Looking for Feminism in Oaxaca

As a woman in a program comprised of mostly women, studying a phenomenon that has a huge effect on women, I have found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention paid to how the political economy of migration has affected the lives of women.  So in Oaxaca, I took every opportunity I could to ask questions about how women are affected by shifts in population and social dynamics due to migration.

I asked one of the few women we did meet about how she saw gender and sexuality issues intersecting with her activist work.  She said, because it was mostly women working to help other women, men weren’t involved, so it was hard to see if there were inequalities between genders.   I didn’t really know what to ask after that, because if women don’t see their work as something feminist or radical, and they just see it as the work they do, then what business do I have trying to name that with language I’ve learned in a classroom at Vassar?

I’m conflicted, because on the one hand, when I look at a situation where women help women, I can see how it fits into a broader framework of the US as a paternalistic colonial power.  But on the other hand, women who are just trying to keep their families alive probably don’t have time to think about how their lives fit into some theoretical framework that I’ve worked out sitting at my computer in my dorm. Imposing my feminism is not contributing to their self-empowerment; it’s just a different kind of colonialism.  So how do I leave that mentality in the dorm room?

I’m inclined to think it’s not as simple or straightforward as asking some women I just met about how they see gender intersecting with their lives.  My instincts tell me that in order to understand how women negotiate the gender dynamics in their lives, I need to just be with them, listening, asking questions, sharing what I know and learning what they know, so the inherent power dynamic of interviewer and interviewee dissolves.  I think feminism works better when it comes from a place of mutual sharing and trust.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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Taking Responsibility to Know My Neighbors

So I just got back from a two-week trip to Mexico.  We went to Oaxaca, which has the largest indigenous population of any Mexican state, and recognizes indigenous forms of self-governance.  Out-migration has a huge impact on Oaxaca, particularly as a result of US corn imports and industrial agriculture practices, which rendered subsistence farming obsolete.  Rural Oaxaqueños migrate to the cities of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and to cities all over the US, including Poughkeepsie.

Ten days of our trip was devoted to an academic seminar, in which we visited various projects around rural Oaxaca which are trying to develop alternatives to migration.  Seeing the different projects and talking with individuals who worked in the organizations was, in some ways, really special.  I met a woman who had lived in Poughkeepsie and came back to Oaxaca after spending seven years as a cleaner at IBM and other office buildings. She showed us the stream by their community, and we shared a joke about its being like the Hudson.  I think it was valuable to have the very real and emotional experience of meeting someone who I could’ve easily crossed paths with at some point in my life.  We were, in essence, neighbors.  If I meet Oaxacan immigrants in Poughkeepsie in the future, I’ll tell them I was there, and that will probably make our relationship stronger.

But it also felt kind of icky to be in Oaxaca.  I felt a disconnect between conversations we had in the States before we left on our trip about building solidarity, and the reality of what we could be as visitors in a place for a very short time.  In a few hours, all an organization can really do is give a brief outline of what they do.  I felt very aware of my ability to choose what I did and didn’t see.  Being in my position as a white woman in a group of Americans visiting these organizations which were compelled to answer to us felt complicit in the overarching mechanism of American colonialism.

And what this made me feel was a whole lot of guilt, and that’s a problem.  After some conversations in Oaxaca post-seminar, I feel like guilt is probably one of the most powerful weapons against solidarity and the kind of movement I think is necessary in order to break down systems of oppression.   As much as it is my responsibility to check my privilege and the ways in which I participate in the oppression of others, it is also not my fault that I have some privileged identities (my race, ethnicity, nationality, class background, ability status, cisgenderedness).  I have felt the way guilt affects how I participate in communities: when I’m thinking about privilege as a guilt thing, I start to judge myself and others, and both that entirely defeats the purpose of checking privilege and keeps me from forming meaningful relationships.  There is potential in this world to cultivate a really beautiful community of people who celebrate each other for the work that we do and stand in solidarity with each other.  I hope that when this semester ends, I leave Arizona with a broader network of people around the country that I will collaborate with throughout my life in different ways.  In order for that to happen, though, I need to do my best to shed this feeling of guilt, and instead celebrate myself and celebrate others, and do so out of love.

Check back later this week for my thoughts about being a feminist in Oaxaca and on this program.