Constituting the Southwest Contesting the Southwest
Re-Inventing the Southwest
MICHAEL J. RILEY
The Southwest is a distinctive place to the American mind but a somewhat
blurred place on American maps, which is to say that everyone knows that
there is a Southwest but that there is little agreement as to just where it is.
–D.W. Meinig, geographer (1971: 3)
Describing and identifying the characteristics of the Southwest as a
cultural or conceptual region has remained a pressing quest within
academic discourses for quite some time. So desirable is a definition or new
understanding of the region that numerous articles and books have been
given over to the task, such as D. W Meinig's seminal work Southwest:
Three Peoples in Geographical Change,1600-1970. More recently, Journal
of the Southwest devoted its entire Autumn 1992 issue to James W. Byrkit's
monumental article "Land, Sky, and People: The Southwest Defined."
And as the catalysts that partially motivated this article, both of these
works stand as powerful examples of comprehensibility and ambition.
Despite their high profiles, however, neither is all-encompassing or the
final explication of the region.
The Southwests–I use the plural for there are so many disjunctive
notions of the place–have emerged as varied spaces ranging in flavor
from the poetic to the sociological, and from the scientific to the
touristic. Indeed, the ongoing process of writing and thinking the region
into existence has fostered a spectrum of perspectives within academia,
ranging from the multicultural historic interactionism of Meinig's tome,
to the multidisciplinary nativism of Byrkit's (1992) study, to a focus on
the construction of tourist euphoria (Weigle 1990), to the analysis of
region as a continually rewritten intertextual space (Cooper Alarcón
1992),1 or to the construction of place as the result of power
relationships wrought by interethnic and class contact (this article). As we
venture forth, tourist Mecca also becomes tourist trap, disenchantment and
dispute are pitted against the enchanting meta-image of the region as
beckoning cultural capital, and the Southwest stands before us as an
expanded and contested conceptual realm. That leads to the main
purpose of this article–to reconsider and counter some of the claims made
for the region and to briefly present an alternative model for understanding
the pilings upon which the Southwest is both constructed and held
together as a place. Thus stated, I will attempt to configure the
Southwest not as a normative structural whole, a distillate, but as a
composition of continually contested, positioned, and linked visions of place.
As the comment by Meinig at the beginning of this article suggests,
the term "the Southwest" maps out a rather unclear conceptual territory.
But whereas Meinig sees a blurred spot on the map and a distinctive
image in the American mind, it is just as profitable to invert that
equation, so that it becomes an indistinct vision inscribed with precision
onto a layer of maps (as well as postcards, architecture, and other
imagery)–for there are a number of such images that clearly claim to
demarcate and describe the area. As a widely used political-geographical term,
in most people's minds the "Southwest" designation typically centers on
the states of New Mexico and Arizona. But it might or might not also
include parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California,
or borderlands M6xico, depending on who is using the term and why.
And beyond such officially sanctioned boundaries there are other
manners by which the region can be known, such as the exportable
"Southwest style" of countless furniture and clothing catalogs or the
southwestern Indianesque curios that you can buy in an Idaho "trading post."
Thus to Meinig's point I might add one of my own: beyond the
uncertainty over where the Southwest is, nobody seems to agree as to what the
Southwest is either, or even how it came to be.
Byrkit (1992) has attempted to provide a consummate answer as to
the spatial extension of the region based on a comparison of physical
geography, climate, history, and cultural traits, but in that he approaches
our quarry from the a priori assumption that there simply is a Southwest
and that it exists externally to its discursive formation. This study, on the other hand, seeks to examine the region as a sense of sociocultural space,
a place governed by modes of signification defining the social
topography as a contested semiotic construction negotiated and bounded by
relationships of power and revealed in affect. Thus the Southwest is best
construed through recourse to characteristics other than its geopolitical
boundaries and rather than its climatic and physical characteristics.
Indeed, we shall see that both popular and academic understandings of
the region have come to rely on the cultural as an ordering principle
which is malleable, relative, and continually changing.
Now, the question arises as to how one can even begin to qualitatively
describe the Southwest as something as fuzzy and multifarious as a
"cultural space," how to get a handle on something as elusive as what might
be called the "presence" of the area. But culture can indeed be
understood as a presence shaping emotional responses through their
grounding in semiotic constructions. As John Frow (1991: 124) suggests, the
conditions of late cultural capitalism, as manifest in such practices as
tourism, engender a relationship between site and particularized forms
of knowledge that both charges and preconditions the experience of
place as a figural ideal. Similarly, Barbara Babcock (1990b: 401-4) has
posited that in the case of the social construction of Pueblo Indian
women, a system of power authorizes and authenticates certain cultural
representations while disallowing others by conditioning an
aestheticized and longing gaze. Drawing more broadly on the Southwest as a
whole, we shall see that the social constructions governing the
qualitative characteristics of presence have consistently imbued conceptions of
the land with a distinctly mythical and mystical aura–the Southwest as
a particular sort of romanticized space. As a destination the place
becomes rooted in allure and the attraction of cultural possibility. What
sort of possibility, then, does the Southwest offer as a subject?
As Werner Sollors (1986) points out, America has been ordered as a
set of corporate subcultures bounded through an ideology of choice and
affiliation–what he has termed the principle of "consent" governing
American culture. But within this ideology of plurality, society orders
cultural diversity, and in the immediate conditions of people's lives,
experience becomes positioned and dependent upon specific circumstances.
Paradoxically, these circumstances are often materially similar–
increasingly so as American mass-culture invades and makes itself at home
seemingly everywhere–even while culture is imaged so as to heighten
a sense of differentness among the sameness (a.k.a. the strange
combination of safety, latent threat, familiarity, and otherness which is so
desirable for touristic forays). As we shall see, the Southwest relies on a linked
construction of ethnicity and place as a means of providing for and
driving its ability to enchant. Hence "multiculturalism" is more than a
demographic actuality characteristic of the region. It also serves as a
specialized means of lending regional flavor to the Southwest and in
that fuels an ideological possibility capable of uniting, maintaining, and
controlling the range of diversity allowed and selected for within a
greater encompassing spatial and cultural order.
Through the ongoing rebuilding of the social topography as a
process, culture is remade into something better fitting the needs of this
cultural order: culture mass-mediated and tailored to fit a dominating
hierarchy dependent upon the creation of cultural objects. A culture of
touristic displacement, for example, might be understood in its relations
to late cultural capitalism (or vice versa) as a means of commodifying
relations to the Other (Frow 1991: 150; Babcock 1990b). Thus within
the current cultural milieu culture is differentiated and arranged for our
consumption through the production of various spatialized "micro
worlds" re-constructed from an assembled collection of signs (Stewart
1988: 233). This mode favors the creation of a public cultural product
that can also be readily controlled, promoted, manipulated, collected,
and legitimized by cultural interests for their audience. As Stewart
(1988: 231-32) states:
We build public space as fantasy environments to roam around in
...modeled as a postmodern village of the imagination. History
is spatialized and space itself is a rationalized, universalized
surface. "Historical societies" appropriate, preserve, rearrange,
collect, and reproduce "history" as a symbolic enclosure embodied in
handsome, well-kept buildings–a "history" exempted from the
ravages, and freedoms, of history.
In the Southwest of the twentieth century, the spatialization of
culture is displayed in an endemic mode of appropriation wherein
ethnically derived forms are used to construct romantic nostalgias in the form
of specialized histories linked to conceptions of place–histories for the
vicarious experience of other places and times that we can "tourism."
Thus even as we are located within local frames of reference, one of the
conditions of twentieth-century life has been the increasing possibility
of symbolic displacement from our cultural trap. Of particular interest
to our case are two facts: (1) that place is a social construction aimed at
characterizing (colorizing) and defining a sense of the culturally distinct,
and (2) that it is also possible for one to venture out of these micro
worlds in order to temporarily visit others. Thus the surface of culture
becomes unlocked by the potential displacement of tourist visitation.
Insomuch as we have become increasingly aware of the subdivision
and marking of space as differentiated and qualitatively distinct cultural
zones, the Southwest seems to take a special pride in its regional–or
better yet "regionalist"–identity. As the quote by Meinig (1971) has
suggested, the American Southwest is repeatedly described as a space of
intensive intercultural interaction and highly diverse peoples living in
close and interdependent contact–the resounding meta-image of the
"tricultural mix." But as culture is a means of processing and
constructing meaning, it can be construed that systems of signification are
actually (and actively) negotiated in a dialogic contest fraught with political
implications (Voloshinov 1973 ; Cottom 1989). Thus counter
responses arising from positions of power located marginal to the
dominating hierarchy continually challenge the superimposition of a
predetermined worldview. A question then forms: Is the Southwest a
case of micro worlds in collision, of unbridgeable disjunctures between
constructions of reality; or one of micro worlds in collusion, with the
implication that a larger organizing principle exploits an illusory
diversity as a mechanism of economic control? Perhaps a third possibility
exists capable of spanning the others: that even if cultural meaning exists
primarily as disjunctive, broader social relations can still provide
coherent linkages of experience that do not require a full understanding of the
culturally specific to access, but which provide appropriate references to
localized culture as a source of allure. Consumption is, after all, an
In ongoing reference to the profuse contact and interaction between
Native American, Hispanic, and Euro-American peoples in the
Southwest a considerable level of attention has been directed towards
relations between the dominant "white" culture and various ethnic groups.
This has occurred in both the popular and academic discourses and is
typically rendered under the high-visibility banner and banter of
"multiculturalism." Whereas the museums, governments, and cultural
institutions of the Southwest have publicly exhibited relatively keen interest in
issues concerning the presence and representation of ethnic minorities,
at least on the surface, this attention to cultural representation must be
understood in relation to the substantial economic and political benefits
that have been realized through the marketing of ethnic identities as a
form of cultural capital and the concomitant carpeting of the cultural
landscape with alluring but shallow images of ethnic identity. Babcock
(1990a), for example, has elaborated on the high-taste marketing of
Southwestern style as a means of exploiting otherness and engulfing
Others as a capitalist practice.
As a counterpart to the seductive attraction of this resplendent Other
and its highbrow allure, there is simultaneously another
Southwest–this one equally visible and equally compelling of our
attention–that is also strewn with a layer of popular images of Indians and Hispanics
likewise existing only as American cultural myths and essentially
interchangeable living clichés. This too is a Southwest where a particular sort
of cultural appropriation is endemic, only here glamour fades into kitsch
as pictures of Plains Indian chiefs are painted on restaurant walls together
with promises of free geodes with the purchase of a burger, "sleepy"
plaster of Paris sombrero-Mexicans rest against saguaros in garden
shops, and curio stores sell mass-manufactured kachina dolls and
"Indian" jewelry that was made in Japan. In contrast to the idealization of
ethnicity as a sort of trophy decoration aimed at lending the conditions
of everyday life a privileged aesthetic status, this perspective renders
ethnicity devoid of dignity or elegance and instead seeks to contain it
largely as a spectacle or curiosity
Thus as a distinctive regional space the Southwest is strewn with
layers of visible references to its sociocultural makeup, and these images
jointly reflect class-based as well as ethnically based divisions. Even as
this visual landscape both forms and informs our experiences by filling
our homes, institutions, media, and lives with a thick significatory
accumulation marking our regional identity, it simultaneously references
and reinforces differential notions of the region dependent upon one's
vantage. Furthermore, such imagery, while not solely confined to the
Southwest, takes on a crucial set of connections to our sense of place by
implying localized narratives, claims to cultural belonging, and habitual
references to a particularized social admixture. More specifically, this
cultural landscape is largely read through recourse to an ideological
structure of multiculturalism resoundingly oversimplified in the
tricultural mythos. Here the image of ethnicity becomes narrated as a set of
ongoing stereotypes coupled with differential implications of high-taste
and low-taste realms, both of which draw from an image past populated
by a predetermined cast of cowboys, wild Indians, and conquistadores.
Once again, please return to consider the work of the social
geographer D. W. Meinig. Meinig has characterized the Southwest based on
its supposed social content-in this case, an ethnically mixed population
living in close proximity to the United States-Mexico border zone
As for the "three peoples" in the subtitle, it is perhaps not
inappropriate at this point to assure the reader that I have tried both to
show how the generality of three is in detail more nearly a dozen,
and yet to suggest also how the collective terms "Indian,"
"Hispano," and "Anglo" have long been appropriate in certain contexts
of study and, more important, increasingly represent a basic frame
of reference in the minds of Southwestern people themselves.
Most important in his characterization of the region is the interplay of
an internally differentiated and ever-changing but insistently
"tricultural" mix that distinguishes the zone–Meinig's is a picture of a
Southwest born of unique patterns of social interaction located between
"Hispanics," "Anglos," and "Indians." Thus Meinig validates the popularized
tricultural model as both an image and an organizing principle, while at
the same time recognizing historical and cultural variance within it.
0Sylvia Rodríguez (1989: 79) follows a related line of thought, in that
she also emphasizes the linkages between cultural groups and the
mapping of these relationships to physical geography, when she states that the
U.S.–Mexican Southwest as a whole [italics added] can be
charactcrized as a "refuge region" . . . a rugged, isolated geographical
zone where marginal ethnic enclaves persist in subordinated
relation to members of the national society. Other examples are found
in the southern highlands and northern deserts of Mexico or in the
Andes Mountains and Amazon Basin. All these areas are marked
by high proportions of enclaved ethnic minority populations
whose sociocultural patterns retain a colonial, sometimes
pseudoaboriginal, character. Because of their remoteness and climax
ecologies, such regions are inaccessible to the kind of intensive resource
exploitation and population growth that flourishes in less extreme,
more hospitable, or more favorably situated environments. Thus
they remain sparsely populated and isolated and become
progressively underdeveloped and backward in relation to mainstream
In establishing an implied moral center such a description speaks
eloquently to the plight of impoverished, discriminated against, and
dominated peoples who continue to assert their presence in the region.
Indirectly, however, it also speaks to the other side of the coin–to the
post-World War II mass-culture Southwest and its hospitable climate,
lack of isolation, profuse development, high-tech industrial base, major
universities, and large-scale government nuclear research and defense
projects that represent the dominant institutions and characteristics of
an economic order which constructs people as cultural Others so as to
consume them (or their symbolic representations) in the form of othered
objects (Babcock 1990b: 403).
Thus as an entity the Southwest is built upon both the "backward" as
well as the "mainstream urban society" part of its makeup, and an ironic
link exists between the ongoing presence of agrarian ethnic villages as
foci and the development of a large-scale tourist economy based on the
allure of ethnic admixture and the desirability of the Other. As Frow
(1991: 151) states:
The logic of tourism is that of a relentless extension of commodity
relations and the consequent inequalities of power between center
and periphery, First and Third Worlds, developed and
underdeveloped regions, metropolis and countryside. Promising an explosion
of modernity, it brings about structural underdevelopment, both
because of its control by international capital and "because it is
precisely the lack of development which makes an area attractive as
a tourist goal."
Under such circumstances cultural tourism requires controlled contact
as a mode of interaction not isolation per se, even while the allure
underlying the construction of destination relies on a utopian mythos of
unspoiled, rough wilderness which paradoxically must be replete with
creature comforts and conveniences–a superimposition of an image of the
"primitive" atop the material conditions of development.
Thus the Southwest can be envisioned, perhaps insists on its own
portrayal, in such themes as polyethnicity, innocence, and the rugged
land of the West as a vestigial frontier. If we are to continue to focus on
sociocultural interaction as the defining paradigm of the Southwest as a
region, as well as its mode of circumscription, we must seek out the
varied constructions that such ethnicities have inscribed on the land
itself. In this regard it is also possible to extend our gaze and examine
the region not just as an area containing this ethnic mix, but as a zone of
social construction utilizing this cultural dynamic as a means of creating
specialized romanticized spaces as a way of continually reinventing the
region–the Southwest as a mythology of place. It thereby becomes
evident that the actions of institutions and individuals have seized upon
the events of history and have played an active role in inventing the
region. Once again Meinig (1971: 8) laid the groundwork for such an
approach when he emphasized that popular notions of what constitutes
the Southwest are crucial to any efforts aimed at its definition. As Nash
(1991: 134) states, a breakthrough in Meinig's work, in focusing on
region as cultural construct, was the recognition that "a region was what
masses of people perceive it to be." Again the Southwest emerges as a
Babcock (1990b: 433) has noted a long-standing persistence in the
romanticization of the Southwest, wherein the commodification of
otherness has been linked to an uninterrupted gaze centered upon ethnicity,
the symbolic removal of ethnic peoples from history, and their
aestheticization. Looking backward, the groundswell of Southwestern devotion
became apparent in the waning years of the nineteenth century, as travel
to the region escalated with the establishment of railways and
massmarketing campaigns, with the containment of Native American
populations through the Indian Wars and subsequent development of the
reservation system, and with the incorporation of native peoples into the
American economic order. For example, Charles E Lummis (1893: 2-3)
characterized the effect of the Southwest as a "spell." He also calls to
mind romantic notions of "primitivism" through his comparison of the
cultural practices of southwestern ethnic groups with Africa:
The brown or gray adobe hamlets of the descendants of those fiery
souls who wreaked here a commonwealth before the saxon fairly
knew there was a New World; the strange terraced towns of the
aboriginal pioneers who out-Spaniarded the Spaniards by unknown
centuries; the scant leaven of incongruous American brick–all
are under the spell. And the abrupt mountains, the echoing, rock
walled cañons, the sunburnt mesas, the streams bankrupt by their
own shylock sands, the gaunt, brown, treeless plains, the ardent
sky, all harmonize with unearthly unanimity.
"Picturesque" is a tame word for it. It is a picture, a romance, a
dream, all in one. It is our one corner that is the sun's very own.
Here he has had his own way, and no discrepancy mars his work.
It is a land of quaint, swart faces, of Oriental dress and unspelled
speech; a land where distance is lost, and the eye is a liar; a land of
ineffable lights and sudden shadows; of polytheism and
superstition, where the rattlesnake is a demigod, and the cigarette a means
of grace, and where Christians mangle and crucify themselves–the
heart of Africa beating against the ribs of the Rockies.
Thus Lummis built a Southwest characterized by intense, magical
feelings–bounded and transformed by mystery and rooted in romantic
notions of the land and its unique mix of "ancient" (read as indigenous)
and by inference "modern" (read as Euro-American) peoples.
A partial definition of this hyper-romanticized mindset, extended to
cover its contemporary legacy, may be found in Marta Weigle's (1990:
535-36) concept of "Southwesternism." In this case a clear articulation
of the ongoing reinvention and manipulation of popular images of the
Southwest is revealed. In her definition Southwesternism emerges as a
"'discourse' that can be examined in the development of Santa Fe style
and other aspects of tourism and Southwest lures. In the 1920s and
1930s Indian Detours [tourism packages offered by the Santa Fe
Railway and the Fred Harvey Co.] capitalized on (for the most part) Anglo's
appropriation and mystification ... of native culture."
This Southwesternism finds its beginnings in the 1920s as guided
"Harveycars" transported transcontinental tourists from the rails out
into Indian and Hispano villages to experience a Wild-Western
adventure firsthand. This Southwesternism finds its continuation today most
obviously in the thousands of wooden coyotes surrounded by silver
Indian jewelry that howl for tourist dollars from practically every shop
window in Santa Fe. But this Southwest also finds its history in the
visions of the land: in Georgia O'Keeffe's oil-painted masses of
undulating red earth, in the adobes of the Pueblos that we are endlessly
reminded by tour guides are the "oldest continually inhabited structures
in North America," and in the chapels and shrines that dot the Hispano
villages of northern New Mexico. These too make up part of the
landscape habitually captured through the lenses of tourists' cameras.
Thus Weigle's Southwesternism, modeled after Edward Said's
Orientalism, is a frame of mind that in part governs intercultural relationships
and the customary modes of thought that help define a region as an
inscribed and encoded place.2 It is a space in part governed by the
consumption and appropriation of ethnicity as one of its chief draws.
Ethnicity thereby becomes an element in a mystified cultural makeup,
and the potential for the displacement of vicarious ethnic experience
becomes a primary component of the local color. Since to middle-class
Euro-American tourist culture ethnicity often harbors a modicum of
threat or distaste, as well as a potential for attraction, in order to fully
utilize it as a magnet requires mechanisms of containment which tidy
and restructure ethnicity as a font of attraction. Thus in the tourist
industry no hostile Indians are allowed, but quite by chance we were given
the reservation system and the enclaved communities of the "refuge
region" as a means of political and economic control wherein the veiled
threat of happy Indians and agrarian utopia is encouraged in a museum
of living cultures born not of time immemorial, but of the consumer
economy of the present.
There are countless potential evidences generated from within this
regional discourse that also suggest definitions of, or ways of configuring,
the Southwest. Since this study relies heavily upon mass-cultural images
and texts as evidences, it is especially concerned with processes of
mediation as mechanisms for cultural control and cultural change through
the reproduction of dominant discourses and concomitant shaping of
people's ideas. In this vein, one might seek other clues for defining,
delimiting, or conceiving of the Southwest as a cultural space by
ferreting out applicable texts among the specialists in "Southwesternism."
Here I again speak of the tourism industry. Or rather, this might be
better approached by borrowing from the Frankfurt School scholars and
addressing it as a broader question of the "culture industry." For, as this
description of Santa Fe from a 1991 College of Santa Fe brochure
evidences, such Southwesternisms extend through regional culture far
beyond the immediate grasp of the tourist. And here we also get a glimpse
of the direct ties constructed between the art and ethnicity markets of
the Southwest, and their effects on defining the character of space:
Timeless, mystical and possessed of an ancient history, Santa Fe is
a city whose ambiance reflects its tri-cultural heritage. High in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Santa Fe radiates an essential beauty amidst the blend of her gifted cultures. The high mountain desert continues to call forth artistic expression ... from the Native American artist to the emerging contemporary, their commitment to excellence has made the arts widely
recognized as the "pulse" of Santa Fe.
Such evidences of Southwesternism help reveal the popular modes of
thought configuring the Southwest as a place. Indeed, one cannot
inhabit the region for any period of time at all, or for that matter pass
through it with one's eyes open, without witnessing firsthand an
onslaught of Indianesque symbols, geometric designs, curios, products,
and advertisements that play upon Southwestern style, upon
Southwesternism. Consider this quotation from the Southwesterny artist Fritz
Scholder (1979: 4-5):
Why does a laundromat have a neon kachina on the roof? DRINK
WITH REAL INDIANS, the sign says, along a New Mexican road.
There are those who will still buy, as long as it is made by Indians.
But the paint is peeling from the wooden wigwams. The signs are
fading by the highways. 100% INDIAN and HURRY BACK have
weeds and empty cans as companions. The numbers of cement
tepees, giant arrows stuck in shopping center parking lots, curios,
automobile ornaments, trading post murals, signs and billboards are endless.
Of course, nothing so complex and ingrained as our cultural
conceptions of the Southwest sprang up overnight. Fritz Scholder's parking lot
arrow is only one outcome of what has been a long development of
place inscribed upon the physical features of the social landscape; Route
66 revisited stands as a steady stream of tourist traps bordering the
asphalt and therein mediating the realities of the transcultural with a
premise (and a promise) of seductive cultural displacement.
Such popular images of the Southwest, old and new alike, envision
the place as a landscape tied to the romantic yesteryear of the American
West, populated with images of cowboys and Indians, and imbued with
a sense of wonder. Such a sentiment, grandchild of Lummis, remains
common today, located within attempts to sell the region through its
cultural milieu and its history. For example, in a 1991 Gallup
Convention and Visitors' Bureau brochure, we are summoned to visit the town
in northwestern New Mexico so that we may find the real "Old West"
still alive. This piece of the living past happens to be marketable as
Indian art, and ethnicity and art become inseparably bound with place as
they melt into each other:
If you wish to find the real Old West, that long ago land of wide
open spaces spliced together by a thin braid of railroad track and interspersed with dusty but valiant little towns, then your wish has come true. Amid rock strewn mesas and arroyos that run red with dirt-dyed water, sits Gallup&emdash;"in the heart of Indian Country." Sprawled over several hills, the city nurtures the varied cultures whose historic roots have helped to mold Gallup into the arts and crafts mecca it is today....
Or once again, please consider this description from a Drexel Heritage furniture catalog, where Southwesternism becomes a partially transplantable style that you can purchase as a ready-made step toward the refinement promised by highbrow Southwesternism:
Not glamorous, not glitzy, it's true; but a crossroads of American history that brings together railroaders, wranglers and ranchers with a distinctive medley of proud Indian tribes. Gallup now celebrates its Indian heritage through arts and crafts in trading posts bursting with traditional wares and galleries displaying the finest of contemporary Native American arts. The old West is honored through rodeos and its world famous Inter-Tribal Indian
Amidst a backdrop of dense, green foliage, the home-spun, earthy
quality of Southwestern flavor is right at home. Supple leather upholstered selections, in subtle shades of adobe, are jazzed up with splashes of vibrant color. White-washed finishes, complementing warm wood tones, are accented with terra cotta and antiqued iron and brass. Hand-woven Indian textiles and rustic accessories supply the finishing touches that capture the essence of
In the twentieth-century Southwest both Indian and Hispanic identities
have increasingly been appropriated into an art discourse as a means of commodifying ethnicity. Again, as given to us by the Convention and Visitors' Bureau masters, "Gallup now celebrates its Indian heritage through arts and crafts in trading posts bursting with traditional wares and galleries displaying the finest of contemporary Native American arts."
In this quest for what we are calling "Southwesternisms" another example is of particular interest here, in that it exists specifically as an attempt to draw the boundaries of the Southwest on cultural criteria. The document that I have in mind is a commercially available map entitled, aptly enough, a Guide to Indian Country, which was issued in 1983 by the Automobile Club of Southern California and the California State Automobile Association. Its preamble for visitors to the Southwest offers this introduction:
The Indian Country of the southwestern United States offers the
adventurous traveler a seemingly endless array of majestic geological and archaeological wonders. In addition, the visitor has a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the history, customs and crafts of the country's largest Native American population.
As a map, Indian Country focuses on a region which is not coterminous
with any political unit. Indeed, it includes portions of five states&emdash;Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and a tiny bit of Nevada&emdash;and none is represented in its entirety. Rather, its organizational theme is based solely on the preponderance of reservation-based Native American peoples, coupled with the wealth of scenic attractions and museums that exist in the area. In so doing, the map could be interpreted as
suggesting a certain similarity between native cultures and natural wonders as tourist destinations.
Indian Country is also notable in that, while it references cultural
makeup and history through geographic features, it does not restrict itself to such a focus. Far from it. For example, it also provides protocols to assist outsiders in what they may consider as a foreign land (such as "Obtain permit at Peach Springs before traveling on secondary roads on Indian reservation," or "The Antiquities Act of 1906 prohibits the appropriation, injury, destruction or removal from place of any object of antiquity, or the excavation, injury or destruction of any ruin on Federal land under the jurisdiction of the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture and Defense, except such scientific research or excavation as these Secretaries may authorize."). The map also provides thumbnail ethnographic sketches of the major Indian tribes, complete with pronunciation guidelines and a schedule of ceremonies, dances, and festivals which arc open to public visitation. More than an auto-inscription of culturally held viewpoints, in its own way it very much resembles a sort of popular, practical junior ethnography. Ethnography in the form of tour guide,
Like all of our examples of how people conceptualize the Southwest, and for all that it reveals about the construction of place, Indian Country is in itself only a partial definition of the region. Most notably in terms of delimiting the Southwest, Indian Country is oblivious to the history or existence of Hispanics in the area. Yet it does reflect the fascination with Indian identity which is so deeply rooted in the Euro-American population of the Southwest and which has increasingly been controlled and managed as an attraction. Thus the Southwest is constructed differentially in accord with diverse aims and understandings. In contrast to the hegemonic Euro-American view of the region as a magical mecca, picturesque piece of the past preserved, or tourist destination&emdash;a view which has not excluded Hispanics but which has more characteristically emphasized Indians&emdash;consider this Chicano construction of the Southwest as place, as the mythological homeland Aztlan. Here again, it is the myth of the region upon which its allure and its significance is based, and it again possesses a transformative magic of its own as a particular telling of history. Unlike the dominant Euro-American mythology, however, it is voiced as a process of return and change rather than one of
arrival and continuity. But once again, even as tradition is constructed, it posits familiar links of the Indian with the mystical as it invokes "the
very ancient gods" (Valdez 1973: xxxiii):
We have been in America a long time. Somewhere in the twelfth
century, our Aztec ancestors left their homeland of Aztlan, and migrated south to Anahuac, "the place by the waters," where they built their great city of Mexico&emdash;Tenochtitlan. It was a long journey, for as their guiding deity Huitzilopochtli had prophesied, the elders of the tribe died en route and their children grew old.Aztlan was left behind, somewhere "in the north," but it was never forgotten.
Daniel Cooper Alarc6n (1992: 64, endnote 4) also provides what he
terms the "standard" definition of this mythological place:
Aztlan is now the name of our Mestizo nation, existing to the north of Mexico, within the borders of the United States. Chicano poets sing of it, and their flor y canto points toward a new yet very ancient way of life and social order, toward new yet very ancient gods. The natural revolutionary turn of things is overthrowing outmoded concepts in the life of man, even as it does in nature; churning them around in the great spin of creation, merging the
very ancient with the very new to create new forms.
Aztlan was the legendary homeland of the Aztecs, a utopic spot
said to exist somewhere to the north of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). Aztlan became the rallying point of the Chicano cultural nationalist movement (1965-75), has been closely linked with the area that is today the southwestern United States, and is widely considered to be the spiritual homeland of the Chicano people.
As a narrative device, such visions of Aztlan as a mythological motherland became popular as a means of creating political unity amongst Hispanics. As John R. Chavez (1984: 1) has suggested, at least in the heyday of the Chicano movement, Chicanos had a clearer image of the South-west as "more than just their place of residence; it is their homeland, their lost homeland to be more precise, the conquered northern half of the Mexican nation." But perhaps "clearer" actually meant more "politically useful," rather than the economic utility that so often motivated the Euro-American construction of ethnicity and place in the region&emdash;no, as the region. Chavez goes on (p. 130) to state that:
In the ancient myth of Aztlan, activists found a tie between their
homeland and Mexican culture that antedated the Republic of Mexico, the Spanish exploration of the borderlands, and even Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) itself. As we have seen, ancient Aztec legends, recorded in the chronicles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, recounted that before founding Tenochtitlan the Aztecs had journeyed from a wondrous place in the north called "Aztlan." Since this place of origin, according to some of the chroniclers, was located in what is now the Southwest, Chicano activists reapplied the term to the region, reclaiming the land on the basis of their Indian ancestry.
Thus Aztlan, as a symbolic construct, was resurrected from the distant past in a desire to turn away from American hegemony as a creative act of resistance. This has been characterized by Quirarte (1973: xx) on one hand as a "longing for, a feeling of, nostalgia for the ancient past." However, he also critiques the relationship between tradition and nostalgia (p. xviii):
The Mexican American has been touched by Mexico's efforts to
establish a Mexican identity, which has by no means been entirely resolved. The Mexican is still searching for his roots in the pre-Columbian past while he is firmly anchored in a European frame of mind.... Artists may take pre-Columbian motifs, as Diego Rivera has done in many of his murals, but the pictorial language and conventions remain European.
A different critique, but one also touching upon the romanticization
of region, has been made by Cooper Alarc6n (1992: 34-35) in noting the increasing disunity behind the meta-narrative of Aztlan. He suggests that in the wake of the 1970s the fixity of the symbol created a dilemma for many contemporary Chicanos, who have been forced to either embrace the two-dimensional rendering of the Aztec past or else reject it as false. Thus Aztlan, unlike the Southwest of American popular culture, has subsequently lost much of its vitality as an image (Cooper Alarcon 1992: 36):
As a durable, political symbol of Chicano cultural nationalism,
and one which has been linked to and used to legitimate Chicano identity, Aztlan, I believe, has never been realized in its complexity, nor been adapted to recent changes in thinking about cultural identity, and thus is rapidly diminishing in its usefulness to Chicanos.
Furthermore, as an image, the Aztlin of the 1960s and 1970s lacks the
apparatus of the mass culture industry to reformulate (and reinforce) its
message. But like the enchanted Southwest of Euro-America, the imaging and imagining of Aztlan is a view of region not bounded so much by an ideology of geographic barriers, physical features, or objective factuality, as by one of cultural criteria imposed on a mythology of place, people, and imagery as a means of developing and referencing cultural identity through claims made on feeling. Only in this case, the espoused borders are conceived in accord with parameters of a resurgent ethnic identity rather than as a containment field for ethnic groups: "Aztlan is nowhere; it lies wherever there are Chicanos; no physical border can bound it: it affirms itself in us" (Rocard 1987: 84). Ethnicity once again becomes the expression of self-identity, constructed as spirit rather than objectification by outsiders. Nonetheless, mental borders remain borders; they remain containers of a sort. The image of Aztlan has a draw
all its own, a mythical presence of such magnitude that is difficult to see beyond. But it also resembles a Southwesternism rewritten from another political and social position, decentered from the Euro-American, but nonetheless bearing a certain ironic similarity marked by the conditions of time and circumstance which place Euro-American and Chicano in a partially shared frame of reference. The two positions feed off of one another, and they cannot be fully separated. The people, the land, and the imagery together form a region born of "time immemorial" as it has been constructed within the last century or so.
So you see, in truth the parameters bounding the Southwest depend.
They depend upon the context in which the term is being used and on the
motivations and purposes that underlie its use. Obviously, geographic, political, and cultural definitions rely upon radically different criteria for ordering or establishing a region. But as we have also seen, what are customarily termed "cultural" definitions in themselves also rely upon diverse criteria encompassing the political to envision and inscribe the geographic. What's more, the "empirical" criteria of region cannot be separated from the cultural moorings which lend them their form. And despite the divided, perhaps oppositional differences between visions of place such as our Chicano and Euro-American examples, together they share a pattern of reference that ranges from the uniqueness of intercultural mixture, to the presence of Indians, to a mestizo population, to history, to the "uniqueness" of the land, to a magical feel. And beyond this, these constructions of the region consistently rely upon allure and nostalgia to frame their views.3
As a cultural zone the Southwest stands as a contested semiotic construction held together through relationships of power organizing both meaning as well as status. It is for this reason that people want so desperately to be included in the Southwest (such as the often ignored claims for membership by Oklahomans) or so much to exclude (such as Byrkit's desire to keep out Texas, California, Santa Fe, Taos, and other tourist destinations). But the Southwest was constructed as just that, a tourist destination. Without this past, it would be just another spot on the map, not the map's object, and it stands not just as a space of desire, but also as one of possessiveness. As a partially shared zone of inter-reference, the different configurations of the Southwest are alike in that they make habitual recourse to ethnicity, mythos, and image in order to construct and empower a sense of place.
In considering sources such as the Indian Country map as means of
distinguishing the conceptual parameters of the Southwest, rather than building them up based on external objective criteria, I am in a sense following Meinig's suggestion and allowing views of inhabitants of the region itself and other interested parties to define it&emdash;in a sense, dcfinition by discourse. By so doing, I arrive at a spot where, amidst these many diverse views, the Southwest again beecomes revealed as a sociocultural space born of inter-ethnic interaction and located as a contested semiotic construction. This is not the only possible Southwest, nor is it even a unified Southwest that reconciles different cultural positionings&emdash;but it is one way of looking at the region as a culturally active zone that remains fluid and negotiable and which necessarily encompasses and binds these cultural positionings. And inasmuch as the Southwest exists as a socially shared image, we must grapple with the question of why and how there is such a region in the minds of its residents and visitors.
1. After reading this article an anonymous reviewer commented on the similarity between my notion of contested image world as a model of the Southwest and Cooper Alarcon's model of the palimpsest, with its layerings of positioned and partisan texts, as a model for Aztlian. Although I had formulated the bulk of this article some time before reading that paper, the comparison reinforces the applicability of contestation and discourse theory to the construction of place with implications that may also extend well outside the construction of the Southwest per se.
2. Barbara Babcock (1990b: 406) has also followed this line of reasoning in referring to the Southwest as "America's Orient."
3. This process of listing examples could continue for quite some time. Most obviously, as part of our comparison we could examine the variety of Native American visions of place, both in regards to the meta-narratives of pan-Indianism that have emerged in this century with their emphasis of mystical relationships to the land, as well as particular embodiments of places as sacred sites and localized histories that have increasingly become political strategies either for motivating Euro-American support, or else attacking outsiders' claims. As a jumping-off point readers might wish to consider the cases elaborated by John Bodine (1978) and Sylvia Rodriguez (1990) regarding Taos Pueblo.
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