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Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina Activists. Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gomez.

February 24, 2018

Somos LatinasSomos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina Activists. Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gomez. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018.  Introduction by Dolores Huerta


5 stars  FAVORITE

An impressive and much-needed collection of stories by older Latinas telling about their lives and their community building in a midwestern state.

Somos Latinas is much more than a single book by two individual women.  Instead, it is one result of a larger project involving numerous women to create an historical archive about Latinas in Wisconsin and to analyze and celebrate their achievements and inform future generations of their work.  Anyone who has done research in U.S. Women’s History knows how few sources exist about Latinas.  The creation of the archives from which this book was drawn significantly expands our knowledge and can service as an example of what is possible for others.  The book they have produced can only help us all have a better understanding of the role of Latinas in our national history.

Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gomez have worked together to improve the lives and opportunities of their communities since the 1980s.  “Tess” Arenas left a boring job to return to college and eventually earned her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin.  In doing so she also became involved in a series of high-level projects to address the problems of race and diversity at the university.  Since 2004, she has been the Director for the College of Letters and Science’s Service Learning and Community-Based Research Initiative, which is designed to involve college students with communities where they pursue research.  Gomez has also worked in a variety of community projects and now directs the Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension Office.

Phase I of the Somos Latina project included University of Wisconsin students in planning to collect oral histories and then actually doing the interviews. Under the guidance of Arenas, they learned the techniques to insure that the tapes meet exacting academic standards and would be taken seriously by other scholars.  After two years, the group collected and organized 46 digital interviews, primarily of Latinas over the age of 55, now available at the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Phase II involved the production of audios from the original interviews and the publication of twenty-five of them as the book, Somos Latina.  The book includes extensive accounts of the processes followed.

The major section of the book contains the life-stories of twenty-five of those interviewed.  The women were chosen because they were involved in community building. The stories recount how and why they expanded their activities, often in small steps, to hold positions of responsibility, sometime in local government or NGOs. Their lives directly challenge any stereotypes of Latinas as shy women submissive to macho men.  These are women who were aware of the needs of their families and neighbors and took the necessary steps to provide them. Gradually they were given expanding responsibilities.  Often they tell of mothers or other relatives who served as role model for them.  They prided themselves on their resilience and how they quietly but firmly defended themselves in the face of demeaning treatment.  The women were usually willing to take to the streets in protests, but generally worked to bring about changes from within the structures and by building coalitions within and outside their won racial groups.

The last section of the book analyzes some major themes in the book; role models and support systems, motivation for becoming active, and the willingness to take risks.  Generalizations are supported with brief excerpts from the interviews.  The women also express their understanding that the gains they have achieved are fragile and will need to be defended.  Appendixes include a list of tangible gains from the work of the women interviewed and the guidelines for future contributions to the Somos Latina collection.  An extensive bibliography is also included.

Somos Latinas and the project that created it are an important contribution to our national story and stories by the women are moving and enjoyable on many levels.  They suggest to teachers the way to collect local stories in a way that will insure they are taken serious.  They provide raw data for scholars who know little about this group. And they provide inspiration and hope that many of us need to keep up the fight.

We have long used the idea “created by a committee” to belittle projects.  This book, and Feminist Freedom Warriors (book and review forthcoming) suggest that “committees” may be the best way to move beyond the polarization that threatens to destroy us all.

I strongly recommend this book to others who are curious about others and open new conceptualization of social movements.

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