Article Summaries Due–Submit summaries of two articles you found doing library research. Due 11/16.comparative american studies, Vol. 12 No. 3, September 2014, 205–17
Crying for Food: The Mexican Myths of
‘La Llorona’ and ‘The Hungry Woman’
in Cherríe L. Moraga
Juan Ráez Padilla
University of Jaén, Spain
The Mexican legend of ‘La Llorona’ (‘The Weeping Woman’), who drowned
her children out of revenge for being abandoned by her lover, and the Aztec
creation myth of ‘The Hungry Woman’ — crying constantly for food, with
mouths all around her body — have inspired Chicana writers in the symbolic representation of their own yearning, be it sexual, identity-building, or
anti-patriarchal. This essay seeks to lay the mythical groundwork within this
topic, as well as to illustrate with some particular examples the different
reappropriations of these myths in Cherríe L. Moraga, mainly in her play The
Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea (2001). With a view to opening up a past
‘that can provide a kind of road map to our future’ (Moraga, 2001: ix), these
examples of transgressive women will be deprived of the feminine colonial
passivity imbued by the dominant male discourse, and analysed as a complex, active, polyvalent mythological female corpus that integrates both life
and death, womb and grave. This hybrid approach is inherent to the Aztec
mythology on which Moraga relies in order to transcend Manichaeistic
resolutions and probe the social, political, and gender reasons leading a
hungry mother to commit infanticide.
keywords USA, Chicana literature, Cherríe L. Moraga, Aztec mythology, ‘The
Weeping Woman’, ‘The Hungry Woman’, food, corn, infanticide, anti-patriarchal
In the introduction to The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, the Chicana playwright and poet Cherríe L. Moraga explains that ‘In recent years, I’ve come to
understand myth as a [. . .] divine(d) gift, an opening into the past [. . .] that can
provide a kind of road map to our future’ (2001: ix). From this definition of myth
one can clearly understand that for Moraga, as for many other Chicana writers (Ana
Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Denise Chávez, Pat Mora, Mary
Helen Ponce, Alma Luz Villanueva, Helena María Viramontes, and Bernice Zamora
being among the most prominent, with Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa being the two
© W. S. Maney & Son Ltd 2014
DOI 10.1179/1477570014Z.00000000084
most well known of Chicana feminist theorists),1 the mythological past is a polyphonic narration that can be reinterpreted, reinstated, re-evaluated, or subverted in
the light of a given discourse. This proves, in the words of the French mythologist,
Pierre Brunel, ‘la force vivante du mythe’ [‘the living force of the myth’] (1988: 10
[my translation]), its resistance to die in stagnation. Myths are ‘simultaneously sacred
truths and symbolic metaphors, illuminating and mysterious, fiction and history, safeguarded and public, newly fashioned or of ancient origin, fantastical and quotidian;
and, they often escape the opposition of these binaries’ (Mayorga, 2001: 155). As a
strategy of resistance and subversion, then, Chicana writers have made use of Aztec
mythology as a pivotal element in their literary works in order to fight against their
‘double stigma’ (Madsen, 2000: 4) as dominated women within a dominated people.
Two reasons explain the adoption of this native mythology. First, by revisiting
their indigenous, pre-Columbian past, Chicana writers have built an identity of their
own in which the (re)appropriation of the Aztec myth of Aztlán plays an important
role. Located somewhere in what is now the US southwest, Aztlán — the lost homeland of the Aztecs — turns into an empowering geo-political symbol in their borderland status as Americans of Mexican ascendancy. As Anaya and Lomelí argue, Aztlán
becomes ‘a collective symbol by which to recover the past that had been wrestled
away from the inhabitants of Aztlán through the multiple conquests of the area’
(1989: 1). This would answer to their oppression as citizens of a dominated people,
so that ‘Mexican-descended peoples of the US would not be “illegal aliens” in US held
hands, but rather, the land’s original indigenous inhabitants’ (Mayorga, 2001: 157),
in a desire to detach themselves from the North American colonizing history and
associate themselves with the original indigenous people already living there. Cherríe
Moraga defines Chicano identity in the following way:
I call myself a Chicana writer. Not a Mexican-American writer, not a Hispanic writer,
not a half-breed writer. To be a Chicana is not merely to name one’s racial/cultural identity, but also to name a politic, a politic that refuses assimilation into the US mainstream.
It acknowledges our mestizaje-Indian, Spanish, and Africano. (1993: 56)
Consequently, one should not forget that the term Chicano implies ‘the mix of
Mexican, native (Aztec, Mayan), and European cultural heritage that comprises the
Chicano as mestizo, as a person of mixed cultural ancestry’ (Madsen, 2000: 7). The
following lines by Gloria Anzaldúa brilliantly encapsulate this racial and historical
intermingling: ‘This land was Mexican once, / was Indian always / and is. / And will
be again’ (1987: 3). As a matter of fact, pre-Columbian Mesoamerican myths serve,
from a Westernized point of view, ‘as a way to reignite Chicana/o collective consciousness’ (Mayorga, 2001: 155), since for Chicanos/as ‘the post-Columbian past
is experienced as a legacy of genocide, dispossession, and deracination’ (Madsen,
2000: 13).
Second, and most importantly — as an answer to their oppression as women
within a patriarchal society — the Aztec mythology contains inspiring examples
of ambivalent women who transgress their culture in order to fight for their selfassertion and make themselves heard. One of them is La Malinche, or Malintzin
Tenepal, an Indian girl from a noble Aztec family who became courtesan to Hernán
Cortés — there are doubts ‘whether she was raped or seduced or gave herself willingly’ (Madsen, 2000: 7) — when the Spanish invaded Mexico, and who became her
translator, interpreter, and mistress. And there is also ‘La Llorona’ — ‘The Weeping
Woman’ — who drowned her children out of revenge for being abandoned by her
lover. She is portrayed wearing a white dress and wailing at night regretting the loss
of her children. Both of them, paradoxical figures that symbolize both maternal
betrayal and maternal resistance (Castello Branco de Oliveira, 2005: 4), constitute the
inspiring force of Chicana writers. On the one hand, La Malinche is considered
a traitor by the Mexican people — she is referred to as la Chingada (‘the fucked
one’) — because she joined the Spanish colonizers and acted from self-interest; while,
on the other hand, she is the mother of a new race, not a victim or selfish figure
(according to Chicanas), but a woman who made her choice and avoided the annihilation of innumerable indigenous tribes in Mexico. Writers such as Ana Castillo,
Sandra Cisneros, and Alma Luz Villanueva use the figure of La Malinche ‘to represent
a feminist revision of inherited Chicano/a gender roles’ (Madsen, 2000: 8). Likewise,
the infanticide of La Llorona, closely connected with the figure of La Malinche and
the context of the Spanish invasion in one version of the myth (cf. Bierhorst, 1984:
129–30), has been analysed by Chicana writers as an act of maternal resistance.
Malintzin is herself The Weeping Woman, killing the boy she had with Cortés
because he wanted to take him to Spain. It has been argued that Indian mothers
preferred to kill their own children when they were to be given to the colonizers’
wives, who found them very beautiful (Castello Branco de Oliveira, 2005: 4). These
are examples of a distinctive feminine ‘ethnic/racial voice’ through literary themes
and imagery ‘reworked so that elements of a racial cultural tradition become expressive of a feminist voice instead of expressing traditional patriarchal Mexican values’
(Madsen, 2000: 1).
Nonetheless, the myths and mythological women involved in the Spanish and
North American invasions, obviously imbued by the dominant male discourse, also
have been interpreted as texts of feminine colonial passivity. ‘Guadalupe’, claims
Gloria Anzaldúa (1987: 31), ‘to make us docile and enduring, la Chingada to make
us ashamed of our Indian side, and la Llorona to make us long-suffering people’. But
as Zdeňka Kalnická argues about the controversial representation of earth as a passive feminine entity in traditional Western symbolism, ‘you can see your past from
different perspectives and you can try to connect yourself with different “pasts”, for
example, with either a patriarchal or a matriarchal one’ (2001: 99). Thus, it has been
argued that the strong symbolic link between earth and woman does not derive from
her passivity (cf. Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1996: 9, 331, 345; Cirlot, 2001: 74, 134,
186), but, on the contrary, from the fact that in rural societies women were the first
to labour the earth. It was women who first planted, ploughed, and watered it, who
put in practice the fertility rites, which is why, sustains Marzenna Jakubczak, women
have been identified as human representations of the telluric mother (2001: 29–30). It
is precisely from this different perspective that Chicana writers have unearthed Aztec
female legendary figures as complex, active, polyvalent mythological women who
integrate both life and death, womb and grave, in the same way as the Aztec goddess
Coatlicue: she was a loving mother (the Tonantsi, or ‘Our Lady Mother’), but also
the insatiable monster that devoured everything that lived. This kind of analysis,
in Madsen’s words (2000: 9), is ‘the urgent work of Chicana feminism: liberating
feminine consciousness from the invisible shackles of inherited definitions and
stereotypes’ by embracing a mestiza consciousness, as Anzaldúa put it, in which:
[La mestiza] reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths. She
adopts new perspectives toward the dark-skinned, women and queers. She strengthens her
tolerance (and intolerance) for ambiguity. She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to new ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the
familiar. Deconstruct, construct. (1987: 82)
The anthropophagical imagery at the base of Aztec symbology is also present in the
myth of The Hungry Woman, whose hunger represents for Chicana writers an
empowering symbol of their own yearning:
In the place where the spirits live, there was once a woman who cried constantly for food.
She had mouths in her wrists, mouths in her elbows, and mouths in her ankles and
knees [. . .] Then to comfort the poor woman [the spirits] flew down and began to make
grass and flowers out of her skin. From her hair they made forests, from her eyes, pools
and springs, from her shoulders, mountains, and from her nose, valleys. At last she will
be satisfied, they thought. But just as before, her mouths were everywhere, biting and
moaning [. . .] opening and snapping shut, but they [were] never filled. Sometimes at
night, when the wind flows, you can hear her crying for food. (Bierhorst, 1984: 23–25)
Cherríe Moraga’s aforementioned play The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea
(2001) makes use of these mythological women — closely interwoven in a similar
pattern of motherhood, sacrifice, and pain — as figures of transgression. In the play,
four clearly distinguishable myths interact in a drama of ‘hunger for empowerment’
(Mayorga, 2001: 156): the Greek myth of Medea, who killed her sons in revenge for
Jason’s betrayal (he abandons her after the enchantress helps him to win different
legendary battles); the Mexican legend of La Llorona; the pre-Columbian myth of
the dismemberment of the moon deity Coyolxauhqui; and the previously mentioned
Aztec creation myth of The Hungry Woman. For Moraga, these women’s anguish is
one and the same, the anguish of all Chicana women, the everlasting anguish present
in her work under different forms:
Who else other than La Llorona could this [‘The Hungry Woman’] be? It is always La
Llorona’s cries we mistake for the wind, but maybe she’s not crying for her children.
Maybe she’s crying for food, sustenance. Maybe que tiene hambre la mujer [‘the woman
is hungry’]. And at last, upon encountering this myth — this pre-capitalist, pre-catholic
mito [‘myth’] — my jornada [‘my working day’] began to make sense. This is the original
Llorona y tiene mucha hambre [‘and she is very hungry’]. I realized that she has been the
subject of my work all along, from my earliest writings, my earliest feminism. She is the
story that has never been told truly, the story of that hungry Mexican woman who is
called puta/bruja/jota/loca [‘whore/witch/homosexual/mad’] because she refuses to forget
that her half-life is not a natural-born fact. (2000: 146–47)
The main characters in the play are Medea, a midwife and curandera [‘healer’] in her
late forties; Luna, Medea’s lover in her late thirties, a stone mason and clay sculptor;
Chac-Mool, Medea’s thirteen-year-old son; Jasón, Chac-Mool’s father; and Mama
Sal, Medea’s ageing grandmother, in her eighties. The play takes place in an imagined
future in the early part of the second decade of the twenty-first century, where an
ethnic civil war has balkanized about half of the USA into several smaller nations
of people. It unfolds within four different spaces: Aztlán, a patriarchally structured
Chicano country; Gringolandia, an Anglo country; Phoenix, Arizona, now called
Tamoanchán, a sort of borderline ghetto between Aztlán and Gringolandia populated by queer counter-revolutionaries who did not conform to the heteronormative
hierarchies between male and female in Aztlán; and a mythical realm inhabited by
a spirit chorus of Aztec warrior mothers — the Cihuatateo — who have died in
childbirth. Basically, the play’s story and structure follows the Euripidean tragedy of
Medea. Having fought hard as a rebel to attain the independence of Aztlán, Medea
is forced to exile with her son to Phoenix, after having been discovered in an illegal
lesbian relationship with Luna, who also accompanies Medea in her forced exile.
They nurture a seven-year turbulent love relationship in which jealousy, incompleteness, and perennial hunger for something the protagonists do not fully recognize
coexist with tender and uncontrollable passion. The conflict between the two female
protagonists explodes when Jasón starts legal proceedings to have his son back, for
he needs him in order to have the ‘blood quantum’ (Moraga, 2001: 72) that may
guarantee his native claim on some land in Aztlán. Not in vain, as Perez explains,
‘Medea’s husband’s name, Jasón, an Anglo-sounding name “Hispanicized” through
the addition of an accent mark, is meant to reflect his European ancestry and his
lack of any Native claim to power through direct bloodlines’ (2008: 100). Hence his
marriage with Medea, of Yaqui ancestry,2 and his determination to gain custody of
his mestizo son. Torn between her love for Chac-Mool and her love for Luna,
initially Medea accepts Jasón’s proposal to have both mother and son back, although
Jason’s insistence that she publicly disavows her lesbian relationship leads her not to
let her son go. In the end, and in order to prevent his indoctrination into Aztlán’s
misogyny and machismo, she kills her son with a poisonous beverage. She is incarcerated in a psychiatric prison and commits suicide by drinking the same beverage that
killed her son, who appears as a ghost to relieve his mother’s pain by making her
drink from the lethal beverage — made from the herbs that Luna had previously left
in the prison ward.
The denial of the body is a yoke in patriarchal society from which Chicana feminism endeavours to liberate itself. Consequently, sexuality plays an essential role in
the rebellion against Chicano patriarchy. Moreover, ‘for the lesbian of color, the
ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual
behavior. She goes against two moral prohibitions: sexuality and homosexuality’
(Anzaldúa, 1987: 19). The issue of being a Chicana lesbian is an especially controversial one. As Nancy Saporta Sternbach argues in her essay ‘A Deep Racial Memory of
Love: The Chicana Feminism of Cherríe Moraga’: ‘[since she’s] viewed as an agent
of the Anglos, the Chicana lesbian is seen as an aberration, someone who has unfortunately caught his disease’ (1989: 57). Hence, the reaffirmation of homosexuality, as
Medea does in opposition to Jasón, becomes a symbol of resistance to patriarchy: ‘as
Chicanas, we grow up defined, and subsequently confined, in a male context: daddy’s
girl, some guy’s sister, girlfriend, wife or mother. By being lesbians, we refuse to need
a man to form our own identities as women. This constitutes a “rebellion” many
Chicanas/os cannot handle’ (Trujillo, 1991: ix).
In the mythological interplay Medea appears as a living Coatlicue,3 Luna plays
Coyolxauhqui, and Chac-Mool4 — ‘the messenger between this world and the other’
in Aztec religion (Mayorga, 2001: 160) — is Huitzilopochtli. The mythological
representation — the dismembering of Coyolxauhqui — is staged in the prelude
of Act II. One of the warrior women, the Cihuatateo East, begins the mythological
A long time ago, before the Aztec war of the flowers, before war, Coatlicue, la mera
madre diosa [‘the mere mother goddess’], was sweeping on top of the mountain, Coatepec, when she encounters two delicate plumitas [‘feathers’]. She stuffs the feathers into
her apron, thinking later she might weave them into a cloth for her altar. But suddenly,
secretly, the feathers begin to gestate there by her womb, y de repente [‘and suddenly’],
Coatlicue, goddess of Creation and Destruction, becomes pregnant.
Now, Coatlicue es una anciana [‘is an old woman’], bien [‘well’] beyond the age of
fertility, so when her daughter, Coyolxauhqui, learns of the boy-to-be-born, traición
[‘treason’] is what she smells entre los cuatro vientos [‘among the four winds’]. (Moraga,
2001: 55)
Coyolxauhqui conspires to kill the Mother-god with The Four Hundred Stars,
but the newly born Aztec sun-god, Huitzilopochtli, learns about his sister’s plans
and chops her head off. ‘Y sus senos / las manos / las piernas / los dedos’ [‘And her
breasts / her hands / her legs / her fingers’] (Moraga, 2001: 56). Moraga herself has
overtly written about the feminist implications of this mythological episode:
As we feministas [‘feminists’] have interpreted the myth, Coyolxauhqui hopes to halt,
through the murder of her mother, the birth of the War God, Huitzilopotchli [sic.].
She is convinced that Huitzilopotchli’s birth will also mean the birth of slavery, human
sacrifice and imperialism (in short, patriarchy). She fails in her attempt and instead
is murdered and dismembered by her brother Huitzilopotchli and banished into the
darkness to become the moon. (2000: 147)
Luna, the moon, is in fact Medea’s lover in the play, whom she will be forced to leave
in order to protect — and finally kill — her son, who symbolizes the Aztec sun-god.
At the end of the play (after Medea kills her son), however, Moraga seems to move
away from the particularization of Huitzilopochtli as Chac-Mool — representing men
in a more general sense — and Medea embraces ‘La Luna, la hija rebelde’ [‘The
Moon, the rebellious daughter’] (2001: 92) as her new goddess, rejecting Coatlicue,
who did not do anything to prevent the male sun-god from killing and dismembering
her sister, the female moon-goddess:
What crime do I commit now, Mamá [‘Mum’]?
To choose the daughter over the son?
You betrayed us, Madre [‘Mother’] Coatlicue.
You, anciana [‘old woman’], you who birthed the God of War.
His Aztec name sours upon my lips,
As the name of the son
of the woman who gave me birth.
My mother did not stop my brother’s hand
from reaching into my virgin bed.
Nor did you hold back the sword
that severed your daughter’s head.
Coyolxauhqui, diosa de la luna [‘moon goddess’].
[Her arms stretch out to the full moon.]
Ahora [‘Now’], she is my god.
La Luna, la hija rebelde [‘The Moon, the rebellious daughter’].
Te rechazo, Madre [‘I reject you, Mother’].
MEDEA: ¡AY-Y-Y-Y! ¡MI HI-I-I-I-JO! [‘MY SON!’] (2001: 91–92)
This is the lament of The Weeping Woman. The first anticipatory signs of fratricide
can be found from very early in the play. In Act I, Scene II Medea explains: ‘I don’t
trust myself. I feel my hands as liquid as the river’ (Moraga, 2001: 18). As a matter
of fact, La Llorona is associated with water ‘once she drowns her victims’ (Castello
Branco de Oliveira, 2005: 4). In two of the versions of The Weeping Woman by
John Bierhorst water is a central symbol. This is the case of ‘The Prince and the
Seamstress’, who stabs her two sons once she learns the prince-father has left her
to marry a princess. ‘It is said that this woman still walks along the rivers at night,
crying, “Oh, my children!”’ (Bierhorst, 1984: 129). In ‘The Weeping Woman: Forever
Without Rest’, an insane woman throws her children ‘into the river’ (Bierhorst, 1984:
130). Water is not only an element of The Weeping Woman, but also of The Hungry
Woman, who was ‘dragged [. . .] down to the water’ (Bierhorst, 1984: 24) by the
spirits Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca in an attempt to satisfy her anger. The Hungry
Woman, in turn, is described by Bierhorst with the same serpent-like attributes as the
aforementioned Coatlicue, so that all these mythological women seem to interconnect
in a common hungry, fear-provoking entity:
‘They thought the earth was a goddess’, writes the early missionary Gerónimo de Mendieta, ‘and they pictured her as a froglike beast with bloody mouths in all her joints, and
they said that she ate and drank everything’. However, when she wailed in the night she
was imagined as a woman, often dressed in white and sometimes with a cradle strapped
to her back. In the Florentine Codex, the wailing woman appears as half woman and half
snake, a picture symbol for the word Cihuacoatl, or Snake Woman, one of the goddess’s
names. (1984: 133 [my emphasis])
With premonitory familiarity too, Chac-Mool explains in Act 1, Scene VI that the
moaning of La Llorona never really scared him:
MAMA SAL: No? Not even when you was a little esquincle [‘child’]?5
CHAC-MOOL: No, I felt sorry for her, not scared.
MAMA SAL: Pues a mí, me asustaba mucho de ella [‘Me I was very frightened of her’].
CHAC-MOOL: I remember hearing her out there in the canon when I was real little, right
before we left Aztlán. The wind would kick up ‘bout the same time every night. Her voice
was inside the wind. I’d hear my Mom get up, go check the windows and doors, then go
back to sleep. It sounded like the whole canyon was cryin’. [Pause] I felt like she was
telling me her side of the story, like I was the only one that heard it like that. (Moraga,
2001: 38)
Chac-Mool’s sympathetic attitude towards The Weeping Woman is of particular
relevance, since his own future murder will tell us precisely of that other side of the
story. Through infanticide Moraga rejects the imposed patterns of a patriarchy that
chains women within a passive role of living ‘inside the prison of [your] teeth’ (2001:
11). The author herself has explained elsewhere that ‘When La Llorona kills
her children, she is killing a male-defined Mexican motherhood that robs us of our
womanhood’ (2000: 146). Chicanas wander, as La Llorona, ‘not in search of our dead
children, but our lost selves, our lost sexuality, our lost spirituality, our lost sabiduría
[“wisdom”]’ (2000: 147). In their hunger, in their prison of teeth, their search for food
is a voracious desire which does not relieve or free, but mortifies and enslaves.
The insatiable nature of The Hungry Woman, on the other hand, is present both
in Medea’s maternal love for her son and her passionate, carnal love for Luna. As for
the former, the devoted mother explains:
It was true what Jasón claimed, that I was unfaithful to him. True, I was in the midst of
an insatiable love affair [. . .] Did it begin when my son first put his spoon-sized mouth
to my breast? Yes, there our union was consummated, there in the circle of his ruby
mouth. A ring of pure animal need taking hold of me. It was a secret Jasón named,
stripped to expose us — mother and child — naked and clinging primordial to each
other. (Moraga, 2001: 31)
Implicit in this passage is the hunger for sex.6 After Medea tells Luna about Jasón’s
intention to take Chac-Mool back to Aztlán, both lovers comfort each other in an
explicit sexual scene — ‘LUNA makes love to MEDEA with her mouth’ (Moraga,
2001: 44) — in which Luna, while making love to her lover, narrates the legend of
The Hungry Woman. Her mythical voracity is associated here with carnal desire:
LUNA: Creation Myth. In the place where the spirits live, there was once a woman who
cried constantly for food. She had mouths everywhere. In her wrists, elbows, ankles,
knees [. . .] And every mouth was hungry y bien gritona [‘and very noisy’]. To comfort la
pobre [‘the poor one’], the spirits flew down and began to make grass and flowers from
the dirt-brown of her skin. From her greñas [‘mop of hair’], they made forests. From those
ojos negros [‘black eyes’], pools and springs. And from the slopes of her shoulders and
senos [‘breasts’], they made mountains y valles [‘and valleys’]. At last she will be satisfied,
they thought. Pero [‘But’], just like before, her mouths were everywhere, biting and moaning [. . .] opening and snapping shut. They would never be filled. (Pause) Sometimes por
la noche [‘at night’], when the wind blows, you can hear her crying for food. (Moraga,
2001: 44–45)
With regard to food symbolism, corn, and in particular, blue corn, functions as a
central symbol in the play. Its plantation implies a ritual initiation, a ‘get-back-toyour-raíces [“roots”]-harvest-moon ritual’ (Moraga, 2001: 27), that Chac-Mool wants
to learn from Luna (the moon), although Medea considers he should wait till the right
moment arrives. Luna teaches Chac-Mool:
LUNA: After the first rains the planting begins. You burn incense at the four corners
of the field. Smoke the seed to be planted with copal and candles. You fast [for seven
days [. . .] When you harvest the maíz [‘corn’], the ears are broken from the plants in the
field. You should bring them back to the house in a basket. The ears are then tied
together or braided into clusters. Then they are hung up to dry, separated by colour.
CHAC-MOOL: Blue, black, red, white [. . .]
LUNA: The shelled grain is mixed together again for planting.
MEDEA: Once you are initiated, you have to leave for good. You know that. (Moraga,
2001: 25–26)
Medea does not want Chac-Mool to leave, for she fears that once her son has learnt
to plant corn he will go back to his father and become corrupted in Aztlán’s male
domineering society. But this is as inevitable as the eternal cycle of Nature: ‘I’m
gonna go back to Aztlán, and make ‘em change, Mom. You’ll see’ (Moraga, 2001:
27), he says. Nearly at the end of the play, when Luna asks Medea why she is giving
in to Jasón and she answers that Chac-Mool is the only reason, Luna replies: ‘Look.
[She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a handful of blue corn kernels. She holds
them out to MEDEA.] The corn is going to seed’ (Moraga, 2001: 81). The young
boy has grown up and Medea cannot change it. Although women — Medea, Luna,
and Mama Sal — have been the strongest influences over the young boy, now their
influence is not enough ‘to relinquish his desire to participate in the initiation rites of
manhood practiced in Aztlán. As a young man, the lure of patriarchal power is too
great a force for him to resist’ (Perez, 2008: 104).
Ceremonially linked to the moon, the corn also stands for Luna and the love relationship between the two female protagonists. Act II, Scene II is symbolically suggestive in this respect. After Chac-Mool learns that Luna is leaving Medea because his
mother has decided to come back to Aztlán with Jasón — to save Chac-Mool from
his father’s chauvinist indoctrination — he ‘enters angrily with a [sic.] armful of blue
corn and a cooking pot. He goes to the kitchen table and begins stripping the corn
furiously, tossing it into the pot’ (Moraga, 2001: 66). The corn is ‘Luna’s corn’ (2001:
66), Chac-Mool clarifies. Mother and son quarrel over the reasons why Medea has
finally decided to go back to Jasón and leave Luna, and, at the peak of the argument,
‘CHAC-MOOL crosses to the pot and dumps out its contents’ (2001: 67), in an
uncontrollable act of disapproval. Just a few lines afterwards, at the beginning of Act
II, Scene III, Jasón appears on stage to talk with Medea about the legal procedures
for the adoption of Chac-Mool and — also in an act full of symbolic meaning — he
wipes out all signs of corn-Luna from the table: ‘MEDEA stands in the kitchen.
JASÓN enters, brushes aside the corn husks remaining on the kitchen table and places
his briefcase down in their place’ (2001: 67). As an ominous sign too, just before
Chac-Mool talks to his mother on the eve of his never-to-come departure to Aztlán,
the young boy throws back into the garden the contents of a small bag of corn kernels
that Luna asked Mama Sal to give to him, for ‘She thought maybe you could throw
a few kernels over there in Nuevo México, see if they take root’ (2001: 83). The rejection to do so — the refusal of corn-Luna — by the boy is another sign that he would
be gone forever, that he is no longer a boy and, as a man, he has woken up to grow
his innate instinct for the possession of aboriginal land or the woman-mother. When
Chac-Mool is interviewed by a border guard in order to be accepted in Aztlán, he
At four, my father drilled his fingers into my chest, held me at the gun point of his glare.
You are blessed, he told me. Open your nostrils and flare like a bull. I want you to smell
this land. I remember the wings of my nostrils rising up to suck up his breath. It was a
birthing of sorts. He penetrated and I was born of him. His land was his mother and mine
and I was beholden to it. (Moraga, 2001: 79)
Medea’s approach to her native land is not of a possessive nature. In the argument
between mother and boy just before the infanticide takes place, the curandera
[‘healer’] responds to Chac-Mool’s feverish homeland aspirations by grabbing him by
the shoulders, and retorts: ‘you’re my land, hijo [“son”]. Don’t you see that? You’re
my land!’ (Moraga, 2001: 85). Medea’s fear is not the loss of her native country — she
has already come to terms with the counter-revolution setting up hierarchies between
male and female, and is now ‘tired of fighting’ (2001: 67) — but the loss of his son’s
love once he sets foot in Aztlán’s male-ruled society, thus perpetuating the enslaving
of the feminine genre and the exile of queer folk. Ultimately, this also represents the
failure of the Chicano nation, for as Moraga reminds us elsewhere, ‘No progressive
movement can succeed while any member of the population remains in submission’
(1993: 162).
Corn is a symbol of aboriginal food, the rooting nurture. Mama Sal warns ChacMool not to ‘start putting huevos [“eggs”] on top of your enchiladas like they do en
Nuevo México’, a culinary habit which, in her mind, has polluted the Chicanos’
aboriginal land: ‘That’s how they eat ‘em in Aztlán’ (Moraga, 2001: 30). Mama Sal
explains with vehemence: ‘Ni modo [“No way”]. If you can grow corn and you know
how to light a fire, you’ll never by hungry, Chac-Mool. Never’ (2001: 30). Curiously
enough, Luna had previously made a similar remark to Chac-Mool: ‘Plant corn. A
single corn plant can produce enough grain to feed a person for a day’ (2001: 13).
As proto-food, as primordial, aboriginal food, corn also partakes of the dual symbology of life and death inherent to the different Aztec mythologies and mythological
figures here analysed. Like Coatlicue, mother and destroyer, like The Hungry Woman
and La Llorona, birth-givers and life-takers, womb and tomb, corn is in the play both
a baby’s first food and word and death-bringing poison, both the first and the final
meal for Chac-Mool. In Act I, Scene I the nurse on the psychiatric ward in which
Medea is incarcerated brings her a bowl of mush for breakfast — a thick food made
by boiling maize flour with milk or water — and the then-insane Medea recollects:
‘Avena [“Oatmeal”]. That’s my baby’s word. One of his first words because oatmeal
was one of his first foods’ (Moraga, 2001: 11). She adds in a much more restrictive,
word-denying way:
My voice can’t escape this wall of maize-white tiles sealed shut.7 ‘Perfect masonry’,
Luna’d always say [. . .] about my teeth. I wish I had a mouth of corn, sweet baby corn.
A mouth of baby teeth sucking at virgin purple pezones [‘nipples’]. How do I live now
without her breasts? I can’t open my mouth to suck her. Luna [. . .]? (Moraga, 2001: 11)
Corn is Chac-Mool’s first food, but also — as can be seen — Medea’s childlike food
trope describing her love, hunger, and sexual desire for Luna. At the end of the play,
however, Medea kills her son by making him drink from a poisonous atole — also a
hot beverage made of maize flour with milk or water — of blue corn (Moraga, 2001:
89), and later on forms an altar with the overgrown blue corn stalks in the middle of
their small field of corn, on which the corpse of Chac-Mool will finally lie with the
help of the Cihuatateo (2001: 91). As Perez argues, this final scene ‘calls to mind a
sacrificial ritual practiced by the Mexicas to honor the corn goddess, Chicomecoatl,
who required a female sacrificient’ (2008: 105) to ensure fertility and sustenance. By
offering her son — a male, not female victim — in sacrifice, Medea transgresses the
traditional ritual, yet also opens up a past which may well bring renewal in a different road map to the future (Moraga, 2001: ix). Be that as it may, Medea herself
becomes a victim through her atavistic rebellion against female disempowerment:
Chac-Mool reappears after his death to free his mother from her desperate oppression
in a psychiatric ward and makes her drink the same cup of deadly herbs that she gave
to him. After all, by killing Chac-Mool, Medea is also killing that part of herself
which starves in heteronormative, misogynist patriarchy. Moraga herself explains
that infanticide is not homicide, but suicide, as a mother ‘never completely separates
from her child. She always remains a part of her children’ (2000: 146).
As opposed to a monolithic, unidirectional understanding of the mythological
narrations at hand, Cherríe L. Moraga, in particular, and Chicana writers in general,
favour a hybrid approach in which contraries contend without Manichaeistic resolutions. It goes without saying that infanticide is a cruel murder, but by challengingly
probing the social, political, and gender reasons leading a hungry mother to do so,
Moraga searches for a space of resistance that may make up for a myth-long
betrayal dating back to the dismembering of the moon-goddess by the sun-god of
war, who relegated her to darkness and oblivion. ‘Betrayal occurs’, Medea reproaches
Jasón, ‘when a boy grows into a man and sees his mother as a woman for the first
time. A woman. A thing. A creature to be controlled’ (Moraga, 2001: 70).
These women’s hunger — Moraga, La Llorona, The Hungry Woman — is one of
power that proves complex and multidirectional. Until it is satisfied, their mouths
will be everywhere, biting and moaning. The search for power, however, is unlikely
to stop — if it can ever stop — in a context of oppression and discrimination, such
as the one portrayed in the works by Chicana writers since the civil rights activism
of the 1960s. After all, satisfying the hunger desire would make it disappear and,
ultimately, suppress such an empowering symbol in their fictional universe.
For a comprehensive anthology of texts by these and
other Chicana poets, writers, and activists addressing central issues in Chicana feminist thought (e.g.
sexual politics within the Chicano nationalist movement, the relationship between Chicana feminists
and white feminists, and the future development of
Chicana feminism), see García (1997).
The Yaqui or Yoeme are indigenous people of
Mexico whose ancestors originated in the valley
of the Yaqui river in the northern Mexican state of
Sonora. Such origins, considering the aforementioned Hispanicized name of Jasón, are full of historical resonance, for ‘the Yaqui [. . .] offered a
stubborn resistance to the first Spanish invaders
in the 16th and 17th centuries’ (Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc., 1998, vol. 12: 821).
Other descriptions in the play help to identify
Medea as Coatlicue, the Nahuatl name for the one
with the skirt of serpents, the Aztec Mother Earth
of creation and destruction. Thus, for example,
Luna refers to Medea’s earthy facial expressions:
‘Nothing’s printed in perfection. Only language
I know is worry lines, a brow that looks like the
valley floor in planting season. I’d trace my finger
like a dumb plow along those furrows, but I could
only guess at what Medea was thinking’ (Moraga,
2001: 14 [my emphasis]). Medea herself shares
Coatlicue’s ominous symbolism of the snake:
‘Madre [“Mother”], Coatlicue. / I want to know
your sweet fury. / Teach me your seductive magic, /
your beauty and rage. / Make Jasón small and
weak. / Make him shiver / within the folds of my
serpent skin’ (2001: 51 [my emphasis]).
Chac-Mool is the name given to a type of preColumbian stone statue with a tray over the stomach ‘where the victim’s blood was or body parts
were placed as an offering to the gods’ (Perez, 2008:
225). This is the name Medea uses for his son
(his feminine name). His son’s real, ‘manly name’
(Moraga, 2001: 88) is Adolfo, which the young boy
despises for its violent connotation: ‘For the record,
I hate that name. It’s a Nazi name. Every kid named
Chuy has to live up to the legacy of being named
Jesus. Well, me, I got Adolfo to follow me into
the grave’ (2001: 76). This name, as Perez explains,
‘associates him directly with the ritual of sacrifice
and foretells his fate’ (2008: 103).
Notice that the choice of vocabulary is symptomatic
of aboriginal conscience: escuincle or escuintle
comes from the Nahuatl (American Indian language
of the Uto-Aztecan family) itzcuintli, meaning
hairless dog (Real Academia Española, 2001: 965).
Notice also the frequent interlingualism or codeswitching between English and Spanish throughout
the play, which, on the other hand, implies a double
linguistic consciousness. As Anzaldúa writes, ‘ethnic
identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my
language’ (1987: 59). For more information on codeswitching and its implications in the construction of
a Chicana identity see León Jiménez (2003).
As C.G. Jung argues from a Freudian perspective,
the libido includes corporal necessities such as
hunger, thirst, sleep, sexuality, or affections. All
these factors possess ‘very subtle differentiations
and ramifications in the highly complex human
psyche’ (1998: 147). He underlines the ‘numerous
and close’ (1998: 157) links between the nutritional
and sexual functions, in particular the one between
breast-feeding and libido. At first only implemented
in the nutritional function of breast-feeding and its
rhythmic movements, the baby’s libido is transferred later on ‘to the area of other functions,
having sexuality as a provisional and partly final
goal’ (1998: 157).
As Madsen argues (2000: 24): ‘the denial of language and the enforcement of silence upon the
women of the Chicano community are urgent issues
for Chicana feminism’.
Anaya, R. & Lomelí, F. eds. 1989. Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press.
Anzaldúa, G. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.
Bierhorst, J. 1984. The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs. New York: Quill/William Morrow.
Brunel, P. 1988. Dictionaire des mythes littéraires [‘Dictionary of Literary Myths’]. Paris: Éditions du Rocher.
Castello Branco de Oliveira, M. 2005. Myths and Legends as Strategies of Resistance in Helena María Viramontes’ The Moths and Other Stories. Revista Eletrônica do Instituto de Humanidades [online], 3(12): 1–8 [accessed
1 January 2014]. Available at: .
Chevalier, J. & Gheerbrant, A. 1996. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, trans. by John Buchanan-Brown.
London: Penguin.
Cirlot, J.E. 2001. Diccionario de símbolos [‘Dictionary of Symbols’], 5th ed. Madrid: Siruela.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1998. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (Micropaedia. Ready Reference)
(12 vols.), 15th ed. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
García, A.M. 1997. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. London/New York: Routledge.
Jakubczak, M. 2001. Earth. In: K. Wilkoszewska, ed. Aesthetics of the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air.
Ostrava: University of Ostrava/Tilia Publishers, pp. 15–96.
Jung, C.G. 1998. Símbolos de transformación [‘Symbols of Transformation’], supervised and annotated by
E. Butelman. Barcelona: Paidós.
Kalnická, Z. 2001. Water. In: K. Wilkoszewska, ed. Aesthetics of the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air.
Ostrava: University of Ostrava/Tilia Publishers, pp. 97–184.
León Jiménez, R. 2003. Identidad multilingüe: El cambio de código como símbolo de la identidad en la literatura
chicana [‘Multilingual Identity: Code-Switching as a Symbol of Identity in Chicana Literature’]. Logroño:
Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de La Rioja.
Madsen, D.L. 2000. Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina
Mayorga, I. 2001. Homecoming: The Politics of Myth and Location in Cherríe L. Moraga’s The Hungry Woman:
A Mexican Medea and Heart of the Earth: A Popol Vuh Story. In: C.L. Moraga, ed. The Hungry Woman: A
Mexican Medea. Albuquerque, New Mexico: West End Press, pp. 155–65.
Moraga, C.L. 1993. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston, MA: South End.
Moraga, C.L. 2000. Looking for the Insatiable Woman. In: Loving in the War Years: Lo Que Nunca Pasó por
Sus Labios [‘What Never Passed Her Lips’]. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, pp. 142–50.
Moraga, C.L. 2001. The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. Albuquerque, New Mexico: West End Press.
Perez, D.R. 2008. There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture. Austin: University of
Texas Press.
Real Academia Española [Royal Spanish Academy]. 2001. Diccionario de la Lengua Española [Dictionary of the
Spanish Language], 22nd ed. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.
Saporta Sternbach, N. 1989. A Deep Racial Memory of Love: The Chicana Feminism of Cherríe Moraga. In:
A. Horno-Delgado, E. Ortega, N.M. Scott & N. Saporta Sternbach, eds. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing
and Critical Readings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, pp. 48–61.
Trujillo, C. ed. 1991. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman
Notes on contributor
Juan Ráez Padilla holds a European PhD in English Studies and is Associate Professor
at the Department of English Philology of the University of Jaén (Spain). His research
interests are in modern British and Irish literature, mythology, symbology and
Chicano/Latino literature, about which he has done research within the Proyecto de
Investigación de Excelencia [Excellence Research Project] (P08-HUM-3956) ‘De boca
en boca: Comida y transculturación en la literatura latina de finales del s. XX (1960–
2007)’ [From mouth to mouth: Food and transculturation in late 20th c. Latino
literature (1960–2007)]. He is author of Los cuatro elementos y Seamus Heaney [The
Four Elements and Seamus Heaney] (2007) and Tierra, agua, aire y fuego: Manual de
simbología [Earth, Water, Air and Fire: A Manual of Symbology] (2014).
Correspondence to: Juan Ráez Padilla, Department of English Philology, University of Jaén, Campus ‘Las Lagunillas’ s/n, 23071, Jaén (Spain). Email:
Copyright of Comparative American Studies is the property of Maney Publishing and its
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articles for individual use.
Phoenix as Dystopia in Cherríe Moraga’s “Hungry Woman”
Author(s): David William Foster
Source: Hispanic Journal , fall, 2002, Vol. 23, No. 2 (fall, 2002), pp. 91-101
Published by: Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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Phoenix as Dystopia in Cherríe
Moraga’s Hungry Woman
David William Foster
Arizona State University
Cherríe Moraga’s play Hungry Woman is set in a near fu
in which ethnic rebellions first triumph and then are taken
counter-revolutionary forces. The queers who were allies in the
struggle of the rebellions are, along with other dissidents, forced
into exile. This exile is represented in the play by the decaying city
of Phoenix. This study examines how Moraga uses the figure of
Phoenix to frame the plight of her lesbian protagonist.
KEYWORDS: Cherríe Moraga, Hungry Woman; Aztlán; Phoenix, Arizona; ethnic wars; machismo; queer Aztlán (Cherríe Moraga)
The land of the exile. Phoenix, Arizona. What never rose up
from the ashes of destruction. (14)
And we made a kind of gypsy ghetto for ourselves in what was
once a thriving desert. (24)
Los Angeles has a long if not very enviable history as a space
where life can be baleful, noxious, and even lethal: if people leave
their heart in San Francisco, many are convinced theyll loose their
soul if not their lives in Los Angeles. There are hundreds of Los
Angeles-based literary works of fiction and films about Los Angeles
as dystopia. The works gathered in Ulin’s anthology repeatedly
underscore the dystopian aspects of Los Angeles, and I doubt if any
audience members of Ridley Scotťs Blade Runner (1982) thought
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the City of Angels was being
of Quartz is unrelenting in s
reasons as to why such interp
ed, and their seems to be no
and sinister as touted by Dav
or one inane and ridiculous as
of Los Angeles in Annie Hall
is a certain measure of sinister Munchkinland exuberance in John
Rechy’s Bodies and Souls , perhaps one of the best Chicano novel
on the city and one of the most intransigent in portraying why
one survives with either body or soul intact, and much less the
Chicano who is part of the pre-Anglo pollution of land and society
(see Valle and Torres for a study of Latinos in Los Angeles; Villa
addresses himself to all of California).
With all of this emphasis on Los Angeles as the figure of the
tarnished West, few other cities in the West enjoy the opportunity
to serve an iconic function, save the Barbary Coast underbelly of
the fabled Golden Gate City or the sleaze of Las Vegas, the source
of Hunter Thompson’s “fear and loathing.” Not Seattle, not Portland, not San Diego, and much less Phoenix or Tucson. There are
signs this is changing: there is something like a dozen crime novels
published in the last decade that are set in Phoenix, and Tucson
has a wholly negative polarity in Miguel Méndez-M.’s classic and
foundational Peregrinos de Aztlán (1979). Yet Phoenix by and large
continues to thrive on its tourist-brochure capital: the city’s only
truly famous author, Erma Bombeck, was more zany than trenchant in her depictions of the middle-class crises of North Phoenix/ Scottsdale/ Paradise Valley denizens (women, mostly, who in
the decade after Bombeck’s death would come to be called soccer
Moms), and the scathing terms of Terry McMillan’s nicely femin
Waiting to Exhale , in a league of its own for many reasons, did littl
to undercut Bombeck’s essential benevolence and tourist-brochure
Cherrie Moraga’s Hungry Woman (first performed in 2000, a
though five years of staged readings preceded) is unique because
the way in which Moraga chooses to interpret Phoenix, and it is
unique in her creative writing, most of which is set in her nativ
California. I do not know why Moraga chose to use Phoenix as on
of three spatial anchors of her play and the locus of the totality
its action, although one suspects that it has to do with the city’s
self-image of having arisen from the ashes to become a symbol o
the prosperity of the West, a new Los Angeles where, perhaps, things
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will not end up falling apart.
is, of course, preposterous ho
to arise again, but rather the
desert, and except for the rem
ans who disappeared almost fo
ern dweller arrived, there was no one before upon the ashes of
whose destroyed society for the Anglo city to be built, and if there
were no Native Americans, there were also no Hispanics to trod
over, as in the case of Los Angeles and Tucson: Phoenix springs full
grown from the hostile desert at a great expense in terms of the
infrastructure of resources to make it habitable, and the proud
sense of the absence of any historical memory is one of its perversely enduring qualities.
For Moraga, who sets her play in the second decade of the
present centuiy (on the play as furturistic fiction, see Gant-Britton),
Phoenix has lost whatever it had to make it livable, which is indeed
a constant fear for the environmentalist and ecologically-minded,
fearful of what the consequences will be down the line for the staggering growth the city has been experiencing in the past fifty years.
In Moraga ‘s vision, by 2020 the worst has indeed come to pass:
Phoenix is now a city-in-ruin, the dumping site of every kind
of poison and person unwanted by its neighbors. . . . Phoenix
is represented by the ceaseless racket of a city out of control
(constant traffic, low-flying jet planes, hawkers squawking
their wares, muy “Blade-Runner-esque”). The lighting is urban
neon. Most people look lousy in it. (6-7)
The basic premise of Moraga’s play is that America at some
point became balkanized as the consequence of ail ethnic civil war,
which involved the creation of
the Mechicano Nation of Aztlán which includes parts of the
Southwest and the border states of what was once Northern
Mexico. . . . Rebels scorned the ballot box and made alliance
with any man or woman of any race or sexuality that would
lift arms in their defense. . . .
Several years after the revolution, a counter-revolution followed
in most of the newly-independent nations. Hierarchies were
established between msile and female, and queer folk were
unilaterally sent into exile. (6)
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The place of exile from Aztlán is Phoenix, and Medea, the
main character of the play, is exiled there for being a lesbian, along
with her son, Chac-Mool, and her lover, Luna. The action of the
play turns on the estrangement between Luna and Medea, who
suffers profoundly from her exile and yearns to be able to return to
Aztlán, but she ends up confined to a mental hospital; the play also
focuses on her rage because of Jason’s attempt to take back his
son as he approaches manhood. The play ends with Chac-Mool
resisting his father’s demands and his decision to assist his mother
in returning to Aztlán, although it seems fairly certain that the
herbs he gives her as he puts her to bed in the final scene will
provide her with a release from Phoenix and a return to Aztlán that
is only hallucinatory, as Jason has made it clear that she can only
return physically to Aztlán by renouncing her lesbianism and agreeing to “take up residence in my second bed” (69), as he has taken a
young woman as his new wife. This option is in opposition to remaining to “rot in this wasteland of counter-revolutionary degenerates” (69). But Medea realizes there is no real option for her: she
can neither accept Jasón’s conditions for her return to Aztlán nor
can she, in effect, remain to rot in Phoenix, which would appear to
be why she so docilely accepts the herbs her son offers to her.
Phoenix, thus, is a potent anchor for the play, in that it represents not the denial of social justice to the Chicano (a frequent
theme, to be sure, of the novels set in Los Angeles, as elsewhere),
but to the loss of a measure of social justice – particularly for women
and queers – that had been attained with the revolutionary acts of
the ethnic war. In a word, Chicano men have reduplicated Anglo
patriarchy in the newfoundland of Mechincano Aztlán. When Jason
informs Medea that the courts have made their decision regarding
her expulsion, she explodes:
What courts? Those patriarchs who stole my county? I
returned to my motherland in the embrace of a woman and
the mother [i.e., her status as a mother] is taken from me.
In this sense, Moraga provides a reprise to her brilliant essay
“Queer Aztlán,” in which she takes to task the sexism and homophobia of the Chicano movement and challenges Chicano macho mentality to engage in the sort of revolutionary structuring that came
from the ethnic war, only to be destroyed by the counter-revolution. 1 When Moraga states that her play deals with “a future I imag-
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ine based on a history at the
pened” (6), I believe she is not
ethnic wars did not take place
Aztlán envisioned by her 1993
is an often remarked fact tha
pered – and Moraga is certainly an icon in this regard – Chicano
(i.e., male) writing has remained quite resolutely heterosexist (see,
however, Foster, En el ambiente). As Marrero remarks with regard
to Hungry Woman :
[Moraga’s play] suggests the problematic juncture of the
lesbian motherhood of a male son [sic], lesbian desire and
cultural exile. It creates an overwhelming sense of the
inescapability of the symbolic order of the Father within
Chicano culture, (xxvii)
I referred above to how Phoenix is one of three spaces that
anchor the universe Hungry Woman : in addition to Phoenix and
Aztlán, there is a third space, the Motherland. However the Motherland is a eutopia, a realm of felicity for women that was to be part
of the establishment of Mechicano Aztlán, but was lost in the
counter-revolution. Precisely it is because the Motherland does not
exist (MEDEA: I have no mother land [15]), that her confrontation
with Jason over the impossibility of her return to his bed is grounded
in her realization that there is no place for her: “Aztlán, how you
have betrayed me” (15).
Phoenix is called by the outcast women Tamoachán, which
means “we seek our home” (24), a fact that underscores both the
fact that they are exiled from their home and the possibility that
such a home may not (any longer) exist. Thus, Medea, Luna, and
the other women with whom they relate aire cast out into the Biblical desert, and they inhabit a “gypsy ghetto” (24). Throughout the
play, the city is described in terms of urban noise and pollution, a
place of pure chaos, where no one “gives a shit about the environment” (35). The noisy chaos of the city is not just the circumstantial nightmare of the space Medea and others now inhabit, but
rather the material conditions that conspire to silence Medea’s cry,
as a spiritually hungry woman, for social justice. In this sense, the
play, as a cultural enunciation, is the opportunity for Medea to
speak out and to allow her voice to rise above the volume of the
police sirens. Although the stage is not the missing eutopia, the
fact that the play takes place in the ruined Phoenix provides, no
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matter how tenuous, the opp
The way in which the play
simply the hellish cemetery
the way in which there is a f
ing of loss and the attempt t
the qualities of queer womanhood Medea articulates and, through
real life as a culturally productive xicanadyke (Moraga’s own selfattribution and spelling, including noncapitalization [ix]). This is
the way in which Phoenix is both the place of the outcast’s abjection
and, yet, a place where some measure of meaningful expression
may be engaged in. Medea struggles self-destructively against any
attempt to retain a significant relationship with Luna, and certainly Luna’s attempt, first, to continue the relationship with Medea
and then to forge new relationships with other women is a melancholic reduplication of what life was like for queers in the time
before the revolution – which is, of course, the time of the spectator’s
of the play.
Medea’s refusal either to return to Jason, which is an accom-
modation to the ideology of the counter-revolution, or to acknowledge Luna’s love, which is a return to a prerevolutionary form of
the closet (the “queer ghetto,” as Medea calls it [48]) is what brings
her to a dead end, provoking the insanity for which she is institutionalized, and leading her son to provide her with an out through
(fatal?) drugs.
After their exile, Medea and Luna end up living in Phoenix in
“a cramped government-funded urban apartment” (14), an image
that immediately evokes a number of existing slum-like places in
the downtown core of the city. Later Medea will be confined to a
mental institution, a fact that evokes the Arizona State Hospital on
East Van Buren, bordered to the east by North 24th Street. It is
important to note that East Van Buren Street in the area across
the street from the State Hospital is dotted by run-down motels
from the era when the street was a major part of east-west routes
through the street, accessing Los Angeles to the west and El Paso
to the east. Although none of these establishments are, to the best
of my knowledge, government-funded housing, counted among
prostitutes and their pimps, drug dealers, and undocumented aliens
are those who are on some sort of government relief. This is an
area of considerable blight. For some it might represent the decomposition of the old (i.e., the historical relevance of these establishments as part of the function of Phoenix as a way station in the
east-west travel of the region), necessary in order for urban re-
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newal and gentrification to
notable signs along this corr
approximately North 48th
knowing that its current co
given the enormous growth
the central corridor, the East Van Buren strip (which is matched
by a similarly rundown West Van Buren strip on the other side of
the downtown financial area) is a vivid reminder of how explosive
urban growth will always necessarily produce an excrescence of
When Medea is subsequently confined to a mental institution, this becomes, in its infernal dimensions, a reduplication of
the abject life outside its walls, which in turn is the byproduct of
abjection generated by the processes of the counter-revolution. In
this sense, the mental institution only (re)confirms Medea’s radical
otherness as, to use Moraga’s eloquent term, a xicanadyke. Although
Luna attempts to pull Medea back into her emotional orbit, Medea
It doesn’t matter now. I am the last one to make this journey.
My tragedy will be an example to all women like me. Vain
women who only know how to be beloved. Such an example I
shall be that no woman will dare to transgress those
boundaries again. You, and your kind, have no choice. You
were born to be a lover of women, to grow hands that could
transform a woman like those blocks of faceless stone you
turn into diosas. I, my kind, am a dying breed of female. I am
the last one to make this crossing, the border has closed
behind me. There will be no more room for transgressions.
Despite the fact that Luna insists to Medea “you won’t ever be able
to go back to Aztlán or to any man. You’ve been ruined by me. My
hands have ruined you” (48), Medea is impervious to Luna’s insistence that they continue as lovers, and she sinks deeper and deeper
into her crippling despair, which is permanently sealed when her
final encounter with Jason makes it evident that there is no return
possible for her to Aztlán: the material ruin of her present life in
Phoenix, reduplicated by her confinement to the mental hospital,
figures her huis clos damnation, from which only drug-induced h
lucinations or death are a remittance.
The spectator may be unwilling to invest much faith in Lu
attempts to make do. Although she acknowledges that “upstairs
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iťs pure chaos” (34), she find
laundry room of the apartm
come down here just to get
up on top of the dryer and
In the summer its cooler dow
Another woman remarks
down here” (34), which may well be a figure of how an audience
might react to Luna’s carrying on despite the miserable conditions
exile from Aztlán has brought her and Medea. Nevertheless, this is
the world of the play, and as such it is meaningful and productive
for the dramatic emotion of this fragment of humanity – Chicana,
feminist, lesbian – it generates: “We were not as we are now. We
were not always fallen from the mountain” (60). I am not saying
that we would not have the theatrical text if it were not for Medea’s
and Luna’s tragic fall, but only that as much as Phoenix is the
dumping ground for the outcasts of Aztlán, it is also the material
space of the drama of their fall, and it is within that space that we
understand the anemia of Luna’s desire to continue as before and
the depths of despair of Medea’s realization that the course of
tory has left her nowhere to turn.
The categorical bleakness of Moraga’s Hungry Woman is
certainly at odds with the optimistic boosterism that is an integral
part of Phoenix’s self-image (as is to be seen in Luckingham’s expansive Discovering Greater Phoenix ), both, as one might expect,
on the level of the discourse promoted by the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Board and also on the level of men and
women at the shopping mall.4 It is worth speculating as t
Moraga, who has never lived in Phoenix, might have chose
city as the material space for her play. Phoenix is undoub
the margins of an image of Aztlán. Although Latinos now
something like thirty percent of the population of the grea
ropolitan area, the Chicano community has never had a m
ence in Phoenix, such as it has had in Tucson and other clearly
important Hispanic cities of the Southwest. The vast majority of
the Chicanos who were part of the historical development of Phoenix through most of the twentieth century inhabited farming communities on the (subsequently greatly expanding) periphery of the
city and, as one might expect, they suffered considerable discrimination within its metropolitan boundaries. Today, there are large
Latino communities in various parts of the central core of the city,
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and it is notable that the Van Buren area I have discussed above –
not just the blighted area, where what were once Anglo establis
ments now cater to the Latino community, but nearby residen
areas – now hosts a particularly burgeoning presence. Yet perha
Moraga might see this demographic development as part of the
exile from Aztlán for Chicanos in late-capitalist America:
CHAC-MOOL: I don’t want to be here no more.
CHAC-MOOL: Tamoachán.
BORDER GUARD: Where do you want to be?
CHAC-MOOL: Aztlán. (77)
The hubris of Phoenix as the quintessence of progressive modernity in the Southwest, as a magnet city for the important demographic changes that have taken place since World War II, and as a
rock-bed of neoconservativism leaves it particularly vulnerable to
the sort of radical revisionism of the city Moraga’s play engages in.
There is in general in Phoenix a “I don’t ever go downtown” attitude
and, despite its crucial location in the central core of the city, there
are many residents who have never seen the East Van Buren strip,
certainly not even driving through in a car and much less on foot.
In choosing to use Phoenix as the geographic locale of her play and
what is the real area of the location of the state mental hospital
that figures in it, Moraga is playing off of an interpretation of the
collapse of the foundational myth of Phoenix, which is also the
collapse of the foundational myth of lost Aztlán she postulates in
this play.5
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1ME1 Movimiento did not die out in the seventies, as most of its critics
claim; it was only deformed by the machismo and homophobia of that era
and coopted by “hispanicization” of the eighties. In reaction against Anglo-
America’s emasculation of Chicano men, the male-dominated Chicano
movement embraced the most patriarchal aspects of its Mexican heritage.
For a generation, nationalist leaders used a kind of ‘selective memory/
drawing exclusively from those aspects of Mexican and Native cultures
that served the interests of male heterosexuals” (156).
2Van Buren as such ends as it curves over onto the Tempe Bridge and
becomes Mill Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare through the
independent university city of Tempe; Mill Avenue intersects with Apache
Boulevard, which is where the east- west travel axis, U.S.Highway 60,
through the Phoenix area picks up again).
3I am fully aware that the notion of “blight” requires some theorization,
especially as it tends to be a classisi term and, from there, a racist and
anti-ethnic one as well. If I am leaving it undertheorized here and limit
myself to echoing Moraga’s magnification of existing sectors of Phoenix, I
do so by meaning not that which has been recycled for uses that go against
the grain of middle-class order, but rather to refer to what has has become
and remains so rundown, if not abandoned, that the property risks legal
condemnation for building rot and accompanying hazards. Clearly,
“rundown” is a subjective and relative word, but I am not using it here in
any sense of bourgeois aesthetics: one citizen’s blight may be another
citizen’s welcome refuge. For an excellent example of Chicano cultural
production dealing with the injustices of the definitions of blight, see
Culture Clash’s recent play Chavez Ravine. On the history of Chavez
Ravine, a Mexican /Mexican neighborhood destroyed in order to construct
the Dodger Stadium, see Pitt. Ethington’s brilliant essay on the “ghost
neighborhoods” of Los Angeles (i.e., those destroyed in the name of blighterradicating progress) contains the following observation: “Specific agents
made the future of this area [Bunker Hill, in what is now north downtown
Los Angeles] highly questionable by creating a damaging representation
of it in explicitly racial terms” (42). This is a strategy not unknown to the
discussions of blight in Phoenix today, where Chicano barrios have been
destroyed both for the construction of the international airport (and others
are threatened by plans for expansion) and downtown sports arenas.
4Certainly, in the case of a city like Phoenix, the phrase “man in the street”
requires a fundamental reconfiguration, as Phoenix is not a place where
one is likely to be found in the street.
5 Although Phoenix is not mentioned, nor is Moraga’s Hungry Woman , I
want to call attention to Brady’s superb study on space in Chicana
literature, the whole first chapter of which is devoted to the dual imaginary
of Anglo Arizona and Nuevomexicano New Mexico.
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Brady, Mary Pat. Extinct Lands , Temporal Geographies ; Chica
and the Urgency of Space. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2002.
Culture Clash. Chavez Ravine. Ameńcan Theatre 20.9 (November 2003):
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz ; Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. Lo
Verso, 1990.
Ethington, Philip J. “Ghost Neighborhoods: Space, Time, and Alienation in
Los Angeles.” Looking for Los Angeles; Architecture , Film, Photography, and the Urban Landscape. Ed. Charles G. Salas and Michael S.
Roth. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2001. 29-56.
Foster, David William. En el ambiente ; Essays on Chicano/ Latino Male Homoerotic Wrìting. Tempe: Bilingual Press, 2004.
Gant-Britton, Lisbeth. “Mexican Women and Chicanas Enter Futuristic
Fiction.” Future Females; The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Lanham, Md.: Rowman
& Littlefìeld, 200. 261-76.
Luckingham, Bradford, and Barbara Luckingham. Discovering Greater Phoenix. Carlsbad: Heritage Media, 1998.
Marrero, María Teresa. “Manifestations of Desires: A Critical Introduction.”
Out of the Fringe; Contemporary Latina/ Latino Theatre and Performance. Ed. Caridad Svich and Maria Teresa Marrero. New York: The-
atre Communications Group, 1999. xvii-xxx.
McMillan, Terry. Waiting to Exhale. New York: Viking, 1992.
Méndez-M., Miguel. Peregrinos de Aztlán. Berkeley: Editorial Justa, 1979
Moraga, Cherríe. The Hungry Woman : The Hungry Woman, a Mexican Mede
Heart of the Earth, a Popol Vuh Story. Albuquerque: West End P, 200 1
Also in Out of the Fringe; Contemporary Latina/ Latino Theatre a
Performance. Ed. Caridad Svich and Maria Teresa Marrero. New York
Theatre Communications Group, 1999. 289-363.
Moraga, Cherríe. “Queer Aztlán: The Re-formation of Chicano Tribe.” The
Last Generation ; Prose and Poetry by Cherríe Moraga. Boston: South
End Press, 1993. 145-74.
Pitt, Leonard, and Dale Pitt. “Chavez Ravine.” Los Angeles A to Z; An Encyclo-
pedia of the City and County. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 87.
Rechy, John. Bodies and Souls; A Novel. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1983.
Valle, Víctor M., and Rodolfo D. Torres. Latino Metropolis. Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 2002.
Villa, Raúl Homero. Barrio-Logos ; Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture. Austin: U of Texas P, 2000.
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