For as long as I can remember, my parents and abuelos have told me stories of their experiences as migrant farm workers, spanning decades of trips going north, taking care of the land and picking crops to survive. These stories have stayed with me because it’s the only family history I really know, because the stories of my ancestors before them have been lost to migration and memory. When my grandparents crossed the Rio Grande, they left everything behind, including familial history and ties. They carried what they could with them — knowledge, recipes, cuentos — but only so much was able to be passed down to us.
Queer Chicana feminist Cherríe Moraga examines this kind of cultural loss for Mexican-Americans assimilating in the United States in her latest book Native Country of the Heart.
As a U.S. inheritor of Mexican ancestry, I have walked the reddening road of an “Occupied America” that anoints membership only to those born north of the watery divide of el Río Grande. A border of river as thirsty as the desert into which it bleeds, leaving my relatives to drown in its grit. Growing up, my elders, well-meaning, told my generation —Go that way, hijos, Look north to your future. They asked us to betray them, to forget them.
Walk that way, mi’ja.
They didn’t know the cost.
Moraga — revolutionary activist, playwright, poet and co-editor of the seminal 1981 anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color — has been instrumental in shaping Chicana feminism. She paved the way for writers like myself to write our truths today. Moraga’s latest, Native Country of the Heart, is a deep meditation on memory — reflections of the past, recalling hard moments, losing ourselves, and remembering who we are as Mexican Americans, in more ways than one.
In the memoir, Moraga centers the story of her mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga, an unwavering Mexican-American matriarch who grew up picking cotton in 1920s California and who later worked as a cigarette girl at a high stakes casino in Depression-era Tijuana. It then follows Elvira’s story of marrying a white man and raising her family in San Gabriel. “I think this book was completely different because it really was intended to not only honor my mother but also to honor that generation of women, and make literature out of the people and lives that were supposedly not the stuff of literature,” Moraga told me in a phone interview.
Interwoven throughout are stories of Moraga’s childhood, growing up in a half-Mexican, half-white household, of attending a traditional Catholic school and grappling with her queerness, coming out and gaining her freedom, all while reflecting on her relationship with her mother.
But more than anything, the memoir revolves around the loss of Elvira’s memories due to Alzheimer’s. Moraga takes us on a journey of her mother’s dementia, the transition of moving into an assisted living facility where she would spend her last days, and of becoming an ancestor sooner rather than later.
What fascinated me the most about Moraga’s book is how she chronicled her mother’s early days from picking cotton to working in Tijuana. It’s a glamorous tale. As Americans were devastated by the Depression, a bilingual Elvira was making a living selling cigarettes at a casino and rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars at the time like Rita Hayworth.
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.
DNA tests, family records, genealogy, along with a desperate need to know our origins are all the rage at the moment. For people of color and immigrants, it can be challenging finding evidence of family stories. I thought Moraga turned to extensive research or interviews with relatives to write her mother’s story, and wondered about methods she used to capture the best and most true stories of her family. When I asked her about this, her answer was simple, and comforting to me as a writer and a bearer of my family’s stories: “You always do research but the heart of the story is in my blood already.”
Moraga told me her mother was always a storyteller, and had told her about this pivotal time in her life since Moraga was a kid. Moraga even remembers the way her mother told it — around the kitchen table with her tias drinking a few cervecitas. “The work in this book is so intimate as a starting point that I didn’t have to study it,” she explains. “I just had to write and rewrite and rewrite it to get it to be as true as it could be.”
As a queer Chicana, reading about Moraga’s coming of age story is to also know the history of a foremother in the movement. We get glimpses of Moraga’s inner struggle against her desires towards women; it’s an intimate portrayal of what it’s like being indoctrinated by the Catholic church, something that I’m completely familiar with and that’s still relevant all these years later. Remnants of that indoctrination still show up at times, enforcing whispers of internalized homophobia.
While you, the imposter, feign the good daughter, la niña obediente. But you can’t fake it to God, and God made the Church’s rules. And the Church will banish you, decree you outside the Mystical Body of Christ. So you will have to come clean with the impure thoughts that rack your sleep at night. But not to the priests, for the priests have already forsaken you.
It was in college that Moraga found the freedom that planted a seed of political consciousness and would later fuel her Chicana feminism. I wondered how her queer Chicana politic has changed over the years since then, and Moraga explained to me that she’s witnessed social justice language and movements change rapidly. “For me, this has really been a place of listening again.” Now a professor in the Department of English at UC Santa Barbara, she says it seems like every 5-10 years she learns more on gender and sexuality from her students.
“What I do feel strongly about is I want young people to understand that sometimes we don’t have the right words, my generation or even people younger than me. It doesn’t mean that we are phobic or prejudiced. Sometimes we just don’t know the right language because we’re not in school.”
At the core of Native Country of the Heart is a intimate, heartbreaking portrayal of Alzheimer’s. As Elvira’s dementia progresses, Moraga and her sister face difficult challenges navigating a family in denial about their mother’s disease, and finding the best ways to take care of her.
A major tenet of being Mexicana in the United States is respecting your elders, Moraga says. She notes in her book how elders are oftentimes treated as “useless annoyances” by medical professionals when actually elders are not stupid but suffering in ways they can’t articulate or we can’t see. The line that most resonated with me about this sentiment was: “There were times in which I did not know whether my mother was truly demented or just Mexican in a white world.” Moraga believes the best way to care for elders is to listen to them and take them at their word, but most importantly to understand them culturally. She gave me a profound example:
“In the book when I talk about how my mother began to move away, I write that I could feel like she was talking to the other side. She would talk about how her friend Esperanza had come to visit. Esperanza was dead; she had been for many years. I wasn’t going to say, ‘Mom, she’s dead.’ Instead what I heard in it was that oh, she came to visit her. And I absolutely know that she did. And it was actually a spirit. I’m not talking about ghosts. I’m talking about that she experienced her in some way through spirit or spiritually, in relation to our ancestors, or being able to talk to the dead — all these kinds of things are culturally very strong in us, as Mexican people.”
Moraga believes her mother is now part of that spirit world. Moraga says she doesn’t claim to understand how it works but she knows her mother is with her. “Even before my mother passed, I prayed to her. She was my ancestor already because the mother I knew wasn’t fully there in the same way. I feel like I’ve been talking to her, her spirit self, for some time. I just know those things intuitively, there’s not a logic behind it, it’s an intuitive knowledge.”
Moraga explores memory in relation to her mother but as well Mexican-Americans’ indigenous roots. Moraga’s beautiful prose and deep reflective questions related to her mother’s decline and this cultural amnesia are things we find ourselves asking for a lifetime. “If we forget ourselves, who will be left to remember us?” “Is this how ancestral memory returns to us, indifferent to the generation and geography of borders?” “How far back do we need to go for the reclamation of ourselves?”
Native Country of the Heart speaks my language, sprinkling Spanish in with English just like my family speaks, making me feel at home. It’s a reminder that I crave more literature by Mexican-Americans — of complicated, messy lives, of triumphs and losses. We are the stuff of literature. I’m grateful for the stories I carry with me always.