Bryan Farha Published: November 6, 2012

Invited Post by Mark Griffin, Ph.D.

Dr. Griffin is a Professor of Modern Languages at OCU

[Dr. Griffin's Personal Blog:]  

A curious paradox greets the traveler to the American Southwest and “Heartland” –the paradox of a place that is growing more diverse yet less hospitable to outsiders. On the one hand, it’s a place where pick-up trucks are as apt to broadcast the polka-inflected “norteño” ballads of rural Mexico as the familiar twang of Alan Jackson. In small town where it would have been unthinkable a generation ago, signs welcome the business of immigrant customers with the words Se habla español, and Mexican restaurants that would’ve seemed like surreal apparitions now spice up the semi-abandoned downtown areas.


     On the other hand, though, the last few years have seen a spate of harsh laws against illegal immigration (across the Deep South and Southwest, from Alabama to Arizona) that seem designed to make immigrants as a whole feel unwelcome and under siege. For, like it or not, these laws are blunt weapons that fall on the heads of legal residents no less than illegal ones –breaking up extended families an making them feel like second-class citizens. Politicians, who are now sweeping elections across the region, seem to have forgotten the much sunnier disposition of Ronald Reagan: he of the avuncular, welcoming disposition; he who’d seemed so freshly-minted from a Norman Rockwell painting.


     Uncle Sam wears a scowl these days, but it’s not just a rural, red-state scowl. In the halls of academe (in Harvard, no less), Samuel Huntington has painted a dire picture of a “clash of civilizations” between East and West, North and South. Huntington would have us all believe that the Spanish-speaking workers toiling on farms and staffing its restaurants are harbingers of an alien “civilization” that, absent great vigilance, will undermine America’s “Anglo-Protestant” one. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and now we’re called to reconstruct it on our southern border. “While Muslims pose the immediate problem to Europe,” he states, “Mexicans pose the problem for the United States.” He proceeds to warn readers that “the results of American military expansion in the nineteenth century could be threatened and possibly reversed by Mexican demographic expansion in the twenty-first century.” 


     I maintain that this “clash of civilizations” description of our southern border is wrong on more than one level. Our Latin American neighbors, in spite of vast economic inequities that divide us, are not members of some “alien” non-Western civilization. As former colonies of Spain and Portugal, the culture of that region is as Western as ours -albeit a more Mediterranean, predominately-Catholic variant. But more to the point: even if Latin American culture were an “alien” civilization, this would be no justification for its liquidation in the American melting pot. For, like most nations in the world, the US is part of a global yin-and-yang of civilizations, not some “pure” and fortified monolith. In this essay I will examine the work of two important writers (Gloria Anzaldúa from the US/Mexico border region and Miguel de Unamuno from Spain) with a view to sketching an alternative picture to that of clashing, fenced-in monoliths : one in which the lines between rival cultures are blurred and one exists within the heart of the other.


 Gloria Anzaldua: Mestizaje, Aztlán and Societal Culture


      “The US-Mexican border,” writes Gloria Anzaldua, “es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country –a border culture.” (25)  One might even read her entire work as the blurring and deconstruction of the boundaries erected by the likes of Huntington. And to do this she wields two strategies: the notion of mestizaje (racial and cultural hybridization), and an appeal to the most ancient historical sources.


     Anzaldua devotes an entire essay of her book Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) to the concept of mestizaje and a call for a “new mestiza consciousness.” (99)  She cites José Vasconcelos, the first major theorist and advocate of the concept in his 1925 work La raza cosmica, but clearly has a much more radical concept of the notion than he did. Where Vasconcelos celebrated and foresaw a racial/cultural synthesis that would produce a uniform Mexican (and perhaps even “cosmic”) consciousness, Anzaldúa writes about the embrace of difference and unresolved contradiction –both at the national and personal levels. Her mestiza is not just an inhabitant of the blurred boundaries of the literal borderlands (“where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds”) but also one who is able to live with and transcend all dualism and contradiction:


          The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.

          She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be a Mexican from an Anglo point of view…Not

          only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. (101)


 One path to this transcendence (one which the author herself describes undergoing) is a shamanistic embrace of the Coatlicue archetype, an Aztec figure that encompasses opposing forces: “Ella es el monstruo que se tragó todos los seres vivientes y los astros, es el monstruo que se traga el sol cada tarde y le da luz cada mañana.” (68)


     In short, there is a figurative borderland which resides within all who embrace and transcend contradiction. It can exist anywhere and everywhere, even in the heart of a geographic culture or civilization.


     In addition to blurring boundaries, Anzaldúa also turns our attention to the most ancient historical sources –in order to claim a space for minorities within the U.S.  The pattern of north-south migration across what is now the US/Mexico border is, she reminds us, part of a historic pattern that goes back to ancient, pre-Aztec times. The ancestral homeland of the Aztecs was the mythical Aztlan, which is the modern US Southwest:


          In 1000 B.C., descendants of the original Cochise people migrated into what is now Mexico and

          Central America and became the direct ancestors of many of the Mexican people…The Aztecs

          (the Nahuatl word for the people of Aztlán) left the southwest in 1168 A.D. (26)


 Anzaldúa’s reference to these ancient historical migrations is not a rationale for the re-annexation of the American Southwest by Mexico –as some demagogues might fear. It is a simple reminder that the Native American and mixed-race peoples have a presence at the historical and geographic heart of what is now the U.S. Southwest. A yin  at the center of the yang –or vice-versa.. It is a rationale for inclusion of the other, even when the other is not part of “Western” civilization.


      We must grant, of course, that there are legitimate anxieties surrounding the question of national unity, and I am no advocate of  national fragmentation, or “balkanization.” All nations benefit from a common public language (English in our case, Spanish in the case of Mexico and Spain) and some “societal culture” which links everyone together. But I don’t think that common language should be exclusive –lest we remain more monolingual than everyone else in the world; whatever unifying culture we have as Americans should be much “thinner” than the term “Anglo-Protestant” or “Catholic’ would suggest. And we’d do best not to circumscribe our societal culture within Western civilization –lest we suggest that anyone who not “Western” (or Christian) is not a full-fledged American.


    To be a citizen of the US is to belong to a societal culture, and not to belong to a particular ethnic, religious group, or even to a civilization. As political scientist Will Kymlicka defines it, it is  the culture associated with citizenship, with a national group it is the culture that flows from the particular set of rights, duties and historical consciousness that citizenship confers.  It’s to share the symbols and rituals grounded in that narrative: July-4th fireworks and parades, the images of Lincoln and Washington on our coins, the remembrance of veterans and slain civil rights leaders. It’s also: filing taxes before April 15, voting in November (or choosing not to and still being bombarded by campaign ads), and moving around on interstate highways.


     To the charge that such a notion of American culture is thin and insubstantial, we must cite the advantages of such restraint and remind ourselves of the alternative.  It’s this minimal consensus that unifies us without requiring us to impose some “pure” cultural norm on minorities of various stripes. And far from “dumbing down” our culture, it has after all, made room for the peaceful flourishing of a whole range of American subcultures: regional, ethnic and religious. It has ample room for Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of mestizaje. And it has helped us to avoid the vicious cycle of repression and balkanization that has plagued other countries, from Spain to the Balkans themselves.  Where societal cultures are concerned, it is better to thinks broad and shallow, rather than narrow and deep.


 Miguel de Unamuno: Spain, Ancient Sources and the “Other”


      As a Hispanist, I’ve found the example of Spain to be instructive and of special interest –one that parallels ours in interesting ways. In addition to its turbulent past, Spain can be said to inhabit one of the major “fault lines” in our modern world: the border between Europe and predominately-Islamic North Africa. It is a nation of glories and defeats on a grand scale, of dramatic highs and lows.


     Miguel de Unamuno, writing in “crisis” that was Spain’s loss of power and empire around 1898 (one of its dramatic lows) suggested that  his country’s rich popular culture would be more vital to the extent that it was more open and porous, less politicized, and disengaged from official sponsorship.  He argued in his work En torno al casticismo that the heart of Spanish tradition was fluid and dynamic, irreducible to the doings of their generals and politicians. Trying to head off the vicious cycles of repression and balkanization that he saw coming, he was setting forth in these essays a set of radical proposals (at least for his time): church-state separation, the canonization of Don Quixote as a national icon, and the re-claiming of the nation’s authentic popular/regional cultures.


 It is interesting that these were not the words of jacobin trying to rid the modern world of religion, but of a passionate (if  heterodox) Catholic and Spanish patriot –whose aim was cultural revitalization. He was putting to rest the notion that a more broad and minimal societal culture would lead to general cultural decline. On the contrary, he was suggesting that “thin” our nations’  societal cultures are, the more vital their popular cultures will be.


     Like Don Quixote before him, Unamuno was up against a particular windmill: the idea popular in his time and, alas, still popular in ours, that a nation can and should be “pure” and uncontaminated by foreign presences or civilizations. But he knew that Spanish culture itself  had never been pure and, if it had been, its grandeurs would have been impossible. The grandeur of the Alhambra and the Moorish grandeur of Seville and Cordoba, and even the European Renaissance itself, would have been unimaginable without Spain’s medieval Jewish and Islamic presences. For this reason he would later write, in a poem celebrating Córdoba, that “Rome chants through the mosque.” In places like Seville and Cordoba, the heritage of the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church fuse with Spain’s Islamic heritage: Roma canta en la mezquita .


      A common intuition, then, links the work of  Gloria Anzaldúa  and Miguel de Unamuno: the idea of   returning to ancient sources in order to make a place for the “other.”  An Islamic dot in the heart of Spain and its Catholic Empire, at the same time that there is an ancient Christian (Coptic) cathedral in the heart of Islamic Cairo. An ancient Native American heritage survives in the heart of the predominately-Protestant-and-Catholic nations of the Americas. Both writers blur boundaries and point to the existence of a Tao of civilizations, not their inevitable “clash.”  From both we can infer that  a minimal conception of a country’s societal culture (one that makes room for this yin-and-yang of civilizations) will make that nation not just more free and equal, but also more vital.


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