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House on Fire

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Nicole Matos

Critical Feminist Studies

21 December 2007

House on Fire


I want to start of with a short digression of the title, because I love it.  It sort of feels like cheating because I distinctly remember naming an essay I did for CSEM last year the same thing.  It is taken from a description of the character Minerva in Sandra Cisneros short novel The House on Mango Street.  The protagonist and narrator Esperanza says Minerva “is always sad, like a house on fire.”  I’ve read Mango three times and this phrase always strikes as a darkly beautiful description of a trapped woman.



My feminist project for this semester is auto-ethnographic project on to blend my identities of Puerto Rican and a woman.  This idea first stemmed from the class conversation of backgrounding and foregrounding.  I realized I could not focus on both identities at once and wanted to learn more on how see myself as Latina, the phase I will use as the blending of both identities.  And when I say “could not” I mean one (race or gender) seemed to take prevalence over the other.  I was either a woman or Puerto Rican, I could not think of myself as a Puerto Rican woman, or Latina.   


This project is a personal exploration of gender and racial identity issues.  I am tackling it as with the knowledge of Latina academics such as Yamila Azize-Vargas and Cherrie Moraga and the white academic Sara Ruddick.  I read Vargas’ essay The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, Moraga’s essay The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind and selected chapters from Ruddick’s book Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace.   Vargas and Moraga act as a sort of introduction to the expansive field of knowledge that is Latina feminism, while Ruddick gives me further insight of the issues of nationalism and feminism.  Also aiding with perspective on these issues is Virginia Woolf, through her essay Three Guineas.  I am also reading (a lot)  Sandra Cisneros, her short novel The House on Mango Street, selected poems and her essay Notes to a Young Writer.  Cisneros was introduced to me at a young age by my older sister.  Her writing gives a more personal aspect to Latina feminism, as she writes of women in a non academic sense, in a way that I’ve always been able to relate to. 


This knowledge will be presented as an “auto-ethnography”, as previously stated.  I first heard this term when Susan Stryker visited our class.  She used it to describe her work, more specifically “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix -- Performing Transgender Rage”.  In this work she used personal experience, and told a deeply personal story, as an introduction and/or guide to a more theoretical talk on transgender issues.


The shape this project has taken differs a bit from Stryker’s.  I’ve broken up the essay into “sources”.  I will give my interpretation of them and how they relate to me, latinadad, feminism, etc.

Yamila Azize-Vargas


When I first wrote about possibly pursuing this project, Professor Dalke recommended to me the work of Yamila Azize-Vargas, more specifically her article “The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, 1870-1930”.  In this brief article Azize-Vargas discusses the impact of Puerto Rican nationality and United States intervention in Puerto Rico on the Puerto Riquena strive for equality.  This article acted as my introduction to academic Latina feminist writing and I came away with a few major themes.


The first is that during this time, equality came with, and was in turn largely defined as a woman’s ability to work outside the home and receive an education.  This is explicitly stated on the first page of the article when she says “women’s work outside the home and their access to more education contributed to creating the conditions for the emergence of feminism” and “education stands out as one of the most important forces that molded women’s lives” (Azize-Vargas 175).  From my perspective in the Acosta-Matos household, this idea endures today (and not just for Latinas but for all women in general).  Wanda Acosta-Matos and Nelson Matos have three daughters; Crissy, Nikki and Andi.  And they have always emphasized to all three girls the importance of an education, especially as a way of becoming independent women.  At times it seems that men are the antithesis of education.  Parents fear boyfriends as demons that steal our will and future.  Ma talks to me sadly of our cousin who attended New York University, dropped out and is now married, jobless and three times a mother.  I was saddened to learn this because, though this woman is a close family member, I never knew about her brief venture into academia.  Moving on, it seems that the desire to be educated and independent, a desire that was instilled in me for as long as I can remember, is an ideal that is a quintessential Latina feminist ideal, or perhaps more specifically, a Boricua feminist ideal.  


The second theme seems somewhat paradoxical, at least to me, next to the first theme.  This is the idea that the emergence of feminism clashed greatly with Puerto Rican nationalist ideals.  Azize-Vargas expresses this when she says that “Puerto Rican feminists side with the Socialist Party and the U.S. Congress against the Puerto Rican legislature and the Catholic Church” and that there were “many instances in which gender equality comes up against nationalism” (Azize-Vargas 175).  The paradox is how women of Puerto Rico received mixed messages.  These two ideals seem so ingrained into the nationalist movement but were stating the opposite when it came to women.  When I translate these themes into the life of the everyday Latina, it seems that in order to embrace ideals that the early Puerto Rican feminists cherished, and many modern Puerto Rican families still value, is to take the “Puerto Rico” out of it.  I fear I’m not making much sense, so I will use myself as an example (It is an auto-ethnography). 


Though for me and my sisters to be educated and independent was always emphasized in my household, there have always been limits and certain rules to live by concerning our role in the household (which translates into “Puerto Rico”).  Now, I have a brief story.  One time weekend when I was 15 or 16 Tio Willie, my father’s younger brother, came to help Daddy work on deck he was building.  I spent that day in the kitchen reading or doing homework or something similar.  Ma had made dinner that afternoon but had to leave before my father y Tio came back in.  Before she left told me that when they come in to warm up the food and serve them.  I asked my mother why I had to treat two grown men like they were children and she said “Because you’re a girl and they’re men”.  When I telling this story to the “men” my father smirked, rolled his eyes and said to his brother “she’s one of those independent women”.  The message is when you become an independent but when you are inside this house, you will play your role.  But what does this have to do with Latina Feminism?  It seems that thought there is a long, strong history of feminism in Latinidad, other, even older ideals, still hold on and directly clash with these feminist ideals. 

Cherrie Moraga


Now, I want to start off this section by saying I thought it interesting when Professor Dalke first recommended to me to read The BiCultural Mind.  In this essay, Moraga talks of her mixed blood (for lack of a better term) and heritage.  I am not of mixed heritage. I am of a homogeneous heritage.  My bloodline stays on the island as far as anybody in my family can remember and probably back until some Portuguese or Spanish imperialists (where I’m guessing I get my, relatively, light skin) first came to the island.  But Moraga’s angst, introspection and intellect translated well into my (and probably anybody else’s) mind.  Any sort of ethnic minority, especially someone like me who still has close familial ties back to the “homeland”, has to have a “bicultural mind”.


Moraga opens with a discussion of what I’ve come to refer as “light skinned rage”.  I’m not sure how prevalent this idea is but something I’ve run into (and been a victim of) several times in my life.  According to my favorite text on race Ego-trip’s Big Book of Racism, light skinned minorities are “perpetually pissed off”.  And this is because “It’s them against the world…always being questioned”.  And Moraga definitely gives off this feeling, especially when she speaks of a former lover who “In her world, [she] was white”.  And this feeling led to what she called her “bottomless rage.” 


I feel my vacillation with “light skinned rage” has led to me have a similarly hot and cold relationship with my ethnicity.  And oddly enough, it didn’t seem to matter what sort of environment I was, there was always mixed results.  My rage started young, back at Staten Island, when I was in elementary school.  My friends and classmates would call me gringa, blanquita (white girl) etc.  Again, it made me feel like I had to prove myself. 


In high school, they same happened.  My relatively light skin, straight hair, semi-ambiguous name and lack of a thick accent and hoop earrings gave me a feeling anonymity in a mostly white environment.  So much anonymity that even people I have been friends with since freshman year would forget that I wasn’t white.  However, because it was a predominately white school and it was white people accusing me of whiteness, I was more okay with it.  My ethnicity, for the most part, seemed to be secondary and reduced to only statements of clarification.  Interestingly enough, this is also the time the feminist in me began to develop more.  It could be because (a) I had gender in common with more of my friends than race and (b) I was getting ready to become the “independent woman” that I was groomed to become. 


And at the Mawr my anger seems to be back.  But it’s not a “light skinned” anger, but a more general minority anger.  Here my ethnicity is recognized, as far as I know.  It’s interesting to note that I’m still angry but it’s a more healthy, less competitive anger.


Another point I picked up from Moraga was that “cultural nationalism” was “insistent”, which is very true.  I may be able to live in relative ethnic anonymity for four years but I knew everyday that I was Puerto Rican.  The reason why it’s so insistent is because it is your family, it is your base and it is something that is engrained in you.  Now, my gender is something that is engrained in me.  But, as I discussed feminism with my high school friends because we had gender more in common that race, ethnicity is the default common factor in my family.  And my family is definitely more of a base for me than anything else.  And this insistence complicates the clash between traditional Puerto Rican ideals and feminist ideals.  Since my race is more insistent than my gender, one is more likely to be loyal to your race, i.e. your family.  This is why I understand when Moraga states that she’s “seen Latinas as spineless as any man in their disloyalty to women”.  It is most likely a disloyalty caused by a feeling of loyalty to traditional Latino values. Which makes the development of Puerto Rican and Latina feminist ideals so important, as a possible compromise between the two.


Sara Ruddick  and Virginia Woolf

            And just to make things even more complicated, Sara Ruddick gave me an example of Latina Feminism Gone Terribly Wrong, that made me want to be careful what I wished for. 

            Ruddick was recommended to me to add another perspective into the nationalist versus feminist clash.  Side note, I’m glad I was recommended some non Latina writers because, as (all male) punk band Anti-Flag says, Feminism is For Everybody with a Beating Heart and a Functioning Brain.  It is not just Latinas who need feminism.  I do not ever want to forget this. 

            From what I read, it seems most of the book discusses how feminism can be political but clash with the state status quo.   Towards the ends she discusses cases in which feminist organizations worked with, and sometimes for, the government.  The particularly scary example she cited was “a women’s organization of the [Chilean] dictator [Augusto] Pinochet’s wife”.  It was created to “celebrate ‘feminist power’…which expresses itself through loyalty to family and fatherhood”.  This is not the lovely feminist/nationalist compromise I had imagined.  This is a manipulation of the commercialism of feminism to perpetuate a dictator’s ideals.  And it is very scary.  The advice I pick up from Raddick, and with Woolf in Three Guineas, is that state and feminism do not go well together, hand in hand.  That to be feminist is to be anti-state.

            But where does that leave the loyal Latinas?  Latinas will find homes in traditional feminism, Latina Feminism and with their nationality but not all three at once?  Should they follow Woolf’s advice and create a separate feminist society, in Latina feminism?

            I find Roddick’s argument interesting because her feminism and highly in tuned with the idea of maternity, a seemingly traditional concept, the sort of the thing Pinochet’s wife would support.  Which leads me back to the idea that feminism, even feminism with a somewhat traditional perspective,  is still anti-state. 

Sandra Cisneros

            My older sister, Crissy, introduced to me to Sandra Cisneros.  When I was younger Crissy, who is six years my elder, would make reading lists for me for the summer.  She would test me on the books we read and we would discuss them.  We did this for fun.  The summer before ninth grade, she assigned me Cisneros’ ovular piece “The House on Mango Street”.  I love this novel was glad read more of Cisneros’ work, that I have not explored before.  I read two of her poems, “Old Maids” and “Las Girlfriends”, and her short essay “Notes to a Young Writer”.

            The main theme I want to pull from “Old Maids” is how the marriages and fates of the women the narrator knows acts as a “lesson”, or a warning against marriage.  She says “But we’ve studied/marriages too long- -“ and the marriages are “lessons that served us well” (Cisneros Lines 22-23 and 29).  This a theme that comes up in much of Cisneros’ work and, naturally, I contrasted it against my own family and the Latinas I know.  I, too, have received “lessons”.  I see women who never learned how to drive and become trapped in their homes.  I see women with college degrees being subservient to their husbands (an education does not solve everything).  To me, it is a less a warning against marriage, or relationships in general, as it is a warning about how not to act as a woman. 

Again, it is another paradox.  Though my father was (and is and always will be) there for me, I received a second hand education of fatherless childhood.  My grandfathers were not very present in my parents and aunts and uncles life, thus making mis abuelitas, Luz and Ana, the heads of their respective families.  I admire my grandmothers so much, their strength and infinite love for their family is a constant source of inspiration and it is my honor to make them proud in anyway I can.  Because of this second hand education it has always been emphasized to me not to depend on a man for my living.  I have take these words with a grain of salt because with them I also hear “I can’t wait to have grandchildren” and “Marry rich so you don’t have to work”. 

From “Las Girlfriends”, I pulled out a theme of hermanadad.  I feel this when the narrator states in “How do I explain, it was all/of Texas I was kicking/and all our asses on the line”(Cisneros Lines 12-14).  Cisneros also expresses this feeling in her short essay “Notes to a Young Writer”.  She says that she writes for “that world, the world of thousands of silent women, women like my mama and Emily Dickinson’s housekeeper…must be recorded so that their stories can finally be heard.”  The feeling of hermanadad that Cisneros places in her work connects with another reoccurring theme I see, a need to give back the community she was born in and the women who shoulder she stands on.       

In Mango Street, there are many vignettes dedicated to telling the stories of the women of Mango Street.  This is where Cisneros fulfills the statement she makes in Notes….  In Mango Street, Esperanza speaks of leaving Mango Street, she has to.  However, she also knows, as much as she may want to, she could not fully leave it behind.  Cisneros recognizes this, though she may have left her own personal Mango Street, she’s never left those women behind. 

Could this be the compromise I am looking for?  Cisneros left home but she does not keep herself separate from it.  What makes her different from Vargas, Ruddock, Woolf and I?  She’s not viewing it at a large scale political level.  She individually tells their story, keeping herself at home and away from it simultaneously.   


            My what a journey.  On my way to answer the question of how to see myself as “Latina”, I learned that Latina Feminism is out there, feminism is for everyone, not being bi-racial does not mean I am not bicultural, compromise is not always a good thing and that “traditional” thoughts can be anti-establishment.  Also, Puerto Rican feminist ideals are engrained more into my upbringing then I thought it did.  And I did gain ideas on what it meant to “Latina”.  The base of the word is the base of me, my race, my family, my insistent culture.  It is not something I can separate myself from, no matter how much I may disagree with its conventions.  However, that list bit of the word, that “a”, reminds me not to forget about who I am, a woman.  And it seems that the blending of these two identities depends on who I am as an individual.  Cisneros was able to blend her love of her culture and her love of her fellow womankind (it seems inappropriate to refer to something so personal under the umbrella term feminism) by seeing people individually.  Maybe I can blend my love for my identities by not labeling myself but seeing myself as an individual.                  

            I do regret I that I did not delve as deeply into my family as I originally wanted to.  However, I will have fun bringing up this subject during the holidays.