Thursday, July 31, 2014

"IN SEARCH OF AZTLÁN" (Luis Leal Interview, July 31, 1999)

Q: How did the word "Aztlán" come into existence?

A: The concept of Aztlán was originated by the poet Alurista in the year 1969 at the conference organized by Corky Gonzales in Denver. At that time, he read a paper called "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán" and included a poem. In this "Plan Espiritual De Aztlán" Alurista says that Aztlán is the homeland of the Chicanos. And he associates this with the land, precisely. He [took] the concept from the Mexican Revolution Zapatista, [who said] that the land belongs to those who work it.
"Plan Espiritual De Aztlán" was published the following year in a periodical named, precisely, Aztlán, published in the Center for Chicano Studies at UCLA. The periodical took out the word “Espiritual” [from the title] which is very important, because Aztlán, as a concept, cannot be pinned down geographically, but spiritually. It unites all Chicanos. Before this concept of Aztlán existed, Chicanos were all divided. Tejanos, in Texas, Nuevo Mexicanos, in Arizona, Californianos. But there was no concept [that] united all of them, [but] since [the arrival of the term "Aztlán,"] we have this idea, that we are a people that have a homeland which is a spiritual concept.

Q: There’s a difference in the concept of Aztlán with respect to how it’s received in Mexico and how we perceive of it in the United States. Could you explain that difference?

A: The word Aztlán was not used in Mexico. When [historians] talk about the Aztecs, they say that the Aztecs came from a place called--not Aztlán--Azatlán, which means "the place of the herons" or "whiteness." However, there was a novel, in nineteenth century Mexico, called El Nuevo Aztlán, New Aztlán. This is fiction, the after the conquest, [when] a group of Aztecas decide to leave [their] city. They go into [a] river, and they come to place which is like a paradise. There they establish a new homeland, which is called Aztlán.

The word Aztlán, however, was mentioned by the historian Friar Diego Duran, whose work in 1581, called Historia De Las Indias, tells us that king Montezuma the first, or, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, wanted to know where they had come from. So he called all his advisers and told them to look for Aztlán. So these people transformed themselves into animals and went up north looking for Aztlán. Finally, they came to a place on an island. There they found their goddess, Coatlicue, and this place was a hill that has a curve at the top. According to Duran, you could become young again if you went up [the hill] and came down. The farther up you went, the younger you became when you came back. And now, uh, the, the (mumbles--Spanish?) all my songs why did you leave me? This so-called hechiceros went back and told Montezuma about what they had discovered. But’s that [is] all we know about the word in [Mexico].

However, among Chicanos, since 1969, the word is so common, especially in 1971. You have quite a number of works with the name "Aztlán." Alurista uses the word Aztlán. I, myself, have a book called Aztlán in Mexico. When you say "Aztlán," immediately, you think of the Chicano culture and not necessarily one region. I think that’s why the word--the concept, rather--is so important.

Q: Do you see any contradiction in Chicanos identifying themselves as coming from Aztlán, even though they are by law American citizens?

A: I don’t see any contradiction. We all live [on] the American continent, whether you are from Mexico or South America. But [even though] the word has been appropriated by those living in the United States, I don’t see any contradiction. Because having two cultures is worth twice as much as having only one culture. And that implies language. We must keep our language. Now, we are usually criticized for this, but other ethnic groups do the same thing, and they are not criticized. The Irish celebrate Saint Patrick's Day and dress up in their own costumes, and no one says anything. Germans [are celebrating] right now, here, in Santa Barbara. This week, the Greeks are celebrating their festivities, [dressing up] in their costumes, their dress, speak[ing] their own language. No one says anything. So why shouldn't [we] speak Spanish just like we speak English? Knowing two languages is worth much more than knowing only one. Thousands, millions of dollars are spent in the schools, in the universities, teaching Spanish to the students. I don’t see any contradiction. And I, myself, have always kept my Mexican culture [and] have adopted American culture. And I have lived [happily] within these two worlds.

Q: We're looking for the actual location of what once was Aztlán. If we were to find it, how important would that be for Chicanos and Mexicanos here, and what would the impact be for the United States?

A: I don’t believe the geographical place where Aztlán is important. We could say that there may even be several Aztláns, because the pilgrimage of the Aztecs from Aztlán to Tenochtitlán, which they founded in 1325, took hundreds of years. Sometimes they'd stay a hundred years in one place, then they went on to another place. So they may have started up north, like Roberto Rodriguez has shown on his map, the map that was used in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. On his map, there is a place called "The Home of the Aztecs." This might have been one of the homes of the Aztecs, and then they may have moved south, and established another one in Northern Mexico, in Nayarit. Most Mexican historians say Aztlán was on an island off the coast of Nayarit. I, myself have a film taken from this island, showing the city and especially the structure of the city, which is identical as Tenochtitlán. Some of the Aztecs came from that island and [founded] Tenochtitlán according to what their God had told them: an eagle on a cactus plant, eating a serpent, which is today, the symbol on the Mexican flag.
There [was] a historian who [said] that Aztlán was right here, in Santa Barbara, because there was an island here with the largest concentration of a indigenous people. And when the first expeditions came, the indigenous people that came with them called this island "Tenochtitlán," which means Aztlán, also. So [Aztlán] might be right here. But what does it matter? [It] doesn’t mean anything. I mean, it says that if you're in Texas, you also might be in Aztlán. So it is a spiritual concept that unites all Chicanos rather than a geographical location. 

Q: Given that Aztlán may be, as you say, a spiritual concept rather than a geographical one, is it still important to try to document the existence of Aztlán? And if so, how might that be important to Chicano activists?

A: It is very important to have documents. That is the aim [of all historians]. The more documents we have, the better.

Now, these documents help the activist because they have to prove that what they say is fact, that they are not just demagogues. [We always hear]: "Where are your documents? Can you prove it?" That's why I think this is very important. The more documents we have, the better it is to establish this history, especially the written history. Because the oral history is something else. The oral history is very important, but it is difficult to document, and that's what the Chicano scholars have been doing for the last thirty years. Thirty years ago you didn't have a single document written by a Chicano about our own history. It has been the work of the Chicano scholars that has recovered this history. [Our history] has been completely ignored [by the] majority [of] historians, because they consider it [not] worth studying. They say [we didn't] have any history, [we didn't] have any literature, [we didn't] have any arts. But the [Chicano] scholars, in the last thirty years, have documented these [things], and more documents are being discovered. That is why it is so important to have these maps, these texts, and so forth, in hand, to prove that we have had a history.

Q: As you said before, the concept of Aztlán was formed in the '60's, and once that happened, it unified Chicanos. In what ways has the concept of Aztlán motivated Chicanos in the struggle?

A: The concept of Aztlán has several meanings. One of them is finding our roots, especially [our] indigenous roots that have been forgotten. Now, once this concept was established and accepted, it has given Chicano scholars and activists and others a concept, a sense of a homeland. A sense that they are a people that have something in common, a common identity. They are not just [members of] regional groups. [This gave us] a unified vision. I've just now written a manuscript called La Posia Angelina that is going to document the history of [over two hundred Chicano] poets, in one city only, that up till now have been forgotten. And the same thing has been done by scholars in history and in folklore. So that's why it is so important to have an overall concept uniting all Chicanos, whether it is in the Southwest or elsewhere.

Q: In recent years, some people say to us "Why don’t you go back to Mexico?" Does the concept of Aztlán turn that argument around? Doesn’t it say we are where we came from?

A: [That idea of "go back where you came from"] was used before to all ethnic groups: Italians were told to go back to Italy; Germans go back to Germany. But in the case of the Chicano, you cannot say that. You can tell a Frenchman "go back to France" if you want to, but you cannot tell a Chicano "go back to Mexico" because he has never been in Mexico. He [and his ancestors] were born here. This is his home.

So how [the idea of Aztlán] helps, well, with the maps, it shows that [we] were here before 1848. [We] were here before Texas became independent. [We] were here before 1821. When Mexico became independent. And [we] were here even before the Spaniards came. The natives were here, in the Southwest, even before Columbus discovered America. So why should they go back to [what is] a foreign country to them? Of course, if you were born in Mexico, and they tell you "go back to Mexico," well, why don't they go back to where their ancestors came [from]? I think that would be the answer. Most Americans came from somewhere else

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