Clayre Joysmith

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(Re) writings in transit


Clayre Joysmith

My location in México— specifically as an academic at the UNAM and in Mexico City— as a complex cultural site crossroaded by a diversity of real and metaphorical borders serves as a focal point from which to observe very concrete manifestations of the cultural and linguistic mutabilities of mexicanidades when borders shift, when boundaries become fluid, porous, when, once fronteras are textualized, they become cultural productions, cross hacia el otro lado and come/go back to México de regreso.

It is, of course, important to take into account, as Harryette Mullen points out in refering to Sandra Cisneros’ story “Women Hollering Creek” —where a variety of border-crossings take place— that “textually, the precise denotation of ‘Mexican’ drifts, until it becomes a kind of floating signifier” (1). The term mexicanidades may be more useful, pluralizing and problematizing these identity-formations. Without going into this debate, however, I would like to underscore my particular interest: to observe —by means of specific cultural literary productions, contexts and instances— transculturation processes and the consequent problematization and potential reconfiguration of mexicanidades when Chicana/o texts are translated into Spanish and the receptors of these cultural and literary productions are Mexican readers in central Mexico in particular as a cultural site.

Chicana textuality as a “Resistant Space”

“The marginal”, Rafael Pérez-Torres sustains, “should be conceptualized as a potential resistant space” (2). Thus Chicano and all the more so Chicana cultural productions and literary practices —located in the “interstices of several cultures” (3) as Norma Alarcón reminds us— textualize a “resistant space”. This enables such practices to “function as a form of counterdiscourse” since they “write through and against, not in place of, dominant and dominating discourses” (4) as Pérez-Torres points out. Their politics of identity and creativity, however, are distinguished by a unique “syncretic aesthetic”, (5) as Mullen calls it, that inserts intercultural referentiality, for instance, in addition to interlinguistic practices as resistance and identity markers.

Chicana/o literary practices that shape what Pérez-Torres refers to as “an endless project of becoming, rather than being Chicana/o” (6) (my emphasis) are inserted in discursive dynamics that define resistance in relation to the margins within and by the U.S. culture. But when it comes to transculturing and translating the textualization of a resistant space into Spanish and specifically for a readership located in México within the complexity of la cultura mexicana, of mexicanidades, a curious reactive process surfaces, a completely different dynamics of resistance, what we might tentatively call “reactive resistance”, to what is both partially familiar culturally, yet disquietingly and even threateningly different. This widely spread phenomenon is very complex and is rooted in multiple factors that are at once objective and subjective, abstract and concrete, be they historical, political, geographical, economical and social, or psychological, linguistic and cultural.

Reactive resistances

Reactive resistances take on a variety of forms that range from outright outrage to puzzled bewilderment. An obvious indicator is the surprisingly few Chicano/a texts and anthologies available in México (central México, I insist), whether:

1) Written in Spanish, such as Miguel Méndez’s Peregrinos de Aztlán, Sabine Ulibarrí’s Mi abuela fumaba puros, Tomás Rivera’s ...y no se lo tragó la tierra, Tino Villanueva’s Chicanos and Antología de la literatura chicana edited by María Eugenia Gaona;

2) In Spanish and partially translated into Spanish, such as Cuento chicano del siglo XX. Breve Antología edited by Ricardo Aguilar, Antología retrospectiva del cuento chicano, edited by Juan Bruce-Novoa and José Guillermo Saavedra;

3) Translated into Spanish in México, such as Ana Castillo’s Las cartas de Mixquiahuala translated by Mónica Mansour and Sandra Cisneros’ La casa en Mango Street translated by Elena Poniatowska and Juan Antonio Ascencio (published in Mexico, by the way, all of a decade after it was first published in the US, although it was published in Spain, en castellano de España, several years before that). It should be mentioned that all these have had very little distribution, at least as far as central and southern México is concerned. This is a significantly limited number of publications considering the amount of publications available by/on Chicano/as in the U.S., of course. To these translations we could, of course, add particular cases such as Esta puente mi espalda, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, translated by Moraga, Ana Castillo and Norma Alarcón, that was actually distributed in Mexico City. Some books are now being translated into Spanish and published in the US targeting a mexicano/a and chicano/a and latino/a community, but these are not readily available in Mexico.

In the book entitled Las formas de nuestras voces. Mexicana and Chicana Writers in México, published by the CISAN, UNAM, and Third Woman Press, Berkeley (7) the encuentro between Mexicana and Chicana writers in Mexico City, at the UNAM, as well the interviews included in this volume, and some audience reactions during the event, contain interesting examples of several expressions of reactive resistance. This material, together with collected discussions, newspaper clippings, interviews and conversations with people from varying fields and backgrounds, from market vendors and taxi drivers to students and academics, a set of question/statements, have been compressed and formulated into a set of questions/statements for the sake of immediacy to illustrate some of these reactive resistances (I insist, all located in Mexico City specifically):

Why do Chicanas/os write in English? Why is their Spanish poor, misspell, nonexistent, archaic and rural at times, so different? Why do they mix English and Spanish? Why do they often dress and act like “gringos/as” if they call themselves/are still Mexican? Why are their themes and issues so centered on themselves as Chicanas/os? What is their resistance about if they live well in the U.S.? If they don’t like the U.S. why don’t they just come back to Mexico? Why are they are so self-assertive, even aggressive? What can they possibly have to tell us if they are no longer Mexican? What are their politics all about? What is important about Chicana writers? What is there of interest they can write about? Why is their theorical approach different from that of other feminists? Why are there many —or even, so many— Chicana lesbian writers?

Issues such as these raise questions that may or may not have answers, simple or complex, but are, in fact, unavailable —and this, I believe, is the important part— within a cultural context in Mexico (I repeat, at least in central and southern México). This, together with a desire to enquire directly into mexicanidades and chicanidades, encouraged the idea of a bilingual anthology of Chicana literature that owes much to many texts, in particular Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature edited by Tey Diana Rebolledo and Eliana Rivero, (8) mainly because of my admiration in going ahead and doing it, el tezón de diez años de trabajo comprometido and due to the fact that scattered texts, some often unavailable, are brought together here for the first time.

The bilingual anthology I have been working on is entitled Cantar de espejos/Singing Mirrors. Antología bilingüe de literatura contemporánea escrita por mujeres chicanas/Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Chicana Literature and will be published presently by La Casa de las Imágenes, a small press in Mexico City. The difficulties in finding a press willing to publish Chicana poetry in México was only the beginning of a story of veladoras prendidas to reach the near-miracle of a near-published volume at a time when small presses are collapsing almost entirely and when there is possibly more awareness and interest in this kind of literature than before.

This is partly due to the cultural shock effects of the neozapatista movement in Chiapas that has refocused and reconfigured discursive strategies and responses in intellectual and academic arenas as well as on a wider, general and popular scale. The neo-zapatista discourse is about “resistant strategies”, displaced borders, (in)visibility, linguistic and cultural differences, the counterdiscursiveness of the margins, all “talking back” and “writing through and against, not in place of, dominating and dominant discourses”, as has already been quoted, all of which has finally become far more visible and audible in the last four years.

Coming back to issues addressed in the anthology Cantar de espejos/Singing Mirrors, it has four pivotal intentions:

first, to establish a resistant and counterdiscursive space enabling Chicana writers/writing to answer some of the questions/statements listed above by means of their own creative texts and outside a Chicanos/a and U.S. context, which, needless to say, was crucial in shaping the criteria used in the selection;

second, to make this literature available in a bilingual format and by translating it into Spanish, to ideal, implied and potential readers located specifically in Mexico as a cultural site;

third, to create a space in which implied and real readers might participate from within this cultural site in a process that problematizes and resignifies mexicanidades;

and fourth, to illustrate a range of gendered resistance strategies that might lead to possible reconfigurations of both a theoretical and pragmatic nature by addressing issues of class, race, ethnicity, identity-formation, language and culture, from a specifically gendered Chicana perspective for lay and academic readers in Mexico.

The aim, it should be pointed out, is not to establish any model of resistance, expression or identity reconfiguration but, rather, propose byways that may generate further practices of counterdiscoursiveness by means of greater cultural awareness and conscious translation-transculturation processes.

Apuntes a colores: Reactive resistance and counterdiscursive writing

This anthology, although still in press, has already provided several examples of overt reactive resistance; the following is an anecdote I would like to share.

When the manuscript of the anthology of Chicana poetry was given to what the publishing house considered to be a professional reader, highly competent and well-known in Mexico, his notations in red ink became a visible and colorful example of reactive resistance once his discursive intervention went beyond correcting typos and making necessary editorial annotations. Within the discursive space and on the very pages of the manuscript a discourse in red inserted itself by re-writing the texts —originals as well as translations. “Incorrections” in Spanish, misspellings, archaic and rural oral expressions in the original texts were questioned as was the presence of interlingualism and how it was to be “marked” -or erased— in the text. Cultural and linguistic markers were re-translated and horror was expressed in red ink at my proposal as editor of the volume to actually reproduce and thereby perpetrate these “incorrections” in the translations themselves as markers of chicanidad that otherwise risked “erasure”. An example would be from “sus plumas el viento” by Gloria Anzaldúa in which “normal” syntax is curiously altered:

She looks up into the sun’s glare,

las chuparrosas de los jardines

¿en dónde están de su mamá grande?

The reactive resistance became a discursive re-writing in red that failed, on one hand, to recognize several resistance strategies as identity-forming and aesthetic agents in Chicana writing.

On the other, it also failed to recognize the mirror-image game played in the translation firstly by the very fact the original text is on the left hand side and the translation on the right (whether the original is in English, as is the usual case in the anthology, or in Spanish, which is less frequent) by means of which markers of resistance and of chicanidad are recreated, thereby maintaining words in English in the Spanish translation to “mirror” resistance strategies in Chicana texts, for instance, or using typographical markers in the translation to underscore the use of terms in Spanish in the original English version.

My response became a curious variation on counterdiscursive writing “against and through...dominant discourses” and was equally visible and colorful as it inserted itself in purple ink next to, above, under as well as against and through the red markings. It was pointed out in purple ink that it was editorially, ethically and legally inconceivable to change a published text, that to do so with a text published in the U.S. might invite complex and costly legal issues, and that permission to reproduce poems such as those of Gloria Anzaldúa, for example, was granted only if no element in the original —particularly the Spanish— was altered. And I quote directly from the letter granting permission: “Our only concern is that whatever Chicana Spanish (i.e. Tex-Mex, dialect, etc.) there is being retained in the translation (my emphasis). We assume this is your practice but want to underline this requirement. No change in spelling or accents (or lack thereof) is acceptable if it originally appears as Spanish in the poem”, signed Joan Pinlavoss, Senior Editor. The fact the letter states that no change is acceptable and that the Spanish is not to be altered would seem to indicate that “tampering” has indeed occurred before, in which case it is interesting to note that the Senior Editor is familiar with this practice in American presses, such as changing Chicano/a Spanish (a she and Anzaldúa herself call it) as differing from conventional castellano. It is also an indicator that this “different” Spanish is to be retained since it is deliberately used and has already crossed borders as a language that is very much alive and changing. In the counterdiscursive response in purple ink on the MS page, it was pointed out that the “different” or “unusual” use of Spanish served as Chicana/o markers, that those “incorrections” were not my typos, as explained at length in the 35-page introduction to the anthology.

The translations themselves —facing the original texts, as has been mentioned— were also rewritten in red, whether they were by the poets themselves, my award-winning feminist translator colleague —whose speciality is poetry— or myself: all was suspect given their chicanidad as well as their femaleness, were therefore clearly outside the canon, located in the margins —both las de acá and las de allá. Parenthetically I will mention that he only males involved in the project were him and the owner of the publishing house.

I discovered immediately I was in urgent need of another reader for the anthology when he announced in a verbally red mood that he doubted as to whether this was actually poetry, that he wondered what Chicanos —particularly Chicanas— could possibly contribute to Literature; he ended by stating his reluctance to read the manuscript, now counterdiscursively annotated in purple, a second time.

Shortly after, and to my surprise —or at least a muted surprise— I discovered that this same señor Bolivar also happened to have had intense confrontations with the editora of a hand-made book of poems called Conjuros y ebriedades written by women in Chiapas —another borderlands/borderworld pero al sur de México— also published by La Casa de las Imágenes, in which the original poetry in tzotzil happens to appear on the left hand side and the translation into Spanish on the right hand. It so happened, moreover, that the project, like Cantar de espejos/Singing Mirrors, was also partially funded by the Mexico-U.S. Cultural Fund, and happened to be edited by a woman editor (Ambar Past) who is not tzotzil but acts as a cultural mediating figure. There also happened to be linguistic and cultural issues raised here: the strongest objection by senor Bolivar seemed to be the castellano used in the translation, which is an archaic form of Spanish used in some areas in Chiapas and particularly in that area. Moreover, la editora wanted to insert many innovative elements, such as the inclusion of the signatures of the women poets and that one section be published vertically rather than horizontally, therefore definitely “different”. The book, to continue the anecdote, was actually published (in 1998) and its greatly promoted public presentation was covered in a full page in La Jornada. But by then senor Bolivar’s formal disclaimer was to delete his name from the entire book. Maybe one experience of this kind was more than enough for him and might explain his radical refusal in the case of Cantar de espejos. But the fact his “reactive resistance” to the Chicana poetry anthology followed in the wake (literally a few months apart) of the reactive resistance to the Chiapas women’s book of poetry seems revealing in terms of how the marginal can unsettle and decenter by means of new propositions.

The solution in this case was simply to hire another person, equally qualified: a woman sympathetic to the issues raised and who —after initially reading the anthology and the introduction— was recently involved in supervising an issue dedicated to Chicanos/as in the magazine Vice Versa. The main issue in all this is not personal or anecdotal but a thermometer to measure certain core reactions and resistances.

Once the book is actually published and there is a wider public response available, the undeniable possibility that reactive resistances such as these may be replicated is, of course, a fact, one of many challenges to face and explore once it becomes available.

Translation as (RE)Writing in transit

I would like to end by suggesting that the act of translation itself (into Spanish) as a textualized “regreso del otro lado” in the specific case of Chicana/o literature goes beyond the hide-and-seek of finding a publisher and an editor/corrector de estilo/diseñador. It also goes beyond the production of a linguistic and cultural translation. It belongs to a range of (re)writings in transit and is, thereby, an agency for cultural transits. It creates more space for increasing interstices within mexicanidades, within México as a complex cultural site, with geographical borders to the north and the south, and crossroaded by diverse borders, and it also encourages the possible emergence of new counterdiscursive strategies as a response to reactive resistances. Moreover, it opens —and this is perhaps what I find to be most important— potential spaces to promote the problematization of dominant discourses and the creation, reconfiguration and propagation of counterdiscursive practices within these interstices that will, in turn, problematize, conceptualize and reconfigure further resistance strategies in a continuum of textualities in continuous transit.



1 Harryette Mullen, A Silence Between Us Like a Language: The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek, Melus. The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 21:2 Summer 1996, p.18.

2 Rafael Pérez-Torres, Movements in Chicano Poetry. Against Myths, Against Margins, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1995, p.39.

3 Norma Alarcón, La literatura chicana un reto sexual y racial del proletariado, Mujer y literatura mexicana y chicana. Culturas en contacto, vol. 2, Aralia López González, Amelia Malagamba and Elena Urrutia (eds.), El Colegio de México/PIEM/El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, México, 1990, p.207.

4 Pérez-Torres, op. cit., p.34.

5 Mullen, op. cit., p.5.

6 Pérez-Torres, op.cit., p. 30.

7 Claire Joysmith (ed.), Las formas de nuestras voces: Chicana and Mexicana Writers in México, CISAN/UNAM, México, 1995.

8 Tey Diana Rebolledo and Eliana S. Rivero (eds.), Infinite Divisions. An Anthology of Chicana Literature, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1993.

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Claire Josmith trabaja en el Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte (CISAN), de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). En el 2000 presentó este trabajo en el Tercer Encuentro de Literatura Fronteriza: Letras en el Borde celebrado en la Casa de Cultura de Nuevo Laredo y en la Texas A&M International University.