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  • Poisoning the Mother/LandAn Ecofeminist Dramaturgy in José Rivera’s Marisol and Cherríe Moraga’s Heroes and Saints
  • Arden Elizabeth Thomas (bio)

In Marisol (1993) and Heroes and Saints (1992), the images that José Rivera and Cherríe Moraga contend with are of the poisoned earth and poisoned bodies, of deformed infants and bodiless heads, of a man giving birth and babies buried under concrete, of children crucified and the incarnation of la Virgen de Guadalupe, of Mother Earth as womb and tomb, of children and mothers and the earth screaming, burning, dying, yet refusing erasure and silence. When the title character in Marisol demands to know, “Why is there a war on children in this city? Why are apples extinct? Why are they planning to drop human insecticide on overpopulated areas of the Bronx? Why do cows give salty milk? Where did the moon go? How come nobody’s seen it in nearly nine months?” Rivera leads us through a series of questions that conflate images of ecological apocalypse with recurring images of maternity and childbirth. And when Moraga’s main character, Cerezita—a young woman born with only a head due to the toxic wastes infecting the land—takes on the ancestral images of the Virgin Mary and la Virgen de Guadalupe, she reclaims ancestral mothers and Mother Earth toward a conglomerate and powerful vision of a sustainable politics.

This essay reads the plays Marisol and Heroes and Saints through the lens of ecofeminist philosophy to see how the theatre might intervene on behalf of issues of environmental justice and ecological sustainability. Paying particular attention to the material conditions of women, children, and the land and [End Page 143] interrelated issues of environmental destruction, race, and poverty, I examine how Rivera and Moraga incorporate metaphoric images of motherhood with concrete evidence of environmental toxins and policies experienced in the body. Ultimately, the playwrights articulate the material, physical consequences of political and ecological actions, calling for changed perceptions that empower individuals to work to transform communal, social, and even global ideologies of power that contribute to the destruction of the environment and the lives of women and children.1

With today’s increasing anxiety about climate change and ecological disasters, it is particularly instructive to look at these two plays from the early 1990s that bring together interrelated issues of motherhood, environmental destruction, race, and poverty. As testaments to their contemporaneity, both plays are today often taught in college theatre classes and regularly revived on college campuses and in theatre companies across the country. Nearly two decades after their premieres, Marisol and Heroes and Saints continue to hold powerful resonances for current conversations about the material relationship between bodies and the detritus of environmental waste; about the damaging effects of globalization on the land and the community, and in the lives of mothers and children; and about the symbolic and linguistic analogies between woman and nature that foster systems of domination. By using an ecofeminist dramaturgy—a relatively recent theoretical model that examines dramatic playtexts or stagings through the lens of ecological feminist criticism—this essay offers new readings of these important plays. I argue that Marisol and Heroes and Saints reveal in concrete detail how policies that continue to be promoted by government and corporations against urban families and rural farming communities impoverish the planet and its peoples, with women and children as their primary victims. Additionally, this essay examines how these plays interrogate what Sheila Rabillard and Karen Bamford discuss in their introduction to this special edition of Theatre History Studies as motherhood’s unstable cultural meaning in modern Western society. In particular, if Marisol and Heroes and Saints expose worlds of ecological destruction through metaphoric images of the maternal, this essay questions whether the plays go beyond Mother Earth as metaphor or essentializing myth, drawing on these archetypical precedents to foster an ecofeminist revision of such essentialism, or whether they are instead trapped by these culturally prevalent images.

It may be useful to define ecofeminism at this point. The term ecofeminisme was coined by French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 as a tool to assess interconnections between women’s oppression and ecological...


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pp. 143-160
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