Crossing Gender Borders: Sexual Relations and Chicana Artistic Identity

By Martinez, Elizabeth Coonrod | MELUS, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Crossing Gender Borders: Sexual Relations and Chicana Artistic Identity


Martinez, Elizabeth Coonrod, MELUS


In her 1984 novel The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros captured the image of the Chicana who needs to create her own path, not only within her culture and society, but also in Chicano fiction. Women stare out of windows, locked indoors waiting for their spouses to return or for something to happen. Occasionally they throw out a coin to children playing on the sidewalk and ask them to go fetch them a soda at the neighborhood store. With the exception of Esperanza, the protagonist, women characters do not initiate events in their own lives; instead they endure poverty and racism from the society at large and oppression under the men in their lives. They do not get to choose their spouses, and when they do pick a boyfriend, and get pregnant, they are considered bad girls. They do not have choice--before or after marriage. Esperanza's grandmother had a sack thrown over her head and became the kidnapped bride of her grandfather. Esperanza does not want to inherit her grandmother's role or follow the path of other girls in her neighborhood: she wants to create her own path. The House on Mango Street is one of the earliest Chicana novels to indicate that a female character, as well as the Chicana writer, needed to behave/write differently than tradition had dictated. Esperanza desires a house of her own: "Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own" (108). As the author's alter-ego, Esperanza knows she requires a space for autonomy in order to create her fiction and her self apart from the traditional role of women in her culture.

Since the mid-1980s, other fiction by Chicanas similarly reveals a strong female character (and writer) who creates her own path, with words, subjectivity, and images. Fiction of cultural resistance includes an inner discourse of resistance to patriarchal traditions in the Chicano culture. If the Chicana (woman) is to create her own path, female characters must also make their own sexual choices and control erotic fantasies. In such fiction, a sexual experience outside of marriage no longer brings shame or disappointment to the female character. She does not have to marry to find self-respect in her culture. Such characters perform as independent subjects whose presence is not dependent on another being, but rather on her own actions. As such, Chicana writers are not demonstrating political contempt for the male; instead, the strength of the female subject as its own entity is demonstrated, with action as well as presence. Many Chicana novelists and short-story writers of the late 1980s and 1990s have characters not only acting on their own sexual desire, but also determining for themselves how or whether the sexual experience will affect their lives. Such a representation of sexual experience signals an important change for Chicano/a literature.

This study will examine four examples of sexual initiative as subjectivity in fiction. Estela Portillo-Trambley's novel Trini (1986) demonstrates a Chicana (Tarahumara/mestiza)'s journey from childhood to her life as mother and caretaker, but who at one point chooses to initiate an experience for sexual gratification alone. Alma Villanueva's fiction often includes descriptions of erotic heterosexual experiences, but her 1984 short story "Ripening" is an affirmation of the Chicana's multi-faceted understanding of differences among responsibility, maturity, sensuality, and sexual gratification. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry's 1991 novel Paletitas de guayaba (Guava Popsicles) portrays a Chicana's introspective review of her early adulthood and the sexual experience she enjoyed with a Mexican who retreats once she becomes more sexually aggressive. Finally, in Ana Castillo's 1993 novel So Far from God, Esperanza's lover Ruben appears good for nothing except gratifying sex. None of these male characters, the sexual objects in these stories, is ruthless or aggressive; rather, they are tender. …

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