A student of American literature may feel at a loss if seeking a reflection of the multiracial being in their assigned text. The reality displayed in our historical texts and glorified in our fiction is typically that of monoethnic being, thus individuals of multicultural descent are forced to discover parallels between themselves in one community over the other. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko grants the reader a unique glimpse into biracial realities via the protagonist character Tayo. The impactful and subtle ways in which this piece of fiction conveys a sense of being ostracized, or made other, is highly reminiscent of the sentiments conveyed in Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Both discuss feelings and insights held by communities eclipsed by contemporary and cartesian thinking—indigenous Americans and Hispanic Americans. Both of these populations place emphasis on the communal mindset over that of the individual. Both Borderlands and Ceremony discuss discrimination from without and within the minority environment and how this impacts their perception of the majority or dominant Caucasian population. Within these two texts it is evident that the experience of multiracial characters, of both the Native and Mexican American populations in the United States, share in a similar experience—the role of foreigner in all communities within this nation.
Both Borderlands and Ceremony offer displays of experiences one would consider unique to marginalized American citizens. Both embody a strong distrust of cuacasians especially in regard to receiving respect and trust from non-ethnic individuals. Towards the end of Ceremony Tayo takes with him on his hunt for the Mexican-cattle his Uncle Josiah’s bill of sale but holds no confidence in its abilities to win him back the animals. Through the course of the novel we are shown that Tayo has been taught via years of experience to expect distrust and unfair treatment from Caucasian landholders. By this point in the text it comes as no surprise that he would rather sneak onto the land to gather his stock than seek out the owner of the property on which his family’s herd has strayed. He does not trust the white-landowner to do the right thing. He feels apart from the laws purported by the U.S. Government but still hesitates to violate them or be caught breaking them. In the essay, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Anzaldua shares a personal memory of attempting to include Chicano works in her predominately Latino classroom. Her adjustments to the curriculum were not met well, and she was reprimanded and forbidden to do so by the principal of the High School at the risk of being fired, “He claimed that I was to teach American and English literature…so I swore my students to secrecy and slipped in Chicano short stories”(Anzaldua). Anzaldua’s actions mirror the intentions of Tayo, rather than bucking the preestablished social order of that particular time and space, both figures chose to circumvent the rules. They share the sentiment of being subject to but not protected by the American legal system.
In Ceremony the closer our point of view character, Tayo, comes to integrating fully into his ethnic culture, the further away he steps from his Caucasian influence, the more positive his experiences become. Once he chooses to believe in the old medicine man and his tales he begins to heal and is then able to track down the Mexican-cattle. By doing so and the subsequent actions he takes afterwards he proves to himself and the community that he is truly one of them, a Laguna completely subjugating and almost wholly ignoring his Caucasian heritage and the influence of American capitalism. This since of self-validation only being attainable via the minority culture is echoed by Anzaldua’s challenge to the reader—daring them to question her validity as a true American. She does this by interpolating historical data regarding migration and the genetic lineage of Mexican-Americans. Primarily she is tracing the line of the Aztecs, and the Cochise before them, connecting her own heritage to the ancients that traversed the Bering Straits. By doing so she implies that people of her heritage were here first essentially ignoring her own European heritage.
It is often seen in fiction that marginalized beings have a different view of the American social system, specifically a varied vision of what it is to be a person of color in this reality. A reality which unfortunately, is based upon the following concept posited by many theorists: that the hypodescent principle of colorism, commonly known as “the one drop rule,” has predisposed American racial socialization in such a way that an abundant number of individuals identify with only one racial group despite having parents from two different racial backgrounds. This is most commonly the group that they physically appear to be a member of. There are also contextual factors that go into the racial identification processes of biracial Americans, factors such as family income, neighborhood, religion, and gender that may influence their decision (Harris/Hall) but the eye that seeks color and category is inescapable. Examples of this can be seen in both Silko’s fictional novel and within Anzaldua’s amalgamation of memoir, poetry, and philosophical criticisms. In both works the speaker urges the reader via the protagonist and narrative voice to empathize with the marginalized population. Tayo, although he is half Caucasian himself, seems to revere the traditions of his mother’s people and feels disgusted by Caucasian antics and influence. By the end of the novel he is doing his best to follow the path set out for him by his Native American uncle, Josiah and has risen above the temptations of Caucasian society.
In trying to keep close to the ways of his Native American traditions in particular their mindset on life and death he garners a vastly different opinion of the war and his own wartime escapades. His traumatic memories and inner monologue feel a far cry from that of the more accultured Native American veterans that Silko includes in the novel. Those men hype their enthusiasm for killing and gloat about using their military uniforms to take advantage of white women. The more assimilated Laguna veterans go about bragging of their time in the service and the lives they took while enlisted in the U.S. Army. In opposition, Tayo’s prose is that of a battered and mournful soul, filled with regret and a sense of betrayal from the U.S. Government. He questions the government’s war and the community that empowers such a government, in his eyes a Caucasian community. In this Silko seems to question the validity of Caucasian authority and the place of the ethnic body in a land dominated by it. This sentiment is reminiscent of a parenthetical in the preface of Borderlands, Anzaldua comments that Mexican-Americans are a colonized people in their own territory. This implies that she, like Tayo, feels at odds with the U.S. Government. She goes on to state in the first chapter of the book that documented or not trespassers into the U.S Southwest “…will be raped, maimed, strangled, gassed, and shot.” This comment implies that she believes that those seeking to enter the United States, those wishing to assimilate are being duped and putting themselves at great risk. This is interesting since Anzaldua herself is an American Citizen. A dark and dismal attitude of being detested and emotionally torn between the two cultures is reiterated towards the end of the book in the poem entitled To Live in the Borderlands:
To live in the borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra espanola
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
Neither text held a high opinion of the U.S. Government and its treatment of minorities; and both texts imply that the Caucasian community is responsible for and deserving of these negative opinions. Both voices label themselves as half-breeds yet they clearly identify with their minority heritage over their white heritage. Furthermore, they share in their not so subtle animosity towards the oppressors-the white or puritanically founded community.
Yet, both authors convey tales of discrimination occurring within the minority community. They state that there is a sense of shame accompanying mixed heritage and that it is being doled out by the community and even by family members. Fairly early into Ceremony the reader, via an omniscient narrator reminisces with Tayo in the moments after he and Rocky have enlisted in the U.S. Army—Rocky has just told the recruiter that they were brothers for the first time ever. This in turn forces Tayo to recall his Aunt’s opinion on that particular lie and the methods of her adamance to the fact that they were not brothers:
She had a way of saying it, a tone of voice which bitterly told the story, and the disgrace she and the family had suffered…but she could maintain a distance between Rocky, her pride, and this other unwanted child.
In this scene Silko gives the reader a very authentic example of not only discrimination within ethnic communities but the reality of the inescapable hurt of discrimination from within the family. This is a pain that haunts Tayo for the majority of his life. It leads him to question his ability to be healed and to question whether he will ever be accepted by the Laguna people. Anzaldua shares a personal experience of being told not speak Spanish by her own mother, and by her teachers at school. If she was caught doing so it meant corporal punishment. In the classroom she was told that if she wanted to be an American, she would speak like her white American classmates, in English and, at her mother’s insistence, without an accent. A concept she hardened herself to or so she had thought, until later in life when she was affronted by a similar linguistic discrimination within her own culture of Chicanas. She shares the story of being condescended for speaking in regionalism. It conveys the audacity she felt at being judged by other Spanish speaking Americans for the way she spoke both English and Spanish. Both texts tell of the hardship of these type of events-unique to multiracial and borderland beings and the internalized hatred and confusion it causes.
Another similarity shared by these texts is the subtle inclusion of the magical real. Anzaldua writes poems about la llarona, curanderas and limpias (spiritual cleansings), as though she has known them first hand. Consider also the role of stories in both Ceremony and Borderlands. Anzaldua states that it is stories, the act of writing that grants her a sense of power and Tayo’s faith in the mystical tales of Betonie is inextricably bound to his own health and well-being. It would not have been possible to make the social commentary or moral impact without the unique format and reverence for oration and traditional story-telling presented in the text. Silko expertly brings these traditions into the literary world making them accessible to those who are not a part of or who may have strayed from the culture of the Native American. She presents what western society would deem folkloric as simple facts of life, thus giving a unique and authentic look at the perspective of the contemporary Native American citizen. The coupling of legends/histories as poems spliced within the limited third person perspective is what truly establishes the readers engagement in this narrative. It is a major part of the sensation of authenticity and imparts the greatest sense of understanding to the reader. Both texts utilize the conveyance of historical or legendary information to lend a sense of authority to their narrative voices and to display a connectedness to their ethnic heritage. The pertinence of the magical real in these texts is that it is not a fantastical or impossible thing for either of these cultures—these are everyday occurrence, a matter-of-fact part of life that still exist in today’s modern world.
Ultimately both voices, that of Silko’s Tayo and Anzaldua’s own poetic speaker display a choice to identify with their community of color. Some might say this is a choice made for them because colorism is rife within the literary community and the contemporary novelist is often categorized by their phenotype. This is contributing to the pressure placed on biracial artists to produce works that empathize with only one audience. Asking them to choose one side of their being to culturally identify with and is in turn asking them to relinquish the other half of their heritage.
Both narratives show the reader the external push of the Caucasian gaze and the common choice for people of color. These two authors have provided excellent examples of an alternative perspective of the American way of life and on their correlating cultural backgrounds. This suggests that identity is not so black and white, that it is an amorphous thing, constantly changing and consuming and reproducing. It is made up of language, and tradition, beliefs, and shared suffering at the hands of the majority race. These two texts convey a cross-media concurrence of experiences shared amongst multiracial individuals in the United States no matter the genetic lineage. A person of two or more races in this nation will always feel out of place and will be expected to choose one over the other.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Harris, Keshia L, and Ronald E Hall. “Biracial American Colorism: Passing for White.” American Behavioral Scientist 62.14 (2018): 2072-086. Web.
Lavender, Isiah. Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction. University of Mississippi, 2014.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Books, 2016.
Miranda Ramirez is a writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, who seeks to marry her passions for social activism and literature. She hopes to give a voice to the voiceless and offer an alternative perspective of the Latin community here in Houston. You may find previous publications by this author in The Bayou Review-The Women’s Issue, Ripples In Space: Science Fiction Short Stories for Fall 2018, Glass Mountain, Vol. 20, 21, and 22 , Shards, Issue 3, and The Bayou Review-Women’s Issue.