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An Exchange on “The Chicanos”

To the Editors:

When I learned that John Womack, Jr., had published an article on Chicanos in The New York Review of Books (August 31, 1972), I felt a sense of outrage. I anticipated this was one more in a long line of academic rip-offs, one more example of the “Establishment’s” imperialistic and paternalistic attitudes vis-a-vis Chicanos, Mexican Americans—there is a difference—Blacks, and other American minorities. Why Womack, I asked. Why not Phil Ortego, or Octavio Romano-V, or Nick Vaca, or Julian Samora, or some other Chicano scholar? Perhaps, I concluded, Mr. Womack had some special insight into the Mexican American experience that made him particularly well suited for the task. With these mixed feelings I began the essay. After having finished it, I find myself no longer outraged; instead I am disappointed.

Mr. Womack, a well known and highly respected historian—his book Zapata and the Mexican Revolution became an instant classic of Mexican history—has written an acceptable essay. It is not brilliant; it is not particularly insightful; it is simply a well-written, acceptable essay. Given that Mr. Womack’s expertise is Mexican history and not Mexican American history, it would have been unfair to have expected more. Why, then, did the Review select him rather than a specialist in Mexican American affairs for this assignment? There seem to be at least two possible reasons.

First, the Review might have chosen Mr. Womack because of the assumption that the Mexican American is essentially a Mexican, and therefore a student of Mexican society would be eminently qualified to evaluate studies of Mexican Americans. Many publishers and scholars have been guilty of the same mistake. The Mexican American is not a Mexican, however; he is instead a product of two cultures that have had a conflictual relationship for over a century. Today, the great majority of Mexican Americans lives in urban areas, attends schools staffed and controlled by Anglo-Americans, watches American movies on television and in theaters, and works among Anglo-Americans daily. These experiences are profoundly different from those that shape the values and behavior of the Mexican. To understand the Mexican American, therefore, it is necessary to go beyond an understanding of Mexican culture; it is also necessary to understand how the Mexican American has affected and been affected by United States society….

The second possible explanation includes several reasons that can be grouped under the category of “academic rip-offs.” Perhaps the editors of the Review chose Mr. Womack because there were no “qualified” Mexican Americans available. Perhaps they chose Mr. Womack because they did not really care to read the Chicano perspective but preferred to read about Chicanos (the height of paternalism and intellectual imperialism). Perhaps the Review was catering to its audience and chose, therefore, to publish a well-known recognized historian rather than an equally competent, lesser known Chicano scholar whose views might be more readily challenged.

Whatever might have motivated the Review to select Mr. Womack, it seems reasonable to suggest that if the purpose of the essay was to provide the reader with an understanding of the Mexican American people as well as an appreciation of the worth of the books reviewed, this end would have been served equally well or better had a Chicano scholar written the essay. At least in this way some of the more obvious weaknesses of the essay could have been avoided.

For example, I doubt if a Chicano scholar would have categorized Chicano activists as “professional” or “amateur” Chicanos. Mr. Womack’s classification suggests that Corky González is a professional Chicano while Cesar Chávez is not. This dichotomy implies that what Mr. Chávez is doing is legitimate and praiseworthy while Corky’s Crusade for Justice is neither. This is somewhat akin to saying that the NAACP is a respectable organization while the Black Panthers are not. Whether or not the White community accepts Mr. Womack’s judgment is irrelevant; it is not they who must validate these organizations. Only clients may evaluate the services they receive; Mr. Womack is not a client and it is arrogant and insensitive of him to have passed judgment on the “professional” Chicanos.

Mr. Womack’s insensitivity is also evidenced when he cites “Ernest L. Medina (now retired)” as an example of Mexican Americans who have become upwardly mobile as a result of their military experience. Surely Mr. Womack knows that the Mexican American soldier has distinguished himself in America’s wars, and that the Mexican American community is proud of its military record. Why, then, did he choose as representative of the Mexican American soldier a man allegedly involved in one of the most disgraceful events of one of America’s most disgraceful wars?

Other weaknesses could be cited. For example, Mr. Womack presents his readers with an origin for the word “Chicano” that I had never heard and have been unable to verify. He suggests that the Virgin to whom the immigrant was devoted was “creamy”; as a Mexican historian Mr. Womack knows full well that the Chicano’s Virgin is café con leche.

Overall, it should be restated that the essay is acceptable. It would have benefitted had the author been able to empathize with the Mexican American people rather than attempt to write from a purely “objective” perspective. It is, nonetheless, disappointing that scholars and publishers continue to exploit the public’s interest in ethnic studies. (I commend Mr. Womack’s condemnation of “inanely edited” books of readings.) Perhaps in the near future scholars will accept their responsibilities and engage in the kinds of research and writing that merit publishing. Until they do, I hope that publishers will resist the temptation to exploit the ethnic market as the Review apparently has done. And, maybe, sometime soon, if both groups act responsibly we will finally be able to answer Mr. Womack’s question, “Who are the Chicanos?”

Dr. Rudolph O. de la Garza

Department of Political Science

University of Texas

El Paso, Texas

Jr. John Womack replies:

Why the NYR editors did not have a Mexican American review the recent books on Mexican Americans, I cannot say. I suppose that like other editors they wanted a writer whom they knew. They probably did not know Ortego or the Californians. They did know me, a little, and asked me. That is not “paternalism” or “intellectual imperialism,” only journalism.

Anyway it is by now the most tedious trick of liberal-baiting to claim that the only credible “perspective” on a particular kind of people (Chicanos, blacks, etc.) is that of those people themselves. The trick is wasted on me, for I am not a liberal. But even if you take the harassment, which Chicano “perspective” do you buy? Henry Ramírez’s? Bert Corona’s? Tony Camejo’s? Mirta Vidal’s? Albert Peña’s? Maclovio Barraza’s? The Brown Buffalo’s? An ordinary field worker’s? There being no such thing as “the Chicano,” there is no such thing as “the Chicano perspective.”

The attempt of any kind of people to know another kind has to begin in ignorance. If this is true of Anglos trying to know about Chicanos, it is true of Chicanos trying to know about Anglos. The worst ignorance is complacency, calm or ranting; it is the classic reactionary attitude. The best ignorance allows at least a lookout for a lead out. For the first word you go to a friend who may know a bit, for the next to an acquaintance who may know a bit more, and so on. Otherwise you get shots out of the dark at targets far away in the dark. No one can tell now who will have the last word. A Chicano on Chicanos? An Anglo on Anglos? Or each on the other’s kind? By then we will all be gone, and our children will have become something else.

Why I accepted the offer to do the review—I did so in the spring of 1971—I can say. (a) The subject seemed to me very important and urgently in need of attention in the East, where almost no one knew anything about it. (b) I reckoned the editors were unlikely soon to have a writer from the Southwest or the West do the article. (c) For several reasons, personal and professional, I thought that I could do an acceptable job. (d) I wanted to learn more about the subject and teach others. (e) I wanted to help the United Farm Workers however honestly I could.

The charge that I “exploited” Mexican Americans by writing about them is confused. In part it is a complaint about literary patronage, since the plaintiff implies that if a Chicano had written the article, there would have been no “exploitation.” Beyond that, as a charge, it is false. I know that literary “exploitation” goes on, often by Anglos, cynically or naïvely, sometimes too by Chicanos raving about “their people,” no matter how superficially they know them and their history, no matter how scornful of them they are in private, no matter how selfish their ambitions. But what makes such writing “exploitative” is not its subject or its readers but the writer’s bad motive, employment of another person for the work, and profit.

My motive was to offer the outlines of a version of the history of the people who have emerged as Mexican Americans and Chicanos, to press regular American scholars and the regular American reading public to take the subject seriously, and to suggest interpretative questions for subsequent debate, all in a desire to advance good research and writing on the subject. I did not hire any help. For my work I averaged about $1.00 an hour. Let a Chicano jury judge.

The specific criticisms are beside my points. Here I will be blunter. (a) “Professional” Chicanos are Chicanos who make a career and a living from promoting strictly the causes of La Raza. “Amateur” Chicanos are Chicanos who promote these causes only part time. Plain Chicanos may or may not favor these causes; if they do, they are usually too busy haciéndole la lucha to stay active in them. There are also Mexican Americans, Mexican-Americans, Hispanos, etc., as well as Mexicans in America, each a special kind of people with its own leanings and anxieties.

I did not make my preferences between professionals and amateurs explicit in the article, because it was a report on what I had come to think was the gist of 125 years of history, not a statement of which contemporary figures I like or dislike. For what my opinions are worth, I think Corky is a professional, personally pathetic, politically a jerk; José Angel is a professional, personally admirable, politically a fine talent; César is not an amateur anything, but a courageous and faithful man trying to move America’s farm workers, whatever their complexions, to know how valuable they are. And I respect the Panthers much more than the NAACP.

To accuse me of arrogance and insensitivity in publishing these opinions is to assert that I have no right to distinguish between frauds and hopes in a contention that is after all part of the class struggle throughout my country. This does not deserve a reply.

(b) I indicated that Mexican American soldiers have fought bravely in America’s wars, and that Mexican Americans are proud of their military record. Only, like other kinds of poor Americans, poor Mexican Americans have almost never been able to question the uses that the government has made of them in its wars, uses that were, I think, right in World War II but wrong and atrocious in the Indochina war. I mentioned Medina because he was terribly used, but evidently never thought to object. This is a degradation so sorrowful and fearful that it makes a worry about ethnic disgrace disgusting.

(c) I did not present an origin for “Chicano.” I said that it was the nickname given by people already in the conquered Mexican communities of the West and Southwest, to the immigrants arriving from Mexico in the 1910s. (See Galarza, Barrio Boy, Notre Dame paperback, pp. 200-202.) So far as I know, the origin of the word is still obscure. Most Chicanologists agree that it probably comes from mexicano, abbreviated in Mexican slang pronounced à la Nahuatl as shicano, toughened as chicano. Its use was common in the Rio Grande Valley before the turn of the century, among the poorest, scraggliest country Mexicans there, to refer to themselves.

(d) I was wrong about the Virgin, though not entirely, for as there was no typical “immigrant,” there was no single “Virgin.” Various immigrants were devoted to various Virgins, depending on where in Mexico they had come from; many were not devotees of any. In some regions the Virgin had been as pink as roses, in other peaches and cream, in others café con leche. I should have written “creamy as a Virgin.”

(e) Pity a political science caught between “empathy” and “objectivity.” My conviction is that empathy does not mean cheering but understanding, which means learning as precisely as possible, without actually being there, the sense of being in certain circumstances. This requires both a “subjective” and an “objective” view, and is therefore more than both, a comprehension, a feeling for how people, their possibilities, and their limits go together.

While I am at replying, I must admit my surprise that I have not been called to account here—as I have elsewhere—for what I said about “assimilation.” I am supposed to have written that Mexican Americans are being “assimilated,” and that before long they will be like everyone else in America. In fact I wrote that there is no such process as “assimilation,” because there is no single American type to become similar to, and because the variety of types Americans are is constantly changing. There never was a melting pot. There has been instead an involvement of originally very different kinds of people into America, mostly through the demand for their labor, not a homogenization but an integration of them into the general American society, even while they have remained distinctly identifiable—which has diversified and complicated the identities that persons can have and still be unmistakably American.

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