Author, artist, and Xicana lesbian feminist activist Cherríe Moraga is co-editor of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, a foundational feminist text. Her most recent book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, illustrated by artist Celia Herrera Rodríguez, employs some of the formal concerns of the Aztec codex to continue this radical vision into the 21st century. Manifesta editor Reina Gattuso sat down with Moraga during her and Rodríguez’s recent visit to Harvard for a discussion on the power of language, the challenge of coalition, and how to counter the apocalypse. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Manifesta: At the talk you gave at Harvard you said—and this is a question basically about language—that when a word or a term becomes mainstay in academic speak, you tend to not want to keep using it.
Moraga: What happens sometimes is that as an artist and writer you come up with certain concepts and those concepts are oftentimes—they’re metaphors. And they have a certain potency or power because they’re coming out of original thinking. And then sometimes what happens is you’ll see some of the same language start to be used in an academic setting, and it gets sort of usurped, it gets sort of assimilated into an academic framework where it has less politically radical potential.
So I feel that way sometimes in my own writing. I also think that when we’re in the university, to gain language to really articulate what we feel is important. So it’s not like I’m anti-education. Sometimes you learn something: like the first time I understood what capitalism was, was this amazing moment. And I go oh, you mean there’s a concept for why there’s poverty. So I think also language can be very empowering.
Manifesta: I feel like there’s a broader question there, too. How do you negotiate being at Stanford, and being in this system that places such an emphasis on publishing and on very specific forms of knowledge production, with an emphasis on orality and the radical potential of language?
Moraga: I’ve been there over sixteen years, and I’m full time, but I came in as an artist in residence. So I don’t actually have to abide by the same rules. I think the privilege of it is since I come in as an artist, even if I teach classes that are more theoretical, I’m free always to combine it with an art practice—everything I do.
Because it’s a ruling class school, there’re certain privileges you get attached to that. And I think my work has always been to try to take advantage of those privileges, and for my students, particularly students of color, to try to get them to take advantage of those privileges, but not to identify with the institution. And that has always been my practice as a teacher. To just not identify with that institution, to believe somehow that it’s your friend. Because it’s not. It’s not unless you abide by wanting, you continue to want, a patriarchal and corporate America. Well then, fine. You’re in the right place.
Manifesta: You mentioned being an artist, and specifically someone who does a lot of work in performance. And I know that theater in particular has such a rich history as a medium that can be used for social change. Do you feel like interacting with people, and interacting with communities, through art keeps that more theoretical stuff grounded, or keeps it answering to communities?
Moraga: The great thing about theater is, it’s in the flesh. That’s the whole nature of ceremony, it’s the nature of theater practice, all of that. That it’s not on the page, and it’s not private. Because when we’re reading—I love writing, so I’m fine with the page, but it’s still a very private relationship. Like yesterday, when we were doing [Harvard] Professor Carrasco’s class and Maria Luisa Parra’s class, at one point one of the women quoted me. She was quoting me, she said I want you to respond to this quote of yours from Xicana Codex, and she read it in a way that it wasn’t mine. When she read it, it was hers. And I was very moved by that. Something that happens between bodies is the most powerful. So if what you’re doing as a writer and as an artist helps those bodies to interact in that way, then it’s real. Then you’ve taken it from theory or literary or this more abstracted art project to actual engagement with human beings which one hopes affects consciousness and political change.
Manifesta: So I wanted to ask you about your latest book, and specifically the idea of the codex. You write about the appropriation of Mayan apocalyptic predictions in popular culture and how the book actually forms a codex of the cataclysm that is the contemporary world. What are some of those cataclysmic events that you’re talking about, and how does the codex work to portray them?
Moraga: It’s already flipped out. That’s the point—the point of it is that the cataclysm the Mayans talked about has already occurred. In the sense that you’re talking about such a gross state of globalization, where greed has gotten to a state of such outrageousness that the planet is being destroyed as we speak, every day worse and worse. It’s so evident. It’s not even that you have to study this.
For me—you know, I’m now 61 years old. We came of age at a time when there was so much radicalism going on with the Xicano movement, the gay movement, with the women’s movement, all this stuff was going on, that we believed as young people that the future was going to be incredibly progressive, and that it was just going to be about more and more liberation. And actually the opposite occurred. The future didn’t mean liberation. It meant that the revolution just happened in technology. It didn’t happen in human beings. It happened in technology. So now we have the ability to communicate with people so quickly, which as you can see in the case of Egypt, helps the revolution, but didn’t change consciousness. Consciousness is changed through people.
So the book, the codex, starts with 9/11 and ends more or less with the election of Obama the first time around. I didn’t feel like the election of Obama was necessarily hopeful. I mean, there was hope in it. But I felt like there was no movement, that there was no expectation of him. That he got elected out of personality, out of that he was going to be the first black president. But nobody required any politic particularly from him. And so because of that he was able to go into office in a totally reactionary Congress and basically keep compromising into oblivion. Now we’re worse off than when Bush was there. It’s crazy how that could be the case. Our notion of what is progressive or left has moved further and further and further right, so now what is moderate is actually from when I was coming of age is considered right-wing.
Manifesta: You were talking about feeling like you don’t see the sort of revolutionary spirit that you felt organizing when you were younger in our culture today. What do you feel happened to it, and where do you see causes or organizing where you do really feel that potential?
Moraga: I always see it in particular people. In California and in the West I see it among Raza, and particularly in response to the undocumented people’s movement. That’s been really, really impressive.
A lot of the gains that have been made through the civil rights movement and all that have been gradually eroded, and this idea of states’ rights over the federal, over national rights, all of this stuff are movements to erode the responsibility of the government to the majority. You’re looking at this idea that somehow welfare, or taking care of the impoverished, is somehow anti-democratic. It’s a twisted notion that we didn’t grow up with. Even republicans didn’t necessarily think that. And now it’s like somehow the government is not responsible for its people. That’s a crazy idea, but that’s the common notion because now you have to buy your right to citizenship, true citizenship, which means the more money you have, the more power you have. How could a corporation have more rights than a citizen or a person who lives here?
When I was in the 1980s, when This Bridge Called My Back came out, we imagined as women of color that women of color feminism was really gonna catch on, and in fact right after the eighties there was so much backlash against feminism that even white women are going like, oh no, that’s so passé. And I see it changing now, I see there’s a return to some of those kinds of ideas.
So there are ideas out there, but really the kind of coalescing among women of color has yet to really happen in the United States. And I think a lot of it is class. When you’re really looking at identifying as feminist it starts to be a class distinct thing. And I think that regardless of the language you use, feminism is intricately important to all classes of women, more so for the poor. But somehow conceptually and in the articulation of notions of freedom it’s almost become taboo to talk about feminism—feminism is a dirty word, or you have to use another. I don’t care what words people use, as long as women are first.
Manifesta: A new edition of This Bridge Called my Back is slated to come out sometime in 2014. Big general question: looking back on This Bridge Called My Back now, how would you describe its legacy?
The legacy has been tremendous, even for as much as it’s fallen out of print. Now I understand they’re selling it for two hundred something dollars online—it’d be nice if some of us got that money. Anyway, the legacy has been really important, I know that, and I really believe the reason why the book had the impact or has the impact that it does is because of what generated it. The thing that is really interesting to me is that two Xicanas did that book. We edited, Gloria [Anzaldúa] and I. Mainstream America doesn’t think about Xicanos, and when people think about people of color it’s all kind of black, white. And yet we as Xicanas did that book. And that book defined women of color feminism. I think that’s a thing people don’t quite notice. Because they’re not going off and reading other Xicano work necessarily. Maybe they’ll read Gloria’s work or my work, but I think in general women of color are not necessarily following Xicano work.
By virtue of the fact that we know we’re not the center of the universe—as Xicanas we knew it, we’re working class origin people—when we came together to put the book together there was no question about our entitlement to define feminism, and instead that’s why we said okay, we want your opinion, your opinion, your opinion, so we brought in this diverse group of women of color to really talk about our relations with each other. Initially we just wanted to react to the racism of white feminism, then that got kind of boring. We were much more interested in each other. It was a particular text because of our vantage point as Xicanas. The combination of those viewpoints in shaping who got in the book was really formed more than I even thought about at the time by our cultural specificity as Mexicans in the United States.