Written by Ileana Jiménez, founder and sole blogger at Feminist Teacher
If it weren’t for some Irish white guy, I never would have become a feminist.
When I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man my senior year in high school, it changed my entire life. Never before had I read a novel that spoke to me with such intensity.
The main character, Stephen Dedalus, was repeatedly teased and picked on the playground. I was teased and picked on the playground with names like spic and nigger.
Here was a boy who wrote poetry hidden underneath the covers. I wrote poetry with big words that no one in my family understood.
Here was a boy who questioned the Catholic Church and went off to college to proclaim non serviam, or “I will not serve” the church, and instead became an artist, a writer, and a thinker. At 18, I also questioned the Catholic Church and went off to Smith to proclaim my own destiny as a queer feminist writer and thinker.
But while I read Joyce, I kept asking: Why isn’t this character a Puerto Rican girl living on Long Island via the Bronx in 1993? And why haven’t I ever read a book with a Latina protagonist who shares my story?
When I finished reading the novel, I was on a mission. I was determined to find books with female characters that would reflect me back to me.
Through my research, I discovered second wave feminism, and in particular, the literary criticism written by white feminist theorists during that time. I’ll never forget ransacking the public library bookshelves and finding Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic. Reaching across dusty books, I also encountered French feminism in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Finding these books in my local library was like finding my own heaven. I was so enamored with my discoveries, I was convinced I was the first person to read these works.
Through these critics, I learned about old school feminist novelists like Colette, Erica Jong, and Sylvia Plath. I devoured Judy Chicago’s memoir, Through the Flower, and cried when I saw images of her famous Dinner Party celebrating forgotten women in history.
Still though, these were all white women writers and artists. Where were the Latinas? Where were the women who could tell me how they reconciled their Latina identity with their burgeoning feminist ideals?
I couldn’t find them while I was in high school. Instead, I wrote a 20 page paper in my AP English class comparing Joyce’s exploration of gender, sexuality, and his vocation to become a writer with women writers exploring their own gender, sexuality, and artistic vocations: Chicago’s Through the Flower, Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Plath’s The Bell Jar. When I finished writing my paper, I promised myself that as soon I arrived at college, I would find not just Latina writers but in particular, Latina feminist writers.
That summer of 1993, I watched Ruth Bader Ginsberg get grilled and then confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was the first time I had seen a female justice get seated to the highest court. I remember falling in love with Ginsberg, and it was her chutzpah that inspired me to go with my gut to transfer from Boston University to Smith when I arrived in Boston that fall.
As soon as I arrived at BU, I took a Peter Pan bus out to Smith and landed an interview. By that January, I transferred to Smith and enrolled in Nancy Saporta Sternbach’s Latina and Latin American Women Writers class. I wasn’t supposed to be in that course, as it was only open to juniors and seniors. I was so determined to get in though, that the night before the class started, I called the professor at home! Dios mio, the things you do at 18!
It was in that class that I found Cherríe Moraga. I’ll never forget opening my very first course reader with its hot orange cover and black binder rings. Inside were excerpts from Loving in the War Years. Reading Moraga’s words was magical. It felt like I was reading a journal I had written in my heart but never knew how to write. Her words, “My brother’s sex was white, mine was brown,” exploded off the pages.
Moraga gave me the strength to see myself in all the ways that I lived as a light-skinned Puerto Rican woman who was also brown, queer, and feminist. I recognized in her words my own struggles and doubts, my own anger and frustration. I also found hope that through writing, we Latina feminists could not only find our own voices but also find each other’s, no matter what risks we took to find them.
I learned from her that we need to commit to each other as Latina feminists, not by shouting non serviam, but instead by lending a hand to one another and saying a tu servicio.
Ileana Jiménez is an educator, activist, and blogger in New York. Readers can follow her tweets here.
Summer of Feminista is a project where Latinas are sharing what feminism means to them. Positive. Negative. Academic statements. Personal stories. Learn more or how you can join the Summer of Feminista. This is a project of Viva la Feminista. Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.