Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thoughts on Sexist Chicanos

In the past year or so, I’ve experienced and witnessed sexist behavior by a handful of Chicano men, a couple of them writers (non-bloggers), who in public express support for Chicana writers, their community activism, and their shared interest in social justice issues. I find it interesting that as long as Chicanas call other people and entities out on their oppressive actions, these Chicanos appear to support Chicanas. In fact, they appear to be thrilled about Chicana activism and when that activism is expressed in their writing because they recognize that our struggles are similar, that we are all hoping to live in socially-just communities and a peaceful world. They appear to be some of our biggest supporters and are sometimes generous about telling us so.

However, when Chicanas stand up for themselves when they believe these same Chicanos are acting in an oppressive manner towards them, these men cannot believe what is happening. In my recent experience, these handful of Chicanos unhappy with Chicanas standing their ground have responded with threats, power-trips, and general ugly behavior toward the women they hardly know (not that if they knew them well it would be acceptable, but that it is amazing how cruel they can be at the drop of a pin). It is even more shameful when this behavior occurs in public settings because it shows the importance of “audience” to witness the power play. It is a kind of violence, to humiliate people either publicly or privately. It appears that these “progressive” Chicano “allies” cannot believe what is happening so they respond like a sexist partner might when a woman says she wants to go back to school and not only be a housewife anymore. Lots of angry, loud, abusive threats. The attitude I’ve witnessed and experienced is along the lines of how dare these Chicanas act this way toward me? Do they know whom they are speaking to? Do they know how I can ruin them just like that because I am so powerful?

In one case (this did not happen to me but I will never forget it), there was some physical contact, some shoving on the part of the Chicano, along with his rude comments.

And even after the dust has settled, these same Chicanos have not at all attempted to communicate with the Chicanas about what happened. Instead of opening the lines of communication after the fact to seek out resolutions, their response in the ensuing weeks, months has been silence. But not silence in public. No, some of these men have decided to talk about the Chicanas to other people, spreading gossip and negative remarks about the women, sometimes while the women are in the same room, and never once admitting to their behavior. No, these women have suddenly and simply become “unreasonable putas" who they believe must be defamed in their communities so that they, these men, can continue running from themselves, running from their actions, running from the fear that they might have been wrong.

Dear Chicanas, you likely know this already, unfortunately, but old-school machismo is alive and well among even the most seemingly “progressive.” I know that “machismo” is a complex term and I do not at all want to suggest that sexism is a given in our culture. I also do not want to suggest that higher education reverses sexist behavior. This is specifically about Chicanos who actively seek out Chicana allies, yet still expect to maintain a comfortable, patriarchal position in their “support"--and use divide and conquer tactics when they feel Chicanas have "dishonored them" by "daring" to question their behavior.

I would like to publicly urge all Chicanos who have treated a sister poorly because she was critical of your sexist behavior to stop the cycle of abuse. Stop trying to ruin reputations (as if you could) because of your pride and your inability to discuss these issues openly. Stop regressing and please start treating your Chicana sisters with respect and care. Please read or re-read Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa. Here is some of what she says: “From the men of our race, we demand the admission/acknowledgment/
disclosure/testimony that they wound us, violate us, are afraid of us and of our power. We need them to say they will begin to eliminate their hurtful, put-down ways. But more than words, we demand acts. We say to them: We will develop equal power with you and those who have shamed us.”

I never thought that these words would also include Chicanos like you who have showed your support of Chicanas and continue to show support of other Chicanas you have not put-down. I hope you know that one act of support to a Chicana does not erase negative behavior to another. When will you really step up to the plate and address your recent actions? We will not let your threats and your scare tactics weigh on us. We will write about how we feel to reduce the weight of your oppressive behavior and to educate others. It is a shame that you too are a negative part of our struggle. I want to say what a shame it is that we trusted you (and in some cases, promoted your work because we believed in it), but it is not our fault that we trusted you. We will continue to trust our Chicano friends, allies, children, relatives... It is not our fault that you are unable to communicate in a reasonable way and that you resort to public humiliations, scare tactics, gossip and the like. We will not blame ourselves for your behavior, though we are concerned, as a result of your behavior towards us, about how you treat other women. We will no longer remain silent in an effort to protect the public image of all Chicana/os. You should not find us “easy targets” any longer. That is a figment of your imagination, that our kindness and our openness are weaknesses. Your behavior is a reflection of you, not us. We are concerned that you must have a lot of unresolved anger toward women, unless you are also prone to treating men the same way as well. Then we are doubly concerned. May you some day recognize that Chicanas and women are not your oppressors. May you some day find peace in yourself and the world around you.

It is unlikely that those who ought to read this letter ever will, but I am putting it out in the world with the hope that others will stumble upon it--Chicanas, Chicanos, Chicana/os, Chican@s [it's unfortunate that I've had to use so many gender-specific labels in this post--I know that the labels get troublesome--but this discussion, unfortunately, calls for gender-specificity] and anyone interested--and find a positive use for reading these words so that we can seek peace and try to prevent further and future humiliations.

I would like to thank all of the wonderful Chican@ allies, writers, and activists who recognize and address sexist behavior in our community. Wonderful, wonderful gente who are communicative, generous, and amazing friends and acquaintances. Thank you, as well, to all of the Chicanas who did the hard work of years past. Already in my lifetime I have seen change. Thank you to Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Norma Cantú, and many many more whose words have helped and continue to help us see the light in the struggle.



hermana noemi said...

I think it's a big problem within activists communities and something that folks don't want to talk about. Because these Chicano activists are doing some good work, and because they might have a following, they probably think it's forgivable and that their actions are not at all sexist. I have brought it up before, I have said we have to talk about this as a community and look around and there is no response. It's disheartening and oppressive, especially when these Chicanos are friends w/ your activists friends. But these kind of silent support of sexist Chicanos by fellow Chicanas and feminist Chicanos is even more oppressive, I think, because when you have no one showing support or someone to validate your experience, you begin to doubt yourself. You begin to think you are "just too aggressive." It's, like you say, abusive-using their status in the community, or among the activist group, and within the same circle of friends.

Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you for writing this. How we treat (and mistreat) each other---in public and in private---is something I am particularly conscious of these days.

Thank you, Emmy.

Your post is a gift.

barbara jane said...

hi emmy, thank you for this post. for real, this sexism also applies in a bog way to my community of artists and activists.

barbara jane said...

(um, that's "in a big way")

Rich said...

In a word:


Carmen (La Maestra) said...

Emmy, I feel your frustration. Unfortunately for every sexist out there, there's some lady who pities the wounded adolescent that is at the core of all mysogenistic behavior. (Usually, her name is "mom.")

Ladies, speaking personally as a Diva with a tremendous reputation for 'tude, I would like to make a couple of observations:

Hermana noemi says that "when you have no one showing support or someone to validate your experience, you begin to doubt yourself." Let me say this-- I can't relate. I sympathize, but I can't relate.

A bully is a bully. A sexist is a bully. Bullies need to be brought in line for the common good. The common good requires sacrifice. If it means I stand accused of bitchery, then a bitch be I.

Remember this: they only have as much power as you give them.

And in applying our personal power, as my Oma always said:

Wisdom before impulsivity; bravery before self interest; the common good before pity; and your own good judgement above all else.

La maestra, over and out

Emmy said...

thanks to everyone who read this post. i really appreciate all of your comments.

hermana noemi - you are right on. Lack of communication between those involved really hurts the situation even more (in my experience, the hope for effective communication shuts down when the anger level turns into a big scene). I can completely relate to what you say here: "But these kind of silent support of sexist Chicanos by fellow Chicanas and feminist Chicanos is even more oppressive, I think, because when you have no one showing support or someone to validate your experience, you begin to doubt yourself." Although others not directly involved know what happened, they often turn a blind eye (and thus become "involved" in their silence) because it did not happen to them. I can't emphasize this enough... those who pretend things never happened just so that they could stay "in the loop" or in the favor of the oppressor's circle. The onlookers/witnesses are sometimes as guilty for continuing the silence, especially about issues they seemingly care about very deeply. Keep doing all the good work at Cafe R. We should all keep writing about these issues and spreading the word and keep trying to create dialogue.

Thank you, Francisco, for reading this too. I appreciate your comments.

And Barbara Jane, I feel encouraged to write these thoughts, in a large part, because writers like you continue to blaze a path to opening up the lines of communication about these issues. Thank you.

Rich, thanks for reading the post and responding.

Carmen, I know what you're saying... I interpret your first paragraph as a description of the "mijo syndrome" that exists across cultures. Ay, the mijo syndrome!

I would like to respond to the rest of what you wrote, Carmen, and will do so soon.

Thanks to all.

Rich said...

Well, okay, "word" is not really a comment.

What I should say is, this issue hits home for me in a very real way, as I've had Chicana friends specifically express to me this kind of overt sexism on the part of the boys, in these specific cases by rather well-known Chicano writers who (one would think) should know better.

I am a Cuban and Puerto Rican writer here on the East Coast, and machista behavior is as pervasive as ever here too. What I find in the various communities I'm a part of is nothing more than old bait-and-switch tactics...a guy can say he's down for real change, that he's pro-woman, feminist, what have you; but in private, act the same way his mama raised him to be. (And YES, there's definitely something to be said for Carmen's "wounded adolescent" archetype.)

For my part, my partners and I are trying to make the space we run in the Bronx as free and open as possible. Each of us simply does what we can, in the hopes that the collective voice can stomp out the machista nonsense, bigotry, etc., once and for all. Of course, letters like this remind us of the work we must continue. And let me add, since we are all writers here...part of defeating machismo is helping to facilitate the voice of the Chicana in literature where and whenever possible--especially above the forces of those who would choose to gatekeep and silence it, because as your letter implies, these forces are alive and well and must be addressed.

Emmy said...

carmen, I'm glad that you shared your thoughts to continue the dialogue.

I do believe that your approach comes with the best of intentions. I don’t want to speak for h. noemi, but I would like to add my observations because I sense you address related, though separate issues.

Based on what I’ve seen of h. noemi’s extensive community work, I believe she is speaking more about how difficult it is to move forward when communities of all genders (who are working together towards social change – i.e. raising awareness about sexism, domestic violence, human trafficking, murders of the women in Juárez, immigrant rights, etc.) ignore sexist behavior within the group. In other words, it’s not a case of an individual allowing a sexist bully to have power over her--it’s a given that the individual will not tolerate the sexist behavior--it’s more about how disappointing and disheartening it can be when the group is unwilling to even talk about the issues and instead carry on with their community work as if nothing is wrong. This can make the already exhausting work of community organizing (often a labor of love and necessity) feel somewhat hypocritical.

There is an element of trust involved in working with a group towards social change. When one’s sisters/brothers in the struggle, the ones most ready to raise awareness about issues such as sexism, do not acknowledge that it is in happening in their own like-minded group, it’s a real let down. Coupled with the exhaustion that already comes with community organizing, one starts to question whether it is all worth the struggle.

Your Oma gives good advice for us all.

And I always turn to Anzaldúa’s work for tools to deal with these complex issues, and also for insight on the very human element that our emotions speak volumes.

But it is never easy. It's exhausting. And even worse when it feels like the groups we identify with most are spinning their own wheels.

Thanks again to everyone for your thoughts/comments.

Emmy said...


Thank you for writing more and sharing your perspective. I read your interview on la bloga about your work, and I appreciate your mentioning here how each one in your group contributes to the "collective voice" in addressing these issues in our communities. To be on the same page when it comes to these matters is so important.

It is good to know that we are collectively acknowledging the problem here in these posts, a problem that extends beyond the Chicana/o community.

Thanks again to everyone here for contributing to this discussion. Each comment has been very valuable.

o.p. said...

i am from an older generation, but what you say, emmy, rings true nonetheless. i am not Chicana, but as you say, this problem moves beyond the Chicano/a
community. when i was involved with the civil rights/women's liberation groups of the 60's, sexism was still, of course, rampant. the male activists wanted our work, our help, our open sexuality...but few of them wanted our voices to challenge or speak louder (or more articulate) than their own. i am not trying to identify with the struggle of others with whom i have no right or authority to identify. but i do know that to keep silent when oppression of any kind rears its ugly head is wrong. you are doing service to all when you speak/write of the lack of kindness and support that we must demand from everyone, and especially activists, when their actions work to dishearten and put down the strength and status of others. thank you for your work.