In comparison to Cubans, Chicanas‘ position is much more indistinct. Living on the borderlands, Chicano community belongs to both and neither of the two sides of the border. Chicanos themselves speak about being trapped between two cultures, not accepted by either of them - Mexicans consider them to be traitors since they left the country and try to assimilate with Americans, and Americans on the other side never accepted them as an equal social group but cheap labor.
Sylvia Gonzales, a Chicana feminist, expresses the idea that Chicano men experienced the feelings of insignificance due to their Mexican history that has left them conquered. The natural reaction to such feelings is to wear masks that conceal those negative emotions and replace them with an adopted manliness through exaggerated nationalism and sexism (48). Therefore we can conclude that “machismo,” which is a notion for masculine hegemonic stereotypes, is an expression of power that arises from the feeling of powerlessness and subordination Chicano males feel in the dominant society. Gonzales states that:
By doing so, however, he seals in concrete the one mask he is unable to shed, the shame of his past and present, the mask of the macho. He exchanges the shame and anger of the Indian warrior, defeated by the foreign god on horseback, for the humility of a meek servant of the Catholic Church. He is at one time the conqueror and the conquered. He has internalized the image of the conqueror and while he is also the conquered, he seeks reconciliation with himself as both oppressor and oppressed (49).
Such a diminished power Chicanos suffer from actually reflects on the Chicana women and forces them to live in passivity and submission. The Chicana’s submissive role and passivity is not what she chooses for herself, but a condition imposed on her by the Chicano male’s subordination by the mainstream and hegemonic culture. This way Chicanas become victimized by both their husbands and the mainstream society . In other words, they can be viewed as doubly colonized since they have been over powered and subordinated by both white and brown men.
Since the beginning of feminist movement in 60s Chicanas have been attempting to combat above mentioned discrimination factors caused by their race, national origin and gender in order to retrieve a fair position in their world. As we could see earlier in this thesis, in the poetry by Lorna Dee Cervantes, Chicanas managed to revolt against their traditional role as servant and sex objects, and slaves of their lord and master. Readers are able to observe Chicanas‘ changing self-image and their desire for new identity. Poniatowska in her lecture presents the achievements Chicanas have made in their fight for liberation and stands it as a message for other women in the world who still encounter unfair treatment: “To know that we can be greater than our bodies, that we can go further than our limits, that we can overflow ourselves, are lessons that Chicanas have taught us with their life and literature.” (Poniatowska, 1996)
6.5Cisneros: virgin vs. prostitute
As mentioned earlier, Mexicans had created two female archetypes in literature - women were depicted either as idealized icons of virginal wife-mothers or sexual symbols. Later on Chicana writers in their attempt to overcome these restrictive and the only public models for Chicanas started to present their female characters in more complex view. In the text below I am going to analyze Sandra Cisneros’ work and the way she deals with this theme.
Cisneros herself denies these traditional roles associated with womanhood in both her life and works. Any time she introduces herself she does not forget to remind that “….she is nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife”. Similarly in her works she, by the means of her characters, points out unfair parting of the world and the necessity to create a new space outside the common social boundaries set by patriarchal system.
Her attitude is clearly reflected in several stories in Women Hollering Creek; the most interesting from stylistic point of view is “Little Miracles, Kept Promises”. The story revolts against black-and- white classification which seemed to be settled in Chicanas portrayal. Cisneros here denies strict classification of women as virgins or sexual symbols and attempts for more complex vision. The story takes form of notes to the Virgin and other saints left at a shrine. The notes ranges from requests of all kind, like money, love or health, to grateful thanks for help or petty complains. The last note is written by a young woman, Chayo, who named the challenges of being a modern Chicana.
Chayo had been criticized by her mother for cutting her hair, spending time alone and becoming a painter. She defined herself as “a woman straddling both worlds” but in the same time she was accused of betrayal her Mexican heritage by breaking out of the role that is defined for women - ”Miss High-and-Mighty. Miss Thinks-She’s-Too-Good-for-Us. Acting like a white girl. Malinche.” We learn about Chayo’s inner struggles to identify herself in terms of religious icons. Chayo associated the person of the Virgin with oppressions Chicanas have to encounter: „Couldn’t look at you without blaming you for all the pain my mother and her mother and all our mothers have put up with in the name of God.”(127) We learn that primary reason for Chayo to visit the shrine was to thank that she was not pregnant. Just later on in her note we learn about her desire to expresses her own sexuality without the threat of being excluded from the society for improper behavior: “I wanted you bare-breasted, snakes in your hands. I wanted you leaping and somersaulting the backs of bulls. I wanted you swallowing raw hearts and rattling volcanic ash.” (127) She said, she had denied the Virgin mother for a long time as a passionless character. It was not before she discovered the church at Tepeyac and mother Tonantzín6 when she was able to understand and accept her own ancestors: “…when I recognized you as Tonantzín…I wasn’t ashamed, then, to be my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s granddaughter, my ancestors’ child.” Further she concludes: “When I could see you in all your facets, … could love you, and, finally, learn to love me.” (128) Cisneros suggests that to reconcile one’s roots is a vital step to accept your own self as it is and to start to love yourself.
The theme of self-love is a crucial element in Chicanas’ conception of identity, as we can see in Chayo’s case: in the end, she was able to merge the power of both religious symbols and thus negotiate her position in each of the culture. She is able to see the transition from Aztec serpent goddess to Guadalope, which allowed her both Catholic belief and in the same time it provided the goddess with snakes in her hands as a symbol of feminine power and passion. She started to be able to see the strength of that image - it was only then, when she was able to admit the power of previous generations, when she claimed: ”it made me think that maybe there is power in my mother's patience, strength in my grandmother's endurance.” (128) In Chayo’s case we can observe the process of growing up to self-confident mature woman who is proud of herself to be a Chicana.
Although strong catholic traditions are generally considered as one of the reinforcing factor for patriarchal system (see chapter 3.1.3), Cisneros respects the importance of the Virgin of Guadelupe as the most powerful religious icon in Chicano psyche. Her power is rooted se deep in peoples’ minds, that they believe in her magical skills and the ability to change their lives. However, such blind faith might lead to certain passivity of individuals and so called bandwagon effect. As we can see in example of Chayo, she was labeled as a traitor, or Malinche which is the synonym for “the bad girl”, just because her life ambitions did not fit the generally accepted rules.
Contrary, Cuban women appear in much more straightforward position in respect to public/religious icons. Cubans generally do not seem to grope in vacuum between two worlds to seek their own identity. They were not stuck anywhere in between and the borders among each ideology are clearly settled. Women in García’s novel are taken in different streams acknowledging different idols: Celia, the communist and fervent supporter of Castro’s regime does not profess any religion. Instead, she adores El Líder , his photo on her bed-side table even shade the photo of her husband. “Felica’s mother discouraged her devotion for the gods. Celia had only vague notions about spiritual possession ….Celia revered Le Líder and wanted Felicia to give herself entirely to the revolution, believing that this alone would save her daughter.” (Herminia,186). Celia’s two daughters were growing up in the air of Catholicism. While Lourdes remain loyal to it, Felicia, after nuns refused to let her choose Sebastian as her confirmation name, finally refused the Catholic belief and she retreated to santería7.
In this chapter I have examined the role of religious, political and historical icons in Chicana and Cuban society. I managed to prove the original hypothesis about traditional models within the Catholic Church and their weakening impact to women’s position in the society. To simplify the impact of religion to female identity, we might claim that the weaker position of Catholicism, the stronger position of women. That religion or any other ideology plays irreplaceable role in the process of seeking one’s identity is a fact. However, I do not find the significance so much in the kind of ideology overruling the community, but rather in permitted diversity. It seems the only strong cult to identify with as the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexican culture, causes more problems to people who do not fit “the standards”. Vice versa different treatment of femininity in each ideology in Cuba as well as mere existence of alternatives contribute to higher awareness of one’s own qualities and priorities in life and enables individuals to accept their deal of responsibility for their own lives.
6.5.1Domestic vs. public
Since we can hardly find any secular model to follow in public sphere, neither to diminish the impact of religious at the moment, Cisneros suggests the way to re-creation new female model through domestic field, perceived as a place of women’s resistance to challenge the patriarchal stereotypes. In her interview Sandra Cisneros recalled:
I have lived in the barrio, but I discovered later on in looking at works by my contemporaries that they write about the barrio as a colorful, Sesame Street –like, funky neighborhood. To me the barrio was a repressive community. I found it frightening and very terrifying for a woman. The future for women in the barrio is not a wonderful one. You don’t wander around these “mean streets.” You stay at home. If you do have to get somewhere, you take your life in your hands. (Satz,13)
Although barrio might seem to be distant from the theme of gender or ethnicity, it deserves to have its place here for several reasons. First, the term itself refers to lower-class neighborhoods with largely Spanish-speaking residents, it is basically used as Latino equivalent of a "ghetto", and it usually implies high level of poverty in such a community. Secondly, Hispanic origin alone often pre-determinates the person to life in such a barrio.
Now, let’s observe the process of re-creation new female identity through domestic field in Cisneros’ novel The House on Mango Street. The protagonist was not seeking a role in the men’s public sphere, but rather she tried to create her own space at home, taking pro-active approach and thus become an autonomous human being.
Esperanza, the central protagonist of The House on Mango Street expressed her desire to have a place to call home. As a young girl she suggested that barrio might be a place to live but it cannot comfort their inhabitants neither to provide the feeling of real home. Esperanza was aware of disconsolate situation and even then she was planning better future for herself. “I knew then, I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn’t it. The house on Mango Street isn’t it. For the time being, Mama said. Temporary, said Papa. But I know how things go.” (5) Despite of her childish perspective she was realistic enough to understand that in her childhood she would never have a real home with her own room. When Esperanza grew teenager she started to question and revolt predestined stereotypes of her mother. She called herself “ugly daughter, the one nobody comes for”, and she started her little game for independence: “I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”(89) The idea to attempt for new model of behavior within the family seems ingenious. Its simplicity and discreetness might encourage ordinary women to follow. Moreover it represents one of those little steps leading to gradual victory in women’s fight for liberation.
To confirm that argument, Esperanza was finally able to rise above the misery and created for herself “a house all my own…quiet as snow, a space for myself to go.”(108) The poem itself sounds as a glory of female power, an optimistic message for future generations signaling the shift to heterogeneous society. House does not represent confined space for women any longer but rather the place to re-create female identity which enables them to obtain their own autonomy, and thus reconstruct their perceiving of self in both private and public lives.