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Authors, Editorial, Interviews

NewBorder Interview with Norma Elia Cantu

NB: First of all, thank you again for agreeing to this interview for NewBorder; we are honored to have you be a part of this inaugural season. You are helping us set the tone and standard for what we might accomplish here on NewBorder. We hope to engage in rich dialogue with writers, readers, thinkers, activists, and passersby who are both residents and non-residents
of our figurative and literal borderlands.

Now, let me go on by providing you with interview questions: I’m looking for a side of you that isn’t yet present on the Internet though, of course, the more complex textures of who you are as a multi-faceted woman are present in the long tradition of your written, oral, and activist work. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to pursue those as of late untapped crevices
that make you you.

Congratulations on your recent induction into the Texas Institute of Letters; can you give us insight into what this means for you, for your work, and for those Chicanas longing to follow in your footsteps?

NEC: It is indubitably an honor. I know I had been nominated before by Pat Mora, years ago, and I must say I am honored to be inducted along with other Chicana/o writers this year. I am particularly thrilled because by being at the table, as it were, I hope to make it possible for others to be recognized for their work. Tejan@ writers have had to struggle to be admitted into such spaces. And we still have a long ways to go. It’s the same for artists; Tejana and Tejano artists don’t necessarily have their work in the major museums in the state, for example.

NB: Shifting gears dramatically, I have interpreted spirituality as an influence in your written work and on your emotional and intellectual worldview; can you speak to the accuracy of this assessment?

NEC: Certainly. You are not the first to note the spiritual influence in my work and on my worldview, but you are one of the few who asks me about it, and I thank you for it gives me an opportunity to explore a topic that is rarely mentioned in academia. I feel very strongly grounded spiritually. What I mean by this is that I have experienced significant events that have impelled me to believe in a higher force—you might call it God. In fact, I am certain that this force exists and some day we will have the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to really understand it. I imagine it’s like any other force, like gravity—no one understood it and no one could explain it until the scientists gave us the words for it and the experiments that made it possible to ascertain its properties. But, in some way, I digress. Let me tell you a story that illustrates why I believe my work is guided and protected by forces beyond my logical understanding. When I was working on the page proofs for Canícula, I was returning from a trip to Mexico and my flight got delayed so I arrived at Washington National Airport—at that time it was not Reagan yet—and I took a cab home. I lived in the northeast, on 7th and D, near Eastern Market. Well, as soon as the cab sped off, a tall man came at me and demanded I give him my purse, suitcase, jewelry, everything! At first I was startled, but not scared and tried to “fight,” that is, I said something to the effect of “go away, I’m not giving you anything.” Totally contrary to all the training I had had that instructs one to just give them what they ask for and NOT fight. Then just like in a movie, I heard a voice in my head that said, “Give him all your stuff.” And I was doubly stunned and proceeded to obey the voice. I took off my Seiko watch—that’s important because watches stop on me. I didn’t get another one until this past Christmas when a nephew gave me the Timex I am wearing and that doesn’t stop on me—anyways, I took off my rings, a gold Virgen de Guadalupe metal, everything—I handed over my suitcase, purse and satchel with the manuscript I had finished proofing on the flight home. I pleaded with him to let me keep the satchel with my book, or at least just the manuscript. I said something like, “not my book, let me keep it.” But he just repeated “Everything.”  In less than a minute, he sprinted away with all my stuff. I stood there angry and not knowing what to do. It was October. A crisp chilly night. I had my house keys in my coat pocket, and I remember thinking, well, at least he didn’t have the keys to the house.

Naturally, I was mortified and in shock. I knocked on my landlord’s door, downstairs. I finally broke down in tears as I recounted what had just happened—I didn’t mention the voice. The police came and took the report and again I didn’t mention the voice. It was such a common crime that they treated it as routine and instead of giving me hopes of recuperating my lost luggage and purse, they assured me nothing would come of it.

After a sleepless night, the next morning, I called my workplace—I was working as a senior arts specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts at the time—to tell them I would not be in that morning but would come in that afternoon after I had taken care of all the details of canceling my checking account, credit cards, seeing about getting a new drivers’ license, etc. I had just hung up when the phone rang again. It was the apartment manager from a building about a block away, who had come in that morning and seen stuff strewn all over the parking lot. She had picked up my wallet with my checkbook that listed my phone number, and so she had called suspecting that indeed I had been mugged. I rushed over and sure enough there were my things all over the parking lot. I retrieved what I could, including a pot made of that very distinctive clay from Tonala and, you guessed it, my manuscript. It was neatly stacked against the wall of the building with a rock as a paperweight guarding it. I burst into tears! In my thoughts, I thanked the young man for his thoughtfulness—a thief who listened!

The voice that instructed me that night perplexed me for a long time. Was it my guardian angel that I had prayed to as a child? Or my own higher self that drew from the lessons of self-defense that instruct to give the mugger whatever is being requested? Was it my imagination? I questioned whether there had been a voice at all, although I was certain that I had heard it loud and clear. There are many other incidents such as this one, but this one is the most dramatic and they all affirm my belief in something that guides me. But I do believe at some point in the future we will have the tools to explain what we are not yet prepared to explain.

I was raised Catholic by a very devout father—we prayed the rosary every night after dinner and never missed Sunday mass. But that is my religious upbringing and while it influenced my spiritual path, it is but one aspect of it. I have also read widely in Buddhism and have practiced meditation and yoga on and off for years. Most recently I became a master Reiki healer—after my walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile pilgrimage in northern Spain, I was drawn to take the classes for Reiki. So, I guess that yes, spirituality has influenced me and my work.

NB: Do you see spirituality as an integral part of la Chicana? What does spirituality mean for Chicanas, Chicanos, and/or our Tejano/a culture?

NEC: Quite a number of years ago, I organized a conference on Chicana Spirituality in Laredo when we had the group Las Mujeres ; it was the theme of our annual conference, Primavera. That was in the late 80s early 90s. So, I guess I have do feel that spirituality is an integral part of La Chicana, of our culture and of our literary work. But, I don’t think every Chicana acknowledges this aspect of their work.

What it means is difficult to discern for it means many things to many people. There’s a wonderful new book by Theresa Delgadillo, Spiritual Mestizaje, where she explores spirituality in literary production; another Tejana scholar, Brenda Sendejo’s work also focuses on the spiritual practices of Chicanas. In some ways these scholars are mapping the terrain that some of the writers have been working in for years. About time, no? So thank you for the questions; you allowed me to talk about the subject.

NB: The terms “Chicana,” “Chicanos,” and “Chicanismo” became politicized during and after the Chicano Movement of the 60s; do you feel the conscious awareness of the movement is vital when staking claim to the name?

NEC: Yes and no. In some ways, the term is synonymous with political activism, with an ideology of social change; yet, I recall my mother’s cousins coming from Chicago,  back in the 50s, to visit us in Laredo and talking about La chicanada and using the term without its political connotation; back then it just meant “raza,” a generic term for Mexican and Mexican-Americans. So, for me personally yes, it is a loaded term that connotes political consciousness, but not so for everyone.

NB: I’ve recently been an educator in Houston area classrooms where teens and twenty-somethings of Latino/a descent responded with blank stares when I uttered the words “Chicano” or “Chicana.” Is it important that young people across our state of Texas or across the span of our country understand the concept of being Chicana or Chicano? What does it mean for a young person to claim Chicana or Chicano nowadays when so many of us have opportunities our parents and grandparents perhaps didn’t? Or when the Chicano Movement is perhaps losing its grasp on young people’s current cultural understanding?

Unfortunately, that was the case even when I was in high school in the 60s. So some things change and some don’t. Few of us knew about the movement back then and in South Texas in particular it took a while for the term to become more common, if it ever did. I know for many of my students in Laredo it was too threatening to use it for themselves and much easier to use it in reference to the Movement in California. In the 80s when I began teaching in Laredo at the University, I had to defend the use of the term as even the administration and my colleagues didn’t get that it could be a cultural signifier, as in Chicano folklore or Chicano Children’s literature—in fact the textbook I was using in the Children’s Literature class used the term. In almost all my classes it takes about 3 weeks before the students start accepting the term.

Your students in Houston are the norm as we become even more distant from that earlier use of the term. My hope would be that good teachers would show the films Chicano! and Walk Out and would ask students to read Chicana/o literature to educate our young people about our history and instill in them a pride, a knowledge of our history; how else will we have a knowledgeable community?  I see it with my college students as well. My Mexican American literature class becomes a way for many students to “find” themselves in the literature of this country. Often they have not read any literature by Chicana or Chicano authors and I am the first Chicana professor in their whole academic careers. I came to San Antonio to work at UTSA and to develop the PhD program precisely to make a difference and change this state of affairs, by preparing the professoriate for this next phase of our academic and scholarly work.

NB: How important are Chicano/a Literature or Chicano/a Studies for institutions such as open enrollment universities or community colleges across our nation?

NEC: They are critical. That is why I am so upset about the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona. It is totally incomprehensible to me that censorship, banning certain books or areas of study can be thought to be for the good of the students, the state or the nation. I could go on and on about this subject…let me just say that especially for open enrollment universities and community colleges that are HSIs these programs are critical. I applaud the efforts of institutions in the Valley where South Texas College and UTPA are leading the state in institutionalizing Chicano Studies at the community college level and in smaller universities. When it is a program of study, the data shows that the Chicanas and Chicanos who participate have a higher success rate in higher education than those who don’t, in other words, the drop-out rates drop and the graduation rate improves. The research and policy organization, Excelencia in Education out of Washington DC has focused on Latino student success and has gathered important data on how these programs help institutions meet their goals. So I believe it is imperative that we increase the number of such programs and that all students, but especially Chicana/o students know our history and our literature.

NB: You were named a juror for the 2012 Neustadt International Prize for Literature: In your perspective, what does this mean for you on a personal level and for your career and national and international reputation? What responsibilities do you figure come with this and other such titles and prestigious nominations and awards?

NEC: On a personal level, I felt somewhat validated as a writer. I knew about the Neustadt and thought only top writers with national reputations served as judges, so when I was asked I was thrilled, but also humbled. The responsibility to “represent” and to also do the right thing challenged me. It was an incredible experience to participate with my fellow-jurors.  As to other titles and nominations and awards, I feel somewhat incredulous and always surprised. I always think of others who deserve the award more than I. For example, when I received the American Folklore Society’s Américo Paredes award, I thought, “why me? There are so many others who have been doing the work far longer than I.”

NB: You’ve called yourself “definitely not an assimilationist”; can you give us a better idea of what you mean by this?

NEC: What I mean by that is that I am Chicana “hasta las cachas”; that is, to the bone! I tear up when I hear a mariachi play La Negra, and I find cooking Mexican food, actually making tortillas de harina from scratch, to be therapeutic. So, I can say that I resist assimilation although I recognize that as a participant member of any society I am obviously already implicated into that culture. So, when I am in Spain, I unconsciously “assimilate” if you will, by eating the food, listening to the music, speaking more Spanish, etc. But, I will never be Spanish culturally or otherwise. Also, while there, I miss my own Tejana culture immensely. In similar fashion, although I live in the United States and obviously share quite a bit of the mores and values of the mainstream culture, I resist the assimilationist push to homogenize culture. I maintain my Spanish, although at times it has been difficult; so, I try to read at least one book in Spanish a month to keep my Spanish fluent. I do feel I am pretty fluent and can switch to either language easily and fluently, even in academic settings; undoubtedly in South Texas I also use Spanglish sparingly; it’s my home language. In other words from all the perspectives of culture, I am definitely not an assimilationist.

NB: Please give us a glimpse into your geo-political perspective concerning the many atrocities currently taking place on our border: What are your intellectual, emotional, and physical reactions?

NEC: The current chaos and violence on the border have had a tremendous impact on me intellectually, emotionally and physically, and I would add spiritually, as well as socially. During the past three or four years, for example, I have held the Catedra Laboris in Humanities at the Universidad de Monterrey which means that every year I would deliver a lecture and teach a class during a short-term residency, usually three days in the spring semester. I also have been invited by the Tecnológico de Monterrey to an annual conference on the border, and in the past I have enjoyed participating in it. Additionally, the Centro de Cultura de Nuevo León has invited me to conduct workshops with community members. Well, due to the violence, the UT system has made it harder for faculty to participate in such activities, and I have had to stop traveling to Monterrey to engage in such activities.

But aside from the academic and professional impact, the state of affairs has impacted my social life as I have not visited my extended family in over two years. It pains me to have my beloved borderlands be the site of such violence and such horrendous atrocities, although I keep reminding folks that it is not the first time this land has witnessed such madness. I remember reading somewhere of the devastation the Spanish wreaked on the indigenous population of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then during the period of the US-Mexico War and even after, residents of the border suffered at the hands of the norteamericanos; numerous lynchings and outright criminal and military violence drove many to leave their homes and relocate. We will survive this latest episode of killings and terrorism on the border, but we won’t be the same. The number of families that have fled the violence and relocated north of the border have changed the culture of south Texas already.  I’ll give you one example. In the 70s and 80s and even into the 90s if you listened to local radio stations that played Tejano music, you would more than likely hear a lot more Spanglish than you do now. Why? Well, because the advertisers now ask for ads to be either all English or all Spanish. I am basing this on anecdotal and observable evidence; I have not conducted any formal study of this but I can tell you I hear the difference every time I go down to Laredo.

NB: And finally, what words of advice do you have for young Chicanas and Chicanos, for Mexicanas y Mexicanos, for pochos y pochas? for gringos y gringas? for Latinas y Latinos or for every other young person who holds this country’s future in their hands?

NEC: Wow! That’s a tall order. But, I can rise to the challenge with a reference to Gloria Anzaldúa who said, “I change myself, I change the world.” So, we need to begin with ourselves and if everyone of us does our own work to make this a better place, then it will be so. And secondly, do as she urged in the last published essay, that is, “we must do work that matters, vale la pena.” It is the work of each one of us that contributes to the betterment of all of us. We are all connected as in a spider web and we must work with that in mind, that we are all connected not just now but to the past and to the future. Our literature is for the future but it is also tied to the past. My advice for anyone, not just Tejan@s or Chican@s, is to listen to the past and be part of creating the future. We cannot dwell on the past but must be forward looking. Our country, indeed our world, demands that we consider the well-being of the whole of humanity, not just our own or our family’s. I wish I knew how to make all hearts beat as one with the same compassion and joy. Young people have the potential to make that happen.

NB: The icing on the kay-ke: Tell us about projects that have most recently both invigorated and challenged you.

NEC: Walking the Camino de Santiago, the 500 mile pilgrimage in northern Spain, did both—invigorate and challenge me. But so did getting together with other poets and starting CantoMundo, the Latino poetry workshop modeled on CaveCanem, the African American poetry group that has been around for a quarter of a century. Why, we asked didn’t we have something similar. So we, Pablo Martinez, Celeste Mendoza, Deborah Paredez and Carmen Tafoya, we started the group and it is going very well. We will hold our third annual workshop this summer at UT Austin. Of course, my writing projects are very dear to my heart and are both challenging and invigorating as well. I have several book projects including an anthology on Tejanidad and another on MeXicana Fashion. Plus, I am working on two novels that I hope to finish this year, and a collection of poetry tentatively titled “Elemental Odes.” And all these projects are challenging and at the same time they inspire me and give me the “ganas” to continue writing, to continue getting up in the morning and feeling as if my work matters. The PhD program I came to start at UTSA is off and running and I am retiring from UTSA at the end of August. So, I am waiting to see what el destino has in store for me. I am waiting to hear that voice guide me to the next challenge, the next mission, as it were, where I can do the most to change this world for the best.

Norma Elia Cantú, daughter of the borderlands, has taught at Texas A&M International University and the University of Texas at San Antonio for over thirty years. She has published on the cultural and literary production of the region in a number of venues. Her award winning Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera chronicles her coming of age in the area of Laredo, Texas/Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas in the 1950s and 60s. She has edited and co-edited several books including, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios; Paths to Discovery: Autobiographies of Chicanas with Careers in Mathematics, Science and Engineerin; Dancing Across Borders: danzas y bailes mejicanos; and Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change.


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