To the Editors:
It is difficult to read Edgar Z. Friedenberg’s discussion (New York Review of Books, Dec. 18, 1969) of two books relating to the movement of La Raza in New Mexico and the Southwest generally without being left once again with the dreary thought: Won’t They Ever Learn? They, in this case, are the urban middle-class white liberal intellectuals of Mr. Friedenberg’s bent. The lesson which goes unlearned, after so many clear messages from the black movement, is that the world cannot forever be viewed through the prism of an urban middle-class white liberal intellectual perception. At some point, the people themselves must define their reality.
Reviewing Peter Nabokov’s Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid and Stan Steiner’s La Raza: The Mexican Americans, Friedenberg heaps praise on the first while dismissing the second with an almost imperial gesture. The question here is not the merit of one book over the other, but a difference in kind. Nabokov translates an event—its context, facts, meaning—for the Friedenbergs of this world. In Steiner’s book, the people of La Raza tell their story directly: in their own words, with their own rhythm, so their lives and their struggle are revealed as seen through their own eyes. One is mostly a book about, the other mostly a book of.
Both needed to be written. But to find Friedenberg calling the Nabokov work “superb,” while passing off the book which gives voice to the people as “less brilliant in its perceptions,” suggests a gross ethnocentricity—one of the more polite words for unconscious racism.
I doubt that Mr. Steiner was trying to be “brilliant.” His book implies that he saw himself and his tape-recorder primarily as a middle-man and a medium by which many people who have either little access to publishing, or time for writing might reach the outside world. They live the oppression which produced the courthouse incident—listen to them.
But no such luck. The United States today crawls with writers who feed themselves by probing, “analyzing” and then writing about people unlike themselves—people now at last considered worthy of note and of publishers’ contracts. The days of this journalistic parasitism should have passed. There are few publishers left who would contract a white writer to do a book on the black movement, and, for that matter, few editors who would commission a white reviewer to deal with a black writer’s book. Apparently chicanos, on the other hand, haven’t become scarey enough yet. And so the lesson will have to be repeated.
The irony is that Friedenberg praises the Nabokov book precisely because it is above all “the history of a social movement.” Those words add up to people, yet it is not from the people most involved that Friedenberg wants to hear that history. He will not sit with Steiner through a long, slow afternoon in a remote New Mexican village and feel the ancient anger seeping quietly through an apparent passivity, or listen for the political barb swathed in a family joke. His history must be rounded up, rounded out, and strained quickly through a familiar white perception.
The imposition of that perception, the thread of paternalism, runs through the fabric of Friedenberg’s review with subtle persistence. He calls Corky Gonzales, head of the Crusade for Justice in Denver, a “journalist and politician”—terms which project neither what Gonzales is nor how the people in and around the Crusade perceive their man. It is a foreign definition. Then he decides that Gonzales is “less distinguished” than Cesar Chavez—“but still remarkable.” Right or wrong as a judgment, Friedenberg’s comment raises the question: by whose standards? In terms of what culture? In the light of whose political and spiritual values? Friedenberg also refers without disagreement to Nabokov’s opinion that Reies Tijerina is “excessively flamboyant”—again the question, for whose taste? In other words, what the hell do such judgments really mean and how did anyone so removed from the scene acquire the right to make them?
The problem isn’t merely a matter of white perception versus any non-white perception, but versus the specific perception of brown people—La Raza—chicanos. And if white America feels that it has just passed through a ten-year trauma (dating from the birth of the current black movement with the 1960 sit-ins) of learning something about black consciousness and the meaning of the black experience, it is going to find itself up against something even more elusive as it tries to dig the chicano movement.
Starting with a language difference and moving on to cultural values of all types, La Raza is even less “American” than black people in the United States. The villages of northern New Mexico, scene of the courthouse incident, seem more than any black ghetto to be of another country. The closest analogy is to the rural, Black Belt South but that comparison takes us only so far. The weight and the intricacy of family and other social relationships, with roots that are centuries old, create a Raza society in which layer after layer of truth can be peeled away—still leaving an outside observer with the feeling that the fundamental has yet to be grasped. Even in urban Raza areas, which seem more familiar to the non-Raza perception, there are human forces at work that will not be understood by comparison to either white or black life.
And of all that which is unrecognizable in the Raza culture, nothing could be harder for the urban middle-class white liberal intellectual to grasp than this idea: “the land is our mother. It cannot be bought or sold. Without it, we perish.” This idea is believed, felt and lived by thousands of Raza people. It is this people whom Nabokov would interpret and whom Friedenberg would understand. But Nabokov writes of the land only briefly, though the struggle for it gave birth to the courthouse incident, while Friedenberg skims over the subject with a few historical paragraphs.
Both treat it as some sort of Social Issue, as just another form of dispossession like bad housing or inadequate welfare payments. In Steiner’s book, on the other hand, the passion of the land takes on living and breathing reality through the people who speak about it. That this passion may seem an anachronism in the industrialized United States of today is clear enough. But to write of La Raza without seeing land as a central theme is, once again, to view another people’s reality through the white prism.
None of the complexity of Raza life stops Mr. Friedenberg from bustling forth with generalizations about the Raza psyche: “But the Hispanic emphasis on machismo and dignity has blended with the quieter forms of Indian pride and courage…”or “a people not only proud but self-conscious about their pride and now more alert and sensitive to threats to their dignity…”Well. The Friedenbergs will turn away from an unfamiliar articulation by the people themselves and reach out for some Handy Guide to Mexican-Americans…but the need for a translation, please, creates no problem of excessive humility. Paternalism and arrogance are comfortable bedfellows.
The closing section of Mr. Friedenberg’s review makes clear just where his eyes are at. He writes of El Grito del Norte (The Cry—or Outcry—of the North), a newspaper published in northern New Mexico, and begins by mistranslating grito as “shriek.” This indicates a total ignorance of the histories of Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Latin countries, where a grito by some leader or group has repeatedly marked the beginning of social struggle. Jefferson and his colleagues would hardly have liked their Declaration called a shriek, and it doesn’t go down here either. But Mr. Friedenberg doesn’t care, and his ignorance hasn’t prevented him from summing up that Raza psyche.
Mr. Friedenberg also says that El Grito is the semi-official newspaper of the Alianza, which it is not and has never claimed to be; two separate editorial statements have declared its total independence from any organization. He goes on to refer to a letter from a reader as being of a “frequent” type when in fact the issue in which it appeared was the only one ever to carry letters of this type.
So much for small errors. The more striking fact is that Friedenberg, having bothered to read El Grito, draws from it nothing worthy of note except its discussion of chicano-hippie relations in the state. He bypasses the numerous articles and columns by rock-bottom, grass-roots people who are sometimes barely literate and yet manage to get on paper a genuine popular expression. In their comments can be found not only the grievances and solutions perceived by La Raza but their sense of life, humor, values. Here, as in the expressions by Stan Steiner’s people, there seems to be little of interest for Mr. Friedenberg despite his enthusiasm for the Nabokov book because it so skillfully depicts “the history of a social movement.” Raza attitudes toward the hippies, a white phenomenon—that’s another matter. The white prism descends again.
What seems most depressing but also dangerous about the Friedenberg review is that his heart is in The Right Place. It goes out to those suffering Messicans, no doubt about that. He is also aware of human complexity and claims to look for a reality beyond average white liberal romanticism about poor folks’ struggles. His review is carefully caring, and always dispassionate. The tone of voice clinks with that Eastern sophistication which combines liberalism, alienated wit, and a great weariness. Unfortunately it seems to be a weariness too great for trying to understand the foreign on its own terms. The result is the same old liberalism wrapped in intellectual pretense, a familiar paternalism encased in plastic understanding.
The Small White Fathers march on.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Edgar Z Friedenberg replies:
The question of ethnocentrism Miss Martinez raises in her letter is really a basic one, not merely for criticism, but for the role of non-member sympathizers in contemporary ethnically based protest of all kinds. For, of course, if one has any integrity one remains a member of one’s own group, with the values and viewpoint that go with it. As the notes on Contributors make clear, if my writing style did not, I am white middle-class—upper-middle class—academic, and, I have recently begun to realize, for my sake, a good thing, too. If that makes me sound privileged, right on, man, or woman, as the case may be. I am not Tijerina, nor was meant to be.
From my point of view, of course, the attitude of La Raza toward hippies is a crucial consideration, because the importance of La Raza to persons remote from their scene lies in the probability that their victory would lead to a general improvement in the quality of life in their region, not merely for themselves, but for others. The correspondence and editorial about hippies raises serious doubts that this would be the case, and suggests that the effect would be to exchange domination by one intolerant group for domination by another. This kind of tolerance is, indeed, a sophisticated, middle-class virtue—one of the few we still have, and we’re losing that fast. I certainly don’t blame La Raza for not showing it; but the fact they do not is important to me. It need not be to them.
I cannot, however, be quite so relativistic about what must be either very bad memory or intentional misstatement in Miss Martinez’s comment that I “refer to a letter from a reader as being of a ‘frequent’ type when in fact the issue in which it appeared was the only one ever to carry letters of this type.” The El Grito editorial from which I quoted is introduced by a sentence reading: “In the May 19 issue of El Grito (and others before that), some comments about the so-called Hippies were published. Here are more opinions.”
Nor is “shriek” a mistranslation of Grito, though the paper’s own device, of course, indicates its preference to be thought of as a “cry.” Either is correct, and from the point of view of a middle-class reviewer, the tone seems a little high for a cry, though the pitch is perhaps a little low for a shriek. But the greatest misunderstanding of my review seems to me indicated by the penultimate sentence in Miss Martinez’s critique in which she accuses me of liberalism. I really don’t see how she could have made that error.
February 12, 1970