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Native Country of the Heart is a double memoir: It chronicles both a Mexican American coming-of-age story, as well as a coming-of-old-age story that, with warmth and a knack for intimate detail, inscribes two generations of women into the Mexican American literary canon.
Many elements of Cherríe Moraga’s story parallel mine. Like the author, I was taught to revere my elders. “With elders,” she writes, “we learned to refrain from comment when we disagreed.” Since Moraga is my elder, I’m tempted to write about her reverentially. Instead, I’m going to exercise my freedom to write critically about her, a freedom I owe to her own iconoclastic example, which she sets forth in her work.
Native Country of the Heart is a book about female rebellion nestled inside a book about female obedience, a matryoshka-esque structure in which Moraga reveals her own life story as a queer daughter through the biography of her mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga.
The author describes Elvira as an attractive, tough, coquettish and hard-working woman. She sets a macho example throughout the book, figuratively wearing the pants in her family as both disciplinarian and breadwinner. “Men can come and go,” Elvira muses. “All you’ve really got are your children.”
The author develops into a baseball-playing tomboy and closeted Catholic schoolgirl. In college, she finds her way into the office of an “attractive and formidable” therapist, Elizabeth Broome. “I think I might be homosexual,” Moraga confesses to Broome. Her time in talk therapy brings an intersectional epiphany: “I was a Mexican American and the daughter of a woman who had unwittingly instructed me on the complex desire of women. I was not supposed to… want what I wanted.”
At one point in the book, Moraga reflects on La Malinche, a historical figure who was Hernan Cortes’ concubine and interpreter. Malinche is also a Jungian abstraction, an archetype of a femme fatale, this one willing to betray her own people. Malinche haunts “the collective unconscious of every Mexican female,” Moraga writes, reminding us that while “our sex is our sin,” it is also our salvation.
Sex and sexuality are secrets in Moraga’s household, but she is eventually transported into the lesbian community and a lesbian family of her own. Sex also becomes the language Moraga uses to communicate with Elvira toward the end of her life. As her mother’s mind deteriorates from Alzheimer’s, Moraga taps into Elvira’s coquettishness by summoning her own inner macho. “I feel myself more man than ever before,” Moraga writes. “I hear my voice deepen.” Later, embracing her mother, Moraga transforms again, “no longer man but lesbian daughter.”
The book functions as a repository, an urn: It holds what remains of Elvira. Moraga waxes poetically, philosophically and politically about the importance of memory, treating its preservation like a Holy Grail. With this book, Moraga is keeping her mother on her earth, capturing her, tethering her to the living.
In the final section, Elvira engages in her last rebellion: a rebellion against death. About her last moments, Moraga writes, “She was alone with her gods when she left this world. Maybe that is what shatters the daughter’s heart, knowing that the greatest love is eclipsed by the power of spirits’ summons to the dying.” Her mostly plainspoken prose often turns sentimental, but it gives the work the feeling of a corrido, a Mexican ballad, evoking an emotional lyricism characteristic of Mexican narratives.
Roland Barthes wrote that “the writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body,” and this trope is at the core of what many historians consider the great Mexican novel: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. In it, Juan Preciado’s mother makes a dying wish: that he find his father and make him pay for his patriarchal sins.
Moraga’s memoir shows just how limited this Mexican hero’s journey has always been. “There were no fathers in the Moraga clan,” she writes. “[M]en, yes; men who came and left the household with a single man’s prerogative and secrets.”
Who needs Juan Preciado or Pedro Páramo when there is Elvira Isabel Moraga and her daughter? As Moraga demonstrates compellingly, they are the stuff of literature, too.
This review appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read the rest of the issue!