Biography 25.4 (2002) 698-701
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In 1993 the Latina Feminist Group began work on a project involving "collaborative, comparative feminist research" on Latina issues (2). However, they soon rejected this approach as reductive and homogenizing, and as tending to reinforce disciplinary divides. Instead, these Puerto Rican, Chicana, Cuban, Mexican, and Native (North) American academics decided to make their own Latina autobiographies the object of their study. To highlight the wider resonances of these individual experiences, of the political in the personal, they modelled their narratives on testimonio. In its pioneering Latin American and Caribbean form, testimonio was animated by a will to political change through consciousness-raising. It documented lives previously invisible to educated middle-class readers: Elizabeth Burgos Debray's auto/biography of Guatemalan peasant activist Rigoberta Menchú was an early and iconic example, as was Miguel Barnet's biography of the runaway slave Esteban Montejo. For the Latina Feminist Group, testimonio serves "as a crucial means of bearing witness and inscribing into history those lived realities that would otherwise succumb to the alchemy of erasure" (2).
The result is a collection of vivid first-person narratives and short stories, poignantly candid family snapshots, poems, taxonomies, and dialogues. Each is based on oral accounts recorded during the Group's meetings, and assembled under four broad headings. The first and largest of these traces contributors' developing sense of self-worth and self-trust back to supportive families (above all, mothers, grandmothers, and elderly women neighbors), friends, and activist networks. This question of support lies at the heart of the project, for the Group arose partly in response to the deterritorializing effect of academic careers that severed women from their local networks, and obliged them to seek substitutes. This, and the Group's racial and ethnic diversity, helps to explain their rejection of what they see as reductive and potentially oppressive claims to sisterhood, in favor of looser and more flexible bonds of friendship and expanded notions of ethnicity and nationalism. In some cases, experiences of brutality, desperate poverty, marginalization, and loneliness are transcended; in others—particularly those detailing tokenism, workload inequities, and lack of respect in the academy—the rawness is evident. It is still more evident in the next, and explicitly cathartic, group of texts, which recalls some of the experiences that have tested or inhibited the women's sense of self-worth. Unsurprisingly, in a Group accustomed to switching between English, Castilian Spanish, and (in some cases) indigenous languages, failed communication figures prominently here. Academic theory is represented, with almost visceral intensity at times, as one more language of [End Page 698] exclusion. Yet virtually no contributor rejects theory, or treats it as simply another language to be learned, another barrier to cross. What gives the volume much of its freshness and force is its attempt to elaborate new forms of "face to face theorizing and production" (6): ones that are not universalizing or globalizing, or alien to the experience of those who use them, but which are nurtured collectively and emerge organically from locales. The next set of texts, which explores the disfiguring effects of negative experiences on women's bodies and minds, is mercifully much smaller. Because the life-changing events depicted—violence, brutal deprivation, sexual and other abuse by family members and 'friends'—have been reworked in memory over the years, rawness cedes here to harrowing resonance. A more affirmative, and at times celebratory, closing section evokes the overcoming of violence and depression through writing, heterosexual or lesbian desire, love, family, and friendship. Poetry is particularly well-represented here. But the metaphor that binds all this diverse material is that of "papelitos guardados," of work that began as memories or personal jottings "store[d] in safe places waiting for the appropriate moment when we can return to them for review and analysis, or speak out and share them with others" (1).
It is a given of these negotiations and this shared, explicitly political...