I stumbled across this article that really spoke to me about my experience growing up Latina in Australia. What I thought was telling, apart from the similarities in the article to myself was that I sourced it from a Facebook group of Latina feminists called Cholactivists. The word cholactivist is a play on two words, firstly and most obviously the word activist, secondly and more importantly the word “chola”. “Chola” in Peruvian culture is a derogatory term that is used to insult people who are or look or behave in a way that accentuates their indigenous roots.
In my family we don’t celebrate or emphasis our Inca heritage – maybe if we’re talking to non-Peruvians, then its something to be proud of – but if we’re talking amongst ourselves and our friends we don’t mention it or claim it. It is this deliberate non-claim to our indigenous heritage that I find disturbing. I am very proud to be a chola and to be descended from the Incas.
I guess, for me, claiming my heritage has been a learning curve and a consequence of my experience growing up brown in Australia. When my parents came to Sydney my mother was on a plane with other South American migrants. These other South Americans became my adopted family in Australia. We had barbeques (read ate Peruvian, Chilean food) together, celebrated birthdays, played scalas y trios together and danced. Boy did we dance!
Even though I was surrounded by my familia en Australia I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. My dad made the decision very early on that my sisters and I were not allowed to speak Spanish at home so that we would learn English and therefore not be discriminated against when we went to school. Even so my sisters and I were put into ESL classes.
While it may have put us kids in good stead in the future it didn’t make an ounce of difference in the playground. Being brown in Blacktown in the 70’s was not fun. I recall having a friend in 1st grade, we were drawn to each other because we used to chase boys and shout out “spunkless” to them, thinking we were very cool (I know, we clearly didn’t know what it meant). I later realised why I sought out Sylvia Lopez as my friend in first grade.
Desperate to be like everyone else my classmates wouldn’t let me play British Bulldog even though I was a fast sprinter. I was told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t play because I was brown and just like that my difference was laid bare, open to ridicule and derision.
This sense of ‘otherness’ has never left me. It still pervades today. For instance, I’m usually the one in the meeting asking the question, “What about migrants? What about women of colour?” or “I think that this policy decision could be seen to be racist. I’ll tell you why …” or “I think it would be better if we took our cue from feminists groups within their own country rather than us saying that the women in X should do YZ, yes? We don’t want to appear to be privileged western feminists telling women in X what to do” and my personal favourite, “Talking about migrants in this way (stopping immigration as a way to deal with overpopulation) is offensive and could be seen to be racist by a large number of people, here take a look at this Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia article on the issue”.
I dislike feeling like the only brown person in the room pointing out shit, but apparently that is what I do now. Just to set the record straight, I consider myself to be privileged because I grew up in Australia and have a western education.
I’ll go back to the article I referred to above because it brings to light a lot of identity issues that I can relate to. It is true there is not a large Latino community in Australia so you tend to notice other Latinos. If we get over our shyness and say hello to each other, the inevitable happens. The other person starts talking in Spanish and I have to say in my bad spanish, “Sorry, no habla espanol.” Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. Then the questions start, why not, why didn’t your parents make you speak spanish, you were born here? The last question seems to settle the whole discussion. Ah! You were born here. You’re not Peruvian, you’re Australia. The implication being, of course, that I am not a real Latina.
I find this comment very galling because everything else about me is Latina and its pointed out to me in different ways nearly everyday. My looks, my ability to dance salsa, my love and desire for the magical realism genre, my temper, my passion for politics, love, sex and laughter, the fact that I celebrate Xmas on Xmas Eve and open my presents at 12am like all other Latinos around the world and most importantly my skin colour.
Being Latina is not about meeting some mythical standard, it’s not about having certain skills or traits. I am Latina because I was born this way, because of my childhood, because of the way I feel.
It has taken me a long time but I now love my skin colour and difference. Now I celebrate my difference and I acknowledge my roots. It may make people uncomfortable but that’s ok. They can deal.
I’ve always been political, ever since my father used to tell my sisters and I stories about the atrocities that the Spanish committed on the Incas. This connection with politics and social justice has led to many interesting jobs, activism and friendships for example working at the old Aboriginal Legal Service, organising an eco-feminist conference in Sydney, going to the s11 protests in Melbourne & meeting Vandana Shiva, working for Senator Kerry Nettle, becoming a Greens Councillor in Sydney, campaigning against the foetal personhood laws in NSW (Zoe’s law) and now working for a union (Fire Brigade Employees’ Union).
While I was at Uni, which proved too difficult to finish as a single mother, the things I learnt there opened up my mind in a way I had never contemplated. Learning about the historical, economic and political reasons why less developed countries were, well, less developed explained a lot particularly in relation to the impacts and effects of colonisation on indigenous peoples.
My introduction to feminism was also mind blowing. I remember well learning the various ‘stages’ of feminism but the ‘stage’ that spoke to me and made my heart sing was ‘feminism from below’ or feminism from ‘women of colour’. I had never questioned the feminism that I saw all around me before, liberal feminism. I could now put a name to it and recognise that it didn’t speak for me or to me.
We touched upon the book, “This bridge called my Back” – Writings by Radical Women of Colour edited by Cherrie Moraga & Gloria E Anzaldua. These women were like me! They were writing about my experience, but they were from the US. I couldn’t for a long time find anything similar for Latinas like me in Australia, although I must acknowledge Colectivo Mujer a group of feministas in Sydney campaigning around many issues including reproductive rights. There is a whole community of feministas organising, advocating and talking to each other in the US hence my love affair with US feministas on Twitter and Facebook.
The current face of Australian feminism is too white, too middle class & too privileged. She does not speak for me or the many women of colour in this country who are either migrants, first or second generation Australians or Indigenous women. Sexism and racism do not occur in a vacuum. For those of us that are ‘other’ this is what we deal with on an every day basis.
This is why I am involved with Intersectionality Times. We want to provide that space for those of us that have been ‘othered’. We are the diverse majority.