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By Cynthia Estremera
In college I was surrounded by white feminists and white feminism. I was co-President of our feminist group “The Third Wave” and made waves as a Latina who embraced the principles of feminism bravely. Yet every day I was “segregated” from the Latino Student Organization, and at every event I fought to unite these groups as I aimed to unite these facets of myself. It hurt to look for myself in the margins of research papers and textbooks, if I existed there. It was difficult to see the few women of color in my Women’s Studies class pour out their hearts about their differences and have theory and history laugh in their face. The Latina feminist remains illegible because of narratives and ideologies that are continuously marginalized by the dominant narrative, the mainstream form of feminism for white middle class women.
So when I found Black feminism in African American literature, I felt I belonged there more than I ever did in the Eve Ensler-esque world of women’s equality. I could not understand why my Latina hermanas, hijas, y madres were not as visible and important as the Lilly Ledbetters, the Jane Roes, and the Susan B. Anthonys. Black feminism taught me why women of color were invisible and ignored, “[it] emerged at the juncture between antiracist and antisexist struggles” (White 1). I was closest to Black girls growing up and while in school, yet when my language fluency was “discovered” our friendship waned; a fluency that seemed broken to me. In academia, I face the issue of wanting to study African American women’s literature, but when I express a desire to intersect Afro-with-Latina my research becomes “sub-genre’d” and there is no one who can help me. This is a critique of the dominant structures of my graduate programs, determining that my English degree is better suited with literature that doesn’t exhibit an alternate language or code switching, despite having to fulfill a language requirement for research purposes. My language exam that I chose to complete was, of course, in Spanish. Yet still Latinas occupy a unique space where we are more different than alike, therefore no carved out space exists for us instead we are forced to identify with what can represent us the most instead of what can represent all that we identify with.
So how can this representation of Latina feminists be accomplished? How can we exist in a space specifically designed to nurture us and ensure our survival? How can we become visible, how can our voices be heard? The most appropriate answer seems to be that we need to write ourselves and our feminism into existence.
I seek a space where I can exist in solidarity and in sisterhood. I seek a space where talking turns into doing, and theorizing turns into a movement; where they both create opportunity. I yearn for the chance to hear our mothers and aunts and grandmothers proclaim “yo soy una femenista” and have these words be significant to them. I want to take feminist activism out of the academic and privileged spaces and translate it for the world to see it, living, breathing and existing. I want it to be accessible. I want this for women, I want this for Latinas; we need it for us. This is not to say that this space does not exist yet; I see blogs, conferences, and advocacy groups that promote feminist values. I hear the stories written by women and written for them, documenting struggles and survivals.
Is this not feminism? It is safe to say that the “face of feminism” remains the same as it did decades ago. So-called “traditional” feminism is still primarily geared towards white middle class women, isolating itself and ignoring the very groups of women who most remained marginalized and invisible to the American mainstream. There are a few white feminists I know who continually aim to build and recreate feminist action that encompasses women of difference. I appreciate these efforts.
Yet, Latina feminism remains on the outside looking in. It is so often imagined as foreign and “exotic,” one that defies the particularities of mainstream feminism because of all that us Latinas entail, historically, physically, dimensionally. It is a subgenre, a perspective, or branch of feminism like Black feminism, radical, environmental, cultural, separatist, post-modern, and liberal—need I say more. As activists seek a way to unite, feminism becomes divided by people into these veins and tenets that insulate and protect “mainstream,” thus discouraging Latinas from identifying with a group that could be perceived to be a passing fad or reflective of a small special interest. Both the terms “fad” and “small” are extremely problematic given that Latinos are the fastest growing population in the U.S. Where are the voices for the women who are birthing Latinos into the majority?
As I researched “Latina feminists,” I found numerous articles, blogs, and a single book encompassing this exact title. I’ve discovered that there is a connection missing between the academic resources and writings available and the Latinas who could benefit from reading and experiencing them. The irony is that all Latina feminists that spoke on behalf of this perspective acquiesce in my sentiments of there not being enough active voices to represent us. There is a presence, but it’s not as powerful as it could be, as I envision it to be. One day on the featured page of The Feminist Wire, Juliana Britto Schwartz addressed this very issue in “Confessions of a Complicated Latina Feminist:”
Today I’m a Latina feminist, a feminist who concerns herself with and involves herself in struggles that are relevant to all women, particularly women of color. Particularly Latinas. Part of me hates that I have to modify my feminism to make it clear just what I stand for. Why qualify something that already acknowledges the principles of intersectionality and transnationalism? But unfortunately, today’s modern, “mainstream” feminism has yet to prove its commitment to anti-racist projects and transnational movements. I’ve had too many conversations with Latinas who I would consider to be incredible feminists, and had them tell me that they feel excluded and out of place in the feminist movement. (Britto Schwartz)
Given my desires to articulate a version of feminism for Latinas, I see Britto Schwartz’s question as quintessential to understanding the lack of prominent Latina feminist voices as a lack of representation in the movement. To put plainly, the movement says it does these wonderful things that works for everyone, but it doesn’t and Latinas just aren’t visible in “that” feminism.
Published in 2001 (Duke University Press) Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios brings to life the life stories—or testimonios—of 18 academic Latinas from varied class, religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, sexual, and national backgrounds. In producing Latina feminist narratives, they are writing us into existence, crossing borderlands and disciplines to pave a path for Latina solidarity and sisterhood. This mirrors my desire to build a writing collective for women across differences in pursuit of feminist initiatives. The difference was they had done it already. Yet, the problem they confronted remains a reality as I had to look hard in order to find these connections and writings that are making these voices and histories visible.
The feminist Latina presence is encumbered by a complicated history and false ideologies of patriarchal institutions controlling the Hispanic/Latina woman into submission. Roman Catholicism is thought to be the normative religion conservatizing Latinas in the U.S. into the realm of the right wing; however this is not true for every Latina. Similarly, the presence of a machismo male as an oppressive force of Latina women is not necessarily the norm for every family. Even then, the strength of our madres displaying feminism in the face of oppressive masculine forces is overlooked and disregarded. The U.S. immigration system is a reality for many Latinas, however, given the population changes, many Latinos are second or even third generation born Americans; some have never even been back to their “homeland.” We have also been restricted to the realm of stereotypes, reduced to mainstream media generalizations. Even our skin colors have been hyper-sexualized and over-represented as olive and exotic, even though we embrace a far more advanced color spectrum than many can fathom. Latinas range from the whitest skin and eye color to the blackest black, due to varying histories and colonialism. These histories are interwoven with an African diasporic identity for many Caribbean South American coastal nations. This is relative to the issues of racism experienced in Black feminism, but we still tend to be isolated because of our linguistic abilities.
In these moments, I revert back to Jewelle Gomez’s article “But Some of Us Are Brave Lesbians: The Absence of Black Lesbian Fiction” and I see the same questions regarding a feminista presence in literature and writings. Who is reading us and how can they find our writings? Though we face a reverse reality, that there is an ever-growing population of feminist Latina writers and poets, our literature is still in the corners of book shelves and hidden away. Why are we not reading us more? Why are we not writing about us more? And why are we not doing this more together?
I have tried to write down my theoretical analysis or poetic iteration of Latina identity; sometimes I find it too complex because of my personal investment and then I waver between that and feeling compelled to fulfill this feat. Sometimes I get too overwhelmed with the multiplicity of my identity, and then I think I should overwhelm society with my complexities instead of suffering in silence. “[T]he transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger” (Lorde, 42). By revealing the self we are creating a presence, providing visibility that transcends complexities and embraces the selves we consistently deny. Rejection and misunderstanding are the perils I face during self-revelation of my Latina presence, as an academic critical distance keeps us safe from falling too deeply into the subjective. But as Audre Lorde claims fiercely “[m]y silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language” (Lorde 41).
My goal in bringing together a coalition of Latina femenistas is not simply writing only our narrative into existence, but to begin a dialogic relationship between writings of different feminists and connect the women who claim the term femenista and the women who want to know why. Moreover, it will aid in encouraging women to articulate feminism without the language of an academic because you do not need to be an academic to theorize feminism. The voices of this potential collective are stronger than the isolated voice of one, and there is no place for silence anymore because future mothers, daughters and systers are waiting for the courage to tell their truths and their testimonios which will provide a narrative for our humanity, our rights, and our political capacity. This time we shouldn’t be worried about how loud we are.
Cynthia Estremera is pursuing a PhD in English at Lehigh University and is a teaching fellow in the first-year English writing program. She specializes in African American literature, but also focuses on Hip Hop studies and the intersectionality of identities through race, gender, and feminism. Cynthia is a single mother to a boy of color, a Domini-Rican Latina, femenista, poet, activist, and dog lover. Her goals have remained steadfast about creating a systerhood for women of difference.
Britto Schwartz, Juliana. “Confessions of a Complicated Latina Feminist – The Feminist Wire.” The Feminist Wire. The Feminist Wire, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014. <http://thefeministwire.com/2013/04/confessions-of-a-complicated-latina-feminist/>.
Fry, Richard, and Jeffrey S. Passel. “Latino Children: A Majority Are U.S.-Born Offspring of Immigrants.” Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 28 May 2009. Web. 01 May 2014. <http://www.pewhispanic.org/2009/05/28/latino-children-a-majority-are-us-born-offspring-of-immigrants/>.
Gomez, Jewelle. “But Some of Us Are Brave Lesbians: The Absence of Black Lesbian Fiction.” Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. By E. Patrick Johnson and Mae Henderson. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. 289. Print.
Latina Feminist Group. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. N. pag. Print.
White, E. Frances. Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2001. Print.
 I utilize the term “difference” to represent women of varying skin colors, nationalities and ethnicities, physical capabilities, ages, sexual orientations, and gendered attitudes and associations. When referring to the discussion of differences in people, I refrain from “Othering” us by promoting a “discourse of differences” that can be used to create dialogue that unites intersectional facets of identities for women/people who do not identify as society’s mythical norm (white, American, heterosexual, abled, monolingual, young, etc.).
 Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project