The Impact of Third Woman on Chicana Feminist Literature, 1981-1986
By Catherine Ramírez
In the introduction to her 1983 manifesto, Loving in the War Years, Cherríe Moraga maps her life via her writing. “Este libro covers a span of seven years of writing, she begins. Then, Moraga enumerates the places to which her writing has carried her: Berkeley, San Francisco, Boston, Mexico and, finally, Brooklyn, New York, where, she informs her reader, she writes “the final introduction” (i).
Loving in the War Years is a product of both a geographic and ideological periphery. An unflinching examination of sexism and homophobia within Chicano culture, it is especially critical of the subordination of Chicanas within the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, within the family in general, and within Moraga’s family in particular. Moraga, a half-Mexican, half-Anglo, lesbian feminist, recalls writing the book’s first poems in 1976. At the time, she was living in Los Angeles, the city of her birth and upbringing, and she was, as she puts it, “still …living out my lesbianism as a lie on my job and a secret to my family (i). Seven years and thousands of miles later, Moraga declares “‘out to the world’ it feels to me to be in print” (ii). Not surprisingly, she completed Loving in the War Years far from Los Angeles–which Alfred Arteaga (1997) has described as “the city with the most Mexicans (and/or Chicanos) after Mexico City” (95), and away from her biological family.
Like Loving in the War Years, the Latina journal, Third Woman, was a product of the periphery. Founded in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1981, Third Woman exceeded and challenged both the physical and ideological boundaries of Aztlán. In this paper, I focus on the first three volumes of Third Woman, which were published under the auspices of Chicano-Riqueño Studies, Women’s Studies and Latin American Studies at Indiana University from 1981 to 1986. I argue that, from both its geographic and feminist locations, the journal exposed the limitations of cultural nationalism and forged links between Chicanas, Latinas and other Third World women. In doing so, Third Woman situated Chicana feminism within a burgeoning, feminist, woman of color literary movement.
On September 13, 1980, Norma Alarcón, a Chicana graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University, traveled to Chicago for a women writers’ conference. At the conference, Alarcón attended the Midwest Latina Writers’ Workshop, where, she would recall roughly one year later, “the idea for [Third Woman] was first, if hesitantly, formulated” (5).
Chicago-based photographer, Diana Solis, organized the Midwest Latina Writers Workshop in order to create a formal network of Latina writers in the Midwest. Approximately ten women, including Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, attended the workshop. At the time, none had published much. Cisneros, for example, had published a chapbook, entitled “Bad Boys,” while Castillo had published a handful of poems.
In an interview I conducted with Alarcón, she informed me that the Midwest Latina Writers’ Workshop inspired her to launch Third Woman. “We were bemoaning the fact that there were no journals centered on…and run by Latinas,” she recollected. In her introduction to the premiere issue of Third Woman, Alarcón proclaimed–and, here, I quote from the text–“We all agreed that we needed a journal that promised continuity, and offered encouragement to the creative work of Latinas and other Third World Women, and we also wanted to overcome the dependency on the ‘special-issue syndrome’ that has beset the work of minority women for years (5).
From its inception, Third Woman emphasized the importance of both independence and coalition-building among Chicanas, Latinas and other women of color (i.e., “Third World Women”). Prior to founding Third Woman, Alarcón had served on the editorial board of Revista Chicano-Riqueña, a Chicano and Puerto Rican journal which was published at Indiana University Northwest from 1973 to 1979. While Alarcón stressed that Revista Chicano-Riqueña provided Chicanas and Puertorriqueñas with the opportunity to publish their work, she insisted that she “never felt thoroughly included, even in [its] special issue on la mujer [Volume Six, Number Two] which came out…in 1978.” She explained (and, here, I quote from my interview with her), “It’s not that [Revista Chicano-Riqueña] didn’t publish women. [It] did, but I felt that [its] selection of work [was] subordinated to the male vision….I very strongly felt that if women didn’t…publish…themselves, we would not learn what we needed to learn in order to organize a kind of literary movement or a…reconfiguration through writing of our reality…and that we’d always be subordinated [to] and dependent on the guys, no matter how generous they were.”
Thus, Alarcón founded Third Woman as a space for Latina self-invention, self-definition and self-representation. Indeed, her introduction to Volume One, Number One, entitled, “Hay Que Inventarnos/We Must Invent Ourselves,” underscores the journal’s commitment to self-reliance and self-determination. In addition to preaching independence, Alarcón practiced it. She secured financial support from various units on the Indiana University campus, such as Chicano-Riqueño Studies, Latin American Studies and Women’s Studies, in order to initiate and maintain Third Woman. However, as a means of safeguarding the journal’s independence, Alarcón was careful never to make a single unit its institutional home. What’s more, she taught herself how to typeset. (Literally seizing the mode of production, Alarcón did the typesetting for almost all of the first issue.) With assistance from Diana Solis and Sandra Cisneros–as well as other members of the editorial board, including Marjorie Agosin, Sandra Esteves, Cristina Gonzalez, Luz Mestas, Bernie C . Monda, Patricia Montenegro, Marcia Stephenson and Luz Umpierre–she solicited art, poetry, short stories and book reviews from Latina artists and writers throughout the Midwest. One year after the Midwest Latina Writers’ Workshop, Third Woman, Volume One, Number One, entitled “Of Latinas in the Midwest,” premiered.
“Of Latinas in the Midwest” brings together writing and visual art by Latinas from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Members of the editorial board and contributors are not only of Mexican descent (i.e., Chicana), but of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Chilean, Guatemalan, Peruvian and Bolivian origin. While the focus of Volume One, Number One is on a particular region, some of the contributors’ perspectives are international. For example, Lucia Fox’s poems are about her native Peru, and the poem, “The Crazy Women from Plaza Mayo,” by Chicago-based writer Salima Rivera, concerns itself with the mothers of the so-called disappeared in Argentina. What’s more, some of the poems, short stories and book reviews are written in English, while others are in Spanish.
Similarly, in “Hay Que Inventarnos/We Must Invent Ourselves,” Alarcón points to El Eterno Femenino (1975), by the Mexican feminist, Rosario Castellanos, as a source of inspiration for Third Woman. Heeding Castellanos’ suggestion that Mexican women invent themselves, rather than defend tradition or mimic Anglo-American feminists, as a means of overcoming race, class and gender oppression, Alarcón proclaims, “[O]ur woman’s history provides us with consciousness of our past, of the central agents we have been, as well as of the central roles we have played in the construction of our world, but without woman’s envisioning and invention of the self and the future, the former is not enough” (4).
Drawing from the past and looking to the future, Alarcón aligns Third Woman with Latin American feminism. In addition to paying tribute to Castellanos, she invokes other Latin American women writers, including the Chilean poets, Gabriela Mistral and Violeta Parra, and the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. Not surprisingly, Third Woman, Volume Two, Number Two (1984), which is entitled “Hispanic Women: International Perspectives,” focuses on Latin American women in a global context.
With the exception of “Hispanic Women: International Perspectives,” all issues of Third Woman published at Indiana University focus on a particular region of the United States. Volume One, Number Two (1982) focuses on the East Coast; Volume Two, Number One (1984) focuses on the Southwest and Midwest; and Volume Three, Numbers One and Two (1986), entitled “Texas and More,” focuses primarily on Texas (however, it also includes works by Latinas from all over the United States, such as Julia Alvarez, Rosario Ferre, Cherríe Moraga, Achy Obejas, Alvina Quintana and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano).
Marjorie Agosin and Patricia Montenegro’s 1980 collection of Latina poetry, From the Midwest to the West, prompted Alarcón to highlight the Midwest in the first issue of Third Woman. She recalled that the collection inspired her “to make the Midwest come into being [as] a Latina feminist location.” Far from Mexico, California and the Southwest–the region some Chicanos had designated Aztlán (i.e., the Chicano homeland)–Alarcón felt removed from some sort of “essentialized notion of home…[and] belonging.” She and her Chicana colleagues at Third Woman fell outside cultural nationalist narratives of a Chicano homeland. “We were isolated because Aztlán saw itself as the ombligo del mundo,” she explained.
In focusing on the Midwest, Volume One, Number One interrogated Aztlán as the Chicano homeland. It illustrated that not all Chicanos were from or resided in Aztlán. Furthermore, “Of Latinas in the Midwest” attested to alternative patterns of Mexican and Latino migration to and settlement in the United States. Many of the Chicanas who worked on and/or contributed to the first issue of Third Woman were not born or raised in Mexico, California or the Southwest. Rather, many were born and/or raised in the so-called American Heartland: the Midwest.
Indeed, Alarcón’s own history of migration does not adhere to what many perceived–and still perceive–as the “traditional” narrative of Mexican migration. A self-described “product of nomadism,” Alarcón was born in Coahuila, Mexico. As a child, she came to the United States with her parents. Yet, rather than settling in San Antonio, Albuquerque, Los Angeles or Oakland (or anywhere in between), the family moved to Gary, Indiana, in 1955. In Gary, Alarcón’s father worked in the steel mills. The following year, the family relocated to Chicago, where both Alarcón’s father and mother found employment. Ten years later, Alarcón moved to Bloomington.
Third Woman decentered Aztlán not only by focusing on the Midwest in Volume One, Number One, but by focusing on Latina literature and art from across the United States and Latin America in the following issues. Rather than aligning Third Woman with the discourse of Chicano cultural nationalism, which defined Chicano cultural identity exclusively in terms of race and class, Alarcón located it within an emergent, woman of color feminism based on coalitional politics. “I was not interested in cultural nationalism,” she explained. “I did not think [it] helped consolidate, identify or mark the differences of women.” Instead, Alarcón was “more interested in finding out the important links between Chicanas[,] Puertorriqueñas and…other Latin American women.”
In addition to inspiring Alarcón to make the Midwest the focus of Volume One, Number One, Agosin and Montenegro’s From the Midwest to the West compelled her to forge ties between Latinas across the United States, and between U.S. Latinas and Latin American women. In her review of From the Midwest to the West (which she published in Volume One, Number One under the pseudonym Marisa Cantú), Alarcón praises Agosin and Montenegro for “bring[ing] together the voices of six Latina poets…who desire to create geographical bridges, to share work and sensibilities across the continent, and to reveal a community of women reclaiming and creating their own culture beyond their back door” (43). With its regional and international foci, Third Woman did not present Latina literature and art as isolated or disjointed. On the contrary, it united Latina writers and artists from different parts of the United States and the Americas. In Alarcón’s own words, the editors of Third Woman “worked isolation against itself” because they had to do so. According to Alarcón, the number of Latinas publishing their work in the United States–in particular, in the Midwest–during the early 1980s was so small, she and her colleagues at Third Woman decided to turn their attention to various regions of the country and to Latin America as a means of “form[ing] a network, an articulation of women.” With strength in numbers, they helped to launch a feminist, woman of color literary and artistic movement.
Third Woman exemplified what feminist theorists Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1993 ) and Chela Sandoval (1991) would term “intersectionality” and “differential consciousness” respectively. Intersectionality describes “the dual positioning of women of color as women and as members of a subordinated racial group” (Crenshaw 112). Differential consciousness posits, in Sandoval’s own words, “a tactical subjectivity with the capacity to recenter depending upon the kinds of oppression to be confronted” (14, italics original). Third Woman simultaneously identified difference along the axes of race, class, gender and sexuality, and, thus, enabled itself to build coalitions among and between not only U.S. Latinas and Latin American women, but other women; most notably, women of color and lesbians. In the introduction to Volume One, Number One, “a tactical subjectivity with the capacity to recenter depending upon the kinds of oppression to be confronted” aligns the journal’s contributors with not only Latin American women writers, but with “the Afro-Americans June Jordan and Gwendolyn Brooks and the Anglo-American Adrienne Rich” (4). Furthermore, in Volume One, Number Two, and Volume II, Number 1, a list of books, journals and magazines by and/or about “U.S. Latinas, Hispanic Women and Other Third World Women” appears at the end of the journal, as well advertisements from other feminist publications, including Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, Manushi, a journal published in Hindi and English by a feminist collective in New Delhi, and Conditions: A Feminist Magazine, whose multiracial editorial staff consisted of Dorothy Allison, Cheryl Clarke, Jewelle L. Gomez and Mirtha N. Quintanales.
In my interview with Alarcón, she recalled that writings by women of color exploded in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As I noted earlier, Revista Chicano-Riqueña published a special issue on Latinas in 1978. Five years later, Evangelina Vigil would edit another special issue on Latinas, entitled “Woman of Her Word: Hispanic Women Write” (Volumen Two, Numbers Three and Four [Winter 1983]). In 1979, Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith co-edited Conditions Five: The Black Women’s Issue, and, in 1982, Heresies devoted a special issue to women and racism. In 1981, the same year that Third Woman premiered, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga published their pathbreaking anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. The early 1980s also saw the publication of other anthologies, such as All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982), edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith, and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), edited by Barbara Smith. Other significant works by women of color published during the late 1970s and early 1980s include: The Black Unicorn (1978), by Audre Lorde, Emplumada (1981), by Lorna Dee Cervantes, Ain’t I a Woman (1981), by bell hooks, Loving in the War Years (1983), by Cherríe Moraga, She Had Some Horses (1983) , by Joy Harjo, Chants, by Pat Mora, and Black Feminist Criticism (1985), by Barbara Christian. Meanwhile, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press of New York contributed to the surge in women of color writings.
Alarcón and her colleagues at Third Woman fueled the burgeoning, feminist, woman of color, literary movement throughout the early and mid 1980s by inventing themselves. In fact, Alarcón literally invented Marisa Cantú, one of the contributors to Volume One, Number One. In my interview with her, she informed me that she used the pseudonym, “Marisa Cantú,” to write a book review in order to make Third Woman‘s staff appear larger than it actually was. In the book review, Cantú praises the work of a young, promising, Chicago-based poet by the name of Sandra Cisneros. Anticipating the young writer’s success, she observes, “Cisneros is a talent to watch” (45). Alarcón explained that she wrote the review with the intention of “point[ing] towards a flowering” of Latina–in particular, Midwestern Latina–literature.
Linking art and politics, Third Woman helped to create and sustain both a Latina and a woman of color literary movement in the United States. According to Alarcón, this movement sought–and still seeks–“to give voice…to the literary and artistic production of [Third World] women” as a means of “counter[ing ]…historical erasure and find[ing] political openings for self-expression.”
In 1986, Alarcón moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she, Ana Castillo and Cherríe Moraga co-edited the fourth and final volume of Third Woman, entitled “The Sexuality of Latinas” (1989). With “The Sexuality of Latinas,” Alarcón transformed Third Woman into a press. She explained that she decided to do so for “strictly economic” reasons. “Journals have a very short shelf life,” she added. “People see them as outdated, whether they are or not.” Since 1989, Third Woman has published numerous Latina (and some Latino writers), including Lucha Corpi, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Emma Pérez, Carla Trujillo and Helena María Viramontes. In 1994 and 1995, it published its first texts by a non-Latina: Dictée, by Korean-American Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Writing Self/Writing Nation: Essays on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, which Alarcón co-edited with Elaine Kim. Third Woman is no longer in the Midwest, but it continues to map identity and culture based on who we are, were and might become.
Alarcón, Norma. “Hay Que Inventarnos/We Must Invent Ourselves.” Third Woman 1:1 (1981): 4-6.
Arteaga, Alfred. Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Cantú, Marisa (a.k.a., Norma Alarcón). “Review of From the Midwest to the West, edited by Marjorie Agosin and Patricia Montenegro.” Third Woman 1:1 (1981): 43-47.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew.” Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. Mari J. Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado , and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1993. 111-132.
Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca paso por sus labios. Boston: South End Press, 1983.
Sandoval, Chela. “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World.” Genders 10 (Spring 1991): 1-24.
Third Woman 1:2 (1982).
Third Woman 2:1 (1984).