There’s room for all of us: Lessons from Latina feminists by Juliet Menéndez
As my first book, Latinitas, gets closer to making its way out into the world on the 23rd of February, I have been getting many questions about its origin and specifically about how I chose which women to include. I have answered that the collection of Latinas in this book have not only made important contributions to history and their communities, but are also beautiful people. But what do I mean by “beautiful?” I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Then, while watching Kamala Harris be sworn in as the first woman, first Black, and first South Asian Vice President of the United States, I found the answer. I remembered the words she had spoken in November, amidst celebrations all across the United States where, despite being in the middle of a deadly pandemic, people came out to dance and hug in the streets. Between our cheers, she elegantly stated: “That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedications of generations before me. Women and men who believed so fiercely in the promise of equality, liberty, and justice for all.” And then she quoted her own mother who had told her: “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Yes, this was it. These words are how I can explain “beautiful.”
When I heard our vice president say this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Latinas I have spent the last years researching, admiring, and writing about. Like the generations of women Kamala Harris mentions, the Latinas I chose to celebrate understood and believed with unshakeable faith “in the promise of equality, liberty, and justice for all.”
And, like Kamala Harris and her mother, they have also made sure that whatever doors they opened would stay open for future generations to come. That’s what makes them beautiful. They may have had great accomplishments, but they believed in the capacity of others to do the same.
In the 1600s, when Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz found out that she wasn’t allowed to attend university and decided to teach herself everything from science and astronomy to the Aztec language of Nahuatl, she shared her education with others. Not only did she begin teaching by the age of 12, but went on to write poetry and essays and put on plays together with the sisters in her convent critiquing the exclusion of women and celebrating their intelligence and contributions.
In her letter to Sor Filotea, Sor Juana reveals the benefits of her self-directed studies: she learned of women from all over the world who defied the patriarchal myth that only men made important contributions to history. She cites women like Nicostrata as having invented the latin alphabet, Apasia la Milesia as having been the teacher of the philosopher Pericles, and Hipatia as having led the way in discoveries of astronomy in ancient Alexandria. And her conclusion? She herself was not an exceptional treasure to be put on a pedestal among women; all women have the infinite potential to contribute across all fields.
Sor Juana didn’t just open the door for herself, but began knocking down the hierarchical structures around it so that anyone could get through.
And generation after generation of Latinas continued chipping away.
Rigoberta Menchú Tum, along with her family and neighbors, defended her community’s rights against the military in El Quiché Guatemala and traveled throughout the country helping other indigenous communities do the same. Victoria Santa Cruz opened up her own theater to feature Afro-Peruvian artists, musicians, and actors and with her direction, musical compositions, and choreography, helped them be the ones to shine. Wanda Díaz-Merced created her own sonification system, converting data points into rhythms, pitches, and tones, and shared her system with both sighted astronomers and those who are blind because, as she says: “science is for everyone and should belong to everyone because we are all natural explorers.”
Each of these women focused on their contributions to their communities rather than themselves. Not only did they break down barriers, they rejected the entire hierarchical system that supported them and avoided the trap of tokenism. They refused to be seen as exceptional. And that is what’s beautiful: that they see the light in others.
What these women understood was the difference between equal access–a chance to compete in the race to the top where only winners are welcome and important–and equality where there are no winners or losers. They believe in a world and have fought to make it a place where everyone’s unique talents and contributions are important and all are welcome. They rejected the myth of scarcity and merit and in creating their own paths made sure, and are making sure, that they are wide enough so anyone who wants to join can travel along with them.
As we start a new era with Kamala Harris as vice president, I am inspired. I think of her elegant words, of her mother’s words, of all the fierce believers in equality, liberty, and justice and of the Latinas I have been getting to know over these last few years who oppose the idea of a select few being exceptional–diamonds shining among the rubble– and instead show all of us that we are a collection of gems, each with the promise to shine just as brightly.
Juliet Menéndez is a Guatemalan American author and illustrator living between Guatemala City, Paris, and New York. While working as a bilingual teacher in New York City’s public schools, Juliet noted the need for more books that depicted children like the ones in her classrooms. She studied design and illustration in Paris and now spends her days with her watercolors and notebook. Latinitas is her first children’s book.