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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 77-92

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Chicana Critical Rhetoric

Recrafting La Causa in Chicana Movement Discourse, 1970-1979

Democratizing information about the Chicana Feminist Movement has been—and continues to be—a challenging assignment in women's studies and Chicana/o studies programs. At a mid-1990s National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) conference, a college-age Chicana questioned the near-invisibility of women in the preview showing of the film Chicano ! One member of the panel presenting the documentary responded, "Those were traditional times. Women were just not as involved." Two years later, Alma García's momentous anthology, Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings, was published and is now used in Chicana/o studies courses nationwide. In 1998, Dolores D. Bernal's piece on grassroots Chicana leadership was printed in Frontiers. Each of these events, and others like them, challenges the idea that Chicanas were not as involved in the movement as were men and suggests that those "traditional" times were, in fact, the figment of a patriarchal imaginary.1

Historical evidence provided by Vicki L. Ruiz in From Out of the Shadows and Emma Pérez in The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History late in the 1990s proved that Mexican and Mexican American women have always been involved in their communities. Both Ruiz and Pérez forged historical links between Mexicana and Chicana feminism to show how Mexicanas and Chicanas have been constant agents in the making of history and culture. These authors are just two in a cohort of Chicana scholars providing new theoretical approaches to and pedagogical tools for studying the Chicana Feminist Movement and Chicana/Mexicana history. Such scholarship reteaches the history of a politically and culturally particular community in the pursuit of a more egalitarian society. The ongoing feminist struggle to keep Chicana Movement voices alive speaks to our roles as academics. Jaqui M. Alexander and Chandra R. Mohanty address this struggle as the "decolonial project." They assert, "Decolonization has a fundamentally pedagogical dimension—an imperative [End Page 77] to understand, to reflect on, and to transform relations of objectification and dehumanization, and to pass this knowledge along to future generations."2 In this sense, it is our duty to replay, reanalyze, and recontextualize early Chicana feminist thought as it speaks to everyday feminist practices and contemporary scholastic projects.

The work of critical rhetoricians in communication studies frames this rhetorical analysis of Chicana Feminst Movement texts. Raymie E. McKerrow first coined the phrase "critical rhetoric" to refer to the two-part task of analyzing the opposing discursive forces of dominating versus liberating power. Kent Ono and John M. Sloop furthered McKerrow's ideas by encouraging rhetoricians to focus on vernacular discourse, which may better reveal the complexities of power dynamics beyond oppressor/oppressed, domination/liberation binaries. Drawing from these ideas, I propose a Chicana Critical Rhetoric (CCR) to refer to a unique body of knowledge that represents a merging of Chicana feminist studies and critical rhetoric developed in both vernacular and academic forums.3

The critique of the materiality of discourse initiated by Dana Cloud complements the Chicana studies component of CCR. Cloud, using the term "materiality" in place of the phrase "material reality," questions the power that McKerrow attributes to discourse. Advocates of the "materiality of discourse" position endorsed by McKerrow suggest that discourse has direct material effects. Cloud questions McKerrow's assertion that critical rhetoric is in itself transformative. Instead, Cloud contends that activism is a necessary counterpart to rhetoric in facilitating material change. Contemporary Chicana feminist activists, writers, and academics make similar arguments that distinguish rhetoric from materiality. Communication scholar Lisa Flores, for example, assesses the intentional "rhetoric of difference" apparent in Chicana literature in the effort to create discursive homelands, or spaces safe from discrimination and scrutiny Chicanas faced in the "material" aspects of their lives. I argue that in the struggle for safer spaces in the material realm, the first Chicana feminists recrafted the agenda of La Causa&#x02014...