A Great Spirit Trapped in a Tiny Life: On Cherríe Moraga’s “Native Country of the Heart”

By Michael Nava
FROM: Los Angeles Review of Books

download (1)Cherríe Moraga has been an iconic figure in queer and Latinx literature since the 1981 publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, an anthology she edited with the late Gloria Anzaldúa. Bridge was among the first explorations of how people and communities with multiple social identities — queer women of color, for example — are subject to intersecting discriminations that create complex and profound forms of oppression — what we now call intersectionality. In the decades since Bridge, Moraga has produced fiction, poetry, and plays, received awards and fellowships, and taught at Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Even with these credentials, she, like other queer writers of color, has been patronized by a largely white, straight literary establishment, which often dismisses work like hers as special interest pleading, while hailing the work of straight, white writers for its universality.

Moraga’s new memoir, Native Country of the Heart, should lay to rest that canard once and for all. Native Country is a masterpiece of literary art. Like other great memoirs — Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments or Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings spring to mind — the central figure is not the writer but a powerful parent. In the process of unraveling and examining the parent’s life, the writer comes to a deeper knowledge of herself both by her parent’s example and in opposition to it.

The parent in question is Moraga’s mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga. In the world outside her family and neighborhood, she was a person of little distinction: a mostly uneducated Mexican immigrant, a working-class wife and mother of three who worked in an electronics factory and lived with her family in San Gabriel, a small town in the Los Angeles megapolis. Her life, Moraga writes “was not the stuff of literature,” and yet, Elvira may have been the secret subject of all of Moraga’s work. Moraga muses: “Perhaps my writing had never really been about me. Perhaps it was she all along; she without letters; she fallen off the map of recorded histories […] She, the first and last point of my return.”

Why does the seemingly humble woman exercise so powerful an influence over her daughter? It is because, as Moraga demonstrates, Elvira was a complicated and powerful personality: a Mexican everywoman, torn between obligation and yearning. Circumstances over which she had no control — her gender, her race, her poverty — were not accepted without complaint; Elvira’s life was a long protest against the lot imposed on her even as she strove to fulfill her obligations as a Mexican-American matriarch. The friction generated by the grinding of her inarticulate but powerful desire for a different existence against the paltry reality of her lived experience, created as complex a persona as Lear. Her life was the stuff of drama but with few witnesses except, as it turns out, her genius daughter.

Elvira first appears as an 11-year-old girl in 1925 put to work by her father picking cotton in California’s Imperial Valley. Her formal education ended after third grade. She never overcame her belief that her lack of education “was the single thing that separated her from that coveted other life of an office job where women wore skirts and stockings to work each day and used their minds instead of their hands to bring home a paycheck.” Elvira’s bitterness toward her father — a feckless alcoholic who had forced her into the fields as a child — was tempered by her sense of obligation to her family. She was anything but the humble stereotype of a Mexican woman. She could be prickly, even cruel, to those closest to her: her morosity the only avenue of self-affirmation and rebellion against “an impossible patriarchy.” But her anger was also her power, the fuerza or strength, that propelled her though life and drew people to her to seek out her consejo. Read Rest of Review Here

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