Let's talk about borders. Mexico being so close, what is its proximity to your literary imagination? Are there demarcation lines—is there a place where one ends and the other (U.S.) begins in your creative life as a Chicano writer?
Our most prominent Chicana intellectual Gloría Anzaldúa said it best when she wrote that the U.S.-México border “es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” Like many Chicano writers, I inhabit that wound and write our people’s voices and experiences into visibility. My responsibility as a Chicano writer is to be a witness to a people’s struggle because much continues to dehumanize and criminalize us: the media, vigilante groups like the Minutemen, and traitor immigrants like one West Coast governor, whose policies victimize a population that has carried the weight of California’s economy for generations. In the Post-911 era, the border has become even more militarized, and those who would cross it are denied entry under the farce of “national security.” That is just a new name for an old method of discrimination and exclusion. I write about Mexicans who dismiss the international border as a minor setback. More important is finding work, earning dollars, living a better life—surviving. In brief, I am no different than our early Chicano pioneers, Tomás Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Estela Portillo Trambley, and Ricardo Sánchez, who initiated this literary legacy. And it’s reassuring to see new writers like Diana López, Blas Manuel de Luna, Sergio Troncoso, David Domínguez, Sheryl Luna and Richard Yañez, write from this same place of urgency and purpose.
My memoir Butterfly Boy tells that long and arduous story. I come from three generations of migrant farmworkers who moved periodically from one side of the border to the other. We have been born on both sides: my grandfather and me in the U.S., my father and my niece in México. But that doesn't determine where we will be raised: I was raised in México, my niece will be raised in the U.S. Each generation has been marked by relocation due to economic necessity—we are always in search of employment. The fact that I have received a formalized education and don't work in the agricultural fields does not mean I have given up that work ethic. I too continue to migrate: from The New School University in New York, to the University of Toledo in Ohio, to my present employer, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Like my family, I move for a job. There is nothing romantic in this either. If I had come from a wealthy Mexican family none of us would have left México. But poverty is not a comfortable or desirable home.
What is the childhood of a poet or novelist like?
I grew up poor, in both México and in the U.S. When I tell people that I grew up with two books, the Bible and the TV Guide, I'm telling the truth. And let me add to that that we didn't consult either book much since we were neither religious nor television addicts. Because there were always so many of us (nineteen at one point) crowding the small space of an apartment, we preferred the outdoors. Despite all this I was a very melancholy child, withdrawn, especially after the death of my mother: I was 12 years old, she was 31. All of this must have contributed to my need for a different view of the world, which I found eventually, through reading.
When did you begin writing, and why?
I discovered books in the school library. I had to find a space of my own in my overpopulated household, so I lost myself in the quiet pages of Agatha Christie murder mysteries and Jules Verne adventure stories. It was the best escape from all the frustrations that plagued a family in constant state of financial crisis. Books also came to my rescue when I started seeking answers about my sexuality. I was afraid to tell my family that I was gay, so I consulted books on the matter—Greek mythology, E. M. Forster's Maurice, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, and Jack London's The Sea-Wolf. Making the leap from reader to writer is such a short one. Eventually I wanted to participate and put to use this imagination that had been feeding off the words of others. Eventually I wanted to speak. I wrote my first poem as a senior in high school. My first story soon after.
Tell us about your relationship with your family now that you have chosen to walk a literary path. With Octavio Paz and many other luminaries carving a space in the Chicano imagination, what is it like to be an artist in your family?
My brother (aka Texaco Alex) is the only one who can read English in my family. Since he has held my four published books in his hands he has become hungry for more, and together we have built a large library in his home in México, to the delight of his daughter. I never would have thought this possible for a man who dropped out of high school and who once said he wanted to die having read only one book, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. He once gave poetry writing a try, as did my father. I like to believe that they both attempted it because I showed them anyone could. And though my father can't read my books for adults (my children's books are translated into Spanish), he knows the magnitude of my accomplishment. Teachers and writers mean a lot more to people from a country where education is not accessible to all. When he shows my novel to the gas attendant in México and proudly declares, "My son wrote this book," the gas attendant, who may or may not know how to read, understands what that means all too well.
How important is identity for you? What are your identities, if so?
I'm Chicano, gay, a Mexican immigrant, a displaced New Yorker. (I claim New York more than I do California, my birthplace, because I've lived in New York City longer than in any other U.S. city. I still can't believe that myself!) Identity gives me history, geography, and a specific cultural context and trajectory. One identity I'm in conflict with at the moment is Latino. (Don't get me started on Hispanic—that fabricated word doesn't exist for me.) In the politically correct publishing market Latino has been erasing specific memories and peoples. I worry about this because people of Mexican descent comprise two-thirds of the Latino population in the U.S. And yet the bookstore shelves suggest that Latinos are a Caribbean majority. That is false. The pan-Latino identity diffuses our political power because it is so abstract and faceless. Chicano, on the other hand, is a term that designates strength and political consciousness.
I've been so cynical of the way many writers suddenly found a political purpose (like the anti-war and anti-Patriot Act efforts) after September 11, as if that date began oppression in this country. I contend that many of these same people contributed to the racist and classist attitudes that have plagued the U.S. for decades, which is why taking up a cause that doesn’t bear specific ethnicity is much more easier. I applaud these causes nonetheless, and hope that this activist fervor doesn’t fizzle out. The last thing we need is a group of bored writers. I’m much more interested in the works by writers from the Middle East and American writers whose heritage arches across oceans to connect with those values, religion and thought that is being demonized by the U.S. government. I know that these writers know what writers of color in this country have always known—that no wars or censorship can snuff out the literature.
Is there a writer that made you one? Is there a poet that opened your eyes to the possibilities of poetry? Is there a poem?
This answer will surprise many: I attended primary school in Michoacán, México. And although one of our requirements was speech via the memorization of nationalistic poetry and short verse by Octavio Paz, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, I didn't fall in love with poetry until I was handed a book of British and New England poets. The book was given to me not long after I migrated with my family to California. I was ten years old, terrified, painfully shy, and poetry was one teacher's answer to coax me out of my shell. My English was limited, but I recognized the beauty and accomplishment of language when I finally recited Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" out loud in the backyard. The second important encounter happened when I was in college at the University of California, Riverside: the library there was named after a Chicano, Tomás Rivera. I was curious about him and when I stumbled upon Rivera’s novel …y no se lo tragó la tierra, my eyes opened wide to the realization that migrant life was a valid subject for a book. So I started to write my own, Crossing Vines.
How important is community? Are writers lone wolves?
We are solitary—that's how we write and revise. But we certainly don't create on our own since we are constantly responding to our environments—that which angers or inspires us. What angers me is how literary institutions (especially in New York City) exclude us, Chicano/Latino writers, as if we are any less American, as if we are foreign. What angers me is that we are constantly exoticized, and that our work is placed in literary journals because of its literary merit second, because of the journal’s claim to diversity first. It’s tough to work this anger out solo, thus the need for kinship with others who understand without excessive explanation. Additionally, when a writer’s book is published, silence is a death knell. One has to depend on friends to take notice, to spread the word, to celebrate what is undoubtedly a contribution of a greater cause.
How do you want to be remembered by the next generation?
As someone who kept the legacy of Chicano literature alive through his own writing, through the activism of building a viable coalition of Chicano/Latino writers, and through his mentorship of young Chicano writers (besides Eduardo C. Corral, keep your eye out for John Olivares Espinoza and Diana Delgado, a recent Columbia graduate and Alex Espinoza).
What would you advise a young writer, or a writer-of-color about the literary life?
To connect with his/her community through the literature and through the many organizations (like Kundiman, Cave Canem, Asian American Writers Workshop, Con Tinta and CLICA, the Chicano/Latino Internet Community Alliance). To read beyond borders and seek out literature in translation. To learn another language and refuse to be what Carlos Fuentes calls a “monolingual idiot.” To understand that the writing profession is a difficult one, but that it's not without moments of reward and celebration, and that those heights have to be earned: no one gets anywhere without struggle, or without plenty of help. To know that there are two models: the community-oriented one and the solo celebrity one: one means becoming your brethren’s keeper; the other means you will rise and fall all alone.
Tell us about your literary voyage: what are you exploring? what islands of themes? what interests you? what makes you wake up every morning and embark in the perilous journey in literature? what's waiting on the other side?
What keeps me
going is that the Chicano population and readership is growing. I know
it’s growing because the number of Chicanos in this country
is increasing exponentially. Many of them will be struck by the same yearning
I had—the need to find themselves within the pages of a book. I’m
glad I am writing those books, and I write in many genres—poetry, fiction,
nonfiction, children’s lit—because I have taken on a duty to
populate the shelves with books, books, and more books by a Chicano writer.
My audience comes from all walks of life, but much has to be said about having
one of my own people read what I wrote. I’m thrilled to see many other
writers ready to take on the challenge of becoming an author. What keeps
me going is that I had some amazing teachers and mentors. And they have instilled
in me a fire for success that is inextinguishable. What keeps me going is
that my friends
in struggle are also brilliant writers.
Email Rigoberto González: firstname.lastname@example.org