Family matters

Why should the traditional family with a patriarch at the helm be the organizing principle for Chicano cultural nationalism?


Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics
Richard T. Rodríguez
2009, Duke University Press
256 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IFTHERE IS a single issue almost always at stake in Chicano/a cultural politics, points out Richard Rodríguez, it is the family in some shape or form.

He writes: “…the family is a crucial symbol and organizing principle that by and large frames the history of Mexican Americans in the United States.”

Yet the family as this basic unit of social organization, and in this case as the cornerstone of a nationalist mythology and movement, is as much an ideological construct as nationalism itself.

There is an important corpus of work outside the study of Chicano culture devoted to the relationship between nationalism, masculinity and the family, and the broader association between the idea of the nation and the family ideal. Nationalism has long been configured in quasi-familial terms, and since Frantz Fanon it has been observed that it has been constituted as a gendered discourse.

As such, nationalist movements have rarely taken as their point of departure women’s experiences, let alone those of homosexuals. Indeed, virulent hostility to homosexuals forms an important component of many ultra-nationalisms today.

Chicano cultural nationalism tethered to machismo, writes Rodríguez, promoted a family ideal at the heart of which a romanticized nation places the Chicana firmly within a domestic context: the source of maternal succour and cultural procreation.

In Next of Kin, the author takes a position that aligns with feminist and more recently gay critiques of this ideological discourse in order to examine the discursive configurations of la familia. It is an original and challenging exercise that assumes an approach that is now determining the entire study of nationalism – as a set of discourses there to be unpicked.

Rodríguez examines the family and kinship as ideologies adopted by heternormative and patriarchal discourses. He does so by looking at the role played by the family in a range of Chicano cultural texts: poems, manifestos, drawings, paintings, murals, music, film, video and television.

His approach is informed by the work of Michel Foucault, who argued that the task of the historian is to undo history as an ideal schema, and to interrupt its apparent continuity.

Critical discourses

Rodríguez begins by setting down the historical premises of Chicano articulations of family, nation and masculinity, engaging with the cultural forms and critical discourses that provided the foundation on which la familia became the organizing principle for communitarian politics.

In subsequent chapters – structured around different forms of media – he explores these themes in terms of visual media (film, video and television) and music and poetry. He then investigates how male homosexuality has been cast in anti-family terms.

Yet Rodríguez is careful to ensure that, although Next of Kin interrupts discourses linking nationalism with heteropatriarchy as the underpinning of a normative Chicano narrative, it does not dismiss those discourses. He seeks to show how, in many cases, la familia was reinvented in form and practice to displace its normative effects.

His afterword examines the effort to reconcile queer positions with family and nationalism. The author writes:

“… the reclamation of la familia by Chicano gay men and Chicana lesbians often functions in the service of reimagining new communities while maintaining biological kinship ties.”

Next of Kin will be a valuable text for students of Chicano cultural nationalism as well as a useful addition to courses on gender studies. Its discursive approach to a key issue of cultural politics will also make it a valuable text in the study of nationalism more generally.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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