Writing from the Trunk of the Latino Tree


A version of this story ran in the April 2016 issue.

Edited by Dagoberto Gilb and Ricardo Angel Gilb MACMILLAN
656 PAGES; $47.99  Macmillan

I’m often the only Chicano on panels and boards and at symposiums. If the issue of Latino engagement arises during the sessions or proceedings — which it will, since that’s why I was invited — someone is bound to say, “I know that the Latino experience is not monolithic and not all Latinos are from Mexico.” That person will then look at me for an approving nod.

In the past, I would have responded with a mini-lecture, pointing out that the 21 Spanish-speaking nations on the planet are a springboard for the term Hispanic, which generally overlaps with the term Latino/a. I would have then pointed out that over two-thirds of Latinos in the United States are descendants of Mexico, which might have led to a discussion of the differences between the terms Chicano/a, Tejano/a, and so on.

From now on, I will simply hand over the newly released Mexican American Literature: A Portable Anthology, and point to editor Dagoberto Gilb’s introduction, in which he writes: “It is said that this century will be about the power of the Latino. Latino? Take away the 66 percent of this population, the MexAm proportion … and what national power then? With the other third divided into several single percentage groups, MexAms ought to receive the landslide of attention. Yet, already and again, the raw facts haven’t created any gain, let alone advantage.”

Of course, Gilb doesn’t intend to slight other members of the Latino family tree. He simply means to point out that in the United States, Mexican Americans form the trunk. Hence, the resonance of an anthology that consists of 50 writers essential not only to Chicano literature but also to American writing.

Although the anthology, the most important of its kind in 40 years, has obvious applications for college as well as high school, it’s useful to anyone who, in this polarized electoral season, wants or needs to understand the collective experience and psyche of Mexican Americans, the so-called sleeping giant of American politics. (We’re actually a working giant, and we’ve entered an era in which we labor in intellectual fields, evidenced by the anthology as well as the ever-growing number of Mexican-American lawyers, professors, scientists and artists.)

Each piece in the anthology is prefaced by an introduction, written by Gilb’s son and co-editor Ricardo Angel Gilb, that provides insight into these great Mexican-American voices, including Tejana Gloria Anzaldúa, whose Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza innovated “a new way of looking at the mixing of cultures,” as Ricardo Gilb writes; Gustavo Arellano, a modern-day literary warrior who writes the satirical syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!”; artist Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the cartoon “La Cucaracha”; Sandra Cisneros, who, as Gilb writes, “has become the most widely read Mexican-American writer today”; and playwright Luis Valdez, progenitor of Teatro Campesino, who took la cultura of the fields to the silver screen.

Valdez was also co-editor of the 1972 Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature. It was one of the first anthologies of Mexican-American literature published by a non-Chicano press and remains among the most important. Since then, there have been many more anthologies of Latino/a literature, but few dedicated to Mexican-American writing, despite the demographics of our time.

The Gilbs’ collection is also the first major anthology of Mexican-American literature published by a mainstream press following the 2012 Arizona law banning Mexican-American studies in public schools. The subsequent legal challenge to the law will be reviewed in Arizona’s Supreme Court in September. The law, which clearly should be overturned, demonstrates that we must preserve our voices lest they be obliterated by those who perceive our intellectual advancement as a threat.

Dagoberto Gilb has three books — Woodcuts of Women, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña and The Magic of Blood — in the outlawed curriculum, and many of the other banned authors are included in his anthology, among them Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Luis Rodríguez, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rudolfo Anaya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Carmen Tafolla and Jimmy Santiago Baca.

The anthology’s powerful poems and beautiful prose address the pressing issues of our time, like immigration. This passage from the essay “The Line” — from Rubén Martínez’s book Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail — provides brilliant context for today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric:

“American politicos have paid lip service to ‘holding the line’ at the southern border for the better part of the 20th century, beginning in the days of the massive migration spawned by the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. But in 1994, the rhetoric took the form of concrete, steel, arc lamps, infrared cameras and goggles, seismic and laser sensors, and even U.S. soldiers with M-16s offering ‘tactical support’ to a greatly expanded Border Patrol.”

The Gilbs’ new anthology keeps alive important voices which, if the state of Arizona had its way, might be forgotten, overlooked or obliterated.