Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita

Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest

Duke University Press, 2021

272 pages


Reviewed by John Jairo Valencia

Hegemonic forms of historical writing favor floating in the macro-end of a story and, accordingly, often leave out narratives of community perspective and lived experience. Histories of the US Southwest, in particular, erase the lived reality of the native body through privileging a disembodied narrative of colonization and invasion. Critically engaging with history, especially when dealing with regions saturated with colonization, dispossession, and violence means uplifting the voices of those most impacted.

In Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest,Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita engage with the literary voices of Native Americans and Chicanxs, whose histories are both impacted by colonization within the US Southwest. Sánchez and Pita share the perspective that literature can offer a critical memory of history ignored or disavowed by mainstream accounts. They analyze literary texts that deal with land, dispossession, and settler colonialism in the West and Southwest. They pay particular attention to how “enclosures” become sites that perpetuate violence through discourses that attempt to keep out the Other. Sánchez and Pita argue that “Each particular phase of capitalist development has involved different strategies of enclosure to separate producers from the means of production, principally from the commons.” Enclosures could exist in the Spanish colonial missions, American Indian reservations, state-imposed borders, and are forged to control who is allowed in a society and who is cast out.

Although not referenced in this text, Sánchez and Pita’s discussion of how “enclosures” enable violence through the logics of capital and territorial power echoes Gloria Anzaldúa’s theorization of the borderlands as “una herida abierta,” an open wound. Because the intimacy of this violence leaves very real marks of trauma, even intergenerationally, the lived and embodied realities of settler colonialism must be centered. Although Sánchez and Pita contextualize their analysis only in the US Southwest, they offer insight into ongoing projects of neocolonialism in a wider context. Through understanding the intimacies of violence experienced by Native American and Chicanx communities, readers can understand the ongoing neocolonial violence in communities such as those Indigenous to the Amazons facing environmental racism or refugees attempting to cross Mexican and US borders today.

Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest puts Native American and Chicanx voices in discussion with one another. In doing so, it offers insight into these communities’ often overlapping and sometimes conflicting histories within the US Southwest. The ideological impact of settler-colonialism in the US Southwest is the erasure of indigeneity, which creates a discursive pathway for the exploitation, appropriation, and settlement of so-called empty lands. Narratives of divine right––including the Manifest Destiny of the nineteenth century that led the way for Anglo westward expansion and the Doctrine of Discovery of 1493 where the Roman Catholic Church granted agency to Spanish explorers to dominate non-Christian kingdoms––have legitimated the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples. The US Southwest is an important site of study because of its layered history of colonization, beginning with the arrival of Spanish explorers who would later establish a colonial empire between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the Mexican independence era in 1821 that brought forth Mexican settlers from the center of Mexico, and later the settler-colonization by Anglo America in the late eighteenth century, which added to an already long legacy of colonization and violence towards Indigenous peoples of the region. As Sánchez and Pita demonstrate, literature by Chicanx writers responded to this history by marking the Mexican American War and the annexation of Mexican lands in 1848 as especially formative to their positionality as a colonized people within the United States.

Sánchez and Pita insist that the US Southwest is not a homogeneous region and that this layered history is just as complex as its lasting effects. In a deeper reading of the overarching history of the region, they acknowledge the “selective amnesia” that some Chicanx writers perpetuate by not naming the role some of their ancestors may have had in the colonization of the Indigenous peoples of the US Southwest. For instance, before the impacts of American westward expansion and settler-colonialism, the Spanish colonial empire and the Mexican state both engaged in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of the US Southwest. Whereas some Chicanx literature may position the Anglo or the Spanish as the colonizer, this binary is disrupted by the reality that Spanish military forces included mestizo, mulato, and Indigenous Tlaxcaltecan people from the center of Mexico. On another note, even if not always recognized within the hegemonic narratives of the US Southwest, the reality of complex inter-relations throughout these eras also forged many kinships, cultural, and political ties between many Native American and Chicanx communities.

The rich analysis that Sánchez and Pita offer through the interweaving of various literary works would be of interest to many audiences. Educators may find the wide selection of works referenced in this text helpful in developing lessons related to given topics and pulling from said works. Researchers may be inspired by the methodological approach of analyzing literary texts to gain a more profound understanding of history. Overall, the organization of this text into various territories, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, helps readers to gain a well-rounded understanding of the specificities of settler-colonization, dispossession, and the enactment of violence in respective regions of the US Southwest. By close reading these territories, Sánchez and Pita invoke both the histories and current struggles of asserting land rights within these territories and for dealing with the complex legacies of trauma. Their analysis of Rodulfo Anaya’s Jemez Springs highlights how the lived reality of water rights of both Pueblo Indians, and Hispano farmers are infringed on by the dumping of toxins in nearby rivers. Anaya’s signaling of the potential dangers of removing water rights resonates deeply with the recent memory of the threat of dispossession by the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The works discussed in this text are haunting, provocative, heartwarming, and unsettling, yet what runs through all of them is the writers’ shared reality of land loss, dispossession, and violence. It is perhaps a “blood memory,” invoking Emma Pérez’s Forgetting the Alamo, or Blood Memory: A Novel, another novel they discuss, that allows many of the selected writers of this text to give us a deeper and more intimate reading of the US Southwest. Sánchez and Pita uplift the importance of cultural production, especially literature, to enable new imaginaries that incite transformation. In reciting Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, which Sánchez and Pita also include in their analysis, the protagonist Tayo’s experiences as a prisoner of war, being removed from his land and dealing with intergenerational trauma leads him to the Pueblo ceremonial world, where he is able to regain what was lost. Silko writes in the opening poem of her novel, “And in the belly of this story the rituals and the ceremony are still growing.” Perhaps it is through the voices of these writers and storytellers that the creation of other worlds can be birthed within our imaginations.