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Latinas Get A Chance To Speak For Themselves

By Barbara Crossette

April 1, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Vaqueras, or the cowgirls, in Jerome, Ariz., in the early 1900's.
Arizona State University

A Hispanic woman and child before their elaborate home altar.
University of Texas

17-year-old Maria Soto Audelo at a Fourth of July celebration in 1917 in Tucson, Ariz.
Arizone Historical Society

A Hispanic woman beside her oven in Trinidad, Colo.

They grew up separated by hundreds of miles and different cultural environments, one a descendant of Mexican pioneers of the American West and the other a daughter of urban Puerto Ricans who settled in New York more than half a century ago. As young women, they achieved academic success in mainstream America but felt the powerful pull of their Hispanic roots and knew that the stories of their country's Spanish-speaking communities, especially the women, had never been told in fullness, honesty and depth.

Now, these two distinguished scholars of Hispanic America, Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, are joining forces to produce a new work of reference, Latinas in the United States: An Historical Encyclopedia.

Planned for publication in 2003, the two-volume encyclopedia is expected to have about 800 entries on prominent Latina women from the 16th century to the present, along with 500 photographs and thematic essays covering topics including women in religion, the arts, politics and labor unions and marriage across cultural and racial lines, said Ms. Ruiz, who heads the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Arizona State University.

"Some of the stories that have come through are absolutely remarkable," Ms. Ruiz said of the e-mail messages and calls that have been arriving in a steady stream since news of the project first appeared last fall.

Ms. Sánchez Korrol, head of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and co-director of the college's Center for Latino Studies, emphasizes that the work is not a Who's Who but an academically rigorous account of an overlooked history, cutting across Mexican, Central American, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Domincan community lines without blurring differences.

The idea of publishing a Latina encyclopedia at a time when the Hispanic population is rapidly growing struck an immediate chord with Ms. Ruiz and Ms. Sánchez Korrol, authors of numerous other books on the Hispanic experience in North America. Both lived for years with stereoptypes about their communities before deciding to focus on their histories.

"My family's from Colorado, but I grew up in Florida," said Ms. Ruiz, speaking from Tempe, Ariz., during a joint interview by conference call interview with Ms. Sánchez Korrol. "When I was going to school, I was always very interested in history, but the only Latino history I encountered was Ponce de Leon, Pancho Villa and the Alamo. That was the extent of Latino history. Yet my mother and my grandmother would regale me with tales of their Colorado girlhoods -- stories about village life, about life on the rancho, about folklore, about strikes and discrimination. One of the reasons I became a historian was to bridge those narratives I heard at the table with printed text."

Urged on by professors at Florida State University, where she graduated summa cum laude, Ms. Ruiz dropped her modest goal of becoming a high school history teacher and got an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Stanford, becoming the first member of her extended family to earn a higher degree. In New York, Ms. Sánchez Korrol, who first met Ms. Ruiz when they were both graduate students 20 years ago, worked her way through Brooklyn College and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she earned her M.A. and Ph.D. Both married and had children along the way, two daughters for Ms. Sánchez Korrol and two sons for Ms. Ruiz, who said she once made the mistake she always tells graduate students never to make "by turning up for my first job pregnant."

In New York, Ms. Sánchez Korrol was the first in her family to go to college. "I grew up in Puerto Rican communities and did not learn to speak English until I went to first grade," she said. She began her career as a teacher of English and English literature.

"Vicki said she heard stories around the table," said Ms. Sánchez Korrol. "I didn't hear stories so much as I saw from example and experience the strength that there was within my family and the Puerto Rican community. And then I went to school and found that there was absolutely no mention of who we were or how we fit into the making of America."

"When 'West Side Story' came out, I remember my sister and I became very popular," she said. "We had this one period of fame because of 'West Side Story,' which, by the way, we cover in the encyclopedia and look at very critically in terms of how it portrayed and stereotyped the community."

Ms. Sánchez Korrol said that the encyclopedia would focus as much on the cultural, political and social organizations in which t the women were involved as on the people themselves.

"For Latina women and women of Hispanic heritage," she said, "looking at history and culture through time will allow us to see what a very long and distinguished past we have had in this country." A team of editors, scholarly advisers and writers across the country will help put it all together.

The Latina encyclopedia will include articles on women like María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, a 19th-century Mexican-American novelist from an aristocratic Baja California family who married a European-American. She was the first Latina to write in English about the Southwest after its conquest by the United States. As early as 1872, she was writing, in her novel "Who Would Have Thought," about racial, gender and class discrimination.

Pura Belpré, another entry, was the first Puerto Rican woman to become a librarian in the New York Public Library system, and chief librarian of its first bilingual division. Ms. Belpré, who died in 1992, was active in the Puerto Rican Writers and Journalists Association and wrote or translated more than a dozen children's books.

"One important thing will be the regional perspectives," said Ms. Sánchez Korrol. "We have to understand that there is going to be enormous diversity of race and class and culture, regional history and generations."

In recent years some parallel reference works have been published, among them Jewish Women in America (Routledge, 1997) and Black Women in America (1993). Ralph Carlson, who published the two-volume work on black women under his own imprint, has since moved to Indiana University Press, which issued the work on black women in paperback last year and will publish the Latina volumes under his direction.

Other entries will be Minerva Bernadino, a Dominican-American who played a leading role in the creation of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and Mercedes Cubria, the first Cuban-American woman to become a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and to be elected to the United States Army Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Ms. Ruiz tells the story of María Rita Valdez, who was a major rancher in Southern California in the late 19th century. She is an example of how women in what was northern Mexico until 1848 could inherit and run large land holdings. "The name of that rancho was Rancho Rodea de las Aguas," said Ms. Ruiz. "What is known as Rodeo Drive is what is left of it."

Despite the Rancho Rodeos, Ms. Ruiz said, it would be wrong to imagine that the Latinas of the American Southwest were all living in sprawling haciendas. "It's the Zorro motif -- romantic California controlled by fun-loving, swashbuckling rancheros," she said. "Actually, most people were small farmers, artisans, involved in the day-to-day activities of tending the crops, tending the livestock, making the food, keeping house. The elegant Spanish ladies in snow white dresses were actually a very small minority. By 1930, Mexican-Americans were more urban than rural."

Nevertheless, the Zorros and rancheros and graceful hacienda life made an impression on others through the Mexican film industry, said Ms. Sánchez Korrol. "And the Mexican Revolution -- I saw that in movies when I was a little kid," she said. "This presented to us an image that allowed us to make connections with other Hispanic Americans."

Connections are part of what the Latina encyclopedia is about. "First, it's going to be an important reference tool because so much of the work on the Latino communities in the United States is segregated into national movements," she said. "Then there is the scholarly audience. There is nothing like this available in this area. It can be used by public schools and libraries."

"In 2010," said Ms. Sánchez Korrol, "the Latinos are going to be the majority minority population in the United States, and yet there is so little that's known out in the public about Latino experiences and Latino history. Part of the audience are also the communities themselves. For the first time they will be able to see what kind of a past we have had."

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