Academic journal article MELUS

Learning from the Dead: Wounds, Women, and Activism in Cherrie Moraga's Heroes and Saints

Academic journal article MELUS

Learning from the Dead: Wounds, Women, and Activism in Cherrie Moraga's Heroes and Saints

Article excerpt

Cherrie Moraga's play Heroes and Saints (1992) depicts a Mexican American farming community whose children are dying. (1) Like the fruits and vegetables that grow in the surrounding fields, these deaths are produced by the agriculture industry's reliance on pesticides. While the adults also experience pesticide poisoning, the play turns its attention to the diseased and dead children as the most visible and poignant sign of the community's loss. Indeed, the central character, Cerezita Valle, is represented as one of the earliest cases of pesticide poisoning: she was born with a head but no body after her pregnant mother worked in the contaminated fields. Now approaching adulthood, Cerezita is a consummate reader and commentator on the diseased and dying community that she watches from her window and experiences in her home.

Moraga takes as her starting point the very real circumstances of the McFarland community of Mexican American farm workers in California's San Joaquin Valley. In McFarland and the surrounding communities, pesticide poisoning took a strong toll; the birth defects and cancers developing among its children inspired the United Farm Workers Movement to release The Wrath of Grapes, a short documentary detailing the problems at hand. Moraga cites this documentary's depiction of a child born with no limbs as one of the key images motivating her play. (2) In addition, Moraga's casting preferences emphasize the importance of integrating theater with community: she notes that those playing "El Pueblo" (the town) "ideally ... should be made up of an ensemble of people from the local Latino community" (90). This desire to unite people from the community outside of the theater with the "pueblo" onstage reveals an aesthetic intimate with social activism.

In Heroes and Saints, the dead bodies of community children are crucified in silent protest of cancerous pesticidal conditions in Mexican American farmworking communities. As limp bodies hanging from a cross, these dead children command attention in ways that their privately buried bodies would not. However, how the Chicano/a community on stage and the watching (or reading) audience understand these crucified children depends on their interpretative practices--it depends on genre. The play dramatizes two possible gothic readings of these bodies: one views the dead and injured bodies that traverse the play as an irrational threat manifested by the Mexican American farm workers; in the second reading of these bodies, ritual Christian performance recuperates the gothic as a mode that can mobilize injury into social change. Through the intersection of drama and the gothic, the injured become a locus for community protest and transnational coalition. By centralizing death, the play reclaims the dead in ways that counter state interpretations of those bodies--as unintelligible, as public commodity, and as invisible.

In the following pages I examine death and injury as potentially productive of social protest. In so doing, I hope to engage various ways of understanding death in the public sphere and the potential of pain asa basis from which to organize a multivalent Chicano/a and transnational Latino/a community. In the play, the crucified dead interrupt the everyday workings of the social structure and the placidity of those living within it; Cerezita's mother, Dolores, performs a wounded motherhood that denaturalizes female nurturing by conceiving family relationships through bodily dissolution, and Cerezita's transformation of bodily lack into revolutionary ritual centralizes the transformative potential of performance. In staging herself as la Virgen de Guadalupe, Cerezita transposes her mother's worn body and the body of the Holy Mother, pointing toward environmentally racist and patriarchal Chicano formations of injured women and rearticulating those injuries into communal connection. Cerezita's performance enables politicized connection through communal histories of pain that transcend this particular Chicano/a community and extend across borders throughout Latin America. …

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