!Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement by Maylei Blackwell (A Review #AMST 525)

Some forty years after the “height” of the Chicana/o movement, there still hadn’t been a full accounting of the contributions and involvement of Chicanas.  This changed in 2011 with the publication of Dr. Maylei Blackwell’s !Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (University of Texas Press).  Challenging readers to think beyond the binary, Blackwell (see here for interview) documents the day-to-day contributions, the activism, the theoretical work, and the struggles faced by Chicanas inside and outside the movement.  Offering a book that privileges the voices of Chicana activists, that chronicles the work carried out by Las Hijas and countless other organizations, Blackwell documents that many ways that Chicanas spotlighted, intervened, challenged, refashioned, and built upon the “conflict between American ideals and our social reality” (Imani Perry); she also makes clear the efforts to expose and curtail the conflict between the ideologies and rhetoric espoused within some spaces of the movement and the social reality.”

In her review of the book, Yolanda Padilla’s captures the essence of !Chicana Power! in her review of the book:

Maylei Blackwell’s !Chicana Power!, the first book-length study of Chicanas in the Chicano movement, uses oral history and archival research to tell the compelling story of Las Hijas de Cuauhtémoc, a group that emerged in the late 1960s in response to “the repudiation of women’s leadership and the marginalization of women’s issues in the Chicano student movement” (2). Blackwell’s focus is two-fold. First, she recounts the active ways that Las Hijas responded to the often severe discrimination they faced from male activists; these included concrete actions (publishing one of the first Chicana feminist newspapers, organizing a national meeting of Chicanas, and community involvement) and the development of an early analysis of the interrelated nature of gender, racial, sexual, and class power. Second, Blackwell interweaves her own analysis of how the story of Las Hijas “transforms the ways we understand these historical narratives and the political nature of the knowledge practices that produce them” (3). Thus, the politics of knowledge production is as central to the book as Las Hijas themselves. Informed by Foucault and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Blackwell underscores the stakes involved in interrogating exclusionary historical narratives, arguing that they do not “merely represent historical realities but help to produce those realities by enforcing the boundaries of legitimate political memory and the subjectivities they authorize” (11).

One of the book’s many strengths is Blackwell’s decision to foreground the voices of the organization’s former members, allowing their firsthand accounts to communicate how their struggles over gender and sexuality within the movement ultimately gave rise to the “multifaceted vision of liberation” they created, which, as Blackwell argues, resulted in the production of “a new Chicana political identity” (1). The book also provides an excellent analysis of the role played by sexual politics in the movement and details the painful divisions that marred the extraordinary 1971 national meeting of Chicanas (Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza), shedding light on the “political fault lines of early Chicana feminism” (161). Finally, Blackwell develops a number of theoretical concepts, chief among which is her notion of “retrofitted memory,” her name for the historicizing strategies Las Hijas used to counter the erasure of Chicana political subjectivities from the movement. !Chicana Power! is a significant contribution to the ongoing process of historicizing Chicana feminist consciousness and furthers the work of scholars such as Emma Pérez, who have problematized traditional historio-graphical practices in Chicana/o studies contexts.

The book is not invested in simply filling the historical cupboards that have neglected to tell the stories of Chicana activists, those who challenged racism, sexism, homophobia, and the structures of violence, segregation, inequality, and white male hegemony in multiple locations.  Dr. Blackwell pushes readers beyond this binary. She argues that Chicana feminism wasn’t merely a response to the sexism of Chicano nationalism or the racism of the women’s movement.   Highlighting the many iterations of feminism, and the “adoption of different strategies to be heard” (p. 66) Maylei Blackwell brings many stories, many strains of history, and many spaces of resistance together in an effort to not only reimagine this historical moment but to challenge the ways that we construct narratives within the historical imagination.

She demands that readers of history account for the multiple points of entries, the multiple spaces of consciousness, and the conditions that led to action.  For example, whereas history books, which have long privileged white feminist national organizations, have imagined Chicana feminism as emanating from the writings, organizational influence, and teachings of white feminists, Maylei Blackwell highlights the longstanding history of feminism within Chicana movement that can be seen in the home, in indigenous institutions (p. 47), and in spaces that are autonomous to white feminist influence.

Moreover, she argues that to understand the Chicana feminist ethos of the 1960s and 1970s requires not simply looking at the contested politics of the Chicano movement and the entrenched misogyny and patriarchy, but white supremacy, classism, and the daily realities facing Chicana women. “Women activists learned to name the structures of exclusion and inequality they faced and how to negotiate complex relationships of power within and outside their community,” notes Blackwell (p. 61). “Familial bonds, female friendships, and relationships with political comrades were the sites through which they gained new forms of consciousness, named inequitable power relations, and strived to create new forms of solidarity, as well as a different organizational culture.” In other words, their experiences as students, as activists, as members of multiple communities, as daughters, friends, and partners all shaped their consciousness, political ethos, and repertoire of available tactics.  This was not defined by experiencing sexism in one location as often argued.

In pushing for a “retrofitted historic memory,” in documenting “multiple feminist insurgencies” (p. 21), in thinking about how conferences and print work contributed to imagined and realized communities, and in reflecting on Chicana subjectivities through a transnational framework, Maylei Blackwell offers a book that challenges our collective understanding of this historic moment; yet, it is equally invested in challenging how we make history and who is privileged through hegemonic history-making.  Pushing back at those who simply see history as the piecing together of the archives, Blackwell demands that we reflect on this process, inserting her important voice into both the history and the history making.

!Chicana Power!  thus challenges the over reliance on text centered, chronological and archival based histories (p. 36), which invariably elevates male participation, organizational importance, and the spectacular moments that contribute to social transformation.  Reimagining definitions of leadership, activism, and social movements (p. 37), Blackwell also reimagines how we write and document history:

When I began this research in 1991, I embarked on a question to turn up the volume on the stories of gender and sexuality that have been dubbed out of the Chicano historical record.  Through this journey I have found that being an oral historian is like being a DJ. As one digs through the old crates of records (historical archives) to find missing stories, the songs (narratives groups, if you will) must be selected and their elements remixed to produce new meanings.  Oral historians spin the historical record by sampling new voices and cutting and mixing the established sounds to allow listeners to hear something different, even in grooves they thought they knew” (p. 38).

Also an embodying an interdisciplinary approach that samples that necessary theories, that borrows from the useful registers of a myriad of disciplines, which builds on different traditions and understandings of the world, this book seeks to answer a series of important questions, to chronicle the spaces and means of resistance exhibited by Chicana activists.  In this regard, !Chicana Power! offers a powerful theoretical intervention.  The methods employed by hegemonically produced histories and dominant social movement theory exclude women of color in part because of the failure “to see multiple strands of intervention and contribution.” That is, this work is not simply an effort to “add-and-stir” but one invested in rethinking our historic epistemologies and how this erases women of color. An important book for those seeking to understanding the Chicana/o movement, to complicating our 1960s-1970s memory, !Chicana Power! is a treasure for its theorizing, for its methodological intervention, and for its efforts to provide future scholars and history makers with the tools to fulfill “the historian’s political project: to write a history that decolonizes otherness” (Emma. Perez, p. 15).

 

 

Questions

  1. In what ways did “Chicano cultural nationalism create a contradictory position for women” (98)?
  2. How is this work both a critical intervention against cultural nationalism and also a historic project of reclamation?
  3. How does this book’s methodological approach/history making compare to our previous discussed texts
  4. In what ways is this book in dialogue with hegemonic understandings of social movements; how does it argue that if we are to reclaim and make visible these untold stories we must “decolonize” the ways we understand and chronicle history?
  5. Reaction to DJ metaphor?
  6. How does the book challenge definition of leadership?
  7. How does it intervene within binary of Chicano movement versus feminist movement?
  8. How does it challenge the narrative that often positions activism and grassroots organizing in opposition to intellectual work, to theoretical and discursive struggles?
  9. What legacies can we see from the historiography chronicled here?
  10. How does this image defy and replicate dominant expectations of Chicana femininity?
  11. Whereas this book is not invested in documenting struggles against the state, Empty Nets is very much invested in chronicling the struggles against the state (within meeting rooms, through court cases, lobbying).  Does this reflect the different historic projects or the varied social location of the Chicana/o and Indigenous communities?
  12. How are both these books local, but national historiographies?
  13. How can we understand social movement as existing within structures of state and outside state; often times social movements are imagined as apart from political structure – limitations?

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