In A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness (Duke University Press, 2011), Cherríe Moraga writes that the issue of legalizing gay marriage has the potential to detract from a more pressing issue: why is marriage normalized in our society, while other kinds of unions are denied legitimacy? Along with Moraga, I maintain that marriage is the right of heterosexual and homosexual unions alike, but I also join her in wondering if it should be idealized as the ultimate expression of love’s maturity.
Divorce is a process in which a legal authority dissolves the bonds of matrimony. According to Paul R. Amato’s research brief “Interpreting Divorce Rates, Marriage Rates, and Data on the Percentage of Children with Single Parents,” the commonly cited statistic that about 50% of American marriages eventually end in divorce is accurate. In a Latino cultural environment, the celebration of marriage is the major rite of passage that defines our entry into adulthood and, as women, one of the most crucial measures of our adequacy. According to Catholic belief, marriage is a sacrament. Once it is consummated, it cannot be dissolved, and if a divorced person remarries, they are living in perpetual adultery – a state of mortal sin. As a writer, I can appreciate the poetry in this. It is true that although it has ended, a relationship never remains safely in the past, and it continues to be a part of who we are forever.
However, as a feminist, I need to question this doctrinal attitude. First, it is clear that sexual control of women (“once it is consummated…”) is the objective here, and this control is used to prevent women from making their own choices about who they partner with. Secondly, divorce is just as valid an expression of love’s maturity as marriage, and it takes a great amount of faith and spiritual resilience (whatever your system of beliefs happens to be) in order to leave a marriage and travel into the unknown.
I really couldn’t point to a body of films or television shows that portray divorce as the successful outcome of a love relationship. In the media, Latinas are only happy when they are wives and mothers, or perhaps celebrating their quinceañera in a stretch Hummer. To go outside of what our culture promotes as normal is a frightening thing. People want to know what went wrong, and there is something deeply humiliating about breaking the news to friends, family, co-workers, and in-laws. If children are involved, you are shifting their universe irrevocably. You are in a world of judgment.
Recently, I overheard a conversation that made me think about how we look at divorce. The conversation was between two long-time students of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. A current capoeira player talked with a woman who had trained for many years, but had stopped playing. The woman who left capoeira said she felt that the martial art could have been better to women. The more aggressive player invariably “won,” while a player exhibiting just as much mastery in their evasive moves was perceived as the lesser player in the bout. I think of our society on whole, and our cultural traditions in particular, like the capoeira player who promotes offensive tactics as intrinsically more valuable than the defensive moves to avert the deathblow. A divorce takes great love and skill. It is described as a loss, but it takes enormous courage and emotional mastery to move away from the attacker into a position of greater safety.
As women, we are trained from childhood to cooperate with sexually controlled, officially legitimized unions. A recent news article about two girls in Iran who assaulted a cleric in a small town says volumes about the pervasiveness of this control. The older, male authority figure told one of the girls to cover herself more completely. “She responded by telling me to cover my eyes, which was very insulting to me,” explained the cleric. On many parts of this planet, “normal” still means to be controlled by a husband, father, or priest.
Divorce is about believing that love can be better. So plan your anti-bridal shower with your best girlfriends, make that appointment to get that new tattoo – or get that tired “forever yours Enrique” on your neck covered over. And if a cleric tells you he doesn’t like what he sees, you may cordially invite him to cover his eyes.
(Feel free to share your own thoughts or experiences in the comment section)