This is a powerful time to be a Chicano writer — for good and bad reasons.
On the one hand, students in Arizona are still struggling to overturn the state’s ban on Mexican-American studies in public schools; the legislation was aimed at dismantling the curriculum in Tucson, even though it was credited with improving student achievement. Effectively, Arizona is trying to repress Chicano literature, but its writers — as well as those Tucson students — just won’t let that happen. The writers are entering a kind of renaissance, achieving great literary feats recognized at the state and national level.
This year, Juan Felipe Herrera, a Californian born to parents who migrated from Mexico, became the first Latino U.S. poet laureate in history. Here in Texas, San Antonio’s Carmen Tafolla became the second Chicana to be named Texas poet laureate. To bring things full circle, Tafolla’s collection Curandera formed part of the outlawed Mexican-American studies curriculum.
This mix of literary achievement and political suppression is the stage for Amalia Ortiz’s new book of poems, Rant. Chant. Chisme. The DNA of the collection is conveyed in the title: Her chants employ traditional forms with aesthetic flourishes. Her rants would bring the house down at a poetry slam. And chisme — though it just means gossip when literally translated — for Mexican Americans has rich significance: our inside jokes, fantasies, shame, glory, historia, foibles and gifts. All are reflected in Ortiz’s poems, including one of my favorites, “these hands which have never picked cotton,” which describes a seminal moment for Mexican Americans, when we take stock of our station in life and consider what and who got us there:
Rant. Chant. Chisme. is suited for the tumult of our time. Ortiz both honors great Tejano writers of the past and forges her own style. An activist, actor and writer, she’s compiled many of the pieces that she’s performed and perfected on different stages — from academic conferences to San Antonio poetry slams to HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
Of course, it’s always a challenge to keep performance pieces still enough for the printed page. To do so, Ortiz calls on the poetic forms of Tafolla and Tejano legend Raul Salinas. She breaks new ground by covering topics from Elvis to Coltrane to eight-liner slot machines.
Ortiz also cultivates a powerful voice for women from a Latina perspective. Another of my favorites in the collection, “La Matadora,” is a brilliant example. The mere act of translating the title demonstrates the irony of the Chicano condition: Literally, it means “female bullfighter,” clunky and lacking poetry because of the addition of a word to signify gender. And while our sport of choice, soccer, is underappreciated in the United States, bullfighting is completely misunderstood. But all of that is needed to create the context and nuance for the best translation of the word: “killer.” The poem was inspired by Carmen Bermúdez, a Mexican bullfighter who later became a successful businesswoman.
Readers will appreciate this and other of Ortiz’s tributes to women who have cut their own paths. However, it is the location of “La Matadora” in the book that has the most powerful cultural implications. Ortiz places it in a section with “The Women of Juárez,” a poem about the unexplained disappearance of hundreds of women along the U.S.-Mexico border — news that’s been lost in the frenzy of media cycles.
Like the matadora, Ortiz practices her craft while a stampede rages around her. This is what she will be known for. The soul of her collection rises out of just a handful of lines:
“but la matadora deaf to the wild crescendo / hears only her own heartbeat / slows it and steadies the hand / silences fears and directs the blade home”