Filed under: Art, Interview, Movies, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
When I first set out to find Native American writers to participate in So to Speak interviews, I aimed high. With my first tentative emails, I received warm and positive responses from the two poets I contacted. I couldn’t believe my luck!
Our first poet, Heid E. Erdrich, was raised in a large literary and academic family by parents who were boarding school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. Her father, from a German immigrant family, and her mother, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe, were “precise namers of things” who encouraged their children to pay attention to the details in life. Her mother sewed handmade books for her then elementary school children to fill with their own creations. These early lessons in observation and creativity stuck: three of the eight children went on to achieve literary success.
Heid has published four collections of poetry and one book of nonfiction, written plays, and curated over a dozen exhibits. A four-time nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Heid received the 2009 award for her collection National Monuments. She has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. And she has received awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Archibald Bush Foundation.
In addition to writing, Heid has taught at three universities (Johns Hopkins University, Augsburg College, University of St. Thomas), run writing workshops, and curated visual art and community literary events. Her latest creative endeavor is Artifact Traffic, a collaborative, multi-discplinary exhibit and performance. Heid also runs the Wiigwaas Press, an Ojibwe language publisher.
Heid’s poetry integrates the everyday world with the mythical; her poems blend universal themes of life, death, and spirituality as easily as a baker sifts together flour, salt, and leavening. Whether discussing laundry on a clothesline, her grandmother’s hands, or the sounds of nature, she creates powerful images that connect unlike experiences in surprising ways. She has described her poems as conversations and views her thoughts and feelings as not just belonging to herself, but rather to her readers and community.
Recently Heid has begun collaborating with other Native American artists, creating visual performance works of art that include her poetry. Her poem films have been screened at the Imaginative Film, Headwaters Film and Co-Kisser Poetry Film (where she won an award) Festivals, as well as the 2013 Native American Literature Symposium.
Wherever there are lines dividing literature or art (even dance), Heid challenges our assumptions:
A tad less than 5’8” and quite round. My hair is long and just a little gray. There is something bear-like about me, of which I am proud. I laugh a lot.
I am also a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright—also a curator of visual arts exhibits and multi-disciplinary performances for the past seven years. And a publisher of the world’s only mono-lingual Ojibwemowin press. AND a laundress.
Sheryl: Tell us about the Ojibwe language and Wigwaas Press. Did you grow up knowing Ojibwe? How does the Ojibwe language inform your poetry, written in English? What projects are underway with the press?
Heid: Indigenous languages were much disrupted, deliberately, by the U.S. education system and by the churches. My grandfather spoke and understood several indigenous languages, but he spoke Ojibwemowin only with his sons as they worked in the field. My mother did not learn her language, although she understood conversations as a child. I began studying Ojibwemowin as an adult. My studies coincided with the births of my children, so I created an entire book about language acquisition, The Mother’s Tongue. Many of those poems are selected in Cell Traffic.
Wiigwaas Press publishes mono-lingual Ojibwe-language books for use in language revitalization efforts. We are about to publish our fourth book. We are pretty much alone in our field.
Sheryl: When did you first know that your path was that of a writer and teacher?
Heid: Books were always magic to me and both my parents were teachers, so it seemed like the ideal life. I taught college English for twenty years, left to work in the community in 2007, and I am returning to an MFA program in 2014.
Sheryl: In addition to being an accomplished scholar and writer, you are a mother. How does motherhood affect your writing?
Heid: The secret about Moms is that they do not mess around! My writing comes faster, is more sincere, and is much more a focus of my day than before I had kids. I have to make it count, because I know it is taking away time I could use to, say, wash their socks.
Sheryl: You’ve recently begun experimenting with poetry expressed in video form. How did this come about? Tell us about your experiences using this form.
Heid: A few years ago I started to see book trailers in which the poet read a bit from the book—just like a movie trailer. You’ve probably seen them. It occurred to me that one could make a film of a poem—and I have often thought of my poems as little films or exhibits. The fit seemed natural and I knew filmmakers, actors, animators—all Native American artists—so I knew my team. I got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was able to give everyone involved a little fee. It was a joyful creation and I want to keep making these films now.
The poem films feel like they give my poems reach in a way I never could have imagined. Students who “don’t get poetry” are more interested in poetry after seeing the films, and the films have gone to other countries—most recently Brazil. We’ve won awards and spots in competitive film festivals, so obviously, the quality of the artists I worked with (R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Elizabeth Day, and Jonathan Thunder) shows through.
Heid: Creating community is what my curatorial efforts and my playwright work is about. I needed to get out of my box and feel connection to others to expand my audience and my understanding of my work. It has been wonderful work and my love of visual artists has really grown. Performers are a bit too, well, too dramatic for this introverted poet. I might be done with that part of my community work!
Sheryl: Tell us about your writing process. Where do you find the most inspiration? When do you write and what is your revision process like?
Heid: Usually I write in the morning, just get down to it with coffee and as much quiet as I can get. Sometime I write after a nap. I write to and with voices I have read from a variety of sources, often sciences articles. When I am creating and revising, I like to walk. If I can find the beat of the poem while I walk, I can memorize it a bit and get it on paper in a more complete form than if I just try to dump it out of my brain on to a page.
Sheryl: Who do you feel are your greatest writing influences? Personal influences?
Heid: There are so many. Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kimberly Blaeser, my teachers at Johns Hopkins, my teachers at Dartmouth. Roberta Hill was my mentor in the Twin Cities and the novelist Jonis Agee really mentored me, too. But my friends who write are my biggest influences: Eric Gansworth, Leslie Adrienne Miller…I will get in trouble if I name more than two and leave anyone out. Of course my sisters influenced me. Both Louise and Lise always wrote, so I thought it was normal and did not get any romantic notions about the process.
Sheryl: What are you working on now?
Heid: At the moment, a multi-disciplinary show with “poem skits” and poem films, including at least one starring my sister Louise. The show is called Artifact Traffic and it is about collaboration between artists, the traffic of ideas as artifact, and contemporary Native American art. My next two books of poems are begun and should be done in 2014—hopefully published in 2015. First I have to do PR for my books of stories and recipes on indigenous foods, which just came out from Minnesota Historically Society Press. That was a labor of love, for sure!
Sheryl: What do you feel it means to be a feminist in today’s world?
Heid: Such a hard question. At a recent book festival, I was lucky enough to sit next to Susan Dworkin, the author who wrote reviews for Ms. Magazine back in the day—not Andrea, who also worked at Ms.. Susan was wonderful to meet and very interested in my generation of feminists—the little sisters of the First Wave. We talked a little about early feminism and today. There’s an easier feminism today that looks at work mostly, and ignores everyday life. There’s less risk in talking about work and politics. I’d rather talk a bit about every day life. We have a feminist marriage and it is hard. My husband is a researcher, his name is John Burke. We are really 50-50 in our domestic work. But since most women do 100% more than they need to domestically, or feel they should do more—always more—it is hard to let 50-50 stand. Stuff does not get done. Housework is not a priority. We have issues, but they are minor. Most women writers who talk to me about their marriages or partnerships have taken on way more than the male partner or even their female partners. There’s an imbalance that comes from early training, but also from being the lesser-wage earning person as most writers/teachers end up being. I see that easing with my younger friends. They expect more from a partner in terms of the work of the home and relationship—and they sometimes get it.
My poetry continues to have a feminist bent—it is always about the body, the way we relate to the world, and increasingly about women’s relationships to the natural world and the Ojibwe woman’s role as water keeper. I may not take a traditional woman’s role, but I hold sacred that women protect and relate to the waters of the earth.
Check back soon for Poet Sarah Winn’s review of Heid’s Cell Traffic. Still to come on StS, an interview with Poet Joy Harjo and fiction writer Shelby Settles Harper’s review of Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave.
Heid E. Erdrich received degrees from Dartmouth University and the Johns Hopkins University (Writing Seminars). Visit Heid on her website to keep up with her latest creative endeavors! Discover Heid’s books at Birchbark Books.
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: Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Uncategorized
This past April when I conceived of an international poetry showcase to celebrate George Mason’s diverse undergraduate student body, Chicano poet Javier O. Huerta’s “El Coyote” from 2007’s Some Clarifications y otros poemas was one of the first to go on my list. The prose poem gives voice to a child’s bewildered awareness of not only domestic violence as perpetrated by his father, but also of the father’s occupation, that of a human smuggler, or coyote. Check it out:
“Tu jefe es coyote,” my cousins said. I was only six, so I pictured Father on all fours with tongue out, panting, on the prowl. “No seas tonto,” my cousins teased and laughter spread. I tried to smile. They never heard his paws scrape, scrape our window screen. Never saw him tear up our couch or knock over the kitchen table. They never heard my father growl. They did not have to take a trip to visit the razor wire. They were not speechless when keepers opened Father’s cage. They did not spend sleepless nights dreading they, too, would grow gray fur and fangs. They did not understand. No, they never fought the urge to howl.”
To close So to Speak’s “Hispanic Heritage Month”-themed series, we invited Huerta, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley, to share with us what feminism looks like to a brown male poet in 2013.
PB: What does it mean to you to be a twenty-first century feminist? How does being a male or POC inform and complicate your feminism? Does being a poet?
JH: My little cousin Jacqui is starting middle school in Laredo, Texas. She’s small for her age but does really well in school and in extracurricular activities. Her mother (mi prima Viri) makes a living by cleaning houses; her grandmother (mi tía Morena) makes a living by cleaning houses; and her great-grandmother (mi abuelita Tila, QEPD) made a living by cleaning houses. I think of Jacqui as I’m working on 150 verses in memory of the actor Lupe Ontiveros, who played the role of maid more than 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. My little cousin Jacqui, and the many other young women of color working their way through our public schools, should be able to aspire to more than vacuuming other people’s houses.
PB: Your latest work, American Copia takes us into the grocery aisles of identity and language politics. What do you make of the pervasive use of ”Latino” nowadays among the hyphenated millions officially categorized as “Hispanics” in the U.S.? Is it simply a matter of survival at a time when people apologize for calling someone “a Mexican?” Why should feminists of all persuasions be reminded of the power of labels, self-imposed or not?
JH: The demographic shift in which Latinos are projected to one year become the majority is mostly discussed in terms of the Latino vote and electoral influence. For example, the increase in Latino voters could transform Texas from a red state to a swing state. But another intriguing conversation understands the increase of the Latino population in terms of the Latino consumer and economic influence. This means not only that certain businesses will more aggressively target the Latino consumer, but also that local businesses and politicians, hopefully, will take an interest in increasing the purchasing power of those Latinos. The “Latino” consumer is the one that walks the grocery aisles of my copia. But I quickly narrow him/her down to an immigrant shopper, a Mexican, Mexican-American, Salvadoran shopper, a Houston shopper, an Oakland shopper, a local going to buy groceries at the local grocery store. 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.
The label works in Spanish; therefore, it should also work in English. We have been saying “nosotros los Latinos”[“we Latinos”] for decades now. So why does it work so effortlessly in Spanish, yet in English it doesn’t have the same music. I guess I’m waiting for a manifesto arguing for the power of “Latino.” Instead of passionate manifestoes for “Latino,” what we get are introductions to anthologies full of circular reasoning: they begin with the premise that Latino is a term for diverse peoples, and they conclude that Latino Lit cannot be described as one single category because it contains many styles and traditions. There’s no argument to argue against there. Whatever happened to intellectual warfare is heaven. I want “Latino” to stand for something. To be as exciting as “Chicano” and “Nuyorican” once were.
Anyway, I identify as a Chicano poet from Nuevo, Laredo Tamaulipas who lived as an undocumented immigrant in Houston, Tejas from 1981 to 1987. The more specific the better is what we teach our students.
PB: As a dual-language poet, what’s your take on the continued use of the “/” and the “@” to “correct” or denote the inclusivity of the gendered plurals of Spanish in general and especially when applied to terms like “Chican@ Lit” or “Latina/o Identity”?
JH: I attempted to create my own sitcom about a couple of years ago, even got as far as writing a pilot and getting some friends/colleagues to help me out with shooting the script. What is left of that failed attempt is some unedited footage, and among that unedited footage is a dinner date scene between the main character Nina, city planner by day and aspiring comedian by night, and a man she went on a date with so she could borrow his jokes. As they start to munch on some Caesar Salad, Nina wonders what would go in a Cesar Chavez salad. They go back and forth wondering if the salad should include grapes or not, or if the grapes should be included only so you have a chance to boycott them, or if you should abstain from eating the salad at all to honor the hunger strike. Then this moment:
NINA: But hey, why’s boycott gotta be gendered? Why can’t it be girlcott?
DATE: In that case, why do we have to order from a menu? Why can’t we order from a womenu?
NINA: Yes, dang it. It’s the 21st century. A woman should be able to order her womenudo from a womenu.
As writers, we believe that language matters and can affect change, so the correction of gendered language intends to correct the institutions that privilege men. I suppose the danger in correcting the gendered language by changing “o” to “a/o” or “@” or by spelling “women” with a “y” or by spelling “mujer” with an “x” is that this correction can easily be reduced to wordplay and lose some of the critical force it originally intended.
PB: When approaching new work do you consider a particular audience? I was a few pages into American Copia before I realized that my appreciation of the work would be severely limited if I spoke only English, or only Spanish. Are you aiming for a specific—bilingual– audience?
JH: In my MFA, I wrote a failed novella, novela corta in Spanish, titled “Linda.”The narrative followed the eponymous character as she journeys to Mexico to bury her recently deceased husband. It is narrated in English by a 3rd person limited narrator, limited to Linda’s perspective, but the dialogue is in Spanish because that is what the characters are speaking. I think that at that time I was frustrated with the use of Spanish in the works of U.S. Latino writers, the way Spanish phrases were immediately translated and were used to set up conversations that were supposed to be in Spanish. Honestly it made me feel like those books were not meant for me, or more importantly that they were not meant for people I knew back home. They explained too much. So that’s why I attempted this bilingual novella. I was fortunate to attend UTEP for the MFA because my instructors and classmates allowed me to experiment with bilingual form.
As for my Copia, the verse is in Spanish, and the prose is in English for the most part. It also includes a nonfictional play based on a friend’s experience as a grocery clerk in a Los Angeles Mexican grocery store. The dialogue in the play is in Spanish, English, or Spanglish depending on the character. The play ends with a not so short speech in Spanish by an older female employee giving advice to the main character. The advice is about men and violence and the need to keep moving on in spite of them. Honestly I didn’t even think about the language at that point, mostly because I don’t understand how that speech could have been written in any other language but Spanish. One failed part of Copia was my attempt to include as many languages as possible, languages that are actually spoken in communities all over the United States. I actually contacted friends and asked them if they would help me out with this part and many agreed. But time and the editorial and publication process did not allow it. This multilingualism is an aspect of American Copia that I would like to pursue if I ever get the chance to release a second edition.
Javier O. Huerta is the author of American Copia and Some Clarifications y otros poemas, a recipient of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. His poems have been included in numerous anthologies, including American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.
Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Uncategorized
Image property of United We Dream
“I’m often asked, 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. My answers explain that I am not the stranger. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah were all once part of Mexico, after all.
At times it seems as though people think that the answers to questions regarding my family history stem from some sort of shame of my Mexican ancestry. While I am extremely proud of my Mexican ancestry, I also have to acknowledge the fact that I am not culturally Mexican. I grew up in the U.S. with a great deal of Mexican cultural influence accompanied by the array of cultural diversity that makes up the Greater Houston area. My cultural influences coupled with my progressive political ideology shapes my identity as a Chicana.
If I did not acknowledge my culture complexity, I would be even more confusing for my Spanish-speaking clients who see me as a brown woman but hear my thick “pocha” accent when I speak Spanish. [“Pocho” or “Pocha” is used to single out U.S. citizens of Mexican descent who lack partial or total command or fluency in Spanish.] I used to be ashamed of this accent. Well, to be honest, I still am and probably always will be a little ashamed of my inability to ever speak Spanish without an accent.
The questions then follow: Do you have any family in Mexico? No, not anymore, not since the Mexican revolution around 1910. Then why do you care so much about immigrants? I care about immigrants and immigration law because I believe in social justice. One does not have to be an immigrant or have immigrant family members to have concern for immigration issues.
Image property of Roel Moncivais Blog
I care about immigrants because my maternal grandmother taught my mother to care about the poor living in Juarez, Mexico. A devout Catholic, she made the priest from El Paso cross the border in order to bless the poor families who lived in abject poverty. I care about immigrants because despite the fact that my paternal grandmother is a third generation U.S. citizen, she grew up in the segregated town of Ft. Davis, Texas where she was referred to as “Mexican” because she spoke Spanish.
I care about immigration because when I was a child, my mother explained the privileges that came as a result of my random birth in the U.S., and that with those privileges came great responsibility to help others. My mother took me along when she delivered food to the immigrant shelter. She also opened our home to a number of immigrant women who fled abusive husbands. She taught me to treat everyone, regardless of where they came from, with dignity and respect.
I care about immigrants because even as an English-dominant kid growing up in Houston, Texas, I was looked at as the “other” in my white neighborhood and my white schools. From kindergarten to law school I was often one of the few, if not the only, brown person in my class. In my own way, I have understood oppression since childhood. Anyone who knows what it feels like to be stereotyped, or considered different, or inferior, or weak, or just not “one of the guys” could say the same. That is why I care 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. For these reasons I have chosen to become an immigration attorney. I hope that in your own way, you will join the immigrant rights movement so that we can move our country toward meeting its full potential of equitable inclusion for all.
Frances E. Valdez was born and raised in Houston, Texas where she currently practices immigration law. She graduated from the
University of Texas School of Law and she is a board member of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant youth organizations.
Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Uncategorized
Fourth from the right Frances E. Valdez with LGH and 2012′s grantee Casa de Esperanza.
- Chicana Frances E. Valdez views her feminism as self-evident in the work she does as an attorney, activist, and philanthropist—and I couldn’t agree more. Her efforts as all three have reached beyond her local community in Houston, Texas.
In 2009, Valdez co-founded Latino Giving Houston, a nonprofit where members commit to charitable donations which are pooled and dispersed as grants to organizations exclusively or primarily servicing the local Latino community. (So far grantees include Casa de Esperanza, a safe house for children suffering from abuse, neglect, and HIV; MECA, which offers arts and cultural programming to underserved youth and adults; and the Academic Achievers Programs whose mission is to increase college enrollment rates for students in the East End area of Houston.)
Long an outspoken supporter of immigrants’ rights, this past January Valdez joined the board of the national United We Dream network under which “immigrant youth [build] a movement for justice.” I’m proud to introduce you to a woman doing more than walking the feminist line and talking the feminist talk. The following is my interview with Frances E. Valdez:
Paula: What do you think it means to be a feminist of “color”?
Frances: I think most strong, independent women of color are feminists. They might not self-identify as such because the feminist movement has historically been dominated by White women. But women of color constantly assert their feminist ideology by their very presence in the many circles they navigate.
Paula: As an immigration attorney you come in contact with people from a wide range of socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. How does your work reaffirm your feminist convictions?
Frances: I have learned that you must understand where people are coming from in order to be [an] effective [attorney or advocate]. Most women I work with have never heard the word feminist. However, I encounter a lot of strong single mothers who valiantly come to the U.S. to seek a better life for their children and do everything possible to take care of them. I have also met a great deal of women who become empowered and leave abusive husbands saving their own lives. In my
opinion, labeling oneself as a feminist does not matter as much as the daily acts of bravery that I see many of my clients perform.
Paula: I’m always surprised to encounter feminists who readily admit, even announce, “I’m not racist—I mean, I’m a feminist!— but Mexicans, immigrants, illegals, are just…” Why do you think feminists should consider becoming educated and invested in the struggles of the (documented or undocumented) immigrant population?
Frances: I care about immigrants because even as an English-dominant kid growing up in Houston, Texas, I was looked at as the “other” in my white neighborhood and my white schools. From kindergarten to law school I was often one of the few, if not the only, brown person in my class. In my own way, I have understood oppression since childhood. Anyone who knows what it feels like to be stereotyped, or considered different, or inferior, or weak, or just not “one of the guys” could say the same. 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. That is why I care about immigrants.
This last question prompted a very personal and insightful response from Frances which we felt deserved its own guest post. We invite you to read the full text here.
Frances E. Valdez was born and raised in Houston, Texas where she currently practices immigration law. She graduated from the University of Texas School of Law and she is a board member of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant youth organizations.