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body politics, body poetics: part 4 – latinikaˣ /// on Latin American feminisms and the streets

Poem: Gloria Anzaldúa

pamela varela


In Mexico, it is common to hear the phrase se la robaron1. This means a woman was taken by a man and forced to mate with him and bear his children. This was a common practice in the generations before my grandparents. My great-grandmother–poor, with Cora indigenous roots, and 14 years old–was taken by the patrón2 of the hacienda where her family worked, a 50-years-older Spanish creole man. Years of sexual slavery and rape resulted in nine babies, which he never took responsibility for. She learned dressmaking to support her kids, one of whom is my mother’s father. When her captor died, she moved to the border between Mexico and the U.S. and sold food to Mexican land laborers. A border woman, she eventually moved to the U.S. and died there, only to be brought back to Mexico in the form of ashes. 

It is harsh to realize we are the grandchildren of rape. This story is disgusting on all levels, even more when seen as an allegory for the history of Europe’s ravages of Latin America. But even if my emotions want to take over, I cannot forget the fact that society and culture change. That is why the feminist battle is so important: to continue to change, so that someday, acts that are hideous and normal for us today will no longer exist. 

Gloria Anzaldúa was a Chicana3, a lesbian, an activist, and a writer. She identified as a border woman. “The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands […] the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other […] where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”4 For her, being a border woman gave her the power to be hybrid. The mestiza consciousness allows one to navigate different contexts, which later results in understanding and empathy. A masterwork that deliberately makes the reader uncomfortable, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza was one of the books banned in Arizona as part of a project to forbid Mexican American Studies in public schools.5 

We, Latin American people, are mestizas, coming from a new “race” created from the mix (rape) between Europeans and Native Americans. I interpret the (new) mestiza consciousness as a powerful in-betweenness. Within the feminist battle, to speak languages of the Global North, connecting with cultures where women’s rights have been further revindicated, while at the same time protesting with the passionate activism of the Global South, gives two layers to the battle. 

Increasingly, we are gaining control of the dangerous Latin-American streets. From experience, I can say the streets of Europe feel safer for women than the streets of Mexico, a country where on average 11 women are killed per day by femicide.6 However, that has to do with the colonial past. Many Prehispanic cultures were already patriarchal by the time Europeans stole the land, but the sacking, imposition of beliefs, genocide, and collective rape that the Spanish and Portuguese carried out in what today is Latin America produced wounds in a region whose scars can still be seen today. Poverty, corruption, delinquency, lack of education, and unemployment are only some of the worst problems Mexico and many other colonized countries face. All of this enhances vulnerability for women; sexism penetrates every aspect of society, from the lack of opportunities, to the femicides often perpetuated by their partners. And most of the time, those responsible face no accountability.

The male-dominated Azteca-Mexica culture drove the powerful female deities underground by giving them monstruos attributes and by substituting male deities in their place, thus splitting the female Self and the female deities. They divided her who had been complete […] Coatlicue, the Serpent goddess, and her more sinister aspects. […] After the Conquest, the Spaniards and their Church […] desexed Guadalupe, taking Coatlalopeuh, the serpent/sexuality, out of her. They completed the split begun by the Nahuas by making la Virgen de Guadalupe/Virgen María into chaste virgins and Tlazolteotl/Coatlicue/la Chingada into putas7.

“Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza”, 
Gloria Anzaldúa8

When I walk the streets of different cities, I feel the whole spectrum of how I am perceived and respected as a woman. A world of men, controlled by men, built by men, urbanized by men, has repercussions on the experiencing of space for women. Man has shaped and named the streets and the public space, “belongs outside”; woman has shaped the house and the private space, “belongs inside”.

Furthermore, many of the roads are named after men—88% of those in the Netherlands, while only 11.6% of Mexico City’s streets carry women’s names.9 This nomenclature is just a representation of the admiration held for those considered successful, those who were most visible, within a context where it could not be the weak, uneducated sex. The streets are a place that until recently women had been unable to explore unaccompanied. Historically, and still nowadays in some countries, women could not go alone for a walk. And even if we can, the night and unsafe areas increase the risk of danger. 

Woman needs to know that the world can be a safe space for her: “To Name the City in Feminine”10. In their book Architecture and Politics, Zaida Muxí and Josep Montaner propose the idea of a genderless urbanism. “The challenge is to build a space without gender or patriarchal order; therefore, a space without hierarchies, horizontal, a space that makes visible differences and not inequalities […]”11

Despite its hostility, the city has also been analyzed as an emancipator for women. For example, in medieval Europe, in rural villages the family had control over the decision making, and women fully depended on others to carry out their lives. Since this had economic repercussions, their well-being was jeopardized. In the emerging urban areas, there were opportunities to survive without the need of the family’s support, and many women chose this rough path, in order to achieve independence. 

City laws did not free women; few could afford to buy the “city freedom,” […] But in the city, women’s subordination to male tutelage was reduced, as they could now live alone, or with their children as heads of families, or could form new communities, often sharing their dwellings with other women.

“Caliban and the Witch”,
Silvia Federici12

Before the shift to capitalism, women worked in professions that for consecutive centuries were regarded as men’s work, like metalwork.13 It is thus pertinent to identify the city and its streets as allies in women’s fight for independence. But gradually, the shift to capitalism positioned the role of women at home, where their unremunerated job was to take care of kids and feed husbands, not too different from forced sexual slavery. 

1 “She was stolen”.
2 Boss, Master.
3 Mexican American in the U.S.
4 Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed., Aunt Lute Books, 2007, p.19.
5 Cantú, Norma Élia and Hurtado, Aída. Introduction Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, 4th ed., Aunt Lute Books, 2007, p. 3.
6 Arista, Lidia, “Feminicidios alcanzan en junio la cifra más alta en lo que va de 2020”. Expansión, 20 July 2020, Accessed June 2020. Translated by me. 
7 Whores.
8 Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed., Aunt Lute Books, 2007, p.49.
 9 Boffey, Daniel, “Beyoncé boulevard: Dutch street signs pay tribute to women”. The Guardian, 9 August 2018,,large%20cities%20carry%20men’s%20names. [Accessed June 2020] and Rossello, Renzo, “Calles con nombres de mujeres notables”. El Pais, 2020, [Accessed June 2020]
 10 Riviera Garretas, María Milagros. Nombrar el mundo en femenino. Icaria, 2003. Translated by me.
11 Montaner, Josep Maria and Zaida Muxí, Arquitectura y Política. Gustavo Gili, 2011, p. 198. Translated by me.
12 Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia, 2004, p. 30.
13 Ibid.