We live in a world of labels. We label everything and everyone. While this can make life easier, it has also been very problematic in my experience as a Mexican womyn* activist, advocate, and scholar. I will share a few personal stories explaining my relationships with the feminist movement and the Chicano movement in particular.
In my college freshman year, I was introduced to feminism in one of my women’s studies classes. It was taught by a professor whose example of feminism was allowing her grandson to wear nail polish as a football player. Coming from a small border town, I had never been exposed to this type of behavior.
In my sophomore year, I took a course in women’s history. The entirety of the class was spent covering the womyn’s suffrage movement (first wave of feminism), and spoke nothing about womyn of color. I was devastated.
During my junior year, I participated as a member of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A.). Most members self-identified as Chicanos. Growing up in my border town, most of the people who self-identified as Chicanos were labeled as “sellouts” because embracing an American identity equal to a Mexican identity meant you were denying your roots. I was lost.
During my senior year, I experienced my first instance of overt racism on behalf of one self-identified feminist professor who called me into her office because she said and I quote, “I don’t think you are ready to take this class. You should reconsider taking this class next year when you’ve had more experience.” I left her office and took her class that very same semester, passing with a B+. I still cried myself to sleep that night.
In graduate school, a tenured faculty member labeled me a Chicana feminist. She had no idea that I did not self-identify as a feminist or a Chicana. She meant well, but she had no idea how I felt about the Chicano movement as well.
For the longest time, I thought feminism was the answer to all of my problems as a womyn of color, but I found no room for me as both a feminist and as a Mexican womyn at my campus.
Part of the problem was that there was no unity among all womyn, and the same was said of the Chicano movement. I feel like a sellout most of the time. As an academic, I have encountered people who have felt offended by my reactions and responses to the Chicano movement and feminism at large.
I have come to the conclusion that while there are many problems with feminism and feminists, I can be assured that it is a movement that promotes equality of the sexes. As a lower-class womyn of color, my role in the feminist movement and in history is very limited, but just as Roxane Gay said: “When you can’t find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example.”
I have to be part of that change and not be part of the problem. I can be critical of feminism and will continue to be, but I will be at an even bigger disadvantage if I do not communicate with other womyn. The problem is the system and not with each other.
My issues with the Chicano movement and my lack of participation in it mean throwing shade to those powerful writers and advocates who have made my educational achievements possible. Powerful Chicana womyn like Dolores Huerta, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Elizabeth Martinez have opened the doors for Chicanas. Again, we can be critical and mindful of the history of the Chicano movement and the ways it has dismissed womyn. But it is a political front that, to some extent, unites us.
The problem is the labels themselves. Why do I feel like labeling myself a feminist means, “white womyn?” Why does labeling myself a Chicana mean, “for men only?”
I had very negative experiences with the feminist and Chicano movements, but that does not mean that they are static. They are ever-changing movements that will continue to grow, just as much as we do. My job is to raise the issues concerning Mexican-American womyn in order to be part of that change.
If labeling unites us, then so be it, but we must be mindful that the labels of Chicana or feminist mean ALL PEOPLE which include: race, class, sexual orientation and identification, class, ability, etc. Again, the focus is what UNITES us and not what SEPARATES us.
*My choice to use the word, “womyn,” is a very feminist one. I choose to write womyn in hopes of capturing the readers attention, to have a conversation that evokes critical thought about labels and gender inequality. Like many feminists, I share and promote gender equality.