Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago by Leonard G. Ramírez with Yenelli Flores, María Gamboa, Isaura González, Victoria Pérez, Magda Ramírez-Castañeda, and Cristina Vital.
University of Illinois Press, 226 pages, 2011, ISBN 978-0-252-07812-5
Chicanas of 18th Street by Leonard G. Ramírez highlights the stories of a special cohort ofmujeres: Yenelli Flores, María Gamboa, Isaura González, Victoria Pérez, Magda Ramírez-Castañeda, and Cristina Vital. They were leaders of the Comité, a political group that slowly formed between 1972 and 1973. The local organization was based in Chicago’s Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen, also known by its main corridor Eighteenth Street. The Comité existed under different names, including the Committee in Support of the Farah Strikers and the María Saucedo Committee. The Comité had a flexible leadership structure with a membership base of twenty and thirty participants, some of who were also leaders and members of other activist groups. Furthermore, many mujeres led the Comité. Chicago’s first Chicana/o bookstore, Librería Nuestro Continente, had multiple functions as a community space and the Comité’s political hub. The Chicana/o bookstore was located in Pilsen, the heart of the Chicago’s ethnic Mexican community. Moreover, in late 1960s and 1970s, Eighteenth Street was the center of the city’smovimiento. At Librería Nuestro Continente, community leaders socialized, strategized, dialogued, debated, and reflected on quotidian affairs and political life over the bookstore’s two-year existence. Uncovering the “complex personhood” of this collective of Chicanas, the book brings insight into the mujeres’ histories, experiences, fears, and dreams that unevenly shaped their critical consciousness and political engagement over the span of their lives. Additionally, it underscores the transformative, life-changing lessons the women learned from movimiento and how it provided a unique, though sometimes contentious, space to nurture their identities as Chicana activists.
Chicanas of 18th Street opens with a historical overview of Mexican migration and settlement patterns in Chicago and Midwest, more broadly. It also describes the social landscape and shifting racial hierarchies that Chicago’s Latinas/os had to navigate. Moreover, Ramírez lays out the different “striations” of ethnic/national identities, consciousness, and expressions in Chicago’s ethnic Mexican community over time. In addition, the book maps the different streams of leftist political thought that circulated in the Windy City. Some, however, may encounter unfamiliar material in the text, such as the specificities of the geographic and political landscapes, players, and markers referenced.
By adding the personal accounts of Midwestern Chicana activists, Ramírez contributes to the literature on the Chicano Movement. As author posits that the movimiento in Chicago began a little later than it did in the Southwest (California, Texas, and Colorado), it is important to carefully ground this strand of political activism within its particular context. Ramírez notes that Chicago’s demographics played a role in the difference in timeline in the history of this social movement. Specifically, the low numbers of second, third, and fourth generations of Mexican Americans and the growing number of Mexican immigrants during this time period mattered, just as the city’s heterogeneous Latina/o populations.
This demographic reality also informed the vitality of a Chicana/o consciousness in this place and time. The usage of Chicana/o in Chicago was a point of debate in the ethnic Mexican community. Some outright rejected the usage of Chicana/o because of its perceived negative connotations. Others rejected it because of its geographic claims to the U.S. Southwest. Still, others saw the usage of the term as a wedge that unnecessarily divided the community, privileging citizens over non-citizens. On the other hand, others, like the Chicanas of 18th Street and the Brown Berets, proudly adopted “Chicana and Chicano” as a political term of empowerment, one attuned to the “legacies of conquest” and the redefinition of the cultural ambivalence between Mexico and the United States. In the text, Ramírez pushes the discussion of Chicana/o identity and thought even further by pointing to the multiple threads of Chicana/o political thought, including cultural nationalism, sectarian nationalism, and internationalism.
Moreover, Ramírez discusses the political tensions among local ethnic Mexican and Chicana/o leaders. Of particular interest and significance, the author introduces the idea of the “Chicago compromise”—the adoption of the bifurcated term Mexicano/Chicano to capture the coexistence of overlapping, competing, complementary, and conflicting political ideologies. It does, however, raise the question: to what degree did the idea of a “Chicago compromise” reflect the reconciliation of the contentious political differences in the movimiento on the ground? For example, Ramírez mentions how the political organization, Centro de Acción Social Autónoma-Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA-HGT) or CASA worked with the Comité, but eventually ideological clashes ruptured the political relationships (as the case with other groups). Although the author mentions there is more knowledge about CASA as a trans/national organization, there is scant documentation of its political life in Chicago. Through this idea of the Chicago compromise, Ramírez identifies a fascinating and significant line of research to deepen our understanding of Chicago’s Movement.
Just as importantly, the author also contributes to the Latina/o social movement literature because he provides a closer and much-needed look at the activism led by women. Doing so Ramírez broadens the scope of Second Wave feminist literature and even challenges this dominant periodization of feminism. Since the “feminist waves” rubric has generally marginalized the experiences of Latina feminists and activists of the 1960s and 1970s, the stories of the mujeresuncovers different sites of feminist origins as well as multiple forms and engagement with feminism. “Each of these women,” Ramírez writes, “sought to encourage people to struggle collectively because they believed it was the most powerful weapon that could be wielded by the oppressed against dominant social forces, especially to challenge institutional mechanisms of state control (178).” As a strategy to forefront the Chicanas’ voices and experiences, the subsequent book chapters highlight each of the Chicanas’ testimonio. Given Ramírez’s special relationship with the mujeres, they had a special opportunity to play a critical role in the knowledge production of this particular snapshot of community history. To this point, the author inserts his central arguments and analytical commentaries in the footnotes or at the end of the text. Though the author neglects to offer his own feminist critiques and gendered analysis of the Chicanas’ feminist sensibility, consciousness, and practices, Ramírez still enhances our historical understanding of their political visions, contributions, and community activism. Readers receive a snapshot of the ways they affirmed, complicated, and contested gendered constructions within and across personal, familial, cultural, and community spheres over time. However, more scholarly attention and research is needed to theorize and document the experiences of Chicana and Latina feminists. One such way is to heed Chicana feminist scholar Maylei Blackwell’s call in Chicana Power (2011) to adopt a theory and methodology of “multiple feminist insurgencies,” the idea and need to map “the multisited emergence of women of color as a historical political formation,” by looking “toward other social movements and other, unexpected, social locations for feminist roots and practices (21).”
The biographical sketches of the Chicanas of 18th Street reveal the their uneven engagement with Chicana feminism, a political consciousness and practice aimed to eradicate interlocking systems of oppressions, racism, (hetero)patriarchy, classism, and others. This illustrates the wide-range of feminists outlooks held by the mujeres, and how their political visions developed and changed over time. Chicana scholars, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Chela Sandoval, and Aida Hurtado, have discussed the ways dominant narratives of feminist thought have generally marginalized, neglected, or outright excluded Chicanas’ experiences, struggles, resilience, and activism. At the same time, Chicana feminist scholars have delineated various typologies of Chicana feminism. For example, Chicana scholars Denise A. Segura, and Beatriz M. Pesquera (1988) introduced the terms, Liberal Feminism, Nationalist Feminism or Loyalist, and Insurgent Feminism to draw attention to the nuances of ideological differences among self-identified Chicanas. Reading the mujeres’ personal accounts reveals how each one came to a feminist consciousness and how that changed over time. For example, Yenelli Flores’ feminist outlook when her experiences as a mother clarified the gendered dimensions of political organizing. Magda Ramírez-Castañeda shares her memories of a young woman with a feminist critique, including her frustration that women were not allowed to be priests. She also recounts her public speaking and organizing experiences, including how she resisted any tactics led by men who attempted to silence her.
In conclusion, the text makes important contributions to the growing scholarship on Latinas/os in the Midwest as it does to Chicana/o~Latina/o Studies, Gender/Feminist Studies, and Ethnic Studies/History, more broadly. Chicanas of 18th Street bridges a critical understanding of the political zeal of the past with the present that is may be especially meaningful for Chicago Latinas/os, but certainly not limited to. As Cristina Vidal states, “It’s important to document Pilsen’s history and its legacy before the new neighbors gentrify and bury it (116).” Equally significant, Chicanas of 18th Street forefronts the voices and experiences of collective of powerful and influential Chicana activists that may otherwise be subsumed within dominate (hetero)patriarchal historical narratives of social movement and change. It not only places Chicana/o~Mexican~Latina/o Chicago on the map, but the text captures the hearts, visions, minds, and desires of these mujeres as central actors in making history. Ultimately, the Chicanas of 18th Street remind us that the “fight to secure social justice and create a new and more humane society is an ongoing process (204).”
Myrna García. Visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. She earned her doctorate in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests include Latina/o Studies, race and ethnicity, migration, feminism, and social movements.