Chicana Feminism

Sarah Amira De la Garza. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. 2009. Sage Publication.

Chicana feminism is a movement that developed in response to the inability of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the Anglo feminist movement to incorporate the specific experience and social justice issues confronting women of Mexican ancestry in the United States. The experience of Chicanas is rooted historically in the colonization of Mexico and subsequently in the attainment and annexation of most of what was northern Mexico in the 1800s by the United States. Additionally, the Chicana experience is deeply informed by continued neocolonialist economic migration and immigration of Mexicans, both temporarily and permanently, to live and work in the United States.

This colonialist past and neocolonialist present combine to create a complex matrix of religion, ethnicity, culture, race, class, sexuality, and gender that characterizes the hybrid and complicated nature of Chicana feminism. Although there has been a history of Mexican women feminists in various forms since colonial times, what sets apart the Chicana feminist who evolved in the 20th century is a focus on political praxis combined with the creation of what Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga calls a theory in the flesh—theory that is inherently political in drawing on the contradictions and real-life experiences of Chicana women.

Influence of the Chicano and Feminist Movements

The Chicano movement grew out of a history and experience of labor inequalities and oppression and the efforts of activists and community leaders to correct them. While these efforts had begun as early as the first decades of the 20th century and throughout the southwest United States (chiefly Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California), the Chicano movement was most strongly influenced by the efforts of the United Farm Workers (UFW), led by César Chávez. This activism was the Chicano counterpart to the civil rights movement in the United States. Chicano university students in the 1960s became involved in supporting the UFW, as well as in questioning the general absence of Chicano experience from university curricula. In response, a Chicano Plan for Higher Education was published—El Plan de Santa Bárbara—calling for what would eventually result in the field of Chicano studies and the birth of Chicano studies scholarship. The U.S. feminist movement similarly responded to the fervor around civil rights. Inspired by the history of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1920s, this movement worked to secure equality between the sexes in social, economic, and political contexts.

Chicana feminists responded to the ways in which they found themselves essentially absent from these two movements, despite the fact that they were in solidarity with the fundamental goals and purposes of both. The women’s movement, as the feminist movement was often called, was largely a movement centered around White, Anglo (English-speaking) women, often of higher socio-economic status than most Chicanas and influenced by very different root experiences and ways of life. Although women shared in the experience of sexism, the experience of race and class generally was not reflected in the feminism of the women’s movement.

Similarly, although the Chicano movement was making great strides for the Chicano community, even its very name—the masculine form Chicano—reflected the taken-for-granted invisibility of Chicana women and of their rights to equal participation with men in the privileges being gained. The emphasis on the family, or familia, as the unifying concept or metaphor for Chicanos, like Mexicans, assumed the role of the woman as unquestioning child bearer and mother, sexual partner to the dominant man, and self-sacrificing—as Mary was in the “holy family.” The roles of women in Mexican history and in the Chicano movement were largely invisible and unacknowledged; Chicana feminists found themselves bringing the awareness of the history of Mexican feminism to the attention of Chicanos as part of their claim of relevance.

Also absent in the formal rhetoric of the Chicano movement were the tensions between men and women and the influence of machismo, or the emphasis on defending and exemplifying male strength, in the domination and subordination of women. While Chicano men were enjoying the prospect of broader horizons and opportunity, Chicanas did not feel included.

Chicana Organizing

In response to these voids, Chicanas began to organize around their specific concerns. In 1971, in Texas, where the Chicano movement had led to the creation of the Raza Unida party, women organized a caucus within the party called Mujeres por la Raza [literally, Women for the Race]. La Raza is a Spanish colloquial term used by Chicanos to refer to themselves as a community united by race. This caucus succeeded in incorporating women’s issues into the party’s platform, and throughout the early 1970s, Chicanas held repeated conferences, focusing on developing organizational skills and coalition building for women. They also worked against the race and class biases present in Anglo women’s politics and officially withdrew from the Texas Women’s Political Caucus, endorsing a series of Chicana candidates for various state and local political offices. Although Mujeres ceased to exist when the Raza Unida party ended, the types of issues and activism that had begun did not. Similar efforts existed in other states, including the formation of a national organization for Chicanas—the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional (National Mexican Women’s Commission).

Chicana efforts to organize themselves were met with much criticism from within the Chicano community. Often they were accused of hurting the overall Chicano cause by emphasizing their own issues. However, the Chicana response was a strategy that recognized the significance of women’s roles within the community. It sought to address all issues of inequity and to change the overall power dynamics operating: If domination of women within the Chicano community existed, it was not just women but the entire community that was affected by these imbalances of power.

Chicana Theorizing

The dynamics of these efforts would come to influence the nature of the social theories and literature developed by Chicana scholars and activists. Particularly influential was the late Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana scholar activist who addressed the tensions experienced by Chicanas by creating a theory of borderlands about Chicana experience. Anzaldúa, along with other Chicana feminists, suggested that what a dominant academic audience would consider important might not be similarly significant to Chicana women and their communities. This is a central issue for Chicana feminists: to create theory that can impact academic scholarship while remaining relevant to Chicana women’s lives.

Whether traditional academic theory can capture and address the core issues of importance to Chicanas has implications, not just for the content of the theory, but also for the ways in which the theory is written. As such, the style and form of Chicana feminist writing in its purist forms are best described as multigenre; Chicana feminist writing includes a combination of different forms, such as poetry, performative writing, autobiography, narrative, and code switching (alternating in a text from one language or linguistic code to another). As a result, the theories and writings produced by Chicana scholars and activists do not often fit neatly into existing academic categories or disciplinary boundaries. This is seen as evidence of its validity rather than as a shortcoming.

Political Nature of Chicana Feminist Theory

Most significant to Chicana theories, and reflecting the political origins of Chicana feminism, is the embedded and explicitly political nature of the work. Chicana feminism seeks to avoid relying on Western theories and forms of thought in order to avoid the risk of reflecting colonialist assumptions present in traditional academic theories. Since Chicanas themselves are the product of colonialist processes of history, one of the more innovative aspects of Chicana feminist theory is that of imagining realities that might counter or resist the colonial.

This is apparent in the use of language, references to history, and narratives in nontraditional and surprising ways in order to move away from dominant modes of representation. The work of lesbian Chicana writers has been exceptionally powerful in challenging many of the colonialist issues embedded in the society they are resisting, calling into question the roles gender and patriarchy play in maintaining existing power relations. Similarly, works that question traditional representations of religious experience and Catholicism, as well as those that utilize indigenous traditions and symbolism to express theoretical concepts, force colonialist assumptions to be laid aside.

Reliance on Lived Experience as Basis for Authority

By drawing on lived experience as the basis for concepts and ideas that are developed in their work, Chicana feminists reflect the early intention of Chicanas not to be made invisible in the light of dominant movements or ideas. Chicana feminists employ a test of real-life validity to their work, where the evaluation must come not only from a scholarly community but from within the cultural standpoint the theory is representing. Much Chicana feminist work is self-reflexive, applying within itself tests of its own validity by applying cultural knowledge to the ideas as they are expressed.

Attention to Complexity in Chicana Feminism

Chicana feminist scholarship includes the awareness that a good theory will unsettle the dominant order in one or more of the dimensions that Chicanas address in their work. Chicana feminist theories acknowledge that race/ethnicity, religion, sexuality/gender, and social class do not exist separately but in complicated interaction with each other. A good Chicana feminist theory, therefore, is rarely unidimensional, instead focusing on the multiple dimensions that are contested and resisted in Chicanas’ work. Their writing attempts to situate the various dimensions together, rather than separately, and the use of a combination of genres is one way of demonstrating the complexity of their arguments.

An example of this is the fact that a commitment to the inclusion of race/ethnicity as an inherent women’s issue for Chicanas ultimately implicates the inclusion of Chicano men and Chicano and Chicana youth, along with adult women. The issues affecting the women are part of the social fiber of the communities that birth and nurture the growth of Chicanas. This motivates the historical separation from Anglo women’s movements, as well as the view of male-female and other gender-related issues as part of the communication phenomena that must be explored for sound Chicana feminist communication theory.

Gender and complexity of self-representation are thus issues visible within the work of Chicana feminist communication scholars. Rhetorical and performance scholars have been particularly well suited to explore these issues of self-representation in work in keeping with the spirit of Chicana feminism. The work of Jacqueline Martinez utilizes a phenomenological approach to study themes of gender and sexual preference as a Chicana of mixed-race family history within the habitus or situated experience of her own life history. Michelle Holling explores the representation of women in Chicana literature, as well as the rhetorical strategies in 20th-century activist efforts that were, and continue to be, issues complicated by race, gender, and politics.

In addition to issues of extended family and historical background, the roles of religion and ritual are included as necessary aspects of Chicana feminist theory. Interdependence and solidarity within multiple Hispanic groups is implicit in theorizing about religion, with communication scholars particularly well suited to approach these interactional dynamics. An example is Sarah Amira De la Garza’s book Maria Speaks, exploring the topic of self-expression and spiritual-cultural identity as a woman attempting to reconcile issues of matriarchy within a patriarchal, religiously Roman Catholic Chicana upbringing. Her book uses poetry, autobiography, and performative and creative writing as the forms for her ethnographic report, typical of Chicana writing.

In the work of Bernadette Calafell, interdependence and complexity are shown to be an inherent feature of the gaze, or perspective, that Chicana communication scholars utilize as part of their standpoint. Calafell explores Chicana and Chicano performance as part of the larger field of Latina and Latino performance but as also distinctly affected by race, gender, and politics.

These dimensions furthermore do not exist in the same patterns or with the same relevance for all Chicanas. Stories of migration, varieties of experience in the labor market, religiosity, and sexual mores and preferences all combine in unpredictable fashion to create what is united by the experience of oppression and domination. Linguistic variation and preferences further complicate the subject of Chicana feminist theory. The struggle to remain united despite the wide range of experiences that create the identities of Chicanas will continue to be a hallmark of Chicana feminist theorizing.