George Hartley, Assistant Professor of English, Ohio University
"I Am Joaquín:
Rodolfo Corky Gonzales and the Retroactive Construction of Chicanismo"
Early in 1967 Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales published his epic poem, "Yo soy Joaquín," better known as I Am Joaquín. By March the poem had already been adapted to film by the traveling activist troupe Teatro Campesino. The poem was mimeographed and widely circulated in order to be read during public demonstrations and organizing campaigns of what would come to be known as El Movimiento or the Chicano Movement. Beyond its immediate public activist function, however, I Am Joaquín also functioned as the inaugural work of what is now seen as the Chicano Literary Renaissance, lasting from the late '60s to the mid '70s. I Am Joaquín provided the groundwork, then, for all Chicano poetry to come. Yet what is perhaps more interesting is its role in serving as the founding literary work for all previous Chicano literature. What I am saying is that before 1967 Chicano literature did not exist, but after 1967 the whole history of Chicano literature from the 1600s to the 1960s suddenly, retroactively came into being. Moreover, I contend that prior to 1967 and the publication of I Am Joaquín, Chicanos did not exist, and yet after that moment we can see that they had been around for centuries.
I Am Joaquín was able to perform this magic because through this poem the various elements that would make up Chicano identity came together for the first time under the name "Chicano." Prior to this, all of the work for justice, civil rights, farm labor laws, and cultural recognition for Mexican Americans had been carried out by Mexican Americans. But it wasn't until I Am Joaquínwhich embodied all of these elements under the blanket concept of Chicanismothat these elements could come into concert in the revolutionary subjectivity of the Chicano as the founding gesture of Chicano identity itself. The term "Chicano" as it functions in I Am Joaquín brought the Chicano as such into being. This is not to say that the term "Chicano" became an effective label for an already-existing entity; it is to say, rather, that the entity itself only came into being with the use of the word in the particular context of the poem.
The term "Chicano," which many scholars suggest derives from a shortened version of the Indian pronunciation of "Mexicanos," was initially used as an insult, signifying a person of lower status and culture. This is in fact the way Mexican Americans were viewed by both Americans and Mexicans. Prior to the late '60s, even within the Mexican American community the term "Chicano" was reserved for recently-arrived immigrants. New arrivals from Mexicooften poor and more visibly "Other" than the more assimilated earlier Mexicans in Americathreatened the status of those Mexican Americans who often fought hard to prove their American identity by distancing themselves from their Mexican and Indian roots. Later, however, the term was appropriated by Mexican-American activists during the 1960s in much the same way as the terms "Black" and then later "nigger" were by African Americans, as a way of transforming an insult into a signifier of ethnic strength and pride and as a refusal to assimilate into mainstream White culture. Now "Chicano" came to serve as a badge of militant identity within and against mainstream Anglo-America.
After 1967, then, the term "Chicano" served a consciously ideological function among young radicals as a designator of oppositional identity. The beauty of the poem I Am Joaquín lay in the way Gonzales wove together a wide variety of cultural and historical tropes into one emergent identity. Gonzales recounts the roots of Chicano identity in the long history of Mexican miscegenation through Spanish and Indian contact on up through the U. S. occupation and annexation of northern Mexico. The poem also displays the mytho-cultural icons of Chicano identity growing out of pre-Columbian Amerindian cultures. Then the poem surveys the history of Mexican American oppression and ends by imagining the future liberation of the Chicanos and their homeland. Through this poem, which was staged (and even filmed) as part of the public presentations of the Chicano civil rights movement, Mexican Americans were transformed into Chicanos.
Critic Juan Bruce-Novoa sees the structure of I Am Joaquín as a continual dialectical movement from the present to the past and back to a more enriched and complicated present. He divides the poem into three sections, the first being a lament and retreat into the people, la Raza; the second being a dialectical transformation of Mexican Americans through the interplay of past and present; and finally the third being the declaration of a new revolutionary identitythe Chicanowhich will transform the future. All of this movement takes place under the name of Joaquín, the Chicano Everyman who functions as the symbolic unity of the people. The I in I Am Joaquín, then, is not an individual but a collective I, much like the self of Whitman's Song of Myself. While the resulting politics of the poem will be a nascent Chicanismo as a 1960s variant on Zapatismo, the poem's transformative collective identification through the interplay of past and present is itself a separate and constitutive politics, which we could refer to as Joaquínismo. Joaquínismo could be seen, then, as a vanishing mediator, as a mediating moment between the indeterminate sense of oppression and injustice of the early 1960s which marks the poem's opening and the identification with the ideological construct of the Chicano which marks the poem's close.
I Am Joaquín opens as follows:
I am Joaquín,
lost in a world of confusion,
caught up in the whirl of a
confused by the rules,
scorned by attitudes,
suppressed by manipulation,
and destroyed by modern society.
The burden of the poem lies in its first line, "I am Joaquín": this statement of identity is exactly what the poem itself must accomplish. In this initial line the statement is meaningless, for we know neither the identity of the I nor of the Joaquín with whom the I identifies. This declaration, as a speech act, hides the performative function of what appears as a constative utterance. In other words, a proposition posing as a statement of fact, as the simple pointing out of something already existing in the world, in reality brings into being that which it declares. For prior to this utterance there is no such identity between the I and the Joaquín; nor is there any clue as to what the nature of this identification entails.
We do learn in the lines that follow, however, that the initial grounds of this identity are confusion and chaos in an alien world. The speaker is lost, caught up, confused, scorned, and ultimately destroyed by the oppressive and racist structures of modern Anglo America. The speaker goes on to say: "My fathers/ have lost the economic battle/ and won/ the struggle of cultural survival" (ll. 9-12). This turn to the fathers begins the poem's movement between present and past, the poem's construction of a heritage that will ground the I's identity and, as such, provide refuge from the whirl of living in an Anglo world. The opposition between economic assimilation and cultural struggle forces the Mexican American to make a choice:
I must choose
the paradox of
victory of the spirit,
despite physical hunger,
to exist in the grasp
of American social neurosis,
sterilization of the soul
and a full stomach.
This sense of forced choice itself is key to setting the retroactive construction of the Chicano in motion: the hunger of the body, it turns out, is not as threatening as the sterilization of the soul. This willingness to sacrifice the body in order to regenerate the soul gives this nascent Chicanismo its urgency and strength. It is this choice itself in the midst of confusion that grounds the new subjectivity of the poem. Or, to put this in a different language, following the subjective destitution which the speaker suffers at the opening of the poem, this forced choice functions as a repressed performative. Slavoj Zizek speaks of the performative nature of this forced choice as follows:
What is "originally repressed," what, in accordance with a structural necessity, has to disappear in order that the symbolic network can establish itself, is a signifier of the "pure" performative, i.e., of a performative which would not assume the form of its opposite, of a constative. In this split, in this impossibility of a "pure" performative, the subject of the signifier emerges: his place is the void opened up by the fall of the "impossible" binary signifier. That is to say, the gesture which constitutes the subject is the empty gesture of a forced choice: reality is "subjectivized" when the subject posits as his free choice what is forced upon him, i.e., what he encounters as given, positive reality. (Enjoy 99)
In Gonzales's poem, as we have seen, the pure performative which must be repressed under the guise of free choice is the founding rather than found nature of the opening statement itself, "I am Joaquín." The speaker has already noted that the economic battle has been lost, so economic assimilation is not really a choice in a society which systematically excludes Mexican Americans from full participation in its economy. That only leaves the option, then, of addressing the sterilization of the soul, which the speaker interprets as a project of cultural historical reconstruction. But it is precisely through this assumption of the mandate to make a choice which is not really a choice, to assume a supposedly pre-existing identity which has not yet come into being, that a new symbolic order can come into being that will make room for the emergent Chicano.
Now that the stage has been set, the speaker is ready to begin. This beginning demands an initial withdrawel from the "nowhere" of this "monstrous, technical,/ industrial giant called/ Progress/ and Anglo success," a withdrawel into the safety of "the/ circle of life/ MY OWN PEOPLE," La Raza. This retreat begins with a retrospective account of the history of la Raza. Here Gonzales strings together idealized moments of precolumbian and Mexican cultural and political development in a selective chronological succession:
I am Cuauhtémoc,
proud and noble,
leader of men,
king of an empire
civilized beyond the dreams
of the gachupín Cortés,
who also is the blood,
the image of myself.
I am the Maya prince.
I am Nezahualcóyotl,
great leader of the Chichimecas.
I am the sword and flame of Cortes
I am the eagle and serpent of
the Aztec civilization.
The key element here is the contradictory nature of this identification: Joaquín is both Cuauhtémoc and Cortes, Aztec and Spaniard, conquered and conqueror. Here we see the enactment of what Gloria Anzaldúa refers to as Mestizo consciousness, the construction of a self-identity which performs as the hybrid embodiment of historically opposed forces now joined by blood, blood both in the sense of lineage and of destruction. The image Anzaldúa uses is that of a large scab, a wound into which both opposing nation-states, Mexico and the U.S. bleed. This border region now functions as an amorphous and unstable third entity which threatens the neat, defining limit of the concept of the Nation. American identity is here confronted with its dissolution, its miscegenation, its loss of purity. A new Thing threatens the Nation on two counts: this Thing invades the Nation-space at the same time that it joins that space to the foreign space of Mexico. This third Thingthe Chicano as the embodiment of this blurred spaceis the true defining feature of American national identity, for this amorphous, oozing mass gives body to the instability of national identity itself. It is this stain marking both the inside and the outside of the national body that is the truth of the Nation in its inherent impossibility. And it is Chicano nationalism, as laid out later in Gonzales's poem, which embodies this defining impossibility.
This contradictory fusion can be seen in the role of Christianity in Mexican American culture. While the Church functioned as the spiritual and cultural arm of Spanish imperialism, it nevertheless gave the Mexican people a sense of unity through brotherhood, as embodied in what Joaquín refers to as that "lasting truth that/ Spaniard/ Indian/ Mestizo/ were all God's children." Here we have the syncretism crucial to Chicano iconography, whereby the Aztec deities are transformed into, yet continue to co-exist alongside, Catholic saints. The Major Aztec female deity, for example, Tonantzín, is converted into the Virgin of Guadalupe, the latter herself functioning in a syncretistic way in that she is the Brown Virgin who appeared to the Indians and spoke in Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue. Joaquín identifies with these female figures as well as the more visible males of Mexican and Mexican American revolutionary tradition: "I am/ The black-shawled/ Faithful women/ Who die with me/ Or live/ Depending on the time and place."
The revolutionary tradition lives on through Joaquín as he identifies with Hidalgo, Benito Juarez, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. And interestingly, true to the dialectical impulse behind the entire poem, Joaquín also identifies with the Mexican dictators Díaz and Huerta. Perhaps more important as an indigenous example, however, is Joaquín Murrieta, the Californio who sought revenge against the gold-rush Anglo-American invaders after they raped and murdered his wife. Several scholars have suggested, in fact, that it is this Joaquín who gives the poem's speaker a name.
After a review of this foundational historical retrospective, Joaquín returns to the present in a survey of current-day representatives of the oppressor and the oppressed:
I stand here looking back,
And now I see
I am a campesino,
I am the fat political coyote
Of the same name,
In a country that has wiped out
All my history,
Stifled all my pride,
In a country that has placed a
Different weight of indignity upon
Is the new load . . . .
The Indian has endured and still
emerged the winner,
the Mestizo must yet overcome,
And the gachupín will just ignore.
I look at myself
and see part of me
who rejects my father and my mother
and dissolves into the melting pot
to disappear in shame.
Sell my brother out
And reclaim him
For my own when society gives me
In society's own name.
Having constructed the substance of a Chicano identity from the selected moments of the past, Joaquín turns his attention to the future, for that is where the true hope for the Chicano coming into being lies. This future is embodied by the children of Joaquín, the future generations who must carry out this symbolic mandate if the Chicano is to be fully realized in its being towards the future.
I am Joaquín.
I must fight
and win this struggle
for my sons, and they
must know from me
who I am.
Joaquín is thus a complex and contradictory identity, yet all of these opposing facets nevertheless unite as one against Anglo-American oppression and aggression. The key to survival, the poem ends up declaring, is endurance and revolutionary faith:
And now the trumpet sounds,
The music of the people stirs the
Like a sleeping giant it slowly
Rears its head
To the sound of
Fiery tequila explosions
The smell of chile verde and
Soft brown eyes of expectation for a
Up to this point in the poem, the term "Chicano" has never been used. It appears inconspicuously in a list of seeming synonyms, all of which, the speaker claims, refer to the same political subject:
Or whatever I call myself,
I look the same
I feel the same
Sing the same.
This is the moment of repression which we saw Zizek speak of earlier. The final identifying term is "Chicano," and it is this term which gives name to the cultural manifestation which issues forth from the poem. For it is not the case that, whatever he calls himself, Joaquín looks, feels, cries, and sings the same. The name of Chicano is his primal baptism; yet, precisely because of its performative nature, its consitutive function must remain submerged, appearing only as one more factual appelation for the entity it seems to point to while bringing into being. Gonzales, poet and civil rights leader, can refer to I Am Joaquín as "a revelation of myself and of all Chicanos who are Joaquín." Neither he nor anyone else was Joaquín prior to the poem's existence; neither he nor anyone else was a Chicano prior to this poem's existence. Yet after this moment, extending into the past and out towards the future, we can see the Chicano fighting for cultural existence in a hostile and alien land that was once his nation and homeland.