A Portrait About a Mother and Daughter Returning To Home
By Frank Rojas 10/18/19
“Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature.”
That is the first line to Chicana writer, poet, and social activist Cherríe Moraga’s most recent work, Native Country of the Heart. The book explores the life of Moraga’s mother and how she comes to understand her own life as a queer Latina feminist through her. The book is not a biography, but rather a portrait of a relationship between a mother and daughter who are fighting their own battles but yet remain united in blood.
Cherríe Moraga first came to prominence for her work with the late Gloria Anzaldúa in the feminist anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. The literary work investigates the experiences of women of color within the intersection of race and sexual identity. Since then Moraga has gone on to write various books, critical thinking essays, and theater productions. She has taught as an English professor, thus expanding the Chicana/Chicano literature studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Moraga is also a founding member of La Red Xicana Indígena, an advocacy network. It is dedicated to Chicanas working in education, the arts, spiritual practice, and indigenous women’s rights.
Last week Moraga took part in a lecture series hosted by Scripps College in Claremont, California where she explained the inspiration behind her most recent book.
“It’s a long story about being honest to your origin story. If there’s anything I teach my students it’s that they have to go home. And home is not an easy place to be sometimes. This book is about that.”
Native Country of the Heart took Moraga ten years to write as she was simultaneously writing for other projects. But she expressed that this was the book she had to finish. The first half of the book chronicles Moraga’s experience with her mother before she comes out and pursues her own individual life as a queer woman. The later half delves into Moraga’s relationship with memory years later as her mother becomes affected by Alzheimer's and eventually passes. The cover consists of a vintage black and white photograph of Moraga’s mother as she looks candidly into the distance.
“I wanted to make her, which also means us and that generation and history, literature… It’s not just Elvira, it’s all of those mujeres. As Mexicans in the U.S., we are still so invisible. We haven't even gotten to tap our stories. My mother was not the stuff of literature because literature is Anglo-Saxon.”
Moraga explained the three narratives the Latinx community has been restricted to. The stories allowed are the immigrant experience, the gang experience, and a romanticized version of familia. While she does not intend to undermine those stories, they do not show the complexity of the Latinx community. Moraga was enlightened by reading the works of black women’s literature in the 1970s. She credits those stories as what allowed her to see herself as literature. That became an awakening moment into consciousness which has influenced numerous of Moraga’s works.
There is a fierceness of values that are communicated throughout the book. It’s those same values that Moraga learned from her mother and in turn, taught her son. The phrase, “No te dejes” (don’t back down) is repeated throughout the book as a form of endearment. Moraga elaborates on how those values and that phrase are connected with the ability to tell the truth. A truth Moraga struggled to accept for her own life before coming out to her mother as a lesbian.
“Writing her story was really important to me because it’s just a life. I feel really different with this book because I feel free and I can’t say that’s the case with other people that are in this book.”
Native Country of the Heart is not just a memoir about Cherríe Moraga’s mother. It is also a story about Moraga herself. A story that is uncomfortable and messy, but very much real. The story does not finish with Elvira’s death. It continues through the legacy of her daughter and those after. Elvira, who was not the stuff of literature, has now been published by a renowned American book publishing company and her story and the story of her daughter have gone on to tour countless college campuses. It’s a reminder that we live through our ancestors and that our ancestors live through us. As Moraga writes, “If we forget ourselves, who will be left to remember us?”
An excerpt from Cherríe Moraga’s book Native Country of the Heart:
“You’re living with a secret”
My mother’s words grab me by the throat. The phone falls to my chest. I am twenty-three years old. And this is what I know of a black hole. Her statement foretells my exile. She is losing me. She knows it. And into the dark firmament of that silence Elvira, the braver of us, has ventured.
I can lie and continue on without her or tell her the truth and… and what?