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Eloisa Gómez is a poet and voting rights advocate who co-authored Somos Latinas: Voices of Wiscconsin Latina Activists.
Biases about what gets written, how it’s written and what gets left out influence how we understand the world and our communities. Required textbook readings from years ago through today were largely written by white men and their views of the world. Biographies of presidents and international events are examples.
These types of writings leave such a large void in acknowledging the realities of our communities of color. Reclaiming a small fraction of community history is a reason why my co-author, Andrea “Tess” Arenas, and I wrote “Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina Activists.” This book shares the experiences of 25 Latinas, 55 years and older, from various parts of Wisconsin, who contributed toward community-building.
Gloria Steinem once said, “Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.” I would say this is true based on the lack of written records of Latinas’ contributions in our state and country. When we decided to reclaim their stories, I knew that not having ever written a book, and seriously doubting that any publisher would be interested in the subject area, would not stop us from pursuing this vision. Thankfully, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press believed the time had come, too.
“Somos Latinas” shares the personal journeys of activists from their time as girls and following them into adulthood. From a series of interviews, we learn about their different journeys as change agents — some came from Latin American countries, such as El Salvador and Mexico. Others were U.S. born in such places as Texas, Puerto Rico and Wisconsin. All experienced levels of economic hardship and the struggle to defend and maintain their cultural heritage while experiencing prejudices to racism.
We learn about how they dealt with societal restrictions that minimized or ignored their potential solely for being female. And within our Latino culture, how they dealt with breaking from traditions as they took on leadership roles that were often not extended to them.
The book explores their advocacy toward community empowerment: ensuring quality education at all levels; advocating for equitable services for Latinos from government agencies; addressing racist attacks in their communities; and more. You will likely admire their years of volunteerism to promote cultural heritage, create and grow funds to help students’ access higher education and build racial bridges for political change.
To do all this, they took many risks in organizing for the right to vote, walking in marches where they were spat upon and threatened, submitting proposals to school boards worth millions within ridiculous timeframes as a way to sabotage their efforts.
You will not forget their sacrifices either: the hours and days of leaving their children at home, the self-doubts of whether their efforts could be effective, which took a toll on their physical and emotional health over the years. Look also for the ways in which they problem solved, the friendships that evolved and how they found joy in seeing their communities improve.
Most of the women in this book asked my co-author and me, “Why me? I was really just doing what needed to be done!” With this humility I recall the words of United Farm Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta, who initially felt “it was wrong for me to take credit for the work that I did.” And maybe our women thought that their leadership model, largely built on collaboration, wasn’t as legitimate as the dominant hierarchical model. In all cases, despite successes and failures, they persisted.
“Somos Latinas” shares only 25 stories. Now multiply that by 100 or more of our men and women who have passed away or are still with us just in the Milwaukee community alone.
With this in mind, I remind everyone that much more needs to be recorded and shared. How else do we more fully reclaim our stories of community-building, to be inspired by those working selflessly before us and to build upon the strategies they created for a stronger, resilient community?
To learn more about Wisconsin Latina activists, visit the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Somos Latinas Project Oral Histories.