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3.4: Literary Histories

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    Chicanx and Latinx Literature as History

    In Literature as History: Autobiography, Testimonio, and the Novel in the Chicano and Latino Experience (2016), Chicano historian Mario T. García proposes what the title of his book suggests––that Chicanx and Latinx literature is history, including fictional texts, autobiographies, testimonios (oral history) and novels, each possessing a “historical context and therefore speaking to their historical period.”47 Similarly, Louis Gerard Mendoza, professor of Latina/o literary and cultural studies, argues the literature of Mexican descent people in the U.S. has represented the past using fiction and non-fiction, pointing out that a polarity exists between history, which is understood as real/factual, and literature, which is understood as imagined/possible. According to Mendoza and García, Chicanx literature blurs these lines––a text can be both historical and literary. In other words, “…people of Mexican descent in the United States do not have simply a history on the one hand and a literature on the other; we also have that history expressed in literary form.”48 Moreover, “literature can offer imaginative reconstructions of possible events, occurrences, and interactions that are historically informed.”49 This means that Chicanx/Latinx literature can be examined as historical documents and read for insights into Chicanx/Latinx history. Mendoza addresses the following questions in his study––questions that would be productive if discussed in the classroom: “Can literature help in recovering the political/social history of Chicanas/os without distorting it or reducing it to ‘mere fiction?’ Can it render the past differently—that is, more complexly—than ‘history’ can? What can it add? Is it better able to capture the nuances of intercultural relations and intracultural conflict?”50

    An important contribution to understanding and utilizing literature as history has been the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project, which began in the 1990s to recover, digitize, and make accessible hundreds of thousands of Spanish literary texts and English-language texts written by Latinxs including novels, poetry, chronicles, memoirs, photographs, and essays as well as primary source documents and newspapers dating back to the earliest encounters between Hispanic and Indigenous peoples in what would become the United States. Editors of The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature (2013) Suzanne Bost and Frances R. Aparicio remark, “Recovery projects make available texts that were ‘lost’ due to lack of readership (or sometimes outright censorship) but have been ‘found’ and republished as Latino/a literature became increasingly popular in and after the 1980s.”51 According to the project's program director Nicolás Kanellos, 

    Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage aspires to recover all written culture, not just literature, and it intends to restore to local and national institutions what was lost or suppressed during the ethnocentric and racial construction of the nation through such ideologies and practices as manifest destiny, slavery, segregation, and capitalist construction of the government and the economy. It recognizes that United States Latino culture has developed over a period of some five centuries––not counting the indigenous history that existed before the encounter with Europeans and became part of Latino culture.52

    Commenting on the social and political implications of the project, Kanellos echoes the sentiments of other scholar-activists featured in this chapter, claiming,

    Studying ideologies of racial and cultural superiority like manifest destiny also helps us to understand why little care was taken to recognize and preserve an archive of Hispanic texts and knowledge as the United States expanded southward and westward and began receiving large waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Simply stated, and repeated many times in postcolonial studies, an empire does not and cannot acknowledge as civilized the peoples it has conquered or incorporated; most of the archives, libraries, museums, universities, and schools that were established in the newly incorporated lands and in the labor camps of the East, Midwest, Southwest, and Florida did not collect and preserve the written and oral culture––newspapers, books, documents, spoken word––of natives, immigrants, and refugees, for to do so would have destroyed the Anglo-Americans’ claim of superiority and, thus, of the right to dominate Latinos while denying them theoretical and practical inclusion in their nation, as they defined it.53

    As this section has demonstrated, the recovery, documentation, preservation, and dissemination of Chicanx/Latinx literature is an important component in the larger objective of Chicanx/Latinx history to revise, recast, and correct historical narratives that shape our present-day lives. 

    Sidebar: Caballero: A Historical Novel

    Co-authored by Jovita González and Eve Raleigh (Margaret Eimer’s pseudonym), Caballero: A Historical Novel was written in the 1930s and early 1940, but was not published until 1996. After early failed attempts to publish the manuscript and being lost for decades, the novel was rediscovered in the Jovita González and Edmundo E. Mireles papers that were archived at the Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi library in the early 1990s. The manuscript was identified by Professor José E. Limón who, with María Eugenia Cotera, edited the novel for publication. According to the publisher, Caballero, “centers on a mid-nineteenth-century Mexican landowner and his family living in the heart of southern Texas during a time of tumultuous change. After covering the American military occupation of South Texas, the story involves the reader in romances between young lovers from opposing sides during the military conflict of the U.S.-Mexico War. The young protagonists fall in love but face struggles with race, class, gender, and sexual contradictions. This work, long lost in a collection of private papers and unavailable until now, serves as a literary ethnography of South Texas-Mexican folklore customs and traditions as well as a feminist critique of rigid patriarchal culture.”54

    Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project has recovered the works of women including Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Luisa Capetillo, Adina de Zavala, María Cristina Mena, Leonor Villegas de Magnón, and Jovita González. In a keynote speech titled “The Construction of Latina Agency in Early Southwest Literature,” Dr. Rosaura Sánchez points to the ways these authors portray their women characters as having agency, but that agency is tied to being a wife or daughter of an upper-class ranchero. While Caballero and others like it are valuable texts, Sánchez cautions those of us searching for a past literary heritage to be aware of an author’s positionality and not assume that a Spanish surname equates to being a supporter of marginalized members of one’s community or critical of oppressive social structures and institutions. Sánchez asserts, “Recovery need not be uncritically celebratory; even archaeological digs run their recovered artifacts through sieves or filters to determine the artifact’s authenticity or relevance. …Ours is in large measure a history of violence and dispossession and for that reason it is important to construct our past critically. Recover we must, but with a critical perspective to point to the spatial and discursive violence that has been and to some degree continues to characterize our histories.”55


    47 Mario T. García, Literature as History: Autobiography, Testimonio, and the Novel in the Chicano and Latino Experience (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016), 3.

    48 Louis Gerard Mendoza, Historia: The Literary Making of Chicana & Chicano History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001), 28.

    49 Mendoza, Historia, 24.

    50 Mendoza, Historia, 28.

    51 Suzanne Bost and Frances R. Aparicio, eds. The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature (London: Routledge, 2013), 3.

    52 Nicolás Kanellos, “Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage,” PMLA 127, no. 2 (March 2012): 372.

    53 Kanellos, “Recovering,” 372.

    54 “Caballero: A Historical Novel,” Texas A&M Press, accessed December 10, 2022.

    55 Rosaura Sánchez, “The Construction of Latina Agency in Early Southwest Literature” (keynote speech, XV Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Conference, Houston, Texas, February 21, 2020).

    This page titled 3.4: Literary Histories is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amber Rose González (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .