The importance of feminism and my self-identification as a feminist have always been self-evident to me.
Maybe because before I had any notion of political, economic, or social justice (or even what politics, economy, or society were), I had learned that my surroundings functioned according to gender and had figured out that this gendered system was weird, if not shitty. Of course, the feminism that I believed in at age 4 was much smaller than the feminism I believe in at 20 (it took time to explicitly incorporate such issues as transphobia, sexual assault, climate justice, and racism into a feminism that was, rightfully, pissed off about the difference between “girl’s clothes” and “boy’s clothes”).
But I’m proud that the basic principles have stubbornly remained the same: 1) People use gender to create and justify unfair (or harmful and even violent) differences, 2) these differences and the way they manifest must be closely examined and combatted, and 3) color-coding human beings based on gender is fucking weird and should be one of your first clues as to how unnecessarily bizarre this system is.
One of the main issues I’ve encountered as a Puerto Rican/Latin American feminist is that many people often wonder “where” I got these beliefs from. In Puerto Rico, I often encounter the “You became a feminist because you watch too much gringo television/have been living in the United States/hate your country and culture”, or really any argument that puts down feminism as foreign and therefore insidious.
And then, a lot of the reactions that I receive in the United States are almost shocked that I could have possibly learned feminism in a culture as stereotypically machista as mine. Not that machismo doesn’t permeate Puerto Rican society, but arguments like these often establish the United States as the “civilized” and “progressive” nation while América Latina is “uncivilized” and “backwards.”
To say the least, I’m not cool with using feminism to establish relationships of superiority and dominace. But even beyond that: the idea that the U.S. is a bastion of feminism while Puerto Rico is misogyny-made-into-an-island hasn’t really worked out that way in many of the experiences that have informed my views on gender.
I definitely learned the word “feminism” from U.S. media. A lot of my favorite female characters called themselves feminists;like when I was eight years old and actually cared about Gilmore Girls, it was a big deal that the show’s protagonists explicitly identified as such. However, I didn’t really learn the concept itself from such shows, books, and movies, partly because I had already defined it for myself, but also because “feminism” as defined by these shows, books, and movies often included the rejection of anything considered feminine under the guise of advocating for equality (“I’m better than the other girls because I like sports and videogames, so I’m more like the boys…). I definitely went through a phase where I believed these messages, and it took me at least a decade to reverse the damage.
U.S. media also tended (at least in my pre-pubescent view) to frequently present the Housewife as the ideal role for a woman/wife/mother. Choosing to occupy such a difficult role is far from a negative thing, but I felt nauseated by the fact that what I saw and read in English constantly returned to this image in ways that (modern) media in Puerto Rico did not. Even more daunting was the fact that, growing up, I didn’t know more than a couple of women who were Housewives, which made the notion of its normalcy seem like some sort of retrograde Gringo fantasy instead of my early 2000s Puerto Rican reality.
Part of that reality stemmed from the fact that I was raised in a mostly-female extended family; all of my mom’s sisters are successful professionals, and only a minority of the women in the family did the whole Mother/Wife thing. Which, of course, is the perfect setup for the whole “I was collectively raised by a family of Strong Latinas, which is why I became a Strong Latina and a Feminista” stereotype. While at least in my case its partly true, this type of narrative (which I’ve perceived throughout the Americas) has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable because it downplays our ability to, well, purposely think about and embrace gender equality instead of being thrust into it as an accident of birth and circumstance.
Then there’s the whole Catholic, All-Girls School situation: I went to one of those for six years in San Juan, and I’m still trying to unravel what that was all about in terms of gender. Number 11 on this random list is actually a ridiculously accurate description of the broad strokes of the experience, and I only really want to elaborate by presenting a single anecdote that keeps bothering me, years later.
In one of the few air-conditioned classrooms on the premises, a male teacher explained to my class that feminism was unnecessary in Puerto Rico because women already dominated the home, which is the basis of society. Beyond the fact that there are many other spaces that exercise a ridiculous amount of influence over society as a whole (for worse, politics and business are the main examples that come to mind), my first thought when I consider his words is that many women manage households but don’t control them, and this lack of control can often manifest violently.
Then there’s New York City, which occurs a few years later in my personal timeline: oh so civilized, oh so cosmopolitan New York, where I have received rampant and daily street harassment since my first day out of JFK. It’s humiliating, demeaning, and demoralizing; I frankly don’t know where to begin explaining how it feels to fight for control of your own body (and the public space you should feel welcome in) just because some creep wants to comment on your ass.
Which leads into one of the main characteristics of my feminism (and my entire personality, to be honest): anger.
I’m angry that I have to explain, justify, and argue about what respect and dignity look like.
I’m angry whenever feminism is used destructively and not constructively.
I’m angry that many believe my nationality (and relative nationalism) contradicts my feminism.
I’m angry every time misogyny surprises me, and I’m angry every time it doesn’t.
I’m angry that I have to explain why my anger is valid.