History of Latina Activists

latina activists

We Have a Long History of Latina Activists

Young Latina activists across the United States are engaged in activism and have become a large Democratic voting demographic. Yet too often their “herstory” here is still not told well enough in our schools. Latinas in the United States are not a “race.” They are women of many ancestries, and a broad range of national heritages. Some may be recent immigrants, or the female children of immigrants born here, and others have ancestors who predate the founding of the 13 colonies, and the United States of America.

Though U.S. history books on American “roots” tend to focus on the Jamestown settlement as our colonial founding city, the British English speaking slant tends to skew our perceptions of the past, and we forget, or don’t explore, the people of San Juan, Puerto Rico, or of Saint Augustine, Florida. Spanish occupation in the new world attached to the meme of “discovery” obviously precludes the existence of ancient pueblos like Taos and Acoma. Few Americans know the story of the founding of Los Angeles, in California, whose founding members, called pobladores, were of mixed racial ancestry—black, indigenous—and only two were from Spain. This history became a political hot potato in LA but clearly illustrates the early ancestral admixture of founding Latinas.

I dedicate this essay today to long time civil rights activist and attorney Adelpha Callejo, “La Madrina” (the godmother) (June 10, 1923 – January 25, 2014), who passed away recently but who will not be forgotten.

Adelfa Callejo – A Leader in the Hispanic Community

Continuing my 2012 conversation about Latinas in Women’s History, I want to emphasize that this is a broad demographic category, encompassing women from diverse cultures, including women with little or no European ancestry, and though spoken dialects of Spanish language in some cases may create a common bond, not all Latinas speak Spanish, or have Spanish-sounding surnames. Often there are shared cultural traditions, in other cases those traditions are dissimilar.

If you are interested in an excellent reference work, I suggest Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, whose editors Vicki Ruíz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol are also the project directors for an interesting and informative interactive online site Latina Activists in History.

Growing up in a leftist political environment, I learned early on about women in the Puerto Rican independence struggle, like Mariana Bracetti, Lolita Lebron and Blanca Canales. Yet the dominant female figure in Puerto Rican politics for decades was Felisa Rincón de Gautier, known to everyone in PR simply as “Doña Fela” or Doña Felisa.

Her Foundation and Museum in San Juan, PR, offers more of her history:

Felisa Rincón de Gautier, known as Doña Felisa in her native Puerto Rico, was the first woman Mayor of a major capital city in the Western Hemisphere, serving for 22 years as Mayor of San Juan, from 1946 – 1968. She was a pioneer in the movement for women’s political rights, in establishing children’s pre- school educational day-care programs, and in establishing the first public legal and medical aid centers for the indigent. A leader and role model for Hispanic Americans, Doña Felisa also served as U.S. Ambassador of Goodwill under four American Presidents. She is one of the most prominent Puerto Rican personalities in the twentieth century and undoubtedly one of the most distinguished women in Puerto Rican history.

Through the force of her imagination, initiative and perseverance, Doña Felisa became one of the first women to vote in Puerto Rico, to assume a leadership position in a political party in the 1930`s and to be appointed to a major public office in the 1940`s. She broke the traditional barrier of predetermined sex roles when she was appointed Mayor of San Juan in 1946, a position she held with overwhelming popular support until January 1969. She was a model public servant and has paved the way for hundreds of women to enter the political process. She has worked tirelessly to promote electoral participation among Hispanics living in the United States mainland, actively campaigning in U.S. Presidential, Congressional and Municipal races since 1936.

Doña Felisa was born in the town of Ceiba; Puerto Rico on January 9, 1897.She is the daughter of Enrique Rincon, a lawyer, and Rita Marrero, a school teacher. She was the eldest of nine brothers and sisters and at the age of 12 her mother died, leaving her with the responsibility of caring for her younger brothers and sisters.

Rarely have I seen the history of the suffrage and women’s rights movement in Puerto Rico addressed in American history or women’s studies classes. Yet is is long and rich.

When I read Latina history in the labor movement, it is a direct stream to the struggles today. I covered Dolores Huerta and her role in farm worker organizing in the previous piece. Latina activists are not just engaged in the agricultural sector. One of the largest and fastest-growing unions in the U.S., with over 2 million members, is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organizes in three sectors: health care, property and public services.

One of the newest leaders of SEIU is Rocio Sáenz.

Rocio Sáenz is an SEIU International Executive Vice President after being elected at the September 2013 International Executive Board Meeting. Prior to her election, she headed the property services New England Local in Boston, which represents 18,000 workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Sáenz has advocated for workers’ rights and community empowerment most of her adult life. She emigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles, where she initially worked low-wage jobs. Sáenz became an organizer for SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in 1988, and she was part of a team that led a successful campaign to organize L.A. janitors.

In August 2001, Sáenz moved to Boston to build the Justice for Janitors program there and to move the local union forward. A year later, she led thousands of Boston janitors on a month-long strike that drew widespread support from the media, clergy, politicians and community groups. The strike ended with an historic settlement that dramatically improved workers’ wages, benefits and workplace rights.

Here is a clip of Sáenz speaking at a Bread and Roses event:

Rocio Saenz – Bread & Roses Centennial Excerpt by Lorre Fritchy


When we hear the word “janitor” we think of men—yet the Justice for Janitors campaign included many women who work as office and building cleaners, and many of those women are Latinas.

I have incredible admiration for the women who are fighting on the front lines of the union movement, and have watched some of my Latina activists in struggle do the work of organizing since the late 1960s. Women like Sonia Ivany, and Minerva Solla, who I have known since the days of the Young Lords Party.

The history of women in the Young Lords has been documented by Iris Morales in the film Pa’lante Siempre Pa’lante, and captured in photographs by Michael Abramson in the book Pa’lante, recently re-issued. Iris and I also wrote the foreword to The Young Lords Reader, Darrel Enck-Wanzer (Editor), a source for primary documents about the organization, the movement and the women in it.

In any discussion of Latina activists we cannot overlook the struggles to establish fluid and often multiple identities, crossing ethnic, national and gender-normative lines.

Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004), a Mexican American feminist, author, poet, scholar and activist. Shown in 1990 at Smith College.

Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa left an important legacy for us all when she passed on in 2004. Her archive was acquired by the University of Texas.

Anzaldua’s work made the “banned books” list in Arizona, which authors on the list have responded to in the attack on Chicano/ ethnic studies, and is being fought for by young activists who call themselves “librotraficantes.” I wrote about this in 2011, in Latinos in the U.S.: the assault on Chicana/o studies. The ethnic studies ban is still wending its way through the courts, and is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Like Anzaldua, many other Latina activists have examined identity and place. Mariposa, Afro-Latina, third generation Puerto Rican born in the Bronx, raises these issues in her work.

“Boricua” by Mariposa

From suitsiswatching on Vimeo.

Ode to the Diasporican
(pa’ mi gente)

Some people say that I’m not the real thing
Boricua, that is
because I wasn’t
born on the enchanted island
because I was born in the mainland north of Spanish Harlem
because I was born in the Bronx

She concludes with:

¡No nací en Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico nació en mi!

(I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico … Puerto Rico was born in me.)

To all the Latinas in my life, mi madrina, mis hermanitas, mis amigas, y compañeras—Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Costa Rican, Garifuna, Guatemalan, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Panamanian, Salvadoran, Argentinian, Bolivian, Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Paraguayan, Peruvian, Uruguayan and Venezuelan, I say gracias for making this country richer.

Pa’lante, Siempre, Pa’lante

Excerpts from  Daily Kos

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