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Nicole Matos

Critical Feminist Studies

21 November 2007

The Hardest Button to Button

Restatement of Proposal

My feminist project for this semester is auto-ethnographic project on to blend my identities of Puerto Rican and a woman. This idea first stemmed from the class conversation of backgrounding and foregrounding. I realized I could not focus on both identities at once and wanted to learn more on how see myself as Latina.

This project is a personal exploration of gender and racial identity issues. I am tackling it as with the knowledge of Latina academics such as Yamila Azize-Vargas and Cherrie Mortaga. I am using them as a sort of introduction to the expansive field of knowledge that is Latina feminism. I am also reading Sandra Cisneros, who was introduced to me at a young age by my older sister. Her writing gives a more personal aspect to Latina feminism and I will expand more on this later. I also want to tackle this with the guidance of the women in my family, more specifically my sisters, my mother and mi abuelita.

This knowledge will be presented as an “auto-ethnography”, as previously stated. I first heard this term when Susan Stryker visited our class. She used it to describe her work, more specifically “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix -- Performing Transgender Rage”. In this work she used personal experience, and told a deeply personal story, as an introduction and/or guide to a more theoretical talk on transgender issues.

The project is a work in progress and I can not entirely reveal what shape it is going to take, simply because I do no know yet. From here, it could go one of two ways, in terms of auto-ethnographic structure. It will either have a structure to Stryker’s Frankenstein, where it will begin with my personal experiences with of gender and cultural identity and expand into a discussion of what Latina feminism has to say about the subject. Or it could be the opposite, which at the moment seems more likely, that it will start with theoretical talk based in Latina feminist writings and narrow into (or expand onto, depending on your point of view) my personal experiences and struggles with the melding of what are my two dominant identities.

Yamila Azize-Vargas

When I first wrote about possibly pursuing this project, Professor Dalke recommended to me the work of Yamila Azize-Vargas, more specifically her article “The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, 1870-1930”. In this brief article Azize-Vargas discusses the impact of Puerto Rican nationality and United States intervention in Puerto Rico on the Puerto Riquena strive for equality. This article acted as my introduction to academic Latina feminist writing and I came away with major themes.

The first is that during this time, equality came with, and was in turn largely defined as a woman’s ability to work outside the home and receive an education. This is explicitly stated on the first page of the article when she says “women’s work outside the home and their access to more education contributed to creating the conditions for the emergence of feminism” and “education stands out as one of the most important forces that molded women’s lives” (Azize-Vargas 175). From my perspective in the Acosta-Matos household, this idea endures today. Wanda Acosta-Matos and Nelson Matos have three daughters; Crissy, Nikki and Andi. And they have always emphasized to all three girls the importance of an education, especially as a way of becoming independent women. At times it seems that men are the antithesis of education. My parents fear boyfriends as demons that steal our will and future. Ma talks to me sadly of our cousin who attended New York University, dropped out and is now married, jobless and three times a mother. I was saddened to learn this because, though this woman is a close family member, I never knew about her brief venture into academia. Moving on, it seems that the desire to be educated and independent, a desire that was instilled in me for as long as I can remember, is an ideal that is a quintessential Latina feminist ideal, or perhaps more specifically, a Boricua feminist ideal.

The second theme seems somewhat paradoxical, at least to me, next to the first theme. This is the idea the emergence of feminism clashed greatly with Puerto Rican nationalist ideals. Azize-Vargas expresses this when she says that “Puerto Rican feminists side with the Socialist Party and the U.S. Congress against the Puerto Rican legislature and the Catholic Church” and that there were “many instances in which gender equality comes up against nationalism” (Azize-Vargas 175). In the context of the article these assertions are not paradoxical. However, when translated into the context of the Acosta-Matos household, it is. Though for me and my sisters to be educated and independent was always emphasized in my household, there have always been limits and certain rules to live by concerning our role in the household. Now, I can go on a long diatribe but I will limit it to brief story.

One time weekend when I was 15 or 16 Tio Willie, my father’s younger brother, came to help Daddy work on deck he was building. I spent that day in the kitchen reading or doing homework or something similar. Ma had made dinner that afternoon but had to leave before my father y Tio came back in. Before she left told me that when they come in to warm up the food and serve them. I asked my mother why I had to treat two grown men like they were children and she said “Because you’re a girl and they’re men”. When I telling this story to the “men” my father smirked, rolled his eyes and said to his brother “she’s one of those independent women”. The message is when you become an independent but when you are inside this house, you will play your role. But what does this have to do with Latina Feminism? It seems that thought there is a long, strong history of feminism in Latinidad, other, even older ideals, still hold on and directly clash with these feminist ideals.

Sandra Cisneros

My older sister, Crissy, introduced to me to Sandra Cisneros. When I was younger Crissy, who is six years my elder, would make reading lists for me for the summer. She would test me on the books we read and we would discuss them. We did this for fun. The summer before ninth grade, she assigned me Cisneros’ ovular piece “The House on Mango Street”. I love this novel and it will probably play a grand role in my project. However, at the moment my worn copy of Mango Street is at home and I will need to retrieve it before delving into it. In its place I have two of her poems, “Old Maids” and “Las Girlfriends”, and her short essay “Notes to a Young Writer”.

The main theme I want to pull from “Old Maids” is how the marriages and fates of the women the narrator knows acts as a “lesson”, or a warning against marriage. She says “But we’ve studied/marriages too long- -“ and the marriages are “lessons that served us well” (Cisneros Lines 22-23 and 29). This a theme that comes up in much of Cisneros’ work and, naturally, I contrasted it against my own family and the Latinas I know. I, too, have received “lessons”. I see women who never learned how to drive and become trapped in their homes. I see women with college degrees being subservient to their husbands (An education doesn’t solve everything). To me, it is a less a warning against marriage, or relationships in general, as it is a warning against how not to act as a woman.

Again, it is another paradox. Though my father was (and is and always will be) there for me, I received a second hand education of fatherless childhood. My grandfathers were not very present in my parents and aunts and uncles life, thus making mis abuelitas, Luz and Ana, the heads of their respective families. When I do a section on my family, I will probably go on forever on how much I admire my grandmothers but now is not the time, I have a point to make. And that point is, because of this second hand education it has always been emphasized to me not to depend on a man for my living. I have take these words with a grain of salt because with them I also hear “I can’t wait to have grandchildren” and “Marry rich so you don’t have to work”.

From “Las Girlfriends”, I pulled out a theme of hermanadad. I feel this when the narrator states in “How do I explain, it was all/of Texas I was kicking/and all our asses on the line”(Cisneros Lines 12-14). Cisneros also expresses this feeling in her short essay “Notes to a Young Writer”. She says that she writes for “that world, the world of thousands of silent women, women like my mama and Emily Dickinson’s housekeeper…must be recorded so that their stories can finally be heard.” The feeling of hermanadad that Cisneros places in her work connects with another reoccurring theme I see, a need to give back the community she was born in and the women who shoulder she stands on.

Lessons Learned

Reading these works and reflecting on my family leads me a, maybe temporary, solution to my initial problem. It seems that the best way to blend these identities is to always be a woman. It sounds kind of weird but sometimes racial strife is completely masculine or asexual. I have to remember that by fighting for my rights as a Puerto Rican, I am exemplifying what it means to be a Latina. Also, another way to blend these identities is to embrace the ideals of Latina Feminism. And I think the most important lesson of I learned so far from Latino Feminism is from Sandra Cisneros. Her need to give back after she has gotten out represents the generous feminism of hermanadad.


Anne Dalke's picture

Focusing on Both At Once

Despite what you say, matos, I think you ARE "focusing on both identities at once," and that it's precisely in that double focus that things are coming most clear. And it's in(to) that intersection that I'd like to push you a little further....

What's most striking to me here is the implied contrast or paradox between the quintessential Boricua feminist ideal--being educated and so independent--and the clash of feminism with nationalist ideals. On the one hand, engaging in the nationalist struggle would seem to be the ultimate in claiming a proud public stance; on the other, there is a long tradition in (Anglo) feminism that questions the alliance of feminism and and nationalism. See (for instance) Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution, and Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. It would be great if you could read through and interview through and think through how this dynamic--feminism and nationalism--has played out for Boricua women, both on the island and in your family. Although you end by saying that "by fighting for my rights as a Puerto Rican, I am exemplifying what it means to be a Latina"....I'm not so sure (yet); maybe further exploration of the generousity of hermanadad will illuminate this for me...?

Also paradoxical, of course, is the contractory instructions you are getting not to depend on a man and "marry rich so you don't have to work"; on being independent and producing grandchildren. Are they reconcilable, or the evidence of several layers, several generations of thinking about women's roles, that have not (yet? never will?) come into alignment?

Finally, tell me how moving from theory about Latina feminism into your personal experiences might be an "expansive" move.

Looking forward to hearing more--