Mujeres Rebeldes: A History of Latina Resistance in the United States

Supermajority Education Fund

October 15, 2020

With the exception of labor rights leader Dolores Huerta, the contributions of Latinas to social and political movements in the U.S. have largely been omitted from historical texts. Despite this erasure, Latinas have long been influential leaders and participants in various struggles to push back against racial, ethnic, gendered and classed norms to envision and co-create a more just and liberated future for themselves and their communities in this country. Here are just a few women and movements whose legacies Latinas in the U.S. carry on today.

Jovita Idár

Latina journalist and activist Jovita Idár was one of the first Latina activists in the U.S. to use her voice to advocate for the rights of her Mexican-

American community. Idár exposed the poor living conditions of Mexican Americans in Texas and criticized the federal government’s decision to send military troops to the southern border during her time as a writer — and later editor — for La Crónica, a local Spanish-language newspaper run by her father. She also headed organizations that provided free education to Tejano youth.

Luisa Moreno

In the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, one of the most critical Latina changemakers was Guatemala-born Luisa Moreno. As a labor organizer for various unions, Moreno helped unionize Latinas and African-American cigar rollers in Florida, workers at pecan-shelling plants in Texas, and cannery laborers in California. She was known for empowering and encouraging women to seek leadership roles in union organizing, and wasn’t afraid to take her own advice. Throughout her career, Moreno spearheaded several labor and civil rights events, including the 1939 Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española (National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples) which is recognized as the first-ever national Latinx civil rights assembly in the U.S.

The Women of the Zoot Suit 

During this same period in cities across California and the Southwest, U.S.-raised youth of Mexican descent were participating in a stylized subculture known as zoot suit that challenged racialized notions about the community. At the time, Latinxs, particularly Mexicans and Central Americans on the West Coast, were expected to be subordinate and stereotyped as uneducated, impoverished, and rural. 

“People of Mexican origin weren’t supposed to have money, weren’t supposed to have flashy clothes and weren’t supposed to be visible in public spaces,” Catherine S. Ramírez, the author of The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory, tells Supermajority News.

The flamboyant teens and young adults of the 1930s and ‘40s zoot suit subculture including women who dressed in attention-grabbing loose-fitting garments, wore heavy makeup, and rocked pompadour hairstyles resisted these standards with their fashion, vibrant social lives, and self-assurance. Unlike their elders, they did not defer to whites they came across in public spaces, and as a result they challenged ideas about place and hierarchy — intentionally or not.

This bold defiance led to a turf war in the summer of 1943 known as the Zoot Suit Riots, where mobs of U.S. servicemen, police officers, and everyday white civilians took to the streets of L.A. for several days attacking Latinxs. Hundreds of young people were physically stripped of their clothes and left injured and nearly naked on the ground. What’s more, many victims of these attacks were also arrested. Some of the young women, who were vilified and sexualized in the press, were placed in the Ventura School for Girls, a juvenile correctional facility north of Los Angeles.

“These nameless women that participated in the zoot subculture are unsung heroes. They are the everyday people doing their thing who we realize decades later were participating in something that would evolve into a movement,” Ramírez says.

Felicitas Méndez and Dolores Huerta

In 1946, Afro-Puerto Rican activist and mother Felicitas Méndez led an educational civil rights battle in California that set an important legal precedent for ending segregation in the U.S. Méndez’s daughter, Sylvia, was unable to attend an elementary school with better books and resources than the local one she attended due to the color of her skin and her Spanish surname, so Méndez and her husband led a battle against the California public education system that resulted in the 1947 Méndez v. Westminster ruling, which desegregated public schools in the state and paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

Not long after, Chicana activist Dolores Huerta began organizing for farmworkers and laborers. By 1962, after having already co-founded various organizations aimed at improving the lives of migrants and workers, she co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) — one of the most impactful unions in U.S. history and movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Huerta’s riveting tenacity, which remains strong today at the age of 90, helped the union secure contracts and influence policy that required protections for farmworkers, outlawed dangerous pesticides, established health benefits and pension plans for laborers, banned sexual harassment, and more.

Sylvia Rivera

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s in New York, a number of Latinas were claiming space throughout movements fighting across issues of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, health, housing, labor and more. Among them was Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican-Venezuelan gay liberation leader and transgender rights activist. 

A part of the 1969 Stonewall riots, a melee between police officers and queer patrons of the popular Stonewall Inn bar that marked the commencement of the gay liberation movement, Rivera was also critical to the formation of queer organizations like the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance in 1969. In 1970, alongside friend and fellow trans rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), recognized today as the first official trans organization. While STAR — which also provided housing and support to homeless LGBTQ youth and sex workers — became a model for organizations that followed, for decades Rivera’s contributions were erased from the movement’s history.

Although a committed fighter, she was considered a liability to gay movement leaders who wanted to be perceived as “normal” or “the same” as heterosexuals as well as radical feminist lesbians who erroneously viewed trans women as men in skirts. As a result, she was forced out of organizations she fostered and forcefully removed from stages she was scheduled to speak at.

One of Rivera’s greatest contributions to the LGBTQ movement, therefore, was her “fierce persistence, for gay and lesbian leaders to recognize trans folks as, what was for her, the most marginalized and most vulnerable people of the LGBTQ+ community,” Gabriel Mayora, a gender studies instructor at Florida International University who centers his research on queer Latinx studies, tells Supermajority News. “She offered another kind of political activism,” Mayora added, “one that is not about respectability or talking to congressmen but rather about being accepted on her own terms.”

The Young Lords

As Rivera’s progressive politics were pushing the LGBTQ movement forward, the New York chapter of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican revolutionary organization that served low-income communities of color in the city through aggressive actions, was breaking the mold for nationalist groups by embracing a feminist platform. 

In 1970, one year after the chapter formed, women made up about 35 to 40% of the group. These members formed a women’s caucus that raised consciousness about the layered oppression they faced as women of color. They theorized their struggle as colonized women; talked about gender violence, objectification, and sexual pleasure; challenged cultural ideas around female subservience; took a stance for reproductive justice by calling for safe and accesible abortion care and against the mass sterilizations of women of color, and also acknowledged the ways patriarchy harmed Black and Brown men. 

Later that year, they put these conversations into writing and published the “Young Lords Party Position Paper on Women” in their newspaper Palante. The article was republished throughout the press of the various “New Left” organizations, distinguishing the group among other nationalist organizations where machismo endured unchecked. 

The women of the Young Lords, who at the time were patronizingly called “the Young Ladies” by separatist white feminists, became instrumental to an urban mujerista movement that centered the colonized as well as the racially, ethnically, and economically oppressed.

“These women in this revolutionary nationalist group compelled the men of the organization to submit to discipline around gender oppression and for a moment compelled the organization to organize women’s and men’s caucuses. No other organization of the period did that,” Johanna Fernández, author of The Young Lords: A Radical History, tells Supermajority News. “That’s the kind of thing that makes people raise an eyebrow, within the broader movement known as New Left but also in the community.”

According to Fernández, Puerto Rican women talking about taboo subjects while donning combat boots, a militaristic uniform, and a fierce sense of authority in the public sphere boldly departed from what was expected of “good girls” and helped change the position of women in the Puerto Rican, and by extension the Latinx, community of New York.

“That kind of breaking of the commandments is going to leave an imprint in society in ways that can’t be measured in terms of policy. It produces a shift in consciousness,” she adds. “They were redefining freedom for women who trace their ancestry to Latin America in the boldest, most avant-garde ways.”

Whether challenging power dynamics through cultural expression, working within political and social systems to effect change, or raising hell through radical militancy that shifts society and thrusts movements forward, these women, and all the unsung Latina rebels of the past, show the varied ways Latinas have led and contributed to critical social justice movements in this country’s history. Even more, their stories continue to empower a new generation of Latinas to relinquish culturally taught ideas of subservience and silence and, instead, stir them to carry on this long legacy of resistance.