The Academic Feminist: Summer at the Archives with Chicana por mi Raza

Welcome back, Academic Feminists, to this back-to-school edition of our Summer at the Archives series!mcotera-hr This edition features an interview with Maria Cotera, Associate Professor in the Departments of American Culture, Latino/Latina Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Cotera took time out (from collecting archival materials, in fact!) to talk about her current project, Chicana Por Mi Raza: Uncovering the Hidden History of Chicana Feminism, which aims to collect and preserve materials from two decades of the Chicana feminist movement. Cotera discusses the decision to archive within a specific time period, the process of collecting oral histories, and the important role that access to the archive can play in building relationships between academics and the communities they study.

1.     In your work, both for this project and elsewhere, you talk about “liberating the feminist archive.” What does this mean? How does Chicana por mi Raza do this?

The idea that the archive needs to be “liberated” in order to realize its full feminist potential stems from my experience researching the intellectual legacies of women of color. Most of this research has taken place in university archival collections, and that experience taught me that archives both respond to and reflect the political and social dynamics of the culture they seek to preserve. Traditional archival methods often nourish a “feedback loop” in which one’s access to power determines one’s presence in the archive, and one’s presence in the archive shapes historical knowledge, which, in turn, informs the system of values that shapes the collecting priorities of institutions. So those farther away from the mechanisms of power— women, the poor, ethnic and sexual minorities—are rarely represented in institutional archives. And when they are in the archive, their legacies are strictly controlled by the very institutional structures (universities) that have tended to marginalize them. As an institutionally-recognized scholar I can access these legacies in the archive and write about them, but the communities that they really matter to can’t.

I’ve been working on the project with Chicago-area filmmaker Linda Garcia Merchant (and a rotating team of hard-working undergraduates) since 2009, and  from the start we have been committed to opening up the archive to all kinds of users, and to keeping it independent of any institutional framework. This desire arises from our engagement with the Chicana feminists that we interviewed (all of whom wanted their stories and documents to be accessible to a broad public), but it also arose from a strong sense that we needed to transform the traditional scholar or filmmaker script, which basically involves amassing a giant archive then using it to produce your own vision of “what happened.” We wanted to open up the archive, not jealously guard it until we were done with it; and we wanted to let it speak for itself, not shape it into a coherent narrative. In other words, we wanted to break the feedback loop between archives and scholarship and create an archive that would itself be a form of activist scholarship, one that might even reflect the liberatory potential of its central subject: Chicana feminism.

Most of all, we wanted the archive to become not just a source where knowledge might be delivered (top-down), but instead a place where new knowledges are produced and exchanged (horizontally), and where the traditional boundaries between scholars, their audiences, and the communities they study are transgressed.  Chicana por mi Raza is premised upon this possibility, and a firm belief in the promise of the digital humanities as a scholarly site that can create new kinds of relationships between and among scholars, the communities they study, and the audiences they hope to reach. So for me, “liberating the feminist archive” means moving beyond hand-wringing about the institutional archive as an engine of discursive power  (heteropatriarchal/white supremacist), and toward embracing the potential of the digital to interrupt both the individualization of scholarly inquiry and the “feedback loop” of humanistic scholarship, which has for so long limited the liberatory potential of archival recovery projects that focus on marginalized communities.

2.    Can you talk a bit about the dates chosen for the project? I think when a lot of people think about Chicana feminism – especially those of us who were introduced to the subject in women’s and gender studies classes – the narrative is that Chicana feminism started in the late 70s/early 80s, and your project runs from 1965 through 1985.

In some ways this is an arbitrary choice conditioned by the need to establish some “boundaries” for a project that could potentially extend deep into our collective history. In fact, many key Chicana feminist thinkers would argue against this starting point, because they do not see feminism as a “new” thing for Chicanas (my mother, among other Chicana feminist scholars, traced its origins into pre-colonial times in articles  and books like Diosa y Hembra). That said 1965 was by no means an accidental choice for us. We settled on that date as an origin point because it was a watershed year for the civil rights movement writ large. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the legislative, institutional, and social programs that accompanied it (collectively known as the “Great Society” agenda) changed the shape of American culture almost overnight, while the Watts Riot (1965), and other urban rebellions that radicalized many civil rights organizers and exposed the contradictions of the “Great Society,” particularly the problems of poverty, police brutality, and the abysmal educational system that both rural and urban minority populations had long endured. Almost all of the women we interviewed came of age as political beings during this crucible of hope and desperation, and so we settled on 1965 as a kind of “catalyst” year for Chicana feminism.

One might also reasonably ask why our cut-off year is 1990. This question of “origins” and “endings” is complicated, and by no means settled, but our choices signal that this project is ultimately about illuminating how “Chicana feminism” originated as a concrete political praxis and a liberation project that addressed the needs of women and ethnic communities simultaneously. So when we think about “origins”, especially when we are talking about women of color praxis, we need to think not just about the history of “feminism” but in multidimensional ways. Many of the women we interviewed came to feminism through their struggles within radical ethnic nationalist movements, others through their experiences as women of color in dominant institutions (particularly as first generation college students). But in all of the cases, they developed a political consciousness at the crossroads of struggle. What we are trying to get at with Chicana por mi Raza is how concepts that have become normative in academic circles like “intersectionality” and “coalitional politics” originate in lived experience and political praxis, and in the case of Chicanas and other women of color, with the delicate and necessary negotiations between multiple liberation struggles. The lived experience of negotiating intersecting axes of oppression led women of color beyond what Audre Lorde has termed the “either/or” vision of oppression, and toward new visions of “liberation” and new ways of doing “politics.” So the larger theoretical impetus behind the project is to get a new generation of feminists, especially those in the academy, to think beyond the classic “theory vs. practice” bind and understand more clearly that (in the words of Judy Vaughn by way of Andrea Smith) “You don’t think your way into a different way of acting; you act your way into a different way of thinking.”

3.     I know that you were just in California conducting interviews for this project. Can you share a little bit from this experience?


Letter from Lupe Anguiano to Elliot Richardson, Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, March 1, 1972, Olivia Puente Reynolds personal collection

I’m still sorting through the experience; like all of our interviewing trips it was both super intense, and super gratifying. We interviewed eight women, documented the annual reunion of “Las Chicanas de San Diego,” and even filmed a fundraiser to support Chicana archive development initiatives at the San Diego State University library. The schedule was gruelling (8:00 am to 2:00 am pretty much every day), but the stories we captured—which ranged from the experiences of farmworker women who worked closely with Cesar Chavez in the Coachella Valley, and continue to struggle against drugs and gangs in their community to the experiences of the first generation of Chicanas to gain entry to San Diego State University—were all so amazing. We digitized an incredible poster collection, along with some truly unique radical song books put together by one of our interviewees in the early 1970s after a visit to Mexico City. One incredible find was a report to the Department of Health Education and Welfare on the special needs of “Spanish-Speaking women” which was written in response to HEW’s Women’s Action Program. The group of women that wrote the report was brought together by Lupe Anguiano (a Chicana we interviewed a few years back); who played a huge role in both the Chicano movement and the women’s movement. We had known of this report for years, but had been unable to locate a full copy of it, until now.


“La Nueva Chicana” Conference Poster, Sonia Lopez personal collection

One of the unique aspects of this work is that with every woman we interview, and every document we digitize, we fill in another blank space in our feminist history. So far we’ve done almost 40 interviews, and digitized around 500 documents (some of them whole books, journals, and newspapers). I feel like we are carrying this huge collection of stories and experiences on our backs (sort of like Janie Crawford’s fishing net at the end of Their Eye’s Were Watching God), and that we need to open it up, soon. The good news is that Chicana por mi Raza was selected as a winner of the 2011 Scalable Research Challenge by the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (I-CHASS), and they are working with us to accelerate the development of the cyber infrastructure for our project so that we can begin to share our collection with teachers and scholars through a login mechanism. We are also working closely with University of Michigan School of Information graduate Maria Seiferle-Valencia to get our digital archives in order and develop some kind of a web interface that will allow users to access images and video in our database without a login. But for now, we are excited and relieved that the computational scientists are coming in to build a house for our stories. I will be testing the database they create in an oral history class this fall, to see how robust it is and how easy it is to use in a classroom setting.

Chicana Por Mi Raza: Uncovering the Hidden History of Chicana Feminism from Linda Garcia Merchant on Vimeo.

This video was put together by Linda Garcia Merchant, as a way to share the work we are doing with people, institutions, and organizations that don’t have the financial resources to bring us in to talk about the project. It serves as a basic introduction to our research goals and includes some brief excerpts from a few of our interviews.

Extra Credit!

In addition to the above linked materials, below you can find more information on the topics discussed here, as well as some of the people and projects that have inspired the Chicana por mi Raza project. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.

Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings, Alma Garcia

500 years of Chicana History, Elizabeth Martinez

Chicana Power!, Maylei Blackwell

Also the work of Dionne Espinoza deserves a special shout-out. She has written important articles on Chicanas in the Raza Unida Party and the Brown Berets.

The South Asian American Digital Archive is doing incredible work in terms of collecting, preserving, and presenting (online and offline) the history of the South Asian diaspora in the US, notably outside of the institutional support of a university library or state historical society.

Another project we love is the Voces Oral History project. The Voces Project documents the contributions of Latinos and Latinas of the WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War generations. It is supported by the University of Texas Libraries, and offers terrific resources for teachers and members of the general public who would like to conduct oral histories of their own.


Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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