Polyphonic Voices

A Chicana Response to Western Mythology


GENTE DECENTE:A Borderlands Response to the Rhetoric of Dominance.

Leticia M. Garza-Falcón’s “Borderlands Response” rescues several fascinating Mexicana voices from oblivion, recovers a powerful novel by Américo Paredes from the margin, and opens a dynamic dialogue within a cultural space institutionalized by the echo of a dominant monologue.

Gente Decente presents a diverse critical challenge to the “Anglo American worldview of exclusion” and its narcissistic myth of Manifest Destiny. Garza-Falcón’s inclusionary view synthesizes Latino/Latina literature and criticism into a wider spectrum of liberal modernist thought, and illuminates the psychological subtexts of borderlands stories in their cultural contexts and historical frameworks. She prefaces this multi-leveled inquiry with definite purpose:

“With this work I question a certain dominative history of the U.S. West and Southwest and explicate a number of literary works, hitherto little known, which challenge that history.” Among the women writers examined – including three precursors to the post-war Chicano Movement of mostly male, working-class authors – are María Christina Mena, Fermina Guerra, and Jovita González, “the last two of whom are descendants of South Texas land grantees and students of J. Frank Dobie.”

The “history” against which Garza-Falcón argues is typified by the work of Walter Prescott Webb, author of The Great Plains (1931) and The Texas Rangers (1935), who also had a pervasive influence on history teachers and the adoption of textbooks in Texas. Throughout the study and especially in Chapter 2, she assails Webbian histories, which have “done their damage to American thought, particularly as regards the way ‘the other’ is viewed and continues to be constructed.”

A few passages from Webb’s vision of how the West was won and by whom will suffice to make the point:

What is true of the “Indians” is in a measure true of the wild animals. The Great Plains afforded the last virgin hunting grounds in America, and it was there that “the most characteristic American animal” made its last stand against the advance of the white man’s civilization….

The West or the Great Plains, presents also a survival of early American stock, the so-called typical American of English or Scotch and Scotch-Irish descent…. But once we go into the arid region of the Plains, particularly in the “Southwest,” we find or did find until very recent time, the pure American stock….

[from The Great Plains]

Webb also tells us that “Negroes did not move west of the ninety-eighth meridian” and that “women were few; and every man was a self-appointed protector of women who participated in the adventures of the men….” But Webb seems to reserve his greatest hatred for the people of Mexican descent: “Without disparagement, it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would leave one to believe. This cruelty may be heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood…. The Mexican warrior … on the whole, is inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan.”

These obvious prejudices, which Paredes exposed in the seminal scholarly work, With His Pistol in His Hand (1958), are not the primary focus of Garza-Falcón’s devastating deconstruction of Walter’s Webb of Deceit that invents convenient facts and masks the inconvenient truth. Central to the mythmaking is the historian’s clever persona: omnipotent narrator who sanctifies the Holy Conquest, and ghostwriter who insinuates himself as a fictional character into the pioneering saga.

Garza-Falcón summarizes Webb’s stylistic schemata after breaking down his narrative and analyzing its isolated parts convincingly:

The narrative elements and linguistic devices in his romanticizing rhetoric — the metaphors, euphemisms, adjectives, juxtapositions, quasi-poetic language, mythopoetic frames, epic bard stratagems — all invite the reader’s assent to the ‘truth’ in a peculiar story replete with the images of the ‘rough set’s’ freedom gained at the expense and denigration of others. It is important to isolate these elements, for they reappear in various forms and especially in times of economic hardship to affirm the ‘rightness’ of the domination of a particular group over the ‘others’ who make up our nation’s diverse population…. His rhetorical and narrative strategies arose from a crucial moment, and at that crucial moment they reinforced politically and economically desirable myths, easily transported to our own times.

Anglo-American history flourished after the West had been colonized, and the consciousness of the majority was ripe for the codification of its collective myth that persists to this day in public education, popular entertainment, and mass media. Thus, Garza-Falcón’s critique forms a valid and necessary context for understanding a chorus of “polyphonic ‘voices’ still unheard and unrecognized.”

The heart of Gente Decente examines the fiction of borderlands women, and none more extensively than that of Jovita González (Chapter 3). This Texas-born Mexicana was a prominent folklorist and president of the Texas Folklore Society; one of the intelligences of the bilingual education movement spearheaded by her husband, E. E. Mirales; and a novelist who wrote about Mexicano culture in two historical novels (Dew on the Thorn, unpublished, and Caballero, published posthumously in 1966). Garza-Falcón’s portrait of González traces the life of a complex personality negotiating between the two worlds of Anglo society and the Mexicano community, identifying herself as one of the gente decente. But what is the meaning of this phrase beyond its literal translation (“decent people”)?

According to Garza-Falcón, gente decente distinguishes “social rather than economic status in the life of South Texas to this day.” For González it meant a heritage of land ownership and elite lineage (though not necessarily financial wealth); it signified that a lady was educated, cultured, proper, and chaste. Paredes characterized González as “a young woman traveling alone, acting as an independent professional and at the same time being a traditional model of propriety,” when she had been researching the borderlands for her master’s thesis at the University of Texas (M.A. 1930; B.A. Our Lady of the Lake, 1927).

“Given my own South Texas and northern Mexican origin,” writes Garza-Falcón, “I find her depictions of this highly stratified South Texas system suspect; they are the views of someone who aspires to high-class status and ‘imagines’ the rich condescending to the poor…. I believe that rather than from claims to Spanish nobility or inherited class background, dignity in South Texas comes with more down-to-earth, practical concerns….” However, the critic admits, González had lived during an earlier era, witnessing “what none of us living today can testify to,” because no matter how “identified today’s scholars of Mexican American literature, culture, and history may be with their ‘Chicanismo,’ we are all inescapably products of Anglo American dominance.”

To whatever extent González behaved aristocratically toward the uneducated poor, she broke with her own class on the question of equal education, advocating this enlightened attitude though her fictional characters and, of course, demonstrating through her decades of teaching the belief that all Mexicanos could become gente decente. “Her story of negotiation, the cognitive dissonance of her psychology, so evident in her writings,” states Garza-Falcón, “informs even present-day views of aspiring youth in our educational institutions…. The split in González’s intellectual environment, her aspirations, and the climate of the times demanded that she leave her more blatant outcries against both the Anglo and the Mexican patriarchies and the elitist/racist views about ‘her’ people to future generations….”

Garza-Falcón explores the border crossings of González’s novels in a detailed analysis that reveals a rich feminist thematics and a subtle cultural awareness. Her central theme of awakening the cultural unconscious to fresh aspects of our nation’s story through the fictional perspectives of the silenced gives texture to the plain, depth to the linear line, coloration to the white noise of historiography. Through these narratives of “otherness,” we begin to hear the chorus of real diversity.

Chapter 4 features the explication of a story by María Christina Mena and Fermina Guerra’s historical sketches of ranch life on the border. Like González, these writers come from the Mexican elite that knew the Anglo elite, but Garza-Falcón contends that this “picturing of their worlds, from their however privileged perspectives, provides a more complex and more complete picture which illuminates the dialectics of today’s Chicano/a struggles.”

Mena was born in Mexico City to wealthy parents, but was sent to New York as a teenager when the Mexican Revolution erupted. Her first stories were published when she was just twenty and she became the only woman of Mexican descent to have fiction in the leading U.S. literary magazines during the 1910s and 1920s. Her witty satire, “The Education of Popo,” tells of an encounter between fourteen-year-old Popo Arriola and Alicia Cherry, a pink-skinned, blue-eyed blonde who appears younger and more innocent than she is. In fact, she is a twenty-five-year-old divorcée on a trip with her rich U.S. parents as guests of the aristocratic Arriolas in Mexico City. Her flirtation with the love-struck boy is an exercise in vanity that ends when her ex-husband arrives. The surface reads like sophisticated fluff, but it has the subtle irony and critical bite of Dorothy Parker’s earliest social satires.

Guerra’s “Rancho Buena Vista, Its Ways of Life and Traditions” was her master’s thesis at the University of Texas, where she studied with Dobie a decade after González. “But unlike Dobie’s quaint paternalistic portrayal of the Mexicans,” writes Garza-Falcón, “Guerra’s stories record the hard work and struggles of her people, which can be seen as a parallel to those of Webb’s pioneering settlers.” However, she “does not romanticize or mystify the story of her people … and Guerra makes the lives and struggles of women just as important as those of men.”

Garza-Falcón’s impassioned reading of Americo Paredes’ historical novel, George Washington Gómez (which was written between 1936 and 1940 but not published until 1990) evokes his radical spirit of protest, resistance, and solidarity. This “Mexicotexan Novel” about property, labor, and education, and about the complex lives of real people in the Río Grande Valley, strikes this reviewer as the most edifying and truthful novel of the borderlands ever written.

Gente Decente fastforwards in the final chapters to the work of contemporary Chicanas María Viramontes and Beatriz de la Garza. In the harrowing stories by Viramontes, the misperceived actions of two elderly female immigrants provoke violent reactions from their barrio neighbors, who cannot square such “alien” behavior with the media’s “falsely unified view” which they have internalized as truth. The de la Garza stories concern the effects of displacement upon women who must take on leadership roles, and upon a Mexicano soldier who returns to Austin as a hero to his family but without fanfare in segregated society. There is also a terrific story about a boy who “had learned to outsmart the system at an early age by claiming an important ancestor with his own last name, in order to make a point in the face of bigotry” (“The Kid from the Alamo”).

Garza-Falcón ends Gente Decente with an engaging epilogue of growing up in the Valley as one of the few “who managed to squeeze through the window of opportunity before the Nixon and Reagan eras closed off what had finally became available to us during the Johnson years.” This Borderlands Mexicana has drawn on her own experiences and upon previous untapped sources to offer an expanded view of the past that enlightens our present and gives us hope. It is crucial to our full understanding of culture that Gente Decente not be dismissed as most of the literature it illuminates has been; that this significant inquiry not be ignored like the profound issues she clarifies tend to be.

Robert Bonazzi is at work on Humane Rites, a book of essays about human rights activists and issues (1950-2000). His most recent book, Man in the Mirror, about John Howard Griffin, has gone into a second printing by Orbis books.