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Book Review

500 years of Chicana women’s history

by Jo Freeman

500 years of Chicana women’s history / 500 años de la mujer Chicana
by Elizabeth "Betita" Martínez
Published by Rutgers University Press, 2008; Bilingual Edition

Paperback, 332 pp

This fascinating book is full of visual sound bites. Each paired page contains photographs, drawings, clippings, and explanatory text in two languages. Together they form a collage of snapshots telling the history of Mexican women — a history absent from the standard texts.

It’s a panoramic vision — stretching across time and space.

Mexican is defined broadly from the indigenous peoples who preceded the Spanish conquest to those now living in their conquered northern territories, comprising the states from Texas to California (which Martinez calls Occupied California).

Her history begins with the many creation stories in which woman was key. It quickly jumps to the Spanish invasion which brought "a life of abuse and oppression." A rather sympathetic paragraph on Malinalli Tenepal (La Malinche), an aide and consort to Cortes whom many Mexicans regard as a traitor, is followed by shorter ones on the many women who resisted colonization.

Martinez includes the stories of Afro-Mexicans, acknowledging that the importation of African slaves made Mexico into a tri-racial society. Since Church and state accepted intermarriage, a complex system of castes and classes emerged, but without the rigid lines of separation found in the English colonies. Later in the book the author adds the stories of lesbians, which neither Church nor state accepted.

Following "The Story of a Great Land Robbery," which ended in 1848, 80 percent of the book is on las Chicanas in los Estados Unidos. Over one million Mexicans went north between 1900 and 1930 to supplement the scattered population that remained in the U.S. Once here they formed mutual assistance leagues and opened their own schools in order to maintain their culture and fight exclusion, discrimination and exploitation.

The Great Depression led to forced deportation so "real Americans" could have the jobs they hadn’t wanted during boom times. Nonetheless, Chicanas fought to stay and fought for better lives. Garment workers in LA marched and struck to form a union and get better wages, as did laundry and cannery workers. Their lot improved with World War II, where they served in the Women’s Army Corp and on the home front.

Throughout the 20th Century, Chicanas organized, with and without their men. They helped found LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) in 1929, ANMA (National Mexican-American Association) in 1949, the Brown Berets in 1967, la Raza Unida in 1969, and many other associations.

Mexicans are often thought of as farmworkers and their struggle to organize is a major part of this book. Delores Huerta, co-founder of UFW (United Farm Workers) is featured on two pages; many other women get their own paragraphs and photographs. Their activity in many other workers’ struggles is also documented.

Chicanas were also outspoken feminists. Their Primer Congreso Feminista was held in Mexico in 1916. La Comision Femenil Mexicana National was founded in 1970 and La Conferencia de Mujeres Por La Raza held in Houston in 1971. In 1982 academic Latinas started Mujeres Activas en Letras Y Cambio Social. (Women Active in Letters and Social Change). These are only a few of the many groups women organized that are described in this book.

Although some recognition is paid to traditionally prominent women (poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the Virgin of Guadalupe), the women in this book are fighters and theirs is a story of struggle, collective and individual. Photos and stories of strikes, marches and protests abound — though academic activists get ten pages and producers of culture get 35. The fight for immigrant rights is only the latest battle in this history of continual struggle.

Although Chicanas continue their fight, their repertoire has broadened. Women are now fighting not only in the streets and on their jobs, but through the political system. Over time, their voice as voters and candidates and holders of public office has joined their shouts as protesters.

You will enjoy reading how Chicanas went from protesters to politicians — in only 500 years.


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