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Aztlán

chicanos chicano mexico cultural

The concept of Aztlán has had a long life in the realms of myth, symbolism, and archetype in both Mexican and Chicano cultures. While the common denominator can be found in the two cultures’ perception of themselves with respect to origins and identity, the application and associations are measurably different. Mexican culture, for example, tends to view Aztlán as an abstract historical past that vaguely defines the mother lode in which the nomadic tribe known as Mexicas or Aztecs originated in an imprecise northern region of Mexico. On the other hand, when Chicanos allude to such a mythological past they are inclined to emphasize, in real geographical terms, the contours of the region known as the Southwestern borderlands of the United States (including California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Oregon, and Utah). While Mexicans characterize their connection with Aztlán as an integral part of cultural anthropology, Chicanos tend to couch it more in terms of cultural politics for the sake of ethnic reaffirmation.

Aztlán invokes an indigenous past, a point of reference shared by a common foundation in culture. Archaic myth dictates that the Aztecs, a kind of chosen people, set out on a legendary pilgrimage or migration in a southerly direction to duplicate, or recreate, the promised land of Aztlán, which was to be identified by a series of specific conditions: an eagle, perched on a cactus plant on an island or patch of land in the middle of a lake, devouring a serpent. Archival documentation prior to Hernán Cortés’s incursion into the Aztec capital in 1519 claims that the Aztecs made such an encounter in 1325, thus creating the beginnings of the Aztec civilization and empire. Having met their destiny, they nostalgically recalled Aztlán— meaning “place near/of the white herons”—as a kind of earthly paradise, a hill dotted with caves and grottoes, for which they forever longed. Here, people did not age, starve, suffer or experience evil. This worldly utopia, according to the colonial historian Fray Diego Durán in his Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme ( History of the Indies of New Spain , 1588), was a lush setting teeming with flora and fauna capable of sustaining a culture: “Our ancestors went about in canoes and made floating gardens upon which they sowed maize, chili, tomatoes, amaranth, beans and all kinds of seeds which we now eat and which were brought here from there” (p. 134). Abandonment of the mythical Aztlán by these indigenous peoples, much like leaving the biblical Garden of Eden, had its consequences: It brought on hardship and their inevitable downfall as prescribed by some aspects of their myth. Such conditions paved the way for the Aztecs to believe that Cortés might be their forsaken deity/cultural hero Quetzalcóatl (“plumed serpent”) who had promised to return from the East. Aztlán, therefore, conveyed a sense of cosmic tragedy of what could have been.

Since pre-Columbian times, Mexicans have desired to locate Aztlán as the point where history and myth merge to create a cultural narrative of a primordial nature, but the quest has been heightened by Chicanos in the United States in their pursuit of reconnecting with their indigenous ancestors to recover a sense of the past.

Much like an elusive Atlantis, Ponce de León’s fountain of youth, or the golden cities of Quivira in New Mexico, Aztlán does not readily adhere to a single point in geography. Some cultural anthropologists and historians assert that it can be found just north of Mexico City, or near the coastal state of Nayarit, or even possibly north of the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as Washington state and southwestern Canada. Others believe it could be in Wisconsin, Florida, Southern California, New Mexico, or China. Clearly, the power of myth, legend, and symbolism provokes multiple interpretations—most of them exercises in fantasy. The earliest allusion to Aztlán in the United States appeared in a 1885 work by William G. Ritch, then Secretary of the Territory of New Mexico. This book, titled Aztlán: The History, Resources, and Attractions of New Mexico , served as a promotion ploy to attract easterners to the Hispanic state.

Despite varying notions about Aztlán, it still carries considerable cultural weight as a concept. In his 1987 study In Search of Aztlán , Luis Leal asserts that Chicanos tend to render it two meanings: First, it identifies the American Southwest as the original source of their past; secondly, “Aztlán symbolized the spiritual unity of the Chicanos, something that is carried within the heart, no matter where they may live or where they may find themselves” (p. 8). One fundamental difference between Mexicans and Chicanos is noteworthy here: The former couch it within a mythic framework of fate, while the latter emphasize its regenerative qualities. For Chicanos, Aztlán completes the full circle of existence by returning to and “claiming” their mythic and spiritual homeland. It conveys a sense of roots and background, myth, and history, partly justifying the trajectory of immigration into the Southwestern United States. They do not perceive themselves as intruders, but rather, as a people coming back home.

Aztlán acquired a new sense of significance and relevance with the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, a decade that fostered a critical inward examination into the nature of ethnicity and its role in American history. Among U.S. minorities, one result was the emergence of new labels of self-identification (“black” instead of “Negro” or “colored,” and “Chicano” instead of “Mexican American” or “Spanish”). Chicanos sought to reconnect with the remote past of Mexico while romanticizing what they knew of Mexican culture (i.e., its music, traditional dress, historical figures, events such as the Mexican Revolution, and so on). Pride in anything Mexican overflowed, thus helping to compensate for the pressures of assimilation through the processes of Americanization experienced in schools, work, and other institutions. Chicanos sought to reshape their identity, and possibly their essence.

The backdrop of social unrest led persons of Mexican descent in the United States to seek and construct a new identity. The term “Chicano” conjured up echoes of the ancient Mexicas (“Me-shica” evolved into “Mejicano,” so “Chicano” would appear to resemble the original pronunciation). Suddenly, Chicanos felt they had pinpointed a name that had deep cultural roots, connoted political defiance, and crystallized an ethnic label, thus providing the four basic ingredients of social legitimacy as a people: 1) a unique cultural identity ; 2) the beginnings of accepting their hybrid language —code-switching or Spanglish (the use of Spanish and English in the same sentence)—as a viable form of artistic expression; 3) a sense of community; and 4) a place to which they belonged that fulfilled the yearning for nation-hood—that is, Aztlán. Rudolfo A. Anaya shares a slightly different perspective in Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland (1989): “[T]hrough Aztlán we come to better understand psychological time (identity), regional makeup (place), and evolution (historical time). Aztlán allows us … to maintain ourselves as fully integrated individuals” (p. iv).

It is Alurista, the renowned poet of code-switching, however, who is credited with the re-emergence of Aztlán as applied to Chicanos. While reading an article in 1968 by the anthropologist John Disturnell in Life magazine, he came across this concept, thus changing the course of Chicano history. It became a key rallying point for the Chicano Movement, a centerpiece and foundation for promoting a given social agenda. In addition, it defined a geographical, cultural, psychological, political, and symbolic entity modeled in myth and archetype, except that he considered it a living, decolonized entity. Aztlán became the instrument for proposing a new consciousness about the condition of his people, while alluding to a long history of suffering and quiet oppression. Alurista also explicitly associates the term with the Mexican territory ceded to the United States in 1848. In the First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver in 1969, he officially introduced Aztlán in a spiritually charged manifesto referred to as El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán . As Michael Pina observes: “ El Plan weaves both strands of the Chicano nationalism’s mythic horizon into a comprehensive program that calls for the geographical and spiritual resurrection of Aztlán” (Pina 1989, p. 39). Alurista declared that “before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán ” (Alurista 1989, p. 1). As a plan of liberation, he claimed that nationalism was the key for mass mobilization and organization, defining the Cause (“La Causa”) as a united front: “Our struggle then must be for the control of our barrios, campos [fields], pueblos [towns], lands, our economy, our culture, and our political life” (Alurista 1989, p. 2). One of the results of the conference was the creation of a militant student organization called MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicanos de Aztlán [Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán]).

As a result, Aztlán became an inexorable symbol that spurred a new sense of creativity. In the spring of 1970 the first issue of the UCLA journal Aztlán: Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and the Arts appeared, with a prologue by Alurista called “Poem in Lieu of Preface” in which he reasserted the practicality of Aztlán to his era. Shortly thereafter, in 1972, Alurista co-edited with Jorge González an anthology titled Ombligo de Aztlán , which propagated an artistic agenda of tapping into an indigenous sensibility. In the same year he published Nation-child plumaroja , a deeply philosophical, and sometimes obscure, rendition of an indigenous worldview in which he imagines what Aztlán has to offer. “Nationchild” here refers to the offspring from that mythic homeland.

A proliferation of titles either using or suggesting the concept of Aztlán appeared in quick succession. For example, Miguel Méndez cast his novel Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974) within the framework of migrants returning to their homeland. However, their apparent movement is actually a form of stagnation and inertia, and the characters encounter alienation and exploitation. Consequently, Aztlán here becomes even more elusive (but it must be stated that the novel traces a pilgrimage in reverse, that is, from south to north instead of the typical construct conceptualized by the Aztecs as north to south), a place of self-realization or entrapment, or somewhere in between.

The work that perhaps provides the definitive critical assessments is Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland (1989) by Rudolfo A. Anaya and Francisco A. Lomelí. The twelve essays in this volume offer critical opinions, scientific data, historical documentation, anthropological criteria, philosophical angles, political applications, and examples of specific literary analyses. While considerable overlapping is evident among the essays, they succeed in outlining virtually every perspective extant up to 1989— including Gloria Anzaldúas’ refashioning from a gender, border dweller, and gay person’s vantage point.

The term has also been borrowed for a number of social-science projects, such as Return to Aztlán: The Social Process of International Migration from Western Mexico (1987), by Douglas S. Massey et al., which examines the complex nature of migration as an international process. On the other hand, Rafael Pérez-Torres, in an essay titled “Refiguring Aztlán” (1997), proves the durability of the term by reconsidering its significance in postcolonial times: “To call Aztlán an empty signifier is not to say the term is vacuous or meaningless. On the contrary, if anything, Aztlán is overly ‘meaningful’” (p. 16). He problematizes how Aztlán embodies a rich network of discussion regarding its fundamental meaning as a form of hybridity, and he demonstrates the contradictions of its usage due to its political and ideological vagueness. In sum, he claims that its richness is its multiple meanings, particularly if the vague idea of “homeland” is replaced by the more specific “borderlands.” Pérez-Torres concludes by pointing out how the term has played a key role in Chicano critical thought, in that it refers more to “an absence, an unfulfilled reality in response to various forms of oppression” (p. 37). He shows that Aztlán continues to haunt those involved in attempting to define a space of liberation in the present instead of focusing on the past.

Aztlán is many things to many people, but it appears to function as an apex of measuring Chicanos’ progress in their respective social, historical, political, and mythic spheres. Therefore, it is something highly personal, even psychological, though its application to social reality is useful through the various facets it represents for both Mexican and Chicano culture.

Azzawi, Dia al- (1939–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, CONTEMPORARIES, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY [next] [back] Aznavour, Charles (originally Varenagh Aznavourian)

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