For Aztlán Reads: Gazing East: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

[This text was written for the new blog, Aztlán Reads, to which I’m excited to have been asked to contribute. The blog post is here. Go ahead, leave a comment.]

Just as there is a presumption that United States history begins in the east and moves to the west against a savage frontier, so is there a presumption that this expansion was an inevitable and ultimate good. Even now, to connect western expansion with race slavery and Native American genocide is to write against the “official” versions of Californian and southwestern history. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s nineteenth century novel Who Would Have Thought It? writes against these assumptions and makes the connection between United States imperialism and issues of race clear, as her novel’s trajectory connects the U.S. west to the east, and the north to the south.

Published in Philadelphia in 1872, Ruiz de Burton’s work is the first known novel by a Mexican American. Yet the claiming of Who Would Have Thought It? as an early Chicana/o novel lays bare more than one history of racism and resistance to the existing United States black / white binary. Writing this satirical novel, Ruiz de Burton attempts to reclaim whiteness for her own class of Californios by exposing the racist hypocrisy of the northeastern white elite. In doing so, she expresses sympathy with southern slave holding, seems to agree with the stereotypes of crudeness and vulgarity expressed about the Irish in the northeast, reinforces racist stereotypes about African and Native Americans and ridicules the position of abolitionists as little more than hypocrites. Spanish colonial Mexico becomes, in the process, a utopian space of cosmopolitan civility set against the provincialism of the northeastern bourgeois capitalism.

In her novel Who Would Have Thought It?, as well as her later work The Squatter and the Don, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton writes against this presumed east to west historical trajectory, locating the home space in the southwest (and, in The Squatter and the Don, specifically in California) rather than the New England east. She also names as a cultural point of origin the Mexican south rather than the New England north. Similar to Ruiz de Burton’s own life, the history of the novel’s heroine, the idealized Lola Medina, begins in Mexico at the time of the United States / Mexican War, then migrates to the the United States’ western frontier — first outside then inside of the “civilized” United States — before she finally moves to the supposedly tolerant and civilized northeast. Read as early Chicana novels,6 Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s works offer an insight into nineteenth century perspectives of Anglo Northerners by the early California Chicanos / Mexican Americans. Continue reading

Reading Today: Gods Go Begging By Alfredo Véa

For the past couple days, as I read Alfredo Véa’s San Francisco novel Gods Go Begging, I’ve been flashing back to my undergraduate days studying Vietnam in film and literature with Professor John Hellmann at Ohio State. My first impression of Véa’s book is that it’s a great Vietnam novel, a story of physical and emotional warfare played out thirty years distanced from the conflict.

Yet as a Chicana/o text it’s even more interesting, with the hyperreal images of conflict, almost too brutal to be depicted. This sense of the hyperreal gives way to the magical real as the spirituality of violence and love are explored. The protagonist, Jesse Pasadoble is a San Francisco defense lawyer, thirty years back from Vietnam, yet emotionally he’s never been able to leave. As his past catches up to his present, Vietnam becomes part of his legal battle, the violent lives he’s surrounded by.

At first I wasn’t sure I could read this text as gothic (remember the course I’m planning) — it seemed too modern for that. Yet in this text the dead come back to life and speak the unspeakable, partly through grotesque depictions of their own bodies. Yet in these depictions of violence and death, what endures (and what the dead seem to be trying to speak) is about their desires, their loves.

This book isn’t an easy read by any means, but is one I would highly recommend.

Reading Today: The Calligraphy of the Witch

Actually I read this book yesterday. Was so into it I didn’t start the review until after it was completed. Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I’m reading it with the thought of including it in my Chicana Gothic syllabus.

Calligraphy of the Witch by Chicana scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba is an amazing American novel. It confronts Chicana/o absence in traditional American history and literature by telling the story of a convent raised Mexican mestiza scribe, Concepción Benavídez, captured by pirates and brought to 17th century New England as a slave. Raped on her journey, the story is framed by Concepción’s daughter, born in the Boston colony and torn between her Mexican mother and her mother’s slave owner who adopts the child as her own.

Parts of the text are told as if written by Concepción in her scribe script (and are in a calligraphic font.) I loved this, but I did find my eyes straining to read at various points (maybe I need new glasses). Still, this touch makes the novel feel like a work of art.

Her Spanish language and foriegn ways put Concepción (renamed Thankful Seagraves) at odds with her New England owners and neighbors, eventually sweeping her up into the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. The story is well written and at times almost too tense. I could hardly put it down. And yes, it will be perfect for a course on the Chicana/o gothic.

ADDED: This wonderful YouTube trailer. You know you want to read it.

Reading Today: The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Today I’ve started the novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’m thinking of using it for a class I’m planning (planning in a sense of writing a syllabus, rather than actually having been engaged to teach) on the Chicana/o Gothic. At 499 pages, it seems a bit long, but is actually a fast read. While it code-switches between English and Spanish, the Spanish is understandable by context.

The book is a novel telling the story of the Mexican saint, Santa Teresita Urrea. So far I’ve read the first five chapters. It captures a diverse sense of Mexico as a space not just of Spanish and Mexican, but of indigenous. The novel is in the magical real tradition, yet magic and spirituality are also questioned throughout. As Teresita becomes more spiritual, more of a saint, it causes friction within her family, especially for her father who is not religious / full of doubt. This doubt / balance is one of the things I like best about the text. That aside, it’s a beautiful book. If you’re looking for some rich summer reading I highly recommend The Hummingbird’s Daughter.