Chapter 11: The Chicana and the Arts
17. Who were las Comadres?
San Diego women responded to the Border Arts Workshop by meeting together to dialogue their concerns. While they continued to address problems related to the U.S. Mexican border in their study, they also wanted to discuss issues related to gender and sexuality that they considered absent in the Border Arts Workshop. They decided to have discussions of their own, examining their goals as women in the arts, a priority, and as women who lived on both sides of the border. They wanted to educate themselves and so began reading works by Gloria Anzaldua, innovator of border consciousness and other Chicana writers in Haciendo Caras, Haciendo Alma ( Making Faces Making Soul). Their priorities were to understand the history and struggles of Chicanas, and the meaning of Chicana identity in relationship to the border.
In their desire to create community in solidarity with one another and against racism and exploitation the women called themselves Las Comadres;. They chose a name from the Mexican culture that connotes more than sisterhood, but an almost blood relationship called compadrazga, a shared community as if by blood. Las Comadres consisted of artists, workers, teachers, college professors: Kirsten Aoboe, Yarelli Arizmendi, Carmela Castrjon, Frances Charteris, Magali Dama, Eloise de Leon, Maria Erena, Laura Esparza, Madeleine Grynsztejn, Emily Hicks, Berta Jottar, Mara Kristina, Aida Mancillas, Anna O’Cain, Graciela Ovejero, Lynn Susholtz, Ruth Wallen, Margie Waller, Rocio Weiss, Cindy Zimmerman.
Their intellectual debate soon became a physical challenge as the women responded to a reactionary, group mentality, in the vigilante movement called “Light up the Border.” The explosive reaction was instigated by Muriel Watson and Roger Hedgecock, formerly San Diego’s mayor, once convicted of illegal campaign practices. As a talk radio host, he clearly expressed anti-Mexican sentiment, gathering about him those who would agree with him, even to taking the law into their own hands. He heightened emotions further when his listeners were invited to line up their cars on the border and aim their headlights to aid the Border Patrol in apprehending undocumented immigrants he called illegal aliens.
Las Comadres, in response to the theme of “Light up the Border: one thousand points of light,” countered with a banner exposing “One Thousand Points of Fear.” They wanted to expose the vigilante group and its inherent fear of Mexicans and so they hired a plane to fly their banner over the border. In doing so they were questioning the actions of people who would go to such extremes to stop Mexico’s workers from coming to the United States. The wall between the U.S. and Mexico was stronger than ever, held up by ignorance and fear, more than justice and law.
Some of the women of Las Comadres even physically presented themselves at the border against these macho-like gestures in a face-to-face confrontation. Their intellectual hopes far exceeded their understanding of what they were up against. Emotional attacks, anger, and refusal to debate on the part of their opponents, led to the realization by Las Comadres that intellectual exchange and education were not what these outraged citizens wanted. The courage displayed by these women, far outweighed the fear of those who wanted to stop what they hated the most, Mexicans coming to the U.S. In 1990, the women staged a multi-media exhibition, art installation, and teatro performance at the Centro Cultural de La Raza that gained national attention. Grand in scale, and so passionate was its statement about women’s exploitation, it drew large crowds, receiving lots of press, both locally and nationally, along with invitations to perform in other cities.
The Comadre’s art exhibit was called La Vecindad, an installation piece, larger than life, representing the kitchen as a definitive space where women gained power. They described it a crossing from complacency to assertion and challenge. Their strengths came from conversation and dialogue. Their spoken words, while appearing like gossip to the opposite sex, by the women were taken quite seriously. Here is where women shared secrets, challenged oppression, made choices about their lives, and made decisions to act. The kitchen acted as a starting point for dialogue. In other words, within their own oppression women contrived ways to overcome it. Out of subjugation, women became conscious and educated and active.
The performance, “Border Boda” or border wedding, revealed what went on in the kitchen. From conversations between the women, the truth was revealed, including what was behind the word mestizaje or mixed identity. As a young woman prepares for her marriage ceremony all kinds feelings erupt. However, they also exposed the political repercussions inherent in the coming together of a Mexicana bride, acted by Eloise de Leon, in a marriage to an Anglo groom. The wedding, as the most significant moment in a young Mexicana’s life, took center stage, as did the creation of border culture in the making.
In the Comadre’s performance piece, the San Diego audiences witnessed a dialogue between the bride-to-be in conversation with her grandmother. The collaborative work described "
dissension and struggle, displaced history of colonization beneath the backdrop of a joyous event–a wedding." The night before her wedding, the bride listens to her grandmother’s stories representing the historical past and the culture her grandmother fears her granddaughter is deserting. The bride’s tia (aunt) hovers nearby, cooking provocative dishes including a hot drink of fruits spiced with canela (cinnamon). The tia, performed by Rocio Weiss, does not speak, but only sings the corridos, the songs of struggle representing the people’s history lost except as oral tradition.
In this performance piece, Las Comadres gave San Diego audiences a new way of looking at the world. Chicanas, especially, absorbed this message, the continuity of generations in search of their roots; the language and culture lost to foreign invasion, but more than that. The Chicana asks her tia whatever happened to her own mother. The tia uncovers the dark secret, her mother’s rape and murder by an Anglo American. This violation represents the rape of the Chicana’s homeland by the U.S. in 1848. She now realizes that she is a product of that violation and that her beloved’s history is one of aggression against her own people. The young bride learns what she faces as a mestiza and recognizes that she must struggle with how to deal with that contradiction. The bride represents the mestizaje of the Mexican nation whose land has been forcibly taken over by the U.S. Mexico War and her people made its subjects.
Despite the harsh reality, it represents borders as something meant to be crossed, not closed. The audience and the actors at this performance were also meant to be participants in the crossing. The performance included music, food, and teatro. While the action took place on the stage in the huge family kitchen setting with women talking and preparing food and drink, the audience recognizes the power of women and celebrate together with them in the end.