Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America," by Dr. Vicki Ruiz. Specifically, it will look at the ways has Ruiz given voice to Mexican-American women.
From Out of the Shadows" focuses on the claiming of personal and public spaces across generations. As farm workers, flappers, labor activists, barrio volunteers, civic leaders, and feminists, Mexican women have made history. Their stories, however, have remained in the shadows (Ruiz xiii).
In her book, Ruiz tries to show Mexican America women from all angles, at home, at work, and in the community. She feels all these areas blend to make the Mexican- American woman what she is today, and one cannot be told without the other. In a unique perspective, Ruiz writes not of her own experiences, which she certainly could cite, but the experiences of dozens of Mexican-American women who migrated to America over the years. Her study begins before the turn of the 19th century, and ends in the present time. It is a study full of hope, hate, and grit. One critic said,
From Out of the Shadows" is the first survey ever done of twentieth century Mexican women living in the United States. In spanning several generations of women, Ruiz looks at the important roles Mexican women have played in American history as comadres, farm workers, flappers, labor activists, barrio volunteers, civic leaders and feminists (Grant).
Mexican-American were some of the first immigrants to the United States. They populated the desert southwest and California long before other colonists made it across the continent.
Jesusita Torres and Petra Sanchez were part of the first modern wave of Mexican immigration to the United States. The society they entered was one already marked by multiple conquests, migrations, and overlapping patriarchies. As previously mentioned, Spanish-speaking women migrated north from Mexico decades, even centuries before their Euro-American counterparts ventured west. Most arrived as the wives or daughters of soldiers, farmers, and artisans. Over the course of three centuries, they raised families on the frontier and worked alongside their fathers or husbands, herding cattle and tending crops (Ruiz 4).
In an example of how she vividly illustrates the lives of women, the author discusses Mexican-Americans in 1848, and how their lives changed. In 1848, there were thousands of Mexican-American settlers in what is now the Southwest United States. Ruiz states life for these settlers "changed dramatically in 1848 with the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War, the discovery of gold in California, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo" (Ruiz 5). This began their long descent into second-class citizenship that continues. Ruiz goes on to say, "With little opportunity for advancement, Mexicans were concentrated in lower echelon industrial, service, and agricultural jobs" (Ruiz 5), and this downward spiral persists in society today.
Each of the causes of change was important and devastating, but probably the most devastating was the discovery of gold in California. Mexican-Americans had long made California their home, and some owned extensive ranchos, but California glittered too brightly, and the United States took the country for its own in 1850. The rancho way of life disappeared, especially when the ranchos belonged to women, which was not unusual in Mexican society. Unlike the U.S., Mexican women could and did own their own property, but their title was not recognized when the U.S. annexed California, and they lost much if not all of their land.
Women went to work to help support the family, and they usually worked for menial wages and suffered from stereotypes. Mexicans were called "lazy, sneaky, and greasy," and the women were "flashy, morally deficient sirens," stereotypes that also still exist today.
Mexican-Americans in the U.S. suffered greatly after 1848, it was a turning point in their history. Their ways of life were altered forever, and they have never recovered their former stature. By the end of this early section, the lives of Mexican-Americans in the United States are clearer, more real, and more sympathetic to the reader. This is one way she gives these Mexican-American "characters" of her book the "center stage." They appear real to the reader, and so they take on more credence and credibility.
One woman speaks for all the women in the book who do backbreaking labor to keep their families together. "I used to think, 'If I ever have children, I'm gonna work so hard my children will NEVER do this'" (Ruiz 16). Women had to work in the fields all day, then go home and cook and clean all night.
After the women came to America, the first thing Americans wanted to do was teach them how to be "Americans," while leaving their own culture behind. "While preschool and kindergarten students spoke Spanish and sang Mexican songs, they also learned English, U.S. history, biblical verses -- even etiquette a la Emily Post" (Ruiz 37). Many religious leaders also tried to convert them to religions other than their predominant Catholic, too.
One way the author makes the characters seem like actors in a play is when she discusses prejudice, which happens often throughout the book. Many of the women she talked to discuss prejudice and how it affected them. Here, the author makes the speakers seem as if they are on a stage, describing their feelings to the audience, (the reader). It makes the prejudice seem worse somehow, and the women more victimized than if they were just talking about it offhandedly. "We went through a lot of prejudice... sometimes my friends' mothers wouldn't let them play with us.... Also, there were times when my brother and I were stoned by other students... And called bad names (Ruiz 44). It sounds almost like an unreal and tragic scene from a movie, with stilted dialogue, and yet this really happened, and that makes it all the more tragic.
Using their own words, Ruiz vividly illustrates the frustrations and fears of the women who left their native homes and traveled to a strange land to make their lives better.
It was rough because I didn't know English. The teacher wouldn't let us talk Spanish. How can you talk to anybody? If you can't talk Spanish and you can't talk English.... It wasn't until maybe the fourth or fifth grade that I started catching up. And all that time I just felt I was stupid (Ruiz 53).
The book also uses personal accounts and recollections to shame the readers with the cruelty and hate that surrounded these people. They worked at jobs that no one else would have taken, and worked diligently so they could feed their families. They struggled all the time for a better life while trying to raise their families with dignity. It was not always easy.
A few nights ago I spoke to 1,500 women -- women who work picking walnuts out of shells. It was one of the most amazing meetings I've ever attended.... The employers recently took their hammers away from them -- they were making "too much money." For the last two months... they have been cracking walnuts with their fists. Hundreds of them held up their fists to prove it (Ruiz 72).
Yet, the author never makes the reader feel sorry for these people, and what they have had to endure. Rather, she shows their strength, their self-respect, and their absolute dedication to their families and bettering themselves. She also shows how strong the women were, and how they would stand up for their rights when they were pushed far enough.
During the six-week labor dispute from 6,000 to 10,000 strikers faced tear gas and billy clubs "on at least six occasions." Emma Tenayuca courageously organized demonstrations and she along with over 1,000 pecan shellers were jailed. 32 Known as "La Pasionaria," Tenayuca, in an interview with historian Zaragosa Vargas, reflected on her activism as follows: "I was pretty defiant. [I fought] against poverty, actually starvation, high infant death rates, disease and hunger and misery. I would do the same thing again" (Ruiz 79).
She also illustrates these things happened again and again, and women often took a key role is not only striking for better wages, but protesting for Chicano equality and rights. Better wages and working conditions did not happen overnight, and neither did the gradual shift in Hispanic rights. "As one Farah striker bluntly stated, 'I don't believe in burning your bra, but I do believe in having our rights'" (Ruiz 128).
The author writes the book using a variety of voices and techniques, which makes it much easier to read, and more interesting. The book is part history narrative, part interview and oral history, and part personal experience. Together, the varying voices of the book blend together to paint a rich and vivid picture of Mexican-American women from the past to the present. It is also relatively short, with many of the pages devoted to the Appendix and Bibliography. The author manages to pack a lot into those pages, and give a complete and compelling picture of Mexican-American women everywhere.