PLAYWRIGHT, poet, and essayist Cherríe Moraga sees the world as a place where the body knows and “the land has memory,” as she states in this interview. In one of her plays, Watsonville: Some Place Not Here (1995), a tree saves a community of canning plant workers from an earthquake. In Heroes and Saints (1992), she shows how farmworkers’ bodies pay the price for greed that pushes the land to exceed the limits of what it organically produces, with the lead character Cerezita born as only a head resulting from her mother’s toxic contamination from agricultural pesticides. In her post-apocalyptic millennial play The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea (2001), she shows how exploitation and abuse are deeply rooted in patriarchal values by retelling mythologies from Aztec, Maya, and Greek traditions through the tragic relationship between a mother and son searching for a place to belong in a future shaped by ambition and exclusion.
Moraga was born and raised in Southern California in the days when the civil rights, queer, antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements were changing the terms of public and private life. Her childhood home was just one long block from the San Gabriel Mission, established in 1771, and within view of the San Gabriel Mountains, smog allowing. Her mother was Mexican-American and her father Anglo-American, and this mixed identity factors into her work.
Her writings have shaped fundamental aspects of contemporary woman of color feminist thought, including debates on ethnic nationalism, indigeneity, sexuality, and social justice. In addition to her plays and essay collections, she was coeditor with Gloria Anzaldúa of the landmark feminist collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color ( 2015). Her works are essential reading toward understanding environmental issues from a Latinx perspective. Her newest play, The Mathematics of Love, was produced in San Francisco’s Brava Theater in August 2017. She has recently completed a new memoir called Native Country of a Heart, from which she has been giving readings all over the U.S. for the past few months, including at the most recent gathering of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment at the University of California, Davis in late June.
I first came across Cherríe’s work in the fall of 1997 when I visited Sisterhood Bookstore in Westwood, where I went to buy the books for my first quarter of classes at UCLA. I arrived looking for the books that Professor Nussbaum asked us to buy for her course on eighteenthcentury British literature, but as soon as I walked into the textbook room, Moraga’s book The Last Generation was propped on a stand, and I felt like the woman on the cover was staring straight at me. A painting by artist Ester Hernández titled Mis Madres is on the cover of that book, and the image is of an indigenous woman wrapped in her rebozo, arm uplifted holding Earth in one palm. I left that store one book short for my British literature seminar, carrying The Last Generation tucked under my arm. That book changed my life; it convinced me beyond a doubt that I had to write a literary history of Chicana writing about the environment. Ever since that day, I have been wanting to have this conversation with Cherríe about her work.
Priscilla Solis Ybarra: When I’m writing about you, or when I’m introducing you to my classes, I describe you as a Chicana lesbian feminist. Is that accurate?
Cherríe Moraga: I think that’s accurate. I think it also depends on who’s asking, right? I identify my work usually in two ways. One is in terms of women of color feminism. Sometimes I reference myself specifically as a Chicana feminist in my work, but it is always under the rubric of women of color feminism. The idea of identity is always about connections — that in the specificity of my experience, as I describe it, the readers may draw meaning regarding their own specific conditions and shape a politics from it. For decades, that has been my mandate: the possibility of politically engaging women of color, queer folk, and others. In the last few decades, I have come to identify my work through the lens of Chicana indigenous thought and practice. I’m also very interested in intimately looking at questions of death and aging and dying. Those are the areas that continue to return me to questions of land and environment. I just don’t use the word environment much, you know?
PSY: Why don’t you use the word environment very much?
CM: Well, because it’s not an image. As a writer, I seek language that can hold memory and meaning, language that grounds knowledge. In my play The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, Medea says to her son, “You are my land.” She can’t really say, “You’re the environment.”
PSY: When did you come into awareness of “environmentalism”?
CM: I think my awareness about environmentalism began in high school because I had a couple of white girlfriends who were involved in the movement. These were the hippie days — the late 1960s. I respected them, but they seemed foreign. But, by the time I got to college it was definitely something I cared about. I remember I had one of those peace symbols on my car to protest the Vietnam War. It was green, so it was also an environmental decal.
I went to Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. The school had retained its Catholic women’s college name, but by the time I got there, it became coed and utterly radical. The students were mostly these white, very privileged hippies. People were dropping acid and practicing “free love” and all kinds of things. I was just commuting from my little San Gabriel home. It was hard to make the connection between the world of the university and my Mexican world at home. The school also had all kinds of lesbians there, and I was scared to death of all of it. Everything was a threat and ironically also attractive to me.
Immaculate Heart was also where I discovered feminism. And it’s also where I realized that I wanted to figure out how to get free. To me, at that time, getting free had everything to do with the environment, or better said, “nature.” When I was a kid, I was mostly removed from nature, but for about eighteen months of my life, when I was eight years old, my family lived in Huntington Beach and our upstairs apartment was just a stone’s throw away from the ocean.
Old Huntington Beach was nothing like it is now. In 1960, there were whole huge swaths of beach with no development. Each day, my sister and my brother and I, we’d go out on the water after all the tourists had left. We’d go way past the waves and we’d just be out there, floating on our inner tubes. During those moments in the ocean, it was completely clear to me, “This is how it feels to be free.”
After college, I moved into Los Angeles and I started meeting people who had access to nature, who liked to hike and swim in natural lakes. These were white kids. I didn’t know Mexicans who did that. My association was that only white people got to be free, and they got to be in “beautiful places.” I remember being in college with this girl that I had a terrible crush on, and she invited me to go camping with her. My heart was pounding and everything, but I told her “no” because I would have to ask my mother permission. They were all free, but my mother was going to say, “Who is she? I don’t know who she is. She has to come to the house.” You can’t translate your Mexican experience. You just don’t want to have to go and say, “Yes I’d like to go with you, but you have to meet my mom. My mom has to approve of you.” I knew my mother was never going to approve of her. Because she was “free.”
If you can’t deal with the impoverished conditions of the people who are living in the
environment that you want to protect, it’s not going to work.
PSY: I’m really intrigued by this idea of freedom that you talk about — the idea of “free” as being part of a middle- and upper-class and white experience in relationship to the natural environment. What does “free” look like for us, for people of color?
CM: The thing is that I was just speaking from my perspective as a teenager. And I think a lot of young people of color feel this way when they look at what white people have access to. I don’t feel that way now. What I do see is that white people stole it. You can go to Yosemite . . . you can go any place of natural beauty in this country and white people are always there. But now I know they’re not entitled to it anymore.
Of course, other than just realizing that white people are not entitled to places of natural beauty, one can also respond with irritation and anger. But I think that the sense about being free to me is — and I remember writing this line — that nature has no prejudice. Like when I was eight years old and floating way out in the Pacific Ocean past the waves breaking. You just lie on the tube and the sun is setting and your back is away from the city, and you’re just looking out onto the horizon. In those moments of that kind of awareness, your personality disappears. And when your personality disappears, you become part of the collective “we.” In those moments without prejudice, your little ego just goes away — because you are surrounded by something so much grander than you. And that’s what we refer to as God.
That’s why animism makes so much sense. You’d better pray to that [pointing to the sky]; the sun is God because without it you’d be dead. Mexican people, Chicanos, Latinos — we are from an animist people because we are indigenous peoples. Christianity is an overlay. But that’s the human experience too, and that’s why all those rich people spend so much money trying to buy a connection to the earth.
I remember moments in my trips to the ancient sites of Mexico — those outside the cities, next to the sea or deep in the jungles, where I finally felt like nobody was judging me. That I was Mexican enough, even in my solitude. To be in those places that had such memory. And it wasn’t like I felt like I belonged to those temple structures or that I could disappear there. I just felt like it was my Mexico. And that somehow, I had some relationship to this land, that landmass. And that’s the best sense of belonging.
PSY: Yes, which seems to me to be our “free.” Belonging. Connection. It’s not about going out into nature and leaving everything behind. It’s about affirming the connections.
CM: Yes, yes.
PSY: And I think that’s one of the fundamental dissonances between mainstream environmentalism that’s about individualism and getting free of the grid, or the culture or something. It’s really about deepening those connections first.
CM: I remember that movie, Into the Wild, where that boy goes off and then he dies in the wilderness. It’s very heart-wrenching, but some part of me asks, Y quien te manda? Who the hell do you think you are? Or like the other dude who got eaten up by the grizzly bear, filming his own death, believing the grizzlies loved him. But, of course, I had compassion for them because they were rebelling against all the bullshit of a life bent on “success” and accumulation. But that’s the only way they know how to do it?
PSY: The farther you go out, the more vulnerable you become to the greater forces of nature, which are the very ones that can teach you that you need to live within limits.
CM: Yes. You got to come home.
PSY: Is environmentalism ultimately about justice, or is justice ultimately about our relationship with the earth?
CM: How do we write about environmental issues if not about injustice? Take Standing Rock, for example. The Sierra Club didn’t do that. This is not what they had in mind. And to act like somehow the Sierra Club members are better guardians of the earth than native people is to me one of the biggest lies. It is completely unconscionable. Their formula to protect so-called native land or pristine land absolutely has no relationship to the people that have a history of knowing how to guard the earth. Once you get consciousness and make political connections, you see that something like the Sierra Club is single-issue. As long as you have a progressive movement that’s a single-issue movement, it’s never going to be an effective movement. If you can’t deal with the impoverished conditions of the people who are living in the environment that you want to protect, it’s not going to work.
So your question was, “Is environmentalism ultimately about justice, or is justice ultimately about environmentalism?” I would tend to say the latter, but it is a reciprocal relationship. Injustices started when we began to lose our relationship to nature and treat it just as a resource to be commodified. And with the ownership of land came the ownership of women, since the earliest notions of “property.” We have lost track of the fact that the guardians of the earth and the people that, traditionally, were connected most to the land were women. They have worked to maintain el hogar, the protocols and ceremonial life constructed to keep harmony with the elements of the planet: earth, fire, water, and wind. Traditionally, women have resisted the idea that land is property, that you can put a flag on it and own it, like you can the moon. A flag on the moon? That is the height of patriarchal ignorance, really, right?
I feel like I’m very ignorant, but some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about living with some kind of balance in the world has something to do with this sense that land has memory. When you understand that land has memory, if you violate the land ignoring its origins, then it just brings bad blood. And that is a foundational component of indigenous thought. Even globally, a foundational component of indigenous thought is that land is not property. And so, when you make land property, then anybody who was originally on it has no entitlement to it. And in that land grab you have genocide. And you can call genocide by the name of a lot of religions. Spanish colonialism is a good case in point.
PSY: You said that at a certain point you knew that land had memory, or you had a feeling, intuited, that land had memory before you knew that that was so. Do you have some particular memories of how you learned this?
CM: When I was about nine years old, we took the only road trip of my childhood to see our relatives in Phoenix. My mother’s sister lived there with her family on this little piece of land, right at the foot of Camelback Mountain. They had a few acres, a couple horses; my tía kept her jardín. They were living a more traditional life than us, closer to our Sonoran Desert origins. And I remember driving back to Los Angeles, riding through the desert in the back of our Buick station wagon. It was so hot, we had the tailgate down and all the windows open. And I’m just sitting back there, watching the stars in the sky, the mountains, black shadows in the distance. And I get this feeling . . . that I’ve been there before, not just been, but a sense of a whole life. It was like I just knew it, you know? And it was the weirdest thing for me because at the time, I didn’t really know anything about being from that place. I knew that my grandparents were from Sonora and that we had relations in Arizona. Later, I came to learn that all of the mestizaje that is Moraga is from that area, from northern Sonora and Southern Arizona. Later I wondered, What was that? Since then I have returned many, many times to the Sonoran Desert, and each time I remember that nine-year-old moment: the smell was right, the heat was right. It’s still unshakable for me.
In the ’80s, I spent a good amount of time in the Southwest and Texas, where I encountered native women, Chicanas, having a ceremonial life. I began to witness more and more women of color just being out on the land, working it, enjoying it, cultivating an honorable relationship to it. Suddenly it was somehow “cultural” and collective to be out on the land — not like I’m just singly taking my young lesbian self out to the mountains and backpacking. During those years, the sense of land somehow holding memory began to grow for me.
I have to say again that I am ignorant. I don’t know a lot, but I know what I experienced. That intuitive sense that “I’ve been here before” reminds us, tells you again that you’re not crazy. This invisible place of knowing is actually quite visible, made manifest through the natural world. That’s what I now understand as an indigenous point of view. But at nine, I just knew it was so — and how does that happen? How do we allow for people to know at that deeper level when the pace of things grows increasingly fast? You have to slow down for that to happen.
PSY: It sounds from what you’re saying that learning that land has memory has been a journey of embracing your indigenous identity as a Chicana.
CM: Yes, but it’s also a work in progress! I have always experienced my Mexican-ness as mestizo. I’ve never experienced it as Spanish. I’m not saying there’s no Spanish elements in it; I mean certainly there’s Catholicism. But the Catholicism that I learned at those mission schools versus what I learned at home was quite distinct. My mother’s altar was spiritual, not necessarily religious.
We have lost track of the fact that the guardians of the earth and the people that,
traditionally, were connected most to the land were women.
The border between who is indigenous or Chicana or Mexican American is just an external imposition. If you look at who we are, our home values and daily practices, our relationship to land, even if it’s just caring for a geranium in a coffee can, we may recognize that they are indigenous American ways. And I think if one thinks that’s true, then one has to say that those external categories, along with the whole question of “environmentalism” as a category, are not making us any healthier in terms of our relationship to the earth. As raza, we have to feel like we’re not stealing anything by claiming an indigenous identity. We have to feel like this is a gesture to get us all well. You can’t talk about the environment without talking about those indigenous relationships to the land.
PSY: To what extent is our responsibility as writers, thinkers, and teachers to connect with those movements going on in other parts of the world? How do we balance our connections to the wider movements with our local efforts?
CM: I think those connections happen organically. My partner, Celia, and I belong to a group called La Red Xicana Indigena. Through that group we became aware of the Winnemem Wintu and their struggles around water rights. They are fighting for access rights to the McCloud River, which is the Winnemem River, where they have lived since the beginning of their existence. They are protectors of the salmon, that’s how they identify as a people. Through a series of connections, they began to work with aboriginal folks from New Zealand, who are also protectors of the salmon. Their elders are my age now, and those elders talk about how, back in the day, their elders described how the rivers used to be so thick when the salmon were spawning, you could walk across the river on the backs of those salmon! That’s such a great image. Talk about metaphor. But now, because of all of the diversions to take water to the Central Valley and to L.A., the salmon can’t even make it up to spawn.
The Winnemem are a very small nation of people, but they had this great moment when they learned that the eggs of their original salmon had been exported more than a century before, to the rivers of New Zealand. And so they journeyed to visit the Ma¯ori there and to bring their salmon home to revive the population here. It was this beautiful thing. That’s transnational environmentalism among indigenous peoples. There’s incredible progressive consciousness that comes with seeing how all of it is related.
PSY: In your essay “Weapons of the Weak,” you talk about your relationship with death, and how affirming its place in your life “helps you toward a daily practice of an ethos of justice.” How do you see this value appear in your literary works? How can death help us better understand the human place in nature?
CM: Huge questions! While I was working on my memoir, I was going through the process of watching my mother die. What I thought was going to be the most horrible experience in the world ended up being one of the most valuable. Death and near death reminds you that “you’re not all that” — that you’re going to die even if you have a long, long life, regardless of what you think about the afterlife or spirit world. The dis-ease of so much of Western civilization is that we imagine we can escape death. When you realize you’re not all that, there’s a kind of humility to be found there.
In witnessing death, you begin to see yourself as a member of this creation and that there’s an inherent sense of reciprocity and a sense of interdependence and respect that can come of that. There’s a freedom in this realization that you’re not special. The denial and fear of death makes possession, possessiveness, and overconsumption possible. If we would just pull back a bit, slow down, and ask the “why” of each of our actions, based on the utter assurance of death, we would all be better off environmentally.
PSY: Yes. And your comments bring to mind the deep irony of what we do. We talk about, write about, teach about whatever we can do to bring attention to the value of our culture. But one of the most fundamental values of our Mexican-American culture is humility.
CM: I know. I love it; it’s such a contradiction!
PSY: And death, or acceptance of death, is part of that humility. Our culture is okay with letting go, and that’s something really important that we can share, that people can learn from. In your essay “An Irrevocable Promise,” you state that a major refrain in your work is to insist on a presence where before only absences have been perceived. What are the presences and absences of Chicana environmentalisms?
CM: What comes to me is just what I said before about being a child and knowing truly “in my bones” that I knew that Sonoran Desert once as home. Coming to consciousness changes your mind. Your mind suddenly comes into a focus that wasn’t there before and what had been invisible becomes visible to you alone. It remains “absent” from the larger literal world. This very “present” sense about what is absent from the larger world is all that I’ve known as a writer. I only write what’s absent, in order to perhaps justify its “presence” in the world, believing this will make a better world, a more balanced environment.
I have to honestly say, it has at times been a very painful road, this writer’s life, when I, myself, have often been made invisible. But I have also had enormous affirmations. To go places and have a young person come up to you and say, “You changed my life”; it still matters, above all else.
I’ve had a blessed life. In the late 1970s, when I began writing Loving in the War Years, it was to make visible our existence. Chicana lesbian literature did not exist. And that’s what you’re doing here. You’re trying to fill in a blank that is a lie. It isn’t really blank — that’s why you work to fill it in. The blank is a lie. O
This conversation is excerpted from Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial (eds. Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, Temple University Press, 2019).