When my book At the Rainbow was published, I was curious as to how I would be "cataloged" by the Library of Congress (their "Cataloging-in-Publication Data" gives libraries certain information, such as both Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal numbers for storage and shelving purposes, among other things). I'm listed under "1. Mexican Americans--California--Poetry."
But when I look at a book written by Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (a book I'm quite taken with and have read many times), I don't find any mention by the Library of Congress of his ethnic ancestry (Irish?) or even of the state in which he resides (Vermont back then?). And on days when I'm not too lazy and go into the nearest library and search through their electronic card catalog, I can find Kinnell's texts on the shelves next to other American authors. But why aren't white authors given ethnic identities to go along with their American citizenship? Wouldn't such information be just as important to the Library of Congress as my ethnic ancestry and state of residence?
I decided to look in a local library's electronic card catalog for my book under "American poets" in general: It doesn't exist. When I conducted another search under "Mexican American" poets or "California" poetry, my book eventually came up on the computer screen.
Now, don't jump to conclusions: I'm not embarrassed by my Mexican ancestry (though I am bothered by the fact that I've lost my North American/Aztec ancestors' indigenous language and dialects: Spanish, like English, has European roots; it's the language of my European ancestors, those who used miscegenation as a means of conquest and erasure; I can only imagine my Aztec ancestors' cosmic yearnings that spurred them to create magnificent temples and pyramids, the construction of which still baffles a multitude of Ph.D. holders; the Mel Gibson version of Aztlan with its video game-schlock of human sacrifices doesn't bother me as much as Bush's allegiance to the altar of oil and multinational greed). Rather, I'm concerned by what's meant and reinforced when we identify certain authors with just one adjective: American.
Institutional racism has many facets, one of which is evident whenever we refer to someone as an "American" author; literally, we're referring to an author's citizenship, but we're also reinforcing a communal nod: He or she is a white author; he or she fits the norm of what we imagine when we say the word American. In contrast, when we refer to Rita Dove as an African-American poet, we're also noting a difference, one that's important to the Library of Congress and every other major institution in the United States: She does not fit the norm of what we imagine when we say the word American.
In other words, an American author might not threaten or challenge the white reader in the same way that a so-called ethnic author might via his or her subject matter, cultural references, or bilingual/multilingual/dialectical use of language(s). (I use the word might because not all poets and writers of color are alike, just as not all white authors are alike.) The term American says, "He or she is one of us," and this adjectival connotation has far-reaching implications beyond simply allaying readers' fears or fulfilling their expectations.
For example, the vast majority of literary journals and magazines, from the biannuals at various universities to the monthly magazines out of Boston and New York, publish mostly American (meaning white) authors; indeed, most journals and magazines have mostly American (meaning white) editorial boards. In our most populated metropolitan city, with well over a million people of color living within its limits, one would be hardpressed to find an author of color in that city's most well-known magazine (it's title refers to an inhabitant of that city). Of course, one might argue, "People of color aren't the magazine's main readers." Yet, I read that magazine (it's in our campus library), and I know of many writers of color who peruse its pages--some buy copies at their favorite bookstore or even subscribe!
Essentially, the lone adjective American can be a blessing for those whose ethnographic adjectives aren't deemed necessary anymore: "Why, he's an American author!" Anglo-Saxons aren't afraid of the Irish anymore; those of German ancestry no longer have to live in Germantown; Swedes are accepted and at home in the Sunbelt as they are in Minnesota.
But being an author of color can be a hindrance when he or she tries to enter the "American" literary world. When I was sending out At the Rainbow to various publishers, a reader for one San Francisco Bay area publisher wrote back to me that I should "get rid of the white angst" in my poetry. You can imagine my angst when I read her comments, for I never thought that only whites suffered from angst. More importantly, she had a business concern: How could they "market" me? My poems weren't filled with ethnographic markers or identifiers that she expected from a Chicano. I didn't write about being in prison (I've never been arrested, and I suspect that many of you haven't been arrested either); I didn't write about slaving under a hot sun and picking grapes (even though I worked in agricultural and factory settings until my late twenties, I've never had a desire to write about or romanticize such tiresome realms--probably because I worked in various low-paying jobs for well over a decade, something I wouldn't wish upon anyone--and poets like Soto and Levine have expertly and thoroughly mined those veins); I didn't sprinkle Spanish words in my poetry (although my mother and father are fluent in Spanish, they talked to me only in English during my childhood: They didn't want me to have the same problems that my older, Spanish-speaking siblings had when they entered the English-only classrooms and schools of west Fresno; moreover, that part of town was--and still is--populated mainly by African Americans: I was more comfortable saying to my friends "Blood, check this out" instead of "Ese vato"). I didn't fit her stereotype of a Chicano poet. And I'm sure some editors, judges, publishers, and academicians are just as puzzled today by my work as that woman was in the mid 1990s.
Let me come back to the beginning: What does "American author" mean? With talk of the United States building a fence on our southern border and shipping mostly Mexican people back to Mexico (even though much of the southwestern United States is their ancestral homeland, for Aztlan extended to present day Utah), we haven't travelled very far down the road of enlightenment when it comes to institutional racism, which should never be confused with personal prejudice. When I read most journals or magazines, I'm always struck by the lack of ethnic diversity among the authors (one or two poets or writers of color doesn't define diversity, only tokenism), which is all the more maddening to me: I know that many people of color hold graduate degrees in creative writing and have manuscripts that attest to their hard-earned skills and merits as poets and writers. When I look at the latest winners of countless literary awards, I'm puzzled as to why people of color rarely win (though one look at the judges or the makeup of the committees hastens me to make a quick judgment of my own--fallibility is as common as sunshine).
Hence, we need to reconsider what's meant when we use certain terms like American: Who are we including, and who are we excluding? What subject matter informs such terms, and what subject matter isn't even considered?
In the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ, Willem Dafoe's Jesus corrects another man who protests Mary Magdalene's presence at a wedding: "What do you think heaven's like? It's a wedding; God is the groom, and man is the bride, and everyone's invited." If we use the term American a decade from now, let's hope everyone in America is included.