Unknown Activists, Invisible Promotoras

By Aline Jesus Rafi and Laura E. Zárate

Latinx Feminists in the anti-rape movement[1] have long embodied the realities and challenges expressed in the Combahee River Collective Statement (CRCS) published forty years ago. While studies of recent Latinx social and political engagement tend to focus on responses to anti-immigration mobilization (see: McGovern 2009; Martinez 2008; Cordero-Guzman et al. 2008), Latinx Feminists working in the anti-rape movement in the United States have built a collective identity and common language that mirrors, supports, and builds on the work of Black Feminists. In particular, the CRCS connects to the work of Latinx Feminists by legitimizing both identity and coalition-building as sites of resistance, and by recognizing intersectionality as an indispensable component of the work of Latinx advocates. In essence, similarly to Black Feminists, Latinx Feminists have persisted in engendering lasting social impact through collaborative work in spite of social and cultural marginalization and hostile political environments.

Even if lacking a formalized statement to define its coalition as an official movement, Latinx Feminists have been active in combating oppression, tokenism, and the lack of resources that tend to push our contributions to the margins of mainstream feminist initiatives. In effect, working in the field of sexual violence while Latinx means acknowledging one’s potential place as unknown activists, invisible promotoras. However, the emergence of the internet has provided a safe space and fertile ground in which many Latinxs in the anti-rape movement have found a sense of purpose and belonging.  The emergence of virtual mobilization as an activism-enhanced platform allowed Latinxs the ability to continue working as part of the dominant anti-rape mobilization, while also collaborating and intervening on behalf of our communities. A clear example of a Latinx coalition of resistance that builds on the previous and existing work of Black Feminists is the Alianza Latina en contra Agresión Sexual.

Coalition as Resistance

The Alianza Latina en contra la Agresión Sexual (ALAS), is a network of activists spearheaded by the non-profit organization Arte-Sana in Dripping Springs, Texas (ALAS n.d.). In 2003, Arte Sana developed and disseminated the first bilingual Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) e-toolkit, which was implemented throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The positive response to the SAMM e-toolkit connected many Latinx activists who had been, for the most part, working in isolation.

ALAS, founded in 2004, attempted to address “the great gaps in services and current level of over-extension of many Latina victim advocates” (ALAS n.d.). In addition to capacity building, development of position statements, and other educational mobilizations, the group also serves as a resource and support network for Latinx victim advocates and activists across the country. ALAS aims for capacity building and for the development of policies and models for victim services that take into consideration the diversity of the Latinx population in the United States. Additionally, the organization also intends to educate the public to increase awareness about sexual violence and decrease misconceptions about Latinx victims of sexual aggression. ALAS relies on cyberactivism to mobilize nationally and transnationally by providing assistance and information to activists and organizations in both the United States and in Latin America. Therefore, most of ALAS’ initiatives are strategized and implemented online by members who are separated by vast geographic distances.

Since its founding, ALAS has been at the forefront of advocating for the elimination of language and systemic barriers for Latinx survivors. In effect, its first position statement, “Eliminating Barriers to Services for Latin@ survivors of Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence” (Carillo et al. 2004) earned the endorsement of thirty-nine sexual violence state coalitions. Some of the further accomplishments of ALAS as a formal group of online activists have included the development and distribution of several additional national position statements and calls to action. These have covered topics such as structural and overt racism within gender-based violence movement organizations (Zárate 2006), sexual victimization and xenophobic stereotypes (Zárate and Jesus Rafi 2009), victim rights and anti-immigration legislation (Zárate et al. 2010), and the rights of refugee children (ALAS 2014).

Furthermore, ALAS has supported Arte Sana, its parent organization, to organize and host eight national bilingual conferences for Latinx activists and victim services professionals, and in the development and testing of an Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) sponsored national toolkit of culturally specific materials to increase awareness about sexual violence and human trafficking among Latinxs. ALAS members were among the 641 Latinx victim advocates and promotoras from 25 states who informed, reviewed, and tested the twelve original presentation and outreach products created through Arte Sana’s Existe Ayuda (Help Exists) Project that is currently available on the OVC’s website (Office of Victims of Crime).

Reclaiming our Voice and Visibility

Initially, due to the few Latinxs sexual violence advocates, geographic distances, as well as the lack of visibility and professional development resources that focused on the Latinx population, ALAS members found a safe space on the internet. As the number of people who identify as Latinx Feminist grow, our visibility within the anti-rape movement has also risen. Nevertheless, the need for culturally appropriate services for survivors of sexual violence has endured. What is more, in addition to external forces, similarly to those Black Feminists face, we also continue to struggle with cultural expectations, negative stereotypes, and controlling images that regulate our lives such as the case of machismo and marianismo ideals. Patricia Hill Collins (2009) identified stereotypical controlling images such as the “welfare recipient, and hot mommas” (p. 67) as tools of racial subjugation to dominate narratives about Black women. Similarly, Latinxs also suffer the toxic effects of othering and have had to work to reclaim both their cultural identity and language after surviving generations of anti-Latino discrimination (Blakemore 2017; Dovidio et al. 2010). Systemic othering has contributed to the profiling of Latinos as “macho” abusers, Latinas as passive victims (Miller 2008), and both as a drain on resources, rather than critical partners in violence prevention, while nativist ‘English only’ attitudes have blocked access to critical services. Accordingly, through collaborative work and the construction and dissemination of our knowledge, Latinx Feminists aim to disrupt oppressive hegemonic standards.

While the ability to connect online led to a flourishing of partnerships and collaborations, the reality is that we have always been present. Latinx advocates are often unheard, segregated, unacknowledged, but never absent. To this end, ALAS has also highlighted the work of our foremothers by releasing a timeline of Latinx victim advocacy contributions in the United States (Zárate 2014).  As an example of Latinx pioneer and tandem efforts to support our communities, Latinas in Los Angeles founded the first bilingual rape crisis center in the country in 1976. (Matthews 1989). As such, while the anti-rape movement has strong links to white middle-class women, women of color, including Latinas, have been active participants in early feminist mobilizations.

Nonetheless, despite actively engaged in early victim services and advocacy efforts, Latinx groundbreaking contributions did not serve to recruit or support a large number of Latinx in joining and attaining leadership roles in the anti-rape movement. Instead, and similarly to the experiences of Black Feminists, racism classism, homophobia, and disagreements concerning culturally specific tactics lead to severe rifts among constituents and created difficulties for inter and intragroup collaborations (Mathews 1989).

The emergence of a virtual coordinated Latinx engagement allowed Latinx Feminists the possibility to reclaim our voice and visibility by fostering a welcoming and nurturing space for other like-minded advocates that support an appreciation for our expertise, a shared cultural understanding, and a sense of belonging. In particular, The Alianza Latina en contra la Agresión Sexual’s virtual footprints solidify and perpetuate our contributions to the field of sexual violence prevention and response, and in promoting Spanish language training for bilingual advocates, enhancing bilingual outreach, and the inclusion of Latinxs as agents of change.

Latinx leadership and involvement are crucial because without our vision and guidance, culturally and language appropriate services, as well as technical training for advocates and professionals, would remain an afterthought as it continues to be the case in many parts of the country. For instance, since 2009 ALAS members have reviewed and published the state coalition websites that include victim assistance information in Spanish. As recognized and funded leaders in victim advocacy, state coalitions set the tone regarding violence prevention, victim rights, accessibility, and training. Nevertheless, out of the 48 active state coalition websites ALAS members reviewed in October 2017, only 13 included information about sexual assault or intimate partner violence in Spanish (Arte Sana). As another example of Latinx leadership, and in light of the impact of the Trump administration on Latinx victim advocacy, in 2017, ALAS also channeled the many fears and concerns expressed by Latinx advocates across the nation through a set of question for victim assistance agencies to assess their level of actionable advocacy including language accessibility and proactive measures to prevent the burnout of bilingual staff. 

A Todo Pulmón

The Combahee River Collective Statement (CRCS) of 1978 provides a reminder of the ongoing struggles women of color face to carve a space, autonomy, and authority in leading the changes and initiatives that inform our lives. All the same, the CRCS also provides a platform from which to understand Latinxs’ multiple and intersecting obstacles (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, language, sexuality), as well as a common language and social-cultural context from which to build our work and our collective identity as Latinx Feminists, advocates, and promotoras.

Following in the path of Combahee Black feminists, the work of ALAS represents the collective effort of minority women who continue to persist in the face of hostile social and political environments that aim to silence us. However, by joining our voices, experiences, and resources we can unite in support of our mission which is to address and prevent sexual violence while honoring the diversity of Latinx cultures by respecting our similarities and the differences in our languages and histories, as well as the multiple oppressions we face as minority and immigrant people. Both the CRCS and our personal experiences as advocates highlight the importance of vigilance and strategic planning. We must not only build on the work of our collective sisterhood of struggle, but we must also formally document both our grievances and successes because our work is crucial, valid, and relevant. Our coalition makes us stronger, and we can achieve more unidas. Forty years have passed, and the work must continue inexorably and a todo pulmón.

Aline Jesus Rafi earned her doctorate in Sociology from Georgia State University. Her research interests include sexual violence, social justice, and social inequality. Ms. Jesus Rafi has over 15 years of experience working with survivors of sexual violence as an advocate, educator, and prevention specialist in various settings.
 

Laura E. Zárate, Arte Sana Founding Executive Director. The daughter of parents from la frontera, Laura E. Zárate is a Chicana feminist, victim advocate, survivor, and co-founder of Arte Sana, recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003, as a model program for underserved survivors of sexual violence. Ms. Zárate has over 30 years of advocacy and bilingual training experience in the U.S. and Latin America, where she co-founded a nonprofit to address child sexual abuse in Paraguay in 1991. She earned a BA in Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and is the proud madre of two incredible young adults.

 

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[1] The organized anti-rape movement surfaced from the larger women’s right movement in the 1970’s with goals to challenge existing assumptions, pervasive myths, unjust laws, and to eliminate the incidence of sexual violence thereby improving the lives of all women (Donat and D’Emilio 1992; Rose 1977).

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