Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cherrie Moraga - An Intellectual Biography

I have recently been thinking about my whiteness and the complicated relationship between my white skin privilege, my Chicana identity, my activism, my queerness, and how to negotiate issues of "passing" and being "read" as straight and white.  This led me to my old paper on "La Cherrie" who also had to grapple with these issues.

On October 11, 2008 parts of me shifted.  Like a drawstring bag filled with loose pieces, I was shaken, and some of my parts settled into new spaces.  Cherríe Moraga or “La Cherríe” as those (of us) who love her often call her, gave a speech entitled Still Loving in the Still War Years at Cal State Los Angeles for the 2nd Annual National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) Joto Caucus and her words fell on us like drops of moisture on dry skin.  The name of her speech was a throwback to her 1983 book Loving in the War Years and it’s title poem in which she argued that she lived in a “war time…where being queer and female is as rude as we can get.”  Clearly Moraga believed that not much had changed in thirty years.

     “It’s not about the ‘me’ it’s about the ‘we’ she said in her opening, reminding us about the role of the ego. “The whole notion of collaboration, especially politically, is such a great lesson to learn” she added as she thanked the organizers of the event (Still Loving).  As a woman who is well known for her collaborative works, Moraga has contributed much to the field of women’s studies through her joint efforts to document women of color feminism, Chicana feminism, and queer women of color feminism.   Cherríe Moraga has added significantly to many fields of feminist theory, most notably that of feminist identity politics, queer theory, Chicana feminism and intersectional analysis.  However, her work is much more diverse than just writing and editing essays and books.  She is also a prolific poet and playwright and has given speeches and presented papers at countless conferences and events all over the world.  
In her autobiographical work she said that she “wrote against absence, against that literary political site where I was not represented (Still Loving).”  Moraga’s mother was Chicana and her father Anglo.  In her writings she identifies as several contradictory and often negative terms.  “Half-breed,” a “product of invasion,” and a “betray[er]” of her race, as well as “queer,” “lesbian,” “pervert, and both “guera,” and “Chicana.”  These split identifiers are evidence of both Moraga’s identity politics and her playfulness with identity which allows her to both identify politically as certain things while keeping in mind the constructedness of such identities.  
She focuses on her relationship with her Chicana mother especially in relation to her race, gender and sexuality identity politics and documents her learning about heterosexism, patriarchy, and the family as a complicated site from this relationship.  “You are a traitor to your race if you do not put the man first” she wrote, referring to both her mother’s preference for her brother and acknowledging her role as a traitor for choosing to be lesbian (Loving 103).  Her experiences in a patriarchal family, along with her split Chicana/Anglo self, her working class upbringing, and her closeted queerness have informed her writings and helped her to acknowledge the intersectionality of oppressions.  The theme of betrayer and traitor weaves itself in much of her writing, along with the associated guilt.

Moraga’s poem, La Dulce Culpa (1983) and her essay A Long Line of Vendidas (1983) ground us in her childhood and how her relationship with her mother shaped her identity as a lesbian and a feminist aware of both her privileges and oppressions.  “What kind of lover have you made me mother who drew me into bed with you at six/at seventeen” she asks in La Dulce Culpa.  She goes on to describe her mother’s unrequited love for her father and implies that her closeness with her mother in the absence of his presence and his touch played a part in her acknowledging her queerness  (Loving 14).  
Vendidas spoke at length about her brother’s male privilege within the household and his unearned love from her mother.  “The only thing that earned my brother my servitude was his maleness” she said of having to serve him and his friends while growing up. (Loving 90) Moraga described this as how she perceived a Chicano family is supposed to treat men, which is to prioritize them, making clear her understanding of the weight that her ultimate betrayal of choosing a sexuality which excludes all men and “most dangerously, Chicano men” carried. (Loving 117)  This is an example of the intersectionality of the cultural gender oppression she experienced in her own home since it was not that just her brother’s maleness that provided him privilege, but his maleness in a Chicano household.
In Vendidas Moraga tackles the Chicano gender dichotomy of La Chingada, the passive, feminine “fucked one” and El Chingon, the active macho man, or “fucker” who she personified in La Malinche and Cortez.  She explains that Malinche thought that Cortez was Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec serpent god come to redeem his people.  Regardless, Malinche is portrayed as the betrayer of “her indio people” because she translated and procreated with Cortez; their “offspring symbolically represent[ing] the birth of the bastardized mestizo/Mexicano people.” Moraga personally connected with this story, considering herself the child of a “modern-day Chicana Malinche marrying a white man… (Loving 100, 117, 118)”

 This analysis contributed to Chicana feminism by both identifying Malinche as someone other than a traitor to her race and by problemitizing the blame that all Chicana/mestiza women have carried for the conquest of Mexico and all issues since.  Moraga even points out that though Chicano gay men are considered diseased, that because they are not women, they “do not suffer the same stigma of traitor.” (Loving 114)  This last quote contributes to queer theory in that Moraga adds both Chicana lesbians and Chicano gays to the story and does not erase the gendered and racialized aspects of their queerness.
In 1981 Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua co-edited the anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color thereby creating the secular Bible of what is now known as women of color feminism or third world feminism.  This book included an autobiographical essay that is now used in critical white studies, women’s studies and Chican@ studies called La Guera.  This essay marked the departure that she later wrote about in her poem For the Color of My Mother. “I am a white girl gone brown to the blood color of my mother” she wrote.  (Loving 60)  La Guera both documents Moraga’s journey from closeted queer “white girl” to lesbian Chicana as well as her internal journey in which she learned about oppression.
“When I finally lifted the lid to my lesbianism, a profound connection with my mother reawakened in me. It wasn't until I acknowledged and confronted my own lesbianism in the flesh, that my heartfelt identification with and empathy for my mother's oppression--due to being poor, uneducated, and Chicana--was realized.” (This Bridge 29)  This quote is an example of intersectional analysis in that once Moraga experienced what she called the “discrimination of silence” about being queer as well as the difficulties she faced once she came out, she could recognize the interrelated oppressions that she faced as a female, working class, Chicana lesbian as well as understand and recognize her mother’s oppressions.  (Still Loving)

Also in La Guera Moraga more specifically addresses intersectionality.  As this is an incredibly relevant and brilliant quote, it deserves to be quoted at length.
"In this country, lesbianism is a poverty-as is being brown, as is being a woman, as is being just plain poor.  The danger lies in ranking the oppressions.  The danger lies in failing to acknowledge the specificity of the oppression.  The danger lies in attempting to deal with oppression purely from a theoretical base.  Without an emotional, heartfelt grappling with the source of our own oppression, without naming the enemy within ourselves and outside of us, no authentic, non-hierarchical connection among oppressed groups can take place." (This Bridge 33)
Cherríe Moraga’s passionate argument that oppression must be looked at personally, politically, emotionally, internally, externally, and as multi-layered and complicated is a bold one.  Later in La Guera she discusses that the oppressor is more fearful of similarity than of difference and that all women “have in way been both oppressed and oppressor” but are “afraid to look at how we have failed each other.” (This Bridge 37-38)  Her courageous admittance to both categories of oppressor and oppressed are the ultimate proof of her belief in intersectionality; she can both acknowledge her ability to “pass” as white and see her skin privilege as well as understand her simultaneous sexual and class oppression.  Her ability to look at herself and, in retrospect see how she “rode the wave” of her privilege speaks to her idea that “it is looking to the nightmare that the dream is found; the nightmare being internalization of the values of the oppressor.” (This Bridge 39-40)  
In 1984 Moraga and Anzaldua rereleased the anthology This Bridge Called My Back using Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a publishing company Moraga helped cofound which provided space for women of color feminist writers.  Moraga has been able to make the people who are invisible visible by personifying them as characters in her plays, writing about them in her poetry, and including them in her books.  
“Having spent the first ten years as a poet and essayist with a fixed relationship to autobiography, it was a great revelation and relief to discover that I was not limited to my own personal biography as a writer, but that a much larger community of people could inhabit me and speak through me: La Raza.”  Her diverse cast of characters work to unveil the working people, the youth of color, the indigenous, the queer.  And in her quest not to betray herself or the people she portrays she also works to also perform for this same community. (Art in America)
Moraga has written over a dozen plays, the first of which, Giving up the Ghost, was printed in 1986.  “Ghost carries to the stage the discussion in ‘Vendidas’ of the definition of masculinity as the active chignon and of femininity as the passive chingada Yabro Benjamin wrote in The Wounded Heart: Writing on Cherríe Moraga.  (36)  Moraga does this through her main character Marisa/Corky who drifts between both dichotomous gender roles and her lover Amalia who drifts between two sexualities.  Her more recent play, The Hungry Woman (2000) also depicts a character, Medea, who similarly switches sexualities while her lover stays a steadfast lesbian who was “born that way.” (52) These characters provide an argument that contributes to queer theory by stating that queerness can be chosen, but can also be something that many feel has just always been there.
As Yabro Benjamin stated, Moraga’s Chicana lesbian characters portray pieces of the active and passive, fucker and fucked.  In Vendidas, Moraga addressed the white lesbian feminist idea that “the desire to penetrate and be penetrated…would vanish” because “women were different” and somehow transcendent of “old notions.” Through the characters in her plays, her autobiographical and other writing, Moraga argues against this idea, and the framework of lesbian as defined by white feminists, to allow for diversity, messiness, and complexity of gender and sexual identities.  She does not erase el chingon from the lesbian relationships and rejects the utopian idea that because men are not involved in the relationship, that there is no longer a “power struggle.” (Loving 125-126)  
In the play Heroes and Saints (1992), Moraga created a character named Cerezita who was born with the birth defect of having no body; just a head.  In Moraga’s 1992 article Art in America, Con Acento she stated that “This is the condition of the Mexicana woman…There is no body to inhabit between the polarized figures of La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Chingada.”  Cerezita’s character very literally presents herself as the (un)bodily extension of the identity politics Moraga argues exists for lesbian Chicana women.  Neither La Virgen nor La Chingada reflect the Chicana lesbian, and though Cerezita is not lesbian, “a lesbian sensibility has created her.” (Art in America 1992)
Aside from the character of Cerezita, Moraga has included the amputated and fractured body in several of her writings.  The image of her mother’s disembodied head in the poem For the Color of My Mother, and the mutilated and legless body in the poem You Call It, Amputation are examples of these broken bodied themes.  “The body with its amputated parts is there and not there at the same time, much in the same way women’s bodies are theirs and not theirs” stated Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano. (15)  Moraga’s “dismantling and recomposition” of the body, and specifically the Chicana body and/or the queer body are according to Yarbro-Bejarano “part of the process of making sense” of the multiple and split identities. (20)
Moraga’s emphasis on the body also emerges in her 2008 speech Still Loving in the Still War Years as she discusses gender reassignment surgery.  She expresses concern that in the future “sex change will become so commonplace that even transgender folk will cease to be queer” and wonders if the “lover-body we assume [will] no longer matter.” “What will be the site of resistance?” she asks.  This question makes evident the value she attributes the body in the scope of identity politics, especially for the queer Chicana.  Though I agree that many transgender people do not identify as queer and want nothing more than to be cisgender and heteronormative, this does not take away from queerness in any way, if anything it proves that regardless of gender and sexual rhetoric, in reality sex and gender are more fluid than even those who transcend gender and sexuality believe. In the same speech she acknowledges that being queer and of color does not necessarily make one radical and quotes her partner who said “not everybody wants to be free.” (Still Loving) 
Everybody may not want to be free, but Moraga is determined to keep the movement alive and maintain a feminist solidarity.  At the 1982 Barnard Sexuality Conference, Moraga described her “terrible fear” that though feminism “saved her” by giving her a place to safely love a woman, that her fear that she may once again be “thrust outside of the circle of acceptance” remained.  Her words were specific to a context when the movement was “breaking down around sex,” and though she stated that women of color were being played between white hands in this internal conflict, she still argued for feminists not to push each other out of this circle.  Though Moraga is quick to acknowledge when she finds an absence where women of color should be, she is a believer in a movimiento.  
Hear her speech from the Jot@ Caucus 2008
“First, we need to learn about each other” she states in her article A Unified Rainbow of Strength.  The concept of intersectionality plays a large part in the movement she envisions: “Given our identities, we have had to learn that a single-issued movement will not be about freeing us up…We refuse to postpone our womanness, our gayness, our color to make revolution easier for somebody else to swallow” Moraga said in 1982. (Rainbow) And now, twenty six years later in her 2008 speech, Moraga stays true to this idea: “Latino and Latina, Chicana, Chicano, Indigina and Africano origin queer people…do not have the privilege of a single issue movement” she said of the single issue battle for gay marriage.  
After the conference, I spent a glorious moment with “La Cherríe,” and had a chance to ask her what had awakened her consciousness.  She described the discrimination she experienced in coming out as a lesbian and the silent suffering that preceded it.  “When I came out, that was a moment of realizing I would never not choose freedom again” she told me (Still Loving).  As Moraga quoted her partner, not everybody wants to be free.  But Moraga, who has fought so hard for freedom, has thankfully come to realize the importance of that struggle and used it as a theoretical base for taking it to the “nightmarish” places necessary to fight for liberation for all oppressed peoples. 

Works Cited 
Moraga, Cherrie. “Art in America, Con Acento .” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 12.3 (1992): 154-160 .
Moraga, Cherrie. “Barnard sexuality conference: played between white hands.” Off Our Backs 12.7 (1982): 23.
Moraga, Cherrie. Giving Up The Ghost. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1986.
Moraga, Cherrie. The Hungry Woman. Albuquerque: West End Press, 2001.
Moraga, Cherrie. Loving in the War Years. Boston: South End Press, 1983.
Moraga, Cherrie. “Still Loving in the Still War Years.” National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Joto Caucus. California State University Los Angeles. 11 Oct. 2008.
Moraga, Cherrie. “A unified rainbow of strength.” Off Our Backs 12.2 (1982): 6.
Moraga, Cherrie. Watsonville/Circle in the Dirt. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1995.
Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua. This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by 
Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1984.
Thompson, Lisa B. “Watsonville/Circles in the Dirt (review).” Theatre Journal 56.3 (2004): 523-525.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. The Wounded Heart. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

No comments:

Post a Comment