Monday, November 4, 2013

Reflection #2 Gloria Arrellanes & the Brown Berets

Archival Image  

After quite a few hours rummaging through boxes of archives in the Bentley I finally settled on an image. From the CPMR archive on Medici.

It’s not at all that I couldn't find anything of note at the Bentley, but more that given everything I've been reading about the Brown Berets, this particular image on the CPMR archive really stuck with me. It was very much a physical depiction of the words I've heard and read about the role of women in the movement.

So, this is the image.

I suppose you could say it doesn't look like much. Just a Brown Beret woman cooking. But I disagree. The best way to explain why is to show that internal dialogue I’d been having with myself about choosing the image. It went something like this (I’ll be playing the roles of both ‘Tom Brain’ and ‘Tom Gut Feeling’);

Tom Gut Feeling: This feels like the right image.

Tom Brain: Why’s that, Tom Gut Feeling? I think this is a bit simple, no?

TGF: Well, maybe, Tom Brain, but not really. I've been listening to these oral histories and reading all these articles explaining that at times there was a real conflict between men and women within the movement. I know there’s not much to the actual photo, but it’s an image of a role that was pretty pivotal to how the movement was organized, as well as one of its biggest downfalls.

TB: Yeah, but it’s an image of just one woman cooking. There’s no more information to be gleaned. You don’t know who she is, how often this occurred - surely it’s too small a sample size to be indicative of a major source of conflict between Brown Beret brothers and sisters?

TGF: I know it’s an image of only one woman cooking, but it says a lot when you put it in the broader context of everything we've read and heard. For example, we know that often women were restricted to roles such as this. We also know that this led to women being prohibited from having access to the organization’s decision making processes. Maybe it’s only one woman, at one time, but it’s reflective of a broader system in which the Brown Beret’s operated.

TB: Ok, firstly, you’re just a gut feeling so stop using reasoning, that’s my turf. Secondly, are you trying to say that from this image we can assume that Brown Beret sisters were subjugated into these roles? That’s ridiculous. You need to pick an image of an event, something that can tell a story, something that will give you some information. At least something that has wonderful imagery and symbolism! If I leave this reflection piece to you, we’ll end up with something like, ‘at one point the Brown Berets, like almost all other humans, needed to eat food. This image tells that harrowing tale’. 

TGF: Of course if we look solely at this image we can’t say that Brown Beret women were subjugated. But don’t you remember Gloria Arrellanes’ story about a Brown Beret conference meeting in which all the women from close by chapters attended, only to simply cook for the men who were in the conference room holding the actual meeting? Maybe this photo doesn't depict that exact story, but it is representative of the somewhat internalized roles that shaped the Brown Berets operations, and some even its (relative) demise. That’s why I like it, and that’s what drew me to it.

TB: Yes I remember that story, as a brain it’s my job. In fact, I remember it better than you. Do you not remember Gloria also saying that many of the women were happy to be doing the cooking? Internalized roles? You’ll have to excuse me, I didn't realize gut feelings made decisions about who did and didn't have agency.

TGF: I don’t think this image tells the story of every woman in the Brown Berets. I’ll bet there were those who loved fulfilling roles like these, and no doubt they were important roles. I’m sure many were of the opinion that this was the best way to contribute, and for some it probably was. I’m not making a comment on the legitimacy of that idea. What I am saying, however, is that many – women and men - thought women’s roles were restrictive and definitely not indicative of equality between revolutionary sisters and brothers, and this changed the way the Brown Berets existed. This image shows a woman in a role that caused great division within the organization. For that reason, it is as important as it is interesting.

TB: Yeah.. well.. shutup! You have no business using logic. Your job is simply to assist me in the decision making process, not to actually make the decisions.

TGF: .. You.. you’re not seeing any parallels here?

The conversation mostly deteriorated into name calling and bickering after that, but hopefully it’s clear enough why I chose that image.   

Oral History

Throughout her life, Gloria Arrellanes has been heavily involved in the Chicano movement in a number of ways. From being an important member of the Brown Berets and running free community clinics, to eventually being a founding member of Las Adelitas de Aztlan, Gloria has lived many of the stories we have heard in class, in readings, and in film.

Gloria was born in Los Angeles to a Chicano father and a Native American mother, a mix that would later come to greatly shape her perspective on the Chicano movement. She grew up in the notorious Maravilla projects in LA until the age of five, at which point she moved to the area of El Monte. These areas are important to Gloria’s story due to the significant role they played in attracting her to Chicano activism.
Gloria attended high school in El Monte, an area which at the time was not home to many Chicanos or Latinos. Here, she was consistently subjected to racism and prejudice, as well as what she calls ‘indoctrination’ from her school which for a time led her to question her Chicano identity.

 After many clashes at her high school between the white ‘surfers’ and the Chicanos and Latinos, the groups were eventually brought into mediation. This was a relatively successful event, and as a result Gloria began to going to different local junior high schools in order to discuss the race-related issues that kids would face upon moving to high school. This was her first experience of Chicano-related activism, however it was after deciding to leave college and travel that her association with the Brown Berets began.

Gloria’s interview reinforces a number of histories that we have read about the Brown Berets. The first thing that stood out to me was how many Chicanos did not support the Brown Berets due to their militant ideals. From many of our readings, as well as watching Chicano!, we are well aware that the militant philosophies that the Brown Berets promoted made them appear undesirable to many. Gloria’s interview certainly speaks to this.
Despite the group lacking appeal to some, we also know that the Brown Berets were a successful vehicle for the promotion of Chicano rights through community participation. This is demonstrated through Gloria’s explaining of her running of both ‘El Barrio Free Clinic’ and ‘La Clinica del Barrio’ – free community health clinics set up and run by Gloria and the Brown Berets. Gloria speaks proudly of her work within these clinics, and rightfully so, they were of immeasurable assistance to many within the community.

Interestingly, whilst Gloria speaks about her association with these clinics with pride, there is also a clear sense of frustration. This frustration stems from the second history that the interview reinforces – that there were deep gendered divisions within the Brown Berets. Numerous times, Gloria references moments when she felt that women were not being treated as ‘revolutionary sisters’ within the movement. These included occasions such as some Brown Beret men partying in her clinics, women being expected to cook for the men instead of being involved in the decision making processes, and even women being victims of sexual violence.

These events led Gloria to leave the Brown Berets and become one of the founders of Las Adelitas de Aztlan, a women’s group that sought to advance the Chicana movement. As we have learnt, Las Adelitas sought to be free of the patriarchal systems which seemingly governed both the Brown Berets and at times the broader Chicano movement. Las Adelitas were also important as they represented feminism at a time when the movement was considered too white and middle class by many women of color.  

The interview also raised issues related to Gloria’s mixed identity as both a member of the indigenous Gabrielino-Tongva Nation and a Chicana. She explains that the concept of Aztlan is one that is ‘put on top of’ her ancestral lands, and is therefore problematic for her identity as an indigenous person. Given that Gloria began a group called ‘Las Adelitas de Aztlan’, this is an interesting change of perspectives that raises important questions for how diverse identities within the Chicano movement affect individual and collective action.

Production Decisions

The production decisions that were made in presenting the interview appear to reflect the aims of the CPMR project. One of the main aims – to demonstrate the development of Chicana feminist thought- is definitely fulfilled by asking questions that pertain not just to certain events relevant to the Chicano movement, but also to themes of spirituality and cultural identity.

Responses are definitely the gold of oral history, but the questions are the picks used to extract such information. That is to say that an oral history interview almost always needs insightful questions in order to elicit meaningful responses. In this case, less-obvious questions in regards to spirituality serve to illuminate lesser known aspects about the development Chicana feminist thought, and thus serve the goals of the CPMR project.

From a technical standpoint, there were a few minor issues. Whilst the framing of the shot made for a nice level of intimacy with the interviewee, the interview was constantly backed by a somewhat irritating buzzing noise, and at times the video cut back for an unknown (un-Medici or break-in-questioning related) reason. Neither of these factors really hindered watching the interview in any meaningful way, however.

Overall, this oral history was a real pleasure to watch. It was insightful, and addressed many of the histories we have covered in class; the divisive nature of militaristic concepts in the Chicano movement, the role of women in the brown berets, the exclusivity of the broader feminist movement, and how identity shaped action within the Chicano movement. 

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