Final Paper

Alexandra Troiano

Professor Alvarez

English 255

24 May 2012

Crossing Borders and Reclaiming Identity: Performing and Mimicking a Pachuco Border Culture in Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera

Abstract

The pachuco culture that emerged in the 1940s Southwest United States highlighted the ambivalence of those with mixed cultural identities. This group divulges into neither Mexican culture nor American culture, but rides the line in between and creates a unique border culture; his border culture lives outside the “norms” of society.  Mexico sees pachucos as a contamination of American culture and a lack of native culture, while the United States sees pachucos as those who fail to completely assimilate.  In this article, I will explore the effects of, and the attitudes that surround this pachuco culture.

In this article, I will analyze this cultural identity through the lens of Judith Butler’s notion of the “performative” and Homi Bhabha’s “mimicry.” In other words, I suggest the ways in which pachucos perform and mimic identity in order to reclaim and rebuild a specific cultural identity that gives them a specific place in culture and society. In this article, I will analyze Javier Durán’s “Nation and Translation: The “Pachuco” in Mexican Popular Culture: Germán Valdéz’s Tin Tan” and Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude to suggest the practices of the pachuco create a culture of excessiveness that both hides and exposes the pachuco in society.  I will discuss Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera and the ways in which her ideas of “border culture” parallel the ambiguity of the pachuco culture. I will suggest the ways in which the ambiguous pachuco culture crosses “borders” and undercuts the notion of an “original” identity.  I will explore how the pachuco culture threatens to destabilize the “norms” of society and how this poses a threat to those in power.

Pachuco Identity and Mimicry

In the 1940s, in the ghettos of the Southwest United States, a Chicano culture emerged. In Javier Durán’s “Nation and Translation: The Pachuco in Mexican Popular Culture: German Valdez’s Tin Tan,” Durán examines the language, dress, and acts of the pachuco’s that identity their culture. He gives insight on the causes and effects of pachuco culture and explains how the pachucos found their own place in society through exaggerated and excessive practices that made them both visible and hidden:

The pachuco’s strategies of survival – appropriation, transgression, reassemblage, breaking, and restructuring the laws of language with caló and pochismos – are reflected in the codified language of the body (hair style, tattooing, dress, gestures, and dance) and in the equally codified language of space (marking territories with graffiti in the city, the barrio, and the street) […] all are exaggerated to such a degree that they become an exercise in mimicry…In the case of the pachuco, the camouflage and mimicry make him visible, give him a location in (and out of) culture. (Durán 42-43)

Durán’s use of the word “survival” in the first line implies that the pachuco’s have a life or death obstacle they must overcome in order to “survive.”  Durán notes their strategies of survival as “appropriation, transgression, reassemblage, breaking, and restructuring the laws of language with caló and pochismos.”  According to Durán, the pachuco’s must “appropriate,” take something, in this case “the laws of language,” from those who own it, in order to survive.  They must also “transgress,” or go against these laws, “reassemble,” “break” and “restructure.”  Durán implies that in order to “survive,” or continue to stay alive, the pachuco’s must reclaim and change, through breaking down and reconstructing, the laws of language.  The pachucos reclaim the laws of language “with caló,” a form of “border language” (Durán 42).  According to Durán, the “codified language of the body…and […] the equally codified language of space” displays these “strategies of survival.”  This implies that in addition to reclaiming spoken language, the pachucos reclaim the laws of language of body and space through their “hair style, tattooing, dress, gestures, and dance” and through “marking territories with graffiti in the city…” Clearly, pachuco’s must perform these “strategies” in order to culturally survive. According to Durán, this “codified language” of body and space “became an exercise in mimicry.” The exaggeration of these practices created a culture of excessiveness that “camouflages” the pachucos yet makes them “visible.” These languages of space and body create the pachuco culture and give them “ a location in (and out of) culture.” In other words, the pachuco’s reclaim and rebuild a specific cultural identity that gives them a specific place in culture and society.

           

The dress of the pachuco in pop culture (as seen in the picture above), according to Dúran, “exaggerates” and “mimics” the pachuco culture. Interestingly enough, this both “camouflages” the pachuco and “makes him visible” in culture. This mimicry gives the pachuco a place in society. In other words, the border culture of the pachuco, through this mimicry in pop culture, finds its place in society, even if considered “outside” of the norm.

In Durán’s “Nation and Translation: The Pachuco in Mexican Popular Culture: German Valdez’s Tin Tan,” Durán uses the idea of “mimicry” to explain how the pachuco culture “gives him a location in (and out of) culture.” Homi Bhabha’s theory on mimicry gives insight on how the pachuco culture uses mimicry as means to find his place in society and how this mimicry creates an identity that threatens to reform and rebuild “disciplinary powers”:

Mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference […] Mimicry is, thus, the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation, and discipline, which “appropriates” the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which coheres the dominant strategic function of colonial power, intensifies surveillance, and poses an immanent threat to both “normalized” knowledges and disciplinary powers […] (Bhabha 126)

Bhabha stresses the notion that “ambivalence” constructs or “centers” around mimicry. Ironically, according to Bhabha, in order for mimicry to be “effective,” it “must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.” In other words, in order for mimicking to be effective, it must be excessive and different than the subject of mimicry.  The use of words “strategy, ” “reform, regulation, and discipline” imply mimicry as a means to a desired end as well as a certain change or “reform.” The use of the words “double articulation” suggests a sense of a double identity or duplicity that goes hand in hand with mimicry. Bhabha displays this “double articulation” through the idea that mimicry is both “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” In this way, mimicry contradicts. The word “Other” implies a sense of some “I” versus some “them.” In other words, it separate “us” from “Others” based on who mimics who. However, the capitalization of the word “other” implies that the greater power and strength comes from the “Other” rather than the “us.” Ironically, the word “appropriates” suggests that the mimicry works to gain some control over the “Other” as well as gain “power.” Bhabha uses words such as “recalcitrance,” “coheres,” “threat,” “‘normalized’ knowledges” and “disciplinary powers” to imply a sense of threat of revolution or reform against the “Others” who have power over the “normalized.”

Performing a Border Culture

The pachuco culture remains a liminal, or in-between, cultural representation. The pachuco belongs to neither side of the border and, therefore, surrenders to marginalization. The tension created in the “border,” both literally and metaphorically, parallel the tension created by the pachuco culture. Durán discusses how the pachuco represents this “border culture” linguistically and culturally:

As a “border crossing” subject […] the pachuco is constantly translating cultural, linguistic, and economic realities on both sides of the border. Appropriating a constructed border language-slang (caló) -that is already a reflection of the multiple realities they inhabit, pachucos translate culture and politics into a theatrical performance […] so as to produce and represent the unstable, marginalized, and marginal conditions of existence on these multiple borders, both in reality and as cultural metaphor. (Durán 42)

Durán refers to the pachuco as a “border crossing” subject, implying the pachuco’s inhabitance of not American or Mexican culture, but rather an “in-between” culture, or “border culture.”  According to Durán, the pachuco “translates cultural, linguistic, and economic realities” on both the American and Mexican side of the border. The word “translates” places important on the pachuco’s unique language, “caló, or a mixture of both Spanish and English slang; “a reflection of the multiple realities they inhabit.” Through this mixed language, the pachuco clearly does not inhabit one culture or the other, but a mixture of the two, a unique language and “reality.”  Pachuco not only translate language, but also “culture and politics into a theatrical performance.” Durán implies the notion that the pachuco identity is somewhat “performed,” or fabricated, to represent their “marginalized” condition.  In other words, the performance of their identity, linguistically and culturally, allows their culture to represent their “border culture” clearly in society. Durán uses the words “unstable, marginalized, and marginal conditions” to describe the pachuco’s condition.  Clearly, society marginalizes or pushes the pachuco to the outskirts of society because of the culture’s unique representation of the border.  Durán emphasizes the use of the “performance” of this liminal state of the pachuco allows the pachuco to represent this marginalization.

Judith Butler’s idea of “performativity” suggests that one merely “performs” an identity, particularly their gender identity. One does this through the repetition of certain socially constructed practices, such as appearance, actions, and attitudes. In other words, the idea of a “performance” of identity blurs the lines of a supposed “natural identity,” or natural gender, by implying the socially constructed, “unnatural,” aspects of one’s identity. Butler argues against the notion of an “original” identity and explains how ambiguous identities work to undercut the notion of a “fixed” or “original” identity:

In other words, acts, gestures, and desires produce the effect of an internal core or substance […] Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications […] The notion of an original or primary gender identity if often parodied within the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities […]  (Butler 2548-2549)

Butler directly implies that one’s actions represent a fake identity rather than a “real” one through the use of the words “performative” and “fabrications.” Butler sets up a direct correlation between one’s “acts, gestures, and desires” and their “internal core or substance.” In other words, Butler implies that one’s identity centers on their “acts, gestures, and desires,” essentially what they do and feel. Butler identifies this “inner core” as “fake” or not “original”:  “the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications.” Butler continues to argue against “the notion of an original or primary gender identity” through her example of “drag.” The use of “drag” here encompasses the clash between an “original” identity and they way in which one acts.  In this case, “drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization” represents those whose “acts, gestures, and desires” purport one gender while society labels their gender as the opposite, their “original” or “natural” gender. According to Butler, these practices undercut the notion of this “original” gender identity.

Pachucos Crossing Borders

The pachuco culture inhabits both Mexican and American identities and therefore, identifies as a “border culture.”  Their ambiguity centers on crossing over borders, both literal and metaphorical. In Gloria Anzaldúa’s excerpt from Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa addresses the U.S – Mexican border and comments on the confines of the “normal”:

The U.S.- Mexican border es un herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds […] Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.  It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants […] those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confined of the ‘normal’ […] Ambivalence and unrest reside there […] (Anzaldúa 1493)

Anzaldúa refers to Mexico as the “Third World” and the United States as the “first.” Mexico bleeds as a result of the “grating,” or tension, while the United States remains intact. In this excerpt, Anzaldúa addresses the idea of “borders” as both literal and metaphorical lines that work to divide two groups. According to Anzaldúa, these lines work to create and separate a specific “us” from a specific “them.” The two sides of the border work as polar opposites: “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe.” Immediately, Anzaldúa sets up two binaries, “safe” and “unsafe,” in general terms, “good” and “bad.” In this case, the Mexican side of the border identifies with the “bad,” “unsafe,” while the U.S. side of the border identifies as the “safe” side. Not only does the border separate, the border also “divides,” which implies a sense of a clear, defined disunity and split.  Anzaldúa uses words such as “vague,” “undetermined,” “transition,” and “ambivalence” to highlight the ambiguity of the identity of those who reside in the border or straddle in between both the U.S. and Mexico, both literally and figuratively. According to Anzaldúa, those who reside in the border “cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.” In other words, those who do not remain on one side or the other, go against social “norms.”  The word “confined” here implies Anzaldúa’s negative commentary on the borders that “confine,” or enclose the “normal.” In a sense, Anzaldúa embraces the border culture in this excerpt: “es un herida abierta.Anzaldúa utilizes both English and Spanish and literally embraces both sides of the border, which, in turn, places her in between both sides.

Anzaldúa uses the “border” as means to criticize the notion of normalized identities that remain within certain boundaries or confinements. The pachuco culture, according to Durán lives within Anzaldúa’s “borderland”:  “a ‘border crossing’ subject (Durán 42). Durán’s comments on the marginalization of the pachuco culture due to their “existence on these multiple borders” reflects Anzaldúa’s comments on those who “go through the confined of the ‘normal.’” Society marginalizes the pachucos because they do not exist within the “confined of the normal.” The pachuco’s do not belong to either side and therefore remain “prohibited” and “forbidden.” According to Butler, ambiguous identities work to undercut identity “norms” that society creates. These identity norms parallel Anzaldúa’s notion of the “border.”  In this way, the ambiguous pachuco culture crosses the lines, or borders, of society “norms” and work to undo these “norms.”

For Butler, “drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization” represent the ambiguous, or “border-culture” identities that work to undercut the notion of a fixed, “original” identity that result from the habitual performances of gender in society. For Butler, these practices cross the borders of the split “male” and “female” identites by creating a border identity that inhibits both genders. This same concept can be applied to the pachuco’s ambivalence as a “border culture.” Through their ambiguity, the pachuco culture rebels against both those who completely assimilate, and those who remain complete loyal to their native culture. The pachuco culture represents a unique culture that rebels against the idea of fixed identity based on assimilation or anti-assimilation.

The Pachuco Disguise

In Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz reflects on the contradictions reflects in pachuco culture.  Paz contemplates the ways in which the pachuco defends himself through his “fashion.” This “fashion” takes the place of where there would exist a culture.  Ironically, this fashion becomes both the salvation and the demise for the pachuco:

The pachuco has lost his whole inheritance; language, religion, customs, beliefs.  He is left with only a body and a soul with which to confront the elements, defense-less against the stares of everyone. His disguise is his protection, but it also differentiates and isolates him: it both hides him and points him out. (Paz A102)

In this excerpt, Paz describes the “inheritance” of the pachuco in terms of culture: ” language, religion, customs, beliefs.” According to Paz, the pachuco does not have a culture.  The use of the word “defense-less” implies the pachuco needs protection from something.  Paz implies that, in this case, this “inheritance,” or culture, would protect the pachuco; however, the pachuco remains a mere “body and soul.” The pachuco’s “disguise” protects him “against the stares of everyone.” In this case, the “disguise” parallels the ” language, religion, customs, beliefs.”   Ironically, this “disguise” also “differentiates and isolates him.” Paz highlights this contradiction: “it both hides him and points him out.” The disguise takes the place of the pachuco culture and becomes this culture.  Paz describes how this “disguise” works: “It is simply a fashion, and like all fashions it is based on […] imitation. Its novelty consists in its exaggeration. The pachuco carries fashion to its ultimate consequences and turns it into something aesthetic”(A102-103).  According to Paz, the culture of the pachuco takes form in “fashion.” Paz identifies this “fashion” as an “aesthetic.” This term implies a sense of art or beauty within this pachuco culture.  The use of the word “imitation” and “exaggeration” here relates back to both Durán, and Bhabha’s idea of “mimicry.” According to Durán, “the camouflage and mimicry make him visible, give him [the pachuco] a location in (and out of) culture.” The pachuco exaggerates their “fashion” in order to form their own identity. In this way, they form a unique cultural identity that will “disguise” their lack of both Mexican and American culture. At the same time, this “fashion” makes them “visible” or stands out amongst society because of its excessiveness. Similar to Paz’s idea that the “disguise” works to protect the pachuco, Durán highlights how the pachuco’s dress, language, and overall culture work as their “strategies of survival.” Both Durán and Paz suggest the culture of the pachuco as both a means of survival and as their demise. Durán articulates this demise as the “unstable, marginalized, and marginal conditions” of the pachuco. In other words, the pachuco culture allows them to survive, but only in a world of marginalization where the pachuco remains “defense-less against the stares of everyone” (Paz A102).

Bhabha suggests that this pachuco mimicry revolves around “ambivalence.”  The use of the words “double articulation” relate to the pachuco culture in that pachuco culture articulates duplicity within itself: projecting both Mexican and American identities. Bhabha argues that the mimicry, and thus the ambiguity, of this culture works to rebel and reform; the “excessiveness” and “mimicry” of the culture poses an immanent threat to both “normalized” knowledges and disciplinary powers.” Through mimicry, the pachuco’s pose a threat to these powers of the “Others” and those who hold “disciplinary powers.” Bhabha implies that the ambiguity, the excessiveness, the difference of this pachuco culture undercuts the “norm,” and, therefore, poses a threat. Similar to Butler and Anzaldúa’s argument, Bhabha recognizes the limits placed on identity and believes that once the pachuco crosses or mimics these “borders,” or “original” identities , the culture poses a threat to these “normalized knowledges.”

Conclusion:

         Both sides of the border continue to marginalize the pachuco. The ambiguity of this border culture provides the pachuco with both a defense and a reason for this marginalization. I argued that the pachuco culture provides an alternative for both complete assimilation and anti-assimilation.  The culture, in itself, crosses borders and lives within a division. Through this “border culture,” the pachuco reclaims their own identity and works to blur the line between “us” and “them,” and in their own way, works to delete this “border.”  In the future, one could look at the ways in which the “performative” and “mimicry” apply differently to both males and females in the pachuco culture. One could extend this to other marginalized groups. In what ways do other cultures/races/genders cross borders?

 

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “From Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.” 1987. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. 1491-1508. Print.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis 28 (1984): 125-133. Web. 21 May 2012.

Butler, Judith. “From Gender Trouble.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2010. 2540-2553. Print.

Durán, Javier. “Nation and Translation: The “Pachuco” in Mexican Popular Culture: Germán Valdéz’s Tin Tan.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 35.2 (2002): 41-49. Web. 1 May 2012.

Paz, Octavio. “From The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Pachuco and Other Extremes.” Trans. Lysander Kemp. 1961. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. A99-A108. Print.

“Zoot Suit Discovery Guide.” Music : Zoot Suit Discovery Guide. Web. 24 May 2012. <http://research.pomona.edu/zootsuit/en/zoot-suit-la/zoot-suit-la-music/>.

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