Looking for the Insatiable Woman (1)
Cherríe L. Moraga
“One day a story will arrive in your town. There will always be disagreement over direction — whether the story came from the southwest or the southeast. The story may arrive with a stranger, a traveler thrown out of his home country months ago. Or the story may be brought by an old friend, perhaps the parrot trader. But after you hear the story, you and the others prepare by the new moon to rise up against the slave masters.”
Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (2)
Most of us can name the story that came into the town of our hearts which changed our lives forever. For me, they were the earliest stories I can remember of my mother’s childhood as a farmworker, so little the family used to drag her along between the rows of crops like the sack of potatoes they were picking. Thirty years later, those stories would become the farmworker families of my plays. The place the same: the central valle of Califas; the people — composites of stories told, remembered, witnessed and invented.
Ironically, the story of La Llorona, the Mexican Weeping Woman, was never told to me by my mother or any member of my family; and yet, it has had a more profound impact upon my writer’s psyche than any story she recounted. One traditional Mexican version of La Llorona tells the tale of a woman who is sexually betrayed by her man, and, in what was either a fit of jealous rage or pure retaliation, she kills their children by drowning them in a river. Upon her own death, she is unable to enter heaven because of her crime. Instead, she is destined to spend all eternity searching for her dead children. Her lament, “Mis Hijos!” ["My children"] becomes the blood-chilling cry heard along irrigation ditches and country creeks, warning children that any misbehavior (straying too far from camp, for example) might lead to abduction by this female phantom.
The story of La Llorona first arrived in the “town” of my heart quite by accident, through the mouth of an almost-stranger. She was a “traveler” as Leslie Marmon Silko writes, “thrown out of (her) home country” of bible-belt California years before. At the time, the mid-70s, I was working as a waitress in a vegetarian restaurant on the borderline between San Francisco’s gay Castro district and el barrio de la misión. The “traveler” was a white woman who’d come in every other weeknight for a bowl of brown rice and stir-fry vegetables and a cup of tea. I liked the look of the woman from the start: thirty-somethingish, bleached-blond and permanented hair, broken-toothed and full-chested. She had a big ole smiling face. I spied the button she wore on her too tight tee shirt which read “Commie Dyke” and I instantly knew the girl was family. Amber (I’ll call her by her real name because she’d like being the protagonist of her own story), came in most nights after she closed up shop at the collectively-owned commie bookstore in town. She’d walk in, throw a load of new titles onto the decoupage table top and crack open one of those revolutionary texts. The books drew me to her. I remember one title in particular, the blue and red letters against the silver background, The Romance of American Communism. (3) There in the post-rush-hour lull, over a cup of darjeeling and within ear shot of a few scraggly-looking hippies, I got my first real introduction to Mr. Karl Marx as told to me by Ms. Amber Hollibaugh, an honest-to-god member of the working-class. She informed me that I, too, had been holding membership without ever fully knowing until it poured from this girl’s lips like salve for the wounded and ignorant. But that’s another story.
The story I want to tell is how this white-girl from the “asshole of nowhere,” as another working-class friend’s momma used to call anywhere not Los Angeles or New York, opened my heart to the story of La Llorona. Not that this girl from some truckstop in the Central Valley consciously knew anything about the Mexican myth, but what she told me shook loose that memorybone in me that had stored the cuento for at least one generation.
At the time, Amber was doing prison support work for a woman, a lesbian, who had been locked up in an Oregon prison since the age of 19. Jay was then 39 years old. Jay was a child-killer. A contemporary La Llorona. And the required betrayal involved not a man, but what looked more like a kind of self-betrayal — as feminist philosopher, María Lugones, calls internalized homophobia — between two female lovers. Twenty years earlier, the dyke and her lover got into some mess of a fight. It seems. The kids were involved. It seems the couple drove the kids to a cliff and each taking that innocence into their hands, threw each a child off the cliff. They were drunk no doubt. Crazed. No doubt. And they both no doubt were guilty for the crime. But it’s redneck Oregon. And the biological mother takes the stand and testifies that “the dyke made me do it.” Under the spell of the “pervert,” she was forced to commit the gravest female crime against nature — infanticide. The biological mother walks. The lesbian lover, twenty years later, is still in jail. Twenty years a model prisoner and each time she is up for parole, the word gets out, “lesbian child-killer” to go free, and public pressure keeps her behind bars.
Today, another twenty years later and I don’t know if Jay’s still in prison. Amber’s in New York now and still working with prisoners and dykes I hear. And I am left here, still unraveling this story. In 1976, I wrote a poem about it, called the “Voices of the Fallers.” Couldn’t get the kid or the killer out of my head, that child falling. “I’m falling,” he cries, “can’t you see? I’m falling?” The child’s plea echoes the voice of my high school classmate, another manly woman, crying as she tossed herself off a cliff in Baja California. (But that’s another story.) I couldn’t get those voices out of my head because I know what it’s like to be a lesbian mom, biological and not. I know when the kid and the homophobia and the fear and shame of ourselves can lead to blows against the walls, against each other, against the child. It’s not so far away from me. But the poem didn’t satisfy my hunger to know the story, the real story, the story of why a woman kills her child. The story of La Llorona.
Why did I need to know the story? I am a sub-urban Chicana. Kids drowned in the local plunge, not the nearby river. I never heard anyone say “La Llorona’s gonna get you.” It was the “Boogie Man,” in our neighborhood or that simple inarticulate terror inspired by some Twilight Zone episode (the original ones), where the short trip down the hall to the bathroom became a long labyrinth-like journey into the unknown:
“C’mon, walk down the hall with me. I gotta go.”
“Okay, but you go first.”
“No, you first.”
“Then hold my hand.”
But as the daughter of a thoroughly Mexican mother, I did know about women being punished for the rest of their lives for some sin that happened somewhere in our collective history. “Eres mujer.” ["You are a woman"] That’s all we need to know. That’s the crime we feministas are still solving. I echo here Helena María Viramontes’ story, “Growing,” where she writes of a father reprimanding his daughter:
“Tú eres mujer, he thundered, and that was the end of any argument, any question, and the matter was closed because he said those three words as if they were a condemnation from the heavens and so she couldn’t be trusted.” (4)
When I first learned the Mexican story of La Llorona, I immediately recognized that the weeping woman, that aberration, that criminal against nature, was a sister. Maybe by being a lesbian, my identification was more easily won, fully knowing my crime was tantamount to hers. Any way you slice it, we were both a far and mournful cry from obedient daughters. But I am convinced that La Llorona is every Mexican woman’s story, regardless of sexuality. She is sister to us all.
I began to investigate the myth. From the first paragraph I ever read on the subject in Literatura chicana texto y contexto to José Limon’s analysis and Rudolfo Anaya’s fictionalization, (5) to interviews with farmworkers in Oregon, to finally sitting for days in the San Francisco public library scanning roll upon roll of that neon blue microfilm for every account of infanticide ever printed in the daily news — no version ever told me enough.
The official version was a lie. I knew that from the same bone that first held the memory of the cuento [story]. Who would kill their kid over some man dumping them? It wasn’t a strong enough reason. And yet everyone from Anaya to the Euripides was telling us so. Well, if traición [betrayal] was the reason, could infanticide then be retaliation against misogyny, an act of vengeance not against one man, but man in general for a betrayal much graver than sexual infidelity: the enslavement and deformation of our sex?
A partera [midwife] friend posed another possibility to me. As a woman who had worked as a nurse-mid-wife for many years among mechicanas, she was intimately connected with the full range of maternal instincts, both sanctioned and taboo. “Infanticide is not a homicide,” she told me, “but a suicide. A mother never completely separates from her child. She always remains a part of her children.” But what is it then we are killing off in ourselves and why?
The answer to these questions resides, of course, in allowing La Llorona to speak for herself, to say something other than “mis hijos” for all eternity. When this dawned on me, so did the beginnings of a play I began four years ago and still has me working and wondering. I called it a “Mexican Medea” (6) in reference to both the Greek Euripedes drama and the Llorona story. As Euripides’ dramatization of the story of Medea turned to the Greek gods as judge and consul, I turned to the pre-Columbian Aztec deities. In my research, I discovered another story, the Aztec creation myth of “the Hungry Woman.” And this story became pivotal for me, an aperture in my search to unlock la fuerza [the strength] de La Llorona in our mechicana lives.
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 blows, you can hear her crying for food. (7)
Who else other than La Llorona could this be? It is always La Llorona’s cries we mistake for the wind, but she’s not crying for her children. She’s crying for food, sustenance. Tiene hambre la mujer. (She is hungry, the woman). And at last, upon encountering this myth — this pre-capitalist, pre-colonial, pre-catholic mito — my jornada 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/vulture/madwoman) because she refuses to forget that her half-life is not a natural-born fact.
I am looking for the insatiable woman. I am reminded of Mexican artist, Guadalupe García’s, cry in her performance piece, Coatlicue’s Call. (8) She laments, “I am looking for a woman called Guadalupe.” Maybe we’re all looking para la misma mujer (for the same woman). When La Llorona kills her children, she is killing a male-defined Mexican motherhood that robs us of our womanhood. I first discussed this desire to kill patriarchal motherhood in relation to another Mexican myth, the “Birth of Huitzilopotchli.” (9) The Mexican myth recounts the story of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess who attempts to kill her mother, Coatlicue, when she learns of her aging mother’s pregnancy. As feministas, including myself, have interpreted the myth, Coyolxauhqui hopes to halt, through the murder of her mother, the birth of the War God, Huitzilopotchli. She is convinced that Huitzilopotchil’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.
This ancient myth reminds Mexican women that, culturally-speaking, there is no mother-woman to manifest who is defined by us outside of patriarchy. We have never had the power to do the defining. We wander not in search of our dead children, but our lost selves, our lost sexuality, our lost spirituality, our lost sabiduría [wisdom]. No wonder La Llorona is so irrefutably punished, destined to walk the earth en busca de sus niños [looking for her children0]). To find and manifest our true selves (that “woman before the fall,” I wrote elsewhere) (10) what might we have to change in the world as we know it? “¡Mis Hijos!” ["My children!"] she cries. But, I hear her saying something else. “¡Mis hijas perdidas!” [My lost children!"]. And I answer. “Te busco a tí también, madre/hermana/hija.” ["I am looking for you as well, mother/sister/daughter"].I am looking for the hungry woman.
“La Llorona,” “The Hungry Woman,” “The Dismemberment of Coyolxauhqui” — these are the stories that have shaped us. We, Chicanas, remember them in spite of ourselves, and our families’ and society’s efforts to have us forget. We remember these stories where mothers worked in factories, not fields and children played in city plunges, not country creeks. The body remembers.
Each of my plays, each poem, each piece of fiction has been shaped by a story. Most writers will tell you the same. My play, Shadow of a Man, (11) grew out of an extended image, a story my mother told me of her dead father appearing to her at the foot of her bed. He was silhouetted against the darkness, hat dipped over one eye, a shadow across his face. “I knew it was a sign of death,” she said. “But I didn’t know whose.” Another of my plays, Heroes and Saints, (12) whose protagonist is a seventeen-year-old Chicana without a body, began in response to a story Luis Valdez wrote entitled The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa. (13) In it, he is looking for the missing head. In Heroes, I am looking for the missing body, the female one. In both plays, Valdez and I are looking for a revolution.
What does it take to uncover those stories with the power to inspire insurrection? How do we breed a revolutionary generation of Chicana art?
Stories inspire stories and the best and most revolutionary of stories are recuperated from the deepest places of our unconscious, which is the reservoir for our collective memory. The best of writers speaks with a “we” that rises up from all of us. So, that when we truly succeed at our story-telling, we cannot wholly take the credit. I grow impatient with the growing body of Chicano and Chicana literature that is purposely colloquial, the tourist literature, written for audiences who are strangers to the cultural and political geography of our symbols, images and history. When we write in translation, we never move beyond our colonized status. When we write for ourselves, our deepest selves, the work travels into the core of our experience with such cultural nuance that it illuminates a total humanity, one which requires a revolution to make it manifest. Our truest words and images are suppressed by the cultural mainstream. They do not entertain and entertainment yields profit. So . . . some of us . . . we learn to entertain and are rewarded. We right less well, less deeply, less truly ourselves. (14)
Still, I know our promise. I have glimpsed it. Sometimes in the first few “forbidden” chapters of an unfinished novel by the published poet. Sometimes in the roughly-scripted monologue of a sixteen-year-old xicana-navajo dyke thinking she’s a vato loco. Sometimes in the bleeding trails of watercolor taking the shape of a severed vulva-heart on a piece of mata [coconut] paper. Sometimes. I still believe in the power of story to change our lives, whether it’s a story you stumble across spilling out of the mouth of a commie dyke at a vegetarian restaurant or one your bisabuela [great-grandmother] told your abuelita [granny] and your abuelita told your mami, but your mami “forgot” to mention to you. There is revolutionary potential in the story. True stories empower, the way lies disempower. Thus, when we come across a true story-teller, she must be protected and nurtured.
At the time of this writing, I am still working on my Llorona story. Of course, I want to believe it is revolutionary. (15) At some point, I may have to accept that “Mexican Medea” may only succeed in capturing a splinter of what I know in my bones about Llorona. I confess, it’s a harder story to write now, being a madre in the flesh with all the beauty and burden of those lessons of Mexican motherhood. Pero sigo adelante. (But I go forward). And maybe if this play doesn’t satisfy my hunger for la Llorona’s story, maybe another later work will. Maybe it’s a story I’ll work on for the rest of my life in many shapes and voices and styles. Maybe, as James Baldwin once said, we each just have one story to tell and every writing effort is just an attempt to say it better this time. Maybe somewhere in me I believe that if I could get to the heart of Llorona, I could get to the heart of the mexicanaprison and in the naming I could free us . . . if only just a little. Maybe the effort is a life well-spent.
Cherríe Moraga is a poet, playwright and essayist, and the co-editor of the classic feminist anthologies This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color and Cuentos: Stories by Latinas. She lives in Oakland, USA.
This article has originally been published in Cherríe Moraga: Loving in the War Years. Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios, South End Press, Cambridge, USA, 2000. It’s a slightly shortened version.
(1) This essay was originally presented as an address at El Frente Latina Writers’ Conference at Cornell University on October 14, 1995, organized by Helena María Viramontes, among others. Feminist philosopher, María Lugones, whom I reference later in this essay, was also present at the conference. On February 22, 1996, the lecture was again delivered at the University of California, Los Angeles, sponsored by The César Chávez Center and the English Department.
(2) Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1991).
(3) Vivian Gornick. (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
(4) Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, eds. Moraga, Alma Gómez, and Mariana Romo-Carmona (New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1983).
(5) Literatura chicana, texto y contexto, eds. Antonia Castañeda Shular, Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, and Joseph Sommers (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972). Jose E. Limón, “La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women, and the Political Unconscious,” in Between Borders: Essays On Mexicana/Chicana History, ed. Adelaida R. Del Castillo (Encino: Floricanto Press, 1990): 399-432. Rudolfo A. Anaya, The Legend of La Llorona (Berkeley, CA: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International, 1984).
(6) The play is now entitled, The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea.
(7) From The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs, ed. John Bierhorst (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1984).
(8) Coatlicue’s Call/ El llamado de Coatlicue (conceived and performed by Guadalupe García; written and directed by Cherríe Moraga), premiered at Theater Artaud in San Francisco, 25 October 1990. It was produced by Brava! For Women in the Arts.
(9) See my essay “En busca de la fuerza femenina,” The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993): 73.
(10) Ibid., 72.
(11) Shadow of a Man is published in Heroes and Saints and Other Plays. Albuquerque, NM: West End Press, 1994.
(13) Find Publishing Info for Shrunken Head.
(14) These concerns over the state of our art as Chicano/as — for whom and for what purpose we write — have plagued me over a decade. See “Art in América con Acento” in The Last Generation, op. cit., p.58-60.
(15) As the second edition Loving in the War Years went to press in June 2000, The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea has been completed, published, but remains unproduced. It .appears in a collection of plays entitled Out of the Fringe: Contemporary Latina/Latino Theatre and Performance, edited by Caridad Svich and María Teresa Marrero. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2000. It will also be collected in a volume of plays entitled Some Place Not Here: Five Plays by Cherríe Moraga, to be published by West End Press of Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2001.