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3.2: Writing Chicanas/Latinas Into History

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    Chicana/Latina Studies Disruptions in Chicano/Latino and Women’s History

    This section highlights the contributions of interdisciplinary feminist scholars whose work seeks to recover, reinterpret, and illuminate Chicana/Latina women’s histories, particularly those that center gender and sexuality as analytical categories, thereby intervening in and expanding Chicanx/Latinx history and women’s history. The field of Chicana studies provided the foundation for creating Chicana history as a unique area of study (for more on this visit Section 5.6 Activist Scholarship and Chicana and Latina Studies). Two central topics emerged early on––a class analysis of women’s labor in the 19th and 20th centuries and the recuperation of the historical figure Malintzín Tenepal (for more on this visit Section 5.4 Cultural Activism), which extended the Chicano people’s origins to the pre-colonial era. Chicana historians have always used a wide range of interdisciplinary theoretical frameworks, methods, and sources in their scholarship including oral histories, testimonios, literary sources, teatro and performance art, visual art, and personal archival materials such as letters and journals, often illegible to colonial and patriarchal historiography. This feminist historical complexity is depicted artistically in Figure 3.2.1, which features The MaestraPeace Mural painted on the Women’s Building in San Francisco in 1994 by Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton, Irene Perez, and many volunteers. Central to the ornate mural is K’iche’ Guatemalan human rights activist, feminist, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum who holds Mesoamerican earth mother goddess Coyolxauhqui in her left hand and Santería ocean mother goddess Yemaya in her right hand. The mural conveys many themes including the healing power of women’s wisdom, the spiritual-physical connections between women, earth, and water, and women as important historical actors across time and place.

    Colorful mural on a beige building with many windows featuring Rigoberta Menchu Tum holding Indigenous female deities Coyolxauhqui and Yemeyah, one in each of her oversized hands.

    Figure 3.3:San Francisco - Mission District: The Women’s Building - MaestraPeace Mural” by Wally Gobetz is licensed  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    The interdisciplinary nature of Chicana feminist scholarship “made it difficult for mainstream scholars to acknowledge and legitimize Chicana Studies, and Chicana history more specifically, as an academic field.”19 In addition, many Chicanas faced poverty and a lack of access to higher education into the 1980s, resulting in the slow development of Chicana history. However, by the late 1980s and 1990s, significant numbers of Chicanas and Latinas entered academia, earned doctorate degrees, and began publishing groundbreaking studies, including those that examined gender, sexuality, culture, and power.

    La Cultura Cura: Medicinal Histories

    One example is the seminal essay “The Historian as Curandera,” by Puerto Rican Jewish writer, artist, historian, and healer Aurora Levins Morales. The essay is a curandera handbook for socially committed historians invested in disrupting imperial histories, which she defines as manufactured official histories wielded by a colonizing power or repressive regime “to attack the sense of history of those they wish to dominate and attempt to take over and control people’s relationship to their own past.”20 Imperial histories are created to justify and explain oppressive power imbalances by naturalizing them, making them seem inherent and permanent. This is accomplished by disrupting the transmission of intergenerational knowledge through the destruction of cultural traditions and records, thereby damaging the colonized group’s sense of historical identity. To remedy the damage caused by imperial histories, a curandera historian,

    …uses history, not so much to document the past as to restore to the dehistoricized a sense of identity and possibility. Such ‘medicinal histories’ seek to re-establish the connections between peoples and their histories, to reveal the mechanisms of power, the steps by which their current condition of oppression was achieved, through a series of decisions made by real people to dispossess them; but also to reveal the multiplicity, creativity and persistence of resistance among the oppressed.21  

    Activity: Apply Your Knowledge

    The following list is a summary of 15 characteristics and practices presented in “The Historian as Curandera” that student-scholars can use as a guide to begin a medicinal history research project. Review the list and discuss the questions listed and any others that come up with a partner or in a small group. The list can also be used to review scholarship to determine if it meets the criteria to be considered a medicinal history. 

    An excellent example of a medicinal history is The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History by Emma Pérez (1999). Pérez confronts the expectation that historians must remain within the sanctioned boundaries of the discipline, work within the dominant systems of thought, and sustain official arguments. She argues that as a discipline, history relies on a colonial imaginary, which purports to be objective and able to provide definitive answers when in reality, it arranges time and space linearly emphasizing origins, categories, chronologies, and periodization. These prevalent approaches reinforce colonialist historiography, similar to what Levins Morales calls imperial history, and have been utilized by Chicano/a historians to construct a masculinist Chicano historiography that has omitted or obscured women, queer, and Indigenous peoples. Pérez interrogates the construction of accepted knowledges in general and examines the gaps in Chicano historical discourse in particular, marking a shift in Chicano/a historiography. To address her concerns, she deploys the decolonial imaginary, a new category, a political project, and “a theoretical tool for uncovering the hidden voices of Chicanas that have been relegated to silences, to passivity, to that third space where agency is enacted through third space feminism.”25 The decolonial imaginary allows us to “write a history that decolonizes otherness”26 by “(en)gendering Chicano history”27––in other words, to write Chicanas into history. Pérez, like Levins Morales, is concerned with processes over origins, asking questions over declaring definitive answers, making interventions over documentation, and speaking self-reflectively from the margins to reconceptualize fragmented histories that center women and queer Chicanas.

    Herstorical Recovery with Chicana Movidas

    Other feminist historians provide additional tools for writing Chicanas/Latinas into history. ¡Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement by Maylei Blackwell (2011) is the first and only book-length study of women’s involvement in the Chicano movement era to date. The text makes a critical historiographic intervention by looking to the gaps in colonial and patriarchal historical practices that continually silence and erase women. For instance, despite the historical evidence of Chicana feminist praxis (thought and activism), historians of the U.S. women’s movement and the Chicano movement have expunged Chicana contributions from the historical record. The act of periodization in particular erases women of color from the 1960s and 1970s. The so-called waves model, foundational in women’s studies, places women of color activism and writing as emerging in the third wave, denying their participation and contributions to the second wave.28 Chicano movement history periodization claims the height of the movement took place in 1968-1975 and locates Chicana feminism as occurring afterward, with some historians arguing feminism contributed to its decline. 

    Consequently, these acts of ongoing erasure are reflected in women’s studies and Chicano studies curricula. Moreover, the emphasis on the great man narrative in Chicano movement historiography “does a disservice to the historical memory of the majority of its participants and obscures the fact that the collective action and daily acts of courage of thousands of everyday people change the tide of history.”29 Utilizing the concept of retrofitted memory, Blackwell interrogates why certain stories remain untold, uncovering the ways power functions in the creation of truth regimes, in order to make space for women’s (his)stories and their visions of liberation and transformation. Blackwell invites readers to “continue the historical excavation and analysis, to chart underground stories, and to develop a better understanding of the actors who have already been recognized.”30

    Continuing the tradition of historical recovery and destabilization of conventional social movement historical narratives that focus on iconic individual leaders, renowned organizations, and large-scale public events, Chicana movidas provides a lens to understand the everyday strategies, tactics, and relationships, often occurring within and between highly visible movements, as intentional and significant individual and collective liberatory maneuvers.31 These movidas are organized using a technique called mapping movidas, which is

    a mode of historical analysis that allows us to chart the small-scale, intimate political moves, gestures, and collaborations that reflect the tactics women used to negotiate the internalities of power within broader social movements. It identifies how they tracked and negotiated multiple scales of power within their homes, communities, organizations, social movements, and dominant society. It recuperates both silenced memories and their documentary evidence to tell a story of the intimacies of struggle, challenging the knowledge/power system of traditional archival spaces and methodologies. It looks not only to marches, meetings, and conferences but also to alternative sites of collective action: the kitchens, hallways, and living rooms where Chicanas forged a praxis at the intersection of their identities.

    By focusing on Chicana movidas, scholars are able to move beyond the confines of Chicano historiography, expanding the field’s spatial and temporal boundaries by documenting movidas outside of the U.S. Southwest and outside of already documented major events and actions. Chicana movidas are not limited by dominant modes of historical periodization, and as a result, studies tend to be transgenerational. For example, Chicana lesbians such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, Naomi Littlebear Moreno, and Cherríe Moraga, among many others, often organized for Chicana or women’s rights in the 1970s and later produced Chicana lesbian feminist scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s, acting as a bridge between Chicana movement spaces and phases.    

    Chicana and Latina historians have built a robust and dynamic field over the last five decades illuminating women’s voice, agency, and material realities. They have provided us with new intersectional and interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological tools to read against the grain, recover subjugated knowledges, and center marginalized stories. While many important studies have been written, they are only scratching the surface––there are unlimited topics to explore and studies to produce in Chicana/Latina history. The next section introduces readers to two of the many decolonial-medicinal methods that have been developed by feminist and queer historians.


    19 Chávez-García, “Interdisciplinary,” 549.

    20 Aurora Levins Morales, “The Historian as Curandera,” Working Paper no. 40 (East Lansing: The Julian Samora Research Institute, Michigan State University, 1997): 1.

    21 Levins Morales, “The Historian,” 1.

    22 Levins Morales, “The Historian,” 2.

    23 Levins Morales, “The Historian,” 3.

    24 Levins Morales, “The Historian,” 7.

    25 Emma Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999): xvi.

    26 Pérez, Decolonial Imaginary, 6.

    27 Pérez, Decolonial Imaginary, 7.

    28 The waves model is generally constructed as suffragettes of the first wave (mid-19th century to 1920s), the (white) women’s liberation movement of the second wave (1960s-1980s), women of color, riot grrrls, and intersectional feminism of the third wave (1990s-present), and anti-sexual harassment and violence/#metoo of the fourth wave (2010s-present). For an excellent critique of the waves model see Hokulani K. Aikau, Karla A. Erickson, and Jennifer L. Pierce, eds. Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations: Life Stories from the Academy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

    29 Maylei Blackwell, “Spinning the Record: Historical Writing and Righting,” in ¡Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press: 2011), 28.

    30 Maylei Blackwell, “Introduction: The Telling is Political,” in ¡Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press: 2011), 9.

    31 María Cotera, Maylei Blackwell, and Dionne Espinoza, “Introduction: Movements, Movimientos, and Movidas,” in Chicana Movidas: New Narratives of Activism and Feminism in the Movement Era, eds. Dionne Espinoza, María Eugenia Cotera, and Maylei Blackwell (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 1-30.

    This page titled 3.2: Writing Chicanas/Latinas Into History is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amber Rose González (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .