Latina Feminism: National and Transnational Perspectives

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I October 17th, 2014

Women's studies and the early waves of feminism were initially dominated by the experiences of white middle-class women, thus leaving Latinas, like other women of color, feeling excluded or not fully represented. Outside of women's studies, ethnic studies also left Latinas feeling the same, in that they focused on issues of racial and ethnic oppression and cultural nationalism, while ignoring the critical issues of sexism and heterosexism. Women and women's issues were only seen as "White," thus denying Latinas and other women of color their full identity. Eventually, Latina women joined other women of color in the introduction of gender issues into ethnic studies and critical race issues in women's studies. Their actions were taking a direct stance against not only the exclusionary practices of white middle-class feminism, but also against those within other social movements. These women helped to ensure that civil rights struggles transcended the US borders, and a number of Latina women have taken on leadership roles in the struggle for human rights. Thus, Latina Feminism, just like the Latino identity, is complex, and is oftentimes transnational in nature. For example, being a Latina means that one has a cultural identity and ethnicity, shared by those from or with origins in Latin America. Latinas can be of any racial group, or more likely a mix of various racial groups.

Origins of Latina Feminism

Latina Feminism in the United States really began to take shape following the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements, which saw all oppressed people - Gay, women, other ethnic groups - coming forward and using solidarity to spark social changes during the middle of the 20th century. Although Latina women took leadership roles in the other movements, their contributions have for the most part gone unnoticed or ignored. When scholars and community leaders speak about the legacy of these groups, they continue to excluded Latina women; and even well known iconic images do not include them.

Xicana (Chicana) Feminism

Chicana feminist thought and action really began to take shape during the late 1960s, with an increase in organizing during the 1970s. Chicana feminisms itself was an outgrowth or response to the male-dominated Chicano movements, which demanded access to education, as well as social, political, and economic opportunities and justice for Latino people; and took place primarily in the American South West. Like other women of color, Chicanas realized that discussions of women's issues, such as birth control, were being rejected, ignored, or side-lined; while mainstream White middle class feminism was also unwilling to speak out about the unique oppressions that Chicana women faced; particularly workplace exploitation or discrimination

The Women of the Young Lords

The Young Lords was a mostly Puerto Rican (African Americans and other Latinos were members) organization that was formed in the late 1960s by individuals who were primarily under the age of 20. What was so groundbreaking about this group of young people is that they redefined what is was to be Puerto Rican, openly exclaiming their pride in being Boricuans, not "Spanish", but Afro-Taino; and while fighting for basic human rights - clothing, shelter, food, access to healthcare and justice - they openly challenged machismo, sexism, and patriarchy. Women, such as Connie Cruz, Luisa Capteillo, Denise Oliver, and Bianca Canales, quickly emerged as leaders in the Young Lords. Their Ten-Point Health Program was ahead of its time, and it was clear that they understood early on that factors in one's environment (today referred to as social determinants of health by public health specialist) were important to health and wellbeing. Their Ten-Point Health Program was as follows:

We want total self-determination of all health services in East Harlem (El Barrio) through an incorporated Community-Staff Governing Board for Metropolitan Hospital. (Staff is anyone and everyone working at Metropolitan.)

We want immediate replacement of all Lindsay administrators by community and staff appointed people whose practice has demonstrated their commitment to serve our poor community.

We demand immediate end to construction of the new emergency room until the Metropolitan Hospital Community-Staff Governing Board inspects and approves them or authorizes new plans.

We want employment for our people. All jobs filled in El Barrio must be filled by residents first, using on-the-job training and other educational opportunities as bases for service and promotion.

We want free publicly supported health care for treatment and prevention. We want an end to all fees.

We want total decentralization--block health officers responsible to the community-staff board should be instituted.

We want "door-to-door" preventive health services emphasizing environment and sanitation control, nutrition, drug addiction, maternal and child care, and senior citizen's services.

We want education programs for all the people to expose health problems--sanitation, rats, poor housing, malnutrition, police brutality, pollution, and other forms of oppression.

We want total control by the Metropolitan hospital community-staff governing board of the budge allocations, medical policy along the above points, hiring, firing, and salaries of employees, construction and health code enforcement.

Any community, union, or workers organization must support all the points of this program and work and fight for that or be shown as what they are---enemies of the poor people of East Harlem.

#5 essentially calls for universal healthcare.

#7 focuses on prevention on disease and is forward-thinking in looking at addiction as not a criminal activity, but a disease.

#8 describes the need for programs to address the social determinants of health.

Unfortunately, despite their seemingly Progressive attitudes, the Young Lords was still governed by an all-male central committee and its initial 13-point platform advocated for "revolutionary machismo." The women members turned on the pressure and began to directly address this sexism, which resulted in the "machismo" line being dropped, and a new point was added to the program, stating, "We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism"; and more importantly, attention and protest was turned to the issue of sterilization. In short, during the 1960s, Puerto Rican women were used as guinea pigs for the development of the birth control pill and later birth control and sterilization were used in some sort of twisted eugenics campaign as a tool of social policy and as a form of directed population control. Over a third of Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age were sterilized. The Young Lord's fight against this abusive practice inspired Ana Maria Garcia's 1982 documentary, La Operacion. The Young Lord's Women's Caucus was progressive and transformative in other ways: defending a woman's right to abortion and childcare, and establishing a women's union with a publication called La Luchadora; and their efforts helped to ensure that half of the content of the Young Lords' newspaper, Pa'lante, focused on women's issues.

Pioneering Latina Feminists in the US

Although "feminist" is being used to describe these women, we must keep in mind that many of them may have not considered or referred to themselves as feminists. Their actions - advocating for women's equality and challenging patriarchy and systems of oppression - indeed made them feminists.

Nina Otero-Warren was a Chicana educator, politician, suffragist, and first wave feminist. She worked for women's suffrage in New Mexico and, in 1918, became superintendent of public schools in Santa Fe County. Later, in 1923, she became Inspector of Indian Schools in Santa Fe County, where she was able to improve the education of indigenous populations.

Jovita Idar was a pioneering Chicana activist and feminist. As early as 1910 she was writing articles for her father's newspaper, covering stories on discrimination, lynching, and other violence committed by Texas Rangers - all issues that, unfortunately, remain relevant today as we continue to witness the same type of oppression. La Ligua Femenil Mexicanista (The League of Mexican Women), which she formed in 1911, is now recognized as the first attempt in Mexican-American history to organize a feminist social movement. These women formed free schools for Mexican children and provided necessities for the poor.

Maria Rebecca Latigo de Hernandez was not a self-described feminist; however, she was a pioneering Xicana activist, working for the improvement of civic, educational, and economic opportunities for Mexican-Americans. In 1929, she co-founded the Orden Caballeros of America, a civic and civil organization.

Sylvia Rivera was a bisexual trans Latina activist and feminist who advocated for the inclusion of queer and transgender people who were left out of the gay-rights movement. She co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) in 1970.

Feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldua self-describes as a "Chicana/Tejana/lesbian/dyke/feminist/writer/poet/cultural theorist." Her writing focused on providing representations of women of color. Her 1987 book "Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza," her most famous work, focuses on overlapping issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, and class (factors which feminist scholar Kimberlee Crenshaw later referred to as intersections when speaking on the theory of intersectionality). Other notable works by Anzaldua include "This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color" (co-authored with Cherrie Moraga) and "Making Face Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color."

Although Cesar Chavez became the face of the United Farm Workers, has a national holiday in his honor, and was featured in the biographical film Cesar Chavez, much has been known about Dolores Huerta, labor leader, activist, feminist, awardee of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Her lobbying efforts helped to bring about the Immigration Act of 1985. Her other political achievements include:

In 1961, she succeeded in obtaining the citizenship requirements removed from pension and public assistance programs.

In 1962, she was instrumental in the passage of legislation allowing voters the right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the drivers license examination in their native language;

In 1963, she helped secure Aid for Dependent Families ("AFDC") for the unemployed and underemployed, disability insurance for farm workers in the State of California, and unemployment benefits for farm workers.

She continues her activism work as an active board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Chicana second-wave feminist, Cherrie Moraga, began discussing "interlocking" oppressions early on in her activist, academic, and artistic career during the 1970s. She co-authored "This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color" with Gloria Anzaldua in 1981, and was a founding member of La Red Xicana Indigena, a network of Chicanas organizing nationally and internationally for social change, indigenous rights, and political education.

Pioneering Latina Feminists in Latin America

Leila Gonzalez was an intellectual involved in the Brazilian Black movement and is credited for being responsible for the development and practice of Black Feminism in Brazil (More to come on the topic of racial identity and Black feminism in Latin America and the US). Leila was born in 1935, just 47 years after the Lei Áurea ("Golden Act") abolished slavery in Brazil, and despite being a Black woman, she went on to earn university degrees in history, geography, philosophy, and a PhD in social anthropology.

Petra Herrera was a Soldadera, a female soldier who fought along the men during the Mexican Revolution. She initially disguised her gender and went by the name "Pedro Herrera." After not being credited for valor in battle and promoted to a General, Petra left Pancho Villa's forces and formed her own all-woman brigade.

In 1946, Felisa Rincon de Gautier was elected mayor of San Juan Puerto Rico, becoming not only the first woman to be elected mayor of San Juan, but of any mayor capital city in the Americas. She held this position from 1948 - 1968. She was an active participant in Puerto Rico's women's suffrage movement (won in 1932) and her efforts on child care programs inspired the United States' Head Start program.

Puerto Rican Nationalist, Blanca Canales, has been conveniently erased from history books, and is not greatly discussed in women's studies courses. She helped organize the Daughters of Freedom, the women's branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and is one of the few women in history to have led a revolt against the United States, which was known as the Jayuya Uprising, taking place in 1950. The US government declared martial law to put down the uprising, sentencing the activists to life imprisonment and dismissing their protests as nothing more than an "incident between Puerto Ricans."

Afro-Puerto Rican poet, feminist and activist, Julia de Burgos, used her writings to openly contest the prevailing notion that womanhood and motherhood are synonymous. She courageously began challenging these notions in the 1930s.

Celia Sanchez was the woman at the heart of the Cuban Revolution, and although she was rumored to be the main decision-maker, more is known about her male counterparts Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. She was the founder of the 26th of July Movement and leader of combat squads throughout the Revolution.

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist born around the time of the Mexican Revolution. She is best known for her self-portraits filled with pain and passion, which mirrored her own life. She survived polio, a horrific and near-fatal bus accident, an amputation, multiple miscarriages, as well as rampant infidelity. Her work represents a celebration of indigenous traditions, as well as an uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form, the dichotomies, the personal and political, love and loss, physical and emotional pain.

Intersectionality and the Latina in the United States

For the most part, the Latina in the United States is still viewed as "The Other," a racial minority outside of the dominant White society (despite the growing Latino population), and at times as a stereotypical caricature, whether it is the Domestic or the Spicy oversexed Spanish Fly, whose presence is primarily for the pleasure and entertainment of men ( Sophia Vergara's public persona and willingness to be literally put on display during the 2014 Emmy Ward s best exemplifies this caricature). This status as "The Other" has historically left Latinas having to cope with not only gender oppression, but gender and discrimination based on their ethnicity. These are the intersections that impact their lives. Further, one has to understand how these varying intersections drive Latinas to feminism in different ways than their white counterparts. For example, reproductive justice for Latinas, expands beyond the need to control reproduction and ensure that there are no unwanted pregnancies, but includes the need to safeguard the right of women of color to have children.

In a 2013 Ms Magazine interview, Latina feminist blogger, Sara lnes Calderon, explained why feminism or women's issues often go undiscussed or are not viewed as urgent matters to Latinas:

"I find mainstream feminism to often be lacking in substance for myself. I can't relate to it, perhaps because to me feminism is often wrapped up with white privilege. I'm not sure why there aren't more Latinas discussing feminism online. I think one major reason is that, since Latinos are historically not the dominant class and are often immigrants, there are other, more important things that occupy their time. I know that's true for myself; I spend much more time talking about politics and structural issues in my blogging than just pure Latina feminism because I feel like, in the larger sense, it's more important."

Of course, one has to ask, why can't Latina women actively and simultaneously advocate for equality, whether it is racial, gender, or based on sexual orientation? The problem with saying that women's issues are not as important, or can wait, is that they will need to be given an opportunity to be addressed; and thus impeding any form of progress.

On Invisibility: Afro-Latinas in the US

The group often excluded from discussions about the Latina experience in North America are Afro Latinos, whose complex identities, renders them invisible. These women include actresses Rosie Perez, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Saldana, and Gina Torres. While also coping with gender inequality, Afro-Latinas also face discrimination (and racism) from other Latinos, the dominant white society, as well as African-Americans (who are often adamant that Afro-Latinos put their racial identity before their cultural or ethnic). Due to these varying degrees of invisibility and discrimination, alluding to intersectionality is not enough; instead, the experiences of Afro-Latinas can be viewed as a complex spider web.

"The Other": The Indigenous & Afro Latinas in Latin America

"I know that when I was working at the Spanish language television station, there was no one of color on television. And I knew this before, so it wasn't like I got there and I was like 'Whoa, there's nobody on TV.' You just realize that you know, when I go travel, and I go to Cuba, and I go to Puerto Rico, and I go to Peru. You go to these places and you see people who are brown, of indigenous descent. But then you look at the television and you go, 'How come what I see is not what I saw when I visited these places?'"

Kim Haas, founder of the Los Afro-Latinos, shared these sentiments during her interview for Feministing. Her statement speaks to the fact that while Latinos in North America are seen as a monolithic group, indigenous women and those of African descent in Latin America are explicitly seen as "The Other," and are marginalized. While Latinas in the Chicana movement and other Latino social movements in North America advocate for inclusion, fair representation, and civil and human rights, these marginalized groups - indigenous and Afro Latino - in Latin America have historically and continue to have to do the same. When it comes to the media, they remain invisible for the most part, and in comparison to their mestizo or "White" Latino counterparts, these marginalized groups disproportionately have higher rates of poverty and disease. Thus, indigenous and Afro Latina feminists in Latin America have to cope with these deeply rooted intersections - discrimination, racial prejudice, marginalization, poverty, and gender inequality. It is this ironic reality that marks the difference between Latina Feminism in North America and Feminism in Latin America. A mere crossing of the United States border automatically lumps these groups, the marginalized indigenous and Afro-Latino women, with the mestizo/"White" Latinas who represent the dominant society, in the same way that Middle Class, White women in North America were accused of harboring privilege in that they were members of the dominant society.

Acknowledging and addressing this reality has proven to be difficult in Latin America. During the 20th century, Latin American nations were moving towards Democratic forms of governance. By the 1980s, many spaces for debate and political analysis began to open up for different voices from the Latin American civil society; however, these organizations were still not addressing the issue of racism. Thus, during the 5th Latin America and Caribbean Feminist Encuentero taking place in San Bernardo Argentina, different Black women from throughout the region met for the first time and discussed the reality of Black women's lives and the need for their own spaces and having their own voice in Latin America. This initial meeting led to the 1st Latin American and Caribbean Black women's Encuentro in 1992, which took place in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Thus, Afro-Latin American feminism was built on the common experiences of Afro-Latinas who collectively experience gender and racial oppression.

Indigenous women, from various tribes in Latin America (Mayan, Quechuas, Quiche, etc.) have given rise to an indigenous feminism, which really began to take root in the 1990s. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) emerged in 1994, serving as a catalyst for indigenous women's organization in Mexico, and an example of indigenous feminism for the rest of Latin America. The Zapatista women created what was called the Women's Revolutionary Law, and made it public on January 1, 1994. The 10 point law called for the following rights for indigenous women: the right to political participation and to hold leadership posts within the political system, to a life free of sexual and domestic violence, to decide how many children they want to have, to a fair wage, to choose a spouse, to an education, and to quality health services. In looking at this law and the declaration of women of the Young Lords (previously discussed), it is clear that Latina women in Latin America and in North America - and of varying racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds - have been advocating for essentially the same rights. These issues - reproductive health, having to counteract patriarchy, having full representation, and so on, forms the basis of the commonality as feminists.

Indigenous feminists advocate not only for increased political, cultural, and civil rights, but also for a more equal society within their respective tribes. The following provides an overview of how indigenous feminism differs from the mainstream framework of feminism:

"Indigenous feminism differs from the western idea of the movement; indigenous feminist groups consider equality not just as a gender issue but also as an issue of equality between the human race and nature. Whilst the indigenous feminist groups are fighting their own battles regarding their ethnicity, class and gender, and the perceived exclusion they have experienced as both women and indigenous people, they also work within and for their own groups' overall struggles against issues such as climate change and deforestation." (Castillo, 2010)

Ultimately, ethnicity, class, and gender identity have shaped the struggle of indigenous women in Latin America, and they have opted to assert themselves into the broader struggles of their communities (against multinational organizations and the destruction of the environment and their homelands, exploitation by Latina American governments, as well as violence that accompanies the trafficking of narcotics), all while creating specific spaces to reflect on and speak out against their experiences with sexism and exclusion within their own societies.

Mobilization & Organizing

Latin-American and Latina/Chicano feminism organization continues to evolve, as an increasing number of Latinas in Latin America and North America begin to define their own forms of feminism, which are distinctive and complex. Whether it is considering the Afro-Latina in North America, whose ethnic identity is often dismissed, or the Afro-Latina in Latin America who is faced with great racial discrimination despite their ethnic identity as a Latino, or the mestiza or "White" Latina in Latin America who holds a position of privilege in the dominant society, or the mestiza/"White" Latina in North America who is viewed as "The Other" and faces the same types of prejudice and discrimination. Peasant, poor, working-class, or professional Latina women, whether in the West or Latin America, often have a myriad of concerns, those dealing with survival (escaping violence and having ready access to shelter, food, and potable water). They strive for increased political participation, representation, and socioeconomic equality, as well as safeguarding reproductive justice health and rights (including access to contraception and safe abortions, and access to education.

These transnational Latina feminisms involve different methods of women's organization and mobilization. In the 21st century, these efforts highly rely on digital media, which is often touted as the 4th Wave of Feminism. This form of mobilization is carried out through blogs (L atina Feminista, Womanisms, Los Afro Latinos ), journals (Chicana/Latina Studies, Latin American Perspectives), and think tanks, social media group pages, electronic newsletters, discussion boards, and websites. However, grassroots efforts of organizing are still used, particularly in areas where women have greater economic uncertainty and may not readily have access to digital media. There are, of course, the professional conferences, symposiums, and political advocacy which bring together Latina women who engage in discussions that center on how much progress has been made towards gender equality and how much more work has to be done. They call attention to, draft needed policies, and engage legislators.

Here are various Latina Feminist Mobilization Efforts & Organizations:

Chicana por mi Raza : is an online archive project that focuses on recapturing and highlighting the contribution of Mexican American, Chicana, and Hispanic women to vibrant social, political, and economic justice movements in the United States; looking at the development of Chicana feminist thought and action from 1960 to 1990. The website will serve as a digital archive, and is set to launch later this year. Items that will be available in the archive includes: newspapers, reports, leaflets, out-of-print books, correspondence, and oral histories.

Mundo Afro Salto : A regional Black culture group, decided to profile women of African descent in Salto Uruguay, in recognition of the 2011 United Nations International Year for People of African Descent. This was done via video, where these women proclaim not only their black heritage, but touch on gender issues, declaring that house work is not only woman's work.

The Roundtable of Latina Feminism : Is a collective grounding hosted by John Carroll University, which provides a dedicated space to discuss all issues related to Latina and Latin American feminisms. These gatherings are held annually, and they represent a break from academic conferences, which founder Mariana Ortega believed prioritized competitive and agnostic discussions. Instead, the roundtable provides an example of an alternative enuentros, and centers on the idea of transnational coalition building.

Colectivo Feminista Sexualidade Saude (CFSS ): is a feminist health action group based in Brazil that provides health education and training for women and professionals. They encourage self-help and also have a focus on women's mental health, violence against women, and child mortality.

CEFEMINIA : is a non-profit women's organization founded in 1975 in Costa Rica, which focuses in five key areas: violence against women, women's health, women and the legal system, as well as housing and environmental justice. The organization promotes self-help and community-based efforts, including providing needed housing.

California Latinas for Reproductive Justice : is a state-wide organization that focuses on building Latinas' power and cultivating leadership through community education, policy advocacy, and community-informed research, in order to achieve reproductive justice.

Black Women of Brazil : is a website dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent, which features news, essays, reports and interviews spanning an array of topics including race, racism, hair, sexism, sexual objectification and exploitation, affirmative action, socioeconomic inequity, police brutality, etc. intended to give a more complete view of the experiences of black women in particular, and black people in general in Brazil with a goal of provoking discussion through the lens of race.


Despite their distinctive characteristics, Latina Feminisms are quite similar, and this may be due to the transnational interconnections and bidirectional contacts between North America and the countries of Latin America. The greatest similarities is that Latina feminisms all differ from the Western middle-class white construct, and remain deeply rooted in social movements that impact their communities. For this reason, much of Latina Feminist organizing is non-academic, where Latinas in women's movements often do not accept the label feminist. These women are self-taught, and their actions are not shaped by academic theory, but lived experiences with sexism, racism, marginalization, and inequality; which have contributed to their awakening and activism.

Latina feminists have collectively criticized white-dominated Western feminism for being too homogenous, particularly in the blogosphere, where Latina feminist issues are not believed to be discussed in a satisfactory manner on mainstream feminist blogs. However, Latina feminist blogs, websites, publications, and organizations must take their own advice and grow to be more inclusive; and create spaces for the voices of marginalized indigenous and Afro-Latina women.

Ultimately, Latina feminisms advocate for the recognition of the full humanity of women and girls, and the removal of sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation.


Castillo, R. A. (2010). The Emergence of Indigenous Feminism in Latin America. Chicago Journals, Vol. 35,(No. 3), 539-545.