Contemporary Chicano/a Literature

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Kristin Carter-Sanborn (essay date spring-summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Carter-Sanborn, Kristin. “Tongue-Tied: Chicana Feminist Textual Politics and the Future of Chicano/Chicana Studies.” Genre 32, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1999): 73-83.

[In the following essay, Carter-Sanborn addresses the tension between white feminism and Chicano/a nationalism evident in the writings of some Chicana authors and discusses how the works of Cherríe Moraga and Ana Castillo transcend this dualism.]

Few who are acquainted with recent Chicana literary and critical production would dispute its status as an activity with political implications and consequences. What gets elided in begging the question of politics, however, is the very real, specific, yet contingent set of pressures felt by Chicana writers who consider their work to be part of a greater political project. Chicana feminist political identity must be subject to the process Ernesto Laclau has described, in which the “conditions of existence” and “dislocating adulterations” of social and political identity are risked and constituted (New Reflections 36). This is an absolutely crucial step in securing any kind of future at all for the field of Chicana/Chicano Studies, where, I would argue, political historiography has been hoist by its own petard.

Typically, Chicana political struggle, in and out of the literary field, is represented as a set of negotiations between white, middle-class feminism, which has tended to insist on the priority of gender over racial, ethnic, and class-based analysis, and male-dominated Chicano cultural nationalism, which has tended to dismiss any critique of unequal gender relations as “selling out,” or a breach of cultural integrity. The third obvious issue, the question of Anglo patriarchy's position within this struggle is, at this late date, taken as a given; in this regard, then, Anglo patriarchy is Chicana feminism's only coherently recognizable enemy.

In this context, I want to argue that critiques of Chicana cultural work come down to questions of political authenticity. I'm referring here to a much larger and more interesting question than merely “who is more Chicana (or feminist) than whom?” That question, which has taken up and continues to take up so much of our energy, is really only a subset of a larger set of valences of “the authentic.” The argument that the real Chicana can be more effective, or has more “authority” than the fake Chicana, is based on the following set of assumptions: first, that political energies have a specific and instantly recognizable set of vectors; second, that those vectors can be stunted, shunted, and even turned against their agents, and that political space, time, and energy can be “wasted”; and finally, that some spaces, times, or fields of production are inherently political and others aren't—that is, that some political work isn't “authentically” political at all and may, in fact, lead to an inauthentic and dangerous politics of concession and cultural corruption. Even after the dust has settled over some of the more poisonous confrontations within the Chicano Movement of the 1970's and early '80s, “political” Chicanos and Chicanas can still be heard to say that certain Chicanas' so-called “romance” with American feminism, most broadly conceived, distracts them from the more important work to be done in the name of Chicano/Chicana politics.

This rhetoric constructs Chicana feminism as a “waste of time.” It is the sort of critique that can be closely aligned with what Renato Rosaldo has described as the “pureza” ethic of Chicano cultural nationalism, that set of “cultural” priorities which can only be verified as it correlates to the interests of blood—that is, of racial reproduction, and the consolidation of an “autonomous, homogeneous, and coherent” culture (Rosaldo 85) and, thus a racial and political authority.


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interests me about the two positions I have characterized above (the one that prioritizes gender over other categories of analysis, and the one that prioritizes “ethnicity” or racial origin over other categories) is the way that they are claimed equally asthe key determinant of the Chicana crisis. But the image of the Chicana writer navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Chicanismo and white feminism distracts from or obscures another, equally important obstacle to her political “success,” which only comes into view when we think about issues of political “authenticity” in relationship to creative activities such as writing. I would locate this obstacle in the tendency of insurgent political movements, like feminism and Chicano nationalism, to assimilate the word to the act. I don't want to generalize about all political movements in this regard, or even all strands of chicanismo and feminism, but in many articulations of this politics, the Word, especially the literary Word, is taken as merely symptomatic. That is, it is understood as a referent to a “purer” political desire or meaning, rather than a political act among many, with its own set of rules, trajectories, limits, and strengths. An example of this would be the phrase I have often heard coming from both students and more seasoned activists: “It's time to stop talking and start acting!”—as if talking were separate from action, and as if action were only action if it had certain characteristics. Most simply, it boils down to the supposed difference between theory and praxis; between writing and doing, between “talking” and “walking.”

Lauren Berlant has demonstrated that talk, or speech, has historically received its political saliency in a highly masculinized and abstracted public sphere, in which the voice of the agent is sacralized as political and public by its very dislocation from the body (176). In the context of this history, it makes sense that the embodied agents left behind, usually women and minorities, might insist on a kind of reverse assimilation, defining the force of words only insofar as they refer to the mouths or acting bodies from which they issue. We can recognize in this move a powerful resistance to disembodiment, and a powerful redefinition of the public sphere as a world of bodies, acting. However, the insistence on assimilating the word to the act, and in so doing separating out the “act” as the thing with meaning in the public sphere, has some undesirable consequences. It leaves Chicana artists who consider themselves activists to struggle with a very limited political vocabulary in the present, and leaves them facing a hazardous future.

This is true despite the fact that both the Women's and Chicano Movements have allowed ample space in their respective rhetorical repertoires for the power of cultural production, or “representation,” to advance a collective political cause. An obvious example of this would be the deployment by author Corky Gonzales of his epic poem of Chicano history, “Yo Soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquín,” as a kind of Movimiento rallying cry for young Chicanos and Chicanas. Another example would be the white feminist “discovery” and appropriation during the 1970s of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as a text that could reshape the American “feminine” consciousness of health, marriage, and female bodies.1 Even in these examples, however, the terms of the relationship between cultural production and representation (art, literature, music, criticism) and “politics” remains narrowly circumscribed. Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Joaquín” were considered “political” because they raised consciousness among their readers, and gave those readers a way to focus their desires, demands, and priorities; in this sense, these now-classic critiques of power relations in a racist and sexist America were meant as a way into a more “active” critique, in a more saliently political realm.

The distinction between the word and the act becomes a defining one when it comes to deciding what it is that can serve a cause effectively. Ironically (or perhaps not!), the same “politics” which distinguishes between theory and practice places the highest premium on those literary texts determined to be most emphatically gesturing across the presumed “gap” between word and act, and deprivileges those texts which don't appear to be making such a gesture. In this context, Chicana authors Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Ana Castillo have all observed in various contexts that their critical and artistic work on sexuality, especially lesbian sexuality, has generated criticism for its “individualism,” “self-centeredness,” privatism, and quietism; especially by Chicanos, this work has been termed counterproductive—a sell-out to Anglo-feminist introspection, and even dangerous—a drag on collective and “public” consciousness and action. Examples of the work attacked in this way include Loving in the War Years, Borderlands, Cisneros's House on Mango Street, and Castillo's The Invitation, to which I'll return in a moment.

Feminists have been less quick to attack explicitly this sort of Chicana cultural work; instead, they are either warmly (but nevertheless aggressively) assimilative, or silent, neither including nor excluding Chicanas by name, as Beatriz Pesquera and Denise Segura put it (100). Indeed, Norma Alarcón has pointed out that the impact of Chicana writing “among most Anglo-American [feminist] theorists appears to be more cosmetic than not” (29); the wide use in feminist courses of the literary anthology This Bridge Called My Back, whose editors are Chicanas and whose contributors are women of color, might not signal any critical interrogation of gender as it is differentially determined across race and class lines, then, as much as it demonstrates the “common denominator” theory of universal gender oppression at work in our classrooms (31). The test for feminist authenticity when it comes to Chicanas, Alarcón suggests, is whether or not those Chicanas can be made “intelligible” as feminists (as opposed to whether feminism can be made to square with Chicana discourse and experience). Castillo's work has been especially resistant to this assimilation because of what I would characterize as a calculated coyness when it comes to the nature of the sexuality she inscribes in her poetry and prose. Her early “erotica,” as she describes the poetry of The Invitation, rarely specifies the gender of its unnamed lovers; the title poem, for instance, names only “I” and “you, and in so doing, her poetry purposely erases one conventional marker of the political.

When she does name women, Castillo's refusal to name them “lesbian”—indeed, her refusal to take that name for herself in print—further signals her resistance to those political markers. Similarly, Castillo's The Mixquishuala Letters, So Far from God, and Women Are Not Roses elaborate close relationships among women, strongly suggesting their erotic charge, while staunchly refusing to “name names.” Castillo thus opens herself to the suspicions of readers who might read her silence as, at best, a veil that confounds political readings, and, at worst, a sign of total absence from the political scene.

In general, then, critics have for the most part failed to consider Chicana artistic production as distinctively political work. Perhaps because they have gained more attention from Chicanos and Chicano Movement proponents—even if that attention has consisted largely of being told to put up or shut up—Chicana writers evidence more anxiety about their relations to their ethnic “communities” than to feminist or women's groups. This is not to say that Chicanas are, as a group, content with their relationship to feminism; only that they're not as anxious about expressing that discontent. On the other hand, the anxiety around the question of political and artistic membership for Chicanas is revealed in documents like the charter declaration of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS), a group of Chicanas in higher education whose aims include “bridg[ing] the gap between intellectual work and active commitment to our communities.” The foundations of that bridge, according to the MALCS manifesto, are “a tradition of [Chicano and Chicana] political struggle,” and values “deriving from where we came”: “labor camps and barrios, where sharing our resources was the basis of survival” (MALCS Declaration, June 1983). These somewhat romantic gestures toward working class “roots” speak to an ongoing crisis of political authenticity within the Chicana intellectual and artistic communities. We see this crisis brought home when we examine the work of particular Chicana writers; the rest of this paper will focus on two of these authors, Cherríe Moraga and Ana Castillo, whose struggle to reconcile the posited distinction between artistry and activism helps to reveal the limitations of that distinction.

Moraga declared in Loving in the War Years that in claiming the “right to passion” (136) and the right to write about it, she was engaging in an inherently political act, even as it was read by her compadres as a betrayal of a particular politics. She insisted that whether or not her practice and her representation of Chicana lesbian sexuality marked her as una vendida, La Malinchista, in the eyes of Chicanos, the connections she had made with women across racial and ethnic lines, through sex, through writing, and through the fact of her bi-racial body itself, only made her more of an asset to Chicanismo—in other words, she was a Chicana, and a feminist, because of, not despite, her “half-breed” blood and “marginal” sexuality. This identity is articulated quite literally through the tongue and lips, the two images Moraga uses to posit the continuum between the word and the act: “la lengua que necesito / para hablar / es la misma que uso / para cari-ci-ar” (Loving 149).2

In sharp contrast to Loving, where Moraga claimed linguistic, ethnic, and sexual hybridity as a politically salient and viable subject position, The Last Generation, her more recent collection of autobiographical essays and poetry, insists that a subject isn't a subject until she has confessed a loyalty. The very title, The Last Generation, suggests very clearly what loyalty Moraga has arrived at. This book is a eulogy for a dying race, and Moraga has cast her lot with the “lost tribe”:

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 to only one. My mother culture, my mother land, my mother tongue, further back than even she can remember.


This identification with the mother culture has certain implications for her art, and her understanding of that art's relationship to “politics,” as well. In “War Cry,” Moraga historicizes Chicano literature as it “responded to a stated mandate: art is political” (57). After describing the flowering of Chicano art under that mandate, she mourns the passing of a truly political art in the face of the “neutralizing” forces of middle-class and marketplace concerns, which are reinforced, she argues, by the academy. Even as she asserts that “a writer will write with or without a movement,” however, it is clear that Moraga believes that writing gains not only its intelligibility, but meaning itself solely in the context of an already-established “community-based and national political movement” (58). Literature responds, in other words, to an extra-literary mandate; when it becomes non-responsive, as Moraga tells us it has, it is no longer useful. “Political movements are what have allowed our writing to surface from the secret places in our notebooks into the public sphere,” she asserts, and later adds wistfully, “what we will be capable of producing in the decades to come, if we have the cultural/political movements to support us, could make a profound contribution to the social transformation of these Américas” (58-59).

Moraga's literary trajectory, which moves her from understanding her writing as a moment in a “cultural/political movement” to seeing it as merely supplementary to a larger, a priori, and more important field of action, is directly related to her revised understanding of her relationship to her “culture.” The distinctive feature of this culture, in The Last Generation, is its coherence, its intelligibility, and its finite spatial and temporal parameters, which can be perceived from a great distance—in fact, a distance of centuries. Moraga's culture is indigenous, ancient, and artifactual. It is not an unfolding, dynamic and contested process in which writing-as-discourse has as much agency as “stated mandates” or explicit injunctions; instead, it is a solid object of nostalgia, a flash of “pureza” in otherwise muddied waters, a “sacred” antidote to the “stain” of Moraga's mixed immigrant blood (131). Most importantly, the mother-culture is a stern reproach to the present-day ineffectuality of artists who also call themselves Chicanas—in the “political” sense of that word.

What has precipitated this dramatic shift in Moraga's theorization of art and politics? I believe it goes back to the idea of “conditions of visibility”—those discursive limits which allow certain configurations of identity to come into view, and force others back into muddy darkness and unintelligibility. The lips and the tongue of Loving in the War Years brush up against those limits, but it seems clear that Moraga was not satisfied, ultimately, with what stabilizing effect they afforded her in terms of identity, probably because they so insistently called that stabilization itself into question. In a moment when the words they formed had not yet been naturalized as “political,” perhaps their whispers sounded too much like silence for her.

Ana Castillo seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion with the publication of her latest work of non-fiction, Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. The first chapter of Massacre is all about representation, and Castillo is careful to link political with artistic representation in the figure of the Chicana, the “mestiza/Mexic Amerindian” who has been excluded from fully participating in all modes of social and cultural life, including book production and publication (1). Again, her work implicitly calls up questions of what Rosaldo calls “cultural citizenship,” which Castillo rightly claims to reclaim. And her chosen mode for reclamation appears to be writing, which she identifies as important, revolutionary, political. In fact, her graduate work at Chicago was derailed, she tells us, by the very silence of the indigenous woman's pen or voice in both “creative literature and ethnographic documentation” (7), implicitly acknowledging the history-making force of writing. But Massacre, taken as a whole, betrays a deep anxiety about the legitimacy of her claims on and for writing and literary production. Castillo, “torn between the Chicago obrero roots of [her] upbringing and [her] egocentric tendency toward creative expressions” (Massacre 1) implicitly opposes “expression” to real labor. In the acknowledgements section of Massacre, she similarly hesitates, writing that “those who are unable to dismiss the idea that revolutionary work and action is by its nature inferior to work that conforms to the standards of the status quo—in this case, the academy—may rest easy” that Castillo was required to conform to rigorous academic standards in completing her doctoral thesis at the University of Bremen in Germany (ix-x). Whereas her statement about her obrero roots may be read as innocently nostalgic, here Castillo finds it necessary to defend, quite explicitly, writing against the real standard-bearer, “revolutionary work and action.”

For me, at least, Castillo's shift toward a new hierarchy of action and art, in which action takes precedence, is accompanied by a precipitous waning of wit and playfulness. These elements of play had been hallmarks of her writing—indeed, of its very Xicanisma. The promiscuous mixture of literary and cultural traditions that marked So Far from God, for instance, or the webby texture of The Mixquiahuala Letters, which offered readers at least four strategies for getting through the text: “for the conformist,” “for the cynic,” “for the quixotic,” and “for the reader committed to nothing but short fiction” (9, 11) reflect a deep engagement with the “disputed, torn, intertextual … syncretic” nature of Chicana identity and culture.

In Massacre, Castillo writes that she had known of the risk of not being taken seriously when she originally embarked upon her poetic project. The Invitation

was created out of my sobering experiences as a Movimiento Latina. Sobering because I felt my physiology was demeaned, misunderstood, objectified … I anticipated that the men within el Movimiento Latino, as conscienticized and as “liberal-minded” as they believed themselves to be, would look upon my invitation to discuss sexuality with all the inhibitions set upon society centuries ago. They would do as men have done to women throughout the ages whenever we embark on the subject of our sexual desire: they would not take my endeavor as serious intellectual discourse.


Thus, I don't think the new “seriousness” and didacticism evident in Massacre is coincidental: it seems part and parcel of Castillo's desire to have text, as much as desire, be taken seriously—that is, to be taken as politically motivated, salient, and effective.

When we return to The Invitation, we see, as with Moraga, just how closely the body of text and the body of desire are linked. In the title poem, the narrator speaks of desire as composition: “On some afternoon / prose will become / Movements / in perfect coordination / from hips to hips / lines will run along the curve of your spine / on and on.” Her poetry, like Moraga's, aggressively collapses the distinction between the word and the (sex) act, between palabras y Movimientos, and the poem's title solicits a reading of the text as a social and public gesture (and an implicitly political one), even as it represents a private invitation.

It is the materiality of the word that both Moraga and Castillo have uncovered in their poetic work on sexuality—a materiality that metonymically touches the materiality of the Chicana body, and of its desire. The essays of Massacre are haunted by this materiality, in the sense that they return again and again to it as a subject of discourse, in essays like “La Macha: Toward an Erotic Whole Self,” yet refuse the poetics it seemed earlier to demand. Like Moraga, Castillo has decided that the hermeneutic vulnerability presented by the poetic form presents too great a risk for politics. In the case of La Macha, the Latina who desires Latinas, gone are the sly evasions and gaps of her fiction and poetry. We are left with flat statements of opinion and fact about Latina lesbian sexuality, culled, we are assured, “after a lifetime of observation and interaction with Mexicans, Tex-Mex fieldworkers, Mexican City urbanites, the young women with whom I grew up and with whom I went to school, and from my professional and personal associations as an adult” (136).

Castillo, like Moraga, speaks of rootedness, of the importance of discovering the bases and the reasons for machismo, for capitalism, and for indigenous feminine power. Moraga abandons the “hybrid” shape and color of her words and bodies in order to “re-member the severed serpent … not out of nostalgia but out of hope” (Last 190). But nostalgia for lost and whole origins is exactly what Moraga and Castillo do embrace. This nostalgia is identical with their rejection of the absences, the omissions, the incompletions of language, text, and embodiment, so that in The Last Generation and Massacre of the Dreamers, our most accomplished Chicana authors find themselves writing against writing, talking against talk, tying their own tongues.

I would hate to be confused here with those critics who like to argue that the more explicitly political writers become, the less interesting, literarily speaking, they are. In a discipline which has from its very beginnings (in the work, say, of Américo Paredes on los corridos) worked hard to expand critical notions of what is aesthetically and rhetorically interesting and important, such arguments are obviously not very useful. But in inverting those arguments, it must be acknowledged that the authors I have considered here have reinstated a distinction between political speech and political action that has historically rendered the brown body, and especially the brown female body, invisible and inaudible in the public sphere. It seems absolutely necessary, then, for a forward-looking Chicana identification, one which can lay legitimate claim to cultural citizenship in a larger America, to reject these authors' rejections, and look forward to the sound, the feel, and the force of talk.


  1. See Susan Lanser for a remarkable discussion of the way the Gilman renaissance has obscured the tendency of second-wave white feminism to “universalize” the category of woman without regard for factors like race or class.

  2. “The tongue that I need to speak with is the same one I use to touch” (my translation).

Works Cited

Alarcón, Norma. “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José D. Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 28-39.

Berlant, Lauren. “National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life.” The Phantom Public Sphere. Ed. Bruce Robbins. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 173-208.

Castillo, Ana. Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1994.

———. My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems. New York: Norton, 1995.

———. The Mixquiahuala Letters. 1986. Anchor/Doubleday: 1992.

———. So Far from God. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1994.

Clifford, James. “Introduction: Partial Truths.” Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. 1-26.

Laclau, Ernesto. New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. London: Verson, 1990.

———. “Power and Representation.” Politics, Theory, and Contemporary Culture. Ed. Mark Poster. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15 (1989): 415-441.

Moraga, Cherrie. The Last Generation. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

———. Loving in the War Years. Boston: South End Press, 1983.

Rosaldo, Renato. “Fables of the Fallen Guy.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José D. Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 85-93.

Segura, Denise A., and Beatriz Pesquera. “There Is No Going Back: Chicanas and Feminism.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón, et al. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1993. 95-115.

Phillipa Kafka (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Kafka, Phillipa. “Re-Shaping Religious and Cultural Mythologies.” In (Out)Classed Women: Contemporary Chicana Writers on Inequitable Gendered Power Relations, pp. 81-98. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Kafka traces the revisionist treatment of such female mythical figures as Malinche, La Llorona, and the Virgen de Guadalupe in works by Sandra Cisneros, Margarita Cota-Cárdenas, and other Chicana writers.]

One of the earliest responses to “the monolithic androcentrism” (Pratt 1993, 863) of the La Raza movement was the manifesto Chicanas Speak Out. Chicanas called for the destruction of religious and cultural myths that constrain female sexuality. They also maintained that marriage has to be transformed, as well as the Catholic Church, or it should stand aside. Even so, La Raza paid no attention, never including this Chicana manifesto into the archives of the Chicano history of the La Raza movement (Pratt 1993, 861). Nevertheless, in Chicana feminist annals this historic manifesto is memorialized as an extremely significant attempt at “elaborate code-switching,” such as Ponce did so successfully in “The Jewelry Collection of Marta La Güera.” The Chicana manifesto is significant because it was the first discursive shift of Malinche's image away from that of a traitor to a more accurate historical appraisal of this Chicano cultural icon. It attempted for the first time to revision the normalized patriarchal perspectives, the masculinist discursive codes that outclass women, historically silencing them and excluding them from such discourse. The Chicanas' motive in issuing this manifesto was to make a “testimonio,” to finally speak out publicly and claim autonomy as subjects instead of “a dependent space ascribed from the outside by others” (1993, 863). In revising Malinche into “a paradigmatic figure” Chicana feminists, just by “the social act” of insisting upon their own perspective in writing, gave themselves for the first time historically the powers of “speaking subjects” (Torres 1995, 128).

Mary Louise Pratt further identifies a second strategy in this initiative of Chicana writers to question male mythology such as the myth of Malinche. This was to reverse or double “back” on the patriarchy's “politics of blame” (1993, 865) when men depict their female characters such as Malinche as subjects whose characteristics are created and then perpetuated by the culture's male rulers and women who accept their constructions as objective. Male creators of such characters, as well as Chicano culture, assume that what they write is carved in stone by the divinity of masculine opinion presented as objective reality (1993, 866).

Pratt credits the efforts by writers such as Ana Castillo, Cherríe Moraga, Lucha Corpi, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Helena María Viramontes to repudiate masculinist “canonical interpretations” of Malinche. By doing so, these authors work with their own agenda, not anyone else's, to create a specifically female subject in which Malinche's role as mother is made only a small part of her “political and strategical” use by the Spanish. Pratt sees the feminist Chicana writers and critics as attempting through the revision of the Malinche myth to reject patriarchal mythmaking in which women are depicted as “mothers and servants to men” (1993, 869).

Interestingly, Pratt frowns on any authors who would attribute Malinche's “political betrayal” of her people to “religious motivations.” She does welcome the possibility that Malinche's conversion to Catholicism was genuine, or that she believed, as did many of her people, that Cortés was the god who had promised to return to them. Pratt also rejects interpretations of Malinche's conduct as stemming from passion or love for Cortés. Instead she lauds those Chicana writers who have not seen Malinche in any of these ways. They have courageously chosen to provide complex and diverse descriptions of the experience of women that serve as alternative conceptualizations of Chicano culture. They do this by avoiding the polarizing nationalism of the Chicano leaders and members of the La Raza movement, as well as assenting to the damaging depictions of Malinche (1993, 871).

I submit that as wholeheartedly as I agree with Pratt, we have no absolute knowledge of Malinche's motives for her conduct. It is only interpretation. Adding positive interpretations of this historic character is a worthwhile project because it opens up the possibility that she was not a supine dupe or traitor or a willing convert to Catholicism, turning her back against her own religion and culture. Still, we can leave room for negative interpretations, or mixed ones, of her conduct. Why should we replicate the methods and strategies of intransigently negative masculinist interpretations? They leave no room for her motives and conduct to be interpreted other than negatively, so that they can fit into their misogynistic iconography and mythology. Why should we fall prey to their simplistic binary thinking and replicate it?

In masculinist discourse, the Mayan princess Malinche serves a dual purpose. Already enslaved by Montezuma, she served as the interpreter for and mistress of Cortés and thus is traditionally conceived of as an arch-traitor. On the other hand, in becoming mother to his (mestiza) children, she thus functions as the originating source for La Raza, a symbol of that which comprises Mexico and Mexicanness. Traditionally, also, Malinche is seen as somehow both a passive victim as well as a collaborator. This perspective is illustrated in Elizabeth Ordoñez's insight that the rape motif in Chicana poetry is connected with Malinche. Chicanas' consciousness is influenced more by rape trauma than other women because of the first rape, that of Malinche, by the Europeans. Further it impacts on their view of themselves as sexual beings and by all the “sexual violence” surrounding them today in their “immediate environment” (Herrera-Sobek citing Ordoñez 1988b, 180). Notice that the term “Europeans” is used by both critics, instead of the term “Spanish Europeans,” probably because of their acute discomfort involved in calling their own Spanish ancestors into account.

Nevertheless, Herrera-Sobek takes issue with Ordoñez, not so much because the use of rapes in Chicana literature resonates metaphorically from the Malinche-Cortés relationship. She also observes Chicana writers, unlike other women writers, using their experiences of being raped economically, socially, and politically as metaphors. She admires Chicana writers for their courage in adding rape as “an important literary motif in American literature” (1988b, 181). To buttress this insight, she uses the example of other women of color writers who incorporate rape in the same way into their work: African American women writers such as Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Perhaps she is only familiar with this “minority” group. The fact is that as a major theme rape is common to most ethnic and women of color writers, as well as to women writers in every “economic and socio-political” category. It is a major problem for all women globally, whatever their race and class. In addition, Herrera-Sobek adds a mystifying disparity with my analysis here when she concludes that Chicana writers, unlike their Mexican sisters, do not as a rule write about rape or use it as a major “motif” (1988b, 180). However, she does not offer any explanations for this surprising anomaly.

In her role as translator, as mediator between two cultures, Malinche attempted to do the best she could in an almost impossibly oppressive situation.1 Hernán Cortés, a Spaniard, led the conquest of the Aztec civilization. Malintzin gave birth to his son and therefore of Mexicans, also converted to Catholicism, and therefore has always been defined as a traitor.

Alarcón sees Chicana writers' attempts at mythological and stereotypical recuperation of Malinche as resulting in no less than five “sexual political themes” in their works. First, they show that for women to choose among patriarchal systems (Indian, Chicano, Anglo) is no choice, as Anzaldúa argues. Second, Chicana writers describe their characters as being lost, abandoned, orphaned, and psychically and emotionally starved even when they have families. Fernández's Consuelo and Cisneros's Chayo and Patricia provide sad examples of this theme. Third, Chicanas are depicted as enslaved and exploited within the patriarchal political and economic organization of gendered power relations. The authors and critics I have analyzed in this text all bear out the validity of this point, for example, in Viramontes's works, not only “Miss Clairol” and “Tears on My Pillow,” but in Under the Feet of Jesus, most powerfully. Fourth, Alarcón sees as another characteristic theme of Chicana writers the pitfalls of women who rely on an unquestioning religious faith. Alarcón illustrates this theme brilliantly when she calls readers' attention to the fact that there are very few poems written by women to the Virgin of Guadalupe but many written by men. Finally, Chicana writers describe their female characters' love for men as “at best deeply ambivalent” (1981, 187) as we have seen illustrated in “Zapata's Eyes” and Patricia Preciado Martín's “La Virgen de la Soledad.”

In “La Fabulosa, a Texas Operetta” in Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros takes on Bizet's opera Carmen. She does a hilarious feminist send-up, or, rather, a feminist revisioning, much as she has done of the Chicano cultural myth of La Llorona, and, again, with an up-beat twist, but with more humor. She de-males masculinist cultural mythology merrily away as she goes. Like Felice of “Woman Hollering Creek,” Cisneros's Carmen Berriozabal is a spirited and sassy woman. Her Jose is a corporal at Fort Sam Houston who has a girl waiting for him to return and marry her “and buy that three-piece bedroom set on layaway. Dream on, right?” the nameless narrator adds sarcastically. Cisneros's Carmen has a worldly, cynical independent spirit. Jose was not Carmen's one love, just a passing fancy. But men are strange, the narrator muses. The worse a woman treats a man the more he loves her.

After Carmen takes up with a well-known politician who keeps her in style, Jose attempts to murder her and commit suicide. But the senator, who is married, with children, is ambitious for the governor's position and successfully keeps the scandal from the media. Some people claim that Jose carved his initials into Carmen's breasts, but the narrator claims that this story might just be a rumor. She has heard that Jose left the army without leave and took up bullfighting in order to die honorably according to the rules of machismo. She has also heard that Carmen does not want to live, either.

Here Cisneros is showing the ambiguity of reality, of actual history, going beyond simplistic binaries of characterization. But then the narrator interpolates her suggestion for changing the culture's gendered relations of power. Interestingly, in this case, the model is traditionally European but her twist is feminist Chicana. This move by Cisneros seems here, and, in fact, in all her work, to be a response to Pérez's “challenge” to Chicanas. In view of the fact that global patriarchy in the form of white colonizing male father figures affects all women, Pérez challenges all women to rebel against this system, separate ourselves from all its oppressive ideologies and, instead, “create life-affirming sitios” (Pérez 1993, 63).

First, Chicanas should try to get at the source of their addiction to the group that is responsible for their oppression. They must ask themselves why, even though they are fully aware of the destructive results for themselves and their menfolk, they nevertheless obey and perpetuate Anglo patriarchal laws. Pérez places the blame on Chicanos who have internalized Anglo men's worldviews and then imposed them on Chicanas, making themselves “caricatures” (1993, 63) of the colonizers in the process. Instead I would define such Chicanos as being reinforced in their machismo by the Anglo conqueror. Since Indians and then Chicanos were hierarchical and patriarchal oppressors of women before, during, and after the advent of Europeans, her claim is based more on blaming the colonizers for Chicano machismo than on historical accuracy. She further goes on to indict those Chicanos, like Cisneros's Eddie, who quickly emulate Anglo men when they enter mainstream institutions. They exclude Chicanas and other women of color from those institutions and all seats of power within them.

Cisneros is devoted throughout Women Hollering Creek to altering such masculinist assumptions of female subordination as expressed in its discourse and hegemonic plot lines. She takes on the traditional operatic reading of Carmen as having a death wish, using her narrator to advise her presumptive auditors not to believe that rumor. She knows for a fact that Carmen ran away with “King Kong Cardenas, a professional wrestler from Crystal City and a sweetie” (62).

Carmen lives! Or at least her spirit lives: her right to enjoy herself sexually, to change men as she pleases when she pleases—just as men have traditionally had the right to do in Chicano culture, and in all cultures, as well. She is, after all, only twenty. This is the other solution to the problem of a culture's constraining models for women: maintaining an intellectual and spiritual independence of spirit, especially maintaining a distance from the myriad cultural ties and gags that bind and constrict in male-female entanglements.

In the cuento “Woman Hollering Creek,” Cisneros exposes the folk myth of La Llorona as perpetuating the myth's essential message that men betray women. Cisneros conveys an enormous grief, combined with rage, over that chasm between women's conduct in relationships and men's, especially between women's unfulfilled expectations of reciprocity in terms of mutual respect from men. The reader grieves with the young, romantic, idealistic Cleófilas as she suffers disillusion, then beatings, infidelity, and finally near-martyrdom from her Juan Pedro (Everyman) husband. Clearly, Cisneros's solution to the myth of La Llorona is to reject this myth as an example of Chicano culture's myths about women that it has developed and propagated within its masculinist discourse and perspective, its inequitable gendered power relations. She shifts the stereotypical definition for woman embedded in the discourse associated with the La Llorona myth from that of a nonentity and victim to active agency, to choice, and thence to triumph.2 Cisneros displaces the myth constructed by patriarchal male discourse in order to perpetuate inequitable gendered power relations through ideology. Instead she shapes it to further women's agenda. The woman “hollering” at the end of “Woman Hollering Creek” is “hollering” empowerment “like Tarzan,” Cisneros's trope for the natural, uncivilized, but somehow intuitively gentle man.

Cisneros, in reversing Cleofilas's traditionally predictable fate, is also creating an alternative response to the Mexican corrido “Delgadina.” In that corrido a father jails his young daughter in a tower for refusing to allow him to commit incest with her. During her imprisonment, he deprives her of food and drink as punishment for daring to disobey him. Although she pleads with her mother, her brother, and her sister for sustenance to keep alive, as well as to be free, she is unsuccessful. Every member of her family fears what will happen to them if they disobey their father's authority: his decisions, his judgment, his rules and regulations, including his sexual abominations. They prefer to betray Delgadina and permit her to suffer and die alone, isolated from her loved ones. Her mother and her sister, unwilling or not, serve as collusive gatekeepers of the patriarchy and betray her. Yet what else can they do? Delgadina, like Malinche, archetype of the Indian, then Chicana predicament, with no one to help her, has nowhere to turn and dies from hunger for nourishment, for freedom.

Cisneros, in her best work, such as “Woman Hollering Creek,” positions herself as a kind of witness behind and above her heroines, testifying to injustices against them. She writes as if in concealment, a guerrilla in a literal and cultural landscape: a war zone of power in which girl children and women have been captured ideologically, discursively, and socially by occupying forces. Although they never succeed in entirely escaping their cultural prisons, only in sometimes going from maximum to minimum-security prisons, they nevertheless experience illumination at some point. They realize that they are prisoners in a hostile world for no rational, sane reason, but entirely because of cultural oppression caused by a patriarchal power setup of inequitable gendered power relations. Other women, their gatekeepers, act as implacable wardens.3

In “Bien Pretty Lupe” in Woman Hollering Creek, Lupe explains yin and yang to her model Flavio as the totality of all paired forces. The relationship between men and women illustrates this complementarity. The male force is heaven, the female force is earth. When men and women interact, the result is “the whole shebang.” And if one force is present without the other, then “shit is out of balance.” Flavio's response is to relate yin and yang to the Mexican term for the world—“sky-earth” (1991, 149). He had learned this concept from his grandmother Oralia whose name pays tribute to the orality of historical culture transmission in Mexico. Again we see in this incident how foremothers serve as gatekeepers for the cultural regime, training the new generations in their worldviews, but this time, unlike gatekeepers who keep their charges in blindfolds, the gatekeeper perpetuates Chicana and Indian (oral) traditions. Cisneros views women such as Oralia as “cultural practitioners,” perpetuators of oppositional traditions. Like her, they produce oppositional “discourses” (Dernersesian 1993, 45). In all likelihood, Oralia is either a curandera or a bruja:

Curanderismo consists of a set of folk medical beliefs, rituals, and practices that seem to address the psychological, spiritual, and social needs of traditional … people. It is a complex system of folk medicine with its own theoretical, diagnostic, and therapeutic aspects. Curanderismo is conceptually holistic in nature; no separation is made between the mind and the body, as in western medicine and psychology.

Negative healers … as brujas (witches) have an extensive command of malevolent techniques of witchcraft and can cause great harm in the form of illness. They also analyze dreams, have premonitions, read cards, and indulge in other areas of the black arts.

(Perrone, Stockel, and Krueger 1989, 86, 92)

Like Oralia, a major characteristic of curanderas is that they

have challenged the normal female roles within their culture and have assumed the authority and leadership traditionally reserved for men. Even as youngsters, the healers never accepted the submissiveness and passivity that is the fate of nearly all traditional females in their societies. As a matter of fact, even in their earliest years, most curanderas knew they were different. They broke the rules in their own ways. … These women represent the traditional ways, but they refused to be molded into stereotypes because they believed their destiny could not be determined by cultural standards that were designed on earth. Quite the contrary: las curanderas know their lives had been guided by God, and that reality is the only permission they need.

(Perrone, Stockel, and Krueger 1989, 96)

Rocky Gámez writes a powerful story about a traditional curandera, Doña Marciana García. Like her sisters, she carries a “burlap bag … with an assortment of medicinal herbs, votive candles and the clay statuette of the virgin de Guadalupe.” These are the things “she believed in and held sacred. These were the tools of her trade” (1983, 11). Lost on the road, “she couldn't really tell how far away from home she was” because she “had left her rosary beads” (1983, 13) at her last patient's bedside. She habitually prays as she walks and knows how long each prayer takes according to how many steps she makes. As she dies, she sighs “Que sea lo que Dios quiera.” [May it be as God wills it] (1983, 14). The irony is that her last moments are spent in torment, convinced that the young nurse trained in a modern Anglo school and now working in the area, will accuse her of malpractice because she has just lost a patient in labor. In reality, the nurse and the whole village admire her work without reservations and mourn her death as a great loss.

In keeping with the demand that Chicanas adhere to their own cultural experience, past and present, Teresa Palomo Acosta would have the “Chicana Poeta” create revisionist poetry. Instead of wandering in a fog of confusion and ignorance caused by subjugation, being colonized to Anglo ways of doing things, she should learn about her own culture's time-honored ways of doing things. Then the Chicana poet should disseminate those traditional ways that are her cultural inheritance in order to counteract the influence of alien Anglo customs and institutions. One example of traditional ways is the treatment and healing of physical and spiritual ills by Chicana curanderas such as Doña Marciana García. In her poem “They Are Laying Plans for Me—Those Curanderas,” Palomo Acosta imagines the curanderas as digressing long enough from their work to discuss her plight as a typical colonized contemporary Chicana. First they mourn that the Chicana no longer remembers their ways of healing. Then, convinced that Chicana poetry is another form of healing equivalent to theirs, they make Palomo Acosta a poet in order to reconnect her to their healing mystique through her use of poetic discourse about her Chicana sisters. Through poetry she will be able to find herself, to become spiritually whole again, although she is now wandering, ignorant and mentally colonized, lost as in a fog. By linking with her past and present cultural women's traditions, she (and other contemporary Chicanas whom she represents, as well) will become her “own curandera” (1993, 296-297).

Flavio, an exterminator, becomes Lupe's lover and leaves her suddenly to return to Mexico to his two wives and seven children. In her sorrow she takes to watching telenovelas, the form of entertainment that had provided surcease from her bleak existence for Cleófilas, the protagonist of “Woman Hollering Creek.” Interestingly Resnik recommends that women accept and embrace these idealistic and romantic dreams about how life might be for them, which the masculinist discourse and most men hold in the utmost contempt. Resnik is in sharp disagreement with Alarcón who, although seeing this type of literature as universally appealing to women, still internalizes a derisive attitude toward it. She complains that at the present time what is considered the traditionally valorized form of love is the erotic and romantic love disseminated “ad nauseam through romance novels, or in the case of Mexico and Latin America, fotonovelas” (1996, 965). Undoubtedly, this genre attracts and unites women of all kinds and classes, causing them to become “sisters under the skin, daughters of patriarchy” (Alarcón 1989, 103). However, instead of being ashamed at what the culture mocks and invalidates as cheap, unreal, stupid, and trivial, at what it scorns and trashes as women's illusions, Resnik suggests adhering to them as subversive models for the culture to live by, even in the face of mockery.

Lupe starts dreaming of the major female characters of these telenovelas. In these dreams, she is in a rage, beating them up. She demands that they be proactive, not victims all the time, nor always tormented in love. She is fed up with the depictions of men in the telenovelas as “powerful and passionate,” whereas women are depicted as either passive and humble, or fiery and bad. She wants these heroines to be like the proud and independent women she has known and loved all her life: girlfriends, comadres, mothers, and aunts. These are women who tell men to love them or leave them, women who are strong, filled with power and passion, bravery and ferocity, and who are simultaneously also “tender and volatile” (161). But such women are not depicted in literature or on the telenovelas.

In a hilarious and heretical twist by means of her twin volcano painting, Lupe also reverses the culture's prevailing construction of inequitable gendered power relations. Reversing traditional postures, she paints Princess Ixta gazing down at the sleeping Prince Popa [Popocatepetl] lying flat on his back, not the other way around as is traditional. When all is said and done does anyone have the right to maintain that “the sleeping mountains” are female rather than male? Once having made this change, Lupe then makes some necessary “anatomical adjustments” in the mountains and is going to call the painting El Pipi del Popa (163). Here Cisneros, through humor, is expressing her position relative to the ongoing discussion by feminists about the situatedness of the gaze. Whose gaze is it? What difference does it make when the gaze is male or female? If readers are outraged by this reversal, why are they outraged? What in their training has led them to believe that only the male gaze is appropriate in sexualizing females?

In her analysis of Bernice Zamora's “Notes from a chicana Coed,” Dernersesian could well be describing Cisneros's answer. She contrasts the major elements of Chicano discourse as nationalist abstractions that make no reference whatsoever to gender, whereas Chicana discourse is primarily concerned with specific statements about inequitable gendered power relations that reflect the reality of being oppressed in those relations that Chicanas actually experience (1993, 51). Hererra-Sobek gives credit to the source for this consciously female sexual perspective as “the advent of the feminist movement.” Since then, both men and women have acknowledged the extent and intensity of female sexuality [because] in our patriarchal culture [female sexuality] has been denied, kept a dark secret up until recent times” (1988a, 27).

However, the drawback to Cisneros's solution in this cuento and others is that she is not simply affirming women's sexuality, but reversing the male scopic and discursive perspective. Women, according to Lupe's argument, will literally and figuratively stand upright whereas men will lie down with their body parts available for women's examination. Women will be in power, will control the terms of the discourse, whereas men will be vulnerable to women's judgments and definitions. Lupe's choice of perspective is nothing more than a reversal, a replication in reverse of the oppressor's mentality. Women objectifying male body parts as men objectify women's is like replicating the abuses of the oppressor when the oppressed come to power, as in the classic case of the French Revolution, where the revolutionaries became the brutal oppressors of the aristocrats in their turn. As I have noted in “Mericans” and elsewhere, Cisneros illustrates in her characterizations a belief that women are not different from men when allowed full, free self-expression. I contend, however, that there are more constructive feminist solutions that do not merely replicate or imitate the way the hegemony does things and acculturates women to do so, namely, by equating “subject and object” (Piper 1995, 174).

“Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” one of Cisneros's most delightful cuentos, is written in the form of “milagritos” [little miracles]—missives, notes, or testimonios. These are “safety-pinned to effigies of the Virgin and of name-saints, in which the deities involved point back through time and Christianity to the dark presence of Aztec cosmology” (Lee 1992, 22). This format gives Cisneros room for full expression of her panoply of talents which range from conveying the most tragic human experiences of suffering to the humorous, silly, and trivial, simultaneously.

Unlike Felice or Lupe, Chayo appropriates power without reversal. One of Resnik's key solutions to the problem of masculinist religions and myths is to subvert the deities already created by male religions. She would have this done by modifying, changing, adding, shaping, and in general modelling them on what women would want them to be, not on imitations of how men are trained to conduct themselves. The closest illustration to her prescription is the magnificent monologue by Chayo at the end of this cuento.

Throughout readers hear the discordant external voices of Chayo's culture, as troped by her family and neighbors who all unite against Chayo in acting as her gatekeepers. They insist upon guarding her against “the corrupting influence of U.S. ways on Mexican women” (Ruíz 1993, 119). What Alarcón observes about Viramontes's young protagonist Naomi in “Growing” applies just as well to Chayo here, except Chayo does not attempt to deviate from her culture's demands on her as a Chicana girl by following Anglo ways. Chayo follows her own talents.

Naomi is correct in her perception of the difference in social experience between girls due to the relatively different cultural/racial codes (perhaps class-rooted codes as well). She is too young, however, to understand that in a patriarchy such as she has been born into virtually all women will sooner or later reach a limit with regard to the speaking position that they may take up as women. How rapidly that limit is reached and how women may/may not express themselves after that point may vary according to what is deemed permissible discourse for women in her specific culture. Often that boundary line is drawn by her father (and assenting mother), because they perceive her body as always that of a woman and therefore always limited to her sexual/maternal function.

(1988, 149)

Cisneros conveys the pitfalls and dangers of familism to young Chicanas who seek their identity by exposing the continual disruptions Chayo is subjected to in her attempts to find and express herself. Further, Chayo's letter serves as vehicle for Cisneros's proposed solutions to the unequal gender relations of her broader culture. She attempts to shift the masculinist discourse, to change its language and meaning in such a way as to expose its injustice and artificial constraints on women—in Herrera-Sobek's vivid metaphor, “the multiple shackles imprisoning women.” The latter lists “restraints imposed by patriarchal society” first, and then the restraints of “tradition, poverty, censorship, social mores” (1995, 148). Chayo, like Tere of Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters, is “trapped” by having internalized the patriarchal “ideological nexus” (Alarcón 1989, 95) indoctrinated into her that all women must continually guard against by being vigilant. They must question and disrupt the oppressive messages at every turn.

Characteristic of Cisneros's work, as with all the writers analyzed in this text, is the quality of seeing the tragic in the comic and the comic in the tragic. To cite only a few among numerous examples in this story, there is the letter acknowledging a donation as promised because of a disaster when the bus skidded and overturned in which the Familia Arteaga was travelling. The accident killed a woman and her little girl, but by some miracle the family in question was not hurt at all. However, from that time on they avoided riding in buses. Then there is the missive in which the author's unique tone of sprightly sarcasm is nowhere more evident or more delightful as when Barbara Ybanez of San Antonio writes to Saint Anthony of Padua. She begs the saint to assist her in getting a man who does not bring pain to her nalgas [ass] like the educated ones who leave Texas to find a job in California. She also does not want a man who can't speak Spanish, or a man who doesn't define himself as “Hispanic,” unless he needs to apply for federal funding.4 Instead, she wants a man who is unashamed to cook, or clean, or take care of himself, who can buy his clothing himself, who can iron himself, not a man like her brothers whom their mother spoiled outrageously. She justifies her order on the grounds that she has endured frustrating relationships with inferior men too long, that she deserves better.5

Katherine Rios sees Cisneros as recuperating “the Malinche/Guadalupe/Llorona triad—the three icons that supposedly structure the psychic and material basis of Chicana identity—throughout her stories.” Rios perhaps sums up the meaning of Malinche best in a pointed anecdote. When she informed “a Chicana friend” that she was reading Cisneros's “Never Marry a Mexican” as “a revision of the Malinche myth,” the friend “countered, ‘Is there any other way to read the story’” (1995, 204). To her mind, Lucha Corpi's poems about Malinche (in Fuego de Atlán: Palabras de Mediodía) finally “put Dona Marina to rest,” gave all the interpretations to Malinche that are possible, so that now we can “move on to something else” (as cited in Pratt 1993, 872). To my mind, however, it is Sandra Cisneros who has finally achieved this goal by adding mocking laughter to the artillery that other authors have used to besiege the traditional masculinist myths of Malinche, La Llorona, the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well.

Chayo links herself with Malinche by using the term “traitor” when she confides her problems to the Black Virgin of Guadalupe. Eventually she grows strong enough to cut her braid off as a gesture of liberation, to become a painter, to go to school. Cleófilas, after great suffering from her abusive husband, comes to believe in and act upon a very different feminist version of La Llorona than does her society. Chayo, also after great suffering from her abusive family, creates for herself a very different feminist version of Malinche, one opposed to her society's masculinist version. Chayo is called a traitor, too, and by her own mother, every time she attempts to explain to her mother and her grandmother why she does not intend to turn out as they did (128).

She even transforms a traditional religious icon, the Virgen de Guadalupe, by destabilizing the masculine discourse around her myth. She does this by changing the deity's image from mediator to one of agency and power. For many Chicanas the Catholic Church should serve as a refuge, but, unfortunately, when those like Chayo turn to it, they find it “oppressive and hostile.” This is because the Catholic God (and I might add, from personal experience, the Hebrew God) is resolutely male and does not seem to them “a benevolent comforting figure … Instead, it is yet another male, terrifying and oppressing women.” True, “women can identify and receive solace” from the Virgin. Nevertheless, “her direct connection with institutionalized religion transforms her into an inaccessible figure” (Herrera-Sobek 1988a, 29).

Chayo, in doing her own research about the “Virgencita de Guadalupe,” as she calls her, does not refute Alarcón's observation that the saint lacks attractiveness for females. Instead she tries to recuperate her for feminist purposes. As a result of this research, Chayo discovers that indeed the saint can be recuperated. She can be interpreted in such a way as to undo the threads that masculine discourse has so tightly woven around her. As masculinist discourse would have it, Chayo has always previously identified the Virgencita de Guadalupe with her own mother “with her folded hands.” She permitted her continually drunken father to always blame any and all of his problems on her. She and her mother and all her mothers' mothers endured this treatment “in the name of God” (127).

But now Chayo refuses to create a new Virgin in her mother's and foremothers' image, a saint who would replicate and valorize and perpetuate their culturally prescribed lives of endless self-abasement and suffering in silence. Instead she creates a new Virgin, or rather recreates her from pre-Columbian mythology. She is nude, holding snakes. She jumps over “the backs of bulls.” She swallows “raw hearts” and rattles “volcanic ash” (127). She is “our mother Tonantzin. Your [male Catholic] church at Tepeyac built on the site of her temple. Sacred ground no matter whose goddess claims it” (128). This is not quite true. For when the male hegemony, which is the Catholic Church in this case, claims a goddess for its own and turns her into a saint, then she gets filtered through its mystifying essentialist sacred guidelines so as to naturalize and normalize her in the masculinist discursive mold. Such a saint is the Virgin Mary, the meek and mild archetypal mother.

In a lengthy epiphany, in marked contrast to the lists Cleófilas had made of women's potentially deadly relationships with their male guard(ian)s, Chayo finally undertakes to revise the traditional masculinist myths. From her feminist perspective, she expands the pantheon of deities to include Aztec goddess figures and syncretized female Catholic saints. By so doing, Cisneros, through Chayo, creates a space for contesting and demystifying patriarchal religious hegemonic discourse for hitherto culturally naturalized religious icons. Cisneros realizes that our unconscious naturalization of intensively prescribed masculinist religious icons must be destabilized first, for “the [so-called] ‘natural’ … underpins the power of hegemony” (Kim 1996, 221). Once Chayo “learned” about and began to worship Coatlaxopeuh, “She Who Has Dominion over Serpents,” and “Tonantzin … Teteoinnan, Toci, Xochiquetzal, Tlazolteotl, Coatlicue, Chalchiuhtlicue, Coyolzauhqui, Huixtocihuatl, Chicomecoatl, Cihuacoatl,” only then could she understand and accept the Catholic versions of “the great mother”: “Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, Nuestra Senora del Perpetuo Socorro, Nuestra Senora de San Juan de los Lagos, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Sorrows” (128).”6 Now Chayo is no longer ashamed to be the daughter of any of her foremothers.

Chayo moves even further away philosophically from this stunning integration. She moves out to a bold subsummation of male gods, then moves even further out into visualizing a female totality composed of facets of a “many-in-one” female goddess that includes male facets, as well, such as Buddha, Christ, and Jehovah. She also now can love “the Heart of the Sky, the Heart of the Earth, the Lord of the Near and Far, the Spirit, the Light, the Universe.” Learning to love this “many in one” (128), she finally learns to love herself.

So it is that when Chayo comes to write her own little miracle to place beside all the others, she calls the saints “Mighty Guadalupana Coatlaxopeuh Tonatzin” (129) which bears no reference whatsoever to male gods and masculine discourse. Cisneros is here suggesting that from historically viable precedents women can create their own female deities to worship. Using the Virgin of Guadalupe in a nontraditional, transformational way is a common strategy to both contemporary Chicana writers and artists such as Yolanda López. The latter's well-known Serie Guadalupe seeks freedom from the imposition of male image-making of Chicanas and from the constraints imposed upon Chicana creative artists by the crippling power of a hostile system imposed upon their sensibilities (Dernersesian 1993, 42-43).7 This is reminiscent of the medieval Catholic Church's historic imposition of brutal censorship on artists to the point where they could not depict their wives or mistresses, but had to pretend that they were the Virgin with Child.

Rebolledo and Rivero say of Cisneros's work and the efforts of other Chicana writers in this regard that they have consciously used their culture's own “myths and archetypes” and shaped and recreated those that did not suit them. They feel that the “myths and archetypes” they then create are not carved in stone, but rather evolve from a constant movement and flow “of Chicana ideology, ideals, and desires” (1993, 24). In this way “Malinche is an archetype redeemed and changed through Chicana literary discourse” and “the Virgin of Guadalupe acquires tennis shoes, a sewing machine, a suitcase, and whatever other implements she needs to increase her activism” (1993, 24).

Cisneros and López, as well as many other Chicana writers and artists, emphasize the subversion of masculine discourse through the creation of a transformative discourse of a female-identified deity. A goddess or saint may be given female qualities physically by the culture, but the possession of such attributes does not necessarily mean that she functions for feminists as a female/female-identified icon. The goddess Athene in Homer's Odyssey is an example of a supposedly female goddess who is not female-identified. She confers directly with her favorite Odysseus and with his son Telemachus. She does this both in disguise and as an extraordinary dispensation to these males. She also spends all of her time busying herself on behalf of Odysseus.

Rarely does Athene appear to the female protagonist Penelope. Yet it is the latter who is most in need of consolation, of female community. Athene never consoles Penelope, nor works on her behalf, or even thinks of her at all, except that once she dries her tears—in order to make her look younger and prettier for the suitors! These young men hound Penelope nearly to death for three years without Athene giving emphasis to her plight. Instead she focuses her attention entirely on Telemachus and Odysseus.

What assistance Athene does give Penelope is given only to forward the goddess's agenda for Odysseus. And neither Athene nor Penelope herself takes into account, as if it did not exist, Penelope's sexual needs and frustration. She goes twenty years uncomplainingly without sex, the last three surrounded by 108 young men. As much as they are her enemies, as much as they badger her continually, as much as they eat her out of her husband's house and home, as much as they are arrogant and obnoxious, still Penelope would have felt some physical attraction and lust for the more decent of them, if nothing more.

Only the product of a patriarchal culture, only a male mind with a masculinist phallocentric perspective on gender, as well as a male's agenda, could have so Othered Penelope, so distanced himself and all he knew about his own sexual needs as to create a female and depict her devoid of such needs. Only a male could have created such a sexless deity as Athene, or indulged in imagining and forwarding the misogynistic myth that she was born from her father's brow. The myth about the Virgin Mary's impregnation by the Holy Spirit also resembles in reverse the myth of Athene's birth from Zeus's forehead.

Margarita Cota-Cárdenas worries about Penelope with good reason. In many cultures over many centuries she has been valorized as a female ideal for role modeling by those who run those cultures. The way this has been done is clearly to reinforce and perpetuate their position of complete gender control and power over women. What is most disturbing about Penelope is that she is created without any regard to female biological reality, to human biological reality in fact, but entirely in regard to enforced acculturated standards for ideal females—first and foremost, sexual and psychic fidelity to their men at all costs. There are still cultures extant where women never remarry, such as Chicano culture, where women are expected to become and remain faithful widows without recourse to male companionship. If they do remarry, if they do see men after widowhood, they are ostracized, as we have seen illustrated in Anzaldúa's “The Ghost Trap.”

In the poem “Gullible,” Cota-Cárdenas first exclaims over the contrast between husband and wife in terms of Penelope's patience at performing her lonely duties, as troped in the weaving of her “tapestries.” The poet grieves most, however, for “how lonely” Penelope is, when compared with her husband Odysseus. In fact, Cota-Cárdenas is so alienated from the patriarchy Odysseus represents that she refuses to name him. She calls him only “he” when she contrasts him to his long-suffering wife.

While “he's over there Circeing himself / taking his sweet time,” Cota-Cárdenas asserts that Penelope's work and conduct has been made, at least for gullible women, “a symbol now of patience.” Circe is the sorceress, the bruja, with whom Odysseus dallied for three years, until one of his men pointed out that no one could any longer believe that his relationship with Circe was enforced.

Cota-Cárdenas's solution to such a sadistic imposition on women is to stress that we would be fools if we believed that Penelope spent all that time pining away before her husband returned to her for one night and then left again. Penelope provides an excellent “example,” but only for men to impose on gullible females. Furious at the sadism that deprives Penelope of sexuality, she concludes sarcastically that Odysseus must have “satisfied” Penelope by means of “egotistical telepathy” (1993a, 266-267), or perhaps, she wonders, Penelope had another man all those years. But, then, The Odyssey would be a different work altogether if that were the case.

This decision to modify or transform patriarchal religion and myths is a common project with most Chicana writers and artists. Unfortunately it is tantamount to maintaining that Mary had a human lover when she became pregnant with Jesus, as Angela de Hoyos does in her “Fairy Tale.” She depicts the Virgin as an innocent, sensitive princess born into an age of cynicism and materialism. Not surprisingly, Mary dreams that a Prince Charming will sweep her off her feet and they will live happily ever after. After she has met him, however, she discovers that he is cheating on her. When she prays to God to do something, he remains aloof on “his throne” up in the heavens, without blinking “an eye.” Like Cota-Cárdenas, de Hoyos ends on a distinctly separatist note, describing the Virgin as no longer blind, no longer a believer either in gods or men (1993, 267-268).

One can imagine the response outside of feminist circles to such iconoclastic poems and other similar revisionary efforts. The power of patriarchal religion and myth is simply too strong to modify or break, reinforced by church and state alike over centuries and in most known cultures globally.

In “Protocolo de verduras/The Protocol of Vegetables,” Lucha Corpi reinforces de Hoyos's insight, as well as suggests an alternative to handling impossible constraints in the form of myths. She shows that a woman's daily life and work make all the myths ludicrous. Between her vegetable gardening and her housework, she has no time to feel forlorn or melancholy, or even lonely about her lover's absence. She has too many household chores to do. With great irony, she powerfully contrasts the ridiculous masculine pretensions/conventions, resonating with/ricocheting off, burlesquing, high-flown Shakespearean sonnets in the face of a woman's cramped reality. The woman can only create her poetry in the brief spaces of time between the spaces in the winds in the laundry tempest, or recollect her beloved in “wash water,” or while watering “thirsty houseplants,” or picking the “cabbage and pepper” (1993, 281).8

Anzaldúa believes in head-on confrontation, however, not subtle opposition, like Corpi. She envisions opposition and insurrection against “the rock,” that is, masculinist culture. Not only will her rage and rebelliousness crack the rock, but “hope” will, as well. Then “la Coatlicue” within her will emerge triumphant. She will take control over all aspects of her own life, the positive and the negative. She will take control over her own material essence, her own sexuality, her own psyche, define for herself what are her weak and strong points, as will her Chicana sisters. She does not want “the heterosexual white man's or the colonized man's or the state's or the culture's or the religion's or the parents” (1987, 51) to do this for her and her sisters.

Cisneros represents men as dangerous, violent, brutal, incorrigibly unfaithful, murderous, and in continual conflict with one another about one thing or another. Emiliano Zapata, in her cuento “Eyes of Zapata,” perhaps best epitomizes this model. According to Cisneros, the culture reflects only the way men are because only men run the culture. It is not surprising therefore that the Mexican hero Zapata is one of Cisneros's “heavies” (Dernersesian 1993, 51) because he represents those men who promoted exploitation of women in the household while enjoying sexual privileges and leadership positions outside the home.

Cisneros devotes her work to giving voice to characters in situations that would otherwise be best described as “the hidden, the concealed, the repressed”: victims of “domestic violence, aging, poverty, mental retardation,” who question “the power relations inherent in affairs of love” (Ordoñez 1995, 180). She also gives voice to women in all the “affairs” between men and women, not only in “the master narrative of love.” In most of her stories, Cisneros depicts a devastating contrast between the world as run by men and what her female protagonists envision as the way to live. Alarcón shrewdly perceives that this solution is dangerous for women. They live on expectations and fantasies about romantic love created by the patriarchy and “re-presented in all manner of popular literature,” as well as in other media. This myth is a maneuver on the part of the male-run culture to destroy women's “subjectivity” and prevent them from exploring and knowing the nature of “their own desire” (1989, 104).

Another modification we can make to the Penelopean and Marianismo clichés for women is to exaggerate through “metaperformance” reading. For example, we could interpret Penelope as only outwardly in conformity to her culture's mythology about the nature and condition of the ideal woman. Penelope might be seen as subverting this myth by forwarding her own agenda. Appearing to conform to its dictates by day, she nevertheless subverts it by night. It is then that she unravels the threads of the tapestries that comprise the masculine decree. She might be interpreted as unravelling the work her culture deems as appropriate for her in order to covertly pursue her personal preference as a woman: to wait for the man she has chosen and to ignore all others whom she perceives as nuisances. In gender trouble, it is possible to mock/battle through metaperformance—outfeminizing feminine models through outsized exaggeration rather than through direct confrontation.

Tragically, female models in myths such as Penelope and La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and Malinche for Chicano/as are always aggressively conceived by the patriarchy in masculine terms for masculine purposes: controlling the power in inequitable gendered power relations. Many alternatives have been suggested by Chicana writers, so far without success, because they are reactions based on an already firmly entrenched system of cultural models. Nevertheless, many Chicana writers and critics (Fernández, Cisneros, Corpi, Cota-Cárdenas, Anzaldúa, and others) continue their efforts to modify or transform, to challenge “paternal discourse” with a “reassessment of inherited knowledge” (Ordoñez 1995, 180).


  1. Nancy Saporta Sternbach in “‘A Deep Racial Memory of Love’: The Chicana Feminism of Cherríe Moraga,” gives a complete summary of the history of the diversity of responses to Malinche, which focuses primarily on the reassessment by Chicana writers. Some see her as a “metaphor for the silencing of the Indian voice and stress her victimization, as exemplified by Rosario Castellanos and Lucha Corpi. Stressing “vindication” of Malinche, on the other hand, Sternbach enumerates “a Chicana tradition of writers, critics, and historians such as Norma Alarcón, Cordelia Candelaria, Adelaida del Castillo, and Marcela Lucero-Trujillo. All “have written about how painful it is to be Malinche or her daughter … or to finally speak in her own voice” (1989, 53). Margarita Cota-Cárdenas illustrates this difficulty in “Malinche's Discourse.” She sarcastically mimics the voices and perspective of La Raza critics of feminism who argue that “the chicano/mexican/latin family has to maintain itself intact, that traditions are more important for the good, for the future … that all this stuff about women's liberation is just bourgeois women's junk, those women that have idle time to write and to draw and to … discombobulate themselves” (1993b, 205). Cherríe Moraga, Sternbach asserts, expected, the mother who is also socialized by the culture, does not always reciprocate” (1989, 53). Moraga directs “her analysis toward Malinche's mother, likening her to her own” (1989, 53). In this text, readers have seen that Moraga's stance toward a mother who has acted as what I have termed a “gatekeeper” or “collaborator” by perpetuating the culture's models for women onto her daughter is prevalent, if not universal, contrary to Sternbach's assertion. That the mother's position in Chicano culture is very complex is also noted in relation to “the legacy of Malinche … 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 (Moraga 1983b, 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)” (Sternbach 1989, 55). Irene Blea in La Chicana and the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender (1991) also gives a complete summary of both La Malinche and La Llorona (25-29, 36).

  2. La Llorona is also used as a scare tactic for children to keep them in line, to keep them inside the house after dark. Ofelia in Helena María Viramontes's short story “Tears on My Pillow” exemplifies this use: “You could hear her crying for reals, I swear. When you hear her crying far away that means she's real close so don't go out at night. She's as close as your bed, so don't sleep with your feet to the window cause even she can pull them out. She'll get you. I swear” (1992, 110-11).

  3. This is much like the situation in Margaret Atwood's dystopian The Handmaid's Tale.

  4. The federal government began to use the term “Hispanic” in the seventies as a blanket category to which many Chicanos and Chicanas object. Guillermo E. Hernández differs from other scholars in arguing that the term “has been used to include the post-1970s emerging urban middle-class professionals who, as had some of their Mexican American predecessors, sought total integration into diverse areas of the American cultural mainstream” (1991, 7). Elsewhere, however, he reinforces Barbara's observation about some Chicano grant applicants. He notes “the contradictions of internalizing the normative values of a dominant group that relegates [Chicanos] to a status of marginality—denying prestige to Chicanos who assert their cultural background while rewarding those who demonstrate social and cultural disloyalty” (1991, 38).

  5. Segura informs us that “the experiences of upwardly mobile Chicanas” are generally unpleasant. They experience “inner turmoil” because “their achievements contradict ethnic, gender and class traditions.” Sadly, “emotional support from their families” which she believes “is critical to the success” of such “high achieving Chicanas” (1995a, 123), is not usually forthcoming, nor, according to Cisneros, is it forthcoming from the men with whom the Chicanas are in relationship. Segura reports, on the other hand, that men do get this support from the public and their family. She also considers “the acquisition of a high degree of knowledge of the dominant culture” as well as family support, as equal in value to family support. Cisneros's female characters, such as Ms. Barbara Ybanez, seem to be living in isolation, unlike Cleófilas.

  6. Blea spells “Coyolxauhqui” what Cisneros spells as “Coyolzauhqui” and defines her as “goddess of the moon, who was sister of Huitzilopochitli, the god of war. Coyolzauhqui is known as ‘she of the face painted with rattles.’ This gives rise to her Nahuatl name. Coyolli signifies rattles in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica, or Aztecs” (1991, 24). She further identifies Coatlicue, goddess of the earth and of death, as depicted in a large sculpture in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. “She is represented as a decapitated woman from whose neck springs two serpent heads symbolizing streams of blood. She wears a necklace of hands and hearts. Her hands are shown as serpent heads and her feet as eagle claws. Women were represented in Aztec religion as spiritual and mythological figures on earth and in other worlds. The universe was divided into male and female counterparts, and all things were based on male-female elements” (1991, 25). Rebolledo and Rivero assert that Coatlicue was not acceptable to the Catholic Church, the emissary of European culture, because her characteristics were not what they wanted perpetuated. “She was independent, wrathful, competent, her power to create and destroy was autonomous, as was that of most of the Nahuatl deities; it was a power not emanating solely from a central male figure” (1993, 190). Sosa Riddell makes no bones about the role of the Catholic Church in relation to Mexico and women. It subjected natives to the conquistadors, and made women “subjects of the subjects and the subjugators.” It guards and perpetuates the conviction that women were inferior to men and needed constant watching. Mexican culture was not unique. Every other culture controlled by the Spaniards was controlled by the Catholic Church and its perspective on women and Indians. Spanish women were believed embodiments of the Virgin Mary in their qualities, whereas Mestizas and Indian women were “heathens, women in need of redemption, loose women, thus women who could be exploited without fear of punishment” (1995, 404).

  7. Sternbach alludes to a study of “cultural stereotypes” which has shown “that the figures most often used—Malinche, La Llorona and the Virgin of Guadalupe—have historically been models to control women. …” (1989, 57). Cherríe Moraga places the blame, not on the influence of historical “cultural stereotypes,” but rather on “the institution of obligatory heterosexuality” (1983b, 132). The places or sites for pointing to blame, however, are all located in the hegemony that controls the culture, which prescribes and mandates its systems of power relations—masculinist patriarchy. Blea states that those Chicanas “active in the Catholic church are quick to point out that Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) is a significant female deity with both Indian and Spanish-European characteristics.” Most interestingly, because not previously publicized, these Chicana Catholic activists “would like this holy image to be more fully incorporated into religious services outside the Chicano community” (1991, 112). Anzaldúa, for example, believes that “[t]he first step is to unlearn the puta/virgen dichotomy and to see Coatlapopeuh-Coatlicue in the Mother Guadalupe” (1987, 84).

  8. Emily Dickinson, unlike Queen Elizabeth I or Corpi, seems to have incorporated household imagery and items like brooms and teacups into her passionate poetic metaphors of undying love without rancor or resentment, such as Corpi's, or defensiveness about being a woman, like Elizabeth. Unlike Corpi's, these pathetic responses to the declassing of females out of the hierarchical systems of ranking and meaning in the culture are far more common.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Blea, Irene J. 1991. La Chicana and the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Cota-Cárdenas, Margarita. 1993b. “Malinche's Discourse.” In Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature, ed. Tey Diana Rebolledo and Eliana S. Rivero, 203-207. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Dernersesian, Angie Chabran. 1993. “And, Yes … The Earth Did Part: On the Splitting of Chicana/o Subjectivity.” In Building with Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies, ed. Adela de la Torre and Beatríz M. Pesquera, 34-71. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gámez, Rocky. 1983. “Doña Marciana García.” In Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, ed. Alma Gómez, Cherríe Moraga, and Mariana Romo-Carmona, 7-15. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press.

Hernández, Guillermo E. 1991. Chicano Satire: A Study in Literary Culture. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press.

Kim, Helen M. 1996. “Strategic Credulity: Oz as Mass Cultural Parable.” Cultural Critique 33: 213-233.

Lee, A. Robert. 1992. “Latin Sights.” American Book Review 14(3): 22.

Ordoñez, Elizabeth J. 1995. “Webs and Interrogations: Postmodernism, Gender, and Ethnicity in the Poetry of Cervantes and Cisneros.” In Chicana (W)Rites on Word and Film. Series in Chicana/Latina Studies, ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, 171-184. Berkeley CA: Third Woman Press.

Pérez, Emma. 1993. “Speaking from the Margin: Uninvited Discourse on Sexuality and Power.” In Building with Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies, ed. Adela de la Torre and Beatríz M. Pesquera, 57-71. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Perrone, Bobette, H. Henrietta Stockel, and Victoria Krueger. 1989. Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Piper, Karen. 1995. “The Signifying Corpse: Re-Reading Kristeva on Marguerite Duras.” Cultural Critique 31: 159-177.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1993. “‘Yo Soy La Malinche’: Chicana Writers and the Poetics of Ethnonationalism.” Callaloo 16(4): 859-873.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana, and Eliana S. Rivero, eds. 1993. Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Resnik, Judith. 1996. “Asking about Gender in Courts.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21(4): 952-990.

Rios, Katherine. 1995. “‘And you know what I have to say isn't always pleasant’: Translating the Unspoken Word in Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek.” In Chicana (W)Rites on Word and Film. Series in Chicana/Latina Studies, ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, 204-224. Berkeley: Third Woman Press.

Ruíz, Vicki L. 1993. “‘Star Struck’: Acculturation, Adolescence, and the Mexican American Woman, 1920-1950.” In Building with Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies, ed. Adela de la Torre and Beatríz M. Pesquera, 109-129. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Segura, Denise A. 1995a. “Labor Market Stratification: The Chicana Experience.” In Latinos in the United States: History, Law and Perspective. Vol. 2. Latina Issues: Fragments of Historia (Ella) (Herstory), ed. Antoinette Sedillo López, 111-145. New York: Garland Press. Orig. prtd. in Berkeley Journal of Sociology 29(1984): 57-91.

Sosa Riddell, Adaljiza. 1995. “Chicanas and El Movimiento.” In Latinos in the United States: History, Law and Perspective. Vol. 2. Latina Issues: Fragments of Historia (Ella) (Herstory), ed. Antoinette Sedillo López, 401-411. New York and London: Garland Press. Orig. prtd in Aztlan 5 (1974): 155-165.

Sternbach, Nancy Saporta. 1989. In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, 48-61. Amerst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Torres, Hector A. 1995. “Story, Telling, Voice: Narrative Authority in Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters.” In Chicana (W)Rites on Word and Film. Series in Chicana/Latina Studies, ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, 125-145. Berkeley: Third Woman Press.

Viramontes, Helena María. 1992. “Tears on My Pillow.” In New Chicana/Chicano Writing, ed. Charles M. Tatum, 110-115. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Silvio Sirias and Richard McGarry (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Sirias, Silvio, and Richard McGarry. “Rebellion and Tradition in Ana Castillo's So Far from God and Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora.MELUS 25, no. 2 (summer 2000): 83-100.

[In the following essay, Sirias and McGarry examine two novels—Ana Castillo's So Far from God and Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora—that offer contrasting views of the cultural situation of Chicanas.]

The Chicana “voice” in literature, according to Ramón Saldívar, comprises a discourse that creates “an instructive alternative to the exclusively phallocentric subject of contemporary Chicano narrative” (175). As Cordelia Chávez Candelaria reports, Chicana/Latina and other women writers have struggled for centuries to attain the right “to express and assert the validity of woman-space and the textured zone of women's experience” (26). Over the last two decades, the body of work that Chicana novelists have contributed to the totality of Chicano artistic discourse has managed to expand the formally predominant socio-political themes of the text so that it now includes the politics of gender. In the process, the Chicana novel has appropriated topics considered taboo in Latino culture: physical and sexual abuse, and heterosexual and lesbian sexuality (Arias and Gonzales-Berry 649). This new discourse is rebellious and can at times become very subversive. Its exploration of previously censored areas holds up an unforgiving mirror to the patriarchal practices of Chicano/Latino culture. Alvina Quintana asserts, while referring directly to Ana Castillo's writings, that the Chicana feminist is “interested in scrutinizing the assumptions that root her own cultural influences, unpacking so-called traditions and political institutions that shape patriarchal ways of seeing” (“The Novelist” 74).

Although most Chicana novelists address similar feminist preoccupations in their writings, they employ vastly different discursive strategies in their narratives. They may tell similar stories, but the form, vision, and tone with which they approach their objective reflect the heterogeneity that exists in the Chicana novel. Evidence of this difference arises when we compare Ana Castillo's So Far From God (1994) and Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora (1993). Both works tell of the losses and hardships in the lives of the female characters, and of how these women find the strength to survive. Nevertheless, the discourses that Castillo and López-Medina employ reside at opposite ends of the narrative spectrum. So Far From God is a novel that incites rebellion against the norms and values of Chicano patriarchal society while Cantora, although calling for changes, always does so within a framework that respects centuries' worth of traditions and cultural beliefs. This essay compares the importance that naming, gender relations, and religion play in the development of the female characters. It also examines how the novelistic discourse of Castillo and López-Medina either calls for rebellion or demonstrates a deep respect for tradition.

In Women Singing in the Snow, Tey Diana Rebolledo recognizes the importance that naming plays in the “struggle for interpretive power.” A central concept in marginalized American cultures, naming describes and therefore expresses the identity of the named. Under patriarchy, naming constitutes a tool of domination through its power to symbolically confine the named within the parameters of an imposed gender identity. Naming, however, can also function as a tool for empowering self-definition, a means by which to redefine women's identity and reject imposed descriptions of the self. Rebolledo states that “Chicanas are very much engaged in an articulation of accurate naming and the acceptance of all the cultural and social premises that lie behind the ‘names’” (103). Ana Castillo's So Far From God reflects the positive dynamics of naming. The novel has Sofía, the embodiment of “wisdom,” at its core, a mother who survives the death of her four daughters: Esperanza, Fe, Caridad, and La Loca. The names of the first three daughters denote the three major Christian ideals. However, in the cruelest of ironies, the destiny of each of these characters is the antithesis of the ideal the name represents.

Esperanza, the most liberated of the sisters, devotes the energy of her college years to the Chicano Movement. She lives her life as a glowing example of La Raza Politics, working to better the lives of her people. But her death as a television reporter covering the Gulf Crisis is utterly meaningless. The reader is left without any hope or, better yet, “Esperanza,” of finding redemption in this character's demise.

Fe, the sister who most subscribes to the traditions of her culture, desires nothing more than to participate fully in society's patriarchal mandate for women to marry and serve their husbands.1 When her first fiancé, Tom, bails out of their engagement, she surrenders to her first crisis of faith and of identity. Her reaction to her disillusionment humorously becomes known to the members of her family as the era of “El Big Grito,” which consisted of “one loud continuous scream that would have woken the dead” (30). For months after she is jilted, Fe is unable to produce any discourse other than the scream. As a result of the straining of her vocal cords during her crisis, Fe is left with a speech impediment whereby she cannot vocalize every word in a sentence.2 Although “El Big Grito” disqualifies Fe from realizing her potential (for instance, she is refused a promotion at work), she does find a man who will fulfill her dream of marrying: her cousin Casimiro. He is completely devoted to her, and together they plan a blissful future. In order to secure this, however, Fe leaves her safe position at the bank for a higher paying job at an arms manufacturing company. She tackles her work with her usual diligence and earns a promotion. Thus, her faith in the American Way of Life is rewarded. This “promotion,” however, proves fatal as the company exposes her to a hazardous chemical that causes her death from cancer. In the end, the faith that Fe places in the basic tenets of society and its culture completely fails her. Thus, faith also becomes meaningless.

Caridad, after being abandoned by her husband, became known for “loving anyone she met at the bars who vaguely resembled Memo” (27). Because of her promiscuous life, she is brutally raped and disfigured by a mysterious and misogynist spirit identity known as the “malogra.” In this manner, Caridad's charity towards men is severely punished.3 However, she heals miraculously and from that moment on, she no longer has an interest in men. Caridad becomes an apprentice curandera, and during a religious pilgrimage with her mentor, she spots a woman with whom she instantly falls in love. Caridad never reconciles herself with her homosexual feelings until she suddenly and dramatically leaps off of a cliff while holding hands with Esmeralda, the object of her affection, as they are being pursued by Francisco el Penitente, Caridad's obsessed stalker.4 Those who witness the jump search for the bodies, but they are never found. What the witnesses do hear, however, is:

the spirit deity Tsichtinako calling loudly with a voice like wind, guiding the two women back, not out toward the sun's rays or up to the clouds but down, deep within the soft moist dark earth where Esmeralda and Caridad would be safe and live forever.


An ancient Pre-Colombian god emerges at the appropriate moment and wholly embraces the lovers, taking them into mother earth's womb where they can become one and live in peace.5 There they will dwell far from society's condemnation of their relationship, and be free to plant the seeds of their affection.6 In spite of her life-affirming end, Caridad constitutes a pharmakos for the community of Tome. Her lesbianism is unacceptable, and she is sacrificed in order to purify patriarchal society.

La Loca is without question the most intriguing of the sisters. Dead at age three, she resurrects and is immediately believed to possess miraculous powers. The residents of Tome accept the young girl's return from the dead as being of a divine nature and they dub her “La Loca Santa.” Following her return, however, she shuns human contact and only lets her mother touch her. She also rarely speaks, but her resurrection has spoken volumes for her. La Loca is the embodiment of a miracle; she cannot be preoccupied with the mundane task of finding a job, like her sisters. She remains at home, content in her solitude. Her household chores are to tend her animals, keep the house clean, and cook. She does, though, assist in the healing of Fe and Caridad, and she performs abortions for the latter because La Loca instinctively “knew all about a woman's pregnancy cycle” (164). Toward the novel's end, she becomes ill and is diagnosed with the HIV virus, even though she had never participated in any activity commonly associated with its acquisition. La Loca's virtually unexplainable illness becomes one of the novel's most subversive moments in terms of its discourse. It represents a remarkable case of aporia. The gap between the linguistic and the philosophical coherence of the event causes the text to resist interpretation. Such subversion serves not only to reverse interpretation, but also to open the text to a myriad of possibilities, thus making the text undecidable while at the same time challenging the patriarchal quest for systematization.

Ultimately, La Loca's destiny, like those of her sisters, is to die at an early age. On a surreal death pilgrimage to an Albuquerque hospital, the people canonize her and eventually declare her the patron saint of kitchens, new brides, and progressive grooms. La Loca's life, then, is characterized by her first death, resurrection, contraction of AIDS without human contact, and her canonization. After the deaths of hope, faith, and charity, the three theological ideals of the Church, and the death of what can arguably be construed as the female personification of Jesus Christ in the personage of La Loca, all that remains is Sofia's wisdom.

In this tale of the lives and deaths of Sofia's daughters, Castillo destroys several powerful archetypes of patriarchal society in order to build the world anew. A timid character at the novel's onset, Sofia begins to awaken as a character when she declares to her comadre that she will run for “La Mayor of Tome.” Her discourse from this point on becomes assertive. She organizes several collectives and the women of Tome benefit as a result. Sofía begins to devote herself to the good of the collective. Through her efforts her fellow citizens gain a class consciousness and become acutely aware of the political and material conditions of their existences. She also awakens the women of Tome, and although she suffers the loss of her four daughters, in the end she gains wisdom. When a set of tarot cards is created to commemorate “La Loca Santa,” Sofia is “simultaneously represented by the Empress card and by the Queen of Swords, a quick-witted, dance-loving strong woman who was nevertheless powerless to the sorrow she suffered” (250). With her hard-earned wisdom and her newly-discovered talents for social activism, Sofia founds M.O.M.A.S. (“Mothers of Martyrs and Saints”). This organization, by its very nature, excludes men, and its yearly convention becomes more popular than the World Series and the Olympics. By establishing this organization, Sofia has created a social movement that outshines any male-dominated one. With the painful lessons learned throughout her life, she empowers women like herself who have long suffered, and with their help she sets out to redefine society. Her actions represent a call for women to rebel against patriarchal practices, and that call resides at the heart of the novel's practice in naming.7

The relationship between the names of the predominant female characters and their actions is also important in Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora. The story gravitates around Amparo, the book's narrator, who tells us of her quest to reconstruct her family's history. With regard to this character, Rebolledo writes:

López-Medina's narrative hero reconstructs a history of her family as well as an identity for herself. Her name, appropriately, is Amparo, from the Spanish Amparar, meaning to help, to assist, to shelter. It is through her “translation” of the not-said, of the silence in the stories told to her by her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother that she comes to understand the family secrets—to identify and name them—thus liberating herself as well as the women who have preceded her in the family clan.


This pattern of women struggling to liberate themselves, to determine their own futures, repeats itself throughout the novel. Rosario, Amparo's great-grandmother, claims her life for herself. In fact, the familiar usage of the name Rosario means “backbone.” Her “backbone” enables her to flee from her father's control. Rosario eventually faces the hardships of a young widow with six children with strength and resolve. It is thanks to her fortitude and bravery that they endure.

The narrative then turns its focus upon Pilar, the “pillar” of the story. Left at an early age in a convent, she grows up in a silent and peaceful environment, completely isolated from the society that exists beyond the walls of the religious institution. Later in the narrative, with Pilar unable to fend for herself, her family enters into a contract with a wealthy store-owner that provides the young girl with enough financial support for the remainder of her life. This includes the purchase of a house that he places in her name. All of this is given in return for allowing Pilar to become his mistress, though eventually they will fall genuinely in love. Several years later, after Gabriel's death, Pilar's inherited wealth allows her to help her family move to Santa Barbara, California. As a young woman with economic means, Pilar flexes her muscles before the traditions of patriarchal society and becomes the decision-maker in her family. Perhaps most importantly, she constitutes the bridge that allows the family's tale to span across four generations.

Amparo, the novel's narrator, grows up in admiration of her “Aunt” Pilar's storytelling abilities:

There was always a hush when Pilar related the family's history. As a child, I sat quietly while she told me of her memories of the tiny Mexican village where she was born. There are Yaqui Indians in her memories, swooping down into the village, taking food and every young girl they could find. There are villages burned and families moving on to other places to rebuild their lives. There is the love story, the magical love story of my aunt; and there are the brutal deaths of her father and older brother. There is the exodus to western Mexico, a trek by my twenty-three-year-old Grandmother Rosario and her six remaining small children through a mountain range. There is the survival. This is the story of that survival, my Grandmother Rosario's and my Aunt Pilar's.


As we can see, Amparo's narrative acknowledges that Pilar's tales are the foundation of her work.8 Motivated by certain gaps, or more appropriately, deliberate silences in her Aunt Pilar's stories, and by ongoing events in her own life, Amparo begins to investigate in earnest her maternal family's history. She discovers that her life parallels many of the tales that she uncovers about her family. Like the women in her family who preceded her, Amparo finds the strength to cope with life's difficulties after the death of her mate, and she states that she will raise her daughter with the same values and traditions as the women before her.9 Through the strength and caring reflected in their names, the characters protect their legacy throughout the generations. As the narrative voice explicitly states. Cantora is a simple tale of survival. Its discourse is not overtly rebellious or subversive. In contrast to So Far From God, the meaning of the story rests upon the surface, at the grasp of every reader.

In both novels, the female characters and their stories need to be examined in opposition to their male counterparts. The men represent patriarchy's systematic domination of women as achieved and maintained through male control of cultural, social, and economic institutions. In So Far From God, Castillo creates a cast of male characters who are, in essence, emasculated. Sofia's husband, Domingo, an addicted gambler, cannot earn a living or fix a thing. His sole purpose in the household is to watch television and decipher Caridad's cryptic episodes of clairvoyance so he can place winning bets. Eventually, he begins gambling away Sofia's property, and when she discovers her own assertive voice, she serves him with divorce papers, and Domingo meekly disappears from the narrative.

Her daughter, Esperanza, had one love in her life: her college sweetheart Rubén. He holds a formidable spell over Esperanza and controls her until she wises up and leaves him to pursue her career. In the end, after Esperanza's death, Rubén becomes a pathetic figure who, sad and alone, remembers how the days with most meaning in his life were those of his youth spent observing and admiring Esperanza's militancy in the cause of La Raza:

Back in college, if it wasn't for la Esperanza who led the protest, they never would have had one Chicano Studies class offered on the curriculum. If it wasn't for la Esperanza, who would have known about the struggle of the United Farm Workers on campus? Who would have ever told him about anything at all?


Without Esperanza to open his eyes, Rubén would have seen very little. Now, without her, he will see nothing and therefore signify even less.10

Fe has two men in her life. The first one, Tom, breaks his engagement with Fe, prompting the era of “El Big Grito.” When Sofia visits Tom's house in search of an explanation for the breakup, his mother informs her that Tom has become a victim of susto, or, simply put, cold feet. In response, Sofia angrily questions Tom's manhood: “¿Susto? ¿Susto? … You think that cowardly son of yours without pelos on his maracas has susto” (30). Tom's destiny following his relationship with Fe is to lead a desperate, lonely life, where he remains forever locked into repairing Big Slurpy machines as the manager of a convenience store. Fe's second love is her cousin, Casimiro, a man totally and hopelessly devoted to her. Although college-educated, or perhaps because he is college-educated, Casimiro is as meek as men come. A soft-spoken man, his gentle discourse includes bleating like a sheep, a trait inherited over seven generations of sheepherding. As Fe becomes increasingly ill, Casimiro is too timid to urge her to seek medical attention, and he waits until Sofia intervenes. By then it is too late.

By far the most intriguing male character in So Far From God is Francisco el Penitente. A Vietnam veteran who after the war loses himself in drugs and failed relationships, Francisco finds his calling as a santero, a maker of bultos (figures of saints carved from wood), whose creations are guided by divine inspiration. It does not take long before Francisco el Penitente becomes a religious fanatic. He deprives himself of all worldly pleasures and lives his entire life in penance. He meets Caridad after she has taken on the identity of “La Armitaña,” the hermit who lived for a year in seclusion in a cave, and he falls hopelessly and platonically in love with her.11 He dubs Caridad “The Handmaiden of Christ” and projects qualities of sainthood upon her. He imagines her pure and virginal, a strong confirmation of one of Castillo's beliefs that society forces Chicanas to deny their sexuality: “Most of our female saints, maintained as our models,” notes Castillo, “established their beatitude as a result of the repudiation of sex” (“La Macha” 33).

Francisco el Penitente, however, is diametrically opposed to his gentle namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Obsessed with Caridad, Francisco el Penitente begins stalking her, and while spying on her he discovers her secret passion for Esmeralda. At first, Francisco's distant relationship indicates a simple case of scopophilia. His voyeurism appears to be an intermediary stage along the path to some sort of sexual/religious fulfillment. However, Caridad's lesbianism violates the patriarchal codes to which he strongly subscribes, and he perversely snaps. Castillo implies that his fanatical pursuit and condemnation of their homosexuality force the women to leap from the cliff. Like Judas Iscariot, Francisco el Penitente is incapable of forgiving himself for the extreme act to which he drove Caridad and he hangs himself from a tree. As we can observe, the male characters in So Far From God are either powerless beings, completely lacking in fortitude, or zealots, as in the case of Francisco el Penitente, who will go to any length to protect male dominance in our society.12

The males in Cantora, on the other hand, loom powerful over the female characters. They intimidate and dominate the women, thus behaving fully within the accepted parameters of Chicano/Latino society and culture. In family decisions, the men's desires always supercede those of the women. In spite of this, genuinely caring relationships develop between men and women. Both sets of characters subscribe to the codes of patriarchy. Because of those shared values, deep emotional connections between the genders are allowed to be made. Alejandro, Rosario's husband, tells her after she flees from her father: “It is all right, Rosario. It will be all right. I am going to take care of you now” (37). This leitmotif recurs throughout the successive generations of women.

Following Alejandro's death, Rosario takes responsibility for her family, but she later abdicates this when her eldest son, Victorio, becomes old enough to make the decisions. It is Victorio who negotiates the contract with Don Gabriel so that the wealthy merchant can “take care of Pilar, as if she were (his) wife” (137). It is also Victorio who takes away Pilar and Gabriel's child and invents an elaborate story so that the child may be raised in legitimacy. Victorio is dispassionate and controlling as the substitute father figure. Rosario, adhering to tradition, relinquishes all control of the family to her son. Even as a weakened old man, when Amparo confronts him in search of the truth, Victorio constitutes a terrifying entity: “He looked at Amparo sternly, and she was just as frightened of him then as she was when she was a child. Sitting in his chair, he was still an imposing man, dominating, controlling everyone in his line of vision” (262). His power as head of the family extends far into the clan's horizon. In the end, Amparo liberates him from his fabrication at the same time that she assures him that he did “the right thing” (269). Although his choices afflicted everyone in the family, Amparo forgives him in the name of tradition and honor.

Genuine love and concern for one another characterize Gabriel and Pilar's union. The wealthiest person in Hermosillo, Gabriel literally buys Pilar. Yet he gently wins her affection, his patience being rewarded on the day that he brings her a simple gift of flowers that they plant together in the courtyard. He provides generously for Pilar's well-being. His death, although devastating to Pilar, allows her to move along and discover her strong, independent self.

Peter, the man in Amparo's life, is, like the other men in Cantora, a dominating figure. Also a wealthy individual, he provides for his mate. Upon Peter's death, Amparo realizes what his loss means to her because “He always took care of everything” (246). Her abbreviated union with John, Peter's friend, permits her to look at her life from a new perspective, and she realizes that she does not need a man in order to grow and be happy. She, like the other women in her family, finds within herself the strength to continue her life independently.

The man who establishes himself as the most dominant male figure in Cantora is Amparo's great-grandfather, Don Ramón. A Spanish aristocrat, he adheres fully to Old World traditions of male dominance. He “loved and ruled over Pilar (his wife) for the twenty-one turbulent years that ended in her death at the age of thirty-eight” (60). He arranges a marriage for his daughter and forbids his wife to voice her opinion on the matter. The narrative describes him as being “proud, stern, and forceful” (33) as well as cold and aloof. With his sense of honor violated when Rosario refuses his marriage arrangement and instead runs away from home with a commoner, he cannot find forgiveness in his heart for this transgression. He sends his daughter and grandchildren on a trek across the Sierra Madre that nearly costs them their lives. In what the reader may consider a case of divine retribution, Don Ramón dies alone and senile, hallucinating in a world full of distant ghosts. In spite of their overwhelming dominance, the male figures in Cantora are, with the exception of Don Ramón, caring individuals who operate respectably, and forcefully when necessary, within the narrow confines of their social paradigms. They are extremely protective of their mates, and it is upon their premature deaths that the women embark on journeys that lead them to the discovery of their inner strength and independence.

Both novels also explore the most formidable force in the Hispanic patriarchal universe: the Catholic Church. Indeed, the discourse in So Far From God constitutes a direct confrontation with Catholicism. In an interview with Marta A. Navarro, Castillo states: “One of the guiding principles in our life is Catholicism. And as much as we try not to subscribe to it, it's completely permeated into our psyche” (119). Indeed, Catholicism and its principles loom significantly and oppressively in Castillo's work. From the novel's title to the basic tenets that Castillo deconstructs through her archetypal female characters, the church is the focus of an aggressive attack. Father Jerome, the priest of Tome, questions whether La Loca's resurrection is of divine or Satanic origins. Sofia responds to his query by “calling the holy priest a pendejo [“pubic hair”] and hitting him” (24). To counterbalance Francisco el Penitente's fanatical devotion to Catholicism and its patriarchal structure, Sofia creates M.O.M.A.S. (Mothers of Martyrs and Saints). This purely matriarchal response will determine for itself the religious beliefs of the women who join the organization. Castillo's authorial stance makes it evident that the Church's strong patriarchal posture and its binary philosophical system alienates Hispanic American women. Castillo's characters seek inclusion, freedom of action, and freedom of thought within the Catholic Church. Yet, what they find in So Far From God is the condemnation of their humanity rather than its exaltation.

Cantora also portrays Catholicism as unresponsive to the needs of women. The priests in López-Medina's novel are just as ineffectual as they are in Castillo's work. A village priest is too cowardly to protect the women and children from the Yaqui raids. He later informs them that during the next raid no one is to seek refuge in the church, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Another church serves as a refuge for Rosario and her family after they cross the treacherous Sierra Madre. However, this protection is ephemeral. When Rosario seeks the church's help in caring for her children while she establishes herself in Hermosillo, the convent director reluctantly agrees to take care of only one child, obliging Rosario to leave Pilar there alone. But the church fails to protect her as Pilar is raped while in the convent's care. By the time the family arrives in the United States, Catholicism no longer plays an important part in their lives. Amparo recalls her great-grandmother Rosario performing her own worship services, made up of ancient Mayan religious practices with Christian undertones, which the young girl finds much more genuine and meaningful than the empty rituals of the Masses performed at the Catholic school that the attends. As with the female characters of So Far From God, the female characters of Cantora find that the church has little relevance in their lives. Although they do not venture so far as to show disrespect, they withdraw from this oppressive institution that seeks to negate their independence.

As we have observed up to this point, So Far From God revolves around the theme of rebellion. The novel even rebels against the normative use of language for narrative.13 Traditionalists would accuse Castillo of abusing or ignoring the proper use of English grammar.14 Castillo's sentences repeatedly employ double negatives, and in at least two cases a triple negative [“The truth of it was that she was just truly a santita from ever since her fatal experience at the age of three and she didn't have to prove nothing to no one” (248); “Nobody and nothing able to know what was going on around them no more” (189)]. Castillo, however, does code-switch with great imagination and agility. The language that Castillo employs clearly coincides with her artistic goal: to write a novel that narrates the story of women who rebel against the norms imposed on them by patriarchal society.

In contrast, the discourse employed in Cantora reveals the profound respect that López-Medina has for the traditional narrative. Her language usage is evocative. She strives to place the reader in the midst of a world governed by traditions that must be respected and held dearly, and she succeeds. However, her language, at times, can be excessively formal and, unfortunately, contrived. The author seldom uses contractions, even in the most informal situations of dialogue. Code-switching is non-existent, and she translates terms of endearment from Spanish into English (“My little sky,” “My heart,” “My little one”). Yet again, this matches perfectly with the novel's macro-discursive strategy of narrating a tale of survival in the midst of the restrictions placed on women by outmoded traditions while in the same instance realizing the need to approach these with respect. López-Medina recognizes that customs, values, beliefs, styles, and other forms of culture are passed down from one generation to the next, as well as the feeling, both encouraged and resented, that this inheritance should be respected for the important influence that is exerts on the present.

In contrast, So Far From God constitutes a modern-day allegory that attacks tradition. It is a narrative that has multiple meanings, several of which are partially concealed by the visible or literal meaning. Castillo incorporates abstractions into her novel that are present in society and religion and presents them in the form of the leading female characters. Therefore, Sofía and her daughters represent archetypes. They are models of certain important continuities of Hispanic American life throughout time. The difference lies in that now women have the choice of whether to pass on the traditions or break the hold that these have over them. The narrative of So Far From God represents what Quintana labels the “literature of new vision.” This literature holds “the possibility for real social change and transformation” (Home Girls 89). This is why the reader is not deeply moved by the deaths of Sofia's daughters. The reader remains aware, whether consciously or unconsciously, that Castillo is destroying abstractions and not people. Furthermore, this story extends well beyond its conclusion. Its dianoia, or general meaning, is archetypal. In the end, what matters most upon reading the last page of the book is Sofia's potential to transform society.15

Cantora, on the other hand, employs a discourse that is soothing, gently embracing the emotions of the reader. Perhaps it is the narrator of the story who describes it best as she invites us during the novel's prologue to become immersed in her tale:

My name is Amparo. Join me here with my aunt. Sit here beside us. Cover yourself with this quilt. My grandmother Rosario made it. Warm yourself with it. The mystery of our lives is to be found in its varicolored threads. I will share the tears and the triumphs of these lives. I will show you how to survive anything. We will show you how to survive everything.


What the reader encounters here is a promise of warmth and comfort in this tale. There is also the explicit promise of learning skills vital for us all: the skill to survive and the skill to protect and shelter our own stories. Cantora reads like a wonderful lesson, with all the traditions and culture that the art of quilt-making involves. The novel stands for what Quintana terms the “literature of apology.” This literature “is liberal in the sense that it develops the argument that traditions and cultural values kept women from developing to their full potential” (Home Girls 39).

So Far From God is rebellious; Cantora seeks comfort in tradition. Still, they tell the same story of women who discover their inner-strength and independence as they confront enormous sorrows. In addition, each text directly challenges what Saldívar refers to as “the ideologies of patriarchal oppression” (173). Both writers admirably represent their communities at the same time that they illustrate the vast heterogeneity that exists in Chicana literary discourse. As Rebolledo states:

Chicana writers have struggled to become the subjects of their own discourse, … they have created not only a discourse of resistance to the dominant culture in multiple subversive ways, but also a dialogue of affirmation that sees the positive sides of self, family, culture and community.


The success that Ana Castillo's and Sylvia López-Medina's novels have found with major publishing companies is an indication that Chicana discourse is becoming respected and valued by the dominant reading community that has long neglected the Chicana/Latina artistic voice. Both authors fulfill the demand that Trujillo makes of all Chicanas: “Chicanas, both lesbian and heterosexual, have a dual purpose ahead of us. We must fight for our own voices as women, since this will ultimately serve to uplift us as a people” (124).16


  1. Trujillo best describes the possible consequences for women who, like Fe, rely on a male to establish their identity: “Women who participate in the privileges of a male sexual alliance may often do so at the cost of their own sense of self, since they must often subvert their needs, voice, intellect, and personal development in these alliances” (119).

  2. In the text, morphemes, function words, and a few content words are omitted leaving the reader, the interpreter of the discourse, with the responsibility of filling in the empty spaces.

  3. Gonzales-Berry finds suffering similar to that of Caridad to be a common component of feminist literary discourse: “Trials leading to sexual maturity are important components of the bildungsroman. In the female version, however, coming to terms with sexuality is often more difficult and painful than it is for the male protagonists” (42).

  4. Caridad's secrecy about her homosexuality reflects Castillo's belief that: “Because of the strict social attitudes towards open sexual expression, most lesbians of our culture have not politicized their desires nor declared them openly as a way of life” (Interview by Navarro 37).

  5. The event that Castillo narrates falls well within the parameters of magical realism, which Walter considers an integral part of the Chicano novel: “the Chicano magical realism is a fusion of two conflicting views of reality, the rational mode which is centered upon reasoning … and the magical mode which is centered on the unconscious, dreams and imaginations—a mode grounded on the Chicano's Hispanic and Indian Heritage” (136).

  6. Chicano/Latino society remains unaccepting of homosexuality. The women's life-affirming plunge reflects Castillo's hope that society can one day accept the validity of homosexual feelings: “if we cannot claim anything for ourselves, let us begin at least the gradual process of integration of the mind, soul and body, however we can, and make our principal struggle one toward which we ultimately experience the beauty of our whole selves—an organic, unified entity rejoicing in our connection with all living things on earth” (Interview by Navarro 47).

  7. Castillo, in an interview conducted by Saeta, explains her authorial intent in the following quote: “In the early Christian medieval mythology, they've taken Sofia, who is a Greek goddess, and her daughters and turned them into martyrs. At the very ending of that story of the martyrs, Sofia is on the grave crying for her three martyred daughters. So that's how I originally ended my story. But my agent, who was reading the manuscript commented that ‘Well, this is very depressing. You know, you promised Norton a happy ending.’ So I thought, ‘what would she [Sofia] do to change that, particularly as a religious figure. What would she do?’ She takes over, she doesn't submit to that point in history when patriarchy took over her authority” (8).

  8. Eysturoy reminds us that there is an inherent danger in Amparo's acceptance of Pilar as a role model: “In a patriarchal context …, the relationship between mother and daughter is charged with ambiguities, because accepting the mother as a role model may signify accepting oppressive, socially prescribed norms of womanhood” (116).

  9. Amparo's societal stance falls into the following category of feminism defined by Pesquera and Segura: “Chicana Cultural Nationalism articulates a feminist vision anchored in the ideology of la familia. While advocating feminism this perspective retains allegiance to cultural nationalism which glorifies Chicano culture. Chicana Cultural Nationalism overlooks the possibility that these cultural traditions often uphold patriarchy. This speaks to the difficulty of reconciling a critique of gender relations within the Chicano community while calling for the preservation of Chicano culture” (107-108).

  10. The dynamic among Esperanza, Rubén, and the La Raza Movement, reveals Castillo's personal frustration when she was a socially committed young woman: “As a political activist from El Movimiento Chicano/Latino, I had come away from it with a great sense of despair as a woman. Inherent to my despair, I felt, was a physiology that was demeaned, misunderstood, objectified, and excluded by the politic of those men with whom I had aligned myself on the basis of our mutual subjugation as Latinos in the United States” (Interview by Navarro, 124).

  11. Caridad withdrew from society because of her guilt about homosexuality. Caridad's withdrawal embodies the premise that Trujillo espouses: “A Chicana lesbian must learn to love herself, both as a woman and a sexual being, before she can love another (118).

  12. The acts of Francisco el Penitente typify the fears that Chicano society at large have toward lesbians. This is evident in the following statement by Trujillo: “The vast majority of Chicano heterosexuals perceive Chicana lesbians as a threat to the community. Homophobia, that is, irrational fear of gay or lesbian people and behaviors, accounts for part of the heterosexist response to the lesbian community. However, I argue that Chicana lesbians are perceived as a greater threat to the Chicano community because their existence disrupts the established order of male dominance, and raises the consciousness of many Chicano women regarding their own independence and control” (117).

  13. In reference precisely to Castillo's subversive discourse, Yarbro-Bejarano states: “Writing the Chicana ‘I’ questions the authority of dominant discourses, and resists the appropriation of the knowing subject either male or female that ‘forgets’ race and class oppression. Chicana writers', like Castillo's, struggle to claim the ‘I’ of literary discourse is inseparable from their struggle for empowerment in the economic, social, and political spheres” (72).

  14. The following quote from Saeta's interview reveals Castillo's attitude towards traditionalists who teach both English and Spanish: “I decided that I would never ever take a class with anybody or any university … because I was so afraid that I would be discouraged and told that I had no right to be writing poetry, that I didn't write English well enough, that I didn't write Spanish well enough. Now, I don't have the fear as much because I suppose I've learned—after 20 years on my own—to have an eye for what I want to do in my work” (6).

  15. Although Castillo, not known for her happy endings, had yet to write So Far From God, she foresaw at the time of Navarro's interview the possibility of providing a hopeful ending in her future works: “I have been asked why I don't portray some of my figures in a happy state, and obviously, I don't see us living in a happy state. We're bombarded by so much. But now that we've survived, there's a possibility to introduce that, even if only in terms of a vision” (114).

  16. The authors would like to acknowledge their indebtedness to their colleague, Professor Judith Rothschild, for her valuable comments with regard to the content and form of this essay.

Works Cited

Arias, Santa, and Erlinda Gonzales-Berry. “Latino Writing in the United States.” Handbook of Latin American Literature. Ed. David William Foster. 2nd ed. New York: Garland, 1987.

Castillo, Ana. Interview with Ana Castillo by Marta A. Navarro. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Ed. Carla Trujillo. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1991. 113-32.

———. Interview with Ana Castillo by Elsa Saeta. Baneke: A Latino Arts and Literature Review 2 (1995): 6-11.

———. “La Macha: Toward a Beautiful Whole Self.” Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Ed. Carla Trujillo. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1991. 24-48.

———. So Far From God. New York: Plume, 1994.

Chávez Candelaria, Cordelia. “The ‘Wild Zone’ Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993. 21-31.

Eysturoy, Annie O. Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “Unveiling Athena: Women in the Chicano Novel.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993. 33-44.

López-Medina, Sylvia. Cantora. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

Pesquera, Beatriz M., and Denise A. Segura. “There Is No Going Back: Chicanas and Feminism.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993. 95-115.

Quintana, Alvina E. “Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters: The Novelist as Ethnographer.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke U P, 1991. 72-83.

———. Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1996.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana. Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analysis of Chicana Literature. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1995.

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Dialetics of Subjectivity: Gender and Difference in Isabella Ríos, Sandra Cisneros, and Cherríe Moraga.” Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Ed. Ramón Saldívar. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990. 171-99.

Trujillo, Carla. “Chicana Lesbians: Fear and Loathing in the Chicano Community.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993. 117-25.

Walter, Roland. Magical Realism in Contemporary Chicano Fiction. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuet Verlag, 1993.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo.” The Americas Review 20.1 (1992): 65-72.

Ralph E. Rodriguez (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Rodriguez, Ralph E. “Cultural Memory and Chicanidad: Detecting History, Past and Present, in Lucha Corpi's Gloria Damasco Series.” Contemporary Literature 43, no. 1 (spring 2002): 138-69.

[In the following essay, Rodriguez analyzes Lucha Corpi's three Gloria Damasco detective novels, focusing on what they reveal about the formation of Chicano/a identity and the transmission of Chicano/a history.]

Prior to the 1990s, the detective novel had been a little-explored literary form among Chicana/o writers. Over the last decade, however, they have taken to the genre with great energy, and a long tradition of American detective novels now counts some twenty-odd Chicana/o volumes as part of its corpus. Chicana/o writers have tapped into the genre's capacity for investigating history and identity to better understand the shifting Chicana/o subject of the late twentieth century.1 Grasping the variety of ways in which this Chicana/o subject finds itself as always in formation is a pressing matter, because for the last two decades it has been drifting away from its supposed monolithic incarnation of the nationalist 1960s and 1970s. Chicana/o subjectivity cannot be taken for granted and assumed to conform to past articulations that lack an explanatory power in the present. For postnationalist Chicanas and Chicanos of the late twentieth century, understanding identity as always in formation means interrogating the precepts and tenets that have traditionally organized it. The Chicana/o detective novel, a heretofore little examined genre, emblematizes how this questioning of past identity constructions and the formulation of new ones moves through the spaces of history, memory, and culture, sites integral to the formation of Chicana/o identities.

While one might choose from any of the half dozen or so Chicana/o detective novelists to initiate this discussion, I begin with Lucha Corpi because she investigates the various historical shifts and constructions of Chicanidad since the Chicana/o movement (roughly 1965-75) more systematically than her Chicano counterparts writing in the detective genre. Her Gloria Damasco series—Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992), Cactus Blood (1995), and Black Widow's Wardrobe (1999)—seeks to better understand how history and memory shape identity and to gauge their corresponding impact on political movements. With each novel, Corpi, a feminist writer steeped in the Chicana/o activism of the 1960s and 1970s, struggles more and more with the often monolithic construction of Chicana/o cultural identity associated with the Chicana/o movement. She moves toward a more fluid and complex understanding of identity better suited to address the political, cultural, and social exigencies of the contemporary moment. In the Damasco series, Corpi, a one-time student of the Movement, arrives at what Norma Alarcón has identified as “the realization that there is no fixed identity” (“Chicana Feminism” 250). In recognizing this fluidity, Corpi, I argue, grows increasingly ambivalent about Chicana/o cultural identity, because as she tries to construct a historically causal chain to understand this identity formation, she finds herself bumping up against the discontinuities of the past and present, as well as her own nostalgia for the Movement. Ultimately, however, she finds a space from which to articulate and better understand the provisionality and strategic dimensions of cultural identity.

The hard-boiled tradition in which Corpi writes maintains two competing impulses that complement her inquiry into the construction of Chicana/o identity. On the one hand, hard-boiled narratives emplot a cold, causal linearity so as to build a chain of evidence to solve the crime(s). On the other hand, the hard-boiled detective's calculating rationality runs smack up against a nostalgia for a time of radical innocence. The nostalgia the Damasco series indulges in shares a common impetus with the feminist detective fiction of the 1980s by writers such as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Lia Matera. As Priscilla Walton and Manina Jones note, “The female private eye genre as it evolved in the 1980s was … fueled by a nostalgia for the idealistic social action of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the women's movement (and activism more generally) seemed to hold so much promise for changing both society as a whole and individual lives” (34).2 The hard-boiled detective oscillates, then, between passionless rationality and nostalgic affect. Working within these conventions, Corpi endeavors to establish a causal chain to account for the historical development of the Chicana/o subject. At every turn, however, this linear causality must confront the contingent and discontinuous flows of history. Similarly, the historical memories Corpi revisits in the Damasco series frustrate her nostalgia for an imagined, radically innocent past. Consequently, these ways of knowing the past bear directly on the constructions of identity. It is against and with these competing impulses of rationality and nostalgia that Corpi seeks to make sense of the last thirty or so years of Chicana/o history and cultural identity.

I want to suggest further that the cultural work Corpi executes in her detective series and the work being done in the Chicana/o detective novel in general constitute part of what I propose is a new cultural aesthetic in Chicana/o letters. This emergent aesthetic distinguishes itself from the cultural nationalist imperatives of the Chicana/o movement, imperatives that celebrated a unified, masculine Chicano subject; called for instituting a nation-state known as Aztlán; and unproblematically appropriated indigenous cultures to construct the Chicana/o identity. While this new cultural aesthetic certainly bears residual traces of its immediate precursor, its attention to sexuality, gender, and the complexities of identity formation diverges sharply from the Movement's fabricated notion of a unified cultural identity.

The first traces of this new aesthetic appear in the early 1980s with the publication of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984), Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory (1982), and Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years (1983). The Vintage Press publication of Mango Street in 1989 marked a key moment in Chicana/o letters, for it was the first time New York publishers had contracted with Chicana/o writers. The successful sales of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar no doubt contributed to this budding interest in Chicana/o authors. Rodriguez's attacks on bilingual education and affirmative action in Hunger of Memory won him the approval of conservative politicians, who promoted him as the spokesman for “Hispanics.” His fame came, after all, in what the Reagan administration glibly heralded as “the decade of the Hispanic.” The national attention granted Rodriguez brought the once-regional debates about Chicana/o politics out of the insularity of Aztlán and into a national spotlight. Finally, Moraga's multigenre collection, Loving in the War Years, forced a much needed dialogue about sexuality, especially homosexuality, in a community that had almost completely resisted this conversation. The features of this emergent aesthetic thus form a backdrop against which I want to stage my arguments about Lucha Corpi's detective series.

The articulations of history, memory, and cultural identity so crucial to Eulogy, Cactus, and Black Widow surfaced in Corpi's first novel, Delia's Song (1989), a story based loosely on Corpi's own involvement in the Chicana/o movement. As Delia Treviño, the novel's principal character, works through the entanglements of her love life and her budding career as a writer, Corpi takes us back to Delia's days as a student activist at Berkeley in the late 1960s. In these analeptic flashes, Corpi scrutinizes the building of Chicana/o community around the struggles of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a student movement that sought to establish third-world colleges at Berkeley to teach Asian American, Chicano, African American, and Native American studies. Delia's role as chronicler of the movement prepares the reader in many ways for Corpi's later fictional creation Gloria Damasco. Nowhere is this more clear than in Delia's late seventies meeting with one of her former professors. Moving aimlessly through life, Delia is taken by her professor's suggestion that she become a writer. Delia thinks, “writing would help her restore proper order to a world that had collapsed around her” (78). Restoring order to a collapsing world is precisely what Corpi undertakes in the Gloria Damasco series.

The construction of this first fictional character as a keeper of student memories weds Corpi to a critical inquiry into history and identity, a project to which she becomes even more inextricably linked when she takes up the detective genre. In his reading of Paul Auster's City of Glass, Jeffrey Nealon argues that there is a special quality of infinitude to the writing of detective novels, for in them the writer and the detective “embark on a journey that has no guaranteed destination” (118). Nealon presents the writing of detective novels as a project without guarantees, a project from which the writer, unlike the reader, cannot walk away:

For the reader, the mystery always ends, regardless of whether it is solved. Even if the detective is thwarted or killed, the book eventually does come to a conclusion. … No such luxury, however, is available to the writer or the detective. Once they enter the space of the mystery, there is no guarantee of an ordered conclusion—no guarantee even of the closure afforded the reader by the final period placed after the final sentence.


Nealon's analysis of City of Glass marks how the detective and the writer are mutually engaged in an investigation for which there may be no end point, and I would argue that in that reciprocal engagement it can often be difficult to draw sharp distinctions between protagonist and writer. A cursory reading of the overlapping identities of Paul Auster, Daniel Quinn, William Wilson, and Max Work—the author of and principal characters in City of Glass—highlights this ontological and textual embedding. Consequently, the reader may notice that in working through Corpi's assessment of Chicana/o subjectivity, I, too, find myself caught up in the many ways Lucha Corpi the author and Gloria Damasco the fictional detective become intertwined in their inquiry into Chicana/o identity. This is by no means to suggest that autobiographical fiction represents the ultimate or only attainable horizon for Chicana/o writers. Rather, I want to highlight, following Nealon's lead, the multiple ways in which the writer and her protagonist walk down interlinking paths on their potentially endless journey.

On this trip, Corpi attempts to make sense of the permutations of Chicana/o subjectivity since the Movement of the sixties and seventies. In doing so, she shuttles the reader back and forth between the present and key moments in Chicana/o history. This shuttling allows her to reflect on the relation between past and present, history and identity. Rather than erroneously bracket cultural identity into neat little synchronic moments, Corpi offers a diachronic construction of identity, one that must move through the flows and discontinuities of the past and present, the present and past. She offers us a picture of the Chicana/o subject in formation. In her understanding of the provisionality of Chicana/o identity, Corpi exemplifies what in a different context Andrew Pepper describes as the response of ethnic detectives to the overly determined black/white color line in the United States:

Indeed, one can perhaps understand why crime novels written by, and about, individuals from, say, Jamaica or Cuba (who do not easily fit into categories like black or white or at least, not in the traditional sense) offer a more complex, flexible, and satisfactory model for identity construction, one that acknowledges both the extent of existing racial divisions and the inability of the old language of race relations to cope with the fragmented nature of black and white identities in the United States.


Pepper's comments can be appropriately extended to Chicana/os, who, like Cubans and Jamaicans, do not fit easily within the U.S. black/white racial binary.3 This restrictive binary provides a crucial context for understanding Corpi's investigation of Chicana/o identity, culture, and history, for it was partially in resistance to this oppressive racial coding that Mexican Americans of the sixties and seventies sought to forge a self-empowering Chicana/o identity.

Whereas Corpi illustrates a dynamic forging and understanding of a Chicana/o subject shaped in history, Chicana/o cultural workers have far too frequently tried to access a mythic memory to shape a Chicana/o identity. Typically this mythic memory derived from three sources: a pre-Columbian or pre-Cortesian America, the Mexican revolution, and/or the Chicana/o movement. Chicana/o writers would draw on these mythic memories to fashion an empowering identity to combat racist hostilities. Rafael Pérez-Torres argues that Chicana/o poets once valorized a mythic memory to which they feigned an all too easy access, and in that valorization, they constructed “a cultural identity blind and mute to the important distinctions between and among the different cultural communities supposedly served by the invocation of that memory” (300). In more recent years, this staid understanding and unproblematic deployment of mythic memory has evolved into a more subtle understanding of the fluidity and resistive dimensions of cultural identity (Pérez-Torres 314). Eulogy, Cactus, and Black Widow participate in this more fluid construction of identity and history.

Published only three years after Delia's Song, Eulogy for a Brown Angel demonstrates the strongest ties to an older cultural nationalist identity. These nationalist sympathies first surface in the novel's epigraph, an excerpt from the corrido (ballad) “Garbanzo Beret” by José Montoya, one of the principal poets and leading figures of the Movement:

Down Whittier, La Raza marched
To protest against the government.
Fists raised, in one voice
they all chanted: Power to the Chicano!

The power-to-the-people rhetoric situates this epigraph in that strong tradition of epic poems associated with the Chicana/o movement. Moreover, the corrido form locates us in a long history of formal opposition and heroic struggles of Mexicana/o heroes fighting off Anglo oppressors. The best known of these heroes is, of course, Gregorio Cortez.4 Thus the rhetoric and the form of the epigraph set up readerly expectations associated with the nationalist struggles of the Chicana/o movement. It would seem that Corpi is still working through the political project she began in Delia's Song. In Eulogy, however, we find Corpi both attracted to and repelled by the politics of the Movement.

Since Corpi's work remains relatively unknown, let me begin with a brief description of the novel. It opens with Gloria Damasco's discovery of a three-year-old boy's corpse at the Chicano Moratorium, a 1970 rally to protest the disproportionate deaths of Chicanos in Vietnam. As she helps investigate the death of the young boy (Michael David Cisneros), Gloria, a speech therapist by training, suddenly finds herself transformed into an amateur detective. In the midst of her investigation, her sole informant (Mando) is murdered. Within a year, Gloria collapses from anemia and exhaustion. At her husband's request, she ceases her investigation, but when, eighteen years later, he dies, Gloria is back on the case, this time with the assistance of a professional detective, Justin Escobar, and her best friend, Luisa Cortez. While the novel begins with the Chicano Moratorium, the investigation carries Gloria away from that historical moment and into a family drama where the seeds of Michael David's murder lie. Ultimately, Gloria's psychic visions help her solve the murder, though she remains suspicious of these visions throughout the novel, demonstrating her acceptance of the sexist binary that privileges reason over intuition. By novel's end, a bullet intended for Gloria claims her best friend's life.

On August 29, 1970, some thirty thousand people gathered for the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles's Laguna Park. They had come together to protest the war in Vietnam and the toll it was exacting on Chicanos. Prior to the rally, public officials and police administrators created a hostile environment, when they referred to the demonstrators as “militants” and declared that “they were going to teach them a lesson” (Gómez-Quiñones 126). Early in the afternoon some youths had allegedly shoplifted at a liquor store about a block away from the protest. Rodolfo Acuña notes that rather than “isolating this incident, [the police] rushed squad cars to the park, and armed officers prepared to enter the park area” (347). Subsequently, like many peaceful protests of the sixties and seventies, the Moratorium witnessed unnecessary bloodshed because the police employed excessive force to disperse the crowd. Armed with teargas and nightsticks, the police unleashed their wrath on the demonstrators, resulting in dire outcomes for both sides: “forty officers were injured and twenty-five police cars put out of action, while three people were killed and four hundred arrested. That same night, four policemen were shot in the Chicano area of the Casablanca district of Riverside” (Gómez-Quiñones 127).

Though numerous people were either injured or killed, two consequences of that day stand out. First, Rubén Salazar, a prominent Chicano reporter for The Los Angeles Times, was killed. The peculiar circumstances of his death conjoined with his status as a Chicano reporter for the mainstream press aroused suspicion. Some even called his death a planned assault. When he was fatally struck in the head by a teargas canister, Salazar was not even involved in the protest; he was eating lunch at The Silver Dollar Café. That Salazar had used his column in the L.A. Times to denounce discrimination against Chicana/os and Mexicana/os made his death look all the more calculated. Second, the police singled out another Chicano intellectual, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The founder of the Crusade for Justice, a Denver-based Chicana/o civil rights organization, Gonzales had been invited as a guest speaker to the Moratorium. The police arrested him on spurious charges as a suspect in Salazar's death.

The use of the Moratorium as a framing device and the division of the novel into two temporally distinct parts (part 1 is set in 1970; part 2 in 1988) establish an interesting conjunction for examining the relationship between history, memory, and identity. While it's important for Corpi to record the events of the Chicano Moratorium because they are so frequently left out of the dominant canons of history, it is the temporal disjunction between the two halves of the novel that makes the inclusion of the Moratorium a compelling narrative move. By situating the second half of the novel in 1988, that is, Corpi creates the necessary temporal distance to gauge the shaping force of the Moratorium in particular and the Movement in general. Gloria's reflections upon returning to East L.A. in 1988, for instance, witness her navigating the historical disjunction between the past and the present. She wants to impose a linear historical construction on the development of Chicana/o history and identity:

Not having been to East L.A. since the Moratorium march in 1970, I decided to drive through the old barrio. As expected it has changed in some ways. In other instances, it seems as if things have stood still. Except for the fact that the Silver Dollar Café is now only a bar, and a plaque with Rubén Salazar's name is displayed somewhere around Laguna Park, there is little to remind people of the events that at the time we thought would shape our political future in California.


In tension here is a desire to locate a concrete moment in history against the discontinuity and ephemerality of time and memory. The calculated linear trajectory Gloria may wish to impose on past events never unfolds that neatly or linearly. Thus the names and landmarks many Chicana/os, like Gloria, believed would have a shaping force on the future have been reduced to lifeless plaques and changed venues, just so much flotsam and jetsam in a sea of memories. That Gloria says Salazar's plaque is “somewhere around Laguna Park” underscores time's capacity to efface the past. Rubén Salazar, a one-time central voice in Chicana/o struggles, no longer marks a specific moment in history or even in the everyday geography of Laguna Park. His efforts, like his presence, exist in some unspecified space.

The displacement of Salazar reminds us of the creative (not necessarily progressive) impulses of memory. It “revises, reorders, refigures, resignifies; it includes or omits, embellishes or represses, decorates or drops,” writes Gayle Greene, “according to imperatives of its own.” Memory is a “shaper and shape shifter that takes liberties with the past as artful and lying as any taken by the creative writer” (294). Throughout the Damasco series, Gloria's memories challenge traditional understandings of U.S. history and shape-shift into her own construction of Chicana/o identity and community. Her memory reminds us once again that the historical project bears no definitive arché and/or telos. The beginning and end reside rather with the enunciator of memory. “We want historians to confirm our belief that the present rests upon profound intentions and immutable necessities,” observes Michel Foucault, but “the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or a point of reference” (155). It is precisely among these lost events that Damasco detects, all the while searching for points of reference upon which to build a narrative about the development of Chicana/o history and identity.

Much as Gloria compiles evidence into a causal chain to solve her case, Corpi moves us in her novels from historic event to historic event to build a causal chain capable of accounting for contemporary Chicana/o identity. From Delia's Song to Black Widow's Wardrobe, she covers the following historical terrain: the Third World Liberation Front student strike (1968), the Chicano Moratorium (1970), the grape workers' strike in Delano, California (1973), and the vexed relationship between the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés and his indigenous translator, Marina. Corpi's project suggests, then, that these are key events for understanding Chicana/o culture and life. Her attempt to construct a causally determined chain from these events characterizes the very epistemology of the detective genre. Like her own detective, Corpi displays a faith in causality over coincidence: “Unless we thwarted fate's efforts with our willfulness, she [Gloria's grandmother] often told me [Gloria]; meeting certain people was predestined, the course of major events in our lives already charted. … coincidences ceased to be a series of random events when an intelligence made sense of them. I had always wanted to be that intelligence” (Cactus 23-24). Corpi, too, seeks to be that guiding intelligence, as she couples the epistemology of the detective novel with her construction and representation of the Chicana/o community.

The Damasco series also demonstrates Corpi's apparent faith in historical memory to counter state violence. In addition to serving as a source of news, history becomes what Patrick Smith, in a different context, has called “a kind of subversion, a weapon in the ongoing war between rememberers and forgetters” (37). Consider, for instance, Gloria's descriptions in Eulogy of Whittier Boulevard shortly after the demonstration and then again two days later:

The cleaning crews were already at work. Piles of clothing were strewn, still saturated with the smell of teargas and blood. Picnic gear, containers full of food and drinks were everywhere. We even saw a stroller and a baby rattle. Luisa and I looked straight ahead as if that way we could keep our hearts from racing, our minds from remembering.


In this description, the vestiges of the march are visible and legible, despite Gloria and Luisa's willed amnesia. Corpi juxtaposes the violence of the police invasion (teargas and blood) with the peaceful, family-like nature of the protest (picnic gear, a stroller, and a baby rattle). Even from this brief catalogue of remnants, one can readily decipher the nature of the conflict. Two days afterward, as Gloria notes, the scene had changed:

Cruising down the boulevard on that last morning of August, one could hardly believe that only two days before, violence had prevailed. Except for a few boarded-up store windows, everything seemed back to normal. For the first time, I realized how enduring the human spirit is, but couldn't help wondering if at times this very quality prevented us from eradicating injustice more quickly.


The city's ability to return Whittier Boulevard to a “normal” state attests less to the human spirit's power than to city officials' expertise in effacing the traces of their own crime. In the name of state control, the police perpetrated a crime that few willingly remember. Corpi's choice to frame her novel with the Chicano Moratorium evokes and preserves a historical memory that some would also like to be returned to its “normal” state, a state of victory and noble heroes, not of crimes against humanity. As Tim Libretti correctly observes of Eulogy, Gloria's detection indicts not just the individual murderer of Michael David Cisneros but also highlights “the larger crimes against people of color through the mechanisms of colonialism and internal colonialism” (64).

Further, this ability to sanitize the scenes of social unrest and physical violence advances historical amnesia in a war of “rememberers” versus “forgetters.” And as Gloria notes, this amnesia prevents the eradication of injustice. If crimes appear not to have happened, and if their historical traces can be erased, then who could reasonably wish to eradicate that which does not exist? By logical extension, if the crimes are not visible, if they cannot be read on the landscape, they must not have occurred. Eulogy represents both Corpi's faith in the power of the historical record and her commitment to the Movement. To reiterate, Corpi enlists a causal narrative about the Chicano Moratorium and the Chicana/o movement to blast open, to jostle into consciousness, the amnesiac historical chronology whose absences and erasures threaten Chicana/o cultural identity.

Corpi's own ambivalence about the cultural politics of the Movement become clearer in Cactus Blood. There are hints of this ambivalence in Eulogy, as when Gloria avers that “Chicano nationalism and feminism didn't walk hand in hand before or during the summer of 1970” (66), but it is in Cactus Blood that we first witness Gloria's growing pains. In Cactus, Gloria becomes self-reflexively critical of the Chicana/o community. She questions for the first time her nostalgic ideas about the radical innocence of the Movement. Indeed, it is in Cactus that we first see Corpi connect the Movement with the term “nostalgia.” While in Eulogy she may point out the stifling nature of the Movement's consensus politics, she never goes quite so far as to question her memories as being nostalgic, a key step on the road to ambivalence.

Since we are somewhat removed from the Delano grape pickers' strike of 1973, the principal historical context for Cactus, I want to briefly describe the key struggles and players from that battle. On September 8, 1965, Larry Itliong led his principally Filipino union of agricultural workers (Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee [AWOC]) in a strike against grape growers in Delano, California. They were striking for higher pay and recognition of their union. Sensing that he would need support in this endeavor, Itliong enlisted the assistance of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). The strike lasted five years, and it entailed the now famous boycott of nonunion grapes (1968-1975). When, in 1970, the growers recognized the union and signed contracts with it, the strike came to an end. In 1973, however, when the union contracts expired, the UFW was forced to strike again. The growers had refused to renew the UFW contracts and instead signed on with the Teamsters, who had little interest in the farm workers. Truckers were and continue to be their principal concern. Their interest in the strike was a fear that their truckers would be out of work without produce to haul. The dispute was not resolved until 1975, when Governor Jerry Brown forged a compromise between the UFW and the Teamsters. According to Brown's solution (which later became the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act), the Teamsters would be in charge of the cannery and packing shed workers and the UFW would oversee the field workers (Gonzales 198-201). It is around this strike that Corpi builds Cactus Blood.

Shortly after Cactus opens, the Oakland police find Sonny Mares dead in his apartment. Leo Mares, a member of the Oakland Police Department and Sonny's brother, hires Gloria Damasco and her partner Justin Escobar to investigate Sonny's death. Corpi leads us to believe that Sonny's murder is tied to his involvement in the 1973 Delano strike. At that time, Sonny, Ramón Caballos, and Art Bello planned to blow up all the pesticide tanks in Delano. At the last minute, Art and Sonny back out, but Ramón proceeds as planned. At his trial for the bombing, Ramón's friends (Art, Sonny, Josie Baldomar, and Phillipe Hazlitt) testify against him. Shortly after Sonny's death, Art disappears, and Corpi encourages us to conclude that Ramón is avenging himself. The narrative then introduces Carlota Navarro, who in 1973, at the age of fourteen, was sold from her home in Mexico to a Dr. Mark Stephens in California. After nearly a year with the doctor and his family, Carlota finally must flee to escape sexual assault by Dr. Stephens. In escaping, she inadvertently runs through orchards and vineyards drenched in pesticide. Exposure to these chemicals causes her irreparable neurological damage.

The novel's climax brings us to the Sonoma Valley, where the principal characters gather for a showdown. We learn that Sonny committed suicide and that Art fled town to protect himself. Josie, not Ramón, is the culprit behind most of the murders. She merely sprung Ramón from jail to be her fall guy. She killed her husband Phillipe Hazlitt (aka Felix Hunter) because he left her for Remmi Marie Hunter (née Remmi Marie Stephens, daughter of Dr. Mark Stephens). She crucified Remmi to a cactus, though Remmi survives this ordeal. And as we witness in the final showdown, Josie is holding Carlota hostage because she fears Carlota is abandoning her to be with Ramón. The police, of course, apprehend her, but she kills herself before she can be sent to prison. Ramón helps Carlota return to Mexico, and Gloria and Justin finally consummate their growing-ever-steamier relationship. The novel concludes with the 1989 Oakland-Bay Area earthquake.

In the flux and flow between 1973 and 1989, we begin to see Corpi construct an ambivalent Gloria. If she spoke of the stifling politics of the Movement in Eulogy, Cactus shows us Gloria experiencing her own dis-ease with the politics and identity construction of the Chicana/o movement. This evinces itself most clearly as she grapples with her nostalgia for what she perceives as the radical innocence of the Chicana/o movement.

If we focus on the traces of nostalgia in Cactus, we can read this novel as a bildungsroman of sorts, a not incidental feature given the growing ambivalence in the novel. A key characteristic of the bildungsroman is the hero's loss of innocence, and it is this same loss that fuels Gloria's nostalgia. After watching Art's video about the 1973 grape strike, Corpi has Gloria pine for the sixties and seventies. Since the video chronicles the political and physical violence exacted against Chicana/os, readers may rightly question why Gloria wishes to return to those days. Corpi anticipates this objection:

Intellectually, I realized it was foolish to long for the most oppressive and repressive times we, as Chicanos, had experienced. But I had the feeling I didn't miss the activism as much as the innocence that had underscored our political zeal and the newness of our commitment. I connected our harrowing experience—the violent repressive actions of the police against us at the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium march in East Los Angeles and during the 1973 United Farm Workers' strike and grape boycott—with the loss of that innocence.


While this preemptive strike may effectively ward off readers' initial objections, Corpi cannot sidestep the historical conundrum she sets up. Nostalgia will always block the way of effective political change because it vitiates the historical context it tries to locate. And if the credo of the Marxist critic is to “Always historicize!” (Jameson, Political Unconscious 9), then to render the past nostalgically dissipates revolutionary change. Yet this agonistic relationship between memory and nostalgia, history and collective identity is precisely what Corpi is working through in these novels. We are a long way now from the rather one-dimensional portrayal of the Movement in Delia's Song.

If, as Gayle Greene maintains, “Textual feminists subvert ‘nostalgic rhetoric’ by mining the past to discover play rather than place” (305), then we should think of Gloria's remembrances not as static but as in flux. As Corpi moves Gloria back and forth between 1989 and 1973, we recognize the numerous constitutive flows of the past in the present and the present in the past. In these nostalgic moments, Gloria oscillates between a desire for a causal linearity and a recognition that history is discontinuous and contingent, play not place. In short, Corpi tries to work against static notions of history and to question any transparent access to mythic memories.

The nostalgia Gloria suffers from, however, is not the most insidious form of nostalgia, that is, a blind nostalgia. Rather, hers is a critically self-aware nostalgia, as when she notes, “it was foolish to long for the most oppressive and repressive times we, as Chicanos, had experienced.” The worst nostalgia, by contrast, refuses to recognize its own blindness to the material conditions under which it lives.5 Yearning for a committed community of activists, Corpi's nostalgia operates not out of blindness, but from fear of a dual erasure. First, the dominant historical record poses a threat because it has typically discounted marginalized communities' histories, and second, Chicanas must also contend with the masculinist memories of the Movement's struggles.6 In Corpi's relation to and investigation of the past, one hears echoes of Ruby B. Rich's analysis of nostalgia in the emergent female detective novels of the 1980s:

The new genre plays with a nostalgia for the 1960s and '70s even as it flagrantly owes its very revisionist existence to the 1980s. … It plays with the layers of our subjectivities, literalizing them into actual landscapes in which the trials and tribulations of the present turn out to have roots in the past's unfinished business. This time-travel must account for some of the genre's success: balm poured on our contemporary schizophrenia, it allows a recuperation of the past without giving in to either [Women's] Movement nostalgia or regressive fault-finding.

(qtd. in Walton and Jones 34; ellipsis in original)

As an index of Corpi's evolving understanding of Chicana/o identity, the nostalgia in the text can also be articulated to the moment at which Corpi was composing her novel. She dedicates the novel to both her father and César Chávez. When Chávez died in 1993, a shock wave reverberated through the Chicana/o community. There was a public grieving as a founding figure of la causa Chicana was marshaled to his grave. Published in 1995, Cactus Blood was certainly being composed at the time of Chávez's death. His death coupled with a deluge of anti-immigrant and antiminority legislation (for example, California's Proposition 187) must have overwhelmed activist writers such as Corpi who had dedicated their lives to the struggle for social justice. These pressing circumstances shed light on the nostalgic tendencies in Cactus and help explain why in the face of a discontinuous present, Corpi seeks to build a causally linear narrative about the development of the Chicana/o community, a linearity consistent with the epistemology of the detective novel. As an older female character in the novel counsels Gloria, “To look into the past … is to look into the future. But it takes a certain kind of talent, a great gift, to see how the past will become the future” (94). From Delia's Song to Black Widow's Wardrobe, Corpi tries to do just that—see how the past will become the future. Or, better put, she writes the past into the future.

Understanding that a collective memory mitigates the trauma of historical erasures and aids in the construction of a group identity, we need not wonder that Carlota's fading memory in Cactus registers Gloria's fear and ambivalence. In her capacity to represent the violence enacted on the farm workers' bodies, Carlota becomes a metonym for the Chicana/o body politic. She is a frightening representative because the neurological damage she suffers affects both her speech and her memory. Her failing voice speaks to the agency often denied marginalized communities, but it is her failing memory that truly haunts Gloria. The chemicals rotting her memory are not unlike the canons of history denying voice and identity to Chicana/os. As Carlota laments to Gloria, “It's as though a praying mantis were eating away at my memory. … I sometimes go to sleep repeating my name again and again. I'm afraid that I'll wake up and not know who I am” (146).

Similarly, a fear of forgetting underwrites Gloria's own nostalgia for the Movement, the heyday of Chicana/o activism, but, at the same time, her historical memories also make her ambivalent about the Movement. These were not only times of overt political oppression but also of stultifying monolithic politics and imagined homogeneous identities. Speaking of his own “movement [away] from the ‘movement,’” José Limón, one of the most prominent and astute critics of Mexican American culture, notes, “The movement's nationalism led us to imagine both the dominant society and our culture in monolithic and mythic terms, a worldview from which many have still not yet recovered” (American Encounters 133). In Dickensian fashion, one could say the Movement represents the best of times and the worst of times. Corpi, not unlike Limón, finds herself, as a former sixties activist and a still committed intellectual, wrestling with a growing ambivalence about what Chicana/o identity was and is. She has stepped onto that writing path where the writer and the detective “embark on a journey that has no guaranteed destination” (Nealon 118), an especially frightening prospect for a writer who once seemed confident in the dimensions and direction of Chicana/o subjectivity.

The Oakland-Bay Area earthquake that draws Cactus to a close is the clearest manifestation of ambivalence in the novel. Throughout Cactus, Corpi images nature as a historical palimpsest. Thus, for instance, she uses her characters' trip to the Sonoma Valley to recall nineteenth-century battles of conquest such as the Bear Flag Revolt. To move from nature as historical marker to nature as catastrophe has certain metaphorical implications. The earthquake moves us away from the tidy conclusion of the classical detective novel, where the world is typically presented as ultimately knowable and therefore containable, to a world without guarantees, a world of ambivalence.7

While the criminals are brought to justice at the end of Cactus, what transpires at the novel's conclusion signifies dissolution rather than resolution. If nature serves as a palimpsest recording historical events, then we must read an earthquake as a disruption, a tearing, a shattering of the historical record. As an earthquake sends shock waves through the ground, those shock waves fracture the earth's spatial order and simultaneously its social relations. The 1989 Bay Area earthquake registered 6.9 on the Richter scale, resulting in a number of deaths, the collapse of major highways, the postponement of the World Series, and, for our immediate interest, a disruption of the temporary order Gloria and Justin imposed on their case. The earthquake's symbolic fragmentation of the social realm has less to do with the novel's criminal case than with Corpi's own growing ambivalence.

The nearly apocalyptic ending limns a community replete with chaos, shattered lives, and downed lines of communication and transportation. Corpi's description reaches nearly eschatological proportions: “The double-deck of the Cypress structure in Oakland is now a pile of rubble and twisted steel. It looks as though a giant played hopscotch on it and crushed it” (248). “As if to remind us that it wasn't over,” Gloria narrates, “another strong aftershock shook us again. … My heart began to beat faster as I thought that the [radio] transmission had been cut off” (249). In a genre predicated on epistemological inquiry, Corpi concludes with an earthquake that temporarily precludes the very means of knowing. Codes one cannot access cannot be deciphered. This knowledge crisis, moreover, underscores the crisis facing the Chicana community, namely, as Corpi sees it, the dissolution of the Chicano body politic in the late twentieth century.

In the closing paragraph of the novel, Corpi makes an interestingly sentimental narrative move. She attempts to rectify the identity crisis she has constructed and to unify what Cherríe Moraga has referred to as the “Chicano tribe” by shifting away from a rhetoric of crisis to a rhetoric of natural healing. As if to recover from the ideological demise the earthquake represents, Corpi pivots to the other extreme, to regenerative qualities in nature. In the maudlin tones of the final paragraph, Gloria vows, “‘Tomorrow, or when this is over, I will plant the tiny nopal at the foot of Luisa's grave,’ I promised aloud, looking up at the morning star punctuating the canvas of the night” (249). Corpi wants to bring us back to the realm in which nature serves as a beneficent marker of memory, both to her dead and ailing friends and to the Chicana/o community as metonymically represented by the cactus. With the crimes solved, Corpi endeavors to rectify the novel's ontological crisis, namely what she has depicted as the withering of Chicana/o solidarity. It is as if she is trying to work against the very ambivalence she finds herself confronting throughout the novel. Yet this narrative gesture cannot contain that ambivalence, an ambivalence that peaks in the most recent installment in the Damasco series, Black Widow's Wardrobe.

In contrast to the other two Damasco novels, Corpi does not turn to a lived moment from the Chicana/o movement but takes a much grander historical leap backward to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Here she wishes to engage the symbolic and cultural residue that the now notorious meeting between Hernán Cortés and La Malinche (1502?-27?; aka Marina and Malintzin Tenepal) has left on contemporary Chicana/o life.8 Historical sources are scarce and often contradictory regarding Marina's relationship with Cortés and her role in the conquest of Mexico. An indigenous woman who spoke Nahuatl, Marina was given as a gift to the Spaniards. Her ability to speak the Aztecs' language was crucial to Cortés because his official interpreter, Geronimo de Aguilar, spoke only the Mayan language. Sold earlier as a slave to the Mayas, Marina spoke their language as well. Thus a triangulated conversation between Aguilar, Cortés, and Marina was possible. Soon after being given to Cortés, she learned Spanish, making her even more attractive to the Spanish colonizer. This much is clear: Marina served as an intermediary between Cortés and the Indian populations. She also bore Cortés's children. Thus Mexicans, considered to have been born from this union, refer derisively to themselves as hijos de la chingada (the children of the violated one).

The point of contention arises around Marina's agency: Was she a willing agent in the conquest of Mexico? Or was she a woman with limited agency exercising what will she could to protect herself and other Indians? Marina's dominant image in the twentieth century has been that of a traitor, a vendida. Malinche has been so closely tied to this traitor complex that in Spanish one can refer to a “sell-out” not only as a vendida but as a malinche or a malinchista. Indeed, some try to dismiss the valuable work of Chicana feminists by labeling them malinches. Rather than consider the complex dynamics and asymmetrical power relations in Cortés and Marina's relationship, historians and cultural critics have typically cast aspersions on Marina and held her accountable for the conquest. In the late seventies and eighties a number of Mexican and Chicana feminists sought to rectify this bias by building a more complex understanding of the conquest and of Marina.9 Corpi's Black Widow participates in this inquiry. Dealing with both the historical representations and her own construction of Marina causes Corpi's ambivalence about Chicana/o cultural identity to reach a sustained pitch in this novel.

Black Widow's Wardrobe opens at a Day of the Dead procession in 1990, where Gloria witnesses an attempt on a woman's life.10 The woman turns out to be Licia Román Lecuona (aka the Black Widow), who in 1972 murdered her husband, Peter, because he was physically and mentally abusive. In a pro forma hearing, Licia was sentenced to twenty years in prison but was paroled after eighteen years. Concerned about Licia's well-being, Michael Cisneros hires Gloria and Justin to keep an eye on her. As Gloria trails Licia, we learn that Licia believes she is the contemporary reincarnation of Marina. Further, she sees her reincarnation tied to the principle of Karma, a principle that relates past lives to present selves. Corpi's playing out this connection between past lives and present selves strikes a harmonious chord for the interesting intersections among history, memory, and identity.

Much as in Eulogy, a family crisis underlies this mystery. Just prior to murdering Peter, Licia had become pregnant. Peter wanted her to have an abortion, but she refused. While in prison she gives birth to twins, whom her father-in-law, Martín Lecuona, abducts. Peter's sister, Isabela, and her husband, Juan Gabriel Legoretta, adopt the twins. Licia knows nothing about the adoption because she was told that the twins were stillborn. When she discovers that they are alive, she desperately wants her children (Martín and Inés) back. Juan and Isabela flee to Mexico with the children because Juan is involved in stealing pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico and drug smuggling. Determined to be reunited with her children, Licia pursues them. Setting the chase scene in Mexico allows Corpi to delve further into the history of Cortés and Marina. The chase terminates with the deaths of Juan and Martín and the demise of the drug-smuggling ring.

Licia returns to the U.S. and sets up a trust fund for Inés and Isabela, and she leaves Gloria a letter saying that she is going back to the place where she was born five hundred years ago. She signs the letter “Malintzin Tenepal.” A week later news arrives that a pile of women's clothes was found in the chapel where Malintzin used to pray. Like Cactus, the novel concludes with a natural disaster. This time we have the Oakland hills consumed in fire, fires that burn Licia's house to the ground. A neighbor maintains that she saw Licia go into the house and presumably start the fire. The fire department, however, finds no evidence of human remains or arson. Corpi concludes the novel on that curiously eerie note.

Even this cursory description of the novel lays out the complex of issues at the heart of Corpi's growing ambivalence about a monolithic Chicana/o identity. She wrestles with a history of asymmetrical gender relations and considers how past lives inform present selves, individual and collective ones. As she works through these issues, especially the novel's feminist concerns, we see her tackle the discontinuities of the past and present to better understand the complex, contemporary inflections of identity formation.

With Black Widow, Corpi has arrived at the awareness of what Coco Fusco identifies as “the impossibility of reducing cultural identity to a simplistic paradigm” (33). Corpi clearly recognizes that cultural identity cannot be harnessed to an overdetermined essence presupposed to reside in the Chicana/o body politic. She must, however, work through this idea not by returning to the Movement (as in Eulogy and Cactus), but by excavating the history of a much older symbolic figure, La Malinche. Corpi exhibits no nostalgia in this novel for the radical innocence of her activist heyday. Rather, a historiographic struggle over the conquest of Mexico and its articulation to gendered identities presides over the novel. As the history of Marina makes clear, no “simple paradigms” for cultural identity obtain, and it is this recognition that makes Corpi's ambivalence about Chicana/o cultural identity resolutely clear.

Corpi's strategy of having a character reincarnated as Marina offers the perfect vehicle to consider the articulations among history, memory, and identity, for it prevents the reader from ossifying the past into a moment without contemporary resonance. For instance, in reviewing her notes on reincarnation, Gloria comes across the following passage: “Karma is cause and effect, red and green. Also called the Law of Retribution, its causes and effects can be traced back to the actions of previous selves in past lives. When we gain knowledge of who we have been and what we have done, change can be effected in our present life” (51). This logic by which Licia lives resonates with the larger cultural politics of the Damasco series. Corpi, that is, has been working her way through these detective novels as a means to imagine and understand the various connections between past and present, memory and identity. Developing the history of Marina not only sheds light on Licia's character but, by foregrounding the residual symbolic effects of Marina on the lives of contemporary Chicanas, provides a means to better comprehend the dimensions of Chicana/o identity.

Pursuing the Marina theme also brings the historiographic process to the fore. Gloria must enlist the services of her mother and her mother's comadre (friend) to learn about Marina because Gloria believes Licia is to die like Marina did. We could suspend our disbelief that a Chicana such as Gloria (that is, an activist from the Movement still committed to political causes) knows precious little about Marina, but it's more compelling not to, for her ignorance underscores the importance of struggling over the historical record. If an “insider” like Gloria is unaware of Marina's history, how can others be expected to know it?

In piecing together Marina's life, Corpi makes Gloria explicitly aware of the contingencies that riddle history:

Reconstructing Malinche's life accurately had to be quite a difficult task, if not impossible. All the available information on her, complimentary or not, had been provided by men, from Bernal Díaz and other witnesses during the conquest, to López Gómara, Hernán Cortés's biographer. Many had quite an historic ax to grind with Malinche.


Corpi moves from the paucity and prejudice of historical sources to a paragraph on the significance of reclaiming Marina:

I surmised that Chicana scholars and writers aimed at creating a new and more positive view of La Malinche. In doing so, they hoped to give Mexicanas and Chicanas a better sense of themselves, not as hijas de la chingada—the Indian woman violated and subjugated by the conqueror—but as las hijas de la Malinche—the daughters of an intelligent woman who had exercised the options available to her and chose her own destiny.


These passages address at least two impulses in the novel and in the series. On the one hand, Corpi argues, à la Hayden White, that history is narrative, and that the teller of the story determines the emplotment of the historical narrative. If Corpi wants to argue that because men recorded Malinche's history, it must of necessity be flawed or wrong, then I would hesitate to agree with her. By that logic the only histories we could trust would be ones that demonstrated a one-to-one correspondence between the subject matter and the historian. That type of authenticity politics stultifies intellectual engagement and stymies social change. If, as the end of the first passage indicates, Corpi means that ideological positions bias history (“many had … an historic ax to grind”), then I'm more comfortable with that assertion. It strikes me as both more intellectually satisfying and as more consistent with the knowledge and identity concerns of the Damasco series.

We should always ask on whose behalf history is written and what ends it serves. These questions correspond nicely with the second passage cited above on the feminist reclamation of Marina. Corpi points out the ruptures in history that have shaped the image of Marina. I say “ruptures” because the very historical accidents and ideological beliefs that have turned Malinche into a vendida could just as easily have been remembered as the motives for reclaiming Marina as an agent of history, rather than a mere object. While she may have been operating under constraints not of her own choosing, she did, as Corpi points out, exercise a degree of agency in choosing “her own destiny.” That destiny, however, has been subject to the ideological manipulations of the dominant historical record, which has remembered her not as “an intelligent woman,” but as a traitor.11

Marina, then, helps us understand the growing ambivalence in the Damasco series, because she marks not only the acts of erasure in the dominant historical record, but also the masculinist ideological project of the Chicano movement. Thus Gloria's growing feminist consciousness finds her at a crossroads with Chicano nationalism and the Movement's patriarchal rhetoric. We are a long way from Eulogy and its Movement-era epigraph, reveling in its power-to-the-people rhetoric. In Black Widow, Corpi distances Gloria from the Movement, which allows her to question its goals and precepts. It is only in understanding the complexity of history and its relation to identity that Gloria could display reservations over Marina herself. When Luisa asks Gloria what she believes to be the truth about Malinche, Gloria responds:

I don't know. I can only tell you what others have said about her. Without her own written testimony, I can only second-guess her reasons for fighting beside Cortés against the Aztecs. I can only speculate on the speculation of others. Not much truth left in that.


Her philosophical rejoinder about history and identity signals an even stronger ambivalence than that registered at the end of Cactus.

Ambivalence reaches an apex in Black Widow that illustrates Corpi's awareness that in the contemporary moment—one characterized by a globalizing economy and an ever-present heterogeneous Chicana/o community—a supposedly monolithic, homogeneous Chicana/o community cannot exist. Further, the Chicana/o community was never as homogeneous or monolithic as it presented itself to be in the sixties and seventies. It was always a fiction, always an imagined community. This is not to denigrate the positive social changes the Movement effected, but to recognize that those who called themselves Chicano had to efface a number of cultural and ethnic differences to imagine themselves as a united front.

In all three novels—Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Cactus Blood, and Black Widow's Wardrobe—Corpi conjoins the detective novel's quintessential epistemological adventures with inquiries into lo Chicano, that which captures and encapsulates an essential Chicana/o identity. While her social critiques, at times, engage an old cultural-nationalist rhetoric, she typically strikes a productively agonistic relation to homogenizing, monolithic forms of cultural identity. The Damasco series represents the reflections of a Movement-era activist (that is, Lucha Corpi) coming to terms with her own attachments and ambivalence to Chicana/o identity. Her memories of the Movement, like the historical frames and figures in her novels, are narratives she has woven together to make sense of the past and present. They share the desire of the detective novel for a linear causality, but Corpi finds that linear order disrupted time and again in her series.

Consequently, Corpi's ambivalence marks a rupture with any notion of a totalizing, mythic memory that would unproblematically take recourse to the past to construct a homogeneous Chicana/o identity. Her refusal to colligate heterogeneous groups under a seemingly unified signifier, Chicano, distinguishes her work from the homogenizing moves of much Movement-era writing. Consider, for instance, Angie Chabram Dernersesian's remarks that in Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales's Yo soy Joaquín/I am Joaquín (perhaps the epic poem of the Chicano movement), the speaking subject implies that groups as culturally and racially distinct as Méxicanos, Españoles, Latinos, Hispanos, and Chicanos; Yaquis, Tarahumaras, Chamulas, Zapotecs, Mestizos, and Indios, “are all the same because of his authenticating universal discourse of the Chicano” (272; emphasis in original). By contrast, Corpi constructs a cultural identity that recognizes its discontinuities and ruptures, its dynamic status as always in formation and oscillating among the interstitial spaces between past and present.

The complexity with which Corpi draws on the flows of memory to elucidate the intricacies of cultural identities emblematizes the nuances of the emergent Chicana and Chicano cultural aesthetic. This aesthetic's strategies of “negotiation” rather than “negation” signal its dialogical, rather than dialectic, exchanges. During the Movement's heyday, far too many appealed to a stultifying dialectic that ossified “us” versus “them,” both categories seemingly given a priori. In addition, the transcendence (Aufhebung) that would resolve this dialectical tension would purportedly come in the formation of a Chicana/o nation state, namely Aztlán. That nascent nationalism rummaged about for its originary moment in a pre-Cortesian mythic memory. The Chicano-thesis would construct a unified cultural identity and negate its contradictory Anglo-antithesis through the appropriation and historical flattening out of an indigenous past at odds with the lived experiences and hybrid identities of the Chicana/os it sought to valorize and unify. Corpi's detective novels swim against this nationalist current.

In speaking of the dialogic exchanges around cultural identity in Corpi's writing, I privilege the term “negotiation” over “negation.” I take my cue here from Homi Bhabha, who writes, “When I talk of negotiation rather than negation, it is to convey a temporality that makes it possible to conceive of the articulation of antagonistic or contradictory elements: a dialectic without the emergence of a teleological or transcendent History, and beyond the prescriptive form of symptomatic reading where the nervous tics on the surface of ideology reveal the ‘real materialist contradiction’ that History embodies” (25). The agonistic relation Corpi strikes in constructing a Chicana cultural memory seeks not to negate its contradiction in search of a supposedly higher order synthesis, but to negotiate its cultural ambivalence with its dialogic interlocutors. Notwithstanding the maudlin overtones at the end of Cactus, for instance, Corpi demonstrates that she is not trying to resolve the contradictions of a heretofore presumably unified Chicana/o identity with a contemporary, discontinuous Chicana/o subject. Rather, the earthquake limns the very ruptures flowing through both the geography and the human space of a Chicana/o cultural identity. In not rushing to resolve these dialogic tensions, Corpi demonstrates that “history is happening” (Bhabha 25). It is not a static force waiting to be discovered. As the Damasco series makes clear, we draw on and exploit memory to invent our pasts and presents and forge our cultural identities.

The emergence of a new Chicana/o cultural aesthetic, represented in Corpi's detective novels, moves into what Bhabha has called a Third Space of enunciation. The intervention of this space “makes the structure of meaning and reference an ambivalent process, destroys the mirror of representation in which cultural knowledge is customarily revealed as an integrated, open, expanding code.” “Such an intervention,” he continues, “quite properly challenges our sense of the historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the originary Past, kept alive in the national tradition of the People” (37). Bhabha's equation productively resonates with what I have been arguing about Chicana/o cultural identity, namely that the memory upon which that identity relies cannot seek for a determinate originary moment but must continuously swim in the flows of past and present, present and past. By challenging staid notions of history as the locus of an originary past, we can better understand the complexities of cultural identities and how they connect to our political projects. Although the new cultural aesthetic entails that we recognize the constructions and complexities of identity, it does not preclude our forging, at times, a political identity in the service of a unified project. Rather it asks that we note the limits and powers of the cultural identities we construct. Corpi's detective novels enunciate a new Chicana subject into the discontinuous and fragmented terrain of history, past and present.


  1. Chicana/o writers working in the detective genre include Rudolfo Anaya, Lucha Corpi, Rolando Hinojosa, Martin Limón, Max Martinez, Ricardo Means-Ybarra, Michael Nava, Manuel Ramos, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

    It is somewhat surprising that Chicana/o writers didn't turn to the detective genre earlier, for it takes up two concerns that remain central to Chicana/o letters, namely identity and history. Walter Mosley, for instance, has used five of the six Easy Rawlins novels to investigate the history of race and identity among African Americans living in Los Angeles during the late 1940s and 1960s. Mosley and other mystery writers who have investigated issues of history, memory, and culture notwithstanding, I suspect that Chicana/o writers shied away from this popular genre principally because they felt that it lacked the intellectual respect and cultural capital to earn them the literary reputations they desired.

    One might argue that Chicana/o writers should have turned to a popular genre to gain a wider audience for their ideas. Indeed, in his analysis of Lucha Corpi's Eulogy for a Brown Angel and Cactus Blood, Tim Libretti attempts to make this very point, arguing that U.S. writers of color “have consciously turned to the detective fiction genre as a popular form not to bring the genre into the canon but rather to discuss political issues raised within and by popular political movements,” choosing it “in order to reach a broader audience, indeed to reach the public who actually participates in these movements” (62). While I'm not unsympathetic to this argument, Libretti offers no evidence that the audience he imagines for these novels actually ever bought or read them. Moreover, if we look at the publishing history of Chicana/o detective novels, it would appear that they have received limited popular support. Lucha Corpi, Rolando Hinojosa, Max Martínez, and Ricardo Means-Ybarra all publish with Arte Público, a fine, but small, independent press in Houston, Texas. A stroll through a commercial bookstore such as Barnes and Noble or Borders (that is, one likely to attract a popular audience and generate mass sales) turns up very few if any titles by Arte Público. This press, which deserves much credit for promoting and supporting Latina/o writers, simply does not have the distribution and promotional resources of a commercial press. I know from conversations with Hinojosa and Corpi that they publish with Arte Público in part because that press keeps their work in print, an advantage not shared by many mass-market publications.

    Michael Nava, the most prolific Chicano detective novelist, publishes with Alyson, a press that also supports its authors by keeping their books in print, but like Arte Público, its sales figures cannot compete with those of a commercial publishing house. Ballantine, however, purchased the paperback rights for two of Nava's seven novels (The Hidden Law and How Town), increasing his circulation and bearing testimony to his marketability. In addition, his last three novels (The Burning Plain [1997], The Death of Friends [1996], and Rag and Bone [2001]) have come out with G. P. Putnam, but they have yet to be released in paperback, a key to mass consumption. Manuel Ramos publishes with St. Martin's, a major outlet for detective fiction. Of his four novels to date, however, only the first one (Ballad for Rocky Ruiz) has been brought out in paperback, and, more depressingly, of the four novels (all published between 1993 and 1997), it is the only one still in print. Contrary to the suggestion that these novels are reaching a broad audience, this history suggests that they did not generate enough popular sales to merit paperback editions.

    Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the author of the psychological thriller The House of Forgetting, has enjoyed a fair share of popularity and mainstream attention, but this was not necessarily achieved because of his thriller. Following the publication of a collection of poems, Calendar of Dust, and a book of short stories, Flowers for the Broken, Hyperion advanced him half a million dollars for his first novel, Carry Me Like Water, and did an initial print run of twenty-five thousand copies (Morris F5). He did not need to turn to a popular genre to gain a wider audience for his ideas; Hyperion was doing well at marketing his wares. Similarly, Rudolfo Anaya has enjoyed the mass distribution of Time-Warner for his three-volume Sonny Baca series (Zia Summer, Rio Grande Fall, and Shaman Winter), but again he did not need the detective novel genre to garner an audience for his ideas. He had captured a mass following with the publication of his coming-of-age tale, Bless Me, Ultima, in 1972. Finally, Martin Limón has perhaps enjoyed the broadest audience for his ideas as a result of working in the detective genre. All three novels in his George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series have come out with a commercial press (Soho and Bantam). The New York Times selected Jade Lady Burning, the first volume in the series, as a notable book of the year, and about twenty of his stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, whose circulation is listed in Writer's Market 2001 as 615,000 readers (Holm 592). The themes of Limón's novels are not in concert with the oppositional politics that Libretti discusses in his article on Corpi, however, and many of his stories deal more with Asian history than Chicana/o identity.

    No doubt the general claim that detective novels typically reach a broad audience is correct. With Chicana/o detective writers, however, that simply has not been the case. I have not done the fieldwork necessary to make hard-and-fast claims about the audience for these novels, but the publishing history I have just traced out suggests the scope of these novels' sales. In short, they simply do not compete with the sales of typical mass-market detective fiction such as that of J. A. Jance, whose novels now have initial print runs of about 195,000 (Walton and Jones 26).

  2. One, of course, sees this nostalgia in much earlier hard-boiled writing, as in Raymond Chandler's oft-cited, chivalric description of the hard-boiled detective: “[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. … He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. … I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things” (20). In his analysis of the nostalgic appeal of Chandler's novels, Fredric Jameson describes it as “generally characterized by an attachment to a moment of the past wholly different from our own, which offers a more complete kind of relief from the present” (“On Raymond Chandler” 636).

  3. For a detailed analysis of how Latina/os understand their racial and ethnic identities, see C. Rodríguez.

  4. See Limón, Mexican Ballads, for a detailed discussion of Movement poetry. Américo Paredes records the definitive account of the corrido tradition and Gregorio Cortez. María Herrera-Sobek offers a feminist analysis of the corrido tradition.

  5. I allude here to Althusser's definition of “ideology” (162).

  6. As regards the power of the dominant historical record, consider social historians of the seventies like Howard Zinn who attempted to correct the erasures of top-down history with a bottom-up version that accentuated the role of everyday people in making history. His A People's History of the United States remains one of the classic exemplars of this genre. For additional reading on masculinism in the Movement, see Martínez. See also the eleven essays that constitute the section “Chicana Feminism and the Politics of the Chicano Movement” in García. Struggles against the masculinist rememberings of the Movement also account for the narrative thread in Cactus that has Gloria compiling her deceased friend Luisa's manuscript about the role of Chicanas in the Movement.

  7. While Corpi's departure from a pat resolution to an ambivalent dissolution is characteristic of the metaphysical detective genre, as it is defined by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, her novels do not share enough of its overall features to characterize them as such. Simply put, Corpi would make uneasy generic company for the likes of metaphysicians such as Paul Auster (City of Glass), Jorge Luis Borges (“The Garden of the Forking Paths”), and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Some Clouds).

  8. As Norma Alarcón notes, “In the course of almost five centuries Malintzin has alternately retained one of her three names—Malintzin (the name given her by her parents), Marina (the name given her by the Spaniards), or Malinche (the name given her by the natives in the midst of the conquest)” (“Traddutora” 61).

  9. Norma Alarcón offers one of the most detailed and nuanced studies of Marina in her essay “Traddutora, Traditora.”

  10. Based on temporal references to the events in the two other novels, we can determine that it is 1990. Corpi's dating, however, slips on a couple of occasions. She says, for instance, that it is four years since Gloria's husband died. Well, we know from Eulogy that he died in 1988, so that would make the novel's present 1992. This marker, however, conflicts with the Black Widow's prison sentence. She was sent to jail in 1972 and released on parole after eighteen years, which would make the present moment 1990.

  11. In her earlier career as a poet, Corpi took up the figure of Marina in her collection Palabras de Mediodía/Noon Words. In this collection, as Marta Sánchez maintains, Corpi presents Marina as resigned to her fate: “Corpi's Marina does not actively resist the rape. Rather the reader must presuppose a reluctant Marina who felt she had no other choice but to submit, as men would force sex upon her in spite of her objections” (184).

I would like to thank Evan Watkins, Kathryn Hume, Don Bialostosky, Djelal Kadir, and Shawn Michelle Smith for their generous input on this essay. Deborah Chasman of Beacon Press also shared with me invaluable insights on marketing, publishing houses, and print runs. In addition, this essay profited greatly from the comments of the anonymous readers at Contemporary Literature.

Works Cited

Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 3rd ed. New York: Harper, 1988.

Alarcón, Norma. “Chicana Feminism: In the Tracks of ‘the’ Native Woman.” Chicana/o Cultural Representations: Reframing Alternative Critical Discourses. Ed. Rosa Linda Fregoso and Angie Chabram. Spec. issue of Cultural Studies 4 (1990): 248-56.

———. “Traddutora, Traditora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism.” Cultural Critique 13 (1989): 57-87.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review, 1972.

Anaya, Rudolfo. Rio Grande Fall. New York: Warner, 1996.

———. Shaman Winter. New York: Warner, 1999.

———. Zia Summer. New York: Warner, 1995.

Auster, Paul. City of Glass. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of the Forking Paths.” Trans. Donald A. Yates. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James Irby. New York: Modern Library, 1983.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Chabram Dernersesian, Angie. “‘Chicana! Rican? No, Chicana-Riqueña!’ Refashioning the Transnational Connection.” Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. 269-95.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. 1950. New York: Ballantine, 1984.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Corpi, Lucha. Black Widow's Wardrobe. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1999.

———. Cactus Blood. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1995.

———. Delia's Song. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1989.

———. Eulogy for a Brown Angel. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1992.

———. Palabras de Mediodía/Noon Words. Berkeley, CA: El Fuego de Aztlán, 1980.

———. Personal interview. 30 Sept. 1998.

Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980. 139-64.

Fusco, Coco. English Is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. New York: New P, 1995.

García, Alma, ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Gómez-Quiñones, Juan. Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940-1990. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.

Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999.

Greene, Gayle. “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 (1991): 290-321.

Herrera-Sobek, María. The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Hinojosa, Rolando. Ask a Policeman. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1998.

———. Partners in Crime. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1985.

———. Personal interview. 15 Mar. 2001.

Holm, Kirsten C., ed. Writer's Market 2001. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. “On Raymond Chandler.” Southern Review 6 (1970): 624-50.

———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.

Libretti, Tim. “Lucha Corpi and the Politics of Detective Fiction.” Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the “Other” Side. Ed. Adrienne Johnson Gosselin. New York: Garland, 1999: 61-81.

Limón, José. American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1998.

———. Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992.

Limón, Martin. Buddha's Money. New York: Bantam, 1998.

———. Jade Lady Burning. New York: Soho, 1992.

———. Slicky Boys. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Martínez, Elizabeth. “Chingón Politics Die Hard.” Z Magazine Apr. 1990: 46-50.

Martínez, Max. Layover. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1997.

———. White Leg. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1996.

Means-Ybarra, Ricardo. Brotherhood of Dolphins. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1997.

Merivale, Patricia, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, eds. Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999.

———. “The Games Afoot: On the Trail of the Metaphysical Detective Story.” Merivale and Sweeney 1-24.

Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Boston: South End, 1983.

———. “Queer Aztlán: The Re-Formation of Chicano Tribe.” The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End, 1993.

Morris, Anne. “Author Extols the Dignity of Living.” Austin-American Statesman 31 Mar. 1995: F1+.

Mosley, Walter. Black Betty. 1994. New York: Pocket Star, 1995.

———. Devil in a Blue Dress. 1990. New York: Pocket, 1991.

———. Gone Fishin'. 1997. New York: Pocket Star, 1998.

———. A Little Yellow Dog. New York: Norton, 1996.

———. A Red Death. 1991. New York: Pocket, 1992.

———. White Butterfly. 1992. New York: Pocket, 1993.

Nava, Michael. The Burning Plain. New York: Putnam's, 1997.

———. The Death of Friends. New York: Putnam's, 1996.

———. Goldenboy. 1988. Los Angeles: Alyson, 1996.

———. The Hidden Law. 1992. New York: Ballantine, 1994.

———. How Town. 1990. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

———. The Little Death. Boston: Alyson, 1986.

Astrid M. Fellner (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Fellner, Astrid M. “Migratory Subjectivities.” In Articulating Selves: Contemporary Chicana Self-Representation, pp. 111-40. Vienna: Braumüller, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Fellner emphasizes the key role of language and translation in the process of self-definition undergone by María in Demetria Martínez's Mother Tongue.]

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

—Donna Kate Rushin1

Demetria Martínez was born and raised in Albuquerque NM. She now lives in Tucson AZ, where she works as a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and is also a free-lance writer covering religious issues for the Albuquerque Journal. Martínez, like Graciela Limón, was politically committed to the protests against U.S. military aid in the civil war in El Salvador. Indicted in 1987 on charges of smuggling refugees from Central America into the U.S., she was, however, later acquitted on First Amendment grounds.2

Martínez is well-known for her collection of poetry, Turning, which is included in the book Three Times A Woman. Mother Tongue, her first novel, was the winner of the 1994 Western States Book Award for Fiction. It renders the love story of nineteen-year-old Mary and a man named José Luis, who is a political refugee from El Salvador. Mary, who suffers from depression and feels completely lonely and empty after the death of her mother, takes on the job of helping an illegal refugee to adjust to his new life in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Desperately seeking to glue together the fragments of her life, she imagines herself to be whole and complete in the experience of love. The narrative, however, is not only a bitter-sweet love story, but also a political indictment that highlights El Salvador's long and painful struggle against supported dictatorship by the U.S.

It is fitting to situate the analysis of Martínez's novel at the end of my study of Chicana literature, since this novel bridges the gaps between different languages and nationalities. The narrator/protagonist is a woman of Mexican American descent who serves as a mediator between Anglo American and Latin American culture, on the one hand, and Mexican American and El Salvadorian culture, on the other. Hence, the novel opens up the confines of Chicano/a literature to a wider Latino/a context.

I will focus on the protagonist's project of re-constructing her past in order to create a better future for her son. María's project is dedicated to her son, who is not Chicano but Latino, since his father is from El Salvador. Helping her son find his way back into his tradition by prompting him to learn Spanish and go to El Salvador to look for his father, María becomes a mediator between languages and cultures: just as with her son's father when he came to the U.S. as a refugee, María serves an intermediary function, negotiating a variety of identities. However, in interpreting her past, she also positions herself differently in relation to her own Chicano cultural encyclopedia, creating herself as an ethnic subject. Thus her text functions both as a mediation between her various selves and as a bridge connecting the multiple migrations between different cultures. Martínez's Mother Tongue straddles both sides of the border. The border, however, as I have stated before, is not a clear-cut, stable line, but is constructed on the move. The text thus again calls into question stable, continuous identities, revealing that identities are always in the process of becoming, constantly being formed and reformed at the junctures of various discourses. The text shows that the construction of a sense of belonging acquires a form that is always contingent and in flux.

Mother Tongue is thus inherently migratory as it is cross-cultural and transnational, defying any fixed notion of enclosure and boundary. It provides an ability to understand and relate a Chicana text to a range of other discourses. The intersection of various boundaries—of ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and gender—allows for the conceptualization of a variety of borderlands.


Memory, writes Gayle Green, “is our means of connecting past and present and constructing a self and versions of experience we can live with” (293). In Mother Tongue, the woman's project of reconstructing the past is inextricably linked to her memory. María's articulation of her identity is a conscious act of revisiting the past, which enables her to position herself differently in the present. Able to draw conclusions from the past, María manages to achieve a new consciousness, which allows her to create a new future. Interweaving political as well as personal themes, the articulating self contextualizes herself as a maturing young woman seeking to define herself through loving a man.

Although the faculty of memory in Mother Tongue is centered on the character of María, the story is not rendered exclusively from her perspective. The encyclopedia that the memory accesses in this text is a small shoe box containing items that trigger off recollections: diary entries, poems, recordings, newspaper clippings, and letters from her godmother, Soledad. In reconstructing her past, María includes these documents in her writing project, providing different angles on her character. The text thus follows a journal-like structure, with different voices speaking at different times. The diary entries and letters fill in María's memories, marking gaps and absences, and offering different perspectives on some events.

Mother Tongue is divided into five parts. The first three sections of the text present María's recollections of the time when she was nineteen; the fourth part goes back to a dreadful experience when María was nine years old. The last part recounts the trip to El Salvador which María undertakes with her son twenty years after she met José Luis. The epilogue—distinctly set off from María's journal-like project—consists of a letter by José Luis to María which was written after their trip to El Salvador.

María's project is undertaken in a very self-conscious way, and throughout her self-representation the reader finds hints that her identity is stitched together out of the fragmented elements of her past. The narrator deliberately positions herself as unreliable, and her story repeatedly draws attention to the constructed nature of identity. Reflexively commenting on her own writing process, the articulating self, for example, confesses, “So forgive me if I embellish; even a conjured memory is better than no memory at all if you would dare to give your life what the world did not, a myth, a plot” (MT [Mother Tongue] 37). Linking the multiple voices of the journal entries and letters, María's narrative is marked by a sense of acute immediacy, signaled by her use of the present tense. María struggles to find a voice as the process of articulation is a difficult one, and before she goes public with her story, she has to tell it to herself: “First I must tell myself the rest of the story, chew on it like oshá root, sweat it out. What I can't remember, I will invent, offer up my tales for those who were not granted time enough to recall, to mend” (MT 91). In a series of flashbacks, which keep the narrative moving, María recalls how she met José Luis, how they became lovers and how they became separated. The creative act of writing stimulates memory and she says, “As I write this, I am remembering” (MT 20). Memory thus serves a therapeutic function as it enables the narrator to gain access to the many aspects of her self. Once committed to the act of writing, there is no return, and María must tell her story from beginning to end.

The first three sections of the book have no particular audience in mind. Her story-telling project is, however, different from her journal entries; it is a public act which is addressed to a narrative ‘you.’ María's articulation of her past is a self-conscious act of story-telling marked by an adult consciousness which contrasts with the girlish, romantic diction of her diary entries. As the narrating self states:

I have not laid hands on this story for six days, have not gotten near the paper. It has taken me this long to move beyond the resentment I feel at having told you the part of the story I had intended to keep to myself. Resentment, because in telling you—whoever you are—I opened the wound […] Once a story is begun the whole thing must be told or it kills.

(MT 55)

The image of the wound as a source of creativity is common in Chicana literature and is often associated with the internalization of fear and shame. According to Rebolledo, the wound also stands for “disappearance, the working in isolation, and the extreme determination on the part of the Chicana writer not to forget” (Women [Women Singing in the Snow] 166). For María, the act of writing means opening the wound, speaking out the unspeakable and hitherto unacceptable.

From a twenty-year distance María reclaims a subject position and succeeds in breaking the silence that has lingered over her life like a stumbling block. Prone to depression, María has led a life determined by feelings of loneliness that are the result of a series of abandonments: first her father left her family, then her mother died, and at nineteen her lover deserted her, leaving her behind to raise their son alone. As a consequence, the young woman fell into a state of passivity, fleeing from the world and turning inside herself. Twenty years later, María can talk about this technique of self-defense, describing her experience of fragmentation and mental inactivity as follows:

They had words for women like me. Insane fell out of favor as did nervous breakdown. Clinically depressed was, I believe, in vogue. But ask any woman who has had times in her life when she was not all there. She will say she was asleep. And women who fall asleep and don't know why lack a plot line; this is the secret source of their shame.

(MT 17)

At nineteen the young woman was drifting through life, lacking a clear goal of where to go, and so she turned to a man, José Luis, hoping that love would free her from her dormant condition. Concomitantly, her story involves the construction of an imagined sense of belonging, sustained as much by fantasy as by the physical reality of being with another person. In the end, love turns out to be a fiction, an invention of feelings which permits a person to achieve a sense of harmonious wholeness. Upon recognition of the inevitable failure of this fabricated reality, it becomes possible for María to accept the fragmented nature of her identity, and she is able to articulate her story. The awareness of the complicated nature of her multiple selves thus opens to her the possibility to become the author of the narrative that constitutes her life.

Part four of Mother Tongue is addressed directly to the son, fulfilling a promise made at the end of part three. “Someday I have to tell my son the story of his room and the spirits that dwell there” (MT 91). María's promise goes back to the time when her son was born prematurely and, praying that he would live, María followed the advice of her godmother and “offer[ed] up [her] pain for the mothers whose children are disappeared” (MT 90). Hence, telling the story of the son's origin accomplishes her “half of a bargain [she] struck with God” (MT 101) when her son was born.

The story of her son's origin is the most difficult part of her narrative and was written long after the first three sections. As the narrator says, “Long ago I began this tale for reasons I could not yet articulate, maybe for no reason at all” (MT 101). But after María has managed to come to terms with the failure of her relationship with José Luis, she can finally sit down and tell her son the story of his origins. The night in which her son was conceived had a traumatic effect on María as it was also the occasion of violence. The victim of a cruel war, José Luis suffers from severe traumatic fits, and when María mentions a woman named Ana after they have made love, he believes that Ana, the woman he was going to marry before he fled from El Salvador, was killed. In his hallucination María becomes the enemy as he confuses her with the soldier who killed Ana and José Luis attacks María. Lying on the floor, María tries to calm José Luis down, pleading “it's me, María. It's me” (MT 102). At this very moment of affirming her identity, María remembers the incident which is the source of her depression and her feelings of worthlessness and which initially erased her identity—rape.

When left alone one day by her mother, a neighbor offered to stay with the girl and sexually molested her:

A finger in a place you hardly know exists is a knife. A knife in a place for which you have no word is the most lethal of weapons. It carves words on your inner walls to fill the void. Words like chaos, slut, don't tell, your fault.

(MT 103)

The knife is a phallic symbol that cuts into flesh, thereby literally reducing the young girl into ‘a piece of meat.’ Carving out a hole, a void that is obliterating, the knife simultaneously fills this nothingness with guilt and shame.

In retelling the scene of her sexual molestation, the thirty-nine-year-old narrator and the seven-year-old girl fuse in an image of pain. The sentences are set off typographically from each other to show how difficult it is for María to recall the event:

I can only speak of this a few sentences at a time. Bear with me. I cannot recall everything. I might never recall everything. But see the blank spaces between sentences? I promise to fill them in if I do remember. For now let the blank spaces honor that in me which is too injured to remember. Bear with us, the thirty-nine-year-old woman, the seven-year-old-girl. Honor.

(MT 103)

Rape is the experience that dis-members and, as the narrator says, “The man smiles his minus sign smile, canceling the girl” (MT 103).3 The minus sign on the penetrator's face obliterates the girl's identity, transforming her into an invisible, silent being. When her lover strikes her, María remembers this brutal scene in her childhood when she says her name in Spanish and not in English:

Twenty years later I still go by the name, María. When I said to José Luis, it's me, María, I remembered. And the ghost of the man with the minus sign fled. The demon could not bear it. He could not bear the sound of my true name.

(MT 104)

As a result, María can write about her rape in a letter to Soledad, but she continues to feel dis-membered. When twenty years later she embarks on her project of reconstructing her past, she stops her narrative at the precise moment that she is sitting in the room where she was hit by José Luis and has to admit that there “are some memories I would rather fight to the death. Fight, rather than say to my son, mijito, once upon a time …” (MT 92).

María decides to engage in a re-writing of her past with all its painful details when she sees that her son is drifting away from his Latino ancestry. María's son, who is named after his father, has his father's angry streak. Born and raised in the U.S., he is not at all interested in learning Spanish and finding out about his father's whereabouts. When she suggests to her son that he should go to El Salvador as a volunteer, José Luis gets mad, and María notices that his face turns into the same expression as his father's: “No sooner had the thought escaped from my mouth when a terrible storm gathered in that Olmec Indian face of his, wide and round and brown as cinnamon” (MT 87). It becomes clear to María that she must help her son accept his Latino heritage.

When the son has heard the story of his origin, he wants to go to El Salvador to look for his father. The last part of the book opens with a journal entry by María's son, rendering his thoughts when he and his mother are about to land in San Salvador: “After she told me all about my father, I said we have to try and find out if he's dead or alive” (MT 111). The journey to El Salvador brings about important changes in both María and her son: María begins to participate in political activism, and her son decides to take his life into his own hands.

Unlike the previous novels discussed in this study, where the protagonists' projects of ethnic articulation serve the function of self-creation or self-invention, the ethnic project in Martínez's novel is primarily performed for the sake of her son. In reconstructing her past for him, however, María also manages to make sense out of her experiences, which allows her to re-member with her own community.

María's ethnogenesis is a creative articulation of her past which—although temporally going back to her adolescence—is situated in the future. The letters and diary entries that are included in her project are dated 1982, and since María writes from a twenty-year distance, the act of writing is projected into the year 2002. The last paragraph mentions her age—she is forty when she completes her project—indicating that a year has passed since she began her narrative. María's tracing of her ethnicity is not a ‘search for her identity.’ Although María is of Mexican descent, she cannot speak Spanish very well and, until she meets José Luis, goes by the name of Mary. When writing about the times when her lover taught her Spanish, she chooses to focus on the future form of the Spanish verb ‘to go,’ which José Luis made her conjugate: “I was young, future tense came naturally to me: Iré, irás … I will go, you will go” (MT 31). As the adult María thinks back, she remembers: “I have always lacked talent for living in the here and now, and back then I was easily transported into luminous, unobtainable futures” (MT 31). The focus on the future epitomizes the nature of María's project of articulation: seeing that it is possible to create her identity anew, she also realizes that the future is indeed obtainable. Her project, then, ends on a positive note, in which she metaphorically manages to transform the object that has constituted the very source of her silence—the dismembering patriarchal knife—into a creative tool with which to give shape to her life. She concludes: “I have melted down sadness and joy into a single blade with which to carve out a life. And I am just beginning to discern the shape that was there all along, just beginning to become me” (MT 119). The repetition of the word ‘beginning’ accentuates the new consciousness María has gained through the transformative power of telling her life-story.


Mother Tongue records the passage of an ethnic subject from complacency to action, from social dislocation to political commitment, and from individual oblivion to collective memory. It is through recollections of the past that María can represent herself to herself; it is through this representation that she recognizes herself.

As a young woman, María attempts to define her identity in relation to a man. Feeling lost and insecure, María hopes to find a sense of place and belonging in the experiences of love. The death of her mother leaves the nineteen-year-old fragile and depressed, and she drops out of college. Not knowing what to do in the summer of 1982, she agrees to help her godmother Soledad, who is actively involved in smuggling in refugees from El Salvador. María is to pick the refugee up from the airport, hide him in Soledad's house in Albuquerque, and help him become ‘Americanized,’ while Soledad and her volunteers make arrangements for his application for political asylum or, if this fails, an eventual transfer to Canada via the ‘underground railroad.’ At the beginning María declares that she is not interested in politics and views the appearance of this man as a potential center in her empty life: “Before his arrival the chaos of my life had no axis about which to spin. Now I had a center” (MT 4). When she spots the handsome Salvadoran exile at the gate of his airplane, she interprets the intense feeling as love at first sight and immediately hopes that this man will save her from her misery. The first sentence of the book is a poetic description of the refugee's arrival, blending María's personal feelings with the political context:

His nation chewed him up and spat him out like a piñon shell, and when he emerged from an airplane one late afternoon, I knew I would one day make love with him. He had arrived in Albuquerque to start life over, or at least sidestep death, on this husk of red earth, this Nuevo Méjico.

(MT 3)

Likewise, María hopes to start life over by having a new purpose: she wants to help the tortured exile forget his pain, by “taking the war out of him” (MT 3). The two people begin to know each other and gradually their lives fuse. Putting his needs above hers and surrendering her body to José Luis, María attempts to heal his wounds, but the more she tries to give, the more she loses her sense of identity. Twenty years later, the narrator clearly criticizes this conception of love:

I handed my body over to José Luis like a torch to help him out of his dark places. I felt no shame. I was utterly unoriginal. To love a man more than one's self was a socially acceptable way for a woman to be insane.

(MT 17)

Believing that she can recognize herself in her lover, María, whose self is fragmented, imagines herself to be whole and complete, not knowing that this sense of her self is inevitably the work of the imagination, a fiction. As the mature woman says, “For a long time after José Luis left me I continued to believe a man could touch my essence, make me whole” (MT 42).

Catherine Belsey argues that the postmodern condition necessarily brings with it an incredulity towards the concept of ‘true love.’ While romantic love is endlessly pursued in postmodern texts, it is at the same time questioned and doubted as an illusion. Mother Tongue is such a paradoxical text: it reflects a desire for metaphysical, true love, yet suspects it, rendering its failure inevitable. Desire follows from lack and can only take the form of metonymy. According to Lacan, desire is an absence buried in the unconscious, and as a consequence is “speechless, hollowed within the utterance which is a demand for love” (Belsey 685).4 Unable to speak, desire is nonetheless written in postmodern texts. Mother Tongue “repudiates the modernist nostalgia for the unpresentable” (Belsey 687). In writing desire, the text exposes love as a fiction and thus “refuses to be silent in the face of what cannot be said” (Belsey 687).

Whereas part one of Martínez's text renders María's love story and her expectations, part two dismantles love as a fabrication. Part two opens with a journal entry written by José Luis, in which he identifies María's love for him as an illusion: “And in my own imperfect way, I love her too. I love her for believing that I can be whole, for loving me even if I exist largely as a figment of her imagination” (MT 53). María's love soon becomes too much for José Luis and he realizes that he cannot give her what she really needs. “She wants a whole new self. It's too great a burden for me” (MT 53).

María imagines herself as a “whole new self” in the experience of love. Initially, she is happy because her lover serves as a mirror to reflect a complete picture of her self. As she admits, “men were mirrors that allowed me to see myself at different angles. Outside this function, they did not exist” (MT 13). The mirror is a Lacanian concept and relates to the phase in childhood when the infant discovers and identifies with the image of a unified body. This image, which is the same as the one that love projects, provides the child with a first glimpse of wholeness. According to Lacan, however, this first recognition is a méconnaissance, a misrecognition based on an illusion, as there is a gap between the child's state of fragmentation and the je-idéal, the Ideal-I.5

Thus, when José Luis draws back from María, the young woman feels as if she were collapsing. In order to save herself from falling into a state of depression, she makes a list of things that she can do so that she “won't fall apart” (MT 61). In a diary note, the young woman recalls writing letters to herself at high school when she was in a good mood, signing them “the real you,” but now that she loves José Luis she cannot remember “the real me.” “It's terrifying, that you can love someone so much that you lose your own self in the uproar” (MT 62).

Not knowing the refugee's Christian name, María hopes that by loving the ‘real’ man, the man he was before the war, which erased his identity and turned him into an exiled person with a new name, she can help him forget the memories of his torture. This is an attitude that José Luis clearly identifies as American: “It is so American. The belief that people can be remade from scratch in the promised land, leaving the old self behind” (MT 52-53). But José Luis knows that his ‘old self’ is part of his selves and he realizes that María's and his realities are incompatible. Too often he is aware of a clash of cultures and he perceives María as alien: “Even church bells mean something different to us. She hears them and sets her watch. I hear them and remember the endless funerals in the villages outside the capital” (MT 78).

María slowly begins to discover that the scars on his body are only outward signs of a much deeper wound, and when she is told that the thirty-three strange marks on his back come from cigarettes stubbed out by torturers, María becomes aware of the political reality that José Luis has fled from. From an adult perspective, María turns the description of these scars into a political statement, denouncing politics in El Salvador and, by extension, in the U.S., which supported the regime in the name of democracy:

And as I so often did in those days, I refused to believe my own eyes. I refused to believe that what I was seeing was a pattern of scars, the legend to the map of his life—1982, someone had branded those numbers into his back. You had to really look to see, as if searching heaven for the big dipper on a cloudy night. Nineteen eighty-two was the year he was tortured, that thousands were tortured. In a country the size of Massachusetts. In a country named after Christ.

(MT 81)

José Luis considers marrying María, knowing that if he did, his fate would not depend on his application for political asylum anymore, but then he decides that this act would be a betrayal of María. Hence, he decides to leave her and return to El Salvador, especially after the news is brought to him that two nuns have been murdered there and mutilated by death squads.

In the epilogue the reader learns that José Luis spent several years hidden in El Salvador before he went to Canada to help refugees find ways to return home. In an undated letter written in Ontario, Canada, José Luis admits that the act of leaving María was not right and he sends her a collection of poems, hoping that she will approve of his English translations. It could be argued that the letter points to a happy ending of the love affair, as José Luis's words “I have so many stories to tell you, María. I pray you have not forgotten me” (MT 121) signal his return to María. Read this way, the epilogue would give rise to the hope for a fulfillment of romantic love. In my opinion, the ending is deliberately open, leaving it to the reader to decide whether José Luis will come back. While the fact that José Luis is alive is important for the son, a potential reunion is not relevant any longer to María's sense of her identity. Through the project of reconstructing her past, María has already disentangled the mechanisms involved in her relationship with José Luis and she can identify the constructed nature of her love for the refugee. María has gained a new consciousness and she realizes that love cannot function as an anchor to identity; only through the articulation of the various elements of her self can she construct her identity.


The title of a novel constitutes the initial frame of the ethno-semiotic activity in a text. In Mother Tongue, the title alludes to Spanish as the mother tongue of Latinos/as and is closely associated with notions of linguistic identity and origin.6 It may seem ironic that despite the expressed need of María's project to learn Spanish the text is written in English. Most Chicano/a novels are written in English, and, as Rebolledo assumes, Chicano/a writers “may nostalgically wish they could write in Spanish, but perhaps they do not control that language well enough, or if they do, they feel unable to write in Spanish because of English-only policies that tend to erase alternative languages” (Women 172). Most Chicano/a writers, I think, regard themselves as American writers and have a wider English-speaking audience in mind when they write. Whatever the reason, Mother Tongue is written in English with a strong Spanish presence buried in the text.

In Martínez's text, the narrator is a Chicana from New Mexico who grew up speaking English and was called Mary until the age of nineteen. Her Spanish, as she admits herself years later, “was like an old car, parts missing or held together with clothes hanger wire” (MT 7). Upon meeting José Luis, Mary/María follows her godmother's advice to use the experience and improve her Spanish. Encouraging her to “write soon—in Spanish” (MT 26), the godmother is eager to offer guidance to the young lost woman.

The figure of the godmother, the comadre, is an archetype in Chicana literature.7 Offering companionship and spiritual edification, the godmother serves as a confidante, especially for motherless daughters. Apart from being a political activist, María's godmother Soledad is also a curandera, a spiritual healer, who works with herbs, incense and oils. Traditional healing rituals function to cure physical as well as emotional illnesses. Concerned that María is given too much to New Age philosophy, Soledad wants to guide María back to her culture, helping her find strength in her spiritual self. Soledad sends María recipes of foods that are supposed to replenish her energy, and she wants her to focus on political issues that are related to her cultural heritage. She warns the young woman: “You've been reading too many of those Eastern mystical books. You can't even hear yourself think in El Salvador” (MT 70). Soledad wants to help María find a direction in life and does so by asking her to take care of a political refugee, hoping that Mary/María will become interested in politics and eventually find her way back to Chicano/a culture.

In exchange for being driven around, José Luis offers to help Mary/María with her Spanish, and soon they discover a common passion: writing poetry. As part of a Spanish lesson, José Luis has the woman translate a poem he has written and soon they “made [their] way across borders of language without passports or permits” (MT 43). Loving a Salvadoran also triggers off her love for Spanish, and their love becomes a sign of bilingualism and biculturality: “We opened up like sacred books, Spanish on one side, English on the other, truths simultaneously translated” (MT 41).

Poetry is also responsible for the woman's budding interest in politics. José Luis's poems engender in Mary/María a desire to “want to sell [her] belongings, smuggle refugees across the border, protest government policies” (MT 43). This latter-day concern for politics is also related to her realization that her inability to use Spanish and her lack of interest in her heritage are the consequences of her assimilation into American society. Hence, as Mary/María becomes politicized, she realizes that reclaiming Spanish is crucial to the construction of her cultural identity.

Until she meets José Luis, the young woman identifies herself as Mary. However, the name Mary is not simply the English equivalent of María, but has different connotations. The Americanization of the Spanish name has contributed to the protagonist's sense of being silenced in American society. When José Luis one day asks Mary if he can call her by her Spanish name, the woman is still not aware of the cultural dimension of proper names: “For no reason I could discern, he looked at me and asked me if he could call me María. I said of course, it's just Spanish for Mary. He said no, Mary is English for María” (MT 45). It is not until the night when José Luis hits her and she calms him down by repeating her name in Spanish that the woman realizes that María is “her true name” (MT 104). From that moment Mary uses the name María, and “twenty years later [she] still go[es] by the name, María” (MT 104). By imploding her name, María also realizes that her Spanish name is linked to her legacy, and the reinscription of her Spanish name María is thus an important step towards seizing her subjectivity.

Names are essential to the process of self-definition, but they are also a means of appropriation. When the Salvadoran refugee enters the U.S., María tells him to change his name, insisting that he pick one himself. She does not want to force a new name on him as this would remind her of colonization by the Spaniards in Latin America. The exile picks the name José Luis, and María does not want to know his real Christian name as it is more important for her to love the ‘real’ man.

When María gives birth to her son, she names him after his father in order to “make a made-up name real” (MT 92). Bearing the name of his father, the son also carries his cultural baggage. As his mother says, José Luis is of a generation that can “peer into the future” (MT 86), and when María sees that her son is more interested in science and computers than in his heritage, she thinks that knowledge of his ethnic past is important for his future. Rather than preach to him, she decides to reconstruct her past for him and leave it to her son to take further action. Upon arrival in El Salvador they soon discover that the father's real name is also José Luis. Still not knowing whether he is alive or not, they are happy because, as the son says to his mother, “he told you his real name because he loved you and he wanted to give you something real” (MT 115). It is not until the epilogue that the reader learns that José Luis is indeed alive.

The trip to El Salvador also brings about a change in the son. After having seen “so many people who looked like him, he no longer had to bear the burden of his heritage by himself. He became free to explore new selves, new expressions” (MT 118). This exploration of his selves also involves learning Spanish and signing up for a science project in El Salvador. At the end of the book, María is proud to say that when her son talks to her, there are “tufts of Spanish” in his “lush and amber waves of English” (MT 117).

Mother Tongue represents a Chicana's project of articulating her past, which involves an interrogation of her mother tongue. Thus, when María looks back into her past, she offers a reinterpretation of her ethnicity as she also positions herself differently in relation to her Chicano cultural encyclopedia. In investigating the language of her ancestors and presenting the results to an audience—the narrative ‘you’ of the text—María attempts to make her cultural reality understood to the American mainstream.

The dismantling of the fabricated nature of her identity also contains an undoing of the illusionary stability of linguistic identity. Lacanian psychoanalysis holds that a ‘mother’ tongue does not exist. All languages are stamped by the ‘Law of the Father’ and the entrance into language signals the death of ‘the Real.’ The loss of the ‘real I’ is irreparable; it is thus impossible to return to an origin. The narrator in Mother Tongue is a person in transit between two linguistic codes, and it is precisely this in-betweenness that “constitutes a vantage point in deconstructing identity” (Braidotti 12). Hence, in her genealogical investigation, María can also expose the concept of the mother tongue as a fiction.

Defying the binary relation of ‘English versus Spanish,’ Martínez's text represents an in-between consciousness similar to a bridge linking two linguistic codes. Rather than mix languages like Anzaldúa or Moraga,8 Martínez offers the concept of translation as a site of linguistic exchange. Multiplicities of languages and cultures allow the Chicana writer to choose from various repertoires. Showing that “there are no mother tongues, just linguistic sites one takes her/his starting point from” (Braidotti 13), Martínez introduces the figure of the interpreter who serves as a mediator between multiple cultures and perspectives. The interpreter is polyglot and as such a linguistic nomad, who is a “variation on the theme of critical nomadic consciousness” (Braidotti 12). The protagonist moves between countries, cultures, and languages, offering a renewed vision created by revisiting the past.


In Martínez's novel, the concept of the mother tongue is a direct reference to the image of La Malinche, who is also known as la lengua (the tongue). María functions as a translator, offering a re-evaluation of the cultural poetic figure of La Malinche. As a transmitter of literary expressions, María engages in a conscious translation of various aspects of the cultural encyclopedia, managing to deconstruct the limiting role of cultural metaphors and turning them into productive symbols.

As explained in my introductory chapter, La Malinche, or Doña Marina as she is also called, is a controversial figure in Chicana literature, as she has been viewed as the betrayer of her culture. As symbolically the ‘first’ indigenous woman to know Spanish, Malinche served as a translator to Cortez, and “she was able to use words to communicate culture, to integrate culture, to assimilate, to not assimilate, to start a new race, and to forge a new culture” (Rebolledo, Women 125). Because of her ability to translate for Cortez, helping him achieve power over the Aztecs, Malinche is considered “the first translator of the foreign male/mail (patriarchal communication)” (ibid.). She was also an object of sexual desire, and since she was taken by force, she is la chingada, the violated one, who had the violator's child, and was viewed as having betrayed her culture and her race. Malinche is also seen to have been violated in language and by a language that she adopted. Accepting the foreigner both through her body and her tongue, she has traditionally been considered a passive victim of ‘conquest’ by the Spanish/European male and has therefore been rejected by patriarchy and has symbolically been blamed for the conquest of a whole country.

In Mother Tongue, Martínez has reinterpreted the figure of La Malinche, using her linguistic talents and turning them into the art of writing. In taking in a refugee, serving as a mediator to him, and bearing his son, the narrator in Mother Tongue clearly resembles Malinche. Through her project of critically interrogating her mother tongue, however, María reinterprets Malinche as a positive symbol, presenting her as the mother of a new mestizo culture. Treasuring her for her linguistic abilities, María identifies with the act of interpretation as a conscious shift from one language to another that functions as a communicative bridge, stimulating a better understanding between cultures.

In Mother Tongue, the protagonist's ethnic project is an investigation of her traditio and, as a motherless daughter, María traces her story all the way back to Malinche as her cultural mother and origin. Although she bears the name of another symbolic mother, the Virgin Mary, María adopts Malinche as her cultural heroine. The Catholic tradition of the Virgin Mary weighs on the young woman like a burden, and, as the protagonist admits,

I needed a mystery—someone outside of ordinary time who could rescue me from an ordinary life, from my name, Mary, a blessing name that had become my curse. At age nineteen, I was looking for a man to tear apart the dry rind of that name so I could see what fruit fermented inside.

(MT 11)

When María meets the refugee from El Salvador, she feels she can split open the “dry rind” of her tradition by identifying with Malinche. Because of her diplomatic abilities, Malinche can also be seen as the savior from the complete annihilation of the indigenous culture of Mexico. It is in “this capacity as intercessor (translator) and helper that La Malinche takes on the attributes of the Virgin of Guadalupe” (Rebolledo, Women 65). Freeing herself from her state of passivity, María assumes the active role of cultural mediator, helping José Luis adapt to his new surroundings in the U.S.

José Luis can be likened to Hernán Cortez; he arrives in New Mexico and ‘conquers’ María. The parallels are, however, reversed: because of the United States' support of the regime in El Salvador, this Latin American country can be seen as a colony. José Luis's ‘conquest,’ then, can be interpreted as the invasion of the center by the colonized. Thus, immigration to the U.S. constitutes the return of colonized people from the periphery. It is this function of “the conquered one” that María has to come to terms with.

When María falls in love with José Luis, she knows that the refugee considers her an American, part of enemy culture. Politically disinterested and alienated from her cultural roots, María is, according to José Luis, a product of her culture (cf. MT 78). When María yields her body to him in order to “take the war out of him,” she is aware that is following in Malinche's footsteps:

He saw in me an image of a gringa whose pale skin and tax dollars are putting his compatriots to death. My credentials, the fact that I am Mexican American, don't count now; in fact, they make things worse. In his anger he looks at me and sees not a woman but a beast, a Sphinx. Earlier in the morning, he made love to a Chicana. But after telling him the news of the nuns' death, I am transfigured. For a terrible, disfigured moment, I am yanqui, a murderess, a whore.

(MT 75)

Through the process of rewriting her relationship with José Luis and, in particular, through translating José Luis's journal entries and poems, María turns this negative aspect of La Malinche into a positive, creative force. When José Luis went away, he left his notebook with María, and after twenty years María has finally overcome the pain associated with this man and starts to translate the notes: “Until now I haven't had the nerve to translate one line from José Luis's journal. I should have just buried it. I might have saved myself the pain of having to open it up to identify the remains” (MT 54). Upon reading José Luis's notes, María realizes that she has not betrayed her culture, but her own identity: “He was right to leave his notebook with me. It has not betrayed his identity. But it is betraying mine, handing it over to be tried before a court in which I am the jury and judge” (MT 54). Just like at court, María recalls past events, coming to the conclusion that by loving José Luis she actually betrayed her selves. In order to offer a better future to her son, María, therefore, has to go back to her past to re-create herself as a mother. By including translations of recordings, notebook entries, and poems in her project of reconstructing her past, María becomes the mother of her text, engendering an artistic space in which she can give birth to her multiple selves.

Dedicated to the memory of the disappeared, Mother Tongue is a tribute to all the people who vanished during the ten-year civil war in El Salvador. La Malinche is also related to the figure of La Llorona, the wailing woman who, having murdered her children, eternally laments her lost offspring. Mourning the loss of the people of Mexico, La Llorona is symbolic of Chicano/a culture, whose children have assimilated into dominant American mainstream culture. In Mother Tongue, the protagonist also transforms this traditionally negative mother image into a source of strength, depicting La Llorona as the searcher for her lost, betrayed selves.

At the end of her trip to El Salvador, María is given a poster “of a dark lady wearing a white scarf and holding a crown of thorns” (MT 116), which is the Virgin Mary in her representation as Mother of the Disappeared. When María comes home, she hangs this poster above her bedroom altar and sticks a photograph of herself as a child and of her son's father in the corners of the frame. Lighting a candle and contemplating the icon of the Mother of the Disappeared for a long time, María finally attains to peace: “She smiled and said that the Mother of the Disappeared is forever remembering, forever waiting for everyone to return. ‘Mijo [my son], I can get on with my life now,’ she said” (MT 117). The three mother images of the text—La Malinche, La Llorona, and La Virgen—merge into a single complex mother figure who encompasses different qualities, bridging the multiple elements within her self. The faculty of remembering is not seen as a passive state of waiting, but as an active re-membering, a performative act which links past, present, and future individually and collectively into a productive cycle of renewal. The ethnic articulation is a project of translation that bridges the borders of cultures, language, and history. Dealing with a Chicana and a Salvadoran, Martínez's text presents a mother figure who is the creator of a new world—a Latino world.


  1. “The Bridge Poem” in Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back xxii.

  2. For further detail, see Jane Juffer's articles “Sanctuary Crackdown Nabs Reporter” and “An Ominous Indictment.”

  3. In “The Politics of Rape” María Herrera-Sobek states that “the violation itself symbolizes the final act which obliterates women from the system. The process of raping, ‘making an absence,’ transforms women into silent, invisible, nonexistent entities—as holes to be filled by males” (249).

  4. Desire cannot speak, but it can exist in figures, and, as Derrida has stressed, “What cannot be said above all must not be silenced, but written” (Postcard 194). In a text which deals with silence and the painful process of writing the unspeakable, the importance that desire should be written down becomes obvious.

  5. As is well-known, Lacan posits three stages in the development of human beings: the mirror stage, the imaginary, and the symbolic. Since it is in the mirror stage that the infant discovers its own image, which becomes ‘other’ to the self, subjectivity is established in this phase. For further details, see “The Mirror Stage” in Écrits, 1-7.

  6. According to Boelhower, when memory enters the cultural encyclopedia, the subject can—in the reinterpretation of his/her past—give an account of a type-scene version of this encyclopedia. In recent ethnic literature such a type-scene is the concern with the ethnic subject's loss of his/her mother tongue and the need to re-learn it. The theme of Spanish as a lost tongue is a common theme in Latino/a literature and is closely connected to issues of cultural origin. See, for instance, Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years, in which Moraga depicts her struggle to regain her mother tongue. See also Gloria Anzaldúa's chapters “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and “Tlilli, Tlapalli: the Path of the Red and Black Ink” in her Borderlands.

  7. For further detail, see Ana Castillos's chapter “Toward the Mother—Bond Principle” in her Massacre of the Dreamers.

  8. Many Chicano/a texts, especially poems, make use of code-switching, the changing of linguistic codes within one sentence or one paragraph. Anzaldúa's Borderlands is such an affirmation of “Chicano Spanish.” See also the poems by José Montoya, Angela de Hoyos, and Lorna Dee Cervantes.


Belsey, Catherine. “Postmodern Love: Questioning the Metaphysics of Desire.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 25.3 (1994): 683-705.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Green, Gayle. “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory.” Signs 16.2 (Winter 1991): 290-321.

Martínez, Demetria. Mother Tongue. Tempe AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1994.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana. Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analysis of Chicana Literature. Tucson: Arizona UP, 1995.

Maria Antònia Oliver-Rotger (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Oliver-Rotger, Maria Antònia. Introduction to Battlegrounds and Crossroads: Social and Imaginary Space in Writings by Chicanas, pp. 21-62. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Oliver-Rotger interprets Anzaldúa's Borderlands in light of postmodern critical theory, especially that of Jacques Derrida, noting Anzaldúa's seminal role in illuminating Chicana marginalization.]

The border is the border, and it would not make any sense to divide it into sides. It is the place that it is, the country that it is, because of the influence and the inbreeding of the Mexican and the North American cultures.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba

assimilated? qué assimilated,
brother, yo soy asimilao

Tato Laviera

Gloria Anzaldúa has stated that “the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (unpaged Preface to Borderlands/La Frontera). To be sure, there are many other cultural and geo-political borderlands inside the U.S. and outside the U.S. that are beyond the limits and aim of this work. In our postmodern era the fact that we all have a borderland identity boils down to an awareness of being both local and global, regional and cosmopolitan at the same time, of being part of a world culture where we all vindicate our particularity. Yet, in being porous, hybrid places of interaction between different peoples, the physical places we call borders stage the clash of languages and customs, as well as of racial and economic hostilities. The cultural and economic clashes on the legal fringes of a nation point at the traumatic aspects of living in-between codes, languages, and environments. These interactions, conflicts, and new meanings originate in very specific areas, but extend to and permeate the arenas of the law, the media, public opinion, and justice. In the particular contemporary geo-political context of Spain, we may certainly speak of a border culture emerging from the increasing presence of migrant peoples of African descent, which brings to mind the coexistence of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures in the past. Our national space, though delimited by geographical and political boundaries, is by no means homogeneous. It is precisely in its very boundaries where cultural, social, and economic conflicts emerge, which then affect the rest of the state. The affluence of African immigration to the Spanish regions of Ceuta and Melilla in the African continent has caused them to be called “border spaces” or “borderlands.”1 The gradual militarization of these regions, the controversy over the Spanish “Ley de Estrangería” (Immigration Law) and over the treatment received by clandestine immigrants, as well as the discomfort of those who fear their presence around them, are only the first obvious signs of the complicated interaction of very different cultures and economies. At the other end of the country, Catalunya and Euskadi are cultural nations that have certainly developed a bilingual and even multi-lingual border culture, or border identity.2 There are those who still insist on essential Catalan and Basque identities, but I view these regions as borderlands. Catalunya and Euskadi have never been officially granted the status of nation states. In spite of this fact, or perhaps precisely because of it, the representation of their present political, economic, and cultural reality will always waver between their past self-image as nations and their actual political and economic ties to Spain, Europe, and the rest of the world.

For Nuyoricans, Puerto-Ricans living in New York, the city is that geographical borderland between the United States and their colonized island, a line epitomizing their halfway, discontinuous existence between Puerto-Rico and the U.S. This existence is difficult to define, as it always involves the erasure of one part of themselves by one group or another. In his poem “asimilao” the Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera evokes the lost side of his identity, his boricua (indigenous, jíbaro) past while at the same time putting the notion of assimilation to the Spanish and American ethoi under erasure:

assimilated? qué assimilated,
brother, yo soy asimilao,
así mi la o sí es verdad,
tengo un lado asimilao.
you see, they went deep. … Ass
oh … … they went deeper … SEE
oh, oh, … they went deeper … ME
but the sound LAO was too black
for LATED, LAO could not be
translated, assimilated,
no, asimilao, melao,
it became a black
spanish word but
we do have asimilados
perfumados and by the
last count even they
were becoming asimilao
how can it be analyzed
as american? así que se
pero no
con el AO
de la palabra
principal, déles gracias a los prietos
que cambiaron asimilado al popular asimilao.

(Amerícan 54)

Laviera plays on the differential meaning of the English, Spanish, and colloquial arrabal Spanish suffixes -lated, -lado, -lao. The modification of the English and Spanish words “assimilated” and “asimilado” questions the speaker's complete assimilation to both American and Spanish cultures; in addition, the speaker's alternate use of English and Spanish testifies to the imprint American and Spanish cultures have left upon him. As he says, he is “asimilao,” and part of that assimilation is his American “ME” emerging after the American penetration of Puerto Rico. The poem ironically describes it as a sexual encounter giving rise to his partly American self: “Ass … SEE … ME.” “Lao” (“lado” in standard Spanish), meaning side, is the signifier of resistance that admits the influence of both cultures, but denies that they exist in full being. “Lao” stands in for an untranslatable trace in his Nuyorican identity. The suffix, characteristic of colloquial arrabalero Spanish, does not stand for a black baro/prieto side that resists colonial penetration. After all, the speaker says “yo soy asimilao.” The ending “milao” evokes the sweet syrup made in Puerto Rico called “melao,” obtained through the evaporation of the purified juice of sugar cane. In spite of resorting to this local image, “lao” is the jíbaro sound that allows the speaker to say that he is neither one thing nor the other, neither American nor Spanish. Even the “asimilados perfumados” (perfumed, upper-class, assimilated people of Puerto Rican descent) become “assimilaos,” that is, an impure mixture of cultures giving rise to a third untranslatable identity that cannot “be [fully] analyzed as american,” because it is not.

The notion of the borderlands or la frontera as an impure space, as a problematic and contradictory “lao” (side) of its own is the critical paradigm that runs all through this study. Of all the works dealing with the Mexican-American border experience from a female point of view, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera is a clear attempt to narrate the impact of the material reality of the borderlands upon the female subject. Anzaldúa seeks to forge a new paradigm with which we can understand the multiplicity of issues that are being dealt with in writings by Chicanas. Borderlands establishes a constant dialectics between the real spaces where the speaker sets material and emotional conflicts and the imagined space where the speaking subject places her critique of a variety of nationalist, patriarchal, sexist, classist, racist, and homophobic discourses that have affected her and her people directly. The revolutionary power of Borderlands lies in its capacity to break boundaries between self and collectivity, theory and praxis, politics and aesthetics. In doing so, it proposes a different form of thought, a mestiza consciousness that does not fully reject standard genealogies, categories and definitions, but proposes to look at them as provisional, imperfect, and not always useful. The term “borderlands” in the title of this work alludes directly to Gloria Anzaldúa's cultural autobiography because I consider the interplay of the literary representation of “social” spaces and “imaginary” spaces to be linked to the expression of a contradictory and resisting subjectivity. The representation of space in Chicana literature is analyzed here as a speculation upon a variety of (psychological, cultural, political, and social) Mexican-American realities. A closer reading of Borderlands/La Frontera is in order here so as to elaborate on the critical paradigm that I have chosen to analyse these works.

Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera is, as Caren Kaplan would put it, a “collective autobiography,” an “out-law genre” (“Resisting Autobiography” 115). Such genres defy conventional distinctions between autobiography, poetic prose, mythical or magical narrative, political pamphlet and/or manifesto, critical essay, and historical document. Borderlands incorporates and mingles all of these genres in an original production where the more aesthetic space of the text is grounded in the historical and political circumstances that pervade the “real” material space the speaking subject has inhabited. The terms “borderlands/la frontera” do not refer to a psychological disposition that easily accommodates contradictory categories. Anzaldúa is concerned with the psychological and emotional struggle of those living in the geographical, cultural, political, and/or economic or imaginary borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. This is a struggle to wrestle with notions of self and community imposed by a variety of cultures and to forge a sense of place out of a sense of constant displacement. She addresses this struggle as a member of a collectivity and as an individual. On the one hand, she is out to make her readership conscious of the history of oppression of the Mexican-American community and of Mexican-American women; on the other, she describes the effects of such oppression on herself, a lesbian who has lived in-between two cultures and two genders. Her position, as she says repeatedly, is that of mediator. She is someone who speaks for herself as both subject (a writer, an academic, an author) and as object (descendant of a Texan family of farmers whose territories were expropriated, a Chicana, a lesbian): “I am visible—see this Indian face—yet I am invisible. I both blind them with my beak nose and am their blind spot. But I exist, we exist. They'd like to think I have melted in the pot. But I haven't, we haven't” (87). Taking that double position and refusing to do away with it, she uses her knowledge, her privilege, and her personal experience as a woman of Mexican origin, a descendant of field workers, and a lesbian in order to establish a dialogue between these multiple locations and identities. Her autobiographical persona can both learn “to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view […] to juggle cultures” (79).

The first chapter of her work begins with a geographical figuration of intercultural bloodshed. The speaker places her own personal struggle within the history of her homeland, the side of the U.S.-Mexican border “between the Nueces and the Rio Grande,” which she describes as an “open wound,” “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (3). This land, Anzaldúa says, “has survived possession and ill-use by five countries: Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the U.S., the Confederacy, and the U.S. again. It has survived Anglo-Mexican blood feuds, lynchings, burnings, rapes, pillage” (90). The occupation of Texas and what is now the Southwest of the United States began around the 1820s and culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). By this treaty Mexico was stripped of the territories that today comprise the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and half of Colorado. The border region where Anzaldúa was born has been shaped by the Spanish conquest, the illegal but permitted migration of Anglos into Texas, the creation of the Texas Republic by the Anglo-Texans, and the final annexation of Texas by the U.S. The history of the Texas border between Mexico and the U.S. is one of violent clashes, poverty, and displacement. Anzaldúa's birthplace suffered the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century and the U.S. invasion and “deterritorialization” of Mexican indigenous peoples since the early 1800s.3 U.S. imperialism led to the creation of the Republic of Texas by Anglo-Texans in 1836, to the eventual annexation of the territory to the U.S. in 1848, and to Native Mexicans' virtual abandonment of the region in the 1850s.

Anzaldúa tells us that the industrialization of the border following land expropriations and bringing about the establishment of agribusiness corporations and factories in the 1880s, accounts for the massive presence of a poor Mexican migrant working class in this area. In the first chapter of this work, the female speaker describes the subjection of her own family to race hatred after the Anglo invasion, her own widowed mother's and grandmother's loss of lands, and their impotence before a foreign law and language they did not understand. The chapter ends with a description of the industrialization of the border that followed these expropriations and that brought about the establishment of agribusiness corporations and factories, as well as the presence of a Mexican migrant working class.

In the second chapter of the work, entitled “Movimientos de rebeldía y las culturas que traicionan,” the autobiographical subject recalls why she rebelled and abandoned her “home.” Home was never a source of identity, belonging and security, but a place of conflict, where, as a woman she was told to keep silent and to submit to the values of others:

Y como mi raza que cada en cuando deja caer esa esclavitud de obedecer, de callarse y aceptar, en mi está la rebeldía encimita de mi carne. […] Repele. Hable pa' 'tras. Fui muy hocicona. Era indiferente a muchos valores de mi cultura. No me dejé de los hombres. No fui buena ni obediente.


Despite the fact that she has changed, grown more tolerant, and now takes from her culture whatever values are useful to her, she keeps fighting:

Ya no sólo paso toda mi vida botando las costumbres y los valores de mi cultura que me traicionan. También recojo las costumbres que por el tiempo se han probado y las costumbres de respeto a las mujeres. But despite my growing tolerance, for this Chicana la guerra de independencia is a constant.


Anzaldúa establishes the usual equivalence between home, race, culture and community, but her hesitance and fear of going back and not being accepted reveals the inadequacy of such an identification. She has “[f]ear of going home. And of not being taken in. […] Most [queers] unconsciously believe that if we reveal this unacceptable part of the self our mother/culture/race will totally reject us” (20). For the woman of color the world “is not a safe place to live in. […] Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self” (20). The mestiza feels “sold out” by her people, and defines herself as “hija de la chingada,” thus turning over the fundamental Mexican cultural construct of woman as traitor that will be explored later in 2.3. of this study. Even if “‘home’ permeates every sinew and cartilage” in her body, she abhors and escapes the way her culture treats women in making them meek and subservient to men: “I had to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me” (16).

All throughout her work Anzaldúa proposes the fusion of opposites, “the coming together of opposite qualities within” (19), “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (79), “a massive uprooting of dualistic thinking” (80). This might seem to revert to a kind of harmonious and ideal synthesis of opposites, or to the assertion of an easy kind of pluralism of the “‘I'm OK, you're OK’ type, so long as we maintain a congenial conversation” (Yúdice, “Marginality” 216). But the mestiza denies this:

This assembly is not one where severed or separated pieces merely come together. Nor is it a balancing of opposing powers. In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its severed parts. That third element is a new consciousness—a mestiza consciousness—and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm.


Thus, the disruption of dualistic thinking is “the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war” (79).

The mestiza speaks for others and does so as a relatively privileged subject who, from a variety of shifting margins, which become her center, can undo the epistemic violence that has kept many voices unheard.4Borderlands describes the need for a “safe” communal place where the inhabitants of those margins can live without being the victims of their difference. It envisions and constructs a place where one can fight against sexism, racism, and other exclusionist cultural practices. The politically committed speaker denounces the silence that Anglo culture and history has imposed on Mexican-Americans. The silence that male-dominated cultures have imposed on women, that heterosexual binaries impose on homosexuals, that white supremacy imposes on other groups who have been racialized5 and stereotyped, that unequal distribution of wealth imposes on all peoples.

She breaks this silence and creates new words and new myths which have both a personal and a collective function, but which do not gloss over the internal divisions within the self and the community. The speaker claims a “third culture,” a “third space,” where no barriers will exist for illegal Mexican workers, sexual outlaws, and other socially marginalized individuals. The speaker identifies this imaginary homeland with the mythical, utopian, egalitarian land that Chicanos invented in the late 1960s and called Aztlán. Aztlán is the name that Aztec Indians had supposedly given to the territories now consisting of the U.S. southwestern States that used to belong to Mexico.6 In her “re-appropriation” of Aztlán the new mestiza redefines American nationalism and Chicano ethnic nationalism. She stands up against the constitution of the American national imaginary at the expense of ethnic minorities and non-heterosexual people, but she also opposes the Chicano nationalist discourse of the late 1960s that excluded both women and homosexuals. As Norma Alarcón has argued, the utopian “neonationalism” or “ethnonationalism” of writers like Anzaldúa is guided by the notions of provisionality, migratoriness, multiplicity, and never by the separatist utopianism of former Chicano cultural nationalism:7

[I]n the Americas today, the processes of sociopolitical empire and nation-making displacements over a five-hundred-year history are such that the notion of “Home” is as mobile as the populations, a “home” without juridically nationalized geopolitical territory.

(“Anzaldúa's Frontera” 43)

As revisited by Anzaldúa, Aztlán ceases to be geographical territory that must be “re-conquered.” Despite this writer's appropriation of the indigenist Chicano term, Aztlán changes its meaning to stand for a symbolic claim for the rights of the dispossessed. In Anzaldúa's work it is a utopia forged by a new hybrid, mestiza consciousness, a land where clandestine Mexican workers, “sexual outlaws”, and all the disenfranchised may coexist with their particular differences. As the African-American cultural critic bell hooks has said, “[s]paces can be real and imagined. Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories. Spaces can be interrupted, appropriated, and transformed through artistic and literary practice” (Yearning 152). Aztlán is a symbolic claim for the rights of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. This mythical place is coupled with the borderlands to which the title of Anzaldúa's work alludes, that subjective space of the critical imagination, a site of resistance that can bring about a regenerating and healing process.

These borderlands are also, very much in spite of the mestiza, a real “frontline, a war zone,” for they are the habitat of the undocumented, the queers, the maquiladora workers, the farm workers, the cholo gangs, the mojada8, “the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead” (3). Much as she imagines a utopia that is open to the excluded and disenfranchised, she always returns to the unavoidable reality that her home, the borderlands, is, as she says in the preface, “not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape” (unpaged Preface to Borderlands).

In its claim for a “safe” communal place where sexism, racism and any other discriminatory practices won't exist, in its distinction between the oppressors and the oppressed, as well as in the manifest internal fragmentation of the autobiographical self and the communities described, Borderlands follows Caren Kaplan's definition of “cultural autobiography.” Kaplan observes that these sort of personal stories that link individuals with communities go beyond the limits of the individualism and exclusive focus on the self of Western autobiographies, becoming instead forms of healing and cultural survival (132). In the case of Anzaldúa, this healing must come from a dangerous mental and cultural region between the self and the other. Thus, her imaginary borderlands, understood as a critical consciousness, is the space that can change the “real” social borderlands. She strives to find a “path of knowledge—one of knowing (and of learning) the history of oppression of our raza” (19). In her particular case, her sexual difference has provided that path through which she “slips in and out of the white, the Catholic, the Mexican, the indigenous” and fights against the despotic power of value laden dualisms and binary oppositions such as man/woman, white/Mexican, heterosexual/lesbian (19). As Anzaldúa says, the mestiza has both many names and no names, and therefore crosses over from one identity to another not without pain or struggle (43). Each crossing involves “making sense,” “making connections,” “formulating insights,” “incrementing consciousness” about all the different spaces she inhabits (48). Knowledge, as Anzaldúa says, is the only way in which “divided loyalties” can be overcome and boundaries can be constantly redrawn.

As a “mediator” between cultures that constantly defies their oppressive hierarchical structures, Anzaldúa faces the challenge posited by Gayatri Spivak. In her now classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” the postcolonial critic reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between aesthetic representation (darstellung, to speak about) and political representation (vertretung, to speak for). Her emphasis on the double meaning of the notion of “representation,” as exemplified by the two German terms, should be a warning to all those who claim to speak for those who cannot do so for themselves. For Spivak, the distinction between speaking about and speaking for will always stand for the difficult predicament of the post-colonial intellectual and/or writer that wants to “unlearn” the discursive mechanisms that keep the other silent, and attempts to rewrite and represent the history of the silenced other. If, as Gayatri Spivak says, the dominant language represents the subaltern, it can never speak or be known. Anzaldúa's definition of the mestiza meets the challenge posed by Spivak as a discontinuous speaking that is able to speak from a variety of positions that challenge the homogenizing discourses imposed on the Mexican subaltern.

Anzaldúa's Borderlands proposes a radical redefinition of the margin or the border as they have been used by feminist and by postmodern theory. Marginality, the transgression of boundaries, and the border itself are metaphorical terms that writers and critics have deployed to evoke the transgression of patriarchal institutional limits, the textual inscription of the other or of femininity, and the avoidance of closure and transparency. Virginia Woolf's oft cited words “as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country” (“Professions” 237), express a desire to go beyond both geographical barriers of a patriarchal country and society. Julia Kristeva's concept of the “semiotic” and the “abject” in Powers of Horror (1982) and in Desire and Poetic Language (1992) refer to the marginal, the otherness that lies beneath, and grounds the symbolic order9 of language and discourse. Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig respectively redefine the terms “woman” and “lesbian” as signifiers that step beyond the boundaries, or rather, become the margin, the boundary of patriarchal language. “Lesbian is the only concept I know which is beyond the category of sex,” Wittig says (“The Category of Sex” 2). In Cixous' words women's marginal writing may “rack [patriarchal language] with radical convulsions” (“The Laugh of the Medusa” 142). These textual metaphors of marginality only have something to do with the borderlands or the margin of Anzaldúa in as far as they seek to break down established aesthetic forms, images, and metaphors within the space of the text.

One of Anzaldúa's main concerns is the fight against the fear felt when a culture makes one push the “unacceptable parts into the shadows,” a fear that, in psychoanalytical terms, is known as abjection. The feminist critic Judith Butler suggests that there are certain abject zones within the social order that threaten with dissolution; these are zones that the subject imagines as a threat to its own integrity and to which it responds “I would rather die than do or be that” (243). In Powers of Horror Kristeva defines the abject as the filthy, the horrid, the marginal. In other words, that which the subject thrusts aside in order to live, and which in writing or representation becomes a metaphor of otherness or alterity: “what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (2). The recognition that there is some suppressed other upon which writing and representation are founded, is no guarantee that we are interested in the marginalization of actual people. We may be interested in the textualization of the other (also known as the feminine or the semiotic in Kristeva's terms), but that will prevent us from looking at the processes that turn people into abject beings, into silent others. Anzaldúa's fears of dissolution have to do with the fact that all the elements that are being “pushed away” become metaphors for this generalized, essentialized otherness.

Jacques Derrida has argued that glossing over différance, the constant metaphoric and metonymic operations of language (operations of substitution of one signifier for another in a system or structure that is already made possible by prior structures), will lead to “the metaphysics of presence,” to the assumption that the linguistic sign represents an essential truth and has an independent existence of its own (Culler 95-96). All the concepts that involve a notion of presence (ego, consciousness, subjectivity, God, meaning, soul, intuition, nature) describe what has been seen as a grounding force or principle (93). In this context, logocentrism turns the notion of the other and otherness into primary transcendental signifiers. Thus, in keeping with postcolonial critics' arguments against the generalization of otherness,10 we may contend that the authoritarian use of this notion, together with the notion of the margin, as a textual metaphor, may not only prevent the discussion of the predicament of socially marginalized groups. It may also gloss over the differences within the other and, for that matter, the provisionality of the category of otherness, its occasional imbrication with one or more centers. Thus, Kristeva's, Cixous' and Wittig's definition of the feminine or the lesbian as the marginal may lead us to conceive of it as a generalized, neutralized other that may be found in the limits of representation of a decontextualized, disengaged writing (Yúdice, Testimonio 220). In Borderlands Anzaldúa is not merely content with exploring the “filthy” and “horrid” in the mestiza's psyche. She wants to “[uncover] the lie” of an absolute lustful Chicana, lesbian, female Other (20). Textual disruption and opposition in the name of that other would indeed leave her powerless, with no capacity to build an alternative. This would force her to live in constant opposition, which, as she says, “is not a way of life” (100). Since her experience is one of historical, social, and institutional marginalization and estrangement in the interstices of two cultures, history, meaning and figuration cannot possibly be effaced or collapsed; rather, they have to be constantly reconstructed and renewed.11

Gloria Anzaldúa's speaking subject is not an absolute other in any of the communities she speaks about, and yet she is also always somehow other in that she does not fully feel at home in any of them. The following passage illustrates her ambiguous position:

As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover. (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.) I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet. Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.


The way for Anzaldúa to avoid fetishizing or aestheticizing otherness while yet speaking about and for it, is to turn her marginal position in relation to a variety of communities to her advantage. This allows her to otherness and marginality as positions from which she can speak. Because the speaker is never fully comfortable anywhere, she always speaks from the margin of a community or a discourse, but that margin is constituted by drawing on elements that may be central in other discourses. To be “marginal” in Anzaldúa's terms means to speak from some center that is in turn peripheral to something else. Her both marginal and central position will constantly be shifting and the speaker will not fall into the trap of constructing either an absolute center or an absolute margin. It is only thus that she can disrupt binary oppositions and learn “to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view […] to juggle cultures” (79). This double position of centrality within marginality allows her to speak both for and about others while always calling attention to the fact that her perspective is partial, insecure, and that it is always open to new meanings that may change.

She calls this capacity to shift her position “la Facultad;” the ability “to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface, […] an acute awareness mediated by the part of the psyche that does not speak” (38). “La Facultad” is not an easy transition from “false knowledge” to “true knowledge” coming from the depths of the psyche. It has to do with the subject's constant exposure to and involvement with different codes. Those who are not safe in any territory, those who are constantly pushed away and displaced, develop it the most. It is a survival tactic developed unconsciously by those who are caught in-between two worlds,

anything that breaks into one's everyday mode of perception, that causes a break in one's defenses and resistance, anything that takes one from one's habitual grounding, causes the depths to open up, causes a shift in perception (…) [that] deepens the way we see concrete objects and people […].

(Borderlands 39)

To be marginal, in the context of Anzaldúa's text, is not, I insist, to speak from pure otherness, from pure opposition. As the speaker says, “to stand on the opposite river bank” is not effective. A counterstance places one in the dialectic of oppressor and oppressed who, “like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence” (100). Although the speaker acknowledges that opposition is necessary, she also says that it is “not a way of life” (100). Her home, the borderlands, is metaphorically described as a dangerous “thin edge of barbwire” (13), a place where one may speak from partial knowledge, from ambiguity, from a “struggle of borders” (78). In the borderlands one may use discourses that one is not fully in control of, but that one needs; one may have to accept and yoke together forms of thought that are contradictory, but that can produce a different language. One has to fight for something positive to emerge out of the contradictory blend of cultural discourses that hums in one's head:

                                                  Because, I a mestiza
                           continually walk out of one culture
                                                            and into another,
                 because I am in all cultures at the same time,
                            alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro,
                 me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio.
Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan


The mestiza takes everything in: “nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned” (79). In order to become a politically committed hybrid subject, she also has to “take inventory. Despojando, desgranando, quitando paja” and to differentiate between “lo heredado, lo adquirido, lo impuesto”, to filter the lies: “[l]uego bota lo que no vale” (82). This is her way of getting rid of oppressive traditions, while at the same time including men, white people, homosexuals, and all the groups that make up U.S. society. As she says: “The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian—our psyches resemble the border towns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains” (87).

The mythological figures created in Anzaldúa's text need to be interpreted in the light of this new consciousness that seeks to reinvent the myths that, as Roland Barthes tells us, are “a type of speech chosen by history” (110). In becoming form, Barthes argues, the mythical signifier, the semiological chain upon which is built, loses historicity; meaning is not lost, only impoverished, divested of the contingency that produced it. Barthes stresses the open character of myth, the instability of its meaning, its dependability on function: “[T]he fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated” (119). The redefinition and reinterpretation of myths is crucial for Anzaldúa because, as she has it, “[N]othing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images of our heads” (87). For culturally and politically committed Chicana writers as Gloria Anzaldúa, mythmaking has the function of (re)telling and (re)fashioning history from a female perspective, as well as of celebrating a lost indigenous female racial heritage and pride. The best antidote against myth, Barthes says, is to use artificial myths as a weapon: “since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?” (135). In this vein, Anzaldúa constructs a counter-mythical language. As she puts it, she wants the freedom “to fashion my gods out of my entrails,” to shape a new culture “with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture” (Borderlands 22).

In Borderlands, figures like the Shadow-Beast and Coatlicue are the primary metaphors or signifiers for a new meaning and a new—ethnic and gendered—politically committed subject that shifts her position depending on the struggle she is facing. The female subject's redefinition of the goddesses Coatlicue and Cihuacoatl—both of which are two of the various dark aspects of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin—and her evocation of the “Shadow-Beast,” are figurative representations of a formerly repressed female strength that allows this Chicana to go against imposed paradigms and behaviors (16). The appropriation of these goddesses and of the usually fetishized indigenous female body, as well as the reference to other popular figures like Malinche and La Llorona, is also present in Cisneros' and Viramontes' fiction, as well as in Moraga's drama and essays. These references have been viewed as a return to the indigenous essentialism that prevailed during the Chicano movement and as a romantization of an unknown history (Cooper Alarcón 6, 141).

There is no doubt that, as we will see in chapter 2, indigenism, which went hand in hand with the Chicano activism of the 60s, bypassed differences within the Mexican-American community. Yet, I believe that to reduce indigenist images and myths to romanticized views of history is to ignore their potential as critical paradigms in the social context in which they appear and in which Anzaldúa and other writers inscribe them. In Anzaldúa's case, myths and images are mainly used by the speaking subject as affirmative and resisting tools with the aim of proposing a new mestiza marginal consciousness rather than as proposals of a single, authentic ethnic culture and community.12 Anzaldúa does not represent reality as it really is; she creates a whole new signification out of a variety of revised, appropriated Mexican signifiers. As Rachel Blau Duplessis has put it, “making a critical mythopoesis goes against the grain of a major function of myth: the affirmation of dominant culture.” The critical mythic act may be used to say that a group is the privileged site of noncolonial consciousness, which reiterates and capitalizes on the affirmative function of myth and applies it to what Duplessis calls “the muted group” (107). On the other hand, as Duplessis says, to tell tales that are not central to mainstream culture involves the transformation of hegemonic society and its history (122). The autobiographical subject of Borderlands exerts a mediating role in so far as it tells about a history of female resistance not only by means of the revision of traditional Chicano mythology, but also by means of the appropriation of Mexican figures as a personal mythology.

Our awareness of the existence of the border originates at the point in which two cultures clash as a result of geopolitical, socio-economic divisions in concrete geographical locations where individuals are exposed, perhaps for the first time, to different codes, different logics, and different people. Jacques Derrida defines the experience of the constant crossing material and conceptual borders as one of aporia. Each time we confront border we have to deal with the fact that it is both a dividing line between things (territories, communities, objects, people, languages) and an oppositional logic that separates domains of discourse and concepts (Aporias 17-18). As Derrida puts it, aporia “is not necessarily a failure or a simple paralysis, the sterile negativity of the impasse. It is neither stopping at it nor overcoming it” (32). Rather, it has to do with the arrival of the unexpected: “One does not expect the event of whatever, or whoever comes, arrives, and crosses the threshold—the immigrant, the emigrant, the guest or the stranger” (33). Yet, he continues, it is not only that this unexpected person crosses a border, it is also that “[s]uch an arrivant affects the experience of the threshold, whose possibility he thus brings to light before one even knows whether there has been an invitation, a call, a nomination or a promise” (34). The arrivant, who defines the experience of the aporia, is someone who is not a guest, someone who has not been invited, and who

surprises the host—who is not yet a host or an inviting power—enough to call into question, to the point of annihilating or rendering indeterminate, all the distinctive signs of a prior identity, beginning with the very border that delineated a legitimate home and assured lineage, names and language, nations, families and genealogies […].


The new arrival or arrivant, Derrida says, does not have any identity yet, but the place she arrives at is changed as soon as she gets there: “one does not yet know or one no longer knows which is the country, the place the nation, the family, the language, and the home in general that welcomes the absolute arrivant” (34). For Derrida, the arrivant stands for the experience of being right on the border. This border cannot be reduced to anything and, simultaneously, can make possible a new understanding of the things that are erased if one stands perpetually on it: cultural, social, or national belonging, as well as subjective, conscious determination (35). If we read Derrida in the light of Anzaldúa, the borderlands becomes a perplexing battleground where one's potential enemy may change overnight. The border, as Alicia Gaspar de Alba says, cannot be divided into sides. Yet, the borderlands also contains possibilities for regeneration; it can be a tool for imagining what binary logic makes impossible if one stands on either side of the border. A political reading of Derrida's text turns the borderlands into the disruption of the categories one is used to and conforms to. However, this account of the border falls short of being culturally and politically emancipatory. If we agree with Terry Eagleton that the goal of the critic and theorist must be “the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of ‘better people’ through the socialist transformation of society” (Literary 211), we should look for such emancipating potential in Anzaldúa's Borderlands and other texts by Chicanas.

In her most visionary passages, Anzaldúa's speaking subject imagines that “all the lost pieces of [herself] come flying from the deserts and the mountains and the valleys, magnetized toward [a] center. Completa”. (51) This desired wholeness bespeaks the wish to “take matters into our own hands” (51) and create a new political social space, “a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet” (81).

Just as Anzaldúa makes public and political her personal concerns through her writing, so does she make the political situation of Chicanos/as personal. The imaginary region of the borderlands is free of oppositions, dualities and hierarchies, and patriarchy because it has been envisioned by a critical subject that rejects those categories and wants to raise consciousness about the present so as to effect liberation in a distant future. As in the resisting autobiographies that Caren Kaplan calls “out-law genres,” Anzaldúa's Borderlands makes a constant reference to the sources of her discourse (her ambiguous position as a woman born and raised in the Texas border, a lesbian, a Chicana with divided loyalties towards Mexican culture, an American citizen). Consequently, she resists condensing the fragmented self and community she describes in a coherent “I” or a coherent narrative. Her purpose is, above all, to let us know how her predicament and that of other Mexican-Americans has been affected by the manipulation of history, to reinvent that history, and to hint at the possibility of a new critical consciousness, which should eventually materialize in a new social space.

As has been said already, the condition of occupying a marginal space—be it geographical, linguistic, sexual, cultural or social—is not something exclusive to anyone. It is rather a condition that we all share to a greater or lesser degree, a condition that changes across cultures and individuals. To be on the border, as Anzaldúa and Derrida tell us, means to be other. It also means that one possesses what Anzaldúa terms “la facultad,” that one is, in Terry Eagleton's words, a “natural hermeneuticist, […] a spontaneous semiotician, forced for sheer survival to decipher the signs systems of the enemy and adept at deploying their own opaque idioms against them” (“Uses” 45). Hence, from the margin one can launch a variety of oppositional discourses. My analysis of Chicana writings intends to explore these two complementary sides of the Mexican-American nepantla space or borderlands: the borderlands as battleground, and the borderlands as crossroads; the borderlands as a state of otherness and struggle and as a site of critical distance from dominant ideologies fostering clear-cut categories of nationality, status, gender, and sexuality.



  1. See Ana Isabel Panet Contreras' Melilla y Ceuta: Espacios frontera hispano-marroquíes and E. E. Rosander, Women in a Borderland: Managing Muslim Identity Where Morocco Meets Spain.

  2. I use the term “cultural nation” to distinguish it from “nation-state.”

  3. In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), Deleuze and Guattari use the term “deterritorialization” to refer to the constant movement and displacement of peoples and cultures in the contemporary world. “Deterritorialization” also alludes to affective, social, and economic losses.

  4. “Epistemic violence” is the term the post-colonial critic Gayatri Spivak uses to refer to the unquestioned premises by which the absolute “Other” has always been a “pure” signifier and a refraction of the Western imperialist self. According to Spivak, the cultural self-representation of the colonizer is always at the expense of the figure of the “native” who cannot speak and is portrayed as an unchanging essence. See her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988).

  5. (from racialization). The term was introduced by Robert Miles in his book Racism and Labour Migration (1982), an analysis of immigration to Britain after the Second World War. His theory rejects the notion of “race” in its biological sense, and proposes an analysis of the contingencies that have given rise to specific conceptions or constructions of race, through a process that he terms “racialization.” Miles emphasizes the fact that as of 1945 “colour” in Britain became almost synonymous with race. The implications of this emphasis on the “constructedness” of race is that the way in which that concept is understood really depends on power distribution within social and economic relations.

  6. The mythical construction of this space and its cultural and political repercussions will be further developed in Chapter 2.

  7. For more detailed accounts of the cultural nationalism of the Chicano Movement and its political failures, see Chapter 2.

  8. The cholo is the contemporary version of the pachuco, the Mexican-American young man who is a member of urban gangs. The mojada is the female “wetback,” a person usually of Mexican origin who crosses the Río Grande towards the U.S. with hopes of a better life.

  9. In Lacan's triad (real, imaginary, symbolic) it is the realm of language and, therefore, of difference. For Lacan the symbolic order is that set of cultural formations that determine our behavior, and that determine our unconscious and our subjectivity. The insertion in this “symbolic order” occurs in what he terms “the mirror stage,” the child's fascination with its image in the mirror, an image that gives him/her the illusion of coherence and which coincides with his/her acquisition of language and with his/her sense of selfhood. Feminist theorists who draw on psychoanalysis like Luce Irigaray and Juliet Mitchell have pointed out that the image women see in the mirror is the reflection of masculine desire. Thus, women are usually instrumental for the preservation of the masculine symbolic order dominated by the “Law of the Father” and its symbol, the phallus. Since they lack a signifier they can only submit to it or feel alienated in it.

  10. See Spivak's The Postcolonial Critic (40), Yarbro-Bejarano's “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands” (9), Yudice's “Marginality and the Ethics of Survival” (214-221), and Mohanty's “Cartographies of Struggle” (34-35).

  11. In “Postmodernism and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” Fredric Jameson defines postmodern manifestations of culture in these lines. The death of the subject, mimicry, parody, desire as nostalgia, and the absence of history and of critical intent are some of the characteristics that Jameson mentions about postmodernist art. As I will argue in chapter 1, Anzaldúa's work and other works by Chicanos and Chicanas are a product of postmodernity but they do not necessarily fit into the aesthetic movement of “postmodernism” although they may certainly share some of its characteristics.

  12. The first part of this study (2.2, 2.3, 2.4) deals with Chicano/a appropriation of indigenous myths and legends.

Works Cited and Consulted

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” In Warhol and Herndl: 334-349.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1982.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

Duplessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1985.

Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. “Literary Wetback.” In Rebolledo and Rivero: 288-290.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146. Jul/Aug (1984): 53-92.

Kaplan, Caren. “Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects.” In Smith: 115-138.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Oxford UK and Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Laviera, Tato. Amerícan. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1984.

Miles, Robert. Racism and Labour Migration. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Nelson, Cary, and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1988.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana, and Eliana S. Rivero, eds. Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993.

Rosander, E. E. Women in a Borderland: Managing Muslim Identity Where Morocco Meets Spain. Stockholm: Studies in Social Anthropology, 1991.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Nelson and Grossberg: 271-313.

Wittig, Monique. “The Category of Sex.” Feminist Issues Fall (1982): 63-68.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Deconstructing the Lesbian Body: Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years.Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Ed. Carla Trujillo. “Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: Cultural Studies, ‘Difference’ and the Non-Unitary Subject.” Cultural Critique 28. Fall (1994): 5-28.

Yúdice, George. “Marginality and the Ethics of Survival.” Social Text 7.3 (1989): 214-236.

———. “Testimonio y concientización.” Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana 36.2 (1992): 207-227.


Criticism: Overviews


Further Reading