In the opening line of her memoir’s prologue, Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), California native and Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga introduces her mother, the central figure with very little fanfare: “Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature” (3). And yet, “the stuff of literature” she does become. Elvira serves as a medium from which Moraga explores what appears to be lifelong questions regarding belonging and homeland(s). One can look back at Moraga’s prolific and scholarly work within the fields of Chicana literature and Performance and Queer Studies, to find that similar questions regarding what is home: who has the right and power to claim a home, and which home claims us in return. For example, in her seminal essay “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe” (1993) she and a friend reflect on the alienation they felt within the Chicano Movement. Her friend concludes that what is needed is a “Queer Aztlán,” to which Moraga responds, “Of course. A Chicano homeland that could embrace all its people, including its jotería” (147). The memoir works to provide potential answers to this search.
If Moraga has had a lifelong quest to find and identify home, then her very first home, her mother is an organic starting point. Early in her writing career Moraga identified Elvira as home, one that fills up the senses, very much like an aroma that instantly transports us to a long-forgotten childhood memory or location. “There was something I knew at that eight-year old moment that I vowed never to forget—the smell of a woman who is life and home to me at once. The woman in whose arms I am uplifted and sustained. Since then, it is as if I have spent the rest of my years driven by this scent toward la mujer” (86). But what happens when that home is ephemeral and can no longer identify and claim you as their own? The memoir lets its readers know early on that Elvira’s own memory will lapse due to Alzheimer’s, forcing Moraga to ask herself a painful question on what is left when your first home no longer recognizes you: “If we forget ourselves, who will be left to remember us?” (6). What prospects does the writer have in finding home when “there is no one there to assure me against the prospect of my oblivion: my life without a Mexican mother” (132).
The memoir’s incorporation of this mother-daughter lens to tell a particular history, while not necessarily unique, goes beyond the stereotypical relationship dynamics, as recent literary research has demonstrated. In her study, Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script (2014), literary scholar Cristina Herrera asserts how the mother-voice filters via the Chicana daughter narrator. Highlighting that “Chicana writers’ efforts to rewrite the script of maternity outside existing discourses, which present Chicana mothers as passive and servile and the subsequent mother-daughter relationship as a source of tension, frustration, and angst” (7). If Moraga’s memoir serves as a rewrite to the Mexican/Mexican-American mother-daughter script, then the rewrite also performs a kind of mapping, where the writer is plotting points, keeping track of the steps she has taken in order to find her home. Her mother’s physical and spiritual presence permeates the memoir, and the writer simultaneously works out her own quest.
Moraga’s memoir deftly moves between various time periods along with two Californias: Alta and Baja. Beginning with Elvira’s early life as a young border-dwelling child working the cotton fields in the Imperial Valley of California, into the last stages of her life, where she resided in a different valley, an ethnoburb at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. We see Elvira the young cigarette and hat-check girl, working during the height of Tijuana’s casino-hotel industry during the 1930s in order to ensure her family’s survival. We also witness Elvira, the Huntington Beach hotel owner and manager, working to near death while raising her three children without any assistance. There is also Elvira in the Mexican capital, where Moraga almost disbelieves how much at home her mother appears to be in la Ciudad de México. In one of their intimate mother-daughter moments, their Spanish flows much like Elvira’s memories of her mexicanidad, expressing her añoranza, a yearning for the life she had left many years ago in the streets of Tijuana. Ironically, Mexico does not provide that same comfort for Moraga as a second generation Mexican-American. She later recalls a later trip to the “homeland” without her mother, the isolation and homelessness she felt is magnified:
“I was a long way from home. México reminded me, in a Spanish I struggled to perfect; masked in a light-skinned face that betrayed my loyalties to a country of which I longed membership but held no right to. How I wanted to blend in as one of them. But I was not one of them and I was not gringa, but something/someone other than either. This is what brought the fever to the surface of my skin: the trepidation that who I was would never find home again” (98).
Moraga’s words bring about a familiar sting, especially for those of us who identify as Mexican-American/Chicanx and have searched within Mexico the embrace saved for prodigal children, only to find out we will not be claimed as such. And so, we return, “I knew I had to get back home to California; not to her, but through her” (99).
After one of Elvira’s hospitalizations, Moraga returns to her empty childhood home, a place to which she admits as the origin site of her breaking away from her family in order to find her own freedom. Reflecting upon what her mother has been able to do with this small, suburban space, the writer recognizes it as her mother’s country, a place where she has been able to be the reina supreme. What becomes of this place without Elvira? “Are these the small plots of lot and land what is left of memory as Mexicans in the United States? Is this how ancestral memory returns to us, indifferent to the generation and geography of borders?” (163).
One of the most significant chapters in Native Country of the Heart comes in the form of “Sibangna,” the Tongva name for present-day city of San Gabriel, where Cherríe Moraga digs through the California archives to excavate her possible roots in this occupied land. As a formerly educated Catholic school girl whose classrooms were on the grounds of the San Gabriel Mission, the experience of having been educated where ethnocide and colonization occurred in the name of religion weighs on her, prompting Moraga to examine: “Ostensibly in search of my mother’s history, it was my own buried remains I sought. But how do you dig up amnesia?” (174). In her search for home, she returns to the ancestral history of Alta California, acknowledging that this land belonged to the Gabrieleño-Tongva people, whose dead reside in the grounds of the Catholic mission. With Elvira no longer able to contain a home for Moraga due to her illness and eventual passing, the writer turns to another site of origin, that of California indigeneity. She contemplates on the original name for the place her mother called home, Sibangna and its possible connection to her family history. She pointedly states, “I kept suffering the question of ‘home’ and whether I was truly up to the tasks of this queer and makeshift familia, reconstructed from broken promises and spurned hopes” (214). By performing figurative and literal digging into San Gabriel’s historical archives, Moraga is able to veer towards an arrival to home. The memoir challenges historical amnesia superimposed through acts of conquest and settler colonialism. Through her own research, the writer finds her mother’s family name as part of the historical records of indigenous people who were forced into Catholic baptisms. Moraga posits, “We were not supposed to remember” (238), and yet, through her own constructions of indigenous memories and a corporeal return to her mother’s “country”, the small piece of land nestled in the San Gabriel Valley foothills, she encounters an additional home “…it came to me that we are as much of a place as we are of a people; that we return to places because our hands served as tender shovels in that earth” (236-237). What better act to honor the memory of her mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga, and the many lives lived than to confirm that Elvira had been right in choosing her final home among the gardens she had planted in the former Tongva village of Sibangna.
 Moraga, Cherríe. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
 From the essay, “A Long Line of Vendidas” in Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000. Print.
 Italicized quotes are from the author.
 Herrera, Cristina. Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014. Print.
Sandra Ruiz is an educator and scholar of Mexican and U.S. Chicanx/Latinx literatures, cultures, and histories as well as Spanish heritage and second-language acquisition. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, is a UCLA alumna, and resides in South East L.A. She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Vice Chair of Modern Languages at West Los Angeles College where she is collaborating and working to establish the campus’ Chicanx Studies and Social Justice Studies transfer degree programs. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Mexican and Chicana feminist crime writers.
Copyright: © 2019 Sandra Ruiz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/