Cherríe Moraga | Critical Review by Judith Ortiz Cofer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 27 pages of analysis & critique of Cherre Moraga.
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Critical Review by Judith Ortiz Cofer

SOURCE: "Mujeres en Lucha," in Women's Review of Books, July 1984, p. 5.

In the following review, Cofer praises the stories in Cuentos—of which Moraga is an editor and contributor—and the poems and prose in Loving in the War Years for their focus on the Latina's search for identity and individuality.

"We are New York and Island Puerto Rican, Los Angeles Chicana, and Chilena. We are Latina writers and activists who identify as U.S. Third World women." So proclaim the editors of Cuentos, an eclectic collection of fiction by and about Latinas in the U.S. The stories cover such a wide spectrum of style, language and technical proficiency that the issues confronted in the individual stories become the best handle for a discussion of the collection. The editors are the first to admit that the framework of the book is thematic, the Latin-American woman writer being still in search of an identifiable voice in the literary world. As "heirs to a culture of silence" they have been excluded from the mainstream not only by their sex, but also by class, race and education. Latin American women writers in the U.S. must develop a literary tradition of their own because, even though there have been great Latin American women writers, "from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz in the seventeenth century to Julia de Burgos in the twentieth century," their work cannot reflect the historical-political experiences of Latin American women in the U.S.A. The introduction to Cuentos points out:

Unlike the Latin American writer in Latin America, the U.S. Latino writer is considered a "non-white" person and as such a "minority writer" Writing is so dependent upon education that most people of color, because they are poor, are deprived of access to recorded history or written artistic expression. This is further complicated for Latinos by the fact that we are largely born not speaking English.

Cuentos is the result of the struggle to create a context for the diversity of Latina writing. Within its pages women of backgrounds that range from the New York Puerto Rican to the Los Angeles Chicana to the South American in self-imposed exile find their individual voices and try to blend them into a clear, loud chorus of protest and disillusionment, as well as victory and joy. Their stories speak of labyrinthine boundaries and their ability to develop the strength to climb out of their personal, familial, professional prisons through self-definition. They take justifiable pride in being the first women in their families to dare break away: "Most of the writers in Cuentos are first generation writers. This means that your mother couldn't have written the story—or even helped you write it."

Though the women writers in this collection define themselves under the general labels of Latin American and feminist, their backgrounds, traditions, education, politics, and sexuality are as multitudinous and individual as their styles. Some of the stories are in standard American English, some in Spanish (ranging in dialect from the Puerto Rican to the South American) and others are in a combination of both (a practice linguists call code-switching). It is evident that the varied voices, styles and languages form an attempt at self-affirmation, and a joining together of a group of individuals within a framework of meaning and permanence.

In a working illustration of their philosophy of an all-embracing bi-culturalism the editors of Cuentos state:

In este libro, we wish to stretch la imaginacion—help the reader become accustomed to seeing two languages in a book, learning to make sense of a thing by picking up snatches here, phrases there, listening and reading differently. Cuentos validates the use of "spanglish" and "tex-mex". Mixing English and Spanish in our writing and talking is a legitimate and creative response to acculturation.

Through all the differences of language and specific background details the writers represented in this anthology are bound by the fact that the hispanic tradition mandates passivity through cultural indoctrination starting at birth, and that to break her predetermined vows of silence, chastity and obedience is considered betrayal by the Latina of her race, her family and God. This is why the Latin American women writers consider themselves mujeres en lucha; women forever struggling against the forces that would silence them.

"Cuentos" are the stories heard from our mothers and grandmothers, the only way they had, on a stormy night, or a quiet afternoon setting in the patio over a cup of café con leche, to tell us of the domestic wars and victories, the private and silent acts of heroism, courage and self-denial conducted by the women; bits of wisdom, warnings, about men, babies and other women passed down from mother to daughter.

These "cuentos" served their purpose when one could rely on the permanence of family networks and their continuance. In the great diaspora of the twentieth century, recording our legacy in written form has become imperative.

Cuentos is divided into three sections, each prefaced by an editorial-philosophical statement. (This, perhaps, is a weakness in that it focuses the reader's expectations in one direction and thus somewhat limits the scope of the stories.) The stories in "Uno" are headed by a rather impassioned editorial statement:

Feeling like we were born with too much inside of us and that we decide to express ourselves in any deeply felt way, they will think us crazy, sick, or senile. The characters in these stories are "possessed"—possessed in opposition to the forces that deny their humanity.

The first story, by Gloria Lieberman of Chile, is "La Confesion," a nightmare-like internal monologue of a woman who has been committed to an insane asylum for political reasons. There she is alternately ignored and tortured, silenced and forced to talk, and finally declared unfit. It is an extreme situation but one with which we all identify: the rage and grief of powerlessness. In "Dona Marciana Garcia" by Rocky Gomez we are made to feel the impact of a culture clash between two women of the same community: one, an old "curandera," and the other a young woman from Dona Marciana's own barrio, "who had recently graduated from nursing school and for the past year or so had been talking bad about Marciana's practice to the village women, trying to discredit her vast knowledge of herbal medicine, midwifery and occasional witchcraft." The fear of the new ways represented by Esperanza (Hope) is symbolic of the double threat that the Latin American woman faces as she emerges from her barrio and tries to join the mainstream of American life: she is distrusted by the white community for her color and language while also subject to suspicion by her own community. Old Dona Marciana concludes: "Esperanza entered the university an innocent and honest Mexican and emerged totally Americanized, casting away her old customs, traditions and beliefs, betraying not only herself but also everything la Raza held sacred."

These writers do not content themselves with denouncing the white, male-oriented society in which they conduct their varied lives; they also point out the injustices perpetrated by woman upon woman, as in the Spanish-language "Como el cristal al romperse," in which Sonia Vasquez describes the fragmented world of a Puerto Rican woman in an American hospital for the mentally ill. Her inability to express herself and her nurses' unwillingness to look beyond the surface of her needs becomes a scathing indictment of the annihilating effects of tokenism.

"Dos" presents stories about the battle for identity: the painful and continuing search for a framework of existence that will integrate their history as oppressed people, and provide them with viable alternatives to the inauthentic values imposed by societal expectations.

Many of the stories in "Dos" deal with the confusing stage between childhood's innocent acceptance and the painful discovery of being "different" in a world that rewards conformity and sameness. One of the most moving accounts of such an experience occurs in "Hunger's Scent" by the Afro-Puerto Rican, Cenen. The scene it describes is easily identified: a migrant camp site after a storm. Extreme poverty accompanied by natural disaster. The cosmic irony of "things could be worse"; but mainly it is about the humiliation of having your need exposed to the world like an open sore, and worse, having "them" pity you:

Tents had been leveled to the muddy ground and dragged off by the wind. Suddenly seeing their tent homes crumpled or spread out in puddles like untidy sheets, the kids screamed to the bus driver to stop at the entrance to the clearing they camped in. It was too late. None of us could take the pain caused by this white woman seeing our poverty. It hurt.

The loss of innocence and freedom is common to us all, whatever background we come from; for the Latin American woman, the end of childhood usually means the beginning of sex-linked alienation, of subjugation to male-oriented rules. The identity given to her is based on her willingness to comply: she must choose to be a virgen or a puta: virgin or whore. As the editors point out in "Tres": "The most severe restriction placed on the Latina is in relation to sexuality." Historical constraints inhibit the Latin American woman from freely expressing her sexuality: to be openly sexual is to be ostracized; to be different in your sexual preference, as in choosing lesbianism, may be interpreted as outright betrayal of family, nation and God.

The stories in "Tres" deal frankly with sexual choice and its consequences. They range from the poetical descriptions of Cherríe Moraga: "Then she let her mind wander and drawing the cool evening air into her mouth, holding it inside her, she imagined it like a pin of light, penetrating her ribcage, piercing her heart where the love would begin, enflaming her belly where the baby would grow," to the hilarious misadventure of Gloria, in Rocky Gomez' selection, who wants only one thing in life—to be a man. To attain this unlikely goal, Gloria sports a butch haircut and dark powder on the sides of her face to imitate a beard. She is even willing to marry a girl who claims Gloria has impregnated her.

All of the Latina's experience of love and rejection, birth, death and of coming home to find herself, are in this collection. There is anger at both sides of the two worlds they straddle, but there is also hope and reconciliation. The protagonist of Aurora Levins Morales' story says it best, returning to her hometown in Puerto Rico after self-imposed exile in San Francisco:

When I came back, I expected to be foreign. To have to introduce myself, explain. I found I was familiar, expected to show up sometimes, as all the immigrant children of the barrio are expected. The barrio nodded its head to me, asked after my family, called me by my name.

Cuentos proves that the Latin American woman in the U.S. is learning to speak for herself, not just as camp-follower for the political campaigns of others, but for herself, in her own voice, about her own experiences and dreams.

Ever since Dona Marina, also known by her Indian name Malintzin or Malinche, joined forces with Cortes in the conquest of Mexico as his translator, advisor and mistress, any Mexicana/Chicana who sells out to the white race automatically joins her ranks of betrayers of La Raza. For centuries Malintzin has played the double role of Mother of the mestizo people and patroness to "Las Vendidas."

In her collage of poems, journal entries, essays, and short stories [Loving in the War Years] Cherríe Moraga makes a strong case for the defense of Malinche, the demeaned muse of the Chicana writer, whose reputation has suffered at the hands of sexist history. Through her exploration of the personal and political drama of her own life, Moraga promotes Malinche from violated female to spiritual mother. But the road to self-discovery and empowerment is long, narrow and slick with the tears of the women who have preceded her. Her mother: "How slow and hard change is to come. How although this book has taken me from Berkeley to San Francisco to Boston, Brooklyn, Mexico, and back again, sigo siendo la hija de mi mama. My mother's daughter." Her grandmother: "She shows me her leg which has been operated on. The wound is like a huge crater in her calf—crusted open, a gaping wound. I feel her pain so critically." And her women lovers: "My first poems were love poems. That's the source—el amor, el desco—that first brought me into politics."

Despite calling herself "the eternal well of pathos," Moraga does not wallow in self-pity. Boldly, she examines the meaning of being a Chicana and a lesbian in the United States today. This requires no little sacrifice. She admits that her public self-analysis, her writing, has alienated her from her family. La familia. The one constant in a Latina's life. Yet her work has also brought her new friends, new loves and a deeper understanding of the complexity of human relationships.

Loving in the War Years reflects the author's sense of her divided self:

Some days I feel my writing wants to break itself open. Speak in a language that maybe no "readership" can follow. What does it mean that the Chicana writer, if she truly follows her own voice, may depict a world so specific, so privately ours, so full of "foreign" language to the anglo reader, there will be no publisher. The people who can understand it, don't/won't/can't read it. How can I be a writer in this? I have been translating my experience out of fear of an aloneness too great to bear. I have learned analysis as a mode to communicate what I feel the experience already speaks for. The combining of poetry and essays in this book is the compromise I make in the effort to be understood. In Spanish, "Compromiso" is also used to mean obligation or commitment. And I guess, in fact, I write as I do because I am committed to communicating with both sides of myself.

The divided self communicating with both sides of itself may be the elusive answer to the question of self-identity that confronts the Latina in the U.S. today.

Moraga recounts the anguish of being the one who breaks away from tradition, the link that outweighs the chain—the procession of suffering women: "Dolores my grandmother, Dolores her daughter, Dolores her daughter's daughter." It is in her poetry that Moraga allows herself to speak the words that set her free. But it is sometimes as if she were the vulnerable animal caught in the steel trap of her own loyalty, as if she were having to chew away at her own flesh in order to set herself free.

     there is a very old wound in me
     between my legs
     where I have bled, not to birth
     pueblos or revolutionary
     concepts or simple
     sucking children
 
                 but a memory
                 of some ancient
                 betrayal.

The "ancient betrayal" is of course the haunting echo of Malinche coming down through the centuries, her restless spirit longing to be expiated by the blood of her heirs. Through Moraga's words, she defends her right to choose. "I did not move away from other Chicanos because I did not love my people. I gradually became anglicized because I thought it was the only option available to me toward gaining autonomy as a person without being sexually stigmatized."

The prose and poems construct a visual panorama of a life in which history and fiction are integrated. It is a personal integration that she seeks through her work. The process of self-analysis and self-revelation is a painful one, but Moraga does not shirk from what she has determined to be her mission, to complete the empowerment of the Chicana woman by having her realize that sexual repression is also political repression. "The extent to which our sexuality and identity as Chicanas have been distorted both within our culture and by the dominant culture is the measure of how great a source of our potential power it holds." To cast off the persistent demands of her culture, her "familia," the Chicana must be willing to take control of her own sexual destiny. The result of her defiance will be the "shunning" by her own people as a traitor to her race, Moraga argues: "even if the defiant woman is not a lesbian, she is purported to be one: for, like the lesbian in the Chicano imagination, she is una Malinchista. Like the Malinche of Mexican history, she is corrupted by foreign influences which threaten her people."

The Chicana political consciousness is so deeply involved with the "Movimiento," so used is the Chicana to fighting alongside her men for equality, that what Moraga is suggesting involves a complicated break with the chain of historical events that have formed the prescribed norms of her culture: that she will be a good, loyal daughter, then a good, loyal wife. Her bonds to her women friends, her "companeras," were to be strictly secondary, Moraga suggests that the time has come to recognize "what being a Chicana feminist means—making bold and political the love of the women of our race."

With Loving in the War Years she has established a line of communication; without hiding her vulnerability she has claimed the right of every Chicana to love herself and other women because "no one else can or will speak for us. We must be the ones to define the parameters of what it means to be female and mestiza."

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This section contains 2,890 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Julia de Foor Jay
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