Women's labor and activism in the greater Mexican borderlands, 1910- 1930
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The ideology of cooperativismo,1 access to arable land, worker rights, and dignity were some of the principles that guided much of the revolutionary agenda in the years leading up to the 1910 Mexican Revolution. In the greater northern borderlands extending from central Nuevo Len to northern Tamaulipas, up to the hill country of central Texas, the ideology of the Revolution resonated and shaped social and cultural relations in profound ways. Perhaps the bloodiest revolution of the twentieth century, the Mexican Revolution offered hope to scores of Mexicans in southern Texas. These Mexicans resided and worked in one of the last regions to be colonized by the United States; their counterparts in northeastern Mexico also experienced economic colonization by American and other foreign interests. Of particular importance was the influence of the Revolution on labor organizations and their activism. Although historians have examined the role of the Revolution with regards to the labor of men, labor unions, and related themes, there has been less attention paid to that of women's labor on both sides of the border. Chicana historians and other scholars have analyzed women's labor relations and activism within the context of the Mexican Revolution as a transnational phenomenon. However, with few exceptions, there remains a wide gap in the historiography of women's labor in the greater borderlands as a whole. I argue that ethnic Mexican (i.e., persons of Mexican descent who may be either U.S. or Mexican citizens) working- class women used the rhetoric of the Revolution to address their marginal position in the crossroads of two nation- states that had denied them rights and excluded them from access to resources.2 What follows is an examination of women's labor during the Revolution in the greater borderlands region, which included south Texas and northeastern Mexico. Based on binational archival research, I analyze the influence the Revolution had on women's labor experiences and activism. Women's labor proved critical to the making of the Mexican borderlands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To gain a better understanding of women's extensive contributions to labor as well as how they used the rhetoric of revolution to improve working conditions, their experiences must be placed in greater regional and historical context. Because of extensive ties between northeastern Mexico and south Texas, the experiences of women residents and transients at this crossroads are better understood within a transnational framework. Women migrated back and forth, maintained ties with family "back home," and shared a common labor experience.3 More real on a map than in people's everyday life, the border did not stop the flow of ideas and certainly did not stop cultural exchange, particularly before 1930 and in later years as security intensified in the form of placing more boots on the ground and using more technology. In the decades before the massive federally funded deportation campaign targeting Mexicans, the porous nature of the border sustained a revolving door for laborers from both nation- states. Laborers, mutual- aid societies, and labor organizations-comprised of both male and female workers- maintained close ties with one another and, whenever possible, supported each other's agendas; to a great extent they were fighting for the same kinds of things: livable wages, the right to organize and strike, safe working environments, and their right to a dignified way of life. Women also fought for these guarantees, yet they advanced a specific female worker, orobrera, agenda for gender equity and general women's rights.4 One of the central debates in the historiography of Mexican women's history is whether the Mexican Revolution was in fact revolutionary for women. In particular, the questions of whether and how the Revolution altered labor and gender relations have been posed by scholars. Although historians of women's history tend to agree that the Revolution had a direct influence in creating opportunities for women to fight alongside their male counterparts and to express their views concerning women's rights in journals, magazines, and newspapers, the stands these historians take on whether the Revolution altered gender relations vary.5 Given the Revolution's transnational influence, the same questions can be posed for Mexican American women, or Mexican immigrant women residing on the northern bank of the Ro Grande. What exactly did the Revolution mean for working women in this extended borderlands region? What kinds of work did working- class women perform, and what was the legacy of the Revolution in the Texas borderlands for them? The Revolution provided a unique opportunity for women to voice their labor demands within a revolutionary framework. However, their success was limited given that gender relations were not altered significantly; gender inequities continued in the labor realm and beyond. Although women's activism was articulated in a broad context, this paper focuses only on women's experiences in labor and their activism in this particular arena. Copyright 2012 by University of Houston-Center for Mexican American Studies.
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