Sunday, July 01, 2012

Latinas Writing on the Midwest: Mexicanidad Downtown Chicago and Oshún on the Michigan Lake

Latinas Writing on the Midwest:  Mexicanidad Downtown Chicago 
and Oshún on the Michigan Lake

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Oshún on the water/lake with La Llorona

Reporting from Chicago where this week I interviewed Chicana and Cuban-American writers and activists who were either born and/or raised in the Midwest.  More than once I have written about Latina visibility in the Midwest.  There is so much significant U.S. Latina work coming from the Midwest but often it is either consumed by both coasts (specifically Los Angeles and New York) or erroneously claimed as “southwest” or, worse, the geographic place of origin is not acknowledged. 

U.S. Midwest
In Chicana literature, Gloria Anzaldúa often wrote metaphorically of place as “en medio” or “in the middle.”  We are a bridge, a crossroads regarding our mestizaje.  Anzaldúa was from “el valle de Tejas” but let’s, for a moment place her in Iowa of which (in truth) she was familiar.  She would go there during the summers to teach migrant students and she became familiar with the area.  Sometimes when I read her work, I see her there in the fields of Iowa—not in Los Angeles, not in the Southwest.

In regards to Chicago—if you drive down 26th street (in the "Little Village" or "La Villiata" area) from downtown Chicago going west, you will feel as if you are en Mexico.  So many Mexican panaderias, restaurants, clothing stores, beauty salons.  This “place” (as well as the Pilsen barrio) was the inspiration for The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.  Cisneros grew up in various areas in and around Pilsen (Chicago neighborhood).  The latest book cover (for the 25th anniversary) does pay homage to “place.”  See the book cover (below) and then look at the accompanying photograph I took on Cermak Street in Pilsen.  These are the buildings I passed and looked at, to see if Esperanza’s great grandmother is indeed looking out the window (“sitting her sadness on her elbow”). 

Housing on Cermak in Pilsen
Latinos did not arrive in the Midwest and specifically in Chicago just ten or twenty years ago.  They arrived in the Chicago area well before the turn of the century.  In fact, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (born in 1832) lived in Chicago for a time and also died there in 1895.  Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and immigrants from various areas of Latin America all came to settle in the Midwest.

(left to right) Linda Garcia Merchant, Mary Gonzalez Koenig, Chuck Gonzalez
Today Chicago’s Latinidad continues to grow and be a significant presence in the Midwest.  The picture here of Linda Garcia Merchant and Mary Gonzalez Koenig (also pictured is Mary’s brother Chuck) is an example of two generations of mujeres in activism and art.  Mary Gonzalez Koenig (to the right of Linda) founded the Latino Council on the Media (LCOM).  The Latino presence in the media (broadcasting) is in part due to Mary’s hard work.  She also founded the Spanish Coalition for Jobs which then became The National Latino Educational Institute.  The Institute began as a job training organization and today it is an accredited educational institution. 

Linda Garcia Merchant, filmmaker and founder of Voces Primeras, a production company is contributing to U.S. History by creating documentary features of U.S. Latina leaders such as Mary Gonzalez Koenig.  Linda is also including a feature on her mother, Ruth ‘Rhea’ Mojica Hammer who was the first Mexican American woman to run for congressional office in the state of Illinois.  She was also appointed by President Carter (1976) to the President’s Commission for the IWY National Women’s Conference along with Cecilia Preciado Burciaga.  This was historic because Chicanas had never been on a President’s Commission! 

(left to right) Linda Garcia Merchant and her mother, Ruth 'Rhea' Mojica Hammer
Linda Garcia Merchant and Carmen Abrego-Galindo
As well, Linda will also be filming poet Carmen Abrego-Galindo (see picture above of Linda and Carmen) who works with Aspira Inc. of Illinois, a youth development organization that has been around for 40 years.  Carmen organizes classes for adults in computer technology and assists students with writing programs for the computer.  She is a well-known community activist in Chicago and is responsible for bringing together mujeres in Chicago by way of mujeres gatherings/dances such as LLENA.  Carmen was one of the founders of LLENA, a Latina Lesbian organization in existence from 1988 to 1992.  LLENA was important in its advocacy for queer women of color.  She also writes poetry.  

As I mentioned, Cuba also figures prominently in the Midwest. Writer Achy Obejas emigrated to Indiana when she was six years old. She moved to Chicago in her 20s and has also returned to Havana, Cuba for short stays.  In an interview with Gregg Shapiro, she says: “I was born in Havana and that single event has pretty much defined the rest of my life.  In the U.S., I’m Cuban, Cuban-American, Latina by virtue of being Cuban, a Cuban journalist, a Cuban writer, somebody’s Cuban lover, a Cuban dyke, a Cuban girl on a bus, a Cuban exploring Sephardic roots, always and endlessly Cuban.  I’m more Cuban here than I am in Cuba, by sheer contrast and repetition.” 

Obejas’s novels grapple with these identity issues from various perspectives.  For example, in her novel, Days of Awe, the two parents read about Chicago and discuss why it would be a good place to emigrate: 

‘“There’s water,” my father thought to himself, and imagining Lake Shore Drive and how it might curve around the shore, he added: “And a Malecón.”’
‘“Sweet water,” my mother mused while conjuring an endless blue pool where Ochún might feel at home:  “We’ll be safe there.”’

Obejas’ father character emphasizes place and memory while the mother character is fixed on the religious/spiritual aspect of space.  This exchange comes early on in the novel and begins the weaving of various scenes which complicate religious, cultural, gender, and sexual identity.  In just two dialogue exchanges, so much is revealed.

Achy Obejas and Amelia M.L. Montes
For the past 12 years, Obejas has made her home near Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago lake (or “malecón").  Her neighborhood did remind me of places I visited in Havana—grassy wide avenues for walking, abandoned buildings, empty lots.  Below I have posted pictures of the Chicago shoreline and Havana’s shoreline or “malecón.” 

Havana Malecón
Michigan Lake

Obejas’ works illustrate the Latinoization of the U.S., which is not at all about the assimilation of the Latina/Latino.  Instead, Latinoization occurs upon, into, and through place (in this case, the U.S.) and its inhabitants.  When Obejas says, “I’m more Cuban here than I am in Cuba, by sheer contrast and repetition,” she speaks of the continual desire, imagining, and translating of place which in Days of Awe has Oshún, (an Orisha of Yoruba mythology) reigning over the Michigan Lake. 

During my visit in Chicago I also made a trip to the National Museum of Mexican Art. I noticed how I kept questioning the name of the museum (why not Mexican-American?) as I went from room to room enjoying the many paintings, mixed media, sculptures by Chicana and Chicano artists.  The work done by specifically Mexican artists (from Mexico) were very few.  However, once again—I thought about how this too is a kind of Latinoization:  the placing of the moniker “Mexican” on these works that primarily were imagined and created on this side of the border (indeed--so many wonderful local Chicago artists). 

For me dear reader, leaving Chicago this time (after interviewing these extraordinary mujeres) is like leaving Mexico and Cuba.  And maybe that is how it should be-- Oshún and La Virgen de Guadalupe:  right here on the Midwest.  Heart and Land.  Corazón y Tierra. 


Anonymous said...

Amelia, Nice! Love to see more work on Latin@s in the Midwest and looks like you did some great interviews. I'm finishing up an oral history project on Latinas in Milwaukee and Midwest. Theresa Delgadillo

Anonymous said...

Amelia, Nice! Love to see more work on Latin@s in the Midwest and looks like you did some great interviews. I'm finishing up an oral history project on Latinas in Milwaukee and Midwest. Theresa Delgadillo

teacherneiu said...

Terrific overview and interviews. As per access and visibility of Latina poets in the Midwest, wanted to note the MARCH/Abrazo Press (Chicago) anthology Between the Heart and the Land/Entre el corazon y la tierra. Brenda Cardenas & Johanny Vasquez Paz editors.

teacherneiu said...

Great so see an informative and interesting overview re: Latina writers in the Midwest. For more on access and visibility, see the MARCH/Abrazo Press anthology Between the Heart and the Midwest/Entre el corazon y la tierra. Brenda Cardenas and Johanny Vazquz Paz, editors.