Day 4- Latina/Chicana Women’s Activism in the US

Like their black sisters, women of Spanish/Hispanic/Latina/Chicana/Tejana heritage in the United States grapple with the naming of their own identities, and in the past, faced overt racist violence in the form of segregation and lynching. While northern cities may not have had “White Only/Black Only” signs (usually because there were too few blacks) many businesses had signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans.”

Like their Native American sisters, Latinas have been robbed of their land, deprived of their language, and marginalized where they were once the majority. States from Florida to California have large Latino populations, due in large part to the fact that these states belonged to Spain and Mexico for many years, but Latinos are still routinely discriminated against in healthcare and education.

Like their Asian sisters, Latinas have struggled and continue to struggle with sweatshop labor practices, racist attitudes and immigration laws. Latina women earn the lowest income out of any other group, and face ridiculous obstacles to legal immigration to America.

Like their Middle Eastern sisters, Latinas in the United States are assigned an identity. Mexican on the West Coast y en la frontera or Cuban or Puerto Rican in Florida, any Spanish-speaker in the U.S. is assumed to be from one of these three places, with white Americans completely disregarding the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Latinas are also extremely racialized when they are (rarely) seen in the media and almost exclusively objectified as sex symbols. In fact, Selma Hayek was turned down for the role of El Salvadorian Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind because she was seen as too sexy, and the casting director thought it would be unrealistic for a Latina to be that intelligent (never mind that the film is based on a true story).

Despite the fact that the economy of the United States runs on the hard labor of ill-paid Latino immigrants, states like California have made bilingual education illegal, and Arizona is taking the lead on legalized racism.

Latinas have faced racism in what is now the United States since the 1840s, before much of the western territories even became states. As early as 1911 Mexican women, like Jovita Idar, in the United States were working towards equality with La Liga Feminil Mexicanista (the Mexican Women’s League).[1]

In the same year Puerto Rican feminist and socialist Luisa Capetillo wrote Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer como compañera, madre y ser independiente, (My opinion about the freedoms, rights and responsibilities of woman as companion, mother and human being) in which she analyzed “the situation of women in society, focusing on what she viewed as the oppression and slavery of women and affirming that education is the key to freedom.”[2] She fought for universal suffrage and had an uncanny ability to “interweave the issues of the private world (such as the family, single motherhood, and women’s rights in general) with those of the public world (such as politics, wages, and education).”[3]

In 1915 the Plan de San Diego was drafted, it “called for a force of Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Japanese to liberate the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado from the United States and create a free society comprised of people of color.”[4]

From then on Latinas have been active in the fight for social justice and equality in the United States.

Because Mexican Americans form the largest portion of the Latino population in the U.S, nearly 65 percent,[5] their activism is the most visible with groups such as LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, forming in 1929.[6]

Although LULAC was formed by Mexican Americans today the organization fights for the advancement and rights of “all Hispanic nationality groups.” This trend is common throughout Latino organizations, most of which sprang from the Chicana/o (Chican@) rights movement or El Movimiento.

El Movimiento began in the 1960s as an extension of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s. Mexican American veterans returning to the United States after WWII formed the American GI Forum (AGIF)[7] in 1948 to fight for medical benefits they were being denied because of their ethnicity. AGIF is still active today and has expanded their cause to serve all Hispanic veterans and fight for all civil rights.

In both LULAC and AGIF, women’s participation in auxiliary groups soon transformed the organizations themselves to fight for equality for all people. These two organizations were also actively involved in the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954 of Hernandez v. Texas, which extended equal protection under the 14th Amendment to all racial groups.

The Chican@ movement, though fraught with controversy, has been an important part of the fight for all people’s civil rights since the mid 20th century. The term Chicana, (sometimes Xicana) once used to degrade children of Mexican immigrants, is now a label of pride for many Mexican and other Latino Americans. Tejanas are women of Chicana heritage from the state of Texas.

“Almost from the very beginning of the Chicano Movimiento, Chicana activists and scholars criticized the conflation of revolutionary commitment with manliness or machismo….”[8]

Chicana feminists are largely responsible for the push for women’s visibility within El Movimiento; a clear example of this is the use of Chican@ to mean both Chicano men and Chicana women. Because in Spanish the male form of any adjective is assumed to be applicable to women, Chicana activists rejected this linguistic sexism and pushed for the use of Chicana/o to identify any group made up of Hispanic men and women. The @ symbol came to simplify the term.

Many organizations that originated in the 1960s Chican@ Rights Movimiento started out working for the rights of Mexicans in the United States but soon expanded their reach to all Latino Americans. MEChA is one such group.

Formed in 1969, the Movimiento Estidantil Chican@ de Aztlán is a student group that fights for the rights of all people of Aztlán (the Southwest United States that was annexed from Mexico during the Mexican-American War and was named in recognition of the fact that the Mexica and Aztec people were indigenous to this area) and strives “for a society free of imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia.”[9] Though the MEChA website urges political participation and education, mainstream, white America sometimes sees them as a militant group.

La Raza is another controversial term used by Latino Americans, meaning “The Race.” Within El Movimiento it is understood to be a term of endearment for Mexicans but is sometimes interpreted as racism against non-Latinos. Again, ideas, terms, and political goals that once applied specifically to Mexicans in the U.S. now apply to all Latinos in America.

Other important and active groups in the fight for civil rights from education to legal issues include the National Council of La Raza (NCLR),[10] the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF),[11] both founded in 1968, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO)[12] formed in 1976, and the National Hispanic Institute (NHI),[13] established in 1979.

While the above organizations and others like the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) created in 1967 and the Raza Unida Party (RUP) created in 1970[14] had women in their ranks, some, like the Chicana/Latina Foundation formed in 1977[15] and the Association of Chicana Activists (AChA) established in 1991,[16] were specifically formed by Chicanas to work for the needs and rights of Latina women within the United States. Both the Chicana/Latina Foundation and AChA were formed by college women in California who recognized the need to support other Latina women who may not have the same opportunities they had, while fighting against the racism and sexism of the educational system in the United States.

The work of Chicana feminists both within and without the university system has been key to cross-class activism. Much of the criticism faced by the Chican@ movimiento, especially by groups like the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA),[17] formed by Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and Dolores Huerta,[18] related to the educated, middle-class position of many Chican@ activists. The UFWA remains a powerful working-class union and a strong bond between the Latino and Asian farming communities.

Chicanas have used many types of nonviolent action to realize their goals, from marches, rallies, strikes, boycotts and walk-outs to the highly successful “Day Without a Mexican” campaign and are learning just how much power they wield. All of the moderate and liberal Latino organizations in the United States have voiced their opposition to Arizona’s new discriminatory laws, with some supporting a full boycott of the state.

Currently the UFWA is heading the “Take Our Jobs” campaign,[19] a play on the complaint by white Americans that Latinos are taking all of the available employment in the U.S. They are encouraging unemployed white Americans to take to the fields and sustain agriculture in the same way the Latino community does.

The UFWA is unique among Chican@ organizations in that it clearly states its commitment to nonviolence and taking disciplined action as one of its founding principles. Other organizations do not promote violence but are not as explicit in their call for nonviolence as was Cesar Chavez who “had very little patience for expressions of machismo among his activists.”[20] Chavez’s commitment to nonviolence and equality made the struggles against classism, racism, and sexism more legitimate to the mainstream Chican@ Movimiento despite the fact that Chavez was so radical in his fight against classism and racism that he disassociated himself from El Movimiento.

“In his view, the idea Chicano/a identity promotes does not operate to ease racial prejudice in society but, rather, reinforces the patterns of thinking that underlie it. He takes the idea of Chicano/a identity promoted by such nationalism to be an oppositional identity. That is, Chicano/a identity derives its content primarily by defining itself against, or by rejecting, white mainstream culture.”[21]

By openly combating the dichotomous way Chican@s and other working-class people see race, Chavez and the UFWA helped open the door to fighting against other social constructions that promote bigotry.

Chicana activists and feminists have had much to fight for and against recently, including forced sterilization due to racism and linguistic discrimination. In 1983 the director of the National Latina Health Organization (now the National Latina Health Network, NLHN) Luz Alvarez Martinez, decided “to create a health information service for Hispanic women” because economically disadvantaged Spanish-speaking women were not being offered any other form of birth control besides sterilization.[22] She was also one of the first women in the Chican@ community to raise the need for services in Spanish in women’s shelters.

Journalist Yolanda H. Alvaro also combats racism, classism and sexism against Latina women within the fight for the rights of the disabled. She understands that “the women’s movement is a great training ground for Hispanic women in organizing and… a lot of women’s concerns are Hispanic concerns.”[23]

2010 was a historic year for addressing women’s concerns and Hispanic concerns in the United States as the first Latina woman was appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Like all their American sisters, Latinas have been subjected to sexism and misogyny under the hierarchy of patriarchy in the United States and have actively and strategically worked against sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism to create a more just society.


[1] Palomo Acosta, Teresa and Ruthe Winegarten. 2003. Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History. University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas.

[2] Notable Hispanic American Women Eds. Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp. Gale Research Inc. Detroit, Michigan. 1993.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Palomo Acosta, Teresa and Ruthe Winegarten. 2003. Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History. University of Texas Press: Austin, Texas.

[5] Pew Hispanic Center. 2007. “Table 5. Detailed Hispanic Origin: 2007.” Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States, 2007.  Pew Hispanic Center: Washington, D.C. 28 June 2010 http://pewhispanic.org/files/factsheets/hispanics2007/Table-5.pdf

[8] Orosco, José-Antonio. 2008. Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.

[14] Palomo Acosta and Winegarten, 2003.

[18] See http://www.chicanas.com/chingonas.html for a list of other Chicana activists who have left their marks on the civil rights movimiento.

[20] Orosco, 2008.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Notable Hispanic American Women Eds. Diane Telgen and Jim Kamp. Gale Research Inc. Detroit, Michigan. 1993.

[23] Telgen and Kamp, 1993.

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About feministactivist

Many words describe me but none more so than activist. I am dedicated to equality of all people and have a special focus on gender issues including reproductive justice, sexual violence, and strategic nonviolent action. View all posts by feministactivist

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