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Retracing steps of Chicana history

Antonia Castañeda

A former migrant farmworker who became an award-winning scholar told a UTRGV audience how going to college sparked her interest in the history of Chicanas.

As a part of UTRGV’s observance of Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month, feminist historian Antonia Castañeda presented twice regarding Chicana history in the Education Complex on the Edinburg campus.

Castañeda belonged to a family of migrant farmworkers in the Yakima Valley in Washington state. She grew up witnessing the displacement her family had in the nation despite becoming Americans in 1848. As the first in her family to attend a university, Castañeda took an interest in history, particularly her own racial history.

“This experience was a profound lesson,” the Stanford University graduate said. “It was a wake-up call. The lesson I learned was political, a lesson that human relationships are political, that they are rooted in power which is itself rooted in the politics of gender, race, class, sexuality and education. … I committed a political act. I became a historian.”

Upon becoming a historian, Castañeda looked more closely at the rights regarding women. She knew what it was like to be a questioning child about the way the world looked and treated women of color.

“My entry into the world of historical studies and active member of this founding generation of Chicano and Chicana history was fueled by the desire to answer the kinds of questions that surfaced for this young Tejana farmworker living in a labor camp in Washington,” the Crystal City, Texas, native said.

Not only did the feminist historian notice that Chicana women were often sexualized, they were also mistreated among the world of men. Together with her passion for women’s rights and history, Castañeda researched her way through numerous sources to piece together scholarly articles, such as the prize-winning “Women of Color and the Re-Writing of Western History.”

In 1968, women earned 65.2 cents to every dollar a man earned. Today, women only earn 78.3 cents to every dollar, thus no significant improvement regarding the wage gender gap. However, in the same year, the nation also saw what Castañeda refers to as an “explosion” in women’s literary, political and theoretical voice in journals as well as periodicals.

“[It] is my retort to that white man’s assault, to his racialized and sexualized assumptions about Mexicans/Mexican-Americans,” Castañeda said. “The point here, of course, is that if we do not tell our own stories, someone else will tell it and they will invariably get it wrong.”

Castañeda’s latest book, “Three Decades of Engendering History: Selected Works of Antonia I. Castañeda” (University of North Texas Press, 2014), features 10 of her best articles. She hoped to successfully share the real story behind the struggles of Chicanas in America.

“My work then is about gathering these remnants, fragments of our multilayered realities and re-piecing them together, re-piecing the collective memories, stories, identities [and] history,” she said.

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