For the series 'Mixed: Stories of Mixed-Race Californians,' hosts Sasha Khokha and Marisa Lagos spoke to Cherríe Moraga about her mixed-race heritage, her recent memoir and perceptions of light-skinned mixed-race people. (Illustration by Kelly Ma of KQED)
Half-and-half. Cream and coffee. Almost every mixed-race family develops their own — sometimes bizarre — metaphors to explain their kids to the outside world.
Chicana feminist, playwright, poet and author Cherríe Moraga prefers the term “mixed blood.” Her recent memoir, Native Country of the Heart, is a tribute to her powerful and complicated Mexican mother, Elvira Moraga. It’s also a chronicle of her own evolution as a queer writer, activist and mixed-race teenager growing up in San Gabriel.
The memoir is a more seasoned reflection on the concepts she first explored when she co-edited the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color in 1981. Her essay “La Güera” focuses on straddling identities as a mixed-race queer woman who’s light-skinned — or güera in Spanish. Moraga says people sometimes perceive her as white, despite her deep ties to her Mexican culture and heritage. In the essay, she explores the privilege she experiences in the world because of her phenotype, but also her vulnerability as a working-class woman and as a lesbian.
Moraga was born in Los Angeles, lived and wrote for decades in the Bay Area, is a professor at UC Santa Barbara and recently settled in Sacramento. California Report Magazine host Sasha Khokha and KQED correspondent Marisa Lagos spoke to her at her home for the series “Mixed: Stories of Mixed-Race Californians.”
For Khokha, the interview was a chance to talk with a writer she’d long admired. She read Moraga’s work as a mixed, light-skinned, queer teenager, and felt a door open as she saw parts of her own experience reflected in essays like “La Güera.” Lagos grew up in Southern California with a Mexican parent, and wanted to talk to Moraga about claiming her Chicana heritage and her mestizaje — and how her mixed-race identity intersects with her life as an artist and activist.
Excerpts from their interview are below, edited for brevity and clarity.
On the words she uses to describe her identity
Since the publication of This Bridge Called My Back, I just call myself Chicana. And then if you open up the book and you read past the first paragraph, you’ll know I’m mixed blood. Mexican on my mother’s side. I was going to say Anglo on my father’s side. But, when I started doing all that ancestry stuff, I found out actually my father’s half Jewish.
I’ve used a lot of terms: “mestiza,” “mixed blood,” “half breed.” My sister, brother and I were the only mixed-blood kids in our big family. And they always just called us “half-and-half.” I’ve also referred to myself as the most like the “mestiza’s mestiza” because my mother is Mexican, and Mexicanos have a whole range of Indigenous blood. The Chicano movement brought up our understanding of being Indigenous as well.
On her relationship with her parents
I love my father, but he did not know how to love. I always considered my father an orphan because his family really didn’t factor much in my life.
My mother was the person that made it home. She had that kind of warmth. She could cook great. She had opinions about everything. She was not an educated woman. She was a survivor on many, many levels. A farmworker when she was quite young, and then they moved to Tijuana during the Depression, and she began working [at] the Agua Caliente racetrack.
Every value I had and have was formed by who she was in our family. Her relationship to spirituality, her relationship to all the hard stuff like telling the truth and trying to be who you are, to be ethical and to have compassion. She was also really hard. She was a very impassioned woman. She used to beat the hell out of us, and that was acceptable [at the time]. She was also the great love of my life. She told stories. She taught me a certain compassion that I think has really impacted the way I became a writer.
I am not the only one in the world to think like this, that you have a deeper identification with one side of your family by virtue of who loved you. I mean, who really loved you? For me, it was my mother’s family. My Mexican grandmother, who was born in 1888, lived next door to us for many, many years. That was a Spanish-speaking household. So even though we were kind of terrible Spanish speakers, talking with our hands, that was the cultura that I understood.
On light-skinned mixed-race people, skin privilege and perceptions
You can say, well, she’s “white presenting,” right? You can go into a store and no one’s going to trip on you. How you look impacts how people perceive you, which then affects how you see yourself. Racism is real and shade is real. So [I’m] trying to talk about that and still say that if you ask me how I feel? I feel like a Mexican. Partly my relationship to that has to do with the fact that — and this is my theory — that my mother was the person of color.
If you’re telling me that my road in this life is to be a white American, I’m not there. I don’t want it. You can keep it. Yes, it’s structural racism. So there’s a structural reason, but it’s deeply intimate as well.
For me, it’s complicated. You have to be able to talk out of both sides of your mouth in an honest way. Yes, I have this so-called privilege. And it is a verifiable privilege, no question about that. It has saved my life. And it’s even saved the life of women of color I’ve been with.
You are also named by who you run with. You’re perceived differently. If I’m with a bunch of Latinas, we’re all Latino or Chicano or whatever. If I’m with a white woman, it changes. With a Black woman, it changes. When I was in New York, with my partner at the time who was Black, they thought we were Puerto Rican.
I do a lot of speaking engagements, [where] I’ll have a young person come up to me and say, “Oh, you know, I’m mixed-blood, too.” And I say, “What are you doing about it? [Are you] saying you’re biracial or mixed blood [with white ancestry], without any position in it?” I’m not being judgmental. I don’t want to close down hearts, but what I’m trying to say is that there is an accountability to what we know. If being mixed blood impacts what you know, and what you don’t know, you’re accountable to both of those sides of you.
If we’re asking people to be accountable because they’re white, then it’s the same principle if you have those [skin tone] privileges. But at the same time, you have a deep love and you know things, and you’ve also experienced prejudice, even if it was never recognizable to anybody but you, because of being mixed.
How do you bring yourself fully to bear on the situation? You look at where power is in the room, because there’s always a power play going on. Like when I’m doing a gig, and I know they’re homophobes, I’m going to come out. If I know that they’re racist, I’m going to be as brown as it gets. Whatever it takes, because that’s strategically intelligent. You don’t use your identity to belong. You walk in belonging. You walk in with knowledge that you have a right to be in the room. But you do not try to work your way into belonging or saying, “I got cred, too, because I am this and I’m half that.” If you’re a light-skinned woman, and most people in the room are not, you don’t do that. When you leave the room, you’re going to be destroyed if you do that.
So this is a delicate dance we’re talking about. Sometimes you really have to eat it. You just have to go home and say, “Man, that did not feel good.” I had to just take stuff that wasn’t mine to carry. It agitates, it disturbs, you’re not comfortable. What entitled people try to do is get comfortable really, really quick. So our job, when we’re uncomfortable, is not to be so quick to put the name on it, figure it out. Check out your discomfort.
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