Conference Paper Manuscript
MLA 2013 (Boston, MA, January 3-6)
Chicana Feminism in Process: Recovery, Survival, and Transformation
in Ana Castillo’s So Far from God
This presentation is part of research in progress. Most of the source material has been substantially condensed and therefore is a representation of a larger body of source material.
Mexican American women’s cuentos recorded and archived by Annette Hesch Thorp and Lou Sage Batchen for the New Mexico Federal Writers Project Administration (NMFWP) are part of the folk base of Chicana cultural production, which runs both parallel and in counter-discursive ways to the Mexican American corrido, which Ramon Saldívar argues is “the folk base of Chicano literature.”1 Tales of curanderas and brujas in the NMFWP indicate the referential codes associated with indigeneity within New Mexico Hispanic (term used to refer to certain groups of New Mexican Spanish speaking citizens) communities. As such they perform what Norma Alarcón refers to as “a pivotal indigenous portion of the mestiza past” which “may represent a collective female experience” (“Tracks” 251). I argue here that the cuentos of curanderas and brujas from the NMFWP are part of this “pivotal indigenous portion of the mestiza past” that informs a contemporary Chicana fronterista experience. Furthermore, Ana Castillo’s critical text Massacre of the Dreamers was directly followed by her novel So Far from God, which Castillo researched while living in New Mexico. It can be reasonably concluded that Castillo’s theories and research on the Mexic American woman living in the U.S. in Massacre of the Dreamers became a narratological praxis for her vision of New Mexico’s Chicana/xicanista conscientización in So Far from God.
The New Mexico Federal Writers Project Administration of the 1930s and 1940s assigned Annette Hesch Thorp and Lou Sage Batchen to document oral Spanish language literary traditions, including folk tales, oral history, legends, and anecdotes of daily life (Griesbach 97). Though the overarching emphasis of the NMFWP was to promote tourism and create a national culture during the Great Depression, Thorp’s and Batchen’s archives were, as Daniel Griesbach notes, an opportunity for Hispanic women narrators to reflect on U.S. territorial conquests, their ethnic and cultural difference from U.S. nationalism, “tradition and modernity, and the fate of the Hispanic village in changing times” (97). One such document, recorded on Dec. 17, 1940 by Thorp noted that storytelling was a common practice and a much anticipated event at night. Stories were typically told by a grandmother or elder woman in the community. These stories were mostly religious in nature and involved miracles performed by santos (saints), and brujas (witches) and those they bewitched. Curanderas, on the other hand, were narrated by historical accounts of their importance for the physical and spiritual well-being of communities. These accounts of curanderas and brujas from the 19th and early 20th centuries were part of a distinct New Mexico cultural episteme, which Michel Foucault states is “‘a metasemiotics of culture’” which is “‘the attitude adopted by a socio-cultural community with respect to its own signs’” (qtd. in Orr 813).
The stories of both curanderas and brujas in Robolledo and Márquez’s anthology, Women’s Tales from the New Mexico WPA: La Diablo a Pie, are anthologized for their gendered contributions to Chicano/a cultural episteme. That is, these tales are common metasemiotic tropes in New Mexico that point to early 20th century New Mexico women’s quotidian philosophies of what it meant to be given the identity of curandera and bruja. As Melissa Pabón notes,
The practice of curanderismo is most often defined as a Mexican folk healing tradition with a history that is shared with other Latin American cultures. It is practiced in México and in Mexican American communities in the United States as well (Trotter, 2001). The word “curanderismo” refers to the process of healing [(Castro, 2000, p. 83)] and is derived from the Spanish verb “curar,”which means ‘to heal’. Curanderismo is distinct from modern Western medicine and psychology in its holistic approach to healing the mind and the body…The healing process itself uses a variety of ‘spiritual routines’ [(Castro, 2000, p. 83)] as well as the use of herbs and folk remedies.” (Pabón 258)
In contrast, the bruja, or witch, was represented in the NMFWP as a maligned figure who put curses on men and women, who were then cast as embrujada, bewitched. Brujas were also shape shifters who turned into owls and other animals, to escape the retribution of those seeking justice for perceived maladies.
While many NMFWP tales from Robolledo and Márquez’s anthology concerned themselves with U.S. imperialism, modernity, and the fate of Mexican American traditions in the early 20th century, the tropes of the curandera and bruja remained relatively static as forms of cultural knowledge. Their roles were diametrically opposed: the curandera was most often revered and the bruja was maligned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the creative and intellectual reconfiguration of the cultural signs of curandera and bruja became part of Chicana cultural and political sites of struggle, constituting a paradigmatic shift in Chicana epistemic, cultural, and subjective/intersubjective consciousness, shifts in conceptualizations that Norma Alarcón argues are “the reappropriation of the native woman on Chicana feminist terms” which “marked one of the first assaults on male-centered cultural nationalism” (“Tracks” 251). Thus, the historical and traditional cultural epistemes and tropes that formed a dyad of healer/maligned when describing the curandera/bruja, have been disentangled from male-centered cultural semiosis and redefined; hence the arrival of a Chicana feminist cultural semiosis for the arrival of a Chicana transformative subjectivity: Anzaldúan “mestiza consciousness.” Or, more specifically for So Far from God’s female characters: Castillo’s xicanista conscientización.
Curanderas are still an active part of the Mexican and Mexican American communities, especially in the U.S. Southwest. According to a 1995 study by S.L. Applewhite, many elderly Mexican Americans, whether in rural or urban areas, continue to seek the skills of a curandera when there are “situations in which modern healthcare was unsatisfactory or ineffective” (qtd. in Pabón 260). Castillo also remarks that curanderas are not only found in the U.S. Southwest, but also in other locations, including high urban areas, particularly Chicago, where her grandmother was a curandera for her community (Milligan 27). The bruja, by comparison, remains a threat to her community. Castillo’s Massacre of the Dreamers, informs us that “a bruja is someone to hate to the point of killing,” a cultural sign recounted in Thorp’s recording, “Fabiana: Witch Story,” in which a man forgave Fabiana for making his wife embrujada, but then killed Fabiana for harming his cows (Robolledo and Márquez 73-74). One cannot miss the ironic parody of the traditional New Mexico bruja trope: it comments on male attitudes toward women by relegating their substantive value to a position inferior to livestock.
Castillo’s work is partly in activism for reclaiming the figures of the curandera and bruja. In Massacre of the Dreamers, Castillo notes that Chicana writers “have become excavators of our common culture, mining legends, folklore, and myths for our own metaphors” (166). Indeed, Castillo redefines the curandera and bruja from traditional Mexican American oral traditions with a more nuanced definition for both, noting that a curandera is actually a bruja when the curandera is a spiritual and psychic healer, such as her character Caridad in So Far from God, while doña Felicia is a healer of physical ailments (Massacre 157). The chapter, which begins with “On the Subject of Doña Felicia’s Remedios,” establishes Castillo’s resignification of curanderas and brujas establishing a continuity between early 20th century New Mexico women’s oral narratives and late 20th century Chicana literary texts (So Far 59).
At first glance, the character doña Felicia is a vehicle for historiographic metafiction, to borrow from Linda Hutcheon, who defines her term as presenting “historical events and personages.”2 However, Doña Felicia, symbolizes the mestiza who has been left out of Western history, and a such, her character cannot fully represent a postmodern historiographic metafiction. On closer analysis, what occurs is a characterization symbolic of the plurality of mestiza tropes from New Mexico’s oral traditions into contemporary periodization.
To discuss this in terms of So Far from God’s intertextuality with women’s cuentos from the NMFWP, I’d like to provides a cross-section of several stories. For example, Cesaria Gallegos in Thorp’s NMFWP recording, is presented as a sacred old woman who married very young and had two children. Her daughter died young from small pox, but her son took care of her when she got older. She had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She knew how to heal herself and others from the plants found in the natural environment. Then there is Tita, who worked as a maid for Americanos and then as a housekeeper for a couple on their ranchita. She too knew how to gather and prepare herbs and flowers and other plants to heal the sick and infirmed. She married and had many children, but they all died when small. In the story “Vicenta” a woman named Alvina broke with custom and went with ciboleros to hunt for food and raid Indian camps. And there is the story “Felicia the Bruja.” Felicia was distrusted by her neighbors because she was a bruja, but a young girl named Julianita frequently visited her house to learn the ways of brujas. Felicia had an Indian curse put on Julianita, but it failed. Julianita had become a bruja by then and tricked her friend Teresa and sent a meal to her husband, but was then tricked by Teresa in a return gift of food, and Julianita died a slow death. Intermingled with these tales from Thorp’s and Batchen’s recordings, are narratives recounting injustices that span from Spain’s colonial rule of New Mexico territories to fateful meetings with Americanos involving, among other things, mining excavations and salt extraction industries. I draw parallels here in thematics, but the tropes of curandera and bruja have been recomposed, both from orality to textuality (twice, counting the transcriptions of non-Spanish speaking recorders such as Thorp and Batchen and counting the retranscriptions to written literature). If these recorded stories are overlayed on So Far from God’s character doña Felicia, she becomes a figural composite, symbolizing the mestiza who is a testimony to 20th century political, historical, and cultural continuities of indigeneous knowledges and practices. Castillo achieves this through the retranscription of orality into written narrative, while also signifying the mestiza as a recovered voice from subalternity and exclusion.
Doña Felicia, then, signifies all New Mexico mestizas in the past and present, as revered spiritual healers, as tragic heroines, and often as women who are fatefully intertwined with U.S. imperialism and colonialism and their many manifestations, regionally, hemispherically, and internationally. This interpretive thread and continuity from early 20th century New Mexican cuentos is exemplified in Doña Felicia’s recounting of her many loves, her children living and dead, her healing work and her acquiescance to U.S. imperialist militarizations, and travels; however, her apprentice, Caridad, represents the recomposition of the oral expression of the bruja trope, who is gifted in psychic and spiritual healings. Caridad is eventually revered through many parts of New Mexico, though aberrantly so in the form of the character Francisco el Penitente.
From here an analysis of how bilingual registers and textual performativity in So Far from God identify the narrative within New Mexico as a specific geo-historical location with its own type of border thinking produced by its own fronterista cultural episteme. In the sub-section to the chapter on Doña Felicia, titled, “A Brief Sampling of Doña Felicia’s Remedies,” Doña Felicia speaks directly to an extant listener/audience, presumed to be Caridad. Doña Felicia is instructing Caridad on how to perform healing remedies, since the narrator chronicles Caridad’s and Doña Felicia’s morning schedules directly prior to this section; however, the title also suggests that she is speaking directly to readers, who may also want to learn to be a curandera and/or bruja. This part of the novel, like Fe’s skipped words when speaking, is highly performative. The narrative takes the form of strict dialogue in the imperative mood, and a canto (song, verse) is included in between Doña Felicia’s instructions, visually separated from the prose and in bilingual (Spanish and English) translation. For example, Doña Felicia says
First you must determine that it is empacho (indigestion, my translation) and not bilis (bile, my translation), which is related to the bladder and kidneys and not the intestines. You can do this in various ways. A gentle massage of the person’s belly is usually the fastest way. You feel around carefully, like this, using the index finger of each hand and when the patient feels a little pain, you usually will also feel something like a bolita (small ball, my translation) inside and there you will know is the obstruction. (65)
This passage, and the sub-section in its entirety, simulate orality. In Marta Weigle’s essay, “Women as Verbal Artists,” verbal art as performance necessarily involves the audience as active participants in the “evolving performer-audience interaction” and as such, audience members are involved in an intensity of experience as listeners. Weigle also remarks that this intense engagement between verbal artist and listener is one of competency and control because the verbal artist determines the flow of interaction (5). I would like to bring together Weigle’s gendered performance analysis and Ute Berns’ call for an interrelationship of performativity in narratives in order to shed light on Castillo’s simulation of orality and inclusion of bilingual texts in the section on Doña Felicia’s instructions. Doña Felicia is given authority to directly address a presupposed listener, Caridad, on the healing remedies found in their natural surroundings and the practices needed to prepare and apply them to her patients. Within this brief passage, there are textual cues that Doña Felicia is performing these instructions on a patient, noting, “you feel around carefully, like this.” It is a moment in narration in which readers sense that their own presence is in the role of listening in on an act of orality between Doña Felicia, an elder curandera and Caridad, her apprentice. The simulation of orality in written form also occurs in Native American literature, which as James Flavin notes, serves to remind readers that the novel is engaging in a representation of what occurs during “traditional Native American songs and poems to capture in written form a sense of oral performance” (2). Castillo’s culturally contextualized narrative, both thematically and linguistically, engages readers in a performativity reserved for orality, but expressed textually; therefore, the performative moment in the text is mestiza-centered and marks a shift for readers, from thinking in Eurocentric linguistic codes to thinking in Chicana/xicanista codes.
In addition, this passage from Castillo’s novel incorporates bilinguality, with both dialogue and cantos. The presence of more than one language, especially a language that has a major signifying function in the novel, marks the breaks and gaps cultural semioticians note occur in cultural episteme and signs, in order to create altered forms of cultural knowledges and codes (Orr 813). Empacho, bilis, and bolita signify from a different cultural location than English. They are signs without a readily available visual or textual referent. For readers what occurs are moments of mediation and negotiation in the breaks and gaps created by narratological performativity and bilinguality.
This is a literary representation of Walter Mignolo’s concept of border thinking, the act of describing one’s reality from both sides of the border from within the exteriority of the modern world system (i.e., from borderlands) (17-18). The process of transformation occurs for both characters and readers, once readers engage with the narrative’s acts of recovery and continuance of oral traditions, narratological performativity, and the breaks and gaps that occur when reading bilingual and/or multilingual passages, the process of transformation occurs for characters and the potential for cross-cultural understanding occurs in readers.
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Alarcón, Norma. “Chicana Feminism: In the Tracks of “the” Native Woman.” Between
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Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, and Minoo Moallem. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.
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1 Griesbach attributes the Mexican American indita’s refrain as a folk base for Chicana/o literature, remarking on its pre-twentieth century origins. See Griesbach, 99-101.
2 See Hutcheon.
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