Summer of Feminista: Organized Coraje

To close out Summer of Feminista, we welcome Linda Garcia Merchant. 

Linda is a documentary film maker and founder of Voces Primeras. She is currently working on "Chicana por mi Raza: Uncovering the Hidden History of Chicana Feminism (1965‐1985)," a public humanities project centered on the collection and digital preservation of archival materials, ephemera, and oral histories that document the development of Chicana feminist thought during the civil rights era.

This last June we interviewed two iconic figures of Latina activism from the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago, Teresa Fraga and Raquel Guerrero as a part of an oral history project on Chicana Feminists entitled, Chicana Por Mi Raza. These women were a part of a group of incredible women making history in Chicago at a time when Latinos across the country were making history. Mrs. Fraga and Mrs. Guerrero, along with a number of organizations, spearheaded the movement that ultimately got the first Latino high school built in Chicago, Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen. One of the tactics used to get the attention of the Chicago Board of Education and its leader (at the time Joseph P. Hannon) was to stage a boycott—a school walkout not unlike the walkouts of East Los Angeles made famous by Paula Criostomo and the Brown Berets and Diana Soliz and the Partido Raza Unida in Crystal City Texas. In the early 1970s 90 percent of the student body of nine local elementary schools stayed home for three days. On the third day Mr. Hannon contacted the group spearheading the boycott, Pilsen Neighborhood Alliance, to have a meeting about building a new  high school in Pilsen.

Until that moment, all the protesting and meetings at City Hall, had done little to sway the opinion of Mr. Hannon and the board. What these women joined together to do was create a coalition of organizers to  make a very large statement. These women understood that by keeping their children out of school those schools could be in jeopardy of losing funding because of a lack of daily enrollment. It was a simple, non  violent and effective way to make their point.

As long as I work on the Chicana Por Mi Raza project, I never get tired of hearing all the different ways  women got together to tackle an issue. How these mothers, fought the long struggle to get their children the education they knew they deserved. How these mothers organized and collaborated with groups with very  different ideologies and missions, to create strength in numbers for this and other big fights. A woman we will be interviewing soon, Mary Gonzales Koenig, coined the phrase ‘organized coraje’ to describe how this  kind of collective strategy could work for so many issues. Mary talks about the general ‘coraje’, or anger that people felt about the economic, educational, and political oppression they were experiencing in Pilsen during this time. Latinos couldn’t get jobs with the public utilities, hospitals or retail chains, were denied  quality education in the local school system and certainly didn’t have a voice within government as the Latino voting group was considered a ‘captive vote’.

The beauty of Pilsen is and remains, the number of Latina activists engaging in this ‘organized coraje’ to make change happen. How women like Teresa Fraga and Raquel Guerrero, (Pilsen Neighborhood  Alliance), Mary Gonzales Koenig (Spanish Coalition for Jobs), Carmen Velasquez (Alivio Medical Center), Guadalupe Reyes (El Valor), Maria Mangual (Mujeres Latinas en Accion), and others found ways to work  together and with the community, to make change happen. The result of their work includes employment for Latinos at all public utilities, hospitals and retail chains and of course, the building of a number of Latino high  schools and grade schools beginning with Benito Juarez in the late 1970s. These women’s contributions are  not just the success of these movements. Their legacy is in the names of the aforementioned community organizations each one of them started in a storefront in Pilsen. Organizations that have grown to become nationally recognized institutions, employing hundreds of people moving those original missions forward.

What I find most encouraging about today’s movements is that I see the idea of ‘organized coraje’ is alive and thriving within this generation of Latina activists. I see Tania Urzueta (Chicago) and Dulce Juarez (Arizona) as quiet and humble leaders in the brilliant strategies of the immigration movement. I’ve asked each of them, if the women of the movements past, have had any influence on their ideologies. I told them about  ‘organized coraje’ which they both agreed was the only way to successfully create change.

As I write about these activist women, I do so on the anniversary of the Occupy Movement; the latest spark in the evolution of revolution. However we feel about the ideologies of the Occupy Movement we cannot  and should not ignore the two important elements that initially made it successful and has in many ways encouraged the rest of us. The first element was the organization around a collective emotion, in this case anger and frustration, about the oppressive nature of the status quo. The second element is the understanding that the ‘power of the people’ really does lie in those people taking a stand to exercise that power. I hope that in this election season, we take a cue from these women and this movement. I hope that we can step out from the comfort of our homes and apartments and become active in the process of defining government.  We each have a single power, a vote. The collective power that could look like 80 or 90% turnout, would certainly send a strong and clear message to the powers that we elect.

It doesn’t end there. Once we do elect this new season of representatives, we have to hold them  accountable for what they are supposed to be doing—representing! An email, tweet or Facebook entry to your State Representative or Senator, your city Alderman, the Mayor of your town or the Governor of your state, will let them know that we are each paying attention.

We are the landlord of this republic, and we should be angry. Let’s all be angry together and engage in an act of ‘organized coraje’, together, like Teresa and Raquel and Tania and Dulce. Let’s all make the next election and subsequent elected season about paying attention.

Summer of Feminista 2012 is a project where Latinas are sharing their thoughts about Election 2012. Viewpoints can be liberal, moderate or conservative. Academic statements. Personal stories. Learn more about Summer of Feminista. This is a project of Viva la Feminista. Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.