dona marina

There are three iconically potent female archetypes in Hispanic culture, La Malinche, La Llorona and La Virgen de Guadalupe. Walk into any Latino household and your chances of seeing some representation (you might even find an entire shrine) of la Virgen de Guadalupe is very high. In Hispanic culture, she is the ideal; the revered Catholic icon, the purest form of woman. She is the mother of God and the saint we pray to when our loved ones are on their deathbeds, or after we have just purchased a lottery ticket. In her form we are told that this is the impossible standard to which we should aspire to, which is the most obvious form of bullshit. If I had read the last sentence I just wrote out loud to my Grandmother she would scold me for the disrespect.

 La Malinche, or Dona Marina, the slave and mistress of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes has become the Hispanic representative of female sexuality. She is iconic in our culture for playing a role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire and later, for giving birth to one of the first Mestizos (a person of European and indigenous American ancestry). The Mexican people would likely not exist without her. Malinche is known for having seduced Cortes and because of her role in the war, people believed she was treacherous and disloyal. To this day in Mexico the term malinchista refers to a disloyal person. La Malinche’s blatant example of sexuality is something that many Latinas are told from a young age to deny and/or repress, otherwise we run the risk of being called a whore, a woman asking for it. There is not one thing more disappointing than this to a Hispanic father.

La Llorona is something else entirely. First introduced to me as a child, I knew her story to be folklore, however in reading texts about the history of feminism in Mexico, I learned people believe she was a real woman who existed sometime in the 1500s. She was a woman betrayed. Known to be the most beautiful woman in Mexico, she married a man outside of her rank. Later, when he decided he was done with her, and he left to be with another woman, she drowned their two children in a nearby river out of despair and anguish. The legend is that she roams rivers and lakes in Mexico and the American southwest searching for her children, wails coming from the pit of her soul, she is doomed to live eternity in “the in-between”, not quite on Earth, not quite in the afterlife. Hispanic parents tell their children this story as a cautionary tale so they don’t wander far from home, but in my research I’ve come to believe that one of the reasons La Llorona’s story has been perpetuated and has survived as long as it has is because it reinforces a belief of the Hispanic patriarchy that women are inherently sinful and must be controlled. This belief is ancient and still prevalent.

 These three figures represent the roles available to women in Mexican heritage, la madre, la virgen, y la puta. (you are either a mother, a virgin, or a whore). Many Chicana feminists (such as Sandra Cinseros and Ana Castillo, just to name two) are invested in exposing and deconstructing the ideological structure which is severely limiting. The belief is that if we dismantle damaging ideologies which are revealed and perpetuated through stories about “Our Three Mothers”, as they are sometimes referred as, we examine the virgin/whore dichotomy and reconceive the role of women in Hispanic culture.

Feminism is an ideology I was not raised with, in fact I would bet that most of the women in my family wouldn’t even call themselves a feminist. This is not because they don’t believe in equality, but more that the ideas of feminism were just not something they’ve given second thought to. The patriarch of my family my stern, lion-like Grandfather, was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico and immigrated (illegally, at first) to the States with his parents and fifteen (yes, fifteen) siblings in the early 1950s. My Grandmother, aunts, and my mother were too busy working, raising families and throwing impromptu BBQs for no reason other than it was a nice day and they could, to consider things like reproductive rights or, even though it was something one of my aunts (and myself) have lived through, sexual violence. My Grandmother, for example, certainly did not have the luxury to sit back and think about her status in a male-dominated world and what did it all mean?, while raising six children, keeping up their modest home, dealing with racist neighbors (my family was the only non-white family in town at the time) and getting back-handed by Grandpa if she raised her voice at him at the dinner table. A thing like feminism was reserved for gringas…