For communities that have experienced discrimination and dislocation, constructing an identity politics is a way to speak truth to power, thereby resisting dehumanizing, racist, and patriarchal representations.
Historical forces unleashed by colonization and imperialism within the modern period have not been eradicated by postmodern democratic impulses as Americans are commonly led to believe; rather, these forces continue to shape the ways in which people across the globe experience their nationality, gender, race, and class. In the United States, the debates surrounding immigration reflect how identities and hierarchies are shaped and contested not just across national boundaries, but, rather, within them. In 1997, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 9.7% of the population was born outside of the United States, with Latin America being the highest recorded place of birth, representing 4.9% of the United States population (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1998). In 2000, 10.4% of the United States population was born outside of the country, and Latin Americanborn peoples represented 5.3% of the total population (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2002). The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that “[a] record 12.7 million Mexican immigrants lived in the United States in 2008, a 17-fold increase since 1970. Mexicans now account for 32% of all immigrants living in this country” (Pew Hispanic Center 2009, 1). These dramatic demographic changes complicate the dominant vision of who is considered an American. They expose the overtly racist stereotypes in the United States immigration debate – such as images of immigrants as migrant workers refusing to learn English – as well as reflect the ubiquity of imperialist and colonizing historical processes. Dominant discourses on immigration often represent immigrants negatively, thereby reinforcing Anglo-American historical versions of United States/ Latina/o relations that justify their dominance within the Western hemisphere.
However, while the media and dominant culture attempt to reinforce these negative images, Latinas/os – those that they are characterizing – can and do develop resistance strategies. More specifically, the theories of Cuban American, Puerto Rican American, and Chicana feminists are rooted in their respective nation’s unique cultural and political history. Feminist theorists from these three nations seek to recuperate those histories by exploring how they have been affected or suppressed by colonization and imperialism. Although the theories produced by feminist scholars pertaining to each of these groups are based in a unique experience, they all seek to deconstruct and then reconstruct their people’s history to create a theory based on a lived experience. While gender is one focus in Latina feminists’ theories, it is not always the primary focus – rather, Latina feminists also address forms of social injustice that all members of their community face, such as racism and Euro-centrism.
In this paper I will examine how historical events have shaped the transnational identity politics of feminist theorists and cultural workers who have crossed borders, or who find that the borders have crossed them. I define cultural workers as those who employ their artistic expressions – paintings, novels, or other forms – to critique political and social systems. For my analysis, I will explore the knowledge and experiences of cultural workers and feminist theorists with ongoing ties to their respective countries in the Western hemisphere: María de los Angeles Torres, Cristina García, and Achy Obejas on Cuba; Maritza Quiñones Rivera, Bibiana Suárez, and Miriam Jiménez Román on Puerto Rico; and Gloria Anzaldúa, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Aída Hurtado on Mexico. While these theorists, writers, and cultural workers do not pretend to present a monolithic version of national history, their personal experiences and constructed theories are salient examples of the importance of identity politics. Significantly, these authors develop a politics of identity in order to show how they experience their identities trans-nationally, as well as how they use their developed politics as a resource for self and group affirmation.
I define identity politics here, following Monika Gagnon, as “the self-naming and self-identification of individuals and communities around a common identity category in order to make a political intervention” (Gagnon 2000, 22). For communities that have experienced discrimination and dislocation, constructing an identity politics is a way to speak truth to power, thereby resisting dehumanizing, racist, and patriarchal representations. Identity politics also facilitates the creation of more equitable social conditions by exposing dominant representations of oppressed groups, and allowing those members to construct an identity that is coherent with how marginalized groups see themselves.
Identity politics continue to be important, even gain more importance, when considering how transnational communities experience their social categories after migrating to the United States. In her article “Latina/o Identity Politics,” Linda Martín Alcoff states that “the aim of Latina/o identity politics is not simply greater visibility . . . but rather to make visible those processes that perpetuate our marginalization and disempowerment (Alcoff 1999, 100). For marginalized groups, these processes occur not just between their group and the dominant group, but also within their home culture. Processes of colonization and imperialism have, in effect, changed how others perceive these groups, by creating distortive representations of their identities. Colonizing and imperialist processes have also changed how transnational communities perceive themselves. Identity politics provide a resistance strategy that aids in combating these dehumanizing processes.
While it is still an often-contested debate within the field of women’s studies today, I contend in this paper that identity politics empowers marginalized groups by providing an opportunity and context to create a common identity, verbalize grievances against the dominant culture, and facilitate their collective agency. For marginalized persons, being an ‘Other’ in another country, such as the United States, creates a feeling of displacement. Arturo Madrid describes ‘Otherness’ as “feeling excluded, closed out, precluded, even disdained and scorned” (Madrid 1988, 19). As Madrid points out, being an ‘Other’ produces “a sense of isolation, or apartness, of disconnectedness, of alienation” (Madrid 1988, 19). Identity politics is an important mechanism disenfranchised groups can use not only to survive as ‘Other’ but also to fight actively the hegemonic forces at work in their lives. Antonio Gramsci defines these contested positions as integral to ‘hegemony.’ Hegemony refers to the social processes through which a particular group constitutes itself as the ‘one’ or ‘majority’ in relation to ‘minorities’ who are defined and know themselves to be ‘Other’ (Gramsci 1971, 52-60). It also extends to include the processes by which those who are constituted as ‘Other’ may come together to create a ‘counter hegemony,’ that is, a movement to resist dominance (Gramsci 1971, 52-60). Identity politics thus serves as a counter hegemonic critique of hegemons for supporting the existence of social injustices like racism, classism, and sexism.
The intertwined histories and global connections between the U.S. and the aforementioned nations, as well as other nations in Latin America, have created, as Latina theorist Edna Acosta- Belén affirms, “relations and structures that influence the nature of social and political movements and the construction and reconfiguration of cultures and identities in the Western hemisphere” (Acosta-Belén 2001, 241). Through the following comparative analysis of their scholarly articles, stories, and narratives, I will highlight common concerns among these writers as well as the unique historical exigencies that the feminist theorists from each of the three nations seek to explain. I will also explore how their unique histories and relationships to the U.S. have influenced these theories.
In the national-based theories I will explore here, the authors and theorists bridge the categories of gender, class, race, and nationality in order to articulate their complex identities. In the case of Cuba, I will discuss the complications of identity that emerge as a result of the separation of the exiled community from its home country, as well as the struggles of Cuban exiles with their host community. Gender is articulated with race and class in both García and Obejas’s fiction because they focus on what it means to be Cuban and female in a diasporan community. Within the context of Puerto Rican feminism, Puerto Rican scholars and artists note that racialization processes not only conceal an important part of their nation’s history, but these processes also create stereotypes that are raced and sexed. Chicana feminists, as I will show below, note the processes of colonization that have created cultural stereotypes and that have forced Mexican and Chicana women into the virgin (and light-skinned) or whore (dark-skinned) dichotomy; I will examine this conflict through the cultural figure of the malinche, a woman who left her family and lived outside of their protection. I now turn to the nation of Cuba.
CUBA: A DIASPORA DIVIDED
Cuban-American theories of diasporan identity have a unique basis in their history – a history that is different from the histories of Puerto Rican Americans and the Chicanas. In addition, these theories are elaborated intergenerationally, coinciding with different waves of emigration from Cuba to the United States. Cuba once had positive relations with the U.S.; however, because of the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. and Cuban governments restricted communication beginning in 1959 through the 1970s. This separated families and created a diasporan community. The first group of immigrants to leave Cuba did so when Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 revolution and is known as the “bridge generation.” In her article “Homeland Encuentros y Encontronazos: Homeland in the Politics and Identity of the Cuban Diaspora,” de los Angeles Torres examines the history of Cuba’s relationship with the United States. She emphasizes the emergence of a diasporan Cuban community that results as a byproduct of that relationship:
The interaction of Cuban exiles with United States foreign policy objectives and domestic security poli cies in Cuba fueled the creation of a community in exile. The close interaction of national security agen cies within Cuba and the United States with the émi grés left a mark on the community’s politics and iden tity. In this context, the relationship of Cuban exiles to their host and home countries acquired a political sig nificance not normally ascribed to immigrant commu nities. (de los Angeles Torres 1998, 44)
whether or not one stayed or left, and whether one supported or condemned those who left, became a litmus test of support for the revolution
She further notes that “whether or not one stayed or left, and whether one supported or condemned those who left, became a litmus test of support for the revolution” (de los Angeles Torres 1998, 44). Often, political alliances fell along class lines, as middle-class Cubans frequently supported the Revolution. Middle class Cubans “played a significant role not only in legitimating the rebellion, but also by participating in the underground” (de los Angeles Torres 1998, 44). Meanwhile, the “bridge generation” dreamed of returning to Cuba, and saw their exile status as transitory. They were mostly wealthy and privileged, characteristics necessary to escape the country during a revolution, at least in this first phase. De los Angeles Torres also states that the exile generation’s perspective on Cuba became reified, or “frozen,” because they remembered Cuba as it was before Castro (de los Angeles Torres 1998, 45).
During this time, groups in each nation became entrenched in their ideological roots (de los Angeles Torres 1998, 45). Because of the separation from their homeland, the “bridge generation” tended to remember the positive aspects of Cuba. The relationship of the exile community evolved, nonetheless, intergenerationally. The children of members of the bridge generation had a vastly different set of experiences in the United States, causing a shift of identities as well as creating intergenerational conflict within the Cuban community. While the “bridge generation” was a transnational and diasporan identity, it saw itself as part of a Cuban national identity; their children, born in the United States, saw themselves as having a primarily transnational identity, identifying both with Cuban and U.S. cultures.
In her renowned novel The Agüero Sisters, Cuban-American novelist Cristina García creates characters that examine how Cubans who left the island as part of the “bridge generation” remember Cuba in a nostalgic way. One character, Constancia, is shocked by how much things have changed when she returns to Cuba. Her sister, Reina, who remained in Cuba, describes how “in Miami, the Cuban Spanish is so different, florid with self-pity and longing and obstinate revenge . . . her sister sounds like the past. A flash-frozen language, replete with outmoded words and fifties expressions. For Constancia, time has stood linguistically still” (Garcia 1997, 236). This passage highlights the tensions that different generations of Cuban immigrants endured, not just because of the political relationship between the United States and Cuba and the ensuing status changes the migrants experienced in their new nation, but also inter-generationally, between family members across the national boundaries of Cuba and the United States.
In García’s novel, Constancia’s nostalgia for Cuba leads her to exploit other Cuban women. Constancia represents internalized sexism; she tries to preserve her Cuban-ness in the way she remembers it—by staying thin and young-looking, and maintaining the traditional heteronormative (assumption that heterosexuality is the “normal” sexual orientation), patriarchal Cuban family structure. Although there is no financial need for her to work, she develops her own line of beauty products to sell in department stores:
Constancia intends to launch a full complement of face and body products for every glorious inch of Cu ban womanhood: Cuello de Cuba, Senos de Cuba, Codos de Cuba, Muslos de Cuba, and so on. Each item in her Cuerpo de Cuba line will embody the ex alted image Cuban women have of themselves: as pas sionate, self-sacrificing, and deserving of every luxury (García 1197, 131)).
Constancia capitalizes on Cuban women’s nostalgia and keeps them reified in hyper feminized roles that had been established for middle-class women in pre-Revolutionary times—a role that mandated that they work obsessively on beautifying themselves. She is caught in the old Cuba and, at the same time, has internalized contemporary U.S. systems, such as valuing capitalism and whiteness.
The second generation of Cuban immigrants to the United States, referred to as the “one-and-a-halfers,” came to the United States as children or teenagers. This generation had a different view of identity than their parents. Although they experienced racism in the United States as their parents did, the “one-and-a-halfers” accepted it less; they had experienced the efforts of the civil rights movement and feminist struggles, and had transnational identities. Some members of the second generation also had an interest in going back to Cuba to discover their cultural history. Political regulations between Cuba and the United States, however, did not allow it, and their parents expressed great opposition to their return.
The third generation, composed of children of Cuban families that were born in the United States, generates even greater complexities with regards to their identity than the previous two; their identity was based not on identity processes in Cuba, but on those encountered in the United States, which created intergenerational conflict. The renowned journalist and novelist Achy Obejas, part of the “one-and-a-halfer” generation, illustrates some of the struggles of this generation in her 1994 piece, “We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” In this short story, from the collection by the same name, Obejas examines the conflict that arises between those who remember Cuba because they were born and raised there and those who were born in the United States. She expresses this conflict in the following description of her life, set in future tense: “In 1971, I’ll come home for Thanksgiving from Indiana University …. It’ll be the first time in months I’ll be without an antiwar demonstration to go to, a consciousness-raising group to attend, or a Gay Liberation meeting to lead” (Obejas 1994, 121). In this section of the narrative, she represents the second generation from Cuba, forming her identity based on the struggles occurring in the United States, not Cuba. Her parents, however, especially her father, are still very connected to the ideals of the Cuba they remember, and her narrative explores this tension through their dissonance and opposition to these activities.
As the above theorists and novelists indicate, feminist theories about the Cuban- American experience are rooted in a sense of displacement, of a vision of a homeland that has become reified, and sometimes of a longing to go back to recuperate a lost history. De los Angeles Torres notes that for the Cuban community, theory centers around recuperation, the idea of home and host countries, the need of the exile to affirm her Cuban identity, as well as the exile’s acknowledgement that those on the island are also constructing their post-revolution identities. She states: “A new vision of identity requires a new vision of power and organization across the borders of states. Such a vision inevitably leads to an expansion of the boundaries of citizenship beyond any one single nation-state . . . For now, the critical perspective and the opportunities needed to construct a more inclusive vision of Cuban-ness are more visible in the exile community” (de los Angeles Torres 1998, 60). For Cuban American feminist theorists, reconciliation between those on the island and those in the United States – as well as wrestling with the lack of communication between the two communities – is of utmost importance in recuperating history and reconnecting as a nation; it is also an underlying component of their identity politics.
PUERTO RICO: COLONIZATION AND CONQUEST
Puerto Rican Americans, like Cuban Americans, experience a connection to their home nation as well as the United States; however, unlike Cuba, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. Bibiana Suárez, a Puerto Rican artist and professor who currently teaches at DePaul University, defines the legal status of Puerto Rico as that of “Commonwealth,” or free associated state ([Suárez 2010, 3](#suarez)). However, many scholars would define the island’s subordination to the U.S. as colonial. For example, Puerto Rican scholar, Juan Flores, in his influential work, From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity, characterizes the island’s status as “lite colonial,” signifying that subordination in a transnational context shifts from state to commercial control (Flores 2000, 38). For their part, Edwin and Edgardo Meléndez affirm that because the island continues to be a territory belonging to but not fully a part of the U.S., it has a ‘neocolonial’ status (Meléndez 1995, 1).
My drawings are self-portraits inspired by my experience as a Puerto Rican of light skin, green eyes and blonde (and therefore one that in the eyes of most people does not look Puerto Rican) .... these portraits confront viewers with their racial biases. This is an ongoing theme in my work”
Puerto Rico’s racialization processes, as well as its connection to the United States, provide a unique historical basis for present theory. Although Puerto Rico’s racialization processes are unique, they have similarities with those in the United States; migration between these two nations makes salient these differences. Racialization processes are those by which “groups become defined as having racial characteristics that are also the basis for their mistreatment . . . In the context of migration, immigrant communities have been redefined within the context of racial, social, and class hierarchies in the United Sates” (Andersen and Collins 2007, 85).
In her article “From Trigueñita to Afro-Puerto Rican: Intersections of the Racialized, Gendered, and Sexualized Body in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Mainland,” Maritza Quiñones Rivera compares racialization processes in the United States and Puerto Rico by highlighting the particularity of mestizaje. Mestizaje not only refers literally to the racial identities of Latin America that resulted from the mixing of peoples of Spanish, African, and indigenous ancestries; it has also culminated in an ideology that claims an absence of racial discrimination in Puerto Rican society: it “serves as a mechanism to reinforce Euro-centrism and thus limit the participation of underrepresented groups in politics, law, media, education and other fields” (Rivera 2006, 164). She notes that in Puerto Rico, due to mestizaje, there are designations for every gradation in the spectrum of skin color, yet the island denies that it has a problem with race. While the differentiations in skin color are effects of the racial mixing of indigenous, African, and Spanish peoples, mestizaje silences these particularities. In Puerto Rico, Rivera states that the “politics of difference are subdued” because “the ideology of mestizaje tends to omit African or indigenous ethnicity” (Rivera 2006, 163-4). In the United States, the stereotypes of dark-skinned peoples are made visible in public discourse and in cultural references, while in Puerto Rico the history of the slave trade is ignored and buried.
Yet, similarly to the United States, being black in Puerto Rico has triggered the deployment of negative stereotypes such as “the servant, the drug dealer, the impoverished” (Rivera 2006, 166), and is a marker of class and gender (Rivera 2006, 169). When discussing the raced and gendered consequences of colonialism, Rivera notes: “In a colonial and patriarchal society, class, race, gender, sexuality, and social responsibility intersect, particularly for racialized, dark-skinned women, who are seen as sexed bodies, visibly invisible, inherently unworthy, tainted, and therefore not decent” (Rivera 2006, 168). She gives examples in which women are presented in dehumanizing ways, including how black women are stereotyped in both the media and cultural representations as folkloric figures of African ancestry. One example is Mama Inés, a dark woman characterized as a “mammy,” or caretaker, usually with fabric over her hair and wearing an apron; for Puerto Ricans, she is a nostalgic figure of the past (Rivera 2006, 166).
These stereotypes create dissonance for Rivera because she argues that to reclaim this history, Puerto Ricans need to examine how part of their culture is African and how an invisibilized African ancestry becomes gendered in contemporary Puerto Rican society; however, this history is constantly denied in contemporary Puerto Rican culture. Rivera explains how “a great majority of the population on the island does not see the iconic and folklorized figures of Mama Inés as problematic, but rather as a cute doll representative of the island’s past… Blackness is seldom acknowledged, praised, or used as a concept to empower people on the island” (Rivera 2006, 167). Because processes of mestizaje serve to invisibilize Puerto Rico’s African history by limiting critique, dehumanizing and racist stereotypes, such as Mama Inés, are ever-present in Puerto Rican culture.
A review of census data provides a glimpse into racialization processes on the island. In Puerto Rico, 84% identified as white and 10.9% identified as Black or African American on a 2000 United States Census (Rivera 2006, 171). While 84% of Puerto Ricans could in fact be white, this information on racial identification could also indicate how Puerto Ricans are denying that they are of color, as well as denying their African history. The ideology of blanqueamiento, or whitening, explains this data. Blanqueamiento “refers to the process of becoming ‘increasingly acceptable to those classified and self-identified [as] ‘White’’” (Rivera 2006, 164). Rivera notes how the ideology of blanqueamiento is present on the island when she describes how “as children, the educational system deprived us of knowledge about our African heritage and failed to provide an encouraging environment in which we could build a positive and strong identity that embraced our African past and present” (Rivera 2006, 171).
In addition, the ideology of blanqueamiento promotes the “improvement” of the race whereby “Black individuals are enjoined to improve the race by marrying and reproducing with lighterskinned partners” (Rivera 2006, 164). Rivera notes how “the implicit message is that phenotypically, the darkskinned body is defective, unattractive, undesirable, but sexually enticing, and, therefore, a social embarrassment” (Rivera 2006, 164). In addition to mestizaje, Rivera states that racial identities of Puerto Ricans are obscured by the lack of reliable data regarding their racial identification. She argues that “we need to problematize the Hispanic check box found on governmental and other forms and become conscious that Puerto Ricans are racially diverse” (Rivera 2006, 170). The Hispanic check box is problematic because it does not present racial identity as a complex process; assessing this issue requires a thorough examination of how culture and history affect racial identities.
Bibiana Suárez, a Puerto Rican artist and professor who currently teaches at DePaul University, critiques this denial of racism in Puerto Rican culture through her art. She depicts what her grandmothers look like in two of her drawings. The first is entitled La Blanquita (The White One) (1991) depicting a white woman, and the second, ¿Y Tu Abuela A’onde Ehtá? (What Color is Your Grandmother?) (1992) depicting an African woman (See Fig. I and Fig. II). Her theory, manifested in her art, is one of reclaiming and highlighting a part of her history her nation would rather she forget. In an e-mail exchange with the artist, Suárez revealed the following:
My drawings are self-portraits inspired by my experi ence as a Puerto Rican of light skin, green eyes and blonde (and therefore one that in the eyes of most people does not look Puerto Rican) and on a poem by Puerto Rican poet Fortunato Vizcarrondo (of the Afro-Antillian poetry tradition – that is why such spelling) which he titled “Y Tu aguela a’onde ehtá?” (“What Color is Your Grandmother?”) (1952). Much like the poem, these portraits confront viewers with their racial biases. This is an ongoing theme in my work” (Suárez 2009, 2).
Additionally, she explains that she employed the grandmother metaphor from Vizcarrondo’s poem because in Puerto Rico, asking where one’s grandmother is doubles as a colloquial way of asking what color one’s grandmother is. This question “is [a] euphemism for racial bias – meaning that when someone on the Island tries to make himself passed by a “Blanquito,” or white one, she/he is reminded that we all have a black “abuela” or grandmother in our family’s history” (Suárez 2010, 4). I consider her art feminist in nature, because she critiques the hegemonic ideologies that obscure racial difference as a result of historical processes, and seeks to claim greater social visibility for Puerto Rican women.
In her article “Allá y Acá: Locating Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora(s),” Latina feminist scholar Miriam Jimenéz Román brings Puerto Rico’s African history to the forefront of her analysis, and calls for inclusivity regarding Puerto Ricans’ African ancestry. She notes: “Whether or not we are identifiable carriers of the continentis genes, Africa is part of us – individually and as a nation. This is documented fact, an incontrovertible truth. Africa is as much a part of us as is our legacy of colonialism and racism” (Román 2004, 5). Her theory foregrounds the need to stop denying the African influence, and shows how Puerto Ricans can benefit from choosing to identify with it. Her rhetoric seems to shame her audience when she asks, “How do a colonized people who insist on their latinidad, mestizaje, and racial tolerance dare to cast aspersions on a similarly oppressed nation with the same ideological constructs?” (Román 2004, 5). Like Suárez, Román seeks to reclaim a lost history and problematize racial differences that hegemonic forces have attempted to obscure.
MEXICO: COLONIZATION AND THE BORDER EXPERIENCE
Like the Cubans and Puerto Ricans, Chicanas/os have experienced the harmful effects of territory disputes, colonizing powers, and racialization processes. In addition, Mexican cultural views on femininity were changed by the Conquest. The malinche is a cultural myth and stereotype based on the indigenous female translator for Cortés, a Spanish colonizer responsible for the genocide of the Aztec people; she stands for traitorous behavior. She is considered a sellout, a liar, and a ‘whore dark woman’ (Hurtado 2000, 134). She represents the essence of Mexican culture – she stands in for mestizaje (the blending of the Spaniard and the Aztec), but she is also the mythic explanation of the Aztecs’ fall and the Spaniards’ victory. Because of her central importance in Mexican cultural mythology, she is one figure that Chicana feminists seek to recuperate.
The border experience is unique to the Chicana in that unlike Cuba and Puerto Rico, Mexico is physically connected to the United States. While Cuban Americans and Puerto Rican Americans identify with the United States as well as their home nation, Chicanas physically experience the border. Thus, Chicana feminist theory seeks to dismantle the notion of the border as a critique of the mestiza (mixed race) woman on the ‘outside’ or on the ‘border.’ Chicana theory also seeks to create a community of Mexican and Mexican-American women, recognizing that they are all negatively affected by hegemonic powers that create borders and decide who is included and who is excluded. In addition to critiquing hegemons such as the United States, Chicana feminists also critique the hegemony within women’s studies, a field that, as Chicana feminist Aída Hurtado states, “places gender as a variable separate from that of race and class (Hurtado 2000, 129). Hurtado further notes that “Chicanas write in opposition to academics, whether mainstream or postmodern, who have never fully recognized them as subjects, as active agents’” (Hurtado 2000, 129). Chicanas, finally, also critique their own culture. They focus particularly on the deconstruction and reconstruction of the malinche figure, making their reconstruction the focus of their identity politics.
One type of Chicana feminist identity politics is that of mestiza consciousness. Mestiza consciousness theorizes Chicanas’ border experience. Enacted across the spaces of national identities (U.S. and Mexican), mestiza consciousness acknowledges the ways in which political powers created mixed races and ethnicities, often through violence and conquest, and seeks to reclaim that history through theories of identity that are empowering to dark, mixed-race women on both sides of the border. A mestiza consciousness, as defined by Gloria Anzaldúa in her highly influential book Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza, means to be “cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems” (Anzaldúa 2007, 100). She describes how “[t]he coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision” (Anzaldúa 2007, 100).
The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the First World and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture
The physical, unnatural U.S./Mexican border Anzaldúa theorizes about was created when the United States annexed Texas in the Mexican-American War (spanning 1846 to 1848) culminating in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe. Although Mexico won its independence from Spain earlier in the century, by 1823 the Monroe Doctrine had established the United States as an ongoing protective force over Mexico. Meizhu Lui, Director of Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative for The Insight Center for Community Economic Development and co-author of The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the US Racial Wealth Divide, states:
The marriage of the Monroe Doctrine to manifest des tiny provided the “Providential” rationale for the United States to maintain a policy of economic and political dominance in the Western Hemisphere. This dominance was to delay economic development and impede natural resource sovereignty in Mexico and Central and South America, creating conditions for a continuing flow northward of Latino immigrants in search of economic opportunity (Lui, et al. 2006, 142).
Thus, Mexicans living in “Texas” were suddenly in the wrong nation, yet they themselves had not physically moved; they were not migrants but, instead, a deterritorialized people. After the United States’ institution of the Monroe Doctrine coerced Latino immigrants to enter the United States to work, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began Operation Wetback in 1954. During this time, “INS officials and local officers stopped Mexican-looking individuals and asked for identification papers. This occurred throughout the Southeast and Southwest United States. Many families with native-born children were deported” (Lui, et al. 2006, 146).
For Anzaldúa, the border is a literal imposition because of the Mexican-American War, but it is also a set of experiences constituting the identity of Chicanas/os – those whose lives have been shaped by its presence. She examines the bordered experience as a collision between two cultures, one that results in violence to the more powerless culture: “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the First World and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture” (Anzaldúa 2007, 25). She notes that the border serves to separate, to further divide groups of people, as well as to create an uneasy feeling amongst its inhabitants. She further notes that “a borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” ([Anzaldúa 2007, 25](#anzaldua)).
To some, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) stands as one example of the larger structures of domination in the history of Mexico and the United States. NAFTA, indeed, is one way in which the U.S. continues to exploit Mexicans economically and politically, and, in particular, Mexican women, along and across the border. The United States government frames NAFTA as a mutually beneficial economic agreement (http://www.export.gov). However, Chicana feminists critique this policy as exploitative and imperialistic. Chicana novelist and theorist Alicia Gaspar de Alba critiques this system of exploitation in her book Desert Blood. A fictional story based on the true femicides of the Juárez-El Paso border, Gaspar de Alba critiques the United States and Mexican governments for ignoring the deaths of young mestiza women. These murders are especially gruesome in that the victims had been beaten, raped, and set on fire. As of 2003, over three hundred and fifty women had been murdered (Gaspar de Alba 2005, vi). She employs various hypotheses of the causes of the murders, such as conflict over drugs/narcotics, or possibly an American perpetrator crossing over the border.
Through her fictionalized account, Gaspar de Alba critiques the corruption of the Mexican government bred by its dependence on the United States for economic sustenance. She notes that most of the women murdered worked at U.S.-operated factories in Mexico, yet neither government has been able to find the killer(s). Alba critiques this exploitation when describing the murders as “a cost-effective way of disposing of nonproductive/ reproductive surplus labor while simultaneously protecting the border from infiltration by brown breeding female bodies” (Gaspar de Alba 2005, 333). Her book examines the modern-day manifestation of United States imperialism in the guise of transnational alliances and global democracies, and how young women are paying the price by having to work outside the home to support their poor families.
Like Cuban and Puerto Rican theory, Chicana feminist theory seeks to recuperate a colonized history and indigenous culture from a perspective that is empowering to Latina women.
The cultural myth of the malinche is also important regarding why Gaspar de Alba focuses on the stories of young, dark, Mexican and Chicana women as victims of mass murder. While these young women needed to leave home to earn money for their families for practical reasons, the cultural myth of the malinche endures as a negative stereotype. Anzaldúa relates the effects of this patriarchal myth to her personal experience of being the first one to leave the Valley in Texas when she describes how Mexican culture views women: “Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture. Culture is made by those in power – men” (Anzaldúa 2007, 38). Anzaldúa goes on to state that Chicana culture expects women to show greater acceptance of, and commitment to, the value systems of their culture than men; “The culture and the church insist that women are subservient to males . . . For a woman of my culture there used to be only three directions she could turn: to the Church as a nun, to the streets as a prostitute, or to the home as a mother” (Anzaldúa 2007, 39). Anzaldúa thus captures the gendered expectations for women as either chaste or a whore.
Like Cuban and Puerto Rican theory, Chicana feminist theory seeks to recuperate a colonized history and indigenous culture from a perspective that is empowering to Latina women. For example, mestiza feminism seeks to lift up and reclaim the malinche figure, a cultural stereotype. In Mexican-American culture, the malinche is juxtaposed with marianismo, a gendered system produced by patriarchy that provides idealized feminine roles patterned after the Virgin Mary. La Virgen de Guadalupe is the brown version of the Virgin Mary, and is chaste, asexual, and disembodied (Hurtado 2000, 137). Chicana feminists critique this dichotomy, because malinchismo and marianismo are racial and gender ideologies that place women and their lives in two distinctly separate categories, casting them as absolutely virtuous (asexual, disembodied and obedient) or as dark and threatening (sexually devouring). These stereotypes are racialized as well. They reinforce dominant beliefs that light-skinned is good and dark is evil. Additionally, such categories reinforce the virgin/whore dichotomy.
Within a transnational economic and political context, these race, class, and gender ideologies are recast around border ideologies. Chicana feminist theory focuses on the border experience, and on what being of mixed race (colonizer and colonized, European and Indian) means. Anzaldúa notes: “Within us and la cultura chicana, commonly held beliefs of the white culture attack commonly held beliefs of the Mexican culture, and both attack commonly held beliefs of the indigenous culture. Subconsciously, we see an attack on ourselves and our beliefs as a threat and we attempt to block with a counter stance” (Anzaldúa 2007, 100). She also notes that in order to combat the dominant border ideologies that give advantage to the powerful on both sides of the border, it is necessary for Chicanas and Mexican women to unite: “It is imperative that mestizas support each other in changing the sexist elements in Mexican- Indian culture” (Anzaldúa 2007, 106). Thus, Chicana feminism acknowledges the history of colonization that shapes its identity, and forms a resistance against the United States as a hegemonic power. In addition, Chicana feminism critiques the male hegemony within its own culture that arose as a response to the Conquest, and seeks to reconcile conflicting identities, and hold its own communities accountable for their -isms.
Although emerging from three distinct nations, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Chicana feminist theories are connected to the U.S. in that they respond to the ideologies, as well as cultural and social practices, encountered in the United States. All seek to recuperate an oppressed/colonized history so that they can locate and define themselves and their communities within them in a way that more accurately depicts who they are, outside of denigrating stereotypes in their own nation and in the United States. For Cuban-American women, U.S. politics created a split within their nation. Their theories seek to foster an understanding between the island and its exiles in the United States, and to reconstruct a shared history and recognition of the different lived histories, along with an acknowledgment of identification. Support for, or against, the Revolution often depended on class, and Cuban women became responsible for maintaining Cuban culture, as they remembered it, in their host country.
Puerto Rican women create a politics of identity that seeks to dismantle racial ideologies – which are promoted both in Latin America and the U.S. – and invisibilize their African ancestry. In addition, they aim to change the negative perception of racial difference and identify as mixed. For Puerto Rican women, negative racial stereotypes are also gendered. They develop an identity politics that will aid them in acknowledging their racial diversity, but also in their critique of stereotypes of dark-skinned female bodies as sexually available. Chicanas develop an identity politics in which the border is central in defining their embodied history. Just as for the Puerto Ricans, dealing with a mixed race identity is central to Chicana identity politics. Chicana feminist theories are important to understand when considering how our modern context was formed out of the processes of colonialism and border creation, and how these forces continue to shape our raced, gendered and classed experiences today as we navigate the complexities of a postmodern, global society.
United States imperialist practices have not only affected the identity politics of Latina women and feminist theorists; they have also created a context in which U.S. feminism and Latina feminisms are split. Because of the history of colonization and imperialism, U.S. feminists often belong to the “oppressor” group, regardless of their racial identity. Understanding the histories of different identity politics, as well as their methodologies, is crucial to mending this divide. Feminist theory should work to help feminists and other people who care to realize that not all are the same. Difference matters and it is this difference in histories and experiences that has led to the divide in feminist theories. Identity politics should be built on experiences of groups and individuals, and the collective knowledge of these experiences should lead our society toward greater social justice, awareness, and acceptance. The race, class, gender, and nationality divisions in our society naturally produce different theories regarding social inequalities; it is the responsibility of white U.S. feminists to educate themselves about theories that speak to experiences different from their own. In this way, diverse groups of women can maintain their differences, and white U.S. feminists can reject or at least acknowledge the power they have inherited because of imperialism and colonialism.
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