By Francisco Olvera
Racial identity (and its formation) within the United States is an ongoing conversational theme, and given our recent election, a crucial one. If one looks at the history of the United States, it is apparent that its culture and society, at large, produces feelings of inferiority within people of color and other marginalized groups. In contribution to this conversation about the role U.S. society plays in the formation of racial identity, this paper conducts a close reading of two novels, written by Chicano authors, and structured as first-person narratives: George Washington Gomez by Américo Paredes and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta. In doing so, it seeks to answer the following questions: How do fictional Chicano males imagine their identity within a hegemonic white society? Furthermore, how does this hegemonic white society, built on years of racial hierarchy and division predicated on policies and practices of exclusion, shape and form Chicano masculinity? And finally, to bring it all together, how do these Chicano novelists portray the complexity of Chicano masculinity as reflective of a society and culture that denies their sense of identity and citizenship? The answer to these questions can be seen in the actions and reactions of the fictional characters within the novels. Although fictional, these characters are still able to illustrate, through their lives, the effects of a racist society. This is seen in intimate ways through questions of identity that revolve around fragmented episodes of sexual intimacy and tension, as well as acts of violence. Identity for the Chicano male thus becomes a place of fluid complexity. It is in this space where one comes to realize that we are not all just human beings attempting to survive the toils of daily life. Rather, some of us have histories stained by oppression; histories that still haunt and affect us today. So, while current reactionary critics on the political right make cases about the “vile” and “regressive” role that identity politics play in the United States, they lack a complex view of history that puts the onus of “identity politics” on policies and practices orchestrated by a white hegemonic state.
Practices of alienation and exclusion implemented by the United States directly affect people of color by limiting their social and economic opportunities. Furthermore, these practices construct visible and invisible divides in society which in turn create a racial hierarchy that privileges some at the expense of others. The effects of these divides appear in the areas of education, health, and freedom from imprisonment. The study of these specific areas, however, fails to expose and reveal the unique and individual psychological turmoil within racial subjects who inhabit and exist in a society of exclusion. Fiction allows for a more thorough examination into the turmoil experienced by these individuals. Through the close reading of George Washington Goméz by Américo Paredes, and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta, this study will examine how these novels expose fragmented identities created by a culture of racial hierarchy and division, and how this fragmentation reflects itself through a complex Chicano masculinity in the central characters. This complex negotiation of masculinity appears in these novels in the areas of violence and sexuality.
One way to understand the relationship between a culture of racial hierarchy and masculinity is by understanding that this culture, through its very structure, renders Chicano identity inferior. Masculinity is an area in which fragmentation occurs if coupled with structural racial hierarchy. A fragmented Chicano masculinity can be defined as a reactionary way of being due to feelings of inferiority, and these reactions manifest in the treatment of women as inferiors in order to create within a façade of strength and power. Gloria Anzaldúa, writing about being a “macho” (a man), states, “for men like my father, being a ‘macho’ meant being strong enough to protect and support my mother and us, yet being able to show love” (Anzaldúa 105). Here Anzaldúa provides a positive account of what being a “macho” can mean and presents a figure of both strength and love. However, she later goes on to juxtapose this figure with her modern conception of a “macho,” one whose “machismo [masculine pride] is an adaptation to oppression and poverty and low self-esteem” and later adds that “in the Gringo world [which is to say the American world], the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprecation” [emphasis added] (Anzaldúa 105). These factors fragment the sense and performance of masculinity in Chicanos, and thus, for Anzaldúa, “the loss of a sense of dignity and respect in the macho breeds a false sense of machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them” (105). This “false sense of machismo” creates a complex Chicano masculinity under the much larger Chicano identity.
A better way to understand this complex masculinity is to apply the term “double-consciousness” to the Chicano male experience. W.E.B. Du Bois states, “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (5). Like Anzaldúa, Du Bois understands the power the “American world” holds over shaping and defining the identity (a “consciousness”) of racial subjects. The other world, the “American world” only allows the Chicano male subject to see himself in the light of inferiority. This application of “double-consciousness” to the Chicano experience is helpful in order to understand the dichotomy between “normative” American identity (whiteness) and that of racial subjects, and how this dichotomy plays an important role in the shaping of racial identity and its subparts.
George Washington Goméz, a bildungsroman, begins with the birth of George Washington Goméz (also referred to as Guálinto), “born a foreigner on his native land…fated to a life controlled by others,” and follows him as he navigates the hostile early 20th century in the border state of Texas. Symbolically, this location places Guálinto between two worlds which will collide throughout his life: the American and the Mexican. Masculinity, as a component of Chicano identity, appears and manifests itself in complex and fragmented ways. One way in which it does so is through violence. Violence in the novel is either absorbed by Guálinto and shapes him, or appears in the ways Guálinto expresses himself as a racial subject with a history of neglect. In the novel’s beginning Guálinto’s father is murdered by Texas Rangers, and on his deathbed asks his brother Feliciano (Guálinto’s uncle) not to tell Guálinto how he died for he does not want his son to feel hate (21). Feliciano, troubled by this, remarks how “it [will] be very hard to keep such a terrible truth from this male child” (Paredes 31). The early death of his father overshadows Guálinto as he grows up; for his father, a figure of masculinity, has been taken away by the same dominant force that years before took his native land (the proto-threat to Chicano identity). By denying Guálinto an important symbol of masculinity, the racial system of hierarchy and division which he inhabits begins to split and fragment his personal evolving identity.
Although Guálinto does not learn about his father’s death until much later in the novel, the hyper-violent ways in which he expresses himself in his youth reveal a subconscious understanding of the event which denied him a masculine figure crucial to his identity. An example of this appears when Guálinto begins to ask his uncle questions about what his father was like and what killed him. Feliciano lies and tells him he died of a heart attack, but he also informs him that his father was a gentleman (Paredes 101). Eventually, the talk leads to Feliciano revealing his personal antagonisms towards the “gringos” and he gives Guálinto a brief history of his people’s disenfranchisement in the hands of the “gringo” (Paredes 102). To all of this Guálinto responds, “‘Just wait till I grow up! Just wait till I’m a man! I’ll get our land back. I’ll be like Gregorio Cortez and Cheno Cortinas and all of them.’ He pulled out an imaginary gun. ‘Shoot them down like dogs. Ping, ping…I’ll kill all the Gringos and the rinches too, and drive them away from here” [emphasis added] (Paredes 103). Guálinto conflates manhood, and thus masculinity, with murder. He believes that one’s manhood grows through violence intended to affirm an illusionary sense of strength and power. Of course, one could argue that this is just a child with a big imagination, but to do so would undermine the violent state within which Guálinto lives and exists. His hyper-violent thoughts do not reflect a childhood imagination; rather, they reflect the world that has taken away his father and thus they affirm a brokenness which finds expression in false and vile conceptions of masculinity. They are simultaneously expressions of vulnerability and aggression. Double-consciousness returns here as an indication of what the U.S. dominant white world has placed upon Guálinto’s subjectivity: a history of violence which he then uses as his own vile defense.
The imposition of a racialized consciousness also affects Guálinto’s masculinity in the complexity of sexual tensions and desires. The heteronormative sexuality presented in these novels implies sexual relations and thus sexual reproduction. Matters of sexual reproduction become important when one considers how people are categorized as racial subjects, which is in part through their physical appearance. This is evident in an event that occurs towards the beginning of the novel where Gualinto is perceived as a white child due to his appearance. A Texas Ranger (a rinche) is aggressive towards Guálinto’s uncle and mother, asking them “Where’d [they got] that white child?…chico americano” (Paredes 32). Here, racial features are associated with national identity.
Questions surrounding sexual reproduction become more prominent as Guálinto grows up. After being involved in a knife fight in which he comes out victorious, people at a party who witnessed his fight invite him over. What follows is a hyperbolic celebration of his affirmed “masculinity.” The party he enters is a quinceañera, an important festivity in Mexican culture marking the passage from childhood to womanhood. In a way, this celebration acts as a mirror to his own passage into manhood. These events meld together and represent a larger rite of passage into adulthood for both the girl and boy, but this melding together also acts as an affirmation of Mexican-ness. Later Guálinto is taken care of by the birthday girl, dances with her and drinks alcohol (Paredes 246). It is in this setting, symbolic of Mexican culture, in which Guálinto appears to find himself. He embraces that his name “[is] and Indian name” and when an old man asks if it is Aztec, Guálinto affirms, stating, “you’re right” (Paredes 246). Guálinto perceives this old man as “an image in water,” which is to say, he sees a mirror in the old man (Paredes 246). As he leaves, Guálinto appears to have truly found himself, claiming that, “these were his people, the real people he belonged with. His place was among them, not the ‘Spaniards’ like the Osunas. He would marry Mercedes [the birthday girl] and live on the farm. He would go back. Tomorrow night he would go back” (Paredes 247). This scene ends, however, with “he never did [go back]” (Paredes 247).
Guálinto’s decision to select Mercedes is an undeniable sexual choice to affirm his identity as a Mexican subject. The role of women here is that of a pathway to a cultural self. Their potential unity holds the possibility of relieving Guálinto’s fragmentation. But the fact that he does not follow through is reflective of a struggle to confront women of his own race, and, in essence, a struggle to confront his Mexican side because of the imposition of inferiority the society he inhabits has placed upon it.
If this scene depicts the complex negotiation of masculinity regarding the sexual partners of a racial subject, then the ending of the novel depicts the complete split of the racial subject. Ironically, the final part of the book is titled, “Leader of His People” and is set years after the coming of age of Guálinto. In this final part, it is revealed that Guálinto chooses a white woman as his sexual partner. On the surface level, this choice of a sexual partner seems inoffensive, but how Guálinto makes this decision and the motives behind it reveal a much deeper problem. Guálinto himself sees this choice as an erasure of identity. Remembering their wedding night, he states that “he was somewhat surprised to discover [that Ellen, his wife] was a virgin. Getting the Mexican out of himself was not an easy job, he thought” [emphasis added] (Paredes 283). By having sex with Ellen, herself a representation of what the surrounding world has denied him—an American way of life and comfort—he plans to erase the Mexican identity within him. Not only do the motives behind his choice reveal a fragmented identity, but what he is willing to do to maintain his new status also reveals a deep split within. Ellen’s father, a retired Texas Ranger, insults Guálinto and the name given to him by his father, and instead of defending the memory of his father, Guálinto decides to “change his name to George G. Gómez…” (Paredes 284). In a scene which explicitly depicts the weight of inferiority placed upon the Chicano racial subject by the white dominant force (represented by the retired Texas Ranger), Guálinto chooses to see the Mexican side of his identity (given to him by his father) as inferior. This, in essence, reveals that since his birth, Guálinto “was fated to a life controlled by others” (Paredes 15). The culture of racial division and hierarchy in which Guálinto lives forces him to see the Mexican side of his identity as inferior, and instead of continuing the constant struggle and clash of self, Guálinto chooses to accept the narrative of inferiority that surrounds his racial identity, and thus chooses to erase and betray it.
The setting and time of Goméz situate the central character in a world shaped by legal racial segregation. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo situates the main character in the political climate/era of the Chicano movement, a time and period of resistance defined by the celebration of “Chicano” as a cultural and national identity (Pulido 113-114). Still, a similar fragmentation of Chicano masculine identity that Goméz exposes and explores also appears in Buffalo. Although at first, this appears as a traditional form of masculinity in the events in the novel, it is, in reality, a unique portrayal of the fragmentation of masculinity. The main character, Oscar, goes on a “hero’s journey” throughout the United States, symbolic and representative of the Chicano racial subject’s search for identity. Like Goméz, Buffalo raises questions surrounding masculinity and its relationship with violence and sexuality, and how these aspects reflect a society of racial hierarchy and division. In Buffalo, masculinity is affirmed through hyper-violence and acts simultaneously as a form of defense. This is not to say, however, that violence as a defense is appropriate for the situation in which characters find themselves; rather, it is a response to a racially tense climate. This response must be viewed as reflective of a society which seeks to demean Chicano identity. One scene in the novel illustrates this when Oscar, in his youth, is taunted by Junior Ellis, an “Okie,” who keeps calling him a “nigger” (Acosta 93). This offensive slur is used by Junior Ellis to demean Oscar based on his darker skin color. Furthermore, the usage of this slur represents a culture of racial division and reveals how the white dominant force attempts to erase individual unique identities by defining racial subjects as they see them, not as they see themselves. Oscar fights Junior Ellis and triumphs (Acosta 94). As Oscar walks away he passes and ignores Jane Addison, who, like Ellen in Goméz, represents a white sexual partner of desire for the Chicano male subject, one which embodies a sense of American identity which has been denied to him. The sexual obtainment of white women in these two novels represents a passage into the American world. Traditional forms of masculinity emphasize sexual prowess as a characteristic of masculinity. Still, the sexual desire for other women in these novels does not reveal traditional forms of masculinity at play. These desires are predicated on the need to survive within a structurally racist society and thus are revelations of a fragmented sense of masculinity. This, alongside the way in which violence is used to affirm masculinity in response to racial feelings of inferiority, reveals the fragmented negotiation of identity. Later in class, instead of Jane admiring Oscar for his “masculine” triumph through violence, she asks the teacher to ask Oscar to put his shirt back on because “he stinks” (Acosta 94). It is not clear that Jane does this because of Oscar’s race, but that does not matter. What matters is the way in which Oscar sees himself after this, and how his response reveals feelings of inferiority. Oscar, in response to this rejection, claims “I am the nigger, after all… I am nothing but an Indian with sweating body and faltering tits that sag at the sight of a young girl’s blue eyes” (Acosta 95). Oscar thus sees himself through the eyes of the white dominant American world, the double-consciousness thus emerges. He sees himself as inferior in front of the “blue eyes” representative of that from which he is denied and excluded because of his race.
Questions surrounding race in regards to a sexual partner later appear in the novel when Oscar is older. Like Guálinto in Goméz, Oscar displays a complex negotiation of masculine identity when he chooses to reject his Mexican background through the rejection of a Mexican sexual partner. He states that he “never went out with the few Mexican girls in school because they always stuck to themselves and refused to participate in the various activities” (Acosta 112). Oscar ignores the fact that these Mexican girls, as racial subjects, also exist in a society which views them as inferior. Their lack of participation is not by choice but by the restrictions placed upon them by a society which denies them a self. Oscar later goes on to add that, “I did not know one Mexican girl that aroused the beast within me” (Acosta 113). His sexual attractions represent a culture which glorifies whiteness as beautiful at the expense of nonwhite racial subjects. As a racial subject seeking recognition, Oscar subjects himself to internal splitting and fragmentation erasing his Mexican identity through his intentional rejection of Mexican women. The inferiority he imposes upon his female kin acts as a mirror reflective of his personal fragmentation. He, too, idealizes white as beautiful. In the beginning of the novel, his sexual attractiveness is predicated on his racial appearance. What he sees in the mirror is “a brown belly” and “two large hunks of brown tit,” his brownness never separated from his identity (Acosta 11). Following this, he goes on to reveal that his three favorite men are Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, all white actors (Acosta 12). The choice of actors demonstrates the culture that Oscar grew up in: a culture which idealizes and favors whiteness. This, inherently, subjects nonwhite racial subjects to feelings of inferiority.
Unlike Guálinto in Goméz, whose subjectivity ends in a tragic form through the rejection of Mexican identity, Oscar in Buffalo grows to admire and accept a side of his Mexican identity through his sexual desires for a Mexican female partner. This is seen towards the end of the novel in his culturally symbolic travel into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Oscar describes the setting in which he finds himself, surrounded by Mexican women, his “head in a quagmire, twisted with the delights of the most beautiful women [he’s] ever seen in [his] life” and comes to the realization that “whatever Alice Joy or Jane Addison meant to [him] as a kid, now they were only grade school memories of a time gone by” (Acosta 188). Alice and Jane, as white women, represented a pathway to American life, but the chase for them, and the possible notion of their obtainment, also meant a rejection of Mexican identity. His rejection of this past mode of thinking is an acknowledgment of his own racially complex identity and a rejection of further fragmentation. Thus the struggles of his masculinity, in the beginning, cease to exist as he accepts and learns to love himself despite the dominant culture he inhabits. Mexico, for him, is the land where he realizes this, but it does not encompass him. He is later harassed and hurt by a Mexico which also denies him a sense of identity. He returns to the United States, reborn a Chicano. As Oscar states, his “single mistake has been to seek an identity with any one person or nation…what is clear to [him] after [his] sojourn is that [he] is neither a Mexican nor an American…[he is] a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice” (Acosta 199).
The ending of Buffalo reflects the era of nationalist pride and acceptance exhibited by the Chicano movement, while the ending of Goméz reflects an era of racial exclusion and segregation which offers no alternative to identity like the one the Chicano movement provided for Oscar. Nevertheless, both of these novels reveal the complex negotiation of masculinity within Chicano male subjectivity. The study of these novels is crucial to our understanding that the United States is a space in which identity formation is fragmented and complex for racial subjects; that its historical laws and practices of exclusion inherently create within these racial subjects feelings of inferiority. These texts allow for new ways of thinking about what it means to grapple with racism and oppression. They invite us to see this battle in the intimate settings of sex and violence. Racism and oppression do not only affect material well-being, they also affect one’s psycho-emotional well-being. Understanding this opens up a much-needed conversation about feelings of alienation and inferiority within people of color, and fiction serves as a powerful medium to do so.
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