Three red spheres. The first sphere is smooth, The second sphere is textured. The third sphere is spiky, thick texture.

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

It was to counter feelings of being an alien from outer space that I dived headlong into assimilation, into the more generic soup of Latinidad. I couldn’t pass for Anglo-American (even though my appearance is quite Caucasian, and have been told that I “look too white” to be Hispanic) because of my recognizable accent, but I absorbed whatever other accent was around, and ended up sounding “neutral” Latin American for years, Mexican American bilingual for even longer, Cuban only if I traveled to the island or when I drove to Tucson in 1979-80 to see my parents, to experience food and love and reconnection in a very real way.

In this context, I would speak not only of displacement and dislocation but also of dispossession and disenchantment as the marks of the immigrant I was. In the case of Cubans in the United States, I have asserted that for such individuals, there is a feeling called “Cubangst” that can be experienced while functionally displaying the traits of an integrated cultural citizen (“Two Or More (Dis)places…”, 198). Voices and images, full of echoes and past visions, make us experience the emotional moments of our respective extraterritorial exits from, or returns to, the country or space of birth, childhood and adolescence.

I have spoken with fellow Cuban immigrants in almost every American state, and although our conversations have not been couched in the theoretical or critical terminology I employ here, most assuredly all the North American Cubans—mostly academics, but also members of their immediate families with a variety of work backgrounds—exhibit a commonality of emotions, memories and postmemories (through inherited family stories of parents and other relatives), and various facets of evolving Cubangst, as well as a sense of cultural/transnational citizenship far beyond geographical borders. Most particularly, the immigrant women in the group of anecdotal “informants” with whom I have talked seem to be the ones most comfortable with expressing emotional reactions that involve sentiment and nostalgic feelings.

More Feminist than Immigrant?

As I have lived through my evolution from immigrant to ethnic citizen along 58 years, I have experienced my personal multiple-voiced subjectivity, as a Latina and as an academic feminist in North America, in resistance to competing notions for my allegiance to other paradigms of self-identification. What are those? A Latin American and a U.S. Latinx culture slowly modified by global erosions of tradition, and a multicultural feminist collegiate alliance which allows me the space for my own conscious evolution as a U.S. ethnic individual. In other words, I possess a multiple consciousness and I speak in multiple registers: female, Latinx, feminist academic, woman “of color” (I have been told I am “too white” in appearance for the roles I play—since I am a Latina of Caucasian ancestry—so my “coloredness” is a political and linguistic affiliation; as I have said before, my color is in my tongue (“Making Theory as I Speak…”, 98).

The possibility of multiple locations and experiences has long been recognized by feminists such as the Chilean anthropologist Sonia Montecino, who as far back as 1996 formulated her theory of “simultaneidades” (simultaneities) for gender identity in Latin American societies; according to her, a woman negotiates her class, race, and age experiences by integrating those crossing variables at the same time into her consciousness (Debate Feminista, Mexico, 188-89). Even though U.S. Latinas inhabit sociocultural spaces in America that can be identical for Latino men as far as race, ethnicity, and class, and at the same time move in psychological spaces that can be similar to those for Anglo American women who form part of the hegemonic culture (say, sharing a common space for age and sexual orientation), their roles and positionalities as subjects can fluctuate amongst all those other possibilities. That is to say: Latina subjectivity is characterized by particular ethnic markings, making possible her incorporation into forms of resistance to mainstream masculinist culture, or “machismo” within her own Latinx group. In these pages, I offer my reflections on those forms of consciousness manifested by Latinas which comprise their own self-imagining as different from Latino men as well as from Anglo American women.

Chicana theorist Norma Alarcón proposed the existence of a feminist consciousness in non-white (non-Anglo American) women as a site of multiple voices, not necessarily originating within the subject, but seen as discourses that traverse consciousness, and with (or against) which consciousness must constantly struggle (“The Theoretical Subject…”, 365-66). Rosario Morales, poet born in New York, declared: “I want to be whole. I want to declare myself Puerto Rican and North American, middle class and working class, housewife and intellectual, feminist, Marxist, anti-imperialist” (This Bridge Called My Back, 91).

As can be appreciated, the ambiguity, fragmentation, and hybridity which are common to immigration, diaspora, and ethnic diversity experiences configure the image that a woman as subject has of herself, and they go on molding and transforming her self-identity as she travels through life, especially during her growing into adulthood and middle age. There is a perceptible lack of anchoring or moorings, a perceived absence of foundations, a rootlessness or indetermination of home place and home space in which consciousness seems to slide incessantly from here to there, from before to after and back, from known to unknown.

I see myself in that description as a subject who, although occupying sociocultural spaces previously imagined and constructed by masculine subjectivities in her own ethnic communities, shares generic practices with other women, whether members of minority groups or not; I construct subjectivity on the basis of an “ethnified” female consciousness, but recognize common bonds with all women. I also argue that Latina consciousness can be considered feminist when its subjectivity is acutely aware of gender differences as a source of inequality, and it struggles to point out the artificial, discriminatory, and disempowering nature of gender constructions as configured by patriarchy, in the dominant culture as well as within particular ethnic minority groups. By the same token, female consciousness can be considered “ethnified” when it is aware of differences between her own home culture and mainstream, hegemonic cultural forces. In my own biographical journey, nevertheless, I problematize my own Cubana Latina marginality: how marginal and dispossessed can I be if I am immersed in global digital networks of communication and socialization? How nostalgic for the personal losses caused by immigration can I still be if with a touch of my finger I can locate and see, by the miracle of Google Earth, the house where I was raised on the island where I was born? How can I bemoan my destiny when I compare my life to the condition of displaced women in Middle Eastern refugee camps, or now in the horrifying images of Central American refugees in U.S. border detention camps?

The trauma of immigration has become much more endurable as time goes by and I have fully entered my senior years, and memories, although not receding, lose their sharp edges of pain and can be contemplated in their full richness. Perhaps I have entered a “third space,” what Homi Bhabha calls cultural hybridity: I am a feminist woman who now takes pride in her domesticity (garden, kitchen, home décor), an academic who has the luxury of writing her memoirs and quoting her own words, an immigrant who—after having lived over fifty-eight years in another country—can “pass” for native born (at least with her written language, which carries no audible accent), a mother with a bilingual, bicultural daughter, a citizen whose vote in U.S. elections can perhaps affect policies concerning her native country, an Arizonan who was born in Cuba and who left Florida many years ago, a Cuban who as a teenager came to the United States, to an America she first (and literally) saw in her dreams.

Prescriptions for Immigration Blues

Fortunately, most of us seem able to imagine a collective ethnonational identity which, at both existential and public levels, can benefit from our hybridity. There is a prolific Cuban American scholarly community that deals in writing with some of the same issues I contemplate in my work, and also a distinguished Cuban American literature written and published by women who share some of our collective concerns, be they first generation immigrants or ABCs, American Born Cubans or Second Generation writers. In this literature, and above all in the successful novels by authors such as Cristina García, Achy Obejas, Alisa Valdés-Rodríguez and Ana Menéndez, and the plays and comedy routines by Dolores Prida, Carmelita Tropicana (née Alina Troyano), and Carmen Peláez, one can find solace in cathartic humor, as well as a feminist awareness that makes life not only bearable, but interesting.

Engaging what I have called “la locura nacional” (the national madness; see “Writing in Cuban…, 114-15), Ana Menéndez focuses on that aspect of the Cuban American character in the first pages of her novel Loving Che. Narrated in the first person by a young woman who does not know her Cuban past, the plot reveals later that she might have been born of a relationship between her mother and the Argentine revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara. Her thoughts turn philosophical when she considers what she thinks are “destructive traits in the Cuban character,”  such as obsession with the island past, which seems to her “a kind of madness, everyone living in an asylum, exiled from the living” (Loving Che, 2)

There are repeated and frequent instances of la locura nacional appearing in several works mentioned in these pages, and patent cases of split personalities that constitute, at least in one instance, the core format and structural underpinning for a text. In the bilingual play Coser y cantar by Dolores Prida, the characters She and Ella are two halves of one bicultural Cuban American self; in Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, Lourdes Puentes seems “unhinged” with her obsessive behaviors: eating, having sex, and hating Fidel Castro. In this manner, Cuban American immigrant or exilic “craziness” is identified and perhaps even justified by women authors in their works. It would be fair to say, however, that one can find similar obsessions, wild idiosyncrasies, irrational behaviors, and madness of characters in many of the novels and short stories written by male Cuban American authors. In my opinion, these characterizations can be considered to be a representation of Cuban immigrant displacement and “loss of self” as seen by creative writers.

In the final analysis, the above reflections, theoretical assertions, and literary expressions are also part of foundational narratives for feminist immigrants of Hispanic descent, even if the case of Cuban American women is quite different in its origin and development from those of other refugees and migrants from Latin America. In our case, and especially for those of us who have written their experience in fiction or autobiography, the following words make much sense:

The personal narrative engages the complex nature of representation with its tensions between fact and fiction, historical and literary artifact, the embodiment and displacement of the self. For women, it displays the multiple ways in which gender enters into historical/literary narratives.
(Fernández, Cuba Transnational, xiii)

For all generations of Cuban American women, whether first generation immigrants or second generation born in the U.S., the existential themes persist, the obsession with telling family stories and expressing their collective memories goes on, and the “writing in Cuban” while living as ethnic Others continues. In the American scene, the tales of life’s transformations for Cuban immigrants and their descendants, especially those marked by gender, offer a rich mother lode of exploration in years to come. As for my own personal narrative, I have explored a fusion of fiction and autobiography that evokes the character of an idealistic young woman struggling against unknown forces in an essay published in 2008: “A Cuban Dorothy.” In it, I equate myself to the young girl caught in a tornado, whose existence seems to be guided toward discovering the hidden magic of life. And so it goes on, following a postfeminist, postimmigrant yellow brick road: whether there is an emerald city of self-knowledge still waiting for me as a Latina on the border(s) remains to be seen.

References for Part Two

Photo Credit: “Evolution” by Davide Rostirolla is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Rotated from original.

Some of the images I have used in lectures and publications about the subject of 
Latina identity were inspired by the titles of three great books and one classic 
scholarly piece: Cuban American Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, Chicana Sandra 
Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories,  mainland Puerto Rican Sandra 
María Esteves’ Bluestown Mockingbird Mambo, and Anglo American Annette Kolodny’s 
“Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and 
Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism.”

Alarcón, Norma. [1990] “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism.” Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Gloria Anzaldúa, ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press. 360-370.

Bhabha, Homi. “Unpacking My Library.” Keynote address at the Midwest Modern Language Association. Chicago, IL. 10 November 1994.

Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.

Esteves, Sandra Maria. Bluestown Mockingbird Mambo. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1990.

Fernández, Damian J. “Introduction.” Cuba Transnational. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 2005: xiii.

García, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

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.

Menéndez, Ana. Loving Che. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Montecino, Sonia. “Identidades de género en América Latina: mestizajes, sacrificios y simultaneidades.” Debate Feminista 7:14 (México D.F., octubre 1996): 187-195.

Morales, Rosario. “I Am What I Am,” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, eds. San Francisco: Kitchen Table Press, 1983: 91.

Prida, Dolores. “Coser y Cantar.” Beautiful Señoritas and Other Plays. Ed. Judith Weiss. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991: 49-67.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana, and Eliana Rivero, eds. Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1993. 2nd printing 1994. 3rd printing 1995.

Rivero, Eliana. “Writing in Cuban, Living as Other: Cuban American Women Writers.” Cuban American Literature and Art: Negotiating Identities. Isabel Alvarez-Borland and Lynnette M.F. Bosch, eds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009: 109-125.

—. “A Cuban Dorothy.” The Portable Island: Cubans at Home in the World. Ruth Behar and Lucía Suárez, eds. London/New York: Palgrave, 2008: 197-213.

—. “In Two Or More (Dis)Places: Articulating a Marginal Experience of the Cuban Diaspora.” Cuba: Idea of a Nation Displaced. Andrea O’Reilly Herrera, ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007: 194- 214.

—. “Making Theory As I Speak: Reflections on Latina Thought Today.” Language and Identity in Chicano/Latino Discourse. A Collection of Bilingual Essays. Mónica Cantero, ed. Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2006: 93-118.

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

Valdés-Rodríguez, Alisa. The Dirty Girls´ Social Club. New York: St. Martin & Griffin, 2003.

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