Chapter 11: The Chicana and the Arts
8. What does Rita Sanchez’s experience teach us about the Chicana Arts movement?
In the 1960s and 70s Chicano consciousness grew. Mine began in San Bernardino’s Westside as the seventh of eleven children born to parents whose ancestors had survived the United States takeover of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1848, and who, themselves, had survived the Great Depression and World War II. An artist since I was a child, I decided instead to follow in my sister Mary’s footsteps and major in journalism at San Jose State. In 1953, Mary had been one of two students selected from San Bernardino High School to attend the California Girls State Leadership Conference in Sacramento. She and my older sisters, Josephine and Theresa, answering to my parents’ objections to going away to school, advocated for me. I left behind two younger sisters and brothers, Angelica, Emily, Joseph, and Severo.
However, after one year, in 1958 at age twenty, I got married and worked, putting a husband through law school, and raising two daughters, Lisa and Lauri. My daughters had the best of both worlds, we told them, parents of Mexican ancestry on one side, and Anglo, German-Scot-Irish on the other. The American dream. It was not to last. When my marriage ended in 1968, I became a re-entry student at Foothill Community College and then at Stanford University from 1970 to 1974.
To survive, my children and I first joined together in the simple songs of our faith my mother taught us. “Of This Day I Give to You O Lord,” resounded where the altars of Stanford’s Memorial Church and Saint Anne’s Catholic Community had become our home, also evidence of radical reform. Soon we were also listening to songs of struggle and revolution and walking in the picket lines. My daughters made art and banners of their own as they heard me call on the manager of Safeway, asking him to stop selling non-union grapes and to support the struggle of the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. They wrote notes at the bottom of my letters to my sister Mary Sanchez who was living with the UFW community in La Paz in support of the workers and the poor. The youth, the daughters of change were also included in the cause.
My daughters met Chicana activists: Ana Nieto Gomez, editor of a first Chicana publication, Hijas de Cautemoc; Dorinda Moreno of New Mexico, author of La Mujer en Pie de Lucha; and Antonia Castaneda of Yakima, Washington. Antonia Castaneda, co-editor with Tomas Ybarra Frausto and Joseph Sommers of Literatura Chicana. All of these women were the first to publish written text. To see Antonia’s name and photograph on the back of a book, may not seem surprising today, but it was a first for Mexican American women in 1969.
I did not realize we were all part of a history-in the-making. The daughter of farm workers, Antonia had already taught the first Chicana course at the University of Washington. Soon I would be teaching the first Chicana course, after a proposal I made to the Stanford Chicano Graduate Fellows. I asked Antonia what she had used in her Visión de la Mujer de la Raza course in Washington. She handed me what I considered a lump of clay to an artist—a big cardboard box filled with xeroxed materials, anything she could possibly find of relevance to the topic for students to read.
That is all we had then: newspaper clippings, articles, essays, thoughts, speeches by Dolores Huerta; writings by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz; or on la Virgen de Guadalupe, la Malinche, La Llorona. I recall my first day of teaching began with the arts. I reproduced a drawing that I had found in Antonia’s materials, an image of a woman, one side of her face covered, looking out from a shawl. Art spoke louder than words. Women began to write.
The night before the class, a group of women helped me photocopy articles and bind them with Acco fasteners in bright red hard-covered folders, the closest thing we could get to a book. One student remarked that we were women in the process of giving birth. So also would art and creativity become a vital part of creating a journal of Chicana thought.
Another author, Ana Nieto Gomez, was one of the first activists who called herself a Chicana feminist. She and Adelaida Del Castillo, now a professor at San Diego State, were the first editors of Encuentro Feminil. Ana Nieto Gomez was invited to Stanford to speak at a Chicana Conference. She stayed with us in our home. I remember how she stressed the importance of childcare. Indeed, every Chicana conference needed to provide childcare. Who knew that better than I, a student and single mother with two daughters. I was invited to speak at the Chicana Writers Conference at the University of California, Berkeley in 1973, one of four presenters.
Dorinda Moreno was another author we met at Stanford. She was the editor of La Mujer en Pie de Lucha. She performed at Stanford, her tall statuesque figure, dominated the space. Her performance art spoke loudly and passionately about women’s issues. She began softly to emulate the sounds of the culture. First, she cooed the quieting lullabies of our abuelitas, as they cradled us in their arms, "
amaroo, roo roo". Then, she echoed the sounds of kitchen utensils being dragged across jail bars, like the women did in the film, Salt of the Earth. She emulated the copper miner’s wives jailed for picketing. She became the women in the film, crying out for plumbing, hot water, baby formula, and food. "
Queremos comida! Queremos formula! Queremos justicia!" Finally, her voice built to a crescendo as she screamed the terrifying cry of La Llorona, "
Ayeeeeeeeee!" Chicanas recognized these sounds. These were sounds that moved us to action.
Dorinda also introduced my daughters to Sasheen Little Feather in San Francisco. The actress had accepted the academy award for Marlon Brando who protested the treatment of Indians in film. She taught them a native chant (spelled phonetically): "
Hinameya, Hinameya, Hinamey Chinchayo." The sounds still ring in my ears. I especially recall them because when we got home I found the words written along with beautiful Indian designs in my daugher Lisa’s journal. Art made a statement.
Chicanas gathered to witness a teatro response to global issues. In 1973, Joan Baez came to Stanford. She stood on stage with the wife of Victor Jara, the musician who had just been part of a genocide, the Chilean coup. Joan Baez sang a song she had just written called the “Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti,” about men she called political prisoners, "
My crime is loving the forsaken. And only silence is shame." I remember that day because a teatro enacted the horror of the coup, demonstrating to the audience its injustice. Our Spanish Professor, Fernando Alegria, spoke of the events leading to the death of his friend, the poet Pablo Neruda. "
He died of a broken heart," he said tearfullly. The audience sang the African American theme song of resistance for the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
My daughters participated in their own ways too. Like other youth, Lauri wrote her own poetry while Lisa made drawings. We marched in picket lines. They visited the college classroom where they listened to poetry and dialogue about current issues. They heard about Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks, women’s voices speaking out for youth, for women and for change.