Category Archives: Health and Wellness

Reports from July 2016 Latina/o Studies Association Conference

panelists pictured

Panelists Beatriz Tapia, Alexandro Gradilla, Anita Tijerina Revilla, and Magdalena L. Barrera. Photo by M. Barrera. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Latina/o Studies Association 2016: Nourishing the Mind and the Spirit

By Magdalena L. Barrera

The 2016 LSA conference was a wonderful experience, for many reasons. To situate myself: I am a faculty member of the Mexican American Studies department at San José State University. My primary area of research is analysis of textual representations of Mexican Americans in early twentieth century American cultural production; however, in recent years I have developed a secondary research area that explores the retention and mentoring of first-generation and underrepresented students in higher education. This second area was inspired in part by the learning curve I underwent as my environment changed from the R1 settings of my undergraduate through postdoctoral training to working in the California State University system. Although I have maintained my primary research area, it requires some effort to stay in touch with emerging trends in the field, as I am the only person at SJSU who does Humanities-based work in Chicanx Studies. Moreover, I had not attended a conference in a couple of years, and so I welcomed this year’s LSA as an opportunity to fully engage as both a presenter and participant, and to expand my professional network. Continue reading

Zika and Abortion

The sign says “Stop Criminalizing Women.” The woman belongs to a protest movement in Chile, which, like El Salvador, has draconian laws that criminalize women who terminate their pregnancy. In both countries abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even if necessary to save the life of the woman. In El Salvador the exception that allowed abortion when the mother’s life is in danger was removed in 1998; in Chile it was removed under the military dictatorship in 1989.

The sign says “Stop Criminalizing Women.” The woman belongs to a protest movement in Chile, which, like El Salvador, has draconian laws that criminalize women who terminate their pregnancy. In both countries abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even if necessary to save the life of the woman. In El Salvador the exception that allowed abortion when the mother’s life is in danger was removed in 1998; in Chile it was removed under the military dictatorship in 1989.

by Ann Hibner Koblitz

(This essay was originally published on February 1, 2016 on the author’s blog:  “Sex, Abortion, and Contraception”)

The spread of the Zika virus is causing consternation and alarm in many countries. The symptoms of the mosquito-borne virus are generally quite mild, to the extent that many victims don’t even know that they are ill. Recently, however, it has become clear that, when contracted by women in the first trimester of pregnancy, Zika can cause birth defects such as microcephaly, brain damage, deafness, and paralysis. The World Health Organization has stated that as many as four million people in the Americas could be infected in 2016, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are cautioning pregnant women not to travel to certain countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where the virus outbreak is becoming severe.

The Central American country of El Salvador has been particularly hard hit, and the government has taken the unprecedented step of warning women not to become pregnant until 2018. This advice is bizarre. El Salvador is a poor country. Many women face barriers, both practical and cultural, to contraceptive use. Moreover, abortion — even when the fetus is known to be severely deformed — is illegal, and the punishments are severe.

An effective government strategy to combat the epidemic of birth defects would consist of three components: widespread sex education and cheap and easily available contraception; widely available prenatal screening for birth defects (amniocentesis); and safe, legal abortion. Since El Salvador has none of these, women in large numbers will inevitably get pregnant, and some will deliver babies with severe abnormalities.

Note that the government’s admonitions are not directed at men, as if they didn’t realize that men share responsibility for pregnancy. Rather, the clear implication is that women and women alone will be blamed for the expected public health catastrophe. A 25 January 2016 article in The New York Times about the Zika threat in El Salvador aptly describes the Salvadoran government’s pregnancy warning as “the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass that, to many here, only illustrates their government’s desperation.”

In this article the word “abortion” is conspicuous by its absence. This is a peculiar oversight by The New York Times, since the illegality of all abortion in El Salvador is one of the principal obstacles to an effective response to the public health crisis.

Also omitted from the coverage in The New York Times is any discussion of U.S. culpability for the deplorable situation in that country. During the years 1979-1992 the U.S. gave billions of dollars in financial and military aid to the right-wing government that committed large-scale atrocities during a civil war in which an estimated 80 thousand people died. After the war the huge quantity of weapons and the large number of demobilized and unemployed former soldiers set the stage for an epidemic of violent crime. In addition, in the mid-1990s the U.S. deported several thousand Salvadoran pandilleros (gang members, mainly from Southern California), who brought their criminal gangs back with them to El Salvador. Current estimates of the number of gang members in El Salvador (a country having 1/50 the population of the U.S.) range from 30 to 60 thousand. At present El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the Americas.

The pandilleros are not the only U.S. export to cause havoc in El Salvador. Over the past two decades religious fundamentalist groups based in or funded from the U.S. have given rise to anti-abortion fanaticism on a level that was virtually unknown before. In 1994 the Kovalevskaia Fund (of which I am director) and the Salvadoran Women Doctors’ Association convened an international conference in San Salvador to discuss the medical consequences of illegally induced abortion. El Salvador’s Vice-Minister of Health attended, and topics included the use of herbal abortifacients and menstrual regulators by the indigenous peoples of El Salvador, the actions of RU-486, the efficiency of vacuum aspiration as an abortion technique, the work of South American abortion clinics and their education programs for midwives and obstetricians, and so on. There was a sprinkling of anti-abortion people among the 300 doctors and medical students in attendance, but discussions were wide-ranging and respectful. Yes, that is not a misprint. The abortion opponents in El Salvador listened to the discussions of these topics with interest and respect.

Now, however, such an event would be virtually impossible to organize because religious fundamentalists have become much more visible, violent, and well-funded than they were in the mid-1990s. Medical personnel are prevented from performing abortions even in cases of ectopic pregnancy or other life-threatening conditions. In such circumstances it is not surprising that the Salvadoran government fails to mention abortion in connection with the Zika crisis. That The New York Times fails to mention abortion in its own coverage is harder to explain.

Postscript (added 4 February 2016) Although the article on the response in El Salvador to the Zika virus did not mention abortion at all, a 3 February editorial in The New York Times did: “In Latin America, where many nations outlaw abortion, some governments have advised that pregnancies be delayed, which can create only greater anxiety for women who have sadly limited control over such decisions…. Immediate responses, like increasing access to birth control and abortion, face stiff legal and cultural resistance in the affected region.” The New York Times also carried an article “Surge of Zika Virus Has Brazilians Re-examining Strict Abortion Laws”.

Second postscript (added 8 February 2016) Today’s The New York Times has an excellent op-ed on the situation in Brazil by Debora Diniz, a professor of law at the University of Brasilia.

Ann Hibner Koblitz, Professor of Women and Gender Studies, has taught at ASU since 1998. Her first book was the biography of a Russian woman mathematician, feminist and writer. Her second book examined the lives of the first group of Russian women to receive their doctorates in the sciences and medicine. Her most recent book, Sex and Herbs and Birth Control: Women and Fertility Regulation through the Ages (Kovalevskaia Fund, 2014) received the 2015 Transdisciplinary Humanities Book Award from the Institute for Humanties Research at ASU. She also directs a small non-profit foundation for women in science in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and her blog, “Sex, Abortion, and Contraception,” can be found at http://ahkoblitz.wordpress.com.

The Decolonial ImaGYMary: Working (and Writing) on My Fitness

November 19, 2012

Fulanas Con Ganas Collective. L-R: Monica Morales, Larissa M. Mercado-López (Photo Credit), Selena Navarro, Giomara Bazaldua, and Jessica Hawkins.

Fulanas Con Ganas Collective. L-R: Monica Morales, Larissa M. Mercado-López (Photo Credit), Selena Navarro, Giomara Bazaldua, and Jessica Hawkins.

By Larissa M. Mercado-López

As I type this, I stop every few minutes to pull my spine up tall, clasp my hands above my head, and slowly move side to side, gently stretching the muscles around my shoulders and latissimi dorsi, or my “lats.” I place my hands on my lower back, elbows bent, and puff out my chest—bones shift and joints pop. My 4 year-old runs up to me, asking for a spin, and I scoop up her 60- pound body and spin her dizzy. Slowly, I return to my writing position and resume working.

In Loving in the War Years, Cherrie Moraga writes, “A friend of mine told me once how no wonder I had called the first book I co-edited (with Gloria Anzaldúa), This Bridge Called My Back. You have chronic back trouble, she says. Funny I had never considered this most obvious connection … And the spot that hurts the most is the muscle that controls the movement of my fingers and hands while typing.”1 We can “read” the pain metaphorically, as the burden that is placed on women of color to write against colonialism and to forge spaces in the women’s movement; however, Moraga may very well have had repetitive stress syndrome, or a similar musculoskeletal ailment, that could have been improved with strengthening exercises.

In my dissertation that I completed in 2011, I read texts in Chicana literature to examine how mestiza mothers read the social and somatic experiences of their maternal bodies, deploying critical and often oppositional knowledges. Similarly, scholars such as Suzanne Bost and Eden Torres, and emerging graduate student scholars such as Christina L. Gutiérrez and Sara A. Ramírez, are articulating decolonizing theories of the bodies and psyches of Chicanas. But in addition to this bodywork, I’ve been consumed with another kind of bodywork: fitness.

Exercise kept me sane through three degrees and three children. Though I won’t deny that the gym has been a space of frustration—especially as I painfully cardio-ed for excessive amounts of time in my attempts to “bounce back” after my pregnancies—it has also helped me reaffirm my sense of strength. The traditionally male-dominated free weight area has become my most empowering space, where I routinely lift heavy weights to strengthen my lower back that was strained and weakened by years of writing, motherhood, and running on pavement. I delight in my growing muscles and find the task of carrying my children and books far easier. Though one reason I exercise is to maintain low levels of body fat, I am driven more by my desire to prevent injury, manage stress, and strengthen my bones and cardiovascular system.

But, I often find myself alone in the free weights area. Among those who do come, many opt for the 5-pound weights because they want to become “toned but not bulky” (never mind the fact that the average weight of a woman’s purse is 7 pounds!).

However, I don’t judge. In many ways, hegemonic (and gendered) constructions of “fitness” and “fit women” conflict with dominant constructions of Latina bodies. The cultural valorization of “womanish” curves and the masculinization of muscular bodies constrain Latinas’ exercise choices, limiting them to those that emphasize fat loss over muscle strengthening. Further, the media’s constructions of “fit women” as white, upper-class, and hyper-muscular, and the capitalist culture of fitness, with its pricey supplements and apparel, render “fitness” a financially inaccessible and time-consuming endeavor. And, when it comes down to it, men in the weight room can be downright intimidating.

While these rhetorics and images of fitness have led some Latinas to either pursue more socially accepted forms of exercise for women or to nix them all together, many still revere their maternal ancestors for their bodily strength, recalling the girth of their strong arms and legs as they carried loads of laundry, tilled the hard earth for their gardens, and lifted sleeping children off their floor and into their beds. These images of strength need to be remembered and re-embodied.

I fully acknowledge that my pursuit of the level of fitness that I desire is enabled by my privileges of income, transportation, a flexible job, the support of my husband, and the availability of day care. We need to be critical of social/structural inequalities that limit how, when, and where Latinas exercise. I’ve responded to some of these issues by blogging for my local newspaper (Fitness Cultures) and starting a free exercise group (Fulanas Con Ganas).

It’s my mission to ensure that all Latinas have the access to the resources they need, as well as the support and confidence, to pursue the level of fitness that allows them to live their best lives.

CITATION

1.  Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (Boston: South End Press, 1983), v.

Larissa M. Mercado-López received her Ph.D. in English/Latina Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests include Chicana feminism,maternal studies, phenomenology, and rhetorics of fitness. Larissa is an adjunct instructor at UTSA for Women’s Studies and Sociology. 

Comment(s):

  1. Anonymous  November 20, 2012 at 7:51 AM

    I just started Zumba and like it ok, but I really want to try some weights! Thanks for the motivation!

  2. Seline (Mujeres Talk Co-Moderator)  November 23, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Seline (Mujeres Talk Co-Moderator)  November 23, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    Larissa,

    Thank you for your essay on fitness and the different ways to love and be in your body.

    I love that you experience the free weight area as an empowering space. The insights you shared remind me of Jackie Martinez’ essay on weight room semiotics, the mental intensity that accompanies brute physical force, and embodied intentionality.

    Keep up the good work that opens pathways to access.

  4. Larissa    November 26, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    Martinez and I both do phenomenology; I used her work in my dissertation 🙂

  5.  Jessica Lopez    April 22, 2013 at 8:12 PM
    As for me, I exercise because I like breaking out a sweat after a stressful day. It is enjoyable since I go to the gym with my friends. It is important to love it and not think about what other people see. It also helps me to regulate my diet and be more aware of proper nutrition.

My Shadow Beast’s Time

November 12, 2012

Photo Credit: "Our Time is Running Out 157/365" by gravity_grave on Flickr

Photo Credit: “Our Time is Running Out 157/365” by gravity_grave on Flickr

By Anonymous

I have been thinking a lot about time and its processes lately. When I took and passed the Candidacy Exam in my graduate program, time was paramount. As in most universities, departmental guidelines dictate that students in the program make timely progress to the degree. There are, however, minimal guidelines for writing the requisite three exam papers. Some said that the reading lists were to help me write the dissertation. Others told me that this exam was completely separate from my dissertation. I then couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to write about my reading lists. “Was I to integrate all 40 books and articles from one reading list into a paper? How?” I kept asking. I was unable to get a straight or clear answer about what to write. Previous students successful in advancing to candidacy did not allow the program to archive their papers as resources for future students working on their exams. Social scientist candidates in the department were willing to share their work with me, but I felt I couldn’t follow their examples because I was working with texts in the humanities.

Still, I read every day. I was determined to finish on time. I joined a writing group, and in two months, I wrote countless drafts of the first paper. The group was organized and led by a senior professor who I eventually learned did not take well to assertive feminists. One day, before a group of other graduate students, the professor asked if I had “a chip on [my] shoulder” because my writing style seemed “bitter.” I conceded that the passion behind my writing stemmed from anger prompted by relentless systemic violence. The professor had not expected my response, and he answered by saying I wouldn’t go far with my “attitude.” I smiled nervously as he initiated the class’s roar of laughter. After our session, I felt even the snowy wind was mocking me. I couldn’t run fast enough into my sister’s arms.

My subsequent anxiety about writing catapulted me into a depression. No matter how much I beckoned it, my writing voice would not come out of hiding. I had to finish these papers within four months in order to be eligible for a fellowship for those who are making “timely progress.” My inner critic wouldn’t go away: STUPID. SLOW THINKER. BAD WRITER. BAD PERSON. IDIOT. LOSER. JUST SIT DOWN! UNFOCUSED. LIMITED VOCABULARY. STOP CRYING. IMPOSTER. It was not until after I suffered a major break down that I learned I could ask for an extension without penalty. Why hadn’t anyone told me this before? Was the break down part of the process? I had been conditioned to believe that the only way I could be a “good person” was by being a “good student.” Facing my Shadow Beast, I realized my self-worth had been dependent upon my ability to produce, my colleagues’ perceptions of me, my professors’ praise, my parents’ “Good girl, m’ija,” and on someone else’s notion of “timeliness.” Western culture has us believe we are essentially flawed, we must constantly work on ourselves, and we must prove ourselves to belong. Resenting the exam process as yet another way for me to prove my worth, I refused to write until I could convince myself that there is no sinful self to redeem. Humans never fell from grace. All beings are essentially good.

Although I certainly learned in the depths of Coatlicue, I knew couldn’t stay there forever. I moved and began the healing process. I stopped thinking so much about what I had to do and what I hadn’t done and tried to focus on each present moment. I began to practice compassion toward myself including my vicious inner critic, my Shadow Beast. I learned that I couldn’t go on ignoring her. We had to dialogue. When I listened, I learned she only wanted to help me achieve that happiness I feel when I read, think, and write. I explained to her that I can’t work with unrealistic daily goals and harsh criticism used as “motivation.” She pointed out that no one taught her how to practice non-violent communication. Together we learned that time is but a construction, a historically specific concept, and we came to a truce. I was finally able to write. I finished my papers, took my exams, and passed at the right time.

I write about my struggle to underscore our continuous negotiations as Chicanas in the academy. Confessing that I embark on more writing with trepidation, I am reminded by my MALCS mentors that I must revel in this moment’s sense of accomplishment and the fact that I found ways to manage an arduous process. Yet I know I must remember my time in the depths of Coatlicue so I too can be compassionate toward my students in their times of crisis. The U.S. university system is not set up to be conducive to our “timely” progress. As a capitalist enterprise, the university embraces competition—a race against time—to produce extraordinary scholarship, thereby discouraging genuine collegiality. This system does not encourage us to satisfy our urge to “make face and heart,” or to find ourselves, by learning from one another through compassionate social interactions. For this reason, I look forward to summers during which MALCS, conversely, focuses on giving shape and meaning to our selves and community. MALCSistas remind me that there have always been philosophers, artists, scientists, and lovers of “making sense” of the world. I dream that it is possible to transform the U.S. university to meet our needs as humans. I look forward to this reemergence from what may be our collective trance in the Coatlicue State. I look forward to our inherently interlinked individual and collective experiences of triumph.

Comment(s):

  1. Monica    November 12, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Thank you for your words. This is definitely a process many of us go through, and yet very few talk about it. Gracias.

  2. Anonymous   November 12, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    What a “timely” piece! I was driving to my office with my inner critic saying many of the horrible words you mention. It has been a long time since I have written out of joy rather than fear. Deadlines and timelines help me to be “productive” but are sucking the life out of my voice. Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece.

  3. Unknown   November 12, 2012 at 11:45 AM

    Thank you. So very much. Thank you.

  4. Anonymous   November 12, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    This is exactly how I felt a couple of days ago when I was going through my exams. Thank you so much for writing this!

  5. Anonymous   November 12, 2012 at 9:10 PM

    THANK YOU! This is exactly what I experienced.

  6. Theresa Delgadillo  November 19, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    Dear Anonymous Blog Author,
    In the classroom scene you describe, where a focus on the work and the writing would be most beneficial to all, the discussion unfortunately shifts to “correcting a person,” making an individual Latina the problem. Your honesty appears to have been alarming to those present then but shared here, in this space, it is a welcome meditation on the kind of relationships we build together in academia as well as the self-knowledge and skill you have gained in working with others and negotiating your expectations of others and self. I join in thanking you for this beautiful essay, especially the brilliant observation: “I look forward to this reemergence from what may be our collective trance in the Coatlicue State.” It’s a statement that resonates beyond academia as well as sign of the keen insight with which you have emerged from the fire. Congratulations to you! I am so very glad you will be making a difference in higher education!

  7. Anonymous   November 22, 2012 at 7:51 PM

    Dear Anonymous,
    Thank you for your essay, and speaking truth to power.
    My writing style has also been called ‘bitter,’ but by an anonymous manuscript reviewer who also asked why I was complaining about the lack of mentorship if I successfully received my Ph.D.! In other words, the lack of compassion in academia is pervasive. It is scholars like you and other MALCSistas who will make a difference