Review: Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing by Damián Baca

Damián Baca’s Mestizo Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing

Damián Baca’s Mestizo Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing

Baca, Damián. Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.Print.

“Knowing is what counts. To know one’s own country and govern it with that knowledge is the only way to free it from tyranny…The European University must yield to the [Latin] American…The history of [Latin] America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours.”   –Jose Marti 

In his ground-breaking text, Damián Baca unveils the long hidden history of this continent’s ancient rhetorical traditions. He expands our knowledge base, begs for a reevaluation of terms like “tradition”, “canon”, and “rhetoric”. By broadening our field’s perspective, Baca begins to map new territories into composition studies.

Throughout the book, Baca’s historical research is thoughtfully and concisely mapped out. Advanced college undergraduates and graduate students alike can easily access the condensed narrative about Mesoamerican composition history that up until now, has largely been obscured in Rhetoric & Composition Studies in the United States. Any individual interested in learning about the history of Rhetoric and Composition through the lens of the Mestiz@ cannot be without this text and others like it. Building on Gloria Anzaldúa’s “new mestiza”, a term which describes the intersection of Mesoamerican, Mexicatl, and European cultural materials, Baca creates a wide view from the center to the periphery, to countries not included into our field’s scope until recently (Baca, p. 1). He also provides us with the essential texts and scholarship on the topics of Mesoamerican and contemporary Mestiz@ discourse. With Baca’s contribution we can keenly identify and celebrate all communities and cultures as having their own unique rhetoric which naturally contribute to our larger American rhetoric. Naturally, cultures blend by proximity and time in history. Turning theory into praxis, Baca captures this blend when he identifies 3 possible “hemispheric and coevolutionary ways of reading composition” and incorporating them into our curriculum (133, 135). They are: Spacialization, Periodization, and Region versus Nation (Chapter VII: “Thinking and Teaching Across Borders and Hemispheres”, p. 133, 135).

Baca’s book calls for a critical approach to teaching composition and asserts that only teaching rhetoric from the center of Greek and European traditions of knowledge hinder the potential of our discipline and subvert the rhetoric of the peripheral regions, such as Mexico and Latin America. Just as ancient Mesoamerican inscriptions, paintings and pictography defined Huehuetlahotolli, the Nahuatl word meaning “ancient”-“discourse”, so too Aristotelian rhetoric defined our field’s dominant structure. “Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing” begs the questions regarding this hierarchical dynamic between Greek, Aristotelean Rhetoric and all other rhetorics of the Americas and beyond. Baca dates original and earliest pictographs back to 50,000 BCE in Piaui, Brazil (xxii). Mesoamerica is not only older in terms of civilization, but whose composition and rhetoric was being established long before our discipline’s primary understanding of rhêtorikê, which only dates back to the late fifth century BC. This historical perspective reconstitutes our understanding of indigenous knowledge of the Americas and demystifies the process of European colonization within the western hemisphere.

Constantly in a state of searching for meaning within a “hierarchical narrative of assimilation”, the American discourse distorts our understanding of reality and this confusion bleeds into our pedagogies. Being Mestiz@ and making meaning within the larger, institutionalized and capitalistic American-English communication practices place many on what Gloria Anzaldúa defines as a borderland. This place of “in-between” has also been defined by Mary Louise Pratt as a “contact zone”; a place where “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (Baca, 122). For Mestiz@s, the borderland is everywhere. It is a physical space that cuts deep into the history of Mexico/America. It is also a metaphorical and imaginary place, inconspicuously dividing psychological experiences of contemporary Mestiz@s who attempt to understand and fit into this complicated American system. Damián Baca’s book reflects both the entangled histories of Mestiz@s and the American culture of today. These blended and violent pasts contribute to the current Mestiz@ state of Nepantlism, Nahuatl (Aztec language) word for “the space between two oceans” –the vast and troubling border where, daily, we must decide to assimilate or resist.

Borrowing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s “new mestiza”, Baca places Mestisaje beginning with the first Euro-Spaniards setting foot in what is Mesoamerica. The troubling story of Malintzin, the young, intelligent, and multilingual indigenous mujer who became Hernan Cortez’s translator and mistress, virtually foreshadows the future of Mestiz@s. The colonial history of Mestizaje has since troubled the ancestors of that initial contact. Blurring lines of identity and consciousness, today’s Mestiz@s struggle to make sense of their unique realities as colonized people. Baca defines this backwards and forwards view of history and reality as “a dynamic notion of interaction of memory with the ongoing rush of history” (61). The violent effects of colonization has left damaging effects on the Mexica people that ripple through the ages. 1519 was the first record of Spaniard presence on the beaches of Mexica territory and since then our language, discourse, and knowledge has been all but erased. Practically severing us of all that we used to be leaves us with a brittle past and an unstable future.

In similar chronological style, Baca describes Mestizaje as the blending of Mesoamerican, indigenous people, with the Spanish, European invaders produced a divided consciousness. Through time, and further blending of cultures and people, Mestizaje was further split, weaved together with other cultures, and further complicated. Along with an oppressive history of invasion, colonialism, subjectivism, and violence, this complex identity sits at what Anzaldúa called the Borderlands. Contributing to Baca’s argument, he incorporates the Spanish term transculturación, which is similar to the English term of acculturation. Mestizaje and the border phenomenon, Baca explains “necessarily involves the loss of uprooting of a previous culture, which could be defined as deculturation”, or loss of culture (123).  The borderland is understood as a physical and psychological landscape ripping America from the rest of the continent. Through this dichotomized violence, Mestiz@s have been systematically and violently forced to assimilate and submit to the dominant, European, neo-liberal American culture.

Baca attempts to bridge the current Mestizaje paradigm with ancient knowledge in Chapter III, titled “Mestiz@: A Brief History, from Mexicatl to Chican@”. In this chapter, Baca explores some of the ancient cultures’ versions of composition, writing, and historical data entry. The khipu a collections of color-coded cotton cords from the Inka Civilization, 1,200 CE and what Baca calls “a kind of textile abacus”, is what was used to record information and is compared to computer processing language (35). The more contemporary Chican@ Movement is especially interesting. This political identity is what Baca describes as “a semantic marker of insurrection, rebellion, liberation, and an affirmation of indigenous identity, both past and present” (55). Chican@s’ political rhetoric directly confronts the dominant narrative in Rhetoric & Composition studies, demanding a space in American history with community murals, music, embodied rhetoric like the ritual dances of the Matachines in New Mexico.

Recovering past rhetorics, and naming contemporary ones, Baca’s approach reminds us that there were already established forms of discourse, communication, and writing in the Americas, long before Greek rhetoric was established. The rhetorical practices that existed in the Americas were violently subverted in American history. Indigenous people of Mesoamerica were demonized and their ancient practices tainted during the colonization process. Baca is thorough in his representation of the many rhetorical traditions of the continent, however he does not write in depth on how other communities of color within the United States have contributed to the Chican@ Movement in particular. Although Baca’s focus is on the ancient Mexicatl through to their inheritors, it would important to our field to investigate further the contributions other communities of color had on both Chican@ and American rhetoric.

The Chican@ culture may be a community whose rhetoric ought to be further explored and elaborated on in the near future. Baca sets the stage for continued investigations into the Chican@ community’s experiences, philosophies and rhetorics as well as how other groups, such as the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movements, and other Mestiz@ groups contributed to this uniquely American political and cultural identity. The importance to this rhetorical perspective complicates the rhetorical canon. Chican@ rhetoric has the potential to expand our understanding of rhetoric, composition and the teaching of English considering Chican@s contributions to American history. Chicanismo is exclusive to the United States and speaks directly to our collective colonial legacy and border culture. Furthermore, Chicanismo’s vibrant rhetorical traditions blend Mesoamerican, indigenous traditions through to today’s American culture. It may well be the most important addition to our discipline yet.

Brilliantly, Baca also includes a chapter on pedagogies, which is essentially the praxis to his revelations. In Chapter VII, titled “Thinking and Teaching Across Borders”, he presents potential teachers and instructors with a variety of ways in which we can incorporate borderland rhetoric, as well as rhetoric of Mesoamerica, etc. into our pedagogies and writes that “Embracing an expanded geographic reach when studying rhetoric involves questioning the hierarchical progression from Greece to Rome to Western Europe to North America” (13).

Texts such as the “Rhetorical Tradition” by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, which included Gloria Anzaldúa’s How to Tame a Wild Tongue, have already begun to incorporate and recognize the potential of Mestiz@ rhetoric (22). Baca has pointed out two very important objectives that rethinking rhetoric “challenges a colonialist foundation” (31).

First, scholars would need to reconstruct a history of rhetoric and writing practices specific to the Americas…Second, writing specialists could reinscribe Mesoamerican and Mestiz@ writing practices and knowledge into the dominant frameworks of the contemporary study of the written language (32).

Damián Baca takes us from 50,000 BCE to today’s understanding of rhetoric in this continent. A monumental task fit concisely into 163 pages, making this book accessible, easy to read, and loaded with the necessary language to begin to talk about the processes of incorporating a grander scope of all communities into the field of Rhetoric & Composition studies.

— by Irene A. Ramírez

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