What’s Past Is Prologue

Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir BY Cherríe Moraga. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir

In “La Guera,” her famous 1979 essay about coming to racial self-consciousness as a light-skinned, mixed-race Chicana, Cherríe Moraga identifies first and foremost as a daughter: “I had no choice but to enter into the life of my mother. I had no choice.” This is, of course, a natural fact about how we all are born. But it is also a kind of alibi—an italicized plea for forgiveness in advance. From the beginning of her career, she has scavenged her migrant mother’s story for material applicable to her own emerging politics as a lesbian feminist. Those politics came to be profoundly influential: Alongside collaborators Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Gloria Anzaldúa, Moraga developed personal testimony as a key form of feminist practice. She built some of the first coalitions among Latina, Asian, and African American women as a cofounder of the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (in 1980) and coeditor of the beloved anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981, now in its fourth edition). Today, we take the collective identity “women of color” for granted, but it still carried the experimental charge of dynamic conflict when activists first called it into being. Moraga has always emphasized the intimate genesis of this ambition: In her preface to This Bridge Called My Back, she wrote, “What drew me to politics was my love of women, the agony I felt in observing the straight-jackets of poverty and repression I saw in my own family.”

Cherríe’s mother, Elvira Moraga, would not have chosen this path for her daughter, but Cherríe insists on walking it in her honor, even baptizing herself with her mother’s maiden name rather than her Anglo father’s when she became a public figure. For Cherríe, this is a filial duty: “I followed the trail of my mother’s fleeting reminiscences, picking up in the wake of her steps each and every discarded scrap of unwritten testimonio.” It’s true that a child cannot choose the life she is born into. But there are many senses in which a mother’s life is also subject to her child’s choices, especially if that child becomes a writer. What are the ethics of this mutual subjection?

Exactly forty years after publishing “La Guera,” Cherríe is as ready as she ever will be to reckon with this dilemma. Her new memoir Native Country of the Heart begins: “Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature. Few bemoan the memory loss of the unlettered.” Like many children of immigrants, Cherríe understands her own opportunities in relation to opportunities denied to others. In particular, Elvira’s “inability to read and write well remained an open wound” for both mother and daughter, so that Cherríe often figures her own writing as an ambivalent form of reparations.

“The memory loss of the unlettered” ceases to be merely metaphorical when Elvira is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Cherríe’s writerly capacity to perceive Elvira’s vulnerability depended, for a long time, on establishing distance from her mother’s domestic regime; the disease dramatizes conflicts she had hoped to confine to the speculative dimension of literature. Cherríe must determine when to let her mother have her way, and when she has become a danger to herself. Elvira’s new dependence on her white doctors and hapless husband presses the bruise of a lifetime’s subordination: “I did not know whether my mother was truly demented or just Mexican in a white world.”

Cherríe associates her mother’s memory loss with America’s pathological amnesia. Their family foundation cracks under the pressures of assimilation, and assimilation, in turn, is a symptom of the violent erasure of indigenous life on both sides of the border. She interweaves the story of Elvira’s decline with the shadow history of the genocidal California missions, the barbed-wire Sonoran borderlands, and the suburbanized San Gabriel Valley of her childhood. Teetering on the brink of whiteness, Cherríe fears that losing her mother means losing her spiritual and political connection to an insurgent identity, and the rapacious intelligence of her research is her last line of defense. But not all aspects of her mother’s Alzheimer’s are easy to narrate this way. When Elvira wakes up one day certain her husband is a stranger—“how could I have had children with that man!”—Cherríe can’t be sure “if it is a moment of pure illumination, springing from the mind that resides wholly in the heart of a deeper knowing,” or nothing more than “the accumulated plaque in [her] mother’s brain.”

Cherríe refers to Elvira’s life and death as “the story of our forgotten, the landscape of loss.” I tend to resist such abstract language, wary of the way Elvira’s individuality gets blurred in the service of a political parable. But how else can a daughter express the scale of her grief? By the end of the book, Cherríe admits that her usual mythmaking impulse can’t contend with the loss of her mother, who becomes a “bowl of bones and guts and elegance.” When Cherríe stands to deliver her mother’s eulogy, she finds her mind strangely vacant: “arrogantly, I had imagined myself greater than the speechlessness of my sorrow.”

Now Cherríe Moraga herself is in the process of becoming a myth. She’s outlived many of her sisters-in-arms—Lorde, Anzaldúa, Toni Cade Bambara—and stands as the sign of a time of hard-won solidarity and social change whose promise we’re still straining to fulfill. On the back of this book—Moraga’s first with a Big Five publisher—luminaries like Eileen Myles, Julia Alvarez, and Sarah Schulman come bearing extravagant bouquets of praise. But so much of the value of testimonio is in grounding our political thinkers in the grinding contradictions of daily life. The feminist Cherríe Moraga is also a woman who must enroll her mother in a nursing home called Expressions, just as the strict matriarch Elvira Isabel Moraga is also a woman who once went dancing and sold cigarettes amid the tumult of Prohibition-era Tijuana. These women disagree with themselves, and each other. It’s tempting to say, these days, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” But holding on to the ways we may not be is also a way of holding on to our mutual humanity.

Carina del Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living between New York and Puerto Rico. Her first book, No Es Nada, is forthcoming from Riverhead.