Early in her career, American activist and writer Cherríe Lawrence Moraga (born 1952) earned a reputation for her poignant explorations of identity. Moraga gained notice as a co-editor and contributor to 1981's This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. In the decades that followed, the Chicana activist stayed at the forefront of the women's liberation movement, providing a voice for the marginalized masses bound by their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and class.
For Cherríe Lawrence Moraga, writing has served a political purpose as much as a literary one. As a teacher and mentor, Moraga has encouraged minority writers and activists to articulate their struggles and experiences. She believes that writing can give voice to a movement for change. As Moraga told BOMB magazine correspondent Adelina Anthony: “My job as a writer … is to cure. I've talked about that for years, and I can be misguided and I can be wrong, but the impetus or the energy behind my work is servir de algo. It's worth something: you put it out there because it will do something, just a little something, that might slightly alter this nation's death wish.”
Moraga was born Cecilia Lawrence, on September 25, 1952, in Whittier, California. Her mother, Elvira, was Mexican; her father, Joseph, was white. As a young adult, Moraga changed her name, dropping Lawrence in favor of Moraga (her mother's maiden name) because she felt it better represented her ethnic identity. The Moraga family hailed from Sonora, Mexico, and Cherríe grew up alongside an older brother and sister in San Gabriel, California, attending the Catholic-run San Gabriel Mission, located a few blocks away. Moraga's high school was filled with Mexicans, Italians, and Irish kids—all Catholic and mostly white.
Growing up, Moraga watched her mother struggle to support the family after her father abandoned them. Elvira Moraga was illiterate in English, having never received an education. One of 11 children, she had been born into a working-class family of farm laborers and began working as a child. At age 14, she was employed as a hat-check girl at the Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, working until the wee hours of the morning to earn the tips needed to support her brothers and sisters. As an adult, she worked in factories cracking walnuts and making rubber. Moraga recalled that her mother used to spend evenings in front of the television twisting copper wires onto circuit boards for a local electronics factory. The topic of working-class identity and unions would later slip into Moraga's writings.
Moraga's Anglo father did not have any relatives nearby, so she immersed herself into the lives of her Chicano and Chicana family, adopting their identity. Her grandmother—who spoke no English—lived next door, and there were always dozens of cousins to visit with. Moraga received mixed messages about her identity, however, and she was encouraged to meld into Anglo culture.
In an essay titled “La Güera” (published in This Bridge Called My Back), Moraga wrote that she was born with her Chicana mother's features and her Anglo father's complexion. La Güera means “fair-skinned.” “No one ever quite told me this (that light was right), but I knew that being light was something valued in my family (who were all Chicano, with the exception of my father). In fact, everything about my upbringing (at least what occurred on a conscious level) attempted to bleach me of what color I did have.” Moraga complained that no one taught her Spanish. Later, as an adult, Moraga realized her mother tried to anglicize her in an effort to protect her from the poverty and illiteracy that pervaded her own life.
Besides battling a cultural divide, Moraga grew up struggling with gender norms. In a Smith College oral history project interview with Kelly Anderson, she recalled that she felt a lot of conflict surrounding gender norms once she hit puberty. Before puberty it was okay for her to join the boys playing sports and run around in her tomboy ways, but after puberty they no longer sought her out for their ballgames. Instead, she was sent to charm school to learn how to walk properly. “But I was convinced that I was this freak, you know, so I'd better learn how to walk. I remember working really hard, trying to keep my knees together when I sat.” As Moraga told Anderson, the experience of charm school was “pure hell.”
After high school, Moraga attended Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, working multiple jobs to pay her way. She earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1974 and came out as a lesbian the following year. This act triggered an awakening inside as well as a fresh connection to her mother. As Moraga wrote in her essay “La Güera,” “It wasn't until I acknowledged and confronted my own lesbianism … that my heartfelt identification with and empathy for my mother's oppression—due to being poor, uneducated, and Chicana—was realized. My lesbianism is the avenue through which I have learned the most about silence and oppression, and it continues to be the most tactile reminder to me that we are not free human beings.” Writing about social and cultural marginalization would become a large part of her opus.
During the late 1970s, Moraga got involved with the Feminist Writers Guild, which was based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also became involved with activist groups. Around this time, she met fellow writer Gloria Anzaldúa, and the two became involved with a reading series called El Mundo Zurdo (“The Left-Handed World” ). The series offered a place where females of all backgrounds—including queer, poor, and physically challenged women—could read their stories in public. There were also El Mundo writing workshops to encourage women to write.
By 1979, Moraga and Anzaldúa were busy selecting and editing pieces for what would become This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Anzaldúa had the idea for the book, but she invited Moraga to help edit it. Published in 1981, the groundbreaking work collected essays, poems, and narratives that gave voice to women of color who felt voiceless within the context of the Anglo-American experience.
This Bridge Called My Back had an enormous impact, noted Huffington Post writer Nisha Agarwal, because it “was the first to express loudly, clearly, bilingually that the ‘sisterhood' could not be colorblind. Women of color are not the same as white women. They experience America differently.” The book was the first of its kind to offer a multitude of perspectives from women within the feminist community who led disparate lives. Women who had been previously underrepresented in literature and culture found identity within the pages of the book. This Bridge Called My Back gained widespread attention and won a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1986.
Meanwhile, Moraga earned her master's degree in feminist studies at San Francisco State in 1980, and then moved to New York City to help with the founding of the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. The first independent press established by women of color, the press benefitted from the insights of founders such as African American lesbian feminists Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith. During her time in New York City, Moraga also worked at a rape crisis center, continued her writing, and was involved with cultural activism.
In the mid-1980s, Moraga returned to the Bay Area and began teaching college courses in composition and Chicano studies. She also started writing plays and spent several years in residency at San Francisco's Brava Theater, an experimental women's theater. In 1986, she published her first play, Giving up the Ghost, a semi-autobiographical work in which a Chicana lesbian confronts racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia.
One of Moraga's best-known plays, Heroes and Saints, premiered in 1992 and addresses the hardships of Mexican-American farm workers in the San Joaquin vineyards as they dealt with exploitation and pesticide poisoning. In 1988, the real town of McFarland, California, experienced a cancer cluster in its children, and Moraga used this as a jumping-off point for her play. In her story, a main character is Cerezita, a girl born with only a half-body. Cerezita's mother had worked the fields during pregnancy. Heroes and Saints won accolades for bringing the plight of immigrant workers to light and received several awards, including a Drama-Logue Award for Playwriting. There was criticism, however, that Moraga tried to touch on too many themes. Besides telling Cerezita's story, the play touches on infant mortality, AIDS, media bias, and priestly celibacy. “The story is so jam-packed with themes and outrage … that it becomes both relentless in its agony and cluttered in its presentation,” complained Chicago Tribune arts critic Sid Smith.
Moraga addressed the topic of working-class struggles again in Watsonville: Some Place Not Here. The play, which opened at Brava in 1996, tells the story of Latina immigrants who confront poor labor conditions while working at a cannery. In 2010, her play Digging up the Dirt was staged, and here she explores violence against Chicanas and among Chicanas. In 2012, Moraga staged New Fire: To Put Things Right Again at the Brava Theater to coincide with the theater's 25th anniversary. This play follows the life story of a Mexican-American woman on the cusp of her 52nd birthday, as she uses a coming-of-age, cleansing ritual to liberate herself from her past. Besides the live acting and dancing on the stage, New Fire incorporated videos of indigenous spiritual practices filmed specifically for the production. Moraga produced New Fire in collaboration with her lover, visual artist Celia Herrera Rodríguez.
In 2011, Moraga published A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000–2010. This book of prose and poetry ranges in focus from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to Barack Obama's presidency and urban violence, and it includes a tribute to fellow writer Audre Lorde. It also includes illustrations by Rodríguez. In 2016, Moraga staged a production of a new play, The Mathematics of Love, which was based on her mother's last few years of life while suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The year 2016 also found her working on another memoir, to be titled The Native Country of My Heart: A Geography of Desire.
For Moraga, autobiography has always been a starting point for her work, even when writing fiction. As she told Anthony in BOMB, “I believe the best fiction comes through the truth of autobiography …. I always teach through autobiography first, whether the genre of the course is playwriting, fiction, poetry, whatever. If we cultivate a relationship with autobiography, there is nothing to be afraid of in our writing and we can allow for whole stories that we've never experienced to enter our psyches, without censor, in the same way we are gifted in our dreams.”
Moraga, Cherríe, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000–2010, Duke University Press, 2011.
Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, editors, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, State University of New York Press, 2015.
American Theatre, October 1996, David J. DeRose, “Cherrí Moraga,” pp. 76–79.
Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1994, Sid Smith, review of Heroes and Saints, p. 6.
BOMB online, http://bombmagazine.org/ (December 21, 2016), Adelina Anthony, interview with Moraga.
Cherríe Moraga website, http://cherriemoraga.com/ (December 21, 2016).
Huffington Post online, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ (March 18, 2010), Nisha Agarwal, “This Bridge Called My Back: A Retro Look at Women of Color and Power.”
Smith College website, https://www.smith.edu/ (June 7, 2005), Kelly Anderson, interview with Moraga.❑