Chicano Nationalism and Its Philosophical Roots in Texas

By Greg Moses

A TCRR Sunday Sermon

"There are definite advantages to cultural nationalism," says El Plan
de Santa Barbara, "but no inherent limitations." The plan was
formulated in April 1969 as the founding document of the MEChA
organization, the still-lving higher education flank of the Chicano
movement. In the third (and final) paragraph under "Political
Consciousness", the plan considers the conceptual context in which
Chicano cultural nationalism should be considered.

"A Chicano ideology, especially as it involves cultural nationalism,
should be positively phrased in the form of propositions to the
Movement. Chicanismo is a concept that integrates self-awareness with
cultural identity, a necessary step in developing political
consciousness. As such, it serves as a basis for political action,
flexible enough to include the possibility of coalitions. The related
concept of La Raza provides an internationalist scope of Chicanismo,
and La Raza Cosmica furnishes a philosophical precedent. Within this
framework, the Third World concept merits consideration."

Gringo readers especially may want to take note of the little phrase
that declares the "related concept of La Raza" to be
inter-national-izing. For Gringos always assume that everyone
thinks in English. And if La Raza can be translated into "Race"
then all deductions can be derived simply from the usage that Gringos
themselves have forged. "La Raza means Race!" shout the
Gringos. "Race means Racism!" "La Raza is Racist!"
Los Gringos Stupidos ride again. For El Plan de Santa Barbara as it is plainly written, a concept of Chicanismo should be brought
to mind along with concepts of self-awareness, flexibility,
internationalism, philosophy, and the Third World. For today, I’d
like simply to stop at the question of philosophy. For the
paragraph quoted above, "La Raza Cosmica furnishes a philosophical
precedent." And what is La Raza Cosmica? It is the great
concept of the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos, who interests us,
among other reasons, because he spent so much time in Texas.

Vasconcelos, Texas Schoolboy

As a schoolboy in Eagle Pass, the very young Vasconcelos remembers
sitting with North American and Mexican children, "in front of a
teacher whose language I did not understand." But a bilingual
Texan sitting next to Vasconcelos could communicate to the new kid in
school. The Texan jabbed Vasconcelos in the side with an elbow
and began asking him which of the boys he could "lick". At first,
Vasconcelos tried to opt out of this dare, but finally he said okay, he
thought he could "lick" a boy about his size named Tom.

"As soon as we went out for recess, they formed a circle," recalls Vasconcelos in his autobiography, A Mexican Ulysses.
Tom and José were shoved into the circle where they fought, "stepped
back and looked each other over" and fought again. They were
pulled apart by the class organizers and José was awarded precedence
over Tom. From now on José, not Tom, would be number seven in the
pecking order. The orientation of this Texas schoolyard made
Vasconcelos angry, "and I withdrew further into myself":

Anxious fears would come over me; for no good reason, I
became profoundly sad; for long hours I stayed alone, wrapped in the
darkness of my own mind. Paralyzing fears overwhelmed me, and then I
would be prey to reckless, frenetic impulses. "Go slow about making a
decision, because when you do, you will be its slave." If someone had
whispered this advice in my ear, it might have made it a lot easier for
me. Darkness, helplessness, terrible fears, self-centeredness, such is
the summary of the emotional life of my childhood."

In adulthood, Vasconcelos would become Mexico’s revolutionary
minister of education. And already the cultural choices he felt in his
day were sounding familiar themes. One the one hand, "the hidden
doctrine of the schools of Zapata was the return of Mexico to the
primitivism of Montezuma." In this movement, Vasconcelos feared that
the heritage of human sacrifice had been perfected with "machine guns
and automatics." For Vasconcelos, this movement toward Montezuma
did not have enough strength to prevail. "It is clear that the
danger is not that Mexico may return to
primitivism," reasoned Vasconcelos as he looked back on the lessons of
his life: "the Indian does not have the strength for that."

"The danger and the scheme are that a Spanish Mexico should
give place to a Texan Mexico with the Anglo-Saxon acting as owner and
builder, and the Indian as roadmender, peasant, and fellah, in ‘Mexican
towns’ such as you see from Chicago to New Mexico, more miserable than
the medieval ghetto, but without the genius which suddenly blossoms and
lifts the Jew above his oppressors."

Vasconcelos is often annoying in this way. Rousing polemics
for cultural nationalism on the one hand, denigrations of native genius
on the other. For him, Cortés (if not a liberal himself) had brought
with him liberalizing alternatives to Aztec savagery; did Iberian
whiteness carry with it a light much preferable to Yankee
imperialism? In the end, I think the frequent jabs that
Vasconcelos makes at the
dullness of mestizo achievement were prophetic calls to awaken that
which was never really sleeping.

Human Use of the Land

In California Vasconcelos found Yankees at
their best, and there he found a practical experience of what might
some day emerge in its universality, "because for a long time they have
brought about the
co-existence there of races from all over the planet, Chinese and
Mexicans, Italians and Frenchmen, Indians and Negroes. And the average
wage has become the highest in the world. Life there is free and
genuinely human, and throughout the territory there extend like a smile
on the face of nature, orchards and gardens thick as a jungle."

But just as California had emerged as a promising human
experiment, it was ordered to heel by the Yankee ruling class: "Liberty was quashed, social
demands were repressed, under pretext of war and for the sake of the
plutocracy which had been turning California into its garden, with a
loss of the human quality of its civilization." On this point,
Steinbeck and Guthrie, who were Gringos but not stupidos, can back
Vasconcelos up.

In the Yankee drift of history, the cultural imaginary is the
conquistador, the gunslinger, the baron of industry. "In his heart,"
says Vasconcelos, "the Yankee looks down upon or ignores those who were
simple instruments of peaceful conquest. On the other hand, there is no
Anglo-Saxon who does not venerate Hernán Cortés. We cannot pardon him
for having given us, with less blood than any caudillo has shed,
frontiers that extend from Alaska on the north to the Isthmus of Panama
on the south! The Yankees of California and the south feel that they
are continuing the civilizing work of Hernán Cortés."

Against the Protestant Ideology of the Yankee, Vasconcelos tried to
fortify a "purified Catholicism". Not because he was a practicing
Catholic himself, but because he wanted a cultural nationalism that
could resist the Yankee drift. Yet when he ran for President of
Mexico in 1929, he learned once again that Mexican self determination
was a sad dream. On a visit to Chicago, he was instructed by a
fellow professor: "You think you are going to win; you have
public opinion on your side, but something very important is missing at
present–the good will of the American Embassy." When Vasconcelos
asked why the Yankee establishment would prefer his defeat, here is
what his professor friend said:

"The Unite

d States is par excellence an industrial country that needs
markets; the natural market of the United States is Latin
America. Good continental collaboration presupposes that the
United States will produce manufactured articles, and the countries of
the South, raw materials and also tropical products which do not grow
or grow poorly in the United States. Any government that
guarantees the United States a policy of rational economic cooperation,
as I have explained it, which promises, moreover, to respect the
recently signed treaties, will be an acceptable government. And I
doubt that you with your ambitions to build an independent Mexico, can
count on the sympathy of the Embassy."

If there are no inherent limitations to cultural nationalism for
Mexicanos or Chicanos, we can see there is quite a tradition of
limitations nevertheless. "Yes, I doubt it," was the best that
Vasconcelos could say. In the election of 1929 he won the popular vote
in Mexico but was defeated by headlines in New York. In fact,
when the numbers declaring him the loser were published on election day
at 11am Eastern Time in Yankee papers, it would have been several days
too soon to know the results. Says Vasconcelos in his
autobiography: "it was quite clear that the figures had been made up
the night before the election, or earlier. The Yankee press,
eager to offer one more proof of the lazy character of the ‘greaser’,
accepted the official version that we lost because the government
people took possession of the ballot boxes very early and we were late
in arriving."

Stolen Elections. Stolen Legacies

"There was not a single paper, of course, either in Mexico or abroad,
that commented on the figures, analyzed them, discussed them." An
AP reporter did want to talk to him for several hours, but not to get
the story straight. The reporter had been sent by the Americans
to offer Vasconcelos rectorship of UNAM, the Autonomous University at
Mexico City. All he had to do was sign a telegram accepting this
regrettable defeat, and legitimizing the published results. This
our philosopher-candidate refused to do. He had been elected,
actually, and everyone knew it. To San Antonio he went, then to
Los Angeles, long enough to decide to get the hell out of North America.

So when Chicanismo philosophers speaks jealously of their right to self
determination, we can think of Vasconcelos, a sometime Texan and
eternal philosopher who was once elected President of Mexico except
that the Yankee press backed up by Yankee dollars got the fix in
first. But what about La Raza Cosmica and the philosophical
tradition that informs the internationalization of Chicanismo?
For that too, we must think of Vasconcelos.

La Raza Cósmica is the title that Vasconcelos gave to his book about
his race-mixture theory, that we may look forward to a coming of the
age of the mestizo, a cosmic race of all races, a Raza of all Razas,
nothing like what Gringos mean when they fight against new races
intermingling with their own.

"The problem then," says Vasconcelos, "is whether we will survive
for another four centuries in relative independence, or be swept away
before then by races that will make the New World powerful
without taking us into account, leaving us reduced to that status of
pariahs, like the Mexicans of Texas and California." All quotes taken from A Mexian Ulysses: The Autobiography of José
Vasconcelos. Translated and abridged by W. Rex Crawford.
(Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1963).

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