To make a “Flowry” Death: Rereading Artro Islas, By Andrés Rodríguez

“The Indian in them was pagan, servile, instinctive rather than intellectual, and was to be suppressed, its existence denied.”1

Although a substantial body of criticism has grown up around Arturo Islas’s The Rain God, very little of it deals directly with the subject of indigeneity.2 Most academic readers see the novel as a mixture of elements: history, gender relations, narratology, and so forth. Terms such as “ambiguity,” “alternative,” “hybridity,” and “reconstruction” have been used to describe the complex nature of The Rain God as a “text.”3 But this approach largely overlooks the presence and significance of the ancient Mexican context or subtext, which is particularly ironic given the view of Indians (quoted above) espoused by Mama Chona, one of the main characters in the novel. It is time to consider more carefully why Islas titled his novel The Rain God, why it was previously titled “Day of the Dead,” and what the specific instances of the magical or numinous in the story have to do with ancient Mesoamerica.
Undoubtedly The Rain God appeals to a diverse audience. While Chicano cultural nationalists might ascribe special importance to it because of the pre-Columbian reference alone, Islas’s tragic imagination and primary perceptions of self/world make the novel too aesthetic and moral, and not Chicano enough on strict ideological grounds. But another of the ironies surrounding The Rain God is that for years prior to publication the mainstream press repeatedly rejected it as too ethnic a work.4 Clearly The Rain God occupies a middle ground between these two extremes. According to José Saldívar, it “bridges the gap between North American and Latin American cultures and unites literary and transnational traditions.”5 Such bridgework gives us hope that Anglo and Latino cultures can understand each other. Nevertheless, the bridging that Saldívar mentions does not disqualify the “ethnic” designation of Islas’s work. Indeed, the conversation on The Rain God might be advanced a little by thinking of it more directly in terms of ethnicity, or rather, indigeneity.6
When Islas’s novel first appeared in 1984, its title alone reminded many readers that Chicanos were connected to an ancient past—a past, as Mama Chona says, that “was to be suppressed, its existence denied.” Five hundred years’ cruel suppression of the indigenous, however, had given rise to a hunger for knowledge of the Indian among many Chicanos. Indeed, when the search for wholeness and authentic identity began to energize the political and cultural movements of the Mexican American people in the 1960s, the world of the ancient Mexicans ignited Chicano imaginations. Suddenly images of pyramids, calendar stones, feathered serpents, and deities of all sorts found their way into the popular consciousness of La Raza, and the result was more than what Octavio Paz had noted taking place in post-Revolution Mexico, namely a “sentimental identification with the pre-Hispanic world.”7 In the U.S. the recovery of the indigenous was part of the Chicano rebellion, part of a desire for a more holistic liberation.8
Islas’s use of the indigenous is also keyed to desire. Like many Movement poets before him, he borrowed myth to suit his own needs. What is significant about his borrowing is that few Chicano novelists before him had ever attempted to locate the archaic within the contemporary, which in itself implied a political statement. Islas’s narrative assumes continuity with the forgotten past, assumes spiritual connection to the native earth as a way of reminding Chicanos who they are and bringing to life a certain part of their poetic nature. Doubtless the social and historical fabric of the Chicano experience is present in the novel, though not the focus. The family constitutes the heart of The Rain God, and at the heart of that heart lies the family’s identity as “people of the sun,” with all the otherworldliness as well as history suggested by this phrase.
As the title of the novel indicates, the otherworldly concerns the rain god of Mexica Aztec mythology. Islas not only takes his title from this Mesoamerican deity but also includes in his story some of the verses from one of the most striking poems ever written in pre-Conquest Mexico, that of the so-called “Song of Nezahualcóyotl” by the fifteenth-century Texcocan poet-king:
All the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it; nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
Rivers, rivulets, fountains and waters flow, but never to their joyful beginnings; anxiously they hasten on to the vast realms of the Rain God. (162)
These lines, which appear in the final chapter of the novel, are offered as “a kind of prayer” (162) for the protagonist—a writer who, like Nezahualcóyotl, struggles to come to grips with the ephemeral nature of life on earth. But there is an even deeper correspondence between this contemporary Chicano novel and the rain god myth. Although Islas’s story is about the Angels, a fictional Mexican American family living in an unnamed Southwest border town, it focuses on them and their disintegration as a family to reveal the theme of death as the ultimate ancestral homeland.


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