Border Spaces in Nicholasa Mohr's Growing Up Inside the Sanctuary of My Imagination

Article excerpt

The many of us who read Nicholasa Mohr awaited with eagerness the 1994 publication, as part of the Simon and Schuster series "In My Own Words," of her memoir Growing Up inside the Sanctuary of My Imagination. Its advent promised to deepen our understanding of the forging of Mohr's creative imagination and the elaboration of her literary art in her short story collections El Bronx Remembered, In Nueva York, and Rituals of Survival: A Woman's Portfolio, her novel Nilda, and in her fiction for young people, Felita and Going Home--and indeed it does. One encounters in the memoir the genesis, in lived experience and reflection upon it, of characters, the problematics of immigrant and minority life, and the presence of physical and sexual differentness as a metaphor for minority separateness and the imperative of negotiation for individual and cultural space. The memoir also offers an understanding of the centrality of the imaginative function in Nicholasa Mohr's work. Before considering the questions of identity a nd the negotiation for space in the Mohr memoir, I wish to reflect upon the nature of such testimonial literature, not only as a set of literary modalities but also as a body of social and cultural texts.

The last two decades have seen a flowering in the production of new texts and the (re)discovery and (re)editing of older ones in the sibling testimonial genres of Latino/Hispanic memoirs, cultural memoirs, autobiography, and cultural autobiography, some of whose modalities are treated in the 1988 Americas Review monographic issue, US. Hispanic Autobiography, and the 1997 MELUS issue, Ethnic Autobiography. These texts tell of the experience of growing up Latino/Hispanic in the United States, or of completion here of a growth to maturity initiated in a more exclusively defined Hispanic culture. Some of these texts deal with the exilic experience and with that generational transformation ably posited and documented by Eliana Rivero. This metamorphosis from exiles to ethnics is a movement seen, for example, in Gustavo Perez Firmat's memoir entitled, both poignantly and playfully, Next Year in Cuba (1995). These testimonial texts begin to fill what has been an immense gap in U.S. letters: knowledge of the Latino/H ispanic presence within, and experience of, the broader society and culture, as well as its multiple contributions to it. Alongside the increasingly frequent publication of Latino testimonial texts by such houses as Arte Publico, Alfred A. Knopf, Addison-Wesley, Anchor/Doubleday, Bilingual Review/Press, HarperCollins, W. W. Norton, and the university presses of New Mexico, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Texas is the equally significant initiative taken by the federally funded Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project operating in conjunction with Arte Publico and housed at the University of Houston. This project seeks to recover and make available many U.S. Latino texts, some of them testimonial in nature, which have long been out of print, if ever published at all. Such efforts seek to counter the longtime ignorance in U.S. majority culture of the Latino experience, and they are calculated to rectify the long denial to Latino children in U.S. public schools of the opportunity to study their culture s of heritage.

The urgency of the filling of this gap is great. A 1996 study reported at Michigan State University by Robert Aponte and Marcelo Siles using U.S. Bureau of the Census figures projects that by 2005 Hispanics will be our country's largest minority. Early reports on the 2000 U.S. Census suggest that that distinction has already been attained. One thinks of the generations of Hispanic/Latino young people who have passed through U.S. community schools and on into adulthood without encountering positive depictions of members of their ethnic groups or cultures of origin, or even a documentation of the passage of their people through U.S. history. Silence is, of course, erasure. The urgency is equally great for those majority/mainstream young people who have similarly passed through the schools and on into adult life and citizenship unschooled in the history, traditions, values, literary and artistic achievements, and other contributions of Latino/Hispanic Americans. …