Sandra Cisneros is one of the best-known and most influential Chicana authors in American literature. Beginning with her first chapbook publication in 1980, the poetry collection Bad Boys, Cisneros has written and published fiction, poetry, and essays with a distinct Chicana feminist consciousness. Drawing on her experience as an only daughter in a large Mexican American family, Cisneros challenges patriarchal hierarchies in Latino/a culture in her work, as well as those grounded in race, class, and gender in US culture more generally. As part of a larger Chicana feminist intellectual critique of gender roles within Latino/a culture, Cisneros’s fiction and poetry examine the social roles for women in marriage and motherhood and identify the archetypal figures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona as sources of oppression within discourse and practice. Innovative in form and language, her work explores the influence of these figures on the lives of women and imagines new, more liberating possibilities in the recuperation of their agency, self-determination, and independence. Cisneros joins this revisionary work with one of her primary thematic concerns, the Chicana writer’s need to break with cultural expectations in order to establish herself and develop her talents. Her innovations in genre and language, such as the hybrid poetic prose used in The House on Mango Street, demonstrate formally the results of a Chicana feminist resistance to class-inflected literary conventions. From the publication of The House on Mango Street (1984) through the poetry collections My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987) and Loose Woman (1994) and the short story collection Woman Hollering Creek (1991), to the publication of Caramelo or Puro Cuento (2002) and her book of essays, A Home of My Own (2014), Cisneros explores with depth and compassion the struggles of Latina women to break down patriarchal conventions and create for themselves a space for self-expression and creativity.
Olga L. Herrera
Any examination of Latina feminist literature must acknowledge that this area of study, like the identity of women of Latin American heritage, is a complex phenomenon. This complexity attests to the fact that the Latino population in the United States embraces multiple ethnicities, such as Mexican American and Cuban American. Aside from ethnic representations, the notion of Latina (Latino) recognizes various ideologically determinant identities, such as Chicanas (Chicanos) and Nuyoricans. In order to embrace the notion of Latina feminism in literature, it is paramount to recognize the reality of women who live in a complex bifurcated reality. Latinas are Americans, and yet, at the same time, they are not “Americans.” Latinas comprise multiracial and multiethnic communities whose multiple and diverse voices are situated within different hierarchies of social power and discourse. While Latina literature is deeply rooted within cultural values and traditions, it critiques the repressive, patriarchal foundations of that tradition. Consequently, Latina feminist writers embody a rebellious sensibility to the task of dismantling the structures that have defined, silenced, and marginalized them. Thus Latina feminist writing cannot be understood as an exclusive or absolute phenomenon but rather must be seen as a heterogeneous cultural practice drawing from the diverse genealogies of women’s specific ethnic backgrounds, as well as from their histories and their voices, while attempting to challenge gender norms, heteronormativity, and power relations. Although the renaissance of Latina feminist literary production became evident in the period after the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, especially after the 1980s (and 1990s consecutively), discursive configurations of Latina writings have been identified dating back to the 19th century in the United States.
Rita Cano Alcalá
Myths and legends are the way in which human beings try to understand the divine or supernatural and their relationship to it. Created by humans, myths are reflections of the values and beliefs of the people, time, and place from which they emerge. Once they are in circulation and affirmed by religious doctrine or official historiography, myths are used as an explanation and then a legitimation of why things are the way they are. They become instruments of vigilance and control of human behavior, which in patriarchal cultures means principally of female behavior. Patriarchal cultures produce myths that justify and reproduce the principles of male supremacy. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Virgin Mary supplanted and absorbed the rituals and feast days of some of the pagan goddesses, but she was not endowed with their powers. Christianity reinforced an insistence on the one, true, male God. The mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, is the lone female figure in Christianity. The Catholic Church has sought to limit the Virgin Mary’s role to that of vessel bringing the son of God into the world, but she has resonated in the hearts of some believers to an equal or even greater degree than Jesus. The Church has responded to the popular religious zeal for Mary by making every effort to rein it in. The Church has officially recognized Mary, but with each proclamation it has put a nail in the proverbial coffin of women’s equal representation in the Church. Mary has been described as a Trojan horse for the perpetuation of male hierarchical control and supreme power in the Catholic Church. The principle way in which the Church’s construction of the Virgin Mary is detrimental to Catholic women is through the virgin–whore dichotomy embodied by the Virgin Mary and Eve. As the “great exception to women,” the Virgin Mary is held forth as an unattainable ideal against which to find fault with real women. In particular, any woman who does not remain a virgin until marriage and a chaste wife is automatically cast as sinner, as whore. There is no middle ground. The Virgin Mary and Eve follow a parallel trajectory in Catholic history by which each one is increasingly sexualized, one hypo- and one hyper-. The virgin–whore polarity has been handed down in Mexican Catholicism through the Virgen de Guadalupe and the woman who has been called the Mexican Eve, La Malinche, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’s interpreter and the mother of his son, who has been considered the first mestizo (historically, he was not). In México, the process of usurping and replacing pagan goddesses with the Virgen de Guadalupe replicated almost exactly that seen with the Virgin Mary in the early centuries of Christianity. The popular legend cluster of La Llorona, the archetypal Weeping Woman, also dates to the colonial era in New Spain, a territory that comprises what is now México and the southwestern United States. The real woman who kills her children out of revenge for her lover’s abandonment and becomes the phantasmagorical La Llorona falls squarely on the whore end of the dichotomy. She is meant to serve as a negative role model that girls should do everything in their power to avoid following. But a funny thing happens on the way to the moralistic legend about female blamewothiness and untrustworthiness. Legends are notoriously recounted by women to their children, and in women’s narrations the legend of La Llorona takes on other contours. Girded in a cultural nationalism with the traditional Mexican family as its foundation, the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s invoked Malinche and Malinchista as epithets against women who pursued leadership roles or feminist principles. In response to these efforts to reaffirm and justify the virgin–whore dichotomy—personified in the figures of La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche—Chicana writers, artists, and scholars produced work in the late 20th century that exposes the patriarchal values that undergird all three figures and offers empowering feminist reinterpretations and positive affirmations for female sexuality.
Stacy I. Macías
Latina butch/femme literatures and cultural productions are essential components of the lesbian, gender, queer, and ethnic literary canons of the late 20th century. While butch/femme—a term that references particular lesbian sexual cultures and queer female gender practices—emerged within working-class and lesbian-of-color communities roughly in the 1940s, Latina lesbians in the 1980s and 1990s began to use the anthology form to pronounce boldly how their lesbian sexualities, erotic desires, and alternative gender expressions mutually informed their racial, ethnic, and class-based identities. While anthologies created the space to engage butch/femme and its racialized class meanings of butch/femme, the growth in women of color feminist theories further catalyzed writers to contextualize their earlier provisional embrace of Latina butch/femme, which feminist, lesbian, and ethnic nationalist ideologues variously derided. Still, while Latina lesbian cultural production and literary output increased, engagements with butch/femme were veiled, with some accounts paralleling the larger social unease with what many believed enforced the reproduction of oppressive heterosexual dynamics. While photographic images indelibly document the ubiquity of butch/femme lived practice, the literary archive of explicitly imagined and referenced Latina butch/femme is limited, and its overall force lies in its suggestive discursive qualities and a late 20th century iconic set of authors with which it is associated. Key writers of the period tended to meditate extensively on Latina butch gender and sexuality concerns, while it was not until the turn of the 21st century that the Latina femme garnered the same in-depth critical treatment. The decoupling of butch/femme also enables an expansion of discrete critical and creative femme and butch offerings, while writers settle into unequivocally evoking the erotic grammars of butch/femme gender and sexuality in forms of poetry, novel, and film.