Check out my Pedagogy of the Panza interview for The Panza Monologues Blog!
Check out my Pedagogy of the Panza interview for The Panza Monologues Blog!
Last September, I finally read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I had been beating around the bush for months, maybe years, and after going to a Junot Díaz reading and talk-back, I finally plunged into the book. The novel blew me away and quickly became one of my favorites. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this immediately and get yourself a copy of Oscar Wao!
Díaz’ latest book, This is How You Lose Her, while not quite up to the level of Oscar Wao, is almost as compelling a read as his masterwork. I loved reading the different short stories and I even managed to get Kayla to read a few of them. This is How You Lose Her consists of 9 stories that feature Yunior, of Drown and Oscar Wao fame, at the center. I love Yunior. Everyone I know who has read the books loves Yunior. If anything, this collection humanizes him even further. Even though he is a world-class Dominican-American macho male, these stories show us that he just wants to be loved regardless of his “stud” persona. The reader sees the ways in which Yunior is able to love and be loved while demonstrating the effects of his relationships on his unwavering masculinity.
Yunior may come off as a typical macho Dominican male, but he is more than that. While all of the men in his life are serial cheaters and the collection’s most prominent male influence, Rafa, is abusive to women, Yunior does not exactly follow down this path. Even though he frequently messes up, cheats, and loses the girl, he doesn’t particularly seem to learn anything. Nevertheless, I interpret the work itself as his recognition of his failures and the poor decisions he has made in his life. The last story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” presents Yunior years later. After being rightfully dumped by his fiancée due to his typically womanizing ways, he seems to finally learn from his mistakes. He becomes depresses and must fall into the abyss before he can finally emerge a wiser and better person, one that does not repeat the mistakes of his youth. Essentially, the stories are as much about failure as they are about growth. Yunior cannot truly grow and become a better person until he experiences failure. True, he frequently makes the same errors and typically credits them to his being a Dominican male, but the repetitive nature of his mistakes forces him to see them for what they are. They aren’t a reflection of his Dominicanness or his maleness; they are a result of who he is. Yunior is an addict, thus explaining the repetitiveness of his mistakes. I see the collection as a sort of rehab in which he must “come clean” about who he truly is in order to move on and make amends with his past.
Even though I generally want to dislike Yunior due his typical machismo behavior, I genuinely like the character. I think I owe this to Díaz’ style of writing. His writing is real to me. He effortless intertwines different languages, dialects, linguistic registers, and even sci-fi and pop culture tidbits. I’m always wanting to read more. And perhaps no other contemporary writer makes me want to write myself more than Junot Díaz. His writing makes me want to drop out of school, take some creative writing workshops, go to Agora, and make magic happen.
Evangelina Vigil was one of the first writers to offer an intimate perspective of daily life in a Chicano barrio/neighborhood. This unique viewpoint is seen in her poetic series of barrio snapshots, Thirty an’ Seen a Lot. First of all, I love the title and picture of Vigil on the cover. It says it all. She is a confident Chicana decolonizing Hispanic women formerly seen as passive wives and girlfriends. The neon sign reads “Ladies Welcome,” inviting Vigil’s audience to join her and break free of patriarchal social constraints.
Thirty an’ Seen a Lot, published in 1982 by Arte Público Press, is a collection of bilingual poetry written during the years she lived in Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston. Subsequently, it demonstrates her growth and evolution as a poet. The principle themes of the work include daily life in the barrio, criticism of machismo, and the culture of the working class.
Notably, Vigil, as a poet, occupies a place formerly dominated by her male counterparts during the height of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Through her poetry, she is able to impose herself on Chicano Culture and take over a space typically reserved for men. She inverts stereotypical gender roles by embodying an aggressive persona. She acts, demands, orders, speaks, and decides; she is active.
One of my favorite poems from the collection is por la calle Zarzamora. This poem is well representative of Vigil’s active and aggressive style of poetry; she fully occupies the domain typically closed-off to Chicana women.
entro a una cantina
y como ciega busco mi lugar
eso es muy importante
luego ordeno una cerveza
y me acomodo
After ordering her beer, she goes on to describe her fellow bar-goers: “los batos y señores.” Her presence here is completely normal and accepted by the male majority.
y de rato a mi presencia se acostumbran
y siguen con su onda natural
While Vigil breaks traditional feminine stereotypes, thus forcing her audience to question traditional Chicana femininity itself, the poem includes two other women who seem to typify a more stereotypical version of Hispanic women. Nevertheless, it appears that Vigil is celebrating who these women embody. She writes:
entran por la puerta dos mujeres
muy arregladas –
o como decían más antes, bien ‘jitis’
con olores de perfume
y de aqua net hairspray:
pues, se ven bien
Rather than relegate these women to second-tier status behind her own confidence existence, Vigil presents these women as strong ones. In fact, when a man hits on these women and offers them a drink, they kindly decline his offer. Similarly to ¡es todo!, Vigil is able to create a snapshot through her poetic language. In 30 or so lines of poetry, she paints a complete portrait of this particular aspect of life in the barrio while breaking down gendered stereotypes about who a Chicana woman is and can become.
Evangelina Vigil represents one of the many Chicana voices that emerged during the 1980s in a movement to include women in the greater Chicano Movement. Women such as Vigil, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcón, Sandra Cisneros, Carla Trujillo, etc. revolutionized the way we looked at the Chicano Nation. No longer was this a male dominated, exclusive patriarchy. While there still remains issues of sexism and inequality to this day, these women paved the way for other Chicanas to have agency and voice. This is a history that is still being written today. Writers Gwendolyn Zepeda, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Josefina López, among others, are still working on decolonizing Chicana women and including “her” story in “his” story (history).
Chicana Feminism emerged first and foremost in response to the sexism women experienced in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Despite their commitment to the movement, Chicana feminists saw that their interest in ending sexism and gender inequality within the Chicano Nation opposed the beliefs of Chicano Nationalism that emphasized family loyalty and traditional gender roles. Essentially, women were to fit within one of the three major female icons – La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. This triad formed the parameters of traditional Chicana femininity and womanhood. Effectively, Chicana feminists who were strong in their convictions and beliefs were labeled malinchistas and vendidas (essentially sell-outs), among other things. These names come from the La Malinche myth (she was the mistress of and translator for Hernán Cortes during the Conquest).
In the 1980s, Chicana feminists, alongside other women of color, began to compare and contrast their experiences of oppression within their individual ethnic civil rights/nationalist movements as a means of theorizing their multiple forms of oppression. This movement produced many groundbreaking pieces of literature/theory such as the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back (1981, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga). Works such as Bridge allowed women of color feminists to develop cross-color/identity/politics coalitions which used an intersectional approach of race, class, gender, and sexuality as a means of explaining their individual oppressive conditions in the United States.
In “La conciencia de la mestiza” (Mestiza Consciousness) (1987, in Borderlands), Anzaldúa develops the idea of a Chicana consciousness which allows her to have a more accurate perspective on the world and permits her to see the “Chicana anew in light of her history” and to see through “the fictions of white supremacy” (87). Anzaldúa discusses her motivation to discover objective knowledge about herself and her place in society/the world: “I seek our woman’s face, our true features, the positive and the negative seen clearly, free of the tainted biases of male dominance. I seek new images of identity, new beliefs about ourselves, our humanity and worth no longer in question” (87). Anzaldúa, in another chapter of Borderlands, introduces the concept of la facultad, which is a survival tactic, a skill that marginalized people develop. It allows people to adjust to changing and threatening situations and is one that involves a loss of innocence and an awareness of discrimination, depression, fear, illness, and death. It is a process that involves pain.
Moraga’s “La Guera” appears in Bridge as well as in Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983). Moraga reinforces the notion that Chicanas’ political activism and struggle are more often than not based on knowledge that is gained from their experiences of political struggle. “La Güera” highlights Moraga’s coming-to-consciousness and her development of la facultad and awareness and understanding of her marginalized position in the world. She always felt that something was missing, that something was wrong.
In the preface of Bridge, Moraga notes her growing awareness of her differences from white women:
“A few days ago, an old friend said to me how when she first met me, I seemed to white to her. I said in honesty, I used to feel more white. You know, I really did. But at the meeting last night with white women here on this trip, I have felt so very dark: dark with anger, with silence, with the feeling of being walked over. I wrote in my journal: ‘My growing consciousness as a woman of color is surely seeming to transform my experience. How could it be that the more I feel with other women of color, the more I feel myself Chicana, the more susceptible I am to racist attack!” (xv).
This conscious raising experience is precisely what Moraga describes in her oft-anthologized essay “La Güera.” Her Chicana consciousness allows her to better reinterpret the things that have happened and happen to her due to her new perspective of the world. Moraga explains how she had previously refused to recognize the US racial hierarchy and had used her light skin as privilege while rejecting the Chicana within. Moraga’s friend tells her: “No wonder you felt like such a nut in school. Most of the people there were white and rich” (30-31). It appears that before this statement, Moraga has not truly understood and realized that she was neither rich nor white. She didn’t understand how much influence social categories have on a person’s existence:
“All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words ‘class’ and ‘color’ to the experience, did my feelings make any sense. For years, I had berated myself for not being as ‘free’ as my classmates. I completely bought that they simply had more guts than I did – to rebel against their parents and run around the country hitch-hiking, reading books and studying ‘art.’ They had enough privilege to be atheists, for chrissake… But I knew nothing about ‘privilege’ then. White was right. Period. I could pass. If I got educated enough, there would never be any telling” (31).
When Moraga’s identity more accurately refers to her social position, she is able to conceptualize a more accurate perspective on the world. Effectively, this new perspective and consciousness is more objective as well. By viewing her coming-to-consciousness as a Chicana and woman of color, we can see that her changing political commitments are linked to her transforming idea of what her place in society is versus what it should be. Moraga’s transformation is a result of a need for truth and the hope of creating an objectively better world. Her Chicana identity allows her to have a better perspective from which to recognize oppression and, therefore, combat the oppressive nature of race and class privilege (among other privileges). By joining forces with other women of color (forming coalitions), permits a valuable dialogue that hopefully creates a liberating feminist collective. Essentially, Moraga’s decision to embrace her Chicana identity is a based on her best belief about what she should do to help end oppressive forces.
Some things to consider:
– The intersectionality of race and sex.
– Moraga’s coming-to-consciousness
– Anzaldúa’s “Conciencia de la mestiza” (Mestiza Consciousness) and la facultad in “La Güera”
– The Border (“Homeland, Aztlán”) as theorized by Anzaldúa and its influence on forming Chicana identity
I wanted to love Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, especially after thoroughly enjoying his earlier work Zigzagger, but I finished the novel wanting more. This is not to say that it isn’t a compelling read; I just think that the book thinks it is better than it actually is. It really gives off that vibe.
I added this to my summer reading list after seeing a conference presentation last spring that dealt with the cinematic aspects of the novel (honestly, the best aspect of the work). Little did I know that my Intel would tell me that the book will appear on one of my fall semester syllabuses (US Hispanic Feminism mas o menos). So I’m at least a little ahead of my reading for the upcoming semester. Score one for me.
What You See in the Dark is quite cinematic in nature and feels like an ode to the black-and-white era of Hollywood. Set in Bakersfield, the novel follows the Actress (Janet Leigh) and the Director (Alfred Hitchcock) as they film Pyscho. That provides half of the novel’s plot and proves to be the more compelling and engaging of the two narratives. The other story deals with a murder in the town that unfolds similarly to Psycho. I didn’t particularly care for the townspeople or their plight. To me, the bits about the Actress were the highlight. Muñoz is able to masterfully capture her feelings in and out of the film business. We see her internal struggle with her huge celebrity status and we are first-hand witnesses to her inner dialogue while filming Pyscho leading up to her preparations for the big shower scene, arguably the most famous scene in film history. Similarly to Zigzagger, Muñoz is able to properly convey the feelings, sentiments, and struggles of largely minority groups: women (even the Actress is underprivileged compared to her male counterparts), homosexuals, the poor, and Latin@s (and sometimes a combination of the categories – extra marginalization).
Regardless of how I feel about the novel itself, I do love the title – What You See in the Dark. Paired alongside the tragic looking woman on the green cover and we have a winning design. It made me more interested to read it. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the novel is quite cinematic in style and even content. The reader essentially becomes a voyeur into the lives of the Actress and the community of Bakersfield, CA. Charles Taylor proposes that “Psycho was the first film to suggest that what we saw in the dark, saw us.” This truly captures the essence of the novel. The reader is forced to consider the role he/she plays as a voyeur into these people’s lives. The townspeople notice every little thing that happens in public; nothing is secret or safe. Each character – Dan, Candy, Teresa, Arlene – is being watched by someone and we watch them. When Teresa hides the stolen shoes in the alley behind her work, Muñoz paints the scene in such a way that makes the reader feel like they are lurking around the corner, spying on her.
Essentially, Hitchcock’s film bleeds into the plot of the novel – a good employee steals something impulsively; a young woman is murdered; the son smothered by his mother; the slowly dying roadside motel. Nevertheless, Muñoz demonstrates how art bleeds into life more so with the way everyday life is changed by these actions. Just as Pyscho changed cinema (the star is killed early in the film, they show a toilet, that shower scene!), the murder and looming change in American cultural values will change Bakersfield as well.
I’d recommend What You See in the Dark if you’re looking for something different or something with a cinematic flair. It’s an engaging read. I think I just expected or wanted more from it. I wanted to love it, but I just liked it. Either way, I am definitely keeping an eye on Manuel Muñoz. Like I’ve said, Zigzagger was one of my favorite books from this summer. The man knows how to write. I’d also like to point out that Muñoz doesn’t rely on a publisher that caters to Hispanic writers. This is quite impressive given how difficult it is for Hispanic writers to get published by more “mainstream” publishing houses. Hopefully, we will see more of this in the future. In the meantime, we thankfully have Arte Público Press!