Miguel Méndez

(1142 words)

The Mexican-American/ Chicano writer Miguel Méndez was born in Bisbee, Arizona, a small town on the United States–Mexico border, to a family with strong Mexican and indigenous (Yaqui) roots. His father worked in mining and agriculture and passed on to Méndez his love of the Mexican(-American) oral storytelling tradition. His mother, for her part, passed on to him her love of reading. When Méndez was only six months old, his family were sent back to Mexico as part of the mass deportation of ‘Mexicans', both legally and illegally resident in the USA, during the Great Depression. Méndez attended primary school in Mexico and subsequently left school to work as labourer in both agriculture and the construction industry in the southern United States, finally settling in Tucson, Arizona, in 1946. Nevertheless, he was an autodidact and a voracious reader and reputedly finished writing his first novel by the time he was eighteen, though he would remain unpublished until 1969 when the short stories “Tata Casehua” and “Taller de Imágenes” (“Workshop for Images”) were published in the bilingual anthology El Espejo/The Mirror: Selected Mexican American Literature. He was not directly involved in the 1960s Chicano Civil Rights Movement as so many of his contemporaries were – he has argued that this is because he was too busy doing manual labour to have the time. Nevertheless, as a writer he benefited from the Movement and the increased opportunities it brought for Chicano/a writers to have their work published – he is considered a member of the Chicano Boom of the 1970s.

In 1970 Méndez began teaching Spanish language and Hispanic literature at Pima Community College and then in 1974 at the University of Arizona. His major novel, Peregrinos de Aztlán (translated masterfully by his colleague, David William Foster, as Pilgrims in Aztlán), though finished in 1968, was finally published by Méndez himself through his specially-created publishing house, Editorial Peregrinos, in 1974. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters by the University of Arizona in 1984, and is now an emeritus professor of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese there. He received the Mexican Premio Nacional de Literatura José Fuentes Mares in 1991, and a festschrift in his honour was published by the Bilingual Review/Press in 1994 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of Peregrinos. Méndez also notes in his personal webpage, with some irony, that in 1997 Radio Nacional Española and several Spanish newspapers listed him as a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though best known for Peregrinos, Méndez has also published the magical-realist novel El sueño de Santa María de las Piedras (1986, translated as The Dream of Santa María de las Piedras), two (related) volumes of poetry, several other novels and volumes of short stories and essays, some short stories for children, and an autobiography, Entre letras y ladrillos: autobiografía novelada (1996, translated as From Labor to Letters: A Novel Autobiography). He is still active as a writer today, despite being nearly eighty.

The route that Méndez was forced to take to have Peregrinos published is symptomatic of his arguably undervalued place in Chicano literature. The novel was in fact rejected by the major Chicano publishing house of the day – the Quinto Sol Press – despite the fact that they had published Méndez's earlier short stories (he is also retrospectively considered a member of the Generación Quinto Sol). The reasons for this rejection include his decision to write in Spanish rather than in English, linked to the difficulties his style of writing posed for translation/bilingual editions – indeed Méndez is more widely read and more prominently recognised as the most important Chicano writer of his generation in Mexico than he is in the United States. Furthermore, the depressing images he presents of the Chicano community, coupled with his iconoclasm and mordant irony, were not seen to be in the spirit of the Chicano Movement with its emphasis on providing positive representations of Chicano lives and traditions. Finally, the fact that this Spanish-language novel also situates most of the action on the Mexican side of the border, in Tijuana and the Sonoran Desert, links him more closely to the less well-promoted field of Northern Mexican border literature than to Chicano literature as it is traditionally conceived.

Peregrinos is a stunningly heteroglossic novel, comparable with Carlos Fuentes's La región más transparente (Where the Air is Clear) (1958). (It has also been compared to Alejo Carpentier's Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps] [1953] and Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo [1955].) Its main narrator is a moribund Yaqui Indian, Loreto Maldonado, who eeks out a crust cleaning and washing cars in Tijuana and whose unconscious serves as a repository for the voices of all the dispossessed peoples of the borderlands that he overhears in his wanderings around the city – exhausted Chicano labourers, young Chicano soldiers back on leave from Vietnam, would-be illegal immigrants, street children, indigenous people, prostitutes, disabled people –, as well as the voices of those who would exploit them, both Mexican and Anglo-American. While it provides a fairly depressing slice-of-life of the society of the borderlands, where Aztlán is more akin to purgatory than the promised land of the Mexica and any sense of pilgrimage is emptied of religious significance by the more pressing motivating force of hunger, it does also articulate some hope for the consolidation of a more empowering form of ‘Chicano' identity conceived of in less simplistic and essentialist terms than those espoused by many of the early Chicano cultural nationalists. Indeed, Méndez has most famously described himself as “mexicano indio, espalda mojada y chicano” (“an indigenous Mexican, a wetback and a Chicano” [Méndez 1991: 22]), a formulation that, while somewhat tautological, suggests his sympathies for the many different groups of disempowered, subaltern people that live in the United States–Mexico borderlands, all of which might be brought together under the political rubric ‘Chicano'. The most striking stylistic features of the novel include the enormously wide lexical range that spans Chicano caló (slang), the variants of rural and urban Mexican Spanish from the Northern border region, arcane words and baroque turns of phrase reminiscent of Spanish writers such as Quevedo and Gracián, as well as quasi-biblical passages. The novel is written using a fragmented, disorientating narrative technique, with little in the way of plot or action, similar to that favoured by many of the novelists of the Latin American Boom. One should also note the novel's occasional use of magical-realist techniques as well as its pervasive black humour.

First edition:

Méndez, Miguel, Peregrinos de Aztlán (Tucson, AZ: Editorial Peregrinos, 1974).

Edition used above:

Méndez, Miguel, Peregrinos de Aztlán (Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Review/Press, 1991).


Méndez, Miguel, Pilgrims in Aztlán, trans. by David William Foster, (Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Review/Press, 1992).

Pitman, Thea. "Miguel Méndez". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 05 July 2008
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12217, accessed 26 June 2016.]