On the surface, Cherríe Moraga’s newest memoir, Native Country of the Heart, explores her mother’s life and battle with Alzheimer’s disease. But, to Moraga, the stakes are even higher.
“The book also has to deal with a larger memory loss, a cultural loss. Not just culture leaving my family personally through my mother, but also leaving many of us as Mexican-Americans,” Moraga says.
For decades, Moraga has used personal stories to explore the fraught relationship that so many Latinx people have with place, history, and the dominant culture.
“We have to learn intergenerationally,” Moraga says. “We have to be able to go home to walk through the world as we truly are.” Native Country is Moraga’s attempt to go home.
Elvira Moraga’s life took her from the cotton fields of Southern California to working as a cigarette girl in a high-end casino in Tijuana in the 1930s to raising Cherríe and her siblings in San Gabriel, California. This memoir is Moraga’s attempt to come to terms with everything from her parents’ strict Catholicism—a young Moraga was sure her mother would not accept her if she came out of the closet—to what it means to live as a Mexican-American on land taken from Indigenous people.
As Moraga writes, it was her “mother’s task to sow and hoe and grow us up with a Mexican heart in an AngloAmerica that had already occupied the village.”
From the geography and history of the land itself to the precarious position of women and homosexuals in both Anglo and Chicano society, Moraga uses her mother’s life as a light to fill the darkness. Yet Moraga is never just writing about one person or even one family. Instead, the writing is an exploration and a process of journeying home and rediscovering what that concept even means.
“I’ve always gone home since I was a young writer in my 20s,” she says. “We were trying to go home with This Bridge Called My Back,” the groundbreaking collection of feminist essays edited by Moraga and the trailblazing Gloria E. Anzaldúa.
Moraga has a prodigious and wide-ranging body of work—from academic books and essays to poems, memoirs, plays, and more. If all that work could be wrapped around a single idea, it might be the struggle of holding onto “home” in the face of ecological devastation, an indifferent capitalism, and the hateful rhetoric of so many political leaders.
“How do you communicate [what’s important]?” Moraga asks. “Trying to make people conscious about what’s being lost right in front of them, and how what’s being lost is not extra, it’s fundamental, is really important for the quality of our lives and how we’re even going to live on this planet.”
It’s not a surprise, then, that Moraga draws so much inspiration from her work with students. With Celia Herrera Rodríguez, Moraga started “Las Maestras Center” at the University of California Santa Barbara with the hope of fostering Chicano and Indigenous arts.
“With this generation of young people, you can feel a certain hopelessness many of them have,” Moraga says. “We have to learn intergenerationally. We have to be able to ‘go home’ to walk through the world as we truly are. [Young people] are hungry for it.”
For Moraga, examining the past isn’t about moving backward, it’s about finding a new, more hopeful path forward based on the cultures we’ve all lost. Elvira Moraga fought to raise a family caught between multiple cultures, and then she fought to hold on to her dignity in the face of an unrelenting disease. Native Country of the Heart picks up that struggle, and readers who open their hearts and minds to the story just might find their own way forward.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His essays, fiction, and interviews are widely published.