Chicano Identity in Chicano Fiction

Seminar Paper 1998 9 Pages

American Studies - Literature


In this essay, I will address the question of Chicano identity by investigating two very different texts, that both deal with a quest for identity in a Mexican-American context: Tomás Rivera’s ...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him and Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. I will first discuss the contextual differences between the two works. Then I will consider the definitions of identity upon which the texts are based. Going deeper into the works themselves, I will finally discuss along which lines the two quests for identity develop. In conclusion, I will connect my investigations to the question of whether Chicano identity is unified or fragmented.

Both Tomás Rivera’s ...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him and Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory are about an individual searching for his identity. In both works, the protagonist is a Mexican-American or ‘Chicano’. However, the differences between the two books are huge. The generic difference is most obvious: Rivera’s work is a fictional narrative, which Héctor Calderón termed ‘novel-as-tales’.[1] Rodriguez, referring to his book, speaks of ‘[e]ssays impersonating an autobiography’ (p. 7). This entails that the subject searching for identity is, in Rodriguez’ case, the author himself, or rather his literary image. In Rivera’s case, the subject is purely fictional, although some critics have identified this literary subject with the author.[2]

Moreover, Hunger of Memory is overtly political and ‘basically polemical: it lays out an argument and draws conclusions’ (McKenna p. 63).[3] The political nature of ...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is not that obvious. The text certainly criticizes social oppression and discrimination against Mexican-Americans in the USA. The essential political value of the text, however, is its purpose as a text written by a Chicano writer for the Chicano community. It is a text born out of the Chicano movement.

[T]he book parallels the Chicano movement of the late sixties and early seventies through its reassessment of traditional culture, its historical self-consciousness, and, specially, through its developing sense of group solidarity. (Calderón p. 102)

It is obvious that the political ideas of Rivera and Rodriguez are at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Rivera was one of the main intellectual leaders of the Chicano community, whereas Rodriguez became the Chicanos’ pet hate through his advocacy of assimilation and his denial of the Chicano community. This becomes clear when one reads Chicano critics writing on Hunger of Memory; all the critical responses I have consulted for this essay attack the ideas of the book , the work itself, and the author, sometimes rather fiercely (cf. McKenna, Villanueva-Collado,[4] Saldívar,[5] and Rivera[6] ).

For this essay, however, the differences between the two texts are more important than those between the two authors. I have stated above that both texts are about a quest for identity. Already when they define identity, however, the two texts differ considerably.

In his essay ‘Chicano Literature: The Establishment of Community’,[7] Rivera describes Chicano identity in terms of community, myth and language. Rodriguez, on the other hand, discusses identity in terms of family, education, language, religion (Villanueva-Collado p. 75), and class. Both texts discuss the collective/public and the individual/private aspects of identity. However, it is very significant that, while both authors consider the aspect of language at length, Rivera speaks of ‘myth’ rather than ‘religion’, and Rodriguez discusses ‘family’ and ‘class’ rather than ‘community’. Moreover, ‘education’ - a term that appears in the subtitle of Hunger of Memory - is completely absent from Rivera’s discussion. School, in ...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, is merely a place of discrimination and oppression (pp. 92ff.), which does not hold its promise of social mobility. For Rodriguez, school plays the most important part in forming his ‘public identity.’ To be able to investigate this difference in emphasis of certain aspects of identity, we must go deeper into the interpretation of the two texts as quests for identity.

In ...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, the theme of the quest for identity is established through the two stories framing the narrative: ‘The Lost Year’ (p. 83) and ‘Under the House’ (pp. 148-152). In ‘The Lost Year’, a nameless ‘he’ finds himself in complete isolation. In his solipsism, he calls his own name until the name becomes meaningless and he forgets it. His dreamlike state, however, leads him into reflections on, and memories of, the lost, supposedly the last, year.


[1] Héctor Calderón, ‘The Novel and the Community of Readers: Rereading Tomás Rivera’s Y no se lo tragó la tierra’, Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture and Ideology, Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar (ed.s) (n.p. :Duke University Press, 1991), p. 100.

[2] Daniel P. Testa, ‘Narrative Technique and Human Experience in Tomás Rivera’ Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, Joseph Sommers and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto (ed.s) (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1979), p. 93.

[3] Teresa McKenna, Migrant Song: Politics and Process in Contemporary Chicano Literature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997).

[4] Alfredo Villanueva-Collado, ‘Growing up Hispanic: Discourse and Ideology in Hunger of Memory and Family Installments.’ The Americas Review, 16 (1988), pp 75-89.

[5] Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).

[6] Tomás Rivera, ‘Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory as Humanistic Antithesis’, Melus, 11 (1984), pp. 5-13.

[7] Tomás Rivera, ‘Chicano Literature: The Establishment of Community’, Tomás Rivera, 1935-1984: The Man and His Work (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1988), pp. 22.


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University of Aberdeen – English Department
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Chicano Identity Fiction



Title: Chicano Identity in Chicano Fiction