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Cherríe Moraga 1952–
American poet, essayist, dramatist, and editor.
Moraga's publications are noted for their honest exploration of taboo subjects within American Chicano culture, particularly issues related to female power and sexuality. Moraga writes about her own experiences as a feminist lesbian and minority woman, as well as the common experience of Latinas in America. She is also a highly regarded editor of compilations of writings by minority women and is a cofounder of Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press.
Moraga was born in Whittier, California, to a Chicana mother and an Anglo-American father. This disparity in her parents' backgrounds allowed Moraga first-hand knowledge of the tensions between Latinos and those in the dominant American culture. When she was nine, her family settled in the San Gabriel Valley, near Los Angeles, where Moraga felt the strong influence of her mother's extended family. Listening to stories related orally by female relatives afforded Moraga the opportunity to experience a uniquely feminine mode of story-telling that she would later employ in her own writing. Moraga, along with her brother and sister, was of the first generation in her family to graduate from college, attending a small private college for her undergraduate work and then San Francisco State University for her graduate degree. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1974, Moraga taught English for two years at a private high school in Los Angeles. During that time she made two decisions that would significantly affect her future: she joined a writing group and she came out as a lesbian. Moraga has said that, in the writing group, she for the first time began to take her writing seriously; but at the same time she was told by the group that her vocabulary was too limited and that she could not write poems to women because that would confuse readers, Discouraged but more self-confident, Moraga decided to take a year off to concentrate on writing and reading. At this time she moved to San Francisco and became immersed in the city's highly charged political atmosphere; she also became aware of the political implications of her own minority ethnic and sexual status. For her master's thesis in 1980, Moraga co-edited a collection of writings by minority women, titled This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981). Moraga moved to Boston and then New York City to find a publisher for the book. Finally, she co-founded Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press to publish the book, which won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1986. While living in New York, Moraga became intrigued with the idea of writing for the theatre. She began writing plays and earned a residency at INTAR (Hispanic-American Arts Center), directed by María Irene Fornes. Since then she has returned to the San Francisco area as a writing instructor at the University of California at Berkeley and continues her activities in feminism and the movement to expand and give voice to Chicano culture.
This Bridge Called My Back, co-edited with Gloria Anzaldúa, is an anthology of writings by women of color that includes poetry, fiction, essays, letters, and other genres exploring sexual, ethnic, and class identity from a feminist viewpoint. Moraga contributed two poems ("For the Color of My Mother" and "The Welder") and one essay ("La Güera") to the collection. In 1983 Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press published Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, again edited by Moraga with Alma Gómez and Mariana Romo-Carmona which included two stories by Moraga. The anthology is the first published collection of fiction by Latina feminists, as well as the first to focus on Latina sexuality, particularly lesbianism, a taboo topic in Latino culture, and language, freely mixing Spanish and English. Also in 1983, Moraga published the first collection of her own poetry and essays, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca paso por sus labios. Again focusing on female sexuality, race, and class, although from a considerably more personal perspective, Loving in the War Years contains one of Moraga's most important concerns: reclaiming and revising the image of La Malinche, the figure from Spanish mythology who represents the threatening female betrayer and who, according to Moraga, contributes to the subordinate and passive position of women in Latino culture. In 1984 Moraga's first play, Giving Up the Ghost, was given its first staged reading by a Minneapolis feminist theatre group called At the Foot of the Mountain. A non-traditional drama consisting of poetic monologues in Spanish and English spoken by two women at different points in their lives, Giving Up the Ghost explores the oppressive forces that have damaged the women's perceptions of themselves. Moraga's next play, Shadow of a Man (1988), concerns a family's reaction to the father's self-destruction through alcoholism and the keeping of sexual secrets. Heroes and Saints (1989) is a surrealistic and political drama of a family of farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley suffering from pesticide poisoning. In The Last Generation (1993) Moraga returned to the themes of her earlier poetry and prose works, mainly the rapid disappearance of Mexican-American heritage due to the demands of assimilation, and the desire to create a "queer Aztlán," her own lesbian interpretation of the ultimate Chicano community. In Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood (1998) Moraga recorded her experience of becoming a mother, including her baby's premature birth and her relationships with the father and her own partner.
Moraga's work is considered groundbreaking in several ways. Because of the anthologies she has edited, she is credited with paving the way for Latina writers to create their own tradition of story-telling, and she is the first openly lesbian Latina to have published her work. Additionally, Moraga's trademark style of mixing Spanish with English in her writing serves to highlight both the tension and the harmony between the two cultures, and her dramatic writings are acknowledged as a successful continuation of the revolutionary Chicano theatro of the 1960s and 1970s.
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This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color [editor, with Gloria Anzaldúa, and contributor] (anthology) 1981
Cuentos: Stories by Latinas [editor, with Alma Gómez and Mariana Romo-Carmona] (anthology) 1983
Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca paso por sus labios (poetry and essays) 1983
Giving Up the Ghost: Teatro in Two Acts (drama) 1984: published in 1986
Shadow of a Man (drama) 1988
Heroes and Saints (drama) 1989
The Last Generation (poetry and essays) 1993
Heroes and Saints and Other Plays (drama) 1994
Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood (memoir) 1998
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SOURCE: "Mujeres en Lucha," in Women's Review of Books, July 1984, p. 5.
[In the following review, Cofer praises the stories in Cuentos—of which Moraga is an editor and contributor—and the poems and prose in Loving in the War Years for their focus on the Latina's search for identity and individuality.]
"We are New York and Island Puerto Rican, Los Angeles Chicana, and Chilena. We are Latina writers and activists who identify as U.S. Third World women." So proclaim the editors of Cuentos, an eclectic collection of fiction by and about Latinas in the U.S. The stories cover such a wide spectrum of style, language and technical proficiency that the issues confronted in the individual stories become the best handle for a discussion of the collection. The editors are the first to admit that the framework of the book is thematic, the Latin-American woman writer being still in search of an identifiable voice in the literary world. As "heirs to a culture of silence" they have been excluded from the mainstream not only by their sex, but also by class, race and education. Latin American women writers in the U.S. must develop a literary tradition of their own because, even though there have been great Latin American women writers, "from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz in the seventeenth century to Julia de Burgos in the twentieth century," their work cannot reflect the historical-political experiences of Latin American women in the U.S.A. The introduction to Cuentos points out:
Unlike the Latin American writer in Latin America, the U.S. Latino writer is considered a "non-white" person and as such a "minority writer" Writing is so dependent upon education that most people of color, because they are poor, are deprived of access to recorded history or written artistic expression. This is further complicated for Latinos by the fact that we are largely born not speaking English.
Cuentos is the result of the struggle to create a context for the diversity of Latina writing. Within its pages women of backgrounds that range from the New York Puerto Rican to the Los Angeles Chicana to the South American in self-imposed exile find their individual voices and try to blend them into a clear, loud chorus of protest and disillusionment, as well as victory and joy. Their stories speak of labyrinthine boundaries and their ability to develop the strength to climb out of their personal, familial, professional prisons through self-definition. They take justifiable pride in being the first women in their families to dare break away: "Most of the writers in Cuentos are first generation writers. This means that your mother couldn't have written the story—or even helped you write it."
Though the women writers in this collection define themselves under the general labels of Latin American and feminist, their backgrounds, traditions, education, politics, and sexuality are as multitudinous and individual as their styles. Some of the stories are in standard American English, some in Spanish (ranging in dialect from the Puerto Rican to the South American) and others are in a combination of both (a practice linguists call code-switching). It is evident that the varied voices, styles and languages form an attempt at self-affirmation, and a joining together of a group of individuals within a framework of meaning and permanence.
In a working illustration of their philosophy of an all-embracing bi-culturalism the editors of Cuentos state:
In este libro, we wish to stretch la imaginacion—help the reader become accustomed to seeing two languages in a book, learning to make sense of a thing by picking up snatches here, phrases there, listening and reading differently. Cuentos validates the use of "spanglish" and "tex-mex". Mixing English and Spanish in our writing and talking is a legitimate and creative response to acculturation.
Through all the differences of language and specific background details the writers represented in this anthology are bound by the fact that the hispanic tradition mandates passivity through cultural indoctrination starting at birth, and that to break her predetermined vows of silence, chastity and obedience is considered betrayal by the Latina of her race, her family and God. This is why the Latin American women writers consider themselves mujeres en lucha; women forever struggling against the forces that would silence them.
"Cuentos" are the stories heard from our mothers and grandmothers, the only way they had, on a stormy night, or a quiet afternoon setting in the patio over a cup of café con leche, to tell us of the domestic wars and victories, the private and silent acts of heroism, courage and self-denial conducted by the women; bits of wisdom, warnings, about men, babies and other women passed down from mother to daughter.
These "cuentos" served their purpose when one could rely on the permanence of family networks and their continuance. In the great diaspora of the twentieth century, recording our legacy in written form has become imperative.
Cuentos is divided into three sections, each prefaced by an editorial-philosophical statement. (This, perhaps, is a weakness in that it focuses the reader's expectations in one direction and thus somewhat limits the scope of the stories.) The stories in "Uno" are headed by a rather impassioned editorial statement:
Feeling like we were born with too much inside of us and that we decide to express ourselves in any deeply felt way, they will think us crazy, sick, or senile. The characters in these stories are "possessed"—possessed in opposition to the forces that deny their humanity.
The first story, by Gloria Lieberman of Chile, is "La Confesion," a nightmare-like internal monologue of a woman who has been committed to an insane asylum for political reasons. There she is alternately ignored and tortured, silenced and forced to talk, and finally declared unfit. It is an extreme situation but one with which we all identify: the rage and grief of powerlessness. In "Dona Marciana Garcia" by Rocky Gomez we are made to feel the impact of a culture clash between two women of the same community: one, an old "curandera," and the other a young woman from Dona Marciana's own barrio, "who had recently graduated from nursing school and for the past year or so had been talking bad about Marciana's practice to the village women, trying to discredit her vast knowledge of herbal medicine, midwifery and occasional witchcraft." The fear of the new ways represented by Esperanza (Hope) is symbolic of the double threat that the Latin American woman faces as she emerges from her barrio and tries to join the mainstream of American life: she is distrusted by the white community for her color and language while also subject to suspicion by her own community. Old Dona Marciana concludes: "Esperanza entered the university an innocent and honest Mexican and emerged totally Americanized, casting away her old customs, traditions and beliefs, betraying not only herself but also everything la Raza held sacred."
These writers do not content themselves with denouncing the white, male-oriented society in which they conduct their varied lives; they also point out the injustices perpetrated by woman upon woman, as in the Spanish-language "Como el cristal al romperse," in which Sonia Vasquez describes the fragmented world of a Puerto Rican woman in an American hospital for the mentally ill. Her inability to express herself and her nurses' unwillingness to look beyond the surface of her needs becomes a scathing indictment of the annihilating effects of tokenism.
"Dos" presents stories about the battle for identity: the painful and continuing search for a framework of existence that will integrate their history as oppressed people, and provide them with viable alternatives to the inauthentic values imposed by societal expectations.
Many of the stories in "Dos" deal with the confusing stage between childhood's innocent acceptance and the painful discovery of being "different" in a world that rewards conformity and sameness. One of the most moving accounts of such an experience occurs in "Hunger's Scent" by the Afro-Puerto Rican, Cenen. The scene it describes is easily identified: a migrant camp site after a storm. Extreme poverty accompanied by natural disaster. The cosmic irony of "things could be worse"; but mainly it is about the humiliation of having your need exposed to the world like an open sore, and worse, having "them" pity you:
Tents had been leveled to the muddy ground and dragged off by the wind. Suddenly seeing their tent homes crumpled or spread out in puddles like untidy sheets, the kids screamed to the bus driver to stop at the entrance to the clearing they camped in. It was too late. None of us could take the pain caused by this white woman seeing our poverty. It hurt.
The loss of innocence and freedom is common to us all, whatever background we come from; for the Latin American woman, the end of childhood usually means the beginning of sex-linked alienation, of subjugation to male-oriented rules. The identity given to her is based on her willingness to comply: she must choose to be a virgen or a puta: virgin or whore. As the editors point out in "Tres": "The most severe restriction placed on the Latina is in relation to sexuality." Historical constraints inhibit the Latin American woman from freely expressing her sexuality: to be openly sexual is to be ostracized; to be different in your sexual preference, as in choosing lesbianism, may be interpreted as outright betrayal of family, nation and God.
The stories in "Tres" deal frankly with sexual choice and its consequences. They range from the poetical descriptions of Cherríe Moraga: "Then she let her mind wander and drawing the cool evening air into her mouth, holding it inside her, she imagined it like a pin of light, penetrating her ribcage, piercing her heart where the love would begin, enflaming her belly where the baby would grow," to the hilarious misadventure of Gloria, in Rocky Gomez' selection, who wants only one thing in life—to be a man. To attain this unlikely goal, Gloria sports a butch haircut and dark powder on the sides of her face to imitate a beard. She is even willing to marry a girl who claims Gloria has impregnated her.
All of the Latina's experience of love and rejection, birth, death and of coming home to find herself, are in this collection. There is anger at both sides of the two worlds they straddle, but there is also hope and reconciliation. The protagonist of Aurora Levins Morales' story says it best, returning to her hometown in Puerto Rico after self-imposed exile in San Francisco:
When I came back, I expected to be foreign. To have to introduce myself, explain. I found I was familiar, expected to show up sometimes, as all the immigrant children of the barrio are expected. The barrio nodded its head to me, asked after my family, called me by my name.
Cuentos proves that the Latin American woman in the U.S. is learning to speak for herself, not just as camp-follower for the political campaigns of others, but for herself, in her own voice, about her own experiences and dreams.
Ever since Dona Marina, also known by her Indian name Malintzin or Malinche, joined forces with Cortes in the conquest of Mexico as his translator, advisor and mistress, any Mexicana/Chicana who sells out to the white race automatically joins her ranks of betrayers of La Raza. For centuries Malintzin has played the double role of Mother of the mestizo people and patroness to "Las Vendidas."
In her collage of poems, journal entries, essays, and short stories [Loving in the War Years] Cherríe Moraga makes a strong case for the defense of Malinche, the demeaned muse of the Chicana writer, whose reputation has suffered at the hands of sexist history. Through her exploration of the personal and political drama of her own life, Moraga promotes Malinche from violated female to spiritual mother. But the road to self-discovery and empowerment is long, narrow and slick with the tears of the women who have preceded her. Her mother: "How slow and hard change is to come. How although this book has taken me from Berkeley to San Francisco to Boston, Brooklyn, Mexico, and back again, sigo siendo la hija de mi mama. My mother's daughter." Her grandmother: "She shows me her leg which has been operated on. The wound is like a huge crater in her calf—crusted open, a gaping wound. I feel her pain so critically." And her women lovers: "My first poems were love poems. That's the source—el amor, el desco—that first brought me into politics."
Despite calling herself "the eternal well of pathos," Moraga does not wallow in self-pity. Boldly, she examines the meaning of being a Chicana and a lesbian in the United States today. This requires no little sacrifice. She admits that her public self-analysis, her writing, has alienated her from her family. La familia. The one constant in a Latina's life. Yet her work has also brought her new friends, new loves and a deeper understanding of the complexity of human relationships.
Loving in the War Years reflects the author's sense of her divided self:
Some days I feel my writing wants to break itself open. Speak in a language that maybe no "readership" can follow. What does it mean that the Chicana writer, if she truly follows her own voice, may depict a world so specific, so privately ours, so full of "foreign" language to the anglo reader, there will be no publisher. The people who can understand it, don't/won't/can't read it. How can I be a writer in this? I have been translating my experience out of fear of an aloneness too great to bear. I have learned analysis as a mode to communicate what I feel the experience already speaks for. The combining of poetry and essays in this book is the compromise I make in the effort to be understood. In Spanish, "Compromiso" is also used to mean obligation or commitment. And I guess, in fact, I write as I do because I am committed to communicating with both sides of myself.
The divided self communicating with both sides of itself may be the elusive answer to the question of self-identity that confronts the Latina in the U.S. today.
Moraga recounts the anguish of being the one who breaks away from tradition, the link that outweighs the chain—the procession of suffering women: "Dolores my grandmother, Dolores her daughter, Dolores her daughter's daughter." It is in her poetry that Moraga allows herself to speak the words that set her free. But it is sometimes as if she were the vulnerable animal caught in the steel trap of her own loyalty, as if she were having to chew away at her own flesh in order to set herself free.
there is a very old wound in me
between my legs
where I have bled, not to birth
pueblos or revolutionary
concepts or simple
but a memory
of some ancient
The "ancient betrayal" is of course the haunting echo of Malinche coming down through the centuries, her restless spirit longing to be expiated by the blood of her heirs. Through Moraga's words, she defends her right to choose. "I did not move away from other Chicanos because I did not love my people. I gradually became anglicized because I thought it was the only option available to me toward gaining autonomy as a person without being sexually stigmatized."
The prose and poems construct a visual panorama of a life in which history and fiction are integrated. It is a personal integration that she seeks through her work. The process of self-analysis and self-revelation is a painful one, but Moraga does not shirk from what she has determined to be her mission, to complete the empowerment of the Chicana woman by having her realize that sexual repression is also political repression. "The extent to which our sexuality and identity as Chicanas have been distorted both within our culture and by the dominant culture is the measure of how great a source of our potential power it holds." To cast off the persistent demands of her culture, her "familia," the Chicana must be willing to take control of her own sexual destiny. The result of her defiance will be the "shunning" by her own people as a traitor to her race, Moraga argues: "even if the defiant woman is not a lesbian, she is purported to be one: for, like the lesbian in the Chicano imagination, she is una Malinchista. Like the Malinche of Mexican history, she is corrupted by foreign influences which threaten her people."
The Chicana political consciousness is so deeply involved with the "Movimiento," so used is the Chicana to fighting alongside her men for equality, that what Moraga is suggesting involves a complicated break with the chain of historical events that have formed the prescribed norms of her culture: that she will be a good, loyal daughter, then a good, loyal wife. Her bonds to her women friends, her "companeras," were to be strictly secondary, Moraga suggests that the time has come to recognize "what being a Chicana feminist means—making bold and political the love of the women of our race."
With Loving in the War Years she has established a line of communication; without hiding her vulnerability she has claimed the right of every Chicana to love herself and other women because "no one else can or will speak for us. We must be the ones to define the parameters of what it means to be female and mestiza."
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SOURCE: "Luz María Umpierre with Cherríe Moraga," in The Americas Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Summer 1986, pp. 54-67.
[In the following interview, Moraga discusses her writing and her position as a Latina writer in the United States.]
I interviewed Cherríe Moraga during the summer of 1985 at her home in Brooklyn. By then her book Loving in the War Years had been published and I was particularly interested in the essays included in the collection. I was also interested in having Cherríe Moraga herself do a self-portrait of her life as a Chicana and a Lesbian.
[Umpierre:] Artists should be allowed to do self-portraits of themselves; so, in that spirit, who is Cherríe Moraga?
[Moraga:] First of all, I am originally from Los Angeles and I am Chicana. All of my family are Chicanos. My father is Anglo, so I basically grew up in the cultural experience of Chicanos because toda la familia era chicana, but with the presence of my father throughout. I was born in 1952; I am going to be 33. I am living in New York City, where I am trying to make a living as a writer. I have lived in New York for four or four and a half years. But before that I was in California. I spent about four years living in the San Francisco Bay area. I have been seriously writing for about ten years. I wrote somewhat in college, but primarily my experience in college, in terms of writing, was terrible. I mean, they did plenty to convince me that I could not write.
Do you come from a large or a small family? What kind of environment did you grow up in?
Well, in my immediate family, I have a brother and a sister, so my immediate family was five people, but my grandmother, who just died last year, left maybe like ninety something people from her, and the majority of them live in the Los Angeles area, and many of them live in the same town. My family was basically a family of cousins and aunts and uncles, and people que siempre está ahí en la casa. And also, sometimes we had people taking care of my grandmother, you know, like mejicanas, who were also living with us, who took care of my grandmother. My grandmother lived next door for many, many years, and for a short time lived with the family. So it was like a huge family.
So it was like an extended family.
Yes, definitely, that's how you would describe it, like an extended family. Everybody in everybody's business.
Where did you go to college?
I went to college in a private school in Hollywood. Real small, it used to be like a Catholic college, and then when I went there it looked like it was very progressive. It was in the late sixties, so I went there because it was very liberal, you know, policies, etc., and I began to take some writing there, and I wrote some terrible short stories.
Why were they terrible?
Well, actually, one of the reasons why they were so terrible is because I felt very much that I was writing with secrets. I saved them to remind me of who I am and where I came from. I remember one story in particular which was about this woman who was losing her mind, and there was this homosexual seduction scene in it, and the woman, you know, the protagonist, freaks out, and it was the most homophobic thing you would ever want to read in your life. It was actually when I came out as a lesbian, which was also ten years ago, that I really felt my writing took a real major shift because it was like something had been lifted in me. If I could reveal that secret to myself, then there was very little else that was going to be more scary than that, because that was very traumatic. That made a major change in my writing and I primarily began writing as a poet.
What books have you published up to now or what books do you consider your major works?
In 1981 I published This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, which is a collection of writings by women of color here in the United States, so it has contributions by Native American women, Latinas here, African-American and Asian women. I started working on that in 1979 with Gloria Anzaldúa, who is a Chicana writer, and that work is primarily a collection of essays. Many of us have been working, doing a lot of work very isolated, sort of the token women of color in a predominantly white women's movement. So that book was an effort to really bring together the voices of women of color in the same position as me and Gloria, but all across the nation, and to some extent to begin to define a kind of feminist politics that included our own race and identities as well. That was published through The Feminist Press and soon after that I got involved with Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press. We began to work on trying to build a press for women of color. In 1983 one of our first projects was to put together a collection of writings by Latinas in the U.S. Basically the Press' dedication has always been to try to publish the works that would not be published elsewhere or would not traditionally have visibility and one of the things that struck me was that, particularly for Latinas here in the U.S., there is a huge amount of censorship and very little space left in which to put our work because we either write in Spanish and they want it in English or we write in English and they want it in Spanish or we write in both and nobody wants it. And we did a book too that came from a perspective that really took very seriously the conditions of Latinas, and which wanted to create an interest in fiction in this case. So that book is called Cuentos/Short Stories by Latinas and that was published in 1983. I edited that with Alma Gómez, who is Puerto Rican, and Mariana Romo Carmona, who is chilena.
In that same year I also published my last book which is called Loving in the War Years (Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios). That book is basically one that I had been working on for over seven years. I mean, the work covers that span of time, but the very last work in that book was an essay called "A long line of vendidas." I had originally considered the book as all being poetry because that was my major form, but there seemed to be certain things that needed to be expressed, that necessitated the form of essay, so that's like fifty pages in the book. That's a lot! What happened after doing Bridge which, as I explained, was a lot of different voices of women of color here, I found that that opened me up very much to wanting to be even more specific about my identity. It was not enough to say that I was a Third World Woman or a woman of color, that my particular experience as a Latina and even more as a Chicana was very different from that of an Asian woman or a Black woman; so that, from the first secret being revealed, it was necessary to go on. And Loving in the War Years is very much to me about being specifically Chicana and a lesbian together. That book freed me up a lot. It is very much an autobiography, but with different forms. It was the kind of book that allowed me to finally put on paper some things that needed to be down, and opened me up to being able to write things that were less specifically centered on my actual biographical experience and more about identifying with the lives of others. From then I basically started working in the theater. This form has allowed me to give voice to a lot. There have been numerous plays about Chicanos, but none particularly about Chicanas, and giving voice to all these women that I know from that very extended family gives me a greater enjoyment in writing; more than I have ever had in my life.
What in particular are you writing now? You were talking to me about the theater, do you have something already written down?
Since Loving in the War Years came out, I have three theater pieces by now, none of them are finished. They are in various stages of work. The first one I began is called Giving up the Ghost. This may end up being fiction. There are so many monologues that it's just like an oral history but with fictional characters. It's very much about the life of a character named Gorki, a girl growing up in East Los Angeles. I didn't grow up in the barrio. Everybody thinks I did. Being a Chicana, you had to grow up in East Los Angeles or in el barrio. But that was very much the world that I observed, that I was close to, and the kids I grew up with and things like that. About this little girl, Gorki, I think the whole point of this particular work is that I really need to get into the forces that form any young Chicana, in terms of sexuality and identity, and how much sexuality is so fundamental in us, seeing ourselves both as women of color and as Third World people. This girl's story starts at puberty, that's when a lot of trouble starts for us; it focuses on that and goes all the way up into her adulthood and, at this point, all happens through monologues. So that's one thing, and this tentatively may be published in the spring by Western Press, who are now in Los Angeles.
The other work is called The Shadow of a Man, which is not the title that it's going to eventually have. This play is about a Chicano family and very much about the mother of that family, and I love this. It's only in its first draft form but it's really a play. And I think at the heart of it, it's really very much about how women protect men, that the women and the daughters really have the pulse on the family, and how the men are protected and mothered by the mother, and even by the daughters and that the relationships are really much more, from what I see, in the family among Chicanos. That there can be great love between husband and wife, but the real relationships are between mother and son, and mother and daughter and father and son. There is a way in which husband and wife are often very strange to each other. I am very excited about that work because I think that there is enough outside of me that is really a pleasure to go into.
And on the last piece, I actually finished the first draft yesterday, it's called La extranjera. This is a musical, which I have never done in my life, so it's a lot about playing. It's about a relationship between a man and a woman that are married, Chicanos. The woman actually transports refugees, and deals with issues of bi-culturalism. The husband being more assimilated, and the woman being more attached to Mexico and a political refugee, a Salvadorian woman, an old lady, who arrives and moves into their home and what happens to them.
From what you are saying, what I see then is a progression.
Oh, the critic on the spot!
No, I'm just trying to pull the strings together. You are trying to deal with themes that are very much inside of you because you have lived through them and in this last description of this play, in particular, what I see is still very much the issue of the family, its importance and the divisions in the family, which of course, you experienced as a child being torn between two different parents as well as two different cultures. Is that correct?
Yes, that's correct. You know, I can't make a living just writing. I always feel that writing is so isolating that I need to be doing also work that involves me with various communities of people. In the last couple of years I have been doing work around violence against women of color, specifically rape and incest, and I never in my life thought that I would ever be involved with those issues. But there is always a connection, and somehow, organically, your writing gets involved in this kind of stuff too. Although my particular focus is the theme of the Chicano family, the Latino family, what happens in families, punto, is the heart of everything. The family is this private place, so anything is allowed to happen there, any kind of power exchanges, any kind of control; it's like the place you first learn to suffer. To me, since it's the heart of everything, it's like its own little drama, and for theater this is wonderful, because the dynamics of the family are endless. I think too, as a writer, you are very focused on your private voice, the voice inside you, so I have always gone back to where does that voice get formed? When did I first hear this little voice that separates me from all these crazy things happening around me? And that's the voice you end up writing from, and, if you don't go back to the source, you are going to be a bad writer.
Since we are talking about voice and speaking, we can certainly step to something that I want to bring out, which is the subtitle of your book Loving in the War Years, which to me is more important than the title, Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. How did you come up with that subtitle?
The first title was the original title of the book, and that was very much when the majority of the poems dealt a lot with being a lesbian, so literally it was about your love being in battles, that nobody is letting you do this. So you got to love in opposition. But towards the latter half of the book, both the poems and the essays were dealing much more with family issues, since that's the first place where you learn to suffer and also the first place where you learn to love. So how can you talk about whether you are heterosexual or gay or whatever, about loving, unless you talk about your home? My reason for writing that book was the overpowering sense that what I was writing was valuable, and specially in the last few years, to see that I had never read what I was writing about in any place. So that I was writing about things that I perceived in my family or violence that I experienced against me or people I loved. I knew the whole thing was completely taboo, and I experienced that when I was writing it because everything I began to write I never thought I would publish. And I had to tell myself that I wasn't going to publish it so I could write it. And afterwards, I would put it away, thinking that it was possible, that maybe it could be published. If I didn't read it to myself after being written, then I thought that it wasn't appropriate to be read by others.
Or it wasn't appropriate to be said.
Or it hasn't been said. That's what I'm saying, if it hasn't been said, it's not supposed to exist, so you're making it up anyway. So lo que nunca pasó por sus labios is like trying to make it be said, to come out of your mouth because it has never been said, that was the major thrust of the line; that's how I felt.
So if I were to tell you that writing to you is a vicarious experience, that it comes from the experiences that you have lived in the past, and that that's what your writing is about, would that be correct?
Well, I'm only 33 years old, what I'm seeing happening now is that I feel that there are certain chronological limitations. I'll be writing something when I'm 60, that I could never conceive of now, so in some level I don't feel that is just because it happened to me. I felt that that's what Loving in the War Years was, but that's not what my writing is now, because what I'm finding is that I believe in racial memory. Like for instance, when I go to Mexico, there are certain things that come up for me that I think I'm not supposed to feel because I was born in L.A.; I am Chicana. Why do I feel like I know how to act in Mexico? And it comes from someplace else.
Like a collective memory.
Exactly, so I believe in that and I believe that what I need to do as a writer is to continue opening my heart bigger and bigger, and bigger, so that my capacity to identify increases: so everything is possible to be written. That makes you a better writer because you then know that on some level you should be able to empathize with your enemies in order to write that conflict as the conflicts experienced in life. You don't have to like them or even agree with them, but if you are going to show what really happened, then you need to do that. I feel that for me it has been expanding and expanding what I'm capable of experiencing in my writing.
Do you consider yourself part of a tradition, a literary tradition or a non-literary tradition?
That's a very hard question to answer. Norma Alarcón asked me that question before, but she was asking more in terms of literary tradition. I think in this country, in the U.S., the tradition with which I feel most affinity—it's funny, because it really doesn't exist now—is the tradition of writers from the 30's who were largely from the working class, and they wrote out of the Depression. That's the only time in this country in which Blacks and Chicanos had a cultural movement of writing. But the thing that was very particular about this group was that it occurred at a time when lots and lots of people were nationally mobilized and that there was this literature that was coming out of it that was really not necessarily from educated people. It came out a lot from telling stories. But it was done with the consciousness that the way things were was not the way things should be. They were outside writers. I think it's really weird to be a U.S. writer. I can't identify with a U.S. writer, because that picture doesn't describe me.
When you go to Mexico and they ask about North American writers, they are thinking of white people. They are not thinking of Chicanos, they are not thinking of Black people, so on some level I can't identify with that tradition at all, neither in content or form. And I am not a Latin American writer, the main reason being that I write predominantly in English, but also because it's not my world. And yet, I can see elements in my writing, particularly in my last production of La extranjera, which are Latin American. There was a certain sensibility in it that had a lot to do with indigenous influences and also a kind of emotional sensibility that is puro latino. So in some level, that's part of the tradition I grew up from, and I think it's also somewhat like different levels of reality; there being an internal reality, and an external reality. So I see that as being very latino, very Latin American, and I have it.
There was this woman that looked like a real theater person, this white woman, that saw this production of Giving up the Ghost, and she came after me and said to me. "Have you ever read," its name slipped out of my mind, but it was a play by Garcia Lorca. And I said no, and I had only read then Bodas de sangre; that was a couple of years ago, and since she told me, I started reading more of Lorca's. To a large degree as a writer, I am not that well read, do you know what I mean? She found it very hard to believe that I had not read Lorca because then she said: "This is the first time that it really occurs to me that it's true, that there is a cultural sensibility, it's not just that you copied it, but that in fact it's in your blood, that you experienced it." I think too that saying that I'm not well read, also makes me not know if I come from a literary tradition. I am very literate in English and I am not as literate in Spanish, and I refuse to read translations any more, so for me, like right now I'm reading Rosario Castellanos; for me to read a novel in Spanish, is like being in the fourth grade. It's very hard to see that your mind is already in one place of development and the language barrier slows you down. It occurs to me that I have things in common with some Latin American writers. Like the first time I read Pedro Páranto [Juan Rulfo], it blew my mind because there was a sort of sabor that was in it that was very familiar to me, that in fact even reading that novel, I felt like it kind of went into some place inside me that won't come up.
So you are talking about having read Rosario Castellanos, Pedro Páramo; so you are not as illiterate in Spanish as you are trying to convince me.
No, but what I'm telling you is that this is a very late development, and it is hard to explain, because I feel too like, for a lot of it, I had to study. You know, I went to school, and I graduated from college, but that's not the issue. But it is a fact that when I went to high school, I never read a book. I like to read, but I could never read a book from front to cover. I wasn't a reader, which a lot of writers are. I was like a doer. Our family was the first generation to go to college. So I am sitting in the classroom and all these kids have read everything; it seemed to me that they had read everything and I had read nothing. In my first year of college I read 30 books. I just sat down, like work, and read them. I don't even know what I got, but it was just that kind of thing, and there has always been that sense of catching up.
I already told you my reasons for not writing well in college. But it also had to do with not really being seen as the type of person to be a writer, because I was a woman, Chicana, and you know, I wasn't their type. The people who were writers were the white males, and some of the white women, and then when I got involved in Feminism, the same thing happened. I went into these women writers' workshops, and I started writing in the voice of the people that I knew, and I was told that I needed to read because I didn't have a big enough vocabulary. This totally beat my spirit. It was very ironic. And also I had written a love poem to a woman and in the middle of the poem I said "she" and the women at the workshop told me that wasn't right, because you are a woman writer, and the readers think that you are writing to a man and so you can't do that. You have to prepare your reader and not use "she" in the middle of the poem. So in both of those counts, what I remember was: one, that I didn't have enough words, which was the class thing; and two, that I couldn't write a poem to a woman. So I packed my bags and I moved to San Francisco, to the Bay area, and started collecting unemployment. And I decided that I was going to give it a year, and I was going to read my ass off. I was just going to read and read and I was going to write.
What did you read?
I read all white literature.
From what you read, what things did you like?
I read a lot of lesbian literature, because I had never read any lesbian literature, so I did a lot of investigation on that—because that was going to take care of both things, you could be a lesbian and a writer—and also I was reading. I also read a lot of Adrienne Rich, and I wrote. That was the year in which, at the end of it, I came up with that poem that is in Loving in the War Years, "For the Color of My Mother." I basically decided that I would give it a year and make these readings and, if by the end of the year I was shit, I would never write again, which I think has a lot to do with class stuff. Because I basically felt that if I was no good, I was not going to spend my life doing this. You have to make a living; you have to have a life, and if you are not going to make it, you can't be bullshitting around. So everything kind of rode on that. I did these readings and it was great. There were at least two poems in all the things that I wrote that I knew were good poems. And they ended up being things like "For the Color of My Mother" that had everything to do with the seeds of other things that I'll be writing later. So what I am finding is again the same kind of problem: that as a Latina writer, I am being exposed to people who are Latinos, but for one thing, very well educated in the language that I basically know on a familiar level.
It seems that you have a great deal of anguish over the problem of language, and I want you to talk about that.
Well, that's what I was going to say, that when that woman told me that I didn't have enough words, the irony of it all was that I was right from the jump, but I didn't know it. You have to go through your journeys to find that out. What gets me is that I feel that there are a lot of potentially good writers along the way who are burnt so bad, they don't get it out. What I am finding, particularly doing theater, is that my ability to remember verbatim how people talk, to remember the poetry in using Spanglish, to really know those voices is not a question of having more words. It was a question of deepening into the words that exist. So in the theater it comes out because I have a lot of characters doing one line in English and one in Spanish and there is really a lot of switching back and forth. In the theater that I have been involved with, nobody else does it; it's all a Latin American group of people that I'm working with and basically everybody, for the purposes of the theater, needs to write predominantly in English and so everybody writes completely in English with a few exceptions.
When I first started coming out with this English and Spanish, people started saying, "Wait a minute, what is this?" and it kind of became an issue, not a controversy, but it brought up a lot of discussion among us. I felt very defensive about it because I could not have, for example, this character, Hortensia, talking completely in English. It would not have worked. In this last play I did that more and I think it was less effective. It takes all this conviction to believe that the emotional comprehension will be there, even if somebody misses a line because they don't understand English, or they miss a line because they don't understand Spanish. So in terms of the issue about language being important is that to me that's the only way of refining, of having a fine tune, to what is close and what I know. It's like even in the essays that I write, like knowing that is all right to put in a journal entry. If that journal entry had the heart of whatever it is that you needed to say. I am not anti-intellectual, I've never been anti-intellectual, but it's that that kind of language is not necessarily the only language to use to talk about an idea.
That's very important because I think that the problem that some people are having in dealing with your work and the works of other women writers, especially of Hispanic origin in this country, is that you don't fit boundaries of genres. That you cannot be pinpointed and they cannot say this is totally a poem, because a poem of yours may be an essay, and an essay may turn into poetry. Therefore genre boundaries are broken here. I think that's an important issue that has to be dealt with.
Yes, but then you think, who invented the genres anyway? and what really gets me is that it would be different if I had a choice, but I don't have a choice. Anytime I have attempted to write at those other ways, I am a lousy writer. That's the way it comes out. Just because I'm mixing genres, it doesn't mean that it's not right. It's a different criteria about what should be omitted in the editing process, and since I've worked so much as an editor too, particularly for women of color, I have a different set of criteria. What is important for me is how to get the best part of the voice alive and keep it alive.
That's an important point that you are bringing out, the question of who determines what is artistic and what isn't. That is at the core of this issue of genre that we were talking about. In regard to the essays in Loving in the War Years that you have mentioned before as having been more difficult to write than the poetry—even though, in my opinion, the essays in that collection are a cornerstone and the closest we have been to having a political voice in writing as Hispanic lesbians in the U.S.—why were they difficult to write?
Well, I think some of it is actually a very practical problem, because I feel that when you are working in creative writing, like poetry or theater, there is an organic kind of organization of materials that happens. But when you are also trying to combine ideas and particularly when you are not just keeping with ideas, but you are also involved with poetic combining, like the journals, I have a real hard time. I think that has something to do with training. I know that somehow not having the training has helped me because then I value kinds of writings that may have gotten x'd out. But not having the training also hurts me in the sense that I always feel that I have more to say than I'm ready to deal with. What happens is that in that particular essay, which is only 50 pages, when you think about all the ideas that are in there, it could have been much longer, and emotionally what it took me to do that was so immense that I had to say: I am not willing to. The way I look at it now is that I think that in many ways it's like an outline. An outline which the only way in which it is going to be developed is through the other writings that I am doing.
One of the things that really hit me, that came to me as a revelation when I was writing "A long line of vendidas" was that I understand oppression; I understand what homophobia is. I know the kinds of oppressions people go through, I have gone through as a lesbian, but the answers to what it means to me to be a Latina lesbian, I would not find out unless I understand the sexuality of heterosexual women as well as lesbians who are Latinas. We came from the same family. It does not serve me to be isolated from them, either theoretically or politically. They would not want me as a sister, but the fact of the matter is that I am their clue. Lesbians are their clue to who they are as heterosexual women, or as simply sexual women who have put their attachments to men, and I put mine to women, but we are like the same breed, whether we want to see or not. That to me was a great revelation. One which can be analyzed or explained on paper, but doesn't move me to the degree that having Hortensia living it in the play does. I change through that, I am relieved, I can go on. I needed to write that essay out of a political necessity, but it did not bring me the joy or the relief of finally having Hortensia in the play.
The man in Latino culture comes and goes; he puts his thing inside, but that doesn't make him a father. And the mother, her sexuality and independence are so apparent. Even though they think we are submissive, we are incredibly independent. Inside our private lives, we were never voiced. It's like Hortensia is not someone who is going to, by any stretch of the imagination, consider herself a Feminist. She lies constantly, gives the man his little things, puts him up. She lives her life, but she is not full. And to write her talking, I love it, I am completely relieved, I feel very vindicated on some level. It's like saying yes, these women exist, I wasn't nuts. But to analyze that is different. I could not have given Hortensia voice until some of those things were put on paper in the form of an essay. And there are times always for that form to come up again, it will come up again, but it's not a form that I feel comfortable with, that I enjoy. It's very drenching.
Well, it may be drenching, but it's incredibly important. When you write, do you think of an ideal audience? Do you think of someone that you want to communicate with, some particular audience, some particular reader, or is it more a writer trying to simply get things out of her system?
I think it depends on what I am writing. I think primarily the basis of it is my relationship to myself. If it works for me, if it moves me, or it reflects back something that seems true. I mean, I discover my writing, I don't plan it. If I discover it, then I know it's true. So I am the audience. The other thing is that depending on the form, like for instance with "A long line of vendidas," there were definitely times when I had a certain audience in mind, and you can almost see it from section to section. There was one point, when I talked about la Malinche that I am definitely talking to a Chicano audience, heterosexual male. I'm still keeping my own voice, but clearly they are the people that I am trying to explain it to. There is another section where I feel that the audience is white Feminists.
Speaking of Feminists, what kind of feminism do you purport?
That is also hard to answer because I think I have been very discouraged by the Feminist Movement, so, you get me on one of my bad days and I'll say "those feminists." I remember what Feminism meant to me when it occurred to me that there was an analysis on sexual oppression. I would never say I was not a Feminist. I thought feminism made visible a lot of very invisible kinds of oppressions that happened indoors. The kind of feminism that I believe in, I guess, is one that is almost so integrated into other struggles that it almost threatens to become invisible again, but it can't. What I mean by that is that just me, as a person, for instance, if I'm working in a Latino situation that's dominated by men, it's like you are bringing in the missing element, your consciousness as a Feminist. If I'm working with white women, it's like feminism isn't the issue to me there. I'm bringing other elements like racism, etc.
The thing that I value about feminism is that it is hooked up with the personal life and most of the movements have never done that, so I feel that I have to hold fast to that, and I don't care where I go, nobody is going to tell me that what happens in our personal private lives is not a political issue. I think feminism on some level has beat that to death and it has made a lot of excuses around that, made trivial lies of very powerful notions. I am concerned about, in any given situation, who has the power and who doesn't, and to examine that with a political analysis and how does that affect us personally. My enemy might look just like me, if for some reason or another, he or she has the power. Feminism is the only movement that has allowed the so called "invisible oppression" to become visible. The analysis and the practical implications of that have to be integrated into all struggles: imperialism, etc.
Do you have much contact with other Latina writers?
Mostly friendship networks, more than anything else. It depends on the projects, when I was writing Cuentos, I had a lot of involvement with other Latina writers.
What I am trying to get at is do you consider yourself a part of a group of writers or a generation of writers?
No, not yet. I feel very isolated as a Latina and a writer. I feel that it really is about writing in resistance, trying to go into places, like for instance, working in the theater, which is a Latin American theater, and to go in there to learn skills that other people might have, but to try to keep my own voice and my own vision. I feel that I am a part of a movement of women of color writers. I feel that I have gotten a lot of inspiration from Black women writers in this country. I think that in English they are really writing the hottest thing around, and I admire their kind of bravery for the issues that they bring up. I get a lot of courage from their work, but we are culturally very different, so it's not like I can turn to them, particularly the more Spanish I use, and say "Can you give me support for this?" I am in a writing group that has two working class white women, two black women and myself, and they are wonderful people and they support my work very much, but there is definitely this place where I am not going to get the feedback and the push I need, and the only place I get that is from friends. But even the Latina writers I know who are writing are suffering under the same thing, so we even have this sort of self imposed isolation as well. You feel so bad about what you are doing, or it's so hard for you to feel that you have a right to write it that you would not even be telling your friend that you need her to read it.
There is another question which is something that I normally ask, at least to the writers that I talk to, either formally or informally, because sometimes I feel that I live a double life in which, on the one hand, I have to speak like a critic because, if not, I will not be able to live in an academic world and gain food for my own subsistence; but, on the other hand, I have my heart where it really is, which is in writing, so sometimes I think that that's one of the things some critics lose track of, that we should be asking writers to tell us what can we do in order to let them be more visible, what are we doing that is wrong. This is something that I feel, that, as a Feminist critic, it is important for us to get feedback from the writers.
Well, I thought a lot about reviews and criticism ever since Loving in the War Years came out, because the book has gotten very little visibility, which has made me then kind of aware of what the problem is with criticism. I feel that mine is not a book that can easily be played back, and that it also involves some kind of involvement from the critic to deal with the issues that the book brings up. I feel for the most part that's not what most critics are willing to do. When I read a review, I look to the critic to give me kind of like a sign pulse, also to be sometimes like this bridge between me as a writer and the audience because criticism has worked that way for me. If I like a work, then I go and I read a review about it. It sometimes helps me understand it and gives the book more depth, so I feel that in the scholarly sense, in the sense of studying, in the sense of the criticism, it really is taking the book to heart and then being able to say to some people, "Look at this," and "You see this?" Like for instance. Mirta Quintanales has done a study in which she was saying how many times I mentioned the word "mouth" in Loving in the War Years. She has made this connection with what that meant, and I am so excited, because I am not consciously putting in "mouth" every so often. But it also teaches me about what it was I was after. And when that is played back to me, it makes me realize that my expression has some kind of organic cohesiveness, and that's very exciting and also very helpful. What it does to me is that it gives me a lot of confidence, that if I stay close to the bone of my work, that it will have an organic whole, that it will make sense, my conscious makes sense, and that's all that really matters.
So it's that, and also, I'll like to see, and occasionally it has happened, somebody saying what's missing, and not just "The writer should have done this," but "This is where we need to go from here," "This is what is missing here," and "Why is this missing?" "Is the writer chickening out?" Writing is such an isolated thing, and I have always had this fantasy of writing in a community, and that seldom happens, but the critic can be a part of that. So it's not incumbent upon me to answer everything, but the critic's role is to say "This is not an answer."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327
SOURCE: Review of Giving Up the Ghost, in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 41, No. 1-2, 1987, p. 127.
[In the following review, Paredes notes that Giving Up the Ghost "represents the most radical element of contemporary Chicana writing" because of Moraga's portrayal of sexual relationships and Roman Catholic culture in the Mexican-American community.]
A self-described "Chicana lesbian," [Cherríe] Moraga earlier published Loving in the War Years, a collection of stories, poems, and essays notable for their passion and intelligence. In her latest work, a two-act play entitled Giving Up the Ghost, Moraga develops explicitly Chicano contexts and characters: the play is set in the East Los Angeles barrio and her characters speak authentically in the English-Spanish patois associated with the pachuco culture of urban teenagers. The two main characters, Marisa and Amalia, come to accept the superiority of homosexual love after Marisa endures a brutal rape as a schoolgirl in a Catholic school and Amalia experiences the death of her male lover. At several points in the play, Marisa appears as her "younger self," the pachuca Corky who recognizes, after her rape, that her pretended toughness not only cannot protect her against predatory men but violates her instinctive tenderness. Only in their lesbian relationship can Marisa and Amalia realize their full potentialities as loving human beings.
Giving Up the Ghost represents the most radical element of contemporary Chicana writing. Moraga portrays heterosexual love as inherently abusive, an act of violent penetration which in the context of the excessively masculine culture of Mexican Americans becomes more brutal still. Her location of Marisa's rape in a Catholic school suggests her distrust of the Church's traditional patriarchy and its promise of protection to innocent and virtuous women. What is perhaps most remarkable about Moraga is her unwillingness to abandon Mexican American culture as hopelessly misogynistic; she clings to her ethnic identity fiercely, demanding in her work that the culture transform itself in behalf of women's rights of self-determination.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5561
SOURCE: "'A Deep Racial Memory of Love': The Chicana Feminism of Cherrie Moraga," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, 1989, pp. 48-61.
[In the following essay, Sternbach examines Moraga's attempts to return to the pre-Malinche Latino notion of womanhood in her feminism.]
One of the most pressing and current feminist debates in the U.S. is the long-standing complaint that U.S. Third World women have lodged in regard to the continued racism within Anglo-American feminist circles; the accusations tend to focus on the latter's failure to acknowledge, take into account, or address the issues of women of color. Even the most well-intentioned feminists find themselves being asked about, and thus responding to, the questionability of women's liberation when an entire population is oppressed. During the seventies, a new genre of Chicana poetry emerged that began to address some of those issues; in them, the Chicana speaker rails against the Anglo-American women's liberationist for her condescension, her lack of sensitivity, and her choosing of the agenda for all women. Such is the context for Marcela Lucero's poem, "No More Cookies, Please":
you invited me
but your abortion idealogy
failed to integrate me.
Over cookies and tea
you sidled up to me and said
'Sisterhood is powerful.'
Certainly Chicanas were not alone in their evaluation of the Anglo-American feminist movement. In Black activist and academic circles, to mention only a few, open debates with some of the most widely respected feminist theorists in the Anglo-American world took place; again, the accusations focused on white women having co-opted, generalized, condescended to, or ignored the perspective of women of color. These debates were public, as we can appreciate from Audre Lorde's "Open Letter to Mary Daly" and Barbara Smith's "Towards a black feminist criticism,"2 and served as a springboard to openly raising the questioning that remains controversial today. Because of these and many other initiatives, some Anglo-American feminists began to appreciate that their presumptuousness about the "liberation" of "minority women" was actually preventing any meaningful dialogue from taking place between white and Third World women. Likewise we learned that our own problematized definition of liberation was not a model to be imposed on others. Nothing could be clearer than Chicana poet Bernice Zamora's recent affirmation: "I'm not a feminist because I wish not to imitate the North American white woman."3
Those of us who are bilingual (and many of us who are not) have noticed one of the few Spanish words that fully and completely integrates itself into everyday English is "machismo." More dramatically, we have begun to hear a feminine form, macha, a tough, patriarchally-defined woman who is not necessarily of Latina heritage. We are familiar, too, with the complaints of Anglo-American women traveling in Latin American countries, about what they have called "the rampant machismo," and their testimonies that read like diatribes against a culture they claim to love. They wonder aloud how their Latin American counterparts can tolerate it. Likewise, we hear the defenses of these cultures; machismo is just as prevalent in the U.S., but with greater degrees of subtleties; a far higher percentage of women are doctors and lawyers in Latin America than in the U.S., a fact that has been true for most of the century and is not simply the result of the liberation movements of the seventies. There is a respect for the older woman in the Latin American culture that the U.S. would do well to learn and practice as well.4
A further complication of the question was incorporated into a Chicana's response to the machismo from which she personally suffered. Such has been the case in poems like "Machismo Is Part of Our Culture":
Hey Chicano bossman
don't tell me that machismo is part of our culture
if you sleep
and marry W.A.S.P.
You constantly remind me,
me, your Chicana employee
is part of our culture.
I'm conditioned, you say,
to bearing machismo
which you only learned
day before yesterday.
At home you're no patrón
your liberated gabacha
has gotcha where
she wants ya.
y a mi me ves cara
de steppin' stone.
Your culture emanates
from Raza poster on your walls
from bulletin boards in the halls
and from the batos who hang out at the barrio bar.
Chicanismo through osmosis
acquired in good doses
to remind me
is part of our culture.
In Lorna Dee Cervantes' poem, "Para un revolucionario," the speaker must remind her "carnal" that she, too, is Raza and would like to share in the dream of the revolution that, up until that time, he had only offered to his hermanos:
Pero your voice is lost to me, carnal,
in the wail of tus hijos
in the clatter of dishes
and the pucker of beans on the stove.
Your conversations come to me
de la sala where you sit,
spreading your dream to brothers,
where you spread that dream like damp clover
for them to trod upon,
when I stand here reaching
para ti con manos bronces that spring
from mi espíritu
(for I too am Raza).
We also learned that sexuality and its free choice and practice—a major component of white feminism—was simply not a unilateral agenda for women of color, or not always prioritized as it was with white feminists. Rather, we began to see that it had to be viewed concurrently with other issues such as class, ethnicity, cultural norms, traditions, and the paramount position of the family. This issue alone resulted in difficult lessons for white women who had not yet begun to perceive the complexities of being a Latina woman in the U.S., let alone a Latina feminist.
For all of these reasons, Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasópor sus labios is a timely and important work.7 It is a compendium of nearly a decade of Moraga's works that includes short fiction, poetry, and testimonial essay. Two of those essays, whose length comprise the majority of that book, contain the essence of Moraga's thinking, incorporating dreams, journal entries, and poetry as part of her testimonial discourse. One of the essays in particular, a work she has entitled "A Long Line of Vendidas," addresses some of the issues I have just mentioned and will be the focus of this essay.
The naming of this essay (a title appropriated, whose meaning is then reassigned, an ironic and contemporary use of the term "vendida") not only connects Moraga to a mestiza Chicana past but also questions, reevaluates, and finally takes issue with it. As we shall see, the customary uses of the vendida myth are restructured in Moraga's analysis in order to forge a reevaluation of the Malinche legend from which it derives.
The entire collection begins with the words: "Este libro covers a span of seven years." From the outset, the speaker prepares the reader for the bilingual text that ensues: the trajectory of the light-skinned Chicana whose paternal Anglo surname8 helps her pass for white in a culture that demands conformity from her. Submerged into this dominant culture, alien to her maternal Chicana heritage, Moraga uses the act of writing as a process of concientización in order to reclaim her Chicanismo. The writer's relationship with her text, as a medium by which to define and articulate herself, parallels a process of withdrawal and then renewal; that is, her separation from both family and culture lasts until she is eventually led back to these heritages as the política (radical political woman) of the last essay whose feminist, lesbian consciousness offers us a theoretical basis for some of the above-mentioned issues.
Her purpose, she tells us in the introduction, is not merely artistic or literary, but rather political "because we are losing ourselves to the gavacho" (p. iii). In this sense, the book itself becomes a kind of sacrificial offering, thereby aligning it with other Latin American testimonial texts whose purposes are to counteract or give voice to a certain historical circumstance by the act of writing or converting oneself into what René Jara has called, "testigo, actor y juez."9 That which Moraga witnesses, acts upon, and judges is the confluence of the two social movements that inform her discourse: the women's movement and the Chicano movement.
In an act that places her within her historic and literary moment, Cherríe Moraga (like so many Chicana/o writers) draws upon, conjures, reinvents, and reinterprets Mexican myth and pre-Hispanic heritage. Like other Chicana writers of her generation (and certain Mexican writers of the previous one). Moraga begins her own analysis by a contemporary Chicana feminist application of the Malinche myth and its personal significance to her. While Moraga is not original in her desire to reassess Malinche, her view of the myth does offer a sharp departure from contemporary Chicana re-evaluations. In both literature and criticism, Malinche's mythical presence has affirmed the fact that neither Mexicans or Chicanos (although for different reasons in each case) have made their peace with her. When Chicana writers began their re-assessment, almost all of them spoke in counterpoint to Octavio Paz' landmark essay, "Los hijas de la Malinche," calling themselves instead "las hijas de la Malinche."
Paz' work underscores the need for Mexicans to examine their history in order to elucidate answers to their questions of identity. Paz sees Malinche as the ultimate Mother figure, but neither the Great Mother embodied in the female deities of the Aztec empire nor the Virgin Mother as represented by Guadalupe. Rather, she is the mythical, even metaphorical mother, her flesh serving as a symbol of the Conquest, the rape of Mexico.10
The well-known story is as follows: Malinche's mother, in an act of respect or fear toward her new husband, sold her daughter into slavery so that the son born of the new marriage would inherit both the title and the crown due the young Malintzín Tenepal (Malinche). When Hernán Cortés arrived in Tabasco, Malintzín was among the group of young women presented to him. Because Malinche grew up in the Valley of Mexico, she spoke Nahuatl; her residence with the Tabasco Indians made her bilingual. Soon thereafter she also learned Spanish and with this, the Spaniards renamed her doña Marina. Thus, by the time she set off with Cortés (actually to return home), she had already been offered twice as an object of exchange by the weaker of two parties in order to assuage any possible violence by the stronger.
This act, inspiring countless poems by both Mexican and Chicana writers, has offered as many points of view. Perhaps because Malinche is associated with the Aztec past, mestizaje, and violence of the Conquest, she may also be read as a metaphor for the silencing of the Indian voice that encased this act. Thus, in Rosario Castellanos' poem "La Malinche," for example, the poet puts words into Malinche's mouth, making her the speaker who now protests her use as an object of exchange, a currency traded for coffee beans, a colonized object who berates the woman responsible for the transaction—her mother. Although sympathetic to her plight, by such a characterization Castellanos simultaneously allows the reader to imagine Malinche's voice while still casting her as a victim.11 Thus, the victimization of Malinche does not represent a contrary view to many male writers of her generation.12
Chicana poet Lucha Corpi also writes about her as a victim in her series, "Marina Poems." In the one entitled "Marina Mother," the speaker sums up Malinche's dilemma by addressing herself to Malinche's mother:
Tú no la querías ya y él la negaba
y aquel que cuando niño ¡mamá! le gritaba
cuando creció le puso por nombre "la chingada."
If these poets seem to indicate a Malinche vindication (and they are seconded by what can now be called a Chicana tradition of writers, critics, and historians such as Norma Alarcón, Cordelia Candelaria, Adelaida del Castillo, and Marcela Lucero-Trujillo),14 others have written about how painful it is to be Malinche or her daughter ("como duele ser Malinche"),15 or how they long for her to redeem them, or to finally speak in her own voice, as in Sylvia Gonzales' "I Am Chicana":
I am Chicana
Waiting for the return
of la Malinche,
to negate her guilt,
and cleanse her flesh
of a confused Mexican wrath
which seeks reason
to the displaced power of Indian deities.
I am Chicana
Waiting for the coming of a Malinche
to sacrifice herself
on an Aztec altar
and Catholic cross
in redemption of all her forsaken daughters.
In a later Chicana rendition of Malinche, the speaker is Malinche herself, Malinche the feminist, Malinche who addresses herself to Cortés after his refusal to marry her, even after she bears his child:
Huhn-y para eso te di
mi sangre y mi pueblo!
Sí, ya lo veo, gringo desabrido,
tanto así me quieres
que me casarás con tu subordinado Don Juan,
sin más ni más
como si fuera yo
un kilo de carne
—pos ni que fueras mi padre
pa' venderme a tu antojo
güero infeliz …
For Moraga, then, beginning to write, that is, an articulation of her Chicana identity, must include a re-evaluation of the problematic "role-model" Malintzín, the "traitor" and "chingada" she was taught to hate, mistrust, and never, under any circumstances, emulate. Even the Chicana who is unaware of Malinche's historical role "suffers under her name," Moraga claims. By underscoring the inherent contradiction in Malinche's dilemma (and, by association, all Mexican and Chicana women's), Moraga also confronts her own problem and resultant pain: the daughter betrayed by a mother who showed preference for her male children. What makes Moraga's assessment different is that in this case the daughter, in turn, is accused of betraying her race by choosing the sex of her mother as the object of her love. On the one hand, the importance of family and the closeness and attachment of the mother/daughter relationship is "paramount and essential in our lives" because the daughter can always be relied upon to "remain faithful a la madre" (p. 139). But the converse is not always the case; while the fidelity of the daughter is expected, the mother, who is also socialized by the culture, does not always reciprocate. It is here that Moraga parts company with other Chicana writers.
While other writers focus on Malinche herself as if they were her actual daughters, Moraga prefers to direct her analysis toward Malinche's mother, likening her to her own. A case in point is that, for both Malinche and Moraga, brothers were their mothers' choice. In order to show her "respect [for] her mother" (p. 90), the young Moraga was required not only to wait on her adolescent brother and his friends, but also to do so graciously.
The legacy of Malinche also lingers for any woman with the audacity to consider her own needs before those of the men of her family. By placing herself (or any woman, including her daughter) first, she is accused of being a traitor to her race (p. 103). By fulfilling her daughter's desire and need for love, the mother is also labeled la chingada. Her "Mexican wifely duty" means that sons are favored, husbands revered. "Traitor begets traitor," Moraga warns: like mother, like daughter. Malinche's mother, then, was the first traitor (mother) who begot the second one (daughter).
While Moraga stresses the daughter's inevitable pain with the discovery of this truth, she equates that pain with Malinche's: "What I wanted from my mother was impossible" (p. 103). In this respect, she focuses on Malinche's relationship with her mother: a daughter betrayed. All of these factors contribute to the cultural messages the young Chicana learns about herself and ultimately internalizes: that is, the "inherent unreliability of women" and female "natural propensity for treachery" (pp. 99-101).
Moraga continues the Malinche analogy by stressing her own identity as the product of a bicultural relationship: the daughter of a white father and a brown mother. "To be a woman," a brown woman, and a Chicana entailed reclaiming the "race of my mother." It meant loving the Chicana in herself and in other women; it meant departing from her mother and Malinche's model and "embrac[ing] no white man" (p. 94). It meant finally returning to the race of her mother through her love for other women—her Chicana lesbianism. Although Moraga acknowledges that her mother may be a "modern-day Chicana Malinche" (p. 117) by marrying a white man, she herself, the "half-breed Chicana," in a departure from both these predecessors and a transgression of all standards and norms, chooses a sexuality "which excludes all men, and therefore, most dangerously Chicano men" (p. 117). It is an act that labels her as the worst traitor of all, a "malinchista," one who is swayed by foreign influences. Her conclusion, paradoxically, brings her back to her people, the people of her mother: "I come from a long line of vendidas" (p. 117), she confesses, although she is obviously giving a new and perhaps reclaimed meaning, if such a thing is possible, to the word vendida.
In this new vocabulary, vendida refers to how Moraga is perceived rather than how she perceives herself. Similarly, it allows its author to poke fun at such labels. The term, like "bruja" and "loca," used specifically to trivialize women's experience, can now be seen as an act of female empowerment. Such appears to be the case for Moraga. In order to avoid being classified in this manner, she must be servile to one man and she must denounce her sexual love for women. In order to be the socially accepted Chicana, even if she is a politically active radical, she must not question the foundational basis of her loyalty and commitment to la causa, a commitment that, in Moraga's view, also entails an unswerving heterosexuality, a sexual loyalty to the Chicano male (p. 105).
Moraga reports that the current debate among Chicana women focuses on how to "get their men right" (p. 105) rather than on questioning the premises of what Adrienne Rich has called "compulsory heterosexuality."18 The Chicana feminist who critiques sexism in the Chicano community finds herself in a personal, political, and racial bind. She will be called vendida if she finds the "male-defined and often anti-feminist" values of the Chicano community difficult to accept. She will be accused of selling out to white women, of abandoning her race, of having absorbed the struggle of the middle class, of being malinchista, "puta," or "jota" (p. 98), even if she is heterosexual; it is greatly exacerbated if she is not. Thus, her role is not only the gender-neutral one of joining her man in earning a living and struggling against racism, but is also the gender-specific one as cultural nurturer, responsible, among other tasks, for the socialization of children. If she then cares to "challenge sexism," she will undergo this particular struggle single-handedly because this juggling act will also require that she "retain … her femininity so as not to offend or threaten her man" (p. 107). In this sense, Moraga sees her in the same light as the "Black Super-woman," the myth that only black women themselves were able to dispel.
In order to be a Chicana feminist, then, it is not enough for Moraga to examine the lost pages of history in order to reclaim female heroes, though this is one of its essential ingredients. Too often, these female luminaries are presented in relation to their men instead of in their own right. Calling this the "alongside-our-man-knee-jerk-phenomenon,"19 Moraga asserts that the most valuable work being done in Chicana scholarship is that which puts "the female first, even when it means criticizing el hombre" (p. 107). She finally concludes that learning to do a self-study of one's culture, learning to read it critically, is not analogous to betrayal of that culture (p. 108).
In that vein, she takes issue with Chicana historians, guilty of the "knee-jerk phenomenon," who have attempted to trivialize the white women's movement as having nothing to offer them. Perhaps, because it was precisely within this movement that Moraga herself sought refuge and found it, she is particularly sensitive to this charge. Although her essay does not reveal this personal information, and the entire book could hardly be read as an apology to white feminism, it does contain a list of activities in which feminist women of color have been working at the grass-roots level for a decade: sterilization abuse, battered women's shelters, rape crisis centers, health care, and more (p. 106). Thus, she is quick to note that the use of white male theoreticians, such as Marx and Engels, is perfectly acceptable within the Chicano community but, paradoxically, the use of white female theoreticians is not, either within the Chicana or Chicano community. "It is far easier for the Chicana to criticize white women who … could never be familia, than to take issue with or complain … to a brother, uncle, father" (pp. 106-7).
The heterosexual Chicana who criticizes her male counterpart or relatives will jeopardize her chances of receiving male approval, be it through her son or her lover: an approval necessary to being a política, an approval that allows access to, or a taste of, male privilege, an approval that will procure her a husband. She is what Evangelina Enríquez and Alfredo Mirandé have identified as the "contemporary vendida."20 This situation is further exacerbated if she is not heterosexual, although these authors do not discuss this point. Moraga explains that only the woman intent on the approval can be affected by the disapproval (p. 103). The lesbian, on the other hand, not subject to male sanctions and out of his control, will often serve as an easy scapegoat; weaknesses in the movement can be blamed on her, the model she sets for other women being a dangerous example. Her decision to take control of her own sexuality, as well as her independence, likens her to the Malinche model we discussed earlier. She is a "traitor" who "succumbs" to the foreign influences that have corrupted her people (p. 113).
In a study of the cultural stereotypes typically available to Chicana women, Shirlene Soto, for example, has noted that the figures most often used—Malinche, La Llorona and the Virgin of Guadalupe—have historically been models to control women, a point with which Moraga concurs. Soto, like Enríquez and Mirandé, also fails to address the issue of how much more poignant and true all those statements are when there is a clear sexual rejection of the male, as in Moraga's case. Nevertheless, sexual rejection does not necessarily signify a cultural one.
Viewed as an agent of the Anglos, the Chicana lesbian is seen as an aberration, someone who has unfortunately caught his disease. For these reasons, perhaps, Moraga believes that control of and over women cannot be based or blamed entirely on these so-called inherited cultural stereotypes but rather on the institution of obligatory heterosexuality. Nowhere in print had any Chicano or Chicana addressed lesbianism or homosexuality in their theoretical analyses of liberation. For this, Moraga would have to turn to the Black feminists, the same women, she asserts, who had served as role models for the Chicana feminist movement in its formation. "If any direct 'borrowing' was done, it was from Black feminists" (p. 132) and not from the white feminists normally blamed for infiltrating the Chicana feminist movement. Until she had this example, then, her sexuality had isolated and estranged her from her race: "It seemed to me to be a Chicana lesbian put me far beyond the hope of salvation" (p. 125). Yet she recognizes now that because one aspect of a culture is oppressive, it does not mean "throwing out the entire business of racial/ethnic culture" that is essential to identity (p. 127).
Such a questioning brings us to the ambiguous title and subtitle of her book. Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. By choosing to represent the book bilingually, she again likens herself to Malinche, her bilingual and trilingual forebear. "Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios" suggests that a silence is about to be broken, though the multiple possibilities of "sus" (her, his, their, your) do not reveal exactly who will break it: Moraga? Malinche? Chicana lesbians? All of them? In this way, her essay approximates the titles of Latin American women's testimonial discourse: "Let me speak!" "They Won't Take Me Alive," "Tales of Disappearance and Survival," All of these indicate a strength, a fortitude, and a resolve to break silences and assert one's voice. In the case of so many of Moraga's Latin American counterparts, a lack of education has impeded their single-handed publishing of their own testimonies; thus, many will contain a "co-producer" to actually write their discourse. For Moraga, the education is not a problem; in her case, bilingualism is the impediment.
Having learned what has mockingly been called "kitchen Spanish" or "Spanglish," yet also needing to be fluent in English in order to operate within the dominant culture and obtain the education that her mother encouraged her to pursue, Moraga confesses to her anglicization; it was a means to achieve her much-desired independence. In this sense, there is also a linkage; her reacquaintance with her Chicano roots required a return to Spanish, required a knowledge of it, implied an attitude on the part of the speaker who refused to be humiliated any longer by her bilingualism/biculturalism with such terms as "nolingual."7
When Moraga discovers a bicultural group whose most comfortable language is what I prefer to call "bilingual" (bilingual as a noun as well as an adjective), she finally is in a position of not feeling shame for "shabby" English or "incorrect" Spanish. Having come from a home where English was spoken, Moraga acknowledges that this claim on, and longing for, her Spanish "mothertongue" had no rational explanation. After all, she did not have her language stripped from her, as had so many children of the Southwest. Here, it is more appropriate to consider it the ancient language of her heart. In this sense, language is not simply a means of communicating ideas, passions, feelings, and theories, but is also symbolic, representing, among other emotions, love for one's culture. As it becomes a touch-stone for that culture, especially in circumstances of exile, one must also relearn its nuances as one learns to accept the entirety of one's culture, both its positive and its negative. "I know this language in my bones … and then it escapes me" (p. 141). Humiliated and mortified, Moraga must call the Berlitz language school in New York City in order to return to her Spanish, to her love of her mothertongue, to a love for her mother, to her love for her culture, to her love for her raza, to her "deep racial memory of love." "I am a different woman in Spanish. A different kind of passion. I think, soy mujer en español. No macha. Pero mujer. Soy Chicana—open to all kinds of attack" (p. 142). One of these attacks, no doubt, is the accusation that she does not belong and does not speak the language of her mother, even if she feels it in her bones. She articulates the contradiction she faces with one of her journal entries after the Berlitz episode: "Paying for culture. When I was born between the legs of the best teacher I could have had" (p. 141). The painful journey she embarks upon in order to discover this truth allows her a return to her mother, to her people, to "la mujer mestiza," to a new awareness of what it means to be Malinche's daughter.
1. Marcelo Christine Lucero-Trujillo, "No More Cookies, Please," in The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States, ed. Dexter Fisher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 402-3.
2. Lorde's "Open Letter to Mary Daly," in Sister Outsider, in which she discusses the "history of white women who are unable to hear Black women's words, or to maintain dialogue with us" (Trumansburg, N.Y.: The Crossing Press, 1984), 66, and Smith's not knowing "where to begin," in "Toward a black feminist criticism," in Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture, ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt (New York, London: Methuen, 1986). 3.
3. Parul Desai, "Interview with Bernice Zamora, a Chicana Poet," Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal 2, no. 1 (Summer 1985): 29.
4. Olivia Espin, "Cultural and Historical Influences on Sexuality in Hispanic/Latin women: Implications for Psychotherapy," in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carol Vance (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 155.
5. Marcela Christine Lucero-Trujillo, "Machismo is Part of Our Culture," in The Third Woman, 401-2. The fact that the same author exemplifies both positions, that is, the turning away from both the Anglo-American feminist and the Chicano macho, indicates her articulation of a new voice that will incorporate a feminism specific and appropriate to her Chicana reality.
6. Lorna Dee Cervantes, "Para un revolucionario," in The Third Woman, 381-83 (for you with bronze hands).
7. Cherríe Moraga, "A Long Line of Vendidas," in Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (Boston: South End Press, 1983). All subsequent passages will be from this edition and the page numbers will be contained within parentheses after each passage.
8. Moraga offers no example of what this surname was but leads us to imagine that in discovering her Chicana roots, she also molts the paternal name in favor of the maternal one.
9. René Jara, "Testimonio y literatura," in Testimonio y Literatura: Monographic Series of the Society for the Study of Contemporary Hispanic and Lusophone Revolutionary Literatures, no. 3, ed. René Jara and Hernán Vidal (Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literature, 1986), 1.
10. Octavio Paz, "Los hijos de la Malinche," in El laberinto de la soledad (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1973), 59-80.
11. Rosario Castellanos, "La Malinche," in Poesía no eres tú (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1972), 295-97.
12. Most notable are the views of Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz.
13. Lucha Corpi, "Marina Madre," in Palabras de Mediodia/Noon Words, trans. Catherine Rodriguez-Nieto (Berkeley: El Fuego de Aztlán Publications, 1980), 119. I prefer my own translation of these verses: "You no longer loved her and your husband denied her / When the child that used to call her 'Mamá' / grew up, he called her 'whore.'"
14. Norma Alcarcón, "Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-Vision through Malintzín/or Malinche: Putting Flesh Back on the Object," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2nd ed., ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983), 182-90; Aledaida del Castillo, "Malintzin Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective," in Essays on La Mujer, part 1, ed. Rosaura Sánchez (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Center Publications, 1977), 124-49; Marcela Christine Lucero-Trujillo, "The Dilemma of the Modern Chicana Artist and Critic," in The Third Woman, 324-31; Cordelia Candelaria, "La Malinche: Feminist Prototype," Frontiers 5, no. 2 (1980); Rachel Phillips, "Marina/Malinche: Masks and Shadows," in Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols, ed. Beth Miller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 97-114; Shirlene Soto, "Tres modelos culturales: La Virgen de Guadalupe, la Malinche y la Llorona," fem, 10 no. 48 (Octubre-Noviembre 1986): 13-16.
15. These exact words appear in two early Chicana poems, "Como duele," by Lorenza Calvillo Schmidt, and an untitled poem by Adaljiza Sosa Riddell, both in Chicanas en la literatura y el arte, ed. Herminio Ríos-C. and Octavio Romano-V. (Berkeley: Quinto Sol, 1973).
16. Sylvia Gonzales, "I Am Chicana," in The Third Woman, 422.
17. Angela de Hoyos, "La Malinche a Cortez y Vice Versa (o sea, 'El Amor No Perdona, Ni Siquiera Por Amor')," in Woman, Woman (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985), 54. (Hmph, and that's why I gave you / my blood and my people! / Yes, now I see it, you uncouth gringo / you love me so much / that you'll marry me off to your subordinate, Don Juan / without a second thought / as if I were a piece of meat / Well, even if you were my father / to go selling me at your whim / you stupid gringo … / !!! / Etcetera / Etcetera).
18. Adrienne Rich. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in Women: Sex and Sexuality, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 62-91.
19. Cherríe Moraga is perhaps one of the best known Chicana writers outside the Chicana community. She is widely anthologized and the one who most white women quote as a representative Chicana voice. The "alongside-our-man-knee-jerk-phenomenon" appears in Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler's A Feminist Dictionary (Boston: Pandora Press, 1985), 41. On the other hand, she is hardly ever anthologized by Chicano critics, which may have been one of the reasons for an essay such as this one. The Mexican feminist magazine, fem, however, has regularly published her poetry. See their issue on Chicanas (10, no. 48 [Octubre-Noviembre 1986]).
20. Evangelina Enríquez and Alfredo Mirandé, "Liberation, Chicana Style: Colonial Roots of Feministas Chicanas," De Colores: A Bilingual Quarterly Journal of Chicano Expression and Thought 4, no. 3 (1978): 15.
21. Juan Bruce-Novoa, "Una cuestión de identidad: ¿Qué significa un nombre?" in Imagenes e identidades: El puertorriqueño en la literatura, ed. Asela Rodríguez de Laguna (Río Piedras, P.R.: Huracán, 1985), 283-88.
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SOURCE: Review of Heroes and Saints, in The Nation, Vol. 255, No. 14, November 2, 1992, pp. 518-20.
[In the following review, Gelb notes that in Heroes and Saints Moraga "has written with compassion and intelligence about the difficulties of change," although she fails to fully explore some of her principal characters.]
As one of several Bay Area feminists who made their reputations in other genres but are now (or again) writing for the theater, Cherríe Moraga has expressed a desire to create plays that inspire a new vision while they challenge political correctness.
And in many respects her new work, Heroes and Saints, produced by Brava! For Women in the Arts at San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center, does just that. An unusual blend of realism, surrealism and political theater, it is written partly in English, partly in Spanish. Moraga sets the play in a San Joaquin Valley town where growers threaten to shoot farm-workers who are protesting pesticide-related deaths by hanging their dead children from the grapevines crucifixion-style. But rather than proceed by making a frontal attack on toxic sprays, Moraga chooses to emphasize the human drama of a Latina family suffering the effects of the poisons. One daughter. Yolanda, loses a baby to them (a performance by Jennifer Proctor that calls up excruciating depths of pain). Another, Cerezita (Jaime Lujan), herself suffering from a birth defect, is—in what could have been fierce poetry had it been realized less awkwardly—simply a head poised on a wheeled cart. The mother (Juanita Estrada), protecting this daughter, tries to keep her from the world. But following one of a number of extraordinarily powerful moments in Albert Takazauckas's production, this one a highly erotic love scene between the head and a sympathetic priest in which the young woman tries and fails to recover a sense of her body, Cerezita carries the corpse of her sister's baby to the fields and is shot.
Ultimately, it's clear that this is not only not agitprop but that the fight against pesticides is not even the central conflict. The real action of the play is the daughter's rebellion against the mother and what she stands for, which is framed as a social and political fight, not a psychological one. The mother is reactionary, a sexually and otherwise repressive, fatalistic figure who must be overthrown. And it's here that Heroes and Saints fails in its aspirations. When Moraga contrasts the mother with an older woman activist based on Dolores Huerta, we know we are seeing the acceptable role model. Moraga isn't able or doesn't wish to get inside the way the mother has internalized her oppression as she gets inside Cerezita's yearning or Yolanda's agony, although elsewhere she has written with compassion and intelligence about the difficulties of change.
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SOURCE: "Coming Home: Interview with Cherríe Moraga." in Mester, Vols. XXII and XXIII, Nos. 2 and 1, Fall 1993–Spring 1994, pp. 149-64.
[In the following interview, Moraga discusses her career, creative influences, and her notion of feminism.]
In 1981, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa redefined the feminist movement in the United States. The publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color challenged the feminist movement to rethink the privileged term "woman." Bridge, by providing a combination of testimonios, poetry, short fiction, and essays, suggests the multiplicity of experiences and the various diasporas filling the streets of the United States. But until Bridge's publication, these experiences were largely hidden from literary and academic sight. Bridge put pressure on both the terms "woman" and "feminist" and initiated a rethinking of Anglo-American feminism which had until then largely ignored its Anglo middle-class biases.
Shortly after the publication of This Bridge Called My Back, Moraga began working on her ground-breaking autobiography, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983). In this cross-genre collection, Moraga explores the experience of writing with "your familia on one shoulder and the movimiento on the other." She discusses the seemingly contradictory experience of being a Chicana and a lesbian, and she critiques familia, the Chicano Movement, white racism, and sexism. The style of the text, in combining poetry, prose, and fiction, reinforces the content's challenges to existing hierarchies, institutionalized racism, homophobia, and patriarchy. The concluding essay, "A Long Line of Vendidas" is one of the most anthologized Chicana feminist essays. Moraga next turned to writing theater. Her three plays, Giving Up the Ghost, Shadow of a Man, and Heroes and Saints, argue for the intimate link between political and economic realities and daily family culture. Giving Up the Ghost (1986), written largely in poetic monologues, describes the experiences of a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality, her past, and the puzzles of heterosexuality. Shadow of a Man (1990) examines family dynamics built around keeping a threatening secret. Set in the deadly pesticide fields of California's agribusiness, Heroes and Saints (1992) depicts a Chicano community's attempt to confront genocide, racist apathy, and family loss. While each of Moraga's plays tackles serious subjects, she infuses all of her work with humor and poetry, with Chicanidad.
Most recently, Moraga has published The Last Generation (1993), a collection of essays and poems. In this volume she addresses the post-Quincentennary movimiento, the state of Chicano/a activism, the siege upon gays and lesbians of color, and her own identity as a woman turning forty. Her poetry and essays are less autobiographical in this collection, but they continue to draw on family memories and experiences.
As we sat in a small café down the street from Arroyo Books in Highland Park on April 24, 1994, Moraga reflected on her artistic production to date, commenting on issues of representation, reception, and literary production. Before we started the interview, Moraga and her sister JoAnn noted the surrounding barrio. They had lived there in the first years of their lives before moving to South Pasadena and then to San Gabriel. So the reading that Moraga was to give later that Sunday afternoon to a packed audience at Arroyo Books was something of a homecoming.
[Mary Pat Brady and Juanita Heredia:] There is no doubt that both your fiction and essays, for example. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, has had a profound impact on mainstream literary criticism in academia. How do you feel about the teaching of this text by mainstream feminists? Do you think there is any misappropriation? Do you think that they dismiss it as a sociological piece of work? How can we reach a better understanding of this text?
[Cherríe Moraga:] I think initially what happened with the book was what Gloria [Anzaldúa] and I had envisioned or hoped which is that it be used by Chicano Studies, Women Studies, community centers and all of that. It has been used on all those levels. In that sense I feel like it has fulfilled its mandate. What feminist theorists have done with it is mixed. One of the ways in which it has been misappropriated is that sometimes they look no further than Bridge. They do all this Anglo material and then only do Bridge, which some-how covers everything they think they need to know about other women of color. Bridge is thirteen years old. It came out in 1981. A lot has changed since then: there is a certain way in which some of the material is generic, women of color. I think that white feminists as a whole feel more comfortable working with the generic notion of women of color and try to put everyone under that rubric as opposed to the specificity of each of the ethnic/racial groups. The book has a lot of things missing. It is not at all international in perspective. If I were to do a Bridge now, it would have to be much more international. To be talking about women of color feminism in the United States and not connect with all the diasporas is ridiculous. On the one hand, some white women use it as a way to cover themselves. On the other, in terms of the criticism that has come out about Bridge I do not know. Norma Alarcón has written extensively about how Bridge has been misappropriated, I think she articulates that fine. That is her job. Frankly I stopped reading the criticism. It is not just about Bridge, but it happens with my own individual work. For the most part, I don't really mind very much as long as it keeps generating ideas and discussion. On an individual level, I would wonder what really are the motives of each of the individuals involved in teaching this book. Do they have a broad perspective or serious anti-racist politics or are they just appropriating the book? I have no control over that so I try not to worry about that because there is nothing I can do. Once the work is out, it has its own life. It is not yours anymore which is fine with me. I just try not to pay too much attention and I let the critics battle it out with each other.
That's the next move if you were going to do another anthology, a broader one, more inclusive of various diasporas?
No. I would not do that. I have been teaching a class called "Indígena Scribe" for about three years now which is a group of Native-American, Chicana, and Latina writers. The material that is coming out of that group of people is very specific using indigenismo as a kind of base root which is fascinating to me. I would be interested in doing a collection possibly of their creative work which is very original in trying to show why that indigenous root connection is significant in the creative imagination. But, that is very, very specific. I think my tendency is to aim to get more and more specific as opposed to producing another generic work. Of course, it was not generic at the time. But I don't think that I would put myself in the position of doing another collection of people outside my own ethnic/racial background because the time is not right for that. The reason we did Bridge was because the time was right. It was more out of the virtue of the invisibility that women of color had in the women's movement. That is no longer the case. Every single writer in Bridge has her own book now. Those are all established writers. Now there is a body of indigenous literature. There is a body of Latina literature. There is a body of Asian-American literature. It is a different time and place. It would have to be reconceptualized in a totally different manner. There is not a need for another Bridge, but there is a need for other kinds of more specific writings. Also, editing is a lot of work. One has to be really driven by a particular vision and that's what Bridge was. We were driven by a particular vision in 1979 out of virtual isolation and invisibility.
One element I liked about Esta puente, mi espalda (the Spanish version of Bridge) is your inclusion of the interview that Ana Castillo did with the Watsonville workers whereas most literary anthologies would exclude that kind of voice. Was it a way to bridge the gap between community and academia?
Well it was an attempt to do that. Most of those women were already going to college. They were community-based women, but they were not obreras. There is a lot more that could have been done around that. In doing another collection, I certainly would not limit it to writers only. If I were not going to do a creative writing anthology and focus on feminism of a certain type. I think now I would work much harder to record oral histories and interviews from people who were really working-class, campesina women. I think that was a nice gesture in the right direction. I agree with you. That is what is needed as opposed to this academic separation.
What was the experience of making Cuentos: Stories by Latinas like? How did you meet the other two editors, Alma Gómez and Mariana Romo-Carmona? What was it like forming the networks?
Alma was part of the collective, Kitchen Table Press. When we started Kitchen Table Press, the first book we did was Bridge because it had been published by a white feminist press and it went bankrupt. We had to get lawyers to try to get the book back. Actually, a lot of the motivation for Kitchen Table Press came about because of those kinds of situations where women of color did not have control over their own production. In essence we never intended to do Bridge. We also never intended to do Home-girls because Home-girls was going to be done by the same press. Then suddenly the press dropped both projects leaving it up to us to save them. The first two projects were to rescue those books.
The third project Cuentos: Stories by Latinas was kind of conceived among the collective which mostly consisted of black women. There had been collections of black women writers. At that time in 1983, there were very few by Latinas that were not simply Latin American women in translation. We were trying to connect U.S. Latinas with Latin American women and cover all the classes too that a lot of bourgeoisie Latin American women had ignored. Also we wished to include material that was unequivocally feminist which other collections had not done up to that point. Alma was Nuyorican and we wanted someone who was Latin American and that's how we met Mariana so that we could cover those three areas. A fourth person who essentially wrote the introduction with me was Myrtha Chabrán who was puertorriqueña born on the island, a good generation older than me. She was very critical in the development of that book as well.
Your movement around cities from Los Angeles to New York to San Francisco has converted you into an urban traveler. How have these experiences affected your writing? Have community activities influenced you in any way?
Well, I was told by a psychic many years ago and I can't forget it because I don't want it to be true. She said, "Forget your house on the ocean. You are never going to be a writer who can escape and have a nice contemplative life." That's probably true. I think about that, which is why I always end up in the cities all the time. I still think about leaving the cities. Now that I have a child even more so. But I am always drawn to cities because I think one of the reasons is just survival. Being both Chicana and lesbian, major cities are the only safe place where one can be both of these identities visible at once and find a cultural community to cultivate all of those identities. It has always been that more than anything else; the bottom line is that one has to feel that one can be all those parts of yourself wherever you are living I think that is why I have always gravitated to cities. Even when I left San Gabriel to move to Hollywood, it was easier to be all those things in Hollywood or Silver Lake than San Gabriel which was the suburbs.
In terms of political or community activism, I always feel that I have known some hard core organizers and I am not one of them. I have not been on the front line of organizing. I have always been community based though. As an artist, I have always felt that I wrote out of a political and community point of reference and I have also done political organizing. But there has always been this trade-off between how much time I had to write and how much time I had to be an organizer. I always ended up choosing more myself as an artist and say. "Well, that's the work. That's my work, but at the same time trying to keep links and connections with the kinds of activism going on in a community so that I had something to write about." I had a base from which to write.
I think teaching for me has always been an element of that community. I see teaching as a way to raise consciousness, to advocate, to agitate, to cultivate a new generation of people who will be challenging agendas. Particularly now that I am not teaching in academia, but that I am teaching in a community base in the Mission District in San Francisco, that I am teaching queer youth, many of whom are very high risk, who live on the streets. Those kinds of things always keep me sharper, less complacent, more challenged, to deal with young people. My concepts are constantly challenged. But I am not doing what my sister does for example. There are a lot of differences. As a principal of a bilingual school in La Puente, she talks about having to be social worker, cop, keeping youth out of the house when parents are drug addicts, this one is threatening to kill that one. It is very first hand, direct contact with Raza who are in need. For the most part as a writer, it keeps you a little bit removed, not to say that I don't experience this, but I deal with the kids I teach. I say that I am not front-line out of respect for the people who have direct contact with these situations. People need to know that there is a difference between being an organizer and being an artist. Both of them have absolutely appropriate roles in the world. I am thinking of my friend Barbara García in Watsonville who began La clinica para la salud de la gente. When the earthquake hit in Watsonville back in 1989, she was there in a tent city 24 hours a day basically organizing the damned city better than the Fire Department by making sure everybody was fed, clothed, with a roof over their head. That is front-line work. She is a sister. She needs my work the same way I need hers. It is mutual, but it is not the same thing. I reiterate that because people in academia have this notion that because you live in the barrio, you are a writer, that is somehow front-line work. Yet, it is not. I really think that is an academic perspective. It is very convenient for me to think that too, but there is a difference.
Do you see yourself as part of a generation of U.S. Latina writers?
Yes, I see myself as part of the first generation of U.S. Latina writers. In terms of volume and production of Latina/Chicana writing in the United States, we are a very young group of writers. I mean I did not have a generation to read. By virtue of that, most of us that are producing now are really writing the literature that a generation younger than us is capable of reading. There is something for them to read. But I still feel we are very young. We are not even writing close to what I hope we can be writing in twenty years.
When you don't have that history, when you don't have that literary tradition, it is very liberating and exciting because it has a kind of political significance and the writing that follows will never quite be that same kind of ground-breaking phenomenon. But by the same token, I think we are cultivating our voice: we have not had a lot of role models and practice. I feel like all of us are still learning how to do it. People seem to be getting better at it.
Who do you include in this generation?
In terms of Chicana writers, I think of Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Gloria Anzaldúa. I consider these women to be the primary ones. Also, Lorna Dee Cervantes is the top for me as a poet. She is fabulous. I would also include Denise Chávez, Helena María Viramontes and others still. But I think that Sandra, Ana, Gloria and Lorna Dee are probably the most significant in terms of the impact they are having at the national level, a national readership. In some cases, the ground that they are breaking in terms of theme and subject.
It is an interesting border literary position to be in because the works of these authors can be used in both American and Latin American literary traditions.
Well I think that will happen more with the translations. Also, Elena Poniatowska has done a lot to expose Chicana writers in Mexico because there is such prejudice against us, basically elitism and class, that they did not take us seriously. In that respect, she has been very significant in making our works known. Also, I think there is cross-fertilization that is happening because of lesbian connections that happen among Latinas in Latin American and in the United States.
In Loving in the War Years, one of the ways you represent the female body is through the historical figure of the Malinche, who strives for self-empowerment as a resistance against patriarchal domination. How do you see women redefining their sexual roles and "putting flesh back on the object" as critic Norma Alarcón says?
This is what I like about Gloria and Ana's work. I do feel like they are trying to examine what is WOMAN. What is Mexican woman which is not what all the writers are trying to do. Not all Chicana writers are about that, just because they are writing about women. Everybody has different levels of skill, talent and concerns. When I think about Borderlands and The Mixquiahuala Letters, those are two books that really did try to unravel what is la mujer mexicana/chicana. It is incredibly painful to look at that. It is not pretty how we have been distorted as a people, as a consciousness, a collective notion of what la mujer mexicana/chicana is. It is not nice. It is not a pretty picture. I think a lot of people deal with it in different ways. Some people create positive images while others dress her differently. Those are all ways that they create her.
But the work that I gravitate towards is a work that tries to tear it apart. Even then if all you see is the raw guts and it does not smell or look good, at least you are starting from somewhere. That is what moves me as a writer, what I need to read and I will read anybody who does it even if she is not Latina.
I think of a book like, Thereafter Johnny, by Carolivia Herron, a black woman. It is a crazy book where this woman writes about incest, but in a very taboo way. What you can see there is an artist trying to unravel a theme. It goes back into slave history trying to figure out what slavery did to black men and women and how it destroyed their relationship with each other. What she comes up with is devastating. Again, it is not a pleasant work but I ate that book up because I feel like I am trying to do that for better or for worse. As lousy as I do it or as good as I do it, that is what I want to do. If there is anything I knew being raised as a Mexican daughter, it is the beauty in it and the horror in it. I want to give to that and recreate her. But I may never recreate her. I may write until I am ninety and just be taking it apart.
So for me the best Chicana literature is about that. Malinche is part of that. The reason we have been so drawn to her figure over and over again is because how a woman can go from being Malintzin to la Chingada says everything. Right? Look at what Chingada means. She is our paradigm. How you change from being an Aztec princess to the fucked one and culpable for everything that ever happened to Mexican society tells you something about what Mexican culture is about in relation to women. Of course, everything is written out of an act of love. If I didn't give a damn about my culture and did not love it so much, I would have escaped it and done something else.
In your writings, you seem to be dialoguing with a variety of authors—Octavio Paz in El laberinto de la soledad, Carlos Fuentes in La muerte de Artemio Cruz and more.
I am dialoguing with many people. I dialogue with García Lorca because I write theater. As a gay man or a homosexual, his passion, his desire, his revolutionary vision, writing in a time as an act of resistance, I feel a lot of affinity with him and he also wrote extensively on women. Yet, he is not a woman, so there are places in his works that are twisted about women and yet, I am drawn to some of his revelations about women. I am connected with the Spanish and the Indian. You end up being in dialogue with everything.
I remember the first time I read the Egyptian writer Nawal El-Sadaawi I thought I would lose my mind because I thought she was a Mexican. In terms of sensibility, I felt there was something in this novel that made me start thinking about the broader connection. In the end we are all related. I just think that I do look a lot at what Arabic women write. I don't know if that is just an accident that I just start finding myself drawn to it, even southern Italian women writers or others.
Maybe you could talk more about that aspect. Who are your influences? Who do you read? For example, I have seen articles comparing you to John Rechy.
Also there have been many articles that have compared me and Richard Rodríguez which I understand. It is not because we both have the same political perspective. The truth of the matter is that I feel like what Richard writes about are the same things that preoccupy me. All that stuff—his complexion, his desire, church, education and more. Yet, his conclusions are totally confused, but his writing is beautiful, though, and he writes about the right subjects. I think he is one of the few Chicano male writers who is writing about the issues we need to hear. Unfortunately, his conclusions are off. In a sort of perverted way, I have always felt a kind of kinship with him.
The writers who have had an impact on me are Rosario Castellanos, García-Lorca and James Baldwin by virtue of the fact that he is colored and queer. Also, he wrote about it when I could not read anybody else who was colored and queer. He was also someone who was deeply committed politically and also deeply committed to the description of desire. He refused to compromise desire for politics. That was very rare when everybody else was telling me I had to do that.
In recent years I read works by Native American women. I love the works of Leslie Marmon Silko, especially Ceremony; she is a visionary, not being afraid to envision. In fact her visions come true. She is very important. As a poet, Jo Harjo, I have always read black women since the beginning. Recently as a playwright, I have read all of August Wilson's work. It really depends. You go through different periods of your life.
Would you like to discuss the impact of your mother's role on your writing?
I felt like Loving in the War Years was a love letter to my mother far more than anything else. There is a line about family—for better or for worse it is a place you learn to love.
I think that the specific role of my mother is important in terms of my writing in that she is the storyteller in the family. I learned more about storytelling than through reading. Unlike Gloria Anzaldúa who was one of those kids who hid under the covers hiding trying to read with the flashlights, I was a worker. I liked to work. I did things.
[JoAnn:] Someone asked me what was she like when she (Cherríe) was little. Was she very outgoing? I said no. She was very private. It was only when we pretended together that her imagination came about. Other than that, my mother and I told the stories to her. We were the storytellers. She was the storer of the stories who eventually ended up being the spokesperson of the stories.
[Cherríe:] I think part of it too was that my sister JoAnn and I are so close in age, about eighteen months apart, a companion constantly in childhood. She said to me in moments of great significance. "This is very important. Remember this. Five years from now let's talk about this." A record was being kept. We were conscious as children of significant facts that were happening. Memories were very important. My mother and my aunts were always passing stories down so that it became important to talk about what was happening around us.
Certainly there were all kinds of secrets and silences in the family, but passion was acceptable in a certain degree except when it became my own at sixteen. Desire for life. Between JoAnn and my mom everything was coming to me as the youngest. In Shadow of a Man, I identify a lot with the youngest child Lupe because she is also the emotional sponge of the family. JoAnn was much more rebelde than I was. I took everything in, particularly my mother's pain. When one does that, it cultivates a listener and a sense that other people have lives, a compassion for others. As a writer, you have to be a listener and have a compassion about other people's lives. As a child my mother cultivated that for me for better or for worse because there are many negative aspects about taking in this emotional strength too. It is also too much to burden a kid. Yet, if there is anything I drew on it would be my understanding; at seven years old I had all the complexity of an adult. It was a complex life because my mother was two generations older than me. At the age of seven I thought I understood her whole life. Life was not simple. Everything had multi-leveled layers to it. The world was something I had to unravel and come to terms with. It was not safe, necessarily but you had to be able to deal with it. So it was like drama, right? And I think more than anything that's how she affected my sense that I use now as a writer. Essentially anybody's life is worthy of literature.
When you talk about a writer's block, you said it is because you have a secret. Could you talk a little more about the connections you see between secrets and writing?
Well I think the danger about writing is that it anticipates you. If you are open and fluid enough with your work, the writing can sometimes leak information into you, like dreams. If you are plugging into the same unconscious place, you may not be able to live up to what you see. Yet, that is the kind of writing that is the best kind of writing, the place that touches our unconscious. As you are keeping the secret, you are going to work very hard to repress your unconscious. The writing will not be as good because the unconscious is much smarter than the ego, one level of writing. If a writer can tap into her unconscious, the writing is going to be much richer with other voices and memories. If a writer cannot tap into her unconscious, the writing is going to be flatter work.
Is there a connection between indigenismo and the indigenous imagination and secrets?
I don't know for sure. If we have Indian blood in us, it has been buried in the family. I could not tell you. As a Mexican, I am drawing from indigenous influences. In looking more closely at that raíz one begins to draw from those unconscious places, the indigenismo is the one where I end up going. That is part of the terrain of my unconscious for whatever reason—if it is racial memory, biological, DNA, I don't know. I have no control over this process. It is happening of its own accord. I do it with reservation too by virtue of the fact that I do not want to claim what is not mine. By the same token, what is there is there. Just let it come to you as opposed to pushing it.
Could you talk about how you started writing teatro and what brought you to it?
I started writing theater by accident when I finished Loving in the War Years which is essentially an autobiography, essays, and poems. When I finished it in 1983, I felt like I had finished my own story, not to say I would not write from my own perspective but in a certain way I thought a burden had been lifted from me. So I continued to write in my journals but suddenly it was not autobiography. It was other people talking to me and that is how Giving Up the Ghost came about which is a kind of transition because it is more teatropoesía with monologues and poetic voices. That is the transition from poet to playwright. Then I just fell in love with theater. I had been in New York at the time and I submitted Giving Up the Ghost to apply for Maria Irene Fornes' "Hispanic Playwriting Lab," in New York City, at Inter Theater. Once I started working with her, I was connected with others. I began to write dialogue for the first time in my life.
Had she been a big influence on you?
I would say just in that period. People credit her with having more influence on me than she does. There are a lot of Chicano playwrights who continued to work with her. She has a style of playwriting that deals more with character than plot development which is the same thing with me. She does really approach it as a poet. On that level, she had a strong influence on me in the sense that had I worked with a traditional playwright, I never would have written plays. But she let me approach it as a poet and encouraged that.
But the difference lies in the fact that María Irene is not as focused on language in her work as I am. As a poet, I feel that is the main thing for me. In theater, that element is not as important—to be able to write visual images in language and yet, that is what I still aim to do in theater. For example, August Wilson does that, but it is not a priority for most playwrights. In that sense, I take a departure from her. And she really supported that in my own writing. Also, politically we had different perspectives.
The reason I continue to write theater is because I feel it is the one place that I can expose the poesía in the common tongue. Traditionally, people do not put those two things together. Yet, the way we grew up, basically anyone bilingual, people learned to speak English in a beautiful combination—the spoken Spanish with the written English. To me this is very poetic particularly when I grew up among cuentistas. The theater is then one way that allows me to contribute to that.
After that I only worked with her for a year and then she directed a play of mine Shadow of a Man in New York City in 1990.
I think it is interesting that you talk about the pleasures of writing as well as the frustrations. Could you expand on that and the problems of getting produced in Los Angeles? What does it mean to be a playwright in Los Angeles?
Well, UCLA was very interested in doing Heroes and Saints. It is ironic to me that Los Angeles, which has the biggest Mexicano/Chicano population outside of Mexico City, is the one place where it seems that it is the most difficult for me to get my plays produced. On a certain level the frustration is that I am barred (censored) from my own audience, the reason for that being that the caliber of Latino actors that I would like to work with are here in Los Angeles. Although there are also many good ones in San Francisco, most of them end up moving here to Los Angeles to work. Those are actors I would like to work with. It is a mutual feeling that I know many actors who would like to do my work. The places that they can afford to work, which pay them well enough, are places like "South Coast Repertory," "The Mark Taper Forum," "San Diego Repertory," all of which are mainstream houses. Although my plays receive readings and serious considerations, they have yet to be produced in L.A. The plays are of the size and of the caliber that to do them on a community level is fine for smaller towns. That is fine for me because I always want the work to get out, but the level of acting that I would like to have and the quality of production that I would like to have means that I have to work at those larger theaters. For the most part when they decide to do the work, they know two names, Culture Clash and Luis Valdez. If they know other names, they will pick other plays usually if they find them not threatening in any way. If you attempt to be a playwright who writes about themes that are more confrontational, a mainstream theater is very nervous about taking a risk with their largely Anglo-dominated audiences because they feel it could be a financial failure. So people like Valdez are shoe-ins because his name will bring an initial audience to them regardless of the quality of the work. That has not changed. There are other fine playwrights in my situation who are encountering those same obstacles. I find that my hands are tied. I find it very lucky that I work with a resident theater company, BRAVA for women in the arts. With them I can cultivate the work and receive high quality openings so I could see the work to fruition. But after that … But the politics of it are very frustrating.
I think it would be frustrating as you are writing.
Well, I think I am lucky in the sense that I have a place to produce my work. That is a big deal since most playwrights do not even have that. I feel very fortunate that I have a home base company that will support my work. Other places like "Berkeley Repertory" have commissioned me. So things are beginning to loosen up. But if I did not have a company where the work would be produced, then I think it is hard to envision the work. The material conditions affect what you are capable of envisioning. The fact that I feel safe to envision because I have a chance of acquiring a good production through BRAVA has helped the work continue to develop. Otherwise why do it if your work is going to stay on the page.
What kind of political work do you think teatro does versus say poetry or short stories? Do you think it has different political possibilities?
Well, there are but it is problematic because technically it is a great form because you do not have to be literate to go to the theater. It can reach bodies of people that it would not normally reach, but unfortunately the way most theater is set up now the audiences tend to be exclusive. The good thing now about the teatro BRAVA where I work is that it always spends an equal amount of time, money and energy trying to cultivate the audiences. If it is a Latino play, they cultivate Latino audiences. An Asian-American play cultivates that respective audience. On one level, theater is very exclusive. The play runs for five weeks and nobody sees it. On another it has the possibility of being more accessible than anything on the printed page. My family is a good example. My parents' generation never read any of my work, but when I started writing plays all of them wanted to come and be there because it is something that is available to them.
What inspired you to write your first play Giving Up the Ghost after the poetry and essay form in Loving in the War Years?
The Corky character [the main protagonist] came to me. I did not do anything. I was really excited about her because she was not me. She was someone else that I admired. As I said at UCLA, much of it is related to my own biography in the sense that I had been involved with a woman who was ostensibly heterosexual. That was the first time it had ever happened to me and I could not understand heterosexual desire. Yet, somehow by touching this person I knew it was true. I had to understand that. As a lesbian writer, I felt as if I was not going to be able to go any further as a Chicana lesbian writer. I was not going to be able to reach other Chicanas if I could not understand heterosexual Chicanas. If I could not write for heterosexual Chicanas, I was going to be a very limited writer. I had to understand all female desire, not just lesbian desire. In fact I started to understand that lesbian desire is so influenced by heterosexual desire that I also needed that heterosexual understanding in order to understand my own lesbianism. In writing the character of Amalia, I became conscious of the fact that I needed to write this so I could understand all women. After that, the experience did help me because the transition to Shadow of a Man became easy. I could write about the mother, the aunt and everyone else. Whereas when I started writing in the first ten years, my lesbianism was so embattled, having to write and speak its name was so embattled that there was no room for anything else. When I finished Loving in the War Years, there became room. Then the voice broadened. It is interesting that you can be accused that you are betraying lesbianism because you write about heterosexual concerns without realizing that I should be able to write about a white heterosexual man. My job is to write it all well and to expand what I am capable of doing so that when I write the Chicana lesbian experience, it is informed.
In Giving Up the Ghost one of the last lines is "making familia from scratch." What does that mean to you?
When the character says it, it means that you cannot make peace with your biological family when your queerness makes it impossible for you to fit. As a Chicana lesbian, the character Marisa has a love for family that is so profound because she was Corky as a child. Her love of family, her loyalty to her sister, her mother, her race and everything betray her. She is betrayed by her mother, her cousin, her first lover, the man who rapes her and more. She is betrayed by all these so-called family members who betray her love. As an adult Marisa says, "OK. I am not giving up family. I need family. But if I have to make family from scratch, that is what I will do." What that means is that she will create her own queer family. That is why Amalia plays the mother role too because Marisa is young enough that she is still looking for her mother in her lovers which I think is typical. In that last monologue she says, "If I have to, I will." But if you notice the last gesture of the play where she is making love to herself, she says, "If I put my fingers to my own forgotten places," it means where you begin to make family from scratch is the love of yourself and then you begin to reconstruct.
I was also very moved by the reading you did of a selection in The Last Generation, your latest book, at UCLA. You implied that the Chicano culture is disappearing. Could you expand on this issue?
Well I am talking about my own family that is not necessarily representative of all Chicanos. There are plenty of Chicanos who are cultivating themselves fine. Witnessing that loss in my own family was very personal. However, I know that I am not alone. Many Chicanos are experiencing that phenomenon. What keeps the culture cultivated is contact with new generations of mexicanos coming into the country. But if you don't have that what keeps it cultivated is a political movement that affirms the culture. That is the reason my niece who is quarter-breed is now taking Chicano studies classes. There is no reason for her to do that. She can get along perfectly well in life without ever recognizing the quarter Mexican she is. It is just that somewhere along the course of history, she might perceive something valuable in that culture. Why does my nephew wish suddenly that he were darker? It is very confusing since society works hard to get everyone "whitified." What was once denigrated is suddenly given value which makes you attracted to it. The way you make it attractive is by having available to young people the culture—literature and the arts.
That is why the arts are so important. My frustrations about most Chicano Studies Programs are that they only cultivate the social sciences. Nobody is encouraging artists, writers and dreamers. Nobody is cultivating dreamers. What exactly is the new generation supposed to be drawn to? Are they supposed to be drawn to being social workers and sociologists? Every single one of them? What people are drawn to is what moves them! What they remember is a song! What they remember is a painting! What they remember is some crazy poet one day!
That is the reason the sixties and the seventies were such an active time too. It is not just because there was a political movement happening, but there was a cultural movement to enhance that political movement. It is very important. I feel that when the activism may not be there the reason they keep the arts alive until the activism kicks in again.
Is that what you mean by cultural nationalism—the arts and literature?
No, I am talking about a land-based movement in organizing our communities.
When you say that you had to come out of the closet as a cultural nationalist, is that because so much Chicana feminism has defined itself as critiquing nationalism?
Yeah, and I do too. I'm a bit tongue and cheek. I like to mess that way because people take it all so seriously. The cultural nationals expect that myself as a lesbian feminist would not have strong feelings about Aztlán, connections about a land-based movement, indigenous rights or sovereignty. They assume that, as a lesbian feminist, I am excluded from those kinds of concerns. Chicana feminists question how I could be attracted to that race politics.
How do you reconcile your different views in the essay entitled "Queer Aztlán" of The Last Generation?
It is supposed to be a breeding ground for ideas and to agitate. There is one person who likes a little bit of this or a little bit of that. Why can't we have it all? Even though on a pragmatic level, this may be very difficult to realize. Yet, I wanted to put between the pages of one essay a whole range of issues of which I believe in which most people may find contradictory. For example, I may share a politics with José Montoya, but then does he share my lesbian feminism? No he does not. Still that is something that he should know that I share with him. What does it mean that a lesbian feminist shares that politics? It is asking, "Hey, come along with this part." The same experience occurs with the lesbian feminists. They think I must think X, Y, Z, but then I say that I thought Aztlán had some really good ideas. I don't want to lose both aspects. I think there is something really important about the unabashed radicalism of that nationalist period—uncompromising, because I always feel that one ends up compromising. There is something about being that cutting edge.
Also there is an indigenous internationalist movement happening at this moment in which Chicanos can have a place in that if they are willing to carry that responsibility.
Is an international movement one of the things that gives you the most hope?
Yes, it is. I feel that it is also an alternative way of living from the most simple level to the most global. That gives me hope. Changes can actually happen on an immediate basis on how people construct their own communities from the local to the global. When I look around that does inspire me.
In that movement, who are you thinking of?
All of the material from The Last Generation was written during the Quincentennial. There were many international indigenous tribunals that were happening at the time. I know of individuals—Native women in Canada, in the United States and Latin America who are building coalitions with each other. They are also creating self-sustaining cottage industries, for example, in Texas, indigenous women are working for water and land rights in a legal context from the national to the local level. Much of the work is geared by and for women. To me these are very inspiring examples to everyone.
Of course there is always that big rip-off that happens to Native culture which to me is only a reflection of the kind of power it has, the fact that people want to steal it.
Have you read the testimonio by Rigoberta Menchú? What impact did it have on you?
Yeah, that book changed my life just by virtue of the fact that you had a testimony like that on a very concrete, very real-life level that really made explicit the complicity the United States had in the particular conditions of people who are ostensibly related to you. The element that really drew me was that I always taught it at U.C. Berkeley. Every semester, this book turned the students into radicals overnight. I had a student whose parents were Somocistaso but then he was turned around by this book. You cannot ignore it. It is impossible to conceive of anyone suffering to that extent and to know what a cushy life one has. There is no way to read that and not feel that you are somehow complicit in that woman's suffering or her family's suffering. But that little seed of realization never leaves you in a very important way. It is wonderful to teach it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546
SOURCE: "All in the Familia," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 4, January 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review, Wheatwind praises Moraga's commitment to Chicano culture and feminist ideals as reflected in The Last Generation.]
The Last Generation, a comprehensive new collection of prose and poetry by Cherríe Moraga, embraces a myriad forms and audiences. It includes personal narratives, insightful dreams, poetic forays into the author's past, political visions of her community's future, and prose transliterations of talks and presentations given at various conferences and symposia.
Just as the themes interweave like common threads in the five different sections of the book—"New Mexican Confession," "War Cry," "La Fuerza Feminina," "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind" and "The Last Generation"—each section contains a mix of the writing styles that intimate the personal (poetry, letters and personal narrative) and demand the political (essays which call us to change ourselves and our world). Those familiar with Moraga's earlier books will recognize the dissolution of the boundaries between creative and academic writing. The Last Generation further dissolves these boundaries by "talking breed talk" to a culture whose "Third and Fourth and First Worlds are collapsing into one another."
This book, Moraga explains in the introduction, emerges from the ashes of "disregard, censure, and erasure." She writes "out of a sense of urgency that Chicanos are a disappearing tribe, out of a sense of this disappearance in my own familia." A "mixed-blood," a mestiza of Anglo and Mexican American heritage, she has written previously about the contradictions of being a light-skinned Chicana activist in the dominant culture of "Amerika." She now mourns the fact that the younger generation of her family and community have been taught not to be Mexicans, but Americans. Moraga's refusal to accept this prompts her to write "as I always have, but," she adds, "now I write for a much larger familia." Her "familia" encompasses not only Chicanos but the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, as well as the broad range of Latinos in our country who are refugees, immigrants and first-generation citizens.
In the essay "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind," Moraga writes that she knows that her "breedblood … is the catalyst" of her activism and art, but she also recognizes the cause of her mixed heritage "within the larger framework of a white supremacist society" and proclaims her fierce, undivided loyalty to "the products of rape and the creators of a new breed":
I am not that rare breed of mixed-blood person, a Jean Toomer, who writes, as Alice Walker said of Cane, "to memorialize a culture he thought was dying." I am that raging breed of mixed-blood person who writes to defend a culture that I know is being killed. I am of that endangered culture and of that murderous race, but I am loyal only to one. My mother culture, my mother land, my mother tongue … (p. 129)
But what exactly is the "mother tongue" of a Chicana who has grown up hearing Spanish while being taught to speak (read, write, learn) only in English? Moraga resolves this literary oppression as many Chicana/os writing today have, by including words and phrases in Spanish throughout her book to emphasize not only where she's coming from but who she's speaking to.
Throughout The Last Generation Moraga examines the colonization, patriarchal authority and homophobia that stifle the world we inhabit, and makes direct comparisons between these forms of oppression and the ecological destruction of the planet. She offers her world view as an admonition—and incitement to collective activism—entreating "a resurrection of the ancient in order to construct the modern":
We are speaking of bottom-line considerations. I can't understand when in 1992 with 100 acres of rainforest disappearing every minute, with global warming, with babies being born without brains in South Tejas, with street kids in Río sniffing glue to stifle their hunger, with Mohawk women's breast milk being contaminated by the poisoned waters of the Great Lakes Basin, how we as people of color, as people of Indian blood, as people with the same last names as our Latin American counterparts, are not alarmed by the destruction of Indigenous and mestizo peoples. How is it Chicanos cannot see ourselves as victims of the same destruction, already in its advanced stages? Why do we not collectively experience the urgency for alternatives based not on what our oppressors advise, but on the advice of elders and ancestors who may now speak to us only in dreams? (pp. 170-171)
Obviously, these are not questions for which there are easy answers. What Moraga points to, again and again, is the potential power of women, "la fuerza feminina," and to our special relationship as women to the earth: "Whether myth, metaphor, or memory, she is called 'Mother' by all peoples of all times." If women remain the chief caretakers, nurturers and providers for our children and our elders, and as we make up half of the (underpaid) agricultural and urban workforce, clearly the solution lies in having control over the lands on which we live and depend. Moraga feels it is especially incumbent upon women, as inhabitants and female relatives of mother earth, to act responsibly toward the earth and each other, to protect and defend that which is being defiled and destroyed.
Land remains the common ground for all radical action. But land is more than the rocks and trees, the animal and plant life that make up the territory of Aztlán or Navajo Nation or Maya Mesoamerica. For immigrant and native alike, land is also the factories where we work, the water our children drink, and the housing project where we live. For women, lesbians, and gay men, land is that physical mass called our bodies. (p. 173)
Ultimately, it is the physical and emotional landscape of the body—Moraga's body and those whom she loves or struggles to reconcile with—that is the focus of The Last Generation. Sometimes Moraga politicizes the body, as in "The War Continues," a poem of startling simplicity that speaks as much for those persecuted and abused in this country as it does for anybody on earth who has experienced the violence of racism, apartheid and "ethnic cleansing." The poem conveys, with a minimum of words and lines, the vulnerability of humans:
Flesh is full
It is made
It is nothing
It is not meant
to be a barrier
anything. (p. 46)
Moraga insists in a final stanza that she "will resist you flee / you who believe / you are not made / of the same / skin / and / bones," but we are made painfully aware that the war continues for others who, despite resistance, are defeated.
Other poems and essays evoke bodily intimacy, giving us glimpses of love between women that are complicated by the boundaries and restrictions of our society and our slowly evolving roles as sisters, daughters and lovers. Sometimes these glimpses are poignant images of past relationships tinged with a sense of loss, as in "La Despedida."
In Indian tongue, the word for lonely
is not knowing who you are.
You no longer call my name
and I am no longer
you whom you sought to know. (p.50)
Moraga makes real for us the myriad dimensions of lesbian relationships. This means exploring the emotional dimensions of sexual attraction, as she does in the short, humorous prose piece "Indian Summer," which sasses the seriousness of commitment:
"You can't stay here." That's the first thing out of her mouth as she puts one muddy paw inside the front door. I like living like this, always on the edge of her throwing me out.
"Cuz I'm getting too attached, that's why."
The problem of commitment in relationships and the urgency of committing ourselves to changing the world are inspiring and continuing themes in Moraga's work, and no less so in her newest book. I was hoping, however, that she would also reflect more here on her vital work as a teacher, both in the academies of America and in the theatres where her plays have been produced. Perhaps Moraga is too modest to believe writing about herself on the front lines is as important as mobilizing "a global community." This is suggested by her demoting the fact that she is one of only a few Chicana playwrights whose work has been produced to a brief footnote in one essay. Her work at the University of California, Berkeley, and with Latino immigrants in a community program, mentioned briefly in another essay, focuses on the travails of her students, not on the trials and triumphs of her own work as an instructor. I think there are many of us who would benefit from Moraga's musings on her struggles and successes as a teacher.
As a Chicana writer and educator whose schooling was completely devoid of Chicano poetry, fiction, or drama, I want to believe that I am of "the last generation" to have experienced that void. Cherríe Moraga was one of the first to fill that emptiness by helping to establish a canon of Chicana literature, and the prose and poetry of her newest book show she intends to keep those political and intellectual fires burning bright for us all.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
SOURCE: "The Axis of Herstory," in The Nation, Vol. 258, No. 18, May 9, 1994, pp. 634-37.
[In the following review, Clausen finds The Last Generation prophetic of racial, class, and gender clashes to come in the twenty-first century.]
In The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry, Cherríe Moraga records this wrenching break from a Chicana perspective:
I write this on the one-week anniversary of the death of the Nicaraguan Revolution.
We are told not to think of it as a death, but I am in mourning…. There is a protest. We, my camarada and I, get off the subway. I can already hear the voices chanting from a distance. We can't make out what they're saying, but they are Latinos and my heart races, seeing so many brown faces…. as I come closer to the circle of my people. I am stunned. "¡Viva la paz en Nicaragua!" it states. "¡Viva George Bush!" "¡Viva UNO!" And my heart drops. Across the street, the "resistance" has congregated—less organized, white, young, middle-class students. ¿Dónde 'stá mi pueblo?
The irony is characteristic; Moraga has always had an unflinching instinct for the significant contradiction. One thinks of a key passage in her classic 1983 essay "A Long Line of Vendidas":
Oppression. Let's be clear about this.
Oppression does not make for hearts as big as all outdoors. Oppression makes us big and small.
Expressive and silenced. Deep and Dead.
Like that piece, The Last Generation is much concerned with an accurate reckoning of damage—but one always in the service of hope. "And our liberation won't happen by some man leading the way and parting the Red Sea for us. We are the Red Sea, we women," Moraga concludes. Her femaleness is insistently inflected by culture, class, sexuality and the imperatives of a stubborn home-grown anti-colonialism: "I am the result of the dissolution of blood lines and the theft of language; and yet, I am a testimony to the failure of the United States to totally anglicize its mestizo citizens." Looking south, she sees herself in an inescapably international feminist context—but the "discussion" she seeks is primarily one among indígenas and Latinas.
Her "insistent cultural nationalism," as she calls it, differs in interesting ways from her work of a decade ago, when she emerged as an eloquent voice in the U.S. feminist/lesbian of color movement. Her anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, co-edited with Gloria Anzaldúa, is a feminist classic whose relevance has only increased in the dozen years since its initial publication. Both it and her previous mixed-genre collection, Loving in the War Years, emphasized a coalitional politics and awareness. Now she charts her return to Aztlán, the Chicano "imagined community" that she proposes to reinvent from a feminist, lesbian perspective—a project clearly made possible by the recent broadening of Chicano and Latino cultural politics from the patriarchal and heterosexist sixties ideology that she critically reviews in her essay "Queer Aztlán: The Re-formation of Chicano Tribe."
All the while, she's lost none of her hallmark sensitivity to historical complications that mock a simple nationalist quest for purity. She writes searchingly of her own mixed background: "My white family was kept distant from me, not because of its conquests, but because of its failures." Repeatedly if obliquely she laments the wound of failed coalitions and dissolved relationships:
I had a Black family once and what happened to that? Like my Mexican childhood, my Puerto Rican dreams, my white forgetfulness. What happened to all those women I laid and made history with?
Among the many boundaries she refuses are those among conventionally construed literary genres. She's a poet whose surreal imagination is at its most convincing in some of the "prose" passages: for instance, the unnerving dream image of half-human, half-animal "calf-children," "goat-people," in whom she recognizes herself, "the hope of the future, these mixed beings." "La Ofrenda," a favorite, is a short story/prose poem about two Chicanas who "weren't meant to be lovers, only sisters. But being a sister ain't no part-time occupation." It ends with a line in which cadence and imagery work flawlessly together ("I, who have only given my breast to the women"); the preceding dialogue between teenage lesbians is sad and harsh and hilarious:
"Fuck fuck chinga'o, man, fuck!"
"Tina …" I can barely hear myself.
"Tiny. The name's Tiny."
"What're you doin' in there?"
"I'm crying, you faggot. That's what you want, isn't it? To see the big bad bitch cry? Well, go get your rocks off somewhere else."
"I don't have rocks."
"In your head!"
Moraga's romanticism can occasionally be cloying, her language obvious and labored. ("Mirrored in her huge deer eyes / I have neither vagina / nor pigment politicized.") More often, her risks and rawness pay off, form and content blending in "enough poetic and visionary suggestions to make the case for liberation as a process and not as a goal." to borrow Edward Said's recent praise of Frantz Fanon. In the strength of her longing, the outlines of the not-yet-visible begin to form: "I am not the church-goer that my mother is, but the same faithfulness drives me to write: the search for [the Aztec female deity] Coyolxauhqui amid all the disfigured female characters and the broken men that surround them in my plays and poems."
Indeed, she's no churchgoer; it's a compliment to say that this is a very queer book. From its insouciant gender-bending to a bilingualism that may present a mild obstacle to English-only readers (get used to it, it's the wave of the future), and from its images of dykes who fuck—or want to be—boys to its naming of the "mongrel" status of biracial and binational identity, this book is all about not fitting into any accepted categories. One wonders how the seemingly sedate Nicaraguan opponents of Article 204 will respond—for in the context of a shared Latino "identity that dissolves borders," as Moraga puts it, clearly the echoes of this rebeldía will reverberate in Managua.
As for the reverse effect, she notes that within the decade "our whole concept of 'America' will be dramatically altered; most significantly by a growing Latino population whose strong cultural ties, economic disenfranchisement, racial visibility, and geographical proximity to Latin America [discourage] any facile assimilation." [The Last Generation charts] a world in which the axis of herstory starts in São Paulo, goes over to Lima, then up to Managua. San Cristóbal and East Los. The reassuringly fixed evil of the color line has become a labyrinth. The twenty-first century, already under way, will have as its central problem the race/class/gender grid.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
SOURCE: Review of Shadow of a Man, in Theatre Journal. Vol. 47, No. 3, October 1995, pp. 412-14.
[In the following review: Wiley finds Denver's Su Teatro production of Shadow of a Man "triumphant" for women, particularly Latinas.]
Denver, capital of the only state to pass legislation forbidding the inclusion of sexual orientation in official anti-discrimination language, seems an unlikely place to stage a play by lesbian writer Cherríe Moraga, but theatre about AIDS, coming out stories, and plays written by openly gay authors have never been so popular here.
Denver's El Centro Su Teatro, one of the oldest amateur bilingual teatro Chicanos in the United States, is Poor Theater at its best. In a partially remodelled school flanked by a Purina Dog Chow factory and Interstate 70 located in one of Denver's oldest and poorest barrios, Su Teatro has served its community for over twenty years.
Moraga's play [Shadow of a Man] is in many ways a radical revision of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman with the sexual tension of Miller's subtext placed in the foreground. Moraga's Willy Loman is Manuel, an alcoholic on the verge of losing his job as he watches his familial authority disintegrate. The disintegration is catalyzed by the emergence into the present of sexual secrets, shadows, from his past. The repository of these secrets is his youngest daughter, Lupe. As a twelve-year-old girl on the eve of her confirmation, Lupe discovers that she "wants to be in the skin" of her friend Frances Pacheco. Having asked the question at the play's opening of why the Church makes having secrets a sin, she decides that her sexual feelings are not a sin because they are part of her. Manuel's self-destruction as his secret becomes known is thus echoed optimistically by his daughter, who may, the play implies, someday affirm her secret without any shadows.
Sexual revolt motivates every member of this family. The eldest son flees home by marrying an Anglo. The eldest daughter gives away her virginity in an effort to subvert traditional expectations of nice Chicana girls. Lupe's biological father, Conrado, is discovered to be the man her mother, Hortensia, truly loves but could not marry. Manuel loved his compadre Conrado so much that he gave him his wife for one night. The prohibition against homosexuality demands that Manuel use his wife as a stand-in for himself, but he despises her for frustrating his desire.
Like Willy Loman, Manuel is the weak center around which his family orbits, but Hortensia refuses to let him defeat her and the play's focus on the interaction of Hortensia, her sister, and her two teenage daughters makes Shadow of a Man a woman's play. Lupe is often paired with her aunt Rosario, a woman who has defied convention by divorcing and choosing to live alone. Lupe too may escape the confines of traditional Mexican American expectations for women.
For Lupe, the most devastating aspect of these expectations is her primary role as caretaker for her father, a role which may extend to an incestuous relationship with him. As the offspring of Manuel's inexpressible love for Conrado, Lupe is the child/woman from whom Manuel seeks comfort at night. When he approaches the stage area representing Lupe's bedroom, backlighting throws his menacing distorted shadow over her.
Like Salesman, Shadow paints the American dream as a sexual fantasy of unrequited love and both Willy and Manuel see in their love objects (Biff and Conrado), the embodiment of what the American male should be. But their sexual transgressions—Willy's affair(s) on the road and Manuel's exploitation of his wife and daughter—point to the disease behind the dream. Conventionally successful or not, a life constructed on lies is only a shadow.
While both Salesman and Shadow end with the father's funerals. Hortensia does not echo Linda's "We're free." but she admits that a husband "stays a stranger in his own home." With no men left in the house, it is finally free of strangers and their shadows. Manuel is not mourned: Hortensia even tells Lupe to cover her mirror so that Manuel's spirit will not return to carry the family away. Two generations of women have survived men's violence and Lupe's desire to be with women leaves the audience with hope for her future.
While in the script, Lupe's budding attraction to women is no less subtle than the hints that her relationship with Manuel is incestuous, this production mutes Lupe's sexuality and gravitates around Hortensia and Rosario: Hortensia's weakness contrasting Rosario's fortitude. Debra Gallegos and Yolanda Ortega-Erikson who have performed together for years, are outstanding as the two sisters. Rudy Bustos who says that he was inspired to direct the play by taking a women's studies class, describes Shadow as "a micro-view of a Latino family" which offers "a starting point for discussion about where and what Latinos are today." Shadow of a Man is much more than this, and like the playwright. Su Teatro's rich production leaves the women triumphant in their survival.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352
SOURCE: "Cherríe Moraga: Mapping Aztlan," in American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 8, October 1996, pp. 76-78.
[In the following essay, DeRose discusses Moraga's involvement with the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco's Mission District.]
Cherríe Moraga and I are sitting at the kitchen table in her San Francisco home, swapping stories about growing up in California. It is a badge we both wear proudly, and it has deep spiritual meaning for both of us—particularly for Moraga, who senses in the California landscape racial memories of Aztlan, the ancient North American homeland of the Chicano. She tells me a story about driving through the Southern California desert near San Diego.
"I'm driving along in this van listening to music. Looking at the desert landscape. I start thinking a lot about Aztlan: that this land was originally Mexico, and before that, Mexican Indian territory. And I know this land has memory, and that this whole Anglo experiment is very recent. It's obvious the terrain is Mexican. It's a deep, deep feeling." Suddenly, Moraga's van rounds a bend and she finds herself staring at a sunlit mountainside upon which someone has painted giant letters spelling out AZTLAN. "For a moment I don't know if it is an apparition or what. I stop and look at it. Somebody has written these letters—somebody else has had my same experience. And you start believing in collective unconscious, and racial memory, and the importance of being indigenous to this land."
The land and its spirit
That sense of heritage, one's spiritual link to the land, is a common theme of Moraga's three best-known plays: Heroes and Saints (1992), Circle in the Dirt (1995) and, most recently, Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, which opened in June as the inaugural production of San Francisco's new Brava Theater Center. Through interviews, videotaped oral histories and research into current events, Moraga has been creating a cultural and political map of the California landscape—particularly Chicano territory—resulting in a series of plays set in real California working-class communities.
Heroes and Saints takes place in "McLaughlin," Moraga's pseudonym for McFarland, a small San Joaquin Valley town in which abuse of the once-fertile land—in the form of pesticide-drenched crops, farmland and water—has led to a generation of cancer-bearing farm workers and deformed offspring. Moraga embodies the poisoned fruit of this land-scape in the startling character of Cerezita, a young woman born without a body—she subsists as only a head, which her family has kept hidden from the world—who has a powerfully empathetic relationship to the land and its spirit. Like the land, Cerezita's Chicano farm worker family and neighbors are seen not in terms of their natural beauty and bounty, but as exploitable, even disposable resources. The outcome of this treatment, in Cerezita's visionary language, is a martyred landscape: "a thousand minicrucifixions," with the trunk of each grape vine, staked to its wooden cross, "a little gnarled body of Christ writhing in agony … intertwined with the other little crucified Christs next to it."
The land's commercial value is again weighed against its natural bounty in Circle in the Dirt, a collection of oral histories examining life in East Palo Alto, a tiny, impoverished community in the heart of Northern California's wealthy Silicon Valley. Circle was commissioned as a community arts project by Stanford University and the East Palo Alto Task Force to chronicle the life of a neighborhood about to be invaded by a major real estate development. East Palo Alto was dubbed "murder capital of the U.S." in 1992 and has subsequently been treated by politicians and developers as an ongoing crime scene worthy of being plowed under or covered in shopping malls and waterfront condos. But in Moraga's play, East Palo Alto's diverse immigrant population sees, behind the social and commercial turmoil, the area's natural fertility: "They all talk about gardens, or the breeze, the late afternoon, what grows well in that soil," Moraga notes.
Many of her characters see the fate of the Chicano people as intrinsically tied to the fate of la tierra, the land. Nowhere is this more evident than in Watsonville, in which the land (rather than serving as a passive object of exploitation or symbol of oppression) becomes an agent in the play's dramatic action. When the circumstances of a cannery workers' strike in the small shoreline town that gives the play its name go from bad to worse, the women strikers rally around a miraculous apparition: the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe—linked in Mexican folklore to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of the earth and fertility—which appears in the weathered trunk of an ancient California oak. Later. "la tierra" itself speaks when a major earthquake destroys the town, killing thousands but sparing the cannery workers who have gathered near the tree to pray for guidance and assistance.
Pray and the earth responds
While it might seem easy to dismiss this sequence of events as religious sanctimony or a contrived "deus ex machina" (as some reviewers did), the events of the play are neither right-wing bible-thumping nor overly convenient dramaturgy. Instead, Moraga turns these seeming miracles (both based on actual events of the late 1980s) into a litmus test of race and class discrimination by daring her audience to accept and validate the belief in ancient Indian animism—what Moraga calls the "indigenism"—of her uneducated, unsophisticated Chicana cannery-workers. For Moraga's characters, "If you pray long and hard enough, then the earth responds. There is a spirit there."
The spiritual relationship of Moraga's characters to the earth is constantly complicated by their relationship to another terrain: the social environment of contemporary California. As a Chicana theatre artist, a feminist, a lesbian and the product of a devout upbringing in what she calls "the Mexican Catholic Church." Moraga sees her plays as a kind of ongoing conversation—"even," she jokes, "if it is a one-way conversation"—a dialogue between herself and the various communities or institutions with which her heritage, her lifestyle and her work as a writer place her in contact or opposition.
But Moraga's plays take place within an even more diverse social and domestic landscape—they are peopled predominantly by women (in contrast to the early actos of Luis Valdez in the 1960s, where women were merely supporting cast) and so empower a wider and more representative cross-section of voices within the Chicano community. In Watsonville, a street-tough single mother must learn to understand a co-worker's lesbianism; a pious old woman must come to terms with a young priest who has abandoned the church; that young ex-priest must, in turn, put aside his cynicism and accept the old woman's embrace of a miraculous apparition in a tree. One of Moraga's gifts is her ability to pair up characters of opposing views and let us hear their voices, their perspectives, in an open dialogue that favors neither.
The audiences attending Watsonville demonstrate how Moraga's dialogue spills off the stage and into the community. On any given night one might see a lesbian couple sitting next to an old Chicano husband and wife, who are in turn sitting next to members of the affluent white "arts crowd," sitting next to some tough young barrio cholos. Considering these audience dynamics, it seems fitting that Moraga's Watsonville should be the inaugural production of Brava's newly acquired Theater Center (housed in a former vaudeville theatre) in the heart of San Francisco's famous barrio, the Mission District.
A women's arts organization under the artistic directorship of Ellen Gavin, Brava has been carving out a space for itself in the Mission since 1986 with arts workshops, full-scale theatre productions, and youth and community activities. Moraga, a playwright-in-residence at Brava (through the National Theatre Artist Residency Program, jointly developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and TCG, with major funding from the Trusts), wants to "build within the barrio," not import or gentrify from without. She hopes the new theatre center will "bring good art to and develop good art out of the barrio and its inhabitants"—and echo with seldom-heard voices from the landscape of Aztlan in the '90s.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8081
SOURCE: "(Re)Claiming the Race of the Mother: Cherríe Moraga's Shadow of a Man, Giving Up the Ghost, and Heroes and Saints," in Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, 1996, pp. 95-116.
[In the following essay, de Foor Jay examines mother-daughter relationships in Shadow of a Man, Giving Up the Ghost, and Heroes and Saints.]
Cherríe Moraga's courageous voice first emerged in the 1980s and has since become a significant one for Chicana, feminist, and lesbian studies. It has been heard in several genres: poems, fiction, essays, and plays,1 sounding the theme of betrayal, informed by various myths and legends in the Chicano/Chicana culture. She focuses, in particular, on the myth of La Malinche. In the pattern of Malinche, a woman who does not conform to prescribed roles is labeled La Vendida, the "sell-out," or La Chingada, the "traitor" (also slang for "the violated one"). Moraga attacks this encoding, arguing that women have been socialized by male-centered, heterosexual-centered ideologies into "selling out" or betraying their own daughters, apprenticing them for submission and servitude. In her plays Shadow of a Man, Giving Up the Ghost, and Heroes and Saints, Moraga explores this process of socialization and its effects on mothers and daughters in the Chicano/Chicana community, finally rendering a vision of revolution, led by courageous vendidas, as the only recourse to (re)claim the race.
Moraga begins her exploration of the Chicano mother-daughter relationship by focusing on la familia, a locus of multiple oppressions, "wounds," that relate to a larger sociopolitical context. She states, "My identity as a Chicana, a lesbiana, a mujer always had to do with the relationship between my deeply personal side and the whole political construct. I had to look at my family, at the contradictions and the mixed messages … the good stuff and the negative stuff" (quoted in Lovato, 23). Having been born and reared in a family with an Anglo father and a Chicana mother, Moraga had been encouraged to emphasize her "whiteness." In "La Güera" she writes, "It was through my mother's desire to protect her children from poverty and illiteracy that we became 'anglocized'; the more effectively we could pass in the white world, the better guaranteed our future" (Loving in the War Years, 50). Passing also meant appropriating the language of the dominant culture; therefore, Moraga spoke English, filtering out her mother's fluent Spanish.
Not only had Moraga attempted to pass as an Anglo, but she also had attempted to pass as a heterosexual, these two disguises becoming equally oppressive. This oppression was not lifted until Moraga heard Ntozake Shange read her poetry and experienced a profound "revelation," in which she realized that she had denied "the brown in me," that she had denied the language that spoke to the "emotions in my poems," and that she had denied "the voice of my own brown mother" (Loving in the War Years, 55). At this point she began her quest for a more authentic self and a more authentic poetic voice. In "A Long Line of Vendidas," she asserts, "To be a woman fully necessitated my claiming the race of my mother" (Loving in the War Years, 94).
Claiming the race of the mother meant claiming its myths and legends and acknowledging the codes and signs of the dominant ideology, its institutions and institutional practices. According to Nancy Saporta Sternbach, Moraga "draws upon, conjures, reinvents, and reinterprets Mexican myth and pre-Hispanic heritage" (52). In particular, Moraga draws upon the myth of La Malinche.2 However, while most writers concentrate on Malinche herself, Moraga focuses on Malinche's mother—the mother who sacrificed herself for men and the mother who betrayed the daughter by colluding with the dominant ideology. In one version of the myth, Malinche's mother wanted her son by a second marriage to inherit the estate so she sold her daughter into slavery (Mirandé and Enríquez, 24-25). Moraga explores this legacy of betrayal in her works—not just betrayal by the mother but betrayal by any woman of another. In an interview with Mirtha N. Quintanales, she discusses this theme and links it with her search for the meaning of love: "And for me, the conditions [for love] have always had something to do with the issue of separation—leaving and the consequences of leaving" (12). She admits that she has a "deep racial memory that the Chicana could not betray a sister, a daughter, a compañera in the service of the man and his institutions if somewhere in the chain of historical events and generations, she were allowed to love herself as both female and mestiza" (Loving in the War Years, 136).
To Moraga, Malinche, because she was a woman, had very little choice in her situation; therefore, her association with the downfall of her people is unjustified. Denigrating her, and by association denigrating all women, is a political act of a patriarchal system. In fact, several extant accounts mention her sensitive and loving nature. According to one chronicler, Malinche showed no vindictiveness when she encountered her mother and half-brother years later; instead, she treated them with mercy and love (Del Castillo, 126). Adelaida R. Del Castillo argues. "No one, not Cortés, not the Catholic Church, not her own husband, not even history itself, not the mestizo nation she gives birth to realize the great injustice they have done her by obscuring her in defamation" (143). By labeling her a traitor, "man is attempting to submerge the female character in negativism and Mexican culture does it through demeaning the character of Doña Marina—La Malinche" (146). Norma Alarcón asserts, "Her almost half century of mythic existence, until recent times mostly in the oral traditions, [has] turned her into a handy reference point not only for controlling, interpreting or visualizing women, but also to wage a domestic battle of stifling proportions" (182).
Moraga's mother also became a Malinche figure, a traitor, because she married an Anglo. Moraga herself, because she refuses to marry and serve any man, becomes the worst traitor or "malinchista" of all (Sternbach, 53). She reasons in "A Long Line of Vendidas":
My mother then is the modern-day Chicana, Malinche marrying a white man, my father, to produce the bastards my sister, my brother, and I are. Finally, I—a half-breed Chicana—further betray my race by choosing my sexuality which excludes all men, and therefore most dangerously, Chicano men.
I come from a long line of Vendidas. (Loving in the War Years, 117)
Sternbach observes that "her [Moraga's] conclusion brings her back to her people, the people of her mother … although she is obviously giving a new and perhaps reclaimed meaning, if such a thing is possible, to the word vendida" (55).
The myth of La Malinche works in various combinations with two other myths: La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Llorona.3 All are images of motherhood. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the virgin mother, sexless and pure, whereas Malinche is "the violated mother" (Paz, 85), sexual and adulterated. La Llorona, historically linked to Malinche, is the suffering mother: she suffers, according to one legend, because she has deviated from her proper role as "good" wife and mother. Like the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche, La Llorona "reflects a cultural heritage that is relentless in its expectations of feminine roles" (Mirandé and Enríquez, 33).
The two contrasting figures of Malinche of Tenépal and the Virgin of Guadalupe, or the polarities of whore or virgin, linked with La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, have become entrenched in the Mexican and Chicano cultures, providing major stumbling blocks to women in their quests for self-determination. To avoid being labeled mujer mala, a woman must adhere to certain prescriptions: she must serve the males, take care of the home, mother the children, and give priority to the sons. Moraga states, "You are a traitor to your race if you do not put the man first" (Loving in the War Years, 103). She must give her allegiance not only to the institution of la familia but also to the institution of the Catholic Church, for "familial restrictions share close covenant with the Catholic faith" (Feyder, 5). For Moraga, embracing the mother means acknowledging the mother's roles in the society and the effects of those roles on her—and her daughter's—racial/sexual identity.
Somewhat autobiographical. Shadow of a Man focuses on la familia, examining how betrayal works in the context of the family structure. Hortensia, a traditional wife and mother, has allowed the dominant ideology to define her totally; she exists primarily to serve others, especially her husband and son. She is a prime example of the mother who "sells" her daughters into patriarchal slavery. Gloria Anzaldúa asserts, "I abhor some of my culture's ways, how it cripples its women, como burras, our strengths used against us, lowly burras bearing humility with dignity. The ability to serve, claim the males, is our highest virtue" (21). During the course of the play, Hortensia cooks, serves meals, folds clothes, and dresses and undresses her husband, Manuel. But still she feels that she is invisible to Manuel and demands that he see her: "Yo existo. (Pause.) Manuel, yo existo. Existo yo" (32).
Mainly, Hortensia exists for her children, defining herself primarily as mother. Even her husband is a little boy to her. She tells her youngest daughter, Lupe: "Funny, when a man is asleep, tha's when you really get to know him. You see the child's look on his face, before he wakes up and remembers he's a man again. In his half dream, tiene la voz de un niño." She admits, however, that her children, not her husband, receive her allegiance: "But your husband really isn't your child. He di'nt come from your body. Y no matter cuántas veces le das el pecho, tu marido no es tu hijo. Your blood never mixes. He stays a stranger in his own home" (44).
Her primary allegiance, though, is the one she bestows on her son. Moraga comments on the Chicana mother's preference for sons:
Ask, for example, any Chicano mother about her children and she is quick to tell you she loves them all the same, but she doesn't. The boys are different. Sometimes I sense that she feels this way because she wants to believe that through her mothering, she can develop the kind of man she would have liked to have married, or even have been. That through her son she can get a small taste of male privilege, since without race or class privilege that's all there is to be had. The daughter can never offer the mother such hope, straddled by the same forces that confine the mother. (Loving in the War Years, 101-102)
Irene I. Blea concurs: "Even at birth Chicano females and males do not start out the same. Boy babies are still preferred" (127). In a scene that reveals her phallocentric view, Hortensia tells her daughters: "Mira, qué lindo es [the baby's penis] … like a little jewel. Mi machito. Tha's one thing, you know, the men can never take from us. The birth of a son." Leticia retorts, "Well, I don't see you getting so much credit." "But the woman knows," explains Hortensia. "Tú no entiendes. Wait until you have your own son" (29).
Having internalized the belief that men are superior to women, Hortensia perpetuates these attitudes in her relations with her two daughters, indoctrinating them into a dualistic behavior system. The son, a fledgling macho, may venture from the home to test his wings and to develop a masculine identity (Mirandé and Enríquez, 114), but the daughter may not leave freely. When Leticia wants more freedom—like the males in the culture—Hortensia tells her: "If God had wanted you to be a man, he would of given you something between your legs." Rejecting this assessment of woman as "lack," Leticia responds, "I have something between my legs" (44). However, Hortensia perpetuates the double standard within the culture and defines women as dirty and whorelike if they desire the same privileges as men.
At one point Hortensia defines herself as whorelike, impure and unclean. After being abused and rejected by Manuel, she proclaims, "¡Estoy cochina! ¡Filthy!" She pours vinegar over herself and informs her daughters: "Tu padre thinks I stink, pues now I stink for sure" (34). Unable to feel "clean," she almost murders her daughter Lupe, her child by her husband's friend Conrado. Years before, in a classic "exchange of women among men" personal (and ultimately political) act, Hortensia had been offered to Conrado by Manuel as a sexual partner for one night. Lupe is the product of that liaison. Consumed by guilt. Hortensia symbolically renames herself la chingada—the traitor (also "the violated one").
Lupe, the twelve-year-old youngest daughter, internalizes the mother's "teachings" and assumes a caretaker's role. Following her mother's example, she waits upon her father, existing in his "shadow" and literally and symbolically sitting at his feet (69). Betty Garcia-Bahne, in "La Chicana and the Chicano Family," discusses this "modeling" and its effects upon Chicano women. She points out several "myths" that bolster the Chicano family structure and shows how they establish women's dependency and "mitigate against the development and exercise of self-determination" (43). One of these myths is that family members can be assured of well-being if they are under the leadership of a male. Garcia-Bahne argues that this type of hierarchical construct undermines the woman's sense of worth and potential. It also places too much responsibility and pressure on the male (44). By modeling the mother's behavior, Lupe enters into the traditional configuration of the family and, by extension, other umbrella institutions.
One of those institutions is the Catholic Church, which casts a long shadow over the bodies and psyches of the women. Lupe, identifying with her mother, takes on the negativism of Malinche, confusing the family's "secret" with her own secretly budding sexuality. In the first image of the play, Lupe appears wearing a Catholic school uniform and holding a votive candle under her chin. Only her face is seen, staring into a mirror. On the wall the shadow of a crucifix can be seen. She reflects. "I have x-ray eyes…. I can see through her [Sister Genevieve's] habit…. She has a naked body under there…. I think there's something wrong with me" (30). She tries to confess to the priest but is unable to reveal her sexual dilemmas. She realizes: "No matter how many times I make confession, no matter how many times I try to tell the priest what I hold insida me, I know I'm still lying. Sinning. Keeping secrets" (12). Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano posits that "Catholicism in its institutionalized form … inculcates in [women] the need to sublimate the body and its desires, as captured in the image of Lupe's disembodied head illuminated by a candle in the shadow of the cross" ("Cherríe Moraga's Shadow of a Man," 99-100).
Lupe's identity quest in the context of family, culture, and institutional religion is the controlling element of the play (her monologues begin and end the production). At one point, she considers her new confirmation name, vacillating between Cecilia and Magdalena—one burned at the stake, the other considered a prostitute—women who encode the dualities. Finally, eschewing all female saints, she decides on Frances, a masculine name she appropriates in order to align with a rebellious female friend. In the last image of the play, Lupe stares at the mirror, again speaking to her reflection: "I've decided my confirmation name will be Frances 'cuz that's what Frankie Pacheco's name is and I wanna be in her body. When she sits, she doesn't hold her knees together like my mom and the nuns are always telling me to. She jus' lets them fly an' fall wherever they want … real natural-like … like they was wings instead of knees" (49). With this decision, Lupe begins to rebel against the systems that have constrained and repressed her, represented by the mother and the church.
In the last action of the play, Lupe covers the mirror, a signifier with multiple references, with a rebozo, a black shawl. The family is on the way to the father's funeral, and Aunt Rosario instructs Lupe to cover the mirror because she does not want Lupe's father to come back and try to take them with him. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa discusses the multiple symbolism of the mirror in Chicano culture. The mirror is "a door through which the soul may 'pass' to the other side." It is also "an ambivalent symbol, reproducing images but also containing and absorbing them. In addition, it is a path to knowledge, a way of 'seeing through' an experience" (42). In Freudian/Lacanian terms the mirror reflects patriarchal ideology that she cannot enter. By taking on both "masculine" and "feminine" aspects and by taking on a name that blurs the dualities, thereby adding a new sexual dimension. Lupe threatens and challenges the existing power structure, based on male privilege and heterosexuality.
Another daughter who threatens and challenges the existing order is Lupe's older sister, Leticia, called the política by her mother. From the outset of the play, Leticia is a radical feminist, fighting oppression, not only for women but also for the raza. She has no respect for male-centered power structures, often countering her mother's phallocentric views. When her mother refuses to allow her the freedom she allows her brother Rigo, Leticia, in frustration, declares: "Es hombre. Es hombre. I'm sick of hearing that. It's not fair." Hortensia returns, "Well, you better get use to things not being fair. Whoever said the world was goin' to be fair?" Leticia proclaims. "Well, my world's going to be fair!" (18). When her mother tries to convince her that having sons is a sublime experience, Leticia pronounces, "Who knows? Maybe I won't have kids" (29). Choosing not to have children constitutes a challenge to male-based ideologies that control women through marriage and motherhood—a choice that is an attempt "to undo the power men everywhere wield over women, power that has become a model for every other form of exploitation and illegitimate control" (Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," 202).
In another act of defiance. Leticia gives away her virginity, taking away the power of the patriarchy to use her as a commodity. When her mother asks her, "Why you give your virginidad away for nothing?" Leticia responds: "I was tired of carrying it around … that weight of being a woman with a prize. Walking around with that special secret, that valuable commodity, waiting for some lucky guy to put his name on it. I wanted it to be worthless, Mama. Don't you see? Not for me to be worthless, but to know that my worth had nothing to do with it" (45). By the end of the play both Lupe and Leticia refuse to be sold out by the mother and the race, and both refuse to have their sexuality repressed or exploited.
Giving Up the Ghost, also somewhat autobiographical, focuses on betrayal in the family context but extends the examination into personal relationships. The mother is absent from the text, but her influence is omnipresent. Significantly, the epigraph of the play is a song Moraga's mother sang: "If I had the wings like an angel / over these prison walls / I would fly" (3). One of the "prisons" to which Moraga refers is the prison of rigidly defined sexual roles, set up by patriarchal ideologies to bolster power structures. Adrienne Rich calls this prison "institutional heterosexuality" and points out that it is "a major buttress of male power." In 1979, in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, she called for a close scrutiny of the "indoctrination of women toward heterosexuality" and for "a politics of asking women's questions, demanding a world in which the integrity of all women—not a chosen few—shall be honored and validated in every aspect of culture" (17). Moraga takes up this challenge in Giving Up the Ghost. In the opening scene. Marisa (Moraga), the daughter, writes in a sketchbook that she is going to consider "the question of prisons/politics/sex" (6). In "A Long Line of Vendidas," Moraga writes: "The one aspect of our identity which has been uniformly ignored by every existing political movement in this country is sexuality, both as a source of oppression and a means of liberation" (Loving in the War Years, 109).
One of the main points the play makes is that heterosexual relations are often harmful to the body and spirit and that lesbian relations are often restorative and healing. Historian Linda Gordon writes, "For women … heterosexual relations are always intense, frightening, high-risk situations which ought, if a woman has any sense of self-preservation, to be carefully calculated" (quoted in Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 196). Marisa's goal is to fight institutional heterosexuality. At the beginning of the play, she speaks directly to the audience: "My mother was a heterosexual, I couldn't save her. My failures follow thereafter" (8). In Giving Up the Ghost, Marisa also attempts to save Amalia, a mother figure, from institutional heterosexuality. Paradoxically, Amalia feels like a failure, too. Her first words are "I am a failure" (8). But Amalia's lack of self worth stems from patriarchal neglect and abuse. Marisa insightfully recognizes this in her mother and then later in Amalia. Her failure to rescue these women, both the mother and the mother figure, depresses and angers her. Later in the same scene, she states, "I wanna talk about betrayal, about a battle I will never win and never stop fighting. The dick beats me every time" (9). Moraga, in Loving in the War Years, proclaims, "I love women to the point of killing for us all" (117). As a result, Mary K. DeShazer calls Moraga a "sister in arms" because of her fight against multiple oppressions, nothing that her battle cry is "neither hyperbolic nor malevolent; it reflects instead the historical, ideological, and affective locus from which she speaks" ("Making Familia," 282). It reflects her love and commitment to Chicanas, grounded in her love for her mother.
Marisa's love of Amalia is a transferal from the love of the mother to the love of an older woman.4 Although heterosexual at the beginning of the play, Amalia connects sexually and spiritually with Marisa as the play progresses. According to Teresa de Lauretis, in "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation," "the play itself [moves] away from any simple opposition of 'lesbian' to 'heterosexual' and into the conceptual and experiential continuum of a female, Chicana subjectivity from where the question of lesbian desire must finally be posed" (175). According to Alarcón, "Moraga puts into play the concepts 'man' and 'woman' (and the parodic 'butch/femme'), with the intuitive knowledge that they operate in our subjectivities, so that it is difficult to analyze them, except in the way she has done" (156).
The use of a split subject, Marisa/Corky, and the blurring of time and sequence contribute to Moraga's quest to dismantle limiting concepts of Chicana identity. The split subject, moving back and forth through time, avoids a unified subject and narrativity. In "The Female Subject in Chicano Theatre: Sexuality, 'Race,' and Class," Yarbro-Bejarano notes, "The juxtaposition of past and present in the text reveals the cultural construction of female identity, specifically through the restricted gender roles of masculine/feminine, active/passive, subject/object, penetrator/penetrated defined in Chicano-specific cultural terms through the myth of La Malinche and the chingón/chingada polarity" (147). "The chingón," writes Octavio Paz, "is the macho, the male; he rips open the chingada, the female, who is pure passivity, defenseless against the exterior world" (77).
Giving Up the Ghost presents this "defenseless" position of women in the culture. Corky, Marisa's twelve-year-old self, assumes a male-identified persona in order to escape the oppression she witnesses in the culture. Her mother's powerlessness in the face of sexism and racism contributes to her sexual determination. Sue-Ellen Case contends that Corky can only inhabit a subject position in society if she enters as "male-identified" (132).
However, when she is raped, Corky is forced "to confront her internal split between her identification with the subjugating male and her repressed self-knowledge as female" (Yarbro-Bejarano, "Cherríe Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost," 116). For example, the rape episode reveals that Corky has internalized societal attitudes. At one point, she decides: "I knew I musta done somet'ing real wrong / to get myself in this mess" (28). In "A Long Line of Vendidas," Moraga discusses the historical practice of blaming the rape victim and links it to the Malinche myth: "In the very act of intercourse with Cortés, Malinche is seen as having been violated. She is not, however, an innocent victim, but the guilty party—ultimately responsible for her own sexual victimization" (Loving in the War Years, 118). Alarcón points out that "because Malintzin aided Cortés in the conquest of the New World, she is seen as concretizing women's sexual weakness and interchangeability, always open to sexual exploitation." She writes, "Indeed, as along as we continue to be seen in that way, we are earmarked to be abusable matter, not just by men of another culture, but all cultures including the one that breeds us" (184). The rape also confirms Corky's "femaleness" because she feels absent, objectified: "I suddenly feel like I'm floating in the air / my thing kina attached to no body / flapping in the wind like a bird a wounded bird" (28). When she is penetrated, Corky cries, "He made me a hole!" (29). This declaration of nothingness and despair is a rite of passage for Corky/Marisa, for she realizes that she is vulnerable in the society. Yarbro-Bejarano maintains that "the rape brings home Corky's sex to her as an inescapable fact, confirming her culture's definition of female as being taken" ("The Female Subject in Chicano Theatre," 147). María Herrera-Sobek, in "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction," posits that Moraga encodes in Giving Up the Ghost the construct in the act of raping, of making (i.e., of "engendering"), women: "In this process of engendering, fabricating, that is, making a gender, the end result is a hole and absence: women as invisible, voiceless, worthless, devalued objects." She further notes that women are "silent entities dominated by ingrained patriarchal vectors where the Name of the Father is Law, and years of socialization to obey the Father's Law transforms the female subject into a quavering accomplice in her own rape." Women, then, betray themselves as well as other women: "Women are socialized into being participants in their own [and other women's] oppression" (172-173).
Women in the culture are socialized to betray each other because of the culture's directive to put the male first. This process occurs between mothers and daughters such as Lupe and Leticia in Shadow of a Man and occurs between women friends and/or lovers. Marisa bears the wounds of these betrayals: "The women I have loved the most have always loved the man more than me, even in their hatred of him" (14). Consequently, she fears that Amalia will leave her. Moraga's dramatization of Marisa's jealousy and pain illuminates the complexities of their relationship.
Marisa's decision to battle for women, to save them, begins with the physical and psychical "wounding" she experiences during the rape. Partly, Marisa relates to Amalia because Amalia has also been wounded by men. Marisa believes. "It was not natural or right that she got beat down so damn hard, and that all those crimes had nothing to do with the girl she once was two, three, four decades ago" (35). Also, Marisa relates to Amalia because Amalia's wounds remind her of her mother's. Healing Amalia, then, by extension, means healing the mother. Using her hands as "weapons of war," Marisa attempts to restore Amalia, "making her body remember, it didn't have to be that hurt" (35). Together, the women heal each other. Spiritually, they connect, suggesting "the possibility of mutual salvation" (Yarbro-Bejarano, "Cherríe Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost," 118), their love for each other becoming a religious experience. When Amalia tells Marisa. "You make love to me like worship," Marisa wants to say, but does not: "Sí, la mujer es mi religion" (34). Temporarily, the women find salvation not in God but in each other. Yarbro-Bejarano notes that "for Moraga the lesbian couple is the microcosm in which the dynamic of faith works itself out, becoming a metaphor for feminism" ("Cherríe Moraga," 173-174).
Partly, Marisa relates to Amalia as a way to embrace the race of the mother. Ultimately, embracing the mother's race means embracing, or accepting, one's mestiza heritage, one's Indian roots, in particular. The longing to connect with the mother's culture is finally a longing for community. In turn, Amalia, longing for her Indian roots, finds a connection to them in Marisa's mestiza features. Moraga dramatizes the women's connection to the past through the dream sequences, in which the women are Indians, dancing or making tortillas, clapping them together in time to indigenous music. The most significant sequence is the one in which Amalia dreams that they are Indians and have broken some taboo in the village. Amalia is afraid until she realizes that "it is you who have gone against the code of our people." She also realizes that she does not fear punishment from "los dioses"; instead, she fears the breaking of the taboo—the fact that "the taboo could be broken." She concludes, "And if this law nearly transcribed in blood could go, then what else? What was there to hold to? What immutable truths were left?" (33). Amalia represents the culture's fears when laws are broken, laws that provide the glue to hold the society together. Ultimately, she fears the downfall of the entire race. If a lesbian, the worst traitor or "malinchista" of all, could break the culture's sexual mandate, then the culture itself could be in danger of unraveling. Embedded in this dream vision is Moraga's hope of a new, liberating cultural configuration.
Overall, in Giving Up the Ghost, Moraga addresses the continuum of mother-daughter love. She implies that daughters receive a legacy of love from the mother that is nourishing and healing, unlike the legacy from the father that is often demeaning and damaging. To Moraga, women should tap into this source of sustenance in order to heal and save each other. Marisa draws from this source but is unable to convince other women, including Amalia, to eschew heterosexual relationships.
The ending of Giving Up the Ghost is somewhat despairing. Marisa states, "I am preparing myself for the worst" (35). However, the beginning is hopeful (the play is not linear in form). In a flashback, Marisa writes that her love for Amalia was a "blessing" that convinced her that she was not "trapped" (7). On a personal level, Marisa finds love that transcends the material. On a political level, she wages a war to redeem women, including her mother, from the "prison" of institutional heterosexuality.
In Heroes and Saints, which is "an unusual blend of realism, surrealism, and political theater" (Gelb, 518), Moraga extends the issue of betrayal beyond the somewhat insular family sphere to the more all-encompassing Chicano community. In order to demonstrate this, she draws two different mother figures: one who perpetuates institutional beliefs and practices, the Catholic Church, in particular, and one who challenges them.
Dolores, like Hortensia in Shadow of a Man, perpetuates institutional ideologies, her racial/sexual identity having been shaped by an oppressive and relentless socialization process, grounded in traditional Catholicism. "It is a faith," assesses Linda Feyder, "that has placed taboos on female sexuality making the Hispanic woman ashamed of her own body" (5). In the main, Catholicism is the overriding belief system that informs her identity. By colluding with this belief system in the socialization of her own daughters, she betrays them, limiting their potential, sexually and politically. According to Hal Gelb, "The mother is reactionary, a sexually and otherwise repressive, fatalistic figure who must be overthrown" (519).
Dolores, the traditional, self-sacrificing mother, is coded as the mother of La Malinche, who sells her daughter into servitude and submission, and La Llorona, who weeps for her lost children and grieves for her "sins." Motherhood is not only her "work," as she proclaims, but it is also her identity. In the words of Garcia-Bahne, "Women accept this definition of themselves because of some security that comes with the role, but this acceptance lends itself to a subtle but pernicious undermining of women's self-esteem" (39). For example, she loses this identity, this sense of selfhood, when she loses her children: "It doesn't matter," she relates, "how old they get or how far away they go, son tus hijos and they always take a piece of you with them. So you walk around full of holes from all the places they take from you." Also, to Dolores, motherhood is a sacred vocation, one she equates with saintliness: "El Dios es el único que nos llena" (130).
One of her sacred missions is to protect her daughters from the "outside" world. She does this by keeping them voiceless, sexless, and invisible. The house, or the traditional family structure, is another one of Moraga's "prisons" or "cages." Dolores literally imprisons her youngest daughter. Cerezita, inside the house, never allowing her to be seen or heard. Although political and social turmoil is occurring in the community, Dolores does not define herself as a member of a community but as a mother of an insular traditional family unit. Garcia-Bahne postulates, "The Chicano family can thus be seen as a vehicle which incorporates those strengthening qualities that are necessary for social units to survive under exploitive conditions and paradoxically embodies those values which mitigate against the development and exercise of self-determination" (43).
Amparo is the nontraditional mother figure, coded as La Malinche because she challenges institutional beliefs and practices. She is considered a "bad" woman, a deviant, because she has "assertive social skills and self-confidence" (Garcia-Bahne, 41). With this particular character, Moraga offers a new definition of mother and nurturer. Amparo, although married, has no biological children, but she and her husband have "adopted" all of the community's children, "show[ing] the guts to fight para sus niños" (130) and organizing the Mothers and Friends of McLaughlin. Unlike Dolores, who believes the home is a safe, nurturing place, Amparo believes the home has become a "prison"—unsafe and life-denying. Also, unlike Dolores, Amparo rejects traditional Catholicism, informing her: "I don' even go to church no more, ni recibir comunión … coz I'm tire of swallowing what they want to shove down my throat" (102). Her rejection of the institutions of the traditional family and church is a movement away from oppressive, closed systems and a movement toward liberating, expanding definitions of la madre and la familia.
Yolanda, the oldest daughter, represents the unmarried mother, still trapped in the traditional home. Her baby daughter's illness and death from pesticide poisoning marks her transformation from stasis to action. First, she rejects the church, telling her mother: "He's [God's] forgotten you and me and everybody else in this goddamn valley." Secondly, she rejects the veiling and silencing of women, exposing herself to the men in the helicopter and daring them: "Take me!" (131). In despair, she asks her mother: "Don't you see, amá? I gotta find her killer. Put a face to him, a name, track him down and make him suffer the way we suffer. I want to kill him, amá. I want to kill some … goddamn body!" (132). With this declaration, Yolanda aligns with Amparo and joins the protests.
The youngest daughter. Cerezita, born without a "body," is a multiple referent. Because she has been wounded by pesticide poisoning, she is a reference to the children who are sick and dying in the Chicano community. Her severed head designates the separation of body and mind, and the "decapitation" of women or the denial (or "cutting off") of sexual desire by repressive cultures. It also represents her "virgin-like." "saint-like" state, prompting her mother to name her "virgencita" (137). In addition, the privileging of the head is a visual attack on the biologism that ultimately bolsters the privileging of the body. Furthermore, it is an attack on those who attribute lesbianism to biological factors. Significantly. Moraga attributes lesbianism "to social factors and/or luck—certainly not to physiology" ("Algo secretamente amado," 151).
Cerezita's mother, a proxy for institutional heterosexuality, indoctrinates her daughter in several ways. When she removes the anatomy books in order to eliminate worldly temptations, she is mimicking church teachings: "The biggest sins are in the mind" (113). When she prevents her from going outside and from looking out the window, she is attempting to repress her sensuality and to curb her quest for self-determination. In addition, when she attempts to "cut off" her tongue, a multiple signifier of sensuality, sexuality, and language (108-109), silencing her in order to "protect" her, she is molding her to comply with societal norms. This conditioning of Cerezita's mind and the condition of her body demonstrate how the mind and body are controlled by church and state. Rich writes. "This culture of manipulated passivity, nourishing violence at its core, has every stake in opposing women actively laying claim to our own lives" (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 14).
When Cerezita rejects her mother's socializing methods and aligns with Amparo's social activism, she also rejects the reductive appellation "virgencita" and aligns with the liberating signifier La Virgen of Guadalupe. At the conclusion, she offers herself as a sacrifice, not as a traditional self-sacrificing mother but as a new liberated and liberating mother, "Madre … Liberated" (148). When Cerezita appropriates the Virgin's image, clothing herself in the signifier, she gives the political act a spiritual dimension. In "A Long Line of Vendidas," Moraga observes that a movement's effectiveness often depends on "a spiritual imperative. Spirituality which inspires activism and, similarly, politics which move the spirit—which draw from the deep-seated place of our greatest longings for freedom—give meaning to our lives." She maintains that "such a vision can hold and heal us in the worst of times, and is in direct opposition to an apolitical spiritualist view of the world or a totally materialistic perspective" (Loving in the War Years, 130).
Moraga's examination of the La Malinche legacy and its effect on the mothers' and daughters' racial/sexual identities is a political act to challenge, and ultimately to dismantle, patriarchal systems, based on institutional heterosexuality. In all three of her plays, she looks closely at the ways mothers (and mother figures) and daughters interact during the socialization process. All of the women are at different stages of self-realization and self-actualization. All are "betrayers," either "selling out" the daughters by preparing them to serve the patriarchy or "selling out" the culture by daring to criticize it. The lesbian is the most daring of the vendidas or chingadas, for she not only "sells out" the cultural contract, but also blurs the distinctions between the dualities, threatening the very foundations of the power structures. In her last play, Heroes and Saints, Moraga takes her characters into the realm of the absurd to magnify the physical and psychical wounds women have borne under repressive institutions and to render a vision of revolution. This revolution, however, not only (re)claims Chicana women but also (re)claims the race.
Overall, Moraga dares, in these dramatic works, to critique the Chicano culture, ironically becoming la vendida in the process. But she argues, in "A Long Line of Vendidas," that "to be critical of one's culture is not to betray that culture" (108); in fact, not to critique the culture would be an "act of self betrayal" (112), as well as a betrayal of her mother and, by extension, all Chicanas. To critique the culture, then, is an act of love, an act of reclamation. She writes, "It is the daughters that can be relied upon. Las hijas who remain faithful a la madre, a la madre de la madre" (Loving in the War Years, 139).
1. In 1986 she received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), which she co-edited with Gloria Anzaldúa. Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios, a compilation of her poems, short stories, and essays, was published in 1983. This book contains two seminal essays that inform Moraga's works: "La Güera" and "A Long Line of Vendidas." Although she calls herself primarily a poet, she has written several plays: Giving Up the Ghost: A Stage Play in Three Portraits (first staged reading 1984; first produced 1987); La extranjera (1985); Shadow of a Man (first staged reading 1989; first produced 1990); and Heroes and Saints (first staged reading 1989; first produced 1992). Shadow of a Man is a recipient of the Fund for New American Plays Award.
2. According to Adelaida R. Del Castillo, in "Malintzin Tenépal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective," Malintzin Tenépal (her Aztec name), also known as La Malinche and Doña Marina, was sold to the Mayans by her mother in tandem with her second husband; she was later given to Hernán Cortés as a gift, along with several other young women. A brilliant woman who could speak several languages, she became invaluable to Cortés as an interpreter and guide. Partly, she assisted him because she believed, as many Aztecs did, that he was the god Quetzalcoatl, whose arrival had been predicted on the very day Cortés and his men came ashore. Because of her strong faith, Malintzin became the first Indian to be baptized as a Christian in her native land. Although she and Cortés had a son, he eventually married her off to another Spaniard, Don Juan Jaramillo. After Malintzin's death at the age of twenty-two (probably from small-pox), Jaramillo tortured and robbed her children of their rightful inheritance.
3. Octavio Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, relates that the Virgin appeared in 1531, about ten years after the Spanish conquest, to an Indian. Juan Diego, on the Hill of Tepeyac, where a temple had stood in pre-Hispanic times dedicated to the Aztec goddess of fertility, Tonantzin, known to the Indians as "Our Mother" (84). In "The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol," Eric R. Wolf explains that to the Indians, and later to the mestizos, this revelation linked their ancient gods and goddesses to the new order, validating their existence and assuring them salvation. (During the time of the conquest, Spanish officials debated whether the Indians were worthy or capable of being saved. If they were subhuman, then there was justification for oppression and exploitation.) The Virgin of Guadalupe represents on one level maternal warmth, life, hope, and health. She also represents a sexless, yet motherly state, the ideal to which Chicanas should aspire. On another level she represents major political aspirations: "The myth of the Guadalupe thus validates the Indian's right to legal defense, orderly government, to citizenship; to supernatural salvation, but also to salvation from random oppression" (37).
In La Chicana: The Mexican-American Woman, Alfredo Mirandé and Evangelina Enríquez offer several versions of the La Llorona myth dating back to pre-Columbian times. All reflect the culture's attitudes toward women. Prior to the arrival of Cortés, her voice was heard, crying for her lost children. Later, she was associated with La Malinche. Legends surrounding her have migrated to the southwestern United States; California and Texas have their own unique versions. In all the interpretations, she is a woman who has transgressed in her proper role as "mother, wife, mistress, lover, or patriot" (31-33).
4. In Loving in the War Years, Moraga writes about her profound love for her mother, the source from which her love for other women emanates. In her poem "La Dulce Culpa," she asks,
What kind of lover have you made me, mother
so in love
with what is left
Provocatively, Adrienne Rich states, in "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," "If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical, from a feminist perspective at least, to pose the following questions: whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women: why in fact women ever redirect that search …" (182).
5. Chingón and chingada have multiple meanings in Spanish, Mexican, and Chicano cultures; basically chingón refers to an active, aggressive male; chingada to a passive, violated female (Paz, 77).
6. The image of the Virgin carried on banners united farmworkers during strikes and demonstrations in California and Texas (Anzaldua, 29).
Alarcón, Norma. "Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-vision through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object." In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 182-190. Watertown: Persephone, 1981.
―――――. "Making Familia from Scratch: Split Subjectivities in the Work of Helena Maria Viramontes and Cherríe Moraga." In Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, 147-159. Houston: Arte Publico, 1988.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters, 1987.
Blea, Irene I. La Chicana and the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender. New York: Praeger, 1992.
Case, Sue-Ellen. "From Split Subject to Split Britches." In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater, 126-146. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
de Lauretis, Teresa. "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation." Theatre Journal 40 (May 1988): 155-177.
Del Castillo, Adelaida R. "Malintzin Tenépal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective." In Sánchez and Cruz. 124-149.
DeShazer, Mary K. "'Sisters in Arms': The Warrior Construct in Writings by Contemporary U.S. Woman of Color." In Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poeties, Politics, and Portraiture, ed. Suzanne W. Jones, 261-286, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1991.
Feyder, Linda, ed. "Introduction." In Shattering the Myth: Plays by Hispanic Women, 5-8. Houston; Arte Público, 1992.
Garcia-Bahne, Betty. "La Chicana and the Chicano Family." In Sánchez and Cruz. 30-47.
Gelb, Hal. "Heroes and Saints." Nation (Nov. 2, 1992): 518-520.
Herrera-Sobek, María. "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction." In Chicana Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, 171-181. Houston: Arte Público, 1988.
Lovato, Roberto. "Yo Existo: The Woman of Color Breaks the Silence." City (Nov. 1990): 23-24.
Mirandé, Alfredo, and Evangelina Enriquez. La Chicana: The Mexican-American Woman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Moraga, Cherríe. "Algo secretamente amado." In The Sexuality of Latinas, ed. Norma Alarcón, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga, 151-156. Berkeley: Third Woman, 1993.
―――――. Giving Up the Ghost: A Stage Play in Three Portraits. Albuquerque: West End, 1994 (all references to the play are from this source).
―――――. Heroes and Saints. In Heroes and Saints and Other Plays: Giving Up the Ghost, Shadow of a Man, Heroes and Saints, 85-149. Albuquerque: West End, 1994 (all references to the play are from this source).
―――――. Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Boston: South End, 1983.
―――――. Shadow of a Man. In Shattering the Myth: Plays by Hispanic Women, ed. Linda Feyer, 9-49. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1992 (all references to the play are from this source).
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Trans. Lysander Kemp. New York: Grove, 1961.
Quintanales, Mirtha N. "Loving in the War Years: An Interview with Cherríe Moraga." off our backs (Jan. 1985): 12-13.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, 177-205. New York: Monthly Review, 1983.
―――――. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.
Sánchez, Rosaura, and Rosa Martinez Cruz, eds. Essays on La Mujer. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.
Sternbach, Nancy Saporta. "'A Deep Racial Memory of Love': The Chicana Feminism of Cherríe Moraga." In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado et al., 48-61. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Wolf, Eric R. "The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol." Journal of American Folklore 71 (Jan.-Mar. 1958): 34-39.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. "Cherríe Moraga." In Chicano Writers: First Series, ed. Francisco A. Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley, 165-177. Vol. 82 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1989.
―――――. "Cherríe Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost: The Representation of Female Desire." Third Woman 3 (1986): 113-120.
―――――. "Cherríe Moraga's 'Shadow of a Man': Touching the Wound in Order to Heal." In Acting Out: Feminist Performances, ed. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan, 85-104. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.
―――――. "The Female Subject in Chicano Theatre: Sexuality, 'Race,' and Class." In Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case, 131-149. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
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SOURCE: Review of Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood, in Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1997, p. 1692.
[In the following review, the critic praises the evocative immediacy of Moraga's motherhood experiences in Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood.]
[Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood is] an honest, introspective memoir of evolving lesbian motherhood.
When Chicana lesbian writer Moraga (coeditor, This Bridge Called My Back, not reviewed) was 40, she decided to have a child. She asked her white lover (who is called Ella here, the Spanish word for "she") to help, not so much to be the other mother as to continue to be Moraga's partner and support; inevitably, though, Ella does turn out to be a "comother." Moraga asks her much younger Mexican friend Pablo to donate sperm; he too ends up becoming very involved with the baby. Against the odds, Moraga gets pregnant the first time they try. In this memoir, Moraga muses honestly on how she feels about having a boy (at first ambivalent, then pleased). She is also thoughtful on the meaning of blood and family; as a lesbian, she's always created her own "familia," yet she is also quite close to her parents and sister, and it was important to her that her baby's father also be Mexican. Both her sister and Ella are present at Rafael's birth, which is premature, and he fights for his life the first few months. Moraga writes well about the struggle and the exhaustion of daily facing this new loved one's death after months of creating his life. When Rafael is well, Moraga battles to find the energy to write, her relationship with Ella suffers and Ella moves out, though it seems they may stay together. Some of the writing in this memoir is a bit indulgent, having been culled from journals. However, much of it is powerful, and the journal form does give the narrative a sense of immediacy.
A strong, though sometimes scattered, account of a baby's struggle for survival and a mother's struggle to define her own new life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7267
SOURCE: "Teatro Chicano and the Seduction of Nostalgia," in Melus, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 99-115.
[In the following essay, Wiley discusses how the notion of nostalgia relates to Moraga's and other Chicano artists drama.]
In Cherríe Moraga's first published play, Giving Up the Ghost, the character Amalia leaves her home in Los Angeles to visit Mexico in an attempt to renew her physical and spiritual energy. She muses:
In thought … maybe it was the American influence that causes the blood to be sucked dry from you so early. Nothing was wrong with me, really. My bones ached. I needed rest. Nothing Mexico couldn't cure. (24)
She imagines Mexico, a short bus ride away, as a space of regeneration and identification that does not exist for her north of the border. Her effort as a Mexican-born, dark-skinned woman artist to succeed in a culture that neither values nor understands her is exhausting. But Amalia returns to the United States upon learning of her Mexican lover's death, resigns herself to a life as a Mexican-American whose home, conflicted though it may be, is Los Angeles.
Amalia's realization that her home is not necessarily where her heart is, that she loves Mexico but belongs in the United States, is a theme common to most teatro Chicano. An American art form, teatro—like Chicano culture generally—depends on Mexico not only for its origins. But for its essential meaning as well. This dependence fosters a dual nostalgia for and resentment of the homeland as a territory of desire and impossibility, of exotic naturaleza (nature/nationality) and material poverty.1 Chicanos' ancestors left Mexican territory for many of the same reasons European and Asian immigrants left their nations of origin: to provide a richer life for those to come. But Mexico exerts a different power for Chicanos than the homeland does for other ethnic minority groups, and it is this difference that finds expression in teatro. In the three plays I will discuss here—Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost (staged reading 1984; published 1986 and 1994), Luis Valdez's The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa (1968) and El Centro Su Teatro's La Carpa Aztlán Presents "I Don't Speak English Only" (1994)—nostalgia shapes characterization, plot, and theme. Nostalgia also dictates more subtly the ways in which the plays' mixed audiences (Chicano and non-Chicano) perceive the realities of contemporary Chicano culture outside the theater.
Moraga focuses on personal history, Valdez on the history of a people, and La Carpa Aztlán fuses the two concerns into a debate about cultural history's impact on individuals. All three plays stage the confrontation of Chicanos with Mexico as well as the confrontation of Chicanos with assimilated Mexican-Americans, representing these confrontations as a conflict of nostalgia. Nostalgia's temporal aspect, its relation to history, is as significant here as its spatial aspect. The three plays, representative of the decades in which they were written and first staged, offer contemporary readers and spectators an historical scope through which to imagine Chicano life and art. Valdez's work as a playwright grew out of his collaboration with actors and other artists, and while Pancho Villa was written by Valdez exclusively, its form and tone reflect the collective tenor of early teatro Chicano, as well as the ethnic pride that inaugurated the 1960s Chicano movement.2 Nearly twenty years after Valdez, Moraga writes independently of any particular theater company and her play reflects the challenge to the Chicano movement mounted by women's and gay rights activists. And finally, La Carpa Aztlán, a collective piece whose authorship is not dominated by an individual, reflects the sense of retrenchment felt by most nationalist movements in the 1990s. Public sentiments imposing English Only laws, anti-immigrant policy, cut-backs in affirmative action and the resurgence of ethnic hostility are the play's dominant themes. The yearning represented in and by La Carpa Aztlán is as much for the optimism and pride of the Chicano movement—and the teatro so instrumental in representing that movement—of the 1960s and 1970s as it is for Mexico.
A powerful aspect of memory, nostalgia tries to recall an old place in a former time, with its subject either imaginatively—or, occasionally, really—returning to that place, or by inserting the past into the present. According to Susan Stewart, "Nostalgia is a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience … the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative" (23). A potentially dangerous fantasy, nostalgia unmediated by historical knowledge threatens to immerse the nostalgic subject in passive despondency. The word nostalgia combines the Greek words for a return home and pain (either a painful return or a return to pain); its first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is "a form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one's home or country." It did not come into English usage until the late eighteenth century, when nostalgia was used to describe the disease of homesickness. Stewart goes further in her description by calling nostalgia "the desire for desire" (23); in other words, nostalgia seeks out a space and time in which the subject finds origin, a womb-like entity which is irretrievably lost except in memory. It seduces the desiring subject—i.e., all of us—with a promise of feeling at home only if we let go of the present, if we court a return to that past-future which is death.
The seduction of nostalgia, with its allusions to home and the human desire to feel at home, is a useful idea to apply to immigration. Immigrants for the most part leave or escape their birthplace because it is unlivable and their lifelong struggle becomes one of home-making in a strange land, while looking with longing at what has been left. Nostalgia is, however, complicated for the Chicano in the Southwest, who in essence immigrates to a former homeland. Indeed, the term Aztlán, popular among Chicano nationalists since the 1960s, is one of nostalgia.3 Aztlán is an Indian name for a large area of the Southwest, predating the Spanish conquest of Mexico by centuries, and like all Indian artifacts in the Americas today carries the weight of authenticity and loss. Many Chicanos, especially those who have traced their Indian origins, believe that their homes in Texas and Arizona, for example, truly are a piece of Mexico temporarily occupied by foreigners. In Indian culture, nothing originating in the earth is ever completely lost. As Amalia puts it in Giving Up the Ghost, "'Regresaré,' nos promete [I will return, she—the Earth—promises us]. When they 'discovered' El Templo Mayor beneath the walls of this city, they had not realized that it was She who discovered them. Nothing remains buried forever" (25). The land eulogized by Amalia is in and beneath Mexico City, but she also refers to a more generalized (and not necessarily abstract) spiritual zone that includes the southwestern United States. Amalia's problem is that despite the ancient connection of her present home with the foreign country to which she feels tied, the forces of history have severed irrevocably the once united lands. She and her fellow Mexican-Americans embody this severance and its accompanying emotional complications.
Mexico's presence in Chicano culture is always doubled, as the source of ethnic pride and frustration. The loss of one-third of her territory in the Mexican-American War and the current economic disparity between the two nations place Mexico in a defensive position vis-a-vis the United States. But many Mexican-Americans long for acceptance in Mexico, as Mexicans. As poet Lorna Dee Cervantes puts it in the ironically titled "Heritage:"
I didn't ask to be brought up tonta!
My name hangs about me like a loose tooth.
Old women know the secret,
"Es la culpa de los antepasados."
Blame it on the old ones.
Cervantes's persona feels like a fool because her American identity is transparent despite her name: her forefathers and mothers bequeathed a nationality upon her that cannot be discarded at the border. The desire to belong in the homeland, although it may never have been home, is common to most Americans of immigrant background. And even those who do not visit tend to harbor illusions about life there, as a simpler and more honest existence than their current one, unencumbered by the American race for the dollar.
Chicanos, unlike European and Asian immigrants, are literally close to the homeland as well; those living in border towns can see Mexico, what and where they or their ancestors came from, every day. Such proximity can invest Chicano nostalgia with a power it may not have for other immigrants. While Homi K. Bhabha theorizes that all cultures and peoples currently exist on and between borders, such an attractive abstraction ignores the differences among borders and border dwellers. The U.S./Canadian border, for instance, does not resonate with the economic and ethnic tension of Mexico's border with the U.S. It is, however, useful to consider the border maker of history itself as unfixed and porous as a national boundary. In Bhabha's words, we might refigure the past "as a contingent 'in-between' space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The 'past-present' becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living" (7). An incorporation of the past rather than a distanced reverence for it allows for home-making in what was originally an alien land. Historical memory, then, can be a tool immigrants and border dwellers use for mediating the power of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is not the same as remembering, which is necessary for construction and maintenance of personal and cultural identity, a home away from home. Nostalgia literally connects the ideas of return and pain, but conventionally refers to a sentimental clinging to the past, often a glorified past colored by an undistinguished or conflicted present. As Bhabha implies, nostalgia clouds its subject's relationship with his or her own history, by imposing the idealized space and time of "long ago and far away" on the present. I will argue here that the dangers of nostalgia are exemplified in the comedy of teatro Chicano, which is an inherently bicultural performance genre. Teatro mixes dialects of English. Spanish, and Chicano English, Mexican style vaudeville, melodrama and cinema with American psychological realism. It incorporates Mexican performance tradition into present-day Chicano issues, representing real life in a medium from the past.
Theater is a particularly appropriate medium for coming to terms with nostalgia. Actors, whom the audience recognizes as real people and pretend characters simultaneously, physically inscribe the past's integration into the present. Due to their liminal presence in a space—the stage—that is both real and unreal, actors are essential border dwellers and playwrights exemplify border writers. For D. Emily Hicks, because of their ability to see from and to both sides of the border, "border writers ultimately undermine the distinction between original and alien culture" (xxiii). The border subject is decentered and the object of desire—be it home or self or both—is displaced to the other side of where she or he stands. Theater also decenters both actor and spectator, permitting a critical and imaginative reevaluation of the world it represents.
Hicks uses the coyote as a metaphor for the border subject, as the coyote is someone whose life consists of continuously passing through the border, moving in both directions, pledging allegiance to neither side. Human coyotes, the people who daily move Mexicans through the Mexico/U.S. border, share much with their animal namesake. Coyotes are noted for their ability to scavenge a living on the outskirts of both wild and urban landscapes, making their homes wherever they find themselves. Often considered a pest by Anglo-Americans, the coyote is also a trickster figure for many American Indians, changing shape and identity—like an actor—whenever necessary to wreak havoc on rigid and supposedly stable institutions.
Hicks also stresses the border writer's ability to mediate cultures rather than replace one with the other. As a bi- or even tri-cultural performance genre, teatro mediates Mexican, American, and Chicano cultures. It is both oppositional and parasitic, to and of the United States as well as Mexico. According to Ramón Saldívar, Chicano culture is "potentially liberating when as the contrastive other Chicano culture has produced for Chicanos a consistent and highly articulated set of oppositions to the dominant cultural system surrounding it" (4). Liberation in teatro, however, is intrinsically paradoxical because its representation depends upon a remembering and modified recuperation of what Mexico and Mexicans have lost to the United States. Distinct from the two dominant cultures that influence it, teatro Chicano balances its identity between, among, and apart from them. The history of loss and recuperation plays a pivotal role in Chicano cultural identity, as it does in teatro. I will preface my discussion of the three plays with some historical background to teatro itself as an art form in an effort to clarify teatro's ongoing relationship with the larger culture. F. Arturo Rosales argues that the Latino community in the United States supported theater longer than did the dominant Anglo culture, in part because mainstream media influenced this community less. He also argues that, as opposed to acting as a retarding factor in the Latino community's assimilation into the mainstream, theater and the community's attachment to it must be seen as an institutionalized negotiation with the dominant culture (15). Due to the large numbers of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest United States before the massive, industry-fueled immigration of the late nineteenth century, Mexican theater was well established north of the border by that time. As early as the 1840s, that is, before the Mexican-American War, theaters producing exclusively Spanish language plays and extravaganzas existed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and travelling troupes of Mexican and Spanish performers toured Northern Mexico and California, roving as far as Texas and Arizona. By the 1920s over twenty Spanish-language theaters thrived in Los Angeles and San Antonio, theaters serving as community centers as well as entertaining people from outside the cities (Kanellos "An Overview" 7-10). As Rosales puts it:
Theatrical performances assisted in local networking, interacting and intertwining with the other barrio institutions to provide cohesion and stability in a way that contemporary mass media, even that which is geared to the Hispanic public, cannot do. (18)
Not only were theaters used as sites for community cohesion, often staging fundraisers for locals with legal or police trouble, but they also encouraged cultural retention.4 The roles of cohesion and retention remain significant today, especially in the few spaces left in the United States devoted exclusively to teatro. Spanish-language theaters staged seasonal Church plays, such as the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin Mary at Christmas (a version of this story. The Miracle at Tepeyac, is produced annually in various Catholic churches by El Centro Su Teatro in Denver), Spanish classical drama, as well as the revistas (one-act sketches), melodrama, vaudeville, and zarzuelas (musical comedy, forerunner to operetta) common to the Mexican travelling shows.
In the 1920s and 1930s, before and during the Great Depression which saw the repatriation, both forced and voluntary, of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, nostalgia was a common theme of the revistas. Romualdo Tirado, one of the many impresarios working as director, singer, actor and general theater promoter, was also a famous pelado While the pelado (literally "the naked one") was a stock character in Mexican theater, serving as the poor but wily Everyman, in Mexican-American theater he became the abused but never vanquished immigrant. Tirado wrote "De Mexico a Los Angeles," [From Mexico to Los Angeles] an immensely popular revista in Los Angeles in 1920 and 1921. Part of the play's theme song, so popular that Mexican-Americans sang it on the streets, is as follows:
Asi pasa a muchos
Que aqui conozco
Cuando aprenden un poco
Y se visten catines
Y van al baile.
Y el que niega a su raza
Ni madre tiene,
Pues no hay nada en el mundo
Como la ruin figura del renegado.
[Many here whom I know go by like this: when they learn a little American, they think they're something to look out for at the dance But he who denies his race/homeland no longer has a mother, since there is nothing more despicable in the world than the ugly face of one who renounces (his past)].
(Kanellos "A History" 63).
This song reflects the tension common to any immigrant culture between a desire for material success and the necessity of remembering one's roots. A Mexican immigrant who "learns a little American" should not elevate himself above others in his community, for if he forgets his past he becomes ugly to other Mexicans. And no matter how much American he learns, he will never be one of them, so in order not to get lost he must stand by his community of origin.
The titles of other revistas popular in the 1920s and 1930s reflect this attempt to safeguard memories of the original homeland while succeeding in the new culture: "Regreso a mi tierra" [Return to my Homeland], "Los repatriados" [The Repatriated Ones], "El desterrado" [The Landless One], "El alma de México" [The Soul of Mexico], and "Nuestro Egoismo" [Our Pride], as well as the difficulties of assimilation: "Los Angeles en Piyamas" [The Angels or L.A. in Pajamas], "Los efectos de la crisis" [The Effects of the Crisis], "Esclavos" [Slaves] and "Whiskey, morfina y marihuana." (Kanellos "A History" 66-67). These titles allude to homesickness while also warning of the dangers of losing oneself, figuratively or literally, in an effort to get by. Spectators during this period were themselves sometimes on the verge of repatriation; like contemporary Chicano audiences, even those who have "made it," they understood intimately the intricacies of balancing two often conflicting ways of being.
While Mexican-American theaters suffered a loss of patronage during the Depression and Repatriation due to the exile of many actors in addition to the influx of cinemas, the carpas were small enough to survive and, according to Kanellos, never completely died out, Referring to the tents that originally housed them, carpas were travelling troupes, often family-based, that easily passed from north to south along the border, Carpas performed mostly in small farming towns between harvests and were thus not subject to the vagaries of population shifts in larger cities (Ybarro-Frausto 46). In Kanellos's words, "Their comic routines became a sounding board for the culture conflict that Mexican-Americans felt in language usage, assimilation to American tastes and life-styles, discrimination in the United States, and pocho status in Mexico" ("A History" 100). Chicanos faced discrimination not only in their American home, but in Mexico as well, because they had to americanize themselves enough to survive and were no longer considered proper Mexicans.
Giving Up the Ghost, whose title refers to personal as well as cultural phantoms, opens with an image of the unique complexity of Chicano identity. The play's abstract set and background music evoke the streets of 1980s Los Angeles and the Mexican desert, and the main character Corky/Marisa bears strong Indian features but dresses cholo style (pressed khakis and a white undershirt; slicked back hair). Corky represents the teenage Marisa, a girl beginning to understand her outlawed desire for women as she searches for her indigenous and Mexican past. Marisa's first adult love is Mexican-born painter Amalia, who nurtures the younger woman's ripening artistry and self-knowledge. Amalia says of Marisa, "Her nostalgia for the land she had never seen was everywhere. In her face, her drawings, her love of the hottest sand by the sea" (17). While Moraga does not use the comedy and word-play of conventional teatro in Giving Up the Ghost, her focus on the characters's nostalgia for Mexico—whether it exists as they imagine it or not—belongs in the teatro tradition.
The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, a comedy using the satire common to teatro, tells the story of a Mexican-American family experiencing the generational clash of Mexican parents and Chicano children. The father is a drunken sonavaviche, the mother stalwart but ineffectual, with one son a sellout, the next son a rebellious pachuco (streetwise youth, often associated with petty crime), and the daughter a whining teenager who envisions pregnancy as her only life-choice. The eldest son, however, is an enormous head who believes he is Pancho Villa, and his gargantuan appetite provides the focus for the action of the play. As Mingo, the sell-out son, says: "You gotta accept it, Ma. Chorty's head, that's it…. All these years we been poor and stinkin, working the fields for what? To stuff his fat belly, which he don't even got!" (190) "Chorty" embodies, as it were, both the seductive face of nostalgia as a source of national honor and its dangerous potential for overwhelming the present.
Set in the near future (the year 2021), La Carpa Aztlán Presents "I Don't Speak English Only" shows us a Chicano college student being led back to his Mexican heritage by an underground theater group, whose title, "La Carpa Aztlán." refers to both actual Mexican performance practice—la carpa—and to the mythical homeland—Aztlán—to which politicized Chicanos long to return. La Carpa Aztlán illustrates the translation of a nineteenth century Mexican performance tradition to contemporary community-based, political theater. All three plays treat nostalgia as a significant ingredient in their characters' lives, as well as a space in which their spectators can identify the characters' stories. Nostalgia for a Mexico and for a past that never was infuses each play, reminding us both to remember history and the homeland and their malleable construction in memory. Each play's audience is shown the inevitable romanticization of Mexico in the collective Chicano memory. While such romanticization is not exclusively negative, it does not replace the accurate historical understanding needed for Mexico to be used effectively as a site of identification and pride for Mexican-Americans. Such an understanding, however, is complicated by Chicanos' inferiority in the eyes of Anglo-American culture, as well as Mexico's perceived inferiority vis-a-vis the United States.
The relative invisibility of Chicano culture compounds this difficulty. Part of contemporary teatro's role is to enlarge and complicate dominant American culture's vision of itself, to show us the interdependence of American, Mexican, and Chicano identities, to stage the desire for home that is common to us all. Not only does the American landscape owe a literal debt to Mexican territorial losses, but the traditional American dream of assimilation into the mainstream depends upon Mexican-Americans knowing what aspect of themselves they must negate. Politicized Chicanos, on the other hand, who desire neither assimilation nor repatriation, must show an ability to navigate two distinct cultures along with their own, third, "in-between" culture.
In a still rare nod to teatro's significance, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa is included, with translations of the Spanish and Chicano phrases, in Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter's 1990 anthology New Worlds of Literature. Anthologized elsewhere, it is thus accessible to students in the United States in a way few other teatro pieces are, and is bound to be influential in shaping perceptions of this art form, as well as of Chicano culture generally. The play tackles nostalgia "head-on," using a disembodied head as a character representing Mexico's revolutionary past. This head, called Chorty or Belarmino, is so hungry—for justice, as he explains—that he consumes not only his family's food supply, but threatens to eat them as well.
The setting is a shabby but brightly painted house in a generic California barrio in the 1950s. The set becomes shabbier as the play progresses, with red cockroaches dotting and finally covering its walls. Valdez describes the play as a "transcendental expression of the social condition of La Raza in los Estados Unidos," one that "reflect[s] the psychological reality of the barrio" (154). In 1968, Valdez's view of his peoples' social condition appears pessimistic, but this view also calls for a re-evaluation of the realities underlying that condition. Comedy combined with an historical element is an appropriate didactic medium, as it was in early Mexican-American teatro. While the father character, Pedro, recites drunken dreams of his imagined participation with Pancho Villa's troops in the Mexican Revolution, the mother, Cruz, tries in vain to keep her family fed. The literally disintegrating home space, while hilarious to look at, (especially when the starving characters begin to furtively eat the cockroaches), points to the difficulty of building a home and maintaining cultural pride in a hostile society.
When the eldest able-bodied son Mingo arrives home a decorated war hero, he announces his intention to move his family out of the barrio and into the American dream. While the playwright allows for the validity of part of this aspiration, he also creates in Mingo a stereotype of the ethnic minority sell-out. Jokes about selling out to Anglo-American culture, or agringamiento, have been a staple of Mexican and Mexican-American theater since the nineteenth century. Carpas poked subversive fun at assimilated Mexican-Americans' inability to understand Spanish, while also teasing Mexicans from across the border about their ignorance of English. Selling out completely was laughable, but so was the inability to get along in two distinct cultures. As the second son, Joaquin, exclaims to Mingo, picking lice from his own head.: "We're greasy and lousy, but we're your family!… You dirty cabrón. I'm proud to be a stinking Mexican" (187, 193).
But according to the play, it is not enough to be proud to be a stinking Mexican. Nor is it enough to remember the heroic exploits of the peasant bandit and military hero Pancho Villa.
Because Pedro is caught in the past, he is unable to guide his family in the painful but necessary adjustment to living as Chicanos rather than as Mexicans. Pedro dreams aloud: "Just imagine, to rescue the general's head from the hands of the gringos, then to take it back to Mexico con honor! In a big train like the old days! Qué caray, maybe even the Revolución break out again! Maybe they give us a rancho en Zacatecas!" (181) Waiting passively for a new revolution may be an acceptable daydream, but it ignores the necessity of solving contemporary problems.
In real history, according to the play, it was not Pedro but his wife, Cruz, who participated in the Revolución. She knew Pancho Villa and is thus certain that her disembodied son is indeed hers and not el general. Belarmino still serves to politicize Joaquin, who resents Mingo's determination to live well, eating steak and drinking orange juice, while the rest of the family snatches roaches to eat off the walls. As Joaquin tells Belarmino: "It was only a stinking cockroach. Dumb Mexican … not you, ese, this stupid cucaracha I squish. They love to be step on" (176). Joaquin understands the realities of discrimination, but lacks a sense of Mexican history that might give him a model of constructive rebellion. Belarmino asks him, "¿Que no sabes que estamos en territorio enemigo?" [Don't you know we're in enemy territory?] (178). For Belarmino, who believes himself to be Pancho Villa, north of the border is enemy territory, but Joaquin was born here. If the territory is hostile, which to a pachuco or Chicano "punk" like Joaquin, it is, he must change it. Returning "home" is not the option it seems to be for his father, longing for a ranch in Zacatecas. Home for the Chicano is the United States and neither a literal nor a figurative return to Mexico can make this country more homelike.
Valdez's play ends ambiguously, with Mingo assimilating completely to the point of changing his name to "Sunday" and Joaquin returning home from jail without a head. Belarmino is prepared to latch himself onto the available body, joining Mexico's glorious but powerless past to the Chicano's amnesia-prone but still active body. The daughter, however, has given birth to another disembodied head and claims Joaquin's body for her child. Perhaps historical memory will become activated to create a unified Chicano identity; perhaps it will not. Belarmino ends the play with a speech of determination: "So don' worry my people, because one of this [sic] days Pancho Villa will pass among you again. Look to your mountains, your pueblos, your barrios. He will be there" (207). As a metaphor for a nostalgia that simultaneously enriches and impoverishes his family, Belarmino represents the potential for a strong Chicano community, but he is forever incomplete without a body—a people—to define him.
La Carpa Aztlán likewise sends its audience an ambiguous message about the role of Mexico for contemporary Chicanos. Its medium, however, that of Denver's El Centro Su Teatro, is eternally optimistic. One of the longest surviving amateur teatro Chicanos in the country, Su Teatro was founded in the early 1970s by a group of college students.5 Situated in an old Denver barrio, it continues the tradition of activist community theater inspired by Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino, created during the United Farm Workers's strikes of 1965. This play uses the carpa tradition of local humor and a circus-like ambiance to make its plea for historical memory. One example of such humor uses the most conservative and the most liberal cities in Colorado: a carpero says, "The day I [joined the carpa], I had been having a very rough day. Colorado Springs had just been declared the New Holy City and the Pope was coming down from Boulder for the ceremony" (no page numbers). Denver audiences chuckle at this nod to both Colorado Springs's reputation as a home base for the Christian Right and at Boulder's self-image as an ultra-liberal haven for political correctness. In another scene, three figures on a typical multicultural Denver mural—the Indian, the Spaniard, and the Mestizo—debate their respective cultures, while giving the audience a lesson in the history of conquest.
History, of Mexico and Mexican-Americans, dominates this non-linear play. Its main character personifies an audience ignorant about its own past, but clearly able to learn once the effects of Anglo-American indoctrination have been recognized. Albert, the young student who has lost his way on a class field trip, meets Don Guillermo, who argues with him about the realities of the United States in the year 2021, an apparently post-multicultural nation. According to Albert. "It is common knowledge that everyone has achieved the American Dream. Anyway, disbelief in the American Dream has been illegal since the turn of the century. Where on earth have you been?" Don Guillermo lives in the under-world because he was once arrested by the language police for speaking Spanish and for reading a Spanish newspaper (perhaps Denver's La Voz or El Semanario). Their meeting uses the verbal slapstick of Abbott and Costello, a staple of the traditional carpa, to underline Albert's confusion over where his home lies. As an assimilated Chicano, he lives between "there and there," and the here in which he finds himself makes him feel lost. He tells Don Guillermo, "Don't you understand, I want to go home, this place is so unfamiliar … it's too different." The don responds. "But you came back, Here." It is natural, in other words, for Chicanos in the twenty-first century to feel homeless, but if they can look to the past without being engulfed by it, they may return to a "here" that has always been.
Eventually Albert becomes so distraught that he reverts to a comfortable, infantile past, remembering the Mama and abuela who raised him, but Spanish is illegal in his present world. Don Guillermo teases Albert (now Alberto) about finding his roots and the boy accuses him of ending every serious argument with a joke. Asked whether joking, too, is illegal in the post-multicultural America, Alberto says, "There is an approved humor. It must not come at the expense of the established social order." In a response to the oxymoronic "approved humor," Don Guillermo switches to physical comedy, forcing Alberto into a juggling match with his hat, mirroring the need to juggle his identity as a Chicano and a citizen of a nation that denies his heritage.
Like the older carpas, La Carpa Aztlán consists of short vignettes, both comic and melodramatic, songs, mime, clowning, and an audience sing-along. Don Guillermo tells the audience: "Simon mi querido publico, estan watchando la primera carpa in todo Los Estados Unidos. [Yes, my dear public, you are watching the first carpa in the entire United States]. Maybe the only carpa. Kind of like being the only teatro." Here he mixes Spanish with Chicanismos such as simon and watchando, and he jokes about El Centro Su Teatro's precarious position as the only teatro in town.
La Carpa Aztlán's setting in the near future renegotiates nostalgia's distortion of the past, allowing spectators to imagine the now of the 1990s as a period in history. The past's malleability is embodied by actors playing characters who live a quarter-century after their performance; thus the future is literally in the spectators' hands. We can, if we learn from the play, change what will happen once the play is over. One of the skits involves Chicano Man and his wife, Chicano Woman, caricatures of 1960s and 1970s activists who describe a fantasy of life after the 1990s. Chicano Man says:
By the mid-1990s, in order to prove you weren't in a gang, you had to become as nonthreatening as possible. For those who were born with the malignant Chicano Militant [gene] face a daily battle to maintain their secret identities as … Chicano Man!… I have organized my coworkers so that the bosses all are trembling. Our neighborhood is safe, and the gangs all work at the co-op nursery that I built one night when I couldn't sleep. I am also a teacher at the Escuela Che Guevara….
But in 2021, Chicano Man and Woman are underground; they had assimilated so well in the 1990s that they disappeared from the mainstream and thus exist only in the imaginary spectacle of the carpa.
Naturally, Alberto Mresists what he considers the indoctrination of the carperos. He says of Mexico: "[It's] as dead as my abuela, as dead as my father and mother. All those memories have vanished, just the same as my parents. So don't try to stir up that dead consciousness by playing on some lost emotion." The emotion, of course, is not lost nor is the consciousness dead, and they cannot be ignored once they have been remembered. But at the end of the play, the carperos and their magic disappear, leaving Alberto alone and looking for his school group. The play ends with a hopeful song, but the carperos have returned to the relative safety of the underground. Alberto, presumably, must work to make a space in which they can perform in the open. But the space, at least in this play, stays within the secure and imaginary confines of the theater: La Carpa Aztlán is only a play, after all. Teatro has become a repository for positive nostalgia, an enactment of the "past-present" that is now part of the spectators' collective conscious. It is up to us as the living reflections of Alberto to use what we have learned of the past to construct a future for Chicano identity.
Unlike Pancho Villa and La Carpa Aztlán, Giving Up the Ghost uses none of the verbal and physical humor of early teutro to evoke and criticize nostalgia. Instead it combines sexual and ethnic politics, focusing on Chicanos' mostly repressed Indian heritage as an echo of women's repressed sexuality. Nostalgia for Mexico proves to be a desire that can be incorporated into an individual's life as a source of strength rather than regret: what is lost, both personally and collectively, can be remembered without being mourned. Personal interaction between the three characters, Corky, Marisa (who are the same person at different ages), and Amalia, dominates; thus the politics of Chicano identity are inferred, unlike in Pancho Villa and La Carpa Aztlán. In its first publication, Moraga self-consciously calls the piece "teatro in two acts" on the title page, while in the 1994 publication it is subtitled "a stage play in three portraits." While Giving Up the Ghost resembles traditional teatro the least of the three plays in terms of form and style, being poetic and dreamlike rather than comic, its content deals the most directly with nostalgia. The self-identification achieved by Marisa and Amalia corresponds with a larger cultural self-awareness; the Chicana learns she is a woman with an indigenous relation to the earth and neither element of this self need dominate or denigrate the other.
What little plot evolves in this drama concerns Corky's evolution to the mature persona of Marisa, growth nurtured by love for Amalia and for Mexico. The most harrowing monologue of the play is Corky's description of her adolescent rape by a janitor at her school. He made her, she cries, a hole, "with no teeth / with no hate / with no voice / only a hole / a hole!" (29) Like the enormous hole gashed in Mexican territory after 1848, Corky's loss cannot be recuperated. The rape that violates her early adolescence destroys Corky, but she can become Marisa from those ruins. Her desire for Amalia combined with a burgeoning love for Mexico rehabilitates her as a complete human being, and while her loss of innocence is not forgotten, just as Mexico is not forgotten, it defines her life without disabling it.
As a figure of memory for Marisa, Corky embodies a healing figure, similar to the role some American Indian societies granted the homosexual (Allen 2). Marisa's difference, her love for women, finds expression in the recuperation of an indigenous past common to all Chicanos, but understood and accepted by few. In one early scene, Corky is described as "wearing a native bruja mask … [dancing] across the stage with rattles in her hand" (19). She is an image in Marisa's mind, of both her own childhood and the early days of the Chicano people. Amalia shares this desire for recuperation, telling Marisa:
I dreamed we were indias. In our village, some terrible taboo had been broken. There was thunder and lightning. I am crouched down in terror, unable to move when I realize it is you who have gone against the code of our people…. I did not fear that los dioses [the gods] would enact their wrath against el pueblo [the people] for the breaking of the taboo. It was merely that the taboo could be broken. (33)
Exactly which taboo has been violated is not clear: a woman loving a woman, a Mexican-born Chicana loving an American-born Chicana, an artist loving a pachuca, or the acceptance that home is no longer Mexico. If all of these taboos are unstable, then other assumptions about cultural and individual identity may be malleable as well.
"Giving up the ghost," then, involves abandoning the nostalgia that keeps us from living in the present. In Moraga's play the ghost is patriarchal and colonial oppression, of women and indigenous people, but it is also more subtly the ghost of the Chicano's loneliness in the United States. While Amalia insists that Mexico describes her own loneliness, the play shows us that her alienation is more than personal; it is collective and can be borne constructively. The loss of the past is irreversible, but the past can be carried into the present and future as a guide and not necessarily a burden. It cannot be used at all, however, until it is known and remembered, incorporated into the body politic as an element of imagination and hope. Teatro Chicano provides such an incorporation, staging history for all who would understand Chicano identity today.
I have argued here that teatro represents history, both cultural and personal, as a negotiation with nostalgia. Nostalgia for an idealized Mexico seduces the Chicano, on stage and off, as well as the non-Chicano American who wishes to posit Mexico as a quaint space of inexpensive vacations marked almost exclusively by its difference from the United States. When those of us north of the Rio Grande pretend that Mexico today is dominated by glories—either Aztec and Mayan or revolutionary—long past, we blind ourselves to our own mixed culture's debts to the Mexican present. If we take Chicano culture's reconstruction of Aztlán seriously, however, as a simultaneously real (in the past), lived-in (in the present) and hoped-for (in the unoccupied future) location of Mexican-American-Indian identity, we can resist nostalgia. The borders of "Mexico" have shifted in time and they are as attached to history as to geography. Chicanos who believe in Aztlán describe their homeland as an area comprising both the U.S. and Mexico, in between and of them both, but separate. Desire for such an unfixed space, an area whose definitions remain alterable by our action in the present, can become a project of rejuvenation, of tempering nostalgia with hope.
1 Unless noted otherwise, all translations are my own.
2 See the work of Yolanda Broyles-Gonzáles, both essay and book, for a feminist critique of Teatro Campesino's collective values.
3 For a full explanation of the term Aztlán, see Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, especially 1-13.
4 A scene near the end of Robert M. Young's 1982 film, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, illustrates this aspect of teatro. To raise money for his forthcoming appeal, Cortez's supporters enact his exploits escaping the Texas Rangers, set to music, on a makeshift stage before the courthouse where he has been found guilty of murder by an all-white jury.
5 I use amateur in the best sense of the word here—a lover of—to indicate El Centro Su Teatro's status as a non-equity, non-professional (actors are paid little or nothing for their work), community-based company.
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Beaty, Jerome, and J. Paul Hunter, eds. New Worlds of Literature. New York: Norton, 1989.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Broyles-González, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.
――――――. "Toward a Re-Vision of Chicano Theatre History: The Women of El Teatro Campesino." Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre. Ed. Lynda Hart. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1989: 209-38.
Cervantes, Lorna Dee. "Heritage." Hispanic American Literature. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. New York: HarperCollins, 278.
El Centro Su Teatro. La Carpa Aztlán Presents "I Don't Speak English Only." Unpublished, 1994.
Hicks, D. Emily. Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.
Kanellos, Nicolás. "An Overview of Hispanic Theatre in the United States." Hispanic Theatre in the United States. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. Houston: Arte Público, 1984, 7-13.
――――――. A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
Moraga, Cherríe. "Giving Up the Ghost." Heroes and Saints and Other Plays. Albuquerque: West End, 1994, 1-36.
Rosales, F. Arturo. "Spanish-Language Theatre and Early Mexican Immigration." Hispanic Theatre in the United States. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. Houston: Arte Público, 1984, 15-23.
Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. 1984.
Valdez, Luis. The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa. In Jorge Huerta, ed. Necessary Theater: Six Plays About the Chicano Experience. Houston: Art Público, 1989, 142-207.
Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. "I Can Still Hear the Applause. La Farandola Chicana: Carpas y Tandas de Variedad." Hispanic Theatre in the United States. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. Houston: Arte Público, 1984, 45-60.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 195
Adams, Kate. "Northamerican Silences: History, Identity, and Witness in the Poetry of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Leslie Marmon Silko." In Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, pp. 130-45. Edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Explores the ways in which the poetry of Moraga, along with Anzaldúa and Silko, challenges "the silencing forces of cultural and literary history."
Foster, David William. "Homoerotic Writing and Chicano Authors." In Sexual Textualities: Essays on Queer/ing Latin American Writing, pp. 73-86. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.
Contains a discussion of Moraga that focuses on "the intersection between Moraga's Chicana lesbianism and the relationship between Spanish and English that is established through bilingual code-switching."
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. "Tortillerismo: Work by Chicana Lesbians." Signs 18, No, 4 (Summer 1993): 956-63.
Surveys works published in the United States by and about Chicana lesbians, including Moraga's This Bridge Called My Back.
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