Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shaping a Latina Feminist Identity

Courtesy of Tennessee Guerilla Women
My mother would never call herself a feminist, even though she is the embodiment of a feminist. She will say that feminism is incompatible with Catholicism, but warns me of the perils of religious fanaticism; that life is tough for all women, while reminding me she wants me and my sisters to have more opportunities than she did; that she does not have time to protests things she cannot change, although she singlehandedly raised three daughters, working 12 hour shifts as a home attendant for the elderly, six days a week; and that she really wants me to one day get married and give her grandchildren, but there's no rush!

For many years I thought my mother's refusal to believe in feminism came from her misconceptions of what it meant. Maybe she was caught up in the whole "lesbian" and "hairy legs" myths that are so often associated with women who are just trying to be treated as equals. But the reality is that as a Hispanic woman she did not believe that the traditional, Western, view of feminism related to her. Feminism for her felt like a movement she was not entitled to be part of. Surely women played a major role in the revolutionary movements of the 20th century in Latin America, but those efforts were rarely spoken of in feminist circles. According to history books women's rights movement of the 19th and 20th century never truly took root in Latin America.

The only way I could understand my mother's brave streak, while her other female relatives were so deeply entrenched in gender roles and a patriarchal household, was to look at her past, starting with the woman who gave birth to her. My maternal grandmother became pregnant with my mother out of a love affair in Dominican Republic. My grandfather was already engaged to be married, and he was not going to lose his macho status by being associated with a woman of "lose morals," so he abandoned her. Being a single mother is not easy in any part of the world, but Latin America is steeped in conservatism that shames women for being overtly sexual, while exalting men's promiscuity. My grandmother was shunned from her village, kicked out of her home, and left to fend for herself and her baby daughter. Ironically, it was my grandfather's oldest sister, unmarried and in the process of becoming a nun, who took a pregnant woman in. After my mother was born her aunt made sure that her niece was fed, clothed, and educated, and she looked after the woman her brother had abandoned. Unfortunately my grandmother was never able to get rid of the stigma of being a single mother and the embarrassment of her lover's abandonment for a more honorable, ie. virginal, woman. She suffered several mental breakdowns, was hospitalized for neurosis, and in 1970 she committed suicide by swallowing a poisonous cocktail of pills. My mother was raised by her paternal aunt, a woman who was planning on becoming a nun and never expected she would have to be a mother to her brother's child. Years later the one thing my mother was certain of was that she was alive, educated, and healthy, none of it had to do with a man. There were no men in her life, except for the few times her biological father would invite her to his immaculate home, where she felt unwanted and out of place.

At the age of 20 my mother married my father. For the first time in her life she had a man in her life, but he was not the prince charming people always told her about. Soon after the honeymoon my father made her quit her university studies claiming her first priority should be her children, he kept her from learning how to drive, and eventually regulated the time she could spend outside the home. This was exacerbated after we migrated to the United States, by then my sister was born and my mother was pregnant with her third daughter. Now my mother was expected to live by marianismo, the concept that the ideal woman should be spiritually immaculate and eternally self-giving; she is to self-sacrifice and reject her own pleasure in order to please others, particularly the men in her life. Meanwhile my father lost the status he once had as a married man with children and the owner of his own business in the Dominican Republic. After several failed attempts at opening businesses he drowned in debts, started to drink heavily, and became violent at the slightest provocation. Six years after we first stepped foot on American soil, my parents separated.

The night my mother left we had no where to go. She wandered aimlessly through the streets of Brooklyn, New York with three young daughters and one suitcase. Her nearest relative was on vacation, but it was the only home she could trust. So we sat in her front stoop for hours, although we knew that there was no chance anyone would open the door. Eventually my mother started looking for a spare key and found it. So we slept in her cousin's house for that night. It was a house I had visited often, but that night it felt eerie, as if we had broken into a stranger’s home. After unsuccessfully trying to search for a shelter that would take in a mother with three daughters, we went to the house of one of my school mates, whose mother had recently left her husband. She took us into her tiny apartment and gave us the bedroom of her youngest son. It only had a twin size bed and one window, so my mother would cover the floor with our clothing and lay a sheet over it as a makeshift bed for me and my sister, while she slept in the bed with my baby sister. We did that for six months until my mother was able to finish a training to become an elderly caretaker, get a job, and eventually a new home.

After all of this, my mother was thankful. She says she is one of the luckiest women in the world because she has three great daughters who make her proud. She does not pity herself, she does not even complain. When talking of the past she says that many have suffered more, and that she would not change anything. Admittedly, when I first began learning of feminism, I became upset with my mother. Surely she had to be angry after so many men in her life had failed her. How could she not see that she had to become the sacrificial lamb for us, while our father went out at night and did not once have to worry whether his daughters had enough to eat or a place to sleep? How could she work 12 hours a day and still come home to prepare us a meal and clean the house? I wanted her to be angry, because I was. Why did she have to suffer because of the mistakes others made?

It did not take long for my mother to notice my rebellious streak. One day she had enough of me talking down to her about her inability to see feminism from my point of view. She asked me if I was ashamed of my culture, or if I thought that taking care of children was not a satisfying job; if I truly believed that domestic duties would diminish my worth, and if I thought following traditions were demeaning. She reminded me that I was the one who insisted on having a quinceañera, the Latin American version of the Sweet Sixteen; a coming of age tradition that included a religious ceremony and my father changing my shoes from flat to heels and presenting me to the world as a woman. I wanted that, and today I know that it was a patriarchal society that led me to believe my father needed to confirm my womanhood, but I loved it. I will not deny it. It was symbolic and it allowed me to feel closer to my culture.

My mother, the woman that was the definition of marianismo, the unfeminist, was also the woman who taught me to find my own kind of feminism. A feminism that is threefold and includes an attachment to traditional culture, a satisfaction for being a mother and wife, and a devotion to religious symbolism. My mothers' feminism was about learning to do better than just survive. She was a full-time worker, a full-time mother, and was fully invested in her community and her church. She did not have the option of choosing between a fruitful career or being a stay-at-home mother. In fact, I had no working definition of a stay-at-home mom until I was in college, because it was a far-fetched dream in my life. All my female relatives had no choice but to work because not doing so meant their children would go hungry. So they all babysat each other's children as a way of supporting each other. I tried hard to make my family fit into the ideal feminist household: a home with two loving and equally working parents who somehow could still make time to be with their children and take summer vacations. But that was idealistic. My reality was my mothers' feminism; a feminism that was not just about envisioning a different world, but creating a life that will change it for her children.

Hispanic women are fully aware that our culture is entrenched in misogyny, but not necessarily any less than American culture. Women in the United States are often expected to take their husbands' last name. Many men still go to their bride's father to ask for her hand in marriage; just because we see it as a sweet gesture it does not mean that it isn't patriarchal in nature. Valuing your heritage will not take away from being a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman. I feel resentment at the way that Western feminism made me see my mother as a woman trapped in tradition, when in reality she was a living example of a feminist. Loving tradition and having pride in your culture does not mean these women cannot vocalize the gender issues of their communities. My mother's feminism was the truest form of feminism for me; a belief in the potential upward mobility of all women. Feminism cannot continue to exist as a monolithic block, or we will never be able to include women from all walks of life.

Friday, August 3, 2012

From Girl to Woman: A Quinceañera Story

I don't remember the exact day I realized that being called "girl" was demeaning. I wish I could say it was one particular scenario in which I felt infantilized, but it is very likely that I slowly came to the realization that I am indeed a woman. I am a woman for many reasons, but I am not a girl because of my age. I was ecstatic when I turned thirteen, and expected everyone to address me by my new age group; teenager. With age comes pride and the feeling of accomplishment; whether it is an actual accomplishment or the feeling of having survived: the feeling that you are closer to being autonomous, emancipated, and in control of yourself.

As a Latina, I dreamed of the day I would be a Quinceañera; meaning "one who is fifteen years old" in Spanish. A Quinceañera party is not just a big hoopla, it is a rite of passage from girlhood into womanhood. My Quinceañera symbolized my development into a woman, and it was marked by a meaningful ceremony. The ceremony consisted of a religious service where I received a blessing and gave thanks for the gift of life. I also participated in the traditional fifteen candles ceremony, where I selected fifteen family members and friends that had positively influenced my development into a woman, wrote a small speech explaining how they influenced me, and lighted a candle in their honor, so that they may always be there to guide my way. My father changed my shoes from flats to high heels to signify that I was no longer a child, and my mother put a rhinestone encrusted tiara on my head to present me to the world as a queen.

My parents went through such an extravagant and expensive ceremony, just to present me to the world as no longer a girl, but a woman. Coming of age ceremonies vary from culture to culture, but their connecting thread is to celebrate reaching adulthood. Embracing womanhood at the age of fifteen was historically necessary in the Hispanic community because it was the appropriate age for a woman to marry and bear children. In modern times, the idea that a fifteen year old girl is emotionally and physically mature to become a wife and mother is debatable, but the symbolism remains. The Quinceañera ceremony gave me no choice but to embrace being a woman, although it took me a few more years to accept that.

I didn't feel as if I had an adult identity, or more specifically, an identity as a woman, until I finished college and entered the professional world. I was the only female, aside from a much older administrative assistant, in my department in an engineering firm. Being the only female engineer and the youngest person in my group made me realize that I wasn't going to get respect just for being there, I had to earn it. I was immediately, the "new girl," then "the girl working for...such and such," and finally just "the girl that sits by the plan desk." It would have been inconceivable for me to call any of my colleagues "boy" because to do so would be insulting and suggests that they are incapable of handling adult tasks. While I excelled in my career and spoke to all my coworkers as my equal, the term "girl" stuck with me. It was demeaning to have men who could be my father refer to me as "girl" because it forced me to see them as a parental figure, which is a power structure I was unwilling to submit to in my profession. I interpreted their calling me "girl" to the idea that I, and in retrospect all women, was childlike in nature.

Although I felt infantilized by my peers, I was more conflicted because I felt guilty. I call adult women, including myself, "girls" without giving it a second thought. I am the first to say "you go girl!" Social outings with other women are a "girls' night out," and I cannot remember a time when I did not start an email or a text to a friend with the phrase "hey girl!"I have noticed that informally men and women are called "girls and guys," especially when referring to adults in their early 20s, like most of the individuals in my social circle, and for this reason I do not see anything wrong with calling other women "girls" in an informal setting. It's a playful expression of youthfulness, equal to "hanging out with the boys." But, I draw the line at calling women "girls" in a professional setting, or any setting where males are exclusively referred to as "men."

It took me months to stand up to my colleagues about the way they addressed me, but it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I had passed through my coming of age ceremony at the age of fifteen with the blessing of my relatives and friends, urging me on to be the woman they had already seen in me. I could not let them down by submitting myself to a society that will never use the word "boy" to refer to a professional man in a work setting, but uses the word "girl" universally to refer to women of all ages. Adulthood is messy and complicated, and no one truly wants to grow up, but it is part of living. I am an adult. I am a woman. I am a self-respecting, sexual, independent, free-thinking, smart, feisty, woman.