Female mythologies in contemporary chicana literature

Thesis (M.A.) 2005 124 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1. Introduction
1.1. A Brief Look at Chicana/o History
1.2. Chicana Feminism and Chicana Feminist Literature

2. Traditional Mythic Figures in Chicana/o Culture
2.1. Defining Myths and Mythological Archetypes
2.2. The Virgin of Guadalupe
2.3. La Malinche
2.4. La Llorona

3. Female Mythologies in the Fiction of Three Contemporary Chicana Writers
3.1. Helena María Viramontes
3.1.1. Biography
3.1.2. Guadalupe, Malinche, and La Llorona in “The Broken Web”
3.1.3. La Llorona in “The Cariboo Cafe”
3.2. Sandra Cisneros
3.2.1. Biography
3.2.2. The Virgin of Guadalupe in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises”
3.2.3. Malinche in “Never Marry a Mexican”
3.2.4. La Llorona in “Woman Hollering Creek”
3.3. Ana Castillo
3.3.1. Biography
3.3.2. La Llorona in So Far from God Fe Caridad Esperanza La Loca Sofi
3.4. A Comparison of Viramontes’s, Cisneros’s and Castillo’s Fiction

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Deutsche Zusammenfassung

1. Introduction

In Chicana/o culture[1], feminine archetypes from the Mexican tradition play an important role for woman’s subjectivity. Traditionally, such archetypes epitomize Catholic-patriarchal constructions of womanhood. Idolized by the figures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona, the most prevailing representations of female sexuality and motherhood evolve around the passive virgin, the sinful seductress, and the traitorous mother. The Virgin of Guadalupe represents the patriarchal ideal of femininity, and is hence promoted as a role model for women. In contrast, La Malinche and La Llorona, Guadalupe’s negative counterparts, are defined as “whore” and “bad mother” by the dominant discourse of the patriarchy and the Catholic Church. Therefore, they function as anti-role models in Chicana/o culture.

Along the lines of Chicana feminism, the traditional definitions of these feminine archetypes can be seen as promoting an image of woman that is detrimental to female subjectivity. Although there are three figures, these archetypes evoke a binary opposition that defines woman as either “good woman” or “bad woman,” “virgin” or “whore.” As such, they limit and circumscribe the Chicana’s development of subjectivity. But in this Master’s thesis I want to demonstrate that these cultural icons may also epitomize feminine power, and hence provide the Chicana with possible feminist role models to back up her emancipation.

Chicana feminists have employed creative writing to counter the Catholic-patriarchal discourse on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Malinche, and La Llorona. As they explore these cultural archetypes in their novels, short stories, and poems, Chicana feminists attempt to reveal the mechanisms by which the original images of these mythic figures have been subverted, disempowered, and distorted. But most importantly, they seek to deconstruct the virgin/whore dichotomy by rewriting the mythic figures. Through a revision of existing myths, Chicana writers are able to create a feminist mythology that is rooted in cultural tradition but simultaneously serves as an act of resistance to the dominant discourse (cf. Cook 125).

In my Master’s thesis, I wish to explore the mythic figures of Guadalupe, Malinche, and La Llorona in all their complexity, and discuss their predominant role in contemporary Chicana literature. The introductory chapter will serve to familiarize the reader with the cultural background of Chicanas that shapes their writing. Hence, I want to have a brief look at Chicana/o history, and give a short introduction to Chicana feminism and Chicana literature.

In the second chapter, I will study the origins and patriarchal constructions of these three mythic figures as well as summarize general Chicana responses towards these patriarchal myths. Chapter 3, then, will offer a more comprehensive discussion of Chicana feminists’ appropriation and revision of Guadalupe, Malinche, and La Llorona by focusing on concrete examples of contemporary Chicana creative writing. The texts I have chosen to analyse here – five short stories and one novel – were written by three of the most articulate and powerful voices in Chicana literature: Helena Maria Viramontes, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo. The subchapter devoted to each of these outstanding Chicana voices will provide a short biography before analysing the creative works.

For the in-depth discussion of Viramontes’s reconsideration of mythic figures, I picked two of her short stories from The Moths and Other Stories (1985). “The Broken Web,” set in a Mexican/ Mexican-American microcosm, primarily focuses on female stereotypes promoted by La Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe. In contrast, “The Cariboo Cafe,” the author’s most well-known short story, establishes La Llorona as an international symbol for women suffering the loss of a child.

Cisneros deals with each of the three most prevailing feminine archetypes separately in her first short story collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). The first story to be analysed, “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” offers a revision of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The second short story, “Never Marry a Mexican,” highlights the Chicana’s problematic attitude towards Malinche. And the title story of the collection, “Woman Hollering Creek,” provides a Chicana feminist reinterpretation of La Llorona.

A look at Castillo’s third novel, So Far from God (1994), will reveal that interesting Chicana revisions of feminine archetypes are not restricted to short fiction but also occur in creative writing of more length. Each of the five principal characters of Castillo’s novel, a mother and her four daughters, offers the reader a different rewriting of the story of La Llorona. But other mythic figures and related female stereotypes also come into play.

Finally, a comparison at the end of chapter 3 will present similarities and differences between these different feminist reconsiderations of the three most prevailing feminine archetypes in Chicana/o culture.

1.1. A Brief Look at Chicana/o History

To be able to understand and appreciate Chicana literature and its preoccupation with patriarchal constructions and feminist rewritings of such mythic figures as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Malinche, and La Llorona, it is necessary to have a short look at the history of the Chicanos/as. Carl R. Shirley (296) points out that “[…] Chicano[/a] writers and many of their readers have a deep awareness of their past because Chicano[/a] lives have been so shaped and influenced by events of the last five centuries that their past is very much an active part of their present (as evidenced by its frequent portrayal in literature).”

The origins of Chicana/o mythology are found in the sixteenth century, thus leading us back to Mexican and pre-Columbian history. The contemporary Chicano/a frequently attributes a great part of his or her heritage to the ancient Indian civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Aztec and Mayan culture with their legends, customs, and deities are particularly significant. For instance, the story of Aztlán (the place of the herons), which tells of the Aztecs’ mythical homeland to the north of present-day Mexico, was of great importance during the Chicano movement of the 1960s (cf. ibid). As Chicanos and Chicanas were struggling for social and political equality as well as seeking to assert their presence as a distinct ethnic group within the U.S. society, many activists were interested in reclaiming their indigenous roots and Aztlán. Believing that the term Aztlán, the place to the north, referred to the Southwest of the United States, activists appropriated the term as a “[…] unifying symbol of the deep racial and cultural roots of Americans of Mexican descent” (cf. ibid).

Significant events in the history of Chicanos and Chicanas are the Conquest of Mexico, which lasted from April 1519 to August 1521, and the subsequent Spanish colonial rule of the territory. Within less than three years, the Spaniard Hernán Cortés – bringing with him not only guns, horses, and European diseases but also “Spanish blood, language, religion, and customs” (ibid) – conquered the approximately 300-year-old Aztec empire, the first major indigenous civilization to fall to the Spanish (cf. ibid). Besides Moctezuma and his successor Cuauhtémoc, the last two rulers of the Aztec empire, another prominent historical figure – whose name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Cortés’s name – is Malinche, the india who became the conqueror’s translator, advisor, and mistress. She also bore Cortés a son, Martín, who is considered the first mixed-blood Mexican or mestizo, and thus represents the origin of the Chicano/a (cf. ibid; Wurm 302)[2].

Soon after the conquest, the first priests came to the newly “discovered” land with the intention to teach the natives the Catholic faith. The success of this religious mission is frequently attributed to the story of the miraculous appearance of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego in 1531. Still today, Catholicism – or rather a kind of folk Catholicism which is a fusion of Catholic beliefs, symbols, and rituals with those of the conquered and converted people – is the most widely practiced religion among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Moreover, the Virgin of Guadalupe is not only an omnipresent figure in the daily lives of Chicanas/os, but also in their literature (cf. Shirley 297).

Yet another important historical event for Mexicans as well as Mexican-Americans is the Mexican-U.S. War (1846-48). With the Signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February 1848, the Republic of Mexico, which gained its independence from Spain only twenty-seven years earlier, lost half of its territory to the United States (cf. ibid 298). The treaty guaranteed those 80.000 people left behind in the area stretching from Texas to California a year to choose between going to Mexico or remaining in what was now U.S. territory. Only 20.000 people left. Furthermore, the treaty also guaranteed the 60.000 people who stayed the “[…] enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States according to the principles of the Constitution; and in the meantime [they] shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.”[3] However, the government of the United States failed to uphold the promises made in this treaty. Apart from the religious rights, “[…] which have been fairly consistently protected” (Moquin & Van Doren in ibid), the other rights promised to Mexican-Americans by the treaty have been largely ignored by the government. Mexican-Americans “[…] have been subjected to economic, social, and political discrimination, as well as a great deal of violence at the hands of their Anglo conquerors” (ibid). The current situation of most Mexican-Americans has not changed much, and “[…] can be linked to the failed promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo […],” as Shirley (299) points out.

The United Farm Workers movement and the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s sought social justice and equality, denied to U.S. citizens of Mexican descent despite legal documents like the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Moreover, Chicanos/as sought to reclaim their rich cultural heritage, stretching back to pre-Columbian times, and to assert their distinct ethnic identity. The 1960s, generally a turbulent decade of much political unrest in the United States, saw community leaders, activists, artists, scholars and students rally together to fight for civil rights, farm workers rights, the restoration of land grants, the improvement of educational opportunities, and other issues of importance to the Chicana/o community (cf. ibid 302; Alarcón 1990: 558).

The affirmative action was accompanied by the publication of a large quantity of literary material and also a rapid growth of the Small Press Movement which “[…] provided the forum for articulation of the newer and different emerging consciousness” (Alarcón 1990: 559). A noteworthy literary expression of a new cultural and political identity, for instance, is considered to be Rodolfo “Corky” González’s poem “Yo soy Joaquín/ I Am Joaquín.” Other major Chicano voices emerging around that time belong to Rudolfo Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Luís Valdez and Tomás Rivera. Women, too, contributed to this early corpus of Chicano/a literature, but it would not be until the 1980s that Chicana writers would gain a wider audience. Moreover, the movimiento also increased academic attention to all aspects of Chicano life, including literature, arts and history. As a result, Chicano Studies programs were created at colleges and universities (cf. Shirley 302).

Shirley (303) concludes that “[b]ecause of federal programs such as affirmative action, Chicanos[/as] of the 1970s and 1980s have made social gains, but they still have not achieved full equality.” But Chicanos/as, albeit with less radicalism than in the 1960s, have continued and still continue to address the problems and issues of the earlier years: “The Chicano[/a] voice, long proud of its culture and history, has begun to be heard, and it is still speaking” (ibid).

1.2. Chicana Feminism and Chicana Feminist Literature

Mexico’s leading woman writer and journalist, Elena Poniatowska (43), once said: “To be a Chicano is not easy, but to be a Chicana is even harder.” Like Chicanos, Chicanas are subjected to Anglo discrimination, racism, and dominance. But additionally, Chicanas are also subjected to male dominance within their own community (cf. Rebolledo 1995: 72). Chicana feminism, hence, is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality, and considers them as inseparably linked with social, economical, and political issues related to race and class (cf. Castillo 1995b: 10).

The Chicano movement was often “the center of internal contradictions and conflicts” (Saldívar-Hull 2000: 127). Chicanas who wanted to participate in the movimiento were told to stay in the kitchen and take care of the children, as the phallocentric nationalist movement strongly subscribed to conservative views of family life and the concept of carnalismo (brotherhood). Thus, women found themselves “[…] in the traditional role of nurturer preparing food and coffee while the men plotted revolution” (Rebolledo 1995: 71). Even worse off were those Chicana activists who addressed women’s issues within the nationalist movement. Too often these women met with resistance from their compañeros, who accused them of assimilating to the dominant Anglo cultural system. In order to control and restrict women’s activity within the movement – socially and intellectually – feminist Chicanas were stigmatized as traitors to the community. They were labeled vendidas (sell-outs) as well as – evoking the name of the india who aided Cortés – malinches and malinchistas (cf. ibid; Alarcón 1989: 81; Saldívar-Hull 2000: 127).

Chicana feminists lamented that they were accused of betrayal and that their concerns were largely ignored by the male members of the movement. Addressing her male compañeros, Adelaida del Castillo emphasized Chicanas’ loyalty towards the community: “We’re not a separate movement, that would be suicidal. We as Chicanas and Chicanos are oppressed. We’re not going to ally ourselves to white feminists who are part of the oppressor. I mean, that would be a contradiction” (in Maier 47).

Alliance-building of Chicanas with white feminists, more precisely white middle-class feminists, proved to be impossible very early in the women’s movement of the 1960s. Among Chicanas and other women of color, Anglo feminism came under attack for failing to recognize and acknowledge race and class differences between women. Anglo feminist discourse was characterized by “color blindness instead of color consciousness” (Saldívar-Hull 2000: 36), as “woman” was treated as a stable and homogenous category. Disregarding race as well as cultural and economic differences, most of the early Anglo feminists wrongly assumed that their concerns were the concerns of all other women (cf. Maier 33).

Since there was no reconciliation in sight, Chicana feminism emerged as a distinct feminist movement in the 1970s. Moreover, a Chicana lesbian movement was formed in the second half of the 1970s as homosexual Chicanas felt discriminated against by their heterosexual sisters. Chicana feminists also formed an alliance with other women of color, i.e. Afro-American, Native-American, and Asian-American women, to counter and challenge Anglo feminist discourse (cf. ibid; Ikas 40; Saldívar-Hull 2000: 46).

The alliances with other women of color resulted in the publication of such ground-breaking anthologies as This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, and Making Face, Making Soul/ Hacienda Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color (1990), also edited by Anzaldúa. Giving previously silenced women of color the opportunity to articulate their own feminist theories, both anthologies brought together many diverse viewpoints to the multicultural feminist debate (cf. Ikas 45). Approximately twenty years after the publication of This Bridge Called My Back, Anzaldúa co-edited This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformations (2002) with AnaLouise Keating. Again, this anthology encompasses diverse texts by women of color. But the major difference to the previous anthologies is that this book also includes voices of male and white contributors, thus signaling women of color’s willingness for dialogue with white feminists as well as men.

Of course, Chicanas do not only question and challenge male dominance and white supremacy within a theoretical framework. For Chicana feminists, creative writing has always been an important means of expression. According to Chicana critic and creative writer Marcela Christine Lucero-Trujillo, “[l]iterature has […] provided an outlet for the frustrations of being a woman within the sexist microcosmic Chicano world of machismo, and the alienation of being a Chicano woman in the larger macrocosmic white male club that governs the United States” (in Ikas 1).

Since the early days of the movimiento, Chicanas have been writing. However, many Chicana texts were not published until the mid 1970s. Initially, the male-dominated smaller presses created by Chicanos were very reluctant to publish works written by their compañeras for reasons discussed above. And mainstream publishing houses like Random or Norton did not “discover” ethnic minorities as a viable book market until the 1980s. Thus, Chicanas along with other women of color began to set up their own independent and co-operative small presses, including Kitchen Table or Third Woman Press (cf. Ikas 94)

From the beginning, feminine subjectivity within a Mexican-American context has been (and still is) the primary subject matter of this literature. In the literary works of Chicanas, the Chicana woman moves from the margin to the center of the stage to confront her social and political realities, and also to grapple with who she is both as a woman and as a member of an oppressed minority. Hence, as Marcienne Rocard (130) has noted, Chicana literature embodies the quest for self-definition:

Very early, in the wake of the Chicano movement, the Chicana realized, the urgency of self-definition, hence the mood of introspection and self-reappraisal that has pervaded Chicana literature from the first. The Chicana’s attempt at self-definition and self-assertion, however, is different from that of her male counterpart, while men’s main concern has been asserting their existence as a group outside the barrio, women have first to achieve recognition within their own community.

Part of this quest for self-definition also includes a critical examination of patriarchal myths and related constructions of gender roles and stereotypes within her culture (cf. Maier 64). Chicana authors revise the stories of mythic figures like Malinche, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and La Llorona in order to deconstruct binary oppositions like virgin/whore or good mother/bad mother. Although not an easy task, it is a necessary one. Only by questioning and challenging long-held stereotypes of women as either whores or saints, good mother or bad mothers, is the Chicana able to redefine herself beyond her culture’s patriarchal parameters.

The so-called “boom” of Chicana literary output does not occur until the mid 1980s. Two of the landmarks of the literature exploring Chicana subjectivity were published during this decade: Sandra Cisneros’s bestselling novel The House on Mango Street (1984), one of the first Chicana novels to gain wide critical acclaim, and Ana Castillo’s epistolary novel The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986). The relatively big success of these novels led to mainstream publishing houses’ interest in the two authors. Thus, Cisneros was signed by Random House, and Castillo by W.W. Norton. Another Chicana author, Helena Maria Viramontes, belonging to the same generation as Castillo and Cisneros, was signed by the mainstream publishing house Dutton, part of the Penguin Publishing Group (cf. Ikas 95). Yet, these authors remain an exception within the larger group of Chicana and Chicano writers.

In the 1990s, nearly two-third of the contemporary Chicano/a literature was written by women (cf. Saeta 133). But most of these literary works continued to be published only by small regional presses. With the exception of a few, Chicana writers still have not become mainstreamed. However, there is no denying the fact that they are enjoying more and more success (cf. Rebolledo and Rivero 25).

2. Traditional Mythic Figures in Chicana/o Culture

2.1. Defining Myth and Mythological Archetypes

Especially in cultures with a strong oral tradition, myths and mythological archetypes play an important role:

It is common in largely oral cultures to organize knowledge, values, and beliefs around symbolic icons, figures, or even persons, which is a characteristic of both the Spanish and the natives at the time of the conquest, and one that in surprising numbers continues to our day in Mexican/ Chicano culture. (Alarcón 1989: 62)

Hence it is not surprising that the term “myth” derives from the Greek word “mythéomai” which means “to tell, to say” (cf. Ikas 143). A culture’s mythology is composed of a series of images and narratives that are the product of “[…] several generations who share a particular space over a significant period of time […]” (Alurista 83). Myths and archetypes have been created to serve a variety of functions. They may explain a culture’s origins, its beliefs, traditions as well as its morals and values. Often, they justify the presence of certain hierarchical structures within a society. They may also express a culture’s desires, hopes and fears (cf. Cook 127; Lauter 1309). Similarly, Chicana critic Tey Diana Rebolledo defines mythology in her cultural analysis of Chicana literature, Women Singing in the Snow, which features an entire chapter on myths and archetypes in Chicano culture:

Mythology often functions as a collective symbolic code that identifies how we should live. Cultures use myths and the stories of heroines and heroes to create role models. These stories enable us to differentiate correct behavior from incorrect, transmit moral values, and identify those traits considered desirable by a group or society. (Rebolledo 1995: 49)

Myths and archetypes have crucial influence on the personal development of an individual, not only during a child’s socialization but throughout life. Within patriarchal culture and religion, they tend to have most of all negative, repressive qualities. Female archetypes are constructed as role models or anti-role models that circumscribe women’s life by imposing polarized sex roles as well as certain cultural values and norms on them (cf. Ikas 144).

The mythological heritage of Chicanas/os (as well as Mexicans) revolves most of all around three representations of female sexuality and maternity: the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche and La Llorona. Although there are three figures, they evoke a Manichean logic of “good and bad” or “virgin and whore.” Similar to the Virgin Mary, Guadalupe functions as a role model for Chicanas and Mexicanas. She, the virginal protecting mother, is an idealization of femininity that proclaims women’s destiny as virginity, marriage and motherhood (and only in this order). The Judeo-Christian figure of Eve has been recreated in Malinche, the mother who betrayed her children, and La Llorona, the long-suffering, crying mother who killed her children. As they deviate from “patriarchal definitions of proper womanhood” (Elenes 96), they are Guadalupe’s negative counterparts.

A culture’s mythology, however, is not stable. As myths are told and retold, they are being embellished and altered. Even their interpretation may change over a long period of time. As cultures change over time, so do their cultural practices (cf. Elenes 87; Figueredo 234; Lauter 1309). In traditional Chicano culture, the patriarchal mythology, the result of which is the virgin/whore dichotomy, places double standards on women, controls and undermines them. But ever since the emergence of Chicana feminism in the late 1970s, the myths and archetypes have been contested. Chicana feminists question and deconstruct the “official” interpretations of the three mythical female figures in order to “[…] reverse and displace binary oppositions in the construction of Malinche, Guadalupe, and Llorona” (Elenes 89). By rewriting and deconstructing the traditional myths and archetypes, they imbue existing role models with new meaning. They provide La Llorona, Malinche and Guadalupe with traits and characteristics radically different from the traditional ones (cf. Rebolledo 1995: 49). Thus, for Chicana feminists, the three mythical figures serve no longer to circumscribe women’s life but to empower them.

2.2. The Virgin of Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe is an important figure in both Mexican and Chicano culture, not only in religious terms. Guadalupe, “the first dark Mestiza Virgin” (Rebolledo 1995: 50), is the most potent symbol of syncretism – she represents the merging of different cultures, of European and Indian belief systems. The Christian Virgin Mary and the pre-Columbian Aztec goddess Tonantzin have been united within her. However, the powerful Aztec origins of Guadalupe are often denied within both Catholic-patriarchal cultures. As a result, Guadalupe was turned into a unilateral figure, a figure just as one-dimensional as her Roman Catholic equivalent, the Virgin Mary. She is the universal Virgin Mother who embodies the most virtuous feminine attributes, such as forgiveness, humility, motherly devotion and self-sacrifice as well as submissiveness and purity. Hence, she serves as a role model for Mexicanas and Chicanas. Women are expected to emulate her essential attributes; they are supposed to be self-sacrificial wives, mothers, and daughters who do not question the established symbolic order. She restricts women’s possibilities of self-definition, and as such the Virgin of Guadalupe is a problematic figure for Chicana feminists.

In this chapter, I will discuss Guadalupe’s status as the archetype of la mujer buena, its construction by patriarchal Mexican and Mexican-American culture, and the subsequent difficulties for Chicana feminists with Guadalupe’s image as well as their attempts to resolve these difficulties.

Approximately a decade after the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés (1519-21), a dark-skinned beautiful lady in a blue mantle appeared several times to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a recently converted Aztec peasant, on the Hill of Tepeyác near Mexico City. According to oral tradition[4], she first appeared to Juan Diego on December 9, 1531. She introduced herself to the poor indio as La Señora de Coatlalopeuh[5], the Indian name of Guadalupe, and told him in Nahuatl that she is la madre de Dios, the Mother of God. Then she asked Juan Diego to deliver a message to Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the first Bishop of Mexico. The Virgin wanted a church to be built for her on the hill of Tepeyác so that she could be worshipped. On her instructions, Juan Diego went to see Zumárraga, but the Bishop indifferently told him to come another day. Shortly afterwards the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego a second time. He told her what had happened and begged her to choose another person to deliver the message, a person with more credibility. But the Virgin assured him that he is the one who should and will give the message to Bishop Zumárraga. Shortly afterwards, Juan Diego went to see the Bishop again. This time Zumárraga listened to the Indian peasant, but he was reluctant to believe Juan Diego’s story and therefore asked him for a sign from the Virgin. On December 12, Juan Diego had another vision of the Virgin. When he had informed her of the Bishop’s request, the Virgin asked him to gather the roses that miraculously began to grow on the rocky soil of Tepeyác in the middle of December. Juan Diego did as he was told by the Virgin and returned to the Bishop. The final miracle then happened in front of Zumárraga. As Juan Diego unfurled his tilma (cloak) to give the roses to the Church authorities, the image of the Virgin suddenly appeared on the rough-woven fabric. Bishop Zumárraga immediately granted the construction of a church dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and upon its completion the tilma with the Virgin’s image was framed in gold and hung up in a central place of the church (cf. Anzaldúa 1999: 50-52; Ikas 161).

Soon afterwards, millions of indios voluntarily converted to the Roman Catholic faith which they have modified to a kind of “folk Catholicism with many pagan elements” (Anzaldúa 1999: 49). The dark skin color of the Virgin of Guadalupe – with which the indios could identify – and the spot of her apparition – once a sacred worshipping place of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin[6] – are regarded as two of the main reasons for the indios ’ sudden will to convert (cf. Ikas 161; Rebolledo 1995: 50). The Roman Catholic Church accepted la Virgen de Guadalupe as the Mother of God in 1660, “considering her synonymous with la Virgen María” (Anzaldúa 1999: 51). She became the national patroness of Mexico, and her banner was often carried into battle. As for instance in 1810, during the Mexican War of Independence, indios and mestizos fought against Spanish rule under her banner. She is also regarded the patron saint of the Chicano Southwest of the United States. In the 1960s, Chicanos carried Guadalupe’s banner in the numerous protest marches of el Movimiento (cf. Alarcón 1989: 69, Rebolledo 1995: 53). Her image expresses solidarity with the poor and oppressed. It provides people with hope, comfort and the strength to endure, as she ultimately promises “supernatural salvation from oppression […] and national independence” (Wolf in Alarcón 1989: 58).

Still today, the dark-skinned Virgin is the most revered image in Mexican as well as in Chicano culture, and the original church erected on top of Tepeyác hill daily attracts millions of visitors who wish to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego, who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2002. In fact the number of devout pilgrims and curious tourists daily visiting the spot is so overwhelmingly large that a bigger building, intended to hold the streams of visitors, had to be erected next to it. The new Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe now houses Juan Diego’s tilma and is the central place of worship for the patron saint of the Americas (cf. ibid; Ikas 161).


[1] I will use the terms Chicana/o and Mexican-American more or less synonymously in this thesis.

In the mid 1960s, the term Chicano – probably a derivation from “mechicano,” which was the common pronunciation of “mexicano” in the sixteenth century – came into wide usage when politically conscious U.S. citizens of Mexican descent were appropriating the term as a self-identifier. The political connotations inherent in the term were weakened throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Nowadays, the term is widely generalized to mean simply U.S. citizen of Mexican descent or “Mexican-American” (cf. Ikas 5).

When I want to emphasize a person’s indigenous roots, the term mestiza/o will be used, referring to an individual of mixed Spanish/ European and Amerindian heritage (cf. ibid 6).

[2] An in-depth discussion of Malinche (as well as Guadalupe and La Llorona) is provided in chapter 2.

[3] Quote from Article IX of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, as found in Shirley 298.

[4] Written accounts of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe were first documented in the seventeenth century. These accounts include Father Miguel Sánchez’s Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Díos de Guadalupe, published in 1648, and Luis Bezerra Tanco’s Origen Milagroso, published in 1666 (cf. Elenes 92).

[5] The name Coatlalopeuh (alternatively Coatlaxopeuh) derives from “coatl,” the Nahuatl word for “serpent,” and means “she who has dominion over serpents.” It refers to Coatlalopeuh’s Aztec origin, Coatlicue (“she who wears a serpent skirt,” a pre-Columbian creator and fertility goddess) of whom she is descended from (cf. Anzaldúa 1999: 49-51).

As Ana Castillo (1997b: xv) has remarked, “[e]ffective translation of language only works when you have similar symbols in both languages and, to be sure, a sense of the culture from which the other language derives.” The Spanish conquerors, missionaries and colonists, therefore, did not make the effort to translate Nahuatl terms into Spanish. They did not only appropriate the so-called New World by means of violence but also by linguistic means (as the term “New World” itself suggests). Everything was renamed, “[…] as if a name did not exist before […] (ibid). Often the Spaniards simply made Castilian sense of Nahuatl. Coatlalopeuh is homophonous with the Spanish word Guadalupe. Hence the dark-skinned lady who appeared to Juan Diego is now referred to as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

[6] Tonantzin is – just like Coatlalopeuh/Guadalupe – an aspect of Coatlicue.


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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Female Mythologies Chicano Chicana Chicanos Chicanas Sandra Cisneros Helena Viramontes Ana Castillo Mexian-American Feminist literature American literature contemporary literature Chicana feminism




Title: Female mythologies in contemporary chicana literature