51), neither George Washington Gómez nor Caballero were published at the time they were written. As Cutler cogently observes, the Chicano Movement led to recovery projects and the publication of both novels; thus, he argues, the inclusion of all three novels “in the formation of Chicano/a literature is contingent on their becoming Mexican-American literature” (55). In this way, Cutler points to how books published noncontemporaneously with their respective historical moments speak to these moments while simultaneously proleptically anticipating contemporary concerns, such as the role of gender in both assimilation theory and Chicana/o literature. Riofrio also excavates an archive, although his relies on more contemporary depictions of Latina/os. Taking a hemispheric approach, he highlights the back and forth between the United States and South America along rhetorical and ideological lines by looking at a variety of cultural productions. Using the metaphor of “continental shifts,” Riofrio describes these “two hemispheres as sliding toward each other on unseen tectonic plates and folding inward, like an enormous continental origami, such that what was once considered separate and distinct has been forced to mutual acknowledgement” (12). He highlights cultural shifts as moving both up and down, rather than always leading north. Where Cutler’s book contemplates the disjunction between assimilation theory and Chicana/o literature, Riofrio’s tracks the negative connotations associated with Latina/os, particularly anxieties about the United States eventually assimilating into Latin America. Chapter 1, “Hemispheric Latinidades: Migrating Bodies and the Blurred Borders of Latino Identities,” examines the novels Paraíso Travel (2001) by Colombian writer Jorge Franco and Películas de mi vida (2003) by Chilean author Alberto Fuguet to explore “the notion that ‘Latino’ identities are being born in far-flung places such as Ecuador, Colombia, and Nicaragua” (37). In taking such an approach, Riofrio decenters the border as the boundary dividing Latina/o and Latin American identities. He argues, for example, that Franco’s text demonstrates how “those who leave are already changed before they take flight, before they cross any of the physical borders that impede their journey. What we might think of as a potential, politicized Latina/o identity is, therefore, produced in part before the arrival to the United States” (51). Chapter 2, “Dirty Politics of Representation: Dehumanizing Discourse, Latinidad, and the Struggle for Self-Ascribed Ethnic Identity,” turns to a Habermasian examination of the public sphere as creating “a shared sense of self” (80). Riofrio investigates the YouTube video of a thirteen-year-old boy, Chaz Hernandez, alongside clips by Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck and comments by government officials such as Tennessee state representative Todd Curry, South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, Iowa state representative Steve King, Texas state representative Ted Poe, and Kansas state representative Virgil Peck. Through careful analysis, Riofrio demonstrates the negative stigmas attached to Mexican identity and the persistent depiction of Mexicans as animals. While noting that YouTube produces the clips of commentators such as Dobbs and representatives such as Todd Curry, he ends by pointing to its transformational power through an examination of a video by a DREAMer (user Santos Amaru) and another video by the band La Santa Cecilia that takes up the horrors of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Chapter 3, “Spectacles of Incarceration: Biopolitics, Public Shaming, and the Pornography of Prisons,” scrutinizes the genre of reality prison programming exemplified by MSNBC’s Lockup, Lockup Raw, and Lockup: Extended Stay to demonstrate how such shows reassure viewers by asserting “our own freedom, all while congratulating ourselves for not having succumbed to the individual choices that lead to incarceration” (136). Such shows display incarceration pornographically through the “hyper-fetishization of the incarcerated body” (131), placing the blame squarely on the incarcerated rather than the structural forces at play. Chapter 4, “Latinos in a Post-9/11 Moment: ‘American’ Identity and the Public Latino Body,” reads the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) and Argentine Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman’s novel Americanos: Los Pasos de Murieta (2009) as 9/11 works that examine the Western’s critical capacity to reframe immigration sympathetically. Riofrio ends Continental Shifts by reflecting on the 2012 election and the Republican Party’s assertion that it must turn to the Latina/o vote to win the presidency. Riofrio wryly underscores the untenable nature of this position by pointing to the xenophobia expressed by the politicians he discusses in chapter 2. This untenability, of course, strikes a different chord today after the Republican Party campaigned and won by taking a xenophobic stance in 2016. As the anxieties Riofrio outlines come to a head in the current political climate, tracking the rise of these discourses is paramount to understanding how the United States reached this point. Furthermore, as a literary history of Chicana/o literature, Cutler’s Ends of Assimilation emphasizes that only in writing one’s histories does new knowledge, and with it new solutions, come to light. © MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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