‘Woman-Identified Women’: The Politics of Feminist Neo-Indigenism in Estela Portillo-Trambley’s The Day of the Swallows

Nawazish Azim, Aliah University (Kolkata)


In Sandra Cisneros’ 1984 novel The House on Mango Street, the image of the Chicana woman, who is sequestered within the confines of patriarchy in the form of normative significations of home, family and gender, is challenged. The need to create a new identity for Chicana women is emphasized, in not only society and culture, but also in fictive narratives. Continually through the novel, most of the women stare out of windows listlessly, waiting for their husbands to return or for something to happen, occasionally coaxing one of the children playing in the street to fetch a soda for them from the neighbourhood store. They have no say in their choice of spouses, being considered objects for men to control and manipulate. Oppressed, humiliated and devoid of purpose in their lives, they symbolise the unfortunate condition of women in the Latin-American community. The heroine of the novel, however, named Esperanza, is different from the major stereotype thus described. She is a strong, opinionated woman who desires a house and understands the need for a female space, whether physical or narratorial: “Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own” (Cisneros, 1984, p.108) It is this deep desire for a house which signifies that women in Chicano literature in the 1970s onwards, whether female characters or female authors, had begun to articulate their “need for a space to call their own” (Martinez, 2002, p.131), which would help in the creation of their new socio-political identity independent of men. In fact, it is this articulation of feminist liberation, which becomes representative of a discourse of resistance to patriarchal traditions, and is symptomatic of the emergence of feminist indigeneity in Chicano culture and literature.

  1. Tracing Roots: Neo-Indigenism and the Rise of Feminist Chicana Literature

While Indigeneity or Indigenism, as it is more popularly called, has had wide-ranging and long-lasting effects in Mexico and Latin America for over a century now, feminist Indigenism is a new theoretical paradigm that has defined Chicana literature in recent years. The first impetus for Indigenism was provided by late 18th and early 19th century by archaeological excavations which hinted at a pre-Columbian past of Latin America. Later, the publication in the 1880s of Aves sin nido (Birds without a Nest) by Clorinda Matto de Turner brought forth the truly Indigenist work in Latin America. It was a new perspective, full of empathy for men and women belonging to the Latin American community. From this point onwards, in the last century, indigenist art and thought have generated more and more works that have “transformed the Europeanized cosmovision securely in place among the power elite and the educated circles of Latin America in the 19th Century.” (Ramirez, 1995, p.71). The result was a recognition of the influence of Indigenist thought in many realms of contemporary life, including political rhetoric and revolutionary ideology, and attempts to return to an Indigenist past that encompasses for example, land reform, collectivism in working the land, and an almost mystical attachment to the land. Yet, beyond this pro-land agenda, there are several essences which have become the ideological and philosophical pillars of the movement. At a more practical level, the Indigenist movement began in Mexico in 1904, several years before the Mexican Revolution, when Dr Atl (or Gerardo Trulillo as he was born) became a pioneer of Indgenist philosophy and ideology. After the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, various aspects of Indigenism moved from the realm of idealism to practical implementation. Jose Vasconcelos, author of Indology (1925) and The Cosmic Race (1927) and Diego Rivera, an artist (sometimes better known as Frida Kahlo’s husband), became the pioneers and fore-runners of the movement, transforming aesthetic thought and intellectual life in Mexico.

A generation later, in the 1960s, Chicanos referred to this earlier period of Indigenism and used it as a political and cultural tool. Jack Forbes and his book Aztecas del Norte influenced Chicano thought and life, and the concept of Aztlan, the homeland of the Aztecs to the north of the Aztec Empire as it was established in the Valley of Mexico in 1325 was revived among the Chicanos. Stories of the grandeur and dignity of the old Aztec Empire were told. Cultural nationalists such as Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzales and Alurista spoke of this past and developed an indigenous perspective in art and life. In this way, Chicanos “felt empowered in the very real force of Indigenism and its continuing present day permutations and vitality” (Ramirez, 1995, p.72). It began to represent a deep-seated desire in many Chicano artists, historians and intellectuals to believe in the ideals of the origins of the indigenous past. Their faith in it could, they hoped, revive respect and self-esteem for the Chicano community, while revealing the historic past. This two-pronged tool to lift the morale of the Chicano individual as well as to supply an answer to the present condition of the Chicano community, was located in the revival of the indigenous past. And yet, in spite of this, Indigenism also carried with it several complications, such as the accusation that it involved reference to a ‘past paradise’ which never existed, as well as that it was an ‘escape route’ for those who could not face present harsh reality. The belief turned to cynicism, and Indigenism began to fade away slowly. Existing only in fragmented relative importance, it did not partake of the same vitality with which it had started, and what existed was just a shadow of the intensity of its original theoretical underpinnings. However, in recent Chicana literature, Indigenism has reappeared with a new vigour and intensity. Its original theoretical strains and philosophical ideals have re-emerged in recent years as an essential part of Chicana Renaissance, which has added to the development of Chicano Renaissance of the 1960s and its original adoption of Indigenism as a vital force in art, literature and intellectual life. Significant works such as Alurista’s Floricanto en Aztlan or Nationchild Plumaroja which had lost their relevance in time, now gained momentum again and were taken up by feminist authors who wanted to locate a sense of empowerment in Indigenism. By the mid-1970s therefore, feminist authors were taking forward the theme of Indigenism to a new space, where it was appropriated for entirely new purposes. Chicana feminism became ‘the best thing about Chicano literature’ in the words of Nicolas Kanellos, and Chicanas were re-inventing Indigenism to serve feminist ends. Authors such as Estela Portillo-Trambley, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez and Lorna Dee Cervantes demonstrated subtle references to neo-Indigenism, coupled with feminist ideology. Indigenism arose again in a new and transformed way as part of resurgence in feminism, and these Chicana authors became highly significant in this process…Access Full Text of the Article

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