Emory Report

Mar. 29, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 25

García-Serrano chronicles powerful Mexican women

Who are the "foremothers" of Mexican women? What gender roles have women played in Mexican history besides the self-sacrificing mother-housewife? Victoria García-Serrano, senior lecturer in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, answers these questions and more in her course, "Goddesses, Nuns, Warriors: Women in Mexican History."

"Goddesses" explores the religious and social structure of the Aztec empire, life in the numerous convents during the colonial period, the participation of women as soldiers during the Mexican Revolution, and the artistic and literary contributions of Mexican and Mexican American women. "The ultimate goal of the course is to determine the weight of the past on Mexican women today," García-Serrano said.

Beginning with the pre-Columbian period, García-Serrano traces the history of powerful women in Mexico, including the Aztec goddesses Coatlicue, Tlazolteotl, Xochiquetzal and Coyolxauhqui. She has introduced texts and readings that pose questions about the origins of these strong female figures, many of whom are associated simultaneously with life and death. García-Serrano noted that some goddesses are depicted as mothers though they are not maternal in the sense that we understand the term today. "Among them there were warriors too, which is making some scholars speculate they were not only mythical figures but real women who had leadership roles in earlier societies. If Quetzalcoatl was a real warrior who later became deified, why not Coyolxauhqui?"

Students are learning how women fit into the patriarchal and theocratic structure of the Aztec empire, a system where some became priestesses but weren't accorded the social prestige and authority awarded to their male counterparts. The main role of priestesses in religion was that of sacrificial victims.

In contrast, the course shows that entering a convent during the colonial period allowed women to avoid marriage and provided a place for study and writing. The convent was actually a locus of power for women. Contact between nuns and political figures, artists and members of other religious orders was constant and intense. "These relationships lead us to rethink and question the traditional separation between the public and private domain," García-Serrano said.

As the class moves into the years of the Mexican Revolution, they are learning about the soldaderas (from the word "soldado," meaning soldier or camp follower). Like women involved in the American Civil War, the soldaderas followed or joined both "federal" and revolutionary armies. Recent studies compare the soldaderas with women in the current Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico.

Besides following historical developments, "Goddesses" offers opportunities for students to investigate feminist art and criticism. Class participants will view and discuss the film "Entre Pancho Villa y una mujer desnuda" ("Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman") by Mexican playwright Sabina Berman. The film deals with the beast of machismo and the impossibility of domesticating it.

The course examines the life and work of feminist artists like Frida Kahlo, whose paintings describe the female experience within a Mexican cultural context. Kahlo's themes and techniques differ significantly from another feminist artist, Remedios Varo. A surrealist painter born in Spain, Varo came to Mexico as a refugee during the Spanish Civil War. Her exhibits in Mexico City were more successful than those of Diego Rivera and other muralists of her era.

There are also powerful mythical figures in Mexican history who present challenges to contemporary writers and artists. La Malinche (Hernan Cortés' interpreter, guide, adviser and lover), the Virgin of Guadalupe (previously considered a symbol of chastity), and La Llorona (the "Crying Woman" from an Aztec legend about the mystical forces of women who died during childbirth) represent women's strengths and weaknesses.

"There are different approaches to these images: one is to reject them completely; another is to revise and reinterpret them. For example, Yolanda Lopez depicts herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe, but in her painting, the woman is not shown still and submissive but in motion, wearing tennis shoes and holding a serpent in her hand."

García-Serrano's own work focuses on women and madness in contemporary narratives written by Hispanic women authors. Currently she is president of Feministas Unidas, a Modern Language Association organization dedicated to the study of Hispanic women authors. In her four years at Emory, she's taught courses on topics such as mothers and daughters, autobiographies by Latina writers, gender and madness in Hispanic texts, Hispanic women and humor, and erotic narratives by women.

--Cathy Byrd

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