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Subaltern Narratives and Chicano Representation in an Age of Multiculturalism”

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2006 The Subaltern-Popular Dissertation Workshop
“Textual Misfits:

Subaltern Narratives and Chicano Representation in an Age of Multiculturalism”

Juan R. Buriel

Department of Comparative Literature

University of California, Irvine


- “Abuelita”
This dissertation project examines the role of the enigmatic figure of the subaltern in the narrative construction and deconstruction of Chicano representation since the mid-20th century, an age during which an ideology of multiculturalism has steadfastly established cognitive authority in U.S. cultural politics. In particular, this project charts the complex intersections between narrative as a socially symbolic act, critiques of subaltern representation, and the authentication of ethnic subjectivity within a context of multiculturalism. The four primary works analyzed have become exemplars of Chicano literature, present both fictional and non-fictional narrative accounts of the diverse Chicano subaltern experience, yet, curiously, are not as unproblematically representative or reflective of that experience as multiculturalist interpretations would have when submitted to the kind of ideological critique of power and structure called for by recent postcolonial criticism. A dialectical reading of these works attuned to the generative collusion between the “cultural-historical [multiculturalist] forces that surround a text and the rhetorical and formal [narrative] dynamics within a text” (Saldívar 207) involved in the symbolization of a work meeting a certain multiculturalist “criterion of authenticity” (Bernheimer 8) elicits questions concerning the provisional nature of representations of the Chicano subaltern. It is my contention throughout this project that the experiences of subalterns documented, critiqued, and theorized by South Asian and Latin American subalternist scholars are pivotal to understanding the complexity of Chicano representation in an age of U.S. multiculturalism. The specific works examined are José Antonio Villareal’s Pocho, Oscar Zeta Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People, John Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, and Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory.

The works selected for this project coincide – that is, during the second half of the 20th century since the civil rights era of the 1960s – with the emergence of a circumscribed version of multiculturalism specific to the U.S. as an accommodationist enterprise undertaken by the dominant culture to classify and exhibit the nation’s others, to contain and defuse the disruptive contingency posed by subalterns to the nation’s own seemingly seamless metanarrative of multiculturalism. These works of Chicano literature, along with those comprising the mosaic of the other recognized, sanctioned, and celebrated U.S. and non-U.S. ethnic and cultural literatures, assume an authoritative presence as symbols, or “token[s]” (Spivak 1990, 60), of cultural authenticity for a society predisposed to an ideology of multiculturalism. To be sure, there have been different forms of multiculturalism operative in the U.S., which Peter McLaren in Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader categorizes conservative/corporate, liberal, left-liberal, and critical/resistance (45-74). Though these varying multiculturalist approaches in their own way attempt to rectify the problem of exclusion through acceptance and representation, each is devoid of an acknowledgement and analysis of the power differentials inherent to the selective selection process leading towards the representation of subaltern groups. Since we learn from poststructuralism that all representation is structurally metonymic, about the ineradicable absence of full presence for groups as well as individual subjects, the leading problematic of this project, then, is not the uncovering of ideal conditions for authentic or complete representation but, rather, how the dialectical interplay of a multicultural context and a narrative form involved in the ideological framing of the four works of Chicano literature selected impose an economy of power in which certain “subaltern” voices implicated in the production of the narratives (if we can read production here in the Jamesonian sense of interpretation) are privileged, are listened to, potentially examined, but altogether valued, at the silent expense of others. Generally, what criteria of membership into the nation’s hegemonic fold of multiculturalism are implied as having been sufficiently satisfied in the staged representation of select “authentic” voices speaking of and for subaltern groups? And since, as the neo-Marxist proponents (i.e. Fredric Jameson; Ramón Saldívar) of the dialectical method employed in this project would maintain, all interpretation can be construed as an allegorical act and thus always already open to potential re-interpretation, how can the narrative voices in the “character system” (Jameson 161, original emphasis) – the system in which narrative subjects accrue meaning and value – of the four works examined be read as an allegory of multiculturalism’s power relations wherein the authority to speak of and for Chicano subalternity endowed upon only select narrative characters, including the omniscient narrator, is conditioned precisely upon the silence of subaltern non-characters? (This move of opening-up the four works of Chicano literature to allegorical re-interpretation for the strict purpose of demonstrating multiculturalism’s asymmetrical power relations is akin to the related move Roland Barthes’s undertakes in his delineation of text from work in his piece, “From Work to Text.” Here Barthes proposes the work as something inert and semiotically confined by classification and filiation, whereas the text is activated and opened-up when read. The text is subversively plural.) I argue that an ideological critique of this silent abyss not only exposes the staging of Chicano subaltern representation within multiculturalism, but also exposes the political unconscious of multiculturalist interpretations of Chicano literature to be nothing less than the very silence of the Chicano subaltern, a kind of “muteness envy” (Johnson 153). But despite all appropriative attempts by multiculturalism to account for this silence, and signaled by the underprivileged or overlooked recalcitrant silence of subaltern non-characters, the Chicano subaltern returns in the narrative seams of the four texts examined – by way of ideological critique – not only as an ethical reminder of multiculturalism’s limitations, but also as a critical force of incommensurable excess resistant to multiculturalist symbolization and “the presumption to ‘know’ it” (Beverley 2).

The scholarly work of South Asian and Latin American subalternists proves especially instructive in understanding how the very irrecoverableness of the subaltern, more specifically the irrecoverableness of subaltern consciousness, results not from an ontological identity, but instead from an overdetermined subordinated position within global power relations. To be sure, the very notion of a “Chicano subaltern” is itself not an unproblematic proposal. Since the subaltern is a wide-reaching effect of a global structure of subalternization, it is necessary to note that the strategic designation of a particular “Chicano subaltern” is made possible only upon two retrospective conditions. In order to identify particular instances of subalternity, John Beverley notes that “in a world where power relations are spatialized . . . it [subalternity] must have a spatial referent, a form of territoriality: South Asian, Latin American, ‘in the Americas,’ ‘in a U.S. frame’” (2). But, even prior to this, the subaltern’s territoriality can only be grasped if, as Horacio Legras observes, we understand that “[t]he actual subaltern emerges in the text [ideology] always written beforehand by power” (87). In other words, the naming of a particular subaltern can only come about if discursive conditions are such that a subject position has been reserved for occupation by the Chicano subaltern. Within the context of multiculturalism such a space has indeed become available for the Chicano subaltern subject from which to speak and be represented. However, Alicia Gaspar de Alba reminds us in Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master’s House of the circumscribed stage upon which Chicano representation is displayed within the context of multiculturalism when she states that “multiculturalism has itself become a discipline, a methodology, a curriculum, a culture industry, and now a governmental scapegoat; thus, it has its own representative acts” (19, my emphasis).

The problematic of Chicano representation in an age of multiculturalism only becomes more, rather than less, complex upon the sanctioning of this space of subjectivity. For, as a sanctioned subject of multiculturalism, the Chicano subaltern occupies a space from which to speak as well as be seen, objectified. If this sanctioned space of subaltern subjectivity has been prescriptively constituted beforehand by the discourse of power, then by extension what this subject can say or mean has also been scripted to some degree. So, can the Chicano subaltern indeed speak if, as Rey Chow charges in Writing Diaspora, “’speaking’ itself belongs to an already well-defined structure and history of domination?” (36). And, if what constitutes one’s contingent subalternity is the inability to speak in a way that matters, in a way that receives serious attention, then how can the narrative occasions of Chicano subaltern representation become testament of subaltern speakability when it is the condition of silence itself that marks subalternity? For, as Spivak tells us, “[i]f the subaltern can speak then, thank God, the subaltern is not a subaltern anymore” (158, 1990). We are, therefore, compelled to heed Chow’s advise that “[i]t is only when we acknowledge the fact that the subaltern cannot speak that we begin to plot a different kind of identification” (36).

Upon a recent qualification to her pivotal statement that the subaltern cannot speak, Spivak in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason cautioned, “being postcolonial or the member of an ethnic minority, we are not ‘subaltern.’ The word is reserved for the sheer heterogeneity of decolonized space” (1999, 310, my emphasis). As well, thus far Chicano literary criticism has only made passing and uncritical remarks on the subalternity of Chicanos, remarks that usually presume a synonymity between ethnic minority status and subalternity. There is, however, a recent exception to this as yet unexplored dimension of the Chicano experience in Disrupting Savagism in which Arturo J. Aldama devotes an entire three-chapter section of his sharp and insightful analysis to the subaltern voices of Native Americans, Chicanos, and Mexicanos in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, a section titled “Mapping Subalternity in the U.S./México Borderlands” (1, my emphasis). Yet, we learn from the poststructuralist contingent of Latin American subalternists that in fact, and contrary to Aldama’s assertion, “[s]ubalternity is unmappable” (Legras 87, my emphasis). And as to Spivak’s reserving of the term “subaltern” for “the sheer heterogeneity of decolonized space,” we find in Emma Pérez’s The Decolonial Imaginary identification and critical exposition of just such a decolonized space in works of and by Chicanos. She contends that in the interstitial gaps that interrupt narratives oppositional and subaltern histories can be found. Furthermore, Perez instructs that when we listen to the subaltern silences holed up in these interstitial gaps of narratives “these silences become the negotiating spaces for the decolonized subject” (5). Still, it is my contention in undertaking this current dissertation project that this negotiation of which Perez speaks must be ongoing and never finally negotiated. For I believe that the true ethical imperative of proposing and exploring the problematic of Chicano subaltern representation lies in the active resistance to a sense of complacency, a complacency currently conditioned by an ideology of multiculturalism, with select representamens – voices, appointments, artistic works, etc. – taken to fill the void left by centuries of subalternity. Thus, my siding in this project with the poststructuralist contingent of South Asian and Latin American subaltern studies has all to do with the obvious observation that official or valued versions of Chicano subalternity whatever the narrative content or purpose – be it historical, literary, critical (implicating even this dissertation project) – can always be exposed incomplete by the very fact that, and most notably within a context of multiculturalism, everyone does not have a voice that is heard. As Spivak further advises in The Post-Colonial Critic, “the question ‘Who should speak?’ is less crucial than ‘Who will listen?’” (1990, 59). And by extension, I would add, we must inquire about the historico-ideological conditions that govern, guide, and altogether normalize the listening of those who will listen.

This project, then, aims toward listening attentively to the silences imposed by multiculturalism upon readings of the four texts of Chicano literature selected for examination: Villareal’s Pocho; Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People; Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez; Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory. These silences function as a critical heuristic for this project in that they serve, allegorically, to indicate a social contradiction in such likely multiculturalist interpretations that would unwittingly and uncritically attribute voice to the subaltern when, in fact, it is the absence of voice that marks subalternity. In such interpretations silences remain unrealized on the narrative surface, are what the narrative represses, but nonetheless instructively insinuate – upon ideological critique – what Jameson in The Political Unconscious calls the “ideological subtext” (81, original emphasis), the site of social contradiction, of a narrative; a narrative that when read through a master interpretive code, like multiculturalism, necessarily obtains meaning in accordance with a set of predominant and guiding assumptions about the reality it at one and same time ideologically, or symbolically, reflects and produces. Not unlike the retroactive designation of the subaltern, a text’s subtext is always, according to Jameson, “(re)constructed after the fact” and “always entertains some active relationship with the Real” (81). And if we take Beverley at his word that the subaltern presents itself to us “as something like Jacques Lacan’s category of the Real: that which resists symbolization” (2), then we find a certain contradiction in multiculturalist interpretations that presume the recovery of what, for lack of better terms, is the irrecoverable Real “Chicano” subaltern. To clarify, it is proposed in this project that whereas the contradiction to be found in the ideological subtext of multiculturalist interpretations positions a presumption of subaltern representation over and against the very impossibility of subaltern representation, the political unconscious of such interpretations, that recurrent blind spot of the readings constantly repressed by ideological conditioning, is the very silence of the subaltern that manages to make its narrative appearance upon the occasion of ideological critical inquiries into its silent and repressed significance. In short, the contradiction in such multiculturalist interpretations is precisely the expectation for symbolic texts, such as those of Chicano literature examined in this project, to speak the unspeakable. Thusly, any ideological critique of multiculturalism must confront the historical conditions upon which representation of the Chicano subaltern is presumed to be possible. Within the context of multiculturalism it is presumed that a path is indeed available out of subalternity towards hegemony, towards the attainment of voice. But, the sinister aspect of this multiculturalist presumption is that all along this path the developing voice is believed to carry subalternity within itself.

Each of the four texts of Chicano literature carefully selected for examination in this project chart stages of the Chicano subaltern’s presumed path towards hegemony; out of silence and towards the culmination of a sanctioned and authoritative multiculturalist voice – a voice paradoxically staging the representation of multiculturalism’s political unconscious (the irrecoverable silence of the Chicano subaltern) – embodied by none other than the reflective and assimilated Richard Rodriguez in Hunger of Memory examined in the fourth and final chapter of this dissertation. This dissertation commences with an examination of Pocho by José Antonio Villareal, a work often credited as an inaugural literary event for 20th century Chicano letters. In this work one witnesses the adolescent formation of the future native informant of Chicanos in the character of Richard Rubio, specifically his ambition to write as an expressive mode for, at once, disrupting his people’s history of silence and disclosing to the outside world the subalternity of the Mexican American condition. In The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta, the sequel to his much acclaimed The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, Buffalo Zeta Brown, a Chicano lawyer and resident “traditional” intellectual, recalls his activist experiences in East L.A. as a legal representative and media voice for nationalist militant members of the Chicano Movement in the late 1960s. He becomes a spokesperson for their emerging revolutionary agenda to resist the historical silence imposed by the Anglo establishment. Chapter three of this dissertation examines John Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. In this work one encounters the fictional figuration in the character of Amalia Gómez of what Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera calls “La conciencia de la mestiza” (99), a figuration that is narrated by a man, John Rechy, and thusly calls into question the accessibility of subaltern consciousness, but more specifically authenticity as it pertains to Chicana representation.

The first chapter of the dissertation, entitled “Chicano Letrado: The Formation of the Native Informant,” reads, again allegorically, José Antonio Villareal’s Pocho as disclosing a site of origination for the Chicano subaltern voice within the context of multiculturalism in the character of Richard Rubio. Luther S. Luedtke writes, “Pocho, published in 1959, holds a secure position not only as the first Mexican-American novel, but also as a powerful statement on the enigmas of coming-of-age in the United States” (62). The protagonist, Richard Rubio, whose parents exile to California in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution (his father Juan Rubio a one-time cavalry officer in Pancho Villa’s army), is impelled throughout the novel towards an understanding of his identity plagued as it is by conflicted loyalties between Mexican and American cultural values. Richard’s cultural ambivalence anticipates the awakening of Chicano consciousness found in chapter two’s examination of Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People. But within this chapter of the dissertation special attention is given to the fact that in order for Richard to pursue his aspirations of becoming a writer he must purposely and assertively isolate himself from the proletariat Mexican values and ideology espoused by his parents that at the time looked unfavorably upon the profession of writing. To be sure, Richard’s quest to become a writer is impelled by the cultural ambiguities and ideological confusions of his existence. So, by turning to writing Richard seeks to bring symbolic order to the chaos inflicted by this cultural existence. He, in effect, strives to resist this anxious silence by becoming what Angel Rama in The Lettered City calls a “letrado,” one who’s function as an intellectual producer is to elaborate upon and produce cultural models for public conformity (22). In doing so he brings to order the “chaos” that Chicano cultural and literary critic Juan Bruce-Novoa has claimed is being responded to through Chicano literature and literary criticism. Yet, it is only he, Richard Rubio, and perhaps future serious readers of his writing that arrive at such an ordering of the chaotic experience. What about those subaltern persons who Richard left behind in order to pursue his writing ambitions that we find silently scattered throughout the narrative of Pocho? In this chapter the concept of the “native informant” critically developed in the work of Asian postcolonialist scholars and South Asian subalternist scholars is utilized to examine the implications of how neocolonial, and just as well neoliberal, discourses “appear clean” (Spivak 4, 1999) precisely because of an unacknowledged presumption of a self-present voice-consciousness symbolically acting as a centripetal force of representation of and for a subaltern group.

The second chapter of the dissertation, entitled “The Nation and its Cucarachas: Struggle in Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People,” continues with an allegorical consideration of the power differentials inherent to multiculturalism by reading Acosta’s autobiography as a participant-observer’s rendition of the struggles encountered and undergone during the Chicano Movement. The account, originally published in 1973, is narrated by the as-told-through character of Buffalo Zeta Brown, a reluctant Chicano lawyer who finds himself in East L.A. during 1968-1970 yearning for more active militant immersion into the nationalist movement while, at the same time, not wanting to compromise the authority afforded him as “traditional” intellectual. As Norman D. Smith explains, “he was always on the periphery of revolution and the Chicano promised land, Aztlán. As the Chicano lawyer he enjoyed special treatment – an untouchable status that kept him from being fully trusted by his clients. As [Buffalo] Zeta [Brown] says, ‘They just need me’” (91). Between the various struggles documented in the narrative, not least of which include the anti-war movement and competing ideological positions with the Chicano Movement itself, it is the one located at the bifurcated political site of the narrating character himself that elicits the most significant implication for exposing the contradiction of multiculturalism, its subtext, that privileges select voices at the silent expense of others, as well as dramatizing multiculturalism’s political unconscious as the desire to know subaltern silence. Partha Chatterjee in The Nation and its Fragments claims that much needed re-writings, á la new historicism, of nationalist movements containing “different actors and a different chronology” first need to be attuned to “the marks of resistance that were sought to be erased” (156), or at least neutralized and consolidated, in narratives constructed by leading and authorized representative spokespersons. In The Revolt of the Cockroach People these silent marks of resistance are found in the revolting cucarachas themselves, the sordid array of characters in the narrative – vatos locos, pachucos, rucas, hijitos, viejitos, winitos, pelados, paisas, etc. – that “possess all of the weaknesses of people who have been deprived success and alienated racially, economically, and socially” (Smith 86). The political tension gripping Zeta throughout the narrative, a tension anticipating multiculturalism’s contradiction between those with voice and the conditional voiceless, serves to reveal his ongoing prelapsarian desire to forfeit his empowered status as spokesperson – the hegemony he possesses as “traditional” intellectual – for what, in this context, seems like a revolutionary pastoral, or the disempowered authenticity of a true, but silent, Chicano subaltern – the political unconscious of multiculturalism.

The third chapter of the dissertation, entitled “Critique to the Second Power: Figuring Chicana Authenticity and Consciousness,” addresses the problematic of authenticity involved in the accessing or retrieving of subaltern consciousness as it pertains to Chicana representation. In Chicano Narrative Ramón Saldívar observes, “the literature produced by Chicana authors is counterhegemonic to the second power, serving as a critique of critiques of oppression that fail to take into account the full range of domination” (173, my emphasis). Surely, such a critique, or critique of critiques, is implicitly heeding and exercising Chatterjee’s call for re-writing situated in the second chapter’s discussion of the Chicano Movement. As well, such critique is also the precise figuring of one of the silent cucarachas of the Chicano Movement encountered in Acosta’s autobiography, specifically the figuring of the Chicana. Hayden White in The Content of the Form reminds us, “[a] narrative account is always a figurative account, an allegory” (48). Thusly, chapter three’s examination of John Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez continues with the dissertation’s allegorical consideration of multiculturalism’s power differentials by reading the figural production of the protagonist Chicana character as a narrative foregrounding of the Chicana subaltern. The narrative covers but one day, with Amalia, twice divorced and with rebellious children, traveling about her Los Angeles neighborhood in the aftermath of the Chicano Movement reflexively pondering the signs of subalternity that she realizes around every corner and upon every encounter. This chapter considers the ideological presumptions of multiculturalism’s sanctioning of ethnic authenticity and subaltern voice by examining the curiously perplexing fact that the Chicana protagonist in Rechy’s text is brought into narrative existence by a male narrator. Such critical concerns, rather than suggesting the indeterminacy of Chicana identity and representation, renew critiques of power and representation from the perspective of Chicana subaltern experience. In The Feminist Difference Barbara Johnson writes, “[t]he multivalence of ‘woman’ is not a conclusion, but a place to begin the analysis again, a political imperative to go on” (193). This chapter incorporates the important critical work responding to the I, Rigoberta Menchú controversy centered on realism and the ideological expectations for authentic subaltern voice. What kind of “reality” is ideologically presumed about the Chicana subaltern in multiculturalist interpretations of Chicana literature? What must she be within a multiculturalist context for her voice to be heard? And how does Rechy’s (male) narrative rendering of her unsettle multiculturalism’s authenticating ideological expectations? Engaging such questions not only again exposes multiculturalism’s political unconscious to be the retrieval of the subaltern’s silence, but also that when, paradoxically, this silence is staged as having voice it necessarily has to meet authenticating ideological criteria for the voiced representation of subaltern silence.

Whereas the third chapter of the dissertation was concerned with the figuration of the subaltern, the fourth chapter, entitled “Suspicious Reversal: Listening to the Silent Voice of Multiculturalism,” examines the narrative disfiguration of non-characters. This fourth chapter proves the most speculative of the dissertation chapters in that within it I propose that it is precisely at the narrative site of subaltern non-characters, or those not afforded narrative or narrating voice, that something we might tentatively call “Chicano subaltern representation” actually occurs. Again, this chapter continues with the dissertation’s allegorical consideration of multiculturalism’s power differentials by examining Richard Rodriguez’s controversial autobiography, Hunger of Memory. In an interview on multiculturalism appearing in The Post-Colonial Critic Spivak observes, “[a] hundred years ago it was impossible for me to speak, for the precise reason that makes it only too possible for me to speak in certain circles now. I see in that a kind of reversal, which is again a little suspicious” (60, 1990). Such a suspicious reversal is, I propose, embodied in Rodriguez’s narrating voice in his autobiography as, precisely, a presumed reversal of silence. But, indeed, it is suspicious not only because in order to reflect back upon Chicano subalternity he has had to venture on the path out of subalternity and arrive at hegemony and the attainment of voice, but also because his reflection back that we experience as readers produces an image of subalternity that only takes shape because we recurrently overlook the silent seams of the narrative to learn of the silence he left behind. This narrated representation of Chicano subalternity is based on the absence of the silence that, within a multiculturalist context, is presumed to be represented by a voice – the contradictory double bind of multiculturalism. And it is precisely the subaltern non-characters found in the silent narrative seams throughout the text that signal this void. As Spivak maintains in her introduction to Selected Subaltern Studies, “[y]ou can read only against the grain if misfits in the text signal the way. (These are sometimes called ‘moments of transgression’ or ‘critical moments’)” (21, 1988, my emphasis). Upon an ideological critique the silent subaltern non-characters of Rodriguez’s text critically untether multiculturalism’s symbolic grip on the narrative by silently resisting conformity to what Roland Barthes in “The Reality Effect” calls “the [multi]cultural rules governing representation” (14).


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