At the center of every social and political movement, you’re bound to find women of color and members of the LGBTQIA community. Throughout U.S. history, these identities often do the bulk of the work for social progress, activism, and improving their communities. They oftentimes don’t get the credit they deserve, and the feminist contributions of these identities, including Latinx people, are often overlooked even in left-leaning activist circles.
When it comes to identities, the marginalized voices within these communities contribute greatly to the political struggles and overall understanding of that identity. The writings and teachings of these voices, particularly the voices of lesbian, trans women, and some cisgender women in Latinx communities help analyze and break down how these identities are navigated by individuals, what they do, and their political and historical contexts. The marginalized voices of lesbian and trans women were especially crucial during the civil rights struggles of the late 60s early 70s. The Puerto Rican feminist movement, Chicana feminist movement, and Latinx feminist movement all had unique and specific aspects, goals, and demands that were developed and brought into intersectional feminist ideology via the labor of these marginalized academics, writers, and activists.
Many of these revolutionary scholars understand race as an identity that can be both a source of pride, enforced by institutions, and also provide resistance to colonialism and racism. But race is also understood as a socially constructed category that changes depending on political and historical contexts rather than a biological reality that remains unchanging. For example, sociologist Gabriel Haslip-Viera uses his own family history and experiences to analyze the arbitrary forced categorization of race by the oppressive forces of the state; in this case mainly the United States. He describes the ways in which that categorized race of his paternal grandfather, Nicolas, changed depending on where he occupied a space, when he occupied space and how the categorization change benefited the government and state powers. For instance, Nicolas was listed as black when he began living in New York City. Then he was listed as white when he was drafted in both World War 1 and World War 11. Between these war drafts, documents list him as black, white “with dark complexion”, “yellow” and “negro”. It’s interesting to see the ways in which Nicolas’ race was changed to white as he was used by the U.S. government to go to war, only to change him back to a random identity of color each time. Haslip-Viera explains that it wasn’t until around 1960 that the U.S. government “allowed people to self-identify… to some degree” on their own racial identity.
This example clearly supports the fact that race is a social construct, and for awhile it was a forced ethno-racial identity. However, once people were able to reclaim the category of “Latino” or “Latina” for themselves, it became a source of pride. Many Latinos and Latinas were fiercely proud of their heritage and identities, although concepts of “mejorar la raza”, or marrying and having children with lighter-skinned people to “improve the race” and other notions stemming from colorism were also present.
From Latina/Latino came an identity of resistance: Latinx. By shedding the gendered “o” and “a”, Latinx becomes a reclaimed radical identity that resists gender categorization but still honors the strong, proud, diverse and culturally rich identity attached to Latino/Latina.
Scholar Gloria Anzaldúa uses poetry and imagery to detail the history of the Chicana identity. This consequential identity is one that has survived hundreds of years of upheaval and displacement. Chicanas were originally the indigenous peoples who lived in what is now the southwest of the United States, or “the borderlands”. She associates Chicanas and Chicanos as people of the border; being citizens of Mexico one day, and having their rights and land stripped away by the U.S. the next day. Anzaldúa details a history full of struggle under the white supremacist United States that Chicanos and Chicanas became a part of without a say. The Chicano community managed to survive under U.S. imperialism as sharecroppers and farm laborers who were paid less than minimum wage. Understanding this difficult and oppressive history, it’s easy to understand why the Chicano “El Movimiento” occurred during the late sixties and early 70s and was filled with Chicanismo, or intense cultural pride.
As Chicanismo began to take hold, Chicana women began to carve out their own space in “El Movimiento”. While there were a lot of positive things happening around this social movement and others, machismo was an internal problem Chicanas had to face. Just like so like many other movements happening during the late sixties and early seventies, many of these spaces were dominated by heterosexual men who took up most of the space and attention. Some Chicano nationalists favored Chicanas who were “ideal” — following expectations of marianismo, with their focus on domesticity, motherhood and their roles as a wife. This was a restrictive expectation to put on Chicana women, and the issues that followed gave rise to Chicana feminism within el Movimiento. One of the goals of Chicana feminist theory was to point out the patriarchal oppression being perpetrated within Chicanismo and to take a stand against it. Activist writers such as Anna Nieto Gomez demanded that Chicanas be given an equal opportunity to organize and lead within the movement. By being more inclusive and empowering Chicanas, the strength of the movement would increase as a whole, which interconnects to another political goal of Chicana feminism. It’s important to understand that the goals of Chicana feminism were always meant to work and be implemented within the cultural context of Chicanismo. Chicanas still respected cultural norms and expectations with the understanding that some aspects of it were problematic and harmful to them. Chicanas wanted to exercise their capabilities beyond just the homestead in order to better contribute to the success of the movement as a whole; they understood that machismo made the movement weak and divisive. They knew that when Chicanos were respecting and recognizing them, they were able to win together.
Consciousness-raising within a movement requires an enormous amount of emotional labor and sacrifice. Cherrie Moraga, Chicana author of This Bridge Called My Back describes how a “deep place of knowledge…seems like an endless reservoir of pain”. She describes the trauma and damage of racism as a well of pain she must constantly take from herself to help others to better understand her oppression. Oftentimes what must come to be in these movements is an entirely new consciousness, in order for feminist ideology to help strengthen the movements from the inside.
Likewise, trans Latina feminists must also put an incredible amount of emotional labor into bringing their specific goals to attention in an organizing space. Isa Noyola, the deputy director of the Transgender Law Center did a speech during a protest for the Masterpiece Cake Shop court case that was in the process of being ruled on in 2017. Noyola points out that twenty-four trans women had been killed as of December 2017, most of them trans women of color; simultaneously highlighting the deadly result of racial oppression of black and brown trans women and the fact that discrimination against trans women often have deadly results. Noyola puts herself on the line and speaks about the dangers of existing as a trans woman of color in order to make connections with other cis or trans women and help them to understand the violence that trans women encounter which prevents them from living a full life. Anyone just occasionally involved in activism can attest to the enormous amount of self-sacrifice, unpaid work and emotional labor that takes its toll on the human spirit. Contributions from trans women of color like Noyola are invaluable to activism exceedingly, but it’s important for activist circles to understand the massive risks and sacrifices that are taken and given in exchange.
The goals of Puerto Rican women also included gaining more political control within social movements and for the elimination of prejudice and machismo. Additionally, Puerto Rican feminists such as Ana Irma Rivera Lassén had some of their own specific goals — detailed in feminist literature such as El Tacón — within a revitalization of labor movements in Puerto Rico. Women workers in Puerto Rico were oppressed both socially and in some ways culturally, and they understood that a united labor force was necessary and significant, especially given that Puerto Rican women made up at least 44% of the labor force in Puerto Rico during the 70s. They knew the importance of recognizing the gendered “women’s work” — in other words, household chores and duties that are often categorized as work women are supposed to do — and that it needed to be seen as real and valuable labor. This was a huge contribution Marxist/socialist feminist ideology and the theorization of unpaid household and family-related labor. Standing up for working women and improving labor laws were both necessary struggles for Puerto Rican women in this movement whether these women were working in the private or public sector.
Each and every one of these social movements contained their own feminist movement within, and each one was strengthened from the inside because of the strength and emotional labor of those who were most marginalized in the movement. This history teaches us that, in the social movements of today, it’s more important than ever to recognize the sacrifices and contributions of black, brown and indigenous women as well as those in the LGBTQIA community.
Anzaldúa Gloria. Borderlands - La Frontera. Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
García Alma M. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. Routledge, 1997.
Moraga, Ed Cherrie. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 1983.
Román Miriam Jiménez, and Juan Flores. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Duke University Press, 2010.
Valle, Norma. “El 1 De Mayo, La Mujer y Sus Luchas Sociales.” “El Tacón De La Chancleta, pp. 4–5.