Conserving natural and cultural diversity: the prose and poetry of Pat Mora
Patrick D. Murphy
Pat Mora writes in Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle that the United States “has both the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate to this world of emerging representative governments that nurturing variety is central, not marginal to democracy” (19). The use of the word “nurturing” seems in no way fortuitous, because she recognizes natural and cultural diversity as integral threads of the lifeweb labeled Humanity, which is one thread of a much larger lifeweb labeled Earth. As a result, she calls for emphasizing cultural conservation with the same enthusiasm with which some movements labor for “historical preservation” and “natural conservation” (18). This recognition of the interrelationship of natural and cultural diversity and emphasis on the nurturing practice of cultural conservation are to be found throughout the poetry of Chants (1985), Borders (1986), and Communion (1991), as well as in Nepantla (1993), of which she says: “The essays are about my encounters with my world” (Nepantla 9).
Pat Mora is a Chicana who began writing around 1980 and has won awards for both her poetry and her children’s books. Born in 1942, she grew up, raised three children, and worked in El Paso before moving in 1989 to Cincinnati, Ohio. She has taught at the high school, community college, and university levels and served in various administrative capacities at the University of Texas at El Paso from 1981 to 1989. Of those years, Mora remarks that “I was fortunate to work on issues of outreach to women and to the local Mexican American population…. For those of us committed to extending the opportunities of the university to our community, it was a frustrating but exciting time to participate in that gradual transformation” (Nepantla 4). “Nepantla” is a Nahuatl word meaning “place in the middle,” and Mora makes it clear that she not only recognizes herself as having come from such a physical place, the Tex-Mex borderlands, but also from such a psychic and cultural place as a Mexican-American. Mora seeks in her writing, as well as her life, to conserve the generative tension of the dynamic plurality that is borderland existence. “I am in the middle of my life, and well know,” she declares, “not only the pain but also the advantage of observing both sides, albeit with my biases, of moving through two, and, in fact, multiple spaces” (Nepantla 6). One of the dangers of a segment of the natural conservation movement is the recovery or preservation of a small section of a larger bioregion. Tourists can then visit that parcel and experience nostalgia for the rest that was allowed to be destroyed. One can see the same danger evident in urban historical preservation, particularly in historically ethnic areas being crowded out by skyscrapers and highways. As Tey Diana Rebolledo and Eliana S. Rivero observe in the Introduction to Infinite Divisions, “since many freeways in large urban areas were built in the barrios, the freeways often run along Chicano residential areas. In addition, they may have also destroyed much of the older sections of the barrios, thus destroying traditions” (32). And in such urban renewals/removals, one often sees that the buildings preserved as representative of a particular cultural heritage are ones that are of interest to tourists and tourism promoters rather than inheritors of the culture.
But Mora is well aware of the danger of token wilderness preserves and Potemkin-village mercados and warns against any idea of recovering the Mexican-American heritage as curio or artifact: “a true ethnic of conservation includes a commitment to a group’s decisions, its development and self-direction” (Nepantla 30). Just as the ecology movement warns that biological diversity is crucial to biotic survival, Mora warns that cultural diversity is crucial to human survival, since it actually helps to maintain diversity in general:
Pride in cultural identity, in the set of learned and shared language,
symbols, and meanings, needs to be fostered not because of nostalgia
or romanticism, but because it is essential to our survival. The oppressive
homogenization of humanity in our era of international technological and
economic interdependence endangers us all. (Nepantla 36)
Human diversity can be maintained only when cultural conservation is practiced by the marginalized and subordinated groups who defend and recover their heritages in order to generate their futures. Many of the essays in Nepantla focus precisely on the issue of cultural conservation, even as they embody such a practice. Mora rightly emphasizes the conservation of Chicano/a and Latino/a cultures, but does not stop there. She also addresses respect for, and awareness of, other cultures internationally and the differing degrees and kinds of effects that dominant U.S. culture has on subordinated cultures within the U.S. and worldwide.
Mora’s first book of poetry, Chants, demonstrates some of the ways by which the recovery of heritage dimension of cultural conservation may be realized. Part of such recovery requires the retelling of old tales and the untelling of old interpretations by others of one’s culture. For Southwestern Latinos, one such untelling involves embracing the Indian heritage of the mestizo/a, in opposition to the imposition of the “Spanish” heritage as the primary cultural determinant. Mora opens Chants with the poem “Bribe.” In it she retells the story of the “long ago” practices of “Indian women” to seek inspiration for their weaving arts from “the Land.” She then claims those traditional practices as part of her own heritage through ritual imitation: “Like the Indians / I ask the Land to smile on me, to croon / softly, to help me catch her music with words” (7). But it is not only an imitative relationship of artistic practices, weaving and writing, that she claims; she also claims a parallel relationship with the personified “Land” through identifying both the women weavers’ practice and hers as efforts to represent the earth’s creativity through their artistry. She thus claims and images an inheritance and continuation of a human cultural relationship with the rest of the world in which respect, honor, and humility define human-non-human interaction.
Another part of such recovery of heritage consists of reaffirming the situatedness of culture, the relationship of values, beliefs, practices, and character to place. As Mora notes, “Many Mexican American women from the Southwest are desert women” (Nepantla 53). This is not merely anecdotal, but a delineation of identity and source of pride, as well as a claim about historical residence (see Fast 30). Mora, for example, opens “Desert Women” in Borders with the lines, “Desert women know / about survival” (80). Survival must be understood not as a minimal condition of existence but as an achievement against odds and concerted efforts, not by “nature” but by other cultures. Survival is thus not some passive form of endurance, but an ongoing practice of resistance and self-education. “Mi Madre,” the third poem of Chants, celebrates “the desert” that is a “strong mother” (9), because the skills not only to survive but also to flourish there are part of what defines the culture Mora celebrates. And the use of Spanish here differentiates her own cultural identity of Mexican heritage from the pre-concert heritage of desert Native Americans. Her use of turquoise defines a commonality without conflating the difference between the native and immigrant cultures sharing and struggling over the same terrain through generations of inhabitation (Murphy 39).
Several poems that follow “Mi Madre” elaborate the desert’s “strong mother” role. For example, “Lesson 1” and “Lesson 2” emphasize the desert’s power to reassure and emotionally heal the speaker. “Lesson 1” consists of three stanzas, with the first focusing on the desert’s return to balance after a thunderstorm and the second depicting the speaker’s seeking out of the desert when “shaken, powerless” with “sadness.” The third stanza imparts the lesson. The speaker, knowing she is the “Mi’ja” of the desert mother, feels free to express her emotions while not surrendering to disempowerment and learns to “cry away the storm, then listen, listen” (10). “Lesson 1” begins with rain pounding the land and the lesson of the poem derives from the desert’s rapid recovery from this downpour. “Lesson 2,” on the next page, also begins with water, but this time it is rising from the river through the evaporative power of sunlight. Here the desert again speaks a lesson about overcoming sadness, but Mora has added an interesting dimension. In the first lesson, she emphasizes imitating the solidity of the land to weather sadness and the lifestorms causing the emotion. In the second lesson, she emphasizes imitating the fluidity of the water, rising about her river of troubles, strengthened, transformed, and active. Mora moves from the desert mother’s instruction to “listen” to her challenge to “dance,” recognizing that both solidity and fluidity are processes of a single dynamic system.
A third part of recovery of heritage, particularly for the building of a future, is to critique the oppressive and exclusionary elements of one’s heritage: “to question and ponder what values and customs we wish to incorporate into our lives, to continue our individual and our collective evolution” (Nepantla 53). In Nepantla Mora critiques, for example, dominant Mexican culture’s suppression of indigenous peoples and languages (28-29, 40). In Chants, she critiques the sexual oppression of women enforced through the virgin/whore dichotomy by depicting the fear of two brides-to-be in “Discovered” and “Dream.” In the first poem, the speaker fears that she will be denied a dignified wedding and be ostracized by the community if her loss of virginity is discovered, and also, perhaps, that “her lover” will see her as a “whore” (133, i.e., a sexually active being, rather than as a wife, a supposedly sexually passive being. This speaker remains firmly subjected to cultural oppression. In the second poem, the bride-to-be has the same fear on her wedding day of public censure, but relishes the sexual awakening she enjoyed the night before and speaks to her groom as someone who understands. Here the speaker breaks free ideologically of cultural restrictions and “Mexican superstitions” (15) and also asserts a relationship of equality with her lover, unlike the speaker of the first poem. Interestingly enough, this speaker seeks assistance from the flowers for her hair–a symbol of nonhuman, uncultured nature to keep her secret through the wedding.
Mora returns to this topic of gender oppression and sexual inequality in Borders with the poem “Diagnosis,” which treats a Chicana’s anguish over being informed that she needs a hysterectomy, because “She fears her man / will call her empty” (25). And she addresses it in Communion with “Perfume,” in which a man kills his wife in a jealous rage; and with “Emergency Room,” in which the woman declares that her jealous husband “clothed me in bruises” (45). As with “Discovered” and “Dream,” Mora has these two poems arranged so that the woman in the second poem is stronger, is a survivor who has learned something about her culture and her oppressed condition.
She more forcefully repudiates the sexual oppression in her heritage, however, through diverse affirmative images of empowered women in Chants. The bruja of “Bruja: Witch” is depicted positively, as a seeker of freedom and a champion of other women, for exacting retribution for a male’s infidelity and double standard: “My work is done. A frightened husband / will run to the wife who paid me / three American dollars // ….Beneath white / stars, I dance” (16-17; see Fast 31). The mother of “Plot” reveals a deep determination and lasting anger in planning to protect her daughter from the same degradation she experienced on her wedding night when her husband discovered she was not a virgin: “I’ll arm my daughter with a ring / …. /…She must use the ring. / I don’t want to slit his throat” (20). “Curandera” emphasizes the healers strength drawn from her integration with the environment, a particular kind of cultural empowerment. And here this female tradition is explicitly linked to a dynamic relationship with the mysteries of the natural world that empower this woman: “The curandera / and house have aged together to the rhythm / of the desert” (26). And, in “Aztec Princess,” the young woman thwarts her mother’s traditional efforts to enforce her domestication by choosing the “rich earth” and “moonlight” over “the home for happiness” (28; see Rebolledo 122-23). Such empowered women appear throughout Borders and Communion as well.
While Chants may focus more on recovering and affirming heritage, the early poems of Borders address the difficulty of maintaining and legitimating one’s heritage and communicating it across the borders existing in the U.S. The title poem, with its epigraph from feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, emphasizes the gender border; but Mora also ties it to the divisions created by language. Communication is always a translation of “like but unlike” (10), in which the differences cannot be effaced in order to understand the other’s desires, needs, culture, heritage. When one culture claims universality and dominates the lands and the lives of another culture, translation breaks down (see Rosaldo Ch. 9). And Mora has several poems emphasizing such breakdowns, like “Unnatural Speech” and “Bilingual Christmas.” In “Echoes,” Mora recognizes that language alone is not the culprit; class divisions serve as well. The speaker of “Echoes” is a guest of a white woman with a Mexican maid; feeling kinship the speaker tries to bridge the chasm of class with Spanish, but it is insufficient. Then she hopes “to hear this earth / roar” in retribution for the maid’s oppression, but realizes the responsibility lies with her. “Perhaps,” she thinks, “my desert land waits / to hear me roar” (2324). Only through voicing the common ground of their heritage, not just speaking a recognizable language, can the speaker overcome the class division that places her on the side of the oppressor against others of her own heritage.
Perhaps because of her concern over class divisions, Mora places the eulogy “Tomas Rivera” after the title poem in Borders. Rivera represents someone who rose from the fields to a position of prominence that carried class status, yet his hands remained always outstretched to others and remained always a reminder of his own history. Significantly, Mora emphasizes the initial difficulty Rivera had in developing his own literacy:
Those hands clenched in the dark
at viboras, viboras hissing
we don’t want you, you people have lice
as the school door slammed but Tomas
learned and his hands began to hold books
gently, with affection….
Beyond personal literacy, Rivera advanced Chicano cultural literacy: “He searched / for stories about his people and finally / gave their words sound, wrote the books / he didn’t have, we didn’t have” (13). He is therefore a model to emulate not only for his own achievements and his bridging of class divisions, but also for his efforts to encourage others with similar experiences to build a better life by revaluing their shared roots and place in the world rather than leaving them behind.
Remaining connected with the people rooted in the land is what provides strength, as Mora testifies in “University Avenue.” These first generation Chicano university students, a population with whom Mora had extensive contact in her university years as student, teacher, and administrator, know that “Our people prepared us / with gifts from the land” (19). And while Mora addresses many subjects in Borders, her poems return again and again to the relationship of people and land, particularly toward the end of the volume.
In “Miss Doc at Eighty,” Mora speaks in the persona of an octogenarian who was an herbalist or curandera. Her morning ritual of working in the garden reminds her of, and continues to connect her with, the restorative, healing qualities of plant life: “…sharp smell / of plants on my fingertips / where the facts once were / so my patients said” (48). Later, in “Secrets,” Mora elaborates on the importance for cultural conservation of healers such as Miss Doc. Tn the first two stanzas of “Secrets” she describes “Felipe, the Tarahumara, guiding / my great grandfather.” And in the third stanza Mora expresses her desire “for such a guide, a woman, / teaching me the art of bending / close to the land, / silent, listening, feeling the path” (86). In “Mi Tierra,” the speaker addresses the land directly, indicating that Mi Tierra in its generative essence is also Mi Madre. Through going barefoot the speaker can feel the earth move: “through me, but in / me, in me” (79). The speaker is part of an entity and part of a system, with the relationship depicted as participatory and processive.
While “Mi Tierra” emphasizes an individual woman-earth relationship, “Desert Women” extends that relationship to a community. Here the women become like the desert, because they are a part of it, knowledgeable “about survival” in extremes, with “deep roots…to hide pain and loss by silence.” These lines remind the reader of “Lesson 1” in Chants about learning the silent listening strength of the desert. The conclusion of “Desert Women,” however, reminds the reader of “Lesson 2.” In that poem the speaker accepted the desert’s challenge to “dance,” while in “Desert Women” she exclaims: “Don’t be deceived. When we bloom, we stun” (80). In “Success,” the final poem of Borders, the speaker, as both poet and cultural activist, wishes “To be of use / like hierbabuena” (88), healer from the desert. But Mora knows that through the writing of this poem, as with all of her others, she is already of use to those who share her heritage and to those who seek to understand and respect another’s heritage. Poetry serves as both a healing agent and a repository of the knowledge necessary to know how to “steep leaves patiently” (88). In Nepantla, Mora defines the sense of responsibility behind her writing:
I write because I believe that Mexican Americans need to take their
rightful place in U.S. literature. We need to be published and to be
studied in schools and colleges so that the stories and ideas of our
people won’t quietly disappear. … [D]eep inside I always wish I wrote
better, that I could bring more honor and attention to those like the
abuelitas, grandmothers, I write about. (139)
Communion is filled with the stories of such people and ideas that must be preserved, and repeatedly these are tied to the land. “Gentle Communion” opens the first section, “Old Bones,” with a tribute to “Mamande,” who the speaker says “came with me from the desert” (11). As a symbol of resistance to assimilation, she remains, even though “long-dead,” a source of reassurance and comfort. This comfort is imaged as peeled grapes, and the pleasure of their taste depends upon the same patience required to steep leaves for tea. The desert that opens the poem is linked with a fruit, and Mamande is linked with both, indicating the nourishment to be derived from a “natured culture,” one generated and maintained in the place from which it arose. The heritage Mamande represents is one not so much built as grown and nurtured through generations, a heritage that survives and may flourish despite changes, difficulties, and the barriers of languages.
Similarly, the three poems, “Divisadero Street, San Francisco,” “Desert Pilgrimage,” and “Don Jaime,” link the preservation of traditional knowledge embodied in the stories and lives of abuelas and abuelos with maintaining their rootedness in the land. The woman of “Divisadero Street” lives in the city but reminds the speaker that we are “Lost without dirt,” without connection to the soil that is the source of the wisdom and healing power handed down from one curandera to another. This woman seems very much a younger version of Miss Doc found in Borders. Mora notes that her gardening affects the people around her. As the flowers reflect the sunshine, “…light dazzles / until we too shimmer” (17). In the final stanza Mora equates growing these urban flowers with cultivating the next generation.
“Desert Pilgrimage” reinforces the generational importance of curanderas, as the first person narrator recounts all of the arts she practices that have been learned from a woman like the one on Divisadero Street. Such a woman’s voice remains with her, guiding her in the way that she would want to be guided, as expressed in “Secrets” in Borders. The power of herbal healing is also celebrated in “Don Jaime,” which immediately follows “Desert Pilgrimage.” Here, a male is depicted as curandero, perhaps like “Felipe, the Tarahumara.” Mora here does not nostalgically memorialize a lost art, but rather celebrates its continuation as “the lame healer and his grandson” gather “branches and bark, / with boton de oro” (21). Other poems in the volume also pay tribute to such individuals, with “Strong Women,” the penultimate poem, providing a generalized celebration and invocation for ongoing learning. This connection to the land that Mora believes must be maintained even in the cities, as indicated in “Divisadero Street,” can be understood in terms of a strategy for survival against assimilation and disenfranchisement and a basis for reestablishing and preserving community. As Rebolledo and Rivero note, “the city, shining land of opportunity, signals only struggle and often destruction for [Chicanas], their families, and their culture” (160).
Having introduced curanderas in Chants, Mora returns to them in Communion, as in the poems previously mentioned, and clarifies their importance in Nepantla in her essay, “Poet as Curandera.” The traditional healer is a part of her heritage, providing Mora with a name that defines her own artistry as an act of healing through “witnessing” to her culture. In that first poem of Chants, “Bribe,” she identifies her writing with the land and with the most ancient elements of her heritage, embodying what she has come to understand by the time of writing “Poet as Curandera”: “learned wisdom, ritual, solutions springing from the land. All are essential to curanderas, who listen to voices from the past and the present, who evolve from their culture” (126). The people and the land interweave in Mora’s conceptions of cultural conservation and the word-healing of poetry. In “The Border: A Glare of Truth, ” Mora defines the origin of her being as poet-curandera:
When I lived on the border, I had the privilege accorded to a small
percentage of our citizens. I daily saw the native land of my
grandparents. I grew up in the Chihuahua desert, as did they, only we
grew up on different sides of the Rio Grande. That desert–its
firmness, resilience, and fierceness, its whispered chants and
tempestuous dance, its wisdom and majesty–shaped us as geography
always shapes it inhabitants. The desert persists in me, both inspiring
and compelling me to sing about her and her people, their roots and
blooms and thorns. (13)
With that view of both sides of the river, Pat Mora opposes any national monoculture, because she knows, first of all, that place is not determined by national boundaries. A culture can and must cross political boundaries to remain true to its own place of existence. The Chihuahua desert and the lifestyles of the peoples who have lived there have mutually evolved over time. They were divided in an instant by a border, but their roots remain a tapestry woven beneath the surface, crisscrossing — even as the people continue to do so today — the Rio Grande. She opposes any national monoculture in the U.S. and elsewhere, second of all, because there exists an implicit ecological sensibility of multi-culturality (the existence of multiple cultures existing within geopolitical boundaries) within her concerns for the cultural conservation of Latina heritage. Even her decision to use “Latina” and “Latino” more frequently than other labels reflects her sense of this multi-culturality, because it seeks to unite “Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexican Americans, Central and South Americans,” whom she defines as interrelated, but certainly not identical (7).
In labeling Mora’s sensibility an ecological multi-culturality, I conceptualize “ecological” here in two related ways. One, I see it in terms of ecosystem, as metonym and metaphor for a set of necessary human-land relationships. As Mora contends, “because humans are part of this natural world, we need to ensure that our unique expressions on this earth, whether art forms or languages, be a greater part of our national and international conservation effort” (25). Only if a person understands and accepts what a curandera does, will that person then appreciate the plants upon which she relies for her power. Two, I see it in terms of environment as a component of cultural heritage and continuity. As Rebolledo notes, for
Hispanic writers…the southwestern landscape…meant a long tradition
of families not only tied to the land but nourished by it…. Recent
writers have looked to the rich and varied heritage of the past to find a
regenerative and transforming sense of identity in the present and for
the future. (96-97)
The very concept of la mestiza that Mora raises, referring in Nepantla to the work of Gloria Anzaldua, as a cultural melding occurring in a specific region that need not efface difference between peoples, but recognizes multiplicity within the individual, the community, and the communities of the region, also forms a component of an ecological multi-culturality. And when Mora refers to herself as a “Texican,” that too is a manifestation of this multi-culturality characteristic of borderlands and the dynamic tension that resonates across the desert. It also recognizes, however, that Texas is not California, and the experiences of cultural conflict and preservation remain varied. As Mora emphasizes, her desire is “to be one of the many voices and not the voice, for we know the grand variety in our community, and we want others to recognize this human wealth” (45).
Mora’s voice is one of many speaking out against what she labels “the safety of uniformity,” the anti-ecological pursuit of a national monoculture by the practitioners of the dominant ideology who would diminish the world by diminishing its biological and cultural diversity. As Mora and others warn, these two are not unrelated: “the inheritors of culture [are] those who remain in contact with nature and tradition,” in all their diversity (Nepantla 121). She encourages a cultural conservation through the cultivation of the rich roots of her Chicana heritage. She also reminds us that other voices are speaking out for the necessary preservation of cultural diversity. To all of these heretofore marginalized and suppressed voices we must also attend.
Fast, Robin Riley. “Nature and Creative Power: Pat Mora and Patricia Hampl.” San Jose Studies 15.2 (1989): 29-40.
Mora, Pat. Borders. Houston: Arte Publico, 1986.
–. Chants. Houston: Arte Publico, 1985.
–. Communion. Houston: Arte Publico, 1991.
–. Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1993.
Murphy, Patrick D. “Grandmother Borderland: Placing Identity and Ethnicity.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 1.1 (1993): 35-41.
Rebolledo, Tey Diana. “Tradition and Mythology: Signatures of Landscape in Chicana Literature.” The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women’s Writing and Art. Ed. Vera Norwood and Janice Monk. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 96-124.
–. and Eliana S. Rivero. “Introduction.” Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature. Ed. Rebolledo and Rivero. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993.
Rosaldo, Renato. Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon, 1989.
COPYRIGHT 1996 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group