Francisca Flores, a Dissenter from the Inside
This month our Rising Voices Fellows are examining how their Jewish and feminist identities intersect. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
If you want me to learn something that I don’t care too much about, the solution is simple: teach it to me in Spanish. Over the winter break, my two-year-old cousin visited for a day and we went to a children’s science museum together. The highlight of the afternoon was spending time with my cousin and seeing her enjoy the museum; the museum itself was underwhelming, especially since I’ve never been much of a science person. At least, that’s what I thought until we got to a temporary exhibit that was presented in both English and Spanish.
I was so focused on trying to translate all the Spanish without looking at the English that my cousin lost interest in the exhibit before I did.
My fascination with languages in general played a huge part here, but subconsciously, I think I was also relishing the fact that I was learning about butterflies in the same way that a little Hispanic girl would be learning about butterflies. Ever since I began studying Spanish, I have been in love with Latin American culture. And if I could change my ethnicity for a day, I would choose to be Mexican.
I don’t really want to change—Ashkenazi culture is a part of me that I love. I’ve been known to latch onto superficial things like bagels and klezmer and the “alter kocker” bubbe accent as if they were the definitions of my identity. But none of that is comparable to how beautiful I find all aspects of Hispanic culture.
I am completely infatuated by the boldness and color of Mexican art and the rhythms of mambo, merengue, mariachi, bachata, salsa, and even (surprisingly for a girl who often can’t stand hip-hop) reggaeton. I can’t decide whether I want to study Spanish or Hispanic Studies in college, although I know that my semester abroad is going to be in South America. It might seem a little strange that a New England Jewish girl’s political fight of choice is for more lenient immigration policies, but it is.
My views on Latin America, and Mexico in particular, are not the most widely held views in the United States. There is a lot of unfair malice aimed at Mexicans, which insults both my love of their culture and my sense of empathy. It shocks me that blatant racism like “If you want to live in my country, you speak my language,” is socially acceptable. The most frustrating arguments I’ve ever had were with people who were in favor of indiscriminately deporting all illegal immigrants because of some flimsy economic reasoning. Such discrimination disgusts me.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling arguments. One that truly struck a chord with me came from one Francisca Flores, a Mexican-American woman who, during the Civil Rights Movement, rebelled against her own people.
Yes, Francisca Flores, a dissenter from the inside. During the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican-Americans were fighting for equality as much as many other minority groups. The Chicano Movement sought to end segregation in education, eliminate stereotypes, improve freedom and voting rights, and, overall, to create a sense of unity in the Chicano community. But Flores felt that the Chicano Movement, in its current form, failed to take into account issues that affected Chicana women. She, along with other women who felt the same, branched out from the Movement and founded the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, an organization specifically concerned with issues important to Hispanic women. When Flores was accused of betraying her heritage and people, she replied affirmatively, saying that for Mexican-American women, their heritage was “our cultural hell.”
When I first heard this quote from Francisca Flores, I was blown away. Sure, she was ultimately proud of her heritage; she always carried the label “Chicana” with her without complaint. But that didn’t change the fact that here was a woman talking negatively about the culture I idolized, and a woman from the culture itself, no less.
But then it made me really think about Mexican culture. There are tons of images associated with it that practically fetishize manliness: luchadors, banditos, mustachioed revolutionaries with heavyset builds and rows of bullets strapped across their chests. The notion even shows itself in the English loanwords macho and machismo. And it didn’t stop at machismo: Hispanic culture has so many negatives that I try not to think about. There’s the drug trade, and the huge Latin American reputation for ugly, bloody political overhauls and revolutions...
Oh, no. Do you see what I did there? I went too far in the other direction. Francisca Flores didn’t even have such bad things to say about her “cultural hell.”
Francisca Flores lived Mexican culture herself—she was immediately exposed to every part of it, both good and bad, which made it that much harder for her to make unfair—and extreme—generalizations about it. She didn’t put Hispanic culture on a pedestal, because she could see the negatives up close. But she couldn’t demonize it, either, because it was part of who she was. And I realize now that I have a similar conflict when it comes to my own culture. I love deli food and jokes about “kvetching,” but I shy away from any discussion about the Middle East. Several other Ashkenazi Jews I know, including some who are very important to me, are staunchly pro-Israel, and although I am not comfortable taking a side when it comes to Middle Eastern politics, it comes up so often in my community that I feel pressure to agree with the rest of my culture.
To avoid having this internal cultural conflict, I occasionally feel myself trying to separate from my own culture and focusing my time on idolizing another one. Francisca Flores is stronger than I am in this regard. She defined her culture both by her pride in it and by her fight to improve it. Learning about her conflict made me even more fascinated by Hispanic culture than before, but more importantly, it taught me that true cultural appreciation starts by accepting—and struggling with—your own.