The Latino cultural revolution

wind-shifts.jpg

Francisco Aragón’s anthology of work
by emerging Latino and Latina poets
reveals an assertive appropriation of
the English language

The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry
Edited by Francisco Aragón
2007, University of Arizona Press
266 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

SINCE 1998, when the fourth anthology of Latino poetry mentioned by Francisco Aragón in the opening comments of his introduction to this collection was published, the demographic wind has most definitely shifted in the USA.

The multiplying Hispanic community has passed a significant census landmark: becoming, depending on how you care to see it, the country’s largest minority or its second largest ethnic group after the non-Hispanic white community.

While such a change may seem tangential to the rarefied world of poetry, it is no doubt indicative of the degree to which factors such as age and integration will influence the ever-changing mosaic of concerns within a large sub-culture anywhere.

As Aragón notes shrewdly, while the political and social themes once so prominent in Latino poetry persist as vital traditions alongside a poetics of witness, the work in The Wind Shifts “suggests that the canvas is now larger, its border expanded to include subject matter that is not overtly political.”

Indeed, at risk of overstating the point, the discernible exploration of language and aesthetics that informs the works in this volume might be considered to reflect something of a cultural revolution whose implications extend far beyond both poetry and the barrio itself; a concrete example of what was once crudely termed “empowerment” in a community that, politically and economically, remains far weaker than it should be given its long history (Spanish is the oldest European-American ethnicity). Aragón alludes to this in his closing comments about the “hard-won freedom” of Latino and Latina poets.

The exploration of language and aesthetics inherent in the works in this anthology also offers a profoundly rich seam in the development of English itself, one so eloquently mined by Juan Felipe Herrera in his foreword to this volume: people of Latin American and Spanish origin now have such a complete and confident mastery of the language that they are helping to shape its development. For all those who love language, were that the reverse would be true – but sadly it is not.

Seminal work

While one also has to ask if it is merely the perspective of academic observers that has, in fact, changed – just as the fired eyes of readers of Irish poetry began, at last, to blink once the northern Troubles ended at the shining southern sun – Aragón’s observations are both reasonable and highly significant, making The Wind Shifts something of a seminal work.

The editor has brought together 25 emerging Latino and Latina writers, none of whom had published more than one book at the time of selection. He states that the vision that guides the book firmly recognises that the bedrock of Latino poetry is Chicano poetry with its stubborn concern for marginality, albeit a concern whose context is now nuanced as never before. David Dominguez’s nod to the upwardly mobile is just one example of this. The US-Mexican border with all its symbolic and physical power represents a recurrent theme for several contributors but, as Aragón points out, even so, their work is as noteworthy for its familiarity with the spectrum of contemporary American poetry and for exploring the aesthetic boundaries of poetic expression. Aragón himself, Brenda Cárdenas, Kevin A. González, Sheryl Luna and Urayoán Noel, for example, all demonstrate the intimate yet complex and even at times troubled relationship these poets maintain with the Spanish, and in turn, English languages. Aragón writes:

First: voz    because I recall the taste
of beans wrapped in a corn
tortilla–someone brings it
to me, retrieves what’s left
on the plate, the murmured vowels

taking root, taking hold–mi
lengua materna.

Cárdenas:

I’d feel the constriction
of an x we cannot name
the multilingual moan of o’s,
tense Spanish vowels
awaiting release.

González:

At Duffy’s, the women will be blonde
& they will seem as lonely as broken barstools.
When they speak to you, wait for your father
to translate, then reply to him in Spanish
& wait while he translates for them, & smile,
always smile.

Luna:

I forgot how to speak. The old man with a gray
beard eyed me, waiting for Spanish.

Years of English rumbled something absent, forgotten.

Noel:

Esta canción no se acaba;
Gimme a sec and I’ll finish it,
I’ll spew out some funny shit,
Metaliterary baba;

As Aragón notes, Noel’s work reveals how “completely bilingual and inventive” this poet is, able not just to translate his poetry from Spanish, but to rewrite it in English – and represents one, important future for Latino poetry alongside another – reflected, for example, in the work of Scott Inguito and Rosa Alcalá – that draws on the entire range of American poetry and resists or works against narrative and lyrical traits hitherto prevalent.

It is this emphasis on poetics that steers the many themes addressed by the poets in the collection. These are too numerous to list, but Juan Felipe Herrera’s richly textured foreword best approximates an overview: “The sensorium of the verse seems paramount in this assemblage – what we read are sensory radiations of shapes, liquids, objects-for-themselves, jump-cut scenes, collisions of cultures, icons, memoria, body, texture, death, and danger.” [pp. xiii-xiv]

And if we fear that this shift in the wind might eventually leave us bereft of that political edge that has given so much Latino – and Latin American – poetry its muscle, the editor reassures us by referring to the legacy of Latino and Chicano poetry’s first adherents: “A legacy, to be sure, that involved creating art informed by our community’s stories and our social and political struggles, struggles that continue today, but which are also joined by a celebration, as well as an exploration of language.” [p. 10]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books. He is also the co-editor of Che in Verse (Aflame, 2007)

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