LOTERIA CARDS AND FORTUNE POEMS: A BOOK OF LIVES
(San Francisco: City Lights Books) 1999
By Artemio Rodríguez and Juan Felipe Herrera, First Chicano US Poet Laureate
Reviewed by Margaret Van Every
It’s a mixed compliment when one’s race, gender, or sexual preference modifies the noblesse of an achievement, and yet we can say hooray, another barrier broken. Juan Felipe Herrera, first Chicano US Poet Laureate, has the added distinction of having been granted a second term of office. To understand Chicano literature, we must first understand the meanings of Chicano and Chicanismo. The term Chicano, with ethnic, political and cultural implications, was invented by Mexican Americans to describe themselves and it has been used since the early 20th century to designate people of Mexican origin born in the US.
The term gained popularity and was used with pride after the United Farm Workers movement of the ‘70s, led by Cesar Chavez. Chicano is distinct from Latino or Hispanic in that it specifically honors its cultural derivation from Mexico—her history, political struggles, Meso-American prehistory, and family-centered society. Chicano literature, also known as Brown Lit, has been around by that designation at least since the 1960s though few of us are familiar with the names of noted Chicano writers like Abelardo Delgado (“Awesome America”), Trinidad Sánchez (“Why Am I So Brown?”), and Rodolfo Gonzales (“Yo Soy Joaquín”).
Ironically, the poster poet for Chicanismo, Juan Felipe Herrera, though son of Mexican migrant workers in California and perfectly fitting the Chicano definition, breaks radically from the mold owing mainly to his level of education. He obtained degrees from UCLA, Stanford, and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and is now an Associate Professor of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno. In his poetry, he commands an intellectual perspective combined with a “hip” voice/persona, seldom if ever resorting to the well-worn theme of confused cultural identity at the core of Chicanismo.
Described as poet, performer, cartoonist, teacher, and activist, he comes with a slew of impressive awards including the Pen USA Literary Award for Poetry, 2008, and Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, 2010. For his book Half of the World in Light, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2008. Other distinctions include Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, Poet Laureate of California from 2012-2015, and the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 36th L.A. Times Book Prizes 2016, as well as US Poet Laureate, 2015, 2016. Herrera is clearly an anointed member of the literary establishment.
This review is about an unusual collection of poems entitled Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives. The work is a collaboration between Herrera and Michoacán graphics artist Artemio Rodríguez, whose linocuts accompany each of the poems. The book draws its inspiration from the popular Mexican parlor game of Lotería that was rooted in an Aztec game with astrological and religious significance. The game is played with a deck of cards, each of which displays an image that may appear on a player’s board (instead of numbers as in Bingo). A caller draws from the deck and announces the image to the players in obscure poetic clues. Players whose board contains the image put a bean on that image until someone’s board is filled. Pictures are as whimsically diverse as the nopal, bad government, scissors, the Zapatista, fire, the scorpion, sadness, and the prodigal son.
It is ingenious, this union of illustrations and poetry based on Lotería—a blend of concepts and iconography of Mexicanidad and Chicanidad. The Mexicanidad is rendered by Rodgríguez in visually dense, evocatively intense cartoons, stylistically naive while sequestering impenetrable meanings. Chicanidad is reflected in obtuse street jargon suggesting the absurdity and pain of humans vis-a-vis their social, political, and religious institutions. The prevailing attitude is that of the socio-political culture of protest that dominated El Movimiento during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Herrera personally knew and was influenced by Allen Ginsberg and the Beats of San Francisco.
Rodríguez’s images were the departure points for Herrera’s poetry. Rodríguez, in fact, had drawn these lottery images after first moving to the US in 1994, before he knew Herrera. In his bio in the book, we are given this account of the drawings that became the visual half of the collaboration:
. . . [Rodríguez] began to feel that he must count for the life and the world that he had left behind on the other side of the border. This was when the idea of creating a personal lotería began to take shape, and it quickly expanded in directions the artist had not anticipated. It grew from the nostalgic remembrance of a country and a culture into a project of universal scope, an attempt to redraw and . . . recreate the world and its contents . . . .
In this blend of the visual and verbal arts, a Bingo confluence of Mexico and the US, we’ve got the perfect expression of Chicanismo, verdad? You can call me the freezing child below the tit, but I’m not getting much nourishment. Herrera’s poetry increased my understanding of Brown Lit as if I had wandered through a museum displaying cultural curiosities from a distant place and era. I groove on the sound of the poetry and a craziness about it, but it is witty in a way I don’t quite get and the cleverness doesn’t touch my heart. I have the feeling that the udder is beyond even the grasp of his fellow Chicanos. It is, in the end, a well-wrought game. It’s fun if you’re in on it, but most of us are just window shopping.
Ultimately, we can’t make ourselves like what critics say is good. Take, for example, New York Times critic Stephen Burt, who praises Herrera as one of the first poets to successfully create “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too.” I fail to see much ethnic identity or pride in his work, though I agree that it is irreducibly individual. There was a time I would have felt inept for disagreeing with the appraisal of a NY Times critic. I can’t find any Chicanos in these parts or I’d ask them what they think. Upon discussing Herrera with several educated Mexicans, I discover I’m not alone. They, too, are intrigued with the drawings but haven’t a clue about the meaning of the poetry.
As we near the historical moment when brown becomes the color of the majority in the US, perhaps we might ask whether there is still a need for this special category of literature. It already seems to be doing away with itself.