(NOTE: With the permission of the original publisher and the author, this 1976 article is posted on this website because of its continued relevance to students of folklore.)|
Chicano literature sprang from the Battle of the Alamo and the Texas insurrection when the Texas-Americans usurped Mexican authority in what is now Texas and the Southwest United States. The literature continued to develop as Chicano writers of the 19th Century wrote and published newspapers, histories, poems, essays, plays, and short stories. Donaciano Vigil published the newspaper Verdad and wrote History of New Mexico to 1851; Miguel Otero wrote a history on Native American affairs, The Indian Depredations in the Territory of New Mexico; Mariano Vallejo wrote an exhaustive five-volume historical treatise on The History of California. Other Chicano writers of the 19th Century wrote essays, poems, plays, but they encountered publication difficulties as Eastern established publishing firms showed little or no interest in Chicano literature. Chicano writers were left to their own resources; some were able to gain the necessary capital to publish, such as Padre Antonio Martinez who published his own newspaper El Crespusculo (The Dawn), one of the first newspapers published on the North American continent. Many were unable to find capital, their literature relegated to family diaries, bibles, and trunks.
The language of Chicano literature sprang from the indio-hispanic synthesis when the Spanish and Indian dialects of Mexico contacted and blended into Mexican Spanish, and later American English. Early Chicano writers composed primarily in Mexican-American Spanish, but contemporary writers have tended to write in a variety of languages, including Mexican Spanish, American English, and the Chicano caló—a blend of Spanish and English. Some writers chose to write bilingually, using both Spanish and English, which is reflective of the Chicano bilingual-bicultural experience. Dr. Philip Ortego, managing editor of the largest contemporary Chicano news magazine, La Luz, calls this the "binary phenomenon" of Chicano literature, meaning that the Chicano may use Spanish and English interchangeably in a literary piece.
Chicano literature is rooted in the literary traditions of 16th century Spain and the oral traditions of the indio cultures of Mexico. Yet, in spite of the historical tenacity and cultural complexity of Chicano literature, much of the literature written about Chicanos by non-Chicanos has portrayed the Chicano as the progeny of a culture that was at its roots either docile or violent. Cecil Robinson, in his book With the Ears of Strangers: The Mexican in American Literature observed that much of what has been portrayed as Chicano ethnicity has been the prejudices and biases of Anglo writers. Early dime novels protrayed the "greasers" as compliant peasants one would mistake for pets; upon occasion the "greasers" were portrayed as likely to rise from the pits of docility to the pinnacle of treachery and banditry. The slumbering peón and the killing bandito were stock characters in the novels.
Multi-ethnic Literature and Chicano Folklore
What is needed in a mutli-ethnic literature program is the literature that has been created by the members of the ethnic group. This is the literature of myths, legends, songs, the literature of unconscious self-portrayal through which a people prescribe parameters to their ethnicity. Literature of the folk, that literature that is transmitted orally fromn generation to generation is addressed to the essential ethnicity of a people. To know the Chicano experience, one must know the legends, the heroes, the dichos (sayings) that have emerged from the Mexican American's imagination. Mexican-American professor of English, Philip Ortego, in his essay The Chicano Renaissance explains that the Mexican-American has been "…nurtured and sustained in spirit and soul by his music, dance, cuentos (folktales).
It becomes necessary to call from the literature the folklore that seems basic to a people or cultural group. Rationale for selection of such folklore should include the following considerations:
1. The folklore should have evolved via the oral tradition; only that folklore can be considered both "folk" and "lore."
2. The folklore should have been recorded by informants or writers who have an intimate knowledge of the ethnic group. This will insure a modicum of authenticity for the folklore, since it at least will convey the impressions of the members of the ethnic group. To some extent, repugnant stereotypes can be avoided by using this approach.
3. The folklore should contain themes and motifs that are both tragic and comic; this approach will provide a balanced view of the ethnic group, portraying the light and serious experiences of the group.
What follows is an overview of Mexican-American folklore. Folklore fundamental to the Chicano experience has been collected from the Chicano's literary heritage. The folklore should be approached with caution to prevent interpretations that are, at least ethnocentric, and at worst, prejudicial. The lore should not be viewed, as though it were "quaint," "curious," or "queer." In form it is written in the best tradition of 16th century Spanish genres, antedating the literary genres of the Eastern American colonies by one hundred years, and in substance, it is fused with the mysticism of the indio (Mexican-Indian). Mexican-American folklore brought to American literature one of the first genuine forms of cultural pluralism, the indio-hispanic synthesis. Contrary to the admonition of Rudyard Kipling, Mexican-American folklore assimilated and amalgamated Western literary form and Eastern mysticism, bringing to the American literary heritage, and the American continent, the introduction of the integration of East and West. The intent of the overview is to provide the multi-ethnic literature teacher both information and resources regarding Mexican-American folklore as well as a framework by which other ethnic folklores can be approached. Following the overview on the folklore is a multi-faceted bibliography citing folklore resources. They are readily available materials written and/or translated into English. A test on the overview also follows.
Mexican-American folksongs can be classified as either narrative ballads, lyrical romances, or lyrical tragedies. The most popular narrative ballad is the corrido, which is still being created and sung. The term corrido refers to a "running narrative or account" of an adventure or misadventure. The corrido has a basic stanzaic form of quatrains, each line being eight syllables long. Rhyme can be either pure, consonantal, or vocalic. Generally, the corrido opens with a greeting, follows with an introduction to the incident and central character, and then commences with the account. The language is Mexican Spanish, but it is colloquial and idiomatic to the Chicano.
The lyrical tragedies are the songs sung for solemn occasions. Celebration of the Mass, funerals, and wakes are where they are heard. The best known lyrical tragedies are called alabados. Little is known about the origin of the alabados although they can be defined as chants. They sound like Jewish canticles, or perhaps a bit like Gregorian chants; some musicologists have likened them to the chants heard in the mosques. They are primarily intoned by Los Hermanos de Luz, the penitential descendants of 16th century Spanish Franciscan third order Brothers who colonized the Rio Grande Valley of the Southwestern United States.
The lyrical romances are the traditional serenades, lullabies, and love songs. The best known lyrical romances are call las mañanitas and las rancheras. Las mañanitas (early morning) serenades are sung on birthdays. The term las rancheras refers to "the ranch songs," since these are the love songs of the vaquero or cowboy. The most widely known ranchera is "Rancho Grande," a love song that tells of a Chicana's love and devotion to a vaquero.
Mexican-American folksongs should sound familiar to the non-Mexican American, since most of the folksongs originated with ranch culture of the vaquero. During lonely nights or dusty winter afternoons on the Southwestern range, the vaquero spun his corrido or his ranchera. The Anglo cowboys borrowed from the vaqueros their song forms and motifs and merely changed them into English. The corrido qualities of western trail songs, such as those of "Chisholm Trail," are a testament to the influence of Mexican-American folk music on the general American culture.
Mexican-American Personas de Leyendas (Legendary Mexican American characters)
In the folklore there are three well-known characters, 1) La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), 2) La Bruja (The Witch), 3) La Curandera (The Healer), and one less well-known character, La Muerte (Angel of Death).
The motifs of the tales about all four of the characters vary according to the locale and time period from which they have emerged. Some are tragic, some are comic, some are satiric parodies spoofing the tales themselves. Some of the motifs ascribe benevolent powers in the characters; others ascribe malevolent powers.
The tales of La Llorona antedate to the Mexican Aztecs. Their legends tell of an Aztec goddess, Chihuacothuatl, who mixed with Aztec women bearing an empty cradle. In the cradle, an arrowhead shaped like the Aztec sacrificial knife was found instead of the goddess' infant. At night the goddess would shriek and weep through the streets in lament of her dead infant. Among Mexican Americans, La Llorona has been characterized as either a kidnapper of infants (in retribution for the child she lost in its infancy) or as a mourner of dead infants. She is viewed as a threat to infants or a solace for grieving parents, depending on the tale itself.
The tales of La Bruja (The Witch) antedate both 16th century Spain and the Aztecs of Mexico. As with La Llorona, La Bruja envisages both maelvolent and benevolent powers; some tales are stories of bewitched lovers or spurned women for whom La Bruja seeks revenge. These tales are similar to those of Cupid. Some tales are stories of demonic powers, in which La Bruja represents cosmic and human forces of evil.
The tales of La Curandera (The Healer) are best epitomized in Anaya's novel, Bless Me Ultima. Anaya explores the character of a curandera through the eyes of a young boy. With a mystic faith, he sees the curandera, who uses herbs to heal, as having powers which surpass those of priests and parents.
Of all the characters in the folk tales, the character of La Muerte is the most defined. Essentially, the tales of La Muerte have characterized her as an emissary of bad news, of death, disease, or famine. Little is known about the character's origin, although a Penitente's funeral procession includes a cart (carreta) carrying a wooden, hand-hewed skeleton resembling La Muerte. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. houses La Muerte de Cordova, and several New Mexico museums house similar santos (statues) of her.
Mexican-American Pastorelas y Dramaticas (Folk Drama)
Much Mexican-American folk drama centers around religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. The drama has been likened to the morality and cycle plays of Medieval Europe, and in form and motif the likeness seems logical. No doubt, the drama's origin is 16th century Spain, though many of the stock characters and symbols are Mexican indio. This can be attributed to the early assimilation of Mexican indio mysticism and religious practices into colonial Spanish Catholicism. The most popular folk drama is performed during Christmas season, Los Pastores, which is a celebration of Christ's brith. Actors remain on stage at all times as in the folk drama tradition, switching roles by switching masks. Abstract concepts, such as evil, are personified by such masked characters as Lucifer. The actors are also part of the chorus requiring them to harmonize for chants and songs.
Mexican-American folk drama has now been formalized by the work of Luis Valdez and his Teatro Campesino [Farmworkers' Theatre]. Sr. Valdez has organized a traveling company of players who have synthesized Mexican-American flklore into vignettes, tragedies, and comedies. The dramas are steeped in the symbolism, the legends, and the corridos of the Chicano; they are performed in tradition of the folk drama in stage craft, dramatic effect, and acting technique.
Mexican-American Cuentos, Dichos, y Adivinanzas (Parables, Proverbs, and Riddles)
This category of the folklore consists of Mexican-American insights that have transmitted the culture's folk wisdom. The cuentos (parables) are short accounts that either directly or indirectly make a moral or ethical point. Some of the cuentos are considered chistes (jokes) in that they spoof some legendary character or incident. The dichos (proverbs) are much like Old Testament proverbs although the dichos sometimes contain social criticisms making them both topical and timely. Many times they are rhymed couplets. At times, the dichos, as the cuentos, are considered chistes. The adivinanzas (riddles) are usually four to five lines long; they are written in patterned free verse with dependency on vocalic internal rhyme—for rhythmic beat. As most riddles, they pose a paradox which can only be unraveled by understanding of the idioms, nuances and multiple meanings of the language.
Other Mexican-American Folklore
This overview is by no means all-inclusive. The lore of medicine, the lore of Mexican-American coal miners, of railroad workers, of migrant laborers, and of the vaquero has hardly been tapped. Further, much of the religious and political folklore has been excluded. The cuentos about La Virgen de Guadalupe (Lady of Guadalupe), the dichos of Zapata, and the perennial chistes are countless. Nevertheless, this generalized overview of the folklore is focused on the essential ethnicity of the Mexican-American. It can be articulated with the rationale necessary for selection of folklore for a multi-ethnic literature program. All of the folklore evolved via the oral tradition. To a large extent it is free of cultural stereotypes, and its motifs are both tragic and comic. Ultimately, the folklore represents the Mexican American's unconscious attempts at self-definition, and with this process, the Mexican American unfolds profound ethnicity, saddened by tragedy, enlightened by comedy, and balanced by self-criticism and parody.
Chicano Literature Exam
Try your hand at this exam. Answer key follows.
[WEBMASTER NOTE: You can also place your cursor over the diamond for the correct answer.]
1. Among Chicanos, popular narrative ballads which are running narratives or accounts of personal adventures or misadventures are known as
a. los alabados2. Among Chicanos, the lyrical tragedies intoned as canticles primarily by Los Hermanos de Luz are known as
a. los alabados3. The love songs of the vaquero are known as
a. los alabados4. Early morning serenades sung for birthdays are known as
a. los alabados5. A leyenda is
a. a salad made from lettuce6. La Llorona is a legendary character who
a. emerged from Spanish folklore7. La Llorona is a legendary character best described
a. as the Angel of Death8. La Muerte is a legendary character best described as
a. as the Angel of Death9. La Curandera is a legendary character best described as
a. as the Angel of Death10. La Bruja is a legendary character best described as
a. as the Angel of Death11. Chicano folk drama is best described as
a. plays that originated in the Romantic period of Spanish drama12. Los Pastores are traditionally performed during
a. any season of the year13. A cuento is a folklore genre known as
a. a short story (parable)14. A dicho is a folklore genre known as
a. a short story (parable)15. An adivinanza is a folklore genre known as
a. a short story (parable)16. A chiste is a folklore genre known as
a. a short story (parable)17. The language of Chicano literature
a. is mostly American English18. Donaciano Vigil wrote as a Chicano
a. a newspaper called Verdad
19. Miguel Otero wrote as a Chicano in the 19th Century
a. newspaper articles and essays20. Mariano Vallejo wrote as a Chicano in the 19th Century
a. newspaper articles21. Chicano diaries, letters, and essays weren't published
a. because Chicanos of the 19th Century were not literate22. Ortego's concept of the "binary phenomenon" is a way of saying
a. a sickness once called consumption23. A contemporary national Chicano magazine is called
[NOTE: Remember this article was published in 1976.]
a. La Raza Unida
Now try this challenge exercise. Some of the answers are in the essay. Others in the library. Match names with the literary pieces.
24. Luis Valdez
25. Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales
26. José Antonio Villarreal
27. Rudolfo Anaya
28. Tomás Rivera
29. Ernesto Galarza
30. Rodolfo F. Acuña
31. Richard Vasquez
32. Raymond Barrio
a. Bless Me, Ultima (novel)|
b. Pocho (novel)
c. I am Joaquín: Yo soy Joaquín (epic poem)
d. Ditos Campesinos (folk drama)
e. …y no se lo tragó la tierra (trans. "…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him") (essay)
f. Chicano (novel)
g. The Plum Plum Pickers (novel)
h. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (history)
i. Barrio Boy (memoir)
Answer Key for CHALE|
1. c, 2. a, 3. b, 4. d, 5. d, 6. c, 7. b, 8. a, 9. d, 10. c, 11. b, 12. b, 13. a, 14. e, 15. d, 16. b, 17. d, 18. d, 19. d, 20. e, 21. c, 22. c, 23. b, 24. d, 25. c, 26. b, 27. a, 28. e, 29. i, 30. h, 31. f, 32. g
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY ON MEXICAN-AMERICAN FOLKLORE
References Cited in the Essay
1 Robinson, Cecil. With the Ears of Strangers. The Mexican in American Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 19873, pp. 31-66.
2 Ortego, Philip. "The Chicano Renaissance," Introduction to Chicano Studies. New York: Macmillan Company, 1973, pp. 331-350.
General References on Mexican-American Folklore
Campa, Arthur. Spanish Folk-Poetry in New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1946.
Dobie, Frank S. Southwestern Lore. Dallas: Southwest Press, 1931. (Parables, Legends, Songs).
_____. Puro Mexicano. Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1935. (Legends, Parables, Songs, Proverbs)
Dorson, Richard. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. (Parables, Legends, Proverbs, Riddles, Dramas, Songs).
Espinosa, Jose Manuel. Spanish Folk-Tales from New Mexico. New York: Kraus Reprint Company, 1969.
Hudson, Wilson M., ed. The Healer of Los Olmos, and Other Mexican Lore. Dallas: Southern Methodist Press, 1951. (Legends, Parables, Folk Remedies, Proverbs, Riddles).
Lucero, Aurora. Literary Folklore of the Hispanic Southwest. San Antonio: Naylor Company, 1953.
Valdez, Luis and Stan Steiner. An Anthology of Mexican American Literature. New York: Alfred Knopf Inc., 1972.
Williams, Stanley. The Spanish Background of American Literature. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.
Mexican-American Folk Songs
Boatright, Mody. Mexican Border Ballads and Other Lore. Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1946.
Chavez, Fray Angelico. "Penitentes of New Mexico." New Mexico Historical Society, vol. XXIX, April 1954.
GRITO, Journal of Contemporary Mexican American Thought. Berkeley: Quinto Sol Pub, VI, no. 3, Spring 1973.
Moro, Joaquin. "Songs the Vaqueros Sing," ed. J. Frank Dobie. Dallas: Southwest Press, 1931.
Robb, John. Hispanic Folk Songs of New Mexico. Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Publications in the Fine Arts #1, 1954.
Simmons, Merle. The Mexican Corrido as a Source for Interpretive Study of Modern Mexico, 1870-1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.
Taylor, Paul. "Songs of the Mexican Migration." In Dobie's Puro Mexicano, op. cit.
Mexican-American Folk Drama
Cole, M.R. Los Pastores: A Mexican Play of the Nativity. Boston: American Folklore Society, 1907.
Espinoza, Aurelio. "New Mexican Spanish Folk-lore, IX, Riddles." Journal of American Folklore, XXVIII, 1915.
Perez, Soledad. Mexican Folklore. In Hudson's The Healer of Los Olmos, op cit.
Rael, Juan. Cuentos Españoles de Colorado y de Nuevo Mejico (Spanish Tales from Colorado and New Mexico). 2 vols. Stanford: University Press, 1957.
Valdez, Luis. Actos. Fresno: Cucaracha Press, 1971.