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“She a n d I A re M o le c u le s ”: The D is a b le d Body in Denise C h avez’s Th e La s t o f the Me n u Gir ls E l i z a b e t h J. W r i g h t In her 1986 collection of seven interrelated short stories, The Last of the Menu Girls, Denise Chavez uses her fiction to map the shifting terrains of the borderlands, revisioning these former spaces of displacement as powerful sites of re-invention and re-creation, ones that necessitate a rethinking of the body. To Chavez, bodies are border spaces— they are always shifting, transforming, and adapting in response to external pres­ sure. This, of course, is one of the defining characteristiscs of the bor­ derlands, where the ability to adapt to outside pressures is a condition of survival. In The Last of the Menu Girls, Chavez shifts the borderlands away from the geographical spaces to which the term initially applied, moving indoors in order to focus upon the borderlands that are created within institutionalized spaces such as the hospital and the classroom. Chavez depicts these environments as inherently political spaces in which women’s bodies, both Chicana and Anglo, are repeatedly ignored, rejected, and labeled as “other.” Yet she also creates spaces of agency for these characters. W ithin these borderlands, Chicana women gain power from recognizing and embracing all kinds of bodies— young and old, sick and healthy, able and disabled. A t such moments, the “othered” body becomes beautiful, the catalyst of shared understanding. In The Last of the Menu Girls, Chavez writes frequently about female characters whose bodies have become “other,” because they are elderly, disintegrating, putrid, smelly, rotting, and diseased. Deborah L. Madsen and Douglas Anderson have pointed out the important role the body plays in Chavez’s collection. Madsen argues that for Chavez, “bodily experience is represented as a constraint within which women must live” (150). Anderson arrives at a slightly different conclusion. Like Madsen, he notes that Chavez uses her depiction of the body to illustrate social marginality and oppression. Yet he also suggests that Chavez finds ways to imbue these bodies with power, pointing to specific moments of grace in the story “The Last of the Menu Girls,” when the abject body transcends its limitations (243— 44). Like Madsen and Anderson, I find ------------------------------W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e 41.1 ( S p r in g 2 0 0 6 ) : 5 - 2 2 . W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e S p r in g 2 0 0 6 the body to be of critical significance in Chavez’s stories. I propose to use recent theories of disability to discuss the cultural construction and meanings of these bodies. In her fiction, Chavez demonstrates how the body— and identity— is manufactured by the viewer’s gaze, as characters are literally tied to interpretations beyond their control. Yet Chavez also suggests that there are moments when women are able to influence how their bodies are interpreted. A t such moments, the disabled body becomes the site of dignity, power, and strength. Recent theorists of the body, most notably Susan Wendell in The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability (1996) and Rosemarie Garland Thomson in Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997), have worked to show the essential role the disabled body plays in the construction of an able-bodied identity. Wendell points out, How a society defines disability and whom it recognizes as disabled are of enormous psychological, social, economic, and political importance, both to people who identify themselves as disabled and to those who do not but are nevertheless given the label. How a society defines disability and whom it recognizes as disabled also reveal a great deal about the society’s attitudes and expectations concerning the body, what it stigmatizes and what it considers “normal” in physical appearance and perfor...


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