Next of Kin
The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics
Richard T. Rodríguez
Durham (North Carolina): Duke University Press, 2009
Paperback. xi+256 pages. ISBN 978-0822345435. $23.95
Reviewed by Elyette Benjamin-Labarthe
Université Michel de Montaigne, Bordeaux III
Over the last few years, Richard T. Rodríguez has been engaged in a critical and subversive reappraisal of Chicano cultural politics, as a theoretician versed in gender, ethnic, and more generally minority studies in the United States, primarily focusing in this work on a critique of the Chicano political activism of the Seventies, indicting its homophobic tendencies.
His main argument is corroborated by a wealth of examples taken from the political, literary, artistic, filmic and musical history of Chicanismo. One major denunciation serves here as a rationale : the Chicano movement is alleged to have thwarted and used the self-representation of the minority as a subtle propaganda, if not presented a wrongful, stereotypical vision of nuclear and extended families. Depicted and aggrandized by the so-called Movimiento launched by the poet-activists, artist-organizers or union leaders participating in the economic, social, artistic efflorescence of the Seventies, the family was going to become a communitarian trope, enunciated as la familia, in more affective terms, that in the Spanish language, with its Mexican ideological bend, encapsulates the idea of an ideal nucleus. For it is a bond of togetherness, ensures social respectability, protects and empowers the members of an ethnic minority born out of immigration. It is made stronger, through its adhesion to a cohesive belief in machismo, patriarchal authority, phallocentrism, polarization around the father figure so often absent from the social reality of the barrio.
Within this ideological frame, the rationale of the book has a tendancy to pit Chicanos, as traditionalist males bent on self-praise, against the women who were formerly dominated, but started organizing as a literary, intellectual cenacle, and therefore slowly imposed their counter-canon to Chicano cultural leaders who would soon lose their generic supremacy. Women ceased to be a dominated group, stepping out of patriarchy, escapingsexual oppression through a subversive, combative mood. The secession brings independence and combats machismo through a lesbianism akin to a theoretical statement if not a life commitment, if not a literary and artistic manifesto.
Through a defense of feminist ideals, Rodríguez condemns the fixation of the Chicano movement on traditional family kinship, asking indirectly for the acceptance of the next of kin, who could be, as a sexual partner and a parent, of the same sex, as the cover of the book clearly advocates, when it cleverly transforms the Chicano poster of the Fifties showing mother and father with son, working diligently in the fields as farm laborers, as the ideal icon of patriarchy and fruitful filiation for aspiring immigrants, into the subversive representation, within the historic context and even implicitly within the contemporary Latino context, of two potential fathers.
On this unusual cover (designed by artist Heather Hensley), the traditional mother has disappeared, making manifest the genuine rationale of the present book, an appeal for the acceptance of homosexuality within contemporary Chicano culture, and as the author puts it, “the inclusion of sexual minorities within the conjecture of family and nationalism in Chicano cultural empowerment projects” (Chapter 4, entitled « Carnal knowledge », a double entendre on the use of the Spanish word “carnal”, linked with sensuousness if not sexuality, and the second meaning it has taken on in Chicano slang, that of close friend, a word tinged with affects [141, 147]) . The symbolic presence of two fathers for a Brown-faced child, superimposed over a nineteen-fifty-style photograph of Mexican field workers reminiscent of the Cear Chávez and Rodolfo Corky Gonzáles unionist campaigns of 1965—in the style of the Denver “Crusade for Justice” posters—calls for the end of a heterosexual norm in the political agenda of Latino leaders today in the United States. The book contains a useful, relevant series of illustrations, be they Movimiento posters, film ads (Mi Familia, Gregory Nava, 1995), propagandistic documents or murals.
On a sociological standpoint, one wishes the author had made it more clear that he was distinguishing several groups among Chicanos, and not considered Chicanos past and present to have been, and still be today a single unified group, and therefore stressed the difference of outlook on homosexuality between Chicano artists and intellectuals on one part—bent to be more liberal on sexual matters—, than on the other part the Chicano middle-class, who in terms of acceptance of new gender and sexual norms might have integrated the more traditionalistic heterosexual norms of an Anglicized middle-class.
Several filiations seem to have been left out, in an otherwise very enlightening and perceptive book. The Mexican legacy of machismo, with the young poets and intellectuals mostly born in Mexico in the Fifties—namely the inspiration derived from national poet Octavio Paz—, could have contextualized the machismo of the Chicano movement precursors, the artists, film directors and musicians amply studied here, who founded the rebellious movement of the Seventies aiming at destabilizing the Anglo-American political consensus. In the same attempt at global contextualization, one might have expected the book to refer to the other family of the rebellious Chicano youth of the Seventies, the international Marxist movement that was destabilizing the world at that time, and greatly inspired their attempted guerilla movements under the guise of the Brown Berets and the Venceremos Brigade born in Cuba.
The family-obsessed iconography could also have been traced to a Marxist aesthetics rebellious to homosexuality because anxious to promote the work-prone ethos of the nuclear family. The use of such historic contextual elements could have helped understand the positioning of artists and intellectuals at the time, who within the frame of their programmatic manifesto (El Manifesto de Aztlán), may have been more inspired by Cuban ideology than motivated by homophobia.
In a brilliant, subtle and learned disquisition, the author nevertheless reviews the uses, and to his mind abuses, of the familia as an ideological construct, a shield against possible destabilization in a host country which has been detrimental to the liberation of mores and acceptance of lesbian and gay cultures or any deviant group, when the real configuration of the Chicano minority, be it merely statistic, did not prove the macho model to be adequate.
Readers interested in deciphering the political discourse of the more inclusive nebulae of Spanish-speaking minorities and of their collective strategies of cohesion or search of a common bond, if not pleading for acceptance in the United States consensus, will find here a probing attempt at deconstructing the use of gender domination over a minority therefore self-represented as exclusionary. Numerous artists suffered from the homophobia of their peers or an insidious injunction to conform, having to hide their homosexuality for fear of being looked down upon within the group, such as novelist Arturo Islas, author of The Rain God (1984), or other artists who dared not come out  because they feared “a cultural dissonance” .
The book also efficiently denounces the underhand exclusion of women, in the Seventies, and Eighties, due to the ever present symbolic “Chicano” nomenklatura, which implied the use of a masculine, gendered world emerging in literature and the arts and disregarding women and gay men. Chicanas were soon going to present to the world intelligentsia a federative feminine discourse, “a Chicana counter narrative of the Chicano movement”  thoroughly analyzed here.
Richard T. Rodríguez’ critical perspective partakes of history, sociology and anthropology, as beyond the specific Mexican ethnic group originating from immigration and yearning for acceptance, it approaches with great precision, distanciation and erudition the biblical foundation of the Catholic familia, a characteristic of high-context cultures that has been over-exploited for 50 years by the Hispanic, Chicano and then Latino extended group, even though the actual living patterns observed in society can be different and point to a wider presence of homosexuality within the family group, that herald important sociological changes. The Chicano cultural movement as depicted here therefore emerges as overly patriarchal if not passé, considering the contemporary gay/lesbian problematics’ inclusion into the ethnic field once dominated by Chicano ideologues.
The engagingly written book, more bent on a cultural studies approach than a literary one, will be of great value for Americanists who are curious about queer and feminist theory as they are reformulated by Chicano and Chicana theoreticians of today (Cherríe Moraga, “Queer Aztlán : The reformation of the Chicano Tribe” : 8, 168, 173). It advocates the inclusion of “queer outcasts” into the imaginary Chicano territory of Aztlán, symbol of a common ethnic identity in need of a reconfiguration on the “bronze continent” praised one generation ago by Chicano poet and precursor Alurista [20, 35, 114].
Richard T. Rodríguez, who has also written a ground-breaking article on neo-Chicano aesthetics, "Queering the Homeboy Aesthetic" in Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 31.2 (2006), should not to be mistaken for famous homonymous Mexican-American novelist Richard Rodríguez, author of Hunger of Memory : The Education of Richard Rodríguez (1982), whose early separatism from the Chicano movement is interestingly scrutinized here, considering he was openly gay and irreverently referred to the Chicano movement as “a kind of macho mafia” who “did not like his penchant for glam rock”, took up “cholo styles, Pendleton shirts and very baggy clothes”, having “little room for androgyny and flashy clothes” .
Cercles © 2012