Moraga’s new memoir, Native Country of the Heart, should lay to rest that canard once and for all. Native Country is a masterpiece of literary art. Like other great memoirs — Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments or Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings spring to mind — the central figure is not the writer but a powerful parent. In the process of unraveling and examining the parent’s life, the writer comes to a deeper knowledge of herself both by her parent’s example and in opposition to it.
The parent in question is Moraga’s mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga. In the world outside her family and neighborhood, she was a person of little distinction: a mostly uneducated Mexican immigrant, a working-class wife and mother of three who worked in an electronics factory and lived with her family in San Gabriel, a small town in the Los Angeles megapolis. Her life, Moraga writes “was not the stuff of literature,” and yet, Elvira may have been the secret subject of all of Moraga’s work. Moraga muses: “Perhaps my writing had never really been about me. Perhaps it was she all along; she without letters; she fallen off the map of recorded histories […] She, the first and last point of my return.”
Why does the seemingly humble woman exercise so powerful an influence over her daughter? It is because, as Moraga demonstrates, Elvira was a complicated and powerful personality: a Mexican everywoman, torn between obligation and yearning. Circumstances over which she had no control — her gender, her race, her poverty — were not accepted without complaint; Elvira’s life was a long protest against the lot imposed on her even as she strove to fulfill her obligations as a Mexican-American matriarch. The friction generated by the grinding of her inarticulate but powerful desire for a different existence against the paltry reality of her lived experience, created as complex a persona as Lear. Her life was the stuff of drama but with few witnesses except, as it turns out, her genius daughter.
Elvira first appears as an 11-year-old girl in 1925 put to work by her father picking cotton in California’s Imperial Valley. Her formal education ended after third grade. She never overcame her belief that her lack of education “was the single thing that separated her from that coveted other life of an office job where women wore skirts and stockings to work each day and used their minds instead of their hands to bring home a paycheck.” Elvira’s bitterness toward her father — a feckless alcoholic who had forced her into the fields as a child — was tempered by her sense of obligation to her family. She was anything but the humble stereotype of a Mexican woman. She could be prickly, even cruel, to those closest to her: her morosity the only avenue of self-affirmation and rebellion against “an impossible patriarchy.” But her anger was also her power, the fuerza or strength, that propelled her though life and drew people to her to seek out her consejo.
Elvira married late to an Anglo man and quickly gave birth to three children, James, JoAnn, and Cherríe. Moraga’s father, Joseph, operated the Santa Fe Railroad station in South Pasadena. His long hours kept him away from his family apparently as much by preference as necessity; he was a withdrawn, timid man who, having no family of his own, was adopted into his wife’s extended brood. In Moraga’s recollections Joseph emerges as a benign ghost. “He was a white man, indistinguishable from the rest, whose only requirements were to bring home a paycheck and never lay a violent hand on his wife.”
His father’s dog-like devotion to his wife was met by her contempt. She was filled with rancor, ostensibly directed at his failure to perform his husbandly duties — “a husband who never understood the function of a screwdriver, a spark plug, a pint of paint, or a lawn mower” — while she tirelessly and meticulously performed her wifely equivalent. But her disillusionment with him went deeper than his inability to maintain the family car. “Elvira’s thick contempt for those she once loved who had disappointed her distanced my mother from the heartbreak of it.” And, even deeper than disappointed love perhaps, lay a more primal disillusionment in the trap that life had set for her as a woman of her time and place and circumstances. Late in life, as she slipped into dementia, she would dismiss her decades of marriage to Joseph with a curt “I did the best I could.”
The power of Moraga’s writing is that, even here, at her cruelest, Elvira does not read as cruel. Rather, that statement suggests a recognition that her life was a performance of the roles imposed on her, but beyond those roles, behind the masks of wife and mother, there was another person, the actor herself. But who was she? That question goes unanswered because, ultimately, Elvira never had the leisure or critical perspective to answer it for herself. Her life was one of constant motion. “She was someone who could handle so much and so many in our world. In our extended familia, she served as the planet around which our near-hundred relations hovered like orbiting moons.” Those who orbited nearest her were her children.
Ironically, given her embittering experience of her father and her husband, she lavished her attention and affection on the other man in her life — her son, James. In Elvira’s mind, her son was beyond reproach, even when he brought into the family the right-wing Anglo girlfriend (and later wife) and went off with her to Arizona to the suburbanite life of white America. So thoroughly did he reject his Mexican half that, when Elvira addressed him in Spanish, he complained, “I don’t know what she’s saying.” Still, she pined for him and deferred to him, at one point allowing him to overrule medical decisions made by his sisters based on his assessment of his mother’s condition after a brief visit.
This is one of her many contradictions; as much as she was a force of nature, some part of her never stopped seeking a protective male figure. That need was partly personal but also cultural — few cultures celebrate maleness like Mexico which gave the world the concept of machismo. There is a sense in Moraga’s telling that Elvira sometimes conceived of her life as a long, lonely struggle in which she was surrounded by dependents but had no one to depend on. Even after her son essentially turned his back on her, she entertained hope of some kind of reconciliation with him. She went so far as to write to her disapproving Anglo daughter-in-law to ask about the offense she caused. Her daughter-in-law’s reply was a caustic: “Examine your conscience.”
JoAnn, the eldest daughter, who remained in Southern California, was the most dutiful child, becoming Elvira’s primary caretaker as she was over overcome by Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, her mother apparently reviled her. According to Moraga, obedient JoAnn was the particular target of Elvira’s rage when they were girls. In one terrifying episode, Elvira, infuriated by JoAnn’s teenage complaint about her wardrobe, attacks her with such violence Moraga has to pull her off her sister. JoAnn’s apparent flaw was her intelligence, her mother complaining, “She might act like she’s someone special at the school, but she’s not so special, you don’ know what she’s really like…” JoAnn, Moraga writes, “was a dreamer,” but, unlike Elvira, she was in a position to make at least some of them come true. She would have what Elvira had been denied — an education — a chance at those “office jobs,” and a broader horizon than the sky at the edge of a cotton field. And yet Elvira, who had given her daughter this possibility, apparently also resented her for it. How else to explain the injured contempt with which she treated JoAnn?
Elvira’s relationship with her youngest child, Cherríe, was the closest. Moraga was not a stellar student, noting that in a household where “good grades meant less than good housekeeping,” she “excelled only in the latter,” which may have spared her the fury her mother turned on JoAnn. Early on, however, as perhaps Elvira had also done, Cherríe understood a woman’s assigned place in the order of things: “[M]y sister and I were just plain guilty for being female, perhaps simply being females with hope; for feeling that we had a right to hope.” Such awareness of the surrounding misogyny merged with her budding realization of her lesbianism during high school. Forced to choose between her inner experience of herself: “I am good,” and condemnation of church, society, and possibly even her family, Moraga still chose herself: “I would be free.”
This, too, was a choice denied to Elvira, but, unlike JoAnn’s choices, it was not a source of resentment between her and Cherríe. Instead, Elvira appeared to accept her daughter’s right to a life of greater freedom than had been possible for herself. Her mother’s response to Moraga’s coming out is described in a brilliant passage of intense love and pain.
“You’re leaving with a secret,” Elvira tells her daughter when Cherríe moves to San Francisco and, in a fraught phone call, demands to know what her daughter is keeping from her.
“No, Mom,” I say, the phone cord a shrinking connection between us. “This one is just too hard.”
And that’s all I have to say when a great wail erupts from her throat. “No, mi’jita!” she cries. “No me digas esto. Not that. No puede ser.”
She is dying. This is how it sounds to me over the telephone line. Her grief rips open my chest when I suddenly realize, No it is me. I am the one who is dying. My mother’s llanto tells me so […] It is the cry of a mother mourning the loss of her child.
But after Elvira forces the admission of her lesbianism from Moraga, and demands to know how a woman could satisfy her — a question Moraga tells her is none of her business — “all the fury in her voice gone.” Elvira says, “How could you think that there is anything in this life you could do that you wouldn’t be my daughter.”
Elvira lives to be 90. The last years of her life are spent in “the purgatory of Alzheimer’s.” Moraga tells the all-too-familiar story of a parent’s disappearance into dementia, but she tempers the tragedy by finding in her mother’s journey into Alzheimer’s a spiritual dimension. For, among other things, it appears that Alzheimer’s is a kind of liberation for Elvira. Moraga writes of spending the night in her mother’s house after Elvira’s institutionalization:
During the first few nights of my stay, I was awakened by a spirit presence, a palpable sensation of disquiet inside the walls of the house […] There was nothing malevolent in the ánimo spinning down the hallway and in and out of the rooms; only that the house felt alive with the memories Elvira had finally left forgotten inside those walls. Suddenly, to occupy that house without the physical presence of my mother was to stand inside the depth and breadth of the spirit life her small frame had carried for nearly a century.
Later, when her mother’s speech is reduced to sentence fragments, Moraga writes about “how much my mother could say without words,” in “the raising of an eyebrow, the fallen corner of a mouth, a shrug of the shoulders.”
“She was so grand,” Moraga will say in her eulogy for Elvira. “We could neither grasp nor hold all that she desired.”
In her daughter’s account of her mother’s time on earth, the grandeur is there, as is the desire and the disappointment. Elvira Isabel Moraga’s tale is of a great spirit trapped in a tiny life. Cherríe Moraga’s triumph is to have turned that life into great literature.
Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.