December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

A different light

By |2019-05-29T02:32:18+02:00August 21st, 2015|Anthropos|
Ana Castillo: "I have been completely alienated from my indigenous connection to the Americas."

#8220;Citizen of the world” is among the fancier post-modern expressions in an era that prides itself on multiculturalism. It implies the ability to move effortlessly in and out of a wide range of cultural paradigms, suggesting a transnational status that blurs cultural contrasts. Being a “citizen of the world” suggests putting diversity ahead of cultural self-centeredness and speaks wonders of cosmopolitanism.

In a world plagued by xenophobia and exasperated, often belligerent nationalism, “world citizenship,” even if allegorical, has an altogether positive ring. But “qualifying” for “citizen of the world” status comes with demands and obligations that extend well beyond the mere desire to embrace other cultures.

Economic resources come first. Without them you can’t see the world you claim to be a citizen of. You also need to emerge from a political reality that permits effortless travel to the worldly locations to which you allegedly belong. Both of these can pose real obstacles.

Entry into the world citizenship allegory has other, more subtle impediments. One of these — paradoxically — can be the absence of a specific ethnic or national category to identify with (since a collectively recognized and stable cultural status quo is what an individual takes for granted). That identity acts as a springboard to seek out new cultural horizons.

Chicago-born Chicana writer Ana Castillo has long been fascinated by the paradox, which she first explored in depth in “Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma,” a transcendent collection first published in 1994. It is a pillar of Chicano literature whose tremendously powerful cross-cultural analysis makes it deeply relevant two decades later.

Castillo, born in Chicago to a Chicano family, begins by explaining how the rigidity of ethnic categories in the United States prevented her from initially finding a place in society. “I cannot say I am a citizen of the world (…),” she writes. “I am commonly perceived as a foreigner everywhere I go, including in the United States and in Mexico. This international perception is based on my color and features. I am neither black nor white. I am not light skinned and cannot be mistaken for ‘white’; because my hair is so straight I cannot be mistaken for ‘black’. And by U.S. standards and according to some North American Native Americans, I cannot make official claims to be india.”

Castillo reflects on the misleading effects of social labels, including Latina/Hispanic and Chicana. Latina/Hispanic, she observes, refers only to her Spanish-speaking heritage, ultimately reducing her cultural background to that of the conquistadores alone, erasing any trace of her proud indigenous heritage. Her use of the expression “North American Native Americans” tries to make English-speaking readers aware of the limitations of the term “Native Americans,” which as a catchall for indigenous populations of the United States fails to account for the indigenous populations of the entire American continent. Similarly, the term Chicana automatically classifies her as an immigrant from Mexico, and therefore a foreigner to the United States, her native country.

In both cases, her indigenous roots are trampled on by her colonial Hispanic heritage. That heritage, she writes, is about as far as society is willing to go in acknowledging her diversity.

“While I descend from Mexican Amerindian lineage, the fact that I was born and raised in the United States, a descendent of one and two generations of migrants from Mexico, and was raised in the inner city of Chicago, means that I have been completely alienated from my indigenous connection to the Americas.”

Unable to fully embrace either of the traditional categories, she seeks the creation of a separate identity concept, that of the mestiza/Mexic Amerindian woman.

Castillo also addresses the error of necessarily seeing Chicanos as immigrants, or descendants of immigrants. Although Castillo herself descends from migrants, she highlights the reality that many Chicanos come from families that never moved from their lands of origin. It was actually the frontier that moved, when U.S. troops invaded Mexican territories in the 19th-century. “…[The] changing border that divides the U.S. and Mexico (another important distinction between our status and those from other countries) has placed Mexicans in a continuous neo-colonial state,” she writes

Difficult to classify and deeply provocative, “Massacre of the Dreamers” is a classic of Chicano literature. Ana Castillo persuasively addresses matters of gender and ethnicity in a way that is both compelling and timeless, suggesting that we’ve reached a point in history that obliges us to see cultural diversity in a different light.

About the Author:

Havana, Cuba-born Shaula Villadoniga wrote the "Anthropos" column through early 2021.