Entering this course I was very ignorant to the power of authority historians possess in relation to the publication, distribution and reception of historical figures and events. What historians deem as important is what you receive. Historians review archival materials such as pictures, notes, pamphlets and articles and are tasked with making sense of the material. After giving each article of material a meaning, they then relay their findings to the public (or smaller academic audiences) in a way that paints a picture of the historical happenings they perceive the materials to portray. This course really highlighted major issues that arise from a history writing process that allows historians to include and exclude whatever they find to be historically relevant.
Before learning the behind the scenes work that goes into preserving historical happenings and figures, it never really dawned on me the ways in which the identities and life experiences of a particular historian can tie into how they perceive and decipher the archival material. Gender, race, socioeconomic status and educational experience play heavy roles in how history is articulated. Even the way historians/librarians input archival materials into their databases can be skewed by the methods utilized to describe and stratify these materials. This process is influential in the making of a history that is often biased and singular. The experiences of various groups are often erased as historians use their judgement to determine what is important or valuable to the history they are choosing to display.
With the archiving and contextualizing of materials being heavily influenced by the identity and the life experiences of historians, the lens through which they view themselves, and the identities they carry, has a major influence on how their historical texts are formed.
Given the opportunity to engage in the history-writing process, I experienced this dilemma firsthand. As a Mexican-American woman whose family inhabited this country almost 100 years ago, my particular identity carries a lot of weight on my perception of the material. My family does not speak Spanish, and Mexican cultural practices have always been kept to a minimum - a consequence of my family’s generational experience of oppression and culture shaming in this country since the early 1900s. My life experiences have been shaped by poverty, cultural insecurity and structural inequality. As I digested the Oral History of Alicia Escalante, certain aspects of her experiences affected me in ways that can only be described as personally empowering and moving. As a result, when writing her bio, I focused on the pieces of her catalog I could identify and connect with emotionally.
The bio could have come out very differently had it been written by a private-school educated, White middle-class male with a lack of value for the unique experiences of Latina women in the 1960s.
After cataloguing and dissecting Alicia Escalante’s oral history extensively, I chose to articulate her early life experiences, and the adversity she faced as a young woman, as the driving force to her success. I strategically focused on these challenges as I could personally identify with her experiences. Whether it be her experience with poverty, dealing with the welfare system, or the general cultural oppression that comes with all white administrative structures in this country, her story resonated with me. I had the urge to defy the usual biographical structure, which often times spends very little on the early life and extensively goes into the success of the person. By deciding not to stratify her success over the adversity she faced, I believe her story has the power to inspire those who share similar struggles, and who might stumble upon her biography, to overcome, achieve and to never settle.
I have always believed that History has the power to influence and move people. As a young girl, I often wondered why there were never any Mexicans in my history books. I wondered endlessly why the “Great White Man History” I was taught never carved out a space for the Latinas whom I knew had been navigating the oppressions of this country for decades. The most I ever got was Cesar Chavez and the Labor Rights movement. The Chicano movement was not only disqualified from the text but there was also no inclusion of any Latina women whatsoever.
The erasure of the achievements of specific groups within historical texts is extremely significant since I believe it has the power to inadvertently (some might argue advertently) stymie upward mobility within those communities. Access to role models and the knowledge of historical cultural achievement are extremely important in the movements of people. I had very limited knowledge to role models to follow when conceiving of my life goals and the roles I could play in enacting change. I was completely ignorant to all the systems actively working against me and the multiple layers of adversity my people have to overcome in order to attain the upward mobility the "American Dream" presumes to promise. Accessibility to this type knowledge only came with my University of Michigan education. Which further makes this public domain important. Accessibility is key.
By telling Alicia Escalante's biography in a way that outlined her struggles, I hoped to show other Latinas that success is still attainable regardless of the struggles you may face. I want nothing more than for Latina women to understand their power and to realize they are never stuck within the bounds of gendered, racial, cultural, nor structural oppression. It is only through projects such as this that the much-needed accessibility of our history is given to the public. We owe it to ourselves to not hoard stories like those of Alicia Escalante, Evey Chapa, and Martha Cotera, in efforts to empower the women of my generation to stand in solidarity against the multilayered oppression we all experience.
The Chicana Feminist movement in the 1960s was aimed at breaking away from the gendered, racial, cultural, and structural discrimination that suppressed our power and mobility. First, this movement worked to take ownership of our indigenous and Mexican history to use it as a form of empowerment. Instead of channeling Cuauhtémoc and Zapata, whom were figures held high within the Chicano movement, Latinas repainted our history to include figures like Las Adelitas of the Mexican Revolution and Coyolxauhqui - in efforts to break free of the oppressive power structures of the Chicano Movement. The men of the movement recognized Chicana women as "belonging in the kitchen" despite them often carrying the brunt of the behind-the-scenes work.
The Chicana Feminist movement also contrasted vastly with white feminist movements during the time because they were able to isolate and understand the triple oppression Latina women are faced with. It is not only that we as women are unequal to men, we as women of color are not equal to white women, and further we as a cultural group are not only a racial “other” but some of our cultural holdings oppress the mobility of our women. It was only in recognition of this triple oppression that Chicana Feminist Leaders were able to reject and fight against it. The Chicana movement was an important time for Latinas because we began to not only fight for our rights, we began to occupy spaces of Leadership that historically were not open to us.
Having spent a lot of time within the archive, it is ever clear to me that Latina women during the 60s and well after that, did, and still do, amazing and impactful community work all while navigating through various challenges of motherhood, poverty, racism, and structural oppression. It has been an honor to participate in the archival project and through it I have learned not only about the great things my elders have accomplished, but more importantly, I have been empowered to continue their work. I have also learned that navigating the same oppressions today that they did 50 years ago, I can and shall overcome. It has been a great experience, one that, although tedious, and challenging, was very enriching for me.