The boom in Chicano detective fiction that began in the '90s shows no sign of stopping, as more and more Mexican American authors have turned to the genre. Although the trend has yet to produce a best seller, it has attracted high-profile writers - most notably, Rudolfo Anaya (best-known to Austinites as the author of "Bless Me, Ultima"), who recently completed a quartet of novels featuring the shaman sleuth Sonny Baca.
What Anaya's crime novels share with other Mexican American mysteries, such as those by Rolando Hinojosa, Lucha Corpi, Michael Nava and Manuel Ramos, is their protagonist's mix of "street" and indigenous knowledge, and their willingness to expose some of America's dirty little secrets - notably, racial oppression, government corruption and conflicts along the border.
A literary trend as significant as this deserves critical attention, and now it's finally getting it. Through some sort of odd coincidence, Ralph E. Rodriguez, a professor of American civilization at Brown, and Susan Baker Sotelo, a Spanish teacher in Tucson, Ariz., have recently published scholarly studies of the five novelists mentioned above.
Although Rodriguez and Sotelo's subjects are identical, their analyses aren't. Both authors claim that the novels they are writing about transcend "escapism" by providing insight into contemporary Chicano culture. But only Rodriguez formulates a coherent - if occasionally didactic - argument. Rodriguez is an academic - he earned his doctorate in English from UT- and at times he writes like one. But "Brown Gumshoes" never lets the reader lose sight of its central point: that detective fiction provides an ideal form in which to explore Mexican American identity in a post-Chicano movement era.
Rodriguez argues that the alienated stance of the hard-boiled detective parallels the outsider perspective of Chicanos, for whom the radical dream of a unified, separatist Aztlán nation has faded. "In a post-nationalist landscape . . . (Mexican Americans) can no longer find refuge in a mythologized Chicana/o homeland of solidarity and ethnic unity," he writes. Rodriguez makes a strong case that Mexican Americans are undergoing an identity crisis, and he provides plenty of evidence from the novels under investigation.
He's also able to construct a smart critique of some of the Chicano movement's oversights (such as its obliviousness to feminist issues) while remaining sympathetic to its ethnic-empowerment agenda. Rodriguez even takes on one of the movement's sacred vacas, the aforementioned Anaya, offering a rigidly political take on Anaya's mystical-mythological story lines, which he finds insufficiently Marxist.
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