The poem “My Mother Pieced Quilts” was published in 1976 at the beginning of a renaissance of Mexican-American (also referred to as Chicana [for female authors]) literary creativity. This renaissance did not reflect the female authors’ sudden burst of creativity, for there always were women writing, but rather it reflects the sudden willingness on the part of the publishing industry to put Chicana literary expressions into print. The public appetite for multicultural material as well as the demand for writing by women provided the stimulus, and Teresa Palomo Acosta was one of the women who was ready and willing to provide the material.
This time period (as well as the previous decade) was also a time of reflection. At times it seemed that every established construct that had preceded these two decades was then in question. Young men, in general, were questioning why they should go to war. Young Mexican-American men, in particular, were questioning why such disproportionate numbers of their peers were being sent to Vietnam. Women, in general, were questioning why they should accept the same societal restrictions on their lives that their mothers had tolerated. Mexican-American women were questioning their mothers’ complete subjugation to enculturation into the white European-American society that demanded they sacrifice their language and ancestral traditions. These were times of turmoil and public outcry, but they were also times of self-reflection. Out in the streets, voices shouted. But inside the houses, people were quietly reflecting on a more personal search for new answers to such questions as: Who am I? Where did I come from? and Where am I going? It was out of these questions, these personal redefinitions of a newly emerging self that much of the Chicana poetry arose.
It was during these times, in the midst of these questions and self-reflection that Acosta wrote “My Mother Pieced Quilts.” She wrote without having role models with whom she could identify in the literary field. Men created almost all of the MexicanAmerican literary works at that time. Very few women had been published before Acosta’s poem saw print. But this “does not belie the fact that Chicanas were writing during this early period,” say Tey Diana Rebolledo and Eliana S. Rivero in their introduction to their anthology of Chicana literature Infinite Divisions. “They were writing, but, having been silenced for long periods of time, the authors found breaking that silence into a public act difficult.” In other words, Mexican-American women had become accustomed to their silence. Breaking it was almost like breaking a law, transgressing a taboo.
But once that silence had been broken, first in the second half of the 1970s and then even more proficiently in the 1980s, Chicana literature began to flourish. And “as the numbers of published texts increased,” state Rebolledo and Rivero, “critics began to analyze their contents.”
That analysis demonstrated that the major themes of these Chicana writers were: “Who am I? How did I become the person that I am? What are my historical and cultural antecedents, my racial characteristics, and how do these factors define my place in society?” One other significant theme that ran through much of the Chicana literature during that time was the concern of these female poets and authors in defining the influence that their mothers had on them. Acosta’s poetry was one of the forerunners of many of these themes. In her poem “My Mother Pieced Quilts,” she looks back with fresh vision at her mother. But in the act of looking back as well as in the act of writing the poem, Acosta also reflects on her definitions of self.
The first thing that is interesting to note in Acosta’s poem is the fact that in piecing together all the images that must have run through her mind as she wrote this poem, Acosta was, in many ways, mimicking her mother’s actions of piecing together material to make a quilt. She, like her mother, was piecing together memories, creating stories, and gathering images from her Mexican heritage. According to Rebolledo and Rivero,
“The Chicana writer like the curandera or the bruja, is the keeper of the culture, keeper of the memories, the rituals, the stories. . . . She is also the one who changes the culture, the one who breeds . . . new dreams . . . making . . . a new legacy for those who have still to squeeze into legitimacy as . . . American citizens. The writer and the quilter have these characteristics in common. They both preserve the culture and the family stories through their artistic expression as created in words for one; as created in cloth for the other. In the keeping of the culture and the stories, they both inspire new dreams; and in doing so, they both, in their separate ways, help push the next generation forward.”
Acosta expresses herself through poetry, making random, and sometimes worn out, phrases (like old pieces of material) fit into a pattern that will, on the whole, make sense. Like her mother, Acosta is picking through the pieces of material, looking at each image and remembering its significance. I remember this image from when I was younger. I remember this other image from when there was a death in the family. I remember another one from when we lived in another town. It is through these remembrances that both Acosta and her mother reflect on their identity, past and present. It is through these remembered incidents that they face certain challenges, and in meeting those challenges, they grow stronger. In remembering the “gentle communion cotton,” Acosta might have been reminded of her own innocence as a child. Likewise as her mother sewed that particular piece of material into the quilt, she might have remembered not only the young child who once wore the Communion dress, but also remembered her own innocence as a young mother. In other words, the quilt was just a blanket for Acosta, who used it to keep warm. “They were just meant as covers / in winter. . . .” It was not until she “began to wonder how you pieced / all these together . . .” that Acosta begins to create her poem. It is in the wondering that suddenly the quilt is broken down, in her mind, into small pieces, small memories that create images. And it is through these images that her words and phrases are formed. Thus, the mother who gathered the pieces of material to create the quilt is now inspiring the daughter who is gathering images to create the poem.
In the fourth stanza of her poem, the speaker refers to the craft of sewing a quilt. “How the thread darted in and out / galloping along the frayed edges . . . / oh how you stretched and turned and rearranged. . . .” These skills are also required of the writer: the craftsmanship of sewing words together, rewriting, editing, or in Acosta’s words, stretching, turning, and rearranging. More than likely, it is not only that Acosta remembers her mother sewing the quilt, but that she also relates to her mother as an artist, understanding the patience, the clear vision, the determination that is required in finding just the right piece of material, just as she herself must find the right word to make the image convey the exact meaning that is intended. As a writer, she relates to her mother’s “staking out the plan. . . .” She understands what is necessary in creating a new form.
“It can be argued . . . that art and literature have as their primary goal the exploration of human identity,” state Rebolledo and Rivero. And so it is with both Acosta and her mother. If one asks what might have motivated the mother to make quilts, a quick answer could be that she needed to provide warmth for her family. But if that was the only incentive, then she could have done so by stitching rags together without concern for form. But this mother creates pictures like the “swallow flying.” She thinks about how to mix colors, “whether to put the lilac purple of easter against the / red plaid of winter-going-into-spring. . . .” The mother of Acosta’s poem is no less an artist than Acosta herself, the writer of the poem. And both women, as artists, are in their own ways looking for definitions of themselves.
“Chicana identity is multiple, a reflection on circular mirrors,” write Rebolledo and Rivero. That identity includes not only what they think of themselves but also what others think of them. That definition is sometimes hard to grasp as they are living in the middle of two cultures. When women search for a model to emulate, a model that will help them identify themselves, they first look to their families, to their female kin. The woman they most often turn to is their mother. “Mothers are admired for patient ways, for survival skills, for homesteading virtues, and for crafts,” continue Rebolledo and Rivero. “They are seen as makers, doers, as women who did not have the opportunity to speak up, or even less to write, but who leave an indelible print on their children.” How the mother in this poem identified herself can only be guessed at. But the fact that her daughter, the author of the poem, sees her as the one who “cemented them” suggests that it was the mother who kept the family together, just as she kept the patterns of her quilt together. The poem also suggests that the quilts were used as “weapons / against pounding january winds. . . .” The mother in this image is portrayed as not only the provider, but also the one who guards and protects. This mother may have learned these qualities from her mother. Just as the tradition of making quilts was handed down, so might the character traits of fortitude and stability have been. As the daughter reflects on these characteristics, she senses pride. Her pride decorates her poem and may stimulate a desire to emulate those character traits in herself. Putting these feelings about her mother into her poem will allow the generation of women that follow Acosta to read the poem, much as Acosta has “read” the quilt. And the characteristics of both the mother and the daughter will be handed down. The “indelible print” carries the tradition forward.
“It is part of the writers’ routine and compulsion,” state Rebolledo and Rivero, “[to] walk around their streets, their well-known towns or neighborhoods, searching for raw materials . . . and getting it from the ordinary, the familiar, the trivial.” This is how Rebolledo and Rivero define Chicano writers, but it could easily be transformed to define how the quilter works—looking for raw materials in the neighborhoods, collecting the ordinary and the familiar. Rebolledo and Rivero continue their descriptions by stating that the writing of Chicano women is about “putting down in graphic signs what ordinary life events signify . . . it is the art of cultural preservation by means of capturing the flow of time and people in their lives.” How close these definitions align with the craft of quilting. “You were the river current / carrying the roaring notes . . .,” writes Acosta in her poem. The music of life floats on the mother through her quilts, just as the music of life flows through Acosta’s poem. She continues by describing her mother in the next few lines as having delivered herself “in separate testimonies.” With this reference to separate stories, Acosta might be making reference to the separate quilts that the mother made. Or it might be referring to the separate panels on one quilt, separate images through which the mother inscribes a picture of herself through her work. Just as a poetess leaves the mark of herself in her writing, no matter what story she is telling, so too has the mother left her fingerprints on the quilt.
In the final stanzas of the poem, the speaker confesses her emotions. “Oh mother you plunged me sobbing and laughing / into our past . . . “ It is the speaker’s emotions, but the history is shared between mother and daughter. It is “our past,” not my past or your past. It is a past that has been recorded first in the quilt, then seconded in the poem. If Acosta should ever give birth to a daughter, there will be a more complex reading of the past: first through the visual representation of the quilt, then through the literal representation of the poem. The history will echo in the next generation more richly because the tradition, the stories have been recorded and handed down. The quilter and the poet are mirror images, one enhancing the other, and one reflecting the other. And the reflections are multiple: mother seeing herself in her quilt; daughter seeing mother in the quilt; daughter seeing herself in the poem about the quilt; and in the end, both the poem and the quilt, the mother and the daughter, are “knotted with love / the quilts sing on.”
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Teresa Palomo Acosta,, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “My Mother Pieced Quilts,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.