Reading about Antonia Pantoja was so interesting to me because I feel as there were so many parallels between the both of us. She was very much so in-between New York City, San Diego and Puerto Rico throughout her life, only realizing in her old age that NYC was her true home (despite being born on the island). I was born in San Diego, spent many summers of my life with mis abuelos in Mexico, and grew up around NYC and really got involved in the different (and often intersecting) realms of activism, academia and the arts that the city had to offer. So I understand first-hand this search for “home”, which might just be where one in the most productive and finds the most connections in (for both me and Pantoja, NYC is definitely this place). I also really commend how Pantoja was able to blend these different sects into her everyday life and self-expression, for it’s something that I’m still struggling with. I often find myself getting too comfortable sitting in the “ivory tower”, only writing and theorizing about oppression and liberation and not doing nearly enough to combat inequality. But Pantoja was able to organize Puerto Rican students through many community-based programs in NYC, most notably ASPIRA, as well as reforming the realm of social work to incorporate direct community action when she accepted a teaching position in the field. She really was able to blend together her ethnic identity, academic accomplishments and activist goals together almost seamlessly, which is something I think many latinas should also aim to accomplish.
Reading about Teresa Urea reminded me a lot about a topic I was really interested in and researched a lot a few years ago–liberation theology. Basically, in the early/mid 20th century, a lot of Latin American revolutions often went hand-in-hand with support from the church. Not officially, of course–but many priests and nuns would provide sanctuary for revolutionaries as well as convey radical messages within their parishes. This led to a lot of government-sanctioned denouncing and killing of religious officials that dared to question their authority. In turn, many idols of the Catholic church became integrated into revolutionary symbols, especially Jesus Christ.
I always found this interesting because the Catholic church is always seen as a monolithic oppressive entity when in fact many Latin American countries have utilized the Catholic church as a way to radicalize the masses, for many of the most disenfranchised people will readily listen to messages from the church. While I agree that the Catholic church has undeniable roots in Spanish colonialism, I also think it’s interesting how Latinos have weaponized it regardless.
When I think of many of the Latinas I know, I think of their strong ties to religion. The fact is, while most of my Latina relatives consider themselves devout Catholics, they do believe in things that my Irish-Catholic family members don’t agree align with true Catholic practices. For example, on Dia de los muertos, my mother puts out an alter with velas and food as an offering to any deceased relatives that may pass through our home. My Irish family members always remark about how spooky that tradition is, and often say that believing in ghosts is nonsense. Mi abuela has always told me stories of supernatural things that have happened to her, miracles that she swears she witnessed, much like the ones that Teresa Urea performed.
Overall, it appears as if there is something inherently radical in religion, as long as it is truly used to cure the sick and help further the causes of those that are marginalized. I also believe that religion among Latinas is less about maintaining the status-quo upheld by the Vatican (although there are usually exceptions when it comes to matters of contraception and abortion) and has more to do with using religion to further cultural traditions.
I was really moved by the story of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burnton. I actually think it has a lot to say about the latina experience in relation to writing. I know at least in my family, all of the women have an affinity for writing. Whether it’s an elaborately written birthday card or a grocery list scrawled on a napkin, one of mis tias o primas is always jotting down something. What they write doesn’t necessarily have to be as entrenched in ideas surrounding inequality such as Burnton’s writing, but I do think that growing up always having my latina relatives’ writing surrounding me taught me a lot about the latina experience. Especially when I was younger (and definitely before I had a Facebook), mis tias y primas would send me hand-written letters from Mexico so that they could practice their English. Not having grown up speaking Spanish, I wrote back in English as well. It became so that in the years between seeing my relatives I would still be able to grow close with them through letters. Of course, with the changing of the times these letters have not been sent in almost 10 years. While I’m happy that it’s so much easier to keep up with my relatives on social media (which I can now do in Spanish after spending the last 4 years studying it), I do think that the tangible writing of letters was so intimate and was really what grounded me to my latinidad before I was comfortable with outright embracing it. This is why I think the pen is so powerful–the emotions that one conveys through ink can sometimes be just cathartic enough to really express the depth of one’s feelings and thoughts.
I never used to consider myself latina, but I never got quite used to calling myself white, either. Growing up I often wouldn’t need to declare my ethnicity, for upon introducing myself to someone they would usually look me over and say “So, what are you?”
The “ethnicity question” is often too intriguing to ignore, for not one of my features is apparently easy to place on a map, so to speak. I’ve rehearsed over the course of my life to respond “My dad is Irish,” only to pause for a second to observe the raised brow of whoever I’m talking to. “…And my mom is Mexican,” I’d finish. They’d nod and say “Oh, how interesting/exotic/!” And I’d smile and give a wry chuckle.
I always perceived myself as such a mismatched physical being. I never liked how my knotty, curly hair was impossible to control and how my skin deepened into an olive-brown during the summer months. As a teenager I would straighten my hair every day and went through bouts of dyeing it red, purple, pitch black–anything to distance myself from my Mexican features.
Looking back on it, I always wanted to eliminate the aspects of myself that gave away a sense of racial ambiguity. I wanted to be a stick-thin blondie with pin-straight hair like the popular girls at school. I wished my eyes were blue like my father’s.
Like Latina Legacies pointed out, there are various identities that fall under the “latina” umbrella label. Through my own personal journey of grappling with my desire to be white and my longing to connect with my mother’s heritage has allowed me to come to a concise label for myself.
I am a latina woman, without a doubt. But I think it is important to assert that I’m a white latina because of the fact that I can so easily pass for white, even if somewhat ethnically ambiguous. There is no doubt I continue to experience privilege on behalf of that and I choose to own up to it.
But this does not negate my latina experience. My journey in learning Spanish and studying the sociopolitical aspects of Latina America and the Caribbean are some of the ways in which I am educating myself academically, while cultural education comes out of visiting my family in Mexico (which may be more difficult in these dire political times).