“Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster”

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Why Women’s History Still Matters w/ Maria E. Cotera, Ph.D.

What we are is what we decide we are. And what we do with our identity is also our decision, not the decision of men, the universities, “herstories,” “his-stories,” or anyone else.

—Martha P. Cotera, keynote address, Chicana Identity Conference, Houston, 1975

In the 1990s any feminist theory syllabus that aspired to represent a certain vision of the women’s movement (as a multiethnic, decentralized, democratic experiment where theory did not drive practice but emerged from it) would no doubt have included the writing of women of color anthologized in This Bridge Called My Back. Published in 1981, that foundational anthology introduced a rising generation of feminists in the academy to writing from the margins of academic feminism. Not surprisingly, it is frequently cited as a moment of emergence for women of color/ intersectional feminism. But if you took that volume, as did so many feminists in the academy, to document the first contributions of women of color to the theory and practice of feminism, you would have been committing (however unwittingly) an act of erasure. The present essay narrates my response to that erasure—as a Chicana scholar who has labored to reinsert women of color into our collective memory and as the daughter of a Chicana who shaped feminist praxis a decade before the publication of This Bridge Called My Back—with an account of an archival project that reaches into our shared feminist past in an effort to build a different future for feminist praxis in the academy and beyond.

My choice to preface this essay with an epigram that gestures to that past through the words of my mother, Martha P. Cotera, reflects these dual commitments. A feminist public intellectual of the old stripe, Cotera did her research and writing through public speeches, essays in movement publications, and self-published texts funded by a combination of Women’s Educational Equity Act grants and “work on the side.” In the 1970s, by far her most prolific period as a feminist writer, Cotera produced several texts (Diosa y Hembra in 1976 and The Chicana Feminist in 1977) that debunked myths about Mexican American women and called for the recognition of a particular liberatory imaginary—Chicana feminism. These books, like much of the writing of women of color before This Bridge, were out of print and largely unavailable by the late 1980s. Along with other Chicanas who were prolific writers and researchers during this period (Anna Nieto Gomez, Alicia Escalante, Francisca Flores, Evey Chapa, and many more) my mother constitutes a “lost generation” of Chicana feminism, an intellectual legacy that has been overshadowed by the twin towers of male-dominated accounts of the Chicano movement and a “wave” model of feminist history that typically figures This Bridge as the starting point of women of color feminism. Most of the women of this lost generation did not pursue PhDs or achieve tenure track positions, but they (along with early Black feminists) nevertheless shaped intersectional feminism in profound ways. And yet, perhaps because they were denied the opportunity to become fully fledged citizens of the institutions that transformed oppositional social movements into academic practices, they have been lost to history. Hence the first part of my title, “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster”—a quote derived from Mitsue Yamada’s essay in This Bridge—which paradoxically hails both its continuing importance to feminist theory and the ways in which historical accounts of both the women’s movement and the Chicano movement have rendered invisible a much longer legacy of feminist of color praxis.

As its title suggests, this essay concerns the politics of historical meaning-making and the methodological practices that shape collective memory. There can be little doubt that the dominant historical imaginary of social movements of the 1960s and 1970s has tended to render the contributions of women of color invisible. Multiple critiques of the “wave model” of feminist historiography have criticized the genealogical narrative that credits This Bridge with ushering in the “third wave” of the women’s movement (Sandoval 2000; Thompson 2002; Blackwell 2011). These critiques note how such historical framings feed the popular notion that women of color were relative latecomers to feminism while also, crucially, ignoring the interventions of women of color who were actively producing feminist knowledge in (and before) the “second wave” in both white feminist and ethnic nationalist spaces. Feminist critiques of Chicano movement historiography have problematized its tendency to focus on, in Maylei Blackwell’s (2011: 28) words, “a cosmology of male heroes that reifies the ‘great man’ narrative and interpretive structure.” This heteromasculinist narrative frame, they argue, mirrors the patriarchal tendencies of the movement itself, even as it erases the myriad forms of labor that contributed to the movement’s effectiveness and reach. Historians like Alma Garcia, Dionne Espinoza, and Lorena Oropeza have recuperated the community-building work and political organizing of women in the movement, demonstrating that Chicanas were active, if critical, participants in shaping the key terms of struggle within both the women’s movement and the Chicano movement. Much of this new scholarship has been built from the ground up: by finding and forging connections with the women who were active in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; by interviewing them and conducting life histories; and by collecting and interpreting their personal archives. This is risky and important field-building work that is rarely undertaken in the traditional way. With scant institutional archives dedicated to the legacy of Chicana feminism and few secondary sources that document this history, scholars must frequently create their own archives, methodologies, and genealogies. In doing so, they produce historical work that swims against the tide of the methodological and interpretive norms of most Chicano and feminist historiography.

Inspired by this emerging work, and aware of the pressing need for archival resources documenting Chicana praxis in the 1960s and 1970s, I started a digital archiving project in 2009 to create a resource of primary materials for scholars, teachers, and students. What began as a relatively modest archival intervention soon developed into a multi-sited national digital humanities project—the Chicana por mi Raza digital archive—that sought a somewhat grander goal: to reimagine the archive not as a static repository but as an active site of knowledge production that could realize the emancipatory potential of its central subject, Chicana feminism. The primary focus of the project is to collect, organize, and preserve oral histories and archives that document the development of Chicana feminist praxis between 1965 and 1985. Like all such digital projects, the Chicana por mi Raza digital archive involves collaboration among academics, media makers, digital specialists, students, and community members. Its labors are undertaken in multiple contexts: in the classroom, in the community, in the library, and even in the computer lab. Its audience is conceived as broadly as its collaborative production model and includes scholars, students, community members, and grassroots organizations. The impetus for the project is undeniably archival, but in its collaborative and multi-sited relations of production, and its efforts to reimagine archival recovery through the lens of feminist praxis, the project challenges the knowledge/power system that grounds the authority of the traditional archive. In what follows, I offer an account of how my thinking about archival praxis shifted as Chicana por mi Raza moved from a fairly straightforward digital reunification project to one that called into question the very nature of the archive—how it is constituted, what it tells us, who it represents, and how it is engaged for knowledge production.

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