Cherríe Moraga 1952-
American playwright, essayist, editor, and poet.
The following entry presents criticism on Moraga's dramatic works from 1988 through 2002.
Moraga is often considered one of the foremost Chicano playwrights of her generation, and is perhaps the most prominent and outspoken Chicana and lesbian dramatist. Attempting to shine light upon many of the injustices and inequalities that dominate Chicano life in the United States, she also tries to realistically depict Hispanic familial relationships that are not shown elsewhere in contemporary theater. A dedicated feminist, her plays are distinguished for their complex female roles as well as the exploration of the subjectivity that, in Moraga's experience, is often inflicted upon Hispanic women. Further, as one of the few openly gay Chicano writers, she brings a particular element of sexuality that pervades much of her writing.
Moraga was born on September 25, 1952, one of three children of an Anglo father and a Mexican-American mother in Whittier, California. Her father deserted the family while she was still very young, leaving her mother as sole supporter. As a result, Moraga was raised with Mexican traditions at home and exposed to white American influences at school. Describing herself as “La Guera”—which translates to “fair-skinned”—she was able to “pass” as Anglo throughout much of her upbringing, something her mother encouraged. Wanting to enable her children to succeed where she had not in a white society, Moraga's mother did not pass along her own Spanish fluency to her children nor did she expose them to her own family as much as Moraga might have liked. Thus, Moraga felt detached from her Chicano heritage during much of her early childhood; however, when she was nine, her mother moved the family back to the San Gabriel Valley where much of her large extended family was situated, and Moraga immersed herself in la familia by listening to the stories of her elders, influences that can be traced through her current work. Even among her family, however, she still felt the conflict of having to live between two cultures. But it was in part due to the advantages of their familiarity with white culture that Moraga and her siblings became part of the first generation of her family to go to college. Graduating with a B.A. from a small private college in Hollywood in 1974, she found work as a teacher in Los Angeles until 1977, then began pursuing a graduate degree at San Francisco State in feminist writing, which she attained in 1981. It was during her time in college that Moraga began to recognize and accept herself as a lesbian. By finally acknowledging her lesbianism, she was able to accept herself as a confident whole person, a decision that Moraga has said enabled her to fully reconnect with both her Chicana mother and her own proud heritage as a Chicano woman. Finding greater confidence in herself and her writing, she became active in feminist causes in San Francisco, but felt like an outsider in the mostly white, heterosexual movement. To combat what she felt was a neglect of the needs and issues of both women of color and lesbians by the larger feminist community, she joined with Gloria Anzaldúa to publish a collection of essays, letters, poems, and conversations by a largely unpublished group of women of color in the groundbreaking This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), which won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1986. After a move to New York, she founded, with Barbara Smith, the Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, which is the only publisher dedicated exclusively to printing works of minority women in the United States. It was in New York that she first became involved with playwriting through her residency at INTAR (the Hispanic-American Arts Center in New York), which eventually led to a reading of her first play, Giving Up the Ghost (1987) by a feminist theatre group in Minneapolis. Several more plays and books have followed, bolstering her reputation as a preeminent voice for Chicana and lesbian feminism. In 1993, after some difficulties, she and her partner had a son, realizing Moraga's dream of her own version of a familia. Moraga has won the 1992 Pen West Award for Heroes and Saints (1992), and has served as artist-in-residence at Brava Theatre Center of San Francisco and as president of the board of directors of Latin American Theatre Artists. In the 1990s she returned to her roots culturally and professionally when she accepted a position to teach at the University of California-Berkeley. She has since moved to Stanford's Drama Department, where she is artist-in-residence.
Moraga was mostly an unknown author before the publishing of This Bridge Called My Back, which garnered critical accolades for the playwright and slowly gave her increased opportunities to present her interests and advance the feminist causes in which she believed. Over the next few years, she coedited a Latina feminist anthology called Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983), which was followed in short order by the first collection of her own work, a selection of poetry and essays called Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca paso por sus labios (1983). After her residency at INTAR, Moraga began to focus more on playwriting because, as she explained in a 1997 interview with Karin Rosa Ikas, “Theatre is more confrontational (than reading a book). You have to open your heart and take in a play or not. But it is also an opportunity to do that in a very visual way. With a book you don't have that possibility.” Her first foray into drama was with Giving Up the Ghost, an exploration of female, particularly lesbian, sexuality. It was originally presented as a series of poetic monologues where the only three characters on stage–Marisa, Corky (a younger, tomboyish version of Marisa) and Amalia, Marisa's would-be lover—had little interaction with one another. Considered to be the first-ever play about Chicana lesbianism, Giving Up the Ghost eventually evolved to the point where, in a revised 1994 edition, the players begin to engage one another more directly. Unique to this piece is the fact that the audience is listed as the fourth and final character (“The People”) in an attempt by Moraga to have the viewers feel like active participants rather than just observers to the actions on stage. By drawing them in this way, Moraga tries to establish a personal link between the audience and the characters, so that the play's themes of lesbian identity, Chicana oppression, and sexuality have a more direct effect. Moraga's next published play was Shadow of a Man (1990), a look at relationships within a disintegrating Chicano family where past secrets and hidden desires threaten to destroy the tenuous remains of all they have built. Heroes and Saints and Watsonville: Some Place Not Here (1996) are politically-minded plays about the travails and injustices of migrant laborers and fruit-pickers in California. Heroes and Saints was particularly well-received, winning the Will Glickman Prize, the Drama-logue, Critic Circles, and Pen West Awards. The play is a surrealistic look at a family of farmworkers that centers upon Cerezita who, due to the effects of pesticides, was born as a disembodied head and is hailed as a saint by neighboring families. Her most recent work, The Hungry Woman: The Mexican Medea (1994), is a re-working of the Greco-Roman myth of Medea as well as that of both the La Llorana, or weeping woman, and La Malinche myths of Mexican folklore. Both of these women are negative connotations of historic Latinas: La Llorana, like Medea, is said to have killed her children to spite an unfaithful husband, and La Malinche helped betray her native people to the Spanish conqueror Cortes, a defeat which led to their ultimate destruction. Moraga's Medea lives in a future version of the American West and the story follows a similar plotline to that of the historical Medea play. Moraga's reinterpretation seeks to establish a feminist recreation of these maligned women through her own unique Medea, to, as critic Lisbeth Gant-Britton says, “interweave layers of symbolism to critique a broad spectrum of potential gender, class, and race relations.” Moraga's collected non-fiction writings include an anthology of poetry and essays, entitled The Last Generation (1993), and a memoir, Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood (1997).
Moraga is often identified as the leading Chicana playwright in American theatre. Her work is informed and enriched by the multiple perspectives that stem from her experiences as a woman, a Chicana, and a lesbian and give her a unique perspective into the issues that afflict the minority in America. She tries to challenge the conceptions that have contributed to the subjectivity of women by the machismo nature that she believes to be inherent in Chicano culture and her work is characterized by its fearless willingness to tackle taboo topics such as female sexuality, rape, and religion. Strongly influenced by the revolutionary and highly politicized El Teatro Campesino group of 1960s California, Moraga tries to capture the true flavor and texture of Hispanic life through the intermingling of English and Spanish languages typical of the average Chicano. This hybridized pattern of speech, called “Spanglish,” characterizes her work. As one of only a few rare voices in theatre exploring these issues, her work is becoming increasingly relevant in both the U.S. and Latin America.