Nicholasa Mohr (b. 1938)
Contributing Editor: Frances R. Aparicio
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Mohr's writings are quite accessible for the college-age student population. There is no bilingualism, her English is quite simple and direct, and her stories in general do not create difficulties in reading or comprehension.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. The universal theme of "growing up" (bildungsroman), and in her case in particular, growing up female in El Barrio.
2. The theme of the family; views of the Hispanic family and the expectations it holds of its members, in contrast to its American counterpart.
3. Sexual roles in Latino culture; traditional versus free vocations (for men).
4. Mother/daughter relationships; tensions, generational differences.
5. Women's issues such as career versus family, the economic survival of welfare mothers, dependency and independence issues.
6. Outside views of the barrio "ghetto" in relation to the voices of those who have lived in the inner cities.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The autobiographical form is quite predominant in Mohr's writings, as is James Clifford's concept of "ethnobiography," in which the self is seen in conjunction with his/her ethnic community. And Mohr employs traditional story-telling, simple, direct, accessible, chronological use of time, and a logical structure.
Very dynamic discussions emerge when students are asked to evaluate Mohr's transparent, realist style as good literature or not. This discussion should include observations on how many U.S. Latino and Latina writers have opted for a less academic and so-called "sophisticated" style that would allow for wider audiences outside the academic world.
It is important to read many of Mohr's works as literature for young adolescents. This explains and justifies the simplicity and directness of her style.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Fruitful comparisons could be made if we look at other Latina women who also write on "growing up female and Hispanic in the United States": Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1983); Cuentos by Latinas, eds. Alma Gómez, Cherríe Moraga, and Mariana Romo-Carmona (New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983); and Helena Maria Viramontes's The Moths and Other Stories (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985). Viramontes's stories promise fruitful comparisons with Mohr's Rituals of Survival.
In addition, Mohr has been contrasted to Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets, another autobiographical book in which El Barrio is presented in terms of drugs, gangs, and violence. I would propose a comparison to Eduard Rivera's Family Installments as yet another example of ethnobiography.
Finally, interesting contrasts and parallelisms may be drawn from looking at North American women writers such as Ann Beattie and the Canadian Margaret Atwood; while class and race perspectives might differ, female and feminist issues could be explored as common themes.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Study questions: Specific questions on text, characters, plot, endings, issues raised. More major themes could also be explored such as: How do we define epic characters, history, and great literature? Where would Mohr's characters fit within the traditional paradigms?
2. Writing assignment: Students may write their own autobiography; experiment with first- and third-person narratives; contrast female students' writings with male students'.
Paper topics: (a) Discuss the role of women within family and society in Mohr's stories; (b) discuss Mohr as a feminine or feminist writer; (c) analyze the Hispanic cultural background to her stories vis-à-vis the universal themes.
Not much has been written on Nicholasa Mohr's work per se. The following are good introductory articles, and the Rivero article is particularly good for the study of bildungsroman in Latina women's writings:
Acosta-Belén, Edna. "The Literature of the Puerto Rican National Minority in the United States." The Bilingual Review 5:1-2 (Jan.-Aug. 1978): 107-16.
Cruz, Arnaldo. "Teaching Puerto Rican Authors: Modernization and Identity in Nuyorican Literature." ADE Journal (December 1988).
Mohr, Nicholasa. "On Being Authentic." The Americas Review 14:3-4 (Fall-Winter 1986): 106-09.
--."Puerto Rican Writers in the United States, Puerto Rican Writers in Puerto Rico: A Separation Beyond Language." The Americas Review 15:2 (Summer 1987): 87-92.
Rivero, Eliana. " The House on Mango Street: Tales of Growing Up Female and Hispanic." Tucson: Southwest Institute for Research on Women, The University of Arizona, Working Paper 22, 1986.