Liberating the Chicana feminist archive

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Liberating the Chicana feminist archive

Professor Maria Cotera plans to fill the gap in social movement history by building an online archive, “Chicana por mi Raza”

by Katherine Marino on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - 9:06am

Chicana por mi Raza poster (courtesy of Maria Cotera)“Today we talk about Chicana feminism almost exclusively in the academy,” Maria Cotera told an audience in Margaret Jacks Hall, “but in the 1970s, it was happening in the streets.”

The goal of Cotera’s ambitious online archive project, “Chicana por mi Raza,” is to recapture the once vibrant movement for the social, political, and economic justice of Mexican American, Chicana, and Hispanic women in the United States. When it launches later this year, the website will house a rich archive documenting the development of Chicana feminist thought and action from 1960 to 1990. The efforts of her and of the project’s co-founder, Linda Garcia Merchant, have amassed thousands of newspapers, reports, leaflets, out-of-print books, pieces of correspondence, and oral histories, most of which have been missing from mainstream archives.

Silence of the archive

In her recent talk, “Liberating the Feminist Archive: Mapping Chicana Feminisms in the Digital Age,” Cotera, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, previewed some materials from the database. She hopes that the site will “bring the history of Chicana feminism to a whole new audience, from public school educators to college students to established scholars.”

“Chicana por mi Raza” will fill a gap in social movement history, a gap that became starkly apparent to Cotera when she was teaching two classes at the University of Michigan – Introduction to Feminist Studies and Introduction to Latino Studies. In preparing for the classes, she found almost no anthologized material foThe Chicana Feministr either class about Chicana feminism. Cotera realized the images still most associated with second-wave feminism are those of white, middle-class women, while those associated with the Chicano movement are of male Brown Berets. She decided to find her own primary source materials to reveal the missing images for her students.

Cotera knew she need look no farther than her mother’s office. Her mother, Martha P. Cotera, was a foundational Chicana feminist activist, leader, and writer. She was also a librarian and information specialist who had nurtured in Cotera not only a desire to fight social injustice, but also a recognition that documenting history is an important part of these struggles. At the “tender age of twelve” Cotera recalled, she helped her mother compile an encyclopedia of Hispanic women in history.

Cotera brought into the classroom her mother’s collection of third-world and Chicana feminist newspapers, magazines, and articles from the 1970s and 80s. Seeing the transformational impact these first-hand accounts had on her students, Cotera decided to embark on a large-scale digital archive devoted to Chicana feminism.

She then partnered with Linda Garcia Merchant, a Chicana filmmaker from Chicago, whose mother, Ruth "Rhea" Mojica-Hammer was also an activist and a friend of Cotera’s mother.  Founder of Voces Primeras, a production company dedicated to creating and distributing documentary-style features of pioneering Latinas, Merchant became the technical director for “Chicana por mi Raza.” Merchant also drew direct inspiration from her mother’s Chicana feminist activism, citing it as “pivotal in shaping her views,” and in nurturing her “strong conviction for activism and civic responsibility.”

Silences impel creation of the Chicana feminist movement

The way historical neglect of Chicana feminism spurred Cotera’s project mirrors in some ways how indifference among Chicano civil rights second-wave feminist movements actually impelled the creation of the Chicana feminist movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Mexican American and Chicana women across the United States, and particularly the Southwest, became engaged in the bourgeoning Chicano movement, which demanded social, political, and economic justice for Latino people, and educational access for young Chicano students. However, the predominantly male-led movement often sidelined or outright rejected issues deemed “women’s issues” such as birth control, child care, and equal rights for women. Meanwhile, the growing movement of second-wave feminism, led by mostly middle-class, Anglo-American women, also did not provide common or hospitable ground for Chicanas speaking out about the unique oppressions they faced as working women and members of “la Raza.”

Thus, many Mexican American and Chicana women began vibrant organizing projects in their communities and regionally. These efforts led to the first national conference ever held for or by Chicanas in the United States in 1971. Over 600 women from California, Texas, New Mexico, and elsewhere throughout the country convened in a Houston, Texas YWCA, for the Conferencia por la Raza. At the two most popular workshops, “Sex and the Chicana,” and “Marriage Chicana Style,” resolutions demanded “free, legal abortions and birth control for the Chicano community, controlled by Chicanas” and “24-hour child-care centers in Chicano communities.” Although debates emerged over priorities of the Chicana movement, many women in attendance realized that they faced a “triple form of oppression, as members of an oppressed nationality, as workers, and as women.” They recognized that the struggles they faced were not just individual problems; they were an important basis for a liberation movement.

Just as the 1971 conference launched connections between a network of activists who spanned sociopolitical and geographic space, and gave rise to new organizations throughout the U.S., the archive “Chicana por mi Raza,” Cotera hopes, will “reunify” this diverse activist network.

Vote posterChicana history to animate contemporary activism

So far, from trips taken across the country, Cotera, Merchant, and a team of students have amassed 21 oral histories and a trove of documents from women’s personal collections.  The site will include videos of interviews with a number of important activists, including: Martha Cotera; Ruth "Rhea" Mojica-Hammer; Elma Barrera, an organizer of the First National Chicana conference; Anna NietoGomez,  founder of the first Chicana student organization, Hijas de Cuauhtemoc, in 1969; and Alicia Escalante, founder of the Chicana Welfare Rights Organization.

By bringing together scattered archives from attics, basements, and home offices into one identifiable collection, the archive aims to reconstitute a network that was vast and reanimate it. Viewing the archive as a political tool in itself, Cotera emphasizes that it will be free and easily accessible. The site will contain interactive tools enabling users to organize the information in ways that respond to their own interests and even contribute their own stories and analysis of the information. 

By thus “democratizing” and “liberating” the archive, Cotera expects the site will generate the production, development, and dissemination of new scholarship on the history of women of color in the civil rights era. And she hopes it will contribute to the project her mother articulated in her landmark 1968 book Diosa y Hembra: The History and Heritage of Chicanas in the U.S.: “By understanding the past, Chicana historians hope that contemporary women will be better equipped to cope with the present and to determine their future.”


Professor Maria Cotera's talk at Stanford University “Liberating the Feminist Archive: Mapping the Hidden History of Chicana Feminism” was part of winter quarter-long symposium, Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism. The event was organized by the Program in Modern Thought and Literature as part of their 40th Anniversary Speaker Series.

Professor Maria CoteraMaria Cotera is an Associate Professor who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Women’s Studies & the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She served as the Director for the university's Latina/o Studies Program from 2008 to 2011.  Cotera's recently published book, "Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita González, and the Poetics of Culture,"  received the Gloria Anzaldúa book prize for 2009 from the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA). 

 “Chicana por mi Raza” can be translated as "Chicana, for my people."


 Linda Garcia MerchantLinda Garcia Merchant is a filmmaker and founder of film production company Voces Primeras, LLC.  She has produced and directed five documentaries through this company.  In 2011 Linda made her narrative directorial debut with the short film “Thresholds, ” winner of the 2012 Best Consciousness Raising Short Film at the Long Shadow Film Festival in Phoenix Arizona.



Katherine Marino is a graduate student in Stanford's History Department and a 2011-21012 Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.