Essay: The Asian American Road to Aztlán

First person: The quest for the meaning of the mythical home.

Copyright 2013, Richard Chang

For the past 16 years, I’ve been following the Asian American road to Aztlán.

The dream of a mythic homeland here in the United States – a central tenet of Aztlán – is one that strongly appeals to me and many Asian Americans. In a way, it’s that connection we’ve been searching for all our lives.

As ethnic studies scholar Elaine H. Kim has written, much of the Asian American experience has to do with place and displacement, as well as the search for a psychic and physical home. Stories written by Asian American authors frequently deal with longing for a home here or abroad – and with trying to achieve a final “homecoming.”

Being a bicultural, diasporic group, Asian Americans face the problem of not fully belonging to Asia or America. We don’t completely fit in here; we don’t totally fit in there. For many of us, the solution is a created, third space; for some of us, that third space is Aztlán.

It’s a critical quest for us. Even though millions of us were born here, we live in a country that often sees us as foreigners, fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, spies, model minorities, competition, Pearl Harbor-bombing, slant-eyed enemies, science and math geeks, illegal campaign contributors. The traveling eye of racism, as Kim has described it, is alive and well.

In fact, a recent poll by the Organization of Chinese Americans tells us that one-quarter of Americans still view Chinese Americans in a “very negative” light, with similar responses for Asian Americans in general.

For Chicanos, Aztlán has been a connection to an ancient America, a land of indigenousness separate from the violent legacies of European colonialism and American expansionism. Aztlán is their right to be here – water coursing down the Colorado and the Rio Grande like blood through the veins.

Many Chicano scholars, including Luis Leal, John R. Chavez, Rudolfo Anaya and Gloria Anzaldua, have commented on ancient Asian migrations over the Bering Strait (believed to be a land bridge in an earlier era) and the symbolic importance those migrations have on the Chicano articulation of identity. Some have even referred to Asia as Aztlán.

Those ancient migrations have been the subject of much discussion by scholars in various fields. Anthropologists and archaeologists have postulated that they occurred in waves 8,000-18,000 years ago. Some linguists, such as Stanford’s Joseph Greenberg, have made connections between Asian and Native American languages.

Historian Ted Morgan starts his book “Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent” with a chapter called “The First 15,000 Years.” He writes:
“The first American families aren’t those who came over on the Mayflower but those who came out of Central Asia, Mongolia, northern China. They would become the ancestors of the North American Indians, as well as of the Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and all other south-of-the- border inhabitants.”

New Mexico anthropologist Carroll Riley links the Southwestern pueblo peoples – both ancient and present – to those early migrations as well.

Not everyone agrees with such accounts, but if migrations did occur across the Bering Land Bridge, that opens many doors for Asian Americans in their search for home and identity.

First, it provides us with a story of ancient connections, much deeper than the past 155 years that are typically chronicled in historical accounts of Asian American migration. We are not recent arrivals here – our interaction with peoples and cultures here is older than written history itself.

Second, it broadens our story beyond the immigrant tale of the pursuit of “Gold Mountain” – that American Dream of material wealth and riches.

Third, it gives us a real stake in what it means to be American. We are founders of the Americas as much as the Spanish, the English, the Pilgrims and the authors of the Constitution. Thus, we have a role in the past, accountability for the present and responsibility for the future of this land.

Finally, Aztlán gives us another path, another avenue for stories – new and old –about ourselves. It opens the door to myth and legend, which are essential for cultural preservation and continuation. We are Asians in Aztlán.

Asian Americans are connected to incredible migrations over vast time and space. We are cousins to Native Americans and Latinos, and are linked to an ageless Aztec and Chicano myth. That myth can be a meeting place of common origin and identity and a shared future. Let’s call it transmythification, and let poetry, art and music be the means for transformation.

There are many signs of a shared, transcontinental past – swastikas (predating the German kind) denoting temples in art; mandalas, or sand paintings, among Tibetans and Navajos; similar drum beats; reverence for nature; the idea of a center place.

Anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis has written about connections between the Zuni people and the Japanese, underscoring similarities in language, religion, pottery design and blood type.

Davis postulates that a band of Japanese travelers may have crossed the Pacific Ocean around 1350 A.D. in a spiritual quest for the center of the world. They merged with the native people to create a different version of Aztlán.

On a personal level, Aztlán means many things to me. Aztlán is the simultaneous quest for an ancient and a new America, but it also sums up daily life in Southern California.

We are a multicultural, multilayered pastiche experiencing a dizzying mix of influences, from low riders to the scents of Korean and Mexican food wafting in the air to the flashes on TV of powwows, Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year.

Aztlán is the rave and dance music pulsing through the heart of the youth and in the deserts of Coachella, Mojave and San Bernardino County. It’s tripping out, and spinning back in again, yet in a different way. It’s freedom. It’s transformation. It’s revolution.

It’s walking down Fourth Street in Santa Ana, which feels like walking down any street in Mexico.

It’s taking trips down to Mexico and crossing the border, that border that crossed us, into border towns – Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez – into the gut of American and Mexican indulgences, into the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and out again into the desert.

Aztlán is the desert, the long-lost desert that Southern California has been for centuries, yet tries to hide it with development and imported water and wealth.

For me, Aztlán is also New Mexico, where I lived and worked as an arts and culture writer for almost three years. Aztlán is Abiquiu, Albuquerque, Taos and Acoma. Aztlán is the enchanted Santa Fe sky, Georgia O’Keeffe and the blend of three cultures — Anglo, Hispanic and Native American. And Aztlán is the ancient places — Tsankawi, Puye, Canyon de Chelly and Pueblo Bonito.

Aztlán is the myth of another, greener Eden; it is our ideal as a multicultural society, as a so-called melting pot.

It’s a vision of ancient connections with this land, and an ancient mythic past that inspires us to forge a new, creative and fruitful future.

It’s the handwriting on the wall; it’s the petroglyph lost in the dust.

Aztlán is a connection to history that we all crave in So Cal, one that we’ve lost because of our TVs and strip malls and freeways and our obsession with pop culture and fast cars and the now – all the things that make us forget our personal pasts, our parents’ past, and their parents’ past.

Aztlán is the reminder, the talisman, the magical signifier. It’s a connection to this land and to who we all are as American people.

I’m not afraid to say it: I am Aztlán. We are Aztlán.

As Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya once wrote: “My story, my legend, moves in China and stirs its waters. Thousands of years ago, China sent part of her memory to the Americas, and memory may sleep for thousands of years, but it will awaken.”

And every day is a new awakening, a new discovery of America through the eyes of Aztlán.

“I awake in a story told by my ancestors when they spoke a version of the very beginning,” writes poet Joy Harjo. “Of how so long ago we climbed the backbone of these tortuous Americas.

“This is not a foreign country but the land of our dreams.”

copyright 2013, Richard Chang

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