From the celebrated editor of This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe L. Moraga charts her own coming-of-age alongside her mother’s decline, and also tells the larger story of the MexicanAmerican diaspora
Native Country of the Heart: A MexicanAmerican Geography is, at its core, a mother-daughter story. The mother, Elvira, was hired out as a child by her own father to pick cotton in California’s Imperial Valley. The daughter, Cherríe L. Moraga, is a brilliant, pioneering, queer Latina feminist. The story of these two women, and of their people, is woven together in an intimate memoir of critical reflection and deep personal revelation.
As a young woman, Elvira left California to work as a cigarette girl in glamorous late-1920s Tijuana, where an ambiguous relationship with a wealthy white man taught her life lessons about power, sex, and opportunity. As Moraga charts her mother’s journeyfrom impressionable young girl to battle-tested matriarch to, later on, an old woman suffering under the yoke of Alzheimer’sshe traces her own self-discovery of her gender-queer body and Lesbian identity, as well as her passion for activism and the history of her pueblo. As her mother’s memory fails, Moraga is driven to unearth remnants of the MexicanAmerican diaspora and an American story of cultural loss.
Poetically wrought and filled with insight into intergenerational trauma, Native Country of the Heart is a reckoning with white American history and a piercing love letter from a fearless daughter to the mother she will never lose.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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My mother, in her little black sweater with the faux fur collar and fake string of pearls, is celebrating her ninetieth birthday. Seeing her made-up like this, even amid the obligatory pleasantly pastel decor of twenty-first-century eldercare suburbia, I catch a momentary glimpse of Elvira's past, she who appeared in the sepia-toned photographs of a late-1920s "Golden Age" Tijuana: Elvirita, linking arms with her girlfriends in front of the Foreign Club; sprawled beneath the bare arm of a fledgling city tree; hip to hip with her cuate, Esperanza, on the bumper of a Model A Ford. Elvira: in the calf-length shapely skirt, the matching white heels, and the low-slung blouse with its draping bow. The bright red lips that do not smile, but invite, as is appropriate for the era. Elvira had a grand life before her children ever came into it.
* * *
There were no fathers in the Moraga clan, not in those first Aztlán turn-into-the-twenty-first-century generations. There were men, yes; men who came and left the household with a single man's prerogative and secrets; men who answered to no one, and never to a female.
It is 1925. Elvirita is eleven years old. She is picking cotton in the Imperial Valley, just north of the California-Mexico border. Her father is the freelance contractor for the job. He has hired out his school-aged unmarried children (what remain of the nine) to work the fields. Elvira wears one sack draped over the square bone of her thin shoulder. As she stuffs it full of cotton balls, she drags another sack, laden with the three-year-old weight of her littlest brother, Eduardito.
My mother cried the first time she told me this story. I was a little girl and I cried, too, at the picture of it. A picture of hardship, yes; but more than that — injustice. For most of her childhood in California, my mother's father regularly pulled his children out of school and bartered them out to labor in the fields. She never said the word profit — that the fewer laborers he contracted outside of la familia, the more money would end up in his personal pocket. As I left the kitchen of my mother's stories, I came to understand that her sense of injustice was not so much that she and her young siblings had to work in the fields. Many of my Chicano and Chicana counterparts knew farmwork as a regular occurrence growing up, their school schedules shaved off at both ends to accommodate the seasons. And although, of course, child labor in a just world would be outlawed, within a U.S.-Mexican context where poverty is law, child labor was common practice. It was the intimacy of the injustice that seemed to wound my mother the most; that although the near-dozen Moragas struggled economically, she believed my grandfather had a choice in the matter.
Born on the U.S. side of the border, they had also always lived on the other side of the (Mexican) tracks (or so my mother made a point of saying). She also insisted that when she was a girl her family never sat in the Mexican section of the movie house. "We were a difernt claz of peepo," referring to herself and her eight Spanish-speaking siblings. Years of migrant farm labor did not, in my mother's mind, bind them economically (or culturally) to the rest of the Mexican immigrant population. Or so she protested against an immutable and unspoken identification with them.
For most of my childhood, my mother hid the truth of her father's drunkenness and outlaw scams: Moraga the bootlegger, Moraga the labor contractor, Moraga the human smuggler. Like el coyote, that illusive trickster who shuttles between worlds, Esteban Moraga rode the counterfeit borders of the Southwest with a vaquero flair of Mexican independence and macho bravado. Yeah, it was a Wild West life, but at its heart Elvira remained a naïve and tender teenaged girl relinquishing her wages and tips to buy the carne for the caldo, the harina for the tortillas, la manteca para los frijoles. This was the political economy my mother had known since childhood and that would continue as the Depression hit and Esteban Moraga moved the familia south to Tijuana's "Golden Age of Vice."
My mother would never return to school after that. It had already become too embarrassing: a girl of eleven stuck into classrooms with third graders. "The last time I was in school, I was so big, the teacher would step out and leave me in charge half the time." My mother's bitterness (or better said, shame) about her lack of formal education was tacitly evident in every palsied signature she applied to grocery store checks, every job application my sister and I helped her complete, every school notice we brought home to sit abandoned and unread on the kitchen table.
Her inability to read and write well remained an open wound for Elvira her entire life, as she believed it 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. Despite that belief, Elvira's full decade of employment in 1930s Tijuana was to provide her with an education far beyond the confines of the labor camp and the schoolyard.
* * *
In 1929, as white men were taking nosedives off skyscrapers on Wall Street and Prohibition was in full swing, "Border Baron" Wirt Bowman was making a handsome profit six miles south of the border through his investment in the casino and racetrack business, notably the Agua Caliente and the Foreign Club. While Dust Bowl survivors blew into the agricultural fields of California, two million Mexicans (including Mexican Americans) were "repatriated" to México to make room for them. But the Moraga clan was not among the families herded onto boxcars, without regard to citizenship, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. Theirs was a voluntary exodus, inspired by rising anti-Mexican sentiment and joblessness in Alta California, while Baja California witnessed a swelling American-financed industry of gambling and prostitution afloat in a Pacific Ocean of unrestricted liquor.
* * *
"Cigarettes, candy, chewing gum."
Amid spinning roulette wheels and the red and black flashes of diamonds and spades, a petite five-feet-one-inch fourteen-year-old Elvira stands a few inches taller in first-time high heels teetering over her sales tray of the icons of American advertising: Camel, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield cigarettes; Hershey's and Milky Way candy bars; Chiclets, Juicy Fruit, and Wrigley's Spearmint gum. Lying about her age with a fairly fluid bilingualism, she wrangled a job as a cigarette and hatcheck girl at the coveted Salón de Oro at the Agua Caliente, a high-stakes gambling room frequented by Hollywood's finest. Elvira would remain in its employ until President Lázaro Cárdenas outlawed casinos in 1935.
"Check your hats and coats here, please."
I often wondered if my mother's years in the Salón de Oro had ruined her — made an ordinary Mexican life in the United States impossible; made her relationship to Gringolandia an ever-promise that would betray her. How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Tijuana in the '30s?
At Agua Caliente, Elvira glimpsed a world that was dream years away from the home of makeshift tents they had posted in the melon fields of Imperial Valley just months before. In Tijuana, Elvira literally touched hands with movie stars — Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow — and Mafia bosses, Al Capone included, as they dropped silver dollars into her open palm. The tips spilled into her pockets like jackpot winnings. Then after her shift, returning home at four o'clock in the morning, she would deposit all her earnings into the open coffer of her mother's expectant hands.
"I never thought to keep any of it for myself. I bought my clothes for work, but all the rest was for them. Maybe that was stupid of me. I was just a girl."
Elvira was loath to tell that as she made her way home a few hours before dawn each night, she often encountered her father headed along the same path, stumbling with a belly full of drink, at times his face in a ditch vomiting. "I would just take another street home," she told me. "I hated to see him like that."
My mother's silence around her father was unlike her invocation to another man, whose name fell from her lips with a kind of hallowed reverence. It bothered me, how her voice would change when she spoke of "Mr. Bowman" all those years later. A slightly affected tone, almost flirtatious. There was a lie in it somehow; it hinted of something unreconciled, undone.
Wirt Bowman, as a major owner of Agua Caliente, appeared in my mother's Tijuana stories as a faceless benefactor. Although he died in 1949, one year into my mother's marriage to my father, Bowman seemed to hold a part of Elvira's history hostage. I never knew his first name, never asked her, only looked it up years later when it occurred to me that the man might've been some kind of real big shot in his time.
I first found his name mentioned in a thin paperback I was never able to find again. Years later, however, at a used bookstore in L.A. I landed upon a title, Pozo del Mundo, a book copyrighted in 1970 that depicts Tijuana and the world of the Mexican-American border, employing every stereotype of Mexican low-life debauchery ever invented by the gringo imagination. The book also contains several pages on Bowman and his many incarnations as cattleman, bootlegger, gunrunner during the Mexican revolution (for profit, not politics), casino owner, and, after Mexican gambling was outlawed, an Arizona statesman (predictably).
To us, growing up, he was just "Mr. Bowman," who had featured in my mother's life as a kind of silent patron. Patrón, as it is understood in Spanish, may be more apropos; for, first and foremost, Bowman was my mother's boss. Still, there were the unaccounted-for benefits. "He paid for my father's funeral," she told me. "He didn't have to do that." Like he didn't have to give her a full month's paid leave to recover from a bronchitis they had feared was tuberculosis, which had left her on the verge of collapse and her family without any means of support. "I don't know what we would've done without him," she said, almost contrite.
Even before her father's death from pneumonia in 1934, Elvira was the financial mainstay of the family of eight still living at home. By the late 1920s, since the older sisters, Dolores, Victoria, and Hortensia, had all married in their teens, Elvira shouldered the bulk of the family financial burden, along with a reluctant Josefina, a few years younger. Her older brother, Esteban, was the missing link in the chain of family responsibilities. "He was a very good-looking man" was the parenthetical spliced between the mostly nonstory told about his work life, his love life, his family life.
One time, at her mother's urging, Elvira asked Bowman to give Esteban Jr. a job interview. "I had bought him a new suit. Shoes, a hat, the works," my mother recounts the event I had already memorized. But I love her telling of it. She describes the quality fabric of the suit; how my uncle's broad shoulders filled it with an actor's elegance. The brim of his hat bent over the intelligent brow and warm mouth. It is what my mother always did best — to own a piece of a man in that way, in the way we women so often prop them up for the visuals, the look of someone who could be a man, a provider, someone you can count on.
"Aren't you ashamed," Bowman asked him in their meeting, hiring him on the spot, "that your little sister has to do this for you? What kind of man are you?" Her brother's response was to keep the "drapes" and head for the cantina, never appearing for a day's work.
But Bowman was no saint. I knew from the sheer math of it that he was close to sixty as he bestowed his kindnesses upon the teenaged Elvira; and that, as she grew older, her required sexual submission would come to be a simple matter of payback. He would twice try to arrange a sexual liaison with her, for which fate and faith dictated a different outcome. I sensed there was some guilt in this for my mother (because she did believe she owed him), mixed with an insistent pride that she had slipped from his imperious grasp. Malinche she was not.
* * *
Of course Elvira was Malinche. Malintzín Tenepal, our sixteenth-century Indigenous mother, sold into slavery by her own relations, transported from the Nahuatl language of her origins to the Mayan of her esclavitud. There among the Tabascans embattled by the Spanish, on the southern edge of the gulf waters, she is presented to El Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, in a gesture of reconciliation.
As Malinche shows prowess in multiple tongues, Cortés takes her as his concubine and interpreter. And with her as strategic guide at his side, the conquest of Indigenous México is realized.
Or so the story goes.
The figure of Malinche wrestles inside the collective unconscious of every Mexican female. She murmurs in a distant indiscernible voice that the official story is not the whole story; that Malinche was not free and was proffered freedom for her services. We hear the devil temptation in the tale; that our sex is our sin and our salvation; that it can be used, along with our wits and wiles, to save ourselves, our families, and our people; that there are mouths to feed and men who are not doing their share for their own good reasons.
Maybe those reasons are historical disappointments, the cultural memory of themselves as once Aztec royalty or Spanish rancheros. I deserve better than this, the Mexican man senses somewhere in his DNA and maybe he resents his wife, who wears a little brighter skin, a little more Spanish entitlement or at least the "airs" to suggest it, and so the father drinks and the sons drink after him and they hustle the gringo in the best way they can, güey, because they remember better days, days better than the white man (so inferior in looks and intelligence) running the joint, the construction company, the downtown restaurant, the stock exchange, and the whole pinche Rancho del Norte.
Beneath this grand sweep of history resides the small whispered story of a woman. In this story, the Mexican man uses his daughter to do the stepping and the fetching. He sells her out to do his bidding. And he remains uncompromised. In this story, Elvira is sold over and over like Malinche was sold into slavery and a life of treachery. And like Malinche, Elvira marvels at her destiny, that she, somehow, is not one of the two million Mexicans put into boxcars and returned to a life of poverty. Instead, she walks south across the border as the stock market crashes behind her. And, like the Indian Malinche, she learns to talk out of both sides of her mouth. They made me a slave and condemn me when I act like one. This split tongue was my mother's language, as she negotiated the advances of her own Cortés in the person of Wirt Bowman.
* * *
In the early 1930s, Rosarito Beach is a short day trip down the coast from Tijuana. My mother is now eighteen years old and has been working for Bowman for nearly four years. He invites her to accompany him to the famous, newly renovated resort Hotel Rosarito. The limousine, driven by Felipe, the chauffeur, arrives to pick her up. Bowman is in the back seat. Felipe, a friend and coworker of Elvira's, averts his eyes as he opens the door to let her in. This ritual of propriety that attempts to mask the unspoken intent of the excursion embarrasses them equally. Felipe and she both know that she is neither Bowman's wife nor his daughter. The Rosarito Beach Hotel, which movie stars and Mexican dignitaries frequent, does not proffer entrada to an unmarried Mexican girl without a maid's wash bin or her patrón's elbow. She knows how she will be viewed as she crosses under the Moorish archways of the hotel.
As the car door slams behind her, Bowman slaps the leather seat, a summons for Elvira to slide over next to him. She does. He does not touch her, except paternally, but Elvira knows what is up ahead at the end of the dusty road. This is not how she imagined it. Todavía una señorita, she would be ruined after this, but is utterly unable to say no. Her family depends upon her. So Elvira did the only thing she knew to do, she prayed and prayed and prayed toward the god of that endless ocean, steady and insistent outside her window, responding to Bowman's idle conversation in murmured monosyllables.
Until without warning, the car begins to lurch and spit and slowly sputters to a dead stop.
"Señor Bowman," the chauffeur also sputters, "I don't know what's wrong. I promise you, I filled the tank just before leaving."
The bone-dry tank was testimony to my mother's faith in God, or this is how she told the story to us as little girls. I was so little in those earliest tellings, I remember not quite knowing what it was that Mr. Bowman wanted from my mother. I came to understand this more fully later, along with suspecting it was not a "miracle" but the chauffeur who had purposely underfilled the gas tank for my mother's sake.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Native Country of the Heart"
Copyright © 2019 Cherríe Moraga.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Prologue-Una Salta Pa'tras 3
Coyote's Daughter 9
Something Better 21
Little Rascals 27
What Ever Happened to Norman Rockwell? 31
The Other Side of the Tracks 41
Just Eat Your Chicken 48
Body Memory 55
Mission Girls 64
Don't Ask, Don't Tell 82
Nothing México Couldn't Cure 89
Training Ground 100
Old School 103
A Rolling Stone 108
Like The Heron 123
The Mother of the Bride 127
"A Very Nice Man" 133
Halloween Shuffle 2003 139
A Mother's Dictum 148
Elvira's Country 161
Sweet Locura 165
Send Them Flying Home 169
For Costumbre 186
Some Place Not Home 192
Now and Zen 197
When They Lose Their Marbles 201
The Wisdom of Dolphins 209
Soft Spots 213
Sola Con Los Dioses 220
Coyote Crossing 223
For the Record an Epilogue 235
Selected Bibliography 239
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was an interesting memoir about growing up in a Mexican/American family in the US with a strong mother Elvira, also called Vera. Elvira tells of being hired out with her siblings by their father as a child to pick cotton in California in Imperial Valley. A mother-daughter story where the mother has quite a history as the backbone of the family for decades in both Mexico and America. It also tells of the author, Cherrie Moraga's, journey as a lesbian in that culture as she found her voice and began speaking out and getting involved in different issues. Then there are some problems many have as their parents' age but perhaps handled in her mother’s unusual fashion at first. I found it to be an involving enough read and learned enough on a number of topics to make it worthwhile, figuring that others would like it also. RATING: 3.5 of 5.0 Stars