Teaching Chicana History: Reflecting on the Pedagogic Potential of Emotions
Ana Elizabeth Rosas, November 2012
Reflecting on the teaching of Women's History—and in my case, Chicana History—is an extension of how seriously I take the privilege and responsibility of being one of two Chicana historians with teaching appointments at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).That my classroom may be among the few places for UCI students to learn from a Chicana in the capacity of professor of history elevates the importance of teaching this material responsibly. Bringing together the worlds of the professoriate, neighborhood, and mujeres y hombres de lucha (women and men of struggle) that stretch across Mexico and the United States has encouraged this generation of students to understand the urgent relevance of Chicana history.
This has not been an easy undertaking. Students initially do not derive the same joy and value from learning Chicana history as I do from teaching it. Instead, they struggle to find much purpose to pursuing Chicana history as a legitimate field of inquiry, and our current intellectual climate nurtures their resistance. News of ethnic studies departments and programs being collapsed, merged with other units, or eliminated altogether fuels negative attitudes toward the field. Such conditions require me to pursue teaching with a keen sensibility for the continuum of emotions that connect this generation of students with generations of Chicanas within and beyond the United States.
Using an accessible and humane continuum of sources lies at the heart of preparing students to reconceptualize the importance of Chicana history to their education. Crafting and facilitating introductory discussions of the emotions entangled in the Chicana experience has been imperative to teaching the gendered realities Chicanas have and continue to face across space and time. Focusing their attention on the relationships between a continuum of sources that capture the emotional contours of the Chicana experience, as well as their own coming of age, compels students to reflect on the continuity, intensity, and longevity of the emotional pressures they share with the Chicanas they study. Irrespective of their interest and familiarity with this field of inquiry, these discussions provide students with inspiration and common ground.
Discussing scenes from a feature-length film, lyrics from a love song, and excerpts from a Mexican American daughter's letter to her immigrant father enriched students' understanding of the generative potential of love and other emotions in the Chicana experience. Learning more about and from the languages of love framing each of these sources illuminates the expressive cultures that have shaped Chicanas' pursuit of their emotional desires and relationships, and instills a newfound appreciation for the extraordinary emotional pressures Chicanas have endured.
The 2009 feature film 500 Days of Summer—a compressed account of the emotional journey taken by two young people who fall in and out of love—encouraged students to reflect on the timeless emotional labor of feeling, expressing emotions, and following and recording the heart's desires.1 Screening and discussing Tom's (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Summer's (Zooey Deschanel) frank declarations of their feelings for each other allowed students to see a plausible version of themselves on screen, and provided them a critical first step toward an ongoing discussion of the gender politics shaping the intimate relationships informing the Chicana experience.
To expand what students understand as expressions of love, they also listened to the Quarteto Mujeres de Honor's 1920 love song, Sueños Divinos (Divine Dreams), and read a letter to the father of Benita Miranda—a Mexican American teenage girl laboring in the United States.2 This combination of sources captured the emotional range of the challenges facing Chicanas of different ages striving to nurture emotional relationships that, unlike the love affair of Tom and Summer, stretch across the U.S.-Mexico border. Throughout the 1920s, Mexican women between the ages of seventeen and fifty sung this love song exclusively in the company of women and the privacy of their homes on select evenings. Singing this song together eased the heartbreak of separating from their Mexican immigrant husbands, who had journeyed to the United States in search of better wages. The lyrics made clear to students that, even in song, early 20th-century Mexican married women expressed themselves and their emotions with caution.
Even married Mexican women had to earn the right to express their feelings, coming together to sing only if they had completed their chores, caretaking obligations, wage earning activities, and other tasks critical to their families' welfare. Coming together to express their emotions and comfort each other through song was not an activity embraced by their extended families and peers. The emotional pain of leading lives separated from their husbands was not considered important, nor publicly recognized as justification enough to assemble whenever they chose.
Benita Miranda's letter to her father is an effective source for illustrating the range of relationships between children and their parents throughout the early 20th century.3 On August 13, 1920, Miranda separated from her father so that she could labor in Oceanside, California, as he recovered from a work-related physical injury that kept him from financing their basic needs. Students were immediately struck by the guarded nature of Miranda's letter and the minimal information she shared with her father. It became evident to them that out of love for her father, she did not want to worry but to reassure him of her whereabouts and work habits. Sparing her father any mention of hardships beyond her poor wages is evidence of her loyalty and love for her father, and an extension of her realization that informing her father without alarming him would hasten his recovery. Miranda's letter demontrates the guarded language of love that even young Mexican American girls used when writing to their parents.
This and other introductory discussions of a combination of sources encouraged students to consider the gendered forms of Chicana activism and settlement, and eased them into realizing that a gender politics steeped in loyalty to nation, to family values and traditions have held countless Chicanas accountable for their families' emotional welfare. This has and continues to nurture my deep-seated investment in using Tom, Summer, Benita, and the experiences of hombres y mujeres de lucha to teach students that Chicanas have labored tirelessly to assert and pursue their hearts' desires. Often and eventually, teaching Chicana history through discussions and sources that bridge generational, geographic, and other divides has inspired students to see sources and experiences that mirror their and their parents' own emotional journeys in the context of the late twentieth century, pointing to the enduring qualities of the restrictive gender politics that shape how we express our emotions and pursue our desires. I am convinced that we must approach Chicana history open to a combination of sources that capture the emotional stakes shaping the Chicana experience, as well as that of our students, to teach effectively in the face of resistance.
Ana Elizabeth Rosas is assistant professor of history and director of undergraduate studies of Chicana and Chicano and Latina and Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Southern California in 2006 and received the W. Turrentine Jackson Award of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association for her dissertation. She has served as the chair of the AHA's Committee on Minority Historians, and recently co-taught the summer seminar on Immigration and American Life organized by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.