There are stories.
There are stories that are passed on from generation to generation. And there are stories that are silenced and forgotten. There are people who carry the stories consciously and those who don't care. Sometimes the stories survive in the most breathtaking of details and others barely exist as fragments and glimpses. They can teach us hope or they can explode with trauma.
Years ago, I studied with writer Sharon Bridgforth whose innovative work is recognized nationally. In an early class, she asked the question, "Who are your people?" For me, a newly-minted PhD in history, a carrier of family stories, a fronteriza born on one side and raised on the other, and still carrying the uncertainty and the ambiguity of adoption, the question took away my breath. Where did I fit in? Did I belong? Who were my people? I knew the answer lay in the stories I knew and especially the ones that I didn't know. My healing lay in bridging the interrupted story. I use the word “interrupted” because I know that silencing, hiding, forced forgetting or all the other ways we lose our histories don’t put an end to the stories. They are interrupted, not destroyed. Their presence continues in the lives of generation after generation even if the details of the stories are lost.
In Spanish, history and story are represented by the same word--historia. If you trace the word historia back far enough past the 15th century Middle English to 12th c. French to Latin all the way back to the 6,000 year-old Proto-Indo European language root, we find that historia grew from the verb “to see.” What happens if we can no longer “see” our history and our stories. What happens if they are interrupted by fear or shame or forced silencing? If we cannot bear witness to our histories, how can we heal?
In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot explores how power centers certain voices and represses others, most often invisibly. “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots,” writes Trouillot in his preface. It is one of my favorite quotes from this compelling book. Year after year, my undergraduate students sit in our classroom stunned at some part of their own history that they did not know and ask “Why were we never taught this?” I ask them to answer their own question. Eventually, they know that it has to do with control and power. Keeping our histories and our stories hidden from us is a way to restrict our deepest knowledge of ourselves. It is a way to limit our understanding of the strategies that our ancestors used to survive. It not only keeps us from the hope embedded in the stories, it often makes the sources of our traumas invisible.
Trouillot traces the creation of silence in the production of history to four crucial moments: the making of the sources, the making of the archives, the making of the narrative, and the decision regarding what is the significance of this history. Clearly, in the discipline of history there are structures that create silences. So too in our everyday lives. Some stories are too dangerous to share. We need look only at the ways that violence is used to silence people in their personal lives. This violence ranges from threats of physical violence to loss of employment to threats of displacement.
As an oral historian, I have seen people self-censor themselves to protect themselves or their families. In a 2016 oral history that I conducted with Jesús Zamora (born in the 1940s), he talked about his grandfather’s dying words. “Don’t tell them who you are.” His grandfather who came of age at a time when the Mexican government paid for “Apache scalps” and the US government declared all-out war against Native peoples, his abuelito understood the danger of telling others that he was Native. Mr. Zamora, a Vietnam vet, now says that he can be who he really is without fear and works with Native American soldiers through a special program at the nearby military installation.
Over a decade and a half ago as I worked with high schools students in Socorro, east of El Paso, a young woman discovered that her great-grandmother had been raped as a young woman during the Mexican Revolution. The story has been kept alive from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother but they had not wanted her to know because they wanted to protect her from this terrible family story. When they finally shared it with her because of our history project, she was both relieved to know this history that had shaped her family but also grieved over her great-grandmother’s experiences.
Sometimes stories are silenced out of shame or embarrassment. One day, two decades ago as I lectured about Emma Tenayuca, a fierce labor organizer in San Antonio whose work in the 1930s brought her national (and often negative) attention, one of my students approached me after class. She hesitantly told me that she was related to Tenayuca but that her family didn’t want anyone to know because Tenayuca had been a member of the Communist Party and they were embarrassed. Later, in this series I will share a story that my own family tried to silence because of their embarrassment that my great-aunt Felicitas Leyva had married a Black man, John Lucas, in the early twentieth century during Jim Crow. It is one of the interrupted stories that I have worked to bridge.
As an educator, I’ve seen this interrupting happen over and over again. Families try to keep the suffering and the trauma away from their children believing that not knowing will protect them. The treacherous thing about the interrupted story is that, while the story itself may be invisible, its consequences are not. Our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual traumas leave us unbalanced, confused, and suffering. We may think of our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors “irrational” without knowing their roots. While uncovering our stories helps us understand ourselves, just knowing isn’t enough to heal us. It is the beginning, however.
The first step to healing an interrupted story is to create a bridge over the rupture of the story. Sometimes this comes in the form of uncovering more details, fleshing out the history. As a historian, research is often my form of bridging. Bridging can come with deep listening, both to our elders and to ourselves. What if we cannot recover the historical facts of a family story? I often think that the growing popularity of DNA testing and genealogy is actually rooted in our efforts to bridge these interrupted stories. (In the US, genealogy is second as a “hobby” only to gardening.) As a spiritual person, prayer and meditation and calling out to our ancestors also allows me to create a bridge.
We all need healing. In the following weeks, FierceFronteriza will present a series of posts on interrupted stories and bridging the rupture. I invite you to consider what stories need bridging in your own life.
This post was originally published a year ago today, March 9, 2017. I've updated it with new images and new comments.
Like other holidays, the radical roots of International Women's Day have been forgotten by most people. While community organizers, activists, and historians remember, most Americans do not.
Spurred on by the horrors of the current administration, a "Day without a Woman" was organized for today. Trump announced he has "tremendous respect" for the roles women play in society. Google honored 13 women, including Ida B. Wells and Frida Kahlo. [Update: There was no "Day Without a Woman" this year but Trump's 2018 International Women's Day statement continued to boast about his administration's respect and work on behalf of women: "As we mark International Women's Day, we remain committed to the worthwhile mission of enhancing women's leadership in the world and building a stronger America for all." Of course we know this is in direct opposition to the truth of what has happened in the past year.]
Today, I want to remember the radical origins of International Women's Day.
Aftermath of the shirtwaist fire, NYC, 1909
The industrial revolution was made possible by the work of enslaved people in the South and poor, often immigrant, people in the North. Textile and garment factories sought immigrant workers, including children and women whom they could pay less in order to make a profit. Working conditions were horrendous.
In 1908, girls and women in New York City went on strike demanding higher wages. At the time, they were earning $3 per day. In 1909, the Socialist Party called for a commemoration of the strike and the first Women's Day was held in February 1909. In the succeeding years, the day was used to protest war as well.
The day quickly become international as women organized both in the United States and Europe.
The first years of the 20th century were filled with women and girls struggling for better working conditions. In 1903, organizers created the Women's Trade Association. In 1909, women garment workers organized the "Uprising of the 20,000," a successful strike that lasted almost four months. In 1912, the "Bread and Roses Strike" in Lawrence, Massachusetts brought over 20,000 picketers to the streets.
The federal government responded to this growing organizing by women and men, many who were immigrants. In 1914, thirteen women and children and seven men were killed during a miners strike, "The Ludlow Massacre," in Colorado. In 1918, during WWI, the leadership of the radical Industrial Workers of the World were jailed in federal prisons, charged with disloyalty to the United States.
The roots of International Women's Day are in the radical work of women and girls fighting for better wages and working conditions. They are in the early peace movement. They are in the courage of women willing to risk everything.
For millions of women around the globe, little has changed. Women garment workers are still forced to work in terrible conditions with little-- and sometimes no- pay. Sweatshops in China, Bangladesh, and the United States continue to produce clothing for us at the expense of the health and well-being of women. [Update: Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing reports the global production of garments is in the control of relatively few corporations and that a shift has occurred from factories to home work, which is cheaper for the employers who don't have to pay overhead. For more information see the WIEGO website.]
Tomorrow, when International Women's Day is over, what will you do to improve the lives of women?
Left to right: 1910 Chicago garment workers strike; May Chen with the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in 1982;"Children of Lawrence, MA strikers sent to live with sympathizers in New York City during the work stoppage 1912 news photo, ex-Bain News Service
Frida Barbie and "Broken Column" by Frida Kahlo (1944)
Yesterday Mattel Corporation announced a new collection of Barbies to commemorate International Women's Day. The "Inspiring Women" include Frida Kahlo, Catherine Johnson, and Amelia Earhart. The new Barbies have garnered a lot of attention and Frida, in particular, has drawn both positive and negative reactions. Under the #FridaBarbie hashtag, tweets range from " *En serio, esta noticia me ha hecho EL DÍA!" [Seriously, this made MY DAY!] to "Me pregunto, ¿la #FridaBarbie viene con corsé y sin pierna?" [I ask myself, will #FridaBarbie come with a brace and without a leg?] Mattel [@Barbie] sent out tweets like this: "In honor of #InternationalWomensDay, we are committed to shining a light on empowering female role models past and present in an effort to inspire more girls." Meanwhile, the media heightened their hype by reporting "These incredible women who made history are being made into Barbie dolls" [Buzzfeed]; "@Barbie is launching 14 dolls in the likeness of modern-day role models and we are absolutely here for it!" [New York News] and "Chloe Kim and other female legends will be made into Barbie dolls."[Time] The Sheroes (contemporary, living women) who were also released yesterday, including Chloe Kim, Patty Jenkins, and Nicola Adams expressed pride that Barbie dolls had been issued to honor them.
If women like Kim, Jenkins, and Adams feel honored, that's great. My concern is with Frida Barbie. Although some tweeters have exclaimed that Frida would be excited, I don't think so. And it is this appropriation and simplification that concerns me.
In the mid-1970s as an undergraduate student at UT Austin, I was thrilled when a Frida Kahlo exhibit came to campus. I visited it over and over because the images were so striking and intimate and personal. Her painting of experiencing a miscarriage in 1932 at the Henry Ford Hospital in Chicago drew me in as did the 1938-1939 "What the Water Gave Me." Although I was young-- perhaps 21-- I felt like I understood the suffering and loss she painted in "Henry Ford Hospital." My mama had experienced nine miscarriages between 1929-1952 and the painting connected me with her stories of loss and suffering. When I saw the image of Frida in the hospital bed, I thought of her. "What the Water Gave Me" reminded me of bath time when I was little but also of all the experiences a woman goes through in her life. The images that hold so much meaning floated in the water around her feet. That is the Frida whose art I fell in love with. I don't think she was much of an icon then... or at least I don't remember her image as the object of so much consumerism.
I have to confess that I have Frida earrings and bags and a kitschy little painting of her. I'm not above being a consumer of the iconic Frida. But the iconic Frida is separate from the artist Frida. I worry that her becoming a Barbie takes it to a whole new level. Or perhaps reduces her to a new low.
"Henry Ford Hospital" (1932) and "What the Water Gave Me" (1938-39) by Frida Kahlo.
As a girl, I loved Barbie and had several that my best friend Janet and I would play with. It was great fun playing "grownup" vicariously through my dolls. Frida has so much more to teach us than Barbie, however. She was original-- proudly wearing her unibrow (not highlighted in her Barbie persona) bigotito and wearing whatever suited her at the time. She painted herself in the most vulnerable of situations. She was also representative of so many women who suffered physical hardships, lost babies, and lived in tumultuous relationships. It is this combination of unique and collective that I want young girls to understand. We are complex human beings. We can suffer and keep going.
Barbie Frida is already selling for close to $100 on eBay. She sells for under $30 from Mattel. The official Barbie website proclaims (in all capitals), "WHEN A GIRL PLAYS WITH BARBIE SHE IMAGINES EVERYTHING SHE CAN BECOME." When I looked more closely, however, the Frida doll was labeled "For the adult collector." So maybe the hype about inspiring girls really is all hype. Maybe the Barbie Frida is just something else to add to our earring, bag, kitschy painting collection. I don't know. I just want us to remember her as a real woman and not just the commercialized shadow of a person she has become.
I made a decision today about words. As a writer and historian, I know well that words hold power and that they hold history. So I'm taking the X out Xicana. I don't believe in telling others how to label themselves. We all have the right to self-identify so my decision comes specifically from my own experiences and desire to honor the history that I have lived.
I always adhered to the linguistic theory that the words Chicana and Chicano originated with the word Meshicana/ Meshicano, the Hispanicized word for residents of Meshico-Tenochtitlan. This theory posits that the sh eventually became a ch so that Meshica became Meshicano became Shicano became Chicano.
The grandfather of Chicano Studies, Américo Paredes, disagrees. Remembering the first time he heard the word in the 1920s, he writes that his brother lovingly called their little niece "pura Chicanita." He goes on to write that Chicano is simply a "clipped form of mexicano." Writing that in Spanish we use the ch to denote affection, he says mexicano became Chicano as a way of creating a warm and loving term. It makes sense, actually. I do it all the time. "Preciosa" becomes "prechiosa" when I am talking to my beloved dogs. My tía abuela Concepción became Chonita. My primo Jesús became Chuy. My aunt Maria Jesus became Cachuy. We do love ch. (See The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary by Ramón Saldivar.)
My father, born in 1910, always used the word Chicanito and Chicanita as a form of affection. In the early 1970s when, as a 14 year old, I adopted the term to identify with the political movement, it angered him because my using it had transformed it from a familiar term of endearment to a radical, political identity. Since that transformation in the 1960s, the word has always been controversial.
I'm not sure when I saw the x in Xicana for the first time... probably in Ana Castillo's work. I know replacing the ch with x was made with the intention of reconnecting to our indigenous roots by incorporating the x, which folks connected to Nahuatl. I'm not the first to point this out, but the x as a ch sound isn't Nahuatl. The x as an sh sound was, in fact, 16th-century Spanish. Spanish grammarians later changed the x to denote an h sound. Thinking of it in English, Meshico (which the emphasis on the second syllable) became Mehico (with the emphasis on the first syllable). I want to acknowledge the colonial roots of using the letter x. There's something inherently colonial in using the Spanish alphabet and its archaic pronunciation to connect to an Indigenous language. Since our original languages were taken from so many of us, using Spanish is sometimes our only resort. I don't want to make the colonial invisible, though.
So I'll be going back to what I've always been-- Chicana. The word connects with me with my daddy's generation who saw it as a beautiful loving term to speak of working-class Mexicanas and Mexicanos. And I'll use it to connect me to the Movimiento that so inspired me beginning fifty years ago when I was a young woman with a desire to change the world.
I love that language changes and transforms to reflect new understanding and new critiques. I love when language challenges me to rethink what I know. So the x is good. I just won't be using it anymore.
On February 24, 2018, the El Paso County Historical Commission and the National Park Service unveiled a new historical marker honoring Estela Portillo Trambley. Part of the Texas Historic Commission's Untold Stories, the marker commemorates Estela in a place that debuted many of her original plays, the Chamizal National Memorial. I was honored to say a few words about her and even more honored to say what she meant to me in the presence of her familia, Tracey A. Trambley and Bethany Trambley. I share them with you here and encourage you to read the work of this remarkable Chicana writer and maestra.
Unveiling the marker at the Chamizal National Memorial. Photo by Lucia Martinez.
In 1975, I was a sophomore at UTEP taking a Chicano literature course and spending a lot of time thinking about my identity and my place in the world. My professor, Dr. Teresa Melendez, assigned Day of the Swallows, a play that centers Josefa, a reclusive lesbian who lives in the traditional, patriarchal town of San Lorenzo. In later years, I read other works by maestra Portillo Trambley--Rain of Scorpions (1975), and Trini (1986). Trini explores the life of a young Tarahumara woman crossing the border from Chihuahua to the United States in the 1940s. Her work was ahead of its time as she wrote about indigeneity, single mothers, and the migration of women.
Tracey Trambley, Estela's daughter, delivering an eloquent speech about her mother's writing and her love for people.
To read a woman-centered Chicano play in the mid-1970s was revolutionary. In the midst of poems, novels, and short stories that told the stories of men and sometimes relegated women to one-dimensional stereotypes, Estella Portillo Trambley portrayed Mexicana women in all the complexity of our lives. I loved her work because I could see myself and my community in her words and her stories. For the first time, literature resonated with my experiences as a woman who carries the stories of generations of my family and as a fronteriza living in the beautiful and complex world of the border.
Estella Portillo Trambley was the first in many ways. The first Chicana to write a book of short stories, she won the Quinto Sol Award for that book (Rain of Scorpions) in 1975. She was the first Chicana to write a musical. She founded the first Chicano theater company in El Paso and produced several original plays during her time as dramatist in residence at El Paso Community College in the mid-1970s. In 1995, she was named to the Presidential Chair in Creative Writing at the University of California, Davis.
Era única, but she also represented us, the people of the border and our stories that replay themselves generation after generation. I searched for Estella in the historical records recently, looking for traces of her particular life as a fronteriza. I found her as a 4-year-old in the 1930 Federal Census, living with her mother Delfina and her father Frank. Delfina came to the US from Parral, Chihuahua in 1904 as a toddler and her father Frank migrated from Ciudad Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution as a teenager in 1916. As the Great Depression began, they lived at 700 Park Street in El Segundo in a building long since demolished to make way for a housing project. By the late 1930s, the Portillo family had moved to what was once East El Paso to 3426 Pera Street, five blocks from my own family. While my family home was demolished to make way for US 54, the Portillo home remains.
In 1943, her father Frank petitioned for citizenship followed by her mother in 1952. Delfina’s petition for naturalization reveals that she arrived in El Paso by train, that Estella was her first-born, and that she desired to keep her name Delfina Fierro Portillo. Estela’s family story mirrored my own family in so many ways: The migration from Chihuahua across the border to El Paso; Putting down roots in El Paso’s historic southside barrios; Taking the lifechanging step of becoming a US citizen.
During an interview, she said, “When I was a child, poverty was a common suffering for everybody around me. A common suffering is a richness in itself.” It is that sense of the common experience, the reality of the border, that grounds her work. But it is also the sense of magic, beauty, and hope that uplifts us as readers.
Photo by Lucia Martinez.
The Chamizal is an ideal place for her historical marker. Several of her plays were produced here between 1974-77. In May 1977, the El Paso Herald Post reported on “Isabel and the Dancing Bear,” written by Estella for the EPCC Chicano Theater. The play featured a family who lived on Pera Street who maintained their illusions about life despite its hardships.
Estella Portillo Trambley was an educator at heart, whether sharing her insights through her writing or as a teacher in the public schools, EPCC, or universities. I never met her yet I learned so much about myself from her. Rooted in her experiences en la frontera, Estella Portillo Trambley’s work also transcends the border. Her work is both fronteriza and universal as she writes about struggles and hopes, dreams and disillusionment. I am very pleased to be here with her family today to honor her. Estela Portillo Trambley carried our border stories and we are blessed to have her work still with us.
Left to right: Tracey Trambley, Bethany Trambley, and the two sisters with the new marker. Photos by Lucia Martinez.
Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon
On July 26, 1924, Dr. Lawrence Nixon walked into Fire Station #5 to cast his vote in the Democratic primary. When he walked up to the election officials and showed them his poll tax receipt, they denied him the right to vote. He recalled that the two election judges, C.C. Herndon and Charles Porras, were his friends. They asked about his health, and proceeded to tell him that he could not vote. "I know, but I've got to try," he answered. The two men agreed to sign a statement that had been prepared by the NAACP saying that they had denied Dr. Nixon the right to vote because he was Black. I thought about him as I voted in the primary this morning.
Photograph from http://www.preservationtexas.org/endangered/east-el-paso-fire-station-no-5/
In Texas, whoever won the Democratic primary was sure to win the election. The primaries were important. In 1923, the Texas State Legislature passed a law making the Democratic primaries "white only." This law was part of decades of actions on the part of Southern states to disenfranchise Black voters, along with extra-legal violence that intended to keep African Americans away from elections following Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow.
When Dr. Nixon was denied the right to vote that day in El Paso, he and the NAACP took the election officials to court. The case, Nixon v. Herndon eventually made it to the Supreme Court where the ruling stated that Texas had indeed violated the rights of African Americans under the 14th Amendment. The Court went on to add that it would be constitutional, however, for the Democratic Party (rather than the State of Texas) to declare white-only primaries because they were a private organization. Dr. Nixon went on to challenge this again when he tried to vote in 1928. It was not until the 1944 ruling in Smith v. Allwright that white primaries would be ended forever.
The site where Dr. Nixon challenged his exclusion from voting in 1924 as it looks today.
For much of our history in this country, we have turned to "whiteness" to claim our rights. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo offered citizenship to the 60,000 to 100,000 Mexicans incorporated into the United States through war, yet the Nationality Act, also known as the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to "any alien, being a free white person." This was a conundrum for Mexican Americans. The 1887 case re Rodriguez stated that because the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made us eligible for citizenship, we must be white. We were not treated as "white," facing segregation and myriad kinds of economic and social discrimination yet we had to claim to be white in order to be citizens. While Blacks were excluded by law, we were segregated by practice. There were "Mexican wages" and "Mexican schools." When the local El Paso bureaucracy tried to classify Mexican American births as "colored," there was great opposition from LULAC and other Mexican Americans.
As "whites," we were not excluded from voting in the Democratic primary and, in fact, El Paso's Democratic Ring relied on the Mexican vote in the first decades of the twentieth century. When Charles Porras denied Dr. Nixon the ballot that day, he was reinforcing his own sense of whiteness. Porras was a World War I veteran, a local LULAC leader, and went on to organize laundry workers and domestic workers into a kind of union in 1933. When he ruffled the feathers of El Paso's powerful by doing this, they asked for his deportation. There was only one problem: he was born in New Mexico.
When Dr. Nixon walked into Firehouse #5 that day in July 1924, he was challenging the exclusion of Blacks from the political process in Texas. But he was also challenging Mexican Americans to take a side. Would we claim whiteness (in opposition to Blackness) in order to claim some kind of rights? For decades to come, that would be the case.
For more information on Dr. Nixon, I recommend this book by Dr. Will Guzman, a graduate of UTEP's History Department.
Some people are the carriers of their family's stories. Some people don't care and would rather forget the past. In March, Fiercefronteriza will present a series of blog posts on why family stories matter. Let me know-- do they matter to you? Why or why not?