Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art

Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art

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Since the 1980s Chicana writers including Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, and Alma Luz Villanueva have reworked iconic Mexican cultural symbols such as mother earth goddesses and La Llorona (the Wailing Woman of Mexican folklore), re-imagining them as powerful female figures. After reading the works of Chicana writers who created bold, powerful, and openly sexual female characters, Debra J. Blake wondered how everyday Mexican American women would characterize their own lives in relation to the writers’ radical reconfigurations of female sexuality and gender roles. To find out, Blake gathered oral histories from working-class and semiprofessional U.S. Mexicanas. In Chicana Sexuality and Gender, she compares the self-representations of these women with fictional and artistic representations by academic-affiliated, professional intellectual Chicana writers and visual artists, including Alma M. López and Yolanda López.

Blake looks at how the Chicana professional intellectuals and the U.S. Mexicana women refigure confining and demeaning constructions of female gender roles and racial, ethnic, and sexual identities. She organizes her analysis around re-imaginings of La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, indigenous Mexica goddesses, and La Malinche, the indigenous interpreter for Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest. In doing so, Blake reveals how the professional intellectuals and the working-class and semiprofessional women rework or invoke the female icons to confront the repression of female sexuality, limiting gender roles, inequality in male and female relationships, and violence against women. While the representational strategies of the two groups of women are significantly different and the U.S. Mexicanas would not necessarily call themselves feminists, Blake nonetheless illuminates a continuum of Chicana feminist thinking, showing how both groups of women expand lifestyle choices and promote the health and well-being of women of Mexican origin or descent.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822381228
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2008
Series: Latin America Otherwise
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,139,008
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Debra J. Blake is a lecturer in the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art
By Debra J. Blake


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4310-3

Chapter One


History, Memory, and the Cultural Refiguring of La Malinche's Lineage

History is a theory machine. And theories are memory machines. RICHARD TERDIMAN

In an essay in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma connecting the construction of patriarchal religious ideologies to the subordination of female sexuality, Ana Castillo writes that "there remains much in archeology about the Mexica goddess left open to interpretation. Again, as women and as indigenous people, we must reconstruct our history with what is left unsaid and not what has been recorded by those who have imposed their authority on us." Castillo's statements indicate several significant concepts that resonate in many Chicana feminist writings: (1) the precolonial indigenous past has meaning in the present whether understood through history, memory, or both; (2) the manner in which the past has been represented by others fails to speak to or for Chicana or U.S. Mexicana experiences and desires and often excludes them altogether; and (3) the past must be re-membered and refigured by Chicanas and U.S. Mexicanas from their own perspectives and experiences. In this chapter I consider how four Mexican female cultural symbols-La Malinche, La Llorona, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and the Mexica mother earth goddesses -have been represented by multiple discourses from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries. An examination of these discourses exposes the official histories that serve the interests of the dominant power and contribute to stereotypical renderings of Chicana and U.S. Mexicana experience. In addition, I consider how memory serves as a counterdiscourse to provide alternate and complex understandings of their lives.

The dominant discourses influencing the representations of the four cultural symbols include the Mexica (the ruling indigenous group in Central Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors), Spanish European, African Arab (Moor), Catholic, Mexican, and "American." In response to these discourses, Chicanas and U.S. Mexicanas have fashioned counterdiscourses produced from their own personal histories and cultural memories. The interacting processes of recovering memory and rewriting history are displayed strikingly in Chicana artists' visual representations of all four symbols. Their artworks appropriate recognized elements of earlier visual depictions in order to maintain a cultural connection. At the same time, they replace negative elements of the representations by unearthing submerged cultural memories of the figures as powerful, active forces. Stuart Hall calls this practice "trans-coding," the reappropriation of existing meanings and assignment of new meanings. Chicana and U.S. Mexicana cultural refiguring participates in trans-coding by confronting the elisions and denigrations of women in history through a dual remembering process of reclaiming female-oriented symbols and preserving cultural memories. Furthermore, Mexica history shows that rebellious women played a role in making history long before the conquest, setting a symbolic genealogical precedent for the feminist expressions this study examines.

A common truism states that history is written by the victors. What is not commonly acknowledged is that dominant powers often revise their own histories to justify or represent a new era or ideology, as did the Mexica peoples before and after the conquest. In contrast to the Western conception of history as a factual progression of events, the Mexica conceived of history as dynamic, nonlinear, and cyclical, and as engaging cosmological narratives and event narratives equally. In The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History, Susan Gillespie writes that the Mexica subscribed to a cyclical view wherein "history belonged to the past and also to the future. It explained that which had happened as well as that which would be." Like many cultures, the Mexica "actively manipulated 'history'-their understanding of the past-to explicate their socio-political situation." Gillespie's elucidation of Mexica historical conceptions focuses on transgressive women as the dynamic elements of change. These women were individual members of royal families, generations apart, whose repeating presence in Mexica royal and divine genealogies was structurally preordained by the Mexica chroniclers. In the genealogies, these key women are all aspects of the mother earth goddess, whose transgressions sometimes resulted in and signified both death and rebirth. "They function in the histories to generate the next temporal cycle, an act that often requires their sacrificial death. Thus they are linked to a well-known event in the Mexica past, the sacrifice of the 'woman of discord.'"

What Gillespie describes as a prophetic conception of history and genealogy yields multiple understandings. While the rulership of the Mexica was held almost exclusively by men, women's birth lines generated successive nobility and, at one point, a woman actually served as ruler. The Mexica queens-with the exception of the one woman ruler-appear in these narratives to have had little agency because their perceived discord and their sacrifice were repeated in order to generate the succeeding cycle. However, if women are rendered as tools of the ruling male elite in these accounts, as evidenced by their construction as the woman of discord and by the need to sacrifice them, they also are conceived as powerful figures that ennoble dynasties, inaugurate eras, and generally possess, as does the mother earth goddess, life-giving and life-taking powers. The dynamic reproduction cycle they represent signifies repetition, disruption, and re-creation of history, genealogy, and the human life cycle. "With the commencement of each cycle, a woman endowed the succeeding kings with the right to rule, a woman who thereby merged with her counterparts before and after her, to whom she was structurally identical. She was one woman and many women at once, a means of achieving union but representative of opposition, a source of power yet also of chaos, a threat to the orderly progression of the world but absolutely necessary to its maintenance; in short, a woman of discord."

Gillespie proposes that two female figures continue the woman of discord structure during the conquest and into the colonial and postcolonial periods. She argues that Malintzin Tenepal (La Malinche) and La Virgen de Guadalupe function as the structural equivalents to the goddesses and queens through actual and symbolic roles in disrupting and unifying the Spanish and indigenous cultures. Malintzin Tenepal, interpreter for Hernán Cortés, bore a child by him in 1522, which symbolized unification of the Spanish and indigenous peoples. Similarly, La Virgen de Guadalupe (Mother Mary) brings together the Spanish Catholic and indigenous Mexican religions through the church built in her honor, which is thought to have been built on the site of the temple of the goddess Tonantzin (Our Mother). Although Gillespie does not include La Llorona (the Wailing Woman) in her analysis, La Llorona also functions as both a disruptive and unifying figure. Her actions and narrative weeping disrupt patriarchal and colonial authority. She unites the past and present representing the Mexica mother earth goddess who wandered the streets of Tenochtitlan warning her children of the invading Spaniards. La Llorona's weeping also represents La Malinche's betrayal by Cortés; and the Chicanas and U.S. Mexicanas whose partners are unfaithful or who are deceived by government and religious institutions. In rupturing silence and inaction, La Llorona functions as a successor in the lineage of the woman of discord.

The Mexica envisioned the ritual of the woman of discord as a crucial component of their origin history and rise to dominance in ancient Mexico. However, the Chicana and U.S. Mexicana oral, written, and artistic refigurings of the four cultural symbols can be read as late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century disruptions of national, patriarchal, and colonial rule. They portray the survival of indigenous peoples and the intermixing of diverse races and cultures in mestiza/o peoples. Similar to the Mexica scribes, the Chicana writers and U.S. Mexicana oral historians in this study record their histories of struggle, mediation, and resistance from their own perspectives. In disrupting and unifying two or more cultures through their self-representations, they also incarnate the woman of discord. Their refashionings follow the genealogy of Gillespie's "Aztec queens," the Mexica goddesses, La Malinche, La Llorona, and La Virgen de Guadalupe in causing rupture, chaos, and change. Like the woman of discord, their narratives herald a new era of women of color power that has altered the historical record and recovered lost memories of resilient female symbols. They bring together the transcultural, multiracial aspects of Mexican, American, and indigenous mestizaje forming a history of Chicana and U.S. Mexicana pride and self-determination. In addition, they function symbolically to generate the next temporal cycle, an indigenous mestiza postmodern existence.

Narratives about the past are often used as ideological persuasion by the dominant power to support its interests. At the same time, they are a mode of discourse that can serve nondominant peoples as an effective instrument of struggle, specifically as a means by which to deconstruct subjugating ideologies and reconstruct a new vision. The Chicana and U.S. Mexicana written and oral narratives recuperate ancient myths, legends, and histories to formulate stories that represent their contemporary view of themselves and the roles of women. Through scholarly research, the professional intellectuals recover La Malinche and the goddesses, symbolically resculpting them in the image of late-twentieth-century Chicana feminists. The working-class and semiprofessional women use the symbols closest to them; some refigure La Virgen de Guadalupe to portray their own spirit and ingenuity and others use La Llorona as a model for resistance and self-defense.

In each instance of rewritten history Gillespie documents, the role of discourse used as an adjunct to force is instructive. Despite their conquests of neighboring ethnic city-states, the Mexica could not compel the transformation of consciousness necessary to unify conqueror and conquered through force alone. The discourses of the woman of discord were necessary not only to historically justify the Mexica conquests and internecine conflicts but to convince the conquered of their place in the new order. The discourses of unification grew less convincing as the Mexica tribute tolls forced on conquered city-states increased, leading a number of city-states to side with Cortés shortly after his arrival in 1519. Similarly, the force wielded by the Spaniards, although more deadly than anything previously witnessed by indigenous peoples, did not convince them to give up their culture and religion. Many were killed for refusing to convert or submit to Spanish control. Spanish Catholic priests soon followed, attempting to convert by Catholic discourse what had not been accomplished through force. Nor was the discourse of conversion completely successful. Contrary to popular belief, neither the story nor the symbol of La Virgen de Guadalupe was embraced by the indigenous peoples. Only in the late seventeenth century did criollos, Spaniards born in "New Spain" who felt politically marginalized by the ruling peninsulars, eagerly adopt Guadalupe devotion, popularizing a discourse of the criollos as the "new chosen people."

When Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, supporters of a democratic nation began forging national discourses that vanquished the colonial past and everything associated with it. La Virgen de Guadalupe was part of the new discourse; Malintzin Tenepal was not. Sandra Messinger Cypess writes that La Malinche, a respected figure prior to Independence, became a scapegoat in Mexican republican narratives. Cypess examines fictional narratives that associate La Malinche with Spain and regard her as an undesirable role model for post-Independence Mexico. She notes the historical novel Xicoténcatl, published anonymously in 1826, is the first narrative to negatively characterize La Malinche as a betrayer of her people. The novel was well known in Mexico and served as a source of inspiration for a number of works about the conquest. The supplanting of La Malinche with La Virgen de Guadalupe as the mother of the new nation reinforced a dominant Catholic and criollo discourse significantly altering, although not completely eliminating, the status and regard for La Malinche and indigenous goddesses. In these examples, then, force and discourse combine to subjugate indigenous identity and female power and desire. Not until the mid-twentieth century would Mexican and Chicana writers recognize La Malinche's unifying qualities and restore her significance as indigenous and corporeal woman. Guadalupe would not be recovered by the Chicana professional intellectuals until the late twentieth century.

The narratives of the working-class and semiprofessional women indicate that the patriarchal discourse associated with Guadalupe as a Mexican Catholic female ideal, and the colonial and patriarchal violence of the conquest, are still very much a part of their lives. The discourses of struggle and resistance that the working-class and semiprofessional women create and enact, along with those of the professional intellectuals, must be added to the historical record. A cultural genealogy of resistance and refiguring can be traced beginning with the precolonial narratives of Mexica goddesses and queens, including La Malinche, La Llorona, and Guadalupe, and extending to the contemporary narratives and visual images that represent the experiences of Chicana and U.S. Mexicana women. This genealogy encompasses women of discord from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century who have struggled against poverty, enslavement, violence, exploitative working conditions, and limiting gender roles and sexualities. It includes historical figures who are known to have resisted and refigured such as Malintzin Tenepal, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, Teresa Urrea, La Adelita, Emma Tenayuca, and Dolores Huerta, as well as many women who have struggled alone or unacknowledged. The genealogy of the woman of discord is a continual and dynamic process that rewrites history to reflect contemporary concerns. Past resistances serve as present and future inspirations. The new discourses of Chicanas and U.S. Mexicanas address the "sacrifice" of the woman of discord by opposing and rewriting the subjugation of and violence against women, gays and lesbians, and people of color.

Indeed, the Chicana professional intellectuals and the U.S. Mexicana working-class and semiprofessional women continue the lineage of discord by disrupting long-held cultural conceptions of women's roles and sexualities and by unifying woman-centered visions with indigenous cultural practices and symbols. The cycle of contestation and reproduction that I examine in the writings and oral histories has been noted by Norma Alarcón in describing the history of the term "Chicano" as a microcosm of the history of the Chicana/o civil rights movement, a history of identity undergoing revision even as it is recorded. For example, as late as 1995 the National Association of Chicano Studies changed its name to the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies to recognize women's existence and contributions. Nancy "Rusty" Barceló, one of the organization's leaders, noted that the name may need to be even more inclusive in the future to recognize the participation of a broad spectrum of U.S. Latinas and Latinos.


Excerpted from CHICANA SEXUALITY AND GENDER by Debra J. Blake Copyright © 2008 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. The Power of Representation: History, Memory, and the Cultural Refiguring of La Malinche's Lineage 13

2. Chicana Feminism: Spirituality, Sexuality, and Mexica Goddesses Re-membered 70

3. Las Historias: Sexuality, Gender Roles, and La Virgen de Guadalupe Reconsidered 102

4. Cultural Anxieties and Truths: Gender, Nationalism, and La Llorona Retellings 144

5. Reading Dynamics of Power: Oral Histories, Feminist Research, and the Politics of Location 185

Conclusion 215

Notes 223

References 253

Index 273

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