On the Class War within my Family

Women and Children 1968, Photo by Irwin Nash.

Sunnyside, WA – The older I become, the more difficult it has been for me to visit my family who stayed in the Yakima Valley. Christmas is one of those times when we gather, and a lot of unresolved history bubbles just under the surface. On a good visit, I will spend the entire time talking to my grandparents, asking my grandfather in particular about his past as a miner, my grandmother often finds ways to change the subject about the past, it is clear that it is painful to her.

On the hard visits, I’m faced with talking to my uncles, whom I love dearly, but just happen to be drunk. My parents often sheltered me from this, but as I got older, a younger version of myself began to seek their company, and even the words I would hear from the lips of my grandfathers, and that I hear repeated by my uncles, bring me shame.

A good friend, once upon a time, took me aside to tell me when I had been drinking, that he cared about me, but there was something about my patriarchy that sat very deep, and it was unsettling to him because it prevented him from having my back. He has since advanced some of the most cutting edge thinking around transgender experiences in Chicana/o communities, I think his gender justice analysis was on point. It saddens me that it took almost 30 years for that education to happen, and for many reasons and broken relationships, it came too late.

The class war within my family, what tears it apart, begins within each and every member of my family; men, women, and children. It extends across the North American hemisphere’s migrant streams to other dispossessed indigenous peasants who find themselves working, enslaved or incarcerated (detained) in the bellies of the global north. It is a battle of staying together and resisting the imperative of breaking relationships and going about the world as individuals. It is a battle I sometimes feel we’re losing, yet one in which I am pleasantly surprised, when I’m lucid enough, as my friend Frank Galarte, to see redemption on the horizon.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

“’Que se pudieran defender’ (So You Could Defend Yourselves): Chicanas, Regional History, and National Discourses” is to me, one of the most important essays written by a former farmworker in the 20th century. Penned by Antonia I. Castañeda, a Tejana migrant farm worker to the Yakima Valley, she shared a provacative insight both to the field of Chicana and Chicano Studies but also to anyone engaged in anti-capitalist struggles on the front of industrialized agriculture in the United States of America.

Her contribution to Chicana/o Studies was to encourage historians to widen their Southwestern U.S. centered scope if they were to see a bigger picture of capitalist circuits of production in the 20th century. In particular, she encouraged the examination of the diverse migrant streams, including the one from Texas to Washington state that she traveled as a little girl, so that emerging historians could defend themselves better. Her voice of reason was specifically targeted toward those documenting the significant role of women in changing that economic structure to make that history available for generations to come.

Written in 2001, it was an act of solidarity by a senior Chicana scholar, defending the intellectual contribution of a rising Chicana scholar, Emma Perez, who had received a difficult reception of her groundbreaking monograph, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (1999), which challenged that history in its dominant from, normalized a male gaze and in erasing the women and the colonized from history was a colonial project.

Castañeda’s essay sought to undo the significance of regional boundaries in historiography because Chicanas, as her own lived experience as a migrant farmworker demonstrated, existed beyond and across those boundaries.

Both Castañeda and Pérez deeply broadened our understanding of the class composition of diverse groups of Mexican people, and in doing so, reclaimed a lineage of struggle that tied past revolutionary women to the present.

Castañeda described two battlefronts, the first was what she and her colleagues Emma Pérez and Deena Goanzalez had experienced in academia regarding the production of knowledge in the discipline of history, and second for Castañeda, was what she had experienced as a migrant worker in the agricultural fields of Texas and the Yakima Valley.

Farm Worker Spring 1968, Photo by Irwin Nash.

Though historians may have placed a focus on Castañeda’s historical contribution in theory, it is her contribution in the the area of practice that I believe makes this essay so important to those of us who struggle to change the world around us.

Castañeda places at the center of her decolonial project, or the immediate threat, the legacy of sexual and gendered violence against women of color, in particular Native American and Mexican women in the United States Settler Colonial history. She goes on to demonstrate that the perspective that normalizes this sexual and gendered violence against women permeates society on a larger level, but in particular she argues that,

Farmworkers also learn early that their bodies are workers’ bodies. They know that the viejo (boss) is the person who controls the wages their labor earns and the water they need to keep working. They know what happens to the family if a body does not pull its weight, falls ill, or is injured. (123)

Castañeda juxtaposes this process of farmworker alienation and dehumanization that begins with violence against women farmworkers as a class, with the direct decolonial and regenerative work, women’s work done in the spaces considered outside of production,

I observed women creating community and creating change even as they analyzed, interpreted, and strategized to affect their circumstances in varying ways. (124)

The essay gained its title from an interview Castañeda did with her mother, Doña Irene, who explained to her the role she took to raise hell for her family not to stay in a segregated Crystal City, Texas where “Mexicans had neither voice nor vote; many injustices were committed against them” because they were denied the right to an education. Doña Irene would go on to tell an older Castañeda that she took on extra work and the role of educating her, “so that you would not stay ignorant like us and at least you could defend yourselves”(131).

(La Escuelita) School Grounds, Photo by Irwin Nash

Castañeda would go on to close her essay with the following words,

The lives of Tejana and other migrant worker women pose significant new questions to (en)gender that history and its meaning, introducing concepts of the body as well as dispossession, displacement, and appropriation that require new ways of conceptualizing family, household economies, and the agency of working-class women. It is a question not just of inclusion, but of construction.(134-35)

Part of that construction in what is exponentially growing in the latest social movements as gender justice, led primarily by women, queer and transgender people, is how to deal with the legacies of genocide and the dehumanization via generations of sexual and gendered violence against women, children, queer and transgender members of the class that in the context of survival come to be perpetuated by the members of our communities as a product of the conditioning of our bodies as children by the growers we worked for.

Edén E. Torres (2003) asserts that it is through shame and guilt that Chicana women and children are oppressed, furthermore that “oppression is not simply about political or institutional discrimination, but that it is also a form of mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional abuse,” experiences that humiliate us and that we internalize (40). Aurora Levins Morales (1998) reminds us that “the oppression of children is the wheel that keeps all other oppressions turning,” she asserts that “without it, misery would have to be imposed afresh on each new generation, instead of being passed down like a heritage of disease,” and ultimately that “it is through the agency of former children that the revolutionary potential of each generation of children is held in check” in our society (51).

Labor camp home fall 1967, Photo by Irwin Nash.

Following the decolonial thinking of Castañeda, those advancing the practice of healing from this type of trauma have come to an important realization that as hard as it may be, it is crucial to create a safe healing space that keeps the composition of the class intact while at the same time stops the continued perpetuation of sexual and gendered violence against women, children, queer and transgender people in particular, but also men. Levins Morales had warned that the moment we make progress on this type of healing, that “misery would have to be imposed afresh on each new genreation” as Atenco, Femicides and the more recent Ayotzinapa and Ferguson come to mind as examples of this, it is important that we not lose hope as it is also evidence that we are winning this decolonial war, despite losing battles here and there amongst ourselves.

Christmastime in Sunnyside

I asked my uncle why he was scared? When he told me to leave my grandparents house because the conversation I was having with a family guest was politics, and politics was all garbage. I was a bit shocked by his outburst, though he had been drinking. I was involved in a socratic conversation that likely on the surface appeared hostile, maybe he thought he was protecting me, but it almost, ‘ya merito’ made me feel quite small. I had not been drinking, and was lucid enough to give him room to cool off, he ended up leaving shortly after his outburst.

Our guest continued to engage me after he left, along with my cousin’s husband, and we had the opportunity to work through to a synthesis that the problem that was holding people back from struggling for their own liberation, was precisely this class war between recent mexican immigrant workers and settled mexican citizen workers. He framed my uncle’s outburst in the context of being part of the settled segment of the class, and had assumed, since I had crossed class lines and advocated the side of immigrant workers, that I was a part of that segment of the class. Even as I tell this story, the absolute ridiculousness of these divisions is apparent, but from the point of view of practice, I believe that the problem of the browning of the managerial class and class segmentation in general, is the most glaring obstacle to achieving the class consciousness necessary for a revolution to take place.

Farm Worker Union Meeting 1972, Photo by Irwin Nash.

That class struggle begins within each and every one of our own families. I told my uncle, probably against better judgement, that I was trying to educate him after explaining the socratic method. He told me he did not want to be educated by me. Before he left I hugged him and told him one day he would follow me, and he told me we were different and had different and opposite paths.

I took the two hour drive home to ruminate on my misspoken words. For my uncle, I after all was the brown manager, and it was likely restimulating for him to be spoken to with conviction by his own nephew in such a patronizing way. But, as our guest would later point out, my uncle was not the only one watching and listening, and learning.

In my family, I have had to stand up for my queer cousin and her family who has been through the ringer when it comes to sexual and gendered violence. My aunt escaped from a safehouse bound for the sex trade at an early age that the rest of my family, with the exception of my grandmother, has completely erased from our family history. She has been brutalized, mistreated, and dehumanized in the worst possible ways by both her perpetrators and by her family members who took to using her as a scapegoat many, many years ago. I helped my aunt move away from certain premature death, and her daughter followed her lead shortly after. These are unprecedented gender justice wins in my family, but there still is little room for her. We have to make room.

My uncle witnessed so much of that same sexual and gendered violence as a child, so much so that he would stand at the screen door, flipping off my grandfathers compadres, whom he hated, because upon request my grandfather would beat he and his siblings for their entertainment. My uncle saw his best friend murdered at a young age under the most extreme of circumstances and it caused him to well his rage inside of himself over his teenage years. This same uncle’s first born was diagnosed with hogkins disease, a form of cancer caused by the many environmental factors within proximity of where he was raised including the Hanford Nuclear reservation, some of the state’s highest nitrate contamination of the groundwater under their Outlook home, and the pesticides they had been exposed to as farm workers.

Young worker 1971, Photo by Irwin Nash.

This Christmas I sifted through photographs from the Irwin Nash collection from Washington State University, very similar to the photos Antonia I. Castañeda included from her family’s private collection in the essay referenced above. I asked my grandparents and my oldest uncle if they recognized any of the people in the photos from 1968 and 1971 taken at local labor camps, asparagus and hops fields that they also worked in that time period. My grandmother recognized one family and said that the parents had since died, my grandfather told me about his job running the machine for the Hops harvests, and my uncle told me how much he loathed even looking at the asparagus buckets, he was maybe 10 years old at the time of those photos.

Mother harvesting asparagus 1972, Photo by Irwin Nash.

There are women engaged in all aspects of production and reproduction documented in those photos, along with a younger, queer colleague of Castañeda’s, Tomás Ybarra Frausto, who led their collaborative education and culture project at La Escuelita in Granger, Washington pictured below at a Seattle Boycott picket line.

Tomas Ybarra Frausto at Safeway boycott march 1970, Photo by Irwin Nash.

Castañeda and Frausto would leave Washington state as they moved on in their careers, nevertheless they left a legacy of radical queer and feminist organizing that is important for us to recover, to make room, to construct as she puts it in her essay, same as we are doing in our own families. This is a recipe for class consciousness, class consolidation, and for our next revolution.

Woman on farm machinery (hops) 1971, Photo by Irwin Nash.

Castañeda pointed to the necessity for us to practice following the lead of farmworker women, in making space, in healing, and in ending patriarchy as a necessary and primary decolonial project, that we may “Jalar parejo” towards the world that we create in the place of what we have inherited and the violence that has been imposed.

Protesting for hop strike 1970, Photo by Irwin Nash.

If there is to be a revolution, we will have to widen the scope of ourselves as a class, to resolve the problem of the brown managerial class by reminding former farm workers what it meant to put the wellbeing of the whole over that of the individual. By loving each other enough to make room, it’s happened many times before.

One thought on “On the Class War within my Family

  1. important writ, Tomas; the mujeres with whom I grew up in the campo I lived in maintained an internal strength around them that was almost sacred in nature. Their words were always well-thought before they spoke. Their movements were those of guerrillas: deliberate and effective in pushing back whatever xingaderas were thrown at them. I watched and learned from them how to fight like mujeres fight–we can and will kill you emotionally, psychologically, physically if we must. Victims of sexual violence most of them had been. Yet it was in the fields when we women all sat to eat on the ground that I came to know that the survival of our men, children, and cultura was and is in our female hands and our damn and eager willingness to fight using all of our senses in that fight. It is these mujeres footsteps I follow.

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