A comparative reading of literature by Mexicanas and Chicanas, including Sandra Cisneros, Laura Esquivel, Carmen Boullosa, and Helena María Viramontes, that raises compelling questions about the very nature of cultural constructs in literature.
Series: Chicana Matters Series, Deena J. González and Antonia Castañeda, editors
Weaving strands of Chicana and Mexicana subjectivities, Toward a Latina Feminism of the Americas explores political and theoretical agendas, particularly those that undermine the patriarchy, across a diverse range of Latina authors. Within this range, calls for a coalition are clear, but questions surrounding the process of these revolutionary dialogues provide important lines of inquiry. Examining the works of authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Laura Esquivel, Carmen Boullosa, and Helena María Viramontes, Anna Sandoval considers resistance to traditional cultural symbols and contemporary efforts to counteract negative representations of womanhood in literature and society.
Offering a new perspective on the oppositional nature of Latina writers, Sandoval emphasizes the ways in which national literatures have privileged male authors, whose viewpoint is generally distinct from that of women—a point of departure rarely acknowledged in postcolonial theory. Applying her observations to the disciplinary, historical, and spatial facets of literary production, Sandoval interrogates the boundaries of the Latina experience. Building on the dialogues begun with such works as Sonia Saldivar-Hull's Feminism on the Border and Ellen McCracken's New Latina Narrative, this is a concise yet ambitious comparative approach to the historical and cultural connections (as well as disparities) found in Chicana and Mexicana literature.
- 1. "Unir los Lazos": Braiding Chicana and Mexicana Subjectivities
- 2. Crossing Borders and Blurring Boundaries: Sandra Cisneros Re-visions the Wailing Woman
- 3. "No Dejen Que Se Escapen": Carmen Boullosa and Laura Esquivel
- 4. Acts of Daily Resistance in Urban and Rural Settings: The Fiction of Helena María Viramontes
My interest in comparing Mexicana literature and Chicana literature began during a year of study at la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City in 1990. As a Chicana from a working-class background, my attraction to living and studying Mexicana literature in Mexico was based not only on my respect for and scholarly interest in the work, but also on my lived experience as a Chicana. Although I did not spend summers and vacations with family in Mexico, as did many of my friends (my roots are in Colorado and New Mexico), like others who self-identify as Chicana/o, I understood my historical and cultural connection to the land that my ancestors knew as México. The experience of living in a place where I was not visibly the other would turn out to be one of the most empowering experiences of my life.
My initial intention was to review the scholarship on Chicanos written by Mexican scholars, but as a student in filosofía y letras (arts and sciences), I was enrolled exclusively in literature courses. During one such course on literatura femenina (women's literature) I began my exploration of Mexicana literature. Reading about the Mexicana experience then building alliances and developing relationships with Mexicanas made me realize the connections that finally needed to be discussed systematically. Because my emphasis in U.S. literature is on Chicana writers, a comparative literary study of Mexicanas and Chicanas seemed natural and, to be sure, necessary—as not much work had been published in this area.
A comparative analysis of Mexicana and Chicana subjectivities, this book examines oppositional discourses that these writers present in their work. By reformulating cultural symbols and offering nontraditional constructions of culturally relevant themes, Chicanas and Mexicanas are responding to systems of patriarchy. Sharing a cultural history, Chicanas and Mexicanas critique similar issues. Interesting differences in their literature, however, because of their unique subject positions in their respective communities, their different experiences with U.S. colonization, and other unique aspects of their lives, also lead to enhanced understanding of their voices.
To begin my study of Mexicana and Chicana writers, I examine new currents in scholarship and in the theoretical approaches to several related areas. The increased interest in critical literary studies in Chicana/o literature both by Chicanas/os and non-Chicanas/os reflects Chicanas' increased literary production. Much of the work of the past twenty-five years has been invigorating; it has also been "women's work." Men, of course, are still publishing, but their literature does not seem to be experiencing the same popularity as women's literature.
Naturally, anyone today who is teaching courses on Chicana/o literature has a much larger variety of texts from which to select than they did twenty-five years ago. No longer is it necessary to read only Rudolfo Anaya, José Antonio Villarreal, Rodolpho González, Ernesto Galarza, and other male authors once seen as the first authors of Chicana/o literature. Furthermore, with the recovery projects of some Chicana critics like Clara Lomas, Rosaura Sánchez, and María Herrera-Sobek, the point of departure for the contemporary study of Chicano literature has become the women's voices of the early nineteenth century southwestern United States. This scholarship has, since its inception, continued to change the field. Along with those of Chicanas in various disciplines who are giving sorely needed attention to issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, the voices of Chicana literature will seed the field of Chicana/o studies as well as other disciplines such as U.S. history and American studies.
In the field of literary criticism, Norma Alarcón's several essays make important contributions. "Chicana Feminism" (1990) gives attention to the issue of Chicana subjectivity. Literary critic Rosaura Sánchez applies a postmodern reading to Chicana/o literature, yet does not include women in the debate in "Postmodernism and Chicano Literature" (1987). Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo enters the literary discussion through a study of the "warrior hero" in Culture and Truth (1989). Sonia Saldívar-Hull begins to articulate a theory of international feminism in "Feminism on the Border" (1991). Angie Chabram, in "I Throw Punches for My Race" (1992), critiques the way in which women were given a subordinate role in the Chicano Movement and examines how some Chicanas are rewriting Chicano nationalism. Carl Gutiérrez-Jones examines Chicana and Chicano literature through the lens of critical legal studies in Rethinking Borderlands (1995). Ramón Saldívar's Chicano Narrative (1990) places the theoretical debates surrounding the field into a chronological context, beginning with the folk-base narrative, the corrido, and continuing into contemporary Chicana narrative. Using a poststructuralist approach, Saldívar develops a model for reading Chicano literature, a model that he calls a "dialectics of difference."
As we can see, the theoretical debates that these critics cover are wide-ranging and cross several disciplinary boundaries. The present work enters the debate by offering a comparative model for reading Chicana and Mexicana literature that describes how these two literatures inform each other.
This work belongs to a new area of studies that is opening up the discussion among many Americans, an inclusive area that, ideally, will address issues relevant to North, Central, and South America. A mere handful of critical works were published between 1986 and 1992 on comparative literatures of the Americas. One of the first texts to attempt this type of analysis is Reinventing the Americas (1986), edited by Bell Chevigny and Gari Laguardia. This text is key to my work, as it initializes the larger dialogue from which my study stems. Addressing questions about the canon of American literature, Chevigny and Laguardia discuss the need for its redefinition. They do not, however, specifically address Chicana/o literature.
Other provocative discussions place comparative American studies in the foreground. Among these are Lois Parkinson Zamora's Writing the Apocalypse (1989); Gustavo Pérez Firmat's Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (1990); and José Saldívar's The Dialectics of Our America (1991).
Pérez Firmat's work examines the "contact and perhaps the clash between some of the cultures of the Americas" (Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, 1). He begins his discussion by pointing to the novelty of such a study, reminding us that literary comparison most often refers to studies that run east to west. In the introduction to Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? he states: "[S]cholars of North American literature, while they have been much concerned with the 'Americanness' of their domain, have usually neglected to consider this notion in anything other than the narrow nationalistic and anglophone sense, where America becomes a synonym for the United States. On the other hand, students of Latin American literature have for the most part not looked northward in search of significant contexts for their texts" (2-3). The essays aim to "couple the literatures and cultures of this hemisphere—particularly their North American and Latin American sectors—in order to find regions of agreement or communality" (1-2). Pérez Firmat states that he chooses to work toward strengthening commonality instead of crystallizing difference.
He realizes that many scholars may find problems in the intention of his work and in the book's title. Certainly, many would answer the title and question with an emphatic "No!" Roberto Fernández Retamar argues, for example, that the "histories of the United States and the rest of the hemisphere are so unlike that the corresponding literatures are therefore incommensurable" (Pérez Firmat, Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, 5). Pérez Firmat, while agreeing that the historical and political position between Spanish America and the United States is huge, makes the point that "historical position is not always identical with cultural position" (5).
José Saldívar's The Dialectics of Our America not only presents a critical framework for discussing U.S. and Latin American fiction and culture and the canon of American literature but also "questions the notion of America itself" (xii). He states in the preface: "The Dialectics of Our America thus charts an array of oppositional critical and creative processes that aim to articulate a new, transgeographical conception of American culture—one more responsive to the hemisphere's geographical ties and political crosscurrents than to narrow national ideologies" (xi). Referring to José Martí's "nuestra América," Saldívar critically examines "Martí's conviction of a profound gap between our America and the other America, which is not ours" (7). The present project adds to this body of literature by examining the historiographic debates of previous decades and by focusing on women's writing and feminist critique.
Closer to my specific area of study is Talking Back (1992), by Debra Castillo. Castillo's project is not intended to create "an overarching theory" of Latin American feminism, but rather to explore critical issues and strategies of a "Hispanic" feminist literary practice (2): "Latin American feminisms are developing in multiple directions not always compatible with directions taken by Anglo-European feminisms and frequently in discord with one another" (xxii). Castillo's study includes Mexicanas, Chicanas, and other Latin American women and is essential for the study of comparative American literature. Pérez Firmat mentions the lack of inter-American comparative studies. There has been an absence of the critical study of Latin American women; Castillo's study attempts to fill this gap.
Although many of these texts provide useful approaches in the area of "hemispheric comparative inquiry," the texts most helpful for comparing literature by Chicanas and Mexicanas have been the anthologies produced from the conference sponsored by El Colegio de México, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University in 1988 and 1990, Mujer y literatura Mexicana y Chicana: culturas en contacto. Prior to these anthologies, no academic journal had compiled these critics' work. The first of these invaluable anthologies carries the epigraph: "Con el deseo de unir los lazos entre las mujeres chicanas y Mexicanas." The organizers of the conference understood the role that literature plays in producing cultural exchange: it is a means through which people, sometimes from very distinct worlds, can communicate. The worlds of Chicanas and Mexicanas are distinct, yet their strong cultural ties make the exchange of ideas, experience, and information imperative. The anthologies offer a starting point for readers of literature who are interested in the relationships between Chicanas and Mexicanas. The editors state their goal in the introduction: "para experimentar el intercambio intenso de la Mexicana de este lado y la chicana de aquel. . . . lo que esperamos sea una aportación al conocimiento de las culturas que la nutren; los tópicos que maneja, los silencios que hacen presente aquello que no se menciona; el tipo de lenguaje utilizado, la palabra escrita que nos habla del trabajo de las mujeres que tradicionalmente son hacedoras silenciosos de la cultura" [in order to experience the intense exchange between Mexican women on this side and Chicana women on the other side. . . . which we hope will lead to an enhanced understanding of the cultures that nourish them, the themes that they explore, the silences that make explicit those things that are not mentioned, the kind of language used, the written word that speaks of the work of women who, traditionally, have been the silent makers of culture] (12). The anthology's essays provide analyses of various works, yet no in-depth comparative study of the two national literatures is included in either edition.11 Nonetheless, the work initiates an important dialogue between Mexicanas and Chicanas because it offers them and their respective communities a better understanding of their mutual historical and cultural experience.
Beyond the issue of "cultural contact" between Mexicanas and Chicanas through literature, no one theme is central in the anthologies; the content is wide-ranging because the conference addressed new areas of study. By examining specific literary texts, contributors address identity issues, feminist discourse, colonialism, difference, sexuality, and marginality, issues relevant to all national literatures. However, the narratives that are being viewed through these many discourses articulate a particular Mexicana and Chicana experience.
The second volume of Mujer y literature mexicana y chicana (1990), while recognizing the text as only a starting point for further investigation, stresses the importance of viewing Mexicana and Chicana literature in a shared context. In the introduction, Aralia López González states: "[Y]a es posible plantear algunos resultados que aún siendo generales y tentativos, permiten perfilar ciertos rasgos afines y también diferenciar entre producciones literarias que teniendo raíces comunes, se han conformado en procesos históricos diferentes" [It is now possible to suggest some results that, although general and tentative, allow us to outline certain common features, and also to differentiate among literary outputs that, although springing from similar roots, are part of different historical processes] (11).
With this in mind, my study continues this exchange through a comparative look at the multiple contexts of cultural, historical, and geographical borders for Mexicanas and Chicanas. Both redefine nationalism in their respective cultures: Chicanas are looking at the roots of the Chicano Movement and demonstrating how it has been rooted in sexism; Mexicanas are examining and challenging their patriarchal culture. I propose a comparative framework for looking at recent developments in Chicana and Mexicana literature.
Similar to Chicana writers, Mexicana writers have had their own literary boom. Jean Franco, in Plotting Women (1989), discusses the development in her critical study of Mexicana literature. A great deal of Mexican women's literature includes a repudiation of nation and family: national myths, for example, are parodied, and writers such as Poniatowska, Boullosa, and Mastretta find creative ways to undermine the patriarchy (183).
Also prevalent in recent texts produced by Mexican women are themes of adolescence, sexuality, domestic violence, and, through these, a call for the creation of women-centered communities. Poniatowska also gives the reader female revolutionaries and rebels—such as Jesusa in the testimonial novel Hasta no verte Jesús mío (1969). Mexicana literature, then, is representing a historical reality, breaking the patriarchal stranglehold of the Mexican male literature that portrays women as weak and powerless.
The following is an overview of the common thematics of Mexicana and Chicana writers, an examination of how their discursive positions differ, and how they articulate their political and theoretical positions by challenging dominant ideologies.
My starting point is an examination of the subject position of each group. I argue that, while Mexicanas have the privilege of writing within a national discourse that at least includes them, Chicanas write against a national discourse that does not recognize them. The Chicanas national identity is often challenged by the United States. Mexicanas, while clearly included in their nation, albeit many times as second-class citizens, are similarly talking back to the patriarchal systems in Mexico. Despite the unique circumstances of each group, common experiences with cultural institutions in a patriarchal society lead them, both formally and thematically, to a common literary expression.
Talking back to dominant ideologies is in itself a highly subversive act and is a common thread in Chicana and Mexicana literature. One result of talking back is the redefinition of family or cultural symbols. Chicanas have different ways of expressing this strategy. "Making familia from scratch" is how Cherríe Moraga terms it in Giving Up the Ghost (58); "border feminism" is how Sonia Saldívar-Hull and others express the particularities of the development of women-centered spaces in Chicana literature.
Though Mexicanas' and Chicanas' positions differ in their respective nations, their narratives take on similar experimental forms as well as a similar thematics. The shared experience of the influence of the Catholic Church, for example, accounts for many common thematic responses in their literature. Refuting the Catholic Church is viewed as highly subversive in both cultures, as are references to other shared themes such as sexuality, domestic violence, and incest. I argue that within the narratives of Mexicanas and Chicanas are embedded their political and theoretical agendas, which challenge dominant ideologies.
Another central issue that the present comparison addresses is how Chicanas and Mexicanas articulate their political and theoretical positions through representations of various figures of resistance, often re-visionings of traditional cultural symbols. Chicana writers, in their literature, often appear more critical than Mexicanas of traditional cultural symbols such as La Llorona, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and La Malinche.
Chicana and Mexicana feminisms have developed from very different circumstances and have gone in very different directions in their respective countries. Mexico has a long history of struggle for women's liberation. Beginning with the seventeenth-century Mexican nun, scholar, and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who chose the convent in order to follow her intellectual pursuits, to the women who fought for women's suffrage, to the organizers of the first women's congress in Yucatán, to Rosario Castellanos, the writer and ambassador of modern Mexico, Mexico has seen, in its long history as a nation, many leaders, intellectuals, stateswomen, writers, and other women who have been intimately involved in all areas of the country's development. Despite this, surprisingly little has been written on the history of feminist movement in Mexico. One of the first and few texts that outline this development is Against All Odds, by Anna Macías (1982). Much of the feminist critique which comes out of Mexico is published in journals and newspaper supplements such as the popular Fem in Mexico City and the supplement to the daily paper La Jornada cleverly titled La doble jornada (The Double Work Shift) and dedicated to women's lives.
A major contribution to Mexican feminist studies is the extensive bibliography of writer and ambassador Rosario Castellanos. Her Mujer que sabe latín presents a series of essays that critique Mexican culture as well as several intellectuals and celebrities. The essay that opens the text, "La mujer y su imagen," makes an important contribution to critical studies on Mexican women and to feminist studies in general. Another study that looks at Mexican feminism in relation to other feminisms is "Feminisms in Latin America," by Nancy Saporta-Sternbach et al.
Until 1848, Chicanas and Mexicanas shared feminist movements. Scholars are attempting to find a defining point that marks the beginning of Chicana/o culture. With the "discovery" of journals, serial novels, and other writing by women from the nineteenth century, many questions will be answered and new light will be shed on issues of identity, politics, and popular culture of the time. Chicanas and Mexicanas have long played an active role in all aspects of political, economic, and cultural life, yet their contributions have often not been part of official history.
An early historical study is Marta Cotera's Diosa y Hembra (1976). Other crucial works are Magdalena Mora and Adelaida Del Castillo's Mexican Woman in the U.S.: Struggles Past and Present (1990), and Rosaura Sánchez and Rosa Martínez-Cruz's Essays on la Mujer (1977). One of the first texts to look at the history and development of Chicana feminism is Marta Cotera's The Chicana Feminist (1977); also significant is Alma García's "The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970-1980" (1989). Some of the more recent scholarship includes an edited text by Adela de la Torre and Beatriz M. Pesquera, Building with Our Hands (1993). Ana Castillo introduces the term "Xicanisma" in opposition to the U.S. feminist movement, which has often ignored the woman of color's struggle. Her collection of essays, Massacre of the Dreamers (1994), adds to the development of literature which brings the Chicana's experience to the forefront. Diana Rebolledo's Women Singing in the Snow (1995) acts as a theoretical base for Rebolledo and Eliana S. Rivero's Infinite Divisions (1993) and is the first analysis of its kind in which the development of a Chicana literary tradition is traced from its roots in 1848 to the present.
Just as Mexicana feminism is often viewed in the context of a larger Latin American feminist discourse, Chicana feminism is viewed in the context of a larger U.S. third world women's feminist discourse. One of the first key texts to offer a discussion of U.S. third world feminism is This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga (1981). The text which acts as a second volume to This Bridge Called My Back is Making Face, Making Soul, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa (1990). I also call on the work of Chandra Mohanty et al. for their discussion of third world feminism in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (1991). These dynamic works offer a critical foundation for examining international feminisms.
Bringing together Chicana and Mexicana feminism presents a tremendous challenge. For the reasons explained above, the two histories have been disconnected in a variety of ways for over a hundred years. Yet, as part of an international feminist community, and particularly a third world feminist community, the two have shared in the same larger struggle for liberation, "not only individual liberation but [one] of social justice and democratization" (Franco, Plotting Women, 187). The shared history creates strong ties, ties evident in the contemporary literary expressions of both groups. One important entrance into the literature is by way of the representations of cultural symbols and the mythologies that Chicanas and Mexicanas share.
The re-visioning of myths, legends, and cultural symbols has always been a significant feature of the literature of Chicanas and Mexicanas. Several cultural symbols derive from these myths, the most significant ones dating back to the Spanish conquest of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and later adapting to include contemporary events such as the indirect colonization of Mexico and other Latin American countries by the United States, or the internal colonization of Mexicans in the United States. The trilogy of La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Malinche (also called Malintzin or Marina), and La Llorona has long been present in the literature of Latin America and the Latino United States. As Chicanas and Mexicanas write their experience into history, their literature depicts this corrected history. New archetypes are surfacing in Chicana and Mexicana literature that are replacing or redefining earlier archetypes.
Feminist rereadings of these cultural symbols give these figures agency and often rewrite them as heroines. Of the three figures, La Malinche is the one most grounded in actual Mexican history. She becomes a mythical figure, however, in the patriarchal discourse and is seen as a traitor to her race, the cause of pain and suffering for all generations of Mexicans. Yet, women writers are reclaiming her image, placing Malintzin in her proper historical context and accurately viewing her as a figure of resistance. Norma Alarcón, in "Chicana's Feminist Literature" (1981), begins her argument by stating: "In our patriarchal mythological pantheon, there exists even now a woman who was once real. Her historicity, her experience, her true flesh and blood were discarded" (182). Alarcón, in this essay, gives a critique of how the historical figure of Malintzin has turned into a mythical figure that works toward the continued subjugation of women only if women internalize the myth. Several Chicana writers do refute the myth and have restored the symbol of La Malinche to a woman with agency. While Alarcón critiques the patriarchal system which made La Malinche a slave, she recognizes how women have internalized that myth. She and others argue that La Malinche is the cultural symbol most often called forth and, as such, is the most useful representative for women's rebellion.
The figure of La Llorona, although more prevalent in popular culture than La Malinche, does not always carry the same historical significance. Yet, many view her legend as an adaptation of the myth of La Malinche. La Llorona is a figure in Chicano and Mexican folk legend who, in a supposed moment of insanity, drowned her own children. She wanders the rivers at night searching and calling for them. As is the nature of folk legends, this story has many adaptations in almost all of which La Llorona is represented as a passive character. Yet, one can also read this story as a cautionary tale, one told to keep children, women, and men in their place. The figure of La Llorona, her history, and the strong cultural significance of her legend are complex. As in the cases of other cultural symbols such as La Malinche and La Virgen de Guadalupe, the symbol of La Llorona is being transformed and reread through the experience of Chicanas and Mexicanas.
José Limón, in "La Llorona" (1986), indicates that prior to his work La Llorona had "received precious little close analytical, interpretive attention in relationship to Greater Mexican society and culture" (69). Limón cites various studies and demonstrates that these do not fully acknowledge the usefulness of La Llorona in feminist interpretation, that they "fall short of a contestative and critical understanding and offer only historically limited, localized interpretations" (73). Quoting the work of Mirandé and Enríquez, he adds: "[La Llorona is] a female who strayed from her proper role as mother, wife, mistress, lover, or patriot . . . a woman who regrets her transgression or bemoans having been denied the fulfillment of her role. . . . La Llorona persists as an image of a woman who willingly or unwillingly fails to comply with feminine imperatives" (70). Límon, indeed, sees the Mirandé and Enríquez reading as passive and offers what he believes to be a more accurate reading. His ethnographic work critiques the vital importance of La Llorona, but it lacks a comprehensive understanding of what he claims are "feminist misreadings" of the Llorona legend.
Giving one cultural symbol precedence over another does not help us toward better understanding. Nonetheless, the work of both critics is important, as important as the work of contemporary poets, novelists, and short story writers who interrogate, appropriate, and revise these cultural symbols so that they become a part of a female interpretation interrupting and disrupting traditional patriarchal modes of thinking.
The third cultural symbol discussed in the present study is the patron saint of Mexico and Latin America, La Virgen de Guadalupe. In poetic form, Gloria Anzaldúa retells the story of La Virgen's divine appearance:
El nueve de diciembre del año 1531
a las cuatro de la madrugada
un pobre indio que se llamaba Juan Diego
iba cruzando el cerro de Tepeyac
cuando oyó un canto de pájaro.
Alzó al [sic] cabeza vio que en la cima del cerro
estaba cubierta con una brillante nube blanca.
Parada en frente del sol
sobre una luna creciente
sostenida por un ángel
estaba una azteca
vestida en ropa de india.
Nuestra Señora María de Coatlalopeuh
se le apareció
"Juan Diegito [sic], El-que-habla-como-un-águila,"
La Virgen le dijo en el lenguaje azteca.
"Para hacer mi altar este cerro eligo [sic].
Dile a tu gente que yo soy la madre de Dios,
a los indios yo les ayudaré."
Estó [sic] se lo contó a Juan Zumarraga [sic]
pero el obispo no le creyo [sic].
Juan Diego volvió, lleno su tilma
con rosas de castilla
creciendo milagrosamente en la nieve.
Se las llevó al obispo,
y cuando abrió su tilma
el retrato de La Virgen
ahí estaba pintado.
[On the ninth of December, 1531,
at four o'clock in the morning
a poor Indian named Juan Diego
was crossing the hill of Tepeyac
when he heard a bird singing.
He looked up and saw that the top of the hill
was covered with a brilliant white cloud.
Standing in front of the sun
on a crescent moon
supported by an angel
was an Aztec woman
dressed in Indian clothes.
Our Lady Mary of Coatlalopeuh
had appeared to him
"Juan Dieguito [sic], He-who-speaks-like-an-eagle,"
The Virgin said to him in the Aztec language.
"I have chosen this hill for the making of my altar.
Tell your people that I am the Mother of God,
I will help the Indians."
He told this to Juan Zumarrága
but the bishop did not believe him.
Juan Diego returned, filled his blanket
with roses of Castile
growing miraculously in the snow.
He took them to the bishop,
and when he opened his blanket
the portrait of the Virgin
was painted there.] (Borderlands/La Frontera, 28)
Although in patriarchal culture La Virgen de Guadalupe has been viewed as the pure figure in the virgin/whore dichotomy, women and men have seen her as a symbol of resistance and cultural survival. During the conquest, when the native people of Mexico were supposedly being Christianized, they were still seen as "savages" not worthy of full membership in the church. Yet La Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to an Indian man, Juan Diego, to express her and God's servitude to his people. A brown virgin represented acceptance of the native peoples by their newly adopted God. Some scholars, however, speculate that La Virgen was fundamentally an adaptation by the indigenous tribe of their earth goddess, Tonantzin. In this reading, La Virgen would be a symbol of resistance to the conqueror's religion. Syncretism is evident throughout history as the Catholic Church tried and continues trying to impose its beliefs on the people of the Americas.
Mexicana and Chicana cultural critics and writers are highly invested in claiming a space in the rewriting and reconstruction of history. It is a necessary bond that must continue to be formed and maintained between those who embody the geographical border.
The present work opens with an examination of and theoretical approaches to Chicana literature that sets it within the context of the literature by other U.S. women of color. Eurocentric readings, readings that privilege western tradition over nonwestern tradition, are often narrow because of a lack of understanding of the sociohistorical realities of Chicanas. I compare such readings with how Chicana/o theorists read Chicana literature and those who look at past and present theoretical approaches to the field.
After exploring the roots of Chicana literature from the multiple contexts of cultural, historical, and geographical borders, I discuss the experimentation with genre that takes place in these border zones of Mexicana and Chicana literature. "Marginal" literatures often employ marginal forms. Several Chicana writers employ nontraditional genres to express their narratives, writing short stories or fragmented forms rather than the novels long considered the highest form of literature. Chicana writers, already marginalized by virtue of their ethnicity and gender, risk further marginalization when they choose to use experimental forms. Nonetheless, the decision to break from traditional genres is often another strategy of resistance for these writers.
In some cases, that of Sandra Cisneros, for example, publishers have embraced Chicana literature, thereby increasing the likelihood of other Chicanas being published by mainstream presses. One must ask, though, how certain writers are selected to be mainstream and other are not. Those whose works are not published by mainstream presses struggle to have their production distributed to a general audience, and all too often Chicana literature is read only in academic courses.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 examine modes of resistance used by Chicana and Mexicana writers to overcome the confinements of gender and sexual oppression. This resistance is integral to the theoretical discourse of these writers. Along with resisting a male-dominated culture, these writers reshape cultural symbols that have been prevalent in Chicano and Mexican literature.
Chapter 2 addresses the work of Sandra Cisneros by focusing on two texts: The House on Mango Street (1988) and "Woman Hollering Creek" (1990). A critical reading of these texts demonstrates the ways in which Cisneros transforms various cultural symbols to serve her particular political/theoretical agenda.
Chapter 3 examines the works of Mexicana writers Carmen Boullosa and Laura Esquivel. A close examination of Boullosa's poetry and prose reveals how she redefines family institutions and undermines patriarchy in the process. Through creation of a new cultural symbol, which she names "La Salvaja," Boullosa provides honest, uncensored insight into what it is to be female in a male-dominated society. Laura Esquivel's woman-centered narrative, Como agua para chocolate (1989), on the other hand, presents us with other modes of resistance and modes of rebellion. Chapter 4 concentrates on the work of Helena María Viramontes.
Cisneros, Boullosa, Esquivel, and Viramontes involve themselves in redefining and transforming family institutions, critiquing patriarchy in the larger culture and within their own communities, collectivizing certain relevant cultural symbols, and questioning harmful dualisms. For example, in "Woman Hollering Creek," Cisneros transforms the traditionally passive portrayal of La Llorona into a strong figure of resistance. Viramontes, in "Cariboo Café," presents a collective La Llorona that refers to larger social and economic issues: by portraying a poor, undocumented washerwoman from Central America, her tragic experience with the contras in her country, and her heartbreaking encounter with the police in the United States, Viramontes disrupts the geographical border and makes us see how an international feminism is possible. The narratives explored in this chapter also reflect the influence of the family and present family units not typically portrayed in mainstream literature. Unlike narratives that assume a "traditional male-headed household," which does not exist, these works present a historical reality. In Viramontes's short story "The Moths," a grandmother and granddaughter constitute the safe and loving family unit. "Neighbors" also questions the idea of home and family, borders and boundaries.
Scrutinizing these works raises broader literary and cultural questions. Are Cisneros, Viramontes, Esquivel, and Boullosa, even as they resist the traditional notions of cultural symbols, perpetuating the negative stereotypes that these symbols have represented in the past? How are these cultural symbols manipulated and for what purpose? Often, their representations are appropriated by non-Chicanas and non-Mexicanas and result in further exploitation of a culture they do not know. Appropriation of these symbols is becoming more worrisome with the awakening of a new "multicultural consciousness," which often becomes another path to pluralization. Who becomes invested in these symbols and why? Are new cultural symbols actually displacing traditional symbols in the works of these writers? Representations of cultural icons that are ingrained in the social consciousness of a people will not happen in a short period of time. However, by offering a revision of these female symbols or by attempting to portray a more accurate historical account, as in the case of La Malinche, an effort to end the perpetuation of negative representations of womanhood begins.
Mexicana and Chicana writers are highly invested in these projects and, through their narratives, are reimagining history. The woman-centered consciousness that their literature evokes speaks to the long tradition of feminism. Third world feminism is still often marginalized, and theories and practices from these movements are not often seen as valid forms. This work will demonstrate how works by Mexicanas and Chicanas presents a political and theoretical agenda undermining the patriarchy and calling for coalitions across borders.