Joe Barrera

This is a time to affirm our true values. Prophets call us to do that, and we are fortunate to have prophets. Hunter Thompson was one. He was the most truth-telling writer this country has ever seen. For him, “fear and loathing” described the hypocrisy of so much in our society. He was writing mainly of the ’60s and ’70s but of course the hypocrisy — the denial of fundamental American values in the guise of Americanism — the fear and loathing of immigrants, Muslims and others have gotten much worse since then. We will face divine wrath for this, but because we have lost a uniquely American Jeremiah now that Hunter is gone very few of us pay attention. Hunter’s friend, Oscar Zeta Acosta, was another prophet, a righteous Mexican American writer, or as I like to say, a Chicano. A Chicano is a Mexican American with a developed consciousness, which means a conscience.

There’s a lot of confusion about “Chicano.” You don’t have to be like Cheech and Chong to be a Chicano. You don’t have to be a lowrider, or any other pop culture distortion of the idea. A Chicano is someone who cares about those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, someone who fights for justice, just like biblical prophets. Oscar Acosta wrote two great novels, “The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo,” likening himself to the nearly extinct brown animal, the American bison, nearly hunted to extinction, like brown-skinned Chicanos. Acosta’s other novel, “The Revolt of the Cockroach People,” describes Chicanos and other Latinos perceived as vermin by society and subject to extermination. Tough stuff, but great wrenching calls for justice.

A prophet who follows Acosta and Thompson and has assumed Elijah’s mantle is John T. Nichols, the Taos writer.

Taos is only 220 miles from Colorado Springs, but what a different world it is. Nichols is famous for “The Milagro Beanfield War” trilogy, novels set in northern New Mexico, with the conflicts between grassroots Hispanos and Pueblo Indians against the American machine called “Progress” and all its attendant evils, as the main themes.

The first novel, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” is a political novel. As my friend professor Tom Cronin of Colorado College points out, it is in the same vein as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and books like “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and many others. These are literary because they are beautiful and emotional, and they are political because they help create political movements and reform. The words of the prophets may not be written on the subway walls but for sure they are written in American literature.

Nichols trilogy of novels, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “The Magic Journey” and “The Nirvana Blues,” are remarkable for the insights they provide into the marginalized, largely unknown culture of the Chicanos of New Mexico and the way these people struggle to preserve their ancient life ways and their hold on the sacred land which means so much to them. But real estate developers want that land, and the people fight to keep it, which makes for some high drama, epic conflicts told in an irreverent almost comedic style, but all the more insightful for that.

That these books have been written by an “Anglo” writer, someone who would not be expected to know the inner workings of this beleaguered culture, makes them all the more significant.

This means that the novels are also about outsiders, sensitive Anglo Americans who take up the cause of the indigenous people, fight for them, and in the process truly get to know them. In this era of racial and ethnic division, something which many of us felt was finished in this country but is still with us, Nichols sounds a warning against the perils of race hatred, and then lays out the path that we can all follow to understand what we call “the other,” whoever that “other” may be.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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