I first truly heard these words freshman year of college. It was orientation, only a few days into the hot sweaty summer spent at college but what actually felt like camp. Our floor had separated from the boys, the girls gathered in a old classroom building still inhabited by chalkboards. Meant to be an open dialogue, our program leader, a bi-racial curly haired black girl instructed my hall mates and I to get into a circle. Just when I thought she was going to make us pray (ha!), instead she had us take part of an exercise. She asked us questions. If we agree with the statements we needed to step in the circle, if not stay outside the circle. These weren’t simple, light questions though. These were personal. Deep. Some that felt a little uncomfortable to answer. I don’t remember too much of that day, of what was asked. What I do remember is this: as the words “I am a feminist” fell from her lips I immediately heard the steps of virtually all my hall mates walk in, leaving my roommate and I in the dust. All I remember is feeling a sting of shame. But I couldn’t agree to a statement if I didn’t even know what a feminist was. Now, I think i’ve heard the word in passing throughout high school once or twice but never in a lesson. Who had time for feminism, when I was barely surviving high school. From homework to soccer practice to art projects, there was no time left to investigate feminism. Left in the outskirts, the curious heads of my hall mates quickly flashed to my roommate and I, the only two Latinas in the room, in disbelief we hadn’t joined them. In their stares I could hear “you don’t know what feminism is?” Sensing their criticism our guide began, cutting the silence, “Now guys, don’t judge people for their decisions. We can discuss this. Instead we can ask them (us) why they don’t identify as feminists.” I proceeded to chime in despite my embarrassment of not knowing, “I don’t know what a feminist is.” In that moment I feel the room breath out, as if “okay, she’s not ignorant. She’s just not educated.” The girls are happily ready to share their definition. Even in the end, after being given a lesson on “what feminism is” I didn’t feel convinced. I felt stupid but also uneasy. The belief of the male and female sex being equal didn’t convince me, especially coming from these women. Women of privilege. What made feminism so difficult to digest was the fact it seemed a word deemed for White women, or women who approximated to Whiteness regardless of their skin color. I had quickly learned from day one at William & Mary that I was different than most students there. Not only did my Brown skin scream outsider but even my experiences of firsts.
Coming to college I thought many other students were going to be the first in their family to go to college because that was the norm at my high school. Yet, another event during orientation, revealed otherwise. Once again, this story starts with people calling out experiences, requiring you to identify yourself. While this instance was less embarrassing but more shocking. I couldn’t help to feel a sense of isolation. As faculty proceeds to ask those who are first generation college students to stand up in a sea of mostly White students, packed into a stuffy theatre auditorium, I saw only a few people stand on their feet. We were sprinkled here and there, including my roommate and I. Participants of something that felt like a joke to me. Was I really one of the few people who were going to be the first in their family to graduate college? Not only did I feel late to the game, but I felt foolish for feeling a slight shame for something I couldn’t control.
It seemed like everywhere I went, everything was new to me. A different world. Previously exclusive, not meant for someone like me. As a lower income immigrant Latina, who was raised by a mother who had dropped out of school at 6th grade and a father who barely finished high school in the Bolivian countryside, it’s hard to believe I made it this far. But I did. That is something I’ve learned to be immensely proud of.
That first year, I remember often thinking about feminism. What it meant to me and what it meant for others. I wrangled with it, trying to untie and smooth the knots out. I thought about feminism but never owned it. Though I was thinking about it, I never chose to label myself as one. However, other people thought they had the power to label me, call me a feminist. I remember my ex over the phone, accusing me of being a feminist. Making fun of me for it. As if it was a joke. I told him I’m not, it was label spear headed by White women for White women. Yet, on paper I knew all my beliefs pointed towards someone who is a feminist.
As the first Women’s March arrived and left, I couldn’t help the event reinforce my idea. However, as more women of color stepped up, visibly leading and fighting for equality, I started to see myself represented. It wasn’t until I saw Latina women in the spotlight, like America Ferrera who’s a proud feminist, I felt more comfortable around the word. I’ve come to realize I previously didn’t feel comfortable with the word because I didn’t see women like me fighting for a cause we and so many women of color so desperately need. It’s only when I heard the word feminist espoused by women like me that I didn’t have doubts in their intentions. I knew who they were fighting for.
The idea that I am a feminist wasn’t further cemented until I read Erika L. Sanchez’s book, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. I broke down in tears multiple times while reading this book. Not only because I felt my Latina experience was represented so well for the first time but really captured a lot of the angst I felt throughout High School. It wasn’t until I got to college I realized the roots of this frustration. When it came to the bare bones of it, it was the result of cultural differences that often left me feeling oceans apart from my parents. So many expectations and rules that made me feel overwhelmed and a prisoner in my own household. I was the prisoner and my mother the prison guard, while my dad was the prison owner. Everything I wanted to do, my mother didn’t want me to. I couldn’t show off my shoulders, I wanted to wear camis. I couldn’t wear skirts or dresses shorter than knee length, I wanted to wear mini skirts. I needed to cook and clean, I wanted to spend time reading. I couldn’t leave the house often and further than a 5 mile radius, I wanted to travel even further away. I’ve fought, cried, and screamed and it’s only with time I was able to get some of my rights. My right to freedom. Seeing Sanchez’s fictional character Julia, who has been labeled “unabashedly feminist” by book reviews, do the same made me realize I’ve been a feminist my whole life. Being a feminist came out survival, something so ingrained in who I am, I never thought it could possibly be a whole movement living outside of me. My whole life I’ve been fighting this fight alone within my family that I’ve failed to see I’m not the only one fighting. I am not alone. There are millions of Latina women fighting the same fight. Each and everyone of us a feminist in our own right.