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With Her Machete in Her Hand

With Her Machete in Her Hand
Reading Chicana Lesbians

The first history of Chicana lesbian writing from the 1970s until today.

Series: Chicana Matters Series, Deena J. González and Antonia Castañeda, editors

January 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
263 pages | 6 x 9 | 4 b&w illus. |

With the 1981 publication of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa ushered in an era of Chicana lesbian writing. But while these two writers have achieved iconic status, observers of the Chicana/o experience have been slow to perceive the existence of a whole community—lesbian and straight, male as well as female—who write about the Chicana lesbian experience. To create a first full map of that community, this book explores a wide range of plays, novels, and short stories by Chicana/o authors that depict lesbian characters or lesbian desire.

Catrióna Rueda Esquibel starts from the premise that Chicana/o communities, theories, and feminisms cannot be fully understood without taking account of the perspectives and experiences of Chicana lesbians. To open up these perspectives, she engages in close readings of works centered around the following themes: La Llorona, the Aztec Princess, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, girlhood friendships, rural communities and history, and Chicana activism. Her investigation broadens the community of Chicana lesbian writers well beyond Moraga and Anzaldúa, while it also demonstrates that the histories of Chicana lesbians have had to be written in works of fiction because these women have been marginalized and excluded in canonical writings on Chicano life and experience.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue: A Chicana Lesbian Scholar's Tale
  • Introduction: History
  • 1. Chicana Lesbian Fictions
  • 2. The Mystery of the Weeping Woman
  • 3. Black Velvet Fantasies: "The" Aztec Princess in the Chicana/o Sexual Imagination
  • 4. Sor Juana and the Search for (Queer) Cultural Heroes
  • 5. Memories of Girlhood: Chicana Lesbian Fictions
  • 6. Shameless Histories: Talking Race/Talking Sex
  • 7. Queer for the Revolution: The Representation of Politics and the Politics of Representation
  • 8. Conclusion: With Her Machete in Her Hand
  • Appendix: Toward a Chronological Bibliography of Chicana Lesbian Fictions, 1971-2002
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Catrióna Rueda Esquibel is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.


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Chicana lesbians have been appearing in print for over thirty years. They have been created by heterosexual Chicanas and Chicanos, by lesbian Chicanas, and by other writers whose works fall both within and outside Chicano/a literature. Yet Chicana lesbian writing has yet to be studied as a distinct field—as a body of work with genealogies, with imagined communities of writers and readers, with definable characteristics, themes, paradigms, and contradictions.

In this study, I begin to map out the terrain of Chicana lesbian fictions. In defining Chicana lesbian fictions as drama, novels, and short stories by Chicana/o authors that depict lesbian characters or lesbian desire, I realize that I am emphasizing one genealogy over others. By situating these works within Chicana/Chicano studies, I acknowledge the relationship between writings by queer Chicanas and Chicana/Chicano literature in general. Other valid approaches would be to examine these writings within the realms of Latina lesbian fiction, writings by lesbians of color, lesbian literature, or women's literature, and I try to acknowledge each of these genealogies at different points in my study.

The objects of my study are plays, short stories, and novels that feature Chicana lesbians: these texts are written primarily by lesbian and bisexual Chicanas, but there are also a number of texts produced by straight and gay male Chicanos, Chicanas who don't identify as lesbian, U.S. Latina, Latin American, and Anglo-American writers. All of these contribute to the image of the Chicana lesbian as she is constructed by literature, and make up a formidable collection of writings dating from 1971 to the present. My chronology itself is part of a larger argument: I don't believe in "firsts," that is, in naming one author or text as the "the first Chicana lesbian" author or text. In my view, to enact this naming invariably erases an author or text that came earlier, as a means of propping up the borders of identity. Thus, while I do start my chronology of Chicana lesbian writing with Estela Portillo's 1971 play, The Day of the Swallows, I don't claim it as the first Chicana lesbian text: obviously, such an argument could be contested on the grounds that Portillo herself was not a lesbian. In addition, while the main character, Doña Josefa, is explicitly queer, one can locate earlier literary characters and historical figures who we can read under the sign of Queer/Chicana: Zelda, the "neighborhood tough girl" in José Antonio Villareal's 1959 Pocho, the seventeenth-century criolla nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and the sixteenth-century cross-dressing conquistadora Catalina de Erauso, to name only a few. My interest is not in policing the boundaries of who writes Chicana lesbian fiction and what makes a text belong in this grouping but rather in beginning the discussion of what Chicana lesbian fiction accomplishes.

Among Chicana lesbian writers, two have gained recognition in Chicano/a literary, academic, and feminist communities: Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. As editors of the 1981 groundbreaking anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, they ushered in an era of Chicana lesbian writing. This Bridge was an early publication that prominently featured writings by openly lesbian Chicanas and Latinas. The essays of Anzaldúa and Moraga, those in this collection as well as those published subsequently, participated in the creation of Chicana lesbian identities through writing. Moraga has written six books and coedited three anthologies. In addition to four books, Anzaldúa wrote a number of short stories.

The work of Moraga and Anzaldúa is rarely perceived as being situated within a genealogy of Chicana lesbian writing. Instead they are decontextualized: Moraga is figured as the representative and/or definitive Chicana lesbian, and thus as a unique phenomenon; and Anzaldúa's theories and models of mestizaje, borderlands, and identity, as mapped out in Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), are discussed quite apart from her lesbianism. This has resulted in a containment of queer identities and queer cultural production within Chicano/a critical work. That is, either Chicana lesbians are embodied in one figure or their lesbianism is erased in discussions of their work. In my work I strive to recognize the contributions made by both Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga while at the same time reading their work in a larger context of Chicana lesbian writing.

I take as my starting point that Chicana lesbians are central to understanding Chicana/o communities, theories, and feminisms. Such an approach challenges any implication of heteronormativity as an essential characteristic of Chicana/o culture, as well as the assumption of heterosexuality as the starting point for Chicana feminism. It's crucial to recognize that the first articulations of feminist goals and struggles within the Chicano/a movement were marked by a homophobic backlash in which all Chicana feminists were subject to lesbian-baiting, at both personal and professional levels. Both heterosexual and lesbian Chicanas were injured in this "purge." My goal is not to dismiss the work of heterosexual Chicanas—particularly those whose careers were ended in spite of their "good" sexuality—but rather to point out the significance of lesbianism in these "primal scenes" of Chicana identity.


When I first began planning this book, I envisioned organizing it in terms of conversations between texts in order to investigate how Chicana lesbians in working-class rural communities work against, say, the masculinist focus of works like Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972). My goal was to show how Chicana lesbian writing, firmly rooted in Chicano/a literature, takes up, reformulates, and queers existing paradigms. I was interested in showing Chicana lesbian writing as part of a continuum.

However, I felt that the structure of such an argument would reaffirm certain canonical texts while positioning Chicana lesbian writing as a recent phenomenon that merely reacts to or against canonical texts. Since Chicano literary criticism already foregrounds traditional works by male writers and minimizes the contributions of Chicana writers as newcomers or cultural and literary novices, I wanted to avoid reinforcing such structures of power. Even though Chicana feminist criticism has demonstrated the inherent sexism in the "newcomer" discourse (in addition to the ways in which such discourses exclude people of color from scholarship in the canon of American literature), it, too, has deployed similarly problematic strategies that marginalize Chicana lesbian texts within Chicana literature.

As a Chicana lesbian of L.A./Sonoran and northern New Mexican mestizo and Pueblo heritage, I am well aware of how problematic Chicana/o identity can be. I refuse the Chicano nationalist discourse that New Mexican hispanos have false consciousness and claim only a white European Spanish heritage. I see the anti-Semitism behind such statements as "Northern New Mexico societies are closed because they were founded by Crypto-Jews." At the same time, I have a lively appreciation for ways in which the story of the Mexican conversos disrupts narratives of traditional Catholicism in nuevomejicano communities (as were recently mobilized in a church-led protest against the art of Alma López).

My methodology in this book is derived piecemeal from the scholars and movements that have shaped my own scholarship. Following Teresa de Lauretis, I work from the notion that lesbian writing is not a linear succession of traditions but rather a complex genealogy: One can focus on a particular line within that genealogy, but doing so generally excludes competing lines, fragments, dead ends.

Hayden White's theory of metahistory and emplotment (1973) is tremendously influential to the ways that I read these texts. White argues that history, because of its reliance on the narrative form, is subject to the same rules as "fictional" narrative, that narrative history is emplotted along the lines of romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire, and that historical narrative can be discussed through the use of the literary tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.

It might at first appear backwards to use White's theories of history as narrative as a way of reading literature. My explanation lies in the work of Emma Pérez, who, in The Decolonial Imaginary, uses metahistory to discuss the roles of Chicanas in history:

I am, in a sense, exposing how historians have participated in a politics of historical writing in which erasure—the erasure of race, gender, sexualities, and especially differences—was not intentional, but rather a symptom of the type of narrative emplotment unconsciously chosen by the historians. (1999, 27)

In its simplest form, my study is an exploration into themes of literary, historical, and visual representations of Chicanas, with particular focus on Chicana lesbians as subjects, objects, players, and characters within these topics. Specifically, each chapter is a case study taking up a mode through which Chicana literature represents Chicana lesbian life: La Llorona, the Aztec Princess, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, girlhood friendships, rural communities and history, and Chicana activism. In my case studies, I attempt to provide several examples of the ways in which the texts take up these themes and to what ends.

Schooled as I have been in the research cluster for the study of women of color in collaboration and conflict at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I turn to June Jordan and Audre Lorde, whose words continue to problematize any easy identity politics, recognizing that there is some degree of choice and action.

And even as I despair of identity politics—because identity is given and principals of justice/equality/freedom cut across given gender and given racial definitions of being, and because I will call you my brother, I will call you my sister, on the basis of what you do for justice, what you do for equality, what you do for freedom and not on the basis of who you are, even so I look with admiration and respect upon the new, bisexual politics of sexuality. (Jordan 1992, 193; original emphasis)

Jordan argues that identity is not de facto essential but manifested through action. At the same time, some identities are bestowed. In Ana Castillo's novel So Far from God (1993), the middle daughter, Fe, can choose to be "white" and "Spanish" and to live the American Dream, but ultimately, she is still caught in a system that treats her as "Mexican," female, expendable. Her silence will not protect her.

We can choose, like Audre Lorde, to declare the multiplicity of identities that modify and confound any unified identities: "Because I am a Black lesbian feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?"

In this, I wish to distinguish my work from, for example, the early trend in Chicano studies that refused to acknowledge such writers as John Rechy or Sheila Ortiz Taylor because they did not do the work of cultural nationalism, instead "putting sexuality before racial identity" (a value judgment that recent scholars have done much to question). Rather, like the writings of Pat Parker and Hilda Hidalgo that structure my argument about politics in my final chapter, I believe it is important to go beyond the limits of identity. In her poem "Where will you be?" Parker warns, "It won't matter/if you're/Butch, or Fem/Not into roles/Monogamous/Non Monogamous" when they come for the queers—"And they will come" (1978, 78, 75). Hidalgo, in her oral history, "El ser yo no es un lujo/Being Myself Is No Luxury" (1987), sees a sign that says "No coloreds, no mexicans, no dogs will be served on these premises." Rather than choose to argue that as a Puertorriqueña she is neither "colored" nor "mexican," she chooses to fight.

The Chicana lesbian characters, and the writers behind them, have chosen to fight, each with her pluma, with her pen in her hand, for her place in Chicano/a culture and U.S. history.

Structural Overview

The dominant theme to emerge from this study is one of histories of Chicana lesbians written through fiction. Lacking historical proof of Chicana lesbian existence, Chicana writers have created one, indeed, created many, through their fiction. Chapters 3 and 4 begin with women in the histories of conquest, through the pervasive images of La Llorona and the Aztec Princess, respectively. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 focus on narrative strategies that create Chicana lesbian histories in colonial New Spain, in the rural Southwest, and in the coming-of-age story. Chapter 8, with its emphasis on politics and representation, discusses Chicana lesbians as contemporary agents and activists of history; and the final chapter, which shares the title of this book, discusses the articulation of Chicana lesbian heroes in discourses that have been defined as epic, male, and heteronormative.

Chapters 3 and 4 are devoted to representations of "the" indigenous woman, "La India" in Chicana lesbian fictions, by way of an extended discussion of the archetypes of Native American women in the Chicana/Chicano sexual imagination. Specifically, I discuss the figures of La Llorona, Ixtacihuátl, and the Aztec Princess. I discuss how Chicana lesbian authors portray, challenge, and change these figures through their representations.

In the fifth chapter, I examine fictional depictions of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I am interested in what I call the ambivalent identification with Sor Juana. Many Chicana, Mexicana, and Latina writers have identified with Sor Juana as "the first feminist of the Americas" and as a woman of letters. Sor Juana occupied a specific privileged race/class position in the Spanish colony of New Spain. Politically progressive authors who choose to identify with her must also find a way to bring her closer to contemporary feminist and women of color politics. I focus on representations of Sor Juana in the fiction of Alicia Gaspar de Alba, in the drama of Estela Portillo Trambley and Carmelita Tropicana, in the cinema of María Luisa Bemberg, and in Octavio Paz's biography, The Traps of Faith, which, along with Sor Juana's selected writings, has served as the mainstream introduction to Sor Juana.

The sixth chapter begins with girlhood and adolescence, a time in which the Chicana becomes aware of her sexuality. Las chamacas are perceived as asexual, since they are not heterosexually active, at the same time that they are discouraged from recognizing or exploring their sexuality by mothers, family, community, and religion. I focus on the ways in which intense emotional attachments between girlhood friends are eroticized. Female friendships are initially encouraged in early adolescence, but as the girls mature, they are urged to give less emphasis to homosocial relations in favor of normative heterosexual relationships.

In chapter 7, I begin with an exploration of Chicana lesbian characters in rural communities, and the creation of Chicana lesbian histories through fiction. I focus on short stories by Gloria Anzaldúa, Jo Carrillo, and Rocky Gámez that use various narrative strategies—corridos, oral history, and lesbian pulp fiction—to represent the history of the Southwest as a Mexican history and to depict the rural community, which the Chicano/a movement often romanticized as the essential Chicano/a community, as always already queer.

Chapter 8 turns to the politics of Chicana lesbian representation and Chicana lesbian representation of politics. I focus on the politics represented in two plays: Heroes and Saints (1992) and Watsonville: Some Place Not Here (1996). These works depict injustices committed against Chicano/a communities by a greater (and faceless) U.S. society. These are not historical stories of colonization but rather contemporary stories, showing the unfinished conquest, the nameless structural regimes that view people, women of color, Chicanas, as commodities, as unending sources of cheap labor, disenfranchised by poverty, by conditions of employment, by lack of documentation.

In my concluding chapter, I discuss the title of this book, With Her Machete in Her Hand, in relation to Americo Paredes's 1959 study, "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero, and Tish Hinojosa's borderlands corrido, "Con su pluma en su mano" (1995).



“I am wildly ecstatic about this project and thoroughly grateful for Esquibel's interventions in the cause of Chicana lesbian authors . . . now extending into this cutting-edge and highly readable critical text.”
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, UCLA, author of Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master's House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition