Changing Sides, or, The Assimilation Blues
By Ralph RodriguezJuly 6, 2015
Ends of Assimilation by John Alba Cutler
I WANT TO BELIEVE that the quality of an argument wins or loses its audience. In a review, as in an essay, one makes assertions, generalizations, and bold claims, and then defends them with robust chains of reasoning. One stakes out a position and moves through its logical entailments, showing the reader both the strengths and weaknesses of the position. Indeed, the criticism I admire most is willing to underscore that of which it is unsure or that which troubles its position.
It bears noting, moreover, that in a culture of well carved-out positions — positions based on the author’s reputation or on the reader’s unquestioned commitment or aversion to a particular political stance —keeping an open mind is a laudable, if challenging, trait.
When I sit down with John Alba Cutler’s Ends of Assimilation and watch him make sense of the “spectre of assimilation that looms over Chicano/a literature” (1), I know I am in the presence of a mind that thinks carefully, complexly, and is attuned to nuance and the art of persuasion. Cutler (I should acknowledge that, as two scholars working in a small field, Cutler and I are acquainted.) is, by no means, singular in his open-minded engagement, but, in the contemporary moment of “call-out culture,” “trigger warnings,” and political one-upmanship, it is a characteristic worth praising. To my ears, the current moment sounds like a lot of shouting and espousing of preconceived beliefs, little attentive listening, and a reluctance to change one’s mind.
One of the many amazing things about Cutler’s book is that it hasn’t been written before. In a nation that heralds itself a country of immigrants (Native American nations notwithstanding) and whose governing conceits — “the melting pot” and E. Pluribus Unum — hinge on the very idea of assimilation, how is it that a book-length study of assimilation in relation to the formation of Chicana/o literature has not been undertaken? It is nearly unthinkable. Indeed, Cutler rightly calls assimilation “an elephant in the room in Chicano/a literary studies.”
Critics have approached the study of Chicano/a literature from a number of angles, but, prior to Cutler’s study, they had yet to offer a critical analysis of the interwoven histories of assimilation sociology and Chicano/a literature. In Ends of Assimilation, Cutler analyzes this relationship through deftly textured theoretical, historical, and formalist readings of both fiction and scholarship. The book is a tour de force. Like Raul Coronado’s celebrated recent volume, A World Not to Come, it gives us an important new angle through which to understand literary history; in Cutler’s case, specifically how to understand the literary production of Mexican Americans (in particular a group who call themselves and come to be known as Chicano/a) from the 1950s to the present. Let us start there, at the intersection of Mexican American and Chicano/a.
There is a long history of Mexicans and Mexican Americans living in the United States (as the witticism has it, “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us”). On February 2, 1848, the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo put an end to the war between the United States and Mexico. With the stroke of a pen, 100,000 Mexicans found themselves living in a new country. The borders of the United States and Mexico had been redrawn. Mexico lost approximately half of its national land, and the US gained about a third of its. It was not, however, until the 1930s, historians such as Mario T. García claim, that we see the political and social emergence of a group we might label Mexican-American.
Indeed, García and others refer to this group as the Mexican-American Generation. In that historical model, which thinks generationally, this group is particularly salient from the 1930s through the 1950s. They’d lived through the Depression. They’d fought in heroic numbers in the Second World War. Yet despite their efforts in that war for democracy abroad, they found themselves fighting for their own civil rights at home in the United States. They wanted to be respected and to be recognized as part of the nation. Their narrative (and it should be pointed out that a number of historians and literary scholars contest such generational thinking) is characterized as one of assimilation. As Cutler, however, argues, “the Mexican-American Generation is not so much an empirically verifiable phenomenon as an ideological narrative.” Moreover, it is an ideological narrative that overlaps with the mid-century emergence of assimilation sociology, particularly that of the Chicago School.
In contradistinction to the Mexican-American Generation is the group of mostly students and laborers (activists all) who began, in the mid-1960s, to identify themselves as Chicano/a. Fighting for self-determination and against racist and classist oppression, they resembled the Black Panther party and the American Indian Movement. They also decidedly defined themselves against what they saw as the assimilationist politics of the Mexican-American Generation.
Thus begins the story of Cutler’s Ends of Assimilation. It is written around the poles of assimilation and authenticity, all the while illustrating the ideologies that underwrite those terms and how they play into an historical account of Chicano/a literature’s institutional formation. Or in Cutler’s words, “Ends of Assimilation elucidates the productive disjuncture between Chicano/a literature and the sociology of assimilation.”
Cutler’s attention to the intertwined narratives of assimilation sociology and the formation of Chicano/a literature, that is, allow us to see how both fiction writers and sociologists were imagining the nation and the place of Chicano/as within it. While these discourses grew up together, they did so with at least two fundamental tensions. Writers, notes Cutler, have been attentive to literature’s role in not just representing culture, but also to how the very act of writing culture produces it. Conversely, sociologists have imagined themselves as objectively assessing culture and not thereby in their evaluations also producing culture, not recognizing how their treatises, in purporting to present “facts” about the nation, also created (espoused, even) a particular vision of the nation.
This lack of self-reflexivity then leads to the second tension: namely, assimilation sociologists’ dependence on “the notion that the nation preexists the immigrants it takes as its objects of study.” In other words, there has been a tendency in assimilation sociology to treat the nation as an objective entity existing outside of language. To be fair, the field did develop before the advent of post-structuralism and what we now identify as the linguistic or cultural turn of the late 1960s and 1970s — that moment in which philosophers, linguists, and cultural theorists identified the shaping force of language.
But assimilation sociology still remains reluctant to acknowledge a key fact: nations do not exist outside of the various discourses — social scientific, juridical, aesthetic, etc. — that produce them. A sociologist, just as much as a novelist, brings a picture of the nation into being through her statements about immigration and the nation. Additionally, as Cutler points out, much early assimilation sociology studied the northeastern corridor of the US, imagining its nation and its immigrants through Europe, not Mexico. These tensions animate the back and forth between, on the one hand, Chicana/o intellectuals, writers, and the publishing ventures they undertake and, on the other, the sociologists and their understanding of the proper role of assimilating to national norms. Moreover, as Cutler correctly notes, much assimilation sociology relies on an individualized idea of boundary-crossing assimilation that “fails to account for the larger, structural forces acting on groups and individuals.” Lest I be misunderstood, Cutler’s book, as he himself is careful to clarify, “is not a wholesale attack on sociology.” Rather, it is a nuanced analysis of how the discourses of assimilation work themselves out in “the formation of Chicano/a literature.”
To get at the formation of Chicano literature, one almost of necessity has to use a chronological narrative, as Cutler does. One might expect such a literary history of Chicano/a literature to begin in the late 1960s and 1970s with the emergence and consolidation of the Chicano/a Movement, but Cutler’s doesn’t. He begins, instead, with the 1959 novel Pocho, a novel famously derided by Chicano/as for its ties to the Mexican-American Generation and for its “putative assimilationist” narrative. Two things make Cutler’s counterintuitive historical move work. For one, he demonstrates that assimilation sociology cannot account for the complex navigation of the characters’ relation to the nation. The boundary-crossing model of assimilation, so crucial to midcentury sociologists, depended on a single-boundary to cross from immigrant to assimilated citizen, and in Pocho we get no such singular boundary. We get, instead, the picture of a multi-racialized community influx, one in which the boundaries between and among the various characters themselves are unstable.
Cutler’s second move is even more interesting. He shows how this book, which sold poorly and was quickly forgotten after its release, was brought back to light by the very success of Chicano/a literature. “Rather than … anticipating the formation of Chicano/a literature,” writes Cutler, “the formation of Chicano/a literature makes [Poncho’s] publication possible.” Cutler pulls this interpretation off through a fine material reading of the publication history of Pocho and two other early novels, Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez and Jovita González’s Caballero. Indeed, one of the outstanding qualities of Ends of Assimilation is Cutler’s impressive recourse to material history — letters from archives, publishing records, histories of prevalent journals in the field — not only to chart the emergence and development of Chicana/o literature as an institution but also to buttress his interpretations of the novels. (In the margins of my copy of Ends of Assimilation are numerous exclamation marks, enthusing over a publishing fact I had not learned in extant histories of Chicano/a literature.)
Cutler’s study progresses from the Movement era of the 1960s and 1970s into the post-Movement era of the 1980s and the present. As it does, we witness a history unfold that charts the influence of a university-based publishing house — Quinto Sol — on establishing and promoting Chicano/a literature precisely to combat damaging social scientific representations of Mexican Americans — in particular, assimilation sociology’s depictions. Cutler then gracefully takes up in individual chapters the role of cultural capital, the culture of poverty thesis, segmented assimilation, and a rewriting of the relationship of masculinity and authenticity. In particular, he focuses on the works of Richard Rodriguez, Arturo Islas, Sandra Cisneros, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Alfredo Vea, Patricia Santana, and Helena María Viramontes. I lack the space to engage each of the chapter’s arguments in detail, and I don’t wish to spoil the pleasure you have in store for as you work through these arguments on your own. I do, however, want to say a few more words about some of the outstanding features of Cutler’s book, and conclude with some of the questions that remain on my mind after finishing it.
In bringing together assimilation sociology and Chicano/a literature, Cutler makes significant interventions into our theoretical understandings of the singularity of literature, the shaping force of social-scientific and aesthetic discourses on the nation and its inhabitants, and the writing of literary history. Yet while making such grand and abstract assessments, he never slights or rushes through his primary materials. He works as masterfully at the minute level as at the grand one. In fact, it is his fine attention to detail that shores up his broader general claims. At a time when many critics rush to cover too much material in the space of one book, Cutler moves slowly and carefully through his readings without letting his writing become ponderous. Look at any of the interpretations of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry in chapter five, and you will see Cutler attending to line breaks, diction, enjambment, and rhythm, among other formal features. This fine attention to detail only makes his broader theoretical arguments about segmented assimilation, poetics, and counterpublics that much more persuasive.
In addition to wonderfully detailed close readings, Cutler also demonstrates a masterful range of reference and knowledge outside of Chicana/o literature, and he uses it with great facility to enhance our understanding of Chicano/a literature. In one of my favorite chapters, Cutler connects Sandra Cisneros’s poetry to a range of authors outside of the Chicano/a canon. In exploring the role of female agency in Cisneros’s work, he links her to Gwendolyn Brooks and Maxine Hong Kingston. Through a deft attention to allusion in Cisneros’s volume of poetry My Wicked Wicked Ways, he underscores the significance of Simone de Beauvoir and Errol Flynn to Cisneros’s project. Going further, Cutler connects Cisneros to none other than Anne Bradstreet, of Puritan literature fame: “The image of Cisneros’s poems as ‘colicky kids’ recalls Anne Bradstreet’s poem ‘The Author to Her Book,’ in which Bradstreet apostrophizes her own book of poetry as ‘Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain’.”
Tying Cisneros to a central figure in the American Literary canon isn’t mere pyrotechnics or a showy sense of literary cosmopolitanism. Rather, such connections enhance the thick description Cutler offers of Chicano/a literature throughout his exceptional study. Those of us who write regularly about Chicana/o and Latina/o authors could stand to do more of such comparative work — in passing and in more detailed fashion. Critics whose specialty is not Chicano/a or Latino/a literature could similarly profit from bringing Chicano/a authors into their studies.
Ends of Assimilation is a book that should rise immediately to the top of your reading queue. (If this were Netflix, I would encourage you to click the button that says, “Move to position #1.”) It is a magisterial and gracefully written study of the formation of Chicano/a literature from which specialists and non-specialists will profit. I have no reservations about Cutler’s arguments. If anything, I have questions that I would like to pursue with him — questions I would like his own lively mind to engage. In fact, at the next conference where we are likely to run into one another, I imagine us having an animated discussion about the many things I learned from his volume and the ideas it has me thinking, ideas that I would not have had the opportunity to formulate had I not read Ends of Assimilation.
In his conclusion, Cutler correctly notes that “there’s a tendency in criticism to view post-1970s Chicano/a literature as a declension from the Movement, to see later writers as having sold out the political purity of the activist moment, of having, in other words, assimilated.” While I have absolutely no interest in authenticity politics and would thus never write a declension narrative of Chicana/o literature, I am interested in an additional tendency among Chicano/a critics: the tendency to label any text by a Mexican American author as being Chicano/a. Further, I am working on my own book now that thinks hard about the benefits and drawbacks of Latino/a as a label for demarcating a literary corpus. So I would want to talk more with Cutler about if, how, why, and when we might want to be more discriminate in the use of that label.
Relatedly, in some of the most beautiful lines I have ever read in a conclusion, Cutler observes,
Indeed, every act of writing is in its way an assimilation, a frightening opening up and incorporation into that mass of texts we call literature, vulnerable to criticism and interpretation that inevitably reaches beyond the text to make judgments about human authenticity and value. But if the act of writing signifies vulnerability, it also signifies potential, the beckoning promise that in the encounters of reading and rereading, interpretation and reinterpretation, we might begin to approach something like truth, something like reconciliation undoing the divisions our many assimilations have rent within us.
I would want to talk more about writing as assimilation, how it relates to “human authenticity and value,” and how we take a measure of that. I would want to know more about writing and “approach[ing] something like truth,” and most definitely about how we undo divisions rent within us.
I want to know more about these matters not because Cutler has somehow come up short in his analysis. He hasn’t. Ends of Assimilation is one of the finest books I have read in years, and will become a benchmark for scholars to surpass. I want to know more because Cutler’s book has me thinking and has me curious, and that’s one of the finest results of critical inquiry, of the genuine engagement with culture of which I spoke in my introduction. Ends of Assimilation cares about ideas, history, and culture, and it makes you care, too.
Ralph E. Rodriguez teaches American Studies and English at Brown University. He’s the author of Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity.
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