Sunday, June 17, 2012

Pa' Ti Xicana: Mujer de Mucha Enagua

Pa' Ti Xicana:  Mujer de Mucha Enagua
by Amelia M.L. Montes (

"Mujer de Mucha Enagua: Pa' Ti Xicana" by Yreina Cervantez (Serigraph)

Between 1964 and 1972, I felt the effects of the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, the resistance to the Vietnam War through the voices, actions, the reflections in the eyes of eager Catholic nuns—yes, nuns. During these years, I was an elementary school student in a working class, primarily Chicana and Chicano Los Angeles Catholic school. Later on, I would benefit from those who were on the streets during these years—putting their lives on the line so that they and all of us could have a chance to acquire a college degree, so that all of us could have access to a more inclusive curriculum. It was a time of change.  Pope John XXIII had announced that it was “time to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” Paul VI continued the Second Vatican Council by stressing the need “to start a dialogue with the contemporary world.”   The nuns heralded that change in so many interesting ways.  And I’m focusing on nuns here because of the latest media attention on them in the past few weeks—which reflects the state of the nation at this time. 

This picture here of Mother Gabriel Mulligan reminds me of the Mercy nuns' habits when I was in first grade.  We only saw the fronts of their faces: the chin, cheeks, forehead, the eyes nose and mouth.  We didn’t see their ears and always wondered how they could hear us.  The heavy starched white linen that framed their faces was attached to a long black veil that matched the equally black and flowing tunic. A long rosary (thick beads and also black) hung from their belts cinched at the waist. To a small-in-size first grader, these women loomed large over you and if their faces didn’t engender a kind gentleness to mitigate the severity of dress, then the complete look took on quite a menacing presence. 

From first to eighth grade, as changes occurred, I was witness to a disassembling of this complex religious habit.  First, the heavy starch at the neck disappeared.  Then the starch was replaced by softer black or blue fabric.  By sixth grade, the nuns were having continual talks with us about the habit, its meaning, and about how a difference in their dress would allow for more accessibility to the public in their community work.  So their habit became simpler.  The veil was shorter and the tunic was streamlined without such a thick wide belt.  By seventh and eight grade, on special occasions, like field trips, the habit was replaced completely by polyester pants and a blouse (yes, pants!)  The veil continued to be worn, becoming ever smaller until it disappeared.  The picture of Sr. Mary Rose Christy here displays the complete transformation. 

Sr. Mary Rose Christy
This transformation of dress was more a symbol of the transformation the nuns wished of us (on an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level) and particularly the women: to question, to be critical thinkers, to become self actualized, and most of all—to be passionate seekers of knowledge. 

By high school, I noticed that some of the nuns had left teaching to enter graduate programs, to work solely in the community with non—profit organizations and to become artists.  One of these nuns (not a Sister of Mercy, but a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary), Sister Corita Kent, whose serigraphs during the 1960s and 70s became internationally known, was pictured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine.

"Sister Corita:  The Nun Going Modern" (1967)
Corita Kent print
Corita’s influence is still with us.  The Corita Art Center  is located in Los Angeles. Look at Corita’s artwork here:  the powerful colors, the bold lettering, the call to social justice, to empathy and generosity.  Then read the attached article (click here). 

There are countless nuns who have followed this tradition and who have taught and influenced so many of us, Chicanas/Chicanos and Latinas/Latinos. Take, for example, the work of Yreina D. Cervantez. She says, “Most of my life has been dedicated to issues that are related to community and to creating positive change in communities” (click here for complete article).  Her piece at the top of this blog is entitled, “Mujer de Mucha Enagua, Pa’ Ti Xicana” translates to “’woman with a lot of petty coat’ . . .  a woman comparable to the idea of a person with a lot of strength, a person who is empowered” yet conscious of  patriarchal privilege and the dangers of (as Gloria Anzaldúa points out) "transmitting" (or  retransmitting) patriarchy. 

And I write of this now because what Pope XXIII described in 1962 as an opening of “the windows of the Church” has now become an era of window closing, of shutting out, of silencing women and enacting another round of patriarchal control. It reflects the entire country--not just silencing of women within the Catholic church.

Thank goodness for Nicholas Kristof’s article “We Are All Nuns,” printed this past April.  And  (click here) for yet another article and also this one (click here) which includes quotes from two former nuns who say, “This present Pope is the one who said, during our struggle [in the 1980s], that ‘American nuns are dangerous because they are educated.’”  At the national level, I think of Arizona and the closing down of Ethnic Studies, of bilingual education, of programs that encourage more Chicanas and Chicanos to be educated. 

When I tell my students today how I took classes from nuns who would teach us “Chinese Philosophy,” how these nuns would lead us in five minutes of T’ai Chi Ch’uan before starting class, would talk to us about the importance of finding ones gifts, developing these gifts in order to send them out into the world.  These nuns were models for us in protesting the war.  They were arrested, they were fearless in their acts of social justice.  When I tell my students, they are shocked.  They do not have the historical background, but we can give it to them via blog posts, twitter feeds, museums, books. 

Dr. Laura Elisa Pérez’s (CU Berkeley) book, Chicana Art:  The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities can be a good start.  Pérez discusses over 40 Chicana artists “doing the work that matters” (Anzaldúa). 

Just looking at the work of artists such as Yreina Cervantez, Alma Lopez, Ester Hernandez, y muchas mas can give us hope, can keep us going in this difficult time. 

Ester Hernandez print
Sending you, Queridas y Queridos, a most peaceful and productive Sunday!  Stay passionate!  Stay awake and alive! 
Corita Kent print


msedano said...

As a youth I hung out with nuns when my mom would drive them around socal. Good people, those women.

Viva Liz Vega! said...

One oft beat friends is a nun! She is always enlightening and help young women find their own powerful voice. She is progressive, radical, just and heart. Her love is full of action!


Unknown said...

Your article brought back lots of memories. I remember first seeing a newly arrived nun at our school. She had on the veil but a blouse and pants. She played the guitar before class started and encouraged us to speak up.
When she played basketball at recess, everyone's jaw dropped and the parent playground volunteer made the sign of the cross. Students began calling her the 'radical nun.'