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Mester Interviews the Chicana M(other)work Collective

In honor of Día de la Madres, we are excited to inaugurate our first blog with segments from our forthcoming interview "'Are You My Revolutionary Mother?' … and Other Questions for the Chicana M(other)work Collective" with Mester, the journal of the graduate students of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Los Angeles.

All members of our collective—Cecilia Caballero, Dr. Yvette Martínez-Vu, Dr. Judith C. Pérez-Torres, Dr. Michelle Téllez, Christine Vega—responded to the interview questions composed by Mester editors Carolina Beltrán and Dr. Isabel Gómez.

We share excerpts of our interview here:

Mester: How did you develop the concept of Chicana M(other)work? Why Chicana? Why Motherwork?

CMW: One of our members, Michelle, was the one to initially come up with the concept of Chicana Motherwork. She had published a piece in an anthology by Demeter Press called Latina/Chicana Mothering (2011) that was later adapted for The Feminist Wire, titled “Personal is Political: Chicana Motherwork” (2014) where she borrowed the theoretical term “motherwork” from Patricia Hill Collins. Collins uses motherwork to think about Black mothers and their mothering as labor. In other words, motherwork refers to the work that Black women provide to educate, care, nurture, and discipline their communities amidst issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Michelle then applied this term in relation to her own experience as someone who self-identifies as a Chicana, as someone whose parents are Mexican and whose mother is a migrant, as someone who must constantly navigate cultural and political borders while raising a child of color in the U.S. The five of us initially came together as a group in 2014 for a panel titled “Mothers of Color in Academia” at the American Studies Association conference and the phrase Chicana M(other)work applied to the other members because we too self-identify as Chicanas, as mothers, as first-generation graduate students, scholars, and low-income and working class people. Through our collaboration we’ve also reframed the concept to - Chicana M(other)work with parenthesis - because we wanted to demonstrate the ways in which our labor is layered and we uphold how we practice Chicana mothering in multiple ways and in multiple settings.

Mester: How do you work together? What are your best practices and why? How does your “individual” research and your training in different fields inform your work as a collective?

CMW: Since we have all resided in different parts of the country, most of the work we do is virtual. When we come together, through video chatting and conference calls, we get to dream about what we hope to create for ourselves, for our community, for our families. What can our work do? We are non-hierarchical and make decisions through consensus. We are lucky because we all bring different strengths to our collective and can delegate tasks between ourselves depending on our schedules and different skill set. We also get together in person a few times a year, whether it’s by presenting at a national conference or organizing a writing retreat. Our project is interdisciplinary, therefore, everything we do is informed by multiple disciplines. Some of us are trained in social science methods while others in humanities methods. This is reflected in our writing through the integration of statistics and other data as well as the integration of close readings and testimonios. We believe that interdisciplinary scholarship strengthens the work we do because our writing is informed not only by multiple experiential voices but multiple academic perspectives as well.

As a collective, we also actively practice self and community care. We holistically value ourselves, each other, our children, and our communities. This kind of care work can look like many things, such as the five of us participating in a healing circle, organizing reading circles for discussing women of color literary works about mothering, mentoring younger women of color students from our communities, and more. In these ways, we actively reject the neoliberal institutional model of the individual scholar and we redefine what “success” means to us on our own terms as a collective. For us, this means taking care of each other, our children, and our communities in a sustaining, reciprocal, and liberating way.

Mester: In your video, you define Chicana M(other)work with key-words, saying: “Chicana M(other)work is decolonial, intergenerational, spiritual” and more. Can you tell us more about these qualities?

CMW: The keywords that we use in our testimonio video come from a writing retreat we had in Arizona in the fall of 2015. Through our conversations, and the sharing of our experiences and commitments, these terms kept regenerating themselves. When we use terms like carework, decolonial, intergenerational, and spiritual, we position ourselves in conversation with other individuals who provide care, who fight against imperialism, who have suffered from intergenerational violence and trauma, and those who strive to find non-Western and/or indigenous and ancestral forms of healing.

Mester: How do you relate practices of healing from pain and trauma with acts of motherwork? What can greater attention to motherwork teach us about healing from physical or emotional forms of pain?

CMW: All five of us have experienced some form of intergenerational abuse and trauma in our families. Our project is not simply a project to heal others but also to heal ourselves and our communities. Each time we come together, we not only work on our projects but we carve time to check in on each other and take care of each other by offering each other consejos or support. There have been several occasions where we just had to put our work aside and gather together to support one another as that is more important to us. We cannot speak of healing to others until we learn how to heal our current traumas. While healing is a process, it takes a strong group of mujeres to share and feel empowered all over again after being marginalized by academia and all the -isms that surround our children and ourselves within our everyday life.

Mester: Some conversations about feminism in the the workplace have taken up the idea of “leaning in” to ambition. How does your project intersectionally critique this normative vision of feminism?

CMW: The concept of Chicana M(other)work challenges white feminism in the workplace, but specifically, in academic spaces. The reality is that we have to ask who has the privilege of ‘leaning in’, and what are they ‘leaning on’? Most of the current scholarship on academic mothers focuses on married heterosexual white women with children without any mention of intersectionality, race, or class. However, Chicana M(other)work challenges this by uplifting and validating our experiences as Women of Color in academia and the low wages and high demands and expectations that comes with it. We speak of what is often unspoken. We see the recognition and praise men receive when they bring their children to work in comparison to Mothers of Color who are often seen as unprofessional when we bring our children to academic spaces. We speak on the negative advice we have received from some tenured mothers of color who purposely do not identify publicly as mothers and expect their students to similarly silence their mothering experiences. Our vision of Chicana feminism refuses to silence the care we do at home as mothers and instead embrace the intersectionalities we hold and include it in all the work we do, academic and otherwise.

Likewise, we also hold space and acknowledge loss in mothering and motherwork. Patricia Hill Collins reminds us to remember our responsibility to our children of color. In the context of Black Lives Matter, we stand in solidarity with the pain and loss of Black children and Black people due to state-sanctioned violence. It is our duty, as non-Black Mothers of Color who parent non-Black children of color, to abolish state-sanctioned violence which is rooted very specifically in anti-Blackness. This is necessary for the liberation of Black folks.

We also acknowledge heteropatriarchal privilege that frames what “normative” or “acceptable” mothering and parenting looks like in the United States. This also plays into the idea of what motherwork looks like for queer people of color as well. Indeed, this is prevalent for cisgender and heterosexual women as locations of reproductive justice to have agency and the choice to have or not have children without shame. “Motherhood” and mothering is entangled with privileges and desires of the heteronormative patriarchy. And although most of us in this collective identify as cisgender women, not all of us identify as straight. That complexity is critical to our discourse of motherwork and our collective work. We invite the discussion around sexuality and gender presentation to also dismantle and challenge how we perceive motherwork for people of color. We believe and support anyone who desires to mother and/or parent children, anyone who chooses not have children, or perform carework in other ways. This is a reproductive justice issue.

Mester: What about single parenthood or alternative family structures. Does the scholarly community extend resources or support only to some kinds of parents? We are interested in the term “motherful” as a rejection of the “fatherless child” discourse. How can the academy support diverse kinds of families?

CMW: Motherful is a great concept to promulgate. We live in a society that values a certain kind of family structure that serves the neoliberal state, in which the majority of institutions support heteronormative two-parent households. This is true for the kind of families that are made visible to children in the schooling system and it’s true for the labor market where domestic life must not interfere with one’s professional life. Success rests on the assumption that ‘someone’ is taking care of the labor at home. This is blatantly true in the academy where straight white cisgender men are valued and supported in ways that mothers (especially Mother of Color) are not - the tenure track system itself relies on a set of assumptions that are inherently exclude mothers, which translates into parental leave policies that rarely take into consideration the physical labor of producing another human being - if any exists at all - and children are often kept in the closet. Furthermore, due to racist ideologies surrounding single Black and Brown mothers and the ways in which they are shamed and even demonized, we feel that they are especially vulnerable within these institutions. While some individual universities across the United States have implemented some much-needed policies for parenting students and faculty, there is very little accommodation for single mothers of color in academia and other marginalized groups, such as adoptive parents of color, queer parents of color, and other forms of parenting.

Mester: What comes next for your collective? ...

To read more about our future work and the rest of our interview, please stay tuned for the upcoming issue of Mester.

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