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Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios

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Telling to Live embodies the vision that compelled Latina feminists to engage their differences and find common ground. Its contributors reflect varied class, religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, sexual, and national backgrounds. Yet in one way or another they are all professional producers of testimonios—or life stories—whether as poets, oral historians, literary scholars, ethnographers, or psychologists. Through coalitional politics, these women have forged feminist political stances about generating ...

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Overview

Telling to Live embodies the vision that compelled Latina feminists to engage their differences and find common ground. Its contributors reflect varied class, religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, sexual, and national backgrounds. Yet in one way or another they are all professional producers of testimonios—or life stories—whether as poets, oral historians, literary scholars, ethnographers, or psychologists. Through coalitional politics, these women have forged feminist political stances about generating knowledge through experience. Reclaiming testimonio as a tool for understanding the complexities of Latina identity, they compare how each made the journey to become credentialed creative thinkers and writers. Telling to Live unleashes the clarifying power of sharing these stories.
The complex and rich tapestry of narratives that comprises this book introduces us to an intergenerational group of Latina women who negotiate their place in U.S. society at the cusp of the twenty-first century. These are the stories of women who struggled to reach the echelons of higher education, often against great odds, and constructed relationships of sustenance and creativity along the way. The stories, poetry, memoirs, and reflections of this diverse group of Puerto Rican, Chicana, Native American, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Sephardic, mixed-heritage, and Central American women provide new perspectives on feminist theorizing, perspectives located in the borderlands of Latino cultures.
This often heart wrenching, sometimes playful, yet always insightful collection will interest those who wish to understand the challenges U.S. society poses for women of complex cultural heritages who strive to carve out their own spaces in the ivory tower.

Contributors. Luz del Alba Acevedo, Norma Alarcón, Celia Alvarez, Ruth Behar, Rina Benmayor, Norma E. Cantú, Daisy Cocco De Filippis, Gloria Holguín Cuádraz, Liza Fiol-Matta, Yvette Flores-Ortiz, Inés Hernández-Avila, Aurora Levins Morales, Clara Lomas, Iris Ofelia López, Mirtha N. Quintanales, Eliana Rivero, Caridad Souza, Patricia Zavella

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
For a while in the late 1980s, it seemed as if all of Duke University's English Department had gone public with the complications and heartbreaks of the life of the star academic. After Duke's mainly white English Department finished telling their stories, the confessional narratives of academics have had a continued, and much more important, role as a genre where those marginalized by the academy for reasons of race or ethnicity tell about their complicated entry and then incorporation into the university system. In Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios, the 18 women of the Latina Feminist group, formed in 1993 and including Ruth Behar and Eliana Rivero, discuss immigrant and working class childhoods, developing a love of reading, an avoidance of K-12 teaching in order to partake of the larger promises of the (mostly literature-based) university positions. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"I write as much to discover as to explain," playwright Arthur Miller once declared. The same might be said for the authors of this groundbreaking anthology. Educators all, the 18 women whom the Latina Feminist Group comprises came together in 1993 to discuss their cultural and political identities. The group represents a diverse cross-section: lesbian, bisexual, celibate, and straight; working class and bourgeois; Christian, Jewish, and atheist; and of diverse national origins and skin colors. Its purpose was the exchange of testimonios, or what contributor Aurora Levins Morales calls "truth telling from personal knowledge." And what an array of truths they reveal. More than 60 essays, poems, and short stories explain how sexual harassment and violence stifle those who dream of educational and professional achievement; how anti-Semitism forces Jews of Spanish descent to feel uncomfortable owning their dual identities; and how ethnic prejudice collides with class indignities for low-income Tejanas, leaving them distrustful, depressed, and fearful. Throughout, sisterhood is celebrated, but not blindly. Competition between women is assailed, as is antifeminist backlash. Although the collection requires some knowledge of Spanish, it should be required reading for all women's studies, American studies, and American history students. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
Telling to Live is a groundbreaking text—important in its outreach, inclusiveness, and power—that expands, qualifies, complicates, and illuminates the ground of our discourse the way the best texts do—through transformative narratives, stories, and poems that resist the neat paradigms and –isms of our time. It is also a text that will fill an alarming gap in the academy, where silence or simplification of Latina perspectives still prevails.”—Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

“Twenty years after the publication of This Bridge Called My Back, this stunning collection of writings by Latina feminists raises the stakes of collaboration across race, class, nation, and sexuality. Telling to Live challenges prevailing research practices and forges a model of deep collaboration for future generations of scholars.”—Angela Y. Davis, author of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822327653
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

TELLING TO LIVE

Latina Feminist Testimonios
By Luz del Alba Acevedo

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2765-3


Chapter One

Genealogies of Empowerment

Remedios is ... my hunger for a story, a history, that makes sense of everything I am and all that I have found to love. AURORA LEVINS MORALES

Each of us in this book has a complex story about our mestiza inheritances that defy simplistic explanation-stories about living on the borders of various classes, nations, regional cultures, languages, voices, races, ethnicities, migrations, sexualities, creative abilities, academic disciplines, and even cultures of resistance. In this section we sketch out the genealogies that have informed our individual paths to personal achievement. The complicated structures of inheritance and identity formation, legacies of colonial and patriarchal subordination influence our lives as thinking women. They have shaped our resistance and fueled our cognitive desires, the will to knowledge and comprehension. Beneath the indelible imprint of historical displacement lies a conflicted sense of pride in our accomplishments and hard work despite how they reflect the strength of our cultural heritages and inner resources. More subtle but pivotal influencescome from our families, friends, communities, and life events that have also helped us negotiate the markers of our achievements and validate our right to pursue our goals. Our genealogies of empowerment draw on these early lessons as the blueprints for a thriving process of self-created and self-defined freedom and independence.

Sorting through our inherited and self-fashioned mestizajes allows us, as Aurora Levins Morales writes, to listen to our "own discomforts, find out who shares them, validate them, and exchange stories about common experiences, find patterns and systems of explaining how and why things happen." For some of us, bearing witness to social injustice became the catalyst for our involvement with ideas, kindled by the women who surrounded us. Very often it was those unconventional conventional women in our lives who, by actively contesting the inconveniences of gender constraints, "shaped our souls." Some of us were accorded male privileges and found that the experience seared our hearts with an insatiable desire to learn and know, to move farther despite our female gendering. For others still, our very female gendering ignited a rebelliousness rooted in the unfulfilled aspirations of our female lineage. We drew quiet lessons from the deafening silences and unshed tears around us that taught us to see the nuances in our social worlds. We learned to be grateful for such small miracles as the joy and inner strength that comes from conquering a fear, the reciprocity of an open-handed sharing of ideas, or the sweet beauty of an unconditional, platonic love. While our hunger for intellectual and social justice still propels the utopian dreams that have nourished us, only the homemade theories we create out of our shared lives really help us to make sense of everything that we are and all that we find to love.

Certified Organic Intellectual Aurora Levins Morales

1

I have begun this essay a hundred times in a hundred different ways, and each time I have struggled with the same deadly numbing of my mind. Hashing it out once again with my parents on the phone, this time we go for the food metaphors. When I was a child in rural Puerto Rico, the people around me ate produce grown on local soil, chickens that roamed the neighborhood, bananas cut from the stalk. It was unrefined, unpackaged, full of all those complex nutrients that get left out when the process is too tightly controlled. But during the last few years before we emigrated, advertising finally penetrated into our remote part of the island. Cheeze Whiz on Wonder Bread was sold to country women as a better, more sophisticated, modern, advanced, and healthy breakfast than boiled root vegetables and codfish or rice and beans.

When I call myself an organic intellectual, I mean that the ideas I carry with me were grown on soil I know, that I can tell you about the mineral balance, the weather, the labor involved in preparing them for use. In the marketplace of ideas, we are pushed toward the supermarket chains that are replacing the tiny rural colmado; told that storebought is better, imported is best, and sold on empty calories in shiny packaging instead of open crates and barrels of produce to which the earth still clings.

The intellectual traditions I come from create theory out of shared lives instead of sending away for it. My thinking grew directly out of listening to my own discomforts, finding out who shared them, who validated them, and in exchanging stories about common experiences, finding patterns, systems, explanations of how and why things happened. This is the central process of consciousness raising, of collective testimonio. This is how homemade theory happens.

I am also the child of two cultures of resistance. I grew up among jíbaras, a multilayered name for country people, which is used on the one hand to romanticize the imaginary "simple but honest" noble peasants or coffee workers of yesteryear and on the other is a common put-down implying stupidity and lack of sophistication, like "hick." But which originally meant, in the language of the Arawak people, "she who runs away to be free," referring to the mixed-blood settlements of escaped slaves, fugitive Indians, and European peasants who took to the mountains to escape state control. I was raised in one of the oldest of those settlements, a place called Indiera, listening to people talk. I am also the daughter of an urbanized descendant of the impoverished island elite. My mother came from small-town hacendados fallen on hard times and grew up in the collective working-class immigrant culture of New York City in the 1930s and 40s with an inheritance of practicality of pride in work well done, of adaptability to the shifting currents of history. She became a communist in the late forties, was a feminist before there was a movement to back her, and when any piece of politics makes her queasy, she trusts her own gut feeling over anyone else's credentials.

And I grew up as the tropical branch of a tribe of working-class Jewish thinkers who were critiquing the canons of their day from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, arguing about identity politics and coalitions, assimilation and solidarity way back into the last century. My father's great-great-grandmother, a rabbi's wife in 1860s Ukraine, challenged the patriarchal rules of Judaism by standing up in temple and calling out, "Your God is a man!" His grandmother Leah Shevelev, an immigrant to New York at the turn of the century, was an organizer of garment workers and unemployed women and worked as a birth control educator with Margaret Sanger. His father helped found the Communist Youth Movement. In the extended family over which my great-grandmother Leah ruled, my father grew up an internationalist, profeminist man and an original, creative thinker who loved intellectual work and was unimpressed by the rituals and self-importance of academic institutions.

So I grew up in a family of activists who were thinking about race and class and gender and the uses of history and literature long before there were college courses to do this in, a mother who was a feminist in the 1950s, a father who told me bedtime stories about African and Chinese history and taught biology as a liberation science. How I think and what I think about grows from my identity as a jíbara shtetl intellectual and organizer. I was taught to trust in these traditions, in the reliability of my own intelligence combined with that of others.

In the women's consciousness-raising groups I belonged to in the early 1970s, we shared personal and very emotional stories of what it had really been like to live as women, examining our experiences with men and with other women in our families, sexual relationships, workplaces and schools, in the health care system and in surviving the general societal contempt and violence toward us. As we told our stories we found validation that our experiences and our reactions to them were common to many of us, that our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings made sense to other women. We then used that shared experience as a source of authority. Where our lives did not match official knowledge we trusted our lives, and used the collective and mutually validated body of stories to critique those official versions of reality. This was theory born of an activist need, and the feminist literature we read, from articles like "The Politics of Housework" and "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm" to the poetry of Susan Grin, Marge Piercy, Alta, rose out of the same mass phenomenon of truth telling from personal knowledge.

Of course, in the euphoria of finding validation for what was common to us, what was not soon became glaringly obvious. The powerful differences between us in the way our womanness was shaped by class, "race," sexuality, age, our cultures, had been artificially smoothed over. Almost immediately, groups of women of color, lesbians, working-class women, Jewish women, disabled women found ourselves undergoing the same process of testimony, fighting once again for our own specific truths. My discovery of a community of womanist of color writers, artists, thinkers was probably the most profound validation I've ever received of my right to exist, to know, to name my own reality.

But as academic feminism drifts further and further from its activist roots, as the elite gobbledygook of postmodernist jargon makes it less and less acceptable to speak comprehensibly, I have more and more often found my trust in myself under assault.

I watch my life and my theorizing about it become the raw materials of someone else's expertise, and I am reminded of the neem tree of India, used for millennia as an insect repellent, now being patented by a multinational pharmaceutical company. Peasant women developed the technology for extracting and preparing the oil for local use, but to multinationals, local use is a waste. The exact same process, done at much higher volume, and packaged for export, is what they have been able to patent.

My intellectual life and that of other organic intellectuals, many of them women of color, is fully sophisticated enough for use. But in order to have value in the marketplace, the entrepreneurs and multinational developers must find a way to process it, to refine the rich multiplicity of our lives and all we have come to understand about them into high theory by the simple act of removing it, abstracting it beyond recognition, taking out the fiber, boiling it down until the vitality is oxidized away and then marketing it as their own and selling it back to us for more than we can afford.

2

The local colmado of Barrio Rubias, which is just across the road from Barrio Indiera Baja where I was raised, used to sell two kinds of cheese. Queso holandés, Dutch cheese, came in great big balls covered with red wax. If it got moldy, it did so from the outside in, so the center remained good, and one could trim the green from the rind. Or you could buy something called "imitation processed cheese food product." Both began in the mammary glands of cows. But the "processed cheese food product" like its contemporary relatives, Velveeta, or the individually plastic-wrapped Kraft singles, was barely identifiable with any of the processes of their production, and what is more, when it spoiled, it did so thoroughly. All the capacity for resistance of a solid cheese with a rind had been refined away. Nevertheless, it often sold better. The packaging was colorful, mysteriously sealed, difficult to open.

We have been well trained to be consumers of glossy boxes, ziplock bags, childproof bottles, and copious amounts of plastic wrap and cellophane. We are taught to be distrustful of bulk foods and to rely on brand-name recognition. The students I work with have been taught to give books so much more authority than they give their own lives that with the best will to comply they find it extremely challenging to write autobiographical responses to the readings and lectures. What they know best how to do is arrange the published opinions of other people in a logical sequence, restating one or another school of thought on the topic at hand.

When the package is difficult to penetrate, they rarely ask why the damn thing has to be wrapped up so tight. They assume the problem is with them. When I first reentered higher education, as a middle-aged professional writer with many years of public speaking behind me, even with all the confidence these things gave me, I felt humiliated by the impenetrable language in which academic thinking comes wrapped these days. But I thought it was just a matter of overcoming my awkwardness with jargon. A problem of lack of training. Like recently decolonized countries that embrace all the shiny wonders of nuclear energy, determined to have what the empire has had all along, I thought this slick new arrangement of words just needed to be acquired.

But I no longer think this. The language in which ideas are expressed is never neutral. The language people use reveals important information about who they identify with, what their intentions are, for whom they are writing or speaking. The packaging is the product being sold and does exactly what it was designed for. Unnecessarily specialized language is used to humiliate those who are not supposed to feel entitled. It sells the illusion that only those who can wield it can think.

A frequent response to those who resist exclusive language is that they are intellectually lazy. Like other forms of gatekeeping, the whole point is that we, and not the gatekeepers, are responsible for getting ourselves in. We must stop what we are doing, forget what we came for, and devote our energies to techniques of breaking and entering. We are required to do this just to win the right to join in the argument. If we are uninterested, we are assumed to be incompetent. But my choice to read the readable has to do with a different set of priorities. Language is wedded to content, and the content I seek is theory and intellectual practice that will be of use to me in an activist scholarship whose priorities are, above all, democratizing.

3

At the time that I was first struggling to hold onto my own intellectual integrity within academia, I had little validation in my daily life for these feelings. I struggled to be "good" and do as I was supposed to, felt that I must be missing something when most of what I read seemed shallow or irrelevant to my work, felt that somehow feminist theory should be more exciting to me. Maybe, I thought, it was a lack of academic skill that was the problem. But most of what I read seemed so many levels of abstraction away from activist intentions and lived experience, from the problems I wanted to solve, that it had become an intellectual exercise, academic in that other sense of the word-disconnected from daily use. To fully understand it, to really engage and argue in that place, I would have had to abandon what I had come there for-to learn new things about the liberatory uses of history for Latinas-to devote my time and energy to studying the ideas of those I found least trustworthy or useful, instead of doing my chosen work with and about my own peoples.

Now, looking back, I remember my life in the feminist movement of the early 1980s. At conference after conference I would stand in the hall trying to choose between the workshop or caucus for women of color and the one for Jews. I remember how every doorway I tried to enter required leaving some part of myself behind. In those hallways, I began meeting other women, the complexity of whose lives defied the simplifications of identity politics. In conversation with them I found the only reflections of my full reality. Much of the feminist theory I tried to read in graduate school was written in rooms whose doors were too narrow. They required me to leave myself and my deepest intellectual passions outside.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from TELLING TO LIVE by Luz del Alba Acevedo Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

About the Series
Acknowledgments
Introduction: Papelitos Guardados: Theorizing Latinidades Through Testimonio 1
I Genealogies of Empowerment 25
Certified Organic Intellectual 27
My Father's Hands 33
Vignettes of a Working-Class Puerto Rican Girl in Brooklyn, New York 39
Silence Begins at Home 43
You Speak Spanish Because You Are Jewish? 55
Getting There Cuando No Hay Camino 60
Reflection and Rebirth: The Evolving Life of a Latina Academic 69
Mi Primera Amiguita: Carmelita 86
The House That Mama Biela Built 90
Lightning 96
My Name Is This Story 100
Resisting the Alchemy of Erasure: Journey to Labor Ideas 104
Esta Risa No Es de Loca 114
A Escondidas: A Chicana Feminist Teacher Who Writes/A Chicana Feminist Writer Who Teaches 123
Canto de Mi Madre/Canto de Mi Padre 132
Daughter of Bootstrap 139
Beyond Survival: A Politics/Poetics of Puerto Rican Consciousness 148
I Can Fly: Of Dreams and Other Nonfictions 156
II Alchemies of Erasure 167
The Christmas Present 169
Snapshots from My Daze in School 177
Point of Departure 185
Another Way to Grow Up Puerto Rican 192
El Beso 196
The Prize of a New Cadillac 201
La Tra(d)icion 204
Between Perfection and Invisibility 207
Diary of La Llorona with a Ph.D. 212
Welcome to the Ivory Tower 218
I Still Don't Know Why 224
Lessons Learned from an Assistant Professor 227
Don't You Like Being in the University? 229
Temporary Latina 231
Dispelling the Sombras, Grito mi nombre con rayos de luz 238
Biting Through 245
Sand from Varadero Beach 247
Speaking Among Friends: Whose Empowerment, Whose Resistance? 250
III The Body Re/Members 263
Reading the Body 264
Missing Body 266
Malabareando/Juggling 269
Migraine/Jaqueca 271
The Wart 273
Why My Ears Aren't Pierced 275
Night Terrors 277
La Princesa 286
Forced by Circumstance 289
Let Me Sleep 291
Depression 293
Desde el Divan: Testimonios from the Couch 294
Telling To Live: Devoro la Mentira, Resucitando Mi Ser 298
IV Passion, Desires, and Celebrations 303
Shameless Desire 305
La Cosa 307
Boleros 309
A Working-class Bruja's Fears and Desires 314
Aun 318
The Names I Used to Call You/The Names I Do Call You 319
Platanos and Palms 321
Three Penny Opera or Eve's Symphony in B Minor 323
Descubrimiento(s) 327
Entre Nosotras 331
Pisco and Cranberry 334
De lo que es Amor, de lo que es Vida 336
Eating Mango 344
Everyday Grace 345
Tenemos que Seguir Luchando 348
Select Bibliography 357
About the Authors 373
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