Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Monday, March 7, 2011
Gary Soto’s first work, The Elements of San Joaquin, encompasses themes ranging from his experience working in the fields of San Joaquin as a youth to the death of his father. These events in his life played an immense role in shaping his politically activity as well as beginning his career as a Chican@ poet and author. His birth on April 12, 1952 in Fresno, California placed him in both the right time and place for participation in the Civil Rights movement that fought for increased rights for Chican@ field workers. Though his poetry resonates with his own biography it rings true for the Chican@ movement in its struggles against harsh living conditions and dependency on agricultural work for sustenance. The poem from which this publication takes its name, “The Elements of San Joaquin” opens the work with a sequence of poems details the relationship of worker to the land. César Chávez, a crucial political rights activist, receives a dedication at the poem’s beginning and marks “Elements” as a work written both to acknowledge hardship and provide a voice to those whose struggles the movement represented. Soto uses natural imagery in “Elements,” but his physically limiting perspective on the human body turns the rich earth into a barren field. In this way, Soto uses the relationship between man and nature to display the negative, and ultimately defining, characteristics imposed on Chican@ workers by an oppressive system of agricultural exploitation.
Soto’s dedication of “The Elements of San Joaquin” to César Chávez immediately imbues the words that follow with a tone of struggle and strife. Many works of American literature, especially those with a Transcendentalist background such as Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, present the merging of man with nature as return to innocence. This acceptance of the natural world, for them, holds great beauty and bolsters the spirit and strength of an individual. Soto, on the other hand, portrays the roughness of working in the dirt and in no way does this soil refresh the soul. This sequence begins with “Field,” and in its opening lines the speaker states, “The wind sprays pale dirt into my mouth/The small, almost invisible scars/On my hands” (3). The tone in this passage feels passive because seemingly all the speaker must do is close his mouth to avoid the dirt. This spray of dirt, however, pervades the atmosphere of the poem and cannot be resisted. The wind causes the landscape to change gradually over time, but the dirt it kicks up stings the speaker’s hands. It leaves miniscule scars and cuts, apparent to the speaker, but hidden from the observer. These scars represent both the physical pain induced by the worker’s labor as well as the pain of working soil that does not yield its fruits to laborers. The images of soil that produces only suffering, hands that bear the brunt of difficult labor, and wind that changes the land all point toward the difficulty of progress in an oppressive environment.
This environment, that of both the farm and society, leave physical and emotional scars that come to define the laborers on every level of their existence. “Field” concludes the first section of “Elements” by establishing this connection between man and land in terms of their physical makeup and social value. In the introduction to Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems, Soto explains that, “By the summer of 1973, after my fear of writing poorly had disappeared, I knew my pulse was timed to the heart of this valley” (Soto 2). His personal experience with the valley allowed him to craft these works because of the intimate relationship he held with the physical essence of the land he tended. Instead of reaping the rewards of this fertile earth, however, the speaker in “Elements” becomes reduced to a tool, a means of production, which sees no benefit from his labors. The speaker bemoans, “Already I am becoming the Valley,/A soil that sprouts nothing./For any of us” (12). This subject, like the land on which he works, becomes a domesticated product under the control of others. The imagery used to demonstrate the physically detrimental effects of farming on the human body and mind go one step further to illuminate the ways in which the workers have become the farm. The land on a farm is neither wild nor free. Whereas agricultural lands receive large amounts of care and nutrition in order to produce in a limited way, the workers receive little in return for their efforts.
Just as the wilderness becomes domesticated within a farm, the speaker in “Elements” grows distant from nature’s freedom as he works in the fields. Soto’s nature imagery remains prevalent in every sequence of “Elements,” but instead of invoking nature it begins to evolve into a representation of an urban setting. As the seasons changes and the farms no longer need workers nature fades and the struggle of urban survival begins. The speaker laments that:
When autumn rains flatten sycamore leaves,
The tiny volcanoes of dirt/Ants raised around their holes,
I should be out of work. (63)
The metaphor as man as valley continues as the earth hibernates and restores itself. A strict contrast is drawn between the earth’s rejuvenation and the worker’s autumn because of their continued need for sustenance. The sequence turns “Rain” as the speaker parallels an ant and transitions to a residence. The image of a man working like an ant, without and individual identity and living in a hole in the dirt, illustrates poor living and social conditions. The speaker is out of work for the season and returns again to the dirt from which nothing grows. Autumn and winter see no production from the earth and the worker loses his defining purpose. In these months the laborer faces the harshness of winter, but he never loses the dirt engrained in his existence. The dirt and the seasons become physically defining factors in the worker’s life, routine, and survival.
Another way in which Soto addresses the very physical implications of the relationship between man and earth presents itself in the descriptions he uses for his speaker. He defines the speaker in terms of discreet physical elements, such as hands or a face, but never as a whole person. This choice of worlds removes the sense of the individual and makes the speaker a more universally applicable image. Conversely, the speaker also becomes an entity defined by the function of its parts. Soto uses the pieces of the body related to either vital functions, such as the lungs, mouth, and belly, or parts used in order to complete work. Soto demonstrates this connection in “Field” when the speaker says:
After a day in the grape fields near Rolinda
A fine silt, washed by sweat,
Has settled into the lines
On my wrists and palms. (9)
Again, Soto compares the speaker to the fields he works, but the defining characteristic in this description is the pattern of the field on his wrists and palms. Through the oppressive agricultural system the workers become reduced to cogs functioning in a larger machine. They have only a functional purpose defined by others even while they must also fill their stomachs. The most unique part of a person’s physical identity, their fingerprints, becomes filled with dirt. When the work erases a person’s physical identity and reduces them to a simple means. Additionally, the speaker becomes limited to a single, menial function that ignores the fertility implied in the soil imagery.
This fertility of the individual also comes to play as the speaker struggles against the wind and soil while he attempts to make his voice heard. The opening line of the poem fills the speaker’s mouth with dirt. While this prevents him from speaking and causes pain, it also implies a richness of voice and a continuing struggle to express himself. The invocation of Chávez implies that this work speaks not only of the tragedy of oppression, but also the struggle to break free of the system. The wind, which represents change, moves the soil around and allows for new possibilities to manifest. In “Harvest,” the speaker collects the fruits of his labor for use by others, but also makes progress for himself. The worker makes progress when he says, “A wind crossed my face, moving the dust/And a portion of my voice a step closer to a new year” (74). Though his tone falls just short of hopeful, the speaker voice is carried forward to a new future where his cries are at least heard. Though no physical progress occurs the portion of his voice that escapes heralds a change in the way the workers interact with the rest of the world. Without this voice neither hope for a better future nor individual expression between people exists.
The relationship between man and earth finally evolves into the relationship between the producers and consumers. The final section, “Daybreak,” does not resolves the conflict between those who cannot see the suffering of the laborers, but an expression of this invisible problem. The voice that carries in “Harvest” has not yet matured, but the sunrise brings these grievances into the light of day. The speaker explains to the audience:
…the tears the onions raise
Do not begin in your eyes but in ours,
In the salt blown
From one blister into another. (107)
This selection links the laborers to those who consume the final product, but it is a blind connection. Neither group has direct contact with the other, but the pain experienced is a universal human emotion. Were the consumers put in the same position as the workers, they would feel the same discomfort. The tears shed by the eyes represent the same salt stinging the blisters. Even though the eyes cannot see the pain, Soto implies that if they could know of this suffering that they would react in the same manner. Despite the harmful effects of using only parts of the body to describe the worker, Soto’s use of eyes in this passage demonstrate a potential for empathy among different people. The bitter tone here, however, also shows that the change will be difficult, but that the struggle has potential for success. In a way, it also warns that those who consume can also feel pain in the same way as the laborers and that resentment will not disappear with change.
While “The Elements of San Joaquin” begins with a passive tone, it gains momentum through the sequence and builds to a moment where the speaker becomes more than a tool. His voice, inclusive of the pain and frustration with his situation become clear. “Elements” expresses the voice of one in the middle of a hard battle against oppression. It does not necessarily demonstrate the possibility of a perfect future, but it does show the tangible progress of a growing voice. Beyond the dirt that erases the speaker’s identity lies the fertile soil of a group of people who are no longer content to accept their harsh lives. “Elements” acknowledges the failings of an oppressive agricultural system on those it exploits and takes the first step toward establishing rights for the Chican@ workers. It also demonstrates the devastating ways in which a people with great potential can become so simplified that they lose their personhood. Soto’s use of discrete parts of the human body allows the speaker to exist as an individual, the universal human being, and those blind to their oppressive behavior. His use of soil and farmland bind humanity with the earth, and in doing so Soto demonstrates the power of voice to catalyze change like the wind can change a landscape. This change comes gradually and with an incredible amount of labor. “The Elements of San Joaquin” is the sum of an oppressed people, obscured by dirt, which now have the voice to begin growing.
Gary Soto continues to voice his opinion as a political activist and has continued his writing career. He has also expanded in other works of literature, such as novels, and continues to publish his work. In this interview Soto discusses the large variety of audiences he addresses across the large selection of genres within which he works. Soto also maintains a website containing a photo gallery chronicling his life as well as his email address if any readers are interested in contacting him. It also contains a section titled, "What's Up" where he posts new poems and his take on current events or articles. Finally, here is a brief reading of a poem entitled, "Ode To Obama" that demonstrates his continued interest in politics and reform through the medium of poetry.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
40 Years of Activist Poetry
Juan Felipe Herrera
By the People and for the People: An Analysis of José Montoya’s “El Louie” and its Significance in the Chicano Movement
The heroes of the western world are almost always unique. Their accomplishments are rare and therefore praiseworthy; they do something no one else could have. Everyday people, on the other hand, receive no praise. They aren’t heroes; they just do what everyone else does. Chicano poet José Montoya objects to that belief. According to Chicano scholar Guillermo E. Hernández, the elevation of marginal characters to the position of hero is a common theme in Montoya’s poetry. It is his way of subverting the Western culture which has put down Chicanos for centuries (52-53). Montoya’s poem “El Louie” is an elegy for Louie Rodriguez, an everyday man whom is worthy of praise nonetheless. In “El Louie” Montoya uses Mexican slang and the elegy form to create a unique cultural identity for Chicanos which only they can participate in, understand, and appreciate.
Although “El Louie” is a fairly straightforward poem plot-wise, it can be an overwhelming poem to read because of its constant switching between English and Spanish. Although many Chicano authors and poets incorporate Spanish into their works, a style called code-switching, Montoya is somewhat innovative for his time because of his use of slang words and unique Chicano words. Hernández claims that Montoya latched on to this form of code switching while studying at the California College of Arts and Sciences in Oakland. According to Hernández, “The novice writer also noted that literary texts that included foreign words or phrases were readily accepted by his teachers, yet strident objections were raised about his own work because it included Chicano colloquialisms” (52).
In “El Louie,” Montoya incorporates these code switches early and often. He starts the poem in proper Spanish, telling readers “Hoy enterraron al Louie,” which means, “Today they buried Louie.” After switching back to English, he ends the second stanza with his first use of slang. He calls Louie “un vato de atolle,” a cool dude. Neither “vato” nor “atolle” appear in any online Spanish-English dictionaries. It’s a Chicano phrase which can only be translated by one who already understands the phrase or is invested in doing research. This is the first indicator in the poem that Montoya is writing to a specific audience. He is writing for his people, not for the world as a whole. Chicanos will understand the meaning of the poem. Other readers may be completely lost simply because they can’t translate the words, let alone understand their significance.
*Don't believe me? Check it out
Montoya’s use of code-switching and slang continues throughout the poem. The section describing Louie’s position as trendsetter and leader in the community is almost unintelligible to anyone without a Chicano background. Montoya mentions Louie’s “buenas garras” and his familiarity with “rucas.” According to Hernández, these words translate to “good rags” and “old ladies,” colloquial terms for fancy cars and clothes and fine women. Montoya also includes a reference to La Palma, a Mexican ballad that Chicano readers would recognize but others would not. When Louie is leading his friends to a fight, he avoids the “jura” and everyone is asked if they have their “fileros.” These words are used to mean police and knife, although those are not the traditional Spanish words. Once again, Montoya is using unique Chicano words to signify who his intended audience is.
There are other instances of both slang code-switching and proper Spanish in the second half of the poem. This repeated use and insistence on writing to a specific audience raises the question: why is it so important to Montoya that the Chicano people know this poem is intended for them? The answer lies in the poem’s content and theme. As mentioned at the beginning of the paper, Montoya often elevates marginal figures to the position of hero in his poetry. “El Louie” is a prime example of that pattern.
From the start of the poem, it’s clear that Louie Rodriguez is an influential, powerful man. Montoya writes of his death, “And San Pedro o sanpinche are in for it,” which means “And Saint Peter or Saint Devil are in for it” (Hernández 79). Louie is such a force that whether he winds up in Heaven or Hell, they are going to know he’s there. With this set-up, readers are led to believe that we are about to hear about a great figure who moved mountains and changed the world. But that’s not really what happens: Louie Rodriguez is a normal guy. Montoya describes him as a man “sporting a topcoat/ playing in his fantasy/ the role of Bogart, Cagney or Raft.” Just like any other young man, he aspired to be like the movie stars and sometimes pretended he was one. Later Montoya describes Louie as the ringleader of his group of friends. He brought zoot suits to the area which was a “unique idea – porque/ Fowler no era como/ Los, o’l E.P.T. Fresno’s/ westside was as close as we ever got to the big time.” Louie and his friends don’t live in the big city and do big things. He’s a big fish in a small pond.*
Despite the meager size of his domain, Louie is still king. After Montoya describes Louie’s semi-posh lifestyle (his “good rags” and “old ladies”) and his innovative fashion choices (zoot suits), he describes the mentality when a fight is about to break out. While the women all worry, the men look for their knives and for Louie. In little snippets of dialogue, several characters call for Louie. “Get Louise,” says one, and later, “Hórale, Louie” (which loosely translates to “Now, Louie”). When Louie does arrive to help in the fight, it’s like a scene from a movie. “And Louie would come through-/ melodramatic music, like in the/ mono – tan tan trán!” Louie comes to save the day, entering dramatically like one of the movies stars he adores. But he is not one of those stars. He’s just a normal guy in a normal town.
Louie’s normal heroism is part of the reason why Montoya is so intent on writing directly to Chicanos. He was educated in the San Francisco Bay area during the hay day of the counterculture, the 1960s. This social scene undoubtedly made him question the constructs of the Western world, especially regarding conceptions of success and heroism. Furthermore, he’s part of a Chicano culture that has been repressed for centuries. In a poem like “El Louie,” he’s able to show the members of this culture that they do not need to strive to live like the members of mainstream culture to be considered worth remembering.
Even in the second half of the poem, when Louie falls down a few pegs, he is still a man to be praised and remembered. When Louie fights in Korea, the community’s respect only grows. He returns in his shiny fancy uniform and the locals are in awe. “Wow, is that ‘ol Louie?” they say, and “Mira, comadre, ahí va el hijo de Lola!” (“Look, friend, there goes Lola’s son.”) Yet despite the increased admiration of the community, Louie is still an average man with his own faults and failures. He and one of his army buddies “hock their Bronze Stars” to buy liquor. He goes to barber college and graduates with honors, a commentary on the different social standards of the Chicano community. An affluent white community of the 1960’s would have little respect for a man who learned to cut hair well, but it is another badge of honor for Louie. Still, just as with his Bronze Stars, he sells the symbol of his success to get money to play poker and other games of chance. He is not a great noble war hero; he is a veteran down on his luck with a weakness for booze and gambling. Louie does whatever he can to get by.
Montoya and the other members of the community respect Louie nonetheless. When he dies, Montoya regrets the way he died:
His death was an insult
porque no murió en acción –
no lo matron los vatos,
ni los gooks en Korea.
He died alone in a rented
room – perhaps like a
The Spanish in this stanza means, “…because he wasn’t killed in action, not murdered by the dudes or those gooks in Korea.” Montoya makes several key arguments in this stanza. The first line reinforces the great reputation of Louie. He deserved a better death because he was such an important man, and it’s an insult that he died so sadly. The last line connects him once again to the heroes of Hollywood films. Even though his death was an insult, there may be some redemption in that he still managed to resemble one of those film icons in death.The middle section of that stanza reflects Montoya’s critical view of the experience of Mexicans who fought for the United States. Montoya, a Korean War veteran, is extremely critical of Chicano participation in American wars. According to Hernández, Montoya felt that the superior officers were abusive and inadequate as leaders. He also believed that American conflicts had nothing to do with Chicanos (he didn’t have any problems with Koreans) and he and his countrymen should be fighting for their own nation, not their oppressor (62-63). Many of these ideas appear in “El Louie,” both in the passage quoted above and an earlier passage which talks about the paradoxes Louie faced while fighting in Korea: “heroism and the stockade.” Louie is heroic and respected for his contributions to the war effort, but his disrespect for his commanding officers and the purpose of the war lead to him being reprimanded and disciplined. Furthermore, because he is not killed in action, readers can assume that he got the same poor post-war treatment as many other Chicano veterans, like the father in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo. Montoya seems to identify with that belief: if a Chicano solider was not killed in action, he would never get any real reward for his service. He would be disciplined while at war and forgotten about when he returned home, left to die alone in a rented room.
The contributions of Chicanos to U.S. wars, though unappreciated in their hometowns, were sometimes recognized by the U.S. Government.
Yet despite all Louie’s post-military problems, his penchant to drink and gamble and pawn his prized possessions, and the ill-fitting manner of his death, Montoya can never lose respect for his hero. “The end was a cruel hoax/ but his life had been/ remarkable!” writes Montoya at the poem’s conclusion. He will not take anything away from Louie Rodriguez just because things didn’t go so well in the end.
In “El Louie,” Montoya creates a new type of hero for the Chicano people, one who lives up to their standards alone and who can only be understand by their culture. Montoya started writing in the late 1960’s, making him one of the pioneers of the movement. He used his poetry to establish the parameters of what a Chicano identity should be. In Montoya’s view, the Chicano people can and should have their own language, their own standards, and their own heroes. And El Louie Rodriquez, “vato de atolle,” should be one of them.
Montoya's Other Work
Montoya is also a musician, a member of the band Trío Casindio. He is also a painter, and a founding member of the RCAF (the Rebel Chicano Art Front, OR Royal Chicano Air Force). Learn more about it in this video (embedding disabled) and this one:
Hernandez, Guillermo E. "José Montoya: From the RCAF to the Trio Casindio." Chicano Satire: A Study in Literary Culture. Austin: University of Texas, 1991. 52-84. Print.
Montoya, José. “El Louie.”