- With Her Machete in Her Hand: Reading Chicana Lesbians
Arriving at the University of California, Riverside, the first member of my extended family to go to college, I read everything my professors recommended. Such experts, however, did not assign any texts that spoke directly to me and my experiences as a young woman of working-class Mexican descent who had begun to question her sexuality. Always the precocious and studious type, I associated with mostly senior activist Chicana/o students who educated me outside the classroom by suggesting reading materials. I could hardly wait to begin reading three books on Chicana/Latina sexuality that a friend had recommended: The Sexuality of Latinas (1989), edited by Norma Alarcón, Cherríe Moraga, and Ana Castillo; The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), A. Castillo's first novel; and the foundational text This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. I devoured such texts because they validated my experiences and empowered me as a Chicana lesbian. As a professor and specialist in queer Chicana/o literature and culture, I continue to search the field for texts to offer to my students and incorporate into my work.
In With Her Machete in Her Hand: Reading Chicana Lesbians, part of the Chicana Matters series, Catrióna Rueda Esquibel has done the arduous and necessary research to bring it all together. This text will be essential in the field of Chicana/o studies in general and Chicana/o feminist and queer literature in particular. Scholars in fields like gender studies and English literature would also benefit from incorporating this book into their literary canons.
This type of study usually offers a chronological list of texts. Esquibel, however, refuses to privilege some works over others. She defines Chicana lesbian fiction as "drama, novels, and short stories by Chicana/o authors that depict lesbian characters or lesbian desire" (1). Accordingly, Esquibel incorporates texts written by nonlesbians, including Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chávez, because they present sexual desire between adolescent girls in their writing. Such a bold decision demonstrates the author's refusal to work within a narrow and limiting definition of this topic. Although she concentrates on literary genres, she also does an outstanding job in her analysis of historical texts, visual art, music, and film within a much larger framework of Mexican, US Latina/o, and Latin American contexts.
"Chicana lesbians are central to understanding Chicana/o communities, theories, and feminisms," Esquibel contends. "Such an approach challenges any implication of heteronormativity as an essential characteristic of Chicana/o culture, as well as the assumption of heterosexuality as the starting point for [End Page 399] Chicana Feminisms" (3). In this sense, the author calls into question the erasure of Chicana lesbians within the larger framework of Chicano nationalism, with its canonical corpus that erases women's literary production in general and lesbian texts in particular. Nor do Chicana nonlesbian feminists escape criticism. Esquibel even calls into question the 1991 anthology, Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, edited by Carla Trujillo, because Trujillo labels it as the "first" in Chicana lesbian literature and thereby diminishes the achievements of other Chicana lesbian authors whose works were published before 1991 yet were not included in the anthology.
Esquibel also transcends certain linguistic boundaries in With Her Machete in Her Hand. Given that texts by and about Chicana lesbians are published in both English and Spanish (and some incorporate linguistic code switching between the two), the author does a remarkable job of highlighting texts regardless of their original language of publication. In addition, she makes this literature accessible to any reader by offering a detailed and intelligent analysis and by incorporating her own translations. One text that Esquibel analyzes that is published in Spanish (in the South Texas regional variant) is Gloria E. Anzaldúa's short story "La historia de una marimacho/The Marimacha's [or Butch Lesbian's] Tale," first published...