Maria Cristina Mena, Transnationalism, and Mass Media: Untold Stories in the Archive

By Toth, Margaret A. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Maria Cristina Mena, Transnationalism, and Mass Media: Untold Stories in the Archive


Toth, Margaret A., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


Although today Maria Cristina Mena (1893-1965) is a relatively unknown author even among scholars of US women's literary history, at the peak of her career she distinguished herself as an authority on Mexican culture and a pioneer in Mexican American writing. Household Magazine, which published her story "A Son of the Tropics," billed her as "the foremost interpreter of Mexican life and a biographical sketch published in a volume devoted to Catholic authors proclaimed her to be, albeit inaccurately, "the first woman of Mexican birth to write fiction in English" (qtd. in Doherty xii; "Maria Cris-tina Chambers" 118). While Mena fell into obscurity toward the end of her lifetime, she was an important voice in the early-twentieth-century Latina literary scene. Her reputation was recuperated four decades later by scholars like Amy Doherty Mohr and Elizabeth Ammons.

Mena was born in Mexico City and immigrated to New York City by herself at the age of fourteen. Critics, myself included, have speculated that her father, an ardent supporter of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, sent her to the United States because of brewing domestic turmoil that culminated in the Mexican Revolution and concomitant retribution against Diaz's followers three years after Mena left. Little is known about Mena's early experiences in the States, but a photographic portrait taken at a studio on Washington Avenue in New York City captures the author the year she arrived (see fig. i). The teenager, whose life just has been radically disrupted and restructured, looks directly into the camera. She smiles confidently and almost coyly, but her eyes reveal, perhaps, strain or wariness. After this point, Mena disappeared from both private and public records until roughly six years later, when the renowned Century Magazine hired her in 1913 to write short fiction about life in Mexico. In the next three years, Mena wrote eight stories and one essay (on the Mexican composer and musician Julian Carrillo) for Century, along with two stories for other periodicals. In 1916 she married the playwright and editor Henry Kellett Chambers and moved to her new home on Long Island. During her marriage, she and her husband struck up friendships with other literary figures, including D. H. Lawrence, with whom Mena shared sustained correspondence, and Aldous Huxley. After Chambers's death in 1935, Mena relocated to an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where she reinvented herself as an author of children's literature, publishing five books between 1942 and 1953. She lived there until her death in 1965.

Aside from the photograph, which until now has not seen publication, these are the basic details of Mena's personal and professional life to which scholars have had access and that appear repeatedly in the criticism. However, a newly available archive, the Maria Cristina Mena Chambers Papers, significantly expands our understanding of Mena's biography and authorship. The physical archive is housed at the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Project (also known simply as the Recovery Project) at the University of Houston. It consists of two boxes of published and unpublished works by Mena, correspondence from such figures as D. H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan, photographs of the author, and ephemera) Ebsco Publishing released the materials electronically in the spring of 2013 as part of The Latino-Hispanic American Experience: Leaders, Writers, and Thinkers (Series II), a digital archive devoted to "thematic content focusing on the evolution of Hispanic civil rights, religious thought, and the growing presence of women writers from the late 19th and 20th centuries" ("Digital Archives").

The archive overturns several well-established views on Mena. For one, her writing career was much more consistent and productive than previously understood. Scholars believed that after her marriage to Chambers, Mena's literary enterprise halted dramatically.' In fact, the archive reveals that Mena not only continued writing after her marriage but also actively submitted to and published in a variety of venues from 1916 until her death in 1965. …

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