Imagínate 1: Ana Castillo

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Welcome to Imagínate.
Here we will encourage the re-imagining of the Latina in American popular culture. 

Sparked by a highlighting in Latina Magazine of the many, many times Latinas have played maids and housekeepers in Hollywood, I started this section to raise the profile of women who are doing things that current popular culture rarely imagines they are doing.

We as Latinas are so incredibly diverse, we have so many faces and origins, so many stories to tell. I think it is time that mass culture reflects this.

To help fuel a new image, I will post short bios–with lots of links–about prominent (or emerging) writers and artists who are currently breaking the mold. Let us imagine a world where, when someone says “Latina” people think Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Ana Castillo, not just Jennifer Lopez, with or without her maid’s uniform. I’d love your help in spreading the word– share this post- tweet it, Facebook it, all of the above.

Today, in Imagínate 1, we highlight American Book award-winning writer Ana Castillo.

Ana Castillo is by no means an unknown name to those the literary world. She has managed to cross into the “mainstream” publishing novels, poetry and nonfiction works that seek to challenge our notions of not just Latinos and Latin culture, but our ideas about gender roles, sexuality, spirituality, family and culture.

Castillo began as a young activist in the 1970s, using poetry as a form of social protest. She says of that time: “Being of Mexican background, being Indian-looking, being a female, coming from a working-class background, and then becoming politicized in high school, that was my direction . . . I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade–and I continue to write that way”

How then, did Castillo cross into the mainstream, becoming a widely-read author glowingly reviewed by media like the Los Angeles Times and acclaimed writers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Oscar Hijuelos and Luis Alberto Urrea? She is simply a beautifully moving writer, and the world noticed. She began winning such prestigious awards as National Endowment for the Arts fellowships (1990 and 1995), and the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in 1993 for her novel So Far from God (1993).

Castillo’s most recent novel is The Guardians. Says Booklist: “Castillo writes fiction and poetry of earthy sensuality, wry social commentary, and lyrical spiritualism that confront the cruel injustices accorded women and Mexicans in America, legal and otherwise….In this tightly coiled and powerful tale….At once shatteringly realistic and dramatically mystical, Castillo’s incandescent novel of suffering and love traces life’s movement toward the light even in the bleakest of places.”

Ana Castillo is one to watch, and one the Latina community can proudly hold out as a woman breaking boundaries, bringing important issues to the attention of many in an unforgettable, un-ignorable way.

Thinking about Latinas in Popular Culture

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

The fearless progressive crusaders at Latina Fatale, have had their hands full.

Their post, “Shame on Latina Magazine” struck a cord with people in cyberspace, and Latina Fatale is now dealing with a firestorm of site traffic in solidarity with the sentiments in the post, which called for protest against Latina Magazine‘s trumpeting of all the memorable times Latinas have played maids in Hollywood (in honor of the movie, The Help). 

Latina Fatale wrote:

It’s already bad enough that women of color, Latinas included, are relegated to stereotypical roles such as a maid. Now we have a magazine that is supposed to be targeting the Latina population acting like it’s a great thing that one actress played a maid role over 300 times?

How many lead roles have Latinas played? How often do hit movies feature Latinas in strong roles, as opposed to roles such as maids, gangsters, and other stereotypical roles? I can bet that Latinas play maid roles more often than not, because other roles are not offered to them.

I do believe it is problematic that Latinas are overwhelmingly shown in such stereotypical roles as maids and housekeepers in Hollywood and other media. What is problematic is that by and large, Hollywood and other outlets of popular culture simply cannot imagine Latinas in any other roles.

If it is not the maid or housekeeper role that we so often see in mass media, it is the sexy Latina– She is all breasts and hips, long dark hair and boy does she get fired up. Muy caliente. One of my favorite actresses, Salma Hayek, recently spoke about this image in her September Allure magazine interview. She said, “When I first started, I found that I had to play the part of something they could swallow in Hollywood, which was the sexy Latin girl, I was not dressing like that in Mexico.”

But can we re-imagine the Latina in popular culture? Can she be something more diverse, less stereotypical? More empowered?

In response to this clear problem in mainstream popular culture, I am beginning a new series on my blog called Imagínate, where we will do just this– encourage the re-imagining of the Latina image in American culture and media. We will begin by highlighting the work of female writers and artists who are breaking the mold. I want to raise the profile of women who are doing things that current popular culture rarely imagines they are doing.

We already have enough depictions of hard-working Latinas and women of color as domestic workers (could this be because there are so few women directors/writers in Hollywood?) So let’s turn the spotlight on other women working hard in other kinds careers. I welcome your suggestions as to who to profile, and encourage you to spread the word.

Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in California Assembly

August 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Continuing our discussion on domestic workers, I want to call attention to the fact that a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights (AB – 889) is currently pending in the California state assembly. The bill would expand labor protections for California domestic workers such as nannies, housekeepers and home health aides by extending those who must receive overtime pay, guaranteed sleeping time, five-day work weeks and meal breaks. The bill is in a Senate committee as of last week.

Photo: KQED Forum

Listen to a very informative discussion about the Bill’s pros and cons here. Proponents desire to protect the rights of vulnerable workers, whose rights are often trampled because their workplaces are so private and isolated from view. Opponents say that new measures that make the cost of in-home care more expensive would render such care unavailable to low-income seniors and people with disabilities. It is a very thorny, and complicated debate.

What are your thoughts?

19th Amendment was Ratified Today

August 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Courtesy of the Writers Almanac, with Garrison Keillor:

On this date in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. There had been strong opposition to woman suffrage since before the Constitution was drafted in the first place; people (mostly men) believed that women should not vote or hold office because they needed to be protected from the sordid world of politics. Abigail Adams asked her husband, John, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,” but to no avail.

A more organized woman suffrage movement arose in the 19th century, hand in hand with the abolitionist movement, and in July 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton drafted a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, demanding the right of women to have an equal say in their government if they were to be bound by its laws; attendees — women and men — signed the Declaration of Sentiments to show their support, although some later asked that their names be removed when they experienced the media backlash.

In the latter half of the 19th century, states began gradually loosening restrictions on voting rights for women. Wyoming was the first state to grant women the full right to vote, which it did when it gained statehood in 1890. The first national constitutional amendment was proposed in Congress in 1878, and in every Congress session after that. Finally, in 1919, it narrowly passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states to be ratified. Most Southern states opposed the amendment, and on August 18, 1920, it all came down to Tennessee. The pro-amendment faction wore yellow roses in their lapels, and the “anti” faction wore red American Beauty roses. It was a close battle and the state legislature was tied 48 to 48. The decision came down to one vote: that of 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest state legislator. Proudly sporting a red rose, he cast his vote …in favor of ratification. He had been expected to vote against it, but he had in his pocket a note from his mother, which read: “Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your Mother.”

Follow-up to ‘On the Backs of The Help?’

August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

I would like to thank Val B. Russell for her insightful comments to my last post. It sparked a great discussion about the goals of feminism, and our assumptions about women and work. As a follow-on to my last post, I will post an excerpt from my response to Val, which will serve as a clarification to the previous post.

What I mainly wanted to call attention to, was the fact that by and large (at least here in the U.S.) house cleaners are not those with their own businesses, they work for referral agencies which often take a significant cut of their earnings. A large percentage of cleaners (difficult to know how large because of the underground nature), at least here in the Southwest U.S., are undocumented women, because this is one of the only types of employment they can get without papers.

I used to represent many women as survivors of domestic violence in immigration petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, and the vast majority of them worked as house cleaners and nannies. These women are exploited every day. Those who employ them regularly “forget” or postpone paying them, pay them diminished amounts, refuse to pay by claiming they did something wrong and more.

I should have clarified that the women I was thinking of that seem to be outside of feminism’s goals are those who do not do this work as their own, profitable and rewarding business, they are those in the underground economy that are being exploited, as well as those in the above-board economy who wish to do other work but have not been afforded other opportunities. I should have been more specific that women who work in domestic positions are not a “class” of people, and the work is certainly not meant to be construed as menial and ghetto, they may simply be a group of women whose rights may not be respected. All too often the work is very low paid, and these women do not make a good living with their own businesses as you do…

Feminism first and foremost should be about choice, and about respecting the rights of women, and freeing women from violence and exploitation. But also included in feminism is the chance to live balanced lives professionally and personally, as men have been doing for years. This is where, those of us who can do that, can be seen to be achieving this type of success on the backs of other women, assuming those women are not completely fulfilled doing the work that they do, and that they cannot have balanced lives themselves. I believe the unfortunate truth, Val, is that at least here, too many of these women are still exploited, and cannot rise above the poverty line.

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