Resisting Neocolonialism and Finding Identity through New Memory

Ylce Irizarry, Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016); 261 pages; ISBN 978-0252039911 (hardcover)

• October 2017

What does it mean to be Latinx in the United States? Ylce Irizarry’s Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad addresses this very question but from a distinct vantage point. She moves away from a comparative analysis that homogenizes Latino experience in the United States. While much scholarship on Latino writers focuses on the comparative differences between Latino experience and Anglo experience, Irizarry looks inward to Chicano and Latino communities, highlighting the heterogeneity of expression that derives from each author’s unique voice. The contraposition occurs in response not to Anglo hegemony but rather to the differences among Latinos in the United States, with an emphasis on those who emigrate from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. What unites these distinct actors is a palpable defiance of US neoliberalism, particularly with regard to political interventions in these respective countries. Through Ylce Irizarry’s analysis, we see how US neoliberal politics has shaped this movement, be it through exile or immigration.

Initially, the convergence of Chicana/o and Latina/o fiction seems problematic, given the distinct histories and unique political ties each country or region has with the United States. However, Irizarry develops four distinct modes of reading, exemplified in each text of study throughout the four body chapters. Through the narratives of loss, reclamation, fracture, and new memory, Irizarry provides a novel and unique conceptual frame for understanding the relationship among Latino groups in the United States as well as factors that connect these distinct groups. New memory is the apogee of the four narrative modes, and it explores how these narratives become a “locus for empowerment” (34). Irizarry skillfully spans genres, time periods, cultural and ethnic bonds, and places of origin to reveal the internality of identity and representation.

The four body chapters of Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction reverberate off one another throughout Irizarry’s analysis. While these four modes of narrative seem chronological, even genealogical, this is not necessarily the case. In my initial reading of the text, I sensed an undercurrent of chronology, especially given the ways Irizarry ties certain historical moments to each narrative mode. While these historical moments inform how each text expresses the various modes, text and historical moment are not necessarily connected to one another. Instead, the narrative modes of loss, reclamation, fracture, and new memory are linked primarily to the expressions of identity in each novel. These categorizations demarcate the various strategies that Latina/o and Chicana/o authors use to articulate identity concerns across various time periods. Each mode challenges a neocolonial positioning of “otherness” imposed by US identity politics. This is the unifying locus of these four modes.

The first chapter begins with the history of US intervention in Mexico and the Caribbean. This guides the reader through the connections among seemingly disparate geographies and histories of Chicanos and Latinos in the United States. For Irizarry, “all four nations [Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico] experienced some form of US colonialism and thus converge in their literary responses to it” (47). Through an analysis of Tomás Rivera’s . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971) and Junot Díaz’s Drown (1996), narratives of loss demonstrate how Chicana/o and Latina/o authors reconcile the loss inherent in moving from one geographic and cultural space to another. Furthermore, Irizarry highlights the historical role of US neocolonialism in the movement of people across borders: “Examining the processes and effects of US neocolonialism expands a narrow focus on assimilation politics into a broad focus on neocolonial communities’ attempts to define their relationships among one another” (53). Narratives of loss center on what is left behind in the processes of immigration, yet in contrast to the Anglo-dominant narrative of “arrival” in the United States, arrival is inaccessible for these characters. As Irizarry states, “Díaz challenges readers to question persistent beliefs about the American dream, the homogeny of Hispanophone people, and the interaction within minority communities” (58).

Chapter 2 focuses on narratives of reclamation, in which characters look for ways out of the cultural stagnation engendered by the losses tied to immigration. For Irizarry, narratives of reclamation “explore whether preserving certain cultural practices helps or hinders [women of color in the United States] in reclaiming their cultural identity and belonging in their ethnic communities” (75). Ana Castillo’s So Far from God (1993) and Angie Cruz’s Soledad (2001) are connected through the narrative mode of reclamation and the specific representation of women. A key axis of analysis in these two novels is preserving cultural ties to uniquely Chicana and Latina identities. Furthermore, Irizarry focuses on the collective voice and what can be reclaimed and gained from a collective encounter that urges women to break silences.

Chapter 3 brings the reader to narratives of fracture. Irizarry analyzes two Puerto Rican novels, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women (1993) and Ernesto Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams (2000). For Irizarry, these novels exemplify narratives of fracture, an experience that develops from the characters’ relationships with Puerto Rican identity in New York as well as their relationships (or lack thereof) to the island. Following Irizarry, “both texts explore the intimate and fraught relationships among geography, social mobility, and ethnonationalism” (131). Specifically, Irizarry underscores how each protagonist fractures and challenges stereotypes of Puerto Rican identity. For these characters, reclamation of a lost or bygone identity is not always the objective of their personal projects. Rather, these authors challenge long-held but incorrect narratives of Latina/o identity. Narratives of fracture “open narrative space for reconfigurations of identity by deconstructing those faulty conceptions” (157).

Narratives of new memory, as detailed in chapter 4, are the capstone of Irizarry’s analysis, since they demonstrate “how these writers actively construct new memories and how these memories resist neocolonialism’s silencing narratives” (157). Narratives of new memory present new modes of enunciation for Chicana/o and Latina/o authors. They challenge neocolonialism’s master narrative of homogenized identity, they emphasize the collective endeavor of elaborating identity, and, in the narrative, the reader is witness to the creation of new identities. In this chapter, Irizarry analyzes how Demetria Martínez and Elías Miguel Muñoz present narratives of new memory in their novels Mother Tongue (1993) and The Greatest Performance (1991), respectively, which reshape conventional understandings of Chicana/o and Latina/o identity.

Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction presents an extremely comprehensive analysis of the various modes of narrative that encompass Chicana/o and Latina/o experience in the United States. Significantly, Irizarry challenges the primacy of Latino versus Anglo comparison so prevalent in the field of Latino studies, opting for a lens that focuses inward, to the unique and important differences among heterogeneous cultural, ethnic, and social groups. The specter of the US neoliberalism haunts each narrative, yet it is an important unifying axis both in the narrative modes Irizarry presents and in her analysis as well. This book will be of interest to any researcher in the field of Latino studies because Irizarry presents a concise yet complete analysis of the various historical contexts that inform her four narrative modes.

 

Alexandra Gonzenbach Perkins’s research centers on Latinx and Latin American narrative, performance, and artistic production. Her scholarship focuses on the intersections of queer and transgender representation in both local and transnational expressions of Latinx and Latin American identities. She is an instructor of Spanish at The University of Alabama.