The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1985, Volume 31, Number 3
Thomas Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

The Lost Land: The Chicano Image of the Southwest. By John R. Chávez. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 207 Pages. $19.95 cloth, $9.95 paper,

Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman, author of Unwanted Mexican Arnericang in the Great Depression (1974), whose most recent study in Chicano, history, on the career of lawman Martin Aguirre, appeared in the Fall 1984 issue of California History.

In the 1960s Mexican Americans lost patience with the slow pace of New Frontier social and economic programs and decided that just as squeaking wheels get the grease, vocal protests and demonstrations would attract attention more successfully than waiting hat in hand for redress of longstanding grievances. Out of the Chicano movement of that era came greater opportunities in education, politics, and rights of labor. For the study of history, that success can be measured in the fine studies produced in the 1970s by such Chicano scholars as Alberto Camarillo, Richard Griswold del Castillo, Ricardo Romo, Oscar Martinez, and others. Their research has done much to overcome the neglect too long accorded to the historical presence and contributions of Mexican Americans in American history.

The Chicano movement also produced an ideology, and among its most militant practitioners this ideology encompassed a sense of Chicano nationalism bordering on a separatist movement. Beyond the heat of political rhetoric, however, the movement never advocated in practicality that extreme a position. Nevertheless, the belief in Chicano repossession of the Southwest smolders on, and it is this belief that is addressed by John R. Chávez. He surveys the Hispanic presence in the Southwest from prehistoric times to the present, arguing forcefully that Chicanos first settled the Southwest, were dispossessed of their patrimony by Anglo conquest, long endured economic, political, and educational subjugation, and are now seeking to regain control of what was once theirs. Although significant gains have been made in civil rights and liberties and in education, Chicanos are still an economically deprived group, lacking status in American society. Chávez offers a pessimistic conclusion to his book, for the 1980s carry a spirit of the times rather different from, the 1960s. “As a result,” he writes, “for the foreseeable future, the Chicanos’ image of the land as lost, and of themselves as dispossessed, would continue to have credibility” (p. 155).

As an “idea” book Chávez’s argument has much to recommend it, and readers will gain from his probing into neglected corners of American history and seeing events through the lens of a Chicano perspective. As it happens, however, ideological arguments are often tested for their merits by other ideologies. In this instance the opposition comes from the concept that the United States is composed of “a nation of immigrants.” Chávez disputes this view. He maintains that Chicanos are not immigrants, but that their historical roots were planted in the Southwest centuries before the Anglos appeared. He even ventures so far as to compare Chicanos with Palestinians as dispossessed groups. In insisting that the nation of immigrants concept is invalid for Chicanos, however, Chávez is hard put to justify historically what he argues for in a mythical or spiritual sense. His weakest link lies in maintaining that there is little conflict between the claims of Chicanos and Native Americans. “Since Chicanos are racially 70 to 80 percent Indian,” he argues, “they do indeed have much in common with Native Americans, a fact that must be considered in discussions of claims to the Southwest” (p. 4). But Chávez does not consider the overlapping claims at all; his book is full of references to “wild,” “uncivilized,” “nomadic,” and “pagan” Indians who occupied lands on which the Spanish settlers acted as intruders. By making his argument selective, he minimizes Indian-Spanish conflict in order to create an Indian-Hispanic heritage in the Southwest that culturally and historically has little to validate it.

A second problem left undiscussed by Chávez’ is an exact definition of the Southwest beyond generalizing its boundaries along modern political terms. He argues that Mexicans coming to the United States in the twentieth century encountered “familiar geography” (p. 86), but he overlooks migration patterns that establish much of Mexican immigration as coming from central and southern Mexico. Significantly, this book has no maps, no geographic guide to pinpoint the lost homeland beyond the place names everyone already accepts as part of the Hispanic heritage of the Southwest. Finally, Chávez commits the same error performed by so many sociologists of an earlier era: he writes of “Chicanos” as an undifferentiated mass, not as a group of individuals, and thus fails to explain why the grandson of an immigrant who came to the United States from Michoacan or Morelos in the 1920s should feel he has “come home.” There is no indication what percentage of the Mexican American minority accepts the lost land ideology. Those who argue against this concept, or who accept the nation of immigrants viewpoint, are dismissed as vendidos, sellouts who fall short of Chávez’s test for a true Chicano.

Chávez’s study has much to offer as an explication of Chicano grievances, and readers who are willing to get past his insistence that his view of Chicanos in the Southwest is the proper one will find much of interest in his viewpoint on Southwestern history. That history, however, is not exclusive to Chicanos, and to lump Chicanos and Anglos alike into black-and-white images is to do a disservice to the many peoples and cultures who have settled in the Southwest and tried to make it a better place. As Huntington Library scholar Martin Ridge noted in a presentation on bilingualism and biculturalism, the history of a region “belongs to the whole community. The whole past is shared,” including all who have “lived or live in a pluralist society that is a vital part of our heritage.”