Growing up in an enormous family, I was constantly surrounded by good will and encouragement. I still am. My parents both worked full time, but there was never a shortage of cousins or aunts or uncles to watch me and my little brother. I have rarely lived in the same state as any of my grandparents, so my relationships with my aunts, (who were often mistaken for grandmothers when they picked me up from school) filled a large part of that role in my life.
Two of my mother’s sisters, Norma and Rose Mary (Nina), and their families were especially present and influential in the earliest years of my life. I met with my aunts to learn more about their lives and how they believe things for women have changed over time. I wanted a chance to gain the perspective of those existing outside of my circles, and the chance to be an advocate for equality in situations where I’m not completely surrounded by people on the same page as me.
Norma and Nina spent their childhood in San Benito, Texas, living next door to a farm full of their cousins. After losing their home to a fire in 1965, they moved into their Uncle’s home and then to the suburbs of Chicago in their early teenage years.
When was the first time that you felt like you were a girl in a really distinct way?
Nina: I think we always knew.
Norma: I do, because I think, especially [Latinos]. They pretty much, like – Blanca is the first born, but Joe was treated like the first born. You know? He was a boy
Nina: Boys were, with certain families, more important. I know with mother, he was a little, but not a lot. In other families, it was different. Sons were *motions above her head* up here and daughters were down here. I remember people saying, “the boys will suffer because they have to work and support the family, and the girls will have it easy.” But they were wrong. I mean, girls didn’t have the value that they do today. They didn’t. And I think girls like Mother had to fight to go to school. Her dad said, “You’ve got to quit school and come work in the fields.
Norma: But she fought, and she finished high school.
She went back to school later, right?
Nina: She did when they retired. She was 55 when she went to community college.
Norma: Mother loved school. Mother would have done a lot more if she had the opportunity. But I think she did the best she could.
Nina: She was a substitute at our school when we were in Texas. Back then, all you needed was a high school degree. I remember she just felt so good because she was doing something other than working in the fields. That’s what she wanted all her life. Our parents wanted us to finish high school no matter what it took to do it. All of us. Every single one.
Norma: I don’t think they even thought of college, but high school – we had to finish.
On Being Poor:
Norma: I never realized that people looked at us as poor until I talked to [a friend from the valley], and she called [our house] “the compound.” It was interesting, because they had money. I never saw that growing up.
Nina: I did know we were poor, though. My friend lived right down the street from the school. I remember taking the bus to her house and they had an indoor bathroom. No lie, I remember going to that house and just watching the toilet flush – because we had an outside bathroom. I knew I was poor because I didn’t have that in my house.
Wait, in the ‘50’s, you didn’t have an indoor bathroom?
Nina: This was the ‘60’s, honey. 1967. We never had an indoor bathroom until we moved.
Norma: There were very few people who did. Most people that lived there were in our position. We were very proud. I felt that we were better off than most, you know what I mean?
On The Fire:
Nina: The house burned down after Sandy [my mother] was born. She was born in May, so maybe, probably about July. Probably about July or August. It was really hot, so when the house burned, it went.
Do you know how it burned or what happened?
Nina: I always thought I had left the iron on, but mother said that it was because – okay, this is another thing. We had power in our house, but my uncle didn’t. So they ran lines connecting the houses so they could have power too. That’s why mother was always so upset, there’s only so much you can give.
How long was it from when the house burned down to when you guys moved?
Nina: Two or three years, maybe. Uncle Albert had moved to Chicago already, so we moved into his house. We were there when dad came up here to work. The following year, mom got pregnant and then Daddy decided to go to Chicago. When Mandy was born, he was already up here.
So there was kind of an exodus of minorities moving up north from the south around the same time as you. When you got here were you the only minorities?
Norma: There probably were in the city, but we were in the suburbs so there was only a handful. But we kind of got off easy because we didn’t really look “Mexican”. I came in as a freshman and there were just a handful of us, and a couple African American girls. But, you know, we didn’t grow up thinking we were very different. I remember sitting in the cafeteria with my friend and I said [referencing an African American classmate], “How do you think she feels?” and she turned around and said to me, “How do you feel?” I didn’t see it. But [my white classmates] did.
I remember my mom mentioning that you had a sit-in in high school so you could wear pants. Did that really happen?
Norma: Oh my god, I completely forgot about that.
Nina: I remember walking to school once, and we didn’t live very far. I remember walking just to the corner we turned the corner and our legs were burning. We had boots and our short skirts on so parts of our legs were open. So we said “this is crazy!” and turned around and went home. Mom was home and we took off our boots and she saw our beet-red legs, she was so upset.
Norma: And then we decided we were going to have a sit-in so we could wear pants.
That’s so awesome – how many people did it?
Nina: It was a bunch of us, and some of the boys sat in too. There were pictures in the yearbook.
On Sex Ed:
Did you have sex education in school?
Nina: I did [in junior high] but it was like one class. It was the gym teacher, and it was basketball season, and we were playing basketball. All of a sudden we had to stop, and she would teach a class, and then the next day we were playing basketball again.
Norma: I don’t remember ever having sex education.
Nina: And when we had kids, I remember we gave em that book right away. I told them right away. We weren’t going to let our kids be so naïve that they didn’t know anything.
Norma: [My daughter] had sex education in school in 4th grade. The rule was if any kid asked something, they had to explain it. A child asked about oral sex. So the teacher explained it, and she came home and informed all the neighborhood girls. I got all these calls from parents and I thought okay, I better get on the ball with this. So I went out and looked for books. And I remember I got one for [my son]. I told him, “It’s just as important for you as it is for her.” When I showed him the book, he looked and said, “I don’t want to know anything!”
Nina: And I gave books to my kids because she gave them to hers.
Norma: When it came to the kids, I tried really hard to let them know that sex was a natural thing. We were very ignorant when we were their age.
Nina: We were naïve. I worked as a secretary after college and the girls would tell all these jokes and I never knew what they were talking about. I’d go home and ask [my husband] and he would explain it to me. I was already 23, 24, 25 years old and I would have to ask him what they were talking about. I had no idea. I would sit there and laugh and then go home and ask him.
Norma: We were very naïve. Even what we did know was nothing, to be honest. I think it’s best to know. You need to have a balance – where the balance is, I don’t know.
Nina: Right, I think I wish I would have told the boys more.
The second wave of feminism was the period with the fight for abortion rights and the equal pay act, that kind of stuff. Did you know about it when it was happening? Did you hear about it? Did you think anything about it? Did you think it was silly? Did you think it was cool?
Norma: I think we didn’t really pay attention to it. I was married by 1976, but I remember the abortion things happening and I remember girls dying. I remember girls getting pregnant and leaving high school. I do remember that.
Nina: [A woman I knew] had to go to New York it was the only place they would do it. She had already had a baby, but they told her that she could not have another one. But she got pregnant, and there were no abortions here. In college, I remember there being protests and people standing up, but I never got too into it. I was in my own world, you know what I mean? I was very selfish.
Norma: I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do. I just walked a line and, I don’t know if that’s just the way we were, but we just didn’t do some things. We didn’t think about it.
Nina: I remember my grandmother saying, “This one is going to be pregnant before she gets out of college.” So I always walked a fine line, I never let anything happen. I was going to finish school.
Norma: I feel very fortunate, you know.
Do you feel differently about being a woman now than you did when you were younger? Do you enjoy being a woman more than you did before?
Norma: It’s definitely better now than it was then. You have better opportunities, more choices than you did then. We grew up thinking you’re a woman, this is what you do, you get married, you have children, you raise your family.
Nina: Everything’s very different.
Norma: But I think it’s definitely better today
A lot of feminism now focuses on some different things. Like how different groups of women have to deal with different problems like racism and poverty. Another big thing is rape culture. How you can get kicked out of college in an instant for plagiarism, but if you’re accused of rape, nothing usually happens – things like that. Do you think everything’s fine now? Do you think it’s kind of crazy that we’re asking for more?
Norma: I think there’s still more to be done.
Nina: A lot more, but the good thing is, the stuff that you’re talking about now, at least it comes out. When I was little, you couldn’t talk about that. There were the same problems, but nobody ever knew. It wasn’t publicized, you didn’t find out what was going on until way later. It was all hush hush. Now, thank god, they’re opening it up and people are finding out. You’re finally getting people that are like, “Hey, you can’t do this.”
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even illegal to rape your spouse until unsettlingly recently. It just wasn’t considered rape because you were married.
Norma: Oh my god, yeah. Well, before, a husband could beat a woman, and it was okay. Now you can’t do that.
Nina: People would say, “She probably deserved it, she probably bugged him so much.”
Norma: If he was your husband, he could do that to you. He could beat you up. Until women started killing their husbands because they were getting beat up. *laughs* and the men sort of backed up.
On Marriage and Gender roles:
How old were you guys when you got married, then?
Norma: I was 24
Nina: I was 23
Did you always know that that was what you wanted when you thought about your life? Like, did you always know that you wanted to get married and have kids?
Norma: I did not intend on getting married too young. I didn’t want to get married until I was 30, I don’t know why. I wanted to do stuff. I wanted to go on vacations, but then – everybody was married!
Nina: When I was in high school, I decided I was going to go to college. And I remember some of my girlfriends getting pregnant and all they would talk about is getting married, getting married, getting married. I knew I wasn’t going to get married too early. I was going to go to college and I was going to finish.
Norma: I was dating someone in high school, and he wanted to get married.
You told him, “no”?
Norma: Mhm, I told him, “Go out and buy yourself a car or something” you know? Come on.
Nina: Someone asked me, and I said no. I laughed in his face. I said, “Are you kidding me? I’m going to college, I’m not getting married.”
What about the idea of women needing to serve their husbands? Did people ever tell you guys that you were supposed to do that?
Norma: Oh yeah, that’s the way it was.
Nina: Mother would tell us, “cook him food” or, “take care of the dishes.”
Did you feel like that’s what you were doing when you were married? Or did you feel like it was give and take?
Norma: I had friends who were very – get up and serve your husband’s meal. I didn’t do that. But you did feel like you had to cook dinner. I did the wash, I cooked the dinner, I cleaned the house. Did he do it? No.
Nina: There was a difference, though. I got married and I was working for three years before I had [my first son]. When it was just the two of us, I told [my husband], “You need to help me, I can’t do this all by myself.” Saturday mornings, we would get up and clean the house. We only had the weekends because we were working during the week. But when I had the baby and stayed home, I did all of it.
Norma: I don’t think I did it because I was home, I think I did it because that’s what the women did, to be honest. When I got married, there were 9 months without a kid, and I did all of that. And I worked, you know? That’s just the way it was. If I didn’t pick up, and if I didn’t do the dishes – he liked to cook once in a while, but I did most of it from the day we were married.
Do you think, then, that if he doesn’t help out it’s because there’s supposed to be a balance? Like if he’s fulfilling his duty by working and providing, then he shouldn’t have to do stuff around the house?
Norma: I think he just doesn’t like to do it. I didn’t have to serve him, I didn’t feel that way. It’s just that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. I don’t think we married men that were ‘macho’ or anything. We married northerners is why.
I think the biggest thing I took away from our meeting was a reinforced understanding of the ways in which past generations of my family have worked and sacrificed to better their own lives and pave the way for a more plentiful future. It resonates even further when I think about the ways in which women all over the world have done the same to ensure more and more justice for future generations of women. Like my aunts, I believe that is more work to be done, but I am conscious of the opportunities I have because of my foremothers. For that I am very, very grateful.