In Native Country of the Heart, released in April 2019, prolific writer and activist Cherríe Moraga offers an intimate coming-of-age story about a young Chicana coming to terms with her queerness in a half-Mexican and half-Anglo Catholic household. Moraga grew up in San Gabriel, California, with her strong-willed MexicanAmerican mother, Elvira, who worked in Southern California’s cotton fields in the 1920s; her white father, Joseph; her sister JoAnn; and her brother James. Though Native Country of the Heart is a memoir—a genre known mostly for recounting specific events in an author’s life—the book intimately recounts how Elvira’s sacrifices shaped Moraga’s life.
“How to explain the complexity of this?” Moraga asks. “What it means to be—not just me but us.” Native Country of the Heart is a reclamation of the stories that fade away if they’re unwritten or unrecounted. Her approach to writing memoir mirrors a larger tradition among women of color writers who honor their foremothers within their work. Oral traditions have been one of the only ways that we can remember our lineages as we’ve been erased from historical accounts and archival records. Capturing our foremothers’ stories is one of the ways in which women of color remember themselves.
Moraga understood that in order to tell her own story, she must first tell her mother’s. “Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature,” Moraga writes. “Few bemoan the memory loss of the unlettered. My mother—and her generation of MexicanAmerican woman—was to disappear quietly, unmarked by the letter of memory, the memory of letter. But when our storytellers go, taking their unrecorded memory with them, we their descendants go too, I fear.”
By centering her mother—a MexicanAmerican woman with a third-grade education—Moraga also pushes the boundaries of the genre, challenging the idea that memoir can only recount events that we have intimate knowledge of. Through Elvira, Moraga helps us better understand the struggles of working-class women and complicate our understanding of how their history has shaped their current reality. Elvira’s father cut her education short by forcing her to work in California’s cotton fields; that’s a familiar struggle for many young Chicanos and Chicanas who are accustomed to having “their school schedules shaved off at both ends to accommodate the seasons.”
Like other immigrant women, Elvira was extremely complex; she overcame cancer, had intimate relationships with her Santos, and married a white man. Moraga captures her mother’s intricacies with such care and love that even in her not-so-great moments—like Elvira—attempting to hit Moraga and JoAnn with belts in public—it’s clear that Moraga holds her dear. The love and care is mutual: Despite her strict Catholic beliefs, Elvira still embraces her lesbian daughter and tells Moraga how much she loves her. Even when Elvira is stricken with Alzheimer’s in her 80s, Moraga makes it a point to care for her mother as she begins to decline.
“She was our mother after all, flesh of our flesh, our soon-to-be ancestor, our tribal leader and once fierce matriarch,” she writes. “As her Mexican female offspring, we saw in her the map of choices that had been drawn out for us, too. She offered hope for change: that the human spirit really wants truth; that the human spirit really wants freedom; that the human spirit speaks even through a thick wall of dementia to remember the heart’s history more profoundly than any chronology of facts.”
After seeing her mother fearlessly tackle life’s challenges her whole life, Moraga had to contend with the reality of her mother’s illnesses and what that meant for her. Part of this care was fueled in part by Moraga’s desire for her own freedom and how her mother’s decline threatened it: “…our freedom was also at stake here, our desperate need to believe that each of us had the capacity to change our lives, to choose a life not dictated by fear or, worse, habit.”
Native Country of the Heart also introduces us to Celia, Moraga’s MexicanAmerican partner. After being friend with Celia for five years, Moraga reflects on the prospect of their love affair, writing, “The footpath I walked leading up to Celia’s open heart was paved with the cruelities of women, including my own unsparing acts. Mexican woman could break me, my history told me, because they mattered to me that much. Gazing across the restaurant table, upon Celia’s animated face, I think—maybe with this one, it will be different.” She realized that Celia would “[finally allow] my return to the love of a Mexican woman in my life” and “[t]ogether at the age of f45,[Celia] and I began to walk a road of contested mothering wherein the only guidepost was the steadfast example of the two old-school Mexican mothers who had preceded us.”
At first I found it odd that there’s so little about Moraga’s literary and activist work in Native Country of the Heart, but now I understand that the book is an ode to the women in her life, an odyssey of Elvira’s life, Moraga’s understanding of a mother’s love, and her understanding of a woman’s love. Throughout her life, Moraga’s had a tenuous relationship with her sister JoAnn because she perceived JoAnn as the favored daughter whose values contrasted with Moraga’s more rebellious life, but toward the end of their mother’s life, they found refuge and love in one another. It’s another way that a woman’s love sustained her—through grief, through disappointments, and through life.
I’ve often wondered about what a memoir about my life would entail given that I’ve mostly written about my mother and foremothers. Native Country of the Heart tells me that it’s okay to illustrate the ways our lives are inextricably tied to those of our mothers, grandmothers, and adoptive mothers. Our lives and stories can be our own—and an extension of the women who came before us. Native Country of the Heart is ultimately about bonds between women and a testament to the love and space we hold within ourselves for one another.
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