Native Country of the Heart is, at its core, a mother-daughter story. The mother, Elvira, was hired out as a child, along with her siblings, by their own father to pick cotton in California’s Imperial Valley. The daughter, Cherríe 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 journey—from impressionable young girl to battle-tested matriarch to, later on, an old woman suffering under the yoke of Alzheimer’s—she 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. The following is an edited version of her conversation with author Rigoberto González at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn.
Rigoberto González: We always get this criticism in the queer community: “Why are we still telling our coming-out stories?” As if we stop coming out . . . when?
I think it’s important to be public about our coming-out processes and to understand that we’re not alone. Every coming-out story is very individual, very different. Everybody encounters resistance and support differently, but we still want to be part of a community. Why was coming out important to this narrative?
Cherríe Moraga: It’s about my mother more than me. In a sense, she knew I was leaving, and intuitively she knew that once I got in that car—that was it. And she was right. I had decided somewhere in my mind that I would have to have this double life, which meant no kind of life, no relationship to my family. I would just be an imposter. For her to say “you’re leaving with a secret” seemed to me like a moment of her vulnerability. I remember thinking something like, “You’re just disarmed!”
I think in many ways this scene was about trying to show my mother’s courage, and her ultimate loyalty to protecting me. Somehow that was the most courageous moment in the book because it was the most intimate. I felt like after that I could do anything.
The scene occurs in 1977. But it is still 1977 for tons of people and not everybody is in university. Not everybody is an LGBT member in universities, not everybody has access to that language. We’re just regular, queer folks, of all colors and classes and ways of being in the world. Obviously the coming-out narratives are important to the story. But also, we’re not in this progressive plotline! Life isn’t like that.
González: Another criticism, one I tend to agree with, is that when we write about our mothers, we tend to freeze them in that identity. We tend to see them only in that eternal role. We don’t take them out of the kitchens, we don’t take them out of the homes. You created such an extraordinary portrait of your mother, Elvira. I wanted to ask you what that was like—to see her complexity, and to deliver some of these scenes that were very heartbreaking and heart wrenching. The violence that was part of the way that she instituted justice, or the way she negotiated her power as well as her powerlessness—what was it like for you to write those scenes?
Moraga: The hardest part was to write the specificity of remembered moments. My mother beat the hell out of us. That was the hardest thing, also because I didn’t get it the worst—my sister did, and I had to make sure she was good with how I depicted this in the book.
It was also hard because writing in this way about your mother always feels like a betrayal, and we Chicanos feel particularly strongly about being faithful to our families. My mother has passed, but the rest of my family has not, and a lot of them don’t know these things about her. I don’t think of this as just my story. Whatever the book is, once it’s out there it’s yours and theirs. I felt that commitment to my family. I felt that this work was bigger than myself.
I don’t think of this as just my story. Whatever the book is, once it’s there it’s yours now, it’s not mine. I felt that commitment. This comes from years of teaching young people, particularly young Latinas about their stories. If you can’t go to those places and show a person’s complexities, their contradictions and paradoxes, then you have no character, really; you have nothing to tell. It just seemed absolutely organic to her portrait. I learned sexism from my mother. My mother understood patriarchy better than anybody I know and she made sure I knew what the rules were and the regulations and how you were supposed to behave. The point of these details is to tell those true stories, that’s all.
Everything I’ve written is an act of love.
I don’t know how to say this, but I have known all this time that everything I’ve written is an act of love. People may not interpret it that way, but whatever we understand about spirit worlds—I don’t know what I know but I know what I experienced—and I felt supported on either side by all my family. Not just my mother, but all of those relations, all of the Moragas, even my father’s grandma, and his mother as well.
González: We start seeing Elvira’s health decline at the center of the book. I thought that was an interesting choice because you’d imagine that in any other narrative that part of the journey, her demise and eventual death, would constitute the last thirty or forty pages. But you placed it in the center so that we follow the long journey with the family of trying to diagnose Elvira, to understand what’s happening, to find the right care for her. Why that choice?
Moraga: Funny, I don’t think of it as a choice. Always, in the writing process, you write what is coming to you. But I guess choices are made with structure, when you’re pulling things together.
I think this story is about a protracted relationship with loss. Experiencing loss isn’t technically or superficially a journey, but everything is learned in that time. Everything is learned about consciousness. I really feel this, for instance, that memory is held in the body even when people can’t articulate it. I believe in DNA, racial memory. When I first read about Malinche, I had never heard about the story of this woman in our history as Mexicans and when I heard the story for the first time, my heart started pounding, I thought, I know this woman! There are similar moments of illumination and truth-telling in Elvira’s so-called demise. Loss is a mirror, in a way, reflecting back to you all your own attachments. Every step of the grieving process is really important in terms of how we grow, how we evolve. When I almost lost my son at birth, I began reading the Buddhists. I felt like, “Someone has got to help me with this! With what this means!” At that point, I started seeing my mother and my son as the bookends of my life. Both of them became my messengers and my teachers. If we can learn from their passing, then certainly it becomes a gift. Even though it’s painful, we’re given this protracted amount of time to contemplate the things that we don’t get to otherwise contemplate. I think of loss as my teacher, still.
González: I think all your readers are going to fall in love with Elvira. She comes across in these pages as an extraordinary woman. I think what makes her extraordinary is the way you depict her flaws. She becomes so relatable, so much a part of the people that we know, and yet we’re also championing her as our heroine. You offer so much of her history that we begin to see why she does the things she does—not as an excuse, but as context—an explanation, maybe.
I first came across your work through your plays. Why did you feel it was the right time to write this book about Elvira?
Moraga: Well, she died. Then very soon after, her other siblings passed. After she went, they all started to go. I felt like there was a passing of that particular generation, that kind of worldview, a particular breed of making familia. There was something about that extended family; it wasn’t a nuclear family. There were values that I learned in the cosmos of that much bigger family that I carry with me to this day.
We keep having generations of people that are not the stuff of literature. At the time, I just felt—considering those of us who are first generation or who didn’t go to college—that we are this close to oral tradition. That’s our literature. It’s not that we have to make our literature up. When Elvira passed, all of these connections and relationships to who we are—as Chicanos, as MexicanAmericans in California and Arizona—became important on a much larger level for me in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I thought, this is our literature.
It has always seemed to me an incredible irony that the people who really knew how to use language most beautifully, who are the best storytellers in the world, just do not exist in this country. I’m thinking about Latinas and Mexicans particularly. As my partner always says, Mexicans aren’t sexy. She means, of course, that Mexicans aren’t sexy publically. Like, nobody is interested in Mexicans! Except when it comes to the wall, or the “immigrant story,” right? Which is a very, very important story but is not the only story, though it often seems like it’s the only story we’re allowed to tell. And we’ve been here since the beginning of time, too. So if you’re Mexican, you’re trying to figure out how it is that you know all this, viscerally, and yet you’ve never seen it on TV, you’ve never read a book about it. It just seems ridiculous. Then you’re confronted with that Anglo-imperialism thing. It’s not just white culture, it is Anglo, it is New England and England—I was an English major! So I know it well.
It’s such a loss for this country because there are so many other stories to tell. I think class has so much to do with it. Mexicans, they become middle-class, and you lose them, right? Because our particular history of colonization involved convincing ourselves that we weren’t Indians. That’s the deindigenization of Mexico. That’s what happened to us. So five hundred years later, we’re still thinking that no matter what shade we are, somehow we’re not Indians.
I’m not trying to be an essentialist. I’m talking about a particular history of colonization, and how race and class work. As Mexicans become middle-class literate people from one generation to the next, I wonder, what does our literature look like? Do we lose our stories? What is the style of our writing? These are my questions and I feel passionate about trying to get those original voices onto the page in ways that they really do become literature.
As Mexicans become middle-class literate people from one generation to the next, I wonder, what does our literature look like? Do we lose our stories?
González: All of that comes across in the book. Especially when you talk about your brother James and his journey. I wanted to return to the ways that your mother treated you and your sister differently. In one chapter, Joanne wants to step out with her fiancé, which is a big deal, as if the minute she steps out of the door, she steps out forever. Even if she’s going to marry this man, she can’t step out with him alone.
This is very different from the way in which Elvira sees you, which adds to the complexity of her character. Elvira represents Mexico and so much more than that—because I think you complicate the term Mexico through your act of remembering, of recognizing loss and pushing back against loss of the land, of the language, of the culture. On the last page you write,
“To disappear into Mexicanism is not enough; to disappear into Latinidad is even less of who we are; to disappear into Anglo-America, our colonization is complete. We were not supposed to remember.”
I love the way you rethink the term “MexicanAmericans” as “Mexicans of the Americas.” Even your use of “home” and “family” shift, as your sense of home and family change, as well. Everything is so richly detailed that I understand that it’s not just about the way of the journey, but the way Mexican people have journeyed through the Americas and into the present. I don’t want to just call Elvira a metaphor because then we lose the specificity of her character which enriches our reading of the book.
Do you think Elvira is going to come back in another venue?
Moraga: Well, she’s in this play, The Mathematics of Love. Oftentimes, this is the case when you’re working in other genres, too. Sometimes you discover that the poem is sort of a blueprint for an essay. For me, it happens with theater a lot. I have certain questions.
The play is a reading of this character Peaches, who is based on my mother. It’s a fictional play, obviously, because Malinche comes to visit her. For those who don’t know the story of Malinche, she was sold into slavery supposedly by her mother.
In the play, Peaches is illuminated to remember all these lives and that’s how Malinche comes on stage. Malinche, of course, doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing there, having only ever existed in the sixteenth century. They both come to discover, together, what this means—though Malinche discovers it first and the first thing that comes out of her mouth is, “Madre, why did you abandon me?” Peaches responds something like, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about—I’m getting out of this room!” In the context of the play, they have to reconcile this fundamental betrayal that on some level I’ve always understood as being passed on from mother to daughter in a certain way.
González: On the topic of theater, some of my favorite passages in the book were the italicized passages, which were almost like flashback scenes, where we are launched into another place. I saw these moments as very theatrical, sort of like fade-ins and fade-outs on stage. You said you included an excerpt of a play. How is it that theater or playwriting has shaped this particular narrative for you?
Moraga: I love theater because it’s spoken. For those of us who come from oral traditions, it’s like, thank you! Because theater is a way in which those voices of world traditions can have a body. It has very much influenced my work. Even when I write essays, I start to feel that sometimes there is more character in them. I feel more at liberty to go into a present-tense moment so that the spoken voice of that age can have its effect.
For example: I’m writing and I’m getting bored, and that’s a bad sign. When that happens, I have to ask myself, “What’s really on my mind?” There’s this whole section in the book about my sister and my cousin and me going to wait for my aunty and my mom at the bar on Friday nights. My aunty and my mom would go have a couple of beers and we’d put our faces to the window, trying to see them in the dark bar. We’d be giggling, and they’d be a little high, a little tipsy, and this whole moment is just about home-girls—and that voice couldn’t be me. And suddenly I was no longer bored. That’s really how you tell.
Our cultural voices can be so liberating.
I find something similar happens with my students sometimes. They think they’re writing a poem and I say, “Oh my god, will you just open it? It’s a damn story!” And they’ll respond, “Oh yeah! It’s a story!” It’s beautiful to see those apertures open, because we get all in our heads about genres. But whose genre is it? Who told us we have to write like that? Our cultural voices can be so liberating. I think theater has helped me in that way. It has also helped me structurally, because to say everything in two hours, without really saying everything, to maintain some dramatic tension, is hard. I think the play is a really good genre to train you to write fiction and creative nonfiction—all of it—because it’s such a discipline.
Cherríe Moraga is a writer and cultural activist whose work serves to disrupt the dominant narratives of gender, race, sexuality, feminism, indigeneity, and literature in the United States. A co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Moraga co-edited the highly influential volume This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color in 1981. After twenty years as an Artist-in-Residence in Theater at Stanford University, Moraga was appointed a professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2018, where, with her artistic partner Celia Herrera Rodríguez, she instituted Las Maestras Center for Xicana Indigenous Thought and Art Practice. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Theatre Playwriting Fellowship Award and a United States Artist Rockefeller Fellowship for Literature.
Rigoberto González’s four collections of poetry include Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has penned 10 works of prose, including novels, memoir, and bilingual childrens books. He has been awarded Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. Born in Bakersfield and raised by farmworkers who migrated between Mexico and the US, he now lives in New York and is a professor of English at Rutgers-Newark.