An award-winning playwright, Moraga has published three volumes of plays and directed the premiere productions of several of her own works, including the plays New Fire: To Put Things Right Again; The Mathematics of Love; Digging Up the Dirt; and The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea.
In 2017, Moraga joined the faculty in the Department of English at UC Santa Barbara, where she also serves as the co-director of Las Maestras Center for Xicana and Indigenous Thought, Art and Social Practice. She is currently completing the screenplay Señora de los Blues on the life of Chavela Vargas, commissioned by LevelForward Productions. While currently only in the Bay Area half-time, Moraga still considers Oakland, California, her home.
In 2019, Farrar, Straus and Giroux released her latest work, Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir, which is now available in a paperback edition. Upon its initial release, her memoir received universal praise, including from such fellow authors as Myriam Gurba, Luis J. Rodriguez, Michael Nava, Rigoberto González, and Julia Alvarez. The New York Times Book Review proclaimed: “[Written] with a poet’s verve […] This memoir’s beauty is in its fierce intimacy.”
And I must add my own voice to the chorus of praise. Native Country of the Heart burrowed deeply into my psyche as I learned of Moraga’s history and relationship with her late mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga. I found myself laughing and crying, sometimes within the space of a few paragraphs, as her poetic but searing narrative painted a brilliant portrait of the painful complexities of race, class, and family mysteries. But Moraga’s unflinching excavation of her life as well as the lives of her loved ones is what makes this memoir so compelling and, indeed, thrilling. She lays bare the nuance, intricacies, and conflicts of what it means to be MexicanAmerican — without a hyphen and without the chasm of that single space between identities.
Moraga kindly agreed to answer a few questions for LARB about her memoir, Native Country of the Heart.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Unlike most memoirs, Native Country of the Heart is a hybrid: part memoir; part biography of your late mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga. Could you discuss what compelled you to tell your story in this way?
CHERRÍE MORAGA: I see Native Country as neither biography nor autobiography, but a portrait of a relationship. It is a map of the critical moments in my mother’s and my shared lives and of the stories of her past that deeply shaped my earliest comprehension of the world. The memoir is a kind of chronicle of desire — my own and Elvira’s — expressed in distinct ways, but where a certain ethic binds us, even to this day, long after her passing. What compelled the writing, more generally, was simply to put my “unlettered” MexicanAmerican mother and her generation (she was born in California in 1914) on the American literary map. After 40 years of writing, I am still appalled by the lack of visibility and diversity in the storytelling of our lives to a national audience; that is, literature, film, and theater that depict the true complexity, nuance, and the breadth of story of multiple generations of Native and Latinx peoples in Los Angeles and throughout California and the Southwest.
There is a raw honesty to your narrative where you discuss both the triumphs and failings of yourself, your mother, and everyone else within your orbit. Did you share early drafts of the book with those whom you depicted and, if so, how did that process shape the book?
I shared early drafts with my sister, JoAnn, as my official “fact-checker.” She is only 16 months older than I and so we have, as a matter of course in our lives, often remembered together. Her account of events wherein I was not actually present was especially useful. Although we often interpreted “the facts” differently (and at times debated those facts), I am indebted to her for her input. I also shared the final draft of Native Country (just before publication) with my brother, knowing that the depiction of his role in our family was one riddled with conflicted loving. He didn’t approve of some of what I wrote, but he made no move to stop me. I am grateful for that.
At one point, your mother made an admission that, earlier in her life, she would have avoided or even denied. She said: “Bueno, también soy india” (“Well, I’m also Indian”). You then observe:
Without tribal name or entitlement, and just as Alzheimer’s was beginning to traverse the map of my mother’s brain, the geography of that remembrance returned to her. It was not a grand statement, but it was grand to me. After nearly a century of denial […] my mother was simply done with the pretense.
Much of your book delves into the concept of mixed identity. Did your mother’s admission affect how you define or view yourself?
Well, it was an affirmation of what was already evident to me from a more intuitive place of knowing. My extended MexicanAmerican family, like many, carries a long history of prejudice against those they perceive as “indios” by phenotype, economic status, etc. This internalized racism is the ugly face of colonization that still remains on both sides of the border.
In the midcentury when I was born, my siblings and I were the only “half ’n’ halves” (as we were called) with a white father. So, my experience of racial prejudice, when one may choose to pass for white, was a contested place in my daily life. Native Country returns to the origins of that ongoing colonization process in the US. The memoir journeys back to one of the earliest sites of genocide against Native California, the San Gabriel Mission, which stands two blocks from where I grew up. My mother’s small and quite generic reclamation (“soy india”) in the deepest throes of Alzheimer’s, when short-term memory is long gone and all that remains are sudden flashes of long-term memory, suggested to me that my journey home as a mixed-blood person was more than justified. But I didn’t need her to say it. I had recognized the American “indigenous” in us (without the language to express it) by the cultural world we inhabited as the daughters and granddaughters of Spanish- and English-speaking mestizo peoples in the United States.
Daniel A. Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is the author of nine books including, most recently, The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press).