Broad Recognition


Homeland/Border/Queerland: Rereading 1990s Xicana/o Activism from The Hungry Woman

The late 1980s through mid-1990s were a volatile time, fraught with abuses of and appeals for Mexican and Mexican-American rights. In the year 1988, epidemics of cancer broke out among predominantly Chicana/o and Mexican workers exposed to high levels of pesticides; to protest, César Chávez went on a nonviolent 36-day fast. On January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA took effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation went public. The same year, California passed Proposition 187, legislation that expelled the children of illegal immigrants while scaling back government aid, including prenatal care, to immigrants. From this context of extreme social turmoil and human rights struggles sprang The Hungry Woman, a still relevant—indeed, prophetic—work of theatre, by one of Xicana literature’s most renowned voices.

Cherríe Moraga emerged as a Xicana, or Chicana feminist, activist in the same era. With Gloria Anzaldúa, she edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color in 1986. Her work as a playwright has been well recognized since the collection of her three earliest plays, Heroes and Saints and Other Plays (1994). She continues to explore issues of queerness and Chicana/o identity in the abstract but nevertheless relevant form of a sci-fi/fantasy play.

The Hungry Woman is unflinchingly prophetic. Its storyline is ostensibly fantastical, as two Chicana women, exiled from the new nation of Aztlán because of their love, raise an adolescent son. Its fantasy recounts myth as well as an apocalyptic near-future. Unconventional artistic choices include double casting and reenacted scenes of Aztec lore; actors change costumes and assume both commonplace and mystical personas. Yet the play also probes into current realities of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.

The Hungry Woman recreates myth in an invented space with shades of reality. Subtitled in a recent production as A Mexican Medea the play revives the Greek myth in which Medea avenges her husband Jason’s betrayal, ultimately by murdering their children. Yet, in this text, the myth is transformed by its re-setting in the queer Chicana space of an apocalyptic Phoenix, Arizona, “the near future of a fictional Chicana past.” As the play’s Setting page reads, “Located in the border region between Gringolandia (white Amerika) and Aztlán (Chicano country), Phoenix is now a city-in-ruin, the dumping site of every kind of poison and person unwanted by its neighbors.” The characters refer to Phoenix as Tamoachan, which means “We seek our home.” Within this no-person’s-land lies a queer ghetto, where people of nonnormative sexualities live in housing projects. Medea and her 13-year-old son Chac-Mool have lived here for seven years—ever since Medea left her husband Jasón for her partner, Luna.

The border in this script takes on a multiple meaning. Firstly, there is the border of Gringolandia/Aztlán, crossed by illegal or legal immigration. Secondly, there is the line of sexuality, and the queer space of a hazy borderland. The protagonists of this play have illegally crossed the border, from the security of heterosexual families and land into the gray area of queerness/(bi)sexuality, between Americanness and Mexicanness. In this borderland of sexual and ethnic transgression, they seek to define for themselves love, familia, and home. The ghettoized borderland is the dwelling place not just for Moraga’s fictional characters, but also for real humans marginalized by sexual orientation, race, gender, or immigration status.

The gendered and sexual limitations of Latin American revolutions and U.S. activism are displayed in Moraga’s text. The state of Aztlán was born of revolutionary faith that promised change but did not deliver it to women or queers. In one scene, we are treated to a history of the formation of Aztlán, through the dual narration of Mama Sal, Medea’s grandmother; and Savannah, Luna’s African-American friend and lover. They begin with a retelling of the recognizable story of communism’s spread to Latin America, U.S. anti-immigrant sentiment, and the health complications that struck predominantly Chicano and Mexican farm workers. Their bilingual narration, rushed like a practiced prayer, emphasizes the injustice of the American continent’s known history and encourages a revolutionary reading of the text:

MAMA SAL: Pues, all this born-again-Christian-charismatic-apocalyptic-eucalyptus-que-sé-yo gave fresh blood a la práctica de nazism y la plática de–

SAVANNAH: Wetback go home.

The play’s history diverges from our own past as, in the wake of Zapatista revolution, “pan-indigenismo” shook the Americas, and Aztlán was formed. The re-formed ancestral patria has not, however, proven revolutionary for women or queer people. Aztlán expels “queers of every color and shade and definition.” Women, who aided in the revolutionary effort, are expected nevertheless to be homemakers. This conflict between sexuality and activism is rooted in real American–Chicana/o history. Women were historically excluded from the Chicano freedom movement of the 1960s except in their roles as cooks and baby-bearers for family. To belong to la familia was to conform to these narrow expectations. Discourse, including in the manifesto El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, expressed women’s exclusion through its use of masculine terms such as “brother” and “mestizo.” This history parallels other events Mama Sal refers to in Latin American past. In revolutionary Cuba, lesbians faced the double oppression of gender and gayness, and were often arrested simply for walking in pairs or groups. Fidel Castro attacked homosexual citizens as “lumpen” counter-revolutionaries and infamously expelled thousands of queer women and men from the country as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

The social prioritization of a politically revolutionary identity over a sexually revolutionary one is visible in Karla E. Rosales’s 2004 oral history video Mind if I Call You Sir? In the “conversation between Latina butches and female-to-male transgender Latinos,” several women self-identify primarily as Chicana, secondarily as butch. By embracing the title of Chicana, with its ethnic and political connotations, they thus identify la raza of Chicana/o as more central to their personhood than their sexuality. In the video, this stratification of identity reflects a trend in which individuals place ethnic and political ties above sexual ones. Luna, who upsets la raza’s balance by prioritizing her lesbian identity, says with certainty that there is no space for her in the Aztlán order: “I’m not the revolutionary they have in mind.” Here, the nation expels men, women, and others who do not conform to the gender binary. Aztlán is carved out by men who exhibit heteromasculinity, as Mama Sal tells us: “the rest is his-story.” Revolution is defined as masculine; femininity has no place in the effort, and sexual transgression is counter-revolutionary.

Those exiled to the borderlands yearn for their homeland and the privileges denied them. Medea, who can “pass” as a straight mother, chose her lesbian lover over her husband, Jasón. Her indigenous blood, not Jasón’s European roots, qualified her family for citizenship in Aztlán, and she fought in the revolutionary conflicts. Now denied the homeland to which she is intimately bound, she feels burned: “Aztlán, how you betrayed me! Y aquí me encuentro [And now I find myself] in this wasteland where yerbas grow bitter for lack of water, my face pressed to the glass of my own revolution like some húerfana abandonada [abandoned orphan].” What Medea experiences is the burning betrayal of the “sexile” experience, a term that is the title of a graphic novel by Jaime Cortez from the Institute for Gay Men’s Health. In Sexile, a trans woman named Adela tells of leaving Cuba as part of the Mariel boatlift. She repeats the advice given to her by an older gay Cuban mentor, her “alcoholic Angel in America”: “You are forever crowned by the pain of exile. Get used to it, girl.”

The text examines the benefits and complexity of raising a child in the atypical household of a “border” sexuality or culture. In response to a society that questions the abilities of both Mexican and homosexual parents, Moraga’s text presents the Chicana lesbian mother as especially devoted to family. The act of surrendering oneself to motherhood forms the chorus of this play. Four of the cast members compose the Cihuatateo, a group of “four warrior women who, according to Aztec myth, have died in childbirth.” Their presence, either as active mourners or as the passive bodies that assume different costumes and roles, lends a haunting intensity to all moments of the show. Their beatific and decidedly Chicana form of motherhood is a worship that Medea assumes. When Chac-Mool is born and begins breast-feeding, Medea enters what she describes as a love affair: “Yes, there our union was consummated, there in the circle of his ruby mouth. A ring of pure animal need taking hold of me. It was a secret Jasón named, stripped to expose us—mother and child—naked and clinging primordial to each other.” Here, Moraga draws on her experience as a lesbian mother. In the space of a queer Chicana household, she and her characters subvert cultural assumptions that lesbians and Mexican Americans are unfit mothers by proclaiming a boundless love and devotion to their children.

Yet the influence and oppression of a white hetero-patriarchal society conflict with the project of raising a child in a feminist, queer, Chicana/o safe space. Medea dreads that her boy will grow up to be as oppressive as the men that stripped her of her lands. Her fear is legitimate, as Chac-Mool holds vivid memories of the male training he received from his father:

“I was blessed always blessed to be a boy. … At four, my father drilled his fingers into my chest, held me at the gunpoint of his glare. You are blessed, he told me. Open your nostrils and flare like a bull. I want you to smell this land. I remember the wings of my nostrils rising up to suck up his breath. It was a birthing of sorts. He penetrated and I was born of him. His land was his mother and mine and I was beholden only to it.”

The violence and sexuality of his father’s sermon impresses upon the boy the importance of manhood as rooted in virility. Malehood, however, becomes complicated by Moraga’s casting directions. All of the characters, save Chac-Mool, are played by women. Jasón is not given the privilege of self-representation by the script. His machismo is overstated, as almost every instance onstage he proclaims his superiority to Luna and Medea. Yet what we view of this character is refracted through a woman’s telling, a woman’s lens. He lost his right to exist in the women’s safe space of the play as soon as he stripped his wife of her land and autonomy. In contrast, Chac-Mool is granted his maleness and his own voice, because he has not yet betrayed women. His mother is often seized by paranoia, a dread confirmed when, late in the play, he decides to return to Aztlán with his father. The retreat into a comfortable homeland governed by patriarchy threatens the lessons he was taught about the loving, respectful space of the borderland. Yet his figurative step into heterosexuality does not undermine the benefits of his upbringing. The queer household of the play is a creative, conscientious, activist safe space. The queerness of the household allows him a healthy choice: to determine his own lifestyle.

As foretold by the weeping Cihuatateo and Medea’s namesake, death shapes the play’s conclusion. Yet mother and son are in each other’s arms at the last, assuaging fears of his betrayal. In his embrace, we read the success of an atypical family structure. Despite its perceived illegitimacy in society, the queer family provides a nurturing and respectful space for all members. The ending’s strong emotive power affirms the legitimacy of the queer and Chicana/o interpersonal experience.

These bittersweet stories emphasize the real tension and also the redemptive possibilities of the cultural borderland. Moraga’s literary vision concludes with both sadness and hope, emotions present in today’s queer and Mexican-American/Chicana/o communities. Just Friday, Alabama’s governor signed into law House Bill 658, mandating that schoolchildren be asked of their immigration status. As long as today’s legislation shocks us with the intolerance that Moraga railed about close to two decades ago, her work remains relevant.  The trauma of being wrenched from one’s home does not disappear. It is felt – today – by the disproportionate number of queer youths who find themselves without a home. It is felt – today – by the increasingly targeted immigrants separated from their homes and families by deportation.

Yet ultimately, the play offers activist readers both a caution and a prediction for the future. Though many inequalities are felt, it is affirming in the interpersonal possibilities that it displays for queer/immigrant people. Its deities herald a period of social redemption. The Hungry Woman’s nuanced exploration of feminism, Chicana/o reclamation, and healthy queer family structure seek an audience in American society. The character that is Chac-Mool – a boy raised in a Xicana queer home – is a poignant instance of love and respect in family. Though racism and homophobia threaten one’s very home today, in the play’s apocalyptic prophecy is a hope that there is, indeed, a homeland that the Chicana/o can be rooted to. Raze the physical border between ethnicities and sexualities, it proclaims. Through her plays, family, and activism, Moraga builds the foundation needed to address injustices in Mexico and the United States. She writes for a time in the future when art and activism will lead to political and societal justice. This script prophesies a utopic life of love and worship that renders the borderland a thing of a past, a homeland unfolding as into a queer Xicana/o safe space.

A. Grace Steig is a sophomore in Yale College. She is the copy editor for Broad Recognition

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