I was lucky enough to interview a friend of mine whose history inspired me because of all the challenges she have had to face in order to be here at Occidental College today. When we first began discussing the purpose of this project, collecting feminist narratives, my mind immediately went to Mary [Preferred No Last Name] because of her story of resistance and resilience in response to all the setbacks she has faced as a Mexican-American Latina. Mary was excited to participate the interview and allowed me to conducted the interview in her room on the November 4 of 2019 . She was very excited to shared her history.
BackgroundMary grew up in a city that was predominately Latinx and has a large immigrant population from Latin American, Indian and Nigeria mainly. The city has a small white population, Mary rarely even saw a white person. There was a nicer part of town where the white population of her city lived, and the people of color lived in the southern part of the city where everything was broken. Unless she was in one of the more gentrified areas of the city or in school she rarely was in a situation where she interacted with white folks. Mary’s parent and grandparents emigrated from Mexico and came to the United States of America for better life chances. Unfortunately, her father was deported when Mary was nine-years-old, so she was primarily raised by her mother. Mary has an older brother with autism and two younger sisters. Her brother’s autism and her sister’s disabilities along with her father’s deportation created some difficulties for her family. Mary describes her family as having a low income. She didn’t have access to internet until the summer of her junior year in high school. Her mother, siblings, and grandparents all live together under a single roof. Mary’s family is religious and practices Catholicism, but she describes herself as the odd one out.
Mary focused her energy into school but the education she received wasn’t the best. Her elementary school was one of the worst 500 elementary schools of the state. Her teachers were primarily white and had no strict curriculum or plan in place for their classes. Mary was an English learner until the fourth grade and was then in the GATE classes (Gifted And Talented Education Program) for high achieving students. In middle school, she had bad teachers who taught very little with the lowest efforts coming from the English and Social Studies teachers. Students would be berated and yelled at for being familiar with one another and were punished by the teacher’s neglecting to teach their students. During high school the GATE program ended but the high achieving students were still grouped together. When she started going to high school the demographic shifted and she began to notice that more and more white students were in her high achieving classes. She felt very unprepared in her high school courses and was involved in several college preparation programs to prepare for college applications.
Feminist ConsciousnessMary’s mother was the first strong female role model that Mary had in her life. Growing up without her father, Mary’s mother became the primary care taker and provider for Mary and her siblings. Mary’s mother was a single mother living under conservative and oppressive parent, who would be Mary’s grandparents, but she was still able to come ahead and provide for her children. Her mother was very encouraging and supportive of Mary. She was determined to teach her that as a woman she could succeed, she encouraged Mary to go to college. What Mary found inspirational about her mother was the fact that she raised four children alone with a deported her husband in Mexico. She was determined to do everything alone and refused to receive help from anyone at all. She persisted despite any pain she felt, Mary was motivated and empowered by her mother’s sacrifice to persist.
Mary had the opportunity to spend two week at a prestigious all woman’s college and she learned a lot about feminism during that program. She had the opportunity to learn from the professors and from her peers. Mary was empowered. She learned that as a bisexual Latina she had the right to space and her claim on that space was valid. The program was feminist because they were learning how to use feminist discursive methods and applying them to what they were seeing around them. She learned that feminist weren’t crazy like the people in her life were telling her. She was exposed to what it meant to be a feminist; helping other women, people of low socio-economic backgrounds, immigrants, etc. Once Mary had access to the internet she was immediately linked to millions of people who could add their voice to feminist discourse. She was constantly learning more and staying involved was easier than ever for her. The two week program at the all woman’s college was her true feminist awakening which was fed through her access to feminism on the internet.
Identifying LabelsWhen prompted, Mary revealed that they identified with Latina and Bisexual as key parts of their identity however she explained that sometimes she didn’t feel like she fully fit into either label. In the interview, Mary explained that she was lighter-skinned than her sisters and father, even describing herself as “white looking”. Growing up she was constantly told that she wasn’t Latina enough because she was white passing. She spoke Spanish proficiently, but she sometimes feels that she doesn’t fit into the Latinx community because of her complexion. Race and ethnicity are such a complex ideas that even though both Mary’s parents are from Mexico her identity as Latina is challenged by the complexion of her skin. In their piece Racial Formations within the United States Michael Omi and Howard Winant pushed to have race understood as “an unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being formed by political struggles” (Omi & Winant, 1994). From listening to Mary’s struggles with her identity as Latina the complexity of race unravels, and you understand what Omi and Howard were saying. Mary’s mother and father were both born in Mexico, she was raised in a Mexican household, and Mary can speak Spanish but despite all of that her racial identity is threatened by the color of her skin because she happens to be a white Latina. It was a simple biological occurrence that she has a lighter complexion than her siblings, but she was shamed for it as if she had chosen to be white-passing. In her explanation of why she feels that she doesn’t completely fit in under the term Latina Mary compares her complexion to her sisters who are “darker” and laughs to release tension while she continues her explanation. It wasn’t a light occurrence of her childhood it lingered to a point where Mary says “I feel like I don’t full conform to either of they should be” even though there is no right or wrong way to be Latinx.
Mary also labeled herself as bisexual which she felt she didn’t fulfill because she is currently in a straight passing relationship with a man. I couldn’t help but notice during the interview that when Mary was describing her current relationship and previous ones she said that she was in “straight relationship” even though she is bisexual. She is a queer woman and yet she defines her relationship as straight. Her sexuality remains bisexual even if she happens to be in a relationship with a man. I think that this mentality that Mary has about her relationship being straight when she is a queer woman comes from a societal compulsory heterosexuality, she is thinking straight. In the introduction of her book Thinking Straight Chrys Ingraham says, “In this heteronormative system where heterosexuality becomes institutionalized and is held up as the standard for legitimate and expected social and sexual relations” (Ingraham 2013). We live in a heteronormative society and I feel that the fact that Mary is a queer woman in a relationship with a man also complicates her label. There is a stigma attached to queer women that if they are in a relationship with a man and enjoy sex with men then they can’t be queer, as if they lose their membership in some sort of club. It isn’t a complicated idea that sexuality doesn’t change even when someone is in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex. The identity of queer women is always being contested and fetishized by a male gaze, society has come far in LGBTQ rights but there is still a lot to change.
Mainstream FeminismWhen I questioned Mary about her concerns regarding mainstream feminism, she expressed fear over the fact the exclusivity of mainstream feminism would leave certain communities who need the most support from feminist movements vulnerable. She expresses that a movement whose focus is solely to help one particular group is intimidating during a time where several people are disadvantaged with very few ways to get help. In “The Problem of Speaking for Others” Linda Alcoff that when someone speaks for another group problems arise from two sources. “First . . . a speaker’s location has an epistemological significant impact of the speaker’s claim and can serve to authorize or deauthorize one’s speech” (Alcoff 1991). Alcoff is telling us that the social locations that a person hold can credit or discredit what they are saying. In this part of the interview Mary imitates feminist that are advocating for a monolithic type of woman that benefits no one but if only you take in account Mary’s experience her fears and dismissiveness are founded in their social location. Alcoff continues and says, “The second Source involves a recognition that . . . certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous” (Alcoff 1991). There is a danger behind mainstream feminism that depends on this idea of monolithic collective oppressed-by-the-patriarchy woman. When women in a privileged position advocate for themselves they can discredit or challenge advocates of different kinds of women and people by giving a louder voice.
During the interview, Mary’s tone of voice shifts when she starts talking about women who are feminist, women who claim they want equality for just women. She labels herself an intersectional feminist and from the interview you can surmise that she believes that all disadvantage communities need to be advocated for. However, her frustration is also directed to feminist who are only advocating for a collective monolithic women. Her tone of voice shifts from one to concern to one of frustration over mainstream feminism. There are moments where Mary imitates what these mainstream feminist would say, and the pitch and tone of her voice change in imitations of these self-proclaimed feminist. Mary gives a voice to these women and a tone as well in an imitation. You get a sense that all of the phrases come from people and things she has heard from her own experiences. It’s possible that the concept of people advocating for equality for a single group seem ridiculous and infantile to Mary because in her life she has experienced intersectionality in the challenges she has to overcome – race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability. To her for a single group to advocate for a single monolithic category of people and aren’t willing to reach out to help disadvantaged communities ridiculous.
Final ThoughtsThis entire interview was an opportunity to talk the feminist discourse and studies from class and apply them to life. We were able to collect data people and hear their narratives and histories in person. The experience was entirely different from anything else. I’ve read poems, articles, essays, and book but this interview was personal narratives of I person I knew, it seemed more significant. I learned that all of the parts of your childhood and your upbringing are relevant when considering a person’s positionality in certain discourses. It seems simple by once you take the time to closely look at and note down a person's history what they say becomes more complex. The closer you look at all of the little details the more and more you reveal and explain about a response. I found it very difficult to decide what themes to include and focus on as I planned for this essay.
Works Cited:Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, no. 20, 1991, pp. 5–32.
Ingraham, Chrys. "Introduction: thinking straight." Thinking Straight. Routledge, 2013. 1-5.
Winant, Michael and Omi Howard. "Racial Formations." Racial Formations in the United States (1994): 53-69.