Art for a Change

Araceli Calderon, Ph.D. Candidate, Spanish

Editor's note: This is a quarterly article feature spotlighting a current graduate student undertaking a project that extends beyond the traditional lines of his or her discipline, utilizing a variety of skills to solve a pressing problem or answer a challenging question.

Within the Mexican national sphere motherhood has a symbolic, practical, and psychosocial potency. Representations of motherhood in popular culture (films, music, literature), religion (Virgen de Guadalupe), civic engagement (Día de las Madres) [Mother’s Day], and public displays such as Monumento a la Madre [Monument to the Mother] have disseminated various discourses of maternity and motherhood in the nation. In my project “Motherhood in Movement: Artistic Depictions the Mexican Revolution”, I analyze how a particular national maternal identity was created in Mexico through the circulation of literature, films, and photography. This project derives from my interest in the discourses of motherhood that arise from a transtextual focus on the combatant woman, la soldadera. By analyzing multiple, and even contradictory, depictions of motherhood that are in tension with the hegemonic rhetoric, I hope to contribute to a deeper understanding of maternity—national, transnational, and generational—during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). First, I would like to shed light on how Afro-Mexican mothers have been elided and/or distorted in Mexican historical narrations. Second, how mothers that emigrated from Mexico to the United States during this period had to perform unconventional mothering practices in order to survive both geographical and political hardships by adapting to new hybrid signifiers of maternity, which in many instances challenged their sense of belonging, citizenship, and sovereignty. Finally, similar to Afro-Mexican mothers and immigrant mothers, women who performed their activities in private spaces and did not ‘actively’ partake in the Mexican Revolution have not been included and/or are misrepresented in historical narrations. The intimate spaces of the home only accessible to select few who write about the politics of the home portray how women in the same genealogical line are conditioned yet liberated of their maternal functions based on the societal norms.

In my project I reevaluate and redefine constructions of motherhood to expand the signifiers related to ideologies of motherhood to include animate or inanimate objects that perform or are indicative of maternal practices. I am particularly interested in researching the intersectionality of changing signifiers of motherhood, the spaces it occupied and its constant fluidity. I call this axis motherhood in movement. That is, maternal practices were constantly changing: after giving birth one mother had to immediately continue her journey in the battlefield, another had to relocate within the nation or internationally, and yet another had to continuously teach her daughters how to be ‘good’ mothers. My analysis reveals how the established cultural norms that affected maternal practices were negotiated within political, social, and economic changes.

Through my research I intend to shed light on the following questions: How did national discourses shape the way female characters are portrayed in filmic and narrative texts? What were the conditions and constraints circumscribing motherhood in the revolutionary period? How did female characters negotiate motherhood and their many other responsibilities? How is the representation of motherhood through a Chicano’s experiences a reflection of hybrid signifiers of maternity? What governmental policies affected mothering functions in the various geographical spaces that families occupied? How do the notions of citizenship and nation condition maternal practices? Why is the representation of mothers who assert their sovereignty problematic to the notion of power? I research the specific conditions that women experienced during the Mexican Revolution; however, I also consider how ideologies of motherhood in Mexico compare to those of other Latin American countries during moments of transformative change.

In the summer of 2017, I began archival research in Mexico City with the support of a UC-Mexus Dissertation Fellowship. I will continue my research in the summer of 2018. I found that although the Mexican Revolution was the first revolution of great importance in the twentieth century in Latin America, there is no major research on the specificity of motherhood during this time of war. My project is interdisciplinary in nature and I hope to be able to be in conversation with scholars of maternal praxis in Mexican Literature, Chicano Literature, Gender Studies, Visual Studies and History. Finally, as a publicly engaged academic, I believe that my research is valuable in a conversation to reconstruct the collective memory to include maternal figures that have been decisive in the nation building struggle yet forgotten in the official collective discourse.

Navigating my project while doing research in Mexico City has inspired me to reevaluate my own work and the boundaries of my future career objectives and expectations. Part of the reevaluation I experienced is that my work is not only academic, but it is also a publicly engaged project. While in Mexico City I witnessed how the activist group Bordando por la paz used embroidering techniques to make visible the violence—femicides, dissapearences, and deaths—inflicted on Mexico’s citizens. When I got back to the States, I started a conversation with Oscar Terán from the DREAMers office at UCI to develop an activity “Art for a Change” that would make visible how the rescind of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was causing distress on the UCI student community. At the grand opening of the DREAMers office, we had an activity where participants drew on a piece of cloth what the change in the policy meant for them. This activity allowed participants to express their feelings in a creative way while shedding light on relevant political issues. This will be an ongoing activity until the end of the year. Each piece of cloth—art portraying pain and hope—will be sewn together to make a quilt depicting sentiments of how this action has affected our community. I envision that this activity, which could become a movement, could contribute to the ongoing dialogue of how political decisions affect people at an organic level. The hopelessness, fear, and preoccupation DACA recipients face cannot be yesterday’s news, it cannot be forgotten.

In my own project, through my archival research, I am realizing how maternal figures have suffered (and are still suffering) misrecognition and/or elision in artistic depictions of the Mexican Revolution. I believe that it is important to start the dialogue of how political decisions affect people—maternal figures, in my research—at an organic level, yet these ramifications are not portrayed. Most importantly, in every political movement there are progressive activists-mothers that subvert constraining ideologies that circumscribe them politically, socially, and culturally. In an admirable and inspiring effort, activist-mothers have challenged and continue to challenge the establishments that threaten their sovereignty.