LOVING IN THE WAR YEARS
By Cherríe Moraga
South End Press, 1983
Out of Print
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Book Review #4 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
This is a brave book, of a type that had never before been published in the United States. This is a timeless book that has one foot firmly planted in the 1980’s and the other just as solidly rooted in 2012. This book could, in fact, have been published yesterday, for its pain and truth and observations on humanity ring just as true today as when it first saw the light of day.
This is a trailblazing work that dared give public voice to something lying dormant throughout the literary history of American Hispanics: Latina sexuality broadly, and Latina homosexuality specifically. But though this book deals in large part with a topic that is still taboo for many Latinos, let no reader shy away from Moraga’s work. Doing so would be a lost opportunity to open our eyes and souls to understanding humanity better. Through essays, poems, brief stories, and journal entries, Moraga forces us to think deeply on why men and women interact as we do, why we follow traditions blindly, why social injustice is so globally entrenched, and why we hardly ever stop to examine our lives to understand what it is that our spirits truly need.
Loving in the War Years is at once Moraga’s intimate, autobiographical reflection on love in all its senses and nuances; and a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. It is at once yin and yang, at once left-brain, right-brain, at once heart-wrenching and coolly analytical. This book was written by a poet…by a scientist…by a spiritualist…by an atheist…by a heterosexual…by a lesbian. And yes, all of these are Cherríe Moraga. The book is such a pot of delicious stew, filled as it is with the flavors and aromas of multiple genres and perspectives, that it must have driven librarians nutty upon its publication. How to classify it?
Like Moraga herself—who is half-White and half-Mexican—Loving in the War Years is full of life’s contradictions. Moraga’s immigrant, farm-worker mother is the linchpin in her life, the one who taught the author everything about authentic love. It is she who insists on a strong education for her children, and who sacrifices mightily to enable Cherríe to attend top-notch schools and avoid the hardships and discrimination that she, an illiterate laborer, suffers. Yet the mother-daughter relationship is also tainted by the mother’s unpredictable aloofness and disregard for Cherríe’s individuality and worthiness as a woman. This tension sometimes leads Moraga to feel angry and hateful toward her, though she loves her mother above all.
Moraga’s White father is her ticket to a life among privileged people, the cause of her light skin, and ability to “pass” as White; yet his passivity and inability to love anyone render him irrelevant in her life. As Moraga evolves in her understanding, she realizes that it is her “Whiteness” that has spared her much of the prejudice and marginalization that her Latino schoolmates and neighbors endure. It is her “Whiteness” that got her into the best classes, the best colleges, and helped her rub elbows with the advantaged folks. But she also detests this Whiteness that made her an unwitting participant in the game of classifying people and thereby taking advantage of them. She feels like she betrayed her people.
This theme of being “la vendida” (“the sell-out”) runs through Moraga’s book and helps title its most compelling section: “A Long Line of Vendidas.” Moraga explores the various ways in which she was a “vendida”: leveraging her Whiteness for her academic and professional advancement; turning her back on schoolmates who weren’t in her elite classes; turning her back on lovers who created discomfort in her life; turning her back on Latino men as she defied her culture’s dictates. Her sell-out, however, is tempered by recollections of how her Latino culture turned against her throughout her early life: She wasn’t brown enough. She was half-White. She didn’t quite belong in their groups. Like an unlucky criminal decreed guilty prematurely, Moraga was often seen by her peers and others as not Chicana enough. She ultimately had no choice but to lean on her Whiteness as she became more independent, because her White half led her to greater personal freedom than her Chicana half did.
Freedom and oppression are major themes for Moraga. Her sexuality is an integral part of her identity, as she feels is the case for all women, especially Latinas. Yet it is her sexual identity as a lesbian that simultaneously frees and oppresses Moraga: she is freed from the Mexican culture’s mythical view of women as penetrated and depraved; and she is oppressed by society’s rejection (especially her Latino culture’s rejection) of homosexuality as depraved and “queer.” Through her poetry, essays, and heartfelt stories that lay bare her soul yet are not self-pitying, Moraga shares with us her painful journey in recognizing her “queer”-ness at the tender age of ten, hiding this part of self from her family, fighting it by engaging in heterosexual affairs for several years, then accepting her lesbianism as her authentic sexuality. It is a touching journey that meanders in non-linear recollections throughout her book in and out of childhood, in and out of adolescence and young adulthood. She finally settles on intellectual discussions of women’s issues delivered professorially toward the end of her book.
Women, she says, are defined by our gender, and sexual politics rule our lives, with male supremacy controlling our access to freedom. Moraga describes marriage as man-made for the purpose of controlling women’s sexual activity. She focuses laser-like on women’s reproductive issues and sounds amazingly like the women activists of 2012 in her denouncement of patriarchy: “Female sexuality must be controlled, whether it be by the Church or the State….Patriarchal systems…determine when and how women reproduce.”
Echoing current political campaigning, Moraga wrote in her 1983 book: “In the U.S., the New Right’s response to a weakening economic system…is to institute legislation to ensure governmental control of women’s reproductive rights.” She went on to condemn Conservatives’ “advocacy of the Human Rights Amendment, which allows the fetus greater right to life than the mother. These backward political moves hurt all women, but especially the poor and ‘colored.’” Crediting the Black Feminist movement’s Combahee River Collective for her inspiration and perspective on oppression, Moraga adamantly sees global oppression of any people as being rooted in a toxic mix of racism, sexism, and classism. We can’t address one without the others.
Loving in the War Years has ample artistic merit simply because of its poetic weaving of words and feelings. Moraga speaks from the heart. Its status is heightened, however, because this was the first book written and published in the United States by a Latina lesbian. Also one of the first modern American Latina feminists, Moraga’s career has been marked by university teaching assignments across the U.S., prestigious literary awards and fellowships, and solid recognition of her playwriting talents. Currently an Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University, California, Moraga is the author or co-editor of more than a dozen books, chief among them the prize-winning collection of feminist writings titled This Bridge Called My Back. Visit her website at http://www.cherriemoraga.com .
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.