Cherríe Moraga, Writer & Playwright
Writer and playwright Cherríe Moraga on growing up in Chicano Catholic culture, freeing herself of self-homophobic fear, and where that new freedom was able to take her as a gay Chicana artist.
Writer & Playwright
Writer and playwright Cherríe Moraga on growing up in Chicano Catholic culture, freeing herself of self-homophobic fear, and where that new freedom was able to take her as a gay Chicana artist.
CHERRIE MORAGA: I had never read the word Chicana and lesbian in the same sentence, except as a derogatory term. So every time I wrote it, I felt like I'm going to hell.
My mother is Chicana and my father is Anglo. Growing up, pretty much all of my family, what I understand as family, has been my mother's family, which was hundreds of people. So we had our own tribe. My sister, brother, and I were the only mixed kids. We're the only one that had a gringo father. But I just wanted to be brown.
Like, that was to me everything I associated with home.
I knew that I was queer, like different, from the time I was very young. I walked like a boy, talked like a boy, thought like boy, wanted things like boys. And it was at eleven that I really understand too that I had a desire for women. And I figured, oh my god, I really am a boy. And that really freaked me out.
It had everything to do with Catholicism. So the way I translated it was that I was marked as somebody who had the devil in them.
I'd wake up in the middle of the night, three and four times at night. Pray the rosary. I'd get up. I can't even describe the depth of fear. I think people don't really understand what homophobia is when it's played against yourself, you know. It is the most brutal. No one can do to you what you can do yourself.
When I had graduated from high school and got into college, it was the first time I became sexually active. And it became very evident I couldn't deny it. So I did come out. And I just for the first time felt free, free to love. And it was so important and so fundamental. You can't take away a person's desire and have them be whole.
And it allowed me then to begin writing without secrets.
And it wasn't really until I came out that I really began to make connections about other forms of oppression, including that I had a right to be Chicana.
And those who were mimeographing, we weren't even thinking that it would have the impact that it had. But once it was done I knew how important it was. And really helped to put women of color writers kind of on the map. And also I needed it for my own identity. At that time there was no us to read. So the confidence it takes to try to then find voice when you can't read the voice, it was a very important time. But I look back and of course I think I'm a much better writer now, you know. But I still have a lot of compassion for that, you know, 27-year-old because it's original.
When you see yourself reflected and you see the complexity of your own life, this is something that privileged people get all the time. We don't get this in our arts. We never get to see the complexity of who we are as human beings. So how does art make us well?
I did a work last year called, "New Fire," in collaboration with my partner Celia Herrera Rodriguez. And 3,000 people came to see the work. Majority of the people who came to see it were not mainstream theater goers. They were mostly [SPANISH], mostly queer people, mostly women of color. And I was in heaven. And you see them talking about, you know, suddenly that they saw themselves. They saw their grandfather, their grandmother, their aunties, their cousins on the stage. But it's the real deal. Those are those moments in which you feel like-- in Spanish we say, vale la pena. You know, it's worth all of the trouble. It's worth all the heartbreak.
CHERRIE MORAGA: I think it's no accident Malcolm X, as a light-skinned black man, he became a very radical black nationalist. And in a certain level, I'm probably the most radical chicana in my family. Of the hundreds of relatives I have, I am probably politically the most radical. And I'm probably the one who can pass the best, because what-- and what Malcolm has said, too, is that if you see what the white world can offer you and you look at it, and some people go, oh, wow, that's incredible, and some people view it as a poverty. I'm talking about a kind of cultural poverty. And from my perspective, what I've lost seems very insignificant compared to what I've gained.
CHERRIE MORAGA: When I had finished "Loving in the War Years," because it was autobiographical, I went, oh, good, my story's done. I'm just done. And of course that's not the case.
But what happened to me is that then suddenly I began to actually start writing my journal, and it wasn't me. It was character. And so the first character I wrote was Corky from "Giving Up the Ghost." And she's kind of the girl I never had the courage to be. She's a little tomboy, but this Chicana and-- but just streetwise and courageous and all of that in a way much more-- I don't know, just much more visceral than I was.
And so it was a great pleasure, because suddenly I felt like characters could come to me. And for me, it's a way so that I came back to the oral. So to me, it makes perfect sense for me to work in theater. And I just feel like the things that I continue to write about continue to be areas that are the politically unacceptable.
CHERRÍE MORAGA: There were some people that encouraged me in college. But also when I got out of college, there was people that discouraged me. I was at the women's building. I was taking a writing class at the women's building in Los Angeles. And it was like, you know, it was very-- at that time there were like some amazing feminist artists and writers that were coming out of the women's building. And I was taking a poetry class.
When I finally was presenting my work, I was told two things-- one that I didn't have a big enough vocabulary, and two, that if I was writing a love poem and it had a you in it, because I was a woman, the reader would presume it was a male, so I needed to clarify that it was a woman I was writing to.
I love anger, because anger can be a great motivation. I was so mad by both of those comments. I was confused by the first one around the vocabulary, because I had just graduated from college. And I was like one of the first in my family to go to college.
I figured like, man, I have a lot of language, right? But what they meant was-- and they were absolutely right, because what they meant was-- is that I didn't grow up with books in my home, so I didn't have a literary language. I even see the kind of language my son and my daughter that I raised like I see the kind of language they have from just being raised by us.
And you know, my partner and I with college educations were artists, you know? I didn't have any of that language. But what I didn't know is I had an oral language. So I'm going, oh my God, how could it be? It really confused me and it got me mad, because intuitively I knew they were wrong.
But what they were so right about, and it was the greatest gift, because what they were right about is I was trying to write like a white man, that I really was trying to imitate class, you know a class I did not have. I will never-- to this day, I will never be able to catch up. So the only way I was going to be able to find voice as a writer and be original as a writer would have to be about going home. So my task has always been that and trying to find original tongue.
That's how I teach my students, regardless of their class and their ethnicity, or because of their class and ethnicity from the most privileged to the most impoverished. Everybody has a way to go home, you know? And I think that for the working class writer, the first generation writer, what you're trying to do is get them to realize they have nuances of language, you know, that it simply hasn't been published yet.
CHERRIE MORAGA: When I had graduated from high school and got into college, and it was the first time I became sexually active, and that just then really brought back all those feelings again around desire for women. And it became very evident. I couldn't deny it. And so then I'd have to eventually tell my family and everything.
And basically, I was just going to move up North and not tell anybody. But my mother made me. She basically had said to me, you're living with a secret. She totally busted me. And so I did come out to her. And she wasn't nice about it for the first half of the conversation. But she was really upset and really horrified, really, really sad.
I mean, for her that was just like, oh my god. Your life is going to be so bad, because that's what she knew. And so she got mean. What parents do when they get afraid, they get mean. And so she got really mean and really vulgar about it.
And that was the best thing she did, because she wasn't hurting at that moment, or I couldn't see it. Because when she was hurting, I was hurting. We're both crying. And I just felt so bad for hurting her. But when she got mean, it was really good, because then I was able to defend myself.
I had to defend who I was. And I told her that I would never-- that it wasn't going to change. This was who I was. And that if it meant I couldn't have a relationship with my family, then I'd have to choose my life, because it was no choice.
And my mother said to me, there is nothing you could do in this life that you would not be my daughter. End of story, right? I mean, I love her for that moment. I love her for that moment, because it meant that she saw me.
And I think that's what every young person wants, really, from their parents is just to be seen and still loved. And that's exactly what happened in that moment between my mother and me.
CHERRIE MARAGA: The most meaningful piece of advice I've ever received as a writer was from the poet Judy Grahn. She was very well known in the Bay Area. White, working class woman, lesbian. And she wrote this amazing book called "The Woman is Talking to Death." Just amazing, courageous, courageous writing.
And I had the courage, too, to just track her down. I wanted to see her. So I went and I saw her. And we met at a coffee shop, and I showed her two of my poems. And one she liked, one she didn't like too much.
But she said to me that the most important thing was to learn to write with your own voice. Because if you continued to try to copy what is not you, the class that's not you, or the culture that's not you, if you're always in the effort to try to copy them, you'll always be a cheap imitation thereof. That's how she put it.
And she goes some people get really good at it. I mean really, really good at it, she says. But they're never the best at it. You know? And she goes, so the only shot you got, really, is to be you. Because no one else is you. No one else can write exactly like you. That's what will make you an original. You know?
And I think that's just great advice. I mean, something I kind of knew intuitively, but when she said it to me this way, because I saw her writing did that. That it was original, whether they recognized or didn't recognize it. So I think that's wonderful advice. And it's advice I pass on to every single person I teach. And I've taught thousands now.
CHERRIE MORAGA: If you have a choice about having children and you're serious about being an artist, wait until you really are absolutely confident that you will never give up your artwork. You really, really, really need to know that, because your children will, for a time, pull you away from the thing itself, whatever you're painting or writing. But the thing is waiting to have children, which is the case for me-- I always knew that I was going to come back to writing. It was never for a second-- I never doubted. That's something I could not have been sure of in my 20s or even my early 30s. But that was getting closer. So it's just really important to know that.
And if you don't have a choice, I think-- and partly-- one thing that's really-- what I learned about raising children, and not just my son but also my partner's daughter and some other kids along the way, is it does give you a little bit of ruthlessness around writing. You know you don't have too much time. So it kind of makes you-- I really became a really efficient editor of my own work because of that.
CHERRIE MORAGA: My sister, brother, and I were the only mixed kids in my family. Was like all the cousins and everybody had Mexican mothers and fathers. But we're the only ones that had a gringo father. And I think my brother and sister had a very different feeling about this.
But I just wanted to be brown. I mean, that was to me, everything I associated with home, and you know. But we of course were very encouraged to try to get what you can in this world. And I, even as a little girl, I recognized sort of this difference between how I was treated and my Mexican classmates. That there were sort of assumptions about me being smarter, and this encouragement that if you wanted to be college prep you hung out with the white girls.
And you know like that. It was always a place of real disquiet for me, because my love was so profound about being Mexicana. And I felt like I was constantly being in a position to betray being Mexican. People say, oh, you're not really Mexican are you? I go, yeah. You know, and it's like, you're Spanish. No, I'm Mexican.
And even as a little girl, I used to fight people around that. Because I always felt like I was selling out my family. But those choices, also, have big payoff. Privilege equals more access to money, access to success, people make those choices all the time.
In my case, it was finally sort of landing on the side of identity where I had no choice, which was my lesbianism. That really just split open my consciousness about my identity also racially, regardless of my skin color. Without ever denying my being mixed blood, and my father. And I have a really good relation with my dad, he's still around. But it is not formational to me the way my mother and my hundreds of relatives, Mexican relatives, were in my life.
CHERRIE MORAGA: Sometimes people say to me, what gives you courage as a writer? And I feel like one of the bravest things I ever did was to come out to my mother. That courage that I exhibited to my mom and the fact that she responded the way she did-- it was so outside what she wanted for me, and she would not reject me. That takes courage.
So it's like, when you see people rise to the occasion, it gives you infinite faith in the capacity of other people to rise to the occasion. And I think I'm so grateful for that moment, because it felt less risky to me about when I had to write and reveal things or tell truths that I knew were really true that nobody was saying them but I knew they were true. I could always kind of go back to that foundation, those moments where you are met when you take a risk.
CHERRIE MORAGA: When I published "This Bridge Called My Back," I also began working at a-- I was a coordinator, one of the coordinators for the New York Women Against Rape, that organization, for a couple of years. And in part, I did that work because I felt like it was like the work-- the writing was ahead of me. It was moving too fast. It was giving me visibility as a kind of spokesperson around women of color in feminism when I really didn't have enough grassroots organizing, which, if you believe in the idea of theory in the flesh, then you've got to have the flesh. You've got to be doing the work on a community-based level, because without that, then what you begin to have is this kind of rarefied, theoretical feminism, which you find much in academia today, that really does not have, as they say, a "trickle-down effect" to women of color and impoverished women.
Yes, we have theory. And yes, there is a critical framework to understanding the feminism of women of color and feminism in general. But it's always somehow in correspondence with practice and in correspondence with experience. And I feel like the book encourages people to do that, to practice what they preach.
CHERRIE MORAGA: It takes more courage sometimes, and I tell my students this all the time, to deal with the intimate world and our relationships. Sometimes it's more risky and takes more courage than all the protesting all over. And you could do 500 million barricades here and there. But that emotional courage is cultivated in the intimate world as the best grounding for what we need to do in the exterior-- in fighting those institutions.
CHERRIE MORAGA: "Loving in the War Years" was so hard-won in the sense that I was terrified all the time that I was writing it, because it really did wrench through my past. So it was really the coming-of-age and coming-out as Chicana and lesbiana book. I had never read the words "Chicana" and "lesbian" in the same sentence except as a derogatory term. So every time I wrote it, I felt like I was kind of back to when I was a little kid, thinking I'm going to hell.
When the book came out, I left the country. I went to Mexico. I couldn't bear to know what was going to happen. And I was mostly afraid within my own community, within the Chicano community. It had a lag time of about four years before really Chicanos were reading it in a lot of numbers. But I'm always scared when I write. But that one was, I guess, the scariest.
CHERRIE MORAGA: My class is working class. My mother worked in the factories. She finished third grade. And my father, he worked for the Santa Fe Railroad all of his life. I've always identified-- I'm a first-generation writer. I'm a first-generation college-educated person. So when you're talking about first generation, you're really talking about oral tradition. So it really is our families that are our first literary foremothers.
And my mother was a fabulous storyteller. And for me, reading was very, very difficult. It's not so now. But it was as a child. And probably I had something that they would diagnose now that they didn't do in the '50s. And my sister was a fabulous reader. And she would read to me at night all the time.
So actually, mostly everything I learned about story came through my ear first. My original sort of relationship to writing or to storytelling or to story writing was actually oral, even if it was a written text. And that has become my voice as a writer. If I can't say it, the sentence is wrong. Everything I write eventually I read out loud, which keeps me, I feel, then always speaking to el pueblo, to just people.
CHERRIE MORAGA: My first play, "Giving up the Ghost" came out and I was living in New York. And I applied for María Irene Fornes's-- who's an incredible Cuban-American playwright. She had a playwright's workshop at INTAR Theater in New York City.
And kind of in a long shot, I threw my play in, which was so not a play because it was all these-- it was a play but it's all, basically, these monologues. It's a play of monologues. And she accepted it for me to be in this workshop with her, which is like a six-month training thing. And you'd meet three times a week for six months. And they paid you, if you can imagine that world.
But she was an amazing teacher. And what I always say about Maria Irene Fornés is that I would never have been a playwright had it not been for her because she allowed me to be a poet on stage. She didn't-- if you came in there with a plotline, she'd throw you out of the class. You had to find your play. You had to discover it, like with a poet's heart, kind of.
And it was like a marriage made in heaven. I mean, I just-- she made all the difference for me to continue as a playwright, and really impacted how I would teach. I, too, throw them out of the classroom if they come in with a progressive plotline.
I teach playwright in the same way that you're there to find. Because your unconscious is so much smarter than your intellect, if you would allow-- if you can trick it to come out. And she would have all these tricks.
CHERRÍE MORAGA: Coming out in my 20s, it was also the time of a kind of burgeoning feminist movement, which gave a sort of political framework for understanding the love of women. You know, I don't think that you have to be a feminist in any way to be a lesbian. But for my part, it sort of justified it a little bit, you know?
But more important, you know, what I really began to do is to look back on those years of enormous oppression, enormous internalized oppression around my fear of being queer and my self-hatred of being queer. If a nine year old or 10 year old thinks that they have the devil in them, you know-- this was not coming from my mother. This was coming from my church, you know? But what was coming through as a woman-- and this is from the culture at large, but also had its own sort of twist to it in terms of Mexican culture-- that my desire as a woman, even if it was to desire a man, was not allowed me.
So it began to-- I just started, began to make all these connections about really looking at my past and seeing how silence was a form of oppression and that I wasn't going to let the majority culture or the mainstream culture decide who I was. So all this began to kind of emerge, all of those kind of political connections, et cetera.
CHERRIE MORAGA: I had met Gloria Anzaldua who is the co-editor of "This Bridge Called My Back." We'd been working an organization called The Feminist Writers' Guild. The organization had some very, very well-known feminist writers in it-- it's in San Francisco. And overwhelmingly, the majority of them were white middle class women, which was the nature of the movement as a whole.
The women's movement as a whole, including the lesbian feminist movement, pretty much was not looking at issues of race and class at that time at all. So if you came in as a woman of color, even as a white woman of working class background, very quickly you'd understand that women's' issues were very much being defined by white middle class women. So Gloria and I-- actually Gloria had approached me about this idea. Why don't we write, you know, this book collecting articles about racism and the women's movement. Because we were encountering it everywhere.
So what happened is that question of racism and the women's movement became a very-- became one chapter in a much more interesting book, I think. Which had to really do with the issues that affect women of color in our diversity. Suddenly, all these people were you sending us work. And initially we only got work from academics, which was interesting. We turned all of them down. And we really-- we were able to get work by the Combahee River Collective, Barbara Smith's work. And Audrey Lorde's contribution really kind of put us on the map.
We also got a lot of rejections. You know, people that didn't want to associate, you know, with-- because there's a lot of lesbianism. Not everybody in the book is queer, though. And then we got Toni Cade Bambara's foreword, who's somebody whose black feminism I've admired so much in my life.
The importance of the book was that it was generated really out of a political moment. And I don't think you can manufacture those moments, you know. To say it was timely, it was more than timely. And it taught me such a big lesson about hunches.
CHERRIE MORAGA: I knew that I was queer-- and I think queer in the old way, not the politicized way now, not the progressive way, but queer, like different-- from the time I was very young.
The way we understand transgender now, I would have-- I was sort of a prototype of that. As a child, I was very identified with wanting to be a boy. And all things boys did interested me. And I walked like a boy, talked like a boy, fought like a boy, wanted things like boys.
My sister loved petticoats, the whole thing. And I'd have my cords on, you know, and just a little T-shirt and my little cords. And it was at 11, about 11, that I really understood too that I had desire for women. I knew it. I knew it physically. It wasn't like a theoretical thing. It's just I knew that's what I was attracted to.
And I figured, oh my god, I really am a boy, because boys are attracted to girls. And that really freaked me out. It had everything to do with Catholicism. So the way I translated it was that I was going to hell, that I was marked as somebody who had the devil in them.
I lived in complete terror all the time. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, three and four times a night, lock all the doors, go to sleep, pray the rosary. I'd get up, lock all the doors again.
And then I laugh about this because in somebody else, you know, middle-class, upper-middle-class families, that happened, oh, what's wrong with your kid? Working class families, it's like, what's wrong with you? You're acting crazy. Stop it. You know, like, you think about God too much.
And I ended up-- it kind of subsided again into high school and then came up again when I became sexually active, so when I just-- when I started just to be heterosexual. And the minute I started being heterosexual I realized that, oh, no, I'm queer. I'm a lesbian.
And again, all of those things that had come up as a child, I didn't associate them any longer with religion. But I associated with them that it would mean I would lose everything I loved in life, which was primarily my family.
So it took me several years. And when I say that they were traumatic, what I mean is that I really went really emotionally and kind of I guess you would say psycho-sexually. I wasn't in my body. I was gone. Like a frozen way in which you couldn't touch anybody because to be touched or to feel would mean that you'd have desire. And that was the area I couldn't go to.
It was a kind of [? incredible-- ?] I think people that don't really understand what homophobia is when it's played against yourself. It is the most brutal. No one can do to you what you can do to yourself.