Gender and Intersectionality

A "Wild Zone" of Her Own: Locating the Chicana Experience in the Theatre Works of Josefina López

By Trevor Boffone, University of Houston, USA.

1One of the primary aims of the Chicana Feminist Movement, a group of women of Mexican descent in the United States theorizing the historical, social, economic, and political roles of women, that gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s, and continues to be a driving force in Chicano society today, has been to express and assert the validity of female discourse as well as the textual zone of Chicanas’ experience. In “The History of Chicanas: Proposal for a Materialist Perspective,” Chicana scholar Rosaura Sánchez, plants the seed for a feminist analysis giving value to the Chicana subject’s “multiple subjectivities” of gendered, ethnicized, racialized, and classed identity and experience (1-29). Essentially, Sánchez demonstrates the necessity for gender-specific inquiry in the research and study of Chicanas as well as other women of color. One such theory, the “Wild Zone” Thesis, remains a useful tool in analyzing the Chicana experience in the United States. Proposed by anthropologists Edwin and Shirley Ardener in their influential study Perceiving Women (1975) and applied to the study of Chicana experience by Cordelia Candelaria in “The ‘Wild Zone’ Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study,” the “Wild Zone” signifies the separate cultural and political spaces, or zones, that women inhabit in society, which, coincidentally, are only recognized by women (Ardener 24). While not privileging gender over race, ethnicity, or class, the theory posits that women’s lived experience has formulated specific female-identified subcultures marginalized within and outside of the male-centered patriarchy. According to the thesis, the patriarchy, in this case traditional Chicano society, has created learned gender differences, which are largely linked to the acquired stereotypes of masculinity and femininity in Mexican and Mexican-American society. In the case of Chicana womanhood, the age-old triad of La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche (or, virgin, mother, whore) exemplifies this cultural stereotypification. Though being challenged largely today by Chicana feminists, activists, writers, and artists, these conventional ideals of Chicano femininity remain a consequence of the patriarchal values that have marked the Chicano experience in the United States. Josefina López, similar to other contemporary Chicana playwrights such as Cherríe Moraga, Monica Palacios, Milcha Sánchez-Scott, Adelina Anthony, and Virginia Grise, seeks to challenge, decolonize, and redefine these gendered stereotypes through her work. By empowering her female protagonists with feminist agency, her characters hold the tools to theorize the connection between their experience as women in a patriarchal society and their physical and metaphysical location.

2This essay seeks to analyze the connection between Chicana identity and her location, patria (homeland), place, and land base in the theatre works of Chicana playwright Josefina López while demonstrating the possible uses of the “Wild Zone” Thesis as a means of creating female agency directly linked to her location and physical surroundings. In López’s plays, Boyle Heights (2005), Detained in the Desert (2010), and Hungry Woman (2013), we will see, serve as protests against the silencing of Chicanas while highlighting the link between female experience and space and its expression in dramatic literature.

The "Wild Zone" Thesis

3Ardener’s “Wild Zone” Thesis, an essay from their book Perceiving Women (1975) which focuses on the anthropology of gender and their different ethnographic field experiences, posits that the female voice has been entirely muted, both silenced and marginalized, by the dominant patriarchy; the female’s power has been blocked by the controlling entity of society so that she has lost all privilege and agency (Ardener 22-5). Essentially, this authority over women creates disproportionate sociocultural effects, thus producing a larger distance between female desire and actual choice, between female identity and the capacity to actualize that identity (Candelaria 249). The fundamental components of the “Wild Zone” Thesis are that of Zone and Wild. Zone connotes both the physiological-derived space (social structures limiting women due to biological distinctions) and the stereotype-derived space (in this case, the traditional Chicana stereotypes); notably, both of these spaces of appropriate Chicana womanhood are dictated by the beliefs of the dominating Mexican-American culture in the Southwestern United States. On the other hand, Wild suggests a female identity unrestrained by the mandated definitions and assumptions of traditional patriarchal Chicano society.

Women as politically subordinated subjects must, for survival, know and practice the dominant patriarchal discourse and conventions, but equally they must maintain an unmediated, affirmative identity of self and class. They develop an/other culture and discourse – one not required for the survival of, and therefore largely unavailable to, the empowered members of the dominant class. (249)

This is to say that woman, as an alleged subordinate being, must occupy the interstitial space between the dominant culture and their own self-identity as a method of survival. Furthermore, Chicanas’ compound oppression – that of being a woman in an ethno-racial underprivileged group– must be recognized considering that the additional burden of gender is substantial in all patriarchal societies. Nevertheless, one must not privilege gender over race because Chicanos themselves belong to an economically and politically subordinated class in the United States, a country which throughout its history has privileged an Anglo narrative (Candelaria 250). Still, the Chicana experience cannot be examined outside of the gendered differences she faces simply by being born female. Through the process of locating Chicana womanhood within a zone of experience and power inaccessible to those in the dominating group, the authority of Chicana artistic and literary expression, such as that of playwright Josefina López, is directly defined within Chicana experience (Candelaria 251).

Writing the "Wild Zone"

5Essentially, playwright Josefina López embeds, whether consciously or not, “Wild Zone” theory into several of her plays as a strategy to accurately portray Chicana experience and identity, a process that draws attention to Josefina Ludmer’s canonical text on Latin American feminism, “Las tretas del débil” (“The Tricks of the Weak,” 1984), in which she illustrates the ways in which subordinated women develop strategies to give them agency and power. [1]Ludmer, through her analysis of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s La Respuesta theorizes that there are certain strategies that the weak must develop in positions of subordination and marginality. The principal strategy is that of female writing, taking the pen and writing regardless of thematic content, style, or intended audience. Furthermore, Ludmer establishes the empowering tricks associated with silence, knowing when and when not to speak so that women are able to think about what to say as a tool to create a more effective, and empowering, discourse (47-55) In this manner, the act of writing the “Wild Zone” serves as a strategy that the marginalized playwright, López, integrates into her work to empower her Chicana protagonists. Effectively, by incorporating her very own “Wild Zone” into her theatre works, Josefina López is capable of rewriting women’s lived experience in a way that more genuinely reflects their complex nature. This procedure functions as one of revision according to Gilbert and Gubar in their essay “Infection in the Sentence”; because the majority of male Mexican-American writers historically have defined women along the lines of rigid stereotypes, female writers must revise the work that has been done previously in order to appropriately define themselves as women and create an active female subculture, distinct from the male-dominated counterpart. Gilbert and Gubar claim:

Not only do their precursors incarnate patriarchal authority (as our discussion of the metaphor of literary paternity argued), they attempt to enclose her in definitions of her person and her potential which, by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster) drastically conflict with her own sense of her self – that is, of her subjectivity, her autonomy, her creativity. (23)

Gilbert and Gubar reinforce the notion that women are largely and overtly defined by the identified patriarchy, and to a more extreme level in a culture as traditional as that of the Chicano Nation. For this reason, the Chicana writer must pen her own “Wild Zone” as a space to create accurate definitions and imagery associated with the female subculture.