My name is Wendy Irula Braun and I am an expert in analyzing representations of Latinas in contemporary popular culture because I have not only studied these representations, but have experienced the daily harmful effects of negative or missing images of myself and my Latina hermanas.
It is not news that in most contemporary images and public discourse, Latinas are often portrayed as asexual maids, hypersexualized spitfires, and undocumented mothers of “anchor babies.” That is, if we are portrayed at all. We are rarely represented in the public eye as intellectuals, though as Linda Garcia Merchant points out in the last post, we are certainly here and doing the work despite a lack of public recognition. But it is also clear, as Veronica writes, that we do not have a “stand out Latina public intellectual akin to a Gloria Steinem or those on the top of the 100 public intellectuals list.”
As Merchant mentions, we do have contenders. We have many. So why hasn’t this role been filled yet and what are the institutional and social factors that may be preventing someone from filling this role? Do we need one stand out figure to fill this role?
Part of the problem is the lack of positive Latina representations. Hegemonic discourse has limited the public’s view or us and our potential, and has created a culture where “Latina Intellectual” is seen as an oxymoron—this country doesn’t believe that a Latina Intellectual can exist and therefore makes no room for any of us to fill this role. This became clear to me during Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination and appointment to the Supreme Court—the conservative media couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea of this woman and many opponents did their best to use Latina stereotypes against her, further demonstrating the persistence of these harmful stereotypes.
Part of the problem is that we define “intellectual” in a way that denies the work that many of us do. Intellectual work as it is currently defined often requires a type of privilege to focus on writing that many Latinas don’t have. Even if we are able to write, our work is ignored, accused of being self-serving, or discredited with attacks of reverse-racism or some other derailing tactic.
Part of the problem is that marginalized figures in a public role face a lot of hostility and this probably discourages most potential leaders.
But there is a desperate need for this person. I need this person. For my life and my sanity. And I am not alone.
I am reminded of a blog post my friend and colleague Martha Pitts wrote about bell hooks over at Ms. Blog. Pitts discusses the impact that hooks continues to have on her as a Black feminist and mother, and she even refers to hooks as a “fairy godmother” who gives guidance and creates empowerment through her texts in a way that resonates in Black women’s lives in invaluable ways.
I realized that I lacked this “fairy godmother” and that there was a deep hole in my heart because of it. As Merchant points out, many of us have direct personal or professional contact with several Latinas that can make a positive impact in our lives (and hopefully we do the same for them), but unfortunately, many of us don’t have this direct and/or frequent influence. Many Latinas like myself may live and work in a place where there is not a large Latin@ community and we are struggling to find a support system and mentor.
Sotomayor’s career is a huge step forward for us, and she does help our public image, but I do not feel a connectedness to her in the way I do for my favorite feminist activist-writers because she must be more careful of what she says and does. I often refer to the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, but she sadly passed away, leaving us to search and long for a contemporary of her caliber.
We need a stand out public figure—not only to counter the many negative representations of ourselves that fight to maintain dominance in public discourse, but also to fill an emotional void that many of us experience in our daily lives. We need someone who passionately and consistently speaks to us and for us in the same way hooks does for our African American sisters. Though we may have role models, we need and deserve our Latina Gloria Steinem or bell hooks. We deserve our fairy godmother, our hada madrina.
This is something that is often overlooked as an important by-product of activism and activist writing—the escapism that it sometimes allows the rest of us because we live in places we often want to escape. After a particularly hard day, we need this figure to read or listen to, someone we imagine talking to, laughing or crying with, and asking advice from when we try deal with the microaggressions that Latinas are subjected to each day. We need someone who makes positive political and social change for the days when we feel no progress is being made or when our own projects haven’t been as successful as we would have liked. We need someone who shows us that a lifetime dedicated to consciousness-raising and empowerment can be fulfilling and rewarding, especially on days when we think we no longer have the strength. We need someone who works to combine theory with activism, acknowledges the link between the personal and the political, who addresses the diverse lives of Latinas (and all of our intersectionalities) while remaining an ally to other marginalized groups and who writes/speaks for us and to us and our myriad experiences.
This sounds like a lot, but I see no reason why a contemporary Latina can’t join the ranks of Steinem and hooks. This relationship can’t be one-sided. We cannot simply force someone into the role and demand that they serve our needs. We need to continue to work to redefine the labels of “public” and “intellectual” in a way that incorporates Latinas and acknowledges our achievements, and we must support those who seem hesitant to fill the role by creating a culture where a “Latina intellectual” is not an oxymoron and is respected and nurtured.
If we continue this work, as I’m sure we all are, I know we can create a space for a Latina Intellectual (or several). A public Latina Intellectual is not only needed for the important impact she would have for institutional and cultural representation of Latinas and the inequalities we experience because of this, but she is also important because of the personal need we have for this figure.
I know that she is out there. And like in fairy tales, we must have faith that she will appear when we need her most.
Summer of Feminista 2011 is a project where Latinas are sharing their thoughts on Latinas as Public Intellectuals. Liberal. Conservative. 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.