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young Latina activists from SEIU on the way to the One Nation Working Together rally in Washington DC October 2, 2010
Young Latinas across the United States are engaged in activism and have become a large Democratic voting demographic. Yet too often their "herstory" here is still not told well enough in our schools. Latinas in the United States are not a "race." They are women of many ancestries, and a broad range of national heritages. Some may be recent immigrants, or the female children of immigrants born here, and others have ancestors who predate the founding of the 13 colonies, and the United States of America.  

Though U.S. history books on American "roots" tend to focus on the Jamestown settlement as our colonial founding city, the British English speaking slant tends to skew our perceptions of the past, and we forget, or don't explore, the people of San Juan, Puerto Rico, or of Saint Augustine, Florida. Spanish occupation in the new world attached to the meme of "discovery" obviously precludes the existence of ancient pueblos like Taos and Acoma. Few Americans know the story of the founding of Los Angeles, in California, whose founding members, called pobladores, were of mixed racial ancestry—black, indigenous—and only two were from Spain. This history became a political hot potato in LA but clearly illustrates the early ancestral admixture of founding Latinas.  

I dedicate this essay today to long time civil rights activist and attorney Adelpha Callejo, "La Madrina" (the godmother) (June 10, 1923 - January 25, 2014), who passed away recently but who will not be forgotten.

Adelfa Botello Callejo, a Dallas lawyer and civil rights leader who was first exposed to activism as a girl interpreting for her immigrant father, died Saturday. She was 90 and had battled a return of brain cancer since last year. Callejo’s crusades ranged from protests over the fatal police shooting of a 12-year-old Mexican-American boy in 1973, to City Council redistricting in the late 1980s, to strategizing over Farmers Branch’s policies against illegal immigration in 2006.

Her influence was so broad that some simply called her La Madrina, “The Godmother.” She called herself the “millionaire militant,” a reference to her belief that her wealth bolstered her independence. “In my family, it was un-American to not protest,” Callejo said in a 2006 address to tens of thousands at a Dallas march against strict immigration policies.

Join me below the fold for more.

Continuing my 2012 conversation about Latinas in Women's History, I want to emphasize that this is a broad demographic category, encompassing women from diverse cultures, including women with little or no European ancestry, and though spoken dialects of Spanish language in some cases may create a common bond, not all Latinas speak Spanish, or have Spanish-sounding surnames. Often there are shared cultural traditions, in other cases those traditions are dissimilar.  

If you are interested in an excellent reference work, I suggest Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, whose editors Vicki Ruíz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol are also the project directors for an interesting and informative interactive online site Latinas in History.

Growing up in a leftist political environment, I learned early on about women in the Puerto Rican independence struggle, like Mariana Bracetti, Lolita Lebron and Blanca Canales. Yet the dominant female figure in Puerto Rican politics for decades was Felisa Rincón de Gautier, known to everyone in PR simply as "Doña Fela" or Doña Felisa.

Her Foundation and Museum in San Juan, PR, offers more of her history:

Felisa Rincón de Gautier, known as Doña Felisa in her native Puerto Rico, was the first woman Mayor of a major capital city in the Western Hemisphere, serving for 22 years as Mayor of San Juan, from 1946 – 1968. She was a pioneer in the movement for women’s political rights, in establishing children’s pre- school educational day-care programs, and in establishing the first public legal and medical aid centers for the indigent. A leader and role model for Hispanic Americans, Doña Felisa also served as U.S. Ambassador of Goodwill under four American Presidents. She is one of the most prominent Puerto Rican personalities in the twentieth century and undoubtedly one of the most distinguished women in Puerto Rican history.

Through the force of her imagination, initiative and perseverance, Doña Felisa became one of the first women to vote in Puerto Rico, to assume a leadership position in a political party in the 1930`s and to be appointed to a major public office in the 1940`s. She broke the traditional barrier of predetermined sex roles when she was appointed Mayor of San Juan in 1946, a position she held with overwhelming popular support until January 1969. She was a model public servant and has paved the way for hundreds of women to enter the political process. She has worked tirelessly to promote electoral participation among Hispanics living in the United States mainland, actively campaigning in U.S. Presidential, Congressional and Municipal races since 1936.

Doña Felisa was born in the town of Ceiba; Puerto Rico on January 9, 1897.She is the daughter of Enrique Rincon, a lawyer, and Rita Marrero, a school teacher. She was the eldest of nine brothers and sisters and at the age of 12 her mother died, leaving her with the responsibility of caring for her younger brothers and sisters.

Rarely have I seen the history of the suffrage and women's rights movement in Puerto Rico addressed in American history or women's studies classes. Yet is is long and rich.
Women such as Ana Roque de Duprey opened the academic doors for the women in the island. In 1884, Roque was offered a teacher's position in Arecibo, which she accepted. She also enrolled at the Provincial Institute where she studied philosophy and science and earned her Bachelor's Degree. Roque de Duprey was a suffragist who founded "La Mujer", the first "women's only" magazine in Puerto Rico. She was one of the founders of the University of Puerto Rico in 1903. From 1903 to 1923, three of every four University of Puerto Rico graduates were women passing the teachers training course to become teachers in the island's schools. Many women also worked as nurses, bearing the burden of improving public health on the island. As in most countries, women were not allowed to vote in public elections. The University of Puerto Rico graduated many women who became interested in improving female influence in civic and political areas. This resulted in a significant increase in women who became teachers and educators but also in the emergence of female leaders in the suffragist and women rights movements. Among the women who became educators and made notable contributions to the educational system of the island were Dr. Concha Meléndez, the first woman to belong to the Puerto Rican Academy of Languages, Pilar Barbosa, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico was the first modern-day Official Historian of Puerto Rico, and Ana G. Méndez founder of the Ana G. Mendez University System in Puerto Rico.

In the early 1900s, women also became involved in the labor movement. During a farm workers' strike in 1905, Luisa Capetillo wrote propaganda and organized the workers in the strike. She quickly became a leader of the "FLT" (American Federation of Labor) and traveled throughout Puerto Rico educating and organizing women. Her hometown of Arecibo became the most unionized area of the country. In 1908, during the "FLT" convention, Capetillo asked the union to approve a policy for women's suffrage. She insisted that all women should have the same right to vote as men. Capetillo is considered to be one of Puerto Rico's first suffragists.In 1912, Capetillo traveled to New York City where she organized Cuban and Puerto Rican tobacco workers. Later on, she traveled to Tampa, Florida, where she also organized workers. In Florida, she published the second edition of "Mi Opinión". She also traveled to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where she joined the striking workers in their cause. In 1919, she challenged the mainstream society by becoming the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear pants in public. Capetillo was sent to jail for what was then considered to be a "crime", but the judge later dropped the charges against her. In that same year, along with other labor activists, she helped pass a minimum-wage law in the Puerto Rican Legislature. In 1929, Puerto Rican women who could read and write were enfranchised and in 1935 all adult women were enfranchised regardless of their level of literacy. Puerto Rico was the second Latin American country to recognize a woman's right to vote. Both Dr. Maria Cadilla de Martinez and Ana María O'Neill were early advocates of women's rights. Cadilla de Martinez was also one the first women in Puerto Rico to earn a doctoral (PhD) college degree.

When I read Latina history in the labor movement, it is a direct stream to the struggles today. I covered Dolores Huerta and her role in farm worker organizing in the previous piece. Latinas are not just engaged in the agricultural sector. One of the largest and fastest-growing unions in the U.S., with over 2 million members, is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organizes in three sectors: health care, property and public services.

One of the newest leaders of SEIU is Rocio Sáenz.

Rocio Sáenz is an SEIU International Executive Vice President after being elected at the September 2013 International Executive Board Meeting. Prior to her election, she headed the property services New England Local in Boston, which represents 18,000 workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Sáenz has advocated for workers' rights and community empowerment most of her adult life. She emigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles, where she initially worked low-wage jobs. Sáenz became an organizer for SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign in 1988, and she was part of a team that led a successful campaign to organize L.A. janitors.
In August 2001, Sáenz moved to Boston to build the Justice for Janitors program there and to move the local union forward. A year later, she led thousands of Boston janitors on a month-long strike that drew widespread support from the media, clergy, politicians and community groups. The strike ended with an historic settlement that dramatically improved workers' wages, benefits and workplace rights.

Here is a clip of Sáenz speaking at a Bread and Roses event:

When we hear the word "janitor" we think of men—yet the Justice for Janitors campaign included many women who work as office and building cleaners, and many of those women are Latinas.

Let's visit the history of that movement and hear from one of those janitors.

Austraberta Rodriguez has been a janitor in Houston for over 30 years. In 2006, she shared her story with us. At that time, most Houston janitors were paid just $20 a day, with no benefits--exceptionally low wages that represented a real threat to the economic viability of the city.
Since the making of this video, Austraberta and other Houston janitors took part in a 2006 strike that enabled them to double their income through increased wages and working hours. The historic strike also led to the creation of the Houston Service Workers Clinic, which has been praised as a model for delivering effective, low-cost health care to Houston workers.

I have incredible admiration for the women who are fighting on the front lines of the union movement, and have watched some of my Latina sisters in struggle do the work of organizing since the late 1960s. Women like Sonia Ivany, and Minerva Solla, who I have known since the days of the Young Lords Party.

The history of women in the Young Lords has been documented by Iris Morales in the film Pa'lante Siempre Pa'lante, and captured in photographs by Michael Abramson in the book Pa'lante, recently re-issued. Iris and I also wrote the foreword to The Young Lords Reader, Darrel Enck-Wanzer (Editor), a source for primary documents about the organization, the movement and the women in it.

In any discussion of Latinas we cannot overlook the struggles to establish fluid and often multiple identities, crossing ethnic, national and gender-normative lines.    

Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004), a Mexican American feminist, author, poet, scholar and activist. Shown in 1990 at Smith College.
Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa
(September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004)
Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa left an important legacy for us all when she passed on in 2004. Her archive was acquired by the University of Texas.
She is perhaps most famous for coediting This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) with Cherríe Moraga, editing Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color (1990), and coediting This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (2002). She also wrote the semi-autobiographical Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). Her children’s books include Prietita Has a Friend (1991), Friends from the Other Side — Amigos del Otro Lado (1993), and Prietita y La Llorona (1996). She has also authored many fictional and poetic works. Her works weave English and Spanish together as one language, an idea stemming from her theory of "borderlands" identity...

She made contributions to ideas of feminism and contributed to the field of cultural theory/Chicana and queer theory. One of her major contributions was her introduction to United States academic audiences of the term mestizaje, meaning a state of being beyond binary ("either-or") conception, into academic writing and discussion. In her theoretical works, Anzaldúa called for a "new mestiza," which she described as an individual aware of her conflicting and meshing identities and uses these "new angles of vision" to challenge binary thinking in the Western world. The "new mestiza" way of thinking is illustrated in postcolonial feminism. In the same way that Anzaldúa felt she could not be classified as only part of one race or the other, she felt that she possessed a multi-sexuality...

While race normally divides people, Anzaldúa called for people of different races to confront their fears in order to move forward into a world that is less hateful and more useful. In "La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness," a text often used in women’s studies courses, Anzaldúa insisted that separatism invoked by Chicanos/Chicanas is not furthering the cause, but instead keeping the same racial division in place. Many of Anzaldúa’s works challenge the status quo of the movements in which she was involved. She challenged these movements in an effort to make real change happen to the world, rather than to specific groups.

Anzaldua's work made the "banned books" list in Arizona, which authors on the list have responded to in the attack on Chicano/ ethnic studies, and is being fought for by young activists who call themselves "librotraficantes." I wrote about this in 2011, in Latinos in the U.S.: the assault on Chicana/o studies. The ethnic studies ban is still wending its way through the courts, and is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

In the political struggle to fight and survive on the borders, meet the women from Nuestro Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

Nuestro Texas is a human rights campaign calling for reproductive health access for all women, without distinction as to geographic location, ethnicity, race, economic class, or citizen status. It is a response to policies passed by the Texas legislature in 2011 that devastated the reproductive health safety net of Texas—a decades-old system enabling millions of low-income Texas women to exercise their rights to health services and information. These polices, including severe funding cuts to family planning services and regulations limiting certain reproductive health providers from operating, have jeopardized women’s rights to health, life, autonomy, equality and freedom from ill treatment.

One of the areas most deeply impacted is the Lower Rio Grande Valley, an under-resourced area where family planning clinics are frontline providers for uninsured and low-income women who would otherwise have nowhere to turn for essential services like contraception and cancer screenings. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) and theCenter for Reproductive Rights formed a partnership in 2012 to document the human rights impact of Texas’ policies on the women in the Valley.

Like Anzaldua, many other Latina cultural activists have examined identity and place. Mariposa, Afro-Latina, third generation Puerto Rican born in the Bronx, raises these issues in her work.

Ode to the Diasporican
     (pa’ mi gente)

Some people say that I’m not the real thing
Boricua, that is
because I wasn’t
born on the enchanted island
because I was born in the mainland north of Spanish Harlem
because I was born in the Bronx
She concludes with:
¡No nací en Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico nació en mi!
(I wasn't born in Puerto Rico ... Puerto Rico was born in me.)

To all the Latinas in my life, mi madrina, mis hermanitas, mis amigas, y compañeras—Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Costa Rican, Garifuna, Guatemalan, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Panamanian, Salvadoran, Argentinian, Bolivian, Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Paraguayan, Peruvian, Uruguayan and Venezuelan, I say gracias for making this country richer.  

Pa'lante, Siempre, Pa'lante


Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 09, 2014 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by LatinoKos, Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, and Support the Dream Defenders.

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