Image Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Chile
It’s 2021, and in Latin America it’s still a struggle to be a woman. The fight is far from being over.
In this part of the world, 8 March is a day marked by rampant protests of women making their social unrest heard, and a day that recognises women continuing to be marginalised, discriminated, and forgotten. It is the fight to dissolve gender-based violence and to recognise institutional failures to address feminine success in isolation.
Who or what is a Latina?
Undoubtedly, gender is a central factor to the political disputes in Latin America today, and has a significantly long track record of being so. Contemporary Latin American feminism exists in the context of centuries of colonialism and the mistreatment of natives. From the 1800s to the 1980s, the contours and structures of Latin American feminism have shifted with emerging concerns which have now made strides towards the overall legal equality of women. Yet the struggle for social recognition remains in-tact for the indigenous sector, since they have yet to be given any political presentation at all.
Historically, for the average Latin American woman, she knew nor performed anything outside of the confines of the duties associated with her gender. In other words, flouting the moral obligation to single-handedly protect their families, scramble for a suitor, abide by manners and codes, and regurgitate national values so as to not seem rebellious, could easily bring distress to the definitions men had constructed for them.
It seemed that, unfortunately for men, discovering that women also had their own personhood, was distressing. Reduced to blind mice scurrying behind the orders of streams of stubborn dictators, hope and individuality appeared far out of reach for women. Until they ceased to accept it any longer, to be the traditional pre-text of masculine discourse – and instead, they chose to become the text itself, to carve their own stories.
Below, I’m sharing just a few of the many Latin American women who made a dent in this rigid mould. These remarkable women, ranging from writers to fighters, achieved unprecedented success in their lifetimes and left an undeniable mark on the history of their respective countries and on the very definition of Latin American womanhood.
Chilean poet-diplomat, educator, Nobel Prize winner, humanist, confidant of the Colombian president; these are just a select few of the many aspects of the Latin American literary great that was Gabriela Mistral.
In her childhood, Mistral was no stranger to poverty. By age 15, she was supporting herself and her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, a seamstress, by working as a teacher's aide in the seaside town of Compañia Baja. Her meteoric rise in Chile's national school system plays out against the complex politics of Chile in the first two decades of the 20th century. In her adolescence, access to good schools was difficult; she lacked the political and social connections necessary to attend the “Normal School”. She was turned down, without explanation, in 1907. Mistral later identified the obstacle to her entry as the school's chaplain, who was aware of her publications in the local newspapers and her advocacy of liberalising education for the accessibility of all social classes.
This hindrance only propelled Mistral’s urge to prove every force against her as a misjudgement of the capabilities of entrepreneurial women such as herself. Before she knew it, and before the nation could figure out her secret, she had been granted the academic title of Spanish Professor by the University of Chile in 1923, even though her formal education had ended before she was 12. Her autodidacticism was so astonishing – a testimony to her undying determination and verbal genius – that Mistral’s experience was immortalised in hundreds of magazines and newspapers throughout the Spanish-speaking world (800 essays and articles, to be exact).
In 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, 26 years before Pablo Neruda. Mistral’s poetic inspiration lay in the quiet beauty of Chile’s landscapes, and the melancholy of failed motherhood. She was seen as the abandoned woman who had been denied the joy of motherhood and found consolation as an educator in caring for the children of other women, an image she confirmed in her writing, specifically her most popular collection Ternura (1924). Yet, she remains a voice for an unhesitating defence of justice, liberty, and peace for so many Latin American women today.
Rivera was all of 17 years old when she crossed paths with history at the Stonewall Inn on the night of 28 June, 1969. She died at 51, having struggled with addiction and homelessness for much of her life, even as she continued to fight for trans rights and LGBTQ equality. Nonetheless, she lives on, immortalised in a monument in New York which stands for her activism alongside her dear friend and fellow fighter, Martha P. Johnson – who was often credited by River for having saved her life.
This posthumous tribute stands to avenge Rivera’s struggle with her ostracised identity, as well as being the city’s first transgender monument. Effectively, through this physical manifestation of remembrance, Rivera’s self-proclaimed “revolutionary blood” has the potential to stand the test of time.
As a young teenager, Rivera was experimental. Under her grandmother’s roof, her attempts to play dress-up with her clothes and make-up had consequences – she was beaten. Yet, Rivera had no tolerance for her hollow discipline, and ran away at age 11, becoming a child prostitute to keep herself somewhat afloat. Then, she met Johnson, and was introduced to the Black Liberation movement.
In the 1970s, the first gay Pride parades weren’t accepting of transgender people, but Rivera didn’t find this to be a hindrance. Grabbing the microphone despite being instructed not to speak, she told the crowd: “If it wasn’t for the drag queen, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.” This wasn’t met by applause, but Rivera didn’t wait for a response. She and Johnson organised the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which created a safe space to discuss issues facing gender non-conforming individuals in New York City. Though Rivera was only 19 at this time, she became like a mother to many of the residents at STAR House, and the activists formed a home and a family for those who needed it the most.
Rivera’s legacy has led to organisations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which “works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race.” The SRLP provides legal services for those who cannot afford representation. This organization is continuing Rivera’s lifelong work to ensure a stable and safe existence for transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people.
Born to a Puerto Rican family, Sotomayor grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx, which came with challenging circumstances. Her battle against diabetes took up most of her childhood, she had an absent father, and her mother worked long hours to gather income for her family, seemingly keeping her daughter at arm’s length. Sotomayor was pushed to take education seriously, and so she decided that, at age ten, she wanted to be a lawyer. Sure enough, she went out and did exactly that – winning a scholarship to Princeton and receiving a law degree from Yale.
The Ivy League life was not necessarily kind to Sotomayor; moving from a housing project in the Bronx, to a completely new academic setting saw her facing discrimination from students and alumni who were hostile to women and minorities. But, even when her grades fell short in her first year, Sotomayor didn't give up. Instead, she addressed her shortcomings by pushing herself and studying over summer breaks, resulting in her graduating with honours.
In 1979, Sotomayor served as an assistant district attorney, paving her way to becoming a U.S. District Court judge, appointed by George H.W. Bush. Under Bill Clinton’s administration, Sotomayor would make her way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1997, and a little over a decade later, Barack Obama nominated her to the highest court in the nation. In 2009, Sotomayor made a name for herself as the first Latin American woman to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Since then, she has built her reputation on being an advocate for criminal justice reform, as well as making impassioned dissents on issues of race, gender, and ethnic identity. Sotomayor has ruthlessly fought for the protection of affirmative action programs, writing a 58 page dissent in To Defend Affirmative Action which held that prohibitions for state universities from considering race in admission decisions was constitutional. Sotomayor has also ruled in the majority which upheld the Affordable Care Act twice, and to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Alongside her 2013 memoir, My Beloved World, Sotomayor has written three books for children, including Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You; all published in both English and Spanish. Sotomayor said that she was inspired to write Just Ask! as a result of her own experiences living with Type 1 diabetes. "I want every child to understand that whatever condition they bear in life, they are special in a good way," she said.
To mark International Women's Day, I urge you to think about what your own definition of success is – how you will show up everyday, moving forward and letting your womanhood be something that frees you, not limits you.
Go out into the world and conquer it, female friends; it is never too late.