Navigating Mestizaje: Competing Oppressions in The Hungry Woman

Mestizaje has haunted the latine experience since the colonial project’s conception. This ghost emerges from the open grave of latinoamerica’s violent birth solely to remind those of us who identify as mestizo of our own inescapable “betweenness.” To be mestizo is to be produced from the disorienting collision of two worlds, and yet to simultaneously belong truly in neither. Above all else, the worst pitfall of mestizaje is its potential to reproduce the violence which created it in the hope of constructing what those in its grasp consider a “firmer identity,” often inadvertently rooted in anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. These identity questions exist at the core of Chicana feminist Cherrie Moraga’s 1995 play The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, through an explicitly queer lens and in direct response to the patriarchal homophobia of the 1960s Chicano Nationalist Movement. Twenty-five years later, I experienced for myself Moraga’s troubled work, thanks to the thoughtful direction of Lola Hourihane, ES ‘20.


The piece itself, for all of its flaws, reflects the visceral conflict of identities partially responsible for the emergence of chicane nationalism. Both intentionally and unintentionally, oppressions overshadow and suppress each other throughout Moraga’s interpretation of Aztlán. She wears sympathy on her sleeve for her leading women, who, displaced by a one-dimensional liberation, find their queer existence under a constant threat supposedly embodied in the eponymous Medea’s son. The play puts on display chicane nationalism’s potential to perpetuate the colonial institutions and ideologies it purports to resist. However, Moraga’s own appropriation of Aztec iconography obscures the diversity of Indigenous populations that comprised “Aztlán.” Ironically enough, this misappropriation lends some thematic consistency to the piece, and captures the confusion in cultural identity that pervades the script. Thus, navigating the piece becomes a process of navigating mestizaje itself.


Despite the laborious nature of their task, Hourihane’s decision to pull together a predominantly queer, trans, and Chicanx cast imbued the production with crucial intimacy. Just behind the radical tone of Medea’s soliloquies, I could make out the familiar face of the actor playing her beneath the glare of stage lights. One can hardly describe the comfort derived from knowing that that underlying face did not belong to a pretender donning Medea’s skin in a performance of suffering, but carried the same furrowed brow offstage in genuine conversation with Moraga’s arguments. Across that stage came more than characters, but the human beings themselves whose names I marked in my heart: former chicane nationalists, afrolatines, TGNI+ folx, and a myriad of individuals who keep our latine presence on campus so vigorously dynamic and beautifully unbound. Hourihane resists the erasure of actors behind their roles, placing the experience of the performer centerstage. While watching, I felt the intensity of their vision despite the flawed material. 


Hourihane’s production integrates with a larger renewed conversation around artistic relationships with Indigenous representation. Nagle’s Manahatta—now showing at the Yale Repertory Theatre—offers the latest high-profile portrayal of Native America on campus, making a timely appearance across from the Yale University Art Gallery’s Places, Nations, Generations, Beings exhibition. Without hazarding a false equivalence between the differing contexts that Indigenous communities confront throughout the Americas, these works, when taken together, force us to ask what critical engagement with Indigenous art and representation requires from us. This is perhaps one of the most important takeaways from Hourihane’s conversation with Moraga: that we must constantly reassess that manner in which we pursue this critical engagement. 

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