Between the Lines: Latina Women Working in the United States

In looking at fiction, we read between the lines and stumble upon threads hinting at another story. If we investigate these hinted stories, we find they are filled with richness, depth, and a life all their own. In looking past the glimpses of working Latina women in fiction and finding the real stories of Latina women in the United States, we can better celebrate their successes and learn from their struggles.

A faint thread identifying the role of Cuban women in their families and in society can be found in “Visitors, 1965” by Oscar Hijuelos. Through the viewpoint of protagonist Hector, Hijuelos crafts a short story examining what it means to be Cuban, American, and part of the first wave of immigrants to the United States. Throughout “Visitors, 1965,” the reader once again catches glimpses of the lives and work of Latina women through the characters Mercedes, Maria, and Virginia. Mercedes, a Cuban immigrant already established in New York City, keeps house and cooks for her family.[1] Next-generation women Maria and Virginia are expected to help with housecleaning and cooking, as well as keep up their studies. Near the end of “Visitors, 1965,” Virginia and Maria find work in a factory in Jersey City.[2] Virginia and Maria are vital moneymakers for their immediate family: “Everyone but Luisa was bringing home money.”[3] Their contributions to the family, although only acknowledged in a fleeting sentence, help the family to move out and establish their own home.

Mercedes, Maria, and Virginia are all bit players in a male-centered story. Hijuelos hints at but does not further expand on the Latina experience in his piece. In contrast, Virginia Sánchez Korrol elaborates on the significance of Puerto Rican women in society in her essay, “Puerto Ricans in ‘Olde’ Nueva York: Migrant Colonias of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Korrol highlights female academics, factory workers, journal writers, labor organizers, homemakers, and entrepreneurs in her discussion of Puerto Rican immigrants and migrants in the first half of the twentieth century. By featuring the Latina women’s stories along with the men’s, Korrol rightly brings attention to the struggles and successes of Puerto Rican women who lived and worked in the United States.

Virginia Sánchez Korrol brings focus to many interesting and empowering female figures in “Puerto Ricans in ‘Olde’ Nueva York.” One such figure, feminist and international labor leader Luisa Capetillo, was born in Puerto Rico in 1879. Capetillo fought for laborer’s rights using her skills as an orator and passion for socialist and anarchist philosophy. Outspoken and unabashedly herself, Capetillo was once arrested in Havana for “walking down the street dressed in a suit, tie, and hat.”[4]

Luisa Capetillo
Luisa Capetillo

While Korrol provides Luisa Capetillo as a radical example of how Puerto Rican women made a difference outside of the sphere of domesticity, she acknowledges the more traditional work Puerto Rican female migrants participated in. “The majority of female migrants were young working-class homemakers or single women who labored as seamstresses, unskilled workers, domestics, or home needle workers.”[5] Puerto Ricans, male or female, often only had the opportunity to work in the lowest paying sectors of production in the American workforce.[6] Through the acknowledgement of working-class, domestic women, Korrol emphasizes the importance of figures like Mercedes, Maria, and Virginia in the way that their creator does not.

In her work, Korrol highlights women of different social classes, professions, and beliefs. In doing so, she allows for a greater understanding of how Puerto Rican women shaped their families, neighborhoods, and even countries. Latina women are not just secondary characters in fictional stories, they are living, breathing women with real stories to tell. Even now, it is difficult to find information on Latina women in the workplace, but some information is available. The Center for American Progress is a resource that provides statistics regarding the successes and difficulties facing Latinas in today’s society. While Latina women have made gains in business ownership in this century, Latinas are still underrepresented as business owners (Latinas own about 1 out of every 10 women-owned businesses).[7] Latina women are not as economically secure as their male and white counterparts (Latina women make 55 cents to the dollar when compared to white, non-Hispanic males. White women make 78.1 cents to the dollar compared to white males.)[8]

Latina women have lived and worked in the United States for over a hundred years and their stories are a vital part of the American fabric. Through their work both inside and outside the home, they have contributed to life in the United States. How can we honor their service and recognize their struggles? How do we make them the protagonist of their own stories?

[1] Oscar Hijuelos, “Visitors, 1965,” Face to Face: Readings on Confrontation and Accommodation in America, ed. Joseph Zaitchik, et al. (Houghton Mifflin Company), 230.

[2] Hijuelos, “Visitors, 1965,” 235.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Luisa Capetillo,” American National Biography Online, accessed March 30, 2015, http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-01314.html.

[5] Virginia Sánchez Korrol, “Puerto Ricans in ‘Olde’ Nueva York: Migrant Colonias of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Nueva York, 1613-1945, edited by Edward J. Sullivan (New-York Historical Society, 2010), 119.

[6] Korrol, “Puerto Ricans in ‘Olde’ Nueva York,” 113.

[7] “Fact Sheet: The State of Latinas in the United States,” Center for American Progress, accessed March 30, 2015, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2013/11/07/79167/fact-sheet-the-state-of-latinas-in-the-united-states/.

[8] Ibid.

17 thoughts on “Between the Lines: Latina Women Working in the United States

  1. Carly, you ask how we can make these amazing women the protagonist of their own story. I think what you are doing is exactly it. The problem is that these women have been pushed to the background and in order for us to get their story out we need to start writing about them, creating exhibits about them, bring them to the foreground. It’s really through knowledge and understanding that we can give these women a voice. Your statistic on how much they earn to the dollar is heartbreaking. If we can make this information more widely known we can start the process of telling their stories, and hopefully impact positive change.

    1. This post and Kim’s presentation last week reminded me that the Detroit Institute of Arts just launched a special exhibit on the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo during their year in Detroit. I have not yet seen it, but from reading and talking to museum staff there it sounds like both artists are equal protagonists in the “big idea” of the exhibit, as viewers get to see how each of them grew separately as artists and together as a couple. Featuring an artist power couple might not be the exact point Carly was getting at, but it feels like a step in the right direction. Here is a nice writeup from the Detroit News.

      http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/wayne-county/2015/03/13/diego-rivera-frida-kahlo-exhibit-detroit-institute-arts-national-spotlight/70259274/

  2. Are Latina women facing the same stereotypical boundaries as Black women? Instead of being the mammy or the jezebel, they are perceived only as the homemakers. We need to allow these women the opportunities to represent themselves how they see themselves. Melissa hit the nail on the head when she said we need exhibits, programs, and educational opportunities to learn about the REAL Latina women.

    1. Wow, I didn’t even think about the idea of a Latina stereotype and connect it to the stereotypes often associated with black women. We should talk about this in class.

    2. I agree with you Sammy, that Latina women are heavily stereotyped in two days society. I also believe and agree with Melissa that museums are the right platform to help create awareness and social change. Museums offer us the opportunity to engage in intellectual conversations n a safe place about difficult issues. More museums need to tackle real issues facing minorities today through exhibits, programs, and educational opportunities.

  3. I am going to jump on the Carly-Melissa-Sammy bandwagon here. I think you all make great points about showcasing real Latina women so that others can see just how deserving they all are. Carly, I found your statistic particularly poignant and it reminded me of the article I read about Germany last week (the one where Germany might start publishing how much each person makes in a given company to promote gender equality). Perhaps if more people were aware of the gross difference in salaries they would push for more policies to even the balance.

    1. Oh, I think the idea to post how much everyone makes is an interesting idea and might actually lead to equality! Nobody can pretend not to have known it was happening!

  4. I love this post and the comments that followed. I was thinking while reading “Visitors, 1965” that I wanted to know more about Mercedes. This woman was being abused while trying to keep a good home for her children and oppressive husband. I wondered what her goals had been before she married Alejo. What could she have done in America if her family and society had given her the chance? I am also shocked by the financial statistic you provided, Carly. I couldn’t agree more, that the way to bring this change about is to bring attention to it. Also to highlight all of the amazing things that Latina women do in the business sector, in the arts, and so much more.

  5. I really liked how Korrol highlighted Puerto Rican women of different classes, showing how all of them made important contributions, whether it was working-class women supporting their families, authors writing influential books, or labor organizers fighting for women’s rights. This story shows how women of different classes had differing experiences and can’t be placed in a single box.

    I think the key point here is “Latina women are not just secondary characters in fictional stories, they are living, breathing women with real stories to tell.” It’s so true, and we just need to step back, let them tell their own stories, and truly listen.

  6. I love this idea of bringing exhibits about real Latina women. I disagree with Sammy though. Our readings does portray the homemaker. However, other source of fictions depict the jezebel and some could argue that there are stereotypes specific to Latinas. So I think like with our discussion in black feminism, we need encourage the real individual, instead the stereotype.

  7. Carly, I really liked your discussion about different representations of Latinas in our readings and what this means for how society perceives them overall. Even in the background of Visitors the women are working hard and contributing to their families and communities. I found Korrol’s article very interesting in learning more about how immigrant Puerto Rican women organized themselves and formed their own communities. These are the stories that I would like to hear more about.

  8. I really liked your points about representation, and how we can bring this into the museum field. Its time to give these women a voice, and show what a diverse group of people Latina Women are. Maybe through programs, and community outreach museum professionals can help show how strong Latina Women are? I’d love to see more real stories in museums.

  9. I think there are many different ways that museums can bring out the real stories of Latina women to the public. It is difficult to get these stories out if Latina and minority populations do not feel welcome in the museum. The first thing I believe museums need to do is to provide programs in Spanish and English, develop diversity in the museum profession by encouraging Latinos and African Americans and other minority groups to enter the museum field. Museums need to have real representations of Latinos is to do community outreach, oral histories, and find other ways to give them a voice in museums.

    1. Falicia, I think your ideas for giving Latina women a voice are good ones. Having bilingual museum materials is especially important. I often wonder, though, if people who are not Latina women are truly equipped to tell their stories authentically. Is the true solution to hire Latinas?

  10. I think there are many different ways that museums can bring out the real stories of Latina women to the public. It is difficult to get these stories out if Latina and minority populations do not feel welcome in the museum. The first thing I believe museums need to do is to provide programs in Spanish and English and develop diversity in the museum profession. We need to encourage Latinos, African American,s and other minority groups to enter the museum field. Museums need to have real representations of Latinos in the museum and they can do this through community outreach with school programs, oral histories, represent their cultures in the collections, and find other ways to give them a voice in museums.

  11. Fantastic post Carly! I really enjoyed your discussion of Latina women in the readings. I found it interesting how much you gauged from the stories that definitely were very male-centric. It’s a shame that it takes so much effect to even begin to uncover “real” stories, but I think it’s something we have talked about when trying to represent different marginalized groups. Historians, researchers, and museum professors all need to look beyond the story or document to begin to really bring these other stories to light.

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