I would be nothing without my predecessors, the brave women in my family who paved the way for the woman I can be today. History is filled with women like all our gutsy female ancestors, who took a stand in an attempt to redress the balance in gender inequality.
Whether their efforts were within the patriarchal confines of their own families or in public settings, every time a woman spoke up for herself or in defense of another, they were setting examples for us, the future generations. Back then, they were seen as women with cojones, but today we know that it was actually a great set of ovaries that fueled their bold and brazen behavior against machismo and sexism.
The stories that my mother and aunts told me about the rebellious women in my Colombian family unconsciously affected the way I would make decisions for the rest of my life. Until I began writing about the women in my family in my twenties for Women’s Studies book collections like Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism or Border-Line Personalities: Young Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting, I did not know how much those stories I had heard growing up had shaped my womanist discourse while I was searching for myself as a young woman.
Acknowledging this now, I follow in my mother’s footsteps: she gifted me with books that would shape me as a free-thinking woman, and today I read books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls to my seven-year-old daughter.
Whether orally or written, the power of storytelling can guide women on the right path to defending themselves because sometimes simply knowing that someone just like you went through something similar gives you the courage to do something for yourself that you may not have thought possible.
On this International Women’s Day, March 8th, tell a brave woman’s story to a younger woman and remind them that, although seemingly small battles were fought in villages, these women’s efforts would inspire future generations to do the same in perhaps bigger cities of the future.
Whether it was talking back to a presumptuous man, quitting one’s job because of unfair treatment, divorcing their husbands, even if it was not legal in their countries yet, standing up to their brothers or fathers or bosses, asking for more, or desiring more, their examples would ripple over waters for generations.
Every day is Women’s Day: Inspire future generations with womanist stories
In 1975, the U.N. officially recognized International Women’s Day. Although it’s an official holiday in approximately 20 countries, including Cuba, in the United States, it isn’t recognized as an official holiday as of yet. In 1996, IWD began adding themes to the day, the first theme being “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future.”
As we reflect on the meaning behind this day, it’s crucial, like that original theme’s sentiment, to think of all the efforts made by the women in our families extending back to their motherlands in Latin America. Our responsibility does not end in just commemorating them on this day, but inspiring and guiding young women of future generations always with their stories so that they can prepare their own daughters, nieces, cousins, and young friends to be conscious feminist thinkers.
Feminist is a word that can rub some women the wrong way. Especially old school Latinas from our mothers’ generations that thought it meant a rejection of femininity or the love of a man. For women growing up in war-torn parts of Latin America, ser una feminista was a threat to the patriarchy, to our roles as good daughters, employees, and wives. For me, feminism was something that has lived in me while I have loved men and fought them simultaneously.
Some people think that International Women’s Day should be rebranded, for every day is women’s day. No matter what this day means to you, this year’s theme is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World,” as women, we must always know the importance of having a voice and using it. Whether it’s gifting someone with a book about a woman’s struggle or telling them a story about someone inspiring, you know, do something as part of this matriarchal community. We must all serve as guides for each other as women.
In Praise of Stories about Difficult Women
I have always viewed the women in my family as anomalies, women who were ahead of their time in not waiting for men to dictate their lives for them.
One of my great aunts was a school teacher who never married but lived with her live-in maid, who may have been her lover, rumor has it. Then another great aunt of mine, who didn’t tolerate marriage either, started a deli business and eventually bought her own properties, one on which a brothel was run on.
Then there was my maternal grandmother who fled Medellín when my grandfather, drunk on one fine day, chased after her in a taxi with a gun during a fit of jealousy. She decided to surreptitiously take her two daughters to Bogotá, where her sister (the brothel landowner) lived, and she helped her buy a ticket to New York to start a new life. Although divorce wasn’t made legal in Colombia until the 1990s, this did not stop my family’s badass women.
Because I was born in the States and raised in a white suburban neighborhood by a divorced mom in the early 80s, I wasn’t subjected to the traditional traumas of most Latinas I knew. Many of my friends growing up had to come to terms with living under a constricting, role-playing roof: “father qua head,” “mother qua helper.” My mother’s most famous speech was about how I should never rely on men, as her own mother had supported herself and her two daughters as an immigrant in the U.S.
Educated in American schools and universities, I recognized the legacy of white superstar feminists like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Germain Greer. I greatly appreciated all they had done for American middle-class women and future generations, but I wasn’t sure they were speaking to Latinas.
As mainstream feminism inspired me to rebellious heights, I looked to the writings and efforts of women of color. Aware of the plight of Latinos living in the United States, issues of race haunted my thoughts. As a young writer, it was in the essays of Xicanista writer Ana Castillo about the censorship of mestiza women on both sides of the borders that I found a voice to help me understand the unfair treatment that women of color receive.
Reading Castillo’s words in Massacre of the Dreamers made me think of how my grandmother, who immigrated to New York with her two daughters on her own in the 60s, became sick working in a factory. I was made aware that if I had to emigrate from Colombia today, I would be facing similar challenges to those of any immigrant woman of little means coming to the U.S. to find work. Castillo spoke loudly, stating the ugly facts about how Latina women were the lowest paid women in the county.
None of the white feminists I had come across had mentioned the working-class women of color. Castillo chronicled Latinas’ long and infuriating battles with machismo and the hypocrisies of Catholicism’s Madonna/whore syndrome. While the white feminist movements had their own mother goddess to pay tribute to, she spoke about the spiritual and mystical womanhood found in indigenous earth religions through her writings on brujas and curanderas, or wielders of magical healing.
As a native New Yorker trapped in the steel cage of Manhattan, my only outside experience with earth religions had been on my trips to Latin America. Castillo spoke about our ancestors’ traditions and adapted them into messages of loving oneself, empowering the dormant bruja in me and future generations. She was the first author I had seen on the cover of a book who was striking, fierce, and oh so Latina.
While my experience up till then with the mainstream middle class tended to separate me from many women of color, my contact with this new U.S. Latina feminism brought me back into closer contact with my own ethnicity, my own self. Reenergized by a new vision of the world, I began seeking women of color interested in discussing literature and this new consciousness we were feeling. Through these women of all shades and sizes, I was inspired to start writing my own stories of my own. And only through the writing was I able to connect the dots to the women in my family and all that they sacrificed.
Each generation breaks through the patriarchy in their own way, but they all have something in common: they all had some kind of guidance from their predecessors, who had set examples for them on how to be as badass as they wanted—women with incredible sets of ovaries.