NACCS Presentation: “for those who dream of roses / swallow thorns”: Aztlán as Cosmopolitical Space

[This is the exact text of my talk. You can download a pdf version of all the slides: NACCS though I haven’t been able to reach Maria Teresa Fernandez to get her permission to repost them to the internet. She did give me permission to use them in my research when I spoke to her at USC in 2010.  If anyone has a current email address for her, please send it to me at annemarie (dot) perez (at) me (dot) com ]

“for those who dream of roses / swallow thorns”: Aztlán as Cosmopolitical Space

I’ve included in this talk a photographs by Mexican artist Maria Teresa Fernandez.  She’s documented the building of the Wall between the US and Mexico and the increasing militarization of the border.  These first images are about the demise of Friendship Park, the point where the US and Mexico meet the Pacific ocean.  Here’s the park as it was, a space for meeting friends and family on the other side.


Here it is as the barricade was erected in 2009, creating a yards wide distance between US residents and the border fence, dividing people.


New rules are in place forbidding contact that was, until recently, relatively casual and free.


Modern usage of the term Aztlán dates from the 1960s-1970s civil rights movements. . The poet Alturista gave Aztlán’s mythology in his poem introducing the journal Aztlan


In modern usage while physically,  Aztlán is the land ceded by Mexico under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago (signed on the land that is or was Friendship Park)  which ended the US war with Mexico, psychically it represents homespace even more than nation.  Aztlán is the homeland of the Chicano people, allowing them to see themselves not as migrant aliens, but as an internal colony within the boundaries of the United States.  By referring to the southwest as Aztlán rather than by state names, Chicanos and Chicanas protest on two levels.  First,  Aztlán unifies Chicanos across state lines by denying the validity of Anglo-defined borders thereby defying the imperialist U.S. nation.  Second, the name informs Chicanos of their loss – of, as poet and playwrite Cherrie Moraga writes, a land and people “conceived in a double-rape: first, by the Spanish and then by the Gringo.”


El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, one of the the founding documents of the unified Chicano movement, reifies nationalism in the passage:

Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán.

These are, in Emersonian terms, “man-making” words.  Closer to the Gramscian notion of  the changing of intellectual consciousness preceding historical and revolutionary change, the Chicano/a Movement’s utopian Aztlán “counter-nation” was created the moment the words defining it were written and disseminated.  After defining the people and nation, the document goes on to say explicitly that

Nationalism as the key to organization transcends all religious, political, class, and economic factions or boundaries. Nationalism is the common denominator that all members of La Raza can agree upon.

Yet  Aztlán exists as an imagined nationalism, born more of poetic vision than practical revolutionary reality — more ideal utopia than actual nation.


Border theory and the notion of the US / Mexican border as a separate creative space have become part of mainstream discussions of US and world poetry.  Yet much of this was begun in 1987 with Anzaldua re-defining Aztlán as a space both within and outside Chicano nationalism.  She described the US / Mexican border space as an “open wound” where “the third world grates against the first and bleeds.”

Cherríe Moraga, discussing the unifying power of Aztlán states,

Aztlán, I don’t remember when I first heard the word but I do remember that it took my heart by surprise when I learned of the place. . . .Aztlán gave language to a nameless hole inside me

However,  the Aztlán conceived by the Chicano revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s is not the Borderland either Anzaldúa or Moraga envisioned.   It is Moraga’s “starting point” — but not her end.  Neither poet jettison the notion of Aztlán instead revising it, in the manner of Chela Sandoval’s differential consciousness, keeping what is both useful and powerful.

Moraga’s  construction attempts to retain the emotional and revolutionary mythology evoked by the word “Aztlán” while removing that which she finds exclusionary and oppressive, renaming it “Queer Aztlán”   By retaining the word “Aztlán,” Moraga continues to support a Chicano-centered nationalist movement.  Further, Moraga’s belief in Aztlán is not merely in an abstract philosophy or myth.


In her poem “War Cry” she pleads for land above all else.  The poem’s catalogue of what Moraga desires most begins with the revolutionary idea that what is wanted most is land, seeming to compromise with personal fulfillment (love, children, community). But ultimately, she returns to the “land or death” dialectic —  a “war cry,” echoed in her prose text.  Admitting here that “few Chicanos really believe we can wrest Aztlán away from Anglo – America,” Moraga comes full circle writing  idealistically “[but] in our private moments we ask, if the Soviet Union could dissolve, why can’t the United States?.”  Moraga here is imagining an actual physical political revolution involving a struggle for land along with an intellectual transformation of consciousness.  Yet the dystopian vision of Aztlán in her remaking of the La Llorona / Medea myth in her play “The Hungry Woman” the nation Aztlán becomes a space of uneasy idealism, where the Chicana who is queer or doesn’t measure up to a set blood quantum is denied land and forced into exile.


Cosmopolitan is a word generally associated with international cities, though not generally Los Angeles.  “Cosmopolitan” traditionally speaks of cities like New York, Hong Kong, London, Paris and Rome.   Yet recent scholarship on the modern and postmodern evolution of cosmopolitanism offers a new and renewed vision utilizing the pre-Kantian theory –that is, a vision which imagines a world city space and citizenship which exists outside the confines of borders while also tempering the effects of economic globalism– a space which acts against a the confines of nationalism and outside the power of the state.  Anthropologist Beth E. Notar questions the traditional notion of cosmopolitanism involving both physical movement and life in or surrounding a metropolis.  She describes another type of cosmopolitanism, which she names “borderland cosmopolitanism” which exists at the rural crossroads as well cities; it is a cosmopolitanism of the indigenous as well as the elite.  Borderland cosmopolitanism does not just attack the nation but it destabilizes citizenship, and in doing so, unsettles the authority of the state and nation.

To the degree Los Angeles, and by extension the borderlands, are cosmopolitan, it is one more created by necessity than ethical idealism.   This may be, for some, a vision of dystopia rather than intellectual utopia.  Yet this borderland-scape of the city and borderland is “the desert of the real.”


In his 1996 discussion of cosmopolitanism, Jacques Derrida asks “how can we still dream of a novel status for the city and thus for the ‘cities of refuge.’”  His description of the “city of refuge” as a space which is open to migrants who might “seek sanctuary from the pressures of persecution, intimidation and exile” is, in his telling  a space for an elite, the Salman Rushdies rather than illiterate economic, as well as political, refugees.  The “refuge” offered by the borderland cosmopolitan is a darker one than Derrida is discussing.  However, a “space of refuge’ can be used to describe the borderlands themselves, not as spaces where sanctuary is necessarily given by right, but where it is claimed by those who must claim it.  Paradoxically, the borderlands are not safe or free from persecution or intimidation, but they are places where those who are exiled may claim tangible spaces, ones they have literally built with their own hands against the resistance of the US nation-state.  This is the cosmopolitan as the cosmopolitan is reframed and, for those of us who hold to a borderland or Aztlán ethos, the borderland as a sanctuary is fought for as the state tries, repeatedly, to regularize and draw lines ever clearer between the nations.  Though even the most idealistic could not claim the borderlands between the United States and Mexico are intended as a sanctuary, they are admittedly, a no-mans land whose inhabitants “right” to live and work there is declared by their living and working there, even if no national authorities grant that right.


Without using the term Judith Butler references cosmopolitanism it in her discussion of Kantian Enlightenment. She states the existence of the nation depends on its ability to shore up the “I” first person point-of-view of the political narrative in order to maintain its power over individuals  By contrast, cosmopolitanism –in her theory embodied as grief and desire for the other– “undoes” and de-centers this “I” and in the process, brings people together by allowing them to escape from themselves.  It is in this sense I argue that the Aztlán, the border-space, as an open wound, is the new space for this revised cosmopolitan poetics and politics –evolving from an ethical rather than imperial cosmopolitanism.  What though, would be the reason to adopt a cosmopolitain  terminology?


If the Aztlán of the 1960s and 1970s Chicano Movement was conceived in the hope of creating a unifying vision of a bronze mythology to inspire a political movement and then re-envisioned in the 1980s and 1990s as an inclusive queered space, then the Aztlán of the twenty-first century is their dystopian mirror darkly.  As we all know too well, on right-wing websites run by organizations like ReportIllegals, the TeaParty Movement or the self-styled volunteer border patrol “the Minutemen,” quotes about Aztlán and the Chicano movement are used to reinforce their myth that an organized “reconquest” of the southwest is underway.  The  using documents from the Chicano Movement, especially El Plan de Aztlán,  to justify the continued militarization of the border.  Their selective misinterpretation and fear-mongering is not merely the product of internet fringe groups, but is also found on cable news shows and even some newspaper pages.  A brief search on the internet  for the term “Aztlán”  will reveal a surprising number of US elected officials willing be associated with these groups who re-read Aztlán nationalism and the texts from the 1960s against the communities for which they were written and, even more sadly, against migrants who have no power and little ability to protest their misrepresentations.  Chicano/a and Latino/a public officials and candidates who do not disavow Chicano/a ties are denounced.  Chicano Nationalism has been re-written by these groups as as a racist, anti-semitic movement, supporting a southwestern “reconquista” and even genocide, where the criminal and terrorist is collapsed and both are the fault of immigrants.


Here’s a humorous example: this is an advertisement Absolut Vodka ran in selected magazines in Mexico in 2008.  The company is still experiencing an internet campaign against their  “participation in reconquest” prompting a website disavowal:

This particular ad [was] way was this meant to offend or disparage, nor does it advocate an altering of borders, nor does it lend support to any anti-American sentiment, nor does it reflect immigration issues.

The response to this is more than 3000 comments, mostly of the “Boycott Absolut” and “Deport Illegals” vein with bits of racist abuse thrown it.


While this is a trivial example, the present moment, a chief law enforcement officer in Arizona has bragged about keeping the undocumented in tent cities where temperatures can top 120 degrees, demonstrating the popularity of anti-Mexican sentiment among a significant portion of the population.    There is a high and horrible human cost to policing the border.

Against this dystopian, insular, racist nationalism, re-visioning Aztlan as a a borderland cosmopolis has several advantages.  It makes clear connections to a larger cosmo-political and cosmo-poetic movements.  These, made up of borderlands and cities worldwide who act against nation and nationalism to create “cities of refuge,” defy the conservative notion of nation and state militarization of the border.  Using these, Aztlán as both space and vision can be reclaimed again as a positivist poetic and political space.


Derrida closes his essay on the cosmopolitan with the passage

Being on the threshold of these cities, of these new cities that would be something other than ‘new cities’, a certain idea of cosmopolitanism, an other, has not yet arrived, perhaps.

If it has (indeed) arrived…

…then, one has perhaps not yet recognized it.


Without trying to draw the lines too neatly, I do think there is value to seeing the borderland cosmopolitan spaces as these “new” cities of refuge, of which the Aztlán southwest is but one.  They exist not because the nation state recognizes them, nor are they sanctioned by any nation, but because they are claimed by those who take refuge there and those who shelter them.  This is bleaker than the intellectual utopian vision of cosmopolitanism Derrida’s essay harkens back to, but as such the borderland cosmopolis already exists.

Thank you.

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