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Women and Social Movements in Latin America

Women and Social Movements in Latin America
Power from Below

This innovative, comparative study explores six cases of women’s grassroots activism in Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, and Chile.

September 1997
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352 pages | 6 x 9 | 7 line drawings, 11 halftones, 1 map |

Women's grassroots activism in Latin America combines a commitment to basic survival for women and their children with a challenge to women's subordination to men. Women activists insist that issues such as rape, battering, and reproductive control cannot be divorced from women's concerns about housing, food, land, and medical care.

This innovative, comparative study explores six cases of women's grassroots activism in Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, and Chile. Lynn Stephen communicates the ideas, experiences, and perceptions of women who participate in collective action, while she explains the structural conditions and ideological discourses that set the context within which women act and interpret their experiences. She includes revealing interviews with activists, detailed histories of organizations and movements, and a theoretical discussion of gender, collective identity, and feminist anthropology and methods.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction:Gender and Politics, Experience and Structure
  • Part I. El Salvador
    • Chapter 2. Women's Rights Are Human Rights: The Merging of Feminine and Feminist Interests among El Salvador's Mothers of the Disappeared (CO-MADRES)
    • Chapter 3. Women for Dignity and Life: The Emergence of Feminisms from
    • El Salvador's Revolutionary Left
    • Interview. Morena Herrera, Women for Dignity and Life
  • Part II. Mexico
    • Chapter 4. The Politics of Urban Survival: The Women's Regional Council of the CONAMUP, Mexico
    • Interview. Irene Soto, Women's Regional Council of the CONAMUP
    • Chapter 5. The Unintended Consequences of "Traditional" Women's Organizing: The Women's Council of the Lázaro Cárdenas Ejido Union, Nayarit
    • Interview. Doña Kata Moreno and Aurora Cruz, Lázaro Cárdenas Ejido Union
  • Part III. Brazil
    • Chapter 6. Class, Gender and Autonomy: The Rural Women Workers' Movement of Southern Brazil
    • Interview. Gessi Bonês and Marlene Pasquali, Rural Women Workers' Movement
  • Part IV. Chile
    • Chapter 7. Sweet and Sour Grapes: The Struggles of Seasonal Women Workers in Chile
    • Interview. Antonia Gómez, Interindustry Union of Seasonal and Permanent Workers of Santa María
  • Chapter 8. Conclusions: Women in Action
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Lynn Stephen is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern University.


Committing spoken words to paper is a translation of many dimensions. A primary aim of this book is to communicate by means of the written word the thoughts, ideas, experiences, and perceptions of women who have chosen to participate in collective action in four countries: Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, and Mexico. A second major goal is to provide readers with an understanding of the structural conditions and ideological discourses that set the context within which women act and interpret their experience. The cases of women's activism studied here include groups with an explicitly self-labeled feminist agenda as well as those that are struggling to improve the material circumstances under which they and their families live, but without explicitly declaring feminist loyalties. They include (1) the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Political Prisoners, Disappeared, and Assassinated of El Salvador "Monseñor Romero" (CO-MADRES), (2) Women for Dignity and Life (DIGNAS) in El Salvador, (3) The Women's Regional Council of the National Council of the Urban Popular Movement (CONAMUP) in central Mexico, (4) the Women's Council of the Lázaro Cárdenas Ejido Union (UELC) in Nayarit, Mexico, (5) the Rural Women Workers' Movement (MMTR) of southern Brazil, and (6) the Interindustry Union of Seasonal and Permanent Workers of Santa Maria, Chile (which hereafter is usually referred to as the Seasonal and Permanent Workers' Union or simply the Seasonal Workers' Union).


The six movements included here were not chosen to represent particular countries or even particular sectors such as "peasants," "the urban poor," or "the urban middle class." Many of these movements are heterogeneous in their composition and cannot be said to exclusively represent any particular constituency. They were chosen because the type of activism they represent, articulated by increasing numbers of women's organizations in Latin America, integrates a commitment to basic survival for women and their children with a challenge to the subordination of women to men. Their work challenges the assumption that the issues of sexual assault, violence against women, and reproductive control (for example) are divorced from women's concerns about housing, food, land, and medical care. In part, the integrated nature of the demands of the movements highlighted here is a result of their historical location. As discussed below, the emergence and strengthening of a clearly articulated feminist movement in Latin America during the 1980s was an important ideological influence on how women's demands were framed by the movements highlighted in this book. Feminism as well as dominant cultural ideologies about women's proper place in the home and family influenced the public discourses and individual interpretations of the goals, strategies, and results of these movements.


This book is an attempt to compare the common elements found within the movements, rather than to provide a comparison of the totality of women's organizing in the vast region known as Latin America. While the case studies are taken from four countries, they are not equally weighted in this book because I did not carry out research for the same amount of time in each country. The heavier emphasis on Mexico and El Salvador is a reflection of my longer-term knowledge and experience in those countries. The cases included from Brazil and Chile are perhaps best seen as contrasting material for the more in-depth chapters on Mexico and El Salvador.


Common elements explored include


  1. Political and economic conditions that contributed to the building of a grassroots organization.
  2. The relationship of organizations to different agencies and actors of the state.
  3. The influence of the traditional and liberation theology Catholic church.
  4. The limits placed on women's political activity by dominant cultural ideologies which specify that their proper place is at home and within the family.
  5. Conflicts experienced by women in their homes, communities, and in larger mixed organizations as they became more active.
  6. The merging of gender and class-based issues (e.g., working conditions and domestic violence) in organizational agendas.
  7. The relationship of different strands of feminism to organizing efforts.
  8. The relationship of the organizations studied to other social movements, particularly of the left.
  9. Differences in identity, perspective, and experience found among women participating in the same organization.
  10. The creation of new forms of political culture by women in the organizations studied.


The movements chosen were also included because of their relative success in achieving some of their self-defined goals. While is it equally important to study movements that fail and why, relatively little is written about successful women's organizing. As is maintained repeatedly by the women whose voices permeate this book, their efforts remain invisible and unrecognized all too often, even when they succeed. The CO-MADRES of El Salvador were not only one of the few grassroots movements to continue operating openly throughout the horrific repression of any form of opposition which characterized the Salvadoran civil war, but they also achieved international recognition for their work in human rights. The DIGNAS of El Salvador have been pathbreakers in challenging the authoritarianism of the left and in building popular feminism nationally while also examining critically their own political culture and practice. Within southern Brazil, the MMTR is one of the fastest growing women's movements in the country and has not only organized impressive numbers of women locally, but has participated in several national campaigns to win legal rights for rural women and, in 1995, worked with rural women's organizations from all seventeen states in Brazil to form a national coordinating body. In Chile, the Seasonal and Permanent Workers' Union of Santa Maria was one of the first successful efforts by rural laborers, primarily women, to control the conditions of their work after seventeen years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. In Mexico, the Women's Council of the Lázaro Cárdenas Ejido Union represents one the few instances in which rural women successfully organized to gain a political voice in their communities (until 1994 when indigenous and peasant women formed the statewide Women's Assembly in Chiapas). And in urban Mexico, the Women's Regional Council of the CONAMUP has one of the most strongly sustained and creative records of organizing women through several presidential regimes, surviving where most other organizations have fallen by the wayside.


The primary vehicle I have chosen for representing the ideas and experiences of women activists is that of edited transcripts of the conversations I had with women from each of the organizations featured here. This form seems to best capture the context in which they spoke and allows them to speak from the page as "translated women" (Behar 1993 275-276). While such a format clearly does not allow the women to speak for themselves, it may make the dialectic between my feminism and women's answers to my questions and their representations about the meaning of their activism more transparent.


In writing this book, I made a decision to examine a wide range of women's organizing experiences, rather than simply focus on one organization or one country. Obviously this entails sacrificing the richness of a thorough case study for the advantage of comparison. I have attempted to recover some of the depth found in individual case studies by focusing on the detailed conversations, narratives, and self-histories of women who participate in each organization from a variety of perspectivesleaders as well as those who might be called "the base" by political scientists or "everyday informants" by empirically oriented anthropologists. My belief is that by concentrating on a smaller number of in-depth exchanges, I am better able to translate the meaning and depth of women's varied experiences onto the page.


The research for this book took place between 1989 and 1995 when much of Latin America was completing processes of economic restructuring. In all four countries included here, continued and accelerated economic inequality was the result of policies aimed at promoting foreign investment, production for export, and overall economic growth. Brazil and Chile were taking the first steps away from regimes run by military dictatorships; El Salvador was caught in the final throes and initial stages of recovery from a long civil war. Mexico continued its tradition of single-party rule with a slight loosening of the ruling party's hegemony. All four countries saw the emergence or continued existence of significant social movements including human rights efforts, rural and urban movements for improved living conditions, organized land reclamation, a clamor for indigenous rights and autonomy, student movements, groups representing relatives of the disappeared, labor union activism, feminist movements, struggles for abortion and reproductive rights, the democratization of political systems, and more. Women were a major presence in these movements; in each country, moreover, women calling themselves "feminists" emerged to add their vision to the wide range of political groups calling for change. Democratization of the political process and the extension of active citizenship to women is a common theme in Latin America during the late 1980s and during the 1990s (Jaquette 1994, 1995).


Trying to mesh the two goals of this book is not easy, because experience and structure have traditionally been seen as alternative (not complementary) topics of study. I was trained in a traditional anthropology graduate program, and my initial work therefore focused on carrying out participant observation and interviews, administering questionnaires, and reading and interpreting documents in archives. Later on I began recording life histories and testimonials. I found that the life histories and testimonials illuminated the often stark picture painted by political economics and gave such abstract processes and categories as "relations of production," "migration," and even "gender hierarchy" concrete meaning—not only for those who experienced structures of inequality and hierarchy, but for me and my readers. Since conceptual categories are created in specific cultural and historical contexts, each time they are used they must be given meaning in relation to a specific cultural and historical location. The use of narratives, life histories, testimonials, and conversations helps to give specific meaning to the categories used in social science.


One of the positive contributions of a poststructural perspective has been to reconceptualize the individual subject as "more fragmented and incomplete, composed of multiple 'selves' or identities in relation to the different social worlds we inhabit, something with a history, 'produced' in process" (Hall 1989: 121). The idea of the multiple aspects of each person's identity and experience in life is one that, of course, predates poststructuralism and can be found in feminist studies and writings of people of color whose multiple identities were often overlooked until they became fashionable when cited by the elite of the academy. In the quest to make room for all these voices, however, we must not make the mistake of ignoring structures, relations, and networks of power.


The activism that women in this book have chosen to undertake emerges from daily life situations in which all voices are not equal. Historical, political, cultural, and economic systems of inequality have combined to produce positions in the relations of power that can be characterized by exploitation, pain, suffering, struggle, and marginality. These abstract subject positions are, of course, inhabited by real people—in the instances studied here, by women. In many cases women who inhabit these positions have found ways of coping, of redefining marginality, of struggling and resisting, of encountering joy and happiness in human relations. In some instances, they have also built strong organizations and have moved slowly but steadily to confront the systems of inequality that push them to the margins. Since we are not the women featured here and cannot become them, we need information about the conditions they live under if we are to begin to understand their experience and to use it to reflect upon our own. While economic statistics and descriptions of political and economic circumstances fall far short of a lived experience and are not culturally neutral, a nuanced reading of them can provide some basis for understanding how, why, and from what positions women decide to engage in collective action. For this reason, each chapter contains general background information on economics, politics, and the gendered division of labor.


Nevertheless, while the constraints of political and economic factors are very real in people's lives, such factors are not fixed structures and are not all-determining. The analytical categories we use to talk about political economy—"mode of production," "class system," etc.—are inadequate to convey either the political economy as a dialectical process or people's experience in that process. People's responses to politics and economics also affect history and culture as their identities change through time. Thus it is necessary both to understand what the political, economic, and cultural restraints on women's political mobilization are, and yet be equally committed to unraveling how women see themselves, how they experience and give meaning to structural context, how they interpret what happens to them on a daily basis, and how they come together through the process of political activity to form movements that push back on structural conditions of inequality.


Bridging Dichotomies, Validating Experience


A major challenge in writing this book has been how to theorize women's involvement in collective action without framing their experience with dualist concepts that are not only found in local and national culture but are also embedded as the "hidden transcripts" of social analysis. This is, of course, a reference to James Scott's notion of covert ideas contained in popular forms of culture as signs of resistance (Scott 1990). I believe that social science paradigms also contain "hidden transcripts" which are signs of resistance to change and challenges to the socialization of those who write and use the paradigms. Many of these hidden transcripts are universal unstated assumptions about how the world is gendered. Many of these hidden transcripts are found in feminism as well.


The most important of these dichotomies is the division of social, political, cultural, and economic life into a private-female sphere and a male-public sphere. While first forged and later discarded by many feminist anthropologists, this dichotomy has been adopted by other disciplines and incorporated into government development policy. Here I will briefly discuss its emergence and rejection in anthropology and its subsequent incorporation into analyses of women's economic and political participation. I do this in order to lay the groundwork for how the case studies presented here suggest an alternative analysis which links individual women's social, political, economic, and cultural worlds through a unity of experience, not a public/private dichotomy.


The second wave of feminist theory in anthropology was marked by the emergence of several important books, including Woman, Culture, and Society (1974), edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. The book was a landmark effort to explain what the authors perceived as the universal subordination of women. In that book, Rosaldo proposed the existence of a universal public/private dichotomy in which women were affiliated with the private or domestic sphere because of their involvement in child rearing and men were associated with the public sphere of politics and cultures.


While Rosaldo and others argued that it was not inevitable that women were associated with the domestic sphere, they almost always appeared to be. The influence of mainstream American gender ideology on their theorizing was, of course, not evident to Rosaldo and other feminist theorists until they began to take apart their unified concept of women. As other work stressing the intersection of gender with class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality emerged, the notion of explaining the status of all women in all places with the same theory was shown to be too simplistic (see Sacks 1989 and Zavella 1991 for summaries of some of the relevant literature). Rosaldo and others reformed their own theories.


Rosaldo noted (1980:401) that a focus on universal dichotomies makes us "victims of a conceptual tradition that discovers 'essence' in the natural characteristics that distinguish the sexes and then declares that women's present lot derives from what, 'in essence,' women are." Later, Yanagisako and Collier (1987) sought to avoid analytical dualisms by studying gender institutions as social wholes, asking how all social inequalities are culturally constituted, and not taking sex or gender differences as a universal given.


While Yanagisako and Collier's suggestions are important for avoiding the naturalization of gender, we need to ask additional questions in order to understand how structural inequalities limit women's actions in specific historical and geographical locations. In Latin America, dominant cultural ideologies proposing that women's proper place is in the domestic sphere are still powerful obstacles to women's political mobilization. The emergence of Latin American feminism, as discussed below, has provided an important counterbalance to "women in the home" ideas and has created a complex ideological terrain for women's organizations.


One of the clearest policy areas where adoption of the public/private dichotomy has resulted in major obstacles for women's organizing is in the field of economic development. Many "women's development projects" have reproduced a biologized version of gender which held that women did better in small-scale projects focused on domestically linked productive and reproductive activities and which did nothing to challenge most women's subordinate position in the economy. As structural adjustment clearly resulted in less income and fewer resources for the majority poor as well as increased levels of formal unemployment, the boom in the so-called informal economy was seen by such development agencies as the World Bank to be an important source of income and economic activity, not only for the poor but particularly for women. The arbitrary division of the economy into "formal" and "informal" sectors does not reflect the reality of most people's working lives. As pointed out by Hans and Judith-Maria Buechler (1992:13), the concept of the "informal sector" comes from dualistic concepts of the economy which previously associated smaller-scale production and commerce with traditionalism as opposed to a "modern" sector. They cite Redclift and Mingione (1985:2-3), who state that the informal and formal sectors "proved to have shifting parameters that varied according to context.... [H]ouseholds themselves were difficult to characterize along sectoral lines making use [as they do] of multiple strategies to ensure their survival" (cited in Buechler and Buechler 1992:14-15). As pointed out by many, the "informal sector" is heterogeneous and includes people who are so poor that they cannot produce commodities for exchange or participate in commercial activities along with those who have higher levels of income, but who still work without state regulation (see Cosgrove 1995:6; Portes and Sassen Koob 1987; Castells and Portes 1989; Portes, Castells, and Benton 1989). And as a result of structural adjustment, many people who are supposed to be in the "formal" sector (i.e., where there is a clear separation of capital and labor, a contractual relationship between capital and labor, and conditions of work that are legally regulated) now have a ten- to twenty-year history of also working in various kinds of unregulated commerce. The formal and informal sectors are thus largely fictional in terms of actual people. The invocation of the word "informal" to label part of the economy, however, does have an important political function.


The readjustment of the labor market into what some have called "more flexible patterns of work" has resulted in an ever-growing periphery including part-timers, subcontract labor, temporary workers, and casuals which fit in with the notion of "informal" workers as a sort of haphazard and unimportant part of the economy (Harvey 1989:150). Such "flexible" patterns of work in the "informal" sector are often deemed appropriate for women because they allow women to combine the unsalaried tasks of childcare and food preparation with part-time paid labor. The "informal" economy serves primarily as a symbolic (rather than actual) counterpoint to the "formal" economy which is read as male, public, and legitimate.


In addition, the scale of an enterprise or activity is often confused with "formality" or "informality." As discussed by Buechler and Buechler (1992:15), smallness of scale is often regarded as a means of competing with "legitimate" and "economically sound" larger enterprises and thereby "receives a connotation of illegality and residualness." Both the terms "small scale" and "informal" suggest illegitimacy and marginality, in addition to dividing economic life into false and separate spheres.


Despite the insistence on the labels of "formal" and "informal," women's economic participation includes a wide range of activities that crosscut unpaid domestic labor, salaried work (regulated as well as unregulated), and small and large business ownership and management. This diversity is seen in the work experience of many of the women in the present book. For example, many Chilean women who are seasonal fruit packers spend six to eight hours in the morning and early afternoon cooking, cleaning, tending animals, and feeding people while perhaps intermittently tending to a small business such as sewing clothes; then they leave their homes at two or three in the afternoon to work a ten-hour shift in a packing plant.


Development projects for women which remain focused on small-scale economic activity that generates minimal amounts of income—whether these projects are government- or nongovernment-sponsored—reproduce a false dichotomy that relegates women to the margins of the economy. Such projects also do little or nothing to economically empower women. Positive outcomes from such projects are more likely to come from the unintended political and cultural consequences of women attempting to change the gendered division of labor in their homes and organizations in order to carry out their small economic development projects. Often, however, women's challenges to gender subordination that occur in the context of very conventional projects (as in Nayarit, where women's demands for direct access to government funds to set up tortilla factories and bakeries upset the gendered power structure of a regional peasant organization) are overlooked in an attempt to categorize the content of their demands.


Until recently many attempts to explain women's grassroots mobilization have closely followed the work of Temma Kaplan (1982, 1990) and Maxine Molyneux (1986). In an analysis of women's collective action in early twentieth-century Barcelona, Kaplan (1982) elaborates a theory of "female consciousness." She states that when women who have internalized their designated roles as domestic providers and caretakers are unable to carry out their duties, they will be moved to take action in order to fulfill their social roles as females. This may even include taking on the state when it impedes their day-to-day activities. Kaplan has extended this analysis to women's participation in grassroots movements within contemporary Latin America (i990).


Many authors have used Kaplan's paradigm to explain the rise of groups of "mothers of the disappeared"—whose legitimacy, they believe, is based on women's roles within the family. Discussing the emergence of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, for example, Maria del Carmen Feijoo writes:


The creation of certain rules of the game incorporated a feminine logic based on respect for the traditional role of women, who are thought to be altruistic and vicarious.... In practice, the Madres became another movement of women who, without trying to change patriarchal ide ology or abandon their femininity, produced a transformation of the traditional feminine conscience and its political role.... The task of defending life itself was forced out of the private sphere of the household and into the autonomous space of public and political discussion. (1989:77-78)


How the Mothers think is explained by reference to their "traditional feminine conscience" and their femininity. In this discussion, the homogenization of a group of women is based on the fact that they identify themselves as mothers. How they may vary individually or through time or what the public aspects of mothering may be are not a part of their ascribed collective identity as "traditional" mothers.


Kaplan's "female consciousness" is similar to what Molyneux (1986) terms "practical gender interests"—interests that emerge from an acceptance of cultural gender roles, including female subordination and the assertion of rights based on those roles. Against these "practical gender interests," Molyneux contrasts "strategic gender interests," which are derived deductively and focus on strategic objectives to overcome women's subordination, such as alleviation of the burden of domestic labor and childcare and the removal of institutionalized forms of discrimination (1986: 284). Molyneux did not try to characterize the agendas of whole movements or organizations according to either strategic or practical demands; rather, she considered how different sets of strategic and practical interests were met by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The typology she presented, however, did set up opposing types of demands.


The implication of practical-feminine movements such as movements that focus on organizing collective kitchens or movements of mothers of the disappeared is that they reinforce women's place in the domestic-private side of society. Feminist movements with strategic interests, such as movements that demand abortion rights, are seen as allowing women to break into the public side of life and to gain access to arenas previously dominated by men. By breaking into the traditionally "male" sphere of public power, feminist movements thus are seen to challenge oppressive gender hierarchies and to carve out a new place for women. While such a progression may sound very desirable and convincing to Western feminists, it is built on the old assumption of a gendered public/ private dichotomy and in fact indirectly reinforces the structural position that many women, particularly in organizations of the left, found themselves in during the 1970s and 1980s If women's work is labeled as "practical" and as outside the center of organizational politics, then their political work remains at the margins. In addition, the equivalence of "practical" demands with women's participation in the "private" sphere begs the question of how practical demands can be asserted, if not in the public sphere—a point avidly made by those who point out how "practical" demands become public.


While I was conducting fieldwork for this book, I found again and again in the actions and words of the women I worked with, whether or not they linked their political activism to feminism, that the feminine/feminist dichotomy did not hold. With hindsight it is not hard to see why. In part, it had to do with the historical period of the movements I studied. Most of these movements solidified in the 1980s when the second wave of Latin American feminism included a variety of currents and, ultimately, came to embrace the integration of "feminine" and "feminist" movements under the rubric of feminismo popular, or "grassroots feminism." Before going on to discuss alternatives to the feminine/feminist dichotomy for theorizing women's political mobilization, we shall look at the content and influence of contemporary feminism in Latin America.


The Second Wave of Latin American Feminism


In countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico, the second wave of feminism began as a primarily middle-class and intellectual movement. In Cuba, where socialist feminism emerged as part of the revolutionary process, gender concerns have often remained subordinated to class. In Peru, second-wave feminism had its beginnings almost simultaneously in the middle class and in the rise of social movements where women were a majority of the participants. Somewhat later, organizations such as the Municipal Milk Program organized a hundred thousand women to distribute milk in 1986, and by 1988 it was estimated that six hundred communal dining halls had been organized by poor women in Peru (Barrig 1989:1134).


Francesca Miller argues that the multiple origins of Peruvian feminism ultimately resulted in a more flexible and open feminism which provided a critical bridge to making feminism appealing to a wide range of Latin American women:


Feminism in Peru is a multiplicity of expressions that reflect the broader political spectrum and the divisions that exist in every Latin American country—and in countries across the globe—but are especially stark in the Peruvian polity.... It is also an indicator of the direction Latin American feminist thinking took after 1983, which is an acceptance and pride in multiplicity and a rejection of the only-one-right-way-to-think politics of the early and mid-1970s. (1991: 222-223)


Central American feminisms, particularly those of El Salvador and Nicaragua, represent another model of development—distinct from both the Peruvian model and that of Mexico and the Southern Cone. As discussed in Chapter 3, most Salvadoran and Nicaraguan women's organizations were created as part of the clandestine political-military organizations and parties that made up the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front). Unlike national women's organizations in Cuba and Nicaragua which remained linked to revolutionary parties that came to head governments, though, some of El Salvador's women's organizations declared their autonomy from the parties that founded them, either before or shortly after these revolutionary parties entered into the formal political process.


In an article titled "Marxism, Feminism, and the Struggle for Democracy," Norma Chinchilla carefully outlines some of the convergences between democratic Marxists and Latin American feminists. She points out that the tendency on the part of some Marxist theorists "to elaborate a Marxist understanding of democracy and daily life" was an important step in the possible convergence of feminism with Marxism (1992:44) Within the Central American revolutionary left, the recognition of plural social subjects, the delinking of "the working class" as the vanguard of socialist movements, and discussions of the importance of organizational autonomy from the state and from political parties were important steps toward creating more space for feminism within revolutionary movements.


In Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which publicly emerged in January of 1994, provided a different model of women's organizing from that associated with the revolutionary left of Latin America. For one thing, the fact that 30 percent of the Zapatista rank-and-file insurgents were indigenous women from the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Zoque, Main, and Tojolobal ethnic groups provided immediate visibility for women as part of the rebellion launched by the EZLN. On the first day of their rebellion, moreover, the Zapatistas publicized their Revolutionary Law of Women, which resonated with women throughout Mexico. Although it was released on the first day of the Zapatista rebellion, the women's law was not picked up by the press for sixteen days.


The law stated:


First, women have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in the place and at the level that their capacity and will dictates without any discrimination based on race, creed, color, or political affiliation.

Second, women have the right to work and to receive a just salary.

Third, women have the right to decide on the number of children they have and take care of.

Fourth, women have the right to participate in community affairs and to hold leadership positions if they are freely and democratically elected.

Fifth, women have the right to primary care with respect to their health and nutrition.

Sixth, women have the right to education.

Seventh, women have the right to choose who they are with [i.e., choose their romantic/sexual partners] and should not be obligated to marry by force.

Eighth, no woman should be beaten or physically mistreated either by family members or by strangers. Rape and attempted rape should be severely punished.

Ninth, women can hold leadership positions in the organization and hold military rank in the revolutionary armed forces.

Tenth, women have all the rights and obligations set out by the revolutionary laws and regulations. (Doble Jornada 1994: 8 )


The Zapatista Revolutionary Law of Women was widely discussed in Mexico outside of Chiapas and served as a way to bring indigenous women together with working-class, middle-class, and urban intellectual women in new ways. Several well-known and charismatic women leaders of the EZLN, such as Comandante Ramona, also provided revolutionary role models for women throughout Mexico. The moral authority with which the Zapatistas brought forward their overall case for indigenous rights, a democratic transition, economic justice, and the important role of women as participants and leaders in these processes provided a unique platform and crucial political opening as well as a larger discussion of women's rights (see Stephen 1996b). Instead of waiting for disenfranchised women to demand the inclusion of women's rights and issues, the Zapatistas brought women into their demands, discussion, and leadership in a more self-conscious manner than had previous revolutionary movements in Central America and Cuba.


The most concrete evidence of a second wave of international Latin American feminism can be found in the establishment of a series of regional Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros (meetings, encounters, happenings) beginning in 1981 (see Saporta Sternbach et al. 1992 and Miller 1991). By following the advances and difficulties (avances y nudos) of the six Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros that were held between 1981 and 1993 we put ourselves in a good position to monitor some of the important discussion that took place among Latin American feminists during the 1980s and 1990s. While the encuentros by no means represent all of the work being done in the name of feminism in Latin America, they became increasingly diverse with time and raised some of the major issues being debated in many countries.


The first encuentro (held in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1981) attracted over two hundred feminists from fifty different organizations from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Curaçao, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia. The encuentro marked the first time that women from so many countries met to share perspectives and experiences. The primary debate at the first encuentro—one that continued to haunt future encuentros—was about whether and how feminism and socialism could be integrated. This debate has been fundamental in Latin American feminism.


As described by Saporta Sternbach and colleagues, there were two primary positions at the Bogotá encuentro:

The first position held that neither capitalism nor socialism alone could eliminate women's oppression and that, consequently, women's specific demands must be articulated in a movement outside of and independent of all existing political parties....

Those who held the second position ... insisted that feminism in and of itself could not be a revolutionary project. Because of their primary commitment to socialism, they argued that feminism should not be separated from the party, but that it should have an organic autonomy within that structure. Feminists' objectives, in this view, could not be separated from those of the working class and its struggle to end class oppression. (1992:217)


These two positions staked out one of the major arenas of conflict at future encuentros.


The second encuentro, held in Lima in 1983, attracted over six hundred women. At this encuentro, disagreements focused on the overly intellectual nature of the analysis (all workshops were titled "Patriarchy and. . .") and on the lack of participation from women in organizations focused on economic survival and human rights. At the subsequent encuentro (Bertioga, Brazil, in 1985), the arrival of a busload of women from a Rio de Janeiro shantytown who were denied admission generated a flurry of activity and some incipient discussion about the race and class implications of the encuentros—issues that did not go away (Saporta Sternbach et al. 1992: 22-3).


The fourth encuentro, held in 1987 in Taxco, Mexico, marked the first widespread participation of Central American women (forty-two from Nicaragua, nine from El Salvador, ten from Honduras, and fifteen from Guatemala according to Miller 1991:235). Many of the Central American women who attended did not consider themselves feminists at the time, with the exception of a few Nicaraguans who were militating for more feminist themes in AMNLAE (Association of Nicaraguan Women "Luisa Amanda Espinoza") (see Comité Nacional Feminista 1994a). Records from the fourth encuentro document the presence of Salvadoran women from the Mothers and Relatives of the Political Prisoners, Disappeared, and Assassinated of El Salvador "Monseñor Romero" (CO-MADRES, Comité de Madres y Familiares de Presos, Desaparecidos y Asesinados de el Salvador "Monseñor Romero") and from the Mélida Anaya Montes Union of Salvadoran Women for Liberation (UMSL, Unión de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Liberación "Mélida Anaya Montes") formed by Salvadoran women exiled in Mexico. These last were presumably militants for the Popular Forces of Liberation "Farabundo Martí" (FPL-FM, Fuerzas Populares de Liberación "Farabundo Martí"), one of five military-political organizations in the FMLN.


The meeting at Taxco was characterized by widespread participation of women from a variety of grassroots movements including textile workers, union members, human rights activists, peasants, and urban activists. Besides marking the first appearance of organized Salvadoran women at an international feminist meeting, the fourth encuentro featured a three-day workshop on Central American feminism. The workshop provided the first opportunity for Central American activist women to talk with one another and compare perspectives, particularly about their roles as women within revolutionary movements, political parties, unions, and peasant and human rights organizations. The Guatemalan women and the CO-MADRES of El Salvador were particularly concerned with generalized violence and the forms that it took against women (Miller 1991:235-236). While Central American women still had many questions about feminism and how to integrate it with their other political work, many left with new ideas and questions. At the final plenary, the Central American women as well as others who had not identified themselves as feminists when they arrived were all shouting "Todos somos feministas" (We are all feminists) (Saporta Sternbach et al. 1992: 226).


Owing to the location of the fifth encuentro—in San Bernardo, Chile, in 1990—the number of Central American women who attended was low. The Fifth Feminist Encuentro was attended by up to three thousand women and represented the diversity of Latin American and Caribbean feminism. Separate meetings for indigenous women and newly formed networks such as the Latin American and Caribbean Black Women's Network reflected the integration of racial concerns. The presence of legislators from several countries as well as a large number of regional and topical networks spoke to the maturity of the movement. As Saporta Sternbach and colleagues conclude about the conference (1992:236), "Though the tensions between militantes and feministas remain in evidence, they are mostly in the background. Many women of both groups now insist that they must organize around issues of class and race insofar as these shape the way gender oppression is manifest in the lives of women of varied classes and racial ethnic groups."


At the fifth encuentro it was decided that the sixth would take place "somewhere in Central America." After a two-year regional planning process carried out by Central American women, El Salvador was designated the site for the sixth encuentro.


Bringing an international feminist meeting to El Salvador also brought women's issues into the news media—though not always with desirable publicity. In October 1993, weeks before the encuentro was to begin, the Salvadoran right began a systematic campaign to shut down the encuentro. The Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported that "conservative forces in El Salvador are trying to cancel the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro scheduled for October 30th, arguing that all of the women who have come together every two or three years since 1980 from different countries are linked to the FMLN and are trying to create forums for the expression of lesbianism and homosexuality" (Lovera 1993:15). A right-wing magazine called Gente featured the banner headline "¿Vienen las lesbianas?" (Are the Lesbians Coming?) on its front cover and a four-page story supposedly exposing the links of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) with the FMLN and its promotion of homosexuality. The magazine published the names and phone numbers of CISPES offices and organizers in the United States and in San Salvador.


The Gente article was based on a flyer distributed by CISPES in the United States calling for a "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual/Queer Delegation to El Salvador in November, 1993." The flyer suggested participants could "attend the Feminist Encuentro, lend support to a newly formed Lesbian organization in El Salvador and meet with members of the Salvadoran opposition including representatives of the FMLN." Gente implied that hundreds of lesbians and gay men, possibly infected with AIDS, would be invading one of El Salvador's most important development poles, the Costa del Sol: "[W]e know that male and female homosexuals are a highrisk population, so that the minimum our government should require is that everyone who is a part of the [CISPES] delegation should be given an AIDS test" (Gente 1993:42).


Articles such as that published in Gente not only threatened members of CISPES and other conference participants but created a climate of impunity with respect to violence directed against the women who organized and supported the conference. Hotel and restaurant owners who were going to serve encuentro participants on the Costa del Sol were threatened by phone that their establishments would be bombed and their property destroyed if they served any of the women attending the conference. Five Salvadoran women who were part of the local organizing committee, including two members of DIGNAS, received repeated death threats in the weeks leading up to the encuentro. Feminist organizations and women's studies departments in the United States and Europe were asked by E-mail and fax to send letters of protest to then-president of El Salvador Alfredo Cristiani. In the end, the encuentro took place without incident and was attended by over fifteen hundred women.


The Sixth Feminist Encuentro achieved an even higher level of racial, ethnic, and class diversity than previous ones, enjoying first-time participation by black women from the Caribbean, indigenous women from Andean countries and Guatemala, and many poor women from the cities and rural areas of Central America. Workshops held by participants covered a wide range of topics—"Violation of Women's Human Rights," "What the Catholic Hierarchy Never Says," "Feminists in Political Parties," "Maternal Health," "Feminisms in Central America," "Heterosexual Women Wanting to Stop Homophobia," "Feminist Power in Municipios," "Lesbian Visibility," "Women and the Foreign Debt," "Health and Refugee Women," and more. Broad plenaries at the encuentro focused on how to build the movement while incorporating its rich diversity as well as how to work inside of and outside of patriarchy.


Indeed, the wide range of topics included under the rubric of a "feminist" encuentro, together with the greater diversity of participants in terms of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and region, served to position Latin American feminisms for the next century. The encuentro itself made the feminine/feminist dichotomy obsolete through the lived experiences of the women who attended and planned it.


The way in which the women who planned the encuentro narrate their own political lives—such as Morena Herrera, an urban working-class Salvadoran who was a guerrilla commander and who then went on to help found one of El Salvador's first feminist organizations—weaves together commentaries on gender, class, race, location, and politics through a web of experience. The lens through which Morena and other women in this book view their past and present political experience reveals the whole person they have become through the process of political activism. That whole person includes their childhood socialization and ways of acting within the family as well as their various political formations. For example, Morena will bring her father anything he wants, on demand and without question, yet during the same afternoon she will publicly denounce revolutionary ex-guerrilla commanders for their sexism in a large meeting. As whole people, Morena and others integrate their own lived experience with everything they speak and think about. As political activists, the women highlighted here vary tremendously in what they bring to their movements, how they participate in them, and how they interpret what those movements mean.


Unfixed Boundaries and the Dangers of Assumed Collective Identities


What is it that binds women together in collective action? Resource mobilization theory tries to explain collective action in terms of structural opportunities, leadership, and ideological and organizational networks (see McClurg Mueller 1992: 12-16; Morris and McClurg Mueller 1992). Theorists of new social movements offer the concept of "collective identities" as a way of explaining how people act in concert, often with the object of achieving a new, distinct, or semiautonomous kind of presence and cultural recognition. People writing from a "new social movements" perspective are interested in the construction, contestation, and negotiation of collective identities in the process of political activity. Collective identity refers to "the (often implicitly) agreed upon definition of membership, boundaries, and activities for the group" (Johnston, Laraña, and Gusfield 1994:15 ). As pointed out by Johnston, Laraña, and Gusfield (1994), and by Escobar (11992: 720 following Alberto Melucci, some theorists assume the constitution of identity rather than explaining how it is built through interactions, negotiation, and relationships with the environment. If collective identity is perceived as constructed in action, then it is a very difficult concept to pin down empirically.


The existence of collective identity, just like the notion of "collective consciousness" or "false consciousness," is difficult to substantiate. "First, it is predicated on a continual interpenetration of—and mutual influence between—the individual identity of the participant and the collective identity of the group. Second, by the very nature of the phenomena we study, the collective identity of social movements is a 'moving target,' with different definitions predominating at different points in a movement career. Third, distinct processes in identity creation and maintenance are operative in different phases of the movement" (Johnston, Laraña, and Gusfield 1994:16).


The cases of women's organizing included here suggest that, rather than assuming the natural existence of collective identities, we have to look contextually at how mobilization arises and how its meaning and interpretation may vary between individuals and over time. Groups of women who act together are often quite heterogeneous, and their ability to act comes from respecting difference while also forging a common argument through a shared set of questions. In his essay "The Production of Culture in Local Rebellion," Gavin Smith suggests that it makes little sense to talk about heterogeneous groups forging a common identity or even being in a dialogue. Instead, he maintains that they argue. The participants in a rebellion "are committed both to the importance of the differences among themselves and simultaneously to the ongoing production of an image of themselves internally homogeneous and externally distinctive" (Smith 1991:181).


For some, the rejection of typologies and clearly demarcated units of social identity and interaction may simply herald the return of an evangelical relativism often associated with Boasian anthropology. However, while early American anthropology was built on a colonial model of university-trained experts salvaging the last remnants of culture from disappearing tribes and ethnic groups, the proposition of "letting the natives speak for themselves" has a very different meaning and result. The "natives" of Chicana feminism tell us that unitary subjects and typologies do not work since they defy Chicana experience and reality and homogenize difference (Alarcón 1989, 1990; Anzaldúa and Moraga 1981; Anzaldúa 1987, 1990). Boundaries and borders are not fixed: they are sites of "historicized struggles" (C. Kaplan 1994:149-150).


The point is well stated by Gloria Anzaldúa in relation to the unified racial/ethnic concept of the mestiza:


These numerous possibilities leave la mestiza floundering in uncharted seas.... [S]he has discovered that she can't hold concepts or ideas in rigid boundaries.... La mestiza constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes. The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican cultures, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle culture. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad, and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. (Anzaldúa 1987:79)


Chicana "natives" such as Anzaldúa also tell us that they are their own experts. They are constructing their own theories and inscribing them in ways that defy academic convention. Anzaldúa writes poetry, stream-of-consciousness prose, and theory all in one textual form. Poetry and short stories are included in anthologies that speak to "hardcore" theoretical categories such as race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and gender. Theory becomes performance rather than abstraction—words in action, actively engaging and challenging the reader.


If we truly want to understand what the experience of collective action means to women, then we have much to learn from Chicana women who are theorizing themselves in action. Theories of collective action cannot be abstracted from the context within which they appear. They have to grow out of historically and specifically grounded instances of mobilization and must be mediated by the voices and interpretations of those who are doing the acting.


Elsewhere (Stephen 1994a) I have proposed that testimonial and life history genres discourage either/or typologies by revealing in detail the politicizing process that people go through. The blending of personal identity with political activism underscores how different and conflicting pieces of individual identity interact with structural conditions to influence the evolution of political commitment and strategy. Claudia Salazar also points out how oral histories directly and indirectly address and transgress "socially coded binary oppositions such as text/context, personal/political, public/private, knower/known, orality/literacy, and high culture/low culture" (1991:93).


The Structure of This Book


Part I focuses on El Salvador. Chapter 2 uses a detailed ethnographic analysis of El Salvador's "mothers of the disappeared" (CO-MADRES) to suggest that looking at multiple facets of women's identities and at the ways in which they both accommodate and resist the dominant ideologies of gender hierarchy and national security best explains their political activity. Personal narratives and testimonies document how the CO-MADRES have incorporated issues of state repression, domestic inequality, and women's sexuality into a new discourse on human rights.


Chapter 3 has to do with the emergence of feminisms from the revolutionary left in El Salvador. Women for Dignity and Life, or DIGNAS, was originally created as an arm of the National Resistance (RN), one of the five political-military organizations that made up the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Soon after DIGNAS was founded, however, women acted from within to make the organization autonomous. Chapter 3 focuses on that process, highlighting the development of the organization, its relationship to emerging feminist movements in other countries, its internal differences, and the new types of identities forged by its participants with respect to class, gender, and political affiliation and ideology.


The activist testimonial /interview featured in Part I is with Morena Herrera. Growing up in an urban working-class family, she became a student activist within the AES (Association of High School Students) at age fourteen. Morena later joined another high school student organization, and eventually she became an urban guerrilla for one of the parties and military organizations of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. She became an FMLN commander and went on to found and work within DIGNAS, one of El Salvador's first openly feminist organizations.


Part II of this book sheds light on two activists and two different types of women's organizations in Mexico, both emerging from larger mixed (i.e., male and female) movements and organizations. This is the most common pathway for women's organizing in Mexico. In Chapter 4, the example of the Women's Regional Council of CONAMUP is presented in the context of background information that illustrates the marginal conditions Mexican women lived under during the 1980s and the relationship of those conditions to structural adjustment policies. I outline women's grassroots responses to poverty, joblessness, and increased workloads. In addition, I explore the ways in which class and gender issues are integrated in the organization as well as the different relationships, ranging from antagonism to adamant support, that women in the organization have with feminism. Chapter 4 details how poor urban women have met the ongoing Mexican economic crisis with a strategy of collective action—how they have learned that they do not need to adopt the same identity or share identical interpretations of their experience in order to act together. What they do share is an overlapping set of questions regarding the various dimensions of inequality they experience as women. This, rather than a unitary collective identity, is what holds them together.


Chapter 5 focuses on a rural women's organization, the Women's Council of the Lázaro Cárdenas Ejido Union in the state of Nayarit. This chapter explores how the agenda of women's grassroots organizing is strongly influenced by structural constraints built into the larger political economy, yet how it also responds to the creative abilities of women to challenge political and economic systems that have left them on the outside. In this case, it is the unintended consequences of women's attempts to carry out seemingly nonthreatening projects (e.g., the establishment of bakeries, collective farming, and chicken raising) that have offered the strongest challenge to entrenched gender roles in local politics and economics. Also emphasized is how women of different ages and family groups interpret their gains differently.


The first activist interviewed in Part II is Irene Soto, an urban working-class woman who was an organizer in the Women's Regional Council of the CONAMUP. Irene has worked with poor and low-income women in Mexico City's marginal neighborhoods; she began working as a teenager in neighborhood organizing. In contrast, Doña Kata Moreno is a seventy-year-old peasant organizer who was one of the first women to become involved in organizing in rural Nayarit, having done so during the 1940s. She was a key actor in the formation of an ejido union which brought together fourteen agrarian communities, and she participated in the formation of the Women's Council of the Lázaro Cárdenas Ejido Union. This second interview also includes Doña Aurora Cruz, who worked with Doña Kata in establishing the Women's Union of the UELC.


Part III is dedicated to a single rural movement in Brazil. Chapter 6 documents how rural women workers in southern Brazil have used consciousness-raising and an alternative political structure to build a new political culture countering that found in male-run labor unions. Many of the women in this Rural Women Workers' Movement had experience mobilizing in other contexts, such as in Christian base communities, the landless movement, antidam activism, or rural labor unions. Others had no prior experience in political action. Their varied backgrounds and talents, combined with organizing methods learned in feminist-leaning NGO workshops, have resulted in the rich new political culture of the MMTR.


The activist highlighted in Part III is Gessi Bonês, one of the founders of the MMTR. Gessi began organizing when she was sixteen. She had worked in conjunction with the liberation theology branch of the Brazilian Catholic church, organizing rural workers, as well as in antidam activism. Then, in 1987, she went on to form what would be one of the largest autonomous organizations of rural women in Brazil. The Gessi Bonês interview also includes Marlene Pasquali, another founder of MMTR.


Part IV of this book concentrates on women who are seasonal workers in Chile's huge fruit-exporting sector. Chapter 7 documents the evolution of Chile's first seasonal workers' union, an organization which has many women in leadership positions. Women's engagement in Santa Maria's labor force and their active participation in the union has fundamentally changed traditional gender roles among working families. Women are out on the streets at night, aim to control their own sexuality, and have a strong hand in union politics. This experience suggests that while some of the conditions of commercial agriculture and global capitalism have placed clear cultural, political, and economic constraints on women, these same conditions of work can allow women increased autonomy if they develop an independent base of power and acquire confidence through grassroots organizing.


The activist portrayed here is Antonia Gómez, a Mapuche Indian. Antonia was the wife of a miner who was imprisoned under the Pinochet regime. She fled to the north, where she began to work in commercialexport agriculture and became a leader in the largely female Seasonal and Permanent Workers' Union of Santa María.


The conclusion to this book, Chapter 8, comparatively analyzes the case studies in relation to themes that recur in feminist conversations about gender relations, economic development, political mobilization, identity, and power relations between researchers and "the researched."


Through their actions, words, and deeds, Latin American women such as those highlighted in the pages that follow are blazing a brave path into the future. Their creative integration of spheres and issues that have been deemed separate by social scientists, by politicians, and even by feminists redefines women's activism from the bottom up. Regardless of the label that is applied to this work, by crossing boundaries, breaking schemata, and questioning assumptions about who they are and what their actions mean, grassroots women's organizations in Latin America have provided an exemplary model for others.




“A gendered analysis of the National Security regimes that dominated South and Central America in the 1970s and '80s reveals a pattern of abuse of women that failed to register in the public consciousness.... The evidence compiled by Stephen, a feminist ethnographer, from archives and interviews with women in grassroots movements in El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, and Chile reveals the breakdown of the patriarchal bargain: men in power withdrew protection from women, and women rebelled against the male domination that crippled them and left them unfit to lead their own lives.”

“This book promises to make a significant contribution to the literature on women and social movements in Latin America. The fact that it draws upon collaborative relationships with the women written about is a further strength, making it of interest to activists and academics alike.... It would make an excellent teaching text, and it would also be of interest to general readers.”
Florence E. Babb, author of Between Field and Cooking Pot: The Political Economy of Marketwomen in Peru


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