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Chicana Studies

Summary and Keywords

The field of Chicana studies was born out of the experiences of Mexican-American women in the southwestern United States. Chicana leaders, such as Dolores Huerta were central activists in the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960s, working alongside leaders like Cesar Chavez and cofounding the UFW. Others were involved in social movement activity in New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas with activists Reies Tijerina, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles, and José Ángel Gutiérrez. While fighting for labor, political, and educational rights, Chicanas contested the machismo, sexism, and heterosexism that they experienced from Chicanos. Chicanas were urged to perform stereotypical feminine roles or activities, while men served as the public face of the movement. They were disciplined further by the invocation of the virgin/whore dichotomy, based in Catholicism around the Virgin of Guadalupe; and Malintzin Tenépal, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes’s translator and lover. In addition, Chicanas were encouraged to take a single-axis approach to social justice and keep silent about their concerns in order to highlight the fight against ethnocentrism and racism, which were deemed by male leaders to be of the utmost importance. Similarly, Chicanas who looked for solidarity in the mainstream women’s movement were encouraged to put aside their racial concerns in favor of an agenda that focused solely on their identity as women. Put in the untenable position of lacking a space in which their complex and intersectional experiences were honored, and of being subjected to the virgin/whore dichotomy and its unrealistic expectations, Chicanas needed to create a space of their own.

The late 1970s and 1980s saw the birth of Chicano Studies departments in academia, as well as the rise of Chicana studies and Chicana feminism. Chicana studies blossomed through works by artists such as Yolanda Lopez, Judy Baca, Patssi Valdez, and Ester Hernández, and scholarship by Deena J. González, Antonia Castañeda, Angie Chabram, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Sandra Cisneros, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Ana Castillo. The publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color became an important benchmark for Chicana feminist writings, and women of color feminism in general. In addition, Moraga’s Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios and Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza were foundational texts in the development of Chicana feminist thought. Moraga’s work (originally published in 1983 and republished in an expanded edition in 2000) addresses her experiences as a queer Chicana born to a White father and Mexican mother, while Anzaldúa’s book (published in 1987) theorizes about the possibility of a mestiza consciousness or borderlands identity. A central theme in Chicana feminist writings is the reinterpretation of Malintzin Tenépal, also referred to as La Malinche, through poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, while Chicana feminist artists have visually reimagined the Virgin of Guadalupe queerly and in their own images as everyday women. Through the reinterpretation of these figures, Chicanas have created possibilities for Chicana identifications that resist the binary virgin/whore dichotomy.

Keywords: Chicana feminism, Chicano movement and civil rights, Virgin of Guadalupe, Malintzin Tenépal, mestiza consciousness, borderlands, communication and critical studies


Women of Mexican ancestry in the United States have gone by a variety of names, including Mexican, Mexican American, Chicana, Xicana, Tejana, Hispanic, and Latina. While Chicana and Xicana are reflective of a political ideology and ancestry, terms like Latina emphasize a connection with other women with lineages from other Spanish-speaking countries. For many Chicanas, the use of these terms is contextual and shifting, as well as informed by generation, history, and geography.

History of Activism and the Chicana/o Movement

As historian Vickie Ruiz (1998) notes, Mexican women have long lived in what is now the southwestern United States. Understanding the experiences of Chicanas requires that we locate the history and activism of Mexican and Mexican-American women in the United States. These experiences would serve as precursors to the development of Chicana feminist theory and activism. Following the loss of Mexican land to the United States through the Texas Rebellion (1836), the Mexican War (1948), and the Gadsden Purchase (1853), many Mexicans living in the Southwest found their identities and civil rights suddenly thrown into question (Rosales, 1997). After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which led to the loss of Mexican territory to the United States, including Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Utah, Mexicans (or, now, Mexican Americans) found that even though the treaty granted them U.S. citizenship, their lived experiences didn’t always match their expectations as new citizens (Rosales, 1997). Martha Menchaca (2001) writes of the process of racialization that these new citizens experienced, whereas those who were White were accorded the full rights of citizenship and those who were mestiza/o were not. Denial of civil rights and land ownership, as well as acts of violence such as lynching, became routine. Because of the withholding of their civil rights and acts of violence against them, a sense of increased Mexican nationalism occurred and communities developed colonias (Rosales, 1997). The colonias became sites of community and political power and activity for Mexican immigrants; however, the growth of a Mexican-American middle class saw tensions emerge between working-class Mexicans and middle-class Mexican Americans.

Maylei Blackwell (2011) writes that more than 500,000 Mexican and Mexican Americans (U.S. citizens) were deported or repatriated from the start of the Great Depression through World War II. However, labor shortages led to the Bracero Program, which brought in temporary agricultural workers from Mexico (Rosales, 1997). Blackwell (2011) states that during 1953–1965, following the decline of the economy after World War II, the U.S. government instituted Operation Wetback, which led to multiple arrests and deportations. Over time, patterns of immigration policy and ideological framings of Mexican people in the popular press coincided with economic prosperity (or lack thereof) in the United States. As a result of repatriation and other immigration policies after the Great Depression, F. Arturo Rosales (1997) argues that the colonias did not survive.

Because of the symbiotic relationship between immigration policies and the economy, Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States developed a sense of racial and class consciousness that informed their relationship to labor. Furthermore, Vickie Ruiz (1998) argues that Mexican women have a long history of activism connected to labor issues. Key sites of these women’s activism were labor unions, civil rights organizations, and community service organizations (Castillo, 2014). For example, the activist Lucy Parsons helped organize a march of 80,000 workers in 1886 that would eventually be known as May Day (Blackwell, 2011). Another activist, Texas-born Emma Tenayuca, a leader in multiple organizations, including the Workers’ Alliance of America and the Texas Communist Party, acted as the strike representative for pecan shellers (although she was not a pecan sheller herself) in the 1938 Pecan Shellers’ Strike (Blackwell, 2011; Ruiz, 1998). Workers suffering from low wages and poor working conditions endured tear gas, police brutality, and arrests during the strike (Blackwell, 2011; Ruiz, 1998). A little more than a month later, the strike ended and workers received a pay increase. Ruiz notes that Tenayuca earned the moniker La Pasionara for her activism.

Ruiz (1998) writes that Mexican and Mexican-American women also would become active in mutualistas (mutual aid societies), which worked to help other Mexican and Mexican Americans with legal issues and material needs such as food. Both Ruiz (1998) and Gutiérrez (1995) argue that mutualistas, as well as community service organizations, became spaces where Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans could begin to create spaces of community and support across their differences. What followed was the growth of organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which often encouraged such assimilationist tendencies as racially identifying as White and strongly associating with U.S. nationalism (Rosales, 1997; Ruiz, 1998). As many as 300,000 Mexican Americans enlisted in the U.S. military to fight in World War II, only to come home to continued discrimination and segregation (Rosales, 1997). Through organizations such as the GI Forum, these veterans worked to organize and protect their rights (Rosales, 1997). As Mexicans and Mexican Americans sought to survive and find their place in the United States, this history of marginalization set the context for the emergence of what would be known as the Chicano Movement. Blackwell (2011) argues that the Chicano Movement marked a generational and political shift in identity from Mexican American to Chicano.

The Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s has been framed primarily around the activism of Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association in California; Reies Lopez Tijerina and the land movement in New Mexico; José Ángel Gutiérrez and the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) in Crystal City and other cities in Texas; and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles and the Crusade for Justice in Denver, Colorado. All the while, though, the contributions of Chicanas like Dolores Huerta and the invisible labor of other Chicanas behind the scenes have been glossed over. However, Stacey Sowards (2010, 2012) has written about the importance of Huerta’s leadership, rhetoric, and the intersectional perspectives that she brought to the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), which she also cofounded.

The Chicano movement was marked by a sense of cultural nationalism based on reclaiming long-maligned mestiza/o or indigenous identities through drawing on precolonial and Aztec imagery in writing, art, and song. One of the most prominent writings to articulate this vision was Rodolfo Gonzáles’s (1972) I Am Joaquin: An Epic Poem. The poem communicated a cultural identity: Chicanismo, based on an indigenous, masculine, and heterosexual identity (Garcia, 1997; Hammerback, Jensen, & Gutiérrez, 1985). In addition, it marked the experiences of people of Mexican origin in the United States as neither Mexican nor American, because of the continual assaults of racism and denial of civil rights, but instead existing in a middle space. This ideological positioning informed the concept of Aztlán, which referred to the Southwest (taken by the United States after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) as the original homeland of the Aztecs, and thus, Chicanxs.

This ideology of Chicanismo was cemented further in El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (1968), written by the poet Alurista and adopted at the First National Chicano Liberation Youth Conference in 1969 in Denver. El Plan de Santa Bárbara, which centered on the importance of higher education and Chicano studies, was drafted the following year. As García (1989, 1997) argues, Chicanismo, an important element of these documents, became an effective political ideology to unify groups throughout the movement, including the UFW, the Crusade for Justice, and the Raza Unida Party.

Articulated within Chicanismo was what Blackwell terms the “Ideal Chicana,” which was constructed in relationship to the rearticulating of power and identity by primarily grounding Chicanas in the experiences of Chicano men and patriarchy. Women were encouraged to be passive and subordinate to men, support them, and bear children for the movement (Rincón, 1997). The Ideal Chicana was based on the idea of Marianismo, or the adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as she was constructed as subservient, long-suffering, and the guardian of the home and family. Through their experiences in groups, such as the Brown Berets, Chicanas began to name the sexism and machismo that marked much of the rhetoric of Chicanismo and men’s actions in the movement. This machismo went hand in hand with Marianismo to enforce rigid and oppressive gender expectations for women (NietoGomez, 1997b). Ruiz (1998) argues that while many locate the birth of Chicana feminism within the Chicano Movement, it is important to acknowledge the activism and feminist intellectualizing that Chicanas did in their everyday lives. For example, Parsons and Tenayuca practiced what would become central Chicana feminist ideologies in their activism, which was attendant to the intersectionality of their multiple and simultaneous racial, ethnic, gender, and class identities.

Blackwell (2011) has written about the Hijas de Cuauhtémoc, a group that she argues was one of the first feminist-focused political groups that developed during the Chicano movement. The group emerged in 1968 as an outgrowth of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS) at California State University, Long Beach (Blackwell, 2011). Groups like UMAS eventually transitioned into el Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a student group that continues to thrive at campuses across the United States (Blackwell, 2011). Blackwell (2011) shares that Chicanas began discussing the sexism within the organization, as well as the lack of priority given to the challenges that they faced as working-class women of color. As they developed intersectional analyses of the injustices that they encountered within Chicano communities and the larger societal context, Chicanas were told by Chicanos that their concerns splintered or divided the assumed racial unity and fight for racial justice (Blackwell, 2011; Martinez, 1997).

Blackwell (2011) writes that many of the women found it ironic that men engaged in the fight for racial equality displayed such a large gap between their speech and actions. Furthermore, she argues that although women were central to the movement, they were not viewed as public leaders. The issues that Chicana feminists raised challenged traditionally patriarchal gender roles, which caused a great deal of backlash. Leadership, sexuality and gender, and the double standards experienced by these women became key issues that led them to form women-centered spaces, such as Hijas de Cuauhtémoc (Blackwell, 2011). Some members of Hijas de Cuauhtémoc would create the first Chicana feminist scholarly journal, Encuentro Femenil, in 1973 (Blackwell, 2011; Del Castillo, 1997b). García (1997) further notes the importance of the 1971 Chicana Regional Conference in Los Angeles, the National Chicana Conference in Houston in 1971, the Chicana Caucus of the Texas Women’s Political Caucus State Convention in 1972, the Chicana Curriculum Workshop in 1973 at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the Chicana Identity Conference held in Houston in 1975 as key meetings that led to the documentation of Chicana feminist thought.

Chicanas who did not agree with the feminist direction that many of the women advocated were labeled loyalists. For example, Sonia A. López (1997) shares that when Chicanas expressed concerns about roles and expectations of women in the movement at the 1969 Chicano Youth Conference in Denver, some loyalists said that most women did not agree because “the Chicana woman does not want to be liberated” (p. 103). These loyalists believed Chicana feminists were being divisive (Garcia, 1989). In addition, they felt that the shared experience of racial oppression with Chicanos took precedence, and that larger systems of power should be blamed for sexism, not the men in the movement (Garcia, 1989). Loyalists viewed Chicana feminists as a threat to cultural values, family, and anti-man (Garcia, 1989). Chicana feminists were constructed as traitors, called Malinches, and ostracized as cultural nationalism and feminism were seen by many as clashing (Garcia, 1989). Ana Castillo (2014) adds that loyalists were further suspicious of Chicana feminists because of the ways that feminism had been equated with White womanhood and activism in the popular imagination. Anna NietoGomez (1997a) adds that in assuming Chicana feminists were simply following the lead of White feminists, there was the assumption and insult that they could not initiate and make change happen on their own. Also, Chicana feminists found spaces of possibility and coalition with other feminists of color.

Chicana lesbians, many of whom were central in developing Chicana feminist ideologies, were similarly ostracized as man-haters or traitors. This characterization of them can be tied to Mexican philosopher Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1994, p. 79) discussion of Mexican peoples as children of a “violated” woman. (The Labyrinth of Solitude was originally published in 1950.). Paz’s (1994) philosophies were based on the colonialism of Mexico and the relationship between Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and Malintzin Tenépal, also known as Doña Marina, Malinalli, and eventually la Chingada. Malintzin, a former Aztec noblewoman and then slave, was given to Cortés when he arrived in Veracruz in 1519 (Alarcón, 1983). Malintzin demonstrated a skill for language as she became Cortés’s translator, and eventually lover. She bore him a son, Martín, who has come to be seen symbolically as the first mixed-race child (or mestizo) as the result of colonialism (Calafell & Moreman, 2010).

Paz (1994) characterized the relationship between Cortés and Malintzin through violation and disloyalty, constructing her as a traitor to her own people. In Paz’s (1994) eyes, this symbolic Eve figure could not control her sexuality, leading to the destruction of the indigenous civilizations in Mexico and the creation of a bastard race. As a result, he argues, the shame of being of Mexican is not only being born of violation, but also being racially impure. Similar to the argument that Malintzin destroyed the purity of Mexican culture, Chicana lesbians were seen as traitors who did not contribute to the patrilineal survival of the culture. Carla Trujillo (1991) later argued in the landmark anthology, Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, that Chicana lesbians, simply by their existence, disrupted patriarchal order and were threatening because they represented women’s independence.

In addition, Chicana feminists did not find solace or a home in the mainstream (White) feminist movements. White feminists wanted them to negate their raced experiences, instead focusing on their experiences with patriarchy and sexism without attention to White supremacy, White privilege, and racism (Nieto, 1997).

Key Tenets of Chicana Feminism

A central theme driving Chicana feminist thought is the need for self-definition as a necessary step toward agency. In working toward self-definition, it became evident that Chicanas needed to reclaim and rearticulate historical and religious images that had been used to discipline them. Chief among these figures were the Virgin of Guadalupe, Malintzin Tenépal, and the weeping woman, La Llorona. Each of these figures has been used to support patriarchy and sexism to keep Chicanas in subordinate positions of power.

According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the Virgin of Guadalupe was said to have appeared on Mount Tepeyac five times to a recent Christian convert, a mestizo named Juan Diego, in 1531 (Castillo, 1999). She instructed Juan Diego to ask the bishop to build a church for her on the site of her appearance. After being sent away by the bishop, who demanded proof, Juan Diego was finally able to convince him of the apparition by bringing roses that had grown when they were not in season and by opening his tilma to reveal an image of the Virgin on it.

Her apparition was significant for several reasons. First, the Virgin appeared in the same spot that the goddess Tonantzin was worshipped. Second, she looked mestiza and spoke to Juan Diego in his native language of Nahuatl. Given the continuing effects of the colonialism in Mexico, and because of its ensuing caste color systems of racial hierarchies, the Virgin, appearing as a mestiza, allowed the indigenous people to see themselves in the Christian divine. In addition, by appearing in a spot where a precolonial goddess appeared, they were able to hold onto indigenous religious practices while blending with or embracing colonial Christianity. Scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa (2012) have argued that the church used the Virgin of Guadalupe as a means of conversion as they sought to Christianize the indigenous people. Centuries later, Juan Diego became canonized as a Catholic saint and his tilma continues to be on display in the basilica built in the 1970s.

As many suggest that the Virgin of Guadalupe embodies unattainable purity (and, some might argue, passivity), she quickly became used as a symbol to control women’s behavior and support patriarchy (Anzaldúa, 2012; Moraga, 2000). Powerful precolonial female deities were desexualized and robbed of their strength, only to be transformed into the more passive Virgin, who in some ways serves as an intermediary to God rather than a god herself. Writers such as Moraga (2000), Anzaldúa (2012), and Castillo (2014) have elaborated upon the ways that the Virgin has affected familial relationships and gendered expectations for young girls and women in Mexican and Mexican-American homes.

However, it should be noted that some women have found agency and possibility through identification with Marianismo or Marian theology in their membership and civic engagement with Catholic groups like the Guadalupanas. The Virgin of Guadalupe, as an aspirational figure for Mexican women and Chicanas, is supported further by the invocation of Malintzin Tenépal in a virgin/whore dichotomy that sought to regulate women’s behavior strictly. Thus, a central task for Chicana feminists was to challenge these expectations by rearticulating meanings associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

While a great deal of this rearticulation took place in writing by scholars, such as Anzaldúa (2012) and Castillo (1999), artists created powerful images that challenged the dominant framings of the Virgin. Among the most well known is Ester Hernandez’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Defending the Rights of Xicanos (1976), which features a karate-kicking Virgin prepared to take on an opponent. Yolanda Lopez’s Guadalupe series of artworks (1978) also garnered critical attention, as the artist portrayed everyday women, such as her mother Margaret A. Stewart, her grandmother Victoria F. Franco, and herself, as the Virgin.

Collectively, these images speak to the divinity present in all women and the everyday acts that they accomplish. Of significance in these works is that the Virgin is no longer passive—she is actively engaged in activities such as sewing or skinning a snake, and she meets the viewer’s gaze in two of the images. This departs from traditional renderings, which feature the Virgin with her eyes cast downward. However, it has been argued that her eyes are looking down because she is looking at a kneeling Juan Diego, not because she is passive or demure. Pérez (2007) notes that Lopez, an atheist at the time, used the images to speak to the familiar, rather than simply exploring religious imagery.

Another significant rendering was Hernandez’s La Ofrenda II (1998), which featured a queer Chicana with a tattoo of the Virgin on her back, a practice common with Mexican and Chicano men. A hand is seen holding a flower up to the crotch area. The image caused a great deal of controversy when it appeared on the cover of the book Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About in 1991 because of what critics saw as the inappropriate pairing of queerness with the Virgin. According to Pérez (2007), Hernandez received death threats. Subsequently, in the second edition of the book, the cover was changed at the request of the artist. Trujillo (1998) further argues that from a distance, the Virgin’s halo, the flower, and Virgin herself form a vagina. She further states that the image demonstrated that the Virgin belonged to everyone, including queer Chicanas (Trujillo, 1998). This is important given the Catholic Church’s stance on queerness.

In 1999, Alma Lopez’s digital print Our Lady featured performance artist Raquel Salinas as a flowered bikini–clad Virgin standing and staring defiantly at the spectator, as she wears a cloak bearing the symbols of the precolonial goddess Coyolxauhqui. She is held up by a bare-breasted female butterfly angel, portrayed by Raquel Gutiérrez. This image caused a great deal of controversy and protest when it was displayed at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2001; community members and the Catholic Church wanted it removed from the museum (Gaspar de Alba, 2011). Lopez (2011) shared that she had been inspired by Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros’s essay “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess.” Lopez’s other work, including Encuetro: Lupe and Sirena in Love (1999), and Mermaids, Butterflies, and Princesses (1999), also drew on cultural images, such as the mermaid from the Loteria game, and paired them with the Virgin to make the desexualized icon more relatable and human, as well as to challenge heteronormativity.

Chicana feminists also reimagined the Virgin of Guadalupe in their scholarly writing. For example, Anzaldúa (2012) worked to make the Virgin of Guadalupe’s precolonial origins more evident and a source of strength. Similarly, Cisneros (1999) returns to the Virgin’s precolonial roots to see her as a source of creativity and sexual power—as not just the mother of God, but as God herself. Castillo’s (1999) edited collection, Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, brings together a wide variety of voices to critically reflect on the role of the Virgin in the lives of Mexican and Mexican-American peoples.

On the flip side of this virgin/whore dichotomy is Malintzin Tenépal. Del Castillo (1997a) writes that Malinztin was born in 1505 as a noble in the Aztec province of Coatzacoalcos. After the death of her father, her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. She and her husband wanted to give Malintzin’s inheritance to their son, so they essentially sold her into slavery, while pretending in public that she had died (Del Castillo, 1997b). On April 21, 1519, when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico on the day that the god Quetzalcoatl has been prophesied to return, he was presented with a group of women, including Malíntzin (Del Castillo, 1997b). It soon became evident that she had the gift of translation, as she became an intermediary between Cortés and her people. Eventually, as previously noted, she gave birth to a son with Cortés, Martín, who according to Lanyon (2004), would be seen as a second-class citizen because of his mestizo blood, and so he was compelled to serve his younger brother of the same name. When Cortés’s Spanish wife came to Mexico, he married Malintzin off to one of his soldiers, Juan Jaramillo (Calafell, 2007).

Malíntzin has been vilified as a traitor to her people because of her relationship with Cortés, the assumption that she aided him in the colonialism of Mexico, and the fact that she gave birth to the symbolic first mestizo, Martín, who became representative of the death of the indigenous, precolonial cultures. The ideological effects of the story for Chicanas point to the idea that women are weak-willed, cannot be trusted, and are unable to control their sexuality (Moraga, 2000). Of the ideological threat of Malintzin and her scapegoating, Gaspar de Alba (2014, p. 77) writes, “Ironically, five hundred years of internalized racism and misogyny have transformed La Malinche from the great Chingada to the great Chingona, the woman with all the power to bring down the Aztec civilization.”

Chicana feminists have reclaimed Malintzin and her story from dominant framings by scholars such as Paz (1984), who have vilified her by arguing that Mexicans and Chicanxs bear the shame of being sons and daughters of a whore (Messinger Cypus, 1991; Rebelledo, 1995; Romero & Harris, 2005). Alarcón (1983) argues that the story informs not only how men view women, but how Chicanas view themselves, which manifests in self-hate. To challenge the vilification of Malintzin and all Chicanas, Del Castillo (1997b), draws on the writings of Bernal Diaz Del Castillo, who actually knew Malintzin and described her as compassionate and full of care. She further adds that the construction of Malintzin as a traitor to her country is historically inaccurate, as there was not one nation, but rather various groups under the umbrella of the Aztec Empire—often unwillingly (Del Castillo, 1997b). Furthermore, Del Castillo (1997b) argues that Malintzin was a deeply religious woman and was perhaps acting out of religious beliefs and what she believed was a divine role, doing what she could to aid the indigenous people. Given Cortés’s arrival and its connection to Quetzalcoatl, religion certainly could have played a role. In addition, it seems quite impossible that one woman could either stop or so greatly enable the colonialism that had already begun.

Carmen Tafolla (1993), in her poem La Malinche, paints a picture of a strong woman with a gift of foresight, who sees the potential of a mestiza/o future as Cortés cowers and cries. Emma Pérez (1999) argues that as part of the process of decolonialism, it is necessary to see Malintzin as a woman who took control of her own destiny. Calafell (2005) writes of her pilgrimage to Mexico City to look for traces of Malintzin, as a way to challenge the dominant narrative of her. This becomes a means by which to identify with and mourn Malintzin’s pain in order to activate and imagine possibilities for a revised future. Calafell’s (2005) pilgrimage also became a means to embrace her own sexuality and queerness through identification with Malintzin. Moraga (2000, p. 113) explicates her view of the power of Malintzin, drawing on her own experiences as a woman who defies patriarchal roles ascribed to her as she takes “control of her own sexual destiny.” She argues that this sexual control becomes akin to contributing to cultural genocide, regardless of whether she has children (Moraga, 2000). This type of woman, una Malinchista, is active rather than passive, as constructed by Paz (1994). Much of the work reimagining Malintzin through feminist possibilities is centered on focusing on her strength, intelligence, and bridging position. Her role as translator is significant, as in many ways it speaks to the role that Chicanas must negotiate daily as bicultural women—an experience captured well by Pat Mora’s (1985) poem “Legal Alien.”

Several writers also have connected Malintzin’s story to that of La Llorona, the weeping woman dressed in white, who is said to haunt rivers and canals in the southwestern United States (Anaya, 1984; Blea, 1991; Gaspar de Alba, 2005). Domino Renee Perez’s (2008) There Was a Woman: From Folklore to Popular Culture offered an important book-length study of this figure. Elenes (2007) draws on Luis González Obregón who suggests that the story of La Llorona emerged shortly after Spanish colonialism in the middle of the 16th century.

There are regional variations, but a popular version of the story says that La Llorona was a beautiful young woman whose husband died and left her alone to raise her children. She met a man whom she wanted to marry; however, he did not want children, so she took them down to the river and drowned them. When she died and reached the afterlife, her god figure told her that she could not enter Heaven unless she found her children. Therefore, she is doomed to walk the rivers and canals of the Southwest crying for her children, saying, “My children. Where are my children?” She usually is dressed in white and appears to be very beautiful. However, if you get too close, she turns into a hag and will drown you. Elenes (2007) draws on Limón (1990), who argues that because La Llorona does not have an official story like the Virgin of Guadalupe, she has a more democratic narrative. She also connects La Llorona’s story to that of the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl.

The story of La Llorona connects to Malintzin’s in several ways. Some authors, such as Anaya (1984), have created stories in which Malintzin becomes La Llorona after she kills her son, Martín, in order to get back at Cortés, who has abandoned her. Others have suggested that she was angry that he wanted to take her son to Spain. She was said to have believed that spiritually, this could have negative consequences for him.

Viewing the connection symbolically, it can be argued that La Llorona represents Malintzin crying for the people and culture killed by Spanish colonialism. Moreman and Calafell (2008) argue that La Llorona has been used in film, specifically Chasing Papi (2003) about a Latino simultaneously dating three Latinas without their knowledge of each other, to speak to issues of citizenship, immigration, and assimilation, as well as being a source of power for the Latinas in the film. Monica Palacios (1991) reframes La Llorona, whose story she was told as a child, through the lens of lesbian desire as a way to read her own queerness into the figure. Gloria Holguín Cuádraz (2001) writes of her symbolic relationship as “La Llorona with a Ph.D.”: a woman whose aspirations include a doctoral degree, not the expected path to motherhood. Underlying this is the symbolic patrilineal death.

Thus, for many Chicanas, La Llorona represents a woman taking hold of her destiny and sexuality. C. Alejandra Elenes (2007) points out that Chicanas can find strength in La Llorona because she undermines the contradiction that exists when women are part of a society that venerates motherhood while simultaneously oppressing women and children. Furthermore, La Llorona speaks to the pain and the effects of colonialism for indigenous people as her cry or scream sounds resistance (Elenes, 2007).

In addition to feminist reimaginings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Malintzin Tenépal, and La Llorona, Chicana feminists embrace mixed-race or mestiza identity. Following the colonialism of Mexico and the birth of mestiza/o people, racial hierarchies were created in which the closer one was to Whiteness, the higher one would be in the caste system. As time went on, this ideology led to internalized racism and was reified in the philosophy of Paz (1994), who wrote negatively about Mexican people because they are mixed race.

While Chicana feminists had long understood and theorized their bicultural identities as a source of strength, it was the publication of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza in 1987 that grounded this discussion in the language of mestiza consciousness and borderlands. Anzaldúa’s (2012, p. 101) decolonial project rearticulated mixed-race identity, or mestizaje, as a source of strength and possibility, specifically because it enables what she termed a “tolerance for ambiguity” that allows Chicanas to travel between worlds. Alicia Arrizón (2006) takes up Anzaldúa’s work on mestizaje by further teasing out its relationship to queerness and considering how Filipinos engage with mestizaje.

The bridging position enabled by mestizaje became a site for Anzaldúa (2009) to theorize coalition building in her influential essay “Bridge, Drawbridge, or Island: Lesbians-of-Color Haciendo Alianzas.” This position of both affirming one’s identity and creating bridges to connect with others is echoed in Lisa A. Flores’s (1996) critical rhetorical analysis of Chicana feminist literature, in which she argues that Chicana feminists create a space or home for themselves and their perspectives through their writing. This allows them to survive and affirm their identities, as well as create bridges for connecting to other communities.

In addition, Anzaldúa (2012) evoked the language of borderlands to not only mark the U.S.-Mexico border and a reclaimed Aztlán, but also to describe the ideological positioning of those who occupy the space of being strange or queer, and not fully Mexican or American, but somewhere in the middle. This borderlands position recognizes and draws strengths from the historical relationship to the land, Aztlán, which is now the United States, but as Anzaldúa (2012) notes, is Mexico always. These middle spaces echo or demonstrate Anzaldúa’s (2012) understanding of Chicanas as nepantlaras who, because they exist in a middle or borderlands space, are constantly able to shift between positions (and in some cases, cultures). Ana Castillo’s (2014) Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma echoed many of the themes of Borderlands, perhaps most clearly in Castillo’s (2014) advocacy of Xicanisma—an ideological position attentive to the historical, political, and cultural complexities related to Chicana identities.

Central to Anzaldúa’s (2012) work, as well as that of Moraga (2000), is queerness, as each woman articulates an understanding of Chicana identity that is keenly aware of gender subordination, heteronormativity, and the homophobia directed at queer Chicanxs. Their work complements scholarship in Black feminist thought, which argues for the importance of intersectionality or understanding of how one’s multiple identities converge to shape how we experience the world. Simply stated, identities cannot be separated out. Moraga’s (2000) Loving in the War Years also speaks to the ways that she came to more fully understand her racial and ethnic identity as a daughter of a Mexican mother and White father through her lesbianism. Further, she unpacks her light-skinned privilege and how she was encouraged to racially pass and embrace her Whiteness. In The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry, Moraga (1993, p. 145) offers a vision of what she terms “queer Aztlán,” in some ways harkening back to the nationalist rhetoric of the Chicano movement.

Anzaldúa (2012) also argued for the importance of the Coatlicue state as a space of deep depression, where Chicanas can unpack and work through their psychic traumas as colonized peoples. The Coatlicue state is a necessary step in the process of decolonialism. It is through this state, and in their roles as nepantlaras, that Chicanas understand the importance of the theory in the flesh, which is theory born of lived experience and through the body (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1983a). Anzaldúa (2002) extended the initial description offered by her and Moraga, and she developed the idea of conocimiento, which again centers the process of theory building in the body.

Chicana Studies in the Academy

The Chicanas of the 1960s and 1970s fought for leadership and redefined roles in the movement, as well as access to education, more equitable gender roles, and the power of self-definition. Their fight continued in the academy as Chicanxs began to develop networks to support the increasing body of work in Chicana studies. In 1972, anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists began to articulate the need for an academic professional organization for Chicana/o studies. Over time, the National Caucus of Chicano Social Scientists (NCCSS) developed into the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS), the flagship organization for the field (NACCS, 2017). In addition, the fight against the subordination of race in favor of gender continued. In 1982, Chicana and Latina scholars formed Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS), which later established an annual summer research institute in 1986, followed by an academic journal (MALCS, 2017).

The work of these women, as well as others involved in the Chicano movement, led to the birth of Chicana/o Studies programs at universities across the country. Chicana activism and scholarship led the way to the continued emergence of Chicana feminist thought in art, literature, poetry, and traditional academic prose. Scholars/activists, such as Deena J. González, Antonia Castañeda, Angie Chabram, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Marta Cotera, Norma Alarcón, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Chela Sandoval, and Ana Castillo, produced central scholarship on Chicana feminism, while Sandra Cisneros, Michele Serros, Pat Mora, and Helena Viramontes contributed important works of fiction and poetry. This work has become important not only to Chicanas, but as a part of academic curriculua across the country. In addition, Chicana writers have been honored nationally for their contributions. For example, Sandra Cisneros was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2016, and her book The House on Mango Street received the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award.

The publication of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, first in 1981 by Persephone Press and then in 1983 by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, marked a key moment for Chicana feminism and feminist coalition building. The groundbreaking anthology, coedited by Moraga and Anzaldúa (1983b) and featuring works by writers, such as Nellie Wong, Chrystos, Mitsuye Yamada, Jo Carrillo, and Audre Lorde, centered the intersectional experiences of women of color. The theme of bridging was particularly significant given the position of women of color not only in their ethnic and racial communities, but also in society at large. In the foreword to the second edition, Moraga (1983) marks the importance of the text, in that it centered the relationships between women, while Anzaldúa’s (1983) foreword noted the importance of thinking both individually and collectively as women of color. The fourth edition of the anthology was released in 2015.

Other significant anthologies were Anzaldúa’s Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color (1990) and This Bridge We Call Home (2002), edited by Anzaldúa and Keating (2002). Following her death in 2004, Anzaldúa’s papers, audiotapes, posters, drawings, photographs, and other works were given to the University of Texas to establish the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942–2004, housed in the Benson Latin American Collection. Calafell’s (2015) work on the archives has resulted in a theorization of Chicana feminist perspectives through the frame of monstrosity in order to argue that Anzaldúa offers an intersectional decolonial monstrosity. Bowen (2017) examines liminality in the relationship between the archive (official documents, such as birth certificates) and the repertoire (embodied performances, such as unpublished short stories) in the archives.

Further Reading

Alarcón, N. (Ed.). (1993). Chicana critical issues: Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press.Find this resource:

    Anzaldúa, G. E. (2015). Light in the dark: Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting identity, spirituality, reality (Ed. A. Keating). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

      Córdova, T., Cantú, N. A., Cardenas, G., García, J., & Sierra, C. M. (Eds.). (1990). Chicana voices: Intersections of class, race, and gender. Austin, TX: National Association for Chicano Studies.Find this resource:

        Holling, M. A. (2012). A dispensational rhetoric in “the Mexican question” in the Southwest. In D. R. DeChaine (Ed.), Border rhetorics: Charting enactments of citizenship and identity on the U.S.-Mexico frontier (pp. 65–85). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

          Keating, A. (Ed.). (2009). The Gloria Anzaldúa reader (pp. 140–156). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

            Rivera, J. M. (2006). The emergence of Mexican America: Recovering stories of Mexican peoplehood in U.S. culture. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

              Saldívar-Hull, S. (2000). Feminism on the border: Chicana gender politics and literature. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:


                Alarcón, N. (1983). Chicana’s feminist literature: A re-vision through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting flesh back on the object. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color (pp. 182–190). Brooklyn: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.Find this resource:

                  Anaya, R. A. (1984). The legend of La Llorona. Berkeley, CA: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International.Find this resource:

                    Anzaldúa, G. (2009). Bridge, drawbridge, or island: Lesbians-of-color haciendo alianzas. In A. Keating (Ed.), The Gloria Anzaldúa reader (pp. 140–156). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

                      Anzaldúa, G. E. (1983). Foreword to the second edition. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color (2nd ed., n.p.). Brooklyn: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.Find this resource:

                        Anzaldúa, G. E. (2002). Now let us shift . . . the path of conocimiento . . . inner works public acts. In G. E. Anzaldúa & A. Keating (Eds.), This bridge we call home: Radical visions for transformation (pp. 540–577). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                          Anzaldúa, G. E., & Keating, A. (Eds.). (2002). This bridge we call home: Radical visions for transformation. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                            Anzaldúa, G. E. (2012). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza (4th ed.). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.Find this resource:

                              Arrizón, A. (2006). Queering mestizaje: Transculturation and performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Find this resource:

                                Blackwell, M. (2011). Chicana power: Contested histories of feminism in the Chicano movement. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:

                                  Blea, I. I. (1991). La Chicana and the intersection of race, gender, and class. Westport, CT: Praeger.Find this resource:

                                    Bowen, D. I. (2017). Voices from the archives: Family names, official documents, and unofficial ideologies in the Gloria Anzaldúa papers. Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, 1(1), 26–41. Available online.Find this resource:

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                                        Calafell, B. M. (2007). Latina/o communication studies: Theorizing performance. New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

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                                            Calafell, B. M., & Moreman, S. (2010). Iterative hesitancies and latinidad: The reverberances of raciality. In R Halualani & T. Nakayama (Eds.), Handbook of critical intercultural communication (pp. 400–416). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

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