Native Country of the Heart was the right book at the right time. It read like a personal letter from Cherríe Moraga to me, and I will be forever grateful to her for writing this memoir about her and her mother, Elvira—or Vera, as her family and friends called her. Moraga wrote the book in English, but, as she writes in an Author’s Note, “Spanish in this work emerged when the writing naturally evoked it … for the reader to experience this writing as a Mexican American work,” as expressed in this passage where Elvira speaks to her daughter: “No, mi’jita!” she cries. “No me digas esto. Not that. No puede ser.”
In the epigraph to the book, Moraga wrote: “There came a time in my life when I began to look backwards, like those mixed-race figures depicted in eighteenth-century Mexican Casta paintings. In the portrait where I imagine myself, I am ‘una salta pa’tras,’ a ‘throwback’ mixed-blood child. She sits upon the white father’s lap and twists her head almost violently backwards to gaze upon the countenance and the continent of the Indian mother.” In Native Country of the Heart, Moraga, the daughter of a mestiza mother and Anglo father, writes about the arc of her life, especially her growing awareness and understanding of her mother’s indigenous ancestors and their ancient land on which Moraga grew up in San Gabriel, California, just east of Los Angeles.
Moraga’s story of her journey to understand her mother and her mother’s heritage is the core of the memoir. But she also tells the story of another journey—about her growing awareness of being a homosexual—as when she wrote, “I remember feeling myself the body of my brother the first time I grabbed a woman by the waist and escorted her out to the dance floor” and, “By having a body with too much boy in it … And your mind … your mind wanting females like a bandit.”
Moraga left Los Angeles in 1977 to live and work in activist lesbian communities and writing communities, first in San Francisco, then Boston (in 1980), and later in New York. In 1981, she and Gloria E. Anzaldúa co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, and in 1983, she published Loving in the War Years. As fate would have it, Moraga was holed up in an “affordable” hotel in Mexico City when she first held a copy of The Bridge in her hands, “stopping again and again on that paradoxical glyph of words: ‘Chicana Lesbian.'” She continued, “It was 1983 and I had never, in my life, read those two words as the subject of a book.”
After several years in the Northeast, Moraga returned to Southern California “to be Chicana.” For more than 20 years, she was Artist in Residence in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University. She is now in the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she and her creative partner, Celia Herrera Rodríguez, co-founded and co-direct Las Maestras Center for Xicana[x] Indigenous Thought, Art and Social Practice.
Moraga’s mother was born in the United States in 1914, one of many siblings. Her father, Esteban, was a freelance labor contractor. In 1925, at age 11, Elvira picked cotton in the “Imperial Valley, just north of the California-Mexico border,” pulling two heavy bags, one for the cotton she was picking and the other for her three-year-old brother whom she pulled through the fields. When the Great Depression settled over the U.S., Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and other states arrived in California to work in the fields and displaced “two million Mexicans (including MexicanAmericans) [who] were “repatriated” to México to make room for them.” During that time, Esteban voluntarily moved his family south to Tijuana, where Elvira grew up during Tijuana’s “Golden Age of Vice.” When she was 14 years old—and only five-feet-one-inch tall— Elvira worked as a cigarette and hat-check girl at the Salón de Oro at the Agua Caliente, a high-stakes gambling room: “Elvira had a grand life before her children ever came into it.”
Almost half of Native Country is about Elvira’s memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, transition into dementia, and eventual death. In writing about the last few years of Elvira’s life, Moraga weaves together Elvira’s movement away from her living family “to the other side,” to the world of her Indigenous ancestors.
Moraga recalls a 1992 Christmas Eve conversation with her uncle Manuel in his home in Montebello, just a few miles south of where Moraga grew up in San Gabriel, near the San Gabriel Mission. “‘We were the Indians that built the Mission,’ he says, ‘It was all our land, the entire San Gabriel Valley.'” Moraga recalls the “mestizo bodies” of her schoolmates … “immigrant ‘Mexican’ and Native Californian— Tongva, Acjachemen, Chumash, Mohave, Yaqui, Shoshone, Cahuilla, Quechan, O’odham, and more …” (Readers of this review who are familiar with the Los Angeles area will recognize the names of the “descendants” of some of the Tongva Nation settlements: Azucsagna, Cahugna, Kukamogna, Topanga, and Tuyugna.) Moraga says this about the house she grew up in San Gabriel: “that small white house, a house for which I believed I held no nostalgia, a house I had to leave in order to live, a house I marked as the site and source of my rebellion, had been country to my mother.”
Elvira was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2003, at age 89 years. Soon thereafter, her family moved her and their father to an assisted-living facility. She died two years later at age 91. During these few years, Moraga reaches an understanding of her mother’s spiritual life, i.e., the Native spirits that animated her and remained after she died. Moraga writes about the “pull” of the spirits of Vera’s ancestors and other family members and her movement from the world of the living to the world of spirits.
As difficult as it was for Moraga and her family to witness their matriarch’s movement away from them in the final years of her life, Moraga finds comfort in her belief that Elvira was moving into another place, a separate place, where her core being was connecting with spirits from the “other side.” About Elvira’s transition, Moraga wrote, “During those years, I had watched my mother begin to cultivate her dead ancestor relatives as her daily intimates. Spirit relations had come to reside in that small white house and increased in meaning as my mother’s remembered world lessened in importance.” Eventually, Moraga went on, “Spirit relatives … surrounded her.”
Nine months after Elvira’s death, Moraga, her son, and her sister returned to the family home in San Gabriel to see if they had left anything behind when they moved. They were greeted by a Latino, the father of the new owner, who showed them around the yard where Elvira had cared lovingly for her jacaranda, roses, yerba buena, and bougainvillea. Moraga writes about that day on the last page of her memoir: “My mother left her self planted there in those rosebushes in the once Tongva village of Sibangna. That’s it. It was she who brought our Moraga clan to San Gabriel and its surroundings in 1961. I return through these pages.”
I was moved by Moraga’s generosity in sharing, in beautiful prose, her mother’s life and her own journey. My own mother developed dementia near the end of her life, so I was grateful to read Moraga’s take on dementia. I also was moved by Moraga’s and Elvira’s connections, both cognitive and spiritual, to their Indigenous ancestors, not because I have Indigenous ancestors but because I haven’t thought deeply about my own ancestors, who came to America from Norway and Germany and settled on land on which Indigenous peoples had lived for generations. Also, like Moraga—a descendant of Native Americans, Spaniards, and Anglos—I am a descendant of several strands of humanity, some known and others not known. I have not yet reckoned with my heritage. Like Moraga, there have been times “in my life when I began to look backwards,” if only fleetingly and through cloudy lenses. Moraga has helped me see more clearly.