Can you recommend a solid, accessible history of California and Arizona so I can learn what really happened when the U.S. gobbled Aztlán?
La Chica Confundida
The classic in this genre is Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, but it’s a bit pricey, a problem that the legendary profe has told the Mexican he is trying to rectify. For California, I recommend Leonard Pitt’s The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californias, 1846–1890, which examines the tricks and treasons gabachos used to screw over California’s native Mexicans after the Mexican-American War. James E. Officer’s Hispanic Arizona, 1536–1856 offers the same for the Copper State, and is a great chinga tu madre for the Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpayaso fan in your familia.
But as much as you and I would like to think otherwise, the rest of this Mexican-obsessed country doesn’t share the same fascination for Arizona, California, or the American Intervention. Really, the best book you can purchase to teach people about the Reconquista are two: mine. Kidding . . . sort of. In all honesty, the only libro people interested in the Mexican Question should buy this holiday season is the one they should already have: Carey McWilliams’ majestic North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States. Though it celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, McWilliams’ effort continues to beat any Pew Hispanic Center study, National Council on La Raza press release, or George Lopez monologue in explaining why Mexicans and their descendants en los Estados Unidos act the way they do, and why gabachos hate wabs so. Mixing little-known history with thoughtful analysis and wonderful prose, North From Mexico impresses with every reading, and has spawned a thousand Chicano Studies monographs. More crucially, McWilliams was the first gabacho who cared for Mexicans not for their tithes, cheap labor, fecund wombs, or taco specials, but as actual members of the American fabric. Seriously, cabrones: This guy deserves a spot in the Mexican Catholic pantheon along the Santo Niño de Atocha and Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, and if you don’t have North From Mexico in your library already, you’re no better than a Guatemalan.
Some columns ago, someone asked about Mexican comic books. How about going a little more highbrow? Which Mexican poets who aren’t writing in English, contemporary or otherwise, would you recommend to a gabacho looking to expand his literary horizons southward? Right now I know of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Laura Solórzano, and there’s about 300 years between them. I’m looking for translations, because I’m a lazy gabacho who doesn’t know Spanish.
No Good at Coming Up With Witty Names, Either
Highbrow? In this column? Who do you think I am—Ruben Navarrette Jr.? I can give you but two poetas—one old, one timeless.
Ramón López Velarde died young in 1921, but his abstract, postmodern poetry influenced generations of Mexican writers, and my fellow jerezano’s “La suave patria” (roughly, “The Sweet Motherland”) remains as hallowed an artistic celebration of Mexico as the films of Pedro Infante or the Mexican national anthem. The University of Texas released a translated López Velarde anthology a couple of years ago, but his clever rhyme schemes, puns, and references disappeared like decorum at a San Diego Minutemen meeting.
Easier to appreciate is the work of José Alfredo Jiménez, Mexico’s greatest singer/songwriter. He understood the contradictory essence of the Mexican soul—the drunken prophet, the weeping macho, the embittered optimist, the jingoistic twerp—and captured it with somber yet stirring couplets. If you want to read his lyrics, buy José Alfredo Jiménez: Cancionero Completo (“Complete Songbook”), which comes with a wonderful essay by the Mexican intellectual (yes, they do exist) Carlos Monsivaís, but your gabacho ass needs to comprender Spanish first. In the meanwhile, buy Jiménez’s albums (especially the one he recorded with Banda el Recodo), pour some Herradura, and let the holidays flow.