“More than Myth: The Transformation of the Mother Figure in Chicana Children’s Literature,” by Megan Parry

Birth for MParry

“Birth of Quetzalcoatl” by Mario Torero

Volume 1, Issue 1 (February 2014)
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Abstract:  The varying representations of mother figures in recent Chicana children’s literature force the child reader to acknowledge the complicated position this female figure holds in Chicano/a history and culture. The Chicana figure is rooted in myth and mystery: grandmothers are healers, mothers are wise, and women are downright magical. In this tradition, if women do not fulfill those mythical images, they become caregivers or cooks, but little more. However, contemporary authors are successfully reimagining the mother figure in order to allow the Chicana a prominent place in literature. While certain genres within Chicano/a literature – notably picture books and plays – still allow for representations of mythical mother figures, young adult novels often highlight mothers grounded in reality. By looking at various texts from Gloria Anzaldua, Silvia Gonzalez S., and Pam Muñoz Ryan, Parry charts a diverse history of mother characters, both fantastic and realistic. The transformation of the mother figure in the genre encourages readers to forge their own diverse images of motherhood.

About the Author:  Megan Parry recently received her M.A. in children’s literature from San Diego State University. She is an Assistant Learning Specialist at San Diego State University and an adjunct instructor at Grossmont College. Her current work focuses on incorporating children’s literature in the college composition classroom, and she enjoys traumatizing college freshmen with surprising interpretations of classic children’s texts.

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The Chicana figure is rooted in myth and mystery: grandmothers are healers, mothers are wise, and women are downright magical. Images of women telling mythical stories or being the myths themselves abound in Chicano/a history, yet feminist theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha argues these images of women can often become “Associated with backwardness, ignorance, and illiteracy” (Minh-ha 124). According to Minh-ha, women storytellers are often relegated to the position of children, so seeing these one-dimensional mother figures emerge in children’s literature seems only fitting. However, as Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Ana Castillo emerged with feminist social criticism in the 1970’s, they also created an opening for children’s literature that highlighted the complex roles that women can, and do, play in society. By looking at a range of children’s texts – picture books, stage plays, and middle-grade novels – readers can see the positive effect Chicana feminism has had on the portrayals of mothers in literature. Juxtaposed representations of  mythical and realistic mothers in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman, Silvia Gonzalez S.’ Alicia in Wonder Tierra (or I Can’t Eat Goat Head), and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León force the implied child readers to acknowledge the complicated position this female figure holds in Chicano/a history and culture. Instead of relegating Chicana mothers to either a childlike realm or a mythical, off-limits, persona, these texts deconstruct the binary often adhered to in past literary traditions. By complicating the role of the female figure, Chicana feminists reclaim these mother figures by allowing them agency and complex characterizations.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba names “la madre, la virgen, and la puta” – the mother, the virgin, and the fucked one – as the three roles Mexican/Chicano patriarchy allows for women, adding to the list of one-dimensional roles these women are allowed (51).  Iconic images of the Virgin of Guadalupe highlight the combination of the mother and virgin, yet Chicano/a history and iconography names a woman in between the virgin and the mother; she is La Malinche, la puta. Sometimes called La Chingada (literally, “the fucked one”), sometimes combined with the myth of La Llorona (the “weeping woman”), La Malinche embodies a more complicated position than history often reveals. According to Chicano/a folklore, La Malinche was the translator for Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés and was seen as a traitor when she helped Cortés impose Spanish rule over the native Aztecs. La Malinche is not only a political traitor, but, according to Andrea Powell Wolfe, she is also “considered to have borne of Cortés the first mestizo, or mixed-race, child of Mexico” (1). The OED has many definitions for the word myth, yet “A popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth” reflects the women represented in these stories – they might have roots in history, yet literary traditions has removed them from a realistic position in the culture. Historical/mythical figures like La Malinche reinforce the restricted roles for women in Chicano/a culture; historically, representations of Chicana women remained victims or mythical creatures meant to be feared.

However, instead of simply seeing La Malinche, La Llorona, or any of the other mythical figures as “Not a Mother of flesh and blood but a mythical figure,” or a “long-suffering mother,” as Octavio Paz defines them (75), newer literary representations possess more agency. While La Malinche was considered a traitor and a whore, Chicana feminists position her as a woman whose “maternal body propagated, in myth at least, the beginning of a nation of truly Mexican people, part European and part Indian” (Wolfe 2). The shift in representations of women might have started with the feminist revolution in the 1970’s, but new interpretations of historical female figures continues. Cristina Herrera narrows in on one of the most important aspects of this reclaiming by noting how “Chicana writers depict mother-daughter relationships outside the good/bad dichotomy” (225). By creating complex female characters who play more than the three roles they have traditionally been assigned, Chicana authors make the move to upend patriarchal traditions. Gloria Anzaldúa explains the need for a new perspective when she asserts, “The worst kind of betrayal lies in making us believe that the Indian woman in us is the betrayer. We, indias y mestizas, police the Indian in us, brutalize and condemn her” (Borderlands 22). Chicana feminist theorists changed how patriarchal society read women, and while doing so, they created women in their own literary works as well.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1996 picture book Prietita and the Ghost Woman complicates both the realistic mother and mythical mother figures while revising a long held Mexican folktale about La Llorona. Anzaldúa explains her purpose in writing the picture book in her author’s note on the last page when she says, “I discovered that there really was another side to la Llorona – a powerful, positive side, a side that represents the Indian part and the female part of us” (32). Anzaldúa’s feminist reimaginings of traditional Mexican characters abound in many of her works both for adults and children, yet Prietita allows the child reader to gain a more positive understanding of specifically the Chicana mother figure. The story begins with Prietita searching for a cure to help her mother’s unnamed sickness. The reader never meets Prietita’s mother until the final few pages of the book, yet all of Prietita’s experiences happen because she works to heal her mother. Instead, Doña Lola emerges as the mother figure the reader sees on a regular basis. The community healer, Doña Lola encourages Prietita to take her journey of maturation and find the plant that can heal her mother.

Instead of cloaking Doña Lola’s healing knowledge in one-dimensional mystery and magic, Anzaldúa grounds the healer’s knowledge in reality as well. The reader is positioned to have immediate respect for Doña Lola from the first page, where Prietita says, “Doña Lola can cure almost any sickness. She knows lots of remedies. She’s teaching me all about them” (Anzaldúa 2). The remedies mentioned are not reflected in the illustrations until the following pages, when the readers see herbs and plants hanging on the walls inside Doña Lola’s dining room. Anzaldúa may position Doña Lola as a magical healer because the use of the word remedies could be construed as the healer having powers, but she does not paint her as a one-dimensional mythical character. Instead, Anzaldúa also grounds Doña Lola in reality when she is unable to help Prietita after she has run out of one of the ingredients she needs to create the medicine for Prietita’s mother. Doña Lola is not a mystery to Prietita; she is another mother figure who teaches her new abilities she can use to help the community. Through the connection between Doña Lola and Prietita, Anzaldúa offers an alternative to the misogynistic fear of the healer woman in Mexican culture. Reuben Sánchez explains this work when he claims, “The writer either validates a myth, or modifies a myth without rejecting it, or rejects a myth and creates a new myth based on his or her own experience” (222). Anzaldúa values the cultural figure of the healer, yet she brings this historical myth into the real world through her complex character. Prietita’s adventure to find the ingredient may be fantastic, but Prietita’s actual mother and Doña Lola are both grounded in reality in order to allow the reader to understand these Chicana figures as real women instead of simply myths.

Though Anzaldúa creates realistic mother figures for Prietita, she also reimagines La Llorona in order to show an often unseen side of the female figure in Mexican mythology. La Llorona is often portrayed as a threatening figure – a woman weeping near the river where her children were drowned and in search of new children to steal. Prietita searches for the plant she needs without success until she encounters La Llorona crying by the river. Instead of running away from the ghost woman, “Prietita called out to the ghost woman. ‘Please Señora, can you help me find some rue?’” (Anzaldúa 25). Anzaldúa’s image of La Llorona is not threatening – Prietita first encounters her by the lagoon, yet La Llorona is not crying; instead, she is peacefully floating by the water. When Prietita asks for guidance from La Llorona, the illustration reflects the kind characterization of La Llorona that Anzaldúa strives to achieve. La Llorona has a smile on her face as she guides Prietita, and she is bathed in golden light, creating a figure that instills comfort rather than fear. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa explains how a mestiza copes with borders and labels by “developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (79). Anzaldúa maintains the history of La Llorona through Prietita’s initial fear and the ghost woman’s connection to water, yet she allows the character more complexity. In this move, Anzaldúa creates a potential for readers to appreciate, while also move toward, a new understanding of Chicano/a culture. As La Llorona leads Prietita to the plant she needs, the terror this mythical figure holds dissipates, and she becomes another mother figure who can help Prietita accomplish her goal.

Using a traditionally threatening figure from Chicano/a myth, Anzaldúa takes away the fear and changes La Llorona into a kind and helpful woman, a surrogate mother to guide Prietita when her biological mother figures cannot. The ghost woman guides Prietita back to her home, and when Prietita reunites with her family, she tells them her story of discovery. Prietita states, “‘A ghost woman in white was my guide.’ ‘La Llorona!’ said Prietita’s cousin, Teté. ‘But everyone knows she takes children away. She doesn’t bring them back.’ ‘Perhaps she is not what others think she is,’ said Doña Lola” (Anzaldúa 29). Anzaldúa complicates the mother figure in this text through the juxtaposition of La Llorona and the more realistic mother figures of Doña Lola and Prietita’s mother. Instead of children being exposed to one image of a Mexican mother figure, and female figure in general, the mix of reality and myth encourages children to understand that these women are much more than they seem.

While the genre of picture books for children allows young readers to understand the complicated roles Chicana mothers play, dramatic theatre enables an adolescent audience to grapple with these issues as well. Silvia Gonzalez S.’ 1996 play Alicia in Wonder Tierra (or I Can’t Eat Goat Head) takes the audience on a fantastical journey through Alicia, a girl searching for her cultural identity in the midst of the trauma of adolescence. Loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, Alicia encounters mythical creatures in her adventure, all representing various parts of her psyche. The mother figures in this play are just as complicated as the bizarre creations she meets along the way. The play begins and ends with Alicia and her mother in a curio shop, scenes grounded in reality as bookends for her mythical journey. Alicia’s mother does not say much at the beginning of the play; she is preoccupied with shopping and scolding Alicia for not behaving. The mother portrayed in reality is clearly concerned with Alicia’s lack of cultural awareness, saying, “She won’t learn Spanish either” when the shopkeeper tries to communicate with Alicia (Gonzalez S. 8). The audience sees this conflict in Alicia’s dream-like journey through the constant questioning and misunderstanding of Mexican culture, yet the realistic mother plays a small role in this transformation.

Although Alicia appears disinterested in her mother while the play is set in reality, Alicia is so preoccupied with Rosa the doll, a manifestation of her mother, so much so that she follows her into a strange land. Gonzalez S. reinforces the connection between Rosa and Alicia’s mother by having the same actress play both characters; she intends for the audience to see the doll as the mother. The first time Alicia meets Rosa in Wonder Tierra, Rosa says, “In the far reaches of the mind, I see you. I see myself. I see the whole world, and I wonder about so many things as I look out in a glaze. I see your world, and I see my own. In both places I find isolation. I find loneliness. I find a person that I am and am not” (Gonzalez S. 9). Rosa’s monologue draws in Alicia, so she follows her under the Mexican blankets to learn more about this life size doll. Alicia constantly struggles with trying to understand her Mexican heritage, and Rosa highlights the conflict between the older generation and younger Chicanas who are raised in America. When Rosa says, “I see your world, and I see my own,” an audience may interpret this statement as a distinction between the world of reality and the world of dream, yet if Rosa represents Alicia’s mother, this interpretation can easily shift to a distinction between the world of American culture and the world of Mexican culture. Alicia must follow this mythical mother figure to understand that the line between these two cultures may not be as rigid as she thought; she learns she can accept her heritage and embrace her American homeland as well. Alicia would be unable to accomplish this balance without her mythical mother figure affirming her experiences.

Gonzalez S.’s positioning of a doll as a mother figure follows a long history of doll narratives, and Rosa the doll ties together many complicated narratives in the play. Trinna S. Frever explains, “The uneasy tension between living adult female, actual doll as cultural artifact, and the woman-as-doll image replicated in a host of cultural texts sets up the doll as a site for gender representation controlled by forces other than the living woman herself” (122). Frever goes on to argue that the breaking of the doll “permits the survival of the girl and the woman” (123), yet Gonzalez S. complicates this trope even further when Alicia returns to reality and finds her mother purchasing Rosa the doll. Alicia does not have to break the doll to survive; instead, she must allow the doll a respected position in her life in order to tie her mythical past and present culture together. Rosa says at the end of Alicia’s journey, “Beautiful on top, and underneath…I am glad you chose the Mexican blanket to explain who you are. You are ready to go back” (Gonzalez S. 66). In reality, Alicia does not seem bothered by the disconnect with her mother, yet her dream journey reveals otherwise; Alicia is consumed by following Rosa and pleasing her. Gonzalez S. seems to use the mythical mother figure to encourage her young audience to understand their own mothers’ complex relationships with Mexican culture and allow for connection between the realistic and fantastic mother. Since Alicia is able to bring this connection with Rosa into reality when she returns home, she is also able to translate this into a newfound connection with her real mother.

Chicanas refiguring the mythical mother spans genres, and these complicated portrayals continue to emerge in literature. In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s 2004 middle-grade novel Becoming Naomi León, the mother figures do not possess blatant magical qualities; they are portrayals of Chicana women meant to reflect an authentic experience grounded in reality. The protagonist of the novel, 11 year old half American-half Mexican Naomi Outlaw, struggles with conflict between the two mother figures in her life: her great-grandmother, who raised Naomi and her brother, and her mother, who abandoned the children when they were small. Ryan writes both women as distinct personalities, but neither has fantastical qualities like mothers in texts from Anzaldúa or Gonzalez S. Gram is the traditional matriarch of the family; she is quiet but strong, and she will go to any length to protect her great-grandchildren. Though Ryan certainly grounds Gram in a realistic characterization, Naomi’s child perspective allows for Gram to hold a mythical quality as well. As Naomi introduces Gram to the reader, she says, “Gram said that when you thought positive, you could make things happen, and when it did happen, it was called a self-prophecy. […] It was sort of like magic, and Gram believed it to her bones” (Ryan 6). Though Gram’s positive thinking isn’t magical in its own right, Naomi’s understanding (though she doubts how well this positive thinking works) of Gram’s beliefs allows her to have a more magical and mythical persona than would otherwise be possible in this realist text.

Throughout the coming of age narrative, Naomi realizes more and more how Gram’s magical qualities are personality traits born out of trauma and struggle when she learns of Gram’s troubled past. This realization permits Naomi to mature enough to begin to take on the role of caregiver, and she begins to see Gram in a different, more mature, light: “I could see dark puddles in the withered skin beneath Gram’s eyes. Her hair had not been fluffed, and she looked smaller and older and more tired than I ever remembered. I wanted to scoop her up and rock her like a baby” (Ryan 135). Instead of being the unwavering matriarch that Naomi had always depended on, now Gram is someone for Naomi to eventually care for. Ryan envisions a reversal of the mother/daughter duties, another positive layer of maternal power in the Chicana narrative. The relationship is not one-dimensional; these women are able to take care of each other in shifting roles instead of adhering to prescribed ones. While Naomi does not have to care for Gram in the novel, Ryan hints at the responsibilities she will accept as she matures, and instead of this shift being a burden, Naomi willingly embraces it. Ryan creates characters who break from the historical restrictions placed upon women, a move that Rosaura Sánchez attributes to a questioning of identity politics. Sánchez claims, “The very notion of family fragmentation with a reordering of spheres and roles … and the rendering of single-women households dismantle the traditional construct of women within patriarchal spaces” (3). Gram maintains the position of head of the household, even returning to her Chicana homeland to save Naomi at one point in the narrative, and as Naomi ages, she is poised to take on this role as well. The magic and myth have become secondary to her agency; Gram’s position as an aging woman allows Naomi to fulfill her maturation and become the new representation of a Chicana for readers to align themselves with.

As Gram’s position encourages Naomi to become the new mother figure in her maturation, Naomi’s biological mother, Skyla, plays the role of antagonist, furthering the complicated portrayal of mothers in Chicana literature. Skyla swoops in to uproot Naomi from the life she knows, and this mother figure is a flawed and troubling one to contrast with the traditionally saintly mother. Alcoholic and abusive, Skyla lacks any mythical qualities, yet Naomi still instinctively tries to imitate many of her actions. Naomi says, “She gave me some clear lip gloss called Wet As A Whistle. I put it on, then took it to my room and put it in my backpack. I couldn’t wait to put it on at school in front of the other girls” (Ryan 49). Ryan uses Skyla to highlight issues of gender performativity and the influence these demands can have on young girls, grounding Skyla’s character in an unforgiving reality. Gram does not encourage Naomi to be consumed with her image, yet Skyla’s role as an outsider, as the white American mother, creates another complicated layer to the narrative. Ryan vilifies Skyla, but not to have Naomi choose her Mexican culture over her American one; instead, Ryan uses the character to influence a complex portrayal of a young girl’s maturation.

Skyla’s influence on Naomi is not as powerful as past mythical influences in various Chicana children’s texts, mainly because she lacks the power the other mother figures possess. She disappears from the story as quickly as she entered, with “a weak smile and a little wave of her fingers” (Ryan 240). Because Skyla cannot empower Naomi to fulfill her role as a Chicana woman and caregiver, she cannot have a powerful place in her life. Ryan acknowledges the trauma of losing a mother, but she focuses on giving Naomi power through her cultural heritage, through her Gram. Instead of having to choose between her American culture and her Mexican history, Naomi can embody both and become more than the sum of her parts. Anzaldúa urges new mestizas to “creat[e] a new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave” (80). Ultimately, Naomi’s journey leads her to accept her position as this complex Chicana woman, and she eagerly takes on this role. Through Naomi’s agency, Ryan contributes to the recent tradition of complicating mother figures and Chicana feminine roles for young readers by turning the newfound power into a realistic goal.

As the genre of Chicano/a children’s literature grows, portrayals of mothers, and women in general, become more complicated and interesting. Anzaldúa, Gonzalez S., and Ryan all confront traditional representations of mother figures in their works, and all three authors make moves to encourage child audiences to understand the mother position as more than one role to embody. Efforts to understand the complexity of this position and describe it to children teach the readers to admire the diversity of women in Chicano/a culture. Though some may think that these assertions and questions are relegated to children’s literature because they are unimportant, these female authors take on important issues to perpetuate the valuable tradition of storytelling and complicate the Chicana figure. Chicana authors may reinscribe mythical figures and progress toward a new understanding of mothers, yet they continue to place importance on the women. Children’s and young adult literature become the ideal places to begin this work; if the children see representations of women as more than the three roles she was formerly allowed to play, they can continue the new understanding into their adulthoods. As Trinh T. Minh-ha argues, “What is transmitted from generation to generation is not only the stories, but the very power of transmission. The stories are highly inspiring, and so is she, the untiring storyteller” (134). These Chicana authors inhabit the powerful storyteller position while also creating mothers who complicate tradition at the same time as upholding cultural ideals, permitting child readers to forge their own diverse images of motherhood and the Chicana figure.

Works Cited

Schanoes, Veronica L. “Book as Mirror, Mirror as Book: The Significance of the Looking-glass in Contemporary Revisions of Fairy Tales.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 20.1 (2009): 5-23.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.

—. Prietita and the Ghost Woman. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1995. Print.

Frever, Trinna S. “‘Oh! You Beautiful Doll!’: Icon, Image, and Culture in Works by Alvarez, Cisneros, and Morrison.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 28.1 (2009): 121-139. Web. 20 June 2013.

Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. “Malinche’s Revenge.” Feminism, Nation and Myth: La Malinche. Ed. Rolando Romero and Amanda Nolacea Harris. Houston: Arta Público Press, 2005. 44-57. Print.

Gonzalez S., Silvia. Alicia in Wonder Tierra (or I Can’t Eat Goat Head). Woodstock: Dramatic Publishing, 1996. Print.

Herrera, Christina. “Malinches, Lloronas, and Guadalupanas: Chicana Revisions of Las Tres Madres.” Latina/Chicana Mothering. Ed. Dorsía Smith Silva. Toronto: Demeter Press, 2011. 224-238. Print.

Minh, ha. Trinh T. “Grandma’s Story.” Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Print. 119-151.

“myth, n.” OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. Web. 26 October 2013.

Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude. New York: Grove Press, 1961. Print.

Ryan, Pam Munoz. Becoming Naomi León. New York: Scholastic, 2004. Print.

Sánchez, Reuben. “Remembering Always to Come Back: The Child’s Wished-For Escape and the Adult’s Self-Empowered Return in Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street.” Children’s Literature, 23 (1995): 221-241. Web. 20 June 2013.

Sánchez, Rosaura. “Deconstructions and Rennarativizations: Trends in Chicana Literature.” Bilingual Review, 21.1 (1996): 52-58. Web. 20 June 2013.

Wolfe, Andrea Powell. “Refiguring La Malinche: Female ‘Betrayal’ as Cultural Negotiation in the Short Stories of María Cristina Mena.” Label Me Latino/a, 3.1 (2013): 1-23. Web. 20 June 2013.

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