It was Virginia Woolf who famously suggested that greater female autonomy could be achieved through the craft of writing. Historically, women have been marginalized by their male peers, forced into stringent gender roles with little attention paid to their personal desires, hopes, or dreams. One of the primary methods that women have used over the the years to fight against this oppression is the creation of literature. Women of different cultures often have varied experiences, and Latina women are no exception to this rule; however, despite the cultural differences between different Latin cultures, Cofer, Martínez, and Erauso explore similar thematic ideas within their respective texts. Each is concerned greatly with the thematic idea of the construction of femininity within their culture, and with the ways that this construction sets women adrift within their own society. Although each author addresses the thematic concept of femininity and coming-of-age differently, there are distinct similarities that can be tied closely to Latin culture and cultural expectations.
Erauso’s The Lieutenant Nun is somewhat separate from Cofer’s Silent Dancing and Martínez’s Mother Tongue due to the subject matter of the text. However, the thematic ideas contained within the text are important to discuss, as they create a framework for discussion of Latina authors’ constructions of femininity. The Lieutenant Nun is a memoir, written about a woman in the 1600s who endeavored to live life as a man. Despite being written significantly earlier than any of the other texts that will be discussed here, The Lieutenant Nun gives excellent insight into the foundational structures of femininity and masculinity within Spanish and Latin American culture.
Erauso’s extraordinary story takes the reader on a tour of the meaning of masculinity and femininity in Basque country and Latin America during the 1600s. She successfully navigated the murky waters between the gender dichotomy, refusing to conform strictly to one gender or the other. This fluidity is incredibly important, as it exposes the strengths and weaknesses of both masculinity and femininity in the Latin American and Spanish culture. Whereas gender is usually considered to be a binary, Erauso switches fluidly between gender roles as it suits her.
During the 1600s, society was very much male-dominated, and Erauso, perhaps longing for more freedom, perhaps driven by some deeper discomfort with her gender, decides to begin to dress as a man (Erauso, Stepto and Stepto). However, she is not content with merely dressing like a man; she begins to act like one, gambling, fighting, dueling, and even, eventually, killing another man (Erauso, Stepto and Stepto). While she is acting in the male capacity, Erauso acts violently and impulsively. However, when she begins to suffer punishment for her actions, she quickly reverts back to her femininity as a type of shield from the justice of society and the Church. Erauso writes, “And seeing that he was such a saintly man, and feeling as if I might already be in the presence of God, I revealed myself to the bishop and told him, ‘Senõr, all of this that I have told you in truth, it is not so. The truth is this: that I am a woman’” (Erauso, Stepto and Stepto). This is not the only time Erauso makes this declaration-- she uses her femininity and virginity as a shield against jail and capital punishment later in the text as well. Erauso was, in short, unwilling to bow to the societal expectations of the day, instead choosing to use cultural expectations of gender as a way to shield herself from punishment and retaliation for her actions.
Demetria Martínez is from a vastly different world than Catalina de Erauso, but her work in Mother Tongue nonetheless echoes Erauso’s confessions in The Lieutenant Nun. Whereas Erauso is adrift in the gray area between the two ends of the gender binary, Martínez’s protagonist is adrift between two cultures, incapable of molding herself to fit either culture completely. The protagonist, Maria, is in a state of turmoil when she is first introduced to the reader, exposed completely from the first line of the novel: “His nation chewed him up and spat him out like a piñon shell, and when he emerged from an airplane one late afternoon, I knew I would someday make love with him” (Martínez). The man of whom Maria is speaking comes to represent her feeling of alienation from all of the cultures she is supposed to belong to (Martínez). Her attachment to him is feral and undeniable, although she cannot claim any single part of him. Indeed, he is even described as having “a face with no borders: Tibetan eyelids, Spanish hazel irises, Mayan cheekbones” (Martínez). Jose Luis, the man that Maria falls in love with, placeless; she can love him because she can see her own alienation and lack of homeland reflected back at her from him.
Maria expresses multiple times that the only thing that she understands-- and the only person who understands her-- is Jose Luis. Because they are both separate from a cultural identity, she sees him as a safe harbor from the turmoil of her attempts to discover herself. However, love makes things both personal and complicated: Jose Luis cannot separate himself from his cultural identity, and cannot recognize Maria’s cultural identity as unique and real. Instead, he expects her to separate herself from her Chicana identity, and become completely Salvadoran, something that Maria cannot fathom. Maria writes, “He saw in me an image of a gringa whose pale skin and tax dollars are putting his compatriots to death. My credentials, the fact that I am Mexican American, don’t count now; in fact, they make things worse But after telling him the news of the nuns’ deaths, I am transfigured. For a terrible disfigured moment, I am a yanqui, a murderess, a whore. (Martínez). Maria’s struggles with her cultural identity are overridden by Jose Luis’, because of her lower cultural status as a woman; she becomes marginalized by her femininity and her gender in a way that Jose Luis cannot recognize or understand.
The struggles of being a woman with dual cultural expectations of femininity is also discussed in Cofer’s Silent Dancing. Cofer’s novel centers around the women in the protagonist’s life, and the ways in which these women provided formative experiences for the protagonist. However, the novel also deals heavily with the conflicting patriarchal expectations of both Puerto Rican culture and American culture, and what it means to be a woman in each of these cultures. Cofer’s protagonist struggles heavily with her cultural identity, commenting: “We were going to prove how respectable we were by being the opposite of what our ethnic group was known to be- we would be quiet and inconspicuous” (Cofer). Puerto Rican culture has strict expectations for respectable women, but these expectations are often at odds with American expectations for respectable women, leading to a conflict within the protagonist that leads her to the feeling of being completely separate from both cultures. The protagonist’s family adapted well to American life, but instead of allowing the protagonist of the text to feel as though she integrated well into American culture, it left her feeling as though she could never be either: she would never be completely Puerto Rican, but she would never be completely American either. This alienation echoes the alienation felt in both Erauso’s and Martínez’s works.
Trans-cultural movement is complex, even in this day and age. The expectations of different cultures may change over time, but attempting to live in a culture that is not one’s own can be a difficult and isolating experience, particularly for women, who face stringent social and cultural expectations. Latina literature often considers closely the thematic idea of alienation, drawing on the isolation of being female in a pair of cultures that seem to devalue femininity. Culturally, many Latin American societies are built upon the binary dichotomy of gender roles, which are both strict and restrictive, particularly for women. The restrictions placed on women’s behavior and cultural identities often lead to alienation and a lack of belonging to any particular culture. The themes of loneliness and drifting through existence are common threads throughout the literature written by Latin American women; it is a way of sharing their experiences and reducing the feeling of isolation that so many women with these life experiences often feel.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. Silent dancing. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1990. Online.
Erauso, Catalina De, Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto. Lieutenant nun. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. Online.
Lemus, Felicia Luna. The trace elements of random tea parties. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003. Online.
Martínez, Demetria. Mother tongue. New York: One World, 1997. Online.