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Summer of Feminista: Finding Ella

My name is Suzanna not Suzy and I am an expert in bright colors because of my grandmother.

I can’t remember when I learned what a “feminist” was; it’s like asking me when I learned how to walk. I do however remember learning Spanish. It really wasn’t until I was eight when I figured out that “ella” meant “she.”

I am the only daughter of a Mexican immigrant and his American wife. For the past 20 years, I’m proud to say that three of us have held down La Raza within our suburban Maryland development. We’ve educated our neighbors that a double l makes a “ya” not “lll” sound and that no, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican independence day.

To be sure, for the majority of those 20 years, most of my friends were white, not Hispanic, not Latino. When I thought about it too hard, it made me uncomfortable, although I could never really say why. Similarly, most of my friends were girls, although only two of us identified as feminists. Feminism always came easily to me; of course, as a girl, I could speak out in class! Duh, I can carry that just as well as you. Sure my classmates would tease me about being a hairy feminist (although to be honest, I think my Frida unibrow was more thanks to my chilango side, but whatever), but I would get mad and then let it go. I was thirteen, had braces, had a weird name that no one could pronounce; I had enough on my plate.

Cue high school. Great friends, classes, and teachers. Still the only Latina in classes/friend groups/standing in this room, still one of the few vocal feminists. But something weird started happening. When I would get angry and rant quickly, people would interrupt and mimic me in an “Angry Latina” accent. But they were just kidding. Right? One time, a kid in my history class said that he was getting his house painted by Mexicans and wanted to know if he should give my dad a special tip. But that was an over-reaction. Right? One fall, I was cast in a Spanish speaking, low-cut wearing, big hair blowing role in our school’s play. My character was the cheating girlfriend of the play’s janitor. The janitor was played by self-tanner saturated English boy with an abusive Mexican accent. But my dad wasn’t angry. Right? But the audience was laughing with us. Right? This progressive, liberal school couldn’t be racist, right? We reached post-racial, no?

I could speak out when I saw that our history book only seemed to mention old dead white guys, why if other governments had a much higher percentage of women representation why couldn’t we, and that yes, we should also have screaming fans for our girls’ basketball team.

But when my guidance counselor told me that I didn’t have to worry as much about my applications because I was Mexican and that would definitely be an enormous help to get into colleges, I was silent. It was the same sensation as when someone who finally matched my hair, eyes, and skin would speak me in Spanish and I had to sputter my way back into English.

I sought advice on the trickiest answer within my college preparation (“mark all races/ethnicities that apply”), but I couldn’t find another Latina.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love my mom. That woman with the Spanish name who really isn’t Spanish has enriched my existence to no end. But while I can always approach her with questions on how to blast through that glass ceiling; my skin is simply too dark to share her foundation. And my dad? He’s the smartest man I know (even if our printer doesn’t always work). Yet, I think he remains mystified that a man could be born Mexican, naturalize American, and produce a Latina. In my only child way, I figured out my own answer, grateful that I didn’t have to explain it to a younger hermana.

I found my Latina a few months later, only she was a tad too busy to charlar. You see, Tia Sonia was confirmed only a month after my high school graduation. Ella. I heard the same affirmative action whispers attempting to bring discount her admittance, but I saw her present the rebuttal I could never producir. Ella.

Six months from 21, I realize that being a mestiza/mixed doesn’t mean either or. It means adopting, transforming, re-fitting to a new purpose, synthesizing. It means enhancing, challenging. To me, being a Latina feminist means you are speaking, gritando, apoyando, añadiendo. I still might stumble, pero gracias a mis mujeres, tengo confianzo en todas.

Yo sé que significa feminista, ahora escucha. Estamos hablando. ¿Lista?

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.


abby said…
That story of the school play is such a good example. It's always so hard to untangle the strands of gender and race for those of us whose lives are in the spaces between...

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