"Haunted Borders, Nostalgia, and Narration: Cherríe Moraga’s Giving Up the Ghost: A Stage Play in Three Portraits and Helena María Viramontes’s “The Cariboo Cafe”" by Lenke Németh
Lenke Németh is assistant professor of American Studies at the North American Department, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Debrecen, Hungary. She teaches courses in American literary culture and offers a variety of seminars in American drama, poetry, and the history of American art. Her academic interests include postmodernism in American drama, gender -, ethnic -, and transnational studies. She has published several essays on these topics as well as a book on David Mamet, All It Is, It’s a Carnival: Reading David Mamet’s Female Characters with Bakthin (2007). Email:
MARISA: This is México! What are you talking about? It was those gringos that put up those fences between us! Cherríe Moraga Giving Up the Ghost
“These four walls are no longer my house; the earth beneath it, no longer my home.” Helena María Viramontes “The Cariboo Cafe”
An overwhelming sense of nostalgia felt for lost homes, territories, culture, and history pervades Cherríe Moraga’s play Giving up the Ghost (1986) and Helena María Viramontes’s short story “The Cariboo Cafe” published in her collection of The Moths and Other Stories (1985). Both works address the painful experience of border crossings, exile, dislocation, and re-location as well as the mental, psychological effects these traumas exert on personal and collective identity. As Chicana feminist authors both Moraga and Viramontes are precoccupied with the multidimensional and highly complex theme of the U.S.-Mexican border, like their Chicano writer counterparts. Yet, by focusing on how women protagonists are affected with the consequences of the geographical displacement shared by the Chicano communities, Moraga and Viramontes considerably depart from the male-experience centredness of Chicano literature. Alongside with other representatives of “a burgeoning of Latina creativity” (Madsen 10) including Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, and Alma Luz Villanueava─emerging on the American literary scene from the end of the 1970s─ these authors developed a distinctly feminine voice that addresses ethnic, racial, sexual, and cultural exploitation of women whereby they challenge the machismo of the Chicano movement in the mid-1960s.
Preoccupation with the effects of space, border, dislocation, and nostalgia, is evident in Chicana/o literature. Mary Prat Brady argues that an interest in space and its conceptualization are the Chicana/os’ inception as Euro-American social theorists have “largely ignored” these elements (9). She contends that “Chicana/os have been considering space, taking it seriously, not simply as something to produce but as something to understand” since “the Chicana/os have felt and observed” the process of colonization and its “ongoing ramifications” to this day (9). Consequently, space and border have become dominant literary and cultural themes in the growing body of Chicana/o literature, and it is legitimate to say that they have acquired tropal qualities. Jon D. Rossini defines border as “a cultural paradigm”: “the U.S.-Mexican border is a site of national, political, and economic contestation that has been used increasingly as a conceptual paradigm for explicating new forms of identity, culture, and information” (114). Monika Kaup highlights the genre-shaping properties of border in Chicana/o literature: “the border exists not only as a theme, it has produced new narrative forms such as the plot of native geopolitical resistance on the border, migrant literature and hybrid genres of femininst mestizaje texts” (6).
Similarly, I propose that as a recurrent literary and cultural theme in Chicano/a literature nostalgia exists not only as a theme but also functions as a trope, a genre building component; therefore it serves as a useful point of entry for a comparative analysis of Moraga’s play and Viramontes’s short story. Nostalgia produces narrative forms and devices that cross generic borders and lead to the narrativization of the drama and the dramatization of the short story. This paper will explore artistic forms that powerfully render how immigrant and exilic bodies/characters carry loss, grief, nostalgia and displacement; how they relate stories of loss and memory. I argue that both Moraga and Viramontes apply structural and narratorial devices that allow for entering the consciousness of their characters, whereby they expand the generic boundaries of drama and short story, respectively. This spirit of experimentation with literary forms is typical of Chicana feminist writers who
seek to construct or reconstruct ethnic women’s literary traditions through the rediscovery of earlier modes of speaking and by challenging conventional distinctions among forms of expressions. These writers subvert conventional forms of literary expression to make them express colored women’s experiences. (Madsen 4)
Through the lens of nostalgia my reading will explore the respective female protagonists’ opposing responses to nostalgia and exile as well as the artistic rendering of nostalgic memories. “The study of nostalgia,” as Svetlana Boyd notes, “does not belong to any specific discipline: it frustrates psychologists, sociologists, literary theorists and philosophers, even computer scientists” (The Future xvii). Yet, paradoxically, the difficulty of subsuming this concept in any discipline underscores its flexibility and wide range of use. Coined from Greek algos “pain, grief, distress” and nostos “homecoming,” the word itself is “only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek,” as Boyd points out, because it was invented “by the ambitious Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688” to identify a disease, a “severe homesickness” (1). Since its inception the initial meaning of the concept has expanded considerably. After the seventeenth century nostalgia became identified with vague feelings of longing for lost homes and times. While the disease was considered curable in the seventeenth century, Noël Valis suggests that “romantic thought made nostalgia incurable,” and it became “a permanent condition of loss and exile, the central metaphor being childhood as a lost paradise” (120). As regards the modern and postmodern times, Boyd contends that nostalgia “never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary” (“Nostalgia” 7).
Crucial to my investigation of the play and the short story here is Boyd’s emphasis on establishing the spatial and temporal dimensions of nostalgia. Attempting to find reasons for the transformation of “a provincial ailment, maladie du pays” to a “disease of the modern age, mal du siècle” she attributes “the spread of nostalgia” not only to “dislocation in space” but also to “the changing conception of time” (The Future 7). Boyd considers nostalgia “a symptom of our age, a historical emotion” (xvi) and defines modern nostalgia as:
a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual. (8)
The return to a physical home seems to be impossible for the Chicana/os, yet the literature of the Chicano community endorses and keeps alive a “spiritual return.” All the works of Chicana/o literary expression are embedded in the historico-political reality that Rossini describes as follows:
the contemporary border with Mexico is a result of U.S. aggression during the Mexican-American War and the subsequent territorial division and essentially forced sale of Mexican territory . . ., thus people living in those regions became U.S. citizens without ever crossing the borders. (114)
Chicana protagonist Marisa’s words in the introductory quote allude to the forced deterritorialization of México by the U.S. (the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848). Her indignant exclamation also hints at a mistakenly held belief of mainstream culture in the U.S. that “Chicano and Latino identity indicates a history of immigration rather than colonization or conquest” (Rossini 114).
Viramontes’s short story addresses not only the after effects of migratory experience but she also broadens the scope of displacement to a Latin American context. Situated in the barrio district of Los Angeles the shifting narratorial voices tell the stories of immigrant children, Sonya and Macky’s escape from the police, the “polie;” the personal traumas of an unnamed Anglo-American cook, the owner of the Cariboo café; and the exilic experience of a nameless washerwoman fleeing from the brutality of the militant government from her home in a Central American country. The three stories of personal tragedies converge in the Cariboo café, where their stories combine and exemplify tragedies of de-spacing groups of people and nations, thus reinforcing Boyd’s observation that “nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory” (The Future xvi).
The historical reality that urges the washerwoman to leave her country refers to a recent, late twentieth-century event, when oppressive military governments aided by the U.S. forced masses of people leave their homes. Fatima Mujćinović claims that “in only three decades, from 1950-1983, almost two million people were forced to relocate” and among them were Cubans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans (167). By failing to specify the name of the country in “The Cariboo Cafe” Viramontes “makes the explicit connection between Chicanas and the refugees from Central America” and also “commits herself to a transnational solidarity with the working class political refugee seeking asylum from right-wing death squads in countries like El Salvador” (Feminism 144) as Sonia Saldivar-Hull asserts. Puzzlement over the name of the actual country derives from direct textual reference to the Contras—U.S. supported rebels in Nicaragua from the end of 1970s—whereas in the introduction to the short story collection Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano identifies the woman El Salvadorian (Introduction 20). Contras, as Garza-Falcón highlights, “were the remaining members of Somoza’s National Guard after the Sandininst Revolution and they set themselves up for the most part in Honduras from where they could enter Nicaragua” (277). In my view the focus of the story is on the afflicted mind and body of a washerwoman whose child has been snatched by the militant regime suspecting him to be a spy. The woman’s personal tragedy represents thousands of other mothers’ fate in the Latin American region in that particular time, which renders irrelevant to name either the country or the woman.
Massive relocations and dislocations from a homeland, as Mujćinović claims, lead to “a psychological rupture that inevitably problematizes the articulation of individual and collective subjectivity. This absence of strong grounding provokes feelings of uprootedness and non-belonging, which propels one into perpetual solitude and nostalgia” (168). The affective aspects of nostalgia are formulated by Valis as follows: it is considered “an inner space of psychic and emotional resonance” (117), or is described as “a form of deprivation, whether felt on the cultural or the psychological level” (120). I suggest that the feeling of deprivation and loss lead to starkly contrasting emotional impact on the respective main characters in the two works under study here. For Marisa the confrontation with her ghosts from the past is restorative in the sense that her recalling of the former times involves a process of recuperation and reconciliation with her lesbianism on a personal level, whereas on a collective level of consciousness she is able to reconnect with the heritage of her indigenous and Mexican ethnic background. By contrast, the washerwoman in Viramontes’s story suffers from mental disorder and psychological turmoil, which eventually causes her violent, yet redeeming death.
Most recent findings of psychological research on nostalgia are useful to account for the restorative effect of nostalgia, whereas to understand destructive responses to nostalgia the initial seventeenth-century description of the disease are applicable. Modern research reinforces that the feeling of nostalgia emerges as a “fundamental human strength” that generates “positive affect, elevates self-esteem, fosters social-connectedness, and alleviates existential threat” (Sedikides 307). Urged by a need to understand the cultural and social forces that shaped her gender, sexual and cultural identity, Marisa in Moraga’s play is ready to confront her past. Her question to herself: “Why’d I hafta get into a situation where all my ghosts come to visit?” (Moraga, Giving Up 1120) in the opening scene suggests that she will immerse herself into a self-revelatory journey precluding any romantic yearning for the past. It is suggested that “nostalgia is a social emotion; …during nostalgic reverie, ‘the mind is peopled’” (Sedikides 306). This aspect of nostalgia helps to affirm “symbolic ties with close others” and “close others come to be momentarily part of one’s present” (306). In the process of remembering Marisa faces her teenage self Corky and her first adult love Amalia, a Mexican-born artist. Giving voice to her adolescent self as well as Amalia ensures that Marisa is able to negotiate with them, listen to them from her present stance. Yarbro-Bejarano also stresses the importance of the main character’s distancing from the past: “the structural device of staging the split subject creates the distance between Marisa and her formative sexual experiences necessary for analysis and reflection” (The Wounded 36).
Relevant to an understanding of Marisa’s past remembrances is Ayouch A. Boda‘s distinction between two main types of nostalgic spaces. She claims there are some “fixed and closed, the object is immobile, idealised and often specular,” whereas the “others are open, and provide the possibility for creative and dynamic regression which allows the subject to delve into and draw strength from the archaic, without being overcome by it” (271). The co-existence of the three female characters on the stage allows for the critical reflection of Marisa. The authorial instructions underscore that they must be aware of each other’s spatial presence:
the lighting and direction should give the impression that the characters both disappear and remain within hearing range of the speaker. In short, direction should reflect that each character knows, on an intuitive level, the minds of the other characters. (Moraga, Giving Up 1120)
The spatial arrangement of the women in this way as well as the structural device itself “may facilitate continuity between past and presetn selves,” which is “another key function of nostalgia” (Sedikides 306). Corky’s resistance and anger towards the shaping forces of her identity─the church, the school, the ethnic community─that all attempt to impose the role of chingada on her is now understood by Marisa in he present. “Corky is reminded that she is a girl, and consequently a ’woman-to-be’ through the body, except that Corky refuses to enter ’the semantic charter’” (Alarcón 228). A most evident example of building on a horrendous event in the past is Marisa’s reaction to Corky being raped. After Corky’s harrowing monologue recounting that the school janitor raped her in the Catholic school Marisa is able to say with certainity: “I don’t regret it. He only convinced me of my own name.” (1133). She understands that she “is split asunder between her male-like subjectivity and behaviour, and her literal female body” (Alarcón 228). Similarly, Marisa can accept and assert her own Chicana lesbian identity even after losing Amalia. Her final words in the closing scene of the play illuminate that she has drawn strength from delving into the past and she will always try to form her family: “It’s like making familia from scratch/each time all over again. . ./with strangers, if I must./If I must, I will” (1136). Marisa’s attitude to her future epitomizes an additional function of nostalgia which is “its motivating potential” as it “may boost optimism, spark inspiration, and foster creativity” (Sedikides 306). Also, Moraga’s idea of family as suggested in the play subverts the traditional image of American and Mexican-American family, which aligns her with a canonical white dramatist, Edward Albee’s perceptions of family formations. As Crsitian M. Réka argues
the traditional structure of a nuclear family (heterosexual matrix and young children) is challenged and converted into alternating forms of post-nuclear family structures: the couple with adopted, narcissistic adult in The American Dream, the couple , their married grown-up daughter, and a sibling-n-law in A Delicate Balance, bisexual couples and single parents in Finding the Sun, childless old and young couples in The Play About the Baby, and solitary individuals in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?.
As opposed to the character building effect of nostalgia in Moraga’s play, Viramontes’s “The Cariboo Cafe” presents the destructive and fatal effect nostalgia and exile may exert on a mother. Her immense nostalgia for her lost son and her homeland exemplifies that nostalgia is developed as an “effect of exile” as Valis remarks (117) or in Ayouch Boda’s formulation “exile can revive and exacerbate” nostalgia (271). What forces her to leave her country is her son’s disappearance and the brutality of the militant regime in power there. The washerwoman’s experience testifies that “exile is often a searingly painful experience of mental and emotional anguish” (Valis 117). For her the loss of her child is equated with the loss of her home and homeland: “Without Geraldo, this is not my home; the earth beneath it, not my country” (Viramontes 75). Devastated by the disappearance of her child as well as the crulety of the regime she exclaims:
“These four walls are no longer my house; the earth beneath it, no longer my home… “we try to live as best we can under the rule of men who rape women then rip their fetuses from their bellies. Is this our home? Is this our country?”(Viramontes 75).
Merging the loss of her child with the erasure of the land in the washerwoman’s mind can be explained by the wide range of linguistic, cultural, and gender related connotations that the Spanish equivalent of the earth/la tierra has. I find that Phil Howard’s observations concerning the multiple interpretations of la tierra in Chicana/o literature are applicable here. He maintains that “la tierra has a feminine denotation reflected in feminine cultural connotations” (131). Arguably, there is a direct and close semantic relationship between woman and the earth: “we have la tierra natal, the country of birth, and la Tierra as the land/nation by and against which an individual identifies herself” (131). Feeling herself a dysfunctional mother who loses her own child because she cannot take proper care of him, the washerwoman loses the basis of her identification with the native land/the earth so she must leave her homeland. Given some financial aid by her relative Tavo in the U.S. she gets to the U.S. crossing several borders.
Highlighting the severe effects of exile Valis contends: “the physical act of exile is such a brutal uprooting and displacement that it is bound to produce, not only the most obvious kinds of material changes in the lives of individuals and societies, but other, more subtle changes” (117). The woman’s troubled mind and her agitated mental and psychological state propels her into a world detached from reality. In many respects the physical, mental, and psychological symptoms the refugee woman produces correspond to the syndromes of severe homesickness as described in the seventeenth century. Boyd states, “nostalgia was said to produce ‘erroneous representations’ that caused the afflicted to lose touch with the present. Longing for their native land became their single-minded obsession” (The Future 1). The washerwoman conflates past events with occurrences, sensations, and feelings in the present, which is indicated structurally in the recurrent shifts of the narratorial perspective from the third person into first person; as well as in the frequent changes of past tense into present. Related to the loss of a sense of temporality, “one of the early symptoms of nostalgia was an ability to hear voices or see ghosts” (Boyd, The Future 1). She feels remorseful for sending her son for a mango and not even dressing him properly, she begins hallucinating:
I didn’t even bother to put his sweater on. I hear his sandals flapping against the gravel. I follow him with my eyes, see him scratching his buttocks when the wind picks up quickly, as it often does at such unstable times, and I have to close the door. (Viramontes 72)
The powerful use of imagery also foreshadows that she is losing her sense of reality: “Dawn is not welcomed. It is a drunkard wavering between consciousness and sleep. My life is fleeing, moving south towards the sea” (73). A culminating point of the woman conflating the present reality with her own past is her kidnaping Macky, who is running away from “the polie” together with her sister Sonya since they have been warned to do so by their parents. This scene exemplifies another aspect of the seventeenth-century diagnosis that nostalgia may resemble paranoia: it “was akin to paranoia, only instead of persecution mania, the nostalgic was possessed by a mania of longing” (Boyd, The Future 4). Spatial and temporal coordinates of the present cease to exist for the washerwoman. Not realizing that she is in Los Angeles, she abducts Macky, yet in her mind she is defending “Geraldo” from the detainers, in reality she is snatching and saving Macky as well as his sister Sonya, who will not release his hands. The present moment that she fails to realize is enmeshed with her past memories and images, which exemplifies how nostalgia operates by associations: “Nostalgia operated by an ’associationist magic,’ by means of which all aspects of everday life related to one single obsession” (Boyd, The Future 4).
The scene depicting how the woman seizes “Geraldo” is filled with heightened dramatic tension. The immediacy of this part is achieved by the first person narrative voice as well as an effective use of linguistic devices that establishes the kinetic, visual, and acoustic elements of the scene. The use of short, dramatic words expressing rapid movements (jumped, dashed), sudden change of the past tense to the present tense, the inclusion of onomatopoeic words (screeching, horn), frequent repetition of words and addressing an audience all contribute to the intensity of this scene.
I jumped the curb, dashed out into the street, but the street is becoming wider and wider. I’ve lost him once and can’t lose him again and to hell with the screechnig tires and the horns and the headlights barely touching my hips. I can’t take my eyes off him because, you see, they are swift and cunning and can take your life with a snap of a finger. . . . I grab him because the earth is crumblimg beneath us and I must save him. We both fall to the ground.” (Viramontes 76)
A dim light of reality on her mind is easily erased by her obsession: “What if it isn’t Geraldo? What if he is still in the detainer waiting for me? A million questions, one answer: Yes. Geraldo, yes” (Viramontes 76). “Retaking” her son transforms her entirely both outwardly and inwardly. The physical, mental, and psychic void experienced due to her lost child disappears when she reunites with “her son.” The cook in the Cariboo cafe is astonished to see the difference in her appearance a day after her snatching the boy: “she looks so different, so young. . . . Almost beautiful” (77). Consistent with the symbolic connotations of la tierra, her role as a mother is restored thus her identification with her native land is also re-established. Finding “Geraldo” means she will go home, where everything will be the same, as she imagines: “Tomorrow she will make arrangements to go home. Maria will be the same, the mango stand on the corner next to the church plaza will be the same. It will all be the way it was before” (77). Her dream and desire here reinforce that “nostalgia connects the ideas of return and pain but conventionally refers to a sentimental clinging to the past often glorified past colored by an undistiguished or conflicted present” (Wiley 102).
The washerwoman’s nostalgia for her lost son and home is lethal. Her re-union with her substitute son is merely one day long. She has been betrayed by the cook and the police come to the cafe for the children kidnapped the previous day. She fights fiercely not to let them take the boy: “for they will have to cut her arms off to take him, rip her mouth off to keep her from screaming for help” (Viramontes 78). In this tragic and climactic moment she transforms into a courageous and defiant woman who resists power and oppression in the name of all the women:
She is destroyed violently, yet her death is redeeming as her final thoughts reveal. Just before she is shot down. She is no longer frightened by anyone and she will never stop fighting for her son. [… ] She begins screaming all over again, screaming so that the walls shake, screaming enough for all the women of murdered children, screaming, pleading for help from the people outside, and pushes an open hand against an officer’s nose, because no one will stop them and he pushes the gun barrel to her face. (78) [… ] To hell with you all, because you can no longer frighten me. I will fight you for my son until I have no hands left to hold a knife. . . . I am blinded by the liquid darkness. But I hold onto his hand. That I can feel, you see. I’ll never let go. Because we are going home. My son and I. (79)
In addition to the woman gaining the status of a tragic heroine here because of her defiance and moment of epiphany, the exceptional dramatic power of this closing scene can also be attributed to staging it as a performance with an audience as people gather outside the café “pressing their faces against the window glass to get a good view” (Viramontes 78). The “audience” turns complicit in her destruction since in vain does she plead “for help from people outside,” then “she pushes an open hand against an officer’s nose, because no one will stop them” (78). At this point the narratorial perspective change from the third person into first person signals not only entering the consciousness of the woman but also underscores her realization she must fight.
Nostalgia and exile are both “stories of loss and memory, and they are about home, or what passes for home, for the things and persons that centre us in our private and public live” (Valis 117). Stories, memories, and reveries constitute the verbal manifestations of nostalgia and the literary generic features determine the modes how they are artistically conveyed. As Valis claims nostalgia “registers the past as past through a special form―a kind of second order or level―of remembrance” (120). I would suggest that a non-linear structural arrangement of events and the simultaneous presentation of different spatial and temporal planes convey the “kind of second order or level―of remembrance” typical of the literary rendering of nostalgia.
A complex art form with its spatial, visual, acoustic, and performative potentials, the theatre proves to be a most adequate place for dramatizing and evoking the historical, cultural, and emotional sides of nostalgia. Theatre theoretician Marvin Carlson claims the theatre has a “ghostly quality, this sense of something coming back,” which is a universal feature: “all theatrical cultures have recognized in some form or other” so the relationships between theatre and cultural memory are deep and complex” (2). It follows the theatre operates “as a site of memory, both personal and cultural” (4). Recognizing parallels between the border—a typically Chicana/o theme—and “the semiotic intensity of theatrical space” Rossini finds the theatre the most appropriate venue for dramatizing border histories. He suggests: “theatrical space is important for understanding borders not only because the theater can function as border space but also because the border itself is often understood as a theater” since crossing borders entails acting out scripted roles and behaving “within a restricted range of acceptable physical gestures and emotional states” (114).
Giving Up the Ghost is a memory play with Marisa, the central figure who reflects on her journey to accepting her lesbianism. However, Moraga subverts the traditional male-centred theatrical practice of this subgenre with a male narrator giving an account of past events from his perspective. No hierarchical relationship exists in the structural representation of the three female chracacters, instead “the subject position is ’shared’ by the two characters Marisa and Amalia, and Marisa is ’split’ between her present self and her younger self (Corky)” (Yarbro-Bejarano The Wounded 35). Most importantly their stories are not mediated through an all-knowing Marisa but each has their own voices and monologues, thereby “they speak their subjectivity directly, without the intervention of a narrator who has greater ’knowledge’” (Alarcón 223). In various ways, the actor also has a crucial role in generating the nostalgic. Carlson underscores the actor’s creative contribution “to the process of theatrical recyling and its effect upon reception” (53). He states “within any theatrical culture audience members typically see many of the same actors in many different productions, and they will inevitably carry some memory of those actors from production to production” (53). Wiley also finds the theatre “a particularly appropriate medium for coming to terms with nostalgia” for the following reason:
The complex interplay of the spatial, visual, acoustic, and performative elements of the theatrical production ensures that the nostalgic is evoked metaphorically and metonymically. Valis contends that “the nostalgic possesses an intrinsically historical character, which is expressed through metaphorical properties” (120). The characters’ mixed identity comprising American, Mexican, and indigenous cultures and heritage is effectively communicated in the opening scene through lighting, music, and the setting. According to the instructions: “the suggestion of a Mexican desert landscape is illuminated upstage evoking indigeneous México,” whereas “lighting and music” are the main features in providing the setting, which provide the emotional dimension of nostalgia. The “streetwise ritmo” recreates “the urban life of the Chicanas” in the 1980s Los Angeles, yet it should also reflect the influence of Mexican folk music with rancheras, corridos, and mariachi, and ”the indigenouse sounds of the flauta, concha” must also meld into the sounds (Moraga, Giving Up 1120). The simultaneity of spatial and temporal planes is provided by the multifunctional use of the minimalist setting. The objects evoke multiple spaces and times both in the characters’ and the spectators’ minds: “a crate used for street scenes downstage” and “a raised platform, stage left, serves as the bed in a variety of settings, including a hotel room, a mental hospital, and both AMALIA’s and MARISA’s apartments” (1120).
Actors, whom the audience recognizes as real people and pretend characters simultaneously, physically inscribe the past’s integration into the present. Due to their liminal presence in a space—the stage—that is both real and unreal, actors are essential border dwellers and playwrights exemplify border writers. (Wiley103)
The spatial co-presence of Corky, Marisa, and Amalia on stage establishes an awareness of the past in the present as well as the simultaneity of different spaces and times. By juxtaposing the two selves, Marisa and Corky, the spectator understands how Marisa’s gender adn cultural identity is shaped. “As a figure of memory for Marisa, Corky embodies a healing figure” (Wiley 113), whereas Amalia, I argue, incarnates nostalgia. The love between Marisa and Amalia is sparked by a deep sense of nostalgia they mutually recognize in each other. Amalia instantly recognizes that Marisa is nostalgia incarnate: “Her nostalgia for the land she had never seen was everywhere. In her face, her drawings, her love of the hottest sand by the sea” (Moraga, Giving Up 1127). The attraction the two women artists begin to feel toward each other proves to be a process of recuperating their nostalgia for Mexico as well as their reconnecting with their indigeneous past. Their first intimate moment seems to have been inspired by Amalia discovering indigenous features on Marisa’s face, her visualizing landscapes of the lost land:
AMALIA: Desierto de Sonora. Tierra de tu memoria. (Turning Marisa’s face to her.) Same chata face. Yaqui.” (They hesitate, then kiss their first kiss). (1127)
The evocation of the Indian heritage is completed with the sounds of the “indigenous flutes and drums” in the background (1127). As Wiley articulates, the play “combines sexual and ethnic politics, focusing on Chicanos’ mostly repressed Indian heritage as an echo of women’s repressed sexuality” (112).
The Mexican-born Amalia is afflicted by profound nostalgia for México. Her monologue reveals her heartbroken memory of leaving México with her parents when she was thirteen. The physical and spiritual burden of crossing the border was aggravated by the fact that her “la regla,” her bleeding started. Crossing the U.S.– Mexican border—signifying physical and spatial liminality—is accompanied by Amalia’s rite of passage, her entering adulthood not only physiologically but also spiritually and mentally. At this liminal stage in her life she experiences loneliness and isolation, as if foreshadowing her life in the U.S. She could not run for help to Tía Fita, who was the only one who had promised to help her at that pivotal moment in her life. Tia Fita refused to go to “all those pochos y gringos” so as Amalia admits: “it seemed too selfish to tell her my troubles when I was the one leaving her” (Moraga, Giving Up 1128). Even more significantly, her womanhood was not blessed due to border crossing, which may be the cause of her sense of desolation felt throuoghout her stay in the U.S. Directly addressing the audience in one of her monologues—and thus making them complicitous—Amalia confesses: “Ask me one word to describe to you the source of all my loneliness and I will tell you ’México’” (1128). As Yarbro-Bejarano asserts, “born in México, she [Amalia] clings to the possibility of regeneration though cultural identification with México” (The Wounded 39).
Blood turns out to be a recurrent image associated with painful, traumatic events and incidents related to México. At the age of fifty Amalia goes back to México in the hope of recuperating herself, however, when she learnt about the death of her Mexican lover, she started bleeding: “and the blood wouldn’t stop, not until his ghost had passed through me or was born in me” (Moraga, Giving Up 1131). The image of blood that Marisa sees in Amalia’s eye metaphorically may allude to agonizing border crossings across the river separating the U.S. from México: “Remember the time we woke up together and your eye was a bowl of blood? I thought the river had broken open inside you” (1127). The interrelated images of border crossing and blood nostalgically refer to the loss of the land, la tierra. Further expanding this image I find that Howard’s interpretation of la tierra that it “is related to both physical and moral unlceanliness” (131) appropriately describes this grievous act.
Nostalgia infiltrates the play metonymically through numerous cultural signifiers—objects (rebozo), food (tortillas), and landscapes (desert, river, valley) that bring back images of México. The visual and aural effects not only indicate but also reinforce the women characters’ identification with traditional elements of their culture. The sorrowful process of remembering thus becomes emotionally charged, which all contribute to a dreamlike quality of the play. Worn by women in México to protect them from heat or cold and also worn by indigenous women to carry their babies in, the garment rebozo becomes the metonymic signifier of a common heritage and land as well as a shared fate of women. After Corky’s tormenting rape monologue Marisa goes up to her and wraps a rebozo around Corky’s shoulder, then Amalia joins them and covers Marisa with a rebozo, thus creating a unique moment of cultural awareness of these women. The instructions say: “All three, now in rebozos, have become indias” (Giving Up 1134). As Wiley suggests it is conveyed that Marisa’s “desire for Amalia combined with a burgeoning love for México rehabilitates her as a complete human being and while her loss of innocence is not forgotten, just as México is not forgotten, it defines her life without disabling it” (113). The emotional charge of this moment of unity and wholeness is further enhanced by all of them enacting a happy dream, yet this rare moment is ephemeral:
CORKY comes downstage, kneels. She begins making tortillas, slapping her hands together. MARISA and AMALIA join her on each side forming a half circle. They, too, clap tortillas to the rhythm of tambores. They are very happy” (Moraga, Giving Up 1134).
The evocation of the geographical space of the homeland is a also powerful symbol. Amalia feels if she and Marisa could have lived there in the desert, things would have been different between them. “For some reason I could always picture mi cholita in the desert amid the mesquite y nopal. Always when I closed my eyes to search for her, it was in the Mexican desert that I found her. I had intended to take her . . . to México” (1127). As Yarbro-Bejarano remarks “the Mexican desert is a feminized place which promises replenishment in the face of Amalia’s alienation in the U.S. Here ’México’ does not simply refer to a nationhood or even ethnicity; rather its identificaion with the generic ’Indian’ transforms México into a mythic place of origin, authenticity, wholeness” (The Wounded 39-40).
The ghosts Marisa exorcises are numerous. Wiley contends that “the ghost is patriarchal and colonial oppression, of women and indigenous people but it is also more subtly the ghost of Chicano’s loneliness in the United States” (113). Erik MacDonald suggests that Marisa also gets rid of “her past associations with violence, race hatred and misogyny” (163). I would add that through the working of her restorative nostalgia Marisa is able to expel all the forces and influences that attempt to confine, limit, or negate any aspect or constituting element of her cultural, gender, and sexual identity. She understands that “the loss of the past is irreversible, but the past can be carried into the present and future as a guide and not necessarily a burden.” (Wiley 113). Since the play is auto-biographically inspired, it is illuminating to incorporate the author’s own words to situate and identify herself in the conflicting cultures and spaces:
I cannot flee the United States, my land resides beneath its borders. We stand on land that was once the country of México. And before any conquistadors staked out political boundaries, this was Indian land and in the deepest sense remains just that: a land sin fronteras. Chicanos with memory like our Indian counterparts recognize that we are a naton within a nation. An internal nation whose existence defies borders of langugae, geography, race. Chicanos are multiracial, multilingual people, who since 1848, have been displaced from our ancestral lands or remain upon then as indentured servant to Anglo-American invaders. (Moraga, “Art” 31)
While in Moraga’s play a sense of simultaneity is achieved by staging the different selves of the protagonist, the short story operates with shifting narratorial voices, which allows entering the consciousness of the immigrant or the exile. The tripartite structure in Viramontes’s “The Cariboo Café” unfolds three story lines narrated form different perspectives by narrators who all experience exile. The first part describes Mexican immigrants’ children, Sonya and Macky’s escape from the police in the barrio district of Los Angeles; the second section centers on the first person narration of owner of the Cariboo cafe; whereas the third part focuses on the story of the nameless washerwoman from a Latin American country. Nostalgia infiltrates the short story and it is manifest in various levels: in the tightly woven structure as well as the remembrances of the characters that are chaotic, fragmented, and full of swift changes in narrative perspectives and tenses. All these features contribute to its highly dramatic quality maintained by a carefully built movement from the third-person narratorial perspective to first–person narration accompanied by a spatial move from the outside, the streets of Los Angeles through the Cariboo cafe to the troubled mind of the washerwoman. Within each part the frequent and sudden shifts in locales, perspectives, and narratorial voices, remininscent of rapidly changing cinematic cuts contribute to a sense of immediacy and heightened dramatic quality, which not only reflects the tormented and chaotic physical, mental, and spiritual experiences of the exiles but also provides an entry point in their minds.
In the first section of the story a sense of nostalgia for the lost home is established both metaphorically and emotionally. It is told by a third-person narrator from the perspective of the six-year-old Sonya, whose responsibility is to take care of her younger brother, Macky, after she comes home from school. Sonya, however, has lost the key to their apartment, and decides to go back to Mrs. Avila, who takes care of Macky. Retracing the journey back proves to be a daunting task for her “in the labyrinth of her memory” (Viramonotes 66) as she only knows the route the other way. Her trying to find the way back exemplifies the dysfunctional working of nostalgia on a metaphorical level. When retrieving past memories and experiences, memory fails: “things never looked the same when backwards and she searched for familiar scenes” (66). It turns out that places and persons believed to be there are absent or gone; buildings or places familiar do not exist anymore or merely ruins and fragments have remained. Never do they reach the place of security, instead their attempt to go home is complicated by the imperative to run from the police, “la migra” as instructed by their parents whenever they see them: “the polie are men in black who get kids and send them back to Tijuana” (Viramontes 67). The description of their running from the polie in the city of Los Angeles metaphorically establishes all the fears and traumas of border crossing: “they enter a maze of alleys and dead ends, the long abandoned warehouses shadowing any light” (Viramontes 67). Suddenly across some railroad tracks, Sonya sees a “yellow glow, like a beacon light at the end of the dark sea” (68), and drags Macky toward it. She thought “at least the shadows will be gone, she concluded, at the zero-zero place” (68). Yet, shadows of persons lost and gone as well as violence keep haunting everyone entering the cafe. It becomes a symbol of loss and erasure for all the characters.
According to José David Saldívar Viramontes’s narrative “is bereft of traditional transitions between sections and without markers indicating breaks and shifts in time and place” (101). As opposed to this statement, I find that her story invokes a finely orchestrated musical piece with three movements each having their main themes yet each movement already contains an element, a motif that will be picked up and expanded in the next section. In similar manner Viramontes inserts references to indicate and foreshadow changes in time, place and/or narratorial voice. Part one ends with Sonya and Macky finding shelter in the “zero-zero place,” whereas the next part begins with the cafe owner’s first person narration recounting the history of the name of the cafe. His opening lines: “Don’t look at me. I didn’t give it the name” shift the past tense of the previous part into the present, change the third-person narratorial perspective to the first person and refer back to the history of the place, which will be unravelled in the café owner’s monologue. The linguistic and structural changes here parallel and reinforce Sonya and Macky moving from the dreadful outside, where “the metallic taste of fear” (68) can be felt to a shelter where they may find some peace.
The Cariboo cafe serves not only as a locale where all the characters meet─though unaware of each others’ stories─but also gains mataphorical significance. With its two O’s left in the neon sign it transforms into a site of nostalgia and exile as well as a border place where illegal immigrants may find recluse, where personal and collective tragedies unfold. Just like the paint has peeled off the sign, the life of the cook has reduced to pain, bitterness, and loneliness due to the loss of his family. He feels immense nostalgia for his son JoJo, who disapperaed in the Vietnam war and for his wife Nell, who left him. Boyd’s formulation of nostalgia aptly describes the cook’s longing: “a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy” (“Nostalgia” 7). His personal torment penetrates the cafe: “The double zero cafe. Story of my life” (Viramontes 68). Signs of his “disease of an afflicted imagination” (Boyd, The Future 4) include his obsession with the past in the sense that every occurence, event, and object in the cafe brings back memories of his son or wife. The name of the cafe reminds him of JoJo turning fourteen, how he liked it because it sounded “almost like the name of a song, you know, I kept it” (Viramontes 68). The bells on the door, which he hates, was Nell’ s idea “so people won’t sneak up on you, says my ex” (69) and concludes “that’s why Nell was good to have ‘round. She could be a pain in the ass, you know, like making me hang those stupid bells, but mostly she knew what to do” (69).
The cook’s agitated state of mind and troubled consciousness find expression in his flickering thoughts and memories, his fragmented stories, elliptical sentences, the frequent changes of tenses as well as his addressing an audience. This latter device effectively conveys his split consciousness and his efforts to justify that he is “honest, telling the truth” (68), which also involves his reporting illegals to the police. All these structural and linguistic elements contribute to a mounting tension and immediacy, which result in the strikingly dramatic effect of the story. Letícia M. Garza-Falcón attributes the power of the story to the co-existence of parallel consciousness and their truths:
the story is about the way in which each event, taken from within its own context within the consciousness of each actor, can uncover a kind of truth, so often marred and banished from factual, even historical narratives that we accept as true…. the literal consciousnesses come together in the same moment in time, in the same narrative, and articulate how it is that events came to take place singularly in the perspective of each participant. (203)
The enormous pain and nostalgia due to the loss of their families deprive both the washerwoman and the café owner from their sense of reality and induce psychological scars in their personalities. The woman abducts Macky to restore herself in her maternal role, whereas the café owner reports the woman to the police prompted by his conviction that “children gotta be with their parents, family gotta be together, he thinks. It’s only right” (Viramontes 77). The café owner and the mother are connected in their trauma. As Garza Falcón suggests:
They have both lost their sons as a result of a U.S. supported ‘anti-communist’ war; they are both victimized by their environment, and they both are now lost, no longer knowing what is right o which way to turn. They both latch on to some well-instilled notion from out of the past in order to go forward. (205)
Both the cook and the woman project an identity onto Macky that is based on their own deprivations and inner needs to re-build and replace their lost families. The woman “finds” Geraldo, while the cook sees JoJo, his son in Macky, whom he names Short Order. Eventually each strives to rehabilitate their families. Kaup identifies the family reconstruction as a tendency among certain Chicana writers by stating that
while some Chicana writers dismantle the social architecture of patriarchal domesticity, Viramontes, too, like Graciela Limon, Ana Castillo, and Cherrie Moraga, evokes its positive symbolic meaning. Although a symbolic family of displaced people, in actuality, members of the group remain isolated from each other; furthermore they prey on each other. People who could give a new home to each other—a father, a mother whose sons have been killed in Vietnam and in El Salvador, two children separated from their parents by the cruelties of the working conditions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.—end up betraying each other. (294)
As discussed here the trope of nostalgia produces artistic forms that effectively render how immigrant and exilic bodies/characters carry loss and displacement. Common devices in the play and the short story include the non-linear arrangement of events, the simultaneity of different spatial and temporal planes, the move of the narratorial perspectives from the external/outer to the internal/inner, and the prevalent use of monologues. Most strikingly, both works frequently employ asides to involve the audience or listeners to participate in the process of collective remembering, whereby their responsibility in generating or/and redressing nostalgia is foregrounded. Chicana/o authors’ duty in this process is articulated by Moraga as follows: ’The Chicano scribe remembers, not out of nostalgia but out of hope. She remembers in order to envision. She looks backward in order to look forward to a world founded not on greed, but on respect for the sovereignity of nature” (Last Generation 190).
This work was supported by the University of Debrecen (RH/751/2015)
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