Recently, I was asked how I decided what to write and how I approach the subject. I had never given this much thought but it appears I write about what is happening where I am. During the height of the Chicano Movement, I wrote and presented my poetry at rallies, meetings, and evening sessions with other poets. In the 1980s I worked on a Ph.D. and wrote three thirty-page term papers every three months to fulfill the requirements for my doctorate. Before I retired as a tenured Full Professor from California State University in Los Angles, I published seven textbooks, more poetry, academic and popular articles, and one play. Two of my seven textbooks, Toward a Chicano Social Science (Praeger, 1981), and La Chicana and the Intersection of Race, Class and Gender (Greenwood, 1983), are still considered Classics in the field of race and gender relations in the field of Sociology. After I retired, I wrote novels and now I’m back to poetry. As I look back on my publication history, I realize that most of it was about the Chicano communities and its impact upon individuals.
In the early 1900’s, I returned from Colorado to my homeland and became a New Mexico Humanities Scholar and published family fiction and memoir. The program noted that I incorporated cultural and academic knowledge of the people and history to render solid accounts of migration and immigration patterns to offer insight into gender roles. I continued to write about gender roles within community and this is evident in the first family fictional account based in the life of my aunt Susana. She appears in my Suzanna trilogy, where thirteen year old Suzanna is raised by her grandparents. In this arrangement she is a criada, never officially adopted but given family rights by her grandparents who also had the right to marry her off to a thirty-two-year-old man in the 1920's. Young female marriages were a cultural tradition but the circumstances of how they came about was rarely mentioned in print and much less published. The feedback was amazing. Often, I heard that what happened to Suzanna happened to my reader’s great-aunts, grandmothers or great-grandmothers not only in the United States but in Central and South America. In my story Suzanna quickly births two sons, runs away from her abusive husband, and leaves her sons behind, an amazing feat for an early 20th century Chicana.
Suzanna, Floricanto Press, San Francisco, 2014
The second book, Poor People's Flowers, continues Suzanna's story and documents her forced migration to Pueblo, Colorado, a working-class area where hundreds of 1940’s and 50’s Nuevo Mexicano nortenos migrated to live in barrios. The goal of this novel was to note that women who migrate alone or with children are frequently fleeing from domestic violence. In addition the extent of Raza labor history during that time is generally focused on men who worked in the region’s agricultural fields and not in the large steel mills and other production settings. Although families worked in the fields during this period, women in urban settings were primarily dependent on male-earned wages with little outlet for them to earn their own money. Those that did earn money with “side jobs” worked to supplement family income. Single women were left to their own accord and in Poor People’s Flowers Suzanna goes to Colorado and finds work in a bar, a highly controversial place of employment for women and tainted with sexual innuendo. In telling Suzanna’s story I also wanted to introduce vergüenza, and how it can manifest in in families and in the community as a destructive role in the lives of single women.
Poor People’s Flowers, ABQ Press, 2014
In the third novel, Beneath the Super Moon, Suzanna is well urbanized, but her barrio is highly marginalized from the mainstream. The book notes that by the mid 1960's, at the thrust of the Chicano Movement, Suzanna was well informed about the needs of her community. As a single woman she had gained critical consciousness, and began to address urban concerns about race, class, and gender inequality. Like many of her nameless Southwest contemporaries, Suzanna did her part where she lived, somewhat disenfranchised from Anglo dominated society, and the family that she knew was ashamed of her, but she makes her first friend outside of the extended family she left in New Mexico.
Throughout the three novels Suzanna seeks to reunite with the sons she left behind when she ran from her abusive husband. This novel documents how mature women created a life and how older women functioned in urban barrios. By this time Suzanna is sixty-two years old.
Beneath the Super Moon, ABQ Press, 2016
My fourth novel, Daughters of the West Mesa, is not part of the Suzanna story, but it got in the way of completing Beneath the Super Moon because in Albuquerque the remains of 11 females and an unborn fetus were discovered buried in the desert west of the city. It shocked the Albuquerque community, especially raza. It is still New Mexico’s unsolved largest crime scene on 100 acres. Nine of the women where Chicanas, one was Native American, and one was African American. It did not take me long to conclude this was the masochistwork of a racist serial killer. In the novel, the main fictional character, Dora, is divorced and is a single mother of two young adult daughters. Dora has attained an education and worked her way out of poverty to purchase a new house. One of Dora’s daughters, Luna, has been missing for several months. Dora’s backyard wall separates her from the crime scene. The plot of the story rests on whether or not Luna is buried in the field. This novel draws attention to drug addiction and sexual trafficking in contemporary communities, how city officials and the media conceptualize the community and the women in it. The dead women were stereotyped and maligned.
After writing Daughters of the West Mesa, I was challenged to complete Beneath the Super Moon because Daughters of the West Mesa had such a dark narrative. I wanted Beneath the Super Moon to redeem Suzanna and recognize her as an invested member of her community. After writing about the evil of the hatred of women by a serial killer, the desire of some men to hurt them, diminish them, control them, use them, and discard them, Beneath the Super Moon was light weight. In the end, the book involves Suzanna in a murder and still draws attention to the many women who highly contribute to their communities without any media coverage.
Daughters of the West Mesa, ABQ Press, 2016
At age seventy-four I decided I had lived long enough to write my personal story, Erené with Wolf Medicine. I was born on the top and the north side of a mountain in Colfax County, New Mexico. When I was born it was the second poorest county in the country, next to Appalachia in Arkansas. It is still very poor, but it is beautiful. I was also born into a Tewa and Chicano extended family and refer to myself as Genizaro, originating in a detribalized and Hispanicized Native American family. Because we lost our mountain land, the large extended family moved to the village of Miami in the 1950’s. We nearly starved during the longest drought in the region’s history. As a nuclear family my father moved us to Colorado. The book is about lost identity and self-destructive tendencies during the Americanization process. A large part of it is profoundly painful to write. As in my textbooks, I write about colonization and internal colonization, but focus on the excruciating decolonization process.
In summary, I still write about subjects I taught in Chicano and Chicana Studies. My work, both fiction and nonfiction, are interdisciplinary. They incorporate what I know about history, sociology, political science, art to be not only entertaining but educational and healing. Our communities, full of pain and over-comings, are part of the history of the United States for we made extensive contributions to the country. My work is a testimonial about the unsung people who did what they had to do to live and produce there.
Irene I. Blea, Ph.D.
Irene Isabel Blea is a New Mexico native with a Ph. D. in Sociology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. A veterana of the early Chicano Movement, she is known specifically for addressing the intersection of race, class, and gender in both her nonfiction and fiction writing. Blea is a New Mexico Humanities Council Scholar who retired as a Tenured, Full Professor and Chairperson of Mexican American Studies at California State University-Los Angeles in 1998. Her academic career has many notable accomplishments, but she began her movement activities as a poet. Blea was the first female Chairperson of the National Association of Chicano Studies in the 1980s, a Regional Representative to that organization from the states of Colorado and New Mexico and is referred to as “the Xicana novelist of these times.” Her advice to beginning writers is to write what you know and research the rest. She writes daily, maintains a strong online presence and is a featured speaker at conferences, universities, and annual meetings.