Chicago and The Forgotten Poets of Aztlán

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-01-01 09:29:00

Ana Castillo.

The Two Big C’s and the Others at the End of a Big Year

In a recent article, I commented on how, with the exception of the “Two Big C’s,” Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros, Chicago’s Chicano writers, publishing primarily in English, seemed to be in decline when compared to the the city’s immigrant Mexican writers publishing in Spanish. However, as contradictory as it may seem, the year 2014 may be said to mark a new high for Chicago’s Chicano and Mexican writers alike in their production and, to a degree, their visibility and recognition.

Last spring, the University of Illinois Press published José Ángel N.’s Illegal and Leonard Ramirez’s The Chicanas of Eighteenth Street, both examples of first person testimonial narrative; meanwhile, Raúl Dorantes published his Spanish-language novel of life in Pilsen, De zorros y erizos, even as he premiered a new Chicago-centered play, Incas, and a new edition of his book, co-authored with Febronio Zataraín, on Chicago Mexican immigration: …y nos vinimos de mojados.

In the summer, Ana Castillo came out with her seventh novel, Give it to Me; a revisededition of her Massacre of the Dreamers came out in the fall; and her review of a Chicana novel, Cristina Henríquez’s Book of Unknown Americans appeared in no lesss of a vehicle than The New York Time Book Review. What’s moreall but hidden in thesame Book Review issue you can find a highly positive critique of Painted Cities, Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski’s collection of stories set in Pilsen (see Antonio Zavala’s review in El BeiSMan); and in a subsequent Book Review issue, Maria Venegas’ novel, Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter also received an enthusiastic reception in an article entitled “The Distance Between: From Mexico to Chicago, from past to present,” which provides some detail about the author’s roots in Zacatecas and a suburb of our city. And in the waning days of December, Antonio Zavala premiered his play about the current Mexican crisis.

To round out this catalogue, we note that both Cisneros and Castillo visited their home town, the first staying here all semester as she did a visiting residence at Dominican College and made several apperances in Pilsen and elsewhere, and the latter visiting ever so briefly on the occaision of the thirtieth anniversary of the most famous Chicago Chicano text of all. Then, to cap off the year, Luis Rodríguez, a Chicago Chicano writer for some fifteen years, was named as poet Laureate of Los Angeles. Surely, Mexican Chicago is on national and transnational literary maps, and Chicago Chicano and Mexican writers are impacting U.S. Latino, U.S. and overall hemispheric literary production.

How has this happened and what does all this mean? These are key questions that I began to explore in some of my previous articles in El BeiSMan[1]; I now hope to explore the question more systematically in coming issues during 2015 and beyond. I begin with this particular essay, which is divided into three parts, the first appearing here and developing some of the general matters touched on other efforts of mine in 2014, and the second and third parts slated to appear in subsequent issues, dealing with the early male and then the early women writers, with the goal of tracing the first and later stages of the development of Chicago Chicano and Mexican literature.

Sandra Cisneros.

The Beginnings of Mexican and Chicano Writing in Chicago

In one previous article, I noted how Mexican literature existed in the Midwest and in Chicago since the first Mexicans came to the area. The first masterpiece of Chicano fiction, Texas-born Tomás Rivera’s ... y no se lo tragó la tierra (And the Earth Did not Devour him) has episodes in the fields of Iowa and Minnesota, and bespeaks the presence of deep tejano traditions extending throughout the Midwest along the trails of migrant farmwork. In Chicago, the tejano wave joined up with ones more directly Mexican, from Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and other points in Mexico. Adaptations and transformations of corridos and poems from the Mexican declamatory poetry tradition could be heard in bars, at civic events and community celebrations and parties; some were occasionally published in early Mexicano mutualista, church and neighborhood newsletters as early as the 1920s, according to Louise Año Kerr (1976: 49) where much of the “prehistory” of contemporary Chicago Chicano writing may most readily be found. Nicolás Kanellos (1987) has pointed to dimensions of Chicago-area theater history which suggest that beyond theater, there was most probably a body of published and unpublished poetry.

To this date, the greatest indication yet uncovered of cultural, artistic and possibly even literary work in the early days of Mexican Chicago appears in the accounts of Juan R. Garcia (1996) and David Badillo (2004) which Olga Herrera combines and summarizes in her recent book on Midwestern Latino art (2010):

Beginning in 1921, and increasingly after 1924, Hull-House served as the meeting place for the Sociedad Fraternal Benito Juárez. Hull-House became a key partner in the development of community by renting out meeting space during weekends to cultural groups such as Banda Mexicana de Chicago and the Mexican Orchestra and to social clubs such as the Cuauhtémoc and Azteca … It also served as headquarters for the De León, and Nieto y Rodríguez Mexican Troupes theater groups and as meeting space for organizations such as the Sociedad Hispano Americana and the Mexican Art Association. … Meanwhile, in 1925 the Círculo de Obreros Católicos was founded in Chicago. Among its cultural activities were the sponsoring of cello concerts, poetry readings and … “exhibitions of original works by prominent Mexican artists including those of muralist Alfredo [sic] Siqueiros” (García 1996, 169). Moreover, Obreros Católicos had a very active theater group called El Cuadro Dramático that featured nine productions between March 1927 and May 1928. It also published Los Amigos del Hogar, a newsletter that kept the community informed about the latest news, issues, and events. A similar cultural organization, the Sociedad Fraternal Benito Juárez, was also established around this time…. In response to a common perception that these two organizations were elitist, other groups were soon after organized to appeal to the working class. The Sociedad Cuauhtémoc, El Círculo Azteca, and the Mexican Fraternal Society were sponsors of patriotic celebrations in Chicago that instilled in the working-class community a continued sense of Mexican nationalism and belonging. (García 1996, 185).

Surely any effort to go deeper into the early stages of the development of what would become Chicago Mexicano-Chicano literature would have to research whatever archives we have of early newsletters, newspapers, bulletins, magazines and whatever modes of print culture in Spanish and English that have survived from the earliest days of Mexican immigration into the city. Up to now, we have uncovered no conscious efforts of poetry or fiction writing — of literature as we generally conceive it in any look at the early materials. What written record do we have, then, of the early years either in Spanish or English other than the transcribed oral testimonies that we find imbedded in some of the early texts dealing with Mexican Chicago?

Above all, I would argue, we have a wealth of material in the unpublished Masters thesis of Edward Jackson Baur (1938), dealing with every aspect of early immigration experience — and including, most interesting of all, narratives of love, sex, elopement and return of young Mexicans in the city during the 1920s and 1930s. More recently, Gabriela Arredondo (2008) based much of her study on narratives prepared by Mexican residents for presentation to the Department of Immigration; and Michael Innis Jimenez’s excellent book on Steel Mill Chicago (2013) is based in part on an archive of recorded oral histories based on interviews he found awaiting him in the Chicago Historical Society.

We certainly have to applaud these inspired and resourceful uses of original sources. But looking at them from our perspective, we can only wonder to what degree we’re dealing with fact and what degree with fabrication — with material as opposed to ideological history, with history as opposed to fiction. First we have the simple question of how well Baur and other early researchers knew Spanish or could do justice even to what may have been deeply Spanish-inflected versions of English. Then there is the fact that even the most straightforward telling of one’s past depends on imagination as well as memory. As Hayden White (2008) has taught a whole generation of literary and history scholars, all narratives, including autobiographies, are in part fiction, and many autobiographies are structured to varying degrees by existing narrative modes or tropes — the Spanish tradition of the picaresque seeming the most relevent here, though of course U.S. ethnic and immigration narratives somehow seem to owe something in immitation of, or opposition to, the rags to riches (or vice-versa) immigration first person stories so predominant in the early part of the twentieth century — and this, whether the narrators had ever read such narratives in Spanish or English ever before. In the extreme and obvious case of Arredondo’s book (which must nevertheless be valued), one can only be amazed at her seeming acceptance of narratives concocted by immigrants (perhaps with the guidance of lawyers and others concerned) for those very agents and agencies that would have had the power to affect their lives, and even prosecute and deport them.

It seems to me that we should not exclude these narratives from our search for early literary works. But I believe it is only inevitable that there were earlier intents at literature perse, even if we acknowledge that many creative spirits in a working class community would more likely turn to music and art than a mode of artistic expression that required a competence in either Spanish and English that many in the community felt insecure and inadequate to produce.

When we uncover the core archival materials going back to the initial immigrations to Chicago, we will then be able to debate at which point we are dealing with things that are Mexican, Chicano, Mexicano-Chicano. etc. But it is already clear that it would not be until the early 1970s that Chicago Latino, Mexicano and specifically Chicano writing would take off and undergo a more or less sustained and organic development leading to the turning point years of 1976-1979.

U.S. Latino ethnic literatures emerge in Chicago as the Latino population and its problems grow in the explosive climate of the late 1960s which found its most overt expression in the Black and Puerto Rican uprisings of 1967 and the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, as well as significant tensions in the city’s predominantly Mexican neighborhoods. Minority and poverty problems led to new programs and new resources; social service centers started cultural programs; cultural production was considered as part of the answer to the general social and political questions at stake. Various “cultural workers” and “modes of cultural production” emerged: folk singers, street and stage performers, visual artists, essayists, poets; theater groups, writers’ workshops — yes, and new publications featuring some emerging young writers.

While some young people in the Mexicano-Chicano communities were caught up in the national Chicano movement, the movement’s impact was slow to come in Chicago. “Operation Wetback” and the bracero program had slowed down mexicano and tejano immigration to the city. The major barrios (or colonias, as they were called) suffered from fragmentation, low organizational levels and conformation to Daley machine politics. Compared to Mexicano activism in the labor struggles of the 1930s, Mexicano participation in the social rebellions of the late 1960s seems to have been sporadic — the work of small groups of young people disenchanted and impatient with existing organizational forms but with only a limited social base. It was only after the repeal of the bracero act and the emergence of major Civil Rights legislation that mexicanos, some of them (though far from all) identifying as Chicanos, began to organize in significant and sometimes militant ways. Indeed, it was only after 1965, and mainly after 1970 that “Chicanos themselves, rather than sympathetic outsiders, took the initiative in generating and operating programs in their communities” (Año Kerr: 8). These developments, along with the subsequent explosion of Mexican immigration in 1970s, led to the transformations which would set the stage for emergent Mexicano-Chicano political and cultural changes that would take place in the 1980s — at which point an expanding grid of’ organizations and programs became the basis for an increased consciousness with respect to community cultural and educational issues leading to an emergent political movement that swept “independent” leaders into office, and set the stage for additional developments.[2]

New community organizations and service centers, new minority, Latino and Mexican-serving offices in the public schools, new Latino and Mexican-centered adult alternative high schools, as well as new Latino college and university recruitment and retention programs all proliferated in the 70s, several involving musical, artistic, theatrical and literary components. In addition, many Chicago Mexican artists and writers were on the move forming varying organizations, working with other progressive groups, minority or not, and on one project or another. While some of these cultural workers were concerned with maintaining and promoting traditional cultural forms (folkloric music and dancing, declamatory verse and the like), and expressed disdain for anything labelled as “Chicano” (which they saw as degradations almost synonymous with pocho, pachuco, cholo or bato [or vato] loco),still others came forth who picked up the trappings and nomenclature developed by the national Chicano movement — so that terms like “Chicano pride,” “Chicano power,” “la raza” and “la huelga”were heard among young mainly second or third generation Chicago mexicanos some of whom considered themselves Chicanos and tried to bring even the theme of Aztlán to those growing numbers who kept arriving from Mexico with no previous knowledge of or affinity with the struggles of longer term Mexican residents or their counterparts in other U.S. locales.

It is in the 1970s that Casa Aztlán and other centers emerge in Chicago’s Pilsen and elsewhere, that the Chicago Latino mural movement takes root, and that grassroots theater groups such as Teatro de los Barrios, Teatropello, Teatro del desengaño and other theater groups develop. South Chicago singer/performer Chuy Negrete and “Chispa” come to sing Chicano corridos stressing labor history, exploitation, discrimination and struggle. The Chicago Mexican and Latino mural movement takes off; and the first Chicano poems specifically written as a function of developing Chicano consciousness appear, some of them by artists like Aurelio Díaz and Carlos Cortez, and some by theater activists like María Saucedo and Lalo Cervantes. [3]

Chicago Rican David Hernandez self-publishes his first volume in 1971; and in that year, at the University of Indiana Northwest-Gary, Nuyorican Professor Nicolas Kanellos joins with Luis Dávila in founding Revista Chicano-Riquefia which becomes the major national publication bringing together key Chicano and Puerto Rican writers, including some from Chicago. Also in 1972, the organization MARCH, Inc. (Movimento Artístico Chicano) is founded in East Chicago, Indiana, to promote Chicano visual arts; and in mid-1976, MARCH comes out with the first of two issues of their arts and poetry journal Abrazo. The year 1976 is also when Carlos Herredia brings out the first issue of his short-lived Chicago Latino cultural journal, lmágenes, including poetry by Ana CastilloThen in 1977, the Revista Chicano-Riqueña publishes its special Chicago issue, Nosotros: A Collection of Latino Poetry and Graphics front Chicago (Año V, no. I invierno, 1977), which offers the first focused presentation of Chicago-based Latino cultural production (mainly Chicago Rican, but with two Chicano poets as well) and now calls national attention to a virtual Latino emergence in the Chicago area. In the same year, Heredia helps Ana Castillo to produce an important chapbook; the next year, Marilou Castillo produces a book of poetry (see Part III of this essay).

In 1979, Abrazo appears for a second and final issue, with poetry now edited by Carlos Cumpián; Revista Chicano-Riqueña leaves Gary, Indiana for bigger and better things at the University of Houston; the first issue of a small journal, Ecos, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, appears. Then, in 1980, with Chicano-Riqueña gone, Ecos, now subtitled as “A Latino Journal of Peoples’ Culture and Literature,” makes a modest, if short-lived bid to fill the local void; and, almost simultaneously, Norma Alarcón at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, establishes a new major vehicle for Latina writers, Third Woman, which publishes several Chicago Latinas, including one, Sandra Ciseros, who returns from the University of Iowa Writers Program to the city of her birth and soon produces a chapbook that will mark her first major publishing move as one of the city’s two most famous Chicana writersA new stage of Chicago Chicano and Mexican life and literature has now emerged.

It is at this juncture that in Parts II and III of this essay I will turn to an examination of the other, rarely studied Chicano and Chicana writers from Chicago, without whose presence and work the Chicago Chicano, Mexican and overall Latino/Latin American literary movement and its major writers cannot be properly understood. 

Books, Journal Issues and Articles Cited

Año Kerr, Louise. 1976. The Chicano Experience in Chicago, 1920-1950. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago.

Arredondo, Gabriela F. 2008. Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity, and Nation, 1916-1939. Urbana. University of Illinois Press.

Badillo, David A. 2004. “Incorporating Reform and Religion: Mexican Immigrants, Hull House and the Church,” in Cheryl R. Ganz y Margaret Strobel, eds. Pots of Promise: Mexicans and Pottery of Hull-House, 1920-1940. Urbana and Chicago. Jane Addams Hull House Museum. University of IllinoisPress: 31-49.

Baur, Edward Jackson. 1938. Delinquency among Mexican Boys in South Chicago.” Master’s thesis, University of Chicago.

Castillo, Ana. 1977. Otro Canto. Chicago. Self-published.

____ 1979. The Invitation. Chicago. Self-published.

Cisneros, Sandra. 1980. Bad Boys. Berkeley. Mango Press. 1980.

Fernández, Lilia. 2012. Brown in the Windy City. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

García, Juan R. 1996. Mexicans in the Midwest: 1900-1932. Tuscon. University of Arizona Press.

Hernandez, David. 1971. Despertando. Chicago. Self-published.

____, ed. 1977. Nosotros: A Collection of Latino Poetry and Graphics from Chicago. Special issue of Revista Chicano-Riqueña, Año V, No. 1 (Invierno).

Herrera, Olga. 2010. Toward the Preservation of a Heritage: Latin American and Latino Art in the Midwestern United States. South Bend, IN. Institute for Latino Studies. Notre Dame University.

Innis-Jiménez, Michael. 2013. Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940. New York. New York University Press.

Kanellos, Nicolás. 1987. Mexican American Theater: Legacy and Reality. Pittsburgh. Latin American Literary Review.

Ramirez, Leonard. 2011. “Introduction” to Ramirez, ed. Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago. Urbana. University of Illinois Press: 1-28.

White, Hayden. 1975. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Zimmerman, Marc. 1989. “Transplanting Roots and Taking Off: Latino Poetry in Illinois,” in Hallwas, John, ed. Studies in Illinois Poetry. Urbana IL. Stormline Press: 77-116.

____. 1990. “Chicago and the Poets of Aztlán: The Most Forgotten of the Forgotten.” Crítica: A Journal of Critical Essays, II, 2. University of California, San Diego (Fall): 230-248.



[1] In additon to works cited elsewhere in this essay, see my recent articles on Castillo and Cisneros in

[2] For richer discussions of these developments see Fernández 2012 and Ramírez 2011.

[3]For developments in painting see my article, For more on Chicago Mexican theater, especially in Pilsen, see Zavala,

Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago.  He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.


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