Heart of Aztlán
Heart of Aztlán
by Rudolfo A. Anaya
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about 1955; published in 1976.
A Mexican American family migrates from their farm in rural New Mexico to a Mexican American neighborhood in the city of Albuquerque. The family quickly learns that life in the city is far different from life on the farm as they experience firsthand the city’s opportunities, challenges, and dangers.
Rudolfo A. Anaya was born and raised in a small New Mexican village called Santa Rosa. During his youth, he helped his father work on his farm, or ranchito, watched his mother make tortillas in her kitchen, and walked along the plains, or llanos, with his grandfather, who told him mythical stories known as cuentos. In writing Heart of Aztlán, Anaya culled material from memories of his youth in New Mexico and told the story of a family who moved from a rural village much like Santa Rosa to a Mexican American neighborhood in the city of Albuquerque.
Migration to cities
Throughout the twentieth century various groups of people, from farmers to African Americans to Mexican Americans, have migrated out of rural areas into cities. There were a number of reasons for this migration: some felt pulled to the city by the promise of economic opportunity and education for their children, while others felt pushed off their farms when faced with barren soil and an inadequate water supply. In Heart of Aztlán, Clemente Chávez packed up his family and headed for the city when he realized that his farmland could no longer produce crops. Chávez believed that he could find work and support his family by moving to the city. During the first half of the twentieth century, many southwestern states, like New Mexico, saw a large increase in urban migration by Mexican Americans because, in large part, of the increase in industries centered in cities. In 1900 the population of the Southwest was 70 percent rural. Within the next sixty years the proportion reversed so that by 1960 the Southwest had become 71 percent urban. Furthermore, during the 1950s, the decade in which the novel takes place, Mexican Americans urbanized more rapidly than Anglos or others.
The Mexican American migrants who moved from their farms to the city faced many changes. They suddenly had to live in a Mexican American neighborhood (a barrio) rather than on an isolated farm, work for a company rather than for themselves, and adjust their work habits and schedules accordingly.
On the farm, the family dictated the work schedule. In the railroad yard or in the factory, on the other hand, the manager told the workers what to do. Workers lost their power over their jobs, as illustrated in Heart of Aztlán when a worker named Sanchez was killed because the bosses forced him to labor under very dangerous conditions (Anaya, Heart of Aztlán, p. 24). Even the workers’ time schedule was dictated by the business owners, whose whistle called them to work and sent them home.
Mexican Americans and labor unions
Workers in America have often consolidated into labor unions in order to protest dangerous working conditions, seek higher wages, and protect their jobs. Mexican American laborers fought for workers’ grievances during the 1950s, just as the character Clemente led workers against railroad owners in Heart of Aztlán. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, labor unrest was significant,
LIFE IN THE BARRIO
Mexican American city neighborhoods were generally in the poorer sections of town because of discriminatory housing practices that dictated where Mexican Americans must live, as well as the low wages the newcomers earned that kept them near poverty level. A sense of community often developed within the barrio, as demonstrated by the community dances and activities in the novel’s Barelas barrio. Life could be difficult there, however. Because of its location in a less desirable part of town, the residents of the barrio often had to live next to sewage plants or incinerators, as the Chávez family did. The close proximity of the neighborhood to such areas, as well as the overcrowded conditions, resulted in diseases spreading more quickly in the barrio than in other parts of a city. These conditions sometimes prompted anger in the residents, as they did with the novel’s Barelas community, whose residents protested their working and living parameters.
particularly in industries like the railroads. In general, American workers demanded improvements in working conditions and wages. In spite of these demands, the unions as a group did not make great strides during this period for a number of reasons. First of all, union leaders, much like the leader named Kirk in the Heart of Aztlán, oftentimes worked more closely with the business owners than union members, and so failed to protect the interests of the workers. Additionally, the government attempted to limit the power of the unions through passage of such measures as the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Finally, because of their hesitancy to pay higher wages or improve working conditions, businesses launched antiunion campaigns. Thus though labor unions were active during the 1950s, they faced resistance from business leaders, the government, and even within their own ranks.
The Mexican American family
As Mexican American families migrated from rural to urban areas, they underwent numerous changes. The traditional Mexican American family was a close-knit unit that put the needs of the family before the needs of the individual. Also a patriarchal unit, the family was led by a father who made the decisions that the rest of the members respected and followed.
The family changed dramatically with the move to urban areas. Firstly, the authority of the father declined. He was no longer in charge of all of the family’s decisions in work and home life, and his control over the actions of the family members, particularly the children, decreased. Although in the novel Clemente tells his daughters to not fight over a dress, they ignore his orders and continue to squabble. In addition to the decline of its patriarchal structure, the family no longer took precedence over the individual in the city. In Heart of Aztlán, when Clemente tells his second eldest son, Benjie, to stop associating with gang members and stop taking drugs because he is embarrassing the family, Benjie simply disregards his father’s demands.
During the 1950s America’s young people developed a distinct culture defined in large part by their clothing, hair styles, music, and recreational activities. This youth culture spread through the nation by way of films such as the box-office hit Rebel without a Cause (1955), which starred James Dean. Dean’s distinctive style of dress, including his leather jacket and blue jeans, appealed to America’s youth. Many young people mimicked his way of dressing and talking, as well as his cigarette habit. American youth of the era took part in such activities as playing “chicken,” wherein two cars drive toward one another in order to see which one will “chicken out” first and swerve out of the way. Yet perhaps most significantly, the music of the youth of the 1950s was new, dynamic, and seemed geared only toward the teenage culture and no one else. Rock-and-roll gained ground with the marketing of inexpensive 45-rpm records. Elvis Presley became wildly popular, and America’s youth began to duplicate his ducktail haircut and clothing styles.
Mexican American youth created their own culture during the 1950s, borrowing aspects of it from the Anglo world but also creating distinctly Mexican American cultural norms. Many Mexican American youths joined neighborhood gangs called pachucos. The pachucos probably derived their name from the town Pachuca in Mexico. They adopted distinctive styles of dress, speech, and behavior in order to distinguish themselves from other American youth. Many members of the pachucos wore “zoot suits”—large jackets, baggy pants that were pegged at the ankle, and a large hat. In addition to their dress, pachucos wore ducktail haircuts and sometimes got tattoos (most commonly a cross between the thumb and forefinger). The young women associated with the zoot suiters wore long coats, draped pants, huarache sandals, and pompadour hairdos. Pachucos also had a distinctive style of speech, in which they combined Spanish and English words in their conversations. Based mostly on Spanish, special slang words and phrases—gavaches to refer to Anglos, for example—gained currency among the gangs of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Many of these terms referred to drugs, especially heroin and marijuana. Like Anglo-American youths, the pachucos were drawn to illegal drugs; Benjie’s marijuana use in the Heart of Aztlán is an illustration of this.
Heart of Aztlán traces six months in the life of the Chávez family, who move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, from their nearby family farm located in Guadalupe, New Mexico. Clemente and Adelita are the parents, and they are raising four children—Ana, Juanita, Benjie, and Jason. Unable to support his family on his farm’s barren soil, Clemente decides to sell the farm and accepts the invitation of his oldest son, Roberto, to come to Albuquerque and work for the railroad with him. When they arrive at the railroad town, they find Roberto in the Mexican American neighborhood, a barrio called Barelas. Clemente receives a job at the railroad yard with his son after another inhabitant of the barrio gets killed in an accident at work.
The family begins to change once it enters the barrio. All of the children had obeyed their father when living on the farm, but they begin to behave differently in the city. Benjie’s two sisters, Ana and Juanita, now disobey their parents and leave the house in order to date young men from the neighborhood. Benjie himself starts to associate with gang members known as pachucos, many of whom smoke marijuana and drink alcohol. Eventually Benjie and Jason both become involved with gangs and get into some fights with other gang members. Clemente feels that he is losing control of his family and, in his frustration, he begins to drink heavily. After drinking too much one night, Clemente gets lost in a blizzard and he believes that he will die. His next door neighbor, Crispin, rescues him. Crispin is a blind musician who plays a blue guitar for the men who work in the railroad yard. That night, Clemente has a vision about the land of Aztlán, the spiritual homeland of Mexico’s Aztec people. Because of this vision, he travels to see an old witchlike woman who lives on the out-
THE TAFT-HARTLEY ACT
After World War II, Republicans in Congress wanted to limit the power and influence of labor unions, particularly their right to stage the kind of debilitating strikes that occurred just after the war. The result was the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed the practice of the “closed shop,” under which a worker had to join a union before he or she could get hired for a job. The law also gave state governments the right to prohibit the “union shop,” the type of business that made workers join the union after they were hired. A complex law, with other provisions such as the requirement that unions submit financial reports to the government, the Taft-Hartley Act caused an uproar across the country. It was denounced by the unions and vetoed by President Harry S Truman, but Congress overrode the veto and the Act became law in 1947. It remained in effect during the time of the novel, continuing until 1959.
skirts of town. She claims to be immortal, and she has a magic rock, la piedra mala, which has “vision in its web” (Heart of Aztlán, p. 127). She warns Clemente of its dangers and says it will kill him. Nevertheless, Clemente insists that she give him the chance to take the mystical journey, which only la piedra mala can lead him on. She finally relents, hissing her instructions to him:
Look at the rock…. Look only at the fire in the rock…. You will enter the rock…. You will find the door in a grain of sand…. You will find the door to the mountain….
And so his visionary journey begins. Clemente sees the door in the rock and then sees the old woman there, giving him a bitter drink. At the journey’s climax, he enters the desert alone and finds a path to the mountain’s lake, coming to “the source of life and time and history, encountering swarms of suffering people with whom he feels a deep kinship” (Heart of Aztlán, p. 131). He comes to understand that he is Aztlán; he is the earth and the blue sky. When he returns to the everyday world, Clemente has a new understanding of the importance of the land, as well as his role among the people of Barelas.
FROM ANCIENT TO PRESENT-DAY AZTLÁN
The attempt by Chicano artists and politicians to link the ancient myth of Aztlán to present political action was generally successful. Chicanos drew inspiration from the myth, even adopting from it a name for themselves, as the dramatist Luis Valdez explains in the following summation: “Somewhere in the twelfth century, our Aztec ancestors left their homeland of Aztlán, and migrated south… where they built their great city of Mexico—Tenochtitlán…. Aztlán is now the name of our Mestizo nation, existing to the north of Mexico, within the borders of the United States” (Valdez and Steiner, pp. xxxiii-xxxiv).
At the same time, Mexican American workers in the barrio grow increasingly frustrated with the way that the railroad owners treat them: the poor working conditions, the discrimination in hiring practices, and the wages that they receive. The workers feel that their union representative does not speak for them—to the contrary, he even seems determined to keep the workers subdued so that they do not irritate the railroad owners. After Clemente’s vision of Aztlán, the Mexican American workers meet and elect Clemente as the workers’ representative. Fed up with the way that they have been treated, the workers set fire to buildings in the railroad yard, and the police begin to shoot at them. Clemente is fingered as the leader of this group, and the police search for him throughout the barrio while he avoids capture by hiding in the homes of different families. Eventually, however, he is caught and sent to jail. The Chávez family grapples with other problems as well during this period. Benjie and Jason get into trouble with a rival gang member who forces Benjie to climb to the top of the town’s water tower. Tragedy strikes the family when Benjie falls from the water tower in the railroad yard and is paralyzed. So angered by the event is Clemente that he attempts to knock down the water tower, which to him represents the power of the railroad owners. The other residents of Barelas join Clemente in his fight and swear to dismantle the power of the railroad owners.
The myth of Aztlán
The title of the novel, and Clemente’s fantastic journey, draw on a famous myth regarding the sacred beginnings of the Mexican American people. Aztlán was the mythical homeland of the Aztecs. According to the tale, it was a place of seven caves on a curved or twisted mountain surrounded by water. The Aztecs lived in comfort and ease in this paradise, located north of the central valley of Mexico; the setting was replete with lush flora and fauna. Heeding their god Huitzilopochtli, sometime in the 1100s the Aztecs left this homeland to pursue their destiny. They traveled southward for centuries, acquiring knowledge and technology along the way until they founded the empire of Tenochtitlán in the central valley of Mexico. For mid- to late twentieth-century Mexican Americans, particularly for migrants like the Chávez family, the myth of Aztlán conjured up issues that were crucial to their present-day lives—the intimate relationship between people and the land, leaving one’s home, and creating life anew elsewhere.
Heart of Aztlán brings together the Chicanos’ current political struggle for equality with ancient myth, just as Chicano leaders were doing in the novelist’s own time. Knowing only through various versions of the legend that their original homeland was located north of the central valley of Mexico, the Chicanos equated it with the American Southwest, which had been wrested from them in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The ancient myth gained great importance from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, inspiring Chicanos to action. Political leaders maintained that the American Southwest coincided with the original landscape of Aztlán, claiming the territory as their people’s spiritual homeland—and, most radically, aiming in their own time to establish a Chicano nation here that would be called Aztlán. Anaya’s novel links the myth to political action. It is after Clemente’s mystical journey to Aztlán that he is inspired to lead his fellow workers in their quest for union recognition. The bond of camaraderie he experiences with the suffering masses on the journey teaches him that the power to defeat the railroad employers lies not in violence but in unity based on love. Stronger than the fire of the torch, he counsels the striking workers at the end of the novel, is the fire of love that burns in their souls.
Rudolfo Anaya was born and raised in a small New Mexican village, though he later moved to Albuquerque. His grandfather told him many stories while he was growing up, and it is probable that the myth of Aztlán was one of the tales his grandfather shared with him. Anaya would have been a teenager in the period in which Heart of Aztlán is set, and therefore the story probably also relied on Anaya’s own memories about youth culture during the 1950s. The city of Albuquerque had many barrio neighborhoods that could have served as models for the imaginary barrio of Barelas.
Mexican Americans and labor activity in the 1970s
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican Americans took part in labor unrest. Unlike the novel’s laborers, who lived in a barrio and worked for the railroad company, many of these Mexican Americans were farm workers. Much of the era’s union activity centered around their farming jobs. One of the most prominent leaders in this labor movement was César Chávez, the Mexican American son of migrant farm workers who grew up to help organize these workers. Chávez ran the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, part of a union of Mexican American and Filipino American farm laborers. Like the workers in the novel, the farm laborers were unhappy with their low wages and difficult working conditions. To protest these conditions, Chávez organized a boycott against grape farmers who refused to raise the laborers’ wages. What began as a local strike grew into a national boycott of all California table grapes and related products. By 1970, 17 million Americans had stopped buying table grapes, and in 1975 California passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which established collective bargaining power for farm workers in the state for the first time in its history.
Other Chicano leaders surfaced during this period as well. Among them was New Mexico’s Reies Tijerina. His organization, called Alianza (Alianza de los Pueblos Libres—Alliance of Free City-States), attributed the problems of his era’s Chicanos in the American Southwest to the loss of the original Spanish land grants—altogether some 4 million acres—that had been owned by Chicanos before the United States acquired control of the region in 1848’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
A New Mexican historian estimates the organization Alianza to have had close to 10,000 members by 1967. Alianza adopted as its primary goal the regaining of all land grants that Chicanos had lost over the years and took dramatic direct action, including an insurrection of sorts in 1967 in the county of Tierra Amarilla in northern New Mexico. Alianza threatened to seize some federal lands here, then to form an independent “republic” that would pass out visas to visitors who wanted to enter its territory. State authorities arrested some people on their way to a mass meeting concerning this idea, after which Alianza raided the courthouse where its people were being held; in the ensuing scuffle, two lawmen were wounded. Arrested and tried, Tijerina—who defended himself in court—was finally cleared of all charges.
The Chicano movement and Aztlán
In addition to strikes and confrontations, there were also more moderate channels through which Chicanos worked for political change in the 1960s and 1970s. Frustrated by the lack of support from both the Democratic and Republican political parties, a group of Chicanos living in Crystal City, Texas, organized their own political party called La Raza Unida in 1970. The purpose of the party was to give a voice to Mexican Americans, and its success in Crystal City, where the party took control of the school board and the city council, helped it to spread throughout the Southwest.
In 1969 Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales of Denver, Colorado, formed a group that sponsored the first National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, at which a plan was presented for a Chicano homeland, called Aztlán, to be located in the Southwest. The plan called for Chicanos to recapture the region and set up their own separate nation-state there. Another student group, the Brown Berets of Los Angeles, California, devoted itself to developing ethnic nationalism for Mexican Americans. The group led demonstrations against the Vietnam War, in which many Chicanos had been conscripted to serve, and strikes against public schools, where racism toward Mexican Americans was not uncommon. The Brown Berets also linked their present-day politics with ancient Aztlán. In 1972 they seized the nearby island of Santa Catalina, then changed its name to Aztlán Libre, remaining on the island for twenty-four days before armed deputies forced them off.
Anaya’s novel received a lukewarm response from critics. While Anaya was praised for his investigation of themes affecting Mexican Americans—including the dislocation of migration, life in the barrio, and the myth of Aztlán—he was often criticized for failing to explain their presence in his novel. Some critics felt that Anaya pulled together these issues too quickly and that the connections binding them were unclear. Charles Larson wrote that “[t]hough the resolution of Heart of Aztlán is a little forced, I admire Anaya’s use of cultural materials—often innovatively mixed with more typical Western literary allusions” (Larson in Gunton and Stine, p. 25). Another critic, Marvin Lewis, wrote that “[t]he principal ingredients for an outstanding work of Chicano fiction are there. Unfortunately they seem to have been thrown together in haste” (Lewis in Gunton and Stine, p. 26). In spite of such criticisms, Anaya was praised for his portrayal of the effects of the urban experience on Mexican Americans, as well as the use of Mexican American myths within his novel.
Anaya, Rudolfo A. Heart of Aztlán. Berkeley, Calif.: Editorial Justa, 1976.
Beck, Warren A. New Mexico: A History of Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Gomez-Quinones, Juan. Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940-1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
Gomez-Quinones, Juan. Mexican-American Labor, 1790-1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
Gunton, Sharon, and Jean C. Stine, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.
Jankowski, Martin Sanchez. City Bound: Urban Life and Attitudes among Chicano Youth. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.
Shorris, Earl. Latinos: A Biography of the People. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Stavans, Ilan. The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Valdez, Luis, and Stan Steiner, eds. Aztlán: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature. New York: Vintage, 1972.