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Race, Place, & Gender (A Poem & More Questions)

tbarryfigu's picture

The world that we live in is

separated by more than just oceans, rivers,

 mountain ranges and borderlines.

The world that we live in is

segregated in more ways than race, creed,

 class and gender can define.

The world is divided by one, two, three,

four thousand picket lines.

The world that we live in is

neither yours nor mine.

We issue calls to take it back,

and to divide it into parts,

but with the world divided,

when will progress start?


As the poem above indicates, I am under the impression that our society has been broken down and dissected such that we can never be united. Every individual on this planet is like a vas that has been picked up, smashed, glued together, and smashed time and time again: there are so many parts on the floor that we don’t know how we fit together anymore. Two of these fragments, for which we are most recognized, are our external gender and apparent race. We have vaginas and breasts, and so we must be women. We lack or have an abundance of pigment in our skin, and so we must be this, that, or the other race. With these sad generalizations in mind, I call for a discussion of unity: How does race determine gender roles? How does culture allow for the interaction of race and gender with regards to feminist motives?

            An outsider’s observation of the Puerto Rican familial dynamic would most likely result in the report of a male-dominated, gender role-specific structure. “The man goes to work every day and provides the main income; the woman works as a part-time something and a full-time mother. The man brings home the bacon, the woman cooks it. The man eats first, the children second, and the woman last.” A Puerto Rican woman would not always disagree with this summary of every day life, simply because it is often the case. However, I have never known a Puerto Rican woman to agree with the idea that their society is one dominated by the male presence. In fact, the general understanding is this: The man goes to work and provides the main income because the woman demands it of him. If she is to bear the children, he better have the means to house and support their family. She will cook and clean not because she is desperate to entice a husband, but because such things befit her. She is worthy of a clean house. If she is hungry, she can cook for herself. She takes pride in her independence and her abilities.

In this way, it becomes apparent that the Puerto Rican male is dependant upon the woman and not the other way around, as would be assumed by an outside observer. If the male is to experience the luxuries of children, a clean home, and a good meal, he must be worthy of them. By these means, he demonstrates the understanding of an aspect of Puerto Rican culture that has been passed down for centuries: The original inhabitants of the island, the Taino Indians, looked upon women as Gods in and of the earth, the givers of life. Puerto Rican women today maintain this outlook with the slightest of alterations “I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out of it.” There is an underlying respect for women that is unseen and often shadowed by the stereotypical illustrations of feisty Latino lovers and their submissive Latina baby’s-mommas on TV.

Is it possible that the Puerto Rican societal construct I have described above is one with feminist subtitles or undertones? Is there a subliminal message emanating from this familial dynamic that screams for the supremacy of the female sex? Is it difficult to imagine a culture in which woman allow males to feel superior, simply because, underneath it all, they’re not (and they know it)? Paula Gunn Allen interprets a Keres Indian Tale, commonly known as a Yellow Woman story, from the perspective of three different personas: A woman with strong tribal beliefs and understanding, a goal-oriented feminist, and a tribal-feminist. When she is “dealing with feminism” she approaches it from a strongly tribal posture, and when she considers American Indian literature, she responds to it as a feminist. In much the same manner, I am capable of questioning the relationship between race and gender within Puerto Rican culture.

Is a woman who permits others to view the male as a superior, a feminist? As a Puerto Rican woman, I myself am unsure. Must female domination (or equality) over men be observed, even advertised, in order to incite a feeling of feminism? Is it fair to say that men and women are equal partners if the man supports the family financially and the woman provides the family itself? It seems that in order to unite the issues of race and gender, one must smash the vas in order to find the piece that will provide the answers. Perhaps it is that piece, then, that I must find.   


Anonymous's picture

I loved reading your paper,

I loved reading your paper, Tbarryfigu, because it's the only one I have read that engages with how gender and feminism might relate to real life. I think it's entirely possible for a Puerto Rican woman making the choices you describe to be a feminist. The key questions for me are Is the woman choosing her role of her own free will (and would she allow her daughters the freedom to choose their own path, even if it differs from hers?), and does the choice she makes receive respect in the culture she inhabits? If the answers to these questions are yes, then I think this can be a feminist choice. I guess another question would be Does the woman have the same opportunity and right to renegotiate the terms of family life as the man has? (If neither has the right, then I'd say it's a standoff.)

npalacios's picture

one thing

I was saying word to about every other sentence except for one thing...I don't agree with the way you positioned Taino culture with contemporary Puerto Rican culture. While what you said is true, to only attribute Puerto Rican-ness to the Tainos doesn't make sense when we know that to be Puerto Rican is to be a mestizaje of Europeans (who defin. have a patriarchial culture), Africans (who, depending on the culture may or may not have been based in patriarchy as well), and Tainos (one of the few indigenous cultures that I've heard of that praises women). I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wish I had seen that problematic area addressed a little more.  

Anne Dalke's picture

"You acting womanish" (=smashing the vase or reassembling it?)

You start your meditation, tbarryfigu, with the strong image of a vase so smashed 'that we don't know how we fit together anymore"; you end it not with a reconstruction, but with the call to smash the vase yet again, "to find the piece that will provide the answers." But I think you're not going to find one piece, one key (to mix metaphors) to the unity you're seeking...

In this country, perhaps the first and most articulate expression of a kind of feminism that refused to divide men from women--that refused to privilege gender over racial oppression--was Alice Walker's definition of womanism,
which "appreciated"women, but was "committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist … "

Since Walker wrote In Search of our Mothers' Gardens (where the "womanish" word was first used and defined) there's been lots of work done on women and gender studies in Latin America; about the feminist history of Latin America; about feminism in Puerto Rico in particular. I'm thinking especially of Yamila Azize-Vargas's piece on "The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, 1870-1930," in the third edition of Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois' s 2000 collection, Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History.

Are those texts you'd like to explore? And/or do some ethnographic research, some interviews with women you know (or would like to know) who have found ways of combining the racial and gendered aspects of self in "ways that fit together" and make some sense to you?