Campobello's Cartuchos and Cisneros's Molotovs: Transborder Revolutionary Feminist Narratives
Activist, writer, editor, and educator Rita Sanchez's widely anthologized essay on Chicana feminism, "Chicana Writer Breaking Out of Silence," opens with what we should think of as an astounding claim: "The Chicana writer, by the fact that she is even writing in today's society, is making a revolutionary act." 1 This is quite an assertion, even if we have become accustomed to platitudes that tell us that the pen is the sword. Surely, writing is not revolution, no more than words are bullets or
... story is a Molotov. 2 Yet Sanchez insists on this analogy, repeating the words "revolution" and "revolutionary" in her short piece. We might be tempted to dismiss this claim as a routine rhetorical appeal to third world liberation movements: after all, similar claims to revolutionary acts-loaded claims that insist on sudden, violent political and social change-are ubiquitous in the 1970s. 3 Such a banalization of the term "revolution" indicates that it, like any writing, can be personal or private: it need not bring about massive change on a broad social and political scale. If the end goal, massive change, becomes lost, "revolutionary style" alone can come (indeed, has come) to suffice for radicalism. Nonetheless, the assertion made by Sandra Cisneros, a MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, that the writing of The House on Mango Street (1984) was, for her, like "tossing a Molotov," remains particularly jolting. 4 More pointedly than the average "revolutionary" might, Cisneros characterizes her own writing as crude, anarchistic, desperate, and violent. The style and subject matter of Mango Street, however, hardly seems appropriately "revolutionary": how can a book of "cuentitos" (so styled by the author herself), marketed toward young adults and hailed for its "simplicity," possibly be considered-as Cisneros seems to suggest-an act of literary terrorism? 5 To ask this is to press Sanchez's assertion that, for a Chicana, "even writing," which is to say merely writing, "in today's society is a revolutionary act." Is this true even when the subject matter is childish, seemingly apolitical, and discernibly "revolutionary" to only a scant proportion of its very large audience? 6 Cisneros's equation of story and Molotov forces a reconsideration of the very concept of "revolutionary writing": Cisneros not only provokes one to gauge whether the writing she produces is sufficiently revolutionary in terms of style and subject, but also whether a writer, having chosen the pen instead of the sword, can lay rightful claim to the role of the revolutionary actor under any circumstances. 7 This is to think generally about revolutionary writing. More concretely, I want to ask a version of an older question: how a Chicana, supposedly "submissive, unworldly, and chaste," might imagine herself as an actor on the world stage, in the public sphere-in other words, as a revolutionary at all? 8 Is it fundamentally absurd to think of Cisneros, a writer, as she has characterized herself: a latter-day "Pancha Villa"? 9 In The House on Mango Street, I read the story of daily life in a Chicago barrio, narrated by the young American-Mexican girl, Esperanza, as essentially informed by a tradition of revolutionary female storytelling that transcends Anglo-American literary tradition to return us to one of the most distinctive narratives of the Mexican Revolution, Nellie Campobello's Cartucho: relatos de la lucha en el norte de México (1931). In formally alluding to Cartucho, Cisneros asks readers to reconsider Mango Street from a hemispheric perspective. This resituates the text within a broader Latino tradition of the testimonio, a genre that demands recognition of its sociopolitical significance. Moreover, by forcing a connection between the violent spaces of the post-WWII barrio and revolutionary Durango, Cisneros collapses national and temporal distinctions that would assure US readers (Cisneros's main audience) that poverty, violence, and political revolution cannot happen here. To my mind, Cisneros's radical use of form threatens not just literary conventions-this is not simply an assertion of "revolutionary style"-but also brings forward the more material threat that the barrio is a potential site of revolution, complete with violent acts. 10 Cisneros's kindling world, significantly, is comprised largely of women and children who are inundated with daily episodes of violence; these individuals, often dismissed as political actors, are transformed in Cisneros's work into the inheritors of a Mexican revolutionary tradition. Ultimately, I seek to assemble a border-crossing, centuryspanning, linguistic barrier-quashing sense of the meaning of an unfinished (but transforming) revolution that attends to its social, cultural, and literary context. The similarities between Cartucho and Mango Street are quite striking, despite their very different contexts of literary production: Mango Street within a contemporary US literary market that had begun, by 1984, to take notice of writings by women of color, and Cartucho, on the margins of a Revolution-era Mexican one that was largely closed to women of all backgrounds. 11 Most strikingly, the protagonists of Mango Street and Cartucho are both adolescent girls, marginalized within their communities and largely restricted to the confines of the domestic sphere.