Floating striated sphere/paper flower-like.

Latina on the Border: Musings of a Feminist Immigrant, Part One

What am I but Woman and Other?

While engaging the complex host of issues that accompany immigration, uprooting, and gender awareness, on these pages I try to represent the junction of memory, displacement, and consciousness of difference within a framework of personal reminiscences and reflections on identity: ethnic, gendered, Other. Here I explore how a Cuban-origin U.S. Latina who has resided in the American Southwest for almost two thirds of her life, and who consciously defines herself within the (at times conflictive) parameters of gender, race/ethnicity, and class, can live in simultaneous marginal psychic spaces while trying to articulate her existential preoccupations.

I begin with adolescent memories, and continue with reflections and explorations of how stories similar to mine have impacted the process. From a gendered perspective, and from an “othered” Latina viewpoint, I try to formulate my own conception of a “Cuban-ness” and a “woman-ness” that is only a hovering position above a gamut of self-recognized locations, psychic as well as physical. My places of being are often my (dis)places. At times, I am even a non-Cuban who only plays at being “ethnically correct”; a gender-defined, class-defined, race-defined, language-marked individual who is allowed to blend into the white mainstream but who is also singled out for her “colorful” otherness.

I am still surprised by what I read in some of my previous work: “No trauma has ever wrenched my insides like leaving my country” (“So Much Water under These Bridges,” 188). When I drive by an apartment building on Northwest Third Street and Eighth Avenue in Miami, Florida (there is a Miami in Arizona), I experience an odd mixture of sadness and physical emptiness (I used to call it “horror”), tinged with sweetness. I lived there from April 1961 to October 1962; that was the space where I survived the first months of homesickness and anguish, the place where I hoped for a quick end to separation, where I felt abandoned like an emotional orphan, where I wrote my first poems in English trying to make sense of it all. Little did I realize that I would not see my parents for almost ten years, that I would graduate with three college degrees and get married before I would meet them again in Mexico. One day the feeling of uprootedness and misery was so sharp, and I was so distracted by it, that I walked into the path of a moving bus, not seeing it at first but later regretting that it had not hit me and ended my suffering (as I write these lines I marvel at those suicidal thoughts, the only ones I can remember in my whole life). But I am certainly glad I lived to tell the story of that bus and those years; I am happy to be an immigration survivor.

Diaspora scholarship records many instances of the effects of displacement, migration, relocation, and resettlement. Sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut has studied young Asian immigrants to California who came to the United States in their early years (“Agony of Exile,” 1991); for those who immigrated in early childhood, he coined the phrase “the one-and-a-half generation,” because they were not members of a first wave of immigrants but also did not belong to a second generation of U.S.-born citizens of foreign descent. Their plight was later applied to Cuban immigrants by literary and cultural critic Gustavo Pérez Firmat, who coined the phrase “life on the hyphen” for those who were a hybrid mix of two cultures, two nationalities and two languages, born in Cuba but raised in the United States, having immigrated in late childhood (Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban American Way, 1994). Moreover, Rumbaut specified that there were those immigrants who, having come to the United States in very early childhood, and unable to remember anything about their country of birth, belonged to the “one-and-three-quarters” or 1.75 generation. In a personal consultation with the sociologist (10 April 2011), however, he told me that my case rather belonged in the 1.25 generation, composed of people who left their native land in late adolescence and partook of many traits of the “one-and-a-halfers,” but were in possession of clear memories of their time prior to coming to the host country, and had years of schooling in their mother tongue. In the elaboration that Pérez Firmat did of the same concept, the cultural critic observed that “one-and-a-halfers” are “partial insiders in two distinct cultural worlds, and become translation artists;” they belong to “an intermediate immigrant generation whose members spent their childhood or adolescence abroad but grew into adults in America” (1994, 4).

These writings by critics in the field made me understand and accept that I was indeed a hybrid, an “in-betweener” who—much like the novelist Salman Rushdie—lived with the memories of an imaginary homeland as a tenuous foundation for my way of being, and at the same time my own self was a composite of (dis)places and spaces that produced a new human dimension:

The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human beings:
people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material
things; people who have been obliged to define themselves—because they are so defined by
others—by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur,
unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.
(Imaginary Homelands, 119)

In my own case, I have cultivated an autobiographical retelling of life experiences as they become significant through the lens of evocation, and have arrived at some conclusions as to the role they have played in what I choose to call my “constitution of self” (“So Much Water Under These Bridges,” 1995; “Of Borders and Self…,” 2005).

In Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts, Nancy Miller seems to be speaking for many of us when addressing the topic of disregard for boundaries between fiction and criticism, authors and readers, critics and texts. She implies that one of the major accomplishments of feminist analysis has been its systematic deconstruction of such deeply ingrained boundaries as those between public and private, object and subject, “high” and “low” cultures. She also defines personal criticism by characterizing it as autobiography performing as cultural criticism, where the autobiographical, personal argument becomes a way to produce theory and to reclaim critical authority by the confessional, locational, anecdotal, self-representation of the subject (1-3). And this is exactly what I want and intend to do here.

I remember one day in the summer of 1979, gazing out of my kitchen window in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and seeing clearly across la línea, the line, the border. Around that part of the country, where light shines down perpendicular and blinding, one can literally see forever on a clear day. As I watched the landscape beyond my backyard fence and the adjacent terrain, I could see the Cerro San José and the little white houses and tilled fields perched on its foothills: this was the town of Naco, Sonora, on the windy and dusty border across from Naco, Arizona, a loose collection of homes and small businesses lodged on the invisible line between northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. lands. And there I was, Cuban to the soles of my feet (or so I thought at the time), looking at the northernmost reaches of Latin America from a border town home in which I felt out of sorts, at the margins of life. I was navigating through the rough waters of a marital separation, and had just returned from a trip to Cuba, the first journey back in the eighteen odd years since I had left the country of my birth. I was literally looking at life from la margen (the bank, the shore). Some other people might call it el margen (grammatical masculine gender), but I insist on a feminine engendering of my borders. I do not want them to be the edges outside the body of words on a page, or a gap in time, used by writers or economists; I would rather see them as irregular lines where land meets water, loose and imprecise, pointing to the ebb and flow of tides. Political, cultural, and literary theorists address the construction of identity as a function of determining our locus, our space, our positions as subjects, and the rhetorical implications thereof, and I persist in doing both.

In that summer of 1979, these were my considerations, as I sorted out through the multiple layers of experience in two countries and the various roles that were embedded in diverse cultural systems. I had lived through the Chicano cultural renaissance in the late seventies and had met most of its main protagonists. I had read and enjoyed the literary works of U.S. mainland Puerto Ricans. I had experienced gender discrimination at the hands of academic administrators and survived my pre-tenure years with a skeptical view of fairness in higher learning institutions: it was a man’s world, but these experiences would guide me to seek other female academics on my campus and form the Committee on Status of University Women, which would lead in 1975 to the approval of our first Women’s Studies program by the Arizona Board of Regents (see my “Latinas and Tenure in the Seventies.” Mujeres Talk. 11 February 2013).

It would take half a decade, nevertheless, for me to complete an academic crossover into Latinx Studies, and it would take me until 1983 to begin publishing the writings of Chicanas, U.S. Puerto Rican and Cuban American women in a comparative manner. The title of a keynote address I gave at the University of Nevada at Reno four years earlier began to express my intention to formally study Latina writings: “Hispanas in the U.S.: A Comparative View” (Colloquium on Nuestro Pueblo: Hispanics in the Humanities, 14 February 1979). In reading all those texts, I had recognized in them the same quest for identity and similar affirmations of “being other” that had become an integral part of my American lived/living experiences. The search for a personal and cultural sense of self was, and is, at the core of many writings and other cultural productions by U.S. Latinxs. In addition, we—the women scholars and teachers who began studying many of these works, and introduced them in the humanities curricula around the country—were also very frequently connected to the new enterprises that consolidated into women’s studies programs and feminist publications. In this sense, we were people dreaming and hollering and insisting on our right to be let into the mainstream, but most of all, on using our voices to tell our own stories (the title of a lecture I gave in October 1999 at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, was “Dreaming, Hollering, and Dancing: Latinas Writing in the United States”).

It was over thirty-five years ago that I began to recognize that the “otherness” I saw in myself was echoed in what I found in writings by other Latinx authors, but more so in both the immigrant and the U.S.-born women authors of Hispanic origin that I met and whose friendship I cultivated. When I stood at my kitchen window in 1979, however, I was not fully connected yet to the academic spaces that were opening for me, and was even “out” of my normal personal place: I was out of love, out of luck, and back from that faraway, original home that I had just recovered (or had I?). My contemplation of identity had included using a metaphor for my cultural experience: I was an alien from another planet, since it had taken me around seven or eight years to walk into a room full of Anglo people and not feel like a Martian. So it would not surprise me years later to read about the analogy that Donna Haraway drew in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” when she compared women to those bionic subjects (Coming to Terms, 173-204). I had that experience all along.

This is the first part of a two-part essay. Visit us again next week on  October 15, 2019 when Part Two will appear. 

References for Part One

Photo Credit: “Used to be the sphere” by Paweł Grzelak is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s.” Coming to Terms: Feminist Theory and Politics. Ed. Elizabeth Weed. New York: Routledge, 1989: 173-204.

Kolodny, Annette. “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980): 1-25.

Miller, Nancy. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. London: Routledge, 1991.

Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Rivero, Eliana S. “Latinas and Tenure in the Seventies.” Mujeres Talk. 11 February 2013. https://library.osu.edu/site/mujerestalk/2013/02/11/latinas-and-tenure-in-the-seventies-a-testimonial/

—. “Of Borders and Self: A Cubana Latina Writing on the Margins.” Discursos desde la diáspora. Cádiz: Editorial Aduana Vieja, 2005: 195-221.

—. “Tanta agua bajo es(t)os puentes…” “Más allá de la Isla: 66 creadores cubanos.” Puentelibre: revista de cultura 2: 5-6 (Verano 1995): 35-39; “So Much Water Under These Bridges…” Discursos desde la diáspora (2005), 183-192 (English version).

Rumbaut, Rubén G. “The Agony of Exile: A Study of the Migration and Adaptation of Indochinese Refugee Adults and Children.” Refugee Children: Theory, Research, and Services. F. L. Ahearn, Jr. and J. L. Athey, eds. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991: 53-91

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

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