Filed under: Announcements, Fiction, Interview, Monthly News Round-Up, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized
The past few weeks So to Speak has devoted the blog to “Hispanic Heritage Month,” the official national recognition and celebration of the contributions made by generations of Latino/Hispanic Americans in the United States.
With a population totaling over 50 million, we at StS are aware that unique political, economic, educational, cultural, and linguistic dynamics are at play in each individual community within this broad classification. In our series we featured the voices of three Americans we felt represented significant segments of the Hispanic/Latino population in the nation.
The Exiled American
George Mason’s very own Women Studies professor and professor of English at Montgomery College, Cuban American Dr. Elizabeth Huergo, entered the United States with her parents a political refugee as a young child in the 1960’s. Huergo talked to StS’s blog editor, Sheryl Rivett, about how exile negates choice.
“Immigration can be very difficult, but at least there is some degree, however small, of choice. Exile obliterates choice. We are separated from everything we know (family, friends, homeland, language, culture), elements of our lives that deeply shape our identity. And exile also does great damage to our sense of agency in the world. The regaining, the reconstruction of identity and agency becomes the work of a lifetime, and that is not the easiest sort of work. Though if you can manage to endure, to persevere, there is a certain degree of joy to be experienced in that process of reconstruction—if you can come out on the other side.”
U.S.-born Frances E. Valdez, a Houston-based immigration attorney and activist, reflected on how she seems to frustrate people who ask her where she’s “from” and why she “cares” about immigrants when she hasn’t had relatives in Mexico “since the Mexican revolution around 1910.”
“Where were you born? Houston, Texas. Where were your parents born? El Paso, Texas. Where were your grandparents born? El Paso, Texas, Balmorhea, Texas and Ft. Davis, Texas. That is when people usually start to get frustrated and ask, Well, where is your family from originally? The actual meaning behind this statement is, you are a brown-skinned woman and brown-skinned women are not native to the U.S.” As to why she cares about immigrants: “Anyone who has ever experienced the feeling that you will never truly belong because of your gender, sexuality, skin color, ancestry, disability or a myriad of categories that differ from mainstream society, can develop sympathy for the immigrant struggle. When we recognize the similarities amongst oppressed communities, we realize that by fighting for justice for immigrants we fight for equality for all oppressed groups.”
The American Son of Undocumented Immigration
Poet Javier O. Huerta, a doctoral candidate in English at UC- Berkeley, identifies as a “Chicano poet from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas [Mexico] who lived as an undocumented immigrant in Houston, Tejas from 1981 to 1981.” We asked Huerta what it meant to him to be a 21st century feminist male and he told us of his work on a collection of poems inspired by the actress Lupe Ontiveros who told the New York Times that she played the role of maid 150 times.
“At the center of the poem is the problem of a double translation: “aspirar” as “to aspire” or as “to vacuum.” This is not really a choice for many poor women of color who for generations have had to turn to domestic work to support their families. Ontiveros claims she portrayed every maid she ever played with dignity and respect, so the 150 verses are my way of thanking her. The diversity of roles available to Latina actresses is definitely an important issue but one that should be tied with the more crucial issue of real life roles available to young Latinas. To be a 21st century feminist man means to support efforts that offer women more freedom of choice in their careers and in their lives and to oppose efforts that attempt to limit that freedom.”
Although the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably by media and interest groups, the decision to self-identify as one or the other is less a point of debate within the community (who tends to default to country of origin), and more a challenge for those outside who attempt to homogenize multi-ethnic, multiracial, astoundingly diverse millions. Since the surge of popularity of “Latino” in mainstream media especially, however, the umbrella terms are lately perceived as less contentious, and as such their use is now on the rise over what some feel are the more alienating “Mexican/Cuban/Dominican/Salvodorean American” labels.
“I think we should be cautious about the use of “Latino” because it is being used to target us, as voters, as shoppers, and as readers,” said Huerta when asked about the rising popularity of the umbrella terms. “The more specific the better is what we teach our students.”
You don’t need to be a feminist to know the risks of engaging in sweeping, simplified generalizations, even and especially if, these are deemed the norm or “official.” We are proud to have introduced these three stories of feminism in action to the So to Speak community. As American feminists and world citizens, it is imperative that we learn to recognize and value the myriad of experiences lived in Latino/Hispanic America.
Filed under: Fiction, Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized
(photo credit: National Geographic Magazine Photo of the Day, May 18, 2010)
We continue our conversation with Cuban-American professor and author Elizabeth Huergo. If you missed the first half of the interview, be sure to read it here. A professor of English at Montgomery College and an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at George Mason University, Elizabeth Huergo recently published her first novel The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books 2013), and is a published poet, essayist, and short story writer.
Interview, Part 2
Sheryl: How you feel you subvert, celebrate, or complicate identity and gender roles or power structures in your work?
Elizabeth: Woolf talks about how “mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action,” and how both Napoleon and Mussolini are obsessed about the inferiority of women because without that inferiority they would no longer inflate the image of men. Once women refuse to be mirrors, we will create a community defined by constructive dissent, an integral though often overlooked and denigrated aspect of democratic governance. We will tacitly stand in opposition to fascism and engage in a community of shared democratic values.
There is a great and greatly sarcastic line in Woolf’s essay. “One of the great advantages of being a woman,” she says, is the ability to “pass even a very fine Negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.” The Beadle and Professor von X, Napoleon and Mussolini–for Woolf they all share an assumption of superiority that leads to the belief that other people (women, racial and ethnic minorities) need to be dominated, divided against themselves. Compare Woolf’s observations here to Fanon’s and Memmi’s observations on the psychology of the colonized.
The political ideas Woolf traces resonate for me on a personal level: that the space of oppression becomes the space of metamorphosis and grace; that women’s invisibility is a form of exile that shapes their identity; and that our sense of belonging develops from the insistence on making the historical narrative that lets us “think through our mothers” visible, palpable. I am very much interested in hearing the subaltern speak and in telling a historical narrative from a perspective all too often left unconsidered, untold by the official historians of empire.
The idea that there are people who need to be dominated, their very consciousness split open, divided against itself for their own good, for the good of one or another’s economic self- interest, still has the upper hand, even in this new century, even after the bloodiest century in recorded human history. I write from the ground of the terrible dislocation that is exile. My writing gives testimony to the human cost of residing between cultures, between languages.
Sheryl: Can you tell us about your educational path and how you found your way to Women’s Studies?
Elizabeth: In this country, after arriving quite literally with the clothes on their backs, my parents struggled to be part of the middle class. It’s shocking to think that their economic struggle was actually easier then, in the 1960s and 1970s, than it is today for families across this country. I attended public schools—really solid public schools in neighborhoods that were not affluent, at a time when the local and federal governments weren’t actively trying to dismantle public education.
Reading was my solace during some very difficult years. It offered me a retreat, a space I could enter that gave me access to a world much, much larger than what I was experiencing at the time. Reading was a very productive distraction that helped me manage a good deal of the sorrow that I felt at being separated from my extended family, as well as the fear that I experienced vicariously as I watched my parents struggle to understand and negotiate a completely alien culture and language.
Strong reading skills became the foundation of other academic skills, so I generally did well in school. I applied to college because it seemed to be what my peers were doing, and I was accepted at Stetson University. I had never attended a private institution. It was really an extraordinary experience and privilege, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time. My professors were from the very best universities in the world. Classes were small—15 or 20 students—and taught directly by these professors. And I received a very well rounded education in the humanities.
From Stetson, I went to Brown, where I completed my M.A. and then my Ph.D. in English; specifically, 19th-century American prose and British Romanticism. I met a few wonderful teachers there: William Keach, Ellen Rooney, Michael Harper, C.D. Wright, Mark Spilka. I was at Brown at the time the Pembroke Center was being developed, and the discipline of English was engaging feminist theory and writing by women. That theory and the work of Mary Shelley became my focus.
What I always wanted, though, was to be a writer. I could only admit it to myself in increments over the course of my life. I had sensed this desire within myself from the age of 8 or so, but I pushed it away in fear. It was easier somehow to keep that desire inchoate and to lose myself, to find my distraction, in the writings of others. Read more
Filed under: Fiction, Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists
Elizabeth Huergo is a professor of English at Montgomery College, and an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at George Mason University. She recently published her first novel The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books 2013), and is a published poet, essayist, and short story writer. I first met Elizabeth when she read from her new novel at One More Page Books, a small bookstore in Arlington, Virginia. The passage she read was rich and lyrical, layered with the musicality of her native Espanõl. Huergo was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at a young age as a political refugee. Growing up far from her extended family, she didn’t return to Cuba until she was an adult. This trip would mark the beginning of her creative process in the writing of The Death of Fidel Pérez, in particular her encounter with an elderly woman. She found the woman behind the facade of a beautiful indigo and cream-colored mosaic wall. Expecting to see more evidence of the beautiful Spanish and Arab architecture common in Cuba, she instead encountered this woman wearing all of the clothes that she owned, sitting on a rocking chair at the top of a set of stairs that led to the wide open sky (she makes an appearance in the novel.) It was in this moment that Huergo abandoned her tourist identity and began the excavation of her Cuban identity.
Interview, Part 1
Sheryl: You teach in the women’s studies program at George Mason University. What do you feel young, undergraduate students need to learn most about feminism? In general, what are their biggest misconceptions when they enter your classroom?
Elizabeth: Yes, I have had the great pleasure of teaching in that program as an adjunct and working with some extraordinary faculty and students. The short answer to your question is that undergraduates need to learn feminism isn’t something to disown or overlook. Thankfully, we teach and learn in classrooms that are integrated in terms of race, ethnicity, creed and gender, so our students don’t know first-hand how much pain and struggle it has taken to reach this level of equality.
As well, (and here is the longer answer), the representations of women across popular culture reveal how conflicted our ideas about women’s identity and agency are. Yes, a woman can have access to education and training; she can have a career. Yet she is also expected to uphold some rather traditional patriarchal roles as well. This expectation is very different from an actual, unencumbered choice. We still don’t presume to put this same expectation on men. Generally speaking, we still don’t ask little boys how they are going to manage being a fireman or a doctor as well as a good husband and father.
Today women run corporations and public-sector institutions; they become entrepreneurs and astronauts, physicists and anthropologists, surgeons and athletes. But take a glance at the pervasive and insidious stream of images of women in popular culture, and it’s a bit like the description given to us in the fifth century B.C. by the leader of the men’s chorus in “Lysistrata”: “The most unnerving work of nature / the pride of applied immorality, / is the common female human. / No fire can match, no beast can best her. / O Unsurmountability, / thy name—worse luck—is Woman.” As this Koryphaios explains, his “irreversible credo” is “Misogyny Forever!” I would argue that as long as these stereotypes of women abound, and as long as they remain unquestioned by generations of young women and men, we are not equal, and the need for feminism remains.
Sheryl: How do you define feminism?
Elizabeth: I define feminism as a way of seeing the world that delivers us to the practice of social justice and peace. You asked what my students’ biggest misconception of feminism is. I repeatedly hear my students express their surprise that at no point in the semester have we expressed hatred of men or listened to expressions of hatred. That sense of surprise indicates the monolithic effectiveness, the subtlety and seamlessness with which misogyny continues as an unquestioned and pervasive cultural practice.
I suspect that what makes feminism so dangerous and frightening to some people is that in actuality it amounts to a sustained critique of our assumptions about power and how power is organized within patriarchal societies. If we understand feminism as a perspective, a form of inquiry that leads us to the practice of social justice and peace, we can see just how radical it is, (literally, cutting to the root), how it helps us work back historically and see the arbitrary manner in which physical, reproductive differences have been rendered political; how the “feminine” has been construed as inferior, weak, and rendered “woman,” that “most unnerving work of nature.”
Elizabeth: That early experience of loss has shaped the entire trajectory of my life in ways that are excruciatingly painful and in ways that, at the same time, really amount to a form of grace. Immigration can be very difficult, but at least there is some degree, however small, of choice. This difference between immigration and exile, by the way, is the focus of my second novel, Between Ana and Ella, so the topic is upper-most in my mind right now.
Exile obliterates choice. We are separated from everything we know (family, friends, homeland, language, culture), elements of our lives that deeply shape our identity. And exile also does great damage to our sense of agency in the world. The regaining, the reconstruction of identity and agency becomes the work of a lifetime, and that is not the easiest sort of work. Though if you can manage to endure, to persevere, there is a certain degree of joy to be experienced in that process of reconstruction—if you can come out on the other side. Read more
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized
The following is a debut post by Paula Beltrán, George Mason University MFA Fiction student and StS 2013-2014 Assistant Blog Editor.
When I was in the first grade of primary school, I was sent to see el director. On the top left-hand side of my graph-ruled notebook paper, I had written in my mother’s surname ahead of my father’s after my own. When the teacher stopped at my desk to mark my progress on the morning’s assignment, she said I was doing well but to remember to switch my last names before handing it in. Her smile softened, a bit, the lines of a genuine frown. Before I could say, I know how to write my name, it was an accident, Miss., I asked what I think of now as my first important why. Why did I have to change it? Class, listen up, she said, you all know that your father’s last name comes before your mother’s when you write your full names, right? The room nodded soberly and I think I saw Marcelita lift her bony butt off her desk to slide it a few cautious inches away from mine. Thoroughly mortified, I changed the offensive order of my names.
At home, completing that evening’s homework took longer than usual. Staring at the fat graphite indentations that spelled out my name led me to an early and irrevocable understanding that just because something had been so forever, it didn’t mean that it should or needed to be. I erased and rewrote my name on the page until I punctured that sheet and the one or two beneath it. Finally, in a feathery script, I wrote my name, then my mother’s surname, then my father’s, silently praying a child’s prayer he’d understand I wasn’t betraying him so much as choosing her too. The next morning my teacher stood outside the classroom welcoming us, and I rushed through my greeting to jump to But why, Miss? Why does Father’s name come before my mother’s? Por qué? Really, Miss, why? I placed my sweaty and crumpled homework on her extended hand. And that’s when I was ordered to the principal’s office while holding a piece of paper with an X next to I won’t listen and my name at the top written the way it was to be until I came to the United States—at which point the new “they” did away with my mother’s name altogether. (It would be years before I’d learn to ask that question.)
Asking small and big questions of others and of myself has had its consequences, but I want to believe that as a feminist I’ll continue to find the courage to ask them.
Some of us have lived feminism before we knew it was a word, a worldview that means equal access for all. Some of us are born-again feminists converted at moments of gross injustice. Some of us, never recognizing our own disadvantages, come to feminism only after witnessing the feminisms of others. Some of us dislike the very word whether in adjectival or noun form, and all the bra-burning—that never happened!—it conjures, yet engage and embrace acts of feminism every day. Some of us defend our own feminisms but doubt, belittle, or dismiss those of others.
You warm tortillas for him before you warm them for you, we say. You take your husband’s name, we say. You emasculate him, we say. You let him hit you, we say. You let her hit you, we say. You marry as if you were some run of the mill hetero couple, we say. You are so gay, we say. You homeschool your kids, we say. You’re a bad parent, we say. Your childlessness is unnatural, we say. You gave up your career, we say. You let your wife support you, we say.You let your husband, or worse, your God tell you how to dress, what to believe in, we say. You can’t have it all, we say. You must not be trying hard enough, we say. You’re such a martyr, we say. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, we say. You’re such a bitch, we say. You’re such a cunt, we say. You’re a man, the culprit, we say.You perpetuate misogynist views of female beauty and wear push-up bras, heeled shoes, and cosmetics. You perpetuate old notions of man-hating feminism with your unshaven, unwashed, unkempt “natural” ways. You’re performing the masculine, we say. You’re performing the feminine, we say.
We are full of indignant, superior feminisms.
Your individuality sets us back. Your flamboyance sets us back. Your butchness sets us back. Your lipstick sets us back. Your undecided, slutty ways set us back. Your same-gender loving sets us back. Your in-progress gender assignation sets us back. Your accommodations set us back. Your fertility sets us back. Your lack of education sets us back. Your lack of legal immigration status sets us back. That chip on your shoulder sets us back. Your anger sets us back. Your haughty impatience sets us back. Yes, your lack of humor sets us back. God, your neediness sets us back.
Feminism is relative and subjective to one’s life, one’s wins and losses, and as such my feminism, more than likely, is different than your own. But in an era of unprecedented celebration of the exploitation of poverty and lack of education, (see Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, labor of undocumented immigrants), systematic and popular, thriving racism (see the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act , Twitter threads on Sebastian de la Cruz, Trayvon Martin, Marc Anthony) the grotesque numbers of child and adult victims of bullying and physical and sexual violence, insidious gender discrimination in every facet of lawful, public life, and, of course, the war on a woman’s right to full sovereignty over her own body (see Wendy Davis vs. Texas), feminism matters, feminism remains a necessary, most vital consciousness.
If everyone is to attain the quality of life thus far experienced just by a very small number in our multicultural, multilingual, multigendered society, feminists must continue to ask why of themselves and of each other.
I often wish for the fearless conviction of that second-grader feminist.
Paula Beltrán is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University. Paula’s columns and news blogs have appeared in various English and Spanish-language publications including The Huffington Post, AOL Latino, and the Houston Press. An interpreter and translator originally from Houston, TX, she can be seen hunting for queso fresco in Fairfax, VA, where she now lives.
Filed under: Art, Fiction, Opinion, Starring Local Feminists
First of all, I’ll state, for the record, one of the first rules of writing: Perfect people are BORING.
Every character, in order to grow and create an interesting story, needs a flaw— sometimes more than one! With my male characters, I can heap on the flaws— pile ‘em on with a big spoon. It’s easy to write for men; it’s comfortable, and I can get away with most of bad stuff I invent for them. People don’t ask why this guy is a former-alcoholic liar with anger issues, or a blatantly racist skirt-chaser pedophile. It’s given that it’s his character and this might be important to story.
When I create flawed female characters however, something weird happens: everyone asks why I did it. Why does this character have body issues? Why does this character hate her mother? Why is this character a callow bitch? Why did I choose to represent women this way?
I get confused by questions like this, especially because my answer is always, “Because that’s her character. That’s who she is.”
When a woman sees a female character in a male-dominated story, we tend to suddenly latch onto that character and say, “This is me. This is all of us.” And when we see her do something we don’t like, we collectively groan. “She’s let me down. She’s made me embarrassed to be a girl.”
I do this with my favorite female characters. I do it constantly, which is why there are so few female characters in comics and books that I actually like. I’m often too terrified to make female characters of my own. I’m scared of letting us all down.
I’m gradually getting over my fears; Skeleton Crew has no less than five female characters from a range of ages and backgrounds. We’re also introducing a female villain shortly and she’s loaded with flaws. I have to credit my awesome brother and co-writer for this, who was the first to invent all these girls before letting me run rampant with their dialogue and designs. To his credit, he never stopped to think, “What if I get this wrong?”
In the end, I just do what I do, not because I want to give traditional comics the bird, or to create the ultimate girl character. I honestly forget the fact I’m a girl—a lone skirt in a field of slacks. That’s not important. I do it because I love it, and if no one read my comics/books, I’d probably keep doing it anyway.
I write what I write because I have stories to tell and I think you would like some of them. I want to create characters who you relate to no matter what your gender, race, orientation, or lifestyle might be. I want to create people that feel real to you with enough seeds of truth in them that you can say, “I get that. This speaks to me.”
Tangent Artists is a predominantly female-owned and operated webcomics and publishing company in Northern Virginia. They run three weekly webcomics: horror comedy series Skeleton Crew; Swords & Sorcery & Sarcasm series CRIT! ; and nerd-life comic, Donuts For Looking. Monica Marier is a co-founder and working artist/writer for all three series. She has also published three fantasy novels through Hunt Press, including the much-lauded first book in The Linus Saga, Must Love Dragons.