Mexicana and Chicana authors from the late 1970s to the turn of the century helped overturn the patriarchal literary culture and mores of their time. Teaching Late-Twentieth-Century Mexicana and Chicana Writers, edited by Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, acquaints readers with the provocative, at times defiant, yet subtle discourses of this important generation of writers and explains the influences and historical contexts that shaped their work. Here, Martínez discusses the development of the book and how it can help instructors teach these writers today.

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MLA: Which writers does the volume cover and why?

ECM: This extensive volume digs into the question of why Mexicana and Chicana writers­­—that is, women writers born and publishing in Mexico and women writers of Mexican heritage, born and publishing in the United States—appeared to burst into publishing in the 1980s and who they were. We know about Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate, and Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, but there were many more Mexicana and Chicana writers publishing their works between the 1970s and 1990s. Early on it was assumed that their stories were similar, because the authors share a Mexican heritage background. And yet the social experience in late-twentieth-century society in the United States was entirely different from that in Mexico, where novelists built on the influences of earlier women writers. Chicana writers emerged out of activism and the Chicano protest movement, carving their own path by the 1980s. Women had been publishing throughout the twentieth century, and feminism in each nation took different forms. The volume explores the idea of a boom in terms of its long roots, the many women writers, and the variety of narratives published.

The first ten chapters describe important texts by the Mexican writers Rosario Castellanos, Elena Poniatowska, and Silvia Molina and the lesser-known prolific writers Rosa Nissán, for the Jewish-Mexican experience; María Luisa Puga, for reflections on living with disability; and Carmen Boullosa, for her surreal narratives. The next ten chapters discuss the Chicanas Denise Chávez, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Norma Elia Cantú, and Gloria Anzaldúa, then focus on symbology in the detective novels of Lucha Corpi, social activism in the works of Demetria Martínez, and resistance and imagery in writings by Helena María Viramontes and Alma Villanueva. Contributors describe the process of writing workshops in Mexico, the development of feminist theories in the United States, interconnections through publishers and translations, and the significant presence of precursors: Sor Juana and Nellie Campobello for Mexico and Jovita González and Josefina Niggli for the pre-Chicano era in the United States. The two next sections take up comparative, digital, and visual strategies, with texts by the Mexicanas Brianda Domecq and Nellie Campobello, as well as several of those already mentioned, to provide innovative ideas. The book’s final chapter discusses approaches to teaching the dramatic works of Cherríe Moraga, Josefina Niggli, Irma Mayorga, Violeta Luna, Josefina López, and Yareli Arizmendi.

MLA: Why is it important to teach this subject today?

ECM: During the 1990s university courses began to highlight topics on women writers, yet best-selling Mexicana and Chicana narratives were often assigned together, confusing cultural commonalities with lived experiences and ignoring the fact that the sociopolitical arena was completely different in each nation, affecting how feminist forays occurred. In the United States, the Chicano protest movement created an opening for ethnic studies programs at universities and, slowly, for women to publish their works. By the late 1990s, feminist theories and ensuing studies on sexualities greatly influenced publications and universities. In Mexico, greater publishing opportunities for women came only after the mid-century protest movement and authoritarian crackdowns. One quietly relentless young journalist, Elena Poniatowska, opened minds to the protestors and activists of the 1950s and 1960s in her fiction and nonfiction work, and in the 1980s she became a coach for other writers. In the 1970s several women began publishing short accounts, participating in writing workshops, and receiving fellowships. This volume addresses these important facets and distinctions and the impact of women writers, while providing a variety of ideas for themes and courses.

MLA: How is the book organized and why?

ECM: The introduction encompasses an extensive historical and critical overview for each nation, including precursors, influences, translations, and major conferences. The chapters comprise short studies on significant texts that offer various pedagogical approaches—comparative, thematic, and digital—to teaching each nation’s women writers. The volume addresses cultural facets, as well as feminist and literary strategies, in depth. The final section on dramatic works demonstrates essential cultural and Native origins and the presence of transnational imaginaries in women’s writing of the late twentieth century.

The chapters provide ideas for courses on women writers but, more importantly, how to study specific texts and authors and incorporate them into a variety of courses and approaches, for example: Mexican history, Mexican protest movements, Mexican post-Revolution, contemporary writers, multicultural studies, Chicana feminisms, gender studies, family and personal experience in sociocultural narratives, narratology, archival practice, genre studies, and disability studies. Contributors also suggest ways for teaching sexualities in undergraduate courses, Sephardic accounts, detective novels, life-writing strategies, and the concept of borderlands.

MLA: How will this volume help instructors?

ECM: Instructors will find multiple ideas for course topics and paths to follow in preparation for teaching Mexicana and Chicana writers, including exercises to guide student research and strategies to help students seek deeper meaning in these narratives. Some instructors may discover new novelists, others new ideas for combining and contrasting writers from each nation or for preparing specialized courses. The introduction provides a thorough critical and historical background for teaching fascinating women writers, discussed in terms of their literary periods.

The approach by this volume encourages the teaching of texts by women writers, not because of their gender, but because of the constraints and possibilities of the era; the influences of their societies, peers, and precursors; and opportunities for access and recognition that came through writing workshops, fellowships, and conferences. This volume will help instructors prepare for courses in English, Spanish, and history departments, courses in multicultural and ethnic studies, and general education courses in writing. It also offers approaches for teaching graduate and undergraduate students and suggestions for digital learning applications. Chapters provide ideas for teaching Jewish-Mexican literature, gender and sexualities, deconstruction of masculinities, society and social activism, feminist theory, genre studies, and foci on specific literary periods.

MLA: How will this volume help students?

ECM: Graduate students and early career faculty members in literature will find a variety of tools and ideas for creating their courses, choosing texts, and differentiating between the two national experiences. Undergraduate students will benefit from the suggested tools for instructors to aid reader reception, enhance classroom projects, and prepare students to do research and to discuss particular texts for deeper understanding. Undergraduate students can also benefit from reading an assigned chapter.

Photo of Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez

Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez

Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez is professor of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul University, where she served as director of the Center for Latino Research and editor of Diálogo: An Interdisciplinary Studies Journal, published with U of Texas P, between 2010 and 2019. In 2015 the journal received the Council of Editors of Learned Journals’ Phoenix Award for outstanding revitalization and transformation of a journal over a three-year period. She has published articles on contemporary Latin American and Latino literature and culture; her books include a critical study of the 1920s Latin American vanguard novel, a critical biography on the playwright and novelist Josefina Niggli, and a translated collection of Elena Poniatowska’s stories. Martínez previously held a professorship at Sonoma State University in California, where in 2006 she received the President’s Teaching Excellence Award.