Published: Sept. 1, 1998 By

[1]  In the Spring of 1988 a group of women in the contiguous border cities of San Diego and Tijuana established a collective to which they later gave the name Las Comadres.1 For three years they met at venues on both sides of the border, exploring its complexity from the perspectives of race, class, ethnicity, and gender. In September, 1990, at the Centro Cultural de la Raza2 in San Diego their efforts culminated in a performance and installation that embodied their ideas and attracted national attention – including invitations to perform at art spaces both in and beyond San Diego.3 However, their moment of public success coincided with the intensification of dissension among members. Feeling unable to work together productively, these invitations were, for the most part, declined. One year later, after a series of meetings at which bitter feelings were expressed, they agreed to disband.

[2]  These are the bare bones of a history that the following pages will unfold. In recounting that history, I have several agendas. First, to bring to wider awareness and to honor the efforts of a little-known group of women artists and activists whose field of operation (the San Diego/Tijuana border region) lies outside the mainstream of hegemonic art discourse. Secondly, to foreground the region as the locus for the production of a powerful, socially-committed art that has received scant attention beyond the arena of its immediate visual impact.4 But my paper is not only about Las Comadres and their operations within an ethnically diverse and politically charged population. It is also about the difficulties encountered by all groups that attempt to translate utopian theory into practice and the near impossibility of sustaining a collective made up of highly individualized, articulate, and creative people. In other words, it is about the problems, challenges, and theoretical dilemmas that confronted a heterogeneous group of talented women in their efforts to constitute community. These challenges included: avoiding the pitfalls of essentialist thinking; negotiating the tension between collectivism and individualism; anxiety and conflict about lesbian desire; the growing awareness that struggles against gender inequity also involve struggles against race, class, and cultural hierarchies between and among women. In short, the experience imploded each woman's sense of her identity so that she found herself negotiating and renegotiating her subject position in a process that, while liberatory, was also profoundly painful.[1]  In the Spring of 1988 a group of women in the contiguous border cities of San Diego and Tijuana established a collective to which they later gave the name Las Comadres.1 For three years they met at venues on both sides of the border, exploring its complexity from the perspectives of race, class, ethnicity, and gender. In September, 1990, at the Centro Cultural de la Raza2in San Diego their efforts culminated in a performance and installation that embodied their ideas and attracted national attention – including invitations to perform at art spaces both in and beyond San Diego.3However, their moment of public success coincided with the intensification of dissension among members. Feeling unable to work together productively, these invitations were, for the most part, declined. One year later, after a series of meetings at which bitter feelings were expressed, they agreed to disband.

[3]  My final objective is to examine the most significant cultural production of Las Comadres – an installation and performance which they staged at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego in 1990, titledBorder Boda, or Border Wedding. This production – and indeed, the entire enterprise of Las Comadres – was highly significant in that it posed a number of difficult questions: How does Woman write herself into history? How does she find a place within, or alongside, a master narrative in which the protagonists are always male? How can women tell their story? How, to borrow Jean Franco's wonderful phrase, can they become "plotting women,"5 strategically positioned within the historical narrative? The production at the Centro addressed these questions with differing degrees of success which I attempt to articulate, all the while, however, sustaining awareness that success or failure is perhaps of lesser significance than the fact that the women had the courage to ask the questions and to stage them.

[4]  In recounting their enterprise, I am profoundly indebted to all the members of the collective who so generously gave me their time and shared their experiences with me. As an academic scholar researching this little-known chapter of feminist art and activism in San Diego – to which I am a recent arrival – I am acutely aware that I stand outside the moment, passions, and energies that were the driving force of Comadres (although I, too, am an immigrant to the United States and a border crosser). But I am also aware that this history and my engagement with it has affected me as, indeed, does all work pursued with heartfelt intensity. As I worked on this project, I wondered how I, who have never participated in a collective, would have fared in such a group. What would have been my reactions, contributions, and disruptions? What would I – an educated, white, liberal, heterosexual, agnostic, Jewish woman from South Africa have discovered about my privilege and my guilt? What would the other women have thought of me? How might the experience have changed me? How willing am I to engage in local political struggles? What are my investments in the current status quo, and what sacrifices would I be prepared to make so that other women might share my privileges?

[5]  To my surprise and consternation these questions quickly became practical rather than academic when, immediately after completing a first draft of this paper, I sent copies to all the women I had interviewed. Their responses spanned a range from enthusiasm to fury. In addition, I knew that they were critiquing, discussing, and dissecting my writing which was now the vehicle for their reconnection as well as a reminder of the joys and sorrows, the ideals and disillusionments of their disbanded collective project. I became defensive, anxious, self-doubtful, ill, caught in an uncomfortable impasse between my desire for acceptance and my sense of academic rigor. Indeed, like the Comadres during their brief but intense tenure together, I found myself negotiating and renegotiating my own subject position in a process that was acutely stressful as, wishing to learn from the experience, I opened myself to hearing from Comadres who were particularly angry with me. I was told, "You are a woman, writing as a feminist. You must connect your work with us!"6 Additionally, I was chastised for "writing like a man" – positioning myself outside the passions, engagements, and difficulties of feminist self-empowerment, and for exercising a "cold, analytical judgment." The comments stung. And so I set out to rewrite the tale as a woman still struggling with her own border crossings.

[6]  My guide in this endeavor was Trinh T. Minh-ha whose beautiful essay "Cotton and Iron"7 remained open on my desk throughout this writing, serving both as model and caveat. Trinh begins this essay with a Nigerian poem: Tale, told, to be told…./Are you truthful? The poem, with its question about truthfulness, serves as a prelude to her discussion of storytelling. The tale teller, she writes, must speak to the tale, rather thanabout it, for

'speaking about' only partakes in the conservation of systems of binary opposition (subject/object; I/It; We/They) on which territorialized knowledge depends….plac[ing]  a semantic distance between oneself and the work….secur[ing]  for the speaker a position of mastery. 8

It was precisely this "position of mastery" that I would now seek to avoid by acknowledging that a story is always a "form of mediation" whose telling is "adaptive," that "[t] ruth is both a construct and beyond it" and therefore always lies somewhere else, but that a "balance is played out as the narrator interrogates the truthfulness of the tale and provides multiple answers." I would strive to become Trinh's idea of a "mediator-storyteller . . . through whom truth is summoned to unwind itself to the audience [and who]  is at once a creator, a delighter and a teacher." I would not seek closure for my tale but would rather offer it as an "ongoing passage to an elsewhere," a work-in-progress whose destination I do not know.

[7]  Again and again, as I struggled with this tale, I reflected that its subject was as much truth and its elsewheres as it was Las Comadres, for all of us – the protagonists as well as I (their confessor/mediator/storyteller) – were engaged in a struggle for truth. Their representations to me were based on memories – which can only be partial, always subject to distortion and revision, and in no wise the terra firma of hard data. My task was to sift through these, honoring the passions of each speaker, while realizing that personal filters always create their own sediments and that I was as subject to this problematic as everyone else. However, apart from a few slides, a video tape, some artwork, and a couple of reviews, the personal remembrances of the protagonists and my own interest in them are the only resources from which to construct a history of Las Comadres. Making a personal mantra of Trinh's question: Tale, told, to be told . . . /Are you truthful? and wanting very much both to be truthful and to tell "a fine story," I embarked on what follows.

[8]  In reconstructing the beginnings of Las Comadres it is necessary to look at an antecedent collective to which many of its members had belonged and which had a profound impact on them – the Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (otherwise known as "BAW/TAF"). The Border Arts Workshop was founded in San Diego in 1984 as a multicultural, interdisciplinary group of artists, scholars, and cultural activists. Their goal was to deconstruct and redefine the border as a zone of transformation, an interstitial space of negotiation and fluid interchange rather than a rigid line signifying separateness. Accordingly, they set out to complicate monolithic, unitary notions of identity and statehood. For example, in place of the more traditional approach that maintained Anglo, Chicano, and Tijuanese as distinct and separate categories, they proposed a polymorphous, polyglot, hybrid, and binational "border subject" – a new type of subject, postmodern and postnational – a result of the confluence of the many different realities peculiar to this porous border zone. Additionally, their agenda was to bring the border – the margin – into representation, to bring it from an invisible peripheralism into the spotlit center by demonstrating that the issues that conventionally inflect the border – racism, nationalism, anti-immigrant fervor – are central to this society. Indeed, they argued that in a deep ontological sense the border lies within us all as the limiting barrier to the attainment of an unbounded humanity.9

[9]  BAW/TAF was a utopian project. But like all utopian projects, it failed to live up to its high ideals. One of the most problematical issues that beset it was gender inequity, for BAW/TAF was, fundamentally, a male group. Of its seven founding members (Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Michael Schnorr, David Avalos, Isaac Artenstein, Victor Ochoa, Jude Eberhardt, and Sara Jo Berman) only the last two were women. Although those two were gifted artists, it is arguable that their marriages to key male members (Artenstein and Gómez-Peña) were primary factors in their admittance. Throughout BAW/TAF's history, women entered the collective primarily via relationships with dominant males. By 1988 the women in BAW/TAF had become angry:10 at their marginalization, at their perceived exploitation by male members, and at BAW/TAF's failure to address gender and sexuality as borders requiring renegotiation. That spring, they mobilized to form a new group, a collective constituted by and for women. They would later give themselves the name Las Comadres, a word whose meanings include "friend," "midwife," "godmother," and "gossip."

[10]  The women who became Comadres were all, in one way or another, affiliated with the artworld: as artists, curators, writers, performers, video artists, teachers, and students. Membership was informal, with a core of about eighteen and a dozen or so additional women drifting in and out during the collective's life span. Hungry for community, they held together in love and sisterhood for a brief golden moment,11 a moment of imagined community when members defined their goals against the outside, the Other. The Other was patriarchy, class, race, and masculinist careerism in the artworld. However, soon it appeared to some that the enemy lay as much within as without, and members even accused one another of racism.12Additionally, there were other differences that proved hugely divisive: class differences, different levels of education, different attitudes toward nationalism, ethnic identity, and universalism. Later, as the group attained some measure of success in the artworld, individual members were perceived to be careerist, self-serving, and exploitative of their colleagues. For example, the group had adopted a position that was ideologically opposed to the ego-and-star-track nature of the artworld. They agreed that their identity was to be collective and that no single individuals were to emerge as star performers. However, when Mancillas and Susholtz represented the group at multicultural conferences their names received prominent billing while the other members who were not present remained anonymous. The anonymous remainder greatly resented this, arguing that their colleagues had enhanced their careers from having so foregrounded themselves while they remained in the obscurity that comes from anonymity. Like the Border Arts Workshop, Las Comadres foundered on the shoals of its utopian ideals, brought – by the harsh reality of internal conflict – to acknowledge its imbrication in the structures of the larger society; brought, sadly, to knowledge that efforts to bridge difference had resulted in demarcating it more sharply.

[11]  Their initial agenda, established at their founding in 1988 was to constitute a study group, focusing on feminism, multiculturalism, and border issues. They read Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Donna Harraway, Trinh Minh-ha, and papers written by fellow members. Additionally, they looked at one another's work, offering feedback and support, for all, in one way or another, felt professionally isolated. The intent of the group was to overcome isolation and constitute community – and to do so in a way that would both honor and represent the complexity and diversity of this border region. As with the Border Arts Workshop, they wanted to promote a multinational, multicultural border "subject." To this they added the goal of foregrounding issues peculiar to women living in the border zone.

[12]  In many ways, the group embodied the ethnic diversity of the region, for it included Anglos, Chicanas, Mexicanas, and other Latinas. Within these categories, members' backgrounds were mixed, tracing ancestry that was, variously, Sicilian, German, Irish, Indian, Danish, Hungarian, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. In addition to ethnic differences, there were class differences, with members ranging from British aristocratic to Chicano working class. In terms of education, the range was equally great, spanning (at one extreme) a tenured professor at Amherst College to (at the other) a woman whose education had ended with high school.

[13]  In spite (or perhaps because) of these differences, there was, initially, a powerful connection among the women, several of whom have characterized the first year of their affiliation as "idyllic." Meetings, held monthly, were both in San Diego and Tijuana, in private homes and in art galleries. As a former member Emily Hicks commented:

Initially we had a wonderful time, especially when we met in Tijuana. We'd sit out on the grass and have picnics and talk, and it was heaven. It was what everyone wanted the group to be. We didn't care about shows and careers. It was just women together, talking and sharing.

At this point, as former member Marguerite Waller has noted, they constituted an "affinity group," drawn together by their sense of exclusion from the hegemonic (malestream) culture, still in the "'nice nice' phase of multicultural feminist interaction."13 All experienced the excitement of encountering the ethnic "other" and of learning about new worlds. As a former member commented:

Women in the group wanted to find out what is Spanish, what is Mexican, what is Chicana, what is Anglo. There was a curiosity about how the other side lives.14

There was, in addition, a genuine desire to know and connect with "the other side" and to construct a utopian community based on the theoretical readings that they had adopted as their ideology and blueprint. They wanted to achieve what Anzaldúa (in many ways the collective's muse) described as a "New Consciousness," a new race of cosmic inclusivity made up of mestizas – mutable hybrid progenies with "a rich gene pool," the result of "racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization." This was to constitute the new "consciousness of the Borderlands," and feminists would be its vanguard. But Anzaldúa warned that this ideal would be hugely difficult to attain, confronting the mestizawith "an inner war," "a struggle of borders," "a cultural collision," for

. . . commonly held beliefs of the white culture attack commonly held beliefs of the Mexican culture, and both attack commonly held beliefs of the indigenous culture. Subconsciously, we see an attack on ourselves and our beliefs as a threat and we attempt to block with a counterstance.15

The difficulties Anzaldúa predicted soon became manifest and, over time, insurmountable. While the Comadres absorbed the theory and felt richer for it, inevitably idealism encountered the harsh reality of practical living and could not be sustained.

[14]  The issue that first pulled them out of the realm of the theoretical and into the practical was a right-wing populist campaign called "Light Up the Border," organized by a coalition of citizens in the San Diego region who were concerned about the influx of undocumented Mexican workers from south of the border. Its leader, Roger Hedgecock, was a former mayor of San Diego who had left electoral politics after being convicted of a felony for illegal campaign practices and subsequently became the host of a local radio talk show.16 His campaign, begun in the fall of 1989 and continuing through the summer of 1990, mobilized anti-immigrant border citizens to meet on the third Thursday of each month at a predetermined point on the border to line up their cars at dusk and illuminate the no-man's land between Mexico and the U.S. Their intent was to discourage undocumented workers from traversing this terrain under cover of night and thereby entering the U.S. undetected. Additionally, they wished to alert the U.S. federal government that the border needs more lights and more efficient patrolling. Their goals, in other words, were to make the border less porous and to harden its impregnability. These ran directly counter to the Comadres' own agenda of creating a new trans-border culture of cross-pollinization and non-dualism.

[15]  Until this point, the group's activities had been purely in the private domain. Now, for the first time in the spring of 1990 the decision was taken to enter the public domain. The shift was dramatic – from the security of privately-owned spaces to the agonistic, highly charged arena of border politics where they would be aligned with other left wing forces such as the Border Arts Workshop, the Union del Barrio, and hundreds of other sympathetic artists and activists against militant right wing groups like the WarBoys, The Holy Church of the White Fighting Machine of the Cross, the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers. It was at this point that a decision was taken to give the group a name. Their entry into the public arena was, in a sense, their baptism.

[16]  While several of the Comadres – especially those whose histories included political activism – were eager to join with pro-immigrant forces, there were also Comadres who resisted this call to activism, feeling that it exceeded the original agenda that had brought the group together, and they remained apart from the protest. Those who participated hired a plane to fly above the parked cars, pulling a banner that read "1000 Points of Fear – Another Berlin Wall?" The reference, clearly, was to current events in Eastern Europe, with an analogy drawn between the border fence and the Berlin Wall. The banner drew the attention of the media who wrote of it and of the courage of a women's collective in entering the tension-fraught arena of border politics. The Comadres were talked about on local radio stations, appeared on the local TV news, and one of their members, Aida Mancillas, was interviewed on National Public Radio. The attention was exhilarating, giving the women a sense that their point of view was being heard, that they were making a difference, and that they were intervening in history. At the same time, however, they felt frustrated at being unable to control the media's representation of them, at the way that the media edited and cut their viewpoints, trimming them into digestible soundbites to the point of misrepresentation. Nonetheless, the experience gave them a sense of empowerment, a sense that working collectively was much more effective than working alone, and they felt inspired to do more.

[17]  Comadre Margueritte Waller has written about the collective's participation in the demonstrations as a watershed that "catalyzed significant internal changes." On the positive side, the group realized its potential power; on the negative, "historical and political divisions"17 began to be more openly articulated.

[18]  I was made acutely aware of these divisions when I interviewed the Comadres, all of whom spoke with great frankness into my microphone about their often troubling experiences within the collective over its three year life span. It became clear that the Anglo and Latina women held divergent ideas about difference and group identity. For example, as Hicks commented:

The Anglo women needed to find a deep inner core that united them with Chicanas and wanted acceptance by and of them. Chicanas wanted to find a deep inner difference to explain their lack of power and thereby gain the strength to go on and prove to themselves that they could do what Anglos did.

In other words, the Anglo women (who came out of liberal rationalist backgrounds, oriented toward a politics of consensus) longed for a unity that transcends difference. This approach, while well-intentioned, leads to trouble, for the desire for a community predicated on unity and wholeness engages in a logic of identity that denies and represses difference. Furthermore, it assumes that a "core" essence connects women, that each subject possesses an inherent identity and can understand and be "present" for another as she (assumes) that she can be for herself.18 Such an approach, depending as it does on idealism (conceiving "being" and "truth" as beyond time and change) denies the political. As Chantal Mouffe has pointed out, such a denial can lead only to impotence – "the impotence which characterizes liberal thought when it finds itself confronted with a multiplication of different forms of demands for identity."19 And indeed, ultimately the pressure felt by some members to establish a unifying identity proved unbearable – as different women intimated to me when they acknowledged that interaction within the group became extraordinarily difficult, but that outside the group they enjoyed intense, satisfying relationships with one another. As one woman said: "Individually, we really liked each other; but as a group we became a monster."

[19]  Longing for unity was by no means peculiar to the Anglo members, for, as the history of the women's movement reveals, feminist groups have been marked, generally, by a desire for closeness and mutual identification. However, while an ideal of inter-ethnic unity may have been more characteristic of the Anglos than of the Latinas (many of whom were veterans of political struggle, bearing the burden of histories marked by daily encounters with issues of ethnicity, identity, and difference),20 it is equally true that some of the Latinas longed for unity between and among themselves, a unity predicated on an imagined Latina essence, as the following account, told to me by one of the Chicanas, reveals:

I became uncomfortable with some of the white women. . . I felt really burdened by my experience and wanted to share my feelings with other Latinas and so I asked for a meeting with just the Latinas. But that also turned out to be very difficult for me. One Mexican woman said: "What makes you think that I am going to have more of an affinity with you than with another white woman in the group?" And I realized that she had a point. I guess that if you are a dominant within the dominant sector of your society, then you are not going to understand what racism is. I realized that it was necessary to throw out essentialism, and that we all had completely different takes on things.

I heard many stories like this, stories that spoke of frustrated longing for unity and closeness, followed by the ineluctable recognition that identity is not fixed but, rather, subject to constant negotiation and renegotiation within changing sets of historically diverse experiences.

[20]  In theory all were familiar with this concept of fluid identity, for Anzaldúa had described it as themestiza's condition: marked by "psychic restlessness," being "in a state of perpetual transition" analogous to "floundering in uncharted seas," a "swamping of . . . psychological borders," and the ability to "shift out of habitual formations" by developing "a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity."21 But theory is so much easier to read than to implement, its poetry intoxicating and difficult to effect in the harsh light of sober reality, and the women found themselves caught in a space of frustration marked, on the one hand, by longing for unity and, on the other, by desire to negotiate difference.

[21]  Together with the issue of race, class and privilege became matters for heated discussion. In the words of a former member:

There was a great deal of talk about privilege: who had it and who didn't. It was difficult for some people to acknowledge that they had it when they certainly didn't feel that they did. Didn't, in some cases, even have jobs, and so what was all this talk of privilege about?

Privilege is, of course, a relational term, as is the analogical concept, power. As stated earlier, there were wide disparities among the women in terms of class backgrounds, levels of education, and careers. But, in fact, no one woman occupied a consistent position of privilege across all of these axes. As Waller put it:

There was not one woman in the group who felt adequate in her career, that she was fully accomplished, respected, and recognized for what she was. Everybody felt hungry.

Inter-ethnic differences were only exacerbated by the revelation that white, educated Comadres in seemingly secure, high-level jobs, felt powerless and unhappy in their careers. It was difficult for women who felt far removed from that kind of prominence and privilege to empathize with women who seemed to have it all and yet wouldn't concede that they did. It was equally difficult for the women who "seemed to have it all" to experience such resentment and to feel that their expressions of pain and struggle were unheard.

[22]  The longing for and frustration about community was made more complicated by the fact that some of the women were going through crises in their personal lives. Eager for support from their Comadres, they articulated personal issues in group meetings, which other members resented, preferring to keep the collective as a reading, work-sharing group, not one that focused on psychological process. Here, too, differences emerged between Latinas and Anglos. As Ovejero commented:

White women tend to be more outspoken about personal issues, whereas Latinas tend to be more private. For Latinas there are strong memories of keeping things to yourself. It seemed to me that [bringing up]  personal problems and personal trauma in the context of the group ended up destroying us.

Ruth Wallen agreed that the articulation of personal issues was fractious:

Our collapse was caused by conflict over personal issues. We never had a clear idea of process. We never had a clear sense of how much personal material it was appropriate to deal with in the group.

Indeed, willingness (or unwillingness) to speak of personal issues only accentuated more sharply the different approaches that Latinas and Anglos had already manifested toward speaking in a mixed cultural group. As arts activist Charleen Touchette points out:

Latina women, while usually highly expressive verbally in Spanish with one another, will often remain silent when English is spoken in a group, even if they are proficient in the language. Many Spanish-speaking people, whose language is highly formal, are accustomed to elaborate verbal conventions that carefully define the parameters of interpersonal communication to show respect to the person addressed. Thus, they are sometimes offended by the informal, direct way that people talk to each other in English.22

This observation was corroborated by one of the Comadres:

The Anglo women talked all the time. They really dominated and the Latinas didn't. They sat back and were polite.

Later, interpersonal conflict became so acute that some members wanted to bring in a therapist to mediate among them. A group of women located a Chicana psychotherapist willing to work with the collective, but the intervention never occurred – for several reasons: the Latinas, already inclined to reticence in personal matters, were either ambivalent or negative about the proposal; and there was no agreement as to what mediation should be about, nor between whom.

[23]  And so the problems simmered and, over time, even intensified. But for a brief moment they were set aside in the interests of a project that the women agreed, collectively, to undertake. In the spring of 1990, shortly after their experience with "Light Up the Border," Mancillas was invited by the Centro Cultural de la Raza to curate an exhibition. She asked her Comadres if they would like to take this opportunity to make a collective visual statement that would fully embody and communicate their goals in a context where they would not be distorted by the editorializing of the media. They seized the opportunity. The result was an installation titled La Vecindad/The Neighborhood, and a seventy minute performance piece called Border Boda/Border Wedding, staged at the Centro in September, 1990.

[24]  The endeavor was, in many ways, the group's highpoint. Hugely successful in terms of its public reception, it poised the collective on the brink of name-recognition-stardom in the artworld. But the pressure of production only hastened the group's collapse, further sensitizing participants to the myriad problems that had already become manifest. Although their project at the Centro entailed a number of different aspects – artworks as well as a performance – I will focus here primarily on the performance, for its goals were hugely ambitious, embracing a number of complex theoretical positions which I shall unpack in the course of describing it.

[25]  The performance was divided into two parts, corresponding to two different cultural spheres: public and private. The Kitchen, Border BodaThis opposition and contrast conforms to what Gayatri Spivak has recognized as "a certain program. . . implicit in all, and explicit in some, feminist activity"23 in which the assumed diametrical opposition between private and public is deconstructed and displaced. Here the private sphere was represented by that quintessential heart of the domestic: a kitchen, rendered exquisitely inviting. Its walls were painted a deep turquoise, and on them were hung paintings whose subject matter and style reflected the region. The room's centerpiece was a kitchen table (fig. 1) in the form of a huge bilingual cookbook on table legs – a metaphor of nourishment from mixture. On its pages were inscribed family recipes – a chronicle of women's nurturance. Behind it against the blue wall was a kitchen cupboard (fig. 2) that also functioned as an altar . The doors of its uppermost register were opened to reveal a blood-red space on which were xeroxed images of faces of women from Oaxaca. 
 Kitchen Cupboard, Border BodaIts open lower register, scumble-painted blue and white, contained bits of shattered mirror and barbed wire – visual metaphors for fragmented identities and the border. The central register held candles, a cross, and various offerings. From each side was suspended a huge pendulous breast-like sack, which gave it an anthropomorphic quality. It was intended to function as a metaphor for a border woman and for a border home and to evoke the pain and human cost of border living. On an adjacent wall was a kitchen shelf with images of historical border types painted on plates. Thus, traditional kitchen props and decor became resonant with issues of the border.

[26]  The principal drama of the performance occurred in this space of domesticity, nurturance, and beauty. Here a young Chicana, on the eve of her wedding to a Gringo, spoke and reminisced with her grandmother and aunt, both of whom were deeply conflicted about her impending marriage. The grandmother told stories about their family, while the aunt (referred to in the play as tía) prepared fruit, sugar cane, and cinnamon for a hot drink to be served to the audience at the close of the performance. The aunt, having elected not to speak on the U.S. side, was mute, her vocalism restricted to four traditional border songs sung in Spanish. At one point the bride-to-be asked plaintively, "What happened to Mama?" During the course of the performance it was revealed that her mother was raped and murdered by an Anglo landgrabber – personal family tragedy that, by synecdoche, stood for a version of U.S.-Mexico history.

[27]  This kind of slippage between the personal and the grand sweep of history subtended the performance. In this private, matriarchal, domestic space of oral history and folk narrative, women recounted their marginality with the paradoxical goal of pointing to what Spivak has called "the irreducibility of the margin." In other words, the protagonists told personal stories about women's lives impacted by national and international political conflict. The effect and purpose was to displace the public-private hierarchy and opposition for, as Spivak has noted:

if the fabric of the so-called public sector is woven of the so-called private, the definition of the private is marked by a public potential, since it is the weave, or texture, of public activity. The opposition is thus not merely reversed; it is displaced.24

The desire to displace, or at least confuse, the traditional opposition between public and private was one of the central purposes of the performance.

[28]  Contrasting with the domestic, private, color-bright space of the kitchen was a black and white "media" or "conflict" room which prominently featured a television set and a podium behind which two apparently Anglo journalists interrogated U.S. representations of Mexico, the border, and Chicano culture 
 The Media/Conflict Room, Border Boda. Where the kitchen represented the space of women, the media/conflict room (fig. 3) was the space of men, of public discourse, of the dissemination of public information; and its ambiance was rendered as hostile. To balance the recipe book-table in the kitchen, the media/conflict room featured an outsize "book of conflict." On its cover were the words:Todo es verdad, todo es mentira, /All is truth, all is lies – a comment on the journalistic enterprise.25 While the Comadres may have wanted to blur the distinction between public and private, scenographically they accentuated it, and for the bulk of the performance these two spaces manifested a kind of apartheid in terms of the ethnic groups that occupied them: the hostile media room as the space of Anglos and cruel oppression; the nurturant kitchen as the space of Mexicanas/Chicanas, love, and suffering. This Manichean bifurcation was very difficult for some of the Anglo women who resented their relegation to the register of the hateful.

[29]  Structurally, the performance consisted largely of a series of narratives told by the grandmother. The idea of unfolding the plot via grandmother stories had two sources. The first was Trinh Minh-ha's "Grandma's Story," an essay on women and storytelling which all the Comadres read. Here Trinh presents the oral narratives of senior tribal women as an integral element of social formation and cohesion, for tale-telling is always in the present, necessitating an immediate, vital, interactive communal bond between teller and listener. Unlike written history, storytelling is an art of the body, transmitted from mouth to ear and from heart to heart, establishing a chain and continuum between the generations who pass it on, thereby providing a link between past, present, and future. In many cultures the storyteller is a healer and protectress, for her power in telling stories brings people together and gives them strength. Furthermore, the storyteller is never the authoress of the tale but merely the transmitter of a preexistent structure of meaning which she is morally bound to transfer.

[30]  Trinh's essay had a profound impact on the Comadres, and one evening, soon after all had read it, they convened at the home of one of their members to sit around a campfire in her garden and tell stories of their own families, of their ancestors' journeys to the United States and their struggles to establish themselves. In this way they wove personal sagas into the larger fabric of history, interweaving private and public. The evening around the campfire catalyzed their ideas for the forthcoming performance. The concept of structuring it as a series of grandmother tales was born that night.

[31]  The telling of personal stories by women falls within the rubric of what Deleuze and Guattari have called "the minor," a form of literature usually from the margins which uses an intense, vernacular form and allows the writer/speaker "the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility."26 One of the characteristics of a "minor literature" is that it "deterritorializes language," and indeed, the territorialization and deterritorialization of language was one of the sub-themes of the grandmother's discourse. For example, as a Mexican immigrant she spoke a master language (English) in an alien place (San Diego). Additionally, she explained that the tía was unable to speak English, the language of her husband, and that he, in turn, was unable to speak Spanish. They were, however, both able to speak "the language of love," a deterritorialized language that transcends all boundaries. Although she lived in the U.S., the tía never learned to speak English, and she abandoned her husband and children to return to Mexico so that she might speak again. Additionally, we were told that while the tía never spoke north of the border, in Tijuana, by contrast, "she doesn't stop talking." The granddaughter/niece, a Chicana, spoke English but no Spanish and expressed frustration at her inability to speak with her tía. We were also told of a Mexican aunt living in the U.S. who was killed by her Anglo husband for speaking to a laborer in Spanish.

[32]  Other characteristics of a "minor literature" pertinent to this performance were that each individual story

connects immediately to politics. The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating within it. In this way, the family triangle connects to other triangles – commercial, economic, bureaucratic, juridical – that determine its values.27

All of the grandmother stories connected in this way to the grand narratives of national and international history. Additionally, the "minor" is the situation of immigrants, who

live in a language that is not their own . . . and no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve . . . .

The "minor" is thus nomadic, moving between margin and center, operating always in a kind of border zone – a situation that pertained for all the women in the kitchen.

[33]  Scenographically, there was a border zone in this drama. Between the kitchen and the media/conflict room was a sculpture featuring the mandala-shaped aura of the Virgin of Guadalupe, its upper region sliced through by a chain saw, the entire construction positioned behind a chain-link fence 
 The Mandala, Border Boda. Intermittently, the young bride-to-be placed herself behind the fence within the mandala's empty frame, uncertain as to whether – or how – she might occupy it. At one point in the drama she seemed to be trapped in this space, and, with frustrated longing reached alternately first toward the Mexican and then to the U.S. side. The implication was that she was caught between two worlds, uncertain even of her relationship to the Virgin of Guadalupe, quintessential icon of Mexican identity. Indeed, at one point the bride stated: "I don't know what it means to be Mexican." But Guadalupe has a wider resonance than Mexicanness, for she is, of course, one of the paradigms of womanhood in Mexican culture. It was not merely her relationship to Guadalupe that the young bride needed to clarify, but her own identity as a Chicana caught between two cultures. Indeed, it was their relationship to paradigms of womanhood that the Comadres were exploring in Border Boda as well as their desire to put forward and articulate a newparadigm – Anzaldúa's concept of the mestiza.

[34]  Mexican culture holds out three "cultural root paradigms" for/of women, although some scholars include a fourth and fifth. I borrow this concept of "cultural root paradigm" from Victor Turner who has defined it as a model that is continually reinvested with energy within the social drama, going beyond the cognitive and the moral to the existential domain where it becomes "clothed with allusiveness, implications and metaphor."28 By social drama Turner means a period in which conflicting groups and people attempt to establish their own paradigms or to reconfigure extant paradigms. An example of such an enterprise is Anzaldúa's foregrounding of the mestiza as a type of new consciousness/new paradigm for the social drama of the struggle for a new Borderlands.

[35]  The three best known paradigms for woman in Mexican culture are: (1) the Virgin of Guadalupe; (2) Malinche, the noble Aztec woman, Malintzin Tenepal, who served the Spanish conqueror Cortez as mistress, translator, advisor, and the bearer of his child – becoming thereby the mother of a mestizo race; and (3) la Llorona, the weeping mother who seeks her lost children. A fourth is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the seventeenth century Spanish-born Mexican nun who became renowned for her intellect and exquisite poetry. A fifth is Frida Kahlo, model of the suffering-sexual-woman-as-powerful-creator.

[36]  The performance referenced all of these paradigms, either implicitly or explicitly (and, in doing so, reached both backward and forward across the historical record, from the Aztec empire of Malinche's provenance to the future paradise of Anzaldúa'smestiza.) I have already mentioned the empty mandala of the Virgin of Guadalupe, its emptiness signifying uncertainty as to how that space should be filled, its prominent centrality between the kitchen and the media/conflict room indicating its significance – and the significance of this issue – within the performance. Guadalupe is, of course, a symbol of sexual purity, sublime transcendence, forgiveness, and redemption. But she is also a prototype of the new mestiza, a border type, the product of two cultures: the Aztec which featured her as the good creator-mother, Tonantzin, and the Spanish/Christian, which desexed her and made her into a version of the Virgin Mary. She is thus, as Anzaldúa points out

a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races in our psyche, the conquerors and the conquered . . . She mediates between the Spanish and the Indian cultures and between Chicanos and the white world. She . . . is the symbol of ethnic identity and of the tolerance for ambiguity that . . . people who cross cultures . . . possess.29

Her symbol is thus pregnant with ambiguity, for, like the mestiza, she "continually walk[s]  out of one culture and into another."30

[37]  The installation also referenced Guadalupe's significance to Mexico's indigenous Indian population. Against a white wall in a vestibule through which visitors entered to access the performance were several representations of Guadalupe holding a machine gun. In this guise she represented the rebellion and hope of an oppressed people and the capacity of women to come forward as warriors. In short, Guadalupe's resonances have been and remain mutable, but always charged with positivity.

[38]  The Malinche paradigm has been far more problematic. In Mexican mythology, Malinche/Malintzin has become an archetype of betrayal, an historical Eve in whom sexuality and treason are mutual inflections. In addition to her Aztec name, she has, over the course of history, acquired others that connote the contempt with which Mexican/Chicano culture regards her. Thus she is known also as La Chingada, the one who is fucked;31 La Vendida, slang for "sell-out" because she "sold" her people to the white race; andLa Lengua, a word that includes the meanings "tongue," "language," and "translator" or mediator.32 Mostly, however, she is known as La Malinche, a term that converts her proper name into a generic signifier of betrayal.

[39]  Guadalupe and Malintzin: virgin and whore. They are functions of one another, and their opposing yet complementary paradigms polarize the lives of Mexicanas and Chicanas. Together they constitute what anthropologist Pierre Maranda has called "semantic charters: . . . culture specific networks that we internalize as we undergo the process of socialization." He adds that certain charters or signifying systems "have an inertia and momentum of their own" and includes within this category "the conception of sex roles."33 From the evidence and observations of Chicano and Mexican scholars, Malintzin and Guadalupe belong within this class.34 For example, as Norma Alarcón notes:

. . . the myth of Malintzin . . . seeps into our . . . consciousness in the cradle through . . . [male]  eyes as well as our mothers', who are entrusted with the transmission of culture. . . . All we see is hatred of women. We must hate her too since love seems only possible through extreme virtue whose definition is at best slippery. . . . The pervasiveness of the myth is unfathomable, often permeating and suffusing our very being without conscious awareness.35

[40]  Contemporary Chicanas bristle at this cultural legacy and at their inscription within the limited fields ofputa or virgen. The social drama of feminist struggle has led women to seek alternative paradigms and to inscribe La Malinche differently, for example, as a woman of courage who sought to save her people from a cruel and bloodthirsty Aztec ruler.36 One of the most ingenious re-readings is by Cherrie Moraga in her article: "From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism."37 Here Moraga, in a brilliant move, recuperates the terms of aspersion, reinscribing them with positive value. Thus she names the defiant woman who takes control of her own sexual destiny "una Malinchista"38 and herself a "Vendida:" one who deliberately refuses to buy into the dominant heterosexist paternalism of her culture, arguing that "To be critical of one's culture is not to betray that culture;"39 indeed, that to refuse to examine one's own cultural weaknesses "is, in the most profound sense, an act of betrayal."40 She thereby transforms a term of derogation into a badge of honor and opens up an avenue whereby the feminist Chicana/Mexicana might derive positive value from identification with Malinche.

[41]  This approach was taken further by Anzaldúa, who, again and again in her manifesto for the newmestiza repeats the refrain: "Not me sold out my people but they me," and who reconfigures Malinche as the betrayed – "the raped mother whom we have abandoned"41 – rather then the betrayer. Anzaldúa, like a number of other writers,42 views Malinche as a "mediator," a border crosser between cultures, a woman possessed of a rare aptitude to live in two worlds, a woman who operated from the edge of the cultures she inhabited but whose place in the cultural consciousness of Mexico became central.

[42]  La Llorona, the woman who weeps for and seeks her lost children, is often viewed as a conflation of the first two paradigms, but tends to be less sharply delineated. In Border Boda she was referenced with each mention of a woman weeping; for example, the tía's and grandmother's mother who wept when thetía's Anglo husband, John, took her away to "Gringolandia." In contrast to her own mother's behavior, the grandmother did not weep at her granddaughter's impending departure for Chicago. Instead, she invoked, as a kind of farewell blessing, Anzaldúa's poem, "Don't Give In, Chicanita. reminding her that

Strong women reared you:
my sister, your mom, my mother and I.

Thus, instead of loss and tears, she stressed the Mexican woman's capacity for strength, endurance, and intra-gender support.

[43]  Sor Juana, an immensely complex character in Mexican culture, was suggested in the persona of thetía. Sor Juana's many attributes included poetry, celibacy, and, in the last years of her life, silence – all characteristics which defined the tía.43 For example, the tía's only vocalizations were in song, or poetry. Additionally, while she was once married and "had a lot of boyfriends," her status in the performance was that of "old maid" – which is one of the several meanings of "tía." The association of Sor Juana with tía is strengthened by the fact that the Comadre who played tía (Rocio Weiss) identified strongly with Sor Juana and had previously assumed her persona in a performance.

[44]  Tía's silence invites interpretation. My reading is that it functioned as an abjuration of the La Lenguaaspect of Malinche – her capacity to function as a "tongue" or "translator" within different language systems. It was this "gift" that enabled Malinche to translate for Cortez, a service which traditional Mexican culture regards as her first act of betrayal. Of course choosing silence as a way of avoiding the risk of being inscribed as La Lengua is hardly a viable strategy to liberate women from codes that diminish and undermine, for while it certainly precludes the possibility of the accusation of betrayal, it equally precludes the possibility of producing oneself through discourse, of becoming a "speaking subject" (to borrow Kristeva's term),44 capable of recasting the relationship of the subject to tradition and of inflecting language with her own desire. A more fruitful strategy is that adopted by Moraga and Anzaldúa who do not repress their desire but channel it productively, expropriating and forcing it to submit to their own liberatory agendas.

[45]  Fourthly, tía's silence lends itself to interpretation within the framework of Deleuze and Guattari's theories of deterritorialization. These authors note that language

always implies a deterritorialization of the mouth, the tongue, and the teeth. The mouth, tongue, and teeth find their primitive territoriality in food. In giving themselves over to the articulation of sounds, the mouth, tongue and teeth deterritorialize. Thus, there is a certain disjunction between eating and speaking. . . .45

The tía's removal from her native country – her deterritorialization – left her bereft of speech. She regrounded herself by preparing food, thereby connecting herself more closely to the body, to primary processes, and to the primitive territoriality of the mouth.

[46]  Unquestionably the most complex and allusive character in the performance, the tía can be construed as a type of mestiza, for she traversed several worlds: Mexican, Anglo, and ancestral Indian. According to Grandmother, she possessed "Indian woman skills," which she used to help Grandmother conceive a child when the latter despaired of doing so, leading Grandmother into the generatively-charged, serpent-filled center of the earth that is part of Indian lore. Additionally, according to Grandmother, "Tía has all kinds of powers. She can see auras and futures, and she has a gift – the capacity to talk to people on the other side – people who are dead." She also, according to Grandmother, "loves to go to Las Vegas." Alternately capable of entering the space of ancestral spirits and the simulacral hyperspaces of Las Vegas, she belongs both to the vieja raza that modern industrialization has destroyed and to the postmodern, thus manifesting that "tolerance for ambiguity" that Anzaldúa highlighted as the mestiza's.

[47]  Her vocalizations in song point to a central problematic at the core of Border Boda:, for the songs she sang were all highly traditional and therefore reflective of normative values in the culture. For example, one of the songs was the well-known La Adelita, a border ballad or corrido. The corrido is a male-dominated genre developed to extol the exploits of male heroes and in which women, if they are present at all, are relegated to secondary roles.46 While La Adelita does represent a Mexican woman in an unusual role – that of soldadara or fighter in the Revolution of 1910 – her power as a protagonist is neutralized by presenting her as the love-sick object of a soldier's affections. This stratagem – turning the soldadera into a love object – was commonly used by corridistas who, following the conventions of their genre to base lyrics on historical reality, had to acknowledge women fighters, but sought to render them less threatening by positioning them in traditional heterosexual relationships. There was a certain contradiction in having the celibate and independenttía sing a love song which glorifies a male protagonist, albeit indirectly.

[48]  Reference to male protagonists is, however, almost unavoidable in Mexican culture. The problem for Mexican and Mexican-descended women, as Jean Franco has so eloquently noted is "whether a 'heroine' is possible at all within the terms of the epic or master narratives of the nation."47 Franco points out that in Mexican literature, even when it is produced by women writers, "Women do not enter history – only romance"48 and that "even their oral culture is penetrated by myths of submission."49Thus even the matriarchal folk art form of storytelling is unable (if it aims at verisimilitude rather than fable) to avoid inscribing women in the social relationships of the hegemonic culture. As Franco points out: "Women's attempts to plot themselves as protagonists in the national [drama]  becomes a recognition of the fact that they are not in the plot at all but definitely somewhere else."50

[49]  This has been the primary problematic for the establishment of a feminist Chicana theater, for traditional Chicano theater, like traditional Latino culture, is inherently sexist, positioning women as submissive, subordinate, and marginal to historical events. As Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano points out:

until the exploration of other alternatives in the eighties . . . [m] ost texts constructed a male subject through notions of class, 'racial,' and cultural identity that reinscribed tacit cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity within the heterosexual structure of the family.51

In surveying Chicano theater over a twenty year period, from its beginnings in 1965 to the moment of her writing in 1986, Yarbro-Bejarano maps an art form that has been profoundly marked by patriarchy. The impact of patriarchy has been so pervasive that even the establishment (in 1978) of a women's caucus within the Chicano theater movement proved unable to re-align the traditional asymmetry of male/female roles. Because male/female roles in the larger culture are asymmetrical, Border Boda could not but inscribe them so. Its significant contribution within the field of Chicana theater is that it focused on reformulating Mexican/Chicano female paradigms as strong, resourceful, enduring, active, and exemplary of the new utopic paradigm – themestiza. Additionally, the final scenes of the drama opened up women's range of sexual choices to include lesbianism and bisexuality.

[50]  For example, in the penultimate scene one of the journalists became a new hybrid character – a wrestler-bride – and in this guise crossed from the media room into the loving ambiance of the kitchen. There she read a love poem to one of her Comadres, expressing deep longing for a bridging of cultural difference, for primal connection, and for a woman. Additionally, at one point she and the other journalist (now dressed as a man) enacted a mock wedding as a send-up of the sanctified marriage ceremony. In other words, the performance, while ostensibly about a heterosexual marriage, also questioned this institution and opened up other sexual possibilities for women.

[51]  The fifth female paradigm adduced by the performance was Frida Kahlo. The bright, colorful kitchen was a reference to Kahlo's home. But not merely her home, but Frida herself was represented in this drama. In the final scene, the young bride dressed in her wedding finery once again placed herself within the frame of the mandala and there removed her gown to reveal a shift and bodice, painted to resemble the corset in which Kahlo had represented her pain-wrought body (fig. 4). The message was clear: marriage – inscription within the patriarchal system – both celebrates and wounds women. Thus, to reiterate, while the framework of the social contract which the plot enacted was heterosexual, its undercurrent or, in this case,undergarment, drew attention to the constriction and pain that society's heterosexual contract also imposes. The bride's revelation of underlying pain was an important qualifier to a plot which, on the surface, seemed merely to restage the ancient narrative of betrayal and colonial subordination: a young Chicana couples with a white man against the wishes of her family, who regard her impending union as a betrayal analogous to Malinche's with her colonizer. The reference to Kahlo, who had women lovers, broadened the limited hetero plot to include lesbianism and bisexuality, while the Kahlo-like painted undergarment signified another path for women – Art – the capacity to create new myths and new paradigms and thereby transcend demeaning subalternity.

[52]  Kahlo, too, can be viewed as a type of the new mestiza, for she also traversed many borders. Indeed, her life was an exemplary instance of the characteristics that Anzaldúa identified as belonging to the newmestiza:

Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems . . . undergo[ing]  a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war.52

These characteristics apply equally, of course, to the young bride, and it was in her that the final hopes of the performance were vested. Addressing herself to the young woman who stood within the frame of the empty mandala in the interzone between the U.S. and Mexico, Grandmother intoned lines from Anzaldúa's poem, "Don't Give In, Chicanita," the poem with which Anzaldúa closed her manifesto for the new mestiza. The final note of the performance was, therefore, one of hope and promise for the new paradigm of the newmestiza in the new Borderlands.

[53]  Deservedly, the production met with an enthusiastic reception,53 and soon thereafter the Comadres were invited to transport it (in December 1990) to the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art in El Paso, Texas, and thence to additional Texas towns. This opportunity elicited profoundly mixed reactions from the participants: pleasure at their newfound success coupled with mounting anxiety at having to continue to work in a situation that had become heavily inflected with internal dissension. By all external appearances, the restaging in El Paso was a success, but the internal conflict had by then become untenable. The most painful issues included resentments about leadership, lesbian desire for women in the group, and professional rivalry, for some of the women, strengthened by their success within the group, had begun to strike out on their own and attain individual success – which other members regarded as opportunistic and contrary to the group's original ethic of collective artmaking.

[54]  By 1991, members had become radically polarized and alliances and enmities consolidated. They continued to receive invitations to do shows but were unable to act on them. That September, after several acrimonious meetings, a meeting was called to decide the group's fate: they agreed that the collective had run its course, and they declared Las Comadres officially over.

[55]  They had one brief resurgence. In 1993 San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art and the Centro Cultural de la Raza invited Las Comadres to participate in a major exhibition on the border, to be called La Frontera. For this they reinstalled a small section ofLa Vecindad – the reading room or library which, in the original production, had offered viewers a sampling of the texts that the Comadres had read when they had first constituted themselves as a study group. For La Frontera they amplified the props that had appeared in the original reading room. Thus, in addition to a reading table, books and chairs, they included the sculpture of the mandala with its empty central space usually occupied by the Virgin of Guadalupe. On either side of the empty mandala they made a symmetrical arrangement of a road sign familiar to southern Californians: in stark black silhouette against an orange ground, a family flees, haunted by the specter of death 
 The Reading Room, La Frontera. They are undocumented workers, hazarding their lives as they pursue the American Dream and flee their native poverty. From the logic of the installation, they appear to run toward the empty mandala. In Spanish and in English, the caption above each image reads: Cuidado/Caution. The image was powerful and poignant, but it said nothing of the mestizanor of the Comadres' struggle to claim and honor paradigmatic women in Mexican/Chicano culture. It struck me as a sad swan song to a valiant (but perhaps always doomed) effort. While the Comadres had successfully performed their beliefs, they were unable to live them. I thought about the lines inscribed on the "book of conflict" in the conflict/media room: Todo es verdad, todoes mentira/All is truth, all is lies. And then I turned again to Trinh Minh-ha's reflections on story- and truth-telling and again read her poetic words:

Tale, told, to be told. The to-and-fro movement between advancement and regression necessarily leads to a situation where every step taken is at once the first (a step back) and the last step (a step forward) – the only step, in a precise circumstance, at a precise moment of (one's) history. In this context, a work-in-progress . . . is not a work whose step precedes other steps in a trajectory that leads to the final work. It is not a work awaiting a better, more perfect stage of realization. Inevitably, a work is always a form of tangible closure. But closures need not close off; they can be doors opening onto other closures and functioning as ongoing passages to an elsewhere . . . The closure here, however, is a way of letting the work go rather than of sealing it off. Thus, every work materialized can be said to be a work-in-progress.54

Although they have officially disbanded and their members are now dispersed, Las Comadres is, in many ways, still a work-in-progress. Their experience together had a profound impact on all the women, and while many had spoken to me of their bitterness and anger toward the group, they were disturbed when, in my first draft of this paper I wrote (and they read) of that bitterness. One woman, seeking to revise my impression, said:

You caught us in a bad moment when we still had anger. Comadres was really a positive experience. There were moments when people really learned something and things really worked. We were really able to achieve things.

And so they were. And so they do, for they have all gone on – as artists, activists, and educators – to produce work inflected by their experience in Las Comadres, and each woman, in her own way, carries within her the utopic project of the new mestiza.

[56]Tale, told, to be told . . . Are you truthful? Was I? I am acutely aware that what I wrote here is aninterpretation and that mine may differ from those of the women who lived this drama, for there is always a slippage between events and the act of describing them. What I attempted was to make this narrative "the site of interrelations between giver and receiver"55 in which the Comadres and I are both givers and receivers. I received the gift of their experiences and, in turn, offer them my interpretation. Like theirs, my tale has no closure; indeed, cannot have closure. I do, however, offer it to the women of Las Comadres as an "ongoing passage to an elsewhere." It functioned thus for me.


I would like to thank Janet Brody Esser for her thoughtful reading, constructive criticism, and recommendations of bibliographical material. I am also grateful to those Comadres who read my first draft and gave me feedback. Illustrations were graciously provided by Lynn Susholtz. Copyright ©1998


  1. The Comadres included the following women: Kirsten Aaboe, Yarelli Arizmendi, Carmela Castrejón, Frances Charteris, Magali Damas, Eloise De Leon, Maria Ereña, Laura Esparza, Madeleine Grynsztejn, Emily Hicks, Berta Jottar, Maria Kristina, Aida Mancillas, Anna O'Cain, Graciela Ovejero, Lynn Susholtz, Ruth Wallen, Margie Waller, Rocio Weiss, Cindy Zimmerman.back
  2. The Centro Cultural de la Raza is a cultural center, established in 1971, founded to support the expressions of those peoples who are indigenous to the San Diego/Tijuana region. It is predicated on the principle of cultural self-determination. back
  3. They were invited to perform at Installation Gallery in San Diego and at exhibition spaces in Texas cities.back
  4. This paper is part of a larger project in which I examine representations of the border by artists, art collectives, and art institutions in the San Diego/Tijuana border region. back
  5. Jean Franco, Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989). back
  6. Attitudes among the women varied as to willingness/unwillingness to have quotes attributed to them. I have honored these attitudes with the result that some quotes have attributions, while others remain anonymous. This statement was made by Graciela Ovejero. back
  7. Reproduced in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, edited by Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West (New York: MIT Press, 1990). back
  8. Ibid., 327. back
  9. The most prominent and public spokesperson for these ideas was/is Guillermo Gómez-Peña whose writings have been anthologized in two volumes: Warrior for Gringroistroika: Essays, Performance texts, and Poetry (St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1993) and The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems, and Loqueras for the End of the Century (San Francisco: City Lights, 1996). Since the mid-1980s "the border" has become a significant trope in postmodern theory and cultural production. back
  10. Eberhardt resigned in 1985, Berman in 1987. Two women joined BAW/TAF in 1987: Emily Hicks, a critic, theorist, and professor of literature at San Diego State University, and Berta Jottar, a Mexican video artist. Hicks's connection to the group was Gómez-Peña, Jottar's was to Schnorr. In the fall of 1988 Chicano activist and educator Rocio Weiss joined. back
  11. In terms of chronology, this period lasted approximately one year after their formation. back
  12. It was even suggested by one member who wished to draw a distinction between Latina and non-Latina members, that the group be called Gringas y Comadres. back
  13. "Border Boda or Divorce Fronterizo," pp. 69, 70, Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America, Diana Taylor and Juan Villegas, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). In addition to interviews with former Comadres, I have drawn from Waller's thoughtful insights in this article. Waller's reference to an "affinity" group comes from her reading of Donna Harraway on "cyborg subjectivity." Her reference to the "'nice nice' phase of multicultural feminist interaction" is from bell hooks, "Third World Diva Girls." While Waller and I both write about Las Comadres our approaches are very different. She writes as a former member of the collective, very much a participant in its activities and dramas; in contrast, I have come after these events, an outsider, attempting to understand and situate them within a particular cultural framework. back
  14. The designation "Anglo" is problematic and several of the white women would reject it, for their backgrounds are Eastern European rather than British. back
  15. These citations are from Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 77, 78. back
  16. Hedgecock, after an extended series of appeals, was eventually successful in getting the sentence repealed. back
  17. These phrases are from Waller, "Border Boda or DivorceFronterizo?" 73. back
  18. The terms of this argument are from Iris Marion Young, "The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference,"Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990). back
  19. Chantal Mouffe, "For a Politics of Nomadic Identity," inTravellers Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement (London: Routledge, 1994), 107. back
  20. See Maria Lugones with Pat Alake Rosezelle, "Sisterhood and Friendship," in Feminism and Community, eds. Penny Weiss and Marilyn Friedman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995). The authors argue that "women of color have an epistemic advantage, they have access to knowledge that white/Anglo women lack" in that they "understand the subtleties of racism in ways that many white/Anglo women may not." 143. back
  21. See Anzaldúa, 78, 79. back
  22. "Multicultural Strategies for Aesthetic Revolution," New Feminist Criticism; Art, Identity, Action, ed. Joanna Frueh, Cassandra L. Langer, and Arlene Raven (New York: Icon, 1991), 187. back
  23. See Spivak, "Explanation and Culture: Marginalia," in Out There, 377. back
  24. Ibid. back
  25. The Comadre who made the book identified the line as Ruben Dario's. She also told me that she chose the quotation to express her own feelings of unhappiness with the conflict that was by then rampant in the group. back
  26. Deleuze and Guattari develop the idea of a "minor literature" inKafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). The chapter, "What is a Minor Literature?" is reproduced in Out There. The quotation is from Out There, 60. back
  27. Ibid., 59. back
  28. Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: symbolic action in human society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 154. I encountered this discussion in Sandra Messinger Cypess' fascinating book, La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), 7. back
  29. Anzaldúa, 30. back
  30. Ibid., 77. back
  31. For the best known exposition of the root of this word and its valence in Mexican culture, see Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, trans. Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1961), Chapter IV, "The Sons of La Malinche," 65-88. back
  32. Her persona as La Lengua has been expounded on and developed by Carlos Fuentes in his Todos los gatos son pardos(Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1984), cited by Norma Alarcón, "Traddutora, Traditora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism," in Scattered Hegemonies; Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices, ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1994). See also the article by Alarcón for a discussion of Fuentes's treatment. back
  33. Pierre Maranda, "The Dialectic of Metaphor: An Anthropological Essay on Hermeneutics," in The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 184-5. I take this reference from Norma Alarcón, "Traddutoria, Traditora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism," 130 n. 4. back
  34. Additionally, Alarcón cites the findings of theologician Rene Girard, who notes that the "religiously rooted community is both attracted and repelled by its own origins. It feels the constant need to reexperience them, albeit in veiled and transfigured form." Alarcón, 112. The quote is taken from Girard, Violence and the Sacred, translated by Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1977), 99. back
  35. Norma Alarcón, "Chicana's Feminist Literature; A Re-Vision Through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object," 183, 184 in This Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa (Watertown: Persephone Press, 1981). back
  36. See, for example, Adelaida R. Del Castillo, "Malintzin Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective," Essays on La Mujer, Part I, ed. Rosaura Sanchex, Anthology No. 1, Chicano Studies Center Publications (Los Angeles, Unviersity of California, 1977), 124-49. back
  37. Reproduced in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). back
  38. Ibid., 184. back
  39. Ibid., 180. back
  40. Ibid., 182. back
  41. Anzaldúa, 30. back
  42. For example, Frances Karttunen, Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors (New Jersey: Rutgers, 1994).back
  43. The association of tia with Sor Juana was particularly strong for those who knew the Comadre, Rocio Weiss, who played tia, for Rocio identified with Sor Juana and had previously played the part of Sor Juana in a performance. back
  44. See Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language; A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. by Leon S. Roudiez, trans, by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia, 1980). back
  45. "What is a Minor Literature," 62. back
  46. See Maria Herrera-Sobek, The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), and Ramon Saldivar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990) where the author includes a chapter on the corridos as the basis of Chicano literature. back
  47. Franco, Plotting Women, 132. back
  48. Ibid., 138. back
  49. Ibid., 144. back
  50. Ibid., 145. Franco uses the word "novel" where I have taken the liberty of inserting "drama," but the principle remains intact.back
  51. "The Female Subject in Chicano Theater: Sexuality, 'Race,' and Class," in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 133. back
  52. Anzaldúa, 78. back
  53. It was reviewed in the San Diego Tribune by Ann Jarmusch on November 14, 1990, in the Los Angeles Times by Leah Ollman, November 7, 1990, and in High Performance by Judith Christensen, Number 53, Spring 1991. back
  54. Trinh, "Cotton and Iron," 329. back
  55. Ibid., 335. back